HC Deb 24 January 1995 vol 253 cc125-8
3. Mr. Turner

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations she has received from schools concerned about teaching and staffing redundancies in 1995–96 following consultations on the revenue support allocations for education in the next financial year.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

My Department has received a number of representations about the local government finance settlement, as is customary at this time of the year.

Mr. Turner

I too have received many representations. Some of the letters that I have come from schools in Wolverhampton and they tell me of the impending crisis for their schools, and for schools throughout the country, unless the Secretary of State wins her battle with the Treasury to increase resources to schools during the next 12 months. In the midlands—[Interruption.] Hon. Members do not want to hear the truth. Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the midlands, a £70 million shortfall is predicted and more than 1,000 teaching jobs will be lost because of the attendant massive increase in class sizes? Will she call on the Prime Minister to intercede to offset that crisis?

Mrs. Shephard

This year's settlement amounts to £17 billion, which allows for an increase of more than 1 per cent. compared with last year. Under the provisional capping arrangement, local education authorities, including those in the west midlands, will be able to increase spending next year. At the moment, local education authorities are comparing the settlement with their budgets and spending plans. That is not to compare like with like.

Sir Michael Neubert

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Havering has received the worst education settlement in the country bar none, followed by south Tyneside, Northumberland, Gateshead, Stockport and St. Helen's, with which it seems to have nothing in common, whereas the four authorities that have done best are all inner London boroughs? Will she undertake to look into the reasons for that catastrophic quirk and do all she can to alleviate its worst effects on the education of children in our borough?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot generalise on the position within individual LEAs. I remind him that the Audit Commission, for example, has calculated that more than £0.5 billion is held in individual schools' budgets and that LEAs have recourse to their own balances, capital receipts and transfers between budget heads. Of course, all the components of the budget are not yet known.

Mr. Don Foster

Does the Secretary of State stand by the prediction she made in a letter that she wrote to her right hon. Friends just before the Budget? Given that LEAs are expected to reduce expenditure on primary schools by £50 per pupil and on secondary schools by nearly £200 per pupil, does she accept that that will lead to significant cuts in the number of staff and rising class sizes, and that the quality of education will suffer as a result?

Mrs. Shephard

I am not prepared to comment on a leaked letter. As I said, part of the component of budgets will be the recommendations of the School Teachers Review Body. It has not yet submitted its report. When it does, we shall consider its recommendations, consult and announce our proposals.

Mr. Pawsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware of an organised campaign by local education authorities that is designed to draw attention to inequalities in standard spending assessments? Does she agree that the principal reason for such a campaign is to distract attention from the divisive and confused policies of the Labour and Liberal parties, especially as they relate to a graduate tax, the abolition of grant-maintained schools and the ending of charitable status for the independents?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. There are always gloomy predictions at this time of year and there is certainly evidence of a fairly vigorous campaign. In the slightly longer term, however, it will be unable to conceal the divisive and shambolic nature of the Opposition parties.

Mr. Faber

Has my right hon. Friend received representations from Edington school in my constituency, a popular and successful local village school? Is she aware that, in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy last Friday, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors on Wiltshire county council combined to vote through the closure of that successful and popular school? Is she willing to meet a small delegation of parents from the school who are now desperately worried about the future education of their children?

Mrs. Shephard

I am not yet aware of the case that my hon. Friend has mentioned. It is always a great pity when a popular and successful school is threatened with closure. As part of the appeal against those proposals it will no doubt be possible to arrange for representations to be made to me or to ministerial colleagues.

Mr. Hardy

While it is obvious that the Government will look for someone else to blame, does the Secretary of State accept that she and her Department expect many redundancies, perhaps mass redundancies, to be announced at many of our schools? How does she expect to maintain success in education against that background? Will she urgently look at the situation to avoid schools being placed in grave difficulties and to prevent standards and the maintenance of education being imperilled?

Mrs. Shephard

The STRB has not yet submitted its report, it is impossible to make the predictions that are being made so widely around the country. Whether or not class sizes will have to rise depends on local circumstances. I remind the hon. Gentleman that studies have never shown conclusive evidence of a link between class size and pupil performance. There is no reason to see marginal increases in class sizes as a threat to standards.

Mr. Blunkett

Tell that to the public schools and those who buy private education—[Interruption.]—and they will laugh in the the Secretary of State's face.

Given the right hon. Lady's prediction that the teachers' review body would award a pay increase for the coming year that will so exceed the amount that the Government have allocated for education that there will be mass redundancies and increased class sizes, does she agree with her right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer who this morning recommended that, in order to avoid those redundancies, local authorities should emulate the Government, who are to sell off the Treasury building and then lease it back? He suggested that authorities should sell off local town halls and other buildings and use the capital receipts for revenue purposes to pay teachers' salaries. Alternatively, perhaps she will send him back to university to learn the difference between capital and revenue spending.

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman is more than usually imaginative, although the interesting display of his continuing prejudice against the private and the independent sector in education is not equally imaginative—a prejudice not shared, of course, by many of his hon. Friends. The STRB is free to recommend such increases as it sees fit, but I have asked it to take into account affordability. Pay levels should be no more than is necessary to retrain, recruit and motivate staff. The STRB will need to judge the extent to which schools will be able to fund pay increases when it makes its recommendations, without the florid solutions suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about reports circulating the west country this week that at a time when the Liberal-controlled LEA has threatened to cause massive redundancies in our schools, it has created a £17 million reserve for non-statutory administrative functions? Will my right hon. Friend carry out an investigation to see whether that is true, because we cannot possibly rely on the LEA in question to carry out an investigation into itself?

Mrs. Shephard

What my hon. Friend reveals is interesting and one wonders how much of that kind of practice is going on in the rest of the country, particularly in those areas from which the most noise is coming. I shall be happy to look at the details of that case, although I am quite certain that my hon. Friend will not let it rest, either.