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Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): As my hon. Friend knows, I joined him in writing to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to ask for a meeting. We still await a response; I hope that we shall receive one soon. My hon. Friend mentions schools being driven into deficit. Is he aware that St. John's school, Marlborough, in my constituency, which has done everything that the Government asked, is being driven into a position where it either has to set a deficit budget or to reduce the quality of the education it provides? Is that not an example of what is happening in Wiltshire? Is not that what tonight's debate is about?

Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend is right. In addition, we know about Warminster Kingdown school, which like St. John's also has a deficit budget. Clarendon school in Trowbridge and St. Laurence school in Bradford-on-Avon are in a similar position. Schools across Wiltshire are being forced to set deficit budgets or lay off staff. Some schools in the neighbouring authority of Swindon have been working a four-day week. We are determined that that will not happen in Wiltshire.

Deficit budgets mean dramatic increases in class sizes, which sharply reduce the quality of education and increase teacher stress and the number of difficult or impossible pupils. A deficit budget will without question mean a sharp reduction in the overall standard of education in Wiltshire. None of us is willing to stand idly by and watch that happen.

The cause of the crisis in Wiltshire has come about because of long-term generic faults in the standard spending assessment system and specific circumstances in Wiltshire. The county has always been a low-funded authority. In 2000, the Audit Commission found that for primary education and the under-fives, Wiltshire had the lowest-spending local education authority. In 1999, it came 30th out of 34 LEAs at secondary level.

The Minister tells me in her informative letter:

The truth is that an increase of £300 on an extremely low amount is not good enough. How can it be fair that the Government spend only £2,025 per primary pupil in Wiltshire compared with a county average of £2,075, ranging up to £3,300 for primary children in London? How can it be fair that they spend £2,600 per secondary pupil in Wiltshire compared with a county average of £2,675, ranging up to a high of £4,275 in London? How can it be that post-16 education in Wiltshire is funded at £2,950 per pupil compared with a county average of £3,000, ranging up to £4,600 per pupil in London?

Even if we accept that there are extra costs in providing a decent education in London compared with the county, how can London primary children be worth £1,285 a year

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more than pupils in Wiltshire, and how can secondary schools in Wiltshire survive on £1,675 per pupil less than the best-funded ones in London? I accept that there are difficulties in London, but surely not to that extent. Something is fundamentally wrong and the Government owe it to the people of Wiltshire at least to explain that and to do something about it.

The Minister might say, as she did in her letter, that she has some sympathy but that Wiltshire's education SSA increased by 5 per cent this year, well ahead of inflation. I am afraid that that will not do. A reasonable percentage increase is not much help if the SSA is too low to begin with--10 per cent. of nothing is nothing. A 5 per cent. increase this year is not enough.

Much of this year's SSA was eaten up before it was distributed to schools. The increased LEA contribution to the standards fund, the increased number of pupils in Wiltshire schools, the private finance initiative affordability gap, the revenue support to three new schools in the county, the effect of the transfer of adult education to the Learning and Skills Council and the under-fives funding that replaced the former specific grant have all meant that £6 million of the £9 million increase was eaten up before the SSA rose. The remaining £3 million is the equivalent of only 2 per cent. to meet inflation and the teacher pay rise of 3.7 per cent. That is not sustainable.

The bald fact is that Wiltshire's SSA is inadequate to provide the decent education that parents have a right to expect and which is more readily available in other parts of the country. There are a number of reasons for that. The county achieves a low score on formulae such as ethnicity and single mothers, and a relatively high score on formulae such as the proportion of the population who own cars. Frankly, it would be difficult to live in many parts of the county without a car.

The most important consideration, however, is that Wiltshire is the first county to the west of London not to benefit from the area cost adjustment--or at least not for education. Berkshire and Hampshire do, but not Wiltshire. That is probably because of the days when Wiltshire was a remote and primarily rural and agricultural constituency, but that is no longer the case. We are now part of the high-tech corridor, with the M4 on one side and the A303 on the other. We are the same as Berkshire. Chippenham is no different from Reading or Newbury. That has been recognised by the Department of Health in its area cost adjustment and SSA for Wiltshire, but not by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department for Education and Employment. It may be about time that the DFEE caught up with its colleagues in Richmond house. The SSA system takes little account of the costs of rurality. The sparsity factor in the SSA does not even cover the county's £8 million transport costs for education, far less any of the other costs associated with, for example, our relatively high number of small village schools.

The rural White Paper makes fine noises about supporting such schools, and so did the Secretary of State when he turned down an application to close Grafton school, which then had fewer than 20 pupils. The Secretary of State made great noises about supporting small village schools, but the truth is that Wiltshire has 70 schools with fewer than 100 pupils, and running them costs £1.5 million more than it would elsewhere. The SSA

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system does not take account of the extra costs resulting from the high proportion of service families in Wiltshire and the consequent high turnover of pupils.

In her letter, the Minister said that of course the review of the SSA is coming along, which is all very fine. However, I must ask her when: we have an urgent education funding crisis in Wiltshire today, and waiting for an anonymous review to come along some time--and which might or might not benefit Wiltshire--is simply not good enough. I therefore appeal to the Minister to realise and understand the level of concern among heads, governors and parents in Wiltshire; to accept that something needs to be done about the chronic underfunding of education; and, at least pending the outcome of the SSA review, to find a way of improving the situation by means of a special grant. I know that Secretary of State has made £52 million available to

It is extraordinary that this year, after the Government set targets for local education authorities, they helped some with significant additional funds while leaving others to struggle. Surely the situation in Wiltshire was such that it merited more generous treatment. Our situation is truly desperate.

I know that the chairman and director of education, representatives of primary and secondary schools and the four Wiltshire Members of Parliament would very much value a meeting with the Minister. I regret that she turned down that request in her letter, but she may wish to reconsider now, as the country of Wiltshire has voiced urgent and detailed considerations which may well make her see that it has special needs that would lead her to grant a special fund. Our need in Wiltshire is desperate, and a grave crisis is about to develop. Only urgent action by the Minister can solve it.

10.42 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on bringing this matter before the House. I do not doubt for a minute that all Members of Parliament take education seriously; what happens in schools in their constituencies is close to their hearts.

I shall start with two issues on which I think we agree. First, I should like to record my thanks to all the head teachers, teachers, classroom assistants and those who look after schools and work on behalf of children in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. There is agreement that their standards are good and that they work hard; his constituents have reason to be grateful to the education system for the good start in life that it gives their children.

Secondly, perhaps more surprisingly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the iniquities of the SSA system through which Wiltshire schools are funded. He said that he has called four Adjournment debates during his time in Parliament. I wonder whether any of the previous three were to discuss the SSA formula under the previous Government.

Mr. Gray indicated dissent.

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Ms Morris: I suspect not; the shaking of the head indicates not.

Mr. Gray: I was not here.

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