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The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris) indicated assent.

Mr. Berry: The Minister is right. It is profoundly awkward and it is a serious reason why dealing with the count for the primary SSA is more complex and difficult

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than dealing with that for children starting secondary education. One can see the argument that, if it has to be September, January or April, why not take January, and I dare say that that could be the justification for doing so. Unfortunately, schools cannot staff classrooms on that basis. They have to plan to have teachers there throughout the year.

Therefore, a general problem is confronted when the count is based on youngsters in primary school in January, but South Gloucestershire has the particular problem that, because of rapid growth, the relevant pupil numbers are much more out of date than for the majority of other local education authorities. I am sure that it will be said that, this time round, the increase in the education SSA for South Gloucestershire is significantly better than in previous years, as I said, and I welcome that. It might even be said that the increase is one of the largest in the country, and that would be true. The precise reason why it is one of the largest is rapid population growth, because pupil numbers are rising by about 2 per cent. each year. South Gloucestershire is being unfairly treated as regards the primary SSA precisely because primary school numbers are rising by that much. That rapid growth in population--at Emersons Green in particular, but also elsewhere--means that the figures are seriously disadvantaging the council.

The director of financial resources--it used to be treasurer, which was easier to remember--information technology and so forth for South Gloucestershire council, Richard Szadziewski, who is the officer responsible, estimates that the council will have to spend £1.6 million to fund children who are in school, but who do not exist as far as the SSA calculation is concerned.

The SSA for primary education should be calculated on the basis of the number of children of primary age who were in school in the previous September, as the hon. Member for Northavon said. I urge the Minister seriously to consider that suggestion. If that change cannot be introduced for 1999-2000, I seriously urge her and her colleagues to consider introducing it in the following year.

The present system is manifestly unjust to a local education authority that is experiencing a rapid increase in pupil numbers. We are not talking about changing the formula. Nor are we talking about a difficult negotiation, in which there will be winners and losers so that it will be a problem. In this case, we are talking about simply changing the data to which the formula is applied. That would make a profound difference to South Gloucestershire and, perhaps, one or two other local authorities, but it would have virtually no impact anywhere else.

In conclusion, and I apologise if I have spoken too long, I not only acknowledge but warmly welcome the fact that South Gloucestershire council has received a significant increase in its education SSA. It is the best SSA for years but--this must be said--a significant reason for that is the increase in pupil numbers. The increase in the education SSA does not diminish the strength of the council's argument that education funding at present is unfair. I urge the Minister and her ministerial colleagues to consider these issues further.

9.10 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): First, I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on raising the topic

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that is before us, which is clearly one that will concern his constituents and all those who live in the council area. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) in saying that I think the hon. Gentleman delivered the message in a sensitive and sensible way, which enables us to have a decent conversation about an important issue. I acknowledge the interest that my hon. Friend and other colleagues who represent seats in the area have shown in this issue.

Before I come to answer the questions that have been raised--I shall discuss the fundamental issues in some detail--I want as a Minister with responsibility for education to acknowledge the achievements of schools within Gloucestershire. Whatever their input in terms of finance, their output is very good. The key stage 2 results for the key subjects of both English and maths are above the national average. That comment is not intended to score a cheap point--"If you can do that with a small amount of money, I might take some more off you next year." I will take any opportunity to praise good quality teaching and effective learning wherever that may be.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, the debate takes place in an atmosphere and against a background of an increasing amount of money going into schools. I understand that this is an argument about the share of the pot, but I know that I would not have been expected to reply to the debate without making it clear that the pot is larger this year than last year, and that it will be larger still over the next three years.

The fact that there will be a £19 billion increase over the settlement period of the comprehensive spending review enables us, perhaps, to address some of the issues that will arise. It is far more difficult to do that at a time of falling budgets than when they are increasing. I accept, of course, that if there is more money available, there is an argument for wanting a fair share of the cake if the cake is about to grow. I am happy that the point has been made that the money that is being made available is increasing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood is right to say that education SSAs will rise by 5.7 per cent. this year. South Gloucestershire's provisional education SSA will rise by 7.2 per cent. I do not know where that puts it on the league table, but I know that measured against the comparable figure last year, it is an increase that is above the national average. My hon. Friend was right to say that that is because of increased pupil numbers. In some ways, because the pot is larger and because most of it is delivered on pupil-led funding, that has been reflected in an increase in the SSA. That is the position whatever count is taken. The debate comes down to the SSA formula because that is the criterion that decides how much money will go to each local authority and then to schools.

An important point is when we do the count. I shall not argue that it would not be better to have more recent figures of pupil numbers for deciding the count. That makes sense and there is neither an educational argument nor an economic one for using any figures but the most recent that it is possible to obtain--and it is essential to validate them and to ensure that they are robust.

It should not always be assumed that greater numbers will mean more money. The crucial factor is rate of growth compared with rates of growth within other local authorities. There could be a gain by not having an

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accurate reflection because of the comparable rates of growth within other local authorities. An individual rate of growth might be large and it might be thought large compared with other local authorities, and that would be the key point. There may be more children in schools, but how is that reflected when compared with pupil growth across the nation? The fact that pupil numbers have grown nationally means that the national pot from which resources are distributed has been larger this time round.

It would be a good idea if the September count used for secondary schools could also be used for primary schools. I was grateful for the offer made by the hon. Member for Northavon, although I suspect that he may not be the only Liberal Democrat Member who is filling in job application forms this evening. With respect, if the solution was as simple as typing numbers into a computer, I would instruct our officials to do so. I would make sure that the allocation of civil servants at that key point was sufficient to allow us to do that.

The critical date is not when the money starts being spent in schools, but when the local authority settlement is announced. There is a relatively short time between September and the date when the Government must make decisions about that. One of the things that I have learnt since becoming a Minister is that the figures are checked, rechecked, and double and triple checked, because as the hon. Gentleman said, key decisions depend on those figures.

I am told by civil servants that although they find it possible to carry out such checks in that time for the 6,000 secondary schools, they do not believe that at present they could do the same for the 20,000 primary schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood remarked, at the start of the school year, there is some fluctuation before the numbers settle down, especially as primary schools may have a common enrolment date, but do not have a common starting date.

Nevertheless, we would be happy to reduce the time between allocation and count. If technology makes that possible in the medium term, there is nothing to prevent us from doing so. That is our wish. We have no ulterior motives, provided that I could promise hon. Members that the numbers would be as accurate as they are now.

The best that I can offer now is to say that I hear what all hon. Members have said. The issue affects other local authorities as well. The fact that the hon. Gentleman raised the matter tonight will serve as a reminder to me and help me to keep it in mind. When we can change the counting date, I have no objection to doing so, and nor do the Government.

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