Now that I am back on the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises the spending of Government departments and bodies, I am able to raise a broad range of issues.
On Wednesday last week, the committee questioned HM Chief Inspector of Schools as part of our inquiry into Ofsted. It was an excellent opportunity for me to raise concerns faced nationally, which are causing particular concern in Northumberland, such as how pupil and service pupil premium is being spent for our most vulnerable students.
The subject of supporting children with special educational needs (SEN) is close to my heart. There is so much extra stress for parents in finding the right option for their child, and I am pleased we are now focusing on getting more support for them, thanks to Conservative councillors now in charge at Northumberland County Council.
However, there are concerns that children are bearing the brunt of decisions schools are taking to improve their Ofsted results. I am hearing of SEN children being removed from schools so that GCSE results are not undermined by pupils whose academic outcomes may be lower, or hidden from inspectors in case their behaviour or needs might affect a result.
This is unacceptable and we must find ways for Ofsted to encourage schools to nurture all pupils. I believe there is more Ofsted can do to ensure the results for SEN children are judged on what it means for that child’s development, not ‘lumped in’ with overall results.
I have raised this many times with ministers and I believe there is some movement. Schools face additional burdens at times of inspections and anything that might encourage them to disregard the needs of SEN children should be removed by Ofsted.
Progress and a more co-ordinated approach to supporting Berwick Academy is now coming together after months of uncertainty.
I continue to push all strategic partners, and the regional schools commissioner, to provide the right support – both financial and educational – to get the best teaching and sustainability framework in place. I am also working with Northumberland College and its prospective new relationship with Sunderland College to get sixth form provision in Berwick onto a sustainable and broader footing.
Last week I attended one of my regular meetings with farmers, organised by the NFU. These meetings are always useful, especially as the UK is now in a position to formulate its own agricultural and environment policy. It is important that the views of the Northumbrian farming community continue to be fed into Defra as it works up new policy.
The meeting was a good opportunity to address concerns about leaving the EU on March 29 should there not be a deal in place. I shared the plans the Government has to ensure they can continue to export their wonderful produce.
There is a huge amount of work being done by every Government department in the build-up to our exiting the EU, and Secretaries of State are confident of no significant issues should we have to leave without a full deal.
I have been contacted by local business owners to say they are confident, but if people have concerns, they should contact me so I can ensure they are covered by contingency measures.
I am delighted that the planned fee for EU citizens wanting to continue to live in the UK post-Brexit has been waived. We value those who have made the UK their home and want them to stay. It is very easy to apply through the EU Settlement Scheme. I hope it will be reciprocated by all of the EU27.
If you have any concerns regarding the practicalities of Brexit, please drop me a line.