Anne Main leads a debate on school funding

24th October 2018

Anne Main leads a debate on school funding and the huge pressures facing schools and teachers.

School Funding

I beg to move,

That this House has considered school funding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I wanted to keep the title of the debate broad because school funding does not have the same impact in all areas. We must continue to ensure that all our children get an excellent education regardless of where they live, and that all our schools have the money in place to provide that.

I am sure that hon. Members welcome the record levels of funding going to our schools. The simple facts tell us that, overall, more money is being spent, and that is a good thing, but schools are not feeling the effects of that increase. We must differentiate between the schools budget and the teaching budget: more money is being spent on education, but that does not necessarily filter its way down to the experience for all pupils and teachers.

Last month I met local headteachers and parents as part of a Fair Funding For All Schools campaign that has been going up and down the country, which colleagues may have seen. The overall view of the group was that we need more resources in our schools budget, but they were disappointed by the line repeated by the Government that more money than ever is going into our schools. Although that may be the case, the schools are not necessarily able to feel the effects of the increase, due to the ever-rising costs and additional financial burdens placed upon them.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way—I suspect that I will be the first of many to intervene. I have done a survey of a number of schools in Coventry. Headteachers tells me that they have a number of funding problems. For example, in Coventry they have probably lost something like £295 per pupil over the past seven years. I acknowledge that the Government have put £1.5 billion back in, but they also have a shortfall of about £3 billion from cuts some years ago. Does she agree—I doubt she will—that one of the big problems is the need for specialist teachers for children with special needs?

The hon. Gentleman is pre-empting my speech; I will deal with special educational needs because they are of great concern.

If the Minister meets headteachers in Coventry or in my constituency, they may well tell him that the reality is that the current budget is not enough. Sian Kilpatrick of Bernards Heath Junior School told me that recently she wrote to parents to explain the financial squeeze that her school faces. Mrs Kilpatrick compiled a helpful list of all the additional things that she has to allocate funding to in order to keep her school running—I will not go through them all, but I am happy to share the list with the Minister. The things she outlined include: outdoor vital risk assessments, legal human resources advice, general maintenance costs and staff insurance payments. Those are just some of the additional costs that schools have to find money for. On top of that, she had to pay £8,000 to get her trees pruned.

Surely one of the problems is that different campaign groups, and indeed the Department for Education, use headline figures that vary from organisation to organisation. In working together to achieve a solution to the problem, it is not particularly helpful for words such as “deceptive” and “dishonest” to be used by one campaign against another or against the Department. Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be a much firmer grip on the use of language by the campaign groups?

I cannot comment on the campaign groups; I am commenting on what the headteachers in St Albans said, and no one used the words “deceptive” or “dishonest.” The purpose of my being here today is to ensure that there is a degree of clarity about where the funding goes. The headline is that we are putting more into schools—and we are—but the reality on the ground is that teachers face undue pressures. I want to highlight that. I cannot accept anyone’s use of inappropriate language—that is not fair on either side of the argument. We must be respectful of the pressures faced by the schools and by the Minister.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, will meet in half an hour to discuss education issues in Northern Ireland—to be fair, they are not the Minister’s responsibility. In Northern Ireland, teachers, schools and boards of governors have to decide whether to pay for a teacher or to increase class sizes, thereby affecting the quality of education. Are those the sorts of decisions being made in the hon. Lady constituency, as they are in mine?

My teachers did not exactly raise class sizes, although it was covered in the round that that was a problem. They raised the problem of not being able to refurbish toilets, pay for much-needed decoration or replace outdated PCs in their IT suites.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the picture varies, but the signs indicate that schools are not benefiting universally, as we would wish them to, from the new funding formula. Many schools I have spoken to have reiterated that the national funding formula must cover the funding needed for schools, not just the pupil-led aspect. Pupils and parents expect those schools to be fit for purpose as well as to provide lessons. We must address the concerns raised by teachers; we must not hide behind any basic facts of a rise in per-pupil funding. We must look at this issue in the round.

The Minister said that he is in listening mode. I hope that the Government will look carefully at parents’ requests to direct money to special educational needs, as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) outlined. The Department for Education reports that we have upwards of 1 million pupils with special educational needs in our school— a number that has risen significantly in recent years and is 14% of school pupils. I welcome the news that the Government have committed to improve funding for SEN pupils and that a further £1 billion has been put into this fund since 2013. Those are good things, but we must look at whether they are sufficient.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. There is an anomaly that schools that accept pupils from poorer backgrounds are rewarded and encouraged by the pupil premium that those schools attract for taking those children, but for children with additional or special needs the first 11 hours of the education, health and care plans are funded by the local school, which often places a financial burden on it. There is therefore a disincentive for schools to take on children from those backgrounds who have additional special needs.

I completely agree. I will touch on that issue later in my speech. Links Academy in St Albans says that it is mopping up the very pupils that the hon. Gentleman says are being cold shouldered or refused positions elsewhere.

The National Association of Head Teachers carried out a survey on SEN funding, and a mere 2% of those surveyed said that the top-up funding received was sufficient to meet the growing needs of SEN pupils. That was recognised by both teachers and parents in St Albans. Inevitably, that will have an impact on the way that schools look after SEN pupils. Department for Education figures say we have 2,800 fewer teaching assistants and 2,600 fewer support staff in our schools. That puts even more pressure on teachers and can be especially challenging for teachers dealing with SEN pupils. The increased amount of money paid to some of those who are lower paid and work as assistants or support staff was welcome, but it puts an additional pressure on school resources. We welcome the additional funds for people paid lower wages but we must recognise the true impact.

To return to the remarks of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), I have been in contact with David Allen, headmaster of Links Academy, which I recently visited, and he welcomes pupils with special needs. He described his despair at the rising number of SEN pupils being permanently excluded from mainstream schools. In fact, I was due to meet him there on Thursday with parents and the SEN group, but as soon as the SEN group heard that I was coming, it said it would pull out. Unfortunately, I have had to pull out in order to ensure a fair hearing for the pupil in that school. I was concerned to hear that SEN children are regularly subjected to bullying at school and have resorted to either drugs or knife crime as a result—that is anecdotal and not in my schools in St Albans, but the teacher has backed that up.

The hon. Lady is making some very important points on behalf of pupils with special educational needs. The Department for Education’s statistics show that at the start of this year 4,500 pupils with a statutory right to special educational needs support were not in school at all; they were awaiting a suitable place, and a lot of them were being home schooled because they could not get a place. That is only the tip of the iceberg, because those are only the pupils with a special education need statement or an education, health and care plan. The actual number of young people with special educational needs who are not in school is even higher.

I completely accept the picture that the hon. Lady paints. If we are here to do anything, it is to try to move forward consensually—education is not a hot potato that we can repeatedly pick up and drop. She mentioned statementing for children with special educational needs. Parents tell me that there is sometimes reluctance to statement a child because of the extra resources that should automatically be associated with that. We must look into that, too.

Instead of stepping in and helping SEN children, some mainstream schools permanently exclude pupils, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned, and academies such as Links in my constituency pick up the pieces. As a result of funding pressures, mainstream schools do not always have the staff or resources to care for those children. I have heard parents say that when they contact a mainstream school that has places—this is what the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to—but inform it that their child has a special educational need, they suddenly find that the place is no longer available. That is a primary concern for teachers, and I hope that the Minister will set out his plans to secure and correctly direct SEN teaching resources, which are absolutely needed.

Has the hon. Lady heard from her local schools, as I have, that one of the barriers to getting a statement in the first place is the severe underfunding of child and adolescent mental health services? It is necessary to go through CAMHS to secure an EHCP. The referral time used to be six months, which frankly is a long time in a young child’s life, but in Oxfordshire it now averages two years.

If the hon. Lady secured a debate on CAMHS, I would attend it. I can testify that many parents in my constituency experience issues with CAMHS.

Staff and staffing costs are under severe pressure. Schools cite increased staffing costs, and the amount of their budget that those costs take up, as their main concern. WorthLess? surveyed headteachers as part of its fairer funding campaign and found that 60% had had to reduce their staff by one or more to balance their budget. That goes back to the pressures I mentioned.

Sandringham School in my constituency, which hosted the public meeting I attended—it was quite a rocky meeting, but I said I would bring back people’s concerns—explained to me its issues with staff pay rises, national insurance and pension contributions, and teacher recruitment shortfalls. Many schools across the country are grappling with those four key issues. In an area such as mine, where house prices and the cost of living are very high, wages sometimes just cannot keep up so that teachers are able to live in the constituency and work in its schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Although I welcome the extra £3.5 million per annum for North East Hampshire’s schools as a result of funding adjustments, there is still a big divergence in per-pupil funding across the country. That is entirely in line with her point about the cost of staffing, which has no relationship with per-pupil funding, given the high cost of living in Hampshire and elsewhere. Does she agree that it is important that future funding formulas take proper account of the cost of living?

As a former teacher, I know that there are teachers who argue vociferously for universal pay standards across the country and dispute the need for pay to reflect local house prices and so on. That is a debate for another day. However, teachers in my area say—this is awful, but I accept it—that when a valued, top-of-the-range headteacher or head of department goes, there can be a small, collective sigh of relief in the budget department because that means the school can take on a younger, less experienced teacher on a lower pay scale and the budget suddenly becomes a little looser.

It is demoralising for a school not to be able to reward and keep high-value staff because it simply does not have the money to pay them. I am experiencing that cycle in St Albans, where staff are hard to retain. Although it is great to have bright young things—I was one of those once—coming through the door, with all the enthusiasm they bring to teaching, there is nothing like an experienced head of department.

There is widespread unhappiness about the handling of the recent teacher pay rise announcement. The key problem is that schools themselves have to fund the first 1% of that pay rise, which we so generously allocated them but did not provide additional funding to support them with. Declan Linnane, the head of Nichols Breakspear School in St Albans, told me that that 1% alone will cost his school £30,000—money it will have to find from yet further efficiency savings or another member of staff in already difficult times.

With rising national insurance contributions and an impending increase in employer pension contributions, schools are under huge pressure to find more savings at the cost of our pupils’ education. Increasing staffing costs have a huge impact on schools’ budgets. Removing the need for schools to fund the first 1% of pay increases themselves would be welcome. I wonder whether the Minister is in a generous mood and would like to make a grab on the Chancellor’s Budget.

Schools are interested in the Government’s proposal to create a central staffing database to reduce agency fees. Agency staff are a big issue for many schools, which often cannot retain staff and are obliged to use agency staff as cover, or run their staff so tightly that there is no slack in the system if a staff member goes ill, for example. I would be grateful if the Minister updated me on that database and when headteachers should expect it to be available.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which reported last month on education funding in England, found that per-pupil school spending has fallen by 8% in real terms since 2010. That must be considered alongside the fact that, according to the DFE’s own figures, half a million more pupils are in our schools now than in 2010. The IFS also reported that school sixth forms have endured a 21% reduction in per-pupil spending since 2011, and it estimates that by 2019-20 spending per sixth-form pupil will be lower than at any point since 2002.

Those are worrying statistics, which address many of the real concerns of teachers and parents in St Albans. We must aim for funding that meets the needs of schools across the country—as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) said, certain parts of the country are really struggling—and allows them to deliver excellent teaching that inspires pupils to succeed in life.

Worryingly, we have also heard reports of schools having to use the pupil premium to fund their core budget. A recent poll of headteachers found that 70% had dipped into the pupil premium to prop up their core budget. That is borne out in St Albans, where we are aware that happens. It should be of real concern that a fund designed to help students from the most disadvantaged families has to be used for overall school spending. That cannot be right.

Schools are also concerned about their lack of ability to plan their finances. With the NFF being introduced over a number of years and uncertainty about how it will affect individual schools, headteachers are unwilling to commit to long-term planning. That was reflected in a poll of headteachers, which found that 90% feel the NFF has given them no long-term financial certainty and has resulted in no “meaningful financial planning” being carried out beyond year 1.

I do not just take things at face value. Trading statistics is never good, as I said at the public meeting I mentioned. I believe in listening to what teachers say, and they say they are struggling to do long-term planning under the current system. They need longer-term certainty about their budgets.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem with long-term planning and wriggle room in budgets is even greater for smaller schools? In constituencies such as mine there are lots of very small, very good schools of 30 children or even fewer. If a large school has a bad period in which it has an issue with leadership, a poor Ofsted report or whatever, it can absorb the effect of getting fewer pupils as a consequence and still be able to plan ahead. However, that could be curtains for a small school, which would mean a community losing its school for good.

I do not have experience of that, but I recognise the picture the hon. Gentleman paints. It is vital that we address those concerns about funding.

The UK tax burden is at a 50-year high, so the Minister will be pleased to hear that I do not propose additional tax rises. We are at the limit of how much tax we can reasonably ask ordinary people to pay. Working families have felt the squeeze since 2010 as the Government have tried to tackle the enormous financial burden we found ourselves with. It is good that we have made progress. Far be it from me to tell the Chancellor how to do his job, but the Budget is looming, so I am going to put my thoughts on the record. I am certain that the Government can find the money if we prioritise our spending appropriately.

We had a manifesto commitment—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will probably profoundly disagree with me about this—to scrap universal free school meals for reception, year 1 and year 2 pupils, but it was dropped. That was misguided. I and some of the teachers who were at the meeting I mentioned think we should have investigated that further. Thankfully, in St Albans only around 6% of pupils are entitled to free school meals. In Hertfordshire overall that figure is about 8%. Perversely, that means we subsidise between 90% and 94% of parents in Hertfordshire who could pay for their own children to be fed. Just as I do not want budgets that should be used for pupils at the poorest margin to be taken away, I do not want wealthier parents to be cross-subsidised when they do not need it. Such largesse is costing my local authority £6 million, and it is money that should be spent on teaching. I would rather St Albans pupils received a universal quality of teaching than that those with more affluent parents should receive a gratuitous free lunch they are not entitled to.

I am a great supporter of the good aid projects that have been carried out around the world, but, again, it seems crazy to me that we ring-fence huge sums of money for foreign aid when vital public services such as the education budget lack funding. The aid budget should be under the same scrutiny and pressures as other Departments’ budgets. We are effectively shovelling money out the door to meet an arbitrary target set in law. That misplaced policy should be brought before the House so we can decide whether to look at that ring-fencing.

I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the issues raised in the debate, including some of the experiences recounted by teachers and parents. There is a funding problem in schools and it does not seem right that more and more schools have to go cap in hand to parents for even the most basic of provisions, such as textbooks. Alan Gray started the public meeting I attended by asking “What price education?” He did not ask the price for pruning trees, painting the classrooms or replacing some broken paving slabs, but the price of education. Of course it is entirely reasonable for parents to be asked for contributions for bonus offerings such as trips, but when they are asked to contribute for vital reading materials, the central funding formula needs to be addressed.

Teachers in my constituency do not tell me that the NFF is bad policy; they want it to be funded correctly. The aim of ending the so-called postcode lottery for school funding under the NFF is sensible, but the lack of overall funding means that it is difficult to deliver. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, and I hope to see some movement on the issue in the Budget. We must answer the call: what price do we put on our children’s education?

 
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At the conclusion of the debate
 

I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. Let me tell that the Minister that I am going to mark my own homework. I will give myself four out of 10, because I have obviously not managed to convey the level of frustration that my teachers have been experiencing. The statistics are all fabulous and wonderful, but there is a reason why I am no good at maths, because they actually do not mean a lot to me. To me, they mean that there is a great effort on behalf of this Government to do the right thing from current underfunding, but the reality is that teachers on the ground face huge pressures, and we have got to look into this.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said that teachers are running on empty, and he is not alone. I did not refer to attainments in St Albans because I know that we do very well. However, as a former teacher, I recognise that there is value added that does not always show too well in attainment charts. Nevertheless, teachers have put in a lot of effort to bring pupils from a very low base up to a higher base, and we cannot just say that because pupils have been achieving, funding is therefore not needed. That is not the case. All schools and all teachers should have the resources they need. I will keep pressing on this issue, because this is something that we need to take forward collaboratively, because otherwise we would be letting down the children of the future. So I am sorry to say that I will put my dunce’s cap on and say that I could not persuade the Minister today.

Hansard

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