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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 2:53 pm, 26th February 2019

The hon. Lady raises a significant point. In my own constituency, since 2011, special educational needs provision has been backed up by the local authority through other funds that are now being squeezed because of the other funding caps.

The other point I would make very firmly to the Secretary of State is that so much of what happens in our schools is not just reliant on the Department for Education. If there are cuts in other parts of government or reductions in spending, there is a real squeeze where schools are sometimes expected to fill the gap but without the funding. This needs to be looked at in the round. We on the Committee are repeatedly concerned about what we call cost-shunting, where a saving is made in one area but the costs fall on another. A teacher or a headteacher with children in front of them in a classroom has to deal with the reality of that, and they do so very ably but often with great difficulty.

It is not just the Public Accounts Committee or the National Audit Office that is concerned about per-pupil funding. In 2018, only last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded:

“Between 2009-10 and 2017-18, total school spending per pupil in England fell by about 8% in real terms”.

In October last year, the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the DFE complaining about its misleading use of statistics on school funding. So I hope that we have nailed the lie about the funding. We need to acknowledge where we are and then we can have a debate about how much we should be funding or schools by.

In the time I have got—I do not want to take up colleagues’ time because I know that they have prepared hard for this debate—I want to touch on capital funding. I congratulate the Department and the permanent secretary on undertaking a stock conditions survey of the school estate. This is the first time that that has properly happened. It is quite shocking, really, that Governments, over time, have not done this. It is quite challenging because schools are under different ownerships. It is a good and welcome step, but of course, as the Secretary of State will know, it will throw up many issues for him. Some 60% of the school estate was built before 1976, which underlines, for those of us thinking of the schools in our constituencies, the amount of work involved. The National Audit Office estimates that £6.7 billion is needed to return all school buildings to satisfactory or better condition. They are not all to be fantastic and “all singing, all dancing” but just to be satisfactory or, in some cases, better. In 2015-16—the beginning of the spending review period—the DFE allocated £4.5 billion to capital funding, about half of which was spent on creating new school places. So there is a significant shortfall in what is needed and the amount of money that is being spent, and that has an ongoing impact.

Then there is the free schools agenda, where the Secretary of State is wedded to his manifesto commitment of 500 new free schools by 2020 from the 2017 base. I think that that there will be just over 850 if that target is reached. We are concerned that those buildings are often not the best. Asbestos surveys are not often done. Local government treasurers tell me that they know of buildings in their own areas that have been sold at well over the odds. It is as though people see a blank cheque when the Government come along with their cheque book for a free school site: the price goes up. That is not good value for money, and it really does need looking at. I do not think that even those most wedded to the free schools principle would want to see money wasted. In my own constituency, where many secondary schools were rebuilt under the academies programme and we have fantastic buildings, it breaks my heart to see new schools opening in inadequate buildings without sports facilities, without proper access, and often with very little in the way of playground facilities. I do not have to time to go into all that, but I recommend to the Department the reports we have done on this, because it is a very big concern.

The biggest concern for me on capital funding is about asbestos. I have a very strong constituency link here. I have a constituent, Lucie Stephens, whose mother was a primary schoolteacher for 30 years and died from mesothelioma—the cancer that comes from exposure to asbestos. She should have been enjoying her retirement now, but instead she is not because she caught this disease from working in a school that had asbestos in it. We looked at this on the Public Accounts Committee. The Department for Education has reported that over 80% of the schools that have now responded to its survey have asbestos. It has estimated that it would cost at least £100 billion to replace the entire school estate—the only way, really, to eradicate asbestos from our school buildings—but in January this year, we found that nearly a quarter of schools had still not provided the information that the Department needs to understand the extent of asbestos in school buildings and how the risks will be managed. Three times now, the Department has had to go back with a different deadline to get those schools responding. The last deadline was 15 February—just over a week ago. Does the Minister have an update on that? We have suggested that it is perhaps time to name and shame those schools. I do not say that lightly, but it is a very serious issue for those concerned.

My big concern is that there is no real incentive for schools to acknowledge their asbestos and get the expensive surveys done without some understanding of where the money will then come from to resolve it. It is not something that will be urgent in every school, and some schools will last a bit longer without it. Clearly, there needs to be a long-term plan and everyone needs to know what it is. There must be a clear plan from central Government with a pot of funding that schools can bid for. As we have heard, reserves and capital funding are very squeezed—squeezed to nothing in many cases, and certainly not enough to pay for asbestos removal or for a new school building. I urge the Secretary of State to be the one who finally upgrades our school buildings so that they are all as good as those in my constituency and the one who does not allow bad free schools to open.

As I said, there are many other issues that many colleagues in all parts of the House will be raising—everything from early years through to higher education—and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. There is a real issue about how we debate school funding, particularly in how we talk about the numbers. We need to make sure that we are actually talking about the same numbers, and then we can move on to a discussion about policy. Unless we get the maths right, we are talking at cross-purposes.