HC Deb 19 May 1999 vol 331 cc1022-30 12.30 pm
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. It is the first time in parliamentary history that the town that I have the privilege of representing has had a debate to itself in this place. I had hoped that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) would be here to share it, but urgent business has prompted his return to his constituency. However, my hon. Friend and I speak with one voice about all education matters in Bury.

The purpose of this debate is essentially twofold. First, I want to draw attention to the excellent performance of primary schools in Bury, whose reputation is growing as time passes. Secondly, I want to draw attention to the other noticeable feature of education in Bury: chronic funding inadequacies. That is not a recent phenomenon. If time allows—I know that this is a short debate—I shall give some feedback to my hon. Friend the Minister from teachers in Bury whose views I canvassed recently during a series of visits to primary schools.

Let me outline the nature of the local authority and the schools in Bury. The local education authority, which serves a population of a little more than 180,000, is one of the smallest in the country. Therefore, it has a proportionately small education budget that does not allow for the economies of scale common to larger authorities. It has a little over 60 primary schools and a coherent 11-to-16 system of secondary education, which feeds into two highly regarded colleges—a general tertiary college and a Catholic sixth form college. Although this debate focuses on primary schools, I also pay tribute to the performance of Bury's secondary schools, which are equally well regarded. Their performances to GCSE, in terms of passes at A to C, and particularly A to G, feature at the top of the annual league tables.

The local authority was inspected by Ofsted last year and its report was published in the first week of this year. I shall comment briefly about some of the remarks in it. The chief inspector of schools—whose comments I would not necessarily always quote with such gratitude—described Bury as an authority that

delivers … without rhetoric and fuss". He said that the schools are doing very well and getting steadily better and that the authority makes highly effective use of money achieving high levels of service efficiency … plans well … supports literacy and numeracy, behaviour and attendance very well". Following that report, the Secretary of State referred to Bury's schools in his speech to the north of England conference on 8 January, praising Bury's effective use of the performance data and baseline assessment to help identify the development needs of individual pupils. More recently, the Department for Education and Employment has particularly praised Bury's educational development plan, saying that it reveals an exemplary process of establishing targets for the LEA and for individual schools.

The message is that the local authority and its schools are regarded highly. I pay tribute to the teachers in Bury's schools, without whose skill and dedication those results would not have been achieved. I pay tribute also to the governors. Being a school governor is a thankless task in many respects, but Bury is fortunate in having a large group of dedicated and experienced governors who support their schools particularly effectively. That has enabled the schools to develop and advance on a wide range of fronts, particularly in their literacy and numeracy strategies, the use of the national grid for learning investment and in many good examples of community involvement.

The facts relating to performance in Bury's primary schools are straightforward. At key stage 1 last year, in all aspects assessed—reading, writing, spelling and mathematics—Bury's primary schools were about 2 per cent. above the national average. By key stage 2, it is significant that Bury was rated as the second highest scoring metropolitan district and the eighth highest scoring local authority in the country. That is because the scores of pupils achieving level 4 and above were 8 per cent. higher than the national average.

In that context, I shall mention some individual schools from my constituency—if my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South were present, I am sure that he would quote many good examples from his constituency. I must draw attention to the results achieved at Hollymount school, where 100 per cent. scores at level 4 and above in maths and science were achieved as well as scores of 93 per cent. in English, and at Greenmount, St. Mary's, Lowercroft and Our Lady of Lourdes school, which also achieved 100 per cent. in one subject.

Those schools serve catchment areas that are comfortable and, in many cases, very affluent. However, I also draw attention to schools such as Sunny Bank and Guardian Angels, which serve mixed areas, whose scores in English and maths were exceptionally good. I draw attention also to East Ward school and St. Thomas's school, which serve some of the most deprived wards in Greater Manchester. Both those schools obtained results of about 95 per cent. at level 4 and above in science. Some exceptional work is being done in schools that serve very deprived communities: the message is that there have been enormous improvements in various primary schools from key stage 1 to key stage 2.

Having cited the league tables and scores as evidence, I should add a note of caution. Teachers, head teachers and school governors in Bury are a little sceptical about the way in which league tables operate. They know that a small difference in the number of pupils taking the tests each year can result in a disproportionate difference in the end results. They know also that the league tables as currently published reflect mostly the nature of the school's catchment area rather than the value added by an individual school. I plead with the Government to move as quickly as possible—I know that the Minister is aware of this point—to introduce a value-added concept into the league table system. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Bury's primary schools have out-performed schools with similar catchment areas that serve similar local authorities and similar populations in other parts of the country and have shown particular progress between key stages 1 and 2.

On finance, Bury local authority has suffered historically from a low standard spending assessment. That is particularly evident in the impact on education. The aggregated schools budget per capita spend is £100 below the national average for primary schools and £150 below the national average for secondary schools. That is despite the fact that, based on population, Bury comes in the middle of the social and economic indicators that are used to describe local authorities. The effect on a large primary school of 400 pupils is a deficit of about £40,000 a year and the effect on a small secondary school—a typical 11-to-16 school in Bury—is about £120,000 a year.

The SSA for primary education in Bury is £2,200 and £2,800 for secondary education. That contrasts markedly with the London SSA—I do not want to reopen the debate about SSA differentials between London and the rest of the country, but I must make this point—of about £2,800 for primary schools and about £3,600 for secondary schools. If we compare Bury and London—we all accept that London has special needs and difficulties—we find that a primary school in Bury is worse off to the tune of about £250,000 and a secondary school is worse off by about £640,000.

I know that Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are highly conscious of the inequities of the SSA system. I know also that a considerable amount of work was done on that last year and that a change to the children's social services criteria was introduced which benefited some of the poorly funded authorities such as Bury. However, I again draw attention to the fact that we must wait a further three years for the next review of SSAs. The contentious issues of the area cost adjustment and the additional educational needs criteria remain to be resolved. In those three years, Bury and other small local authorities will continue to be funded by a system that is widely regarded as being unjustified and methodologically unsound.

For many years, Bury spent about 11 per cent. above its SSA, which was a measure of the local authority's commitment to education. Unfortunately, that could no longer continue because of the severe budget cuts by the previous Government in 1996–97 which forced the local council to impose cuts of £12 million on the authority. That is not a large sum compared to the budgets of some local authorities, but for a very small authority such as Bury, it is huge. The effect on the education service was cuts of about £5.5 million, of which more than £3 million came directly out of school budgets.

The teachers in Bury's schools, the parents and the local authority welcome the new investment that my Government have introduced since 1997, particularly the total of about £4 million from the standards fund and about £1.8 million from the new deal for schools. That has enabled our primary schools to reduce almost all their infant class sizes—which, before 1997, were among the highest in the country—to 30 or below by the end of the forthcoming school year. That investment has also enabled primary and secondary schools in Bury to start a long-overdue programme of repair and new build.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the interest that he has taken in education in Bury, following his recent visit to Holy Trinity primary school, and his particular interest in the local authority's attempts to get funding through the new deal for the East Ward primary school. I must now declare an interest because that is the school which I attended, but more importantly, it has operated on a split site for 40 years. It serves one of the most deprived areas in Greater Manchester, and the local authority's project for developing the school on one site is part of a much wider community regeneration project, which can now proceed as a result of the funding under the new deal for schools.

The failure to make significant changes to the SSA system this year means that even the 5 per cent. annual increase projected for the next three years will barely restore the core level of funding to that which applied before the cuts made during the previous Government's last year in office. The difficulty is that even though the SSA will now increase year by year, part of the additional funding received by the local authority must be set aside for the matched funding that it hopes to receive from the standards fund. Even though Bury passports to the schools all the funding that it can, the amount of money that goes to the schools is inevitably reduced.

I do not say that Bury is unique, because I know that many other local authorities in metropolitan districts and shire counties have a similar struggle, but I am not sure that schools in Bury can wait for another three years before there is comprehensive reform of the SSA system. I know that the system is not my hon. Friend's responsibility and that DETR Ministers must grapple with it, but it seems to me that there is now a powerful argument for using the funding that the DfEE has at its disposal—the standards fund and the new deal—to compensate for the inadequacies of the core funding from DETR. There is a powerful argument also for establishing the concept of a minimal level of core funding, below which no local authority and no school should fall.

The 5.4 per cent. increase in Bury's SSA this year was higher than the average increase for metropolitan districts, but that average was lower than the average increase in SSAs for inner and outer London. We welcome this year's increase for Bury and the 5 per cent. increase next year, but for small local authorities, percentage increases serve simply to increase the cash differential. That is why small authorities need a cash injection to compensate for the inadequacies of the percentage increase.

Will my hon. Friend monitor closely the financial situation in Bury, particularly in primary schools, and make representations to his colleagues at DETR about the reform of SSAs? Will he find out whether there are ways in which the standards fund and the new deal for schools can be used to support local authorities, particularly small ones with the lowest levels of funding?

I have been fortunate enough to be able to visit about two thirds of primary schools in my constituency. The messages from teachers, governors and head teachers are clear.

First, the continually low funding makes it difficult to maintain the high standards that have been achieved in Bury. Secondly, the local authority has set demanding new targets to which the schools, after some arm-twisting, have agreed. I should point out that the literacy target for primary schools in Bury is now set at 90 per cent. of pupils by 2000, which is 10 per cent. above the national average target. The numeracy target is set at 80 per cent. of pupils by 2000, which is 5 per cent. above the national average target. It is disproportionately difficult for schools and local authorities that are already performing extremely well to achieve that extra increase. If only 20 or 30 per cent. of pupils are obtaining level 4 or above, it is relatively easy to increase that number by 5 or 10 per cent. The higher the starting point, the more difficult it is for schools to attain those final few percentage points. There is, therefore, a concern about the demanding new targets.

There is concern also about the proposals to reform teachers' pay and the way in which that will be linked to pupils' performance. If the budget is cash-limited, what are the implications for schools that already have a high level of pupil performance? Will they sweep up a disproportionately large share of the overall budget, or will there be discrimination between teachers who, by any national standards, are performing extremely well and wish to go through the threshold?

There is continuing concern about future funding, but there is massive support for the Government's actions through the standards fund, particularly on pupil improvement strategies and the national grid for learning, and the extra investment from the new deal. There is also a welcome for the Government's other initiatives, particularly the numeracy and literacy strategies, but there is concern about the pace of change, especially on the literacy strategy. Having gone through that process, however, most teachers feel well equipped to take on the introduction of the numeracy strategy from this September.

I repeat my point about league tables, about which schools are concerned. Schools at the top of the league tables in Bury express the most concern because they know that their position is due not only to dedicated, skilled teaching staff, but to their privileged catchment area.

I shall summarise my points about Bury's schools. The first related to high performance. The success that has been achieved, particularly in primary schools, between key stages 1 and 2, has been bought at the human cost of stressed, exhausted teachers. There is a question mark over how much more teachers in those schools can give. According to socio-economic data—whether we are comparing levels of unemployment, numbers of single parent households or other indications of poverty—Bury is always somewhere in the middle of the list, yet our funding is always in the lower quartile. The Government need to think of interim measures to help the local authorities with the lowest funding prior to completing the next review of SSAs.

I want to focus on the need to recognise high performance not only in Bury's schools but in those of other local authorities. How will the Government reward and recognise those schools and, in particular, what can be done to help to disseminate that good practice?

That brings me to my final point, which relates to the recent Ofsted reports on other local authorities. We have all read the reports on Hackney and Islington, and I imagine that we shall all read that on Liverpool. It seems odd that, when there is such expertise in certain parts of the state sector, we have not used it in the past to help those parts of state education that are not performing as well.

I am not suggesting that Bury should take over the schools of Islington, Hackney or Liverpool, but the expertise that exists in the schools in my constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South and in other primary schools across the country could be used to help our colleagues in Islington, Hackney and elsewhere. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister commented on that.

12.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate; I had not realised that this is the first time that the affairs of Bury alone have been debated in the Chamber.

Everyone in the House knows of the personal commitment, energy and expertise that my hon. Friend brings to bear on behalf of his constituents and the children in his constituency's schools. As he said, I was fortunate enough to visit a school in his constituency where I met people from the local education authority and many teachers and discussed many of the issues that he has raised. I know that he has accurately reflected the feelings of his constituents and I congratulate him on continuing to prosecute his case.

The first issue raised by my hon. Friend, and the one with which he concluded, was the Ofsted LEA inspection report for Bury. As he said, that report was very positive. Ofsted held a press conference to announce the report's publication, and to give an example of what LEAs can achieve and how well they can support their schools. Bury's report says that the education service has shown itself to be a highly effective organisation which is providing excellent support for schools and value for money. It is well led and has good relationships with its schools. It provides excellent support for literacy, performance data to support target setting and strong support for pupils with educational and behavioural difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards wrote on behalf of the Government to commend Bury on that inspection report, so I am happy to associate myself with my hon. Friend's positive remarks about the role played and contribution made by the teachers, governors, pupils and officers of his local LEA in the metropolitan borough of Bury. That outstanding achievement deserves public recognition, which he has secured today.

I believe that LEAs across the country can learn many things from Bury, which is one reason why Ofsted publicised the report. I am not sure that that goes quite so far as taking over the schools of Islington and Hackney, although we will examine with great interest the suggestion that that might happen; it is a new twist on the suggestion that what Greater Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.

As my hon. Friend will know, our specialist schools initiative, our beacon schools initiative—another of which was announced recently—and our approach show our strong commitment to disseminating good practice in every aspect of the delivery of educational services. I heard what he had to say about Bury's achievement in key stage 2 results, which have been outstanding.

On league tables, which my hon. Friend mentioned, I agree that one should not interpret them too precisely in their various respects. They must be set in context, and we always do that, but the data to which he referred help to motivate target setting and drive educational standards upwards. They should be publicly available, not kept in some secret garden away from the public, so that will inevitably lead to their publication. My only health warning is that the league tables should always be set in context.

I note my hon. Friend's particular point about the need to develop value-added statistics for the league tables and I agree about their importance. As he knows, the Government are setting about that task. We have introduced a number of pilot schemes to see how that data might best be collected and it is our declared intention to include value-added data, as long as we can be sure that they are reliable. Reliability is a key point, because people rest judgments on league tables and must know the facts.

My hon. Friend made a range of points about funding and resources. He was fundamentally right in his description of the situation; Bury is 130th out of 150 LEAs in funding per pupil—towards the bottom end, as he said. It receives about 7 per cent. per pupil less than the national average, despite, as he rightly says, being nearer the centre of the various tables on socio-economic indices. I therefore accept what he said about the SSA formula, as will my colleagues across the Government as they consider the issues that we are addressing. My hon. Friend's comparisons with London were, as always, interesting; my LEA in Norfolk makes exactly the same point. His comparisons are not only on the record, but will be heeded by Ministers in my Department and across the Government.

Since 1997, Bury's education SSA has increased by £8 million and its primary school SSA has increased by 11.6 per cent. I commend the authority on passing on in full the increase in SSA to education, and we are keen to establish that practice across the country. As my hon. Friend said, the standards fund has made a major contribution to improving the situation in Bury and I was glad to hear about the teachers' welcome for it. I also acknowledge his point about the difficulties that can arise over matched funding. On class size, since 1997, Bury has received £1.7 million to provide additional teachers and £1.4 million is available for additional classrooms. As a result, Bury has achieved a major reduction in the number of five, six and seven-year-olds in large classes and, from January 1998 to January 1999, that number fell from 3,326 to 460. I congratulate the LEA on a robust plan for reducing class sizes, its speedy implementation and achieving good value for money.

On literacy, as my hon. Friend correctly pointed out, the national target is 80 per cent., but Bury has set the more challenging target of 90 per cent. We have allocated £302,000 from the standards fund to raise primary literacy standards in Bury. On numeracy, the national target is 75 per cent., but the target in Bury is 80 per cent. Again, I congratulate the LEA on driving those targets forward. Bury received £196,000 to raise primary numeracy standards.

On other standards funding, the total amount available to Bury is more than £3 million, including the funding to which I have referred and funding for the national grid for learning, school security and a range of other issues. Those resources are significant and important, and we are delighted that they are being used to such good effect in Bury. I have heard, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will hear, my hon. Friend's remarks about the possibility of using the standards fund to target resources on areas of greatest need. That is precisely what we have done through capital funding.

The new deal for schools, to which my hon. Friend referred, is specifically targeted on schools with the most serious defects to ensure that they are properly addressed. That is why Bury has received a total capital allocation of almost £6 million since the Government were elected, £2 million of which is in respect of the new deal for schools. An additional £2.4 million has been made available through advance capital grant and grant to voluntary-aided schools.

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that that major improvement on past funding has enabled him to set about overcoming, with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm, many of the serious problems that he inherited when he became Member of Parliament for Bury, North.

I understand the points that my hon. Friend has made. I have listened to what he said about the contribution of parents, teachers and governors, and I congratulate the LEA on its work. The Government will continue to support education in Bury with substantial resources, working in partnership with everybody involved to raise standards. We will consider most carefully the specific points that he reported in the debate. I am delighted to have been able to highlight them, because they reveal my hon. Friend's commitment and that of his colleagues to drive forward the improvement in educational standards in Bury. The Government share that commitment.