HC Deb 08 February 1985 vol 72 cc1293-8

Order for Second Reading read.

2.5 pm

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a small Bill but, if it becomes law, it will bring about a vital improvement in the growing debate on education spending and the relationship between spending, falling school rolls, equipment and general school provision. Clauses 1 and 2 are at the heart of the Bill and, in view of the time, my remarks will be basically directed towards those clauses.

Clause 1 refers to the publication of certain financial information. The problem of school closures is an issue that has raged fiercely around the country. When a school closure is proposed, ratepayers, and especially parents and friends of the school, feverishly try to find out from the local education authority the actual cost of running the school. So often parents are told that a school must close because "it costs the authority too much" or "the authority thinks that it could make better use of the money saved." How much money is saved from a school closure? How much better will that money be used?

If the Bill becomes law, the level of debate will immediately be raised and parents and friends of schools where closures are threatened will be greatly helped, especially in dealing with the growing problem of whether small village schools should or should not be closed. The closure of those schools, especially in the shire counties, generates as much heat as any other matter.

Unfortunately, at the moment there is a dispute between the local education authorities and the teachers over salaries. I do not want to be drawn down that path, save only to say what would happen if parents and the people interested in schools knew the actual salaries paid per school. First, the necessary extra financial information would be provided. Secondly, if information came out school by school on the balance between how much is spent on teachers' salaries and how much is spent on equipment, those who are interested in the education system would benefit.

Clause 1 covers the salaries not only of teachers but of those who cook meals, clean and maintain. The total salary bill will be available for parents to see.

I refer to capitation allowances and where the money goes. Parents in some areas rightly complain about the shortage of stationery and about the amount spent on books and equipment generally. Information sometimes comes from a local education authority that a large sum of money has been spent on a computer and that there is no money left for books, stationery and other things. That information is critically important to parents. They want to know where money is going and whether it is going on large items of equipment.

Other Departments are involved. It is not just the local education authorities and the Department of Education and Science that pour money into schools. The Department of Trade and Industry and the Manpower Services Commission are indirectly pushing money into the education system. We need to know who is contributing what. There are three tributaries of money going into schools — DES-LEA, DTI and MSC. It is vital that parents should know who is paying what.

If the figures were presented in the way that I envisage in the Bill, councillors would be able to see how costs varied from school to school and that would help them. It is plainly not possible for councillors to visit all schools in a large shire county. I wish that they could. If the Bill became law they would be able to compare schools within an authority's area and schools in other areas.

There is an interesting article in today's Times Educational Supplement, talking about the ups and downs of local education authority spending. The article makes the significant point: Whether there has been any widening of the gap between the `top' and 'bottom' authorities is not clear. The authors mean the top and bottom spending authorities. The article continues: But it is apparent that local autonomy has been exercised to the extent of radically different behaviour between 1979 and 1980. In other words, in the past five years there has been a variation in the way that local education authorities have spent money. It would be beneficial for local education authorities and those interested in education to see who is spending what, authority by authority. The Bill refers to church and voluntary-aided schools, and information relating to them would also be helpful.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

On the subject of capitation allowances—I am not asking the hon. Gentleman to answer this point; it is for the record —I visited some schools in Surrey recently with the Select Committee. The capitation allowance for some schools is of course fixed. The parents in those schools double the capitation allowance. That could not possibly happen in an area of unemployment and in down-town schools as it happens in Surrey schools. It is as well to be aware of that reality at the moment.

Mr. Madel

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I remember that we used to talk about that in the previous Select Committee. I was coming to the point about allowances and whether schools received money from outside. To present the figures in the way I seek would not just be helpful to councillors; it would help parents who were trying to convince their authorities that their school was falling to pieces.

The Bill would require local education authorities to show what was being spent on equipment and maintenance year by year. Parents often argue strongly that a school needs more money spent on maintenance, yet are never fully told what the figures are or how much has been spent in the previous five to 10 years. It would help authorities more easily to identify where money will have to be spent on maintenance in the following three to four years.

It would be helpful to parents to be able to say to the local education authority, "Seven years ago you spent this on that school. What are your plans? When will you have to spend more money there?" It can only be a good thing for parents and potential parents to know what has been and what will be spent on schools. It would encourage more financial help from local businesses and donors if they could see what others had given in the past and what was needed for the school. I am convinced that, if more financial information were available and the local education authority genuinely could not do what was necessary for equipment or maintenance, the school might find help from outsiders and those interested in the school — firms, local businesses and individual or groups of donors.

Clause 3 would merely make it administratively easier for the local education authorities and those involved to publish this information. I have suggested that it is done in a manner similar to that set out in the Education Act 1981 and the Education (School Information) Regulations 1981.

Clause 4(2) refers to the timing of getting this information. The information does not have to be published before the first day of the autumn term of the school in 1985. In other words, the first time that this information would be available to parents, if the Bill should become law, would be in the autumn of 1986. Those elected in May in the shire counties local elections would have had almost six months to settle themselves down and play themselves in before they would be required to get this information in to parents.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

I have been listening carefully to what my hon. Friend has been saying. Many of these proposals should be commended to the House. However, before he concludes his speech, can my hon. Friend tell the House what the approximate cost would be to an average-sized education authority should the Bill be passed?

Mr. Madel

I am just coming on to estimates of cost.

Clause 4(3) says that the Bill will extend to England and Wales only. I did not think it appropriate to plunge into the difficulties that there could be in Northern Ireland and Scotland where Secretaries of State are responsible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) asked what this Bill would cost local education authorities. I have had a number of letters on this matter and a number of discussions with local education authorities. The general view is that, in this age of education technology, there would not be much cost. Initially, it would cost a bit to set up the project, but once it had been set up, given the technology that we now have, it would not cost local education authorities much to administer.

What is more, it would save money in the future because local education authorities would be required to have accurate information as to when they had bought particular equipment and in which school it had been put. Also, those parents involved in business or the building industry or who knew something about the general costs of either equipment or maintenance would swiftly be able to bring the matter to the attention of the local education authority when they thought that a particular school needed more money spent on it. In other words, extra information would do nothing but enhance the level of debate, and that is basically the object of the Bill. It would raise the level of debate on education and the level of public knowledge as to how money is spent in particular schools.

I realise that, because of the time factor, we have not been able to have a full day's debate on this matter. We should at least consider the Bill in Committee. Many stumbling blocks that we find in the Bill could then be turned into stepping stones for the better, more knowledgeable education service. Above all, if the Bill became law, it would be doing the very thing that my party and Government have been so keen on for many years — getting more information for parents and ratepayers who are genuinely interested in the way in which money is being spent and in the quality of service. The Bill would help local authorities, teachers, parents and the country, and I commend it to the House.

2.20 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

The Opposition congratulate the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) on introducing the Bill. We hope that it will go into Committee, where it can be discussed further, although I fear that the Conservative Whips may have been at work and will have tried to ensure that the Bill does not proceed.

It is extremely important for both parents and local democracy to be provided with information relating to the costs of individual schools. Parents should be able to compare how effectively the resources that are allocated to different schools are used. I should also like it to be made easier both for the governing bodies of schools and for head teachers and their staff to move allocated expenditure from one heading to another if this is in the best interests of the school. It is not always best for money to be allocated under certain headings without the problems of a particular school being taken into account.

That would also highlight the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) that money provided by the local education authority has in many schools to be supplemented by the parents. It is a sad reflection upon our education system that we are moving further and further away from what we claimed was a free education policy. If this information were made available, it would enable us to highlight that argument.

We welcome the Bill. We hope that it will be given a Second Reading and that it will go into Committee.

2.22 pm
Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

I support the Bill. It will bring to bear upon the education system not only the discipline of financial control; it will also improve the quality and standard of the education that is provided in our schools. We who are accustomed to seeing, in global terms, figures put into local education authority budgets have little understanding of what these figures mean when they are translated to the forum of the individual school where that money is spent on a unit cost basis. If we are unable to understand that, how much less likely is it that parents, teachers and those who work in our schools will be able to understand how that money is spent and whether value for money is being obtained?

There is no financial conflict between the financial priorities that the Bill seeks to establish and the broader education priorities. In order to establish whether value for money is being achieved in our schools, whether there is cost-effectiveness across the board, whether the right education priorities are being achieved in proportion to the social or political priorities which are customary in a number of our education authorities, parents, teachers and particularly governors need to know what costs are involved.

Those who sit on the boards of governors of schools know that the work which needs to be done often relates to relatively small maintenance matters—perhaps to the installation of a sink in a science laboratory. The procedure is that the architects department is called in to have a look at it; then somebody comes to measure; next somebody comes to recheck; after that, somebody delivers; then somebody comes to fit the sink; lastly, somebody comes to test the installation. The result is that the cost of installing a relatively small unit, which in our own homes we should think was excessive if it amounted to £70, may well, when the overheads are taken into account, cost about £700— 10 times that amount. If that cost were understood by those who are in charge of schools, they would recognise that they were not achieving value for money. The Bill provides a vehicle for that kind of assessment to be made. For these reasons the Bill deserves a Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) referred to the closure of schools. One of the features of the Inner London education authority is that, although it may close a school, it does not dispose of the building. This presents a problem. We do not know how much it costs to maintain those buildings while they remain empty. If it possibly can do so, ILEA will cobble up a use for those buildings. It will put somebody or something into the building and make use of it rather than dispose of it. It is interesting to speculate upon the cost of maintaining a building.

I am told that it is impossible to keep a building wind and watertight, aired and ventilated and in a reasonable state of repair for less than £1,000 a week, with a caretaker upon the premises. To spend £50,000 per year maintaining an empty building strikes me as quite unwarranted. If the expenditure were assessed on a unit cost basis we should understand far better how to spend our money and to achieve the right balance between education priorities and ancillary priorities such as maintenance.

The Bill would identify the cost of other ancillary services in individual schools. The school meals service is currently under discussion and one wonders whether we are getting value for money. We recognise the social benefit of providing free school meals for children who might otherwise not get a square meal in the day, but in my area one sees children trooping out of school to buy a bag of chips rather than taking the more balanced and nourishing diet provided by the school meals service. The Bill could assist in identifying and dealing with aspects of that problem.

School transport for recreation and other important activities in the wider curriculum that schools should provide is another important ancillary service. At present there is no way to identify the unit cost, but I believe that the cost per child and per school is far higher than it should be. If school governors could identify actual costs in relation to their own schools, they would have a far clearer idea whether they were obtaining value for money.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the benefit of the governors appreciating the unit costs, parents too would be enabled to take a far greater interest?

Mr. Bowden

My hon. Friend endorses a point at which I hinted earlier and emphasises one that I was about to make. If the price of putting a sink in a science room were identified as £700, the parents, teachers and governors would throw up their hands in horror at the idea of their money being spent so wastefully. The Bill will help people to become aware of the costs involved in those circumstances. For that reason, I hope that it will have a fair wind today and proceed to further discussion.

2.27 pm
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I warmly welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friends on their perspicacity in bringing it forward. Education is rightly one of the Government's greatest priorities. It is our great hope for the future that our people will receive a proper and valuable education so that they can take a real, sensible and positive role and lead the full and satisfying life that is so important to all our young people.

One of the most important aspects of the Bill is that it seeks to extend genuine accountability. That is important not just in the long-term interests of the children but in the interests of the parents and of those running the school. There is the further advantage that administration at a higher level would be helped in assessing from the unit cost breakdown whether real value for money was being achieved.

Some people seem to think that education in this country is entirely free. It is indeed free to the user, but we are paying out huge sums for a system which does not always deliver as satisfactorily as it should.

One of the most important things that can happen to schools in the future is for all parents to realise that they must take a real interest in their children's education—

Mr. Madel

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. Deputy Speaker withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

Mr. Soames

If parents can take a genuine interest in their children's education, it is more than likely that they will be able to encourage their children further up the ladder of ambition. It is extremely sad that in my constituency there is immense interest in the schools, but that some parents do not encourage their children. Those children invariably fall by the wayside—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 15 February.