Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:36 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 6:36 pm, 14th March 2017

Every school in my constituency is facing cuts to its funding and rising costs. I speak to headteachers, some of whom have been in teaching for many years, all the time, and they tell me that they are extremely concerned about the funding situation. In the past, they have cut non-essential activities and support services, but they now feel they have no choice but to cut classroom teachers and whole subjects out of the curriculum. For the first time, they think that funding cuts will actually affect the quality of the teaching they provide.

Last night, I went to an event in my constituency for the concerned parents of children in local schools, and well over 200 were present. There was real anger among the parents about the prospects of further cuts. They feel a real sense of betrayal that their children are not going to receive the quality of education that their parents feel they deserve. There are excellent, dedicated teachers in our schools who are ready and willing to do the very best they can for our children, but they will not be able to if the resources available to them are not increased.

There are many different causes of the current crisis, and not all are related to the proposed changes to the funding formula. Costs are increasing because of unavoidable increases in pension and national insurance contributions; the Government are stopping the education services grant, which will end in September; and, absurdly, many schools find themselves having to pay the apprenticeship levy. The funding formula will also decrease the money available to many schools in my constituency.

Parents and teachers in my constituency are not uninformed. They know that there is a squeeze on public spending, that belts have to be tightened and that borrowing has to be cut. But they question some of the decisions that are being made. For example, a National Audit Office report in February this year found that the free schools programme, which was originally budgeted to cost £90 million, is now likely to cost in the region of £9 billion. The cost of procuring land for new school buildings is a large component of that cost, at around £2.5 billion, but the NAO estimates that the Education Funding Agency is paying, on average, almost 20% more than market value for land for new schools. The NAO also found that some sites are being purchased for schools in areas where there is no demand for extra school places.

Nobody is arguing that there is not an urgent need for new school places—not least in my constituency, which badly needs a new secondary school—but the free schools programme is not providing a cost-effective or efficient solution to that need. It urgently needs to be reviewed. Tougher negotiations on land purchases and the targeting of resources to areas of greatest need would provide better value for money for new schools and free up resources to direct towards existing schools.

The Budget statement included money put aside for a new generation of grammar schools, to be introduced as part of the free schools programme. I have searched the Conservative party manifesto from 2015 and can find no reference to this spending commitment. If the Prime Minister declines the necessity to seek a mandate of her own, she has a moral obligation to deliver the manifesto on which the Conservative party was elected. She has no mandate to introduce grammar schools; it was not a spending choice on which the public were asked to vote. There is no evidence that grammar schools deliver better educational outcomes for all children, which is surely the only goal of any Government’s educational policy.

I visited a girls’ comprehensive school in my constituency yesterday—a school that is rated outstanding in all areas. I was impressed by the quality of teaching on display as I watched a year 11 history lesson and a year 7 French lesson. The head told me that they had recently introduced a classical civilisation A-level, in response to demand from pupils, and that one of their alumni was now studying classics at Oxford. This headteacher is worried—as are all the headteachers in my constituency—that the cut in funding means that she will not be able to deliver all the subjects at A-level that she used to. There is nothing that the Prime Minister’s beloved grammars can deliver that this excellent comprehensive school cannot already deliver to the children of my constituency, and deliver without divisive selection. I call on the Prime Minister to cancel her plans for these expensive, unnecessary grammars and make the most of the excellent educational provision that is already available and continue to ensure its excellence.

The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have both stated their commitment to increasing choice in education. Choice is no good to parents who already have children in schools that are facing funding cuts. Choice implies that there are places in a range of schools for each child, and that parents merely need to make a decision on which one they want. The reality is that this would be an extraordinarily wasteful way to fund school places and that most parents take the place in the school that they are offered. Rather than choice, all most parents want is to know that the school place they are offered is capable of offering their child the very best education possible.

I call on the Government to look again at their spending plans for education and to take heed of the rising chorus of protest against the cuts in school budgets—in my constituency and elsewhere. Investing in education is essential to securing a prosperous future for this country, and skills training—not grammar schools—should be the priority if we are to thrive outside the European Union. I welcome the announcement of further investment in skills training but ask what analysis has been done of how the proposed new T-levels will align with existing vocational qualifications such as NVQs. How much of the proposed new spending will be taken up with establishing new awarding bodies and structures that could have been spent directly on teaching existing qualifications?