Education Funding: Wirral

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:36 pm on 31st October 2017.

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Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey 5:36 pm, 31st October 2017

My right hon. Friend points out the layers of disadvantage that are often not taken into account by the Government’s distributive mechanisms. The proposed new national funding formula is one such mechanism, and it will do nothing to alleviate the crisis in Wirral schools.

What is particularly insulting is the Government’s persistent claim that the national funding formula is based on the principle of fairness and the frankly ludicrous claim that schools will see an increase in funding as a result of it. No one believes that there are no flaws in the current system—we all recognise that—but, rather than rectifying them, the new national funding formula simply creates new ones. It shifts an already inadequate sum of money from one area of the country to another, with some of the most deprived areas losing out. I do not know about the Minister, but that is not my definition of fairness.

I have no doubt that we will be told by the Minister about the additional £1.3 billion over two years announced in September by the Education Secretary. First, that is not new money but rather a sum that has been assumed to be available from unrealistic, so-called efficiency savings and cannibalised from other parts of the budget. Secondly, it will do little to compensate for the £2.8 billion of cuts schools have suffered since 2015. Ask any teacher in my constituency, or any school governor, and they will talk about the cutbacks that schools are already having to make as a result of the real-terms reductions in their budgets at a time of spiralling costs.

Lord Harris of Peckham, a Conservative party donor who runs a large academy chain, let the cat out of the bag recently. He said that the schools he runs are facing a 20% cut in funding by 2020 and that the Government should put more funding into schools. I agree with him.

I turn to the specific impact that the funding pressures are having on schools in the Wirral. As I mentioned at the outset, I have maintained a frequent dialogue with schools in my constituency throughout my time as an MP. Everyone I speak to tells me the same story: funding from the Government has failed to keep pace with running costs in schools. According to figures from the National Education Union, my constituency is set to lose an average of £149 per pupil in real terms between 2015-16 and 2019-20, with a total loss of 29 teachers. Wirral as a whole will lose on average £111 per pupil and 108 teachers.

The cuts come at a time of additional pressures on school budgets such as rises in national insurance contributions and pension contributions and, most recently, the apprentice levy. There are also growing demands on schools to offer social services support and family support and to deal with increasingly complex mental health issues. Meanwhile, cuts to local authority budgets have made matters even worse, because they have decimated the support that the local authority used to provide to our local schools.

Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council has lost £150 million since 2010 and is set to lose a further £132 million by 2020-21. That amounts to a 40% cut in its budget. As a consequence, local authority support for schools has been cut drastically. In Wirral, cuts to the education services grant have left the council with a £1 million shortfall. That grant funds areas such as mental health support, fire safety and the maintenance of school buildings and playing fields. Likewise, social services and family support have been decimated by the huge cuts to local authority budgets. To make up for the shortfall, the council will have to absorb it into its already shrinking budget, cut services or force schools to pay up themselves, heaping more pressure on their already stretched finances.

Adrian Whitely, headteacher at The Mosslands School in my constituency, told me about the impact of funding cuts on his school. His quote is worth reading out in full, and I do so with his permission. He says:

“Five years ago, The Mosslands School, an 11-to-19 boys school with approximately 1000 pupils on roll, had 79 teaching staff and 18 teaching assistants. Due to budget reduction and rises in running costs, today it has 60 teachers and 8 teaching assistants. Average class size has risen with the majority of pupils now taught in classes of over 30. Over 40% of its pupils are entitled to free school meals at some stage;
26% of the students are identified as having additional special education needs;
the number of children meeting the threshold for social services intervention has doubled in 24 months;
and there are a further 20 pupils who are in the care of a Local Authority. It is a popular school and was deemed to be a good school when it was inspected last year. This year, it had to make a further 6 redundancies to balance its budget. This clearly cannot continue.”

Cuts such as those cannot simply be dismissed by the Government as efficiency savings. I note that the Government are increasingly fond of claiming, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the cuts are actually increases. I intend to deal with that argument in detail a little later in my speech, but the fact is that the cuts are having a tangible effect on the breadth and standard of education that schools in Wallasey can provide.

I recently visited Birkenhead Sixth Form College, which as its name suggests sits just outside Wallasey in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Frank Field, but it is attended by many of my constituents. In advance of the meeting, the principal, Mike Kilbride, wrote to me to outline the funding shortage faced by the college. He stated:

“At Birkenhead Sixth Form College we currently educate over 1,300 young people and passionately believe that every student deserves a first class education. Unfortunately, funding cuts and cost increases are making this increasingly difficult to provide. In the last year we have had to make many tough decisions including the withdrawal of some provision.”

Birkenhead Sixth Form College has had to reduce its curriculum in areas such as performance art and music. Perhaps the Government believe that such subjects are surplus to requirements, but I believe they are an integral part of a well-rounded education. The UK performs particularly well in music and the arts, and that success earns the country worldwide recognition and plenty of economic benefits. Those benefits are being put in jeopardy by short-sighted policies.

One headteacher of another school told me that funding for special educational needs children was becoming a cause for concern. There are statistically a high number of special needs pupils in the Wirral, and many of those needs are very complex. Many pupils have needs that require one-to-one attention from teachers with specific expertise. The funding that schools receive per SEN child does not always provide for that. The headteacher said that SEN funding “disappears in an instant”.

The vast majority of school spending goes on staff. With pay progression, the best teachers receive pay rises and older teachers tend to be paid more. However, as one headteacher pointed out to me, the national funding system takes no account of that. Schools are therefore struggling to fund pay increases as well as significant increases in national insurance contributions. One headteacher told me that

“teachers are teaching bigger and bigger classes”.

Not only does that create more work in the classroom; it also leads to more marking and more admin, and it is putting a bigger strain on them.

As figures from the National Education Union reveal, the pattern of funding cuts is being replicated in schools all over Wallasey and the Wirral. Most worryingly of all, some of the most deprived areas are being hit the hardest. To be clear, the figures I use take 2015 as their base year and reveal that, despite the Government’s attempted sleight of hand with what they like to call new money for schools, the funding given to schools has been cut by 4.6% overall between 2015 and 2020.

I will now deal with how that reality affects schools in Wallasey. The Oldershaw Academy, a school where 64% of pupils are on free school meals, is set to lose £233,000 in total by 2020, or £455 per pupil. St Mary’s Catholic College, where 53% of pupils are on free school meals, will lose £224,000, the equivalent of £186 per pupil. Primary schools in Wallasey are also being hit, and small schools, which can least afford to absorb huge funding reductions, are among the worst affected. Kingsway Primary School, where 53% of pupils receive free school meals, will see a real-terms cut of 19% per pupil. Eastway Primary School, where 52% of pupils are on free school meals, will see a cut of 10%.

As I outlined earlier, these figures do not tell the full story. They are accompanied by rising costs and additional sources of expenditure, such as the apprenticeship levy and national insurance contributions. There have been numerous press reports of state schools asking parents for donations to keep their school afloat—a double disadvantage for those schools that serve poor communities, where the parents simply cannot afford to fork out the extra money that schools now routinely ask for.

Many parts of Wallasey and the Wirral have high levels of deprivation. In Wallasey, a total of 41% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, but we will lose £149 of funding per pupil by 2020. I do not call that an increase, even if the Minister is going to claim in his reply that it is. By contrast, the constituency of Bournemouth East will gain £36 per pupil, despite only having 19% of pupils on free school meals. North East Hampshire will see a small gain, despite only having 10% of pupils on free school meals. How can the Minister possibly justify that?

Another of the Government’s flagship education policies is multi-academy trusts, which have implications for, and give rise to questions about, funding and accountability. In June this year, just after the general election, the Government took the decision to close the Kingsway Academy in Leasowe, in my constituency. The school will close on a phased basis by the end of the 2017-18 academic year, and many pupils have already been forced to move on to neighbouring schools. The school, formerly known as the Wallasey School, has a long and proud history, and provided an education for pupils in Wirral for generations. It is astonishing that the multi-academy trust, the Northern Schools Trust, was allowed to walk away as soon as it became clear that it could no longer turn a profit, just three years after taking over the school. That was after it had summarily closed down the sixth form a couple of years ago, leaving 80 pupils high and dry.

I cannot stress enough how much anxiety the announcement caused parents, pupils and staff when it appeared out of the blue just four weeks before the end of the academic year, but that was par for the course with the Northern Schools Trust. The decision was taken behind everyone’s back and the local community was kept in the dark throughout the process. As soon as I heard rumours of the school’s closure, I asked the Minister to meet me. By the time he had agreed to do so, he had already taken the decision to close the school. I believe that the episode exposed a worrying lack of transparency and accountability at the heart of the Government’s policy on multi-academy trusts. Had Kingsway been a maintained school, it would have been obliged to conduct a 12 to 18-month consultation, involving parents, trade unions and the local community, before a closure; yet there is no such obligation on academies to consult.

When we look at the list of income allocated to schools, we find that the only school in Wallasey that has had an increase, at £524 per pupil, and a 9% uplift in its funding, was the Kingsway Academy, which is now being closed. The Northern Schools Trust essentially announced closure within four weeks, having left council officials, unions and other stakeholders in the dark. The multi-academy trust seems to be free to walk away from the school, leaving the local authority to pick up the pieces, with the future of pupils’ education left in the balance.

The lack of accountability was highlighted in the Education Committee’s report on multi-academy trusts, published in February this year. With a multi-academy trust, the accountability is transferred from local governing boards to a central trustee board that holds the decision-making responsibilities. The report noted:

“We were told by parents that MATs are not sufficiently accountable to their local community and they feel disconnected from decision making at trustee board level. There is too much emphasis on ‘upward’
accountability and not enough on local engagement.”

The report went on to recommend:

“MATs should demonstrate a sincere commitment to outreach and engagement with the local community.”

In my experience, they are a long way from doing so. That is certainly advice that the Northern Schools Trust should have heeded during the Kingsway debacle.

Multi-academy trusts are recipients of huge amounts of public money, but they do not seem to be subject to the same standards of accountability. When school budgets are being squeezed as they are, and when schools are having to reduce staff numbers and are struggling to purchase equipment, is it right for MATs to pay their chief executive officers an annual salary of £160,000, as the Northern Schools Trust does? If multi-academy trusts were an unrivalled success, there might be at least a case for it, but when they are allowed to take over a school, fail to turn it around and walk away with no public consultation and little in the way of repercussions, the Government should ask themselves whether the policy is acceptable.

I have no doubt that the Minister has come armed with the Government’s own figures, giving the impression that Wirral schools will receive funding increases as part of the new national funding formula. After all, he has been going round claiming that cash increases are actually real increases, and hoping that nobody would notice the huge rise in running costs that all schools have to cope with, which more than wipe out any of the so-called gains for which the Minister is spuriously claiming credit. If the claim of increases were remotely true, does the Minister imagine that Wallasey’s headteachers, staff, parents and pupils would be complaining so much about the funding pressures that are causing them to cut back on the curriculum, sack teachers and increase class sizes?

Let us take a moment to interrogate these figures before the Minister brandishes them about in his reply. The Government’s figures show that in 2018-19, Wirral schools will receive, on average, a 1.6% increase in cash terms. Government figures also show that they will then receive a further 0.8% cash-terms increase in 2019-20. Schools in my own constituency in Wallasey will receive a 1.5% cash-terms increase—slightly less than the average for Wirral—in the first year, and an additional 0.6% the following year. Again, that is slightly below average. I note, however, that revealing ministerial phrase, “cash terms”. It does not take an economic genius to work out that, with inflation running close to 3%, that amounts to a significant real-terms cut.

The Government’s wilful and convenient confusion between a cash-terms and real-terms increase is only part of the story. The Minister’s figures show modest cash-terms rises from 2017-18, using that year as a baseline. By choosing that baseline, the Government are entirely and deliberately ignoring the cuts that took place before that—cuts that even as I speak are already being felt in classrooms across the country. That is pretty shoddy, but there is even more bad practice to come. The Minister’s figures also overlook the additional pressures on school budgets that I outlined earlier: the apprenticeship levy, national insurance contributions, pension contributions, any increases in staff pay, loss of education services provided by local authorities and any additional help on issues such as mental health and social services support, which used to be provided by local authorities but have now been decimated by the swingeing cuts this Government have made to local authority budgets.

Despite this accumulation of budget cuts and cost increases, the Government insist on perpetuating the ridiculous and false claim that schools are actually receiving more money. I suppose they are, but only in the most meaningless, technical sense. Actually, they are not really. I hope that the Minister will be reasonable enough to not treat us to another bout of that nonsense. How can he claim that schools are getting more money when they are sacking staff, increasing class sizes and cutting subjects from the curriculum? Frankly, Ministers are living in a parallel universe if they think that their farcical claims bear any relation to the situation confronting headteachers and staff on the ground, where the effects of austerity are being felt in classrooms all over Wallasey and all over Wirral.

I encourage the Minister to visit the schools in my constituency and across the Wirral to observe the real-terms cuts that schools are having to make, and the very real consequences that those cuts are having on our schools’ capacity to provide an outstanding education for all. Perhaps he may then see the error of his ways and realise that he has to persuade the Chancellor to put our children first and finally agree to the real-terms increases needed to give the next generation the educational chances they really deserve.