HC Deb 06 July 1998 vol 315 cc835-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

10.2 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

The Prime Minister used to describe his three priorities as "education, education, education". We have heard rather less of that recently. Reducing class sizes was one of the Government's so-called "early pledges" when in opposition. The spin doctors now tell us that we got it wrong, and that, when we thought an early pledge was one that would be delivered early, it was in fact one that was made early. That minor embarrassment does not, of course, stop Ministers announcing all sorts of wonderful developments in education. However, after 14 months in office, I thought it was time to examine whether, in East Sussex at least, the reality on the ground matched the rhetoric.

Of course, education funding in East Sussex must be seen against the Government's general policy to switch funding from counties to urban areas. I pointed that out in the House during the debate on the revenue support grant on 5 February.

Since February, there has been a change in control in East Sussex. We now have a Lib-Lab pact, faithfully mirroring the one we have at national level. Voters in East Sussex will have noted that the net result of the pact was the installation of a Labour chairman of education. So far, he has not exactly bombarded me with protests at the effects of Labour Government policy on education in East Sussex.

Be that as it may, the effect of Government policy this year has been cuts in primary education of 1.53 per cent. or £886,000, and in secondary education of 1.85 per cent. or £1.178 million. I am sure that the Minister will say that an extra £9.2 million was given for education in East Sussex, and that it was passported through.

How does that convert into real cuts in education? The overall revenue budget allowed for East Sussex in 1998–99 was £324.8 million, but forecast committed necessary revenue was £329.7 million. Education needed £13.17 million extra, compared with the extra £9.2 million offered by the Government. In other words, there was an initial shortfall of nearly £4 million. Moreover, the previous Liberal Democrat administration ran the reserves down to almost nothing, making it impossible to cushion the blow by drawing on reserves.

At the same time, the Government changed the way in which capital debt was treated, at a cost to East Sussex of £1.67 million. To add insult to injury, the Government's raid on pension schemes cost the county council £800,000, and changes to what is now called the standards fund are costing a further £900,000. That is to say nothing of the extra cost to the local education authority of new Government initiatives; yet the cost of our central administration is only about half the national average.

How are those across-the-board cuts affecting individual schools in my constituency? Mr. Arthur Cornell, the head teacher of Cavendish school, says: we received £39,000 less than expected…There have been no redundancies because of retirements…There has been a 5% cut in spending on books and equipment". Mr. Salmon, the acting head teacher of Ratton school, says: We have lost the equivalent of one and a half teachers". The headmaster of Bishop Bell school, Mr. Terry Boatwright, says: Our annual growth in pupil numbers averages an impressive 13% per annum with an increase in number on roll from 520 to 660 pupils. That is impressive in anyone's language, but he goes on to say: Our budget in the last financial year was £1,348,000 and, with a 13% increase in pupil numbers he would have expected a budget of £1,455,000 assuming that the teachers' pay award was fully funded…Our actual budget is…£60,000 less…This leaves us in real terms £38,000 short…When basic running costs and salaries are taken out…I have only around £150,000 per annum to spend on educational resources. You can imagine the effect of a cut of £38,000, or 25%, on that budget! One of my local infant schools is in a similar predicament, having lost £27,500 from its budget. The chairperson of the governors says: in September we will have to lose a teacher in order to balance the books…our S.E.N. teacher must take a class instead of being peripatetic…This makes a mockery of this claim of increased funding and apart from being very depressing for the school staff it means that the recruitment of caring governors will be even more difficult in the future. I fear that those horror stories are replicated throughout my constituency and the whole of East Sussex. I am indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) for passing me letters in a similar vein from his local schools.

The head teacher of Hellingly county primary school, in a letter to the Prime Minister, says: For the very first time ever in 39 years of my adulthood, I voted for your party at the last election, because as a Headteacher I was very disheartened with the Conservative Government's devastation of education. However, since your party took office"— I am being very fair, and reading the whole of this— I have become more and more alarmed about your proposals for education and about the impact that your new legislation is having on my children in my school. She says that her budget share is more than…25,000 short, despite a rising roll. She concludes: I have never been so disheartened and disappointed. If I could afford to retire after giving my life to the profession,…I would most certainly do so as the burden is intolerable. Many of my dedicated colleagues will be feeling the same. That is not a ringing endorsement of the Government's education policy. History does not relate whether she received a reply from the Prime Minister, or, if so, to what effect.

A letter to my right hon. Friend from one of the governors of St. Philip's Roman Catholic primary school in Uckfield states: In 1997 we had 197 pupils with a budget of £297,000. This year we have 198 pupils…we now have £294,000, a 2.5 per cent. overall cut…We now have another staff vacancy—a loss of a very experienced employee—and here we are thinking this is a good opportunity to save money by employing another newly qualified teacher. I have had representations from Conservative county councillors about the massive contradiction between the Government's policy on class sizes and their professed support for parental choice. Ministers may insist on a maximum of 30 in a class, but in rural areas there is often no room to build extra classrooms, and in most areas there is no money to do so. Last weekend, a worried mother phoned to tell me that she wanted her son to go to St. Andrew's Church of England school, a choice that I can certainly understand, as it is an excellent school with a dedicated headmistress. The child is apparently unable to go to the school of his parents' choice, because admission numbers were reduced across the board this year. The boy is one of three children left out in the cold. My constituent and her father went to that school, and, she said, she received an excellent education in a class of 36.

Another assault on local education is the Government's intention to take away the right of parish and town councils to appoint a governor to their local schools. The Opposition fought that tooth and nail in Standing Committee, and I welcomed the Government's defeat on the matter in the other place last week. The Government's proposal caused concern in rural communities up and down the country, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that ill-considered proposal will be abandoned.

The situation is not much happier in the pre-school sector. The nursery vouchers scheme was popular with private nurseries and playgroups in my constituency. I know that, because I took the trouble to visit them. I also met on several occasions members of the Independent Preschool Nursery Association, an excellent organisation based in Eastbourne. For purely dogmatic reasons, the former Liberal Democrat administration in East Sussex refused to participate in the pilot scheme. Then the new Labour Government abolished the scheme, again for reasons of dogma.

Nursery operators are supposed to be working in partnership with local education authorities through the early years development plan. It is some partnership. Nurseries must wait upwards of six weeks for payment, a serious burden for small businesses. Whether through incompetence or design, our LEA seems to be sitting on funds received from the Department. Barbara Davies of IPNA, who runs the Tots and Time Out nursery, contacted the Department to establish that the money was sent out on 29 May. Yet she received her money only in the past few days, and after threatening legal action. How many others are still waiting? The situation is wholly unacceptable, and I hope that the Minister will undertake to investigate it.

Let me turn finally to students' tuition fees. I do not recall the Labour candidate in my constituency saying that a Labour Government would impose fees. I know that many parents in Eastbourne feel betrayed on that issue, among others. For poor families, it could make the difference between a son or a daughter going or not going to higher or further education.

For once, I agree with the Prime Minister that education should be an important priority for any Government. That is why the Conservatives placed such emphasis on driving up standards in education and on parental choice. Children and young people are the future of any nation, and a Government who betrayed that future would deserve condemnation.

I call on the Minister tonight to accept that his policies are simply not delivering improved education to my constituents and to promise that he will put things right. Empty rhetoric may have been all right in opposition, but he and his colleagues are now in charge. I hope that we can expect the political equivalent of the Minister's staying behind after school and writing out 100 times, "I must try harder."

10.14 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I welcome the opportunity to put some facts before the House this evening regarding the Government's policies on education in East Sussex and across the country. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) failed to acknowledge the good work that is being done in many schools in his constituency and in East Sussex generally. As Minister for School Standards, I put on record my thanks and congratulations to those schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and throughout East Sussex that are doing a very good job. One needs only to look at the standards being achieved to realise that real improvements are taking place in schools in East Sussex.

In 1997, at key stage 2, tests for level 4—the level that we expect 11-year-olds to achieve—revealed an average of 63 per cent. for English and 61 per cent. for mathematics. Those figures are broadly in line with the national average. What is particularly impressive is that they show a dramatic increase on the 1996 figures, when, in the key stage 2 tests, the figure was 55 per cent. for English and 52 per cent. for mathematics. Schools in East Sussex are making real improvements. Although the hon. Gentleman failed to do so, I congratulate those schools, the teachers and the parents on the improvements that have been made this year. I hope that standards will continue to rise.

I began my speech by referring to standards, because that is the Government's No. 1 priority. That is why, contrary to the hon. Gentleman's comments, we have provided a substantial increase in funding for schools in East Sussex and across the country. In light of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, it is worth reminding the House of the facts—we shall rely not on the prejudice that we have heard from the hon. Gentleman, but on what is happening and the actions that the Government have taken.

On capital spending, which is used to repair the fabric of school buildings, the new deal for schools means that we expect to spend some £2 billion repairing, renewing and improving school buildings, security and information technology by the end of this Parliament. In the March Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer allocated a further £100 million to support education capital spending in England. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced details of that funding last Friday. On day-to-day spending, we have allocated an extra £835 million this year in England alone over and above the spending plans of the previous Administration—whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

The Minister will be aware that Sussex has received more than £7 million extra funding this year. When I served on Sussex county council, there was a £12.6 million cut in central Government spending in 1995–96; an £11.5 million cut in 1996–97; and an £11.3 million cut in 1997–98. The county council coped with those spending cuts by drawing on reserves, and it had to spend £22 million in order to maintain standards in East Sussex.

Mr. Byers

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that illustration of what went before. His experience of the county council is informative about the cuts that were made year on year by the Conservative Administration. That contrasts starkly with the steps taken already by this Government to remedy the wrongs imposed on our schools system by the actions over not three but 18 years of the Conservatives.

In the general election, we pledged to raise the proportion of national income invested in education as we cut the misuse of Government money elsewhere. We are delivering on that, and next week the outcome of the comprehensive spending review will be announced. I am confident that we will bring good news for schools in East Sussex and the rest of the country, and it will not only be about extra funding for priority areas such as education.

The review provides an opportunity to develop a new approach to public services, with targets for improvements set and outcomes publicly identified. All too often in the past, simply spending more was good enough. No thought was given to raising standards or improving the quality of education on offer. Those days have gone. Increased spending must be linked to specific, clearly stated outcomes. Funding to support reform and modernisation must be the key.

We have not simply awaited the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. We have taken action already and provided increased funding—real money—for East Sussex. The education standard spending assessment for East Sussex for 1998–99 represents an increase of 5.9 per cent., or some £9.2 million. That is well above the rate of inflation, and should be sufficient to meet the needs of schools in East Sussex, even after allowing for inflation, pay awards, rising pupil numbers and any other spending pressures that they might face.

It is informative to consider the per pupil increase. Total figures often do not clearly illustrate the amount of extra money that is being provided. This year's per pupil increases bring home the extra funding that the Government are providing. East Sussex is getting an extra £132 for every primary pupil and an extra £156 for every secondary pupil. In percentage terms, that represents an increase of 6.3 per cent. for primary pupils and 5.7 per cent. for secondary pupils. That is a real-terms increase of around 3 per cent., which we expect the county council to use for raising standards in schools.

It is worth contrasting those real-terms increases with the funding provided by the previous Conservative Government. It is only by considering those figures that we can find out whether they were committed to education. The figures reveal clearly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster).

Under the previous Government, it was cuts not in one year, but year on year, for the schools and the pupils of East Sussex. Over the final five years of the Conservative Government, education standard spending assessment in East Sussex was cut in real terms for secondary pupils by £218 per pupil, or 7 per cent. It says something about the different priority that this Government give education that, in stark contrast to that reduction of £218, for secondary pupils there has been an increase in spending of £156 in one year. Those are real figures, affecting real children, in the schools of East Sussex.

While the Government have allocated an extra £9.2 million to East Sussex county council, we are disappointed that the full £9.2 million has not been passed on to its schools: £3.6 million has been held back. Schools are receiving only £5.6 million of the money allocated by the Government. That is bound to have an adverse impact on schools in East Sussex.

However, East Sussex gets a fair deal from the Government. It receives 4 per cent. more in the education standard spending assessment per pupil than the average for shire counties. The formula that the Government use to allocate resources through the education SSA is currently being reviewed, because we are not happy with the formula that we inherited from the previous Administration. We want to, and we shall, make it fairer, and many authorities and schools throughout this country want us to do so.

Decisions will not be taken until the autumn, and nothing has been ruled in or out, so it is too early to say how the review might affect funding in East Sussex or in any other authority. However, I can say that there will be a new system of allocating finance to local authorities that is both fair and transparent, which is not the case at present.

In addition to putting the extra £835 million into day-to-day spending through education SSAs, we have secured a substantial increase in specific grants for local education authorities, the most important of which is the standards fund—money that is specifically earmarked for raising standards and improving the quality of education. I shall mention just three of the 23 programmes that are helping to raise standards in East Sussex.

The first relates to class sizes. I was interested in what the hon. Member for Eastbourne said about St. Andrew's Church of England primary school and the difficulties there, but I have to tell him that that has nothing to do with the measures being introduced by the Labour Government. The legal powers that we are seeking for ourselves in the School Standards and Framework Bill are not yet on the statute book, so any action taken in respect of that school have nothing to do with the Government's proposals as they affect class sizes.

We have pledged to reduce class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or fewer by September 2001 at the latest, and we shall do that. Positive steps are already being taken to achieve that goal, with £116,000 being made available to East Sussex that it must use to reduce infant class sizes. That is money redirected from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, and is a good example of redirecting resources from a privileged few to benefit the majority.

By ring-fencing those funds, we shall ensure that every school in Eastbourne, in East Sussex and throughout the country will have classes of 30 or fewer by September 2001. That pledge will be delivered in a way that enhances parental preference. That is our commitment, and it is one that we shall deliver. We have also allocated an extra £1.3 million to schools in East Sussex for school improvement and raising standards, and £783,000 specifically for the national grid for learning.

We have been able to go beyond improvements in day-to-day revenue spending by providing additional funding for the maintenance and repair of the fabric of school buildings. The new deal for schools means that we were able to allocate East Sussex £2.1 million to improve school buildings. In addition to the new deal for schools, we have allocated more credit approvals in the form of annual capital guidelines.

For the financial year 1998–99, more than £10 million of credit approval has been allocated to East Sussex. In addition to the main allocation, £860,000 has been made available for capital expenditure on special educational needs. On top of that, a specific grant of £700,000 is being made available to Church schools, in recognition of the fact that such schools are often popular with parents, and offer a high standard of education.

Taken together, all that means that, through the actions of the Labour Government, East Sussex is receiving £225 capital funding for every pupil in the county. That is almost 90 per cent. more than the national average allocation of £120 per pupil. When people can see the facts, they will be in no doubt that the Government are investing in the children of East Sussex.

Eleven schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will benefit because of successful applications to improve and repair buildings, and to make them more efficient. Teachers and pupils will all benefit from a better environment in which to teach and learn. Investing in education in this way also means that, over time, more resources will be able to be spent in the classroom, rather than on premises costs. We are sure that that will help to raise standards.

In the end, it is for East Sussex county council to determine the level of budgets of the schools it maintains from within the resources made available by Government. The hon. Gentleman has talked about cuts for some schools in his constituency. It is certainly true that some schools have suffered budget cuts, but what is hard to explain are the differences in funding per pupil. Looking at primary and secondary schools in Eastbourne, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, changes in per pupil funding range from about minus 8 per cent. to plus 8 per cent. I have to say that I find that difficult to accept. I would urge schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency to ask the local education authority to explain precisely why that is happening.

It is not my job to set the budgets of individual schools, but the Government have allocated an extra £9.2 million. We are disappointed that not all that money has been passed on to benefit schools in East Sussex. The county council has to explain why it has withheld £3.6 million of that sum from the raising of standards in schools within the area covered by the county council. We believe that the Government have acted properly in relation to the schools and the pupils of East Sussex. It is for the county council to discharge its responsibilities.

There can be no doubt, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, that education, education, education is the Government's priority. We have acted to demonstrate that that is the case. We have acted in a way that will benefit pupils in Eastbourne, in East Sussex and in the country generally. We look forward to working in partnership to deliver those improved standards.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.