HC Deb 17 July 2000 vol 354 cc191-8

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

2.56 am
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

It is some time since I took part in an Adjournment debate at such a late hour. I had hoped that late sittings had been abandoned, but, during the past few weeks, they seem to have made a remarkable return. They are no better for their brief absence. I am sure that all of us who took part in tonight's proceedings would prefer that they had been handled differently—even those hon. Members who caused them to be so.

To make rushed changes in response to immediate circumstances is likely to result in bad legislation. It was for that reason that I voted against the measure in our earlier proceedings. However, the exact opposite applies to the subject of this debate: no movement at all has resulted in a bad situation and I hope that we can change it.

The problem is due to the distribution formula and it affects most rural counties—not only in education, but in policing, local government and health. However, it strikes especially at education. The formula was developed by the Conservatives in the 1980s and has never been substantially changed. Year after year, it has delivered a lower spend per pupil in schools in areas such as Cornwall than in other parts of the country. It discriminates against children in rural schools.

In counties such as Cornwall, a primary school of about 100 pupils receives about £10, 000 less each year than the English average. A secondary school of about 500 pupils receives about £50, 000 less. That was Labour's inheritance when they came to office. People in my county expected that the formula would be changed under Labour, but that has not yet occurred. As a result, our county and similar counties fall further behind every year, despite the fact that they face higher costs in delivering education.

Those counties have to bear the costs of supporting and providing for small rural schools and the costs of rural transport. Cornwall county council's transport budget was overspent by £1.2 million last year. The council and the county's head teachers analysed the shortfall facing Cornwall's schools. Under the present formula, there is a minimum shortfall of about £37 million, compared with the amount that is needed to deliver the basic national curriculum.

In April last year, when I initiated a similar debate on this issue, a rising number of Cornish children were in classes of 31 or more. Numbers had risen in Cornwall, although they had declined in the rest of England.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Does my hon. Friend find it perverse that at a time when the Government are providing more funds to build a new classroom at a school, the very same school finds itself without the funds to employ a teacher to go in that classroom?

Mr. Taylor

Not only do I find it perverse, but it makes me angry to see the problems that schools suffer. Schools in my constituency face similar problems and those problems will get worse as the demographics mean that a declining number of children will go into small schools. That will mean a loss of funds and a loss of teachers.

I am not using the debate as an opportunity to lambast the Government. The disaster was caused by the Conservative funding formula, but the disappointment lies in the problems that have been caused by the lack of early action by this Government. We are more than three years into the Parliament and we still have not seen a solution to a problem that Ministers themselves acknowledge. Indeed, the last time we debated this issue, more than a year ago, the Minister for School Standards acknowledged that the funding formula was not fair, adding that with a bit of determination and with a bit of give and take and some realism from Members of all parties representing all geographical areas, we can improve it.—[Official Report, 21 April 1999; Vol. 329, c. 874.] The problem is that there has been no improvement.

Indeed, the standard spending assessments for education for Cornwall mean that spending for primary school pupils has fallen behind the national average by £105 for every pupil and for secondary school pupils by £117. That is substantially worse than the position that the Labour Government inherited. It is an average underfund of £111 for every pupil in Cornwall. That has directly impacted on the quality of service. The number of pupils has risen by 1, 107 since 1997, but the number of teachers has dropped by 13 since then. No wonder there have been increasing class sizes.

The Liberal Democrat team in the county decided to contact every head teacher to allow them to express their views. Those views make worrying reading. The policy to reduce infant class sizes that has been pursued by Labour has meant larger class sizes for older pupils. Head teachers predict rises in both junior and secondary class sizes over the next three years, despite a falling birth rate in the county.

More than two out of three head teachers have had to cut spending on books and classroom equipment since 1997, when Labour was elected. Three out of five made cuts last year and fewer than two out of five feel that they can afford sufficient materials to guarantee the quality of the education that they provide. Two thirds of head teachers say that their schools do not have sufficient funds for building maintenance.

The impact of that is perhaps most disturbing when one considers the response that head teachers gave to questions about how they felt about their own profession. They universally talked about the importance that they attached to teaching and about how they cared about the service that they could give their pupils, but fewer than two in five said that they would recommend teaching as a profession to a member of their family. Fewer than a third said that they would recommend head teaching, and seven out of 10 head teachers are considering early retirement. No wonder that 95 per cent. supported our argument that more resources were needed. Every teacher surveyed endorsed our campaign to secure equality of funding with the rest of England and a fair funding system across the country.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Is my hon. Friend prepared to comment on the fact that in my constituency a survey identified that nearly four out of five schools had experienced cuts in staff since 1997? Despite the welcome resources made available by the Government, there are clearly pressures on staff. As we have heard today, they have resulted in the fact that 10 per cent. of head teachers have taken leave owing to stress.

Mr. Taylor

The figures are alarming and they are reflected across the county. Four in five schools have cut staff since Labour was elected. More than half have had to reduce teacher non-contact time and more than half say that they are employing younger teachers when vacancies occur as a way of saving funds.

That is the reality behind Labour's claims substantially to have increased spending. First, the county has fallen further behind the average because of a funding formula invented by the Conservatives which Labour has not yet changed. Secondly, although in the earlier debate the Minister for School Standards claimed that the previous comprehensive spending review made £19 billion available for education, Labour has since been forced to acknowledge that its figures were misleading and inflated, as we argued at the time.

One reason why I am so pleased to have secured this debate, despite the late hour, is that the second comprehensive spending review will be announced tomorrow, and it will be time to correct the exaggeration of last time, when the Government did not deliver the money that the Chancellor claimed they would. Teachers have suffered as a result, not least because much of that money was taken up not only by inflation and double and triple counting, but by non-funded salary increases for teachers, which the schools have found to be a burden in distributing resources and which have forced them to lose staff.

Lack of resources has meant that over two thirds of head teachers have had to cut spending on classroom equipment; over 60 per cent. have had to make cuts in equipment; and over one third have had to find other forms of fundraising to meet the shortfall. Indeed, 77 per cent. said that they relied on fundraising by parent-teacher associations and others not only for extracurricular activities, but for books, equipment, computers and educational trips. Reliance on fundraising for basic essentials has increased in 53 per cent. of schools.

The survey is at its most telling when one reads what teachers have to say about that. One said: We have been forced into having class sizes under 30 in infant classes. This is a simplistic argument and does not show any understanding of current education policy coming out of the standards department. Another said: We have mixed age group classes in the juniors due to a lack of space for any additional classrooms. Another said: We have to buy a great deal of second hand equipment from schools which have closed, to provide a reasonable level of equipment in most classes. Another said: We have no staffroom, no headteacher's office. A toilet block and classroom were funded by the Parents Association because the LEA would not pay.

Another teacher said: We have been allocated £600 this year for capital expenditure, but what can that provide? Another said: We always have 1 or 2 pupils below the threshold for the third teacher to be reinstated … in January, and usually go over the threshold during the summer term. In other words, the school is a teacher short. Another said: To make a manageable budget we are making cuts in resources year on year. Yet another said: Rising teacher costs means that there is very little left in your budget for resources. Finally, one teacher said: We had substantial reserves four years ago and dig deeply into them each year to set the budget. It is unlikely that we will be able to set a reasonable budget after this year.

I know that these problems are inherited from the Conservatives. They created a funding system that discriminated against rural counties such as Cornwall and left our schools underfunded. It played a major part in the general election campaign, when we fought on the argument that the Conservative party was underfunding Cornish schoolchildren by an average of £100 a head. I do not believe that, on the election of the new Government, anybody in the county believed that that would get worse, but it has done, both in the absolute problems of schools having to cut staff, as I have said, and, perhaps worse for our county, in that discrimination against us has widened that gap, even as the Government have sought to put extra funding into education.

The comprehensive spending review to be announced tomorrow provides a double opportunity, first, to release those resources from the war chest that could and should have been spent in the past three years and to release extra spending to schools. All the signs are that that will happen, and if it does, it will be welcome. We will see where the money is spent and criticise where we think it spent wrongly. Secondly, I press the Minister to take the opportunity to sort out this discriminatory, unfair funding system that she has inherited from the Conservative party and which has left Cornwall, Devon and other rural counties so badly served.

It is difficult for Governments to create new funding formulae to redress the balance when it means having to take from some areas to give to others. However, there is an opportunity in the context of extra spending in the comprehensive spending review, which I hope and believe will be realised tomorrow, to redress the effects of the funding system by investing extra money into counties such as Cornwall without snatching it off others. We are talking not about cuts but about a fair funding formula for those who so richly deserve it—those who work in our schools and deliver good results but do so with big classes and under-resourcing, having to rely on parents in the poorest county in the country to provide essentials.

Schools are left thousands of pounds a year worse off because of a funding formula that Labour has so far failed to change. There is an opportunity to redress that; I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance that that opportunity will be taken before we have to fight another general election. If the formula has not been changed by then, people will ask, "What was the point of a Labour Government when they could not deliver?" I do not believe that the Minister wants to have to answer that question from angry Cornish parents. The Conservative party has nothing to say on the issue because it was responsible for the formula in the first place. Ministers must take action if they are to justify their position.

3.11 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

Despite the lateness of the hour, I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) not only on securing this Adjournment debate on the issue of school funding, which is clearly important to hon. Members on both sides of the House, but on doing so at the start of an important day in the history of this Government's commitment to putting into our schools the resources that we all agree are important.

As a Worcestershire Member of Parliament, I share and have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's view of the unfairness of the distribution system. I come from an authority that fares even worse than Cornwall in the standard spending assessment arrangements. Although I will not, therefore, be defending the current funding system, I will be defending the Government's commitment to increasing overall spending in our schools, as well as explaining the effects that that has had on Cornwall and the actions that the Government are taking to improve fairness and transparency in the funding of schools.

The first thing that I must reiterate is that the Government have delivered an overall increase, allowing for an extra £2.1 billion to be spent on education in 2000–01 and an education SSA increase of 5.4 per cent. across the country. On top of that, an extra £500 million has been made available for the standards fund, £50 million for support of school budgets and £14 million for excellence in cities authorities. There is £19 million extra spending headroom through the deferral of an increase in pension contributions and an extra £290 million was announced in the Budget.

Notwithstanding the way in which that is distributed across the country, that is a substantial real-terms increase in funding—equivalent to an increase per pupil in real terms of £180 this year, and of £300 since 1997. Under the previous Government, funding per pupil fell by £60 in real terms between 1994–95 and 1997–98. Our increases are significantly more than could have been delivered from putting 1p on income tax.

I have said that it is not my intention to defend the distribution system, but I must point out that the Government's overall funding increase has significantly benefited Cornwall. Cornwall's education SSA for 2000–01 is £199.6 million—an increase of £9.77 million or 5.32 per cent.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Given the Minister's sympathetic comments about the distribution system, does she acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), that the time to correct a discrepancy is when one is in a position to be more generous? I hope that she will at least give an assurance that she will make representations to her right hon. Friends in the Cabinet that now is the time to correct the discrepancies.

Jacqui Smith

Later in my speech, I shall outline what the Government intend to do in that respect.

As the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell points out, Cornwall's is not the best placed LEA, being 101 out of 150 LEAs in terms of funding per pupil. Nevertheless, the increases that Cornwall has received are substantial—not only in its SSA, but in its standards fund allocation for 2000–01 which, at £20.58 million, represents an increase of 82 per cent. on the 1999–2000 allocation; in its share of the additional £50 million announced in November, which is £483, 000; and in its share of the additional £290 million announced in the Budget, which is more than £2.7 million. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the latter was not allocated according to the SSA formula, so schools throughout the country, and in Cornwall in particular, will receive increases of up to £50, 000 per secondary school and up to £9, 000 per primary school.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned capital expenditure. It may well be that schools in Cornwall feel that that is not yet adequate, and I do not suggest that we have addressed fully our inheritance from the previous Government of crumbling schools. However, this year we have spent three times as much on capital expenditure as was planned by the previous Government; and, in the new deal for schools 4 allocation alone, Cornwall received £5.7 million, which constitutes a significant contribution to improving schools' infrastructure.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate Cornwall's teachers, governors and pupils on their excellent results, with the percentage of pupils with five or more A-starred to C GCSE passes standing at 51.6 per cent., which is above the national average of 47.9 per cent. It is clear that the authority has been making good use of the extra resources provided by the Government, and that teachers, governors and pupils have been working hard to improve results.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned class sizes. The Government targeted money on fulfilling our pledge to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year olds. The hon. Gentleman appeared to dismiss that achievement, but the Government believe that it will have a lasting effect on children as they pass through the education system, and we shall make £620 million available to support that pledge. Allocations to Cornwall so far total £3.5 million, which has helped to reduce average key stage 1 class sizes in the hon. Gentleman's constituency to 24.9 from 25.4 in January 1997, and in Cornwall as a whole to 25.3 from 26.2 in January 1997. That additional investment in Cornwall has had a direct effect on reducing key stage 1 class sizes.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

I did not gloss over the figures for five to seven-year-olds, but I did make the point that overall class sizes have increased, with substantial numbers of pupils in older age groups in classes of more than 31. I am sure that the Minister will concede that, despite the Government's belief that priority should be given to younger pupils, that is a cause for concern arising from the process.

Jacqui Smith

Overall in the country, the size of the average primary class has fallen, and average class sizes as a whole have fallen. Were secondary head teachers to use the extra money that they received—between £30, 000 and £50, 000—to reduce class sizes, the pupil-teacher ratio could be reduced by 0.4. We have put in place the money to enable our class size pledge to be met, and to ensure that some of the side effects identified by the hon. Gentleman do not occur.

It is important to consider the position with regard to early years. Since 1997–98, the Government have prioritised the provision of places for four-year-olds and five-year-olds. The funding available through the SSA and the nursery education grant has increased nationally by almost £400 million. That has enabled some 120, 000 new, free early education places for three and fouryear-olds to be created nationally across all sectors.

In Cornwall, 5, 216 free four-year-old early education places are to be created during the summer term 2000, of which 3, 697 were funded through Cornwall's under-fives SSA sub-block and 1, 519 from nursery education grant. For three-year-olds, during 1999–2000, £40 million was made available and targeted on helping children in 65 local education authorities chosen on the basis of social need.

In autumn 1999, funding was initially given to the 57 most deprived authorities, using the Government's index of local deprivation, augmented by two additional child-centred measures. We then made available to eight more authorities, including Cornwall, extra funding to create three-year-old places for the spring term. In that way, Cornwall benefited overall from the Government's commitment to providing early years places and from specifically targeted funding that recognised the levels of deprivation in the county.

It is important to recognise that Cornwall has benefited from the Government's policy on education action zones. Although it is not in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the zone covering Camborne, Pool and Redruth, which was approved by the Secretary of State in November 1999 and allocated a Department for Education and Employment grant of £500, 000 each year for three years and up to £250, 000 match funding, will be important for the innovative initiative that it is proposing and for the fact that such innovation has knock-on benefits for other schools in the area.

As I stated at the beginning, my hon. Friends and I have not attempted to defend the current system of local authority grant distribution. That is why the Government are undertaking a review. It was not possible to find a way forward as quickly as the hon. Gentleman and probably many other hon. Members would have wanted, but we were honest about that and are now looking for a longer-term way of reviewing that distribution. Because education accounts for about 40 per cent. of local authority revenue expenditure, the future of education funding makes up an important part of the Government's review.

The Government expect to publish a Green Paper later this summer, setting out a range of options for debate. We are seeking arrangements that will be fair between different parts of the country; which will be more transparent; and which will provide greater predictability and stability. They could include methods for improving the distribution of funding from central Government to make it fairer and to address the points that the hon. Gentleman outlined, giving LEAs three-year funding settlements so that they can plan ahead, and giving separate assessments for schools and LEAs, to increase the clarity and certainty of funding.

Our objective is to remove the worst of the disparities that exist in the country. We look to levelling funding up, not down. We will therefore take action to ensure that future distribution of funds is fairer, more rational and more satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and mine. However, given the announcements—about which we are hopeful—that will be made later today, I ask hon. Members to acknowledge not only the challenge of distributing the money that is made available for education, but the challenge of providing more genuine resources for our schools. I suggest that the Government are already meeting that challenge; they will certainly meet it in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Three o'clock.