Education Funding (Wiltshire)

– in the House of Commons at 10:29 pm on 26 March 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 10:30, 26 March 2001

This is only the fourth occasion during my parliamentary career that I have secured an Adjournment debate, which demonstrates the importance of the subject. I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend Mr. Ancram has joined me to give his support from the Back Benches, although I regret that no Liberal Members, who claim to be such an important force in Wiltshire, have bothered to stay for the debate.

I also speak on behalf of my hon. Friends the Members for Westbury (Mr. Faber) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) who, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, joined me recently in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on the bed blocking crisis in Wiltshire, which, like the crisis in education funding that I shall describe, is also caused by the chronic underfunding of Wiltshire county council.

The crisis in education funding should come as no surprise to the Minister for School Standards. After all, five months ago I brought a delegation of children from Colerne primary school in my constituency and their head, Ann Orme, to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister, which was signed by the heads of all the primary and secondary schools in the county. That petition, incidentally, had nothing but the briefest of acknowledgements from No. 10, despite the fact that I also raised it during Prime Minister's Question Time in November. The right hon. Gentleman might at least have had the decency and the courtesy to acknowledge the children's efforts in delivering the petition to No. 10. Perhaps the Minister will pass that message to her colleagues in No. 10 Downing street.

In the absence of any reaction to that petition, the Wiltshire Association of Secondary Heads wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, via me, on 12 February this year, formally requesting a meeting to discuss the crisis. That letter similarly went without so much as an acknowledgement--or at least until this morning, when--surprise, surprise--a letter arrived from the Minister. Only two months after I had written to the Secretary of State about this urgent crisis, the Minister finally responded this morning simply because--I suspect--the Adjournment debate was to be held today.

In the absence of any reaction from the Government, the chief education officer, the vice-chairman of education, the chairs of the primary schools, secondary heads and four Wiltshire MPs held a crisis meeting last Tuesday, attended by the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend Mrs. May. As a result, we wrote again to the Secretary of State--again we received no acknowledgement. That is why it has been necessary for me to call this Adjournment debate.

It should not have come to this. It should not have been necessary for Members to demand an Adjournment debate to obtain any kind of reaction from the Government to what the people of Wiltshire perceive and believe to be a very real crisis in education. I very much regret that, and hope that the Minister will apologise to the people of Wiltshire for not having reacted sooner.

Every year until now, Wiltshire schools have met their targets and raised their levels of achievement. However, at the same time, the financial settlement--year after year--has been below the increased costs that schools face. As a result, their purchasing power has been reduced by about 10 per cent. during the past seven years. It is no longer possible to maintain that progress unless the haemorrhaging of funds is stopped; otherwise, the implications for the children of Wiltshire will be extremely serious. Schools will face a stark choice: either they will have to set a deficit budget, or they will have to try to make the budget balance by reducing staff.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Minister without Portfolio, Party Chair, Conservative Party

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?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

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:

"In the three years from 1997, funding per pupil has already increased by over £300 per pupil in real terms."

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 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 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

"those authorities which face particular pressures in the coming year."

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.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards) 10:42, 26 March 2001

First, I congratulate 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.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's predecessor bothered to do so. I cannot--I never have and will not--stand at the Dispatch Box and justify the iniquities of the SSA because that is not right. I do not know why a child in Wiltshire should receive less. The London comparison is not a good one to make because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledged, areas such as Tower Hamlets, Newham, Islington and Hackney have a degree of pupil mobility among asylum seekers that makes their needs different from those of Wiltshire. However, if he chose to compare Wiltshire with other shire counties, he could rightly ask why children in his county were not funded at the same level.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the characteristics that make up the formula are out of date. They served a previous era and are a bygone reflection of the economic and social needs of this country. The previous Government made no effort to change that. Year after year, they amended a formula that was already out of date. We tried to do exactly that in our first year. I always say this and shall it again: I have had to come to the House to answer for the SSA system on several occasions. Members will not be shocked to hear that not one Member of Parliament has called an Adjournment debate to tell Ministers that they are unfairly overfunded as a result of the SSA formula. That should happen soon--it would be a first. Therein lies the difficulty. Although no local authority thinks that it is overfunded, many think that they are underfunded: changing that is not easy.

In the first year, we tried hard. Those from authorities that were used to relative overfunding--I emphasise the word "relative"--did not want the change. It will be tough to manage the transition. We found that we could not get the consensus that we wanted to achieve on the change in the SSA. It was strange that when local authority organisations came to see the Secretary of State, they never came with a party label. They never came in party groupings; they always came in shire groupings, metropolitan groupings, unitary groupings, F40 groupings or former coal community groupings.

After 12 months, we decided that our brave attempt to change the SSA formula would not work, but we were not prepared to give up. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire knows, we have published a Green Paper and put the reform of education funding in the wider context of reform of local authority funding. To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I shall tell him about two groups set up by the Department to examine different aspects of the Green Paper.

First, we have a group made up of representatives of the education world--local authorities, Churches, teacher unions and head teachers. It is considering how we can compensate for disadvantage in the formula, so that we can move away from the old characteristics that served a bygone era, and see where extra funding is needed, on top of good quality basic funding. The second group is examining tentative methods of reforming the way in which central Government pay the money to local authorities.

I know that it is almost four years since the general election. I say without any feeling of having let people down that every hon. Member knows how difficult it is to get the formula right. The hon. Gentleman knows better than most the consequences of getting it wrong. No matter how many terms the Government serve, I expect that we will not have many more opportunities to have a good go at getting the formula right. Even if it means not having done it in the first year, I would sooner get the formula right by putting down firm markers and routing the change through a good, sensible, well thought out Green Paper, which has received many responses.

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that the vast majority of responses to the education element of the Green Paper were about the SSA funding formula. He is right to draw the iniquities to our attention, but I can assure him and his head teachers that the Department for Education and Employment does not need persuading of the need for change. We spend a great deal of our time trying to explain that, and we would prefer not to have to do so. That is a note of optimism for the future.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Will the hon. Lady follow the lead of officials in the Department of Health and allow Wiltshire an area cost adjustment?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

I apologise for not being familiar with the area cost adjustment for the Department of Health. When we realised that we could not change the whole formula, we were faced with the choice between changing it piecemeal or doing nothing. We decided to leave it as it was. It is in a mess because of the tinkering that has taken place year on year. Conservative Members who served in previous Governments know that that is extremely time-consuming for the Department and leads to another round of Adjournment debates initiated by hon. Members whose areas have not come out of the process as well as the Government intended.

The area cost adjustment causes many tears to be shed, metaphorically, in schools. It is a matter that we want to address, but I cannot accept that the Government have not taken action to support schools in the hon. Gentleman's Wiltshire constituency. We have increased funding. I do not want to give a list of figures--I want to get to the heart of what is happening.

Schools in Wiltshire have not done as well as they would have done, had the formula been more equitable. Without looking into the future, which I cannot do because the formula has not been set, I suppose that the hon. Gentleman might have reason to believe, and certainly reason to hope, that his constituency might fare better under any renewed formula, but we shall have to wait and see. That would be a commitment; it would be jumping the gun, ahead of the consultation. This year, the increase in Wiltshire's SSA was slightly above average; it was more than 5 per cent. There are other moneys, too.

The SSA is no longer the only route of money to schools, which is one of the great changes that has occurred under this Government. I shall be blunt: by routing moneys by ways other than the SSA, although that remains the major source of revenue funding for schools, we have been able to be more equitable than might otherwise have been the case. I shall give two examples of that.

The share of the standards fund that Wiltshire has received has increased from £1.7 million in the last year of the previous Tory Government to £10.14 million under this Government for 2001-02. Overall spending in Wiltshire under Labour over the past three years has risen by £350 for each pupil. The hon. Gentleman can say in speeches in this House that that is not enough--as a Minister, I will certainly never be satisfied that that is enough--but he owes us a degree of honesty. He should realise that, in the last three years of his Tory Administration, funding fell by £60 per pupil. I am proud of that difference.

Over and above that, we have introduced a direct grant to Wiltshire schools. That is funded not through the SSA formula or by taking into account any deprivation needs, but by cash--a cheque in the post straight to schools. The average amount received by secondary schools is £70,000, and primary schools receive £24,000. I believe that we are now into our third year of such funding. In Wiltshire, that will make a total of £5.7 million for 2001-02 alone--in addition to an above average increase in SSA of more than 5 per cent. and a massive increase in the standards funds.

If we had put that £5.7 million through the SSA formula, Wiltshire would not have received as much as it has. Direct grant is not the bulk of the revenue, but it is an acknowledgement that we understand the difficulties of the SSA formula. Above all other grants, the direct grant has been widely welcomed by head teachers. They can make good use of it.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

The Minister said that the direct grant has been welcomed by head teachers, but how does she explain the fact that every single head teacher of every single school in Wilshire, both secondary and primary, has attacked the Government in petition and by letter? They say that the Government are setting deficit budgets. It is simply not true to say that they have enough money this year.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

I will have to guess what the hon. Gentleman's head teachers might say to him. However, if he went into schools and asked whether head teachers liked the special grant, he would hear them say yes. His head teachers have been suffering from an iniquitous SSA formula for far longer than four years. They are fed up with it because they went through 18 years of Tory Government, during which time it was not changed. There is a cumulative feeling of being fed up with an SSA system that does not serve them well. The point that I made was that the £5.7 million special grant to Wiltshire has been widely welcomed by head teachers. I do not think that one of them would want to return it or want us to redistribute it through the SSA formula.

Another point that I should like to make concerns capital. As I said, money now goes to schools in different ways. This Government have trebled the amount of capital that has been spent on schools. In the last year of the Tory Government, when Wiltshire shared a local education authority with Swindon, the hon. Gentleman will know that his Government provided £4.7 million in capital. This year, the figure for just Wiltshire, without Swindon, is £54 million. I am incredibly proud of that figure.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Chippenham. I understand that the school is to be totally rebuilt, which will be widely welcomed.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, Minister of State (Department for Education and Employment) (School Standards)

The hon. Gentleman must realise that PFI credits have a cost for the Government--somebody has to provide the money to pay for the service. I have lot of time for the private sector and I welcome its involvement in education, but I would be surprised if it paid to build schools without expecting any revenue in return.

I know that education is close to the hearts of all hon. Members and that funding is one of the factors that makes for good schools and effective teaching. I am proud of the Government's record on increasing funding, which I know is recognised by schools. Of course, there is a long way to go and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that more must be done with the SSA formula. I have sought to assure him that more is being done and that announcements will be made in due course. It is a cheek, however, for any Conservative Member to suggest that funding is worse than it ever was during the 18 years of Conservative Government. I find that teachers and head teachers always want more, but almost all of them recognise the improvement in finance; and I recognise the improvement in standards that has been made under four years of a Labour Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.