Previous SectionIndexHome Page

24 Oct 2001 : Column 122WH

Education Funding (Worcestershire)

1 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I am delighted to see so many hon. Members from Worcestershire. I think that they want to intervene later, and others may turn up. I am not surprised that they are here in such large numbers, because the debate is about fairness, to which we are all committed.

In this Chamber on 24 January, the largest lobby of head teachers that the Commons has ever seen gave all the county's then MPs a grilling of which Jeremy Paxman would have been proud. A few weeks later, it was the turn of the governors, who were equally angry about unfairness in the distribution of education expenditure across the United Kingdom.

Successive Conservative and Labour Governments have not been fair to Worcestershire in a range of sectors: health, social services, policing, fire, regional development and, above all, education. The Government inherited an unfair situation, but far from seeking to address it urgently, they allowed it to get worse. As a result, schools in my constituency have fewer books, teachers and resources than those in neighbouring areas. Now, probably for the first time, we are experiencing difficulty in recruiting teachers to our schools. Appointments are being made because the successful applicant was not the best but the only applicant.

I should like the Minister to address three basic themes: the problems caused by diverse funding streams; the unfairness of the standard spending assessment formula; and the impact of the transfer of post-16 budgets to learning and skills councils. I will not labour the point about diverse funding streams, but I want to knock on the head the common argument that shortfalls in basic funding can be made good through standards fund money. Many of my local head teachers are worried about the complexity of applying for such funds, and I worry about the power that they give Ministers to centralise education policy even more.

Gerry Burgess, the head teacher of Simon de Montfort middle school, told me that the school's basic budget allocation is £900,000, but £840,000 goes on staffing. He needs the flexibility to use every penny that he gets in the school's best interests, not the prescription that inevitably flows from the increasing use of standards fund money.

Some 29 separate funding streams are available to schools. I sought the exact number in a parliamentary question, but Monday's answer avoided the issue. Schools need one cheque, as it were, that enables them to decide how to spend the money available—of course, there is not enough of that.

The current arrangements—the formula at the heart of the debate—were introduced, I believe, for the 1990-91 financial year as part of the background to the council tax or poll tax, as it was unpopularly known. If I have understood correctly—I am sure that the Minister will say so if I have not—what really happened was a freezing of historic patterns of expenditure. In crude terms, across-the-board increases were then applied to those historical levels for future years.

As any mathematician will tell us, if we apply a common percentage increase to a large sum and a small sum, the gap between them will grow over time. That

24 Oct 2001 : Column 123WH

growth does not become apparent for a few years, but as the compound interest rate rules have their ruthless way, the rich get richer and the poor get relatively poorer. That has been happening in Worcestershire for 10 years.

The last Conservative Government should have addressed the formula's rough justice before the 1997 election, but did not. This Government have had four and a half years to do something, but have done nothing. The consequences are now becoming desperate for Worcestershire's schools.

The average shire county SSA in the secondary sector is £3,156.83 per pupil; in Worcestershire, it is £3,011.43. I say "shire county" because it is a strictly comparable unit. In the primary sector, the average shire county gets £2,456.41 per pupil; in Worcestershire, we get £2,346.48.

I am not comparing Worcestershire with national averages, but with shire county averages. I am trying to be fair. I accept that deprived inner-city areas are likely to need more than most shire counties. However, we are doing exceptionally badly compared even with shire counties. We are 31st out of 34 in the secondary sector and 32nd out of 34 in the primary sector. In 1998-99, the first year for which the Government must accept responsibility, the gap between Worcestershire and the shire average was £86 per primary school pupil; this year, it has risen to £110. In 1998-99, the gap in the secondary sector was £118; it is now £145. That means that my county gets £4.3 million less than the average shire for its primary and first schools, and £4.6 million less for its middle and secondary schools—nearly £9 million overall.

It is against that background, and in the face of an unprecedented campaign—a campaign so intense that it broke my fax machine—that the Government coughed up a one-off payment of an extra £1.35 million for the current year. That sum is welcome, but it still leaves us approximately £8 million below the shire average, and we have no way of knowing whether that extra million or so will be available again in the new financial year beginning in April.

My parliamentary question on the subject, due for answer on Monday, got a dusty answer from the Minister, saying that he would reply as soon as possible." As my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) said in a letter apologising for his absence owing to a very long-standing engagement,

The current funding arrangements make Prince Henry's high school in Evesham £358,172 worse off than the national average. Just a few miles up the road in Birmingham, the figures are very different. David Braham, head teacher of Bengeworth first school told me:

24 Oct 2001 : Column 124WH

The acting head teacher of Chawson first school in Droitwich Spa, Eleanor Sinton, told me:

Roger Davies, chairman of governors at Cropthorne with Charlton Church of England first school, said in a letter asking seven questions that I will be sending to the Minister:

The funding formula leaves Droitwich Spa high school £460,000 a year worse off than an equivalent school in Hertfordshire, but its costs are roughly the same. The real-terms budget increase for Evesham high school was about 2.9 per cent., not the 5.6 per cent. that the Government claim. I understand that there have been redundancies at that school, as other unavoidable costs squeezed its staff budget.

I wish to be bipartisan and emphasise that both major parties bear a share of responsibility. However, the attempt by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to involve parents in his constituency in the campaign was, to put it kindly, mistaken. He sent thousands of letters to schools in his constituency—I believe that the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) may have done the same—inviting schools to distribute the letters to parents, who would then return them to him. I wrote to the Minister to tell him that I would mention that today. Those letters wrongly put all the blame on the last Conservative Government. They do not explain that the problem is not only the formula but its extended life. It should have been put out of its misery years ago.

The letter also claims that all the credit for the extra funding should go to the county's Labour MPs. That ignores the huge efforts made by local head teachers in the lobby, the thousands of letters from governors and parents and the tidal wave of general opinion expressed throughout the county, including in the local media. People power, not Labour MPs, won the useful but modest concession for the current year.

The letter may have been too party political, but I was fascinated. A Minister, the hon. Member for Redditch, and a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Worcester, were prepared to stoke up such anticipation of an extra sum for the coming year, assuring us that the money was already earmarked. I received from the Secretary of State this morning a letter that assured me that that was not the case, but I remain unconvinced. I cannot believe that people in their position would risk having to criticise their own Government for failing to deliver, so I have high hopes.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch): We are also constituency Members of Parliament.

Mr. Luff : That may be so. The hon. Lady is a good constituency Member of Parliament but I do not think she would want to criticise her Government for failing to deliver or that she would encourage thousands of her constituents to write in that way unless she had reasonably confident expectations.

I understand that the Government will change the formula in the 2003-04 financial year. I have pressed for a long time for a commitment to change the formula and

24 Oct 2001 : Column 125WH

to make a commitment to a time scale. The information was available at the beginning of the summer and I am pleased about that. I hope that the Minister will restate the commitment today.

I want to know, too, how long the transitional arrangements will take, and to have a clear indication of the basis on which the new formula will work, although I appreciate that the details cannot be revealed today. A new formula is all very well, but it must be much fairer than the one it replaces. Put simply, schools have a national curriculum, national targets and standards and national pay scales. It is difficult to see any justification for significant discrepancies in funding, especially between shire counties.

There is speculation that the implementation could be delayed beyond 2003, and that the transitional arrangements will be lengthy. I hope that is not the case and I look to the Minister for some words of comfort when he replies to the debate. If it is the case, another generation of schoolchildren could go through Worcestershire's schools before any benefit is felt from the changes. I know that education spending is rising overall and I am glad about that, but the 1997-2001 Labour Government spent a lower share of the nation's wealth on education than the Conservative Government they replaced. Their achievements are a good deal more modest than they are sometimes fond of claiming.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue. It will not go away; it was the subject of much attention before the last election. I hope that the cynical attempt by Labour Members in the county to raise the letter will be the harbinger of good news for our schools later in the financial year.

My hon. Friend knows that I have to dash away and I will not therefore hear the Minister's reply, but I shall read it later. We will return to the matter if the Minister does not give us what we want. The issue is important for our schools, especially as it concerns learning and skills councils, which my hon. Friend will mention in a moment, as Bromsgrove schools, including high schools and sixth forms, will be equally affected in the most bizarre ways. We want to know more about that.

Mr. Luff : I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), whom I am happy to call my hon. Friend.

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene to support him in raising awareness of the unfairness of the funding arrangements for shire counties. As I have the rare privilege of being an independent, I do not have to attack either party for past events. I am looking only for an improvement.

I was concerned to hear from a head teacher in my constituency that at the recent Ofsted inspection, an inspector had told her, mistakenly, that her school was well funded. She could not move him from that misapprehension, even though the school passed the Ofsted inspection well. It is disturbing that Ofsted inspectors are given incorrect information before an

24 Oct 2001 : Column 126WH

inspection and that an inaccurate perception of Worcestershire schools' funding seems to be widely held.

Mr. Luff : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will reply, either now or subsequently, to the important point, which has not been made before, about what Ofsted thinks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) mentioned learning and skills councils. I am not happy about those undemocratic organisations; their indicative budgets for post-16 education are very worrying and came as a big shock to schools in my constituency. The head teacher of Droitwich Spa high school, Mr. Cledwyn-Davies, wrote to the Department for Education and Skills, asking to see the formula used to calculate these budgets. He was told that it was not available.

There are bizarre results, as my hon. Friend said. Mr. Cledwyn-Davies's school, with 280 pupils in the sixth form, will receive £675,289, while Haybridge high school, with only 219 students will receive £728,000; it has 61 fewer pupils and £53,000 more cash. We need to know what is behind the formula. At Prince Henry's high school in Evesham, the shortfall is estimated at £40,000—and that is on the back of promises that real-term funding for school sixth forms would be maintained. That is manifestly not happening. Something has gone wrong and if it is not addressed, Droitwich Spa high school will have to make three teachers redundant. The Department is making soothing noises, but the final figures will not be known until December. That adds a new dimension to the unfairness of the SSA formula. There is also the uncertainty and cost caused by the new exam arrangements for AS and A2 levels and the problems of the basic need formula for increasing sixth form accommodation—which has meant that Prince Henry's sixth form has increased from 110 to 340 with no additional accommodation.

The issue is largely, but not solely, to do with the SSA, as I hope the Minister understands. The Government enjoy their image of seeking fairness and justice but while they rightly fight injustice internationally, they ignore a real injustice at home. Indeed, the local government Minister has refused even to receive a delegation of local head teachers for a 15-minute meeting for them to explain the consequences of Government policy in Worcestershire. Are not the 70,000 Worcestershire schoolchildren worth even 15 minutes of the Minister's time? It is not good enough to say, as the Minister will when he replies, that Worcestershire has had real increases in its education funding. Under successive Governments, it usually has had. The problem is that other shire counties, never mind inner-city authorities, have always got even more. Our relative poverty has got worse, year after year. Successive Governments—Conservative and Labour—have valued Worcestershire's schoolchildren less highly than those from other parts of the country. Worcestershire needs to hear from the Minister that that scandal will end, and end quickly.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis ): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire

24 Oct 2001 : Column 127WH

(Mr. Luff) on securing the debate. It is an important issue and all hon. Members who represent areas with those difficulties and uneven funding acknowledge such problems and the need to do something about them. I, more than anybody, relate to the concerns that he expressed. My own area of Bury has those problems and has been involved in the same campaign, as I shall detail in a moment.

I shall first address the hon. Gentleman's reference to sixth-form funding and the concerns about the transfer of responsibility and resources to the learning and skills councils. I reassure him that the Government have made it clear, through their real-terms guarantee, that the funding will be distributed and allocated fairly. There has been negotiation and discussion about reaching a fair definition of pupil numbers in school sixth forms for the purpose of calculating the real-terms guarantee for the year 2000-01. There has been a significant consultation process with all local education authorities to reach agreement on the baseline—the starting point for making that calculation—which will feed into funding allocations in the future.

I am pleased to say that Worcester was one of the authorities that raised concern about the baseline pupil number figure and that the LEA has now reached agreement with the Department on that figure, which will be reflected in an appropriate guarantee that is consistent with the real-terms guarantee and with the numbers that have been agreed between the LEA and the Department.

Mr. Luff : I want to express my gratitude for what the Minister is saying. Does he mean that each individual school will get a real-terms protection for funding?

Mr. Lewis : It depends on pupil numbers and the relationship between the numbers for the year 2000-01. It has been agreed in consultation with local authorities, the Local Government Association and others that that is the appropriate year to look at in calculating the baseline assessment. It is a transparent and fair formula for calculating the figure. The process that we intend to adopt in terms of your local authority—I mean the hon. Gentleman's local authority—has now been agreed between that LEA and the Department.

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): I do not mind if the Minister refers to my local authority as well.

Mr. Lewis : We all have similar views on those issues.

There is a genuine worry about the inequality of funding in respect of the standard spending assessment formula. The hon. Gentleman said that he accepts that the Government have acknowledged the problem and are doing something about it, yet he suggested that somehow, in their first four years in office, they should have put right the in-built structural unfairness that has been in place for many years. Such a view is unreasonable. If the Conservative Government were unable and unwilling to change that formula during a 15 or 20-year period, it is extremely disingenuous to suggest

24 Oct 2001 : Column 128WH

not only to hon. Members but to people in Worcestershire that, in only four years, that problem should have been resolved.

Mr. Luff : We had six years in which to rectify the matter and the hon. Gentleman's Government have had four-and-a-half years to do so, so the blame is pretty evenly shared. We did not have 15 years in which to take such action.

Mr. Lewis : The unfairness of the formula pre-dates the poll tax. The problems were crystallised by the local government finance structure that was adopted to introduce that disastrous local taxation policy. The Government acknowledged in the Green Paper that the system is unfair and that they must make it fairer. Subsequent to that, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has now clearly committed itself to introducing a fairer formula on 1 April 2003. That is not a possibility or an aspiration but an unequivocal commitment that there will be a new, fairer and more even SSA formula not only for education, but for local government generally. It will make a significant difference to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and to mine.

It was amazingly bizarre that the hon. Gentleman attacked my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Jacqui Smith)—the Minister of State at the Department of Health—and for Worcester (Mr. Foster) for campaigning on probably the most important issue to local people among all the issues with which Members of Parliament are asked to deal. During the past few years, the standard spending assessment has been the major campaigning issue within my community and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). As we move towards the change in the SSA system, we are currently launching a further push to ensure that Ministers are fully aware of the need to change the formula so that it is fair and transparent.

Whatever their ministerial responsibilities, the colleagues to whom I referred would have been failing in their duty to their constituents if they had not made the matter a priority and campaigned locally about it. Accusations that there is control freakery in the parliamentary Labour party are unfounded and undermined by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch and Parliamentary Private Secretaries insist on campaigning vigorously because the formula matters to their constituents, even when such campaigning may cause short-term embarrassment to the Government. I commend them for their campaign and for working in partnership with parents, head teachers and governors in their constituencies.

I must advise the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire that I have been involved in the campaign and, if my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch knows details of the local government settlement that is about to be announced, I should be delighted to have a cup of tea with her in the Tea Room after the debate and to be reassured that all the activity and correspondence in which I am involved is futile. That she may have access to information that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions are not even aware of when considering

24 Oct 2001 : Column 189WH

the financial situation facing the country, particularly now, and knows details of next year's local government settlement is a most spurious accusation.

I understand why the hon. Gentleman may be embarrassed by my hon. Friends who led such a campaign in those communities on a matter of concern. He was seen to follow on the tail end of that campaign. Parents, head teachers and governors will be delighted that my hon. Friends led the campaign on a matter of such importance—fair funding for education in their schools. They demonstrated that they are good constituency Members of Parliament. That is the first priority for all Members, be they Minister, Parliamentary Private Secretary or Back Bencher.

It is misleading to suggest that the SSA formula in itself is the whole story. We know, as does every school in Worcestershire, that education funding has significantly increased since this Government came to power. The hon. Gentleman is disingenuous to dismiss that and suggest that that occurs every year and did so under the Conservatives, because it did not. Funding for primary and secondary schools went down under the last Conservative Government. That is a reason why they were turfed out of office in 1997. Extra resources for schools and for education are a primary reason why we had such an outstanding election result in June 2001.

We should examine Worcestershire's funding. Since 1998, Worcestershire's SSA has increased by nearly £30 million—almost 16 per cent. over three years. The amount that it receives from the standards fund increased from £4.3 million in 1998 to £17.9 million this year. The school standards direct grant, introduced last year, is worth £7.76 million to Worcestershire's schools this year.

The hon. Gentleman implies that there has not been a massive and significant investment in education since this Government came to power. When the figures for Hereford and Worcester were calculated jointly, capital expenditure on education in 1996-97—the last year for

24 Oct 2001 : Column 191WH

which the Conservative Government can be held to account—was £6.02 million. This year, Worcestershire will receive £16.5 million for capital investment.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the standards fund and ring-fenced resources. One of the ways in which the Government have tried to address the unfairness and unevenness of standard spending assessments—while coming up with a long-term structural solution to achieve a fairer SSA regime—is to distribute significant amounts to local education authorities and schools outside that unfair formula, which filters in such a disproportionate way and leads to disadvantage and inequality. Hon. Members who represent constituencies where the SSA is low should, as an interim measure, welcome the ring-fencing and the standards funds.

The Government are not willing to apologise for the fact that some of the ring-fencing has been to ensure that our objective of raising standards in schools is achieved. The money should not be spent for purposes outside our priorities, such as literacy and numeracy, class sizes, special needs provision, textbooks and computers. We do not apologise for spending additional money on those vital elements of education. We celebrate the additional money given to education budgets from the school standards fund, and we are proud of it. We accept that the formula must change, and we will change it. We are the first Government willing to tackle that difficult problem. We will do that, and we are proud of the additional funds that we have put into schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and others. There is no question about it: education has received tangible additional investment.

Every poll taken of what is most popular about this Government has found that it is their achievements in education. People in schools throughout the country have experienced for themselves the difference between those barren Tory years and the growth in investment, revenue and capital during the first term of a Labour Government. We were not able to do everything. We were not able to make up for all those dreadful cuts in the latter years of the Tory Government, but we are proud of what we achieved.

24 Oct 2001 : Column 129WH

24 Oct 2001 : Column 131WH

Next Section

IndexHome Page