HC Deb 13 March 2003 vol 401 cc414-7
4. Bob Spink (Castle Point)

What assessment he has made of the impact on school budgets of the local government settlement2003–04. [102702]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The great majority of local education authorities have set budgets that will pass on to schools the substantial increase in funding that we made available in the 2003–04 settlement. Essex is among those who have said that they will not be passing on the full increase to their schools.

Bob Spink

That is an outrageously complacent response, even from this Minister. Does not he know that the settlement leaves Essex schools with a funding gap of £7.5 million? How should schools accommodate that disastrous shortfall? For instance, should they employ more classroom assistants instead of teachers?

Mr. Twigg

The hon. Gentleman should calm down. The Secretary of State has said that we expect Essex to passport the full amount in future years, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join the Gcvernment in urging Essex county council to do precisely that. I recognise that there are difficulties in some authorities and some schools, and we are receiving representations from them, including from some in Essex. But I should point out that since 1997 there has been a 37 per cent. increase in the money going to schools in Essex, and a trebling in the direct grants that go to schools in Essex through the school standards grant.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

Would my hon. Friend be interested in the outcome of a meeting of the F40 authorities in Stafford last week? It is fair to say that LEAs are still digesting the effect of the new formula on their finances, and are wrestling with a number of factors that have nothing to do with a change in the system—for example, falling pupil numbers, the new national insurance contributions and the extra contribution to the teachers superannuation scheme. However, of those 40 authorities, four left the campaign before the end and 11 have left the bottom 40 positions because of the change in the formula. The authorities have, responsibly, arranged a conference for the autumn, on 11 October, to take a dispassionate look at where we go next. I hope that a member of the Government will be able to support the conference at that time.

Mr. Twigg

I am happy to agree to do that: I, or one of my colleagues, will attend that event. Inominate—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State, of course, does the nominating. He also allocates the questions, and I am delighted to be answering this one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) clearly illustrates my point, which is that the local government settlement has had a different impact in different parts of the country. I reiterate that we recognise that the combination of factors that he describes creates difficulties for some authorities, and particularly for certain schools. The responsible approach is for us to monitor that situation, and to keep in touch with local authorities in all parts of the country.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Does the Minister recall that when his Department last intervened in Croydon's education budget, that intervention was described by the Labour-controlled council as presumptuous, damaging and unnecessary? Does he agree that it is becoming apparent, however, that that intervention was not presumptuous, but very necessary? He will have seen reports in The Independent that Croydon's schools are threatened with a four—day week, and he will be aware of the crumbling schools and the cuts in respect of special educational needs. I urge him not to back off in a cowardly way, as he did last time, but to intervene, and to do so quickly.

Mr. Twigg

We have indeed intervened in Croydon. I am delighted to say that as a consequence of my right hon. Friend's intervention, the amount of money going into schools in Croydon is significantly more than was originally proposed by the local authority. We want to ensure that the money that we say should be allocated to schools in Croydon actually reaches them, so that they can continue their excellent work to improve education standards.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Parents, teachers and governors in Leicestershire are reasonable people. They were not expecting miracles from the new funding system—just a fairer share of the increased resources that our Government have given to education. Yet their authority is 150th out of the 150 local education authorities. Does the Minister believe that Leicestershire's position is merited by its mix of people and by the results that it is obtaining? Is it fair that schools in Greater Leicester but outside the city boundary, which receive 4,000 city children, are funded for those children at the county rate, rather than at the much higher city rate that they would otherwise have enjoyed?

Mr. Twigg

I am tempted to say that I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards will give a little later to a question specifically about Leicestershire. However, I am aware of the issues in Leicestershire, and I have met head teachers there as part of a series of conferences for primary head teachers this term. Through the new formula, we have sought to ensure that pupils in identical circumstances in any part of the country are treated identically. That is what we have tried to bring about through the settlement, although it is clear that some authorities have gained more from it than others.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

The Minister will be aware that many local authorities are dealing with their budget problems by closing special schools. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Hon. Members may say no, but special schools are being closed all over the country, and more and more such proposals are being made every day. Do the Government not see that this way of dealing with budgets and education policy is potentially damaging to some of the most vulnerable children—the ones who need more care, not less? I am sure that the Minister appreciates that this issue is very important to families with children with special needs. Will he undertake to impose a moratorium on the closure of special schools, pending an investigation into this cruel policy?

Mr. Twigg

I am certainly aware that many authorities are looking at the nature of their provision for children with special educational needs. In some cases—but only in some cases—that may result in decisions to close special schools. Such decisions must be rooted in educational evidence and educational good practice, and I do not believe that there is any evidence to suggest that they are driven by a desire to save money, or are a consequence of the local government settlement. We want to ensure that there is inclusive education, and I am happy to give the assurance that special schools continue to have a role in that regard. However, circumstances will vary between local communities, and rather than imposing a moratorium centrally from Whitehall, we should let local communities decide, provided that they make those decisions in full consultation with parents and others concerned in their local communities.