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Education Funding (North Somerset)

11 am

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare) (LD): I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate education funding in North Somerset, and I am grateful that the Minister is attending.

Funding for education is a priority for us all. I am deeply concerned about the lack of such funding for   North Somerset. The local education authority covers the constituencies of Weston-super-Mare and Woodspring. Funding for education in the area has consistently been below the national average, and education services there are beginning to suffer.

Concerned about current education funding levels in North Somerset, I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about the average funding per pupil in England and in North Somerset. I was extremely concerned about the figures given in the ministerial response that I received. They showed that average funding for pupils in North Somerset had been consistently lower than the national average for a great number of years, and that the trend was set to continue. In 2004–05, pupils in North Somerset will receive £340 less on average than other pupils across England. That adds up to an £11 million shortfall this year in education for the region.

North Somerset has consistently ranked among the lowest-funded LEAs in England, and the provisional figure for 2004–05 shows that the trend is continuing. North Somerset is currently ranked 121st of the 150   LEAs in England and Wales for secondary school funding and 134th for primary school funding. The model that is used to calculate the funding needs of each LEA is fundamentally flawed. The relative affluence of the Woodspring constituency has been overvalued, and the significant social and financial deprivation in areas of Weston-super-Mare has been grossly undervalued. The funding model appears to bear little recognition of the difficulty and costs associated with addressing the needs of small groups in isolated areas. Rural poverty is not a consideration in the model. Those factors added together ensure that schools in Weston-super-Mare are not receiving a fair level of funding and are struggling to maintain standards.

Those levels of underfunding are certain to have an effect on local schools and education services. Teachers in Weston-super-Mare have worked extremely hard to produce excellent exam results, but cracks are beginning to appear in other areas. Presented with the figures for underfunding, I decided to conduct a survey among local head teachers to learn more about how poor funding levels were directly affecting local schools and education services. I questioned 37 head teachers about how underfunding had affected their schools and asked them to provide specific details of those effects. I   circulated the survey to 37 LEA schools in my constituency, comprising five secondary schools, six infant schools, four junior schools and 22 primary schools.

Twenty-five head teachers responded to the survey, and the results were deeply concerning. Almost two thirds of those surveyed said that underfunding had affected their school. More than half said that it had affected resources and equipment, and a third said that
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it had affected the appointment of teaching staff. Almost a quarter of those surveyed said that large class sizes were a problem in their schools. The general comments made by head teachers were also alarming. One wrote:

Another wrote:

Those are just a few of the outcomes of the survey, but   head teachers also identified many other significant    problems caused by Government underfunding. They included the impossibility of implementing Government-set targets in certain areas. One example is teachers' planning, preparation and assessment time. As I am sure the Minister is aware, from September 2005, all schools must guarantee their teaching staff a minimum of 10 per cent. of their timetabled teaching time as PPA time. In order to guarantee that that time can be spent away from the classroom, head teachers must have support staff available to provide cover. However, the lack of funding means that local heads are unable to hire the staff that they need.

For example, Mr. Bruce Dale, head teacher of Mendip Green first school in my constituency, said:

The cost to local schools of employing additional staff for PPA time will be £65,000 to £70,000—money that these schools simply do not have. It will therefore be impossible for most schools in North Somerset to meet this Government-set target, for which they could again be penalised with reduced funding. That is clearly unfair.

The environment in which pupils are taught has also been affected by underfunding, according to local head teachers. Indeed, 41 per cent. of head teachers surveyed said that underfunding had affected their school buildings and maintenance. Many such buildings have seen very little refurbishment since they were built, which for some schools goes back to the 1950s.

To put the problem into context, I shall use an example involving Mr. Ron Richards, the head teacher at Priory community school in my constituency. He had to organise a meeting with the school's business manager to check whether it was okay to replace a 27-year-old faulty central heating boiler. He said:

In such a situation, there should have been no question about the cost of the repair. It should simply have been done automatically. To put it quite simply, schools in Weston-super-Mare and the constituency as a whole should be better funded so that necessary expenses such as those incurred by that basic maintenance requirement can be dealt with immediately and do not create such a significant problem for the school's budget.

I must take a moment to credit the teachers in my constituency who have worked extremely hard to ensure that pupils in Weston receive the best possible education. However, in order to fund projects in schools and ensure a high level of education, head teachers are
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forced to look for increased funding wherever they can find it. Many are forced to apply for grants simply to top up their funding to national levels. Grants are all very well, but gaining them requires a lot of time and preparation, and there is not always certainty. Applying for grants is time consuming, but without them, the schools in my area would be unable to provide much-needed education services. Head teachers are therefore forced to spend their precious time completing grant applications one after the other, rather like beggars.

The education problems in Weston have previously been recognised by the Government. As I am sure the Minister is aware, in 1998, Weston became one of the first 25 education action zones to be established by the    Government. That meant additional funding of £750,000 a year for three years, subsequently extended to five years. Following on from that, Weston was transformed into an excellence cluster on 1 September 2003. That means £650,000 of additional funding for schools across the zone and ensures that all the secondary schools receive leadership incentive grants.

I admit that those grants and that additional funding have enabled Weston schools to provide services that otherwise would have been impossible with the basic funding levels. For example, Worle community school has been able to run a learning support unit to provide extra support for pupils with special education needs. Since the establishment of that unit, no permanent exclusions have been made at the school. The head teacher, Trevor Bailey, believes that that is largely attributable to the unit.

Excellent work has been done as a result of the grants that have been received, but those grants and additional funding from the excellence cluster scheme will end in April 2006, and there are currently no Government plans to renew the funding. If basic funding levels remain as they are, several services in local schools will have to be scrapped. Local schools should not have to rely on those Government grants to provide much-needed services. The basic funding level should be sufficient to carry the provision of necessary services.

Head teachers in my constituency have expressed grave concern about the short termism of the Government's attitude. Special grants are a help in schools, but part of what they do is simply cover up for a short time the fundamental problems caused by the lack of basic funding. The only way to ensure the long-term future of education services and projects in local schools is to provide improved basic funding year on year.

Teachers in my constituency work extremely hard to try to ensure that the shortfall in education funding is not translated into a shortfall in local pupils' education and opportunities. They have taken on a great deal of additional responsibility and given up their own time for that purpose. Several teachers have brought to their schools resources and equipment such as paper and pens from their own homes to use in lessons as they know that funding is simply not available to provide enough of those resources in their schools. Bruce Dale of Mendip Green school, whom I have already mentioned, said:

The increased pressure on teachers to maintain high standards in local schools is unacceptable and inevitably means problems with retaining local staff. Why work in
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a school in North Somerset with low funding and increased stress when one can move to a different LEA for increased funding and decreased stress, do the same job and receive the same rate of pay?

I ask the Minister to take note of what I am saying today. We have a genuine problem. The consistently low levels of Government funding for North Somerset have caused cracks to appear in the education system in my constituency. Despite the continued hard work of local head teachers and their staff, it is inevitable that, without the necessary funds, they will not be able to prevent the growing problems. Head teachers are battling to climb a descending escalator, and as they have admitted in the survey, in some areas they are beginning to lose the service that they have provided until now.

Pupils across the country deserve the same standard of education and the same opportunities, but the current funding levels are beginning to put pupils in my constituency at a distinct disadvantage. Many of these pupils already come from deprived areas and simply deserve a better deal. In the light of the increasing problems and the growing concerns of local head teachers, I ask the Minister to look again at the funding model and the levels of funding for North Somerset. I should also like him to meet me and head teachers so that we can discuss the way forward.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Derek Twigg) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) on securing this debate, and I note his concerns about education funding in North Somerset.

I would like to start by talking about the performance of schools in North Somerset. When we speak about education in the House, it is important to recognise the outstanding work that is carried out in our schools. I am pleased that figures published in April 2004 show that there are now 3,900 more teachers in schools in the south-west than in 1997 and 500 more teachers in the region than in 2003. The "School Workforce in England" statistical release shows that in the south-west full-time equivalent teacher numbers have increased from 36,300 in 1997 to 40,200 in 2004. The number of   support staff has increased from 13,100 in 1997 to 23,200 in 2004. In North Somerset, regular teacher numbers have increased from 1,360 in January 1999 to 1,500 in January 2004—a 10 per cent. increase. Over the same period, the number of school support staff working in the county has risen by almost 50 per cent., from 490 to 730. The teacher vacancy rate in January 2004 was 0.4 per cent.; there were five vacancies.

I want to put on the record my gratitude for the work of the teachers and pupils in North Somerset who have been responsible for significant improvements in the quality of education in the county. For example, the percentage of pupils leaving primary schools in North Somerset who are doing well in English has risen from 70 per cent. in 1998 to 79 per cent. in 2004. In maths, the figure has risen from 64 per cent. to 77 per cent, and in science it has risen from 78 per cent. to 89 per cent. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that represents outstanding work in primary schools.
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Looking at the transition into secondary education, there is equally impressive evidence of what is happening in North Somerset at key stage 3. Some 75 per cent. of pupils achieved level 5 and above in 2004, compared with 72 per cent. in 1998; in mathematics 78 per cent. achieved that level, compared with 65 per cent. previously; and in science 73 per cent. did so compared with 61 per cent. I am pleased that the number of pupils achieving the important five A to C grades in their GCSEs has continued to increase steadily, moving from 50.9 per cent in 1998, compared with the national average of 46.3 per cent., to 54.9 per cent. in 2004, compared with 53.7 per cent. nationally.

On funding, it is worth reflecting on the increases in funding that North Somerset has received since this Government came to power. We estimate that, between 1997–98 and 2004–05, North Somerset's total funding per pupil has increased in real terms from £2,690 to £3,520—an increase of £830. Capital investment has also greatly increased. In 1997–98, capital funding in North Somerset was £4.3 million. Its 2004–05 allocation is £27.1 million, while for 2005–06, the allocation so far is £17.9 million.

Looking ahead to the national picture, recurrent funding for schools will increase by about £2 billion in 2005–06. As the hon. Gentleman will know, last July, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced school funding arrangements for 2005–06. Further details were announced as part of the provisional local government finance settlement early in December. The settlement builds on the package of funding measures introduced in 2004–05 in response to the funding difficulties of the previous year.

The settlement for 2005–06 promotes continued stability and certainty in school funding. For 2005–06, all secondary and special schools will have an increase in their budgets of at least 4 per cent. per pupil where pupil    numbers stay the same. The guarantee for primary and nursery schools is higher, at 5 per cent. per pupil, which recognises that those schools need extra support to implement the final phase of the work force reforms from September 2005, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

We have also ensured that every LEA has the resources, headroom and flexibility to deliver the guarantee and provide support to help schools facing additional pressures. Next year, all LEAs will receive an increase in their school formula spending share of at least 5.5 per cent. per pupil. North Somerset's increase is significantly higher, at 7.2 per cent. per pupil, and follows its above average increase of 6.5 per cent. per pupil in 2004–05. Also, standards fund support, school standards grant and Learning and Skills Council funding for sixth forms will all increase by 4 per cent. for 2005–06. Of course, we expect LEAs to play their part in ensuring that funding reaches schools. We expect them to assess and support the needs of every school and to ensure that resources, on top of the minimum guarantee, are targeted effectively to deliver the highest possible standards.

The point has been made that North Somerset receives lower funding than many other authorities. Although North Somerset has, like other authorities, benefited from the significant increases in funding that   the Government have committed to education, the funding on a per pupil basis is below the national
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average. Indeed, I understand that the hon. Gentleman tabled a parliamentary question last September about the level of funding per pupil.

I have checked with my officials, and we have not received any representations in the past year from the    LEA about any serious concerns regarding underfunding in schools. I take the point about seeking a meeting, and I shall certainly see whether we can arrange a date and time. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman on that, but I stress that we have so far received no representations from his LEA saying that there are specific problems in schools in his constituency.

Brian Cotter : I thank the Minister for those remarks. Did I understand correctly that he would be prepared to have a meeting with me, head teachers and others?

Derek Twigg : I shall go away and see whether that can be arranged.

The Government aim to give all pupils an equal opportunity in life. Pupils from more deprived backgrounds have additional learning needs and require additional help to access that equal opportunity. That is why the funding formula takes into account the level of deprivation in each authority   and gives additional funding accordingly. Schools serving deprived communities face significant challenges in handling and educating pupils and therefore need additional support. Even with the extra funding, attainment is still much lower in deprived areas.

North Somerset is less deprived than many other authorities. It has well below the average proportion of pupils from families receiving income support—the most heavily weighted deprivation factor—and below the average proportion from families receiving the working families tax credit. Compared with the national average, North Somerset also has significantly fewer primary pupils with English as a second language and secondary pupils from low-achieving ethnic minority groups.

The funding formula gives additional resources to sparsely populated areas such as North Somerset to help   pay for transport costs and the higher costs of maintaining a large number of small schools. The authorities in such areas face higher costs in delivering the same service. The formula also gives additional resources to high-cost areas to reflect the higher cost of recruiting and retaining staff. North Somerset receives some extra funding through the area cost adjustment to reflect those costs. It is for the LEA to ensure through its local funding formula that additional funding for additional needs reaches the schools that need it.

Although North Somerset is one of the least deprived authorities, I appreciate that there are some deprived areas in Weston-super-Mare. I am therefore pleased with the progress being made by the Weston education action zone, which has successfully evolved into an excellence cluster and is embedded within the wider local authority approach to school partnerships. It is one of two large groupings of schools through which the LEA and its partners are increasingly moving towards local and community provision of education and other services, including the change for children programme.
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Excellence clusters are designed to bring the benefits of excellence in cities to small pockets of deprivation. As part of that programme, the Weston excellence cluster will receive an allocation of at least £650,000. The Government are also currently piloting two federations.

Brian Cotter : As I said earlier, the excellence cluster scheme has been very handy, but will the Minister consider the fact that the funding will come to an end in April 2006, even if he cannot comment on that this morning? I appreciate his acceptance that there is a    particular problem in the Weston-super-Mare constituency. The Woodspring constituency is much more affluent. I am particularly concerned about Weston, as the MP, and I wanted to emphasise to him—I believe that he acknowledged this concern—and to officials that the Woodspring aspect affects the weighting for Weston. I welcome the comments that he made, but I am also concerned about the ending of the funding in 2006.

Derek Twigg : I recognise that the hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about his constituency. I shall turn shortly to funding issues, which I will take further.

The Government are currently funding two pilot federations in North Somerset. Federation is one way for small schools to make their resources go further, by collaborating with other schools under joint governance arrangements. Through federations, they can deliver the curriculum through collaborative approaches that enable sharing of facilities, staff and expertise. For example, federations offer scope for shared heads, administrative and support staff, and information and communications technology.

As I said, one of these federations is the Weston education partnership, which consists of four mainstream secondary schools, two special schools and a college, which will receive £600,000 over three years, from 2003–04 to 2005–06. The federation aims to overcome a culture of poor educational achievement in the town and to improve the number of people progressing to further and higher education.

I expect that the hon. Gentleman is aware of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's announcement of 8 July 2004 about the funding changes we propose for the longer term set out in the Department's five-year strategy for children and learners. The strategy includes a dedicated schools budget and three-year budgets for schools aligned to the school year, which will give schools financial security and freedom in their forward planning so that they can concentrate on their key role of school improvement, teaching and learning.

We will shortly consult on the education funding proposals set out in the five-year strategy. The proposals are not, however, about an arbitrary change in variations in funding per pupil between various authorities. LEAs will continue to be funded under the formula on the basis of relative need. Our top priority in making any funding changes in 2006–07 is continued stability and predictability for schools in their funding. The consultation document will set out our proposals on how funding might be distributed between LEAs from 2006–07.

Turning to the work force agreement, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, perhaps I can add a word about school work force remodelling. That reform is all about
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freeing teachers to spend more of their time on their core responsibilities. Their core responsibility is, of course, classroom teaching, but there are also the key professional activities that support teaching, such as time for planning, preparation and assessment. We have always been clear that work force reform should largely be funded from better use of existing resources.

Schools will be able to implement the national agreement only by moving towards new ways of working. The more radical schools are realising that grasping the remodelling agenda can mean better outcomes for teachers and pupils and lower costs. Schools that abandon unnecessary tasks, redeploying support staff to ensure that the use of their time and expertise is maximised will get the best from existing ICT infrastructure and reduce reliance on expensive supply teachers, and will find that the reforms are achievable.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the national remodelling team is working closely with LEAs and other partners to help schools implement the changes in support of the agreement. The team is working with a network of LEA remodelling advisers who are available to school leaders and can give them help and advice on remodelling the school work force and managing important change.

The funding that local authorities receive per pupil reflects their relative need compared with that of other authorities. Any changes that we make in future will continue to reflect that. In setting the guaranteed increases in 2004–05 and 2005–06, we are allowing for additional costs on which authorities and schools are already spending. That is because we are aiming at stability rather than at changing the pattern of spend. Our priority remains stability and certainty in school funding.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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