HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc862-75 12.11 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I appreciate the opportunity to initiate a debate on this important issue. I appreciate even more the fact that we now have a little more time for the debate, although I hope that the Minister has not been too much inconvenienced. Some of my colleagues on both sides of the House with Cornish constituencies may want to take advantage of some of that extra time. As my speech was rather tightly timed, I may relax slightly. Although there might be some slight variations of view—there are certainly variations in the interpretation of what has been happening recently—all Members with Cornish constituencies are united across the political divide as to the case for a fair deal for children in Cornish schools. We share concern about the difficulties experienced by schools in matching funding with the important principle of ensuring that our children receive the best possible education.

The background to that concern is the Conservative education legacy that left schools in crisis, nowhere more so than in Cornwall. Perhaps it is no surprise that not one Conservative Member is in the Chamber at present; it would be extremely difficult for them to defend that position. There were cuts in local council funding and an endless revolution in education policy, as successive Secretaries of State felt the need to make their mark. As they could not offer the funding that was actually needed, they offered change. That was change that teachers could have done without, because they had a job to get on with—delivering quality education. Schools were left underfunded and teachers were left demoralised.

The election of the new Labour Government, pledging to make education a No. 1 priority, was, therefore, a cause for real optimism among teachers and parents alike. However, during the past year, desperate letters from demoralised teachers and school governors have reappeared in my postbag—they were not there for a while after the general election—and the reasons are not hard to find. The financial position is especially acute in Cornwall, because the Conservatives took the view that Cornish children needed less funding for their education than children in other parts of the country. Almost £10,000 less was received for a primary school with 100 pupils, and that was £10,000 less every year. A small secondary school with 500 pupils received £50,000 less each year. Throughout the county, that was a great many books, computers, teachers and classroom assistants.

I have never accepted the way in which Government standard spending assessments are calculated for rural areas, such as my own. Although I shall be critical about the lack of change, I hope that the Minister for School Standards will accept that I understand that is a legacy from the previous Government and that it is not easy to change. She might be aware that I raised that matter in debate several years ago under the previous Government, and that I received precious little response.

However, even with our funding shortfall, Cornish schools have always produced outstanding results. In a recent survey, more Cornish schools were picked out for praise than in any other education authority in the south-west. That is due to the dedication of staff and the extremely supportive, although financially poor, local communities. Parents of children at schools raise funds, but, equally, they provide children with a supportive environment at home; elsewhere in the country, that may not happen as much as it should.

Yet why should our schools receive less funding than other areas, even if they achieve good results with the funds available? I hope that the Minister will agree that Cornish children need the same help as those in any other area. We do not expect special treatment, and we understand that some children, in some places, need special help—for example, with languages—that does not normally apply in Cornish schools. However, the issue is broader than that; it goes beyond the few local authorities that have those special needs. We want a fair deal for our children and we believe that we deserve it.

At the turn of the year, I obtained some figures in response to a question from the Library. The answer was the last thing that I expected—it was certainly not the reason that I asked the question. The sad and surprising fact was that unfair allocation of funds—the differential between the national average and what we receive in Cornwall under the SSA—has become worse, not better, under the Labour Government. Our children now receive even less per head compared with the national average than under the Conservative Government. Every year, the cumulative effect of more than 10 years of decay and delay already does its worst to our children's education system. Labour have failed to take the action necessary to put that right. The debate offers me an opportunity to draw that to the Minister's attention, and hopefully, the matter can be reconsidered.

In part, it is a national issue and not merely a Cornish one. At the turn of the year, the latest national figures from the Audit Commission showed that, throughout the country, expenditure per pupil continues to fall in real terms by £53 per pupil in primary schools and by £90 per pupil in secondary schools. As I have explained, Cornwall's allocations are lower than that national average and are worsening by comparison.

Labour promised "Education, education, education", but since taking office, they have spent two years tied broadly to Tory education spending plans. Of course, it was a manifesto commitment to stick with those budget plans—one that Liberal Democrats criticised. We are seeing the results of that decision. At the general election, people voted to kick out those cuts in education, but so far it is precisely those cuts that the Labour Government have delivered.

However, there is not a shortage of funds. Gordon Brown has raised taxes overall; he has not cut them. According to a recent written answer, the Department for Education and Employment carried forward £121.7 million in unspent funds from 1997–98 to 1998–99, while schools throughout Great Britain continue to struggle for funding. I am sure that the Minister will point out that spending will rise during the years running up to the next general election and beyond, but during the whole Parliament, education expenditure in real terms is set to rise by only £3 billion above Conservative trends. I must compare that sum with the amount of more than £10 billion that would have been added for education, over the course of a Parliament, by the Liberal Democrat proposal for a penny on income tax.

The debate is about Cornwall in particular and, although I do not expect that the Minister will agree with me about the overall national figures, I want her to address the point that Cornish children are underfunded even in relation to those national problems. In 1996–97, the last year of the previous Conservative Government, under the SSA, children in Cornish primary schools were allowed £69 less each than the average for children in the rest of the country. Under the Labour Government, that figure has now risen to £89 less for each Cornish child. In 1996–97, each secondary school pupil received £84 less than the average for the rest of the country; under Labour, the amount is now £97 less per child.

The differential is significant. In a secondary school of 1,000 pupils, £97,000 every year is more than enough for the books, equipment and repairs that are needed. The Government's funding formula, calculated on pupil numbers, continues to discriminate against rural areas, where there are inevitably higher costs—especially for transport—because of their geography. This year, for example, Cornwall county council had allocated a large amount to school transport, but then found that it had an overrun of £1.2 million. There are also higher costs in maintaining relatively small schools in village communities. I believe that is entirely right, because such schools are vital to the infrastructure of those communities and provide a local education for children who might otherwise have to travel many miles. However, those schools are relatively expensive to support; they create difficulties over class sizes and require extra staff and administration that would not be necessary if there were a small number of much larger schools—as would be typical of urban areas.

Small village schools also suffer from erratic shifts in the school-age population, and the county council has to do its best to overcome that problem by ensuring that the loss of one or two pupils does not automatically result in the loss of a teacher. However, there comes a point where the funding allocation must result in the loss of a teacher, which is a catastrophe to a school that has only three or four teachers. A well-managed school with relatively reasonable class sizes can suddenly find itself a teacher short, with the head teacher having to do more classroom work and class sizes that have suddenly massively increased. Such changes cause devastating problems to local schools. Last year, I visited Tregony school, which lost a member of staff because local parents had literally produced one or two too few children. That loss led to bigger classes, mixed age groups and stressed teachers. If the Government allowed Cornwall the average national funding per pupil, that teacher need not have been lost from that school.

A wider issue is at stake: instead of the "bums on seats" funding mechanism, schools should receive needs-based financial support, so that all schools receive the amount they need to survive on a reasonable basis. Such a formula would allow for individuality of resources, pupil numbers and location and be far fairer to rural areas by leaving the decision making on funding to local education authorities, which are more likely to know the needs of the local area than Mr. Blunkett is. That is not a plea for far more reserved funding to the county—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Twice during his speech, the hon. Gentleman has referred to right hon. Members by their surname. He should know by now that he should refer to them either by the name of their constituency, or by the office they hold.

Mr. Taylor

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not aware that I was doing that, but I shall try to ensure that I get it right from now on.

The process of increasing flexibility is not one whereby Cornwall county council tries to reserve more funds centrally—in fact, the county council has a record of going beyond Government requirements in allocating funds directly to schools. However, greater flexibility is required.

Over the past two years, a group of Cornwall county council officers, school governors and secondary heads have conducted a needs analysis to determine what funds local schools needed to meet national curriculum requirements and the basic standards mentioned in documents published by both the previous Government and the current Government. "Costing Cornwall's Schools" revealed that a sensible calculation of the minimum amount Cornish schools need to provide a decent standard of education and an acceptable environment results in a £37 million shortfall under current funding formulas. That is a Conservative legacy and we do not expect the shortfall to be made up in one euphoric moment by the current Government realising that a mistake has been made and handing over the funds. However, as long as the problem is not addressed and moves in the right direction are not made, the cries of pain from Cornish schools will increase, especially from primary schools.

Largely as a consequence of underfunding, large numbers of Cornish children find themselves in classes of 31 or more. Large class sizes were the subject of specific and repeated criticism by Labour in opposition, but the startling and unexpected truth is that the problem in my county has worsened since Labour came to power. Nearly half of our primary school pupils are now in classes of 31 or more, and that proportion is rising steadily, despite the commitment in Labour's general election manifesto "Britain Deserves Better" to reduce class sizes to less than 30 in key stage 1.

Although, since Labour took office, the average proportion of pupils in classes of more than 30 has slightly decreased in England, the problem has become worse in Cornwall, with 300 more pupils than last year in classes of more than 30. Cornwall deserves better, and Labour promised better, so when are the Government going to do better? In March 1999, the Audit Commission reported on the issue, saying: There is a strong relationship between the percentage of larger classes and spending per pupil. That relates precisely to the problems I have been describing. I might add that a teacher pointed out that bringing four-year-olds into schools as part of the process of giving more four-year-olds the opportunity to start in a school environment results in difficulty in achieving the class sizes targets in both key stage 2 and the classes that accept the four-year-olds.

Labour promised pre-school education for all four-year-olds, but that has had to be done on the cheap, because the Government tied themselves to Conservative spending plans. To get funds, schools have offered places to all four-year-olds, but it is rare that a proper nursery class can be afforded. That is not good for younger four-year-olds or their classmates in the often overcrowded classes that have resulted. Meanwhile, pre-school playgroups have been devastated by the loss of four-year-olds and the funds that they attracted, and that loss will not be made up by the inadequate Government support that has been offered. Nevertheless, I welcomed the recent announcement of extra support and told the pre-school playgroups that have been in touch with me that some money was coming.

In rural villages, such pre-school groups are often the only form of child care available, but group after group is folding. Prior to 1992, I was the Liberal Democrat education spokesman and I developed our policy in that area. Because we had the luxury of having promised to raise funds through an extra penny on income tax, we could promise parents pre-school education for all three and four-year-olds either in nursery classes, or in pre-school playgroups, according to parental choice. We would have funded premises hire, equipment, training and salaries for pre-school playgroups, so they would not have faced the problems that the current system has engendered, even though there would have been a trend of children moving into more formal nursery classes.

However, the Labour Government have not done that, with the result that, according to the Pre-School Learning Alliance, there have been 20 closures of pre-school groups in Cornwall alone since the end of 1996. Add to that the 28 pre-school groups that have told the alliance that they are worried about imminent closure and the result is that, since Labour's election, we shall have lost almost one in five of all the pre-school playgroups in the county.

Some of those groups are long-established, such as the one I visited recently in St. Austell, where the problems were causing real emotional distress. Although there are local people who want to use the playgroup, it has lost the core number it needs to make up the finances and so enable it to keep going at current staffing levels.

The national minimum wage, although welcome in many respects, is adding to that financial difficulty. I now receive a stream of letters from pre-school playgroups expressing similar concerns and asking me to visit. The closures are a real problem and the money that has been made available is not equal to the scale of the problem. That issue especially affects rural areas such as Cornwall that contain smaller communities, in which alternative support mechanisms for mothers are few and far between.

I receive many letters from Cornish school head teachers and governors who are struggling to cope. Only the other day, I received a letter from one head teacher who described how he was trying to cope with a deficit of thousands of pounds and, at the same time, honour the Government's commitment to lowering class sizes in key stage 1. He writes: In order to meet this shortfall I have prepared a budget which sought to retain our present organisation. Even this could not be achieved without cutting some teaching time, placing a 50 per cent. class based commitment upon myself, as well as cutting classroom support staff. The final item is particularly painful in a school where 33.6 per cent. of pupils are on the Special Needs Register. If we are to keep our obligation to keep infant class sizes below 30, we shall be obliged to have large mixed age classes in key stage 2 with significantly less support for children in difficulty". That letter illustrates the problems facing rural schools. Another local head teacher tells a similar story, saying: The original building is Victorian … the existing windows do not all even close properly …Although we have 22 per cent. of pupils on the special needs register, we cannot afford any additional teaching time for these pupils, therefore placing additional pressure on teachers to reach targets. After the introduction of nursery vouchers, the school has accepted four year olds every term. Consequently, the reception class is always over 30 every Summer Term. In fact, the class size has been 38 twice in the last two years. As a class based headteacher, I spend 0.4 sessions in the office. This allocation has not been changed for more than five years. due to lack of funds, yet the amount of administration has significantly increased.

What am I looking for? Above all, I seek a sympathetic hearing from Ministers for the case that the Government's formula for allocating school funds nationally through SSAs desperately needs to be changed. Per pupil funding for Cornish schools needs to be far closer to the national average. The area cost adjustment means that funding is based on local wage levels, which greatly helps the south-east; yet teachers are paid on nationally set scales. We had hoped that the review of that process would significantly alter the distribution. We understand that progress is likely to be slow as there are losers as well as winners. Nevertheless, the movement so far has been in the opposite direction: we have fallen back relative to the national average.

Schools are funded according to average teacher salaries, yet many Cornish schools retain dedicated and experienced staff whose salaries are higher than the national pay scales as a result. I am not talking about a school's local flexibility, which I accept cannot be funded. Dedicated and experienced staff help to achieve results but hurt school finances. In some cases, teachers have lost their jobs because their salaries were too expensive. Allowance must be made for actual school salary costs.

Cornwall has many relatively costly small village schools, but Government funding largely ignores the extra costs—particularly school transport costs—generated by the county's geography. That matter needs urgent review. It is especially difficult to cut class sizes in small rural schools, particularly when the Government stick to funding formulae that are based overwhelmingly on pupil numbers, not real costs. In opposition, Labour calculated the cost of cutting class sizes to be around £68 million, but that figure has since increased 10-fold. I understand that the Government are struggling with real financial problems, but I am not yet convinced that they are aware of the particular problems facing smaller rural schools such as those in Cornwall. The real costs of maintaining pre-school education, including play groups, must be recognised better.

I have not yet mentioned an issue that I always broached with Conservative Ministers, who had a truly abysmal record in that area. I refer to investment in school buildings and infrastructure. I offer the Government a bouquet because those allocations have been much better. Cornwall's allocation this year is probably more than the county expected to receive—and is almost more than it can manage to spend. [Interruption.] But not quite. That is very good news. It will be a long time before the backlog of school dilapidation work, estimated at more than £100 million, is dealt with, but I am not critical of the Government in that regard. Most of the problems are a Conservative legacy, and I believe that Ministers are genuinely seeking to overcome them.

In contrast, I doubt that the Minister was aware that the spending per pupil figures for Cornwall were so poor. I was surprised by them when I requested the figures from the Library in January. At that time, I had no idea what the figures would show or that I would initiate an Adjournment debate on this subject. Having become aware of the situation, I sought to alert the Minister. Although we may differ about the Government's immediate record, we share a general, basic concern about the plight of Cornish schools and the way in which national formulae and systems operate.

12.33 pm
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

I am grateful that we have extra time to discuss this subject, which is extremely important for the people—and particularly the children—of Cornwall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing this Adjournment debate and enabling us to discuss the issue. However, that is where I part company with the hon. Gentleman and his views about education funding in Cornwall.

The hon. Gentleman said correctly that Labour inherited an appalling legacy from the previous Government, and he touched briefly on the good news that Cornwall has received regarding funding for capital programmes in the county. However, I do not think the hon. Gentleman painted the full picture.

There is a question regarding funding for secondary and junior schools within Cornwall. The county council has decided to give proportionately far more funding to secondary schools instead of junior and primary schools. Head teachers have formed a conference and have argued strongly that the county council—which, although not controlled by a single party, has a preponderance of Liberal Democrat councillors—must address that issue. I urge the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter with his county council colleagues because it is not fair that rural primary schools—many of which he referred to—should suffer a lack of funding as a result of decisions taken not by this Government but within the county.

The hon. Gentleman also neglected to mention the removal of outside toilets in Cornwall. For how many years did Liberal Democrat Members complain about the state of toilets in Cornish schools? Cornwall had the worst record in the country in that regard.

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

New Labour, new toilets.

Ms Atherton

I agree with my hon. Friend. That move is tremendously welcome. I spoke yesterday to educationists who emphasised that outside toilets are a health issue. Children often refuse to go out in the rain to use outside toilets, which leads to long-term health problems. I congratulate the Government on providing the money and signalling the end of outside toilets in Cornish schools.

The Government have made an even bigger gift to Cornish schools in the form of the £50 million that will be allocated through a private finance initiative arrangement to revolutionise the school buildings in which Cornish children study. Three secondary schools in my constituency will be located on the same site, and one of them, Pool, is a designated school for children with disabilities. The child of one of my constituents is a wheelchair user and Pool school has a bridge over which pupils must cross that is some 30 feet to 40 feet above the road. It is lunacy that that school should be designated for children with disabilities. My constituent's son cannot attend the school and my constituent must travel 30 miles every morning and evening with his son to a different school. Thanks to the Government, my constituents' children who are wheelchair users can look forward in the future to attending local schools with their friends. I welcome that advance.

I am sure that Opposition Members have visited Stithians school. Before elections, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates troop through that school in droves, never to be seen again. A week after the general election, the children of Stithians school e-mailed me to say, "Politicians from all parties come and visit our school, but we never see them after the election. Will you be different?" I visited that school and lodged a plea with education Ministers on its behalf. I am absolutely delighted, as are all at Stithians, that it is a priority school within the PFI arrangement.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

If the hon. Lady would like me to visit schools in her constituency, I should be delighted to do so.

Ms Atherton

The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has been a frequent visitor to Stithians, as have other senior politicians. I am telling the truth.

That arrangement will provide a boost to the entire village, of which Stithians school is the heart. More than 30 primary and junior schools will also benefit from the package.

I must take this opportunity to refer to the Redruth, Pool and Camborne education action zone—the documents and preparations for which are now complete—which concentrates on early years education. I have tremendous pleasure in announcing that those documents were printed this week and offer real opportunities to the schools, governors, pupils, parents and the communities of north Cornwall. It is a tremendous bid involving the business community and all the schools, and I hope that the Minister will look upon it with grace and favour when it comes before her.

I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of education funding in Cornwall. I was recently in a car park when an aggressive-looking lady came and banged on the bonnet of my car, demanding that I wind down my window. I did so, thinking that I would not be happy to hear what she had to say. However, she said, "I had to stop you to tell you how pleased I am with what your Government are doing by putting money into Cornish schools." I rest my case.

12.40 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am grateful to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for giving me the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing the debate but on securing an unusual length for it—he has a happy knack of doing so.

I shall concentrate on points of agreement across the Floor, and I should point out that it was unfair of my colleagues to draw attention to the complete absence from the debate earlier of Conservative Members. This debate is about Cornish education and there are no Conservative Cornish MPs—Cornwall is a Tory-free zone—and it is only reasonable that Conservative Members should be absent from this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not refer to the absence or otherwise of hon. Members. The purpose of an Adjournment debate is to allow an hon. Member to put a case to a Minister, so only the initiator of the debate, the Minister and, of course, Madam Speaker or a Deputy Speaker are required to be present.

Mr. Tyler

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is precisely the point that I was about to make—I thought that it would be unfair to concentrate on that issue.

There is agreement, first and foremost, that the situation that the Government faced in May 1997, in Cornwall as in other areas, was dire. The county's education system was suffering not only from the discrepancies to which my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell has already referred—I shall turn to those in a moment—but from a heavy backlog of lack of capital investment in its schools.

Secondly, it is common ground that despite that shortfall, the efforts of Cornwall's teachers, governors, parents and the community at large have produced remarkably good results. Nobody would dissent from that. Thirdly, there is agreement that over a long period—this did not suddenly happen—Cornish children in secondary and primary schools have suffered from a discrepancy.

Since May 1997, the local education authority—Cornwall county council—has not been controlled by a Liberal Democrat majority, but has been under no overall control. During that period, Labour councillors have been happy to support independent and Conservative councillors and appoint them to the chairs and vice-chairs of committees. The chair of the education committee is occupied not by a Liberal Democrat but by an independent councillor. There is a perception—I cannot say whether it is an entirely accurate one—that when the council has been under no overall control, the officers have taken a much bigger role in setting the council's priorities and policies, particularly on expenditure.

The previous Liberal Democrat chair of education and her committee were seeking to narrow the gap between the amount that was being devoted to front-line education resources—the schools themselves and other education services—and the amount retained at county hall. That situation has deteriorated, and the perception of the Cornish Association of Secondary Heads and the Cornish Association of Primary Heads is that county hall now retains a greater proportion of the resources made available to the county. That fulfils no national governmental pledge, let alone the wishes of the people of Cornwall. I hope that the county's officers will be prepared to reconsider that deteriorating situation, which was improving when the Liberal Democrats were in control of education.

I want to underline a couple of points that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell has already made. He will recall visiting with me a small village school in my constituency and being greeted on the doorstep by the head teacher with the words, "I am delighted to see you, but if you've come with more bright ideas from Government, thank you and goodbye." One of the previous Government's failures was to misunderstand the priority needs in many of our schools, which were for more investment rather than more instruction, and for more resources and fewer requirements about the national curriculum and other national policies.

A period of steady growth and improved investment, unaccompanied by the dramatic twists and turns of national policy, would also be extremely welcome in our schools. I suspect that in every classroom there must be a teacher who is wondering whether that process of incessant change will ever stop. The Government are, of course, taking measures that are good for schools. I hope that they will give teachers confidence that there will be steady progress rather than sharp twists and turns in national policy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell has said, in the past few years, the discrepancy between the national average standard spending assessment per pupil and the SSA available in Cornwall has increased, and there is no immediate sign that it will not continue to do so. He quoted figures for the financial year 1996–97, in which Cornwall's primary schools received £69 per pupil less than the national average. In only three years, that figure has increased to £89. Similarly, the gap between the national average funding for secondary schools and the funding for Cornwall has increased from £84 per pupil to £97.

Those discrepancies are serious and must be urgently addressed; otherwise we shall be unable to deliver to the pupils, parents and community of Cornwall the education that they deserve. I believe, as I am sure other hon. Members do, in trying to give credit where credit is due. I believe in the Government's good intentions, and especially those of the team at the Department for Education and Employment, but we will be unable to deliver what our constituents desire unless there is a change.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell said about the capital programme. It is a great relief to be moving towards redressing the backlog of so many years. At the beginning of March, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my original election to the House. During that period, it has been a constant sore that Cornwall has been left behind in the provision of modern facilities. However, modern facilities are not the whole answer, and there must be an lessening of the discrepancy between the running costs of our schools—particularly relating to the problem of teacher:pupil ratios—and the funding that they receive.

We hope that in the last two or three years of this Parliament the Government will break out of the self-imposed straitjacket of their predecessors' financial restrictions. I hope that when they do so, they will be prepared to attend to the major discrepancy from which we in Cornwall have suffered.

12.48 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing the debate, to which I intend to make a brief contribution.

I should first point out that schools in my constituency are the responsibility of two local education authorities—Cornwall's and the Isles of Scilly's. People on the islands appreciate that the Government have recognised and responded to their special needs and concerns, particularly the problems faced by post-16-year-olds going on to further education.

I want to make three points about the debate on the financial settlement, a subject which has been well aired today. First, schools in my constituency continually complain about the lack of opportunity for long-term planning because of the late settlement of the budget each year. Every year, they are unable to plan for future years because they are given only a few weeks in which to undertake that essential planning.

Secondly, irrespective of the political debate, schools are concerned about the reduction in resources. In the past 10 years, St. Ives junior school in my constituency has experienced a 20 per cent. increase in pupil numbers but a 20 per cent. decrease in staff resources. Admittedly, the Government have been in power for only a small part of that time. Schools have many initiatives thrown at them and are given little time for thinking and planning to implement them. The Government ought perhaps to take on board the concerns that teachers, not just in my constituency but throughout Cornwall and, I suspect, the rest of the country, have expressed about that.

Thirdly, I seek reassurance from the Minister on behalf of schools in Cornwall that in future funding packages the Government will take into account Cornwall's geography and the fact that we necessarily have many small schools. Parents do not campaign to ensure that their children get a poor education, but they often campaign hard to keep small, local schools which provide high-quality education. That needs to be taken into account in future funding packages for LEAs like Cornwall's.

12.50 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing this Adjournment debate. It is amazing that whenever hon. Members are fortunate enough to gain extra time for such debates, which is usually an accident, they have no difficulty at all, if the debates are about education, in getting colleagues from their area to join in.

I doubt that there is one hon. Member who does not spend much of his or her constituency time visiting schools and talking to parents about such an incredibly important issue. I acknowledge the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) and of the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for St. Ives (Mr. George) and the importance that education has for them as local Members of Parliament. I also acknowledge the sincerity with which they presented the issues to the House.

I am grateful for what I think was an acknowledgment of the Government's efforts and, equally important, of our good intentions. I cannot imagine that we will ever reach a point at which people will say, "Enough—no more for education." It is such an exciting issue, there is always so much to be done, and there are always so many frontiers to be pushed that, no matter what any Government do, it will always be claimed that we could do with more resources.

I am inevitably going to talk about a record of which I am proud, but I do not for one minute pretend or claim that we have enough resources or that I as an education Minister or we as a Government should stop seeking more resources for education.

I know that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell will expect me to remind him that during the period of the comprehensive spending review settlement, £19 billion extra will be spent on education. I am not a brilliant mathematician, but if one adds that sum to the £4 billion extra that we have already allocated, the total is far more than would have accrued from 1p on income tax over the same period.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

In real terms.

Ms Morris

It may be in real terms—but an average of £2 billion from 1p in income tax? The Liberal Democrats would be hard pushed to argue that we have not provided more than would have been gained from 1p on income tax.

Before responding to the points made in today's debate, I should like to acknowledge the high standards of education attainment in Cornish schools. I claim no credit for that, and I am sure that other hon. Members would not do so—it is down to the hard work of teachers, governors, parents, pupils and the wider community. I am delighted to acknowledge that key stage 2 results in the county are above the national average. In particular, I congratulate the secondary schools in Cornwall, whose results for pupils gaining five GCSE grades A to C are 5 per cent. above the average. Even more pleasing, that represents a 2 per cent. increase on last year, which is a faster than average growth for schools with pupils taking five GCSEs.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne would remind me that improvement across the county is not even, which is precisely why we have introduced initiatives such as the education action zones. We want to give more support to teachers who work in the most challenging social and academic environments. With no commitment, I shall of course look with interest at the application from her area to become an EAZ. I have had the opportunity to visit Cornwall as a Minister in the past 18 months, and I have been impressed by the commitment that I have seen.

I want to deal mainly with two issues. I want to talk about the money that comes through the standard spending assessment, and to offer some understanding and reassurance in that connection, and then to talk about the other money—it is not the bulk of it, but it is real money—that does not come through the SSA formula.

Since May 1997, we have increased Cornwall's SSA by £19 million, or 11 per cent. Those figures take into account the change in local authority functions. If we add to that the extra money that we have been able to distribute to local authorities by abolishing the nursery voucher scheme, which has gone into early-years provision, the increase is more than 11 per cent.

I shall deal in a moment with the figures that were cited, but Cornwall's primary SSA per pupil has increased by 11 per cent. in cash terms since we took office, and its secondary SSA has increased by 9 per cent. since May 1997. Funding per secondary pupil has increased by £110 in each of the past two years. In real terms, since we took office, we have increased SSA funding for primary pupils in Cornwall by 5.6 per cent., and the comparable real terms increase for secondary pupils in Cornwall is 3.5 per cent.

The figures quoted to the House were given in cash terms based on the SSA formula. The irony is that I am having to defend what was described as a growing gap in cash terms because we have put more money into education. We have not changed the formula under which the money is distributed so the more we put in, the greater the difference will be in cash terms. I suspect that had we reduced the amount in cash terms, the gap would have been smaller and the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell would not have sought an Adjournment debate because the gap would have narrowed and he would perhaps have congratulated us.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the formula is the problem. I am not going to justify a formula which, for no good reason, seems to treat children differently in different areas. I cannot fathom why that should be. However, I will defend a system that acknowledges that in different localities there are different legitimate needs and expenses. Unlike other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, I do not represent a rural constituency, but I readily accept that transport costs are greater in rural areas.

When we come eventually to devise a fair SSA, it will never be an amount per head. We cannot come up with a formula on which everyone agrees, but I suspect that arguing for the average amount for children in Cornwall may not be in the long-term interests of Members representing the area. I caution them against arguing that too often.

I have answered several Adjournment debates, mainly initiated by Liberal Democrat Members, but not one has been used to argue that the SSA formula favours them too much and that they want to give up some money for colleagues. That means that some colleagues who care equally passionately about education have to accept a formula that favours them less—

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)


Ms Morris

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me for not giving way, but I have only three minutes left.

We tried in vain to change the formula for this year, but we could not get agreement. If political parties do not agree, we face a geographical alignment. We will not get two bites at the cherry, and we did not want to change the formula and get it wrong. We have agreed that, over the next three years, we will try to come up with a formula that is right. The hope that I offer the hon. Gentleman is an acknowledgement by a Minister that the formula is not fair and a determination that, with a bit of give and take and some realism from Members of all parties representing all geographical areas, we can improve it.

The other source of funding, which has not received much comment—probably because the Liberal Democrats think that we have done fairly well in this instance—is the standards fund. Thirteen million pounds has been allocated to Cornwall since the election. I know that hon. Members will welcome the £4,000 to each school for the purchase nationally of about 20 million books.

In the two minutes that I have left, I must stress that we have a good record on class sizes. We have allocated a grant of £760,000 to the county to reduce infant class sizes, and £1 million for capital work in that connection. I congratulate the local authority on coming up with a class-size plan which means that, whereas in 1998 4,362 infants were in classes of more than 30, in September 1999 only 362 will be. That is real progress in two years, progress that was previously undreamt of.

By giving several hon. Members the opportunity to contribute to the debate, I have inevitably not had the time to respond to all the points that were raised. However, it has been an important debate, and is one to which we shall no doubt return.