HC Deb 19 March 1998 vol 308 cc1411-21 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement. Tuesday's Budget has rightly been well received. It confirmed new Labour's reputation for economic competence. It was a Budget for enterprise, a Budget for work and a Budget for families and for education.

The Chancellor pledged an extra £250 million for schools and skills in the coming financial year. Let me remind the House that that increase is part of the £2.5 billion boost for education and skills that we have already earmarked in the 10 months since we were elected last May. We inherited a situation in which, between 1993 and 1996, the Conservative party had cut £110 in real terms from every secondary pupil in the country and £44 from every primary pupil. Already, we have made a substantial start to repair the damage of those Tory years of neglect, by providing an extra £110 for every pupil in the coming financial year. We have increased the standards fund to more than £500 million in 1998–99, which includes an extra £59 million to improve literacy standards.

Today, I want to detail the big difference that this week's Budget will make, in increasing the means available to improve our schools and their pupils, by outlining four further major steps that we intend to take. First, I can make this pledge. We will bring to an end the scandal whereby children in 600 of our schools, most of them primary, still have to go outside to use the toilet. Tens of thousands of children have to go outside to use facilities that often date back to the Victorian age. That is simply unacceptable in the last years of the 20th century. We are inviting the authorities affected to apply for a share of the extra £35 million that we are earmarking, so that they can provide the decent facilities that every modern school should have. By next year, we shall have ended the scandal of outside toilets for ever. That will take our schools from the Victorian age into the age of the new millennium.

Secondly, I am concerned at the number of schools that have inefficient boilers and heating systems, which often break down. They waste energy and leave thousands of children spending the winter days in cold and draughty classrooms. We shall provide an extra £15 million to allow up to 500 schools to replace or improve their inefficient heating systems.

That will make classrooms more comfortable and learning-friendly places, save a great deal of money and put a stop to the waste of energy and damage to the environment, with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. As many as 100,000 children will have, at long last, the working conditions that they should be able to take for granted in a civilised society.

Thirdly, we have already announced the first £22 million to provide the extra teachers to ensure that we make an immediate start on our class size pledge, so that by 2001 every five, six and seven-year-old will be in a class of 30 or fewer. That first tranche will mean that 100,000 infants will benefit from this September.

When we announced that funding, redirected from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme, we made it clear that there would be extra money to build extra classrooms where they were needed. Today, I can announce that an extra £40 million from the Budget will be targeted specifically on providing those extra facilities in 1998–99. That will help us to deliver our core pledge on class sizes, which will help us to meet our demanding literacy and numeracy targets.

Those three capital spending measures will be in addition to the £250 million from the new deal for schools to be allocated in 1998–99 and to the £800 million that local education authorities and schools are spending in the normal way on repairs and maintenance this year.

There is a fourth piece of good news on schools from the Budget. I can further confirm that we shall expand rapidly our education action zones programme. We shall fund a fivefold increase to establish 25 zones by January 1999. We have already had considerable interest from imaginative partnerships between schools, LEAs and business at local level.

The zones offer extra flexibility to help schools in challenging circumstances to meet demanding targets and to make significant improvements in standards and expectations. By making a substantial expansion in the coming year, I am confident that we shall be able to extend the programme yet further in this Parliament.

This is a coherent programme that will help the process of transforming schools for the future. It means no more children having to go outside to use the toilet; improvements in the heating of schools; substantial further progress towards meeting our class size pledge; and a big boost to our flagship programme of education action zones.

In the years ahead, we shall meet our manifesto commitment to increase the proportion of national income spent on education. We are making a substantial start in the year ahead. By doing so, we are transforming the life chances of millions of children. We are modernising the fabric of our schools and making real progress in raising standards for all our children.

This is a new Labour Budget; a Budget for a modern Britain in a new century; a Budget to turn ambition into achievement.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

It would be churlish not to welcome extra money to be spent on education, and I am pleased to welcome the Chancellor's announcement of extra spending on schools—

Mr. Blunkett


Mr. Dorrell

There is indeed a but. As the Chancellor went to considerable trouble on Tuesday to obscure precisely how much extra he intended should be spent on schools, can the Secretary of State confirm that the total of new money to be spent on schools in England that he has announced today is a £90 million capital programme, to be spent on the no doubt desirable objectives—certainly, they are desirable—of ending outside lavatories, modernising heating and building extra classrooms to accommodate the expansion required by the Government's class size pledge? Can the Secretary of State confirm that, when the Chancellor announced on Tuesday £250 million for education, he was misleading the House and that the Secretary of State has set out this afternoon the reality—

Madam Speaker

Order. Did I hear the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) accuse another right hon. Gentleman of misleading the House? I am sure that he will apologise.

Mr. Dorrell

Inadvertently misleading the House, Madam Speaker. Has not the Secretary of State made clear this afternoon that the quantum of the Government's commitment, following the Budget, is £90 million in new money for schools? That is my first question.

Secondly, will the Secretary of State clarify exactly the status of the new deal for schools? He said in his statement that the capital plans are in addition to the £250 million from the new deal for schools allocated for 1998–99. However, the Red Book from last year's July Budget says that, in 1998–99, the new deal for schools should be £300 million. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the new deal for schools in 1998–99 is £300 million, as announced last July, or £250 million, as set out in his statement this afternoon?

Thirdly, will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that he is now acknowledging that the Government were always wrong in saying that they could meet the cost of their class size pledge from the savings arising from the abolition of the assisted places scheme? Nobody except Ministers believed that that was possible. The Secretary of State announced this afternoon that the cost of meeting the class size pledge next year will be £22 million—as the Minister for School Standards announced to the Standing Committee on the School Standards and Framework Bill earlier this year. I should be grateful if the Secretary of State confirmed that the Government now recognise that they cannot meet their class size pledge using the savings from the assisted places scheme.

Fourthly, I should like to ask the Secretary of State about education action zones. The Conservatives have, broadly speaking, welcomed those ideas as they have been discussed in Committee. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the purpose is to provide opportunities for private sector firms to offer an alternative to local education authority-managed schools? That is certainly what the Secretary of State's adviser, Professor Barber, announced to the north of England education conference earlier this year—indeed, he said that it made it possible for Procter and Gamble to run schools. Is that the Secretary of State's policy, or was it a bit of private enterprise on the part of Professor Barber? I shall be interested to hear the Secretary of State's response.

Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that the £90 million in new money that he has set out to the House this afternoon represents roughly half a per cent. of school spending? Will he confirm that it makes no difference at all to the pressures being experienced in schools up and down the country? Reports are coming in, day by day, from Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Suffolk and many other counties about schools that are facing severe resource constraints.

Is it not the case that the Government will enter their second year in office with many schools facing cuts and many teachers worried about their jobs? Is not the substance of what the Secretary of State hails as a new Labour Budget that the Government's priorities are not, as the Prime Minister likes to claim, education, education, education but in fact presentation, presentation, presentation?

Mr. Blunkett

The right hon. Gentleman has confirmed more vividly than I could the importance of the extra £835 million allocation to our schools as a result of the July announcement. He confirmed how crucial it is that education in England will receive £250 million more in the coming year through the new deal and that we shall manage to provide 1,500 more teachers from this September in order to fulfil our class size pledge. Those measures are in addition to the miserable £182 million that the previous Government allocated for education in the coming year.

I shall certainly answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions. There is £250 million for education in skills, which is what I said in my statement to the House this afternoon. A proportion of that goes to England, Scotland and Wales, which answers the right hon. Gentleman's second question. Wales, Scotland and Ireland get a proportion of the £300 million for the new deal. I am making a statement, as is the usual convention in the House, about England, because that is where I have responsibility for education.

Let me spell it out. There will be £250 million for the new deal for the coming year, and an extra £250 million across the UK for education in skills in the coming year, £90 million of which I have announced today.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the class size pledge. We made it clear that the phasing out of the assisted places scheme would slow down implementation of the class size pledge. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has helpfully allocated an extra £40 million in the coming year to accelerate the implementation of the class size pledge—for preparing, planning and ensuring that the design of extra facilities, the expansion of a classroom or the alteration of a building can take place in the months ahead, so that we can do even better in 1999 than we originally envisaged.

I was not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was welcoming or criticising the measure. Is he in favour of the class size pledge or against it? Does he want smaller classes, or is he against them? Is it just sheer disappointment that has provoked him this afternoon to make what sounded like a griping, critical statement about £40 million more for schools throughout the country? If one was generous, that could be described only as extremely churlish, and the right hon. Gentleman was very churlish.

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's fourth question, schools manage schools and will continue to do so, LEAs will continue to give their support and others will give their enterprise and initiative where it is appropriate as part of a partnership. I hope that Conservatives will welcome, encourage and support the development of education action zones, which will bring new initiatives in areas that need them most.

There will not be an authority from inner London, Essex or Derbyshire, or from the south-west of England, which will not today rejoice that they will at last be able to do what they have yearned to do for years, and what parents and children have wanted, which is, after 18 years of Conservative government, to eliminate the 600 remaining outside toilets in Britain's schools, so that we can have a civilised nation in the build-up to a new century—the end of the 19th century as we move to the 21st century.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I roundly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. It may be too early to put out the flags for the schools with outside toilets, but if he would like to come to my constituency and cut the ribbons when they have all gone inside, I am sure that the heads will be only too delighted to welcome him.

Mr. Blunkett

I should be delighted to come to Stroud to celebrate, and even to use the new facilities; to declare new Britain, new loos.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

We are disappointed that the Secretary of State's statement was widely leaked to the media well before we heard it today. After the debacle of the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, we were assured that that would never occur again. Yet when we did the media rounds at lunchtime today, every media outlet had the full statement.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Flush out the leakers.

Mr. Willis

We must flush out the leakers. That is a most appropriate comment.

Liberal Democrats welcome any new spending on education and, although £90 million is not as much as we would have liked, it is still extremely welcome. The £35 million to eliminate outside toilets is particularly welcome because, in this day and age, outside toilets raise the important issue of child safety. However, we are surprised at the speed at which the right hon. Gentleman has been able to move, because on 3 March my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was told that the Secretary of State did not know how many schools had outside toilets. We also welcome the £15 million to be spent on heating. It is important that our children and our teachers have quality facilities in which to work. However, we are disappointed that, again, there is a bidding system for both those sums. It does not seem appropriate that we have a new, trusting arrangement with local education authorities only to bypass them and go into the schools the first time that money is available.

We welcome the extension of education action zones—we have always supported that proposal—but ask the Secretary of State to ensure that there are a number of rural action zones, and that the preponderance of education action zones is not concentrated on the inner cities.

We are hugely disappointed that the whole area of lifelong learning is neglected and that there are no additional resources to meet the pledge that the Secretary of State made in "The Learning Age", or the pledges that have been made in response to the Dearing and Kennedy reports. Sixty per cent. of further education colleges face deficits, and more will be technically insolvent this year. When will this Cinderella sector be given the resources that it needs, to tackle the bridgehead between schools and universities?

Mr. Blunkett

I look forward to the day when the Liberal Democrats whole-heartedly welcome anything, because lifting the morale and motivation of the teaching profession is all about not griping and being cynical about every move that is made. I reassure the House that the media did not have my statement at lunchtime; I was still revising it. Secondly, I took the trouble of not going on the "Today" programme, which is unheard of in terms of Government presentations—I say to the Leader of the House that I am only joking.

Let me deal with the last point head on. This is not a statement about lifelong learning. There are resources for skills and lifelong learning, which will be announced separately. We have already allocated £100 million to further education and £165 million to higher education over and above what was allocated by the previous Government. It is simply not true that resources are not available to implement the proposals in "The Learning Age". The comprehensive spending review will deal with that.

There will have to be a bidding process to ensure that we target the money at schools that are in greatest need: first, to replace outside toilets—and that means all outside toilets, wherever they are—and, secondly, to replace the heating systems that are in most need of immediate action. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that education action zones will be available in rural areas, and we look forward very much to evaluating the bids from counties that believe that this initiative will help them to raise standards.

Madam Speaker

After the intervention made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), perhaps we can have questions.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Is not it a fact that, for 18 years, we had a Government who did nothing to tackle the problem of our decaying schools and often refused to recognise that poor school facilities, such as toilets, boilers and so on, have an effect on learning in schools? We now have a Government who are prepared to put money into those areas, and who will, over the next five years, show that we mean business as far as education, education, education is concerned.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The means to ensure a transformation in the life chances of youngsters who have had to put up with intolerable conditions in the past will bring great comfort to people in Burnley.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman please tell me how many London boroughs surrounding the borough of Bromley will become education action zones; and when does he expect their standard of education to improve to the standard in Bromley? Bromley parents will then be able to use the places in their schools that are currently taken up by the 25 per cent. of out-of-borough pupils. Those pupils are very welcome, because they get a decent standard of education, but it should be provided in their own Labour-controlled borough.

Mr. Blunkett

On the first question, the bids for education action zones are completed and will be with the Department tomorrow. When we are able to evaluate them, we shall announce where the action zones will he placed.

On the second question, the hon. Lady has raised this issue before. I give her the same reply that I gave before. It is a scandal that children cannot get into Bromley schools because of the selective system, even though they may live just round the corner. It may be good for people in other areas to travel to take up places in Bromley schools, but it is no joke for those who have to travel miles from Bromley because they are pushed out by children coming in from elsewhere.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

I am flushed with pleasure at my right hon. Friend's statement. Before the election, Conservative Members did not think that class sizes mattered, but now they do. Is it not churlish of them not to welcome the statement whole-heartedly, given that children often lose days of education because of broken boilers? Is it not better that we invest in their classrooms rather than have them huddle together for warmth?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, it certainly is. I welcome what my hon. Friend says, and echo what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health said yesterday: the money for the health service will ensure that we are prepared, even if we are hit by the meteorite. I am preparing children to be able to get somewhere quickly should they learn that the meteorite is coming.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

With the cry, "New Labour, new loos", the Secretary of State confirmed our fear that the future of education will go down the drain under the Government. Is it not bound to be noticed that the most welcome improvements of facilities at the 600 schools that he mentioned will cost £35 million, which amounts to £60,000 per school? Why is the Secretary of State inviting local education authorities to spend the money, and not enabling schools directly to get their hands on it so that it could be spent more efficiently and more carefully?

Mr. Blunkett

That takes the biscuit. We shall be replacing toilets, putting boilers into schools and replacing heating systems through the most administratively efficient mechanism possible. When LEAs are responsible for capital investment for schools under their auspices, it is sensible that they carry out improvements. We shall not advertise across the country for schools to declare themselves; we must move swiftly. We want bids to be in by 30 April, so that we can ensure that the scandal of children going across the yard and around the corner in the wet to spend a penny does not continue into the winter months.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Does he not agree that the Opposition education spokesperson should not deliberately muddle, if not inadvertently mislead, the House by pretending that the money is not new? Would not it be better if the Opposition apologised for spending 18 years failing to address the basic issue of installing inside lavatories in our schools? Many good Labour-controlled local education authorities have spent the past 18 years trying to provide inside toilets, and they would welcome being given some of the resources to improve their heating systems. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that they will not be disadvantaged when he determines how the money will be spread?

Mr. Blunkett

We shall distribute the money on the basis of need. As with the new deal for schools, we shall ensure that it is applied to assist in overcoming the legacy that we have inherited, and to assist us with the standards fund. I welcome my hon. Friend's opening words: we are at the end of an era, and at the beginning of a new one. I had hoped that the Opposition would welcome that. With regard to the remarks of the shadow Secretary of State, we are working hard to get the numeracy schools off the ground as fast as we can.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

What is the increase in education funding for Lincolnshire in the first year of Labour government compared with those in the last two years of Conservative government? If, as I suspect, the difference is modest, would it not have been more honest if my Labour opponent at the general election, instead of saying, "Education, education, education" had said, "Same old problems, same old problems, same old problems; same old increase as the Tories every year, same old increase as the Tories every year, same old increase as the Tories every year"?

Mr. Blunkett

I do not think that schools in Lincolnshire that have £1,000 extra to spend on books before 31 March would say, "Same old expenditure, same old Government." When they are given their allocation from the new deal for schools programme next year, they will not say that it is the same old story. As I announced in my statement, schools will receive, on average, £110 more for each pupil next year than they would have received under the Tories.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the parents of the kids in those 600 schools, many of which are in rural and semi-rural areas, will not care whether it is old or new money? They will not get terribly excited about whether it is in the Red Book, the Blue Book or the Green Book. They will know that this is real money. Those 600 schools need sorting out: the Tories had 18 years in which to do it. This work will be done before the end of the century, and those parents and kids will be better off as a result of the action announced today.

Mr. Blunkett

If every hon. Member showed such spirit, we would make enormous progress in giving the children of this country the life chances that they deserve.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

May I draw to the Secretary of State's attention the case of Fairfield Road primary school in Market Harborough? It has already put in a bid under the new deal for schools. Will the boiler money that he has just announced be in addition? The school has three separate boilers and three different fuel systems, and it would obviously be sensible to have one boiler system and one fuel system.

Mr. Blunkett

I am aware that the hon. and learned Gentleman has written about that matter. The money that I have announced will be additional to the bids under the new deal for schools.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I greatly welcome the Secretary of State' s statement. Does he agree that 20 years of under-investment in education, of children peeing in disgusting lavatories, and of freezing classrooms often in huts that contain asbestos has given the message that education does not matter, which it did not under the previous Government? Will he consider following up this excellent scheme with a programme to get rid of the use of huts, many of which leak and contain asbestos? Will he also ensure that education action zone proposals can be made in future? This year, Slough is becoming a unitary authority and a local education authority for the first time. That is not an appropriate time to make a sensible proposal for the creation of an education action zone. Will he give me an assurance that the programme will be available to such authorities in the future?

Mr. Blunkett

Health and safety is one of our key priorities under the new deal. The replacement of asbestos and the removal of what are no longer temporary classrooms, because many of them are more than 40 years old, will be part of that programme. Moreover, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks. Subject to the outcome of the comprehensive review, I hope to expand the education action zone programme during this Parliament.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

No doubt the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) will have explained to the Secretary of State that Oxfordshire this year faces a £3.5 million deficit on its education budget, which is leading to reductions in school budgets. Is the Secretary of State aware of the feeling in shire counties such as Oxfordshire that they are losing out on the standard spending assessment system, and that they will not benefit from initiatives such as the one that has been announced this afternoon, however welcome they may be? I do not expect the Secretary of State to answer now, but it would be helpful if he would write and explain how much money he thinks Oxfordshire will receive under this initiative, because I suspect that it will be very little.

Mr. Blunkett

I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and let him know how many outside toilets in Oxfordshire schools will be replaced and how much will be spent on the replacement of boilers and heating systems. I can assure him that the allocation of new deal resources will be made fairly and openly and will be based on need, as is the allocation from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I am sure that he will agree that it will be done in precisely the same way as his right hon. and hon. Friends allocated resources before the general election.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The statement is exceptionally welcome for Derbyshire, which is in great difficulty in all the respects described by my right hon. Friend. It has had to exceed its capping level in order to maintain its expenditure, and its primary schools probably have larger classes than those in any other shire county. Schemes to tackle such problems are very welcome. If it all works in Derbyshire, it will work throughout the country.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said, and for his commitment and enthusiasm. It is worth recalling that we have also allocated £1.1 million to Derbyshire county for the investment that will be needed in September to fulfil the pledge on class sizes, and a further £1 million for the city of Derby. We have made some progress, although much more remains to be done to overcome the legacy of 18 years from which Derbyshire is suffering.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Parents and teachers in Bury will welcome the statement, as they welcomed the education statement in last year's Budget and the statement on the standards fund in February this year.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the worst legacies of the past 18 years is the continued existence of enormous discrepancies between the per capita funding of children in primary and secondary schools across the country? My schools in Bury are in one of the small group of authorities with chronically low per capita funding. Consequently, they struggle to obtain basic materials, and, even with the help over class sizes, they will continue to struggle next year.

The solution can lie only in the reform of the current SSA system. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to start reforming it, so that education investment can be distributed more equitably?

Mr. Blunkett

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing are aware of the considerable pressure for rapid change exerted by, among others, those who previously supported the SSA system. I think we all know that there is improvement to be made, and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is working on that.

Bury makes excellent provision. It has an excellent local education authority with excellent schools, and it will have come as close as any authority in Britain to eliminating classes of 30 or more by September this year.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

Following today's performance, the next statement that we hear from Opposition spokesmen about education will have to feature this question to my right hon. Friend: "Apart from cutting school class sizes, getting rid of outside toilets, providing proper heating systems and improving education standards, what have a Labour Government ever done for the education of our children?"

Let me make a more serious point. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, to make capital go as far as possible, the Government need to consider private-public partnerships? Might it not be a good idea for the Department to scour the executive agencies under its umbrella for talented people with experience of such partnerships, and to try to establish a unit that would put their skills to use?

Mr. Blunkett

I cannot list all the items—including books and equipment—that we have provided in our first 10 months of government, and all the things that we have managed to do so far. Over the months ahead, however, I shall do my best to ensure that the outside world hears about them.

I am mindful of the important question that my hon. Friend has raised. There are people with great expertise whose present employment has enabled them to understand the development of capital programmes and the planning process, and we hope to be able to draw on their expertise in developing still further the substantial public-private partnership programmes that are about to take effect throughout the country.

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