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In May 2000, the current Home Secretary, who was then the Minister responsible for schools, said:

The chairman of governors of Adderley Church of England primary school, alarmed at the proposed reorganisation of Shropshire primary schools, has also told me that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), said on “The Westminster Hour” on 4 November that the Government have a policy to keep rural schools open.

I have also had approaches from Maesbury primary school and Selattyn Church of England primary school, which are indicative of the huge confusion and disruption that will be caused to Shropshire’s primary schools if a reorganisation leads to the closure of a number of schools. The proposals will be deeply unpopular with parents and grandparents, as well as being most upsetting for staff and, above all, the children involved. Councillor Keith Barrow has put down a motion to Oswestry borough council, while Councillor Gerald Dakin has laid a similar motion before North Shropshire district council. This is all so unnecessary. We would not even be discussing the issue tonight if Shropshire received a fraction more of the central funds from the taxpayer that are awarded to other authorities.

Given the unreliability of current population data, particularly on immigration, now is no time to close schools that take decades to establish and build a reputation. They may even have to be reopened or, worse, new schools may have to be built, at great public expense, to cope with an influx of new pupils.

I repeat that I am not asking for a single penny more to be levied from the British taxpayer. I am simply asking for a proportion of taxpayers’ funds to be returned
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to the county of Shropshire in order to make a bitter and costly closure programme unnecessary. The Government have established the primary capital programme for improving existing schools. Could this be brought forward? Finally, would the Minister agree to meet me, with other Shropshire colleagues and representatives from the council, to find a solution to our modest requests? Unless a solution is found, irrevocable damage could be done to Shropshire’s exceptional system of primary education, with an inevitable further impact on the county’s isolated rural communities.

10.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) on securing this debate. I welcome this early opportunity to bring the issue of school funding to the House following the recent announcement of the revenue and capital settlements for the next three years. I would first like to congratulate the teachers and pupils in the hon. Member’s constituency, and in the whole of Shropshire, on their continuing hard work and achievements. He referred to some of those achievements in his speech.

This year, 82 per cent. of Shropshire pupils aged 14 reached the required standard in English, and 79 per cent. did so in mathematics. That is 2 percentage points above the national average in each subject. Meanwhile, the number of 15-year-olds in Shropshire achieving five higher GCSE passes or the equivalent continues to be well above the national average. In all subjects, including English and maths, young people in Shropshire achieved 5 percentage points above the national average at GCSE last year.

Let me turn now to school funding. It is important to remember that all local authorities have seen substantial increases in funding under this Government, and that is the context in which we should consider this evening’s debate. Total revenue funding per pupil for education in Shropshire went up by £1,120 in real terms between 1997 and 2005. That is an increase in real terms of 38 per cent. From 2006, we introduced the dedicated schools grant and a two-year school funding settlement. This gave Shropshire increases in core funding for schools of 6.6 per cent. per pupil last year, compared with their spending the year before, and a further 6.4 per cent. per pupil this year. What has the increased investment bought? Since 1999, Shropshire schools have been able to employ 160 more teachers and 820 more support staff.

Spending on school buildings has also increased dramatically. Ten years ago, the allocation for Shropshire was £5.1 million. For the years 2005-06 to 2007-08, we have allocated £37.4 million of capital to Shropshire council and its schools. This includes more than £7 million of targeted capital funding, following the council’s successful bids for support for two major capital projects.

Mark Pritchard: Will the Minister give way?

Kevin Brennan: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way, because this is a conversation between the hon. Member for North Shropshire and me, and we agreed that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) would intervene in the first part of the debate.

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Looking ahead, we have just announced the first ever three-year school revenue funding settlement, enabling local authorities and schools to plan ahead with greater certainty. The settlement allows for continued real-terms growth in school funding over the next three years, although at a more modest rate than in recent years. Across the country, total school revenue funding will rise from £36.5 billion this year to £41.9 billion in 2010—an average year-on-year increase of 2 per cent. in real terms.

This settlement allows us to target money on our priorities. Those include making available by 2010 £912 million to support the extension of a personalised offer to all pupils, including those with special educational needs, and £315 million to help to improve the rate at which children progress, ensuring that all children can meet their potential, and that those who are behind expectations, or are falling behind, get back on track. We will also make available £340 million by 2010 to support the extension of the entitlement to free nursery education for three and four-year-olds from twelve and a half to 15 hours, and £490 million by 2010-11 to support the development of extended services in our schools.

In addition, Shropshire will get an increase in its dedicated school grant of 13 per cent. per pupil over the next three years. That is just below the national average of 13.1 per cent. per pupil. So by 2010, Shropshire’s guaranteed funding per pupil through the dedicated school grant will be £4,013, up £462 per pupil on this year.

I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for North Shropshire about funding for schools in Shropshire, especially when compared with the funding that other areas receive. I am sure that other hon. Members—including my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, who is in his place for this debate and who has a constituency in the rural county of Dorset—will recognise the challenges that we face.

First, though, I should like to explain the reasons behind the differences in funding in different areas of the country. We need to ensure that we have an appropriate balance between basic funding and funding that recognises the different needs of each area. As the hon. Member for North Shropshire noted, some parts of the country—especially London and the other conurbations, such as Birmingham, that have inner-city areas—receive additional funding. That is because it costs schools more to recruit and retain teachers and other members of staff in those areas.

Other areas, including Shropshire, receive additional funding because, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire mentioned, they are sparsely populated and have many small rural primary schools that are more expensive to run. However, the main reason for differences in the level of funding that we provide to different local authorities is the emphasis that we place on targeting funding on disadvantaged pupils. Such pupils are likely to need extra support if they are to have an equal chance to succeed.

There have been improvements in attainment at all levels of education in recent years. Schools in the most disadvantaged areas have improved most of all, but
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there is still a major gap between the outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and for other pupils. In 2007, 36 per cent. of young people receiving free school meals achieved five good GCSE passes, compared with 63 per cent. of their peers. Closing that gap is critical to our aim of promoting a fair, prosperous and inclusive society, so we believe that it is right and just to invest our resources where they will make the most difference.

Shropshire has significantly fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than many other areas, and that is reflected in the level of school funding that the authority receives. Next year, 7.3 per cent. of Shropshire’s funding through the dedicated schools grant will be for disadvantaged pupils, compared with 12.1 per cent. nationally. For the first time, however, money for pockets of deprivation is being included in this funding. An extra £300,000 pounds is included for Shropshire next year, targeted on schools that have high numbers of pupils from deprived neighbourhoods compared with the rest of the county. I am sure that the hon. Member for North Shropshire will talk to his colleagues on the county council to make certain that that funding gets through to the pupils in those deprived areas.

The school funding arrangements for the next three years consolidate the current arrangements that followed the introduction of the dedicated schools grant two years ago, but we need to ensure that we have a funding system fit for the challenges and priorities of the next decade. The hon. Member for North Shropshire has raised some important questions about that.

In January, my Department will launch a major review of the distribution of the dedicated schools grant. We will want to hear from everyone who is interested in school funding, as we work with our partners to shape proposals for the school funding system from 2011. A full consultation will start in autumn 2009, and the funding of schools in rural areas will be one of the issues that we shall want to explore as part of the review.

Mr. Paterson: As the Under-Secretary wants to consult, will he agree to meet me and colleagues from the House and the county council to discuss the matter?

Kevin Brennan: I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has already agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I have read the letter that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) sent to the Secretary of State, and as I said, my hon. Friend the schools Minister has agreed to meet him.

In the coming years, we want to work with local authorities and schools to ensure that we are getting the best possible outcomes for pupils from the revenue and capital resources that we put into schools. The hon. Member for North Shropshire has described the challenges facing the council in Shropshire and its schools as a result of rapidly falling pupil numbers. I stress again that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners will be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Local authorities are responsible for balancing the supply of places in their area to ensure that schools serve the needs of their local communities and provide
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good quality education in the most cost-effective way. However, surplus places can represent poor use of resources, which can often be used more effectively to support schools in raising standards. With current surpluses in Shropshire as a whole, it must be right that the authority has considered a reduction in surplus places as part of its planning strategy.

I know that local schools are important in rural communities, and we accept that in order to let young children attend a school closer to home, there may have to be more empty places in schools in rural areas than in those in urban areas. Our guidance to decision makers makes it clear that that must be taken into account, and that the presumption against closing rural schools continues. However, even in a rural authority there may be a case for redeploying resources that are tied up in surplus places, to provide a richer educational experience for all young people in a more efficient system. Let me deal with our plans for capital funding. We are investing £21.9 billion in schools nationally over the next three years. That is a sevenfold increase since 1996. For 2008-10, we have allocated £57.3 million for capital investment to Shropshire and its schools to improve their buildings and facilities. That includes £3 million through the new primary capital programme in 2009 and a further £5.4 million in 2010. We aim to renew at least half of all primary school buildings in the country under the programme in the next 14 years.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the building schools for the future programme, which aims to renew all
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secondary schools in England in 15 waves of investment, which started in 2005-06. The hon. Gentleman may wish to discuss with his hon. Friends plans to dig into and cut from the plans for the future in the case of Shropshire. Because of the late prioritisation, Shropshire is getting money up front. It has been allocated £20.5 million now to renew its neediest school, the William Brooke school in Much Wenlock.

In the meantime, the authority and its schools continue to receive substantial amounts of capital each year to address their priority needs. Allocations of funding to the authority reflect the fact that it has not benefited from modernising schools through building schools for the future.

Our plans for revenue and capital investment in schools provide for continued growth over the next three years, building on the substantial increases of the last decade. I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my ambition for continually improving outcomes for all our pupils for the taxpayer’s considerable investment. I am sure that he will want to raise some of the points with which I have had not time to deal in his meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners in the near future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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