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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I understand the problems that Northumberland faces because of its sparsity, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, nevertheless, the county has the highest SSA, and the highest capping level, per head of population of any shire county? It gets the largest grant per head of population of any shire county, too.

There might be greater sympathy for Northumberland county council if it were not, for example, wasting £1 million fighting the Army, and wanting to hold a public inquiry into the plans for Otterburn training area. If it had withdrawn its objections, it could have saved £1 million, which would have meant much more money for schools.

Mr. Beith: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will explain to his constituents in Ponteland his view that they cannot have a public inquiry into the substantial increase in traffic through the town, which they are concerned about, because to do so would impair the education budget. That is not the way in which we are supposed to run the local government system.

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Public inquiries into major planning decisions are held if there are legitimate objections and matters of concern that have not been resolved by negotiation beforehand. The county should not be told that it has to choose either education or democracy in planning but cannot have both. That is not the way in which the local government system is run.

The hon. Member for Hexham must be well aware that the Conservatives on the county council share the concern about the current and previous settlements, and have been involved in regular representations to Ministers on the issue.

The Secretary of State wrote to me before Christmas:

I think that she is wrong on both counts. There are areas of very high deprivation in Northumberland, some of which are in my constituency. Some of the wards in Berwick and Alnwick have the highest socio-economic deprivation in the county, and rate high by national standards. It is also a high-cost area in which to run an education system because of the high cost of sparsity, involving the school size issues and transport costs that I have mentioned.

Mr. Robin Squire: These are well-trodden paths, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to put it on record that sparsity is the only element within the entire SSA system which includes what I think is called a judgmental uplift--in other words, a greater value is applied to it than the evidence alone would suggest was justified. That, in part, recognises the sort of difficulties that he is outlining.

Mr. Beith: We could get into a complex statistical argument about whether there is such a thing as super-sparsity, and whether the sparsity factor fails to reflect the extent of sparsity in Northumberland. Sparsity is a significant problem in the education system in Northumberland. It makes it difficult for the authority to meet some of the obligations that the Department seeks to impose on it in terms of reducing surplus places, for example. Normally, the surplus places in a remote rural school cannot be removed without taking the school away from the area altogether.

The end results of the budget cuts that we have had in recent years--and which we look likely to face this year--are serious for the schools. There will be cuts in staff numbers, and senior staff will be retired to enable the recruitment of cheaper, more junior staff.

Much of the pressure which fuels the problem of early retirement that the Secretary of State is seeking to address--in an unsatisfactory way, in my opinion, although they need to be addressed--arises because schools cannot afford their present staff structure, and have too many good experienced teachers. The schools have to let some of those teachers go by early retirement so as to get people straight out of college who are lower on the salary scale.

When new appointments are made, governing bodies have to look at staff from the standpoint of what they will cost. It is not a case of whether this is the right person to fill the particular vacancy, but whether this

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is a cheaper teacher--that is to say, someone at the bottom of the salary scale. That cannot be good for the schools.

In addition, spending on books, equipment and maintenance is being abandoned. Educationally important activities are being curtailed, and there is an excessive dependence on business sponsorship and parents for the basic essentials. Clearly, the involvement of parents in fund raising is enormously valuable, and we want to encourage it by giving charitable status to schools--such as the private sector already enjoys. But when that becomes necessary for the basic essentials in schools, something has gone wrong with the funding system. All of this has gone on year after year, and schools as well as authorities have drawn on their reserves.

Northumberland is seeking to make bigger cuts in its central education expenditure to try to protect the schools budget, but the threat is significant. Facilities such as Ford Castle in my constituency--which provides residential environmental education--are now threatened. I hope that there will be a way around this, so that the institution can be floated off. But that will work only if schools can continue to make use of the facilities it provides. It would be a failure if the very facilities that it provides cannot be used by schools in the future, and if a new system for running it cannot be set up with reasonable starting finance.

The learning support team for first schools provided by Northumberland is one of the items that may be removed entirely under the current cuts. Small schools cannot expect to have all the expertise required for special needs purposes, and the support provided by this team is enormously valuable in those schools. To quote St. John's Roman Catholic first school in Alnwick:

In addition to those problems, we have the funding problems in further education, to which hon. Members have referred. Kirkley Hall college, which many of my constituents, including my son, attend, has been badly hit by what has happened over the demand-led element, which was introduced to encourage colleges to grow on a marginal cost basis, improving efficiency and increasing the number of students benefiting. The FE sector was led to believe that DLE funding was uncapped.

Now colleges have been told that they are unlikely to get that funding even for the spring and summer terms this year. That places them in an impossible position. In contractual and staff terms, they planned to provide training services, for which they will not now be funded. That poses severe dangers to the further education of many of my constituents.

I argue for an improved system of distributing funds in education, but I also strongly support the case for additional funding made by my hon. Friend the Member

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for Bath (Mr. Foster). I can tell the Labour Members who are present that the argument that we have been putting forward has been supported by the Labour party in Northumberland. The Labour-controlled county council passed a resolution just before the Budget statement, which said:

    "this County Council believes that safeguarding the quality of the Education and Community Care services should take priority over tax cuts in the forthcoming national Budget, and urges the Chancellor of the Exchequer to protect these services by . . . investing at least the equivalent of 1p on income tax for Education".

Labour county councillors voted for that. Labour Members should therefore support our motion tonight.

9.16 pm

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East): When the debate started, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) rightly outlined some of the principles or objectives of education in terms of wanting to ensure that all youngsters who came out of education were valued, respected and able to contribute to our society in its various forms. All parties would, in general, echo those principles. We all recognise the need for a well-educated work force.

A lot has been said this evening about the need for high standards in education. I would certainly agree, as would all hon. Members, I am sure. The problem is that higher standards in education cannot merely be wished. They have to be achieved by having the measures in force that will enable those standards to be delivered. As the Ofsted inspectors' report outlined, the challenge is to ensure that all schools come up to the level of the best, and deliver a first-class education for the children in them.

There are too many poor lessons--too many lessons in which teachers are unprepared and unsure of what they are trying to achieve. The real task is to ensure that those lessons are improved. Indeed, if teachers do not deliver over a certain period, they should be rooted out of the profession. No one should shy away from that. Children get only one chance in education.

It is crucial that we ask why, in the 1950s, our inner-city schools were apparently able to achieve a great deal more for some of the children of lower ability than similar schools today. Was it to do with the organisation, particularly in primary schools? Was it to do with the teaching methods used? We do not hear much of that sort of talk. We heard nothing about the Leeds report, which showed how much time was wasted in primary schools with children sitting around in clusters trying to work out what to do in their lessons. We have all visited primary classes and seen evidence of far too much noise, and a lack of purposeful work.

Once and for all, we need to nail the excuse that any failure in education is to do with funding, which appears to be the thesis of both Opposition parties. If that were the case, why was education able to deliver as much as it did in the 1950s?

My hon. Friend the Minister was right to mention the increase in funding per pupil since 1978-79 of about 50 per cent. in real terms. It is also significant,

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although it is not often appreciated, even by hon. Members, that, in the coming years, we as a nation will spend £38 billion on education. I mention that because I was amazed a couple of weeks ago to hear a couple of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen alleging that this country now spent more on unemployment than on education.

I thought about that, and was sure that it could not be right. I now realise what trap they had fallen into: they had looked at the Red Book and seen only what central Government spend on education, without taking into account the vast amounts spent by local education authorities, which of course appear on another page. Let us nail that once and for all. We spend £38 billion a year on education, and that spending has reached 5.2 per cent. of gross domestic product. I welcome that.

The evidence from schools throughout the country is that there is no correlation whatever between spending and results. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned Islington--a favourite borough these days--with its high expenditure and poor results. There are many other examples. There were problems at Hackney Downs school, but investigations showed that there was one teacher to every eight pupils there; that was hardly a funding problem.

We have heard many arguments about standard spending assessments. I served on the local education authority for most of my 16 years on Croydon council. It is fair to say that, when considering spending on particular services, most council committees consider the needs, rather than simply deciding to spend to the limit of the SSA; the SSA is completely irrelevant. That canard is mentioned too often in the House. Local authorities do not work like that. Of course the authorities have to take into account their capping limits--that is only right--but we have not heard how much more the Opposition, and especially the Labour party, would make available for education.

One of the most interesting things about the funding of education in this country is the significant difference in funding per pupil in local authorities throughout the land. There are bound to be differences, because some areas have greater social problems and some schools have more pupils who are statemented, but the scale of difference between some authorities that spend a small amount per pupil and others that spend a large amount is excessive.

I looked for the lowest and the highest spending in the 1994-95 figures. Gloucester--I apologise for mentioning Gloucester--spent £1,305 per pupil in primary schools; Doncaster spent £1,478; and Lambeth £2,635. It is also interesting to note that results were in directly inverse relation to those figures. The difference of more than £1,300 per pupil between the lowest and highest figure for a typical two-form entry primary school would mean that one of the schools would get just over £500,000 and the other just over £1 million.

In the longer term, we must consider, as is being done in the case of grant-maintained schools, some form of common funding to iron out some of those disparities, because in my view they are too great. If authorities such as Gloucester can deliver a first-class education on £1,305, why cannot others, especially when they spend £2,635? Funding is a red herring in terms of education.

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We have heard about all sorts of funny ways in which the money can be spent; it is important to come to grips with standards and to be prepared to use the published results and inspection reports to drive up standards in both primary and secondary schools.

I look forward eagerly to seeing the results of the standard assessment tasks for 11-year-olds, which I understand are due to be published on a school-by-school basis next month, despite great opposition from teacher unions and educationists. There was opposition throughout the 1980s to the publication of results in any shape or form.

I strongly believe that it is only by publishing results that we can put a spotlight on low standards and force schools to improve them. I urge the Government to resist any and every attempt to prevent publication of results, which is one of the best ways to drive up standards.

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