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Education Bill

Education Bill

Column Number: 297

Standing Committee G

Tuesday 8 January 2002


[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Education Bill

4.30 pm

Clause 39

Determination of specified budgets of LEA

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths.

I beg to move amendment No. 206, in clause 39, page 25, line 4, after 'budget', insert 'for a financial year'.

This is a purely technical amendment to remedy a defect in the drafting. In clause 39, after the phrase ''LEA budget'' and ''schools budget'' in paragraphs (1) and (2) of subsection 45A there is the phrase ''for a financial year''. That phrase has been missed out after the expression ''individual schools budget'' in paragraph (3). Amendment No. 206 rectifies that omission, to bring paragraph (3) into line with the preceding two paragraphs. It also allows the reader to make sense of what is being referred to.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I beg to move amendment No. 267, in clause 39, page 25, line 8, at end insert—

    '( ) provide for information to be collected by the Secretary of State including the annual per capita revenue budget of each maintained school and specific elements of school funding relating to curriculum changes or other initiatives of the Secretary of State.'.

I join the Minister in welcoming you back to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths. I am sure that you are as delighted to be with us as we are to have you as Chairman.

The amendment, like the previous Government amendment, is largely technical and is intended purely to remedy an oversight in the Bill as drafted.

The Government want to impose new requirements on local education authorities and schools seeking to take powers relating to a school's budget and to how LEAs choose to distribute the funds available to them among schools within their area. I hope that the Minister agrees that the proposal would improve the climate of knowledge and information available to parents and schools and inform Ministers of the reality of school funding. The amendment would allow a new power providing for information to be collected by the Secretary of State, including the annual per capita revenue budget of each maintained school, and specific elements of school funding relating to curriculum changes or other initiatives of the Secretary of State.

The Minister, who is a bright and able man, will already have sniffed out the motivation behind the amendment. He will have realised that there is considerable anxiety among hon. Members and in schools about the discrepancy between Ministers'

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intentions to do good and to assist schools in their endeavours—as a generous man, I am prepared to accept their positive intentions—and what actually happens. There are two clear examples. First, there is the position of numerous former grant-maintained schools, which, as the Minister will know, were given a pledge when their grant maintained status was taken away in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that their funding would be protected and that the Government's intention was to level up the funding of other schools. That has not happened in practice and, however much Ministers tell me that education and schools expenditure has increased during the past four years, numerous schools in the country—indeed, in my constituency—currently have a smaller annual revenue budget than they had in 1997. As the Minister will understand, that is causing various difficulties.

Whenever I have raised those concerns with Ministers, sometimes through written questions, I have frequently been amazed at the lack of information that Ministers appear to have on the subject. One recent example that may be in the Minister's mind concerns schools with sixth forms after the new sixth form curriculum was introduced. Ministers rightly accepted that making such widespread changes to the curriculum would result in costs to schools, including for public examinations, and have staffing, resource and teaching material implications. They made available some money in the first and second years of implementation to cover the changed burden of cost that would fall upon them. However, as the Minister will know, if only from anecdotal evidence, the reality in much of the country is that the additional funds, earmarked by Ministers and said to be available for a specific purpose, were not passed on to schools. I suspect that the Minister has some sympathy with the bones of my point, given that the purpose of clause 39 is to deal with instances in which local education authorities do not deal properly with the schools that they fund.

By way of illustration, I will read the response that I received to a written question that I tabled in October. I asked the

    ''Secretary of State for Education and Skills what estimate she has made of the number of schools with sixth forms which have received no funding from their local education authority for the new sixth form curriculum in each of the last two years.''

The response, which came from the Under-Secretary, said:

    ''No such estimate is available. Decisions on distribution were a matter for each local authority in the light of local priorities.''—[Official Report, 15 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 992W.]

There is simply no point in announcing that a sum of money is available to schools for a specific purpose if that money can be spent in any way whatsoever. It is dangerous if Ministers introduce important and far-sweeping changes, perhaps to the curriculum as in that example, but no funding is provided to schools for implementation. It is a serious problem that has affected the ability of schools to implement the curriculum changes and had a serious affect on wider budget planning and staffing situations for other year groups in maintained schools.

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The Minister should at least be sympathetic to the amendment's objective. I hope that he will accept that it would make provision for his Department to be informed of the budgets for schools.

The amendment is not prescriptive: it would not oblige LEAs, schools forums or schools to disburse funds in a particular way. It would remedy a situation in which Ministers are apparently ignorant of what happens to schools' funding. I am sure that the Minister—an assiduous man—will assure me that he intends to do something about the black hole in the Government's knowledge of schools throughout the country, specifically the former grant maintained schools and changes in the sixth form curriculum. I hope that the Government will obtain that information and treat it as important in informing any decisions that might be taken under the wider powers provided by the clause.

Mr. Timms: I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about the amendment. I was surprised to hear that he believes that some schools in his constituency have a smaller revenue budget now than they did in 1997. I should be grateful if he would send me details of those schools. The amount paid to every local education authority for its schools has increased substantially over the past four years, and will increase significantly this year, next year and the year after. We have also successfully increased the proportion of those budgets that is delegated to schools. I will examine with great interest the information that the hon. Gentleman sends to me.

In moving the amendment, the hon. Gentleman may not have taken account of our existing powers, for example, under section 52 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The section 52 budget statement shows how much transitional funding is received by each former grant maintained school, so that information is already provided. Section 52 requires LEAs to produce annual budget and outturn statements containing such information as the Secretary of State may prescribe, and clause 42 of the Bill enables us to require schools to produce accounts containing such information as we may prescribe.

The extra funding for sixth forms was a local decision, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have taken the amount we provided for sixth forms into account in determining the amount transferred to the learning and skills council for each area for 2002–03. That funding is clearly earmarked for sixth forms under the new arrangements.

In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, I hope that he will welcome several elements of the Bill. I am sure that he would welcome the power of the Secretary of State to set a minimum schools' budget, which we will debate shortly. I hope that he would also welcome the introduction of the schools forums, which will provide a forum in every local education authority for discussion about budgets and other matters concerning the schools and the LEA.

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4.45 pm

Clause 42 would, in theory, enable us to require schools to provide details of funding they have received and expenditure that they have incurred in connection with specific initiatives. It would not be reasonable to do that; the Opposition have rightly raised some concerns about the work load in schools. It would be an enormous task if every school had to report the amount of money that it spent in relation to every curriculum change or every other initiative of the Secretary of State. I hope that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would not be appropriate to impose that additional burden.

We have simplified the standards fund in a way that we estimate will save a great deal of time: 2.6 million hours a year across all the schools, or two and half weeks of someone's time in a typical school. We have significantly reduced the amount of paper that we now send to schools. We have made a pledge that 1,000 more trained bursars will be appointed during the lifetime of this Parliament. However, to impose an additional requirement of this magnitude would not be appropriate or helpful.

The Bill already includes powers to collect all the information that is necessary. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would make sense to collect the detailed information that he has in mind. There is a principle that many of the detailed decisions about where funding should be allocated should appropriately be made at local level. That is the principle that informed many of the changes that we have made. Certainly, it underpins much of this part of the Bill. I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with it, but it places a limit on the amount of prescription that should be imposed centrally about precisely how each element of funding is spent. I think that we have got the balance about right and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree.


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