Schools (Cornwall)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 18th May 2004.

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Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 12:00 am, 18th May 2004

I am pleased to see the Minister in the Chamber. I appreciate the time that he is spending here, as well as the time that he doubtless spent doing his homework on a wonderful part of the world. I hope that he has enjoyed finding out more about our schools. He is very welcome to visit the area at any time to speak to some of the head teachers of my local schools. In the past few months, I have visited about a dozen of those schools as part of the process of finding out more about what is happening on the ground.

There is much good news, and I shall start from that point, because Ministers are inevitably inclined to assume that they will be given nothing but brickbats and to respond by telling us about all the things that are good, but which they do not expect us to have reflected on. Perhaps I can get some of those things out of the way and we can agree on them.

The new school buildings that I opened a couple of weeks ago at Goonhavern primary school are particularly good news. When I was first elected, I was taken straight to the school by a community activist called David White, who is sadly now dead. He also happened to be a Liberal Democrat, although that was beside the point as far as he was concerned, and simply a way of twisting my arm to get me to see the very old portakabins and temporary buildings such as the school hall, which was so dangerous at one stage that the children could not use it in a high wind. I must say that Goonhavern was not the only school in that situation—being on the north coast of Cornwall, that was not a rare experience. Those new buildings were made possible by a drastic change in Government investment after the Conservatives left office. We argued for a long time that that investment was necessary, and we welcome the fact that the Government made it possible. The new buildings at Goonhavern were directly funded by the county council. Others have been funded through private finance initiatives, which are giving many schools in the Truro area new buildings.

More is still to be done, but the teachers and parents to whom I speak welcome this funding. We supported it, as we supported some of the tax measures that have also made increased spending possible through revenue spending in schools. I have seen some great programmes in schools. I have seen the results of that investment, which I welcome. Everything that I say is in the context of my appreciation that there has been a major step change for the good. The Liberal Democrat party has supported that change. The Conservative party has not supported it, for its own reasons.

I shall concentrate on two serious issues, on which I would appreciate the Minister's response. First, it is acknowledged that there is a growing number of surplus places in our schools, and especially our primary schools, because of a fall in the birth rate. There are simply not enough children. In some Cornish villages, that problem has been made worse by the fact that families with young children can no longer afford many of the properties in the more popular coastal resorts.

Schools such as St. Mawes, which I recently visited, and Roseland secondary school are concerned about that increasing number of surplus places, but without an affordable housing programme for local families, it seems unlikely that those numbers can be made up, at least in the immediate future. However, I noticed in the local papers recently that this year's birth figures have shot up again, so perhaps in five years' time we will be discussing a shortage of places if schools close because of the fluctuations in school numbers. The schools in many of the villages that I represent are small, but once they close, the heart is ripped out of the community. They are a meeting place and the place to which young families can expect to send their children, so it is even less likely that they will live in the village, because the facilities are not there.

A discussion has started to emerge in Government. I shall refer later to a written statement on the subject made by the Minister for School Standards on 27 February. We have exchanged words about that statement and I want to explore what he meant and what the Government's position is. We share an awareness of the issue and a concern about how to tackle it, but we do not share a common approach as to what should be done.

The second issue is the continuing shortfall in funding per pupil for Cornish schools compared with the national average. Indeed, the gap between the national average and what pupils in Cornwall can expect has widened. That is based on fundamental flaws in the way in which the formulae are assessed.

The written statement by the Minister for School Standards on 27 February referred to 482,000 surplus places nationally in January 2003—about 11 per cent. of the total capacity. He commented:

"In some cases it is sensible to propose the closure or amalgamation of schools".—[Hansard, 27 February 2004; Vol. 418, c. 64WS.]

He also said that alternative options could be examined. The situation in Cornwall is not that different; there are 4,000 surplus places, which is 10 per cent. of total capacity. That surplus is anticipated to increase by a further 500 places this year.

One might ask why Cornwall should be particularly concerned about the issue. In a large town or city with several schools providing places, a school could close or amalgamate, although that may not be popular, or class numbers or staff could be reduced to accommodate surpluses. Local authorities have often been slow to respond to long-term changes in demographics and the Government have had to prompt them to act. We all understand how controversial it is to close any local school; even if two schools are virtually next door to each other, there will be advocates for both.

In a rural community such as my constituency, most schools are village schools serving a distinct community. A figure of 10 per cent. for surplus places would take account of only 10 or 15 pupils, so it would perhaps refer to as few as a couple of places in the school. To allow parental choice to be exercised, people should have access to their local school. If every school were exactly on the margin, in some years pupils would be unnecessarily forced to move to different schools. That already happens to a certain extent because of the Government's class size rules. It is good that class sizes are reducing, but we would prefer that to happen on a whole school average basis rather than on the basis of rigid enforcement class by class.

Even if a school is reduced to very small numbers, it is not necessarily wise to close it. There has been pressure to close small schools in Cornwall in the past, because they have been seen as unviable. However, those schools were not closed and a few years later the numbers jumped up again for one reason or another.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Another issue peculiar to Cornwall is that the unexpected arrival of a large family during the course of a school year can make all the difference to the viability of a small school. The unpredictability of such a school's roll is a considerable problem. I credit the Government for the fact that during my parliamentary career, unemployment levels have drastically dropped, which means that more young families with more young children remain in Cornwall. In a village community, that adds to the unpredictability. I endorse what my hon. Friend says about seeking to plan on the basis that a dip in the roll may not be permanent.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

My hon. Friend is right. The example of Mithian school, which I recently visited, springs to mind. Its indoor toilets were the first school building that I opened in Cornwall, having been elected in 1987. At that time, there were few children at the school, but it is now thriving. Things can readily change.

In Cornwall, there are 165 schools with fewer than 200 pupils, 102 with fewer than 100, and 32 with about 50. In very small schools, there is only a handful of places.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is making a great case. He is absolutely right that there is generally a disproportionate fall in smaller rural settlements, where there is difficulty in achieving a school roll across the whole of Cornwall. Certainly, in the market towns, there does not seem to be a very steep fall in school rolls. Does he agree that, in those smaller villages, parents and the community do not campaign for their children to have a poor education, but campaign strongly to retain their schools not just as a community resource, but because they provide a high level of education? In the Isles of Scilly in my constituency, there is high volatility in school rolls—they can go down to very small numbers—but it is important that, although there may not be water between some village schools, they are retained.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I agree with my hon. Friend. The director of education for Cornwall LEA made the point well. He said:

"A few small schools in Cornwall have no intake of 4-year-olds next year".

The fluctuations are a real issue, but he went on to say:

"A crude approach to closure would be a last resort, but falling rolls are going to be a very serious in some schools in Cornwall."

We would not disagree with the Government about finding alternative ways of dealing with the problem, but the concern that the director raised is that, while there has been a perception that the Government have supported LEAs such as ours, which are struggling to retain and keep open rural community schools, the statement made by the Minister for School Standards raises the prospect of closures, although he said that that would be the last resort.

We are hoping today for an indication from the Minister of the Government's current position on closures. Has the Department for Education and Skills launched what is in effect a policy review in this area, and if so, what timetable is it working to? When shall we see conclusions and options being considered, and how might they be presented for debate? It is important that local community representatives have a chance to engage in the debate before decisions are taken that would have a social impact wider than simply an educational one in those communities. Incidentally, as my hon. Friend Mr. Tyler said, one of the reasons why the town schools may be full and the rural schools empty is the affordability of housing for young families. If the Government's policy to address housing issues is taken forward—I hope that it will be—that might change.

On schools funding, I should like to mention some figures to the Minister. We know that schools funding has increased per pupil under the Government; we welcomed that and supported the tax rises. It is also the case that Cornwall county council's policy, for which Liberal Democrat councillors pushed hard, was to passport through all the increases directly. In 2003–04, the full 6.4 per cent. increase was passed on, as was the full 6.1 per cent. increase in 2004–05, not just to schools but to all areas of pupil provision, including special educational needs. However, that was at the expense of other areas of county services; the impact of the rise was reflected across the board of local authority funding.

The Minister for School Standards, in responding to the concerns that I raised about the disparity between Cornish and national funding per pupil, said that schools are not underfunded, because of the rises. However, they are underfunded compared with schools elsewhere, and such relative underfunding has been increasing. In 1997–98—the last Conservative Budget, in effect—the gap for primary pupils was £73, and it was £84 for secondary pupils. By 2000, when I raised the question in an Adjournment debate, that gap had risen to £105 per primary pupil and £117 per secondary pupil. By 2002–03, my hon. Friend Andrew George mentioned in an Adjournment debate that the gap had risen to £126 per secondary pupil, which is the equivalent of £126,000 less for a typical 1,000-pupil school, and £220 per primary pupil, or £44,000 less for a typical 200-pupil primary school.

The latest figures that I have, which the Minister for School Standards confirmed in a recent parliamentary question, show that the figure for secondary schools in England is £3,106 per pupil per year; in Cornwall, that figure is £2,935. That is a shortfall of £171 per secondary school pupil every year—a £170,000 shortfall from the national average for a secondary school in Cornwall. In primary schools, the shortfall is £155 per pupil or £31,000 for a school.

Such figures are based on a formula assessment that is meant to take local needs into account. I have just been discussing keeping open small schools; we know that that is relatively expensive and that there are a large number of them in Cornwall. However, the funding formula seems to assume that we can somehow teach those children more cheaply than on average. The second problem is that the Government attach quite a weighting within the formulae to relative wage levels. Cornwall, of course, has the lowest wages in the country.

The whole of the south-west suffers, because it does not get the old area cost adjustment introduced by the Conservatives, which weighted things towards the south-east and London and helped their favoured areas. Labour has put some effort into tackling the disparity for northern cities and some funding has moved there, closing the gaps. In our part of the world, however, the gap has steadily increased, and I have just illustrated by how much.

We are now seeing the same thing in health. The formula adjustment used to assume that there was a 3 per cent. gap between the cost of treating a patient in our part of the world and the national average, because of low wages. That has just been increased to 11 per cent. in the latest suggestions. If that happens, there will be a catastrophic shortfall in health funding.

The problem has been established in education for much longer. Every year the gap is getting wider and the shortfalls are getting bigger, yet the costs of maintaining small rural village schools are not decreasing, but increasing. The latest wage figure evidence from Cornwall—not the statistical figures, which are a couple of years out of date—suggests that the programmes that the Government and Europe are supporting to change the Cornish economy and to get wages up through objective 1 are working. If anything, the gaps are disappearing, but the formulae do not acknowledge that.

I passionately believe that the formulae are unfair. While we do not expect a special deal, we are entitled to expect a fair one. Above all, the formulae reflect only one thing: not a proper working out of what is needed, but the historic spending pattern. It has been true under all Governments, Conservative and Labour, that when they have set local authority spending figures, they have based them primarily on historic spending. One does not want to take away too much from anyone, and therefore one cannot give too much to anyone.

Unfortunately, in years gone by, independent councillors in Cornwall—not those under party control, as it happens—who ran the county over many years, have had the key objective of low expenditure. They prided themselves on not spending much and not providing much service. Since the formulae have come in and have reflected that, we have never broken away from that pattern of historic low expenditure, and neither have we been allowed to do so by the local authority spending and capping regimes. We have seen that again today.

The problem needs to be addressed. I have put it on the table to raise the concern with the Minister and to make him aware of it. He would be welcome to come down to the area and to see both the good results and the quality of education that we have, and the real difficulty that our schools have in meeting the funding in what is, incidentally, a low-wage area, where local fund raising does not easily make it up.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education) 4:04 pm, 18th May 2004

I congratulate Matthew Taylor on securing this debate, which is an important one. Some genuine, authentic issues have been raised that deserve to be addressed, and I will attempt to do that in the next few minutes. I also congratulate the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for St. Ives (Andrew George) on their contributions.

It was quite extraordinary, if I may have a little fun at the beginning of the debate, to hear hon. Members talk about and acknowledge record levels of investment in schools, and also to hear them talk about low levels of unemployment, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned, and rising wages. I hope that the "Focus" leaflets distributed in Cornwall over the next few weeks will reflect the difference that the Labour Government have made to the people of Cornwall. I shall have fun with some of my leaflets following the extremely generous, reasonable and objective analysis of investment in public services given by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell.

I turn first to the question of a fair funding system. In any funding system, difficult decisions have to be made about relative costs, special needs and social deprivation factors. There will always be some authorities that get more than others. The hon. Gentleman was honest enough to say that there will always be winners and losers. My authority was one of the worst-funded in the country. Under the new system, it is slightly better funded, even if it is not one of the best. I am familiar with the debate.

We should not pretend to constituents, however, that there are easy solutions. Any system that we create or develop, particularly if we make changes, will involve winners and losers. No system can make everybody a winner. The hon. Gentleman should put his party's position on record. Either Cornwall should be given more resources, which means that other local authorities will lose out—perhaps including some that are controlled, dare I say it, by Liberal Democrats—or more resources should be put in so that there is a bigger cake. However, the Liberal Democrats have been absolutely disciplined in saying that the Government have got it wrong by having 70 spending commitments. They say that there should be two spending commitments in terms of the 40 to 50 per cent. increase—subsidising the costs of higher education and providing care for the elderly.

The only way to create an alternative system would be to put in extra money—the Liberal Democrats are not advocating that in terms of either local government or school funding, unless that is another spending commitment of which I am unaware—or to reallocate existing resources, as a consequence of which there would be losers.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

Setting aside party politics, a comprehensive spending review is due in June. The Government have already committed two further years' worth of substantial above-inflation increases in education spend, which we welcome. Above-inflation increases in education spend allow everybody to gain and imbalances to be redressed in the process. The Government are already putting more money in, so the question is whether the gaps will be narrowed or allowed to continue to increase. Our concern is that they have been allowed to continue to increase.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

That is an entirely reasonable point. However, if I reveal today the outcome of the spending review deliberations, I suspect that I shall not appear in Westminster Hall again in future, at least in my current capacity. I understand why the hon. Gentleman is making the case for a fair deal for Cornwall—I made that case on behalf of my constituents—and he will go on making it. However, I have to make the point that there is no simple solution. There is no system that will not result in some people feeling that they are losers. Most objective observers accept that the system that we have now is fairer than the previous one.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman's comments about falling primary school rolls. We understand the particular difficulties that face rural schools; that is what we are talking about in Cornwall. We made it clear in 1998 that we had a presumption against the closure of small rural schools and I can confirm that nothing has changed in that respect. We recognise that we cannot ignore the real and difficult choices that local authorities have to make in the context of surplus places in small schools. At a national level, we are working on guidance for local education authorities that are in such circumstances. That will be published at the end of the year, and it will address questions such as how we can support LEAs in dealing in an exceptional way with surplus places. There is little way around that.

We are also encouraging schools and LEAs to work together on the problem. It has been suggested that they might form federations of schools that work together not just on surplus places but as a matter of good educational practice. That is happening in Cornwall. I do not know whether the extended school option is being considered in Cornwall. A number of services such as welfare benefits advice, social services, housing and youth activities would all be located on the school site. That may be a way of triggering revenue from other funding streams.

While we say quite unashamedly to local education authorities that one of the fundamental parts of their business must be to tackle this problem rather than to avoid it, and while we have made it absolutely clear that there must be a presumption against closure, particularly in the case of rural schools, it does not mean that there will never be a closure. There may come a day in Cornwall when a consensus breaks out on the view that, in the best interests of a family of schools, some difficult decisions have to be made. That would not be the starting point in terms of the local community in Cornwall, and neither would it be the Government's starting point.

We have to recognise that surplus places present difficulties. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in our funding announcements this year we talked about protecting schools that have this problem, albeit in a limited way. Having surplus places, particularly if it happens suddenly, can have quite a dramatic effect on funding, and it is hard for head teachers and governing bodies to cope with that. However, as long as we have a per-pupil regime, that issue will be a factor if there are sudden demographic changes.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Chair of the Parliamentary Party, Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

The Minister has confirmed that new guidance will be published on the issue towards the end of the year. Obviously, this is a matter of huge concern to local communities and particularly to the teaching staff and the LEA. Will there be a consultation process or will it be draft guidance, which would subsequently be confirmed after consultation? I am sure that he will come back to me in a moment on that.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

As good government permeates the DFES from top to bottom, I can guarantee, before I receive the note from my advisers, that consultation will most definitely take place. More than that; it is being developed in partnership with LEAs. If Cornwall wishes to contribute more significantly than it has done until now in this exercise, we would be delighted for it to be fully engaged. The guidance will offer advice on how federations, extended schools and other mechanisms can be used to manage the problem. The guidance will not say simply, "Here's how to close schools." It will be about practical ways of dealing with the short-term consequences of significant numbers of surplus places.

The hon. Gentleman was generous enough to recognise the success that Cornwall's schools have had in recent times. I should like to put on the record some statistics both to make a point and to congratulate the educationists in Cornwall who have made this success possible. The percentage of pupils leaving primary schools in Cornwall and who are doing well in English has risen from 66 per cent. in 1998 to 74 per cent. in 2003; in maths it has risen from 62 per cent. to 72 per cent. and in science from 74 per cent. to 86 per cent. That is pretty outstanding progress in primary schools.

In secondary education, there is equally impressive evidence of what is happening in Cornwall. The number of pupils achieving the important five A* to C GCSEs has continued to increase steadily from 51.1 per cent. in 1998, compared with the national average of 46.3 per cent., to 54.4 per cent. in 2003 compared with 52.9 per cent. nationally. There has been constant improvement in return for the significant extra investment that the hon. Gentleman has been reasonable enough to acknowledge.

The education system in Cornwall is on the whole doing exceptionally well, but it has to address some of the distinct sparsity and rural issues. I give the hon. Gentleman my absolute assurance that the Department will be willing to engage with him, the LEAs and the schools, in taking any practical measures to tackle the issues.