Naturally, the Coalition Government is rightly focused on a wide front in terms of areas desperately requiring urgent remedial efforts – not least growing our economy and paying down our unprecedented national debt, as well as tackling the scourge of welfare dependency – and wider public service reform. We do not have the luxury of wasting our precious intellectual capital or legislative time as the Blair Government did from 1997 to 2001.
For many, the issue of immigration – or more precisely the matter of Labour’s appalling legacy of uncontrolled and misguided mass migration – may seem to be in a category marked as “job done” or certainly “work in progress”.
What’s the problem, people say? We now have a cap on non-EU migrants, introducing mandatory English language proficiency for family members and we’re toughening up procedures to remove those people who have overstayed and we’re cracking down on those individuals on bogus courses with student visas.
What of European Union migration? We were told by the Labour Government in 2003 that fewer than 20,000 individuals from EU states would travel to the UK to settle and work. Many people, such as myself, were highly sceptical of these estimates – as were the majority of European Union member states, who wisely imposed a 7-year moratorium on the implementation of the 2004 Free Movement Directive (due to expire in April this year).
In the event, we were right to be concerned.
Well over 1 million EU residents have travelled to the UK in the last seven years – most of them filling vacancies in low-paid and low-skill occupations such as food processing, transport and logistics, agriculture and horticulture. Such unprecedented movement has driven down wages and conditions, enriched a small number of businesses and put huge strain on the delivery of public services in a number of locations in our country, especially in health, housing and education. In addition, it has crowded out many of the indigenous workforce and served to embed a culture of low skills, worklessness and welfare dependency.
In fairness, many families in my constituency from Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and other parts of Eastern Europe work hard and are decent people seeking to build a better life for them and their children.
But the local authority, primary care trust, police constabulary and housing associations, to name but a few public bodies, have largely had to bear the increased need and public resources resulting from the over 20,000 new residents of Peterborough arriving in the city since 2004, without the benefit of either a coherent political strategy or bespoke funding help – and that is the case under both Labour and the Coalition Government.
Which brings me to the situation in my local schools: Peterborough City Council Local Education Authority now ranks sixth from bottom in the published league national tables for SATs Key Stage 2 results. Is it because our local children are less gifted, their teachers less dedicated, the Local Education Authority more complacent or governors more dilatory than in other LEAs? Of course not.
In Peterborough, The latest data from the Autumn Term 2010 census, shows that 31% of Primary School children do not speak English as their first language, 22% of secondary school pupils and overall 27% of all local pupils have English as an Addition Language (EAL).
96 languages are spoken in the city and the turnover of pupils is enormous – 21% of them took the Key Stage 2 tests were not in the city at the start of their school life and 22% who were at foundation stage were no longer in school to take Key Stage 2 SATs!
The scale of population change is such that more than 50 of our 54 primary schools are currently full for September 2011 entry.
Despite heroic efforts by some schools and teachers to get so many of these children “up to speed” in English, they are held back because their parents can’t or won’t speak English or keep them in school for too short a time before moving on. All of this is incredibly destabilising for teachers and support staff and naturally impacts (because it is so resource intensive) on English-speaking pupils and those children with special educational needs, many from low income or disadvantaged backgrounds.
So what is to be done? Or are my constituents and their children to be left behind as the de facto victims of Labour’s immigration experiment?
I believe that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, needs to look with great urgency at whether the Pupil Premium can be utilised as a tool to drive up educational attainment and standards in areas like Peterborough, which has pockets of social deprivation and particularly a very large number of children who have English as an additional language. Yes – free school meals is a strong indicator of need in terms of resource allocation but in some ways, it is too blunt a tool and ignores the various cultural reasons why it does not always correlate with the greatest need.
The Pupil Premium is an excellent policy to tackle Labour’s legacy of poor educational outcomes and their failure to lift our children out of mediocrity to achieve their optimum potential.
But we must not ignore a generation of children in my city and other areas – of all backgrounds and nationalities – who deserve to have that opportunity to prosper and thrive and who may miss that chance due to a misguided policy over which none of us have ever had a say and which regrettably in regards to which, our own government still has no real solutions.