HL Deb 15 September 2003 vol 652 cc660-2

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are confident that the quality of educational provision will not be affected by the budget problems encountered by schools during this current financial year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, I am confident that head teachers are managing their budget in such a way as to safeguard the quality of their pupils' education in what is a difficult year for some schools. The Government are working hard with representatives of head teachers, LEAs and others to ensure stability in school funding for next year and beyond.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, perhaps I may press her a little further on the workload agreement, the first stage of which was due to be introduced in September this year. Is she aware that many schools which are struggling with deficit budgets and losing staff cannot possibly implement the workload agreement as it stands at present? Can she comment on how far they will be able to implement it with the new resources that the Minister promised on 17th July?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the details of the new resources will be brought before your Lordships' House at the earliest possible opportunity. The workload agreement is an integral and important part of our education policy. It is about ensuring that our teachers have time to teach and to use the support staff available to them as effectively as possible. In all circumstances where schools are reporting difficulties, we are working very closely with the National Association of Head Teachers, other teachers' unions and local education authorities to support them specifically to be able to implement this programme to ensure that we have the best possible opportunities for teaching in the classroom.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the die seems to be cast this year for our schools. What about next year?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I brought before your Lordships' House, on 17th July my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills spoke about the key priorities we have for the future. To recap briefly, we shall guarantee every school at least a minimum increase in funding. We are giving head teachers more time to plan via an amendment of the Local Government Bill bringing forward the date of key announcements and reversing the planned cuts in the Standards Fund providing more than £400 million in 2004–05 and 2005–06. As I said, I shall give details to your Lordships' House at the earliest possible opportunity.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that her Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, ignored the fact that the Question concerns the difficulties which schools face this year? There is enormous complacency on the part of the department, which is ignoring the hardship and some of the ways in which teachers and head teachers are having to make the best of a very difficult job. The Minister went on to refer to next year. I believe that a great deal of support is needed here and now.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness; it is important to support schools this year. In my Answer I referred to the fact that we are working closely with our partners in education—education authorities, teachers' unions and so forth—to establish the current position and to ensure that we have support. We took action as soon as we realised the situation in giving an extra £28 million for those local education authorities with the lowest overall increases; an extra £11 million in London to help with London allowances; allowing more flexibility in the use of capital expenditure and in working closely with education authorities to ensure that as much money goes into schools budgets as makes sense. Also, we have worked with our partners in the LSC to ensure flexibility in terms of sixth-form education and that, where appropriate, licensed deficits could be allowed.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, is the Minister aware that despite the priority given by the Government to physical activity in schools, due to the current funding problems many schools are cutting swimming lessons for primary school children, for example, which I believe are very important, and that that is on top of losing teaching staff?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, on previous occasions in your Lordships' House we have discussed the amount of money the Government are putting into sport and PE. We have a commitment that we want 75 per cent of pupils to have the opportunity to have two hours of physical activity per week. Our commitment to ensuring that our primary school children have the opportunity to learn to swim is part and parcel of our education delivery plans. I should be interested if the noble Baroness has details, but it is important that schools are able, within the current framework, to ensure that children have these opportunities.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Minister said that schools are authorised to go into deficit. What account is taken of the necessity of getting out of that deficit in the future and offsetting this year's overspend with next year's shortfall?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I was careful to talk about the circumstances. If a school were to go into deficit, it is very important that that has been established between the education authority and the school and is appropriate, and of course that a plan is in place to ensure that the school is able to get out of deficit. My right honourable friend will of course examine all these instances in the future, but, in general, our policy is that where that has been allowed, a plan to ensure that it does not continue must be part and parcel of what the schools do.