School Funding — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:17 am on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester 10:17 am, 24th October 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Main on securing this debate, which is vital for most children in our country.

Every child deserves an equal opportunity to get on in life, with the same access to high-quality education as their peers, wherever they are in the country. I am proud that Chichester exceeds the national average for attainment at key stage 4 and A-level, as a result of the hard work and dedication of teachers from early years through to secondary schooling.

Spending on our children’s education has never been higher and the new national funding formula is a welcome step toward rebalancing some of the disparities in the old system, where there were over 100 different models across the country. As my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, however, West Sussex historically suffers from being one of the lowest funded authorities. It is currently the sixth lowest recipient of secondary school funding in the country, and eighth lowest for primary school funding.

I am pleased that under the new funding formula, Chichester schools are to receive an additional £1.2 million in baseline funding for 2018-19—a welcome step toward ensuring that our schools are given the resources they need to help and support every pupil. However, speaking to teachers across my constituency, there is concern that the positive impact of the increased funding will not be felt in the classroom, simply because operating costs in the form of salaries, pensions and apprenticeship levies, to name but a few elements, have increased. All the additional moneys are being used to service those additional costs.

There is much innovation across the sector to reduce expenditure and share costs. One example is executive headships. A headteacher’s salary is one of the largest costs faced by schools, particularly small rural primaries, such as those in my constituency. Last term, two rural schools came under the leadership of one head, ultimately saving money. Those schools are just a 10-minute drive from each other, so the arrangement works. The headteacher now divides his time between the sites and is doing a brilliant job of improving Rogate Primary School, just as he did with Rake Primary School. The money saved will go towards additional resources to aid the children’s educational experiences. Of course, such a move comes with strains, particularly because of the close relationships that teachers and staff form with parents and pupils in small villages such as Rake and Rogate. It takes time to build those, and I pay tribute to the commitment shown by headteacher David Bertwistle in that venture.

Rural schools play a vital role in their communities —perhaps even more so than in larger, urban centres. They are the centre of a community and are often the frontline in offering social and mental health support to pupils and their families. The reduction of base funding from £150,000 to £110,000 leaves a £40,000 hole in the budgets of small rural primary schools that cannot easily be filled with additional pupils. Additional pupils will come within a natural catchment area, and schools are not in control of those numbers. It is important that the Government funding formula understands the additional pressures facing rural schools and ensures that the level of funding for which they are eligible through the sparsity grant reflects the uniqueness of their place in our communities.

The number of pupils with special educational needs in West Sussex is well above the national average, with 13.5% of all pupils recorded as needing SEN support, compared with the national average of 11.6%. The number of referrals for education, health and care plans has risen by 43% over the past three years. Although those plans are a much-needed device to ensure that children with special educational needs are given personalised support, we must ensure that the Government are equally adaptable when it comes to tailoring the new higher needs formula to authorities with very high numbers of pupils with special needs.

Let me give an example. I have a constituent who is fighting for her daughter to attend a specialist school equipped to provide the 24-hour care that she needs that is halfway across the country, as she fears that the SEN provision in West Sussex is just not adequate. We need investment in the right provision in West Sussex. No parent should ever feel that their child’s education is worth less than that of others. It is vital that every child has the opportunity to enjoy a high-quality education. It is a one-off shot in most cases and has a massive impact on life chances.

I do understand that the formula is designed to provide more resources for areas with higher levels of deprivation and lower prior attainment. I recently visited schools in Knowsley, where I went to school, and I know that the extra funds are essential to those schools, where 70% of the children are on free school meals and almost half the children are looked after by foster parents or grandparents. Those schools face additional challenges in terms of attracting and retaining the best teachers, but there are additional needs in West Sussex, too. The challenges of rural primary schools and pupil numbers and the unanticipated rise in special educational needs are putting severe pressure on some school budgets. Of course more is being spent on education than ever, but we have increased costs, higher numbers of pupils and more children getting the support they need for their special educational needs.

School standards have been transformed. When I go into my local schools, I am constantly struck by how much better the provision is now than when I went to school, but we should expect the best. We are living in an increasingly competitive world—one that is global and without borders. Providing our children with the best education that we can is vital to their future.