It is a pleasure to follow Gareth Thomas and, on the Government side of the House, my hon. Friend Craig Tracey, who made very pertinent points about the need to maintain funding for maintained nurseries, which do such a fantastic job. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee, of which admittedly, I am a member, and our illustrious chairman, Ian Mearns, who is sitting opposite me, for granting time for this debate.
“lies, damned lies and statistics”— how true that is for the important debate on the expenditure of the Department for Education. How true those words are for the barrage of claims and counter-claims. How true Disraeli’s quip is for neatly summarising our dilemma of who to believe. To misappropriate another eminent Victorian, in terms of education funding at least, it is “the best of times” and “the worst of times”. In Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, we read of a land of great contrasts. Today, we hear of schools in different parts of the country that are similarly contrasting. There are siren calls for parental funds for toilet paper in Berkshire while those in the inner capital supposedly cannot find enough things on which to spend their money.
It is true that there has never been more public money spent on education, and the Government are to be commended for that. Indeed, the diversion of a further £1.2 billion is a good start, but I want to be able to recommend Her Majesty’s Government for even greater commendation. I want my right hon. and hon. Friends to go further. Bluntly, I want more cash for schools in my constituency. Without sounding too demanding or unreasonable, even at the risk of being less macho in the eyes of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I want to be able to put the case as to why the schools budget must be increased.
Have I, as a Conservative, lost my sense of fiscal rectitude? Am I, for saying “spend more money”, seeking to be a pale imitation of a socialist? Am I fearful of the rapacious march of left-wing fanaticism, which we see embraced with wild abandon by segments of our society? I think not. Rather, like any good Conservative, I believe in investing money wisely in things with a proven record of return, and there is no greater stock worth investing in than our children’s education.
Schools in Stockport, the borough that I partly represent, are among some of the most poorly funded in the country, so it is a tremendous credit to them that they generally achieve such good results, yet I fear that we are at a point at which this is becoming unsustainable. I say “unsustainable” because, being well managed, they have had to be careful with the budget for years, well before the current cost pressures were brought to bear, and therefore, put simply, because they are financially lean there is little scope for the efficiencies envisaged by the Department.
Since being elected to this place, I have sought to build strong professional relationships with the schools and headteachers in my constituency. I have always been grateful for their insight on the issue of school funding. It is fair to say that they are asking not for the world, but merely for comparable resources with similar schools that they are judged against. It is inherently unfair to expect schools with similar characteristics to produce the same results as their peers on wildly differing budgets.
I recently sought the views of all the headteachers in my constituency on this matter. I am particularly grateful to those who met with me—I may outdo the hon. Member for Harrow West at this point—including the headteachers of Brookside Primary, High Lane; Torkington Primary School, Hazel Grove; Fairway Primary School, Offerton; Mellor Primary School; Werneth High; and Harrytown Catholic High School. I am also immensely grateful to Jacqui Ames, the headteacher of Norbury Hall Primary School, and Joe Barker, the headteacher of Marple Hall School, who are the primary and secondary heads representatives respectively for Stockport. They have furnished me with facts and financial analyses that have been very helpful as I have sought a better deal for my local schools.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for meeting me and the aforementioned headteachers to hear at first hand the challenges they face. It was a constructive meeting. We have an excellent complement of Ministers, who I know will argue strongly for their departmental budget in the forthcoming spending review. I have some ideas I would like to suggest they pursue with the Treasury and our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. First, many of us had hoped that the new national funding formula would be more radical in seeking to address decades of underfunding under Governments of different colours. If the basic grant element of the formula is not to be increased in percentage terms, it may be necessary to target additional funding at the lowest quartile of poorly funded schools. Secondly, the Treasury should fund pay settlements, national insurance increases and additional pension contributions, which form the vast bulk of the cost pressures on school budgets. It is only right that teachers have better pay and conditions, although this should not adversely affect overall teaching and learning.
Heeding your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will conclude by offering some thoughts to the Government in all seriousness and with good will and encouragement. There has been much understandable focus on the national health service, but we must not allow justifiable funding needs to crowd out other vital areas of the public sector. To my mind, and I sense the same in many colleagues, the schools budget is one such that deserves equal attention, care and consideration.