Anne Main leads Parliamentary debate on school funding

25th April 2019

Anne Main urges the Government to recognise the pressures on schools and the real-terms cut in per-pupil funding, particularly for SEND pupils and calls on the Government to provide sufficient funding to cover the extra costs incurred by National Insurance contributions, employer pension contributions, ageing buildings as well as schools now providing services to young people that used to be paid for by health and local authorities.

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the increasing financial pressures faced by schools; further notes that schools are having to provide more and more services, including those previously provided by other public agencies including health and local authorities; notes with concern funds for schools being spread more thinly and not being sufficient to cope with additional costs; and further calls on the Government to increase funding provided to schools to cover the additional services schools now perform for pupils.

I will not take interventions, on the grounds that it is a hugely important debate. I first held a debate on this issue in October 2018 in Westminster Hall under the title “School Funding”, and it was extremely well attended. The concerns expressed then about the level of school funding were consistent. Hopes were high that the Minister would be in listening mode and that the Chancellor would open his wallet to find some extra funds. Obviously, that extra funding has not appeared, so it is crucial that the subject of funding for schools should be revisited at the earliest opportunity. We in this House need to keep up the pressure.

I am sure that the British public can be forgiven for thinking this House has taken leave of its senses, with Brexit acting as an all-consuming topic to the apparent exclusion of all others. Indeed, the message from the Chancellor in his spring statement appeared to be that any spare funding that might be available was being stashed away until Brexit was resolved. Our inability to progress Brexit now means that the British taxpayer will be forking out millions for European elections that may or may not be needed, and billions to extend the Brexit can-kicking. It is time we put the focus back on to the future of our young people and children, who deserve a first-class education in a decent school environment, well-staffed with highly qualified teachers and with adequately resourced classrooms. Today, this House today needs to reassert its priories. We need to put Brexit on the back burner and say that what matters is the future of our young people.

This issue has attracted significant interest across the House and the application for this debate had around 50 supporters from almost every party represented in this Chamber. I am sure that, like other hon. Members, I could simply dust off my October speech, because I know from the feedback I have heard nationally and locally that nothing has significantly changed in the months since my last debate on this issue. Parents are told that they have a choice on where their children can attend school, yet every year parents and pupils in my constituency are left scrabbling around for school places, with some being offered places a 40-minute drive away. The same Minister is with us today, and I hope that he does not just dust off his October speech, because quite frankly it was not helpful at the time. As I said in my winding-up speech last time, repeating the same mantra over and again but not admitting that there is a deep-rooted, systemic problem makes the Government look cloth-eared.

I hope that the Minister is listening, and I hope we can have another shot today at persuading him that this funding crisis needs addressing. Brexit cannot be used as an excuse to keep kicking this can into the long grass.

The Government have told us repeatedly that record levels of funding are going to our schools. The simple facts tell us that more money is being spent overall, and that is a good thing, but schools are not feeling the effects of that increase. Teachers and heads keep telling me that we must differentiate between the school’s budget and the teaching budget, and that although more money is being spent on education, it does not necessarily filter down to improve the experience of pupils and teachers.

The pressures facing schools are widely known across the House and in the Department for Education. It should worry us that, earlier this month, over 1,000 councillors wrote to the Secretary of State demanding more money for local schools. That is not just about campaigning for the local elections. Many of those people are on parent-teacher associations and understand the pressures that their schools are under. The campaign supported by those councillors emphasised the real-terms cut in per-pupil funding and the severe problems faced by local authorities in funding education, particularly for special educational needs and disability—SEND—pupils. Their letter stated that, according to the Education Policy Institute, almost a third of all council-run secondary schools and eight in 10 academies are now in deficit.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that per-pupil school spending had fallen by 8% in real terms since 2010. That must be considered alongside the fact that, according to the DFE’s own figures, there are now 500,000 more pupils in our schools than there were in 2010. That is half a million extra young minds to neuter—

Nurture! Not neuter!

That is half a million extra young minds to nurture, and that cannot be done on the cheap. I am not asking the Minister for a loaves-and-fishes miracle for my local schools. I do not expect a smaller amount of money to be spread among more people. I am asking for a financial settlement to reflect the extra strain on the budget, and a funding formula that delivers for all our schools. We must not rob Peter to pay Paul when the formula is next tinkered with.

The IFS has 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. That is going back a very long way. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the picture varies, but the signs indicate that schools are not benefiting universally, and we must find a 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.

The Sutton Trust reports that up to two thirds of secondary schools have had to cut teaching staff for financial reasons. We are also seeing a worrying trend in cuts to the extracurricular activities and facilities that can be so important for children as they make their way through their school careers. Around 60% of secondary school teachers have reported cuts in IT equipment for cost reasons, with 40% stating that school outings have been cut, too. We must therefore be concerned that almost a third of teachers polled by the Sutton Trust reported a cut in sporting provisions for pupils in their schools.

I said it in the previous debate and I will say it again that Sian Kilpatrick, the head of Bernards Heath Junior School in my constituency, wrote to parents—she is not alone in that—to explain the financial squeeze that her school faces due to funding restrictions. She compiled a list of all the additional things to which she must allocate funding—not a nice-to-have list, but a must-be-done list—that includes vital outdoor risk assessments, legal human resources advice, general maintenance costs and staff insurance payments, which are just some of the additional costs for which schools have to find money. On top of that, she even had to pay £8,000 to get her school’s trees pruned. Schools across the country face similar shopping lists that will suck up vital school funding.

Schools are also concerned about their lack of ability to plan their finances. With the introduction of the national funding formula happening over several years, there is huge uncertainty about how it will affect individual schools, and headteachers are unwilling to commit to long-term planning, which cannot be right. Whichever Government are in power, we need long-term certainty for our schools’ futures. Angela Donkin of the National Foundation for Educational Research cites several key factors that have stretched school budgets in recent years. I will not go through all the factors, because I know how many Members want to speak. I am sure that others will list them today, but they include, to name but a few, an increase in employer national insurance contributions and employer pension contributions, ageing building stock, the teacher pay award and the requirement for all students to continue in education.

The requirement on schools to offer services previously carried out by other public agencies can been seen across the country. A survey by WorthLess? found that 94% of headteachers polled said that their schools now routinely deliver services previously provided by local authorities. This is not a point of debate, but whoever is asked—no matter the local authority, county or politician —will agree with it. All these factors have resulted in immense strain on school budgets. More money is going into schools, but so much more is being asked of the money.

Staff and staffing costs are under severe pressure. Many school staff in my constituency cannot afford to live in the area, so the staff turnover and churn is huge. Many staff are let go because schools can find it easier and cheaper to take on newly qualified, less-expensive members of staff. With the difficult roles that our teachers now must fulfil, we cannot expect a school to be run by young, inexperienced teachers. Is it any wonder that the number of teachers leaving the profession within four years is on the rise and that the number of vacancies and temporarily filled posts is increasing?

I will not go through all my facts and figures, because I want to leave myself a couple of minutes to sum up at the end, but there is widespread unhappiness about the handling of the recent teacher pay announcement. The key problem is that schools themselves have to fund the first 1% of the pay rise—there is nothing like dipping one’s hand into someone else’s pocket, Chancellor. We want to pay our teachers and teaching assistants more, because they do a wonderful job, but if we increase their pay, we cannot expect schools to fund some of that increase, because the money will have to come from somewhere else. Declan Linnane, the head of Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School in St Albans, told me that the 1% increase alone will cost his school £30,000—money that he just does not have.

The Department for Education reports that upwards of 1 million pupils have special educational needs in our school, and the number has risen significantly recently. Those children will often need classroom assistants and help, and they often represent an additional requirement on school resources, so is it any wonder that parents are telling me that there is often reluctance to statement children with special educational needs or that there are greater school exclusions among pupils with difficulties that manifest themselves in destructive classroom behaviour?

I will conclude my remarks with three questions for the Minister. First—this comes from a teacher in my constituency—what guarantees can we have regarding the cost of teacher pension contribution increases and salary increases? He said that we have only been given funding information for the 2019-20 academic year, with nothing beyond that point. Secondly, staff recruitment is at crisis level and recent initiatives are failing, so how can the Government make the profession more attractive to graduates? Thirdly, the basic rate for 16 to 19-year-old funding has been frozen at £4,000 a student since 2013-14, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that school sixth forms have faced budget cuts of 21% per student, so what commitment can the Minister give that that will be addressed?

Hansard

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Let me start by saying that I share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s visit to his constituency today, and I am sure they are shared right across this House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing and opening this important debate. The Government are determined to create a world-class education system that offers opportunity to every child, no matter their circumstances or where they live. I share the views of many in this debate that schools must have the resources they need to make that happen. That is why we are investing in our schools, delivering on our promise to make funding fairer so that the investment is going to the right places, and helping schools to make the most out of every pound they receive.

Does the Minister agree with my analysis, based on one-to-one meetings with headteachers in Solihull, that much of the long-term financial challenge relates to teachers’ pensions and that we must put those on a sustainable long-term footing, as well as dealing with the real challenges we face in the here and now?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the teachers’ pension scheme. The employer contribution rate will increase from 16% to 23% in September 2019 but, as confirmed earlier in April, we will be providing funding for this increase in 2019-20 for all state-funded schools, further education and sixth-form colleges, and adult community learning providers. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) asked about that funding in future years, and it will of course be a matter for the spending review.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) asked whether I could meet his local headteachers to discuss funding, and I would be delighted to do so. The Secretary of State and I meet headteachers regularly, almost on a weekly basis, to discuss not only school funding, but other issues such as standards in our schools, and we would be happy to do that with the hon. Gentleman’s local headteachers as well.

Standards are rising in our schools. Thanks in part to our reforms, the proportion of pupils in good or outstanding schools has increased from 66% in 2010 to 85%. I listened carefully to the excellent opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, who has raised the issue of school funding, both for her constituency’s schools and nationally, on many occasions, including in Westminster Hall debates recently and again today. I am sure that the Treasury will also have heard what she had to say today. I can give her the assurances she seeks that the Secretary of State and I are both working hard to prepare our spending review bid for when that process starts later in the year to ensure that we have the best bid possible for schools, high-needs and post-16 funding.

As I was saying, standards are rising in our schools. In primary schools, our more rigorous curriculum is on a par with the highest-performing in the world and it has been taught since September 2014. Since it was first tested in 2016, we have seen the proportion of primary school pupils reaching the expected standard in the maths test rise from 70% to 76% in 2018, and in the reading test the figure has risen from 66% to 75%. Of course we would not know that if we adopted the Labour party’s policy of scrapping SATs, which of course we will not do.

Will the Minister give way?

I will not give way.

Since the introduction of the phonics check in 2012, the proportion of six-year-olds reaching the expected standards in the phonics decoding check has risen from 58% in 2012 to 82% last year. We have risen from joint 10th to joint eighth in the PIRLS—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—of the reading ability of nine-year-olds, achieving our highest ever score in that survey. In secondary schools, our more rigorous academic curriculum and qualifications support social mobility by giving disadvantaged children the knowledge they need to have the same career and life opportunities as their peers. The attainment gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their peers, measured by the disadvantage gap index, has narrowed by nearly 10% since 2011.

To support these improvements, the Government have prioritised school spending, while having to take difficult decisions in other areas of public spending. We have been able to do that because of our balanced approach to the public finances and to our stewardship of the economy, reducing the annual deficit from an unsustainable 10% of GDP in 2010—some £150 billion a year—to 2% in 2018. The economic stability that that provided has resulted in employment rising to record levels and unemployment being at its lowest level since the 1970s, giving young people leaving school more opportunities to have jobs and start their careers. Youth unemployment is at half the rate it was when we came into office in 2010, taking over from Labour.

It is our balanced approach that allows us to invest in public services. Core funding for schools and high needs has risen from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion this year. That includes the extra £1.3 billion for schools and high needs that was announced in 2017 and that we have invested across 2018-19 and 2019-20, over and above the plans set out in the spending review.

Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that in 2020 real-terms per pupil funding for five to 16-year-olds in schools will be more than 50% higher than it was in 2000. We do recognise, though, the budgeting challenges that schools face as we ask them to achieve more for children. One element of it is about making sure that money is directed to where it is needed most. Since April last year, we have started to distribute funding through the new national funding formula, with each area’s allocation taking into account the individual needs and characteristics of its pupils and schools. Schools are already benefiting from the gains delivered by the national funding formula.

Since 2017, we have given every local authority more money for every pupil in every school, while allocating the biggest increases to the schools that the previous system had left most underfunded. By 2019-20, all schools will attract an increase of at least 1% per pupil compared with 2017-18 baselines, and the most underfunded schools will attract up to 6% more per pupil by 2019-20, compared with 2017-18.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about phonics and SATs, which it is important we keep, but does he agree that if the national health service can have a 10-year plan and a five-year funding settlement, education should have a 10-year plan and a minimum of a five-year funding settlement?

As I have said to the Education Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, I do not disagree with that view. We will say more about our approach to the spending review in due course.

In Hertfordshire, where the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans is located, funding for schools has increased this year under the national funding formula by 2.4% per pupil compared with 2017. That is equivalent to an extra £32.1 million in total, when rising pupil numbers are taken into account.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden made a measured and therefore persuasive speech about the funding of schools in her constituency. As a consequence, her words will undoubtedly carry weight with the Treasury. She made the important point that 90% of pupils in her constituency now attend good or outstanding schools, compared with just 67% in 2010.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton); as a neighbouring MP, I find I always do. He will be aware that funding in his constituency has risen by 5.5% per pupil compared with 2017. That is one of the highest increases and reflects the historical underfunding of West Sussex schools—something the national funding formula was introduced to address. He referred to teachers’ pay, which is due to rise by 3.5% for teachers on the main pay scale and by 2% for those on the upper pay scale. We are funding both those pay rises, except for the first 1%, which schools will have budgeted for already.

I also listened carefully to the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). I congratulate him on the fact that 96% of pupils in schools in his constituency are attending good or outstanding schools. He will be aware that under the national funding formula per pupil funding in his constituency is rising by 4.5% compared with 2017-18.

I welcome the contribution to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and his acknowledgement that, as a result of the fairer national funding formula, schools in his constituency will attract a 5.9% per pupil increase. In a compelling speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) raised the issue of special needs funding. Our commitment to helping every child to reach their full potential applies just as strongly to children with special educational needs and disabilities as it does to any other child, and we know that schools share that commitment. We recognise the concerns that have been raised about the costs of making provision for children and young people with complex special educational needs. We have increased overall funding allocations to local authorities for high needs year on year, and we announced in December that we will provide an additional £250 million over these last two financial years.

Will the Minister give way?

I will not because I am running out of time; I do apologise to the hon. Gentleman.

In Hertfordshire, for example, that means that the authority will receive an additional £5.7 million between these two financial years, taking its high-needs funding to £114.7 million. High-needs funding nationally is now over £6 billion, having risen by £1 billion since 2013. We will ensure in the coming spending review that we keep a firm focus on identifying the resources required to ensure that the most vulnerable children are receiving the support they need. Of course, the response to pressures on high-needs budgets cannot be about just funding. It must also be about ensuring that we are spending the money effectively.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans also raised the issue of post-16 funding. We recognise the pressures that post-16 funding has been under—my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills is also listening to this debate. We have protected the base rate of funding for all 16 to 19-year-old students until 2020, and our commitment to the 16-to-19 sector has contributed to what is the highest proportion of 16 to 17-year-olds participating in education or apprenticeships since records began. We are also providing additional funding to support colleges and schools to grow participation in level 3 maths. Institutions will receive an extra £600 for every additional student for the next academic year, 2019-20.

I have listened carefully to hon. and right hon. Members’ speeches today. The Government recognise the pressure on schools as we seek to balance the public finances. While bringing down the budget deficit, we have protected funding for the NHS, international development and schools for five to 16-year-olds. We are now preparing the best spending review bid that we can for schools, for high needs and for post-16 funding, and today’s debate will undoubtedly have an influence on the Treasury. Standards are rising in our schools. The attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds has closed by 13.5% since 2011 for primary schools and 9.5% for secondary schools. Reading standards are rising, maths standards are rising and the proportion of pupils being taught in good or outstanding schools has risen significantly. I am grateful to all Members who have contributed to today’s debate and I know that they will have been heard in all the right places.

I thank the Minister for his response; I have to say, I think he was a little more mindful of the comments made in the Chamber today than he might have appeared to be in Westminster Hall.

It might have sounded as though Members across the House had met in a pub beforehand and conspired to sing the same song from the same hymn sheet but it is indeed the same song. We have all expressed views that are reflective of the constituencies that we serve. Unless these issues are addressed, whoever is sitting in the Minister’s place in 10 years’ time will hear the same song, and it is not just about educational outcomes. I was a teacher a long time ago, and it is about the child’s experience—the experiences that we all carry through life.

We are passionate about this issue in this House, because we all know the impact of not getting education right and we all know that we are sowing the future of our nation with what we are asking today. If the Chancellor is listening, will he double whatever figure he might come up with? Or maybe even treble it; I do not mind. But whatever figure it is, it will never be enough, because excellence always cost money, effort and time, and we cannot get those on the cheap. So whatever is coming up, please listen to debates such as these, because we are not going away. Somebody else will put in for another debate, I will be there alongside them and we will come back and say, “What more can we do?”, so hopefully we can get this solved.

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