Department for Children, Schools and Families
Opposition Day — [19th Allotted day]
David Laws (Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Children, Schools and Families; Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)
My point was about the statement made yesterday, and I think that the Minister is agreeing with me by trying to shift the ground of the debate. One new primary school in each county is not quite the same as one in every local area. He is always welcome in my constituency, both to open new schools—I did not appreciate that he was coming, and I hope that he was going to give me good notice; he has now—and at other major establishments. The Secretary of State would also be more than welcome.
The Secretary of State, who has been intimately involved in the Treasury and public expenditure matters for a long period, will want to appreciate that although funding has seen an enormous step change since 1997—or, more accurately, 1999, but I will not revisit earlier arguments—which has led to a big improvement in school funding, as all head teachers recognise, the schools budget is now entering a much tougher period. The figures for the rate of increase in the schools budget were tweaked a little yesterday, and those of us who are suspicious about such matters will notice that they were increased to the extent of the last decimal point to allow the Government just about to deliver on their pledge to increase the share of education spending in GDP—we were dangerously close to a period in which that would contract. Education expenditure will, none the less, grow far less rapidly—perhaps half as rapidly as it has since 1999—which will lead to a much tougher position for schools, especially in catering for the pay increases that will necessarily take place.
We have also had the rather ludicrous and meaningless pledge from the former Chancellor, now the Prime Minister, on schools funding—to increase the level of per pupil funding in the state sector to that in private schools. That sounded fantastic until many of us discovered in the small print that it meant that the Government would manage in 2021 or 2022 to get state school per pupil expenditure to the level of that in the private sector in 2006, or 2005. At virtually all times in the history of our country, it must have been the case that those who were reliant only on the state sector were funded at the same level as those in the private sector 20 years earlier. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State mutters from a sedentary position. If he wants to correct me, I shall give way, but my understanding is that the Government are saying that it will take until 2021 for pupils in the maintained sector to have the same level of real funding as the private sector had in 2005-06. That is the rather meaningless pledge that they made.
I make that point not only to demonstrate the weakness of the commitment but to urge a policy on the Secretary of State and the Minister. The Secretary of State has talked a lot about consensus today, and it might be possible to have some consensus about how school funding should be focused in the years ahead when the system has less money. There is quite a lot of magpie-ism in politics today, because three or four years ago my party proposed a pupil premium that would target the most deprived pupils and give them additional money that would follow them through the school system. Over the summer, the Conservative public services working group report proposed something initially called an advantage premium, which sounded quite like the pupil premium but was nothing like as generous in the details. Not only has the hon. Member for Surrey Heath had the good sense to try to pinch our policy, but he has shifted the name of his policy from advantage premium to pupil premium. I assume that he is aligning himself completely with Liberal Democrat policy on the matter.