Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 8 May 2001
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
Education (Student Support)
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 951).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the Education Standards Fund (England) Regulations 2001 (S.I., 2001, No. 826) and the Financing of Maintained Schools (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 907).
Mr. Boswell: I begin, Mr. Amess, by saying how pleasant it is to break my duck by appearing at last under your chairmanship. I know that I shall enjoy the experience. I shall try not to trespass on your good will, but it may be a good investment to remind the Committee that an exhibition is being held in the Upper Waiting Hall on the delights of Southend, to which some of us may soon wish to repair.
I am delighted to have the opportunity of welcoming two Ministersand possibly of bidding them farewell. I hope that it is an indication of their judgment of the relative firepower of the Opposition and the Government that they have sent two capital ships to deal with one Opposition raider, but I shall not speculate further on that. Before saying anything contentious, I welcome the opportunity of shadowing the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). I have enjoyed many exchanges, sometimes useful, with the Minister for School Standards. I bear the Ministers no personal malice, though bags of political opposition.
Although these proceedings are almost a formality, I am conscious that we are debating important education matters. The Prime Minister characteristically continues to acknowledge them in principle but, in practice, he fails to deliver. It is right that we should debate them. I am aware of the genesis of the somewhat extraordinary range of subjects that we are discussing today. It reminds me of nothing more than the tabloid newspaper that used to appear under the slogan ``All human life is there''. On the one hand, we have schools funding, and on the other we have student finance. The Opposition have shown good will by seeking to resolve the problemI know why it happenedby suggesting that we debate the three sets of regulations together.
To conclude my introduction, I should say that even when the Prime Minister goes to the country, the Queen's Government must continue until the very last moment, even during the election campaign, and Opposition scrutiny of what the Government are doing must and should continue.
I shall talk first about schools funding and then about student support. I shall leave Ministers to dispose those subjects among themselves when they answer the debate. I am glad to have the chance to talk about schools funding. As the Minister of State knows, I do not major in that subject, but I watch it from the sidelines with considerable interest and I participate from time to time. Funding is central to the delivery of education. The Government have committed themselves to the improvement of school standards. My objection is not that they have done so, but that they occasionally go about giving the impression that no one else ever thought of it. The previous Conservative Government had a comprehensive approach to improving school standards and laid many of the foundations for subsequent improvements.
The debate on the standards fund is timely. It was developed by the Government and is now a major part of the school expenditure budget. It is what accountants might call a kind of off-balance sheet, a sort of school finance that provides separate revenue streams to schools. However, it is for the Government to explain its purposes, how it works and when it has been possible to make material improvements in provision through the regulations.
We have identified a staggering number of possible routes for financing schoolsat the last count there were 58. I cannot list them all. They are not all necessarily the responsibility of the Department for Education and Employment. For example, some come through the European social fund. However, it is a huge portfolio of potential finance. Although that can be beneficialI am delighted to see finance, or flows of income, from any appropriate sourceit makes the system ever more complicated. That is a major reservation about the standards fundboth in theory and in practice, and even in its current stage of evolution, on which I hope that the Minister will comment.
Of all those funding sources, 40 centre around the standards fund. We should like the Government to explain why the fund should interrupt the traditional, tried and testedif not perfectvehicle of schools finance through local authorities, the revenue support grant mechanism and individual budgeting to schools from local education authorities. I expect that the Minister of State will respond that specific money has been supplied for specific activities. If she is ahead of the game, as I am sure that she is, she will refer to the fact that previous Conservative Governments gave grantsfor example, for educational support and training.
I do not say that it is unthinkable or conceptually unacceptable that there should be some mechanism for funding from the centre. However, can the Minister justify top-slicing such a large tranche of money from that which would otherwise have been available to the local education authorities, which, in the Government's structure, are responsible for financing schools, and why the further complication of different subsets for delivery has been introduced? As an occasional reader of schools finance, and an occasional visitor to the subject, rather than somebody who is imbued with it from day to day, I find it incredibly complex. Where there is complexity, there are difficulties of management and of delivery.
Will the Minister of State say a little about matching funding? It has been reported that under the old arrangements there was sometimes considerable and increasing difficulty in raising matching funding either through schools' own budgets or through local authorities. It is strange that schools receive money through the standards fund, but then lose money because the local education authorities have had to dock it from their age-weighted pupil unit in order to provide the resources for matching funding through the standards fund. There is a circularity about that, which is not particularly constructive.
Also, the Minister of State should explain the changes that she has made. She should explain the advantages of the remaining heads, which are set out in the regulations in some detail and are still very complex, as against the conventional route through the revenue support grant, possibly buttressed by one or two specific, targeted grants for particular purposes. We know that the regulations cover a wide range of potential activities and inducements.
Perhaps the Minister of State could say something about several specific points. Some of the conditions set out in the regulations for making grant applications and receiving grants are elaborate. Have there been, in practice, any occasions on which a grant has been withdrawn or been required to be refunded? I am thinking not of deliberate fraud by a school or a local education authority but of a school that has got itself into a technical difficulty, has fallen foul of these complex regulations and is suddenly faced with a bill.
At the back of my mind is a situation that has upset many teachers in relation to pupil retention grants. Teachers often feel that they have been obliged to keep pupils on, and see the withdrawal of the grant because the pupil has had to be excluded as a penal measure. I know that that is not how the Minister sees it, but I think that she understands my argument.
The regulations are complex, but not quite as weighty as the student support regulations. However, given that they have been in existence only for four years at the most, their complexity is pretty alarming for the future. Can the Minister say whether people fall foul of this legislative overkill? That question is not designed to elicit a green light for people to muck about with the regulations or try to cut corners; I am just asking whether the regulations are appropriate to the purpose.
Paragraph 4 (a) of schedule 1 of the education standards fund regulations provides for support for particular groupings or descriptions of schools or further education institutions. The Minister may wish to comment on the circumstances in which such groupings might take place, and whether in certain extreme casesthe Minister will know that I have an interest in further educationthere could be activities across sectors, drawing on a single standards fund. What is going on there? Will there simply be different silos of moneyone for schools and another for further education institutions? How is that to work? It was not clear to me on reading the regulations.
I would also like the Minister to comment on the thinking in relation to the reduction of class sizes at key stage 2. I am not arguing that that reduction should not happen, indeed it is rather important that it should, when it is practical to attempt it. The Government have a certain discomfort on the matter, and get cross when we draw attention to the fact that it is a matter of record that class sizes, outwith key stage 1, have got bigger under the present Government. They say that they have got over that problem now, but as a matter of historic record, class sizes have grown, particularly at secondary level.
All parties are to some extent concerned about delivery at key stage 2, which is not a politically contentious issue and is critical to the continuing development of education. It would be useful if the Minister were to say how the reduction in class sizes worked at key stage 2 and how much she had revised her previous view that small class sizes were critical at the infant stage, but less important at key stage 2 or beyond, at secondary level.
The regulations on financing of maintained schools add the extra budget money to schools' budgets, which is again being paid directly. This is not the first time that that has been done. The general considerations about operating a separate standards fund instead of paying the money through the revenue support grant mechanism, also apply in principle to the financing regulations. Can the Minister of State explain why it was appropriate to make a separate grant? To put it the other way round, if she believes that separate grants are a better way of financing schools, why does she continue with the revenue support grant mechanism at all? I will return briefly to that point in a moment.
I draw the Committee's attention to the anomalies in the funding formula, which are, perhaps, no great surprise. Any funding formula that seeks to be simple tends to give rise to anomalies and this one does so strikingly. Before last week's abortive debate, I calculated that a primary school with 70 on the rollnot untypical in some rural areas in my constituencywould receive £100 per head. For a really small primary school with only 30 on the rollI have one or two of that sizethe amount paid out under the regulation would be £200 per head. A small increase from 70 to 105 on the roll, still comparatively small, would give rise to a payment of only £128 per head because the school would go over the step. There is an inconsistency in those figures. It is not always possible, in rough justice, to avoid such inconsistency, but the Minister of State needs to address it.
Finally, on the two school orders, why are we doing this at all? I touched earlier in my analysis on the Government's somewhat uncomfortable two-horse race between the revenue support route for funding and the new direct grants through the standards fund. There are problems and complexities, too, over matching funding and the allocation of the standards fund.
Whatever else is said about it, the system must be very complex. Opposition Members would prefer, in one sense, to follow the Government's logic. That is not always desirable, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) would have grave reservations if I were to do so. However, if we are in the business of giving schools the maximum direct resources to finance themselves and their activities within a maintained framework, we believe that the right approach is to go the whole hog and adopt free schools funding, based on a formula that gives schools maximum money and does not come through a local education authority.
By our calculations, such a scheme would mean an additional £540 per pupil. The Government's figures pale into insignificance compared with what we could thus make available directly. Before the Minister of State caricatures that, she is aware that we have acknowledged that some functions would also be transferred, which would have to be paid for. We believe, however, that that would be a clearer, cleaner and simpler route and would get money to schools where it could be used. The Government have put their toe into the water, splashed around a great deal, and emptied most of the bath water out with the babyor whatever analogies I could mix. They have created a complex system without any clear benefit.
I hope that the Minister of State will be able to say why she thinks that the balance of provision is right, what the rationale behind it is, and why she thinks that it will have the best effect. I have grave doubts about that.
Before I sit down, I should like to deal with the other order, on the completely different subject of student support. The Under-Secretary, with whom I debate frequently, is aware that the debate on student finance is, in effect, an annual event and rather a welcome one. As I often point out to people, examining the number of stakeholders in higher education shows that the debate is, arguably, relevant to 5 million people. There are approximately 1.8 million students, more than 1 million of whom are full-time equivalents. When one adds in dependants, spouses, partners and others who are closely relatedas well as employers who are part-financing coursesone soon concludes that a significant proportion of the population is engaged in the business of being, supporting, teaching or paying for students. It is important to focus on the matter on at least an annual basis.
From time to time, I have to be critical of the complexity of this great operation. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be at university during the passage of the Education Act 1962my studies were not much directed to it, but my grant cheque arose therefromhave the historic perception that, man and boy, we have built up from that Act a great caravel sailing across the seas. The regulations have grown increasingly complex as people have found dodges, anomalies have arisen and clarifications have been required, and so it goes on, as it has this year.
In fairness, I should say that the documents that the Department issues to students are normally much more user-friendly, in that they are cast in clear English and are less complex and more usable. However, it is disconcerting to come across a document such as this, although efforts have been made to make it as clear as possiblefor example, by using bold type to clarify differences. I suggested to the Under-Secretary last year, and do so againalthough even he would not wish to claim that he can solve the problem before the general electionthat a complete rewrite along the lines of the tax rewrite committee on aspects of the tax law, starting from first principles and making a conscious effort to simplify down and to express more clearly, would be appreciated all round.
When regulations are complex, they can be misinterpreted. For example, my eye was caught by the references to the spouse's contribution in paragraph 8(2), which states:
``The spouse's contribution shall be in any case in which the residual income is £17,200 or more . . . £45 with the addition of £1 for every complete £8 by which it exceeds £17,200 . . . reduced in any such case by £79 in respect of each child of the eligible student who is dependent''
and so it continues. I am sure that today's undergraduates and graduates are bright, and some of them may be numerate, but I doubt whether many have the time to get their heads round that kind of stuff. It is not easy to solve, but I repeat to the Under-Secretary my annual plea for him to consider doing so.