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2 Feb 2010 : Column 65WH—continued

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Let me provide a little background. As of January 2009, there were 237 primary schools in Cornwall, ranging in size from those with 499 pupils to those with just 11. More than 36,000 pupils are on roll, but they are dispersed in a number of schools of different sizes over a wide area. On attainment levels, the community is disadvantaged, with many children with all sorts of difficulties entering the primary schools. That is reflected at key stage 1, with a slightly below-average national score, but a good score in a contextual analysis. By key stage 2, level 4 attainment is broadly in line with the national figures, despite that disadvantaged entry, and at key stage 4 in secondary schools the children do well in a contextual basis.

So there is no question but that the schools deal well with a difficult intake and help push the children further in respect of the national comparison. That does not just happen because the children are in the hands of the wonderful staff and teachers in the schools; it is also a reflection of the kind of communities that the children live in, where there is disadvantage and poverty and all sorts of problems, but also a stronger community and neighbourhood than those in which children in poorer more urban areas all too often live. As a result of that, no primary schools in Cornwall are in special measures and only one school has a notice to improve-and it looks as if that will be removed shortly.

The estate includes a lot of old schools: 20 primary schools still do not have a hall, there are 104 temporary classroom buildings and the backlog of maintenance is estimated at some £25 million. Although we welcomed the pathfinder status for Cornwall and although there has been investment, there is still a lot to do. In this context, understandably, Cornwall council is concerned about future capital allocation and is well aware that surplus places will be one of the core drivers of whether money is made available.

If the surplus places are not removed, the money is unlikely to come through for the improvements that are obviously needed in the context of so many schools being without even a school hall, for example. With surplus places at 11 per cent. and a forecast for that figure to increase over the next four or five years, there is, as a result of national funding programmes, real pressure on the country to do something about the issue. The difficultly is that the surplus places are, by and large, scattered over large numbers of schools and are not concentrated, meaning that the pressure is on to cut some schools out of the system.

Added to that is the reality of the costs of delivering education to children in relatively small schools. The outcomes in small schools are good. I have long hosted meetings annually with Members of Parliament in the House of Commons for a number of organisations that campaign on behalf of small schools. We have consistently shown the data showing good outcomes from small schools. There can be bad outcomes when those go wrong, but when such schools are well run they produce better than average outcomes.

One argument often made for closure is that small schools with a small teaching staff cannot adequately provide for the wide age range among children, but the data show that that is wrong. The flip side is that in Cornwall the cost per pupil for delivery, comparing the difference between the largest and smallest schools,
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ranges from just under £2,500 per pupil to some £15,000 per pupil, with the average being about £3,500. There are real costs in the delivery.

The truth is that delivering education in small village schools is fundamental to the sustainability of many smaller communities. Take the school away and there is no provision for families to stay there: they cannot do it because they cannot get their children back and forth. Take the school away and often the hub for a lot of other services and facilities for the village is removed. The school is the meeting place and there are opportunities to use IT in a lot of community schools. More could be done to build on that.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Lady Winterton, I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I was elsewhere attending a meeting on water charges and was somewhat caught out.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for all his work over many years, particularly on small schools. On his point about services in the community depending on village schools, from my experience of talking to small shopkeepers, parents going back and forth during the day pop into the shop and use it. The journeys to and from school have a knock-on effect on the wider economy: other services depend on that footfall in the centre of the village that the village school provides.

Matthew Taylor: That is exactly right and it is acknowledged in the county. This has been a long-term process. I am not seeking to make a series of party political points: Labour has sought to invest in improvements to education, but has not tackled the underlying funding system, which misses the problems for small rural schools, and which it inherited from the previous Conservative Government. This is not an issue in respect of which one can say, "The Conservatives were good and the Labour party has been bad for rural communities." The Labour party has invested more in funding schools-there is no question but that that is so-and we Liberal Democrats campaigned for that and supported it. However, the structural system for funding was not designed to support smaller rural communities, particularly impoverished ones, and still does not. In 1997, the gap between the funding of Cornish schools and the national average was about £100 per pupil less each year. That gap has now widened, because the formula has remained the same even though the amounts have increased, to a shortfall of some £300 per pupil for Cornwall.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware of the data on academic achievement that back that up? Research undertaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) showed that disadvantaged secondary school pupils in rural areas are failing to keep up with the improvements of their counterparts in more urban areas simply because of lack of investment.

Matthew Taylor: Although I will return to some issues about Cornwall council, the whole context of my argument at this point is that the Government have been sympathetic to investment in education, as have we-the Liberal Democrats argued for that. The Government have sought to address the problem of
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disadvantaged pupils, but primarily in the context of urban disadvantage, and they have simply not delivered to small rural disadvantaged communities. For example, the dedicated school grant contains no protection for maintaining small schools and class sizes in the circumstances that I have described, with the result that for Cornwall council some £10 million is allocated in small school protection to deliver quality and to maintain village schools, but that is not supported directly by Government funding.

Huge financial pressure falls directly on Cornwall council. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) described clearly the benefits of such schools, and I have described the costs. I also described the gap between the level of funding that we receive and the national average, let alone the level of funding received in urban areas of deprivation, which is vastly higher than the national average. The shortfall is not just against the national average; it is even more against similarly deprived communities in different circumstances.

Compared with the national average, the shortfall in school funding is about £24 million every year. That is the difference between what we would receive and what we do receive as a result of the funding formula. That formula is essentially unchanged since it was designed by the last Conservative Government. That is the context in which Cornwall council is starting to move towards what I fear will be closure of some schools and a severe hit on the budgets of some smaller schools. Already, funding changes are being made, which will take money from some smaller schools and make them even more vulnerable to closure.

I suggest that there is a better solution. One element is cash, for which I look to the Government, and the other is a more imaginative approach. I address that comment particularly to Cornwall council, but the Government could show leadership. I plead with the next Government, whether a Labour Government or following a change of Government, to review the central factor of the formula. My party has just announced changes to introduce a pupil premium, which would be worth just over £20 million a year to Cornwall and would address directly the funding gap, but it would be targeted at disadvantage and provide an extra premium for all pupils from impoverished backgrounds such that they are eligible for free school meals. That would effectively provide an extra £2,500 for each pupil.

I know the difference that that would make in schools throughout Cornwall, particularly those with a disadvantaged intake. I spent a day working in Whitemoor school a year or so ago, and I saw direct the issues that it had to tackle and the amount of time and effort needed from classroom assistants and teachers simply to get pupils to the point of learning. That pupil premium would make a real difference, but whether that or another approach is right, rural poverty and deprivation is a fundamental issue that must be addressed in the funding formula. It is time for a review.

No funding system can fully address the extra cost of running smaller schools, so we must be innovative. When the Liberal Democrats were running Cornwall council, it pioneered approaches such as clustering schools to share administrative costs, providing packages to support head teachers to do their jobs effectively by operating across more than one school, and having
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specialist teachers across more than one school to provide expanded opportunities for pupils to interact with teachers with different specialist skills.

Just because small schools are costly, we should not assume that there are no solutions. There are, and they are being implemented throughout the country. The easy option should not be taken when innovative solutions are available. I know that the Government have provided support for that, and I hope that the Minister will say clearly and loudly today that Cornwall council should continue to pursue innovation.

Surplus places are a real issue in rural communities because they are scattered, and it is not possible to amalgamate three schools into two without an impact on the communities that they serve in a way that does not apply in urban communities. Again, the easy option of closing a small village school should not be taken. Such schools are the most costly and are relatively remote, so the easy option of redistributing pupils to larger schools in bigger communities may seem to solve the problem, but it strips out from a village an essential part of its community. It is more difficult to tackle surplus places in urban areas and in oversized schools, and it is tempting to take the quick and easy option of closing a smaller school, but I plead with Cornwall council and the Government to find a more imaginative solution.

The first question should not be, "What do we do about a school that does not have sufficient pupils?" We should ask why it does not have sufficient pupils, and there are usually two core reasons. First, it may have acquired a less than good reputation, so the solution is not to shut it down, but to do something about what has gone wrong with its quality. When a small school that is reliant on one, two or three teachers goes wrong, it goes wrong comprehensively, but in a larger school part of it may continue to function well because of the large range of staff. Equally, putting things right can be done comprehensively more easily than in a larger school. Pupil numbers may have fallen because parents are not choosing it, which is usually because they know something that may not yet have shown up in official statistics, and that should be put right.

Secondly, families in rural communities can no longer afford to live in villages, so there are not enough children for the school, which may have nothing wrong with it. It may be of high quality and well supported by the community, but if there are not enough children, the initial response should be not to think about closing it down, but to think about what can be done to help families to live in a working community. More often than not, what is needed is affordable housing because people who work on farms, in plumbing and building, or in shops and pubs, are forced out of the community by the unaffordability of homes. The best solution for keeping village schools open is to deliver affordable homes in small communities-often just six, eight or 10 are needed-to allow local families to continue to live and work there.

That approach is different. It stops asking the question, "What shall we close down to sort out the problem of surplus places?" and asks, "How can we maintain vibrant communities with successful schools in our more impoverished, small rural communities where it is expensive to live and where there may be surplus school places?" I hope that the Government will take that approach, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to recommend it to Cornwall council.

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1.48 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): If I do not answer any of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), perhaps he will intervene, and perhaps his two hon. Friends will do the same. I congratulate him on securing this debate, and note the attendance of his hon. Friends the Members for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy). From the correspondence and press cuttings that I have seen, I know that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have campaigned tirelessly and worked hard to try to secure the best education outcome for young people and families in their area.

Obviously, we take the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman seriously in Cornwall as in all other areas. The Government have invested heavily over the past 13 years, and before addressing the specific points, I would like to point out that we have seen a real-terms rise in per pupil funding in Cornwall of 38 per cent. since 1997. Following that, in 2005 we introduced the dedicated schools grant, which will increase 2008-09 levels by 12.8 per cent. to £4,043 per pupil in Cornwall by 2010-11. Added to that, Cornwall has benefited from around £100 million of capital investment over the current spending review period, including £18.5 million to support the delivery of the primary capital programme. The hon. Gentleman will also know of the exemplar project to rebuild Camelford school.

The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's speech was about the dedicated schools grant, notwithstanding the point about the pupil premium. He will know that the DSG is being reviewed, as we want to develop a new formula for the distribution of money from central Government to different areas from 2011. As he will know, a three-year period was specified and set out for 2008-09 to 2010-11, and we are looking to see how we can redistribute moneys from 2011 onwards in a way that is perhaps fairer than it is under the current system.

We carried out a consultation, and certain principles arose from that on which we will consult again. For example, we must consider whether we give a single amount per pupil across the country, or whether we have activity-led funding and look to see how much each pupil costs in an area. One can then look at issues such as sparsity, deprivation, high-cost pupils and additional educational needs.

One problem that the hon. Gentleman will have-as will hon. Members from all parties-is that while some of his colleagues argue for a fairer distribution of the money, that is actually something that would disadvantage him even further. That is true of all political parties. To find a fairer funding mechanism, where people do not simply go and see whether they get more or less from it, is difficult.

I know Cornwall, and I know that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will have tried to influence the outcome of the review. However, I suggest that he continues writing to relevant Departments and putting pressure on them and on the local authority, to try to secure the fairest and best possible outcome for Cornwall. The review is ongoing, and there will be a further consultation on it in the next couple of weeks, to which he may wish to contribute.

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Matthew Taylor: I am sure that the Minister has the same experience as me-there is no Member of Parliament who does not believe that their constituency is unfairly disadvantaged in comparison to others. There was a similar issue regarding health, and there we have seen a change which, over time, significantly increases the funding. I reiterate for the Minister that when the Government were elected, the funding formula disadvantaged rural, impoverished communities such as ours, meaning that we got 95 per cent. of the national average per pupil. As the Minister said, funding has gone up, but we now have only 92 per cent. of the national average. There is a clear bias in the system, but with health-and more generally-the Government have recognised that ours is an impoverished community and, I am afraid, the nearest equivalent to inner-urban poverty in a rural setting.

Mr. Coaker: I accept the point that poverty does not exist only in urban areas and that there is rural poverty. I also accept that there is a need for a review of the way in which money is distributed to local authorities and to schools. My point is that it is an ongoing process; no conclusion has been reached, and the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and no doubt part of the point of the debate, are an attempt to influence the outcome of that review. The outcome is not decided yet, and he needs to continue to make his case.

Let me address specifically some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman about primary school closures in his constituency and in Cornwall more generally. Obviously, the closure of a school can be controversial, and we have tried to ensure that the proposer of such action is required under legislation to undertake a public consultation. From May 2007, new arrangements for local decision making took effect, and they must be followed whenever a change in school provision is suggested.

However, the provision of schools and schools places in an area is ultimately a decision for local authorities, not the Government. Councils have primary responsibility for school-place planning, and a duty to secure the best standards for all pupils. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the good standards in many of Cornwall's schools, notwithstanding the pressures on finances and resources that some of them feel they are under. The council has responsibility for determining the most appropriate organisation in an area.

In terms of protecting rural schools, there is money within the dedicated schools grant for sparsity, which enables us to target extra spending. Cornwall received £5.44 million in its schools settlement for sparsity. We fully expect-this is perhaps one concrete thing that I can say to the hon. Gentleman-the sparsity factor to be included in the new formula, whatever that is. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might make a suggestion about how that sparsity factor is worked out, and whether it could be done so more advantageously. Importantly, the sparsity factor will remain.

The Government introduced a presumption against school closure 10 years ago. Statutory guidance now requires decision makers to have regard to that presumption, and to take account of other factors when considering the future of rural schools. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Cornwall made the point about schools having an impact on the community and on local businesses, rather than being solely an education matter.

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