Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck): I congratulate the right hon. Member on obtaining this Adjournment debate. There is another element that needs to be recognised in respect of Northumberland. I am told that, in a rural area in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, there is a class of seven. That is fine, because it is a small rural school and it is the only service available.

In my part of Northumberland, we now have classes of more than 30 to 35 on some occasions. The big problem in Northumberland is that four fifths of the population lives in the south-east corner and the rural areas are sparsely populated. They still require education services, but they have to be provided on a two-level basis. We have a shortage of spaces in the south-east and a surplus of spaces in the rural parts.

Mr. Beith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining the point that I made earlier about the cost of maintaining schools in scattered rural areas. It is an essential cost because it would not be reasonable to remove schools altogether from areas as remote as some of the places concerned.

The average pupil-teacher ratio in England was 17.4 per cent. in 1993. It was 15.4 per cent. in Scotland; in Northumberland, it was 19.4 per cent. Since then, it has worsened. The Fairshares campaign, which is an independent group of parents in Northumberland who have united to campaign for adequate funding, produced a detailed report on the issue. It carried out a survey of Northumberland schools and found that among respondents, 85 per cent. of schools had experienced an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio between 1991 and 1995.

Class sizes are similarly bad when compared with other areas. The average for England and Wales is that around one quarter of primary pupils are in classes of 30 or more; in Northumberland, approximately half are. That figure relates primarily to the towns and the urban, south-eastern part of Northumberland; classes have to be smaller in rural areas where pupil numbers are low. On top of that, schools have to rely on parents to raise money for

22 Nov 1995 : Column 618

essential equipment and to continue the employment of existing staff. The vast majority of schools surveyed made use of money raised by parents for such purposes--almost a quarter of it for essential items.

The leadership of the county council responded to the crisis in which it was placed by proposing earlier this year to close 10 first schools, six of them--Hipsburn, Acklington, Linton, Milfield, Horncliffe and Thropton-- in my constituency. A number of those 10 are popular schools whose pupils cannot satisfactorily be accommodated elsewhere. Others are village schools in places distinct or remote from the nearest community that would still have a school. It was an unwise response to an admittedly difficult situation. Indeed, the county council has now dropped the proposals and is concentrating on trying to get better funding.

The funding changes have placed Northumberland towards the bottom of the spending tables for education. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy statistics show that Northumberland is ranked towards the bottom of the table of potential schools budgets per pupil in English counties. Oxfordshire has more than £200 more potential schools budget per pupil than Northumberland.

This week, I received a letter from the head teacher of King Edward VI school in Morpeth, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), which takes many pupils from my constituency and has an outstanding record. She used to be the head of a school in Cleveland. She calculated the different funding that would have been available to her school in Cleveland. The difference amounted to more than £450,000. She asked:

I was recently told about a school which was forced to ask parents to raise £25,000 to bring its facilities up to the standard expected under the national curriculum. The school failed in three areas when it was inspected by Ofsted and all of them were due to lack of funding.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting this debate because it is a matter that needed to be debated. Can he develop the argument about nursery vouchers? The Government are going to give £1,000 per child throughout the land. If that goes for nursery school pupils, should not the figure apply to all pupils throughout the land? Would not that be a better system of financing local schools?

Mr. Beith: I am not sure that I would want to construct the funding system on that basis. The fact remains that the amount available per pupil, which is what the hon. Gentleman was getting at, in Northumberland is very much less than in comparable areas and much, much less than in places such as inner London. Northumberland is being asked not just to make efficiency gains, but to make cuts, time and time again. Schools are struggling desperately in the face of that. The chairman of governors of one high school wrote to tell me that his school has been forced to make several part-time and full-time teachers redundant to balance the budget. He pointed out that that would have been avoided if Northumberland had only half as much extra per pupil as some authorities receive.

Another constituent has written to tell me that in her first school, caretakers and meal supervisors are doing extra duties for no remuneration and giving up their

22 Nov 1995 : Column 619

complimentary lunch to save the school £5 per head per week. The school is dependent on the charity and good will of its staff. Another high school lost three teachers, a caretaker, out-of-school activities and staff preparation time. There was an increase in class sizes and the school could not repair its heating system, all as a result of recent cuts.

There is enormous strength of feeling. More than 3,500 people in Northumberland have written to the Secretary of State for the Environment about the standard spending assessment as it affects education funding. I could find many more examples of the way in which schools have had to cut staff, deliberately taking on far less experienced staff in an attempt to reduce costs. Perhaps the final word should go to the constituent who wrote to the Secretary of State for the Environment:

I am waiting for the Secretary of State to avail himself of the opportunity and to see just how difficult the task is. Large class sizes do not mean only the problems mentioned by my constituent, but half as many books again to mark and half as many parents again to see. All those problems make it impossible to give the level of attention teachers see as required.

When pressed, the Government say that it is not their fault; they claim that the fault lies with the local authority and its decisions on funding priorities. They say that the county council could solve the problem by managing its school budget more efficiently and they say that the schools could solve the problem by spending their contingency funds. None of those arguments holds water in Northumberland's case.

Northumberland spent more than the SSA levels on education, yet its education spending is one of the lowest in the country. It is prevented by capping from raising any more money. Between 1993-94 and 1994-95, Northumberland's SSA increased by 4.4 per cent. The Government were saying, "Yes, you do need to spend more money," yet Northumberland was allowed to spend only 1.75 per cent. more, so the Government were saying at the same time, "No, you cannot spend it." It is like saying to someone, "You can have £5 a week more pocket money, but I am inventing a rule that says that you cannot spend it." In this case, we are talking not about pocket money, but about essentials.

I am hardly a fan of the Labour administration in the county hall--indeed, I am often a critic of some of its decisions and spending priorities. However, it is accepted on all sides, including the Conservatives on the county council, that the problem cannot be resolved just by changing the county's spending priorities. Indeed, in 1990-91, the Audit Commission's view was that Northumberland was not mismanaged. The commission said:

Since then, the costs of education other than in schools have been reduced by almost a quarter. Comparisons with other areas on this point are favourable. In a sample of comparable counties, including Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Cumbria, Northumberland's costs were the lowest. Administrative costs as a percentage of the potential schools budget were,

22 Nov 1995 : Column 620

at 1.93 per cent., only slightly higher than those of Cumbria and Lincolnshire, and lower than those of the other authorities mentioned. Given the lower pupil numbers, that suggests that education administration in Northumberland is efficient.

The contingency funds are largely mythical. Schools have no more than two weeks' operating costs, if one averages it across the board, kept as contingency funds. Any small business would regard that as a small margin, especially when some of the funds are earmarked for essential projects. In a very small school, one family leaving the area can slice more than that two weeks' contingency fund from the school's budget for a year. Schools have to keep something in reserve.

The Government and the Prime Minister claim that education has become a priority. This is the opportunity for them to match words with action. The Government should bear in mind the £7 million that was lost through changing the funding arrangements and consider restoring that funding. I urge them to review the standard spending assessment formula to give a fair allocation to Northumberland. The Department of the Environment is reviewing the area cost adjustment, but the review needs to consider the particular problems highlighted by underfunding in Northumberland. We need action sooner than the time scale of the review will permit.

I fear that if we find in the Budget in a week's time that there is some more money for education, it will all be eaten up to match the existing amount that local authorities spend over their standard spending assessments and to deal with new responsibilities, such as the extra costs for special needs which are now required--that is estimated nationally to be more than £400 million--new rules on seat belts in school transport, EC legislation on part-time staff, new school transport entitlements and local government pension scheme costs. In those areas, any new money over and above inflation that the Government promise will be eaten up, not just in Northumberland, but in other places.

In Northumberland, we have a large need over and above those other needs. I plead with the Minister to recognise that need and to realise that it is accepted across the board, by people in all political parties on the county council and here in the House. There are Northumberland Members from all three political parties present in this debate. I urge the Minister to respond to the plea.

Next Section

IndexHome Page