May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to sparsity, which is an important matter in my part of the world? Does he agree that, in a sparsely populated area, it is necessary for a local education authority to maintain a larger number of smaller schools than would be needed in a more densely populated urban area? Small, rural schools cannot achieve the same economies of scale as larger schools. In my county, we have to maintain 5.15 schools per 10,000 of the population, compared to a shire average of 4.86 per 10,000. In my part of the world, it is felt that the sparsity factor is not adequately recognised when the overall figures are considered. Will my hon. Friend ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to go back to the Department of the Environment and the local government associations and review the sparsity factor to ensure that it reflects what is necessary?
As my hon. Friend is aware, I recently met representatives of a group of local authorities, including his. We discussed the sparsity factor and related issues.
My hon. Friend is also aware that the sparsity allowance compensates authorities for the additional costs of providing small schools and for extra transport costs in sparsely populated areas. The review recently undertaken did not put forward any robust evidence for increasing the sparsity factor. However, we shall continue to keep the issue under close review.
How many local education authorities, if they limited their spending to standard spending assessment levels, would have to reduce their expenditure from what they are spending this year?
I obviously cannot answer that now. If the hon. Gentleman tables that question as a written question, I shall provide the answer.
The principle has long existed that local authorities are free to spend more or less than individual SSAs on services. I am pleased that many of them spend more than their SSA on education, but that remains their decision, for which they are accountable to their electors.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the increase in education provision in Hampshire is fully consistent with the increase in inflation and with the priority that we give to education? It is misleading for Hampshire county council to stir up a writing campaign of complaint against the provision.
I can certainly confirm to my hon. Friend that the national increase in SSAs of 3.4 per cent.—3.6 per cent. overall in education services to local authorities—is comfortably ahead of the rate of inflation and of the projected growth in pupil numbers.