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Education (Cornwall)

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

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12.55 pm

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate and I thank the Minister for staying on as we are just about to break for Christmas. I know that the Minister visited Cornwall not long ago and that the county's problems have already been brought to her attention. I requested a debate on the funding of the education service in Cornwall because there is no more important investment than the investment that we make in the future of our children. However, the disparity between what needs to be spent on education in Cornwall and what the Government are willing to spend —or, more accurately, will allow to be spent—is widening to an ever more worrying extent.

There are changing financial arrangements. Our schools have been under-resourced for far too long, but the introduction of the poll tax and the associated changes will make matters worse. Cornwall could reasonably expect its prudent management in the past to be recognised in the level of Government financial support that it is to receive, yet Cornwall, which is underspending by £4 million on the Government's current assessment of its spending need on education, is overnight to be turned into a so-called "overspender" when measured against the new standard spending assessment. That is absurd to anyone who looks at the figures and it arises for a number of reasons which are, by and large, unconnected with any assessment of the needs of the education service in Cornwall.

The Government's financial support includes wholly inadequate provision for the effects of inflation on local authority spending. It is inadequate in terms that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would accept, although it has not been changed in terms of local government funding. Apart from being a real cut because of the effects of inflation, it takes no account of the need to increase spending to meet the increased pressure that schools face in implementing recent legislation.

To compound all that, the method that has been adopted for calculating Cornwall's education standard spending assessment takes further resources away from Cornwall. Under this element, the county has lost grant equivalent to £11 per adult. To make matters worse, resources have been moved from poor counties, such as Cornwall, to support richer counties around London. The area cost adjustment has lost Cornwall a further £7 an adult and is another example of the problems that will arise from the introduction of the poll tax. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is unfair that people in Cornwall, where wages are 20 per cent. below the national average, should have to subsidise counties around London, where incomes are substantially higher than the average. Even if Cornwall spends at the Government's standard level for education need as now defined, despite higher inflation, my constituents will contribute 40 per cent. more than they do this year.

Against that background of more financial constraints, there is a huge demand for resources for buildings, maintenance, books, equipment, in-service training for teachers and training for governors. However, the capital budget is of particular concern in Cornwall because we have so many Victorian primary schools and nine split-site secondary schools which need urgent attention. Over 50 primary schools have outdoor toilets and over 80 are without a hall. The county tells me—and I am sure that it is right—that it has no hope of meeting the regulations on the standard of premises by the deadline of 1991. In other words, the Government have set standards but are not allowing the money to meet them.

I visited Mevagissey school in my constituency recently. Huge problems arise there as a result of overcrowding. The school hall has to be used on the same day as a gym, a meeting place and a classroom, but the school has been taken off the lists of schools urgently needing new buildings. It was on the council's priority list last year, but this year it has been replaced by another school equally, or more, deserving. It is a vivid illustration of the merry-go-round of hopelessness in trying to meet £100 million worth of need with £7 million or £8 million worth of spending.

I heard this morning devastating news about the capital building programme for next year. The council asked for permission to spend £18 million, including ongoing commitments from this year to £10 million. The Minister discussed those needs with those councillors during her visit and they made strong representations to her. However, the announcement just made is that the figure allowed by the Government for 1990–91 will be only £6·522 million, against a need of approaching £100 million, of spending to meet targets that are meant to be met by 1991. This means that the LEA will need £3·5 million from further savings or sales of assets just to keep up with the projects already in progress, let alone any projects that county councillors and others from all parts of the county might wish to have for next year. Many planned projects will not now be able to go ahead.

The situation regarding building is nearing disaster again and no one in the county, of whatever political persuasion, can understand why the Government will not allow the county council to act. Teachers, governors, parents and children will be stunned by the sad news that they have just had, and people will be justifiably angry. I hope that the Minister will now agree, as at least one concrete measure arising from this debate, to meet a delegation from the county to press this concern. I am sure that the county will be seeking such a meeting.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), in an Ajournment debate in July 1988, also raised the problem of bringing school buildings up to standard —that emphasises the all-party nature of this concern—but, despite his efforts, today's announcement will leave the situation worse than it has ever been. It is about time that Ministers recognised the difficulities in which they are putting Cornish schools.

Major investment is needed to ease the growing problem of teacher morale, and a greater Government appreciation of the valuable job that teachers do would be welcome. That arises, in part, from the difficulties that they face working in schools, but also from the frustration that they have in implementing the changes that the Government are introducing. The falling morale among teachers particularly saddens me, but the Government ignore the difficulties that teachers are facing, and just heap more and more work on them.

Already, there are chronic teacher shortages in many parts of Cornwall and difficulties in getting teachers with the skills required for teaching maths and sciences, and the situation is worsening. In letters to the Secretary of State for Education and Science—which have been copied to me —from head teachers, they raise many deep concerns about the situation in schools. Rather than try to express their frustration in my words, it would be best to quote some of the letters, because they speak powerfully about this crisis of morale.

One head teacher wrote:
"The workload is becoming almost insurmountable for all of us—we will work for the sake of our pupils but these excessive demands, lack of time and preparation to complete everything within Government issued deadlines will result in the continued erosion of the teaching profession, and you will find that existing expertise, dedication and professionalism will recede."
Another teacher, with 30 years' experience, said to the Secretary of State:
"Please, please wake up to the fact that it is now our caring, dedicated staff who are desperate to leave teaching. We are continually being encouraged to be 'positive'. I and many other teachers never found this a problem until recently. There is more to 'job satisfaction' than salary. Top of my list comes inner satisfaction that I am giving of my best to my class—this is becoming increasingly difficult."
A young head teacher only recently appointed wrote:
"I do not have enough books or books of the right quality. We are short of basic equipment and expensive equipment needed for science…I am tired, under extreme stress and have lost a great deal of enthusiasm. I have been offered three jobs in industry at twice the salary I am getting at present and it is likely that I will accept the next job offered to me."
Another teacher said:
"I have a good many years left to give to education but my enthusiasm for teaching cannot go on indefinitely unless the Government provide significant additional resources to enable us to implement the National Curriculum in a professional manner."
Finally, another teacher wrote:
"Morale in my school is at an all time low and deteriorating. I no longer have the time or reason to motivate staff. I shall be seeking early retirement myself at the earliest possible time, if the stress does not kill me first."
I emphasise that those letters come from head teachers in schools of acknowledged high quality. There is no argument about the results that we get from the county. But to tackle the problems we need to have proper recognition of the problems that teachers face and pay must be part of that priority.

I should like a commitment from the Minister that the £600 million limit on the amount to fund the teachers' pay increase next year will be increased. That limit represents an increase across the board of only 7·4 per cent. In view of the present level of inflation, that will make financial hardship for teachers worse rather than better. I implore the Department of Education and Science to start talking again to teachers through a proper negotiating structure. That can only be fair, especially in view of the extra demands being placed on teachers.

I should also like to see the Government invest in much higher profile recruitment for properly qualified teachers to ensure that the maths and science teacher shortages in the county, which are even greater in other parts of the country, are addressed.

I must also make it clear that none of the letters that I have received makes the problem of pay the priority. They refer to something much more basic—training, books, the most basic materials for making the most of the brief, unrepeatable time that we have to give our children their education.

Ministers may not like the issues that I raise. They mainly concern funding and the Government are averse to that, because they have to go to the Treasury to ask for funds, and I understand the difficulties in doing that. But the Government must face the fact that more money is desperately needed, not least in our county.

The announcement that we have heard today is inadequate. Teachers' morale is undeniably low. The teachers whom I have quoted today are talking of resignation. We hear the Government talk about new schemes and CTCs which will never be seen in my county, but schools for the vast majority of children in the county are running out of the basic resources that they need to give children the fundamental and best education that they need.

Teachers in my county are struggling against many odds and achieving good results. They do not have the best of teaching facilities, not through any fault of the Government but because they are old schools, and that needs to be changed. The teaching that is provided in the county is excellent, with excellent results. Cornwall is pressing ahead with implementing the Education Reform Act 1988. Despite the problems and under-resourcing that Cornish schools face, the results are good at GCSE and A-level, as is the staying on rate post-16. We pride ourselves on the efficiency and value for money that is achieved by our education service. But the problems that I have been addressing today are real and immediate and cannot be wished away. The money will have to be spent sooner or later. The present spiral that we are entering is one of decline, and I hope that the Minister will accept that that needs to be reversed.

As I said earlier, I hope that the Minister will agree to meet a delegation from the county, no doubt with other hon. Members who represent Cornwall, which will seek to press the immediate problems of the announcement on capital spending.

1.8 pm

I welcome the debate, and I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words. I should be glad to join any delegation that my hon. Friend the Minister of State might care to receive. I very much hope that a delegation will come to London to see her and talk about Cornwall's problems. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has outlined some of them. He was right to emphasise Cornwall's legacy of outdated Victorian schools, particularly in the villages.

The problem cannot be laid entirely at the Government's door.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me about that. It arises, in part, because of Cornwall's previous priorities. It used most of its building resources on secondary education, with the result that some village schools have been neglected.

The hon. Member for Truro referred to the pressure on the school hall in Mevagissey. There are several village schools in my constituency that do not have school halls. I am thinking in particular of Breage school near Porthleven. That school faced closure a few years ago. It is now flourishing, thanks to the head teacher's inspired leadership and the backing of the staff. The school is literally bulging at the seams in an old building that has not been modernised this century.

A delegation ought to come to see the Minister about Cornwall's capital building programme. I share the hon. Gentleman's disappointment that it did not feature more prominently in yesterday's announcement. He referred to the education authority's request that the capital building programme should be increased to £18 million, but the county council knows perfectly well that that is an unrealistic hid; it would be horrified if it were given permission to spend £18 million. It could not finance it. Therefore, it submitted a high figure in the hope of attracting a realistic increase. I hope that it will be allowed to spend more than the £6·5 million increase that has been allocated to it.

There is a tendency in this place and throughout the country to say that underfunding is the Government's fault. All of us would like more money to be spent on education. The hon. Member for Truro will join me in another debate to argue for more spending on Cornwall's health services. We are both fighting the case for the air ambulance, for example. One has to apreciate the Government's problems over managing the national budget. There is also a local problem over managing Cornwall's education budget.

I am told that during the last three years Cornwall education authority has overspent its budget. According to reliable information, I also understand that this year it is likely to overspend by £1·5 million. Consequently, it is now having to make cuts. It has cut £500,000 on the repair and maintenance of the kind of schools to which the hon. Gentleman and I have referred. It has also cut £450,000 from the school transport budget. That creates problems in rural areas such as those that the hon. Gentleman and I represent.

We should consider the reasons for overspending. I am told that the overspend on education officers' car allowances is about £136,000. That is nothing to do with the Government; it is Cornwall education authority's problem. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general case, but I do not believe that all the blame should be laid at the Government's door. Cornwall education authority, at county hall, must, where this is needed, put its house in order.

1.14 pm

I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). It is important to start by saying that any delegation that asks to see a Minister normally receives a courteous reply and an answer to that request in the affirmative.

It is right to remind the House that the level of education spending in any local education authority, whether for recurrent or for capital expenditure, is not directly under the Government's control, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives said. Local authorities decide their own priorities and direct their budgets accordingly. It is therefore the Cornwall local education authority, and ultimately the voters of Cornwall, to whom the hon. Member for Truro needs to direct most of his animus.

Recurrent funding accounts for teachers' salaries and other running costs for schools will be delegated to most schools under the local management of schools provision in the Education Reform Act 1988. I am delighted to hear that Cornwall is pressing ahead in implementing reforms under that Act. I am sure that many of the points made by the hon. Member for Truro on the funding of individual schools and the pressures placed on teachers, especially head teachers, will be alleviated by the introduction of the local management of schools provision. That has proved to be the case in pilot schemes. We are convinced that there will be more effective spending and that, therefore, available funds will go further and buy more.

The critical issue for Cornwall's funding, as for all other authorities, is the level of its education standard spending assessment. As I am sure the hon. Member for Truro knows, the SSA takes the place in the new finance system that was occupied by the grant-related expenditure assessment in the old system: it is the figure at which the Government consider that an appropriate and standard level of service could be provided by the authority. The total of all SSAs for all local authority services is the level at which the charging authority will be able to levy the community charge for standard spending—£278 before contribution to or receipt from the transitional safety net. The SSA takes account of the numbers of pupils, students, adults and children under five deemed to be in receipt of the authority's services. It also gives weight to the particular circumstances of each authority. In Cornwall's case, that is important because the SSA places more emphasis on the costs of providing education services in sparse areas than the GRE did. Cornwall has the fifth highest sparsity index in the country and is therefore a beneficiary of this change.

In 1990–91, Cornwall's education SSA will be 8 per cent. above its education GRE for 1989–90—a rise broadly in line with the change for most LEAs. However, the SSA will also be 16 per cent. above Cornwall's education budget for 1989–90, as reported on the form RER—the report that comes back to the Department of Education and Science from the local authority—and this means that the authority should find no difficulty in coping with the new finance system, at least through its recurrent education expenditure. This is a reflection—the hon. Member for Truro drew attention to this point—of the authority's past prudence and efficiency. I hope that the local authority, despite the view of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives on part of its expenditure, will continue to look carefully at how it budgets.

On the more general question of capital resources for schools, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State secured a substantial increase for local authority capital and for grants to voluntary-aided and grant-maintained schools in the current year's public expenditure round. Details for individual LEAs were announced yesterday, and I shall come to Cornwall's position in a moment. I should like first to make some general points on the Government's approach to work on school buildings.

The big increase in funds available will allow local education authorities and governing bodies to continue their programme of improvements to schools, including preparation for the national curriculum and following the guidelines of the 1981 regulations that are currently being looked at. We are making available for new improvement work alone a four-and-a-half-times increase in the equivalent sum made available last year. That amply demonstrates the importance we attach to capital spending on schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives is right in saying that if by any chance the sums of money put in by the local education authorities for capital spending had been allocated, they would have found considerable difficulty in managing to achieve spending on that level.

I understand the Minister's point. However, there is a degree of cynicism in the local education authorities since we have received approximately two thirds of what we asked for, and so has the average authority nationally. There is a suspicion that more attention has been paid to cutting the bid down by two thirds than to what is required by any individual authority.

I must quickly dispel that misapprehension. A careful study of the capital allocations throughout the country will reveal that it is by no means the case that local authorities have received two thirds of what they bid for. Would that it were so in my local authority's case.

I should not give the impression that everything necessary can be done at once, or that what we are making available will meet all the spending needs identified by all local education authorities. A great deal needs to be done to the fabric of schools all over the country to bring them up to scratch and to make them fit for the delivery of the high standards of education to which parents and teachers alike aspire, which our children deserve, and which we believe that our education reforms will achieve. Local education authorities have in recent years added to that substantially from receipts generated by sale of education assets—typically school sites sold as part of reorganization—by the use of revenue funds, and grant from the Department in the case of voluntary-aided schools. Of course, there is never enough to satisfy the full needs that people put forward.

It is important to remind the House that the numbers of pupils, and thus of schools, have been falling for the past 10 years. Capital spending per pupil has nevertheless increased by 10 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years. We recognise that more needs to be done, and it is against that background that we have announced the big increase in annual capital guidelines and grant to governors of voluntary-aided schools.

As in recent years, priority has been given first to meeting committed expenditure on projects outstanding from previous years. This year we have uprated these sums by a realistic figure to allow for inflation, which should go a long way to meet complaints from LEAs that inflation has been insufficiently allowed for. Priority is next given to meeting the cost of new school places in areas of population growth. There must be places in schools for all children who require them. Priority is then given to projects designed to remove surplus places. That is because more efficient use of buildings releases resources which can be recycled for the benefit of the rest of the education system in the local authority concerned. Funds are then allocated, by means of an objective formula, for school improvements, and it is in this area that we have been able to distribute a four-and-a-half-fold increase compared with last year.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again. She is aware that the amount needed to bring us up to the Government's target levels for 1991 is many times greater than that allocated to the county council and well below what it could usefully spend, whatever the arguments about the hid put in. We will not meet those targets. How does the Minister answer parents and teachers on that point?

Those guidelines were laid down in regulations in 1981. It is clearly recognised that in past years requirements to be met under those regulations have changed. It is in light of that that we are currently reviewing those regulations to see whether we can ease the requirements for local authorities.

As I understand it, the Minister is saying that because the money is not being made available to meet the targets they will reduce the targets.

That is not what I am saying. We are reviewing the needs as we perceive them now. They are generated by a different set of circumstances, principally the Education Reform Act 1988. We are considering the guidelines to see how schools, particularly small schools, can be accommodated within the terms of the 1981 guidelines.

We have talked about the overall total guideline for Cornwall, which is £6·522 million, of which the apportionment is £5·557 million for schools and £965,000 for further education. That represents some 35 per cent. of the authority's total bid and this proportion, I should emphasise, is exactly the national average for all LEAs in this exercise. But the settlement for Cornwall fits the national pattern not only in terms of arithmetical proportion, but in the more general sense that, while it does not meet all the authority's objectives—I am clear about that—it will allow for significant progress to continue in the improvement and adaptation of its schools and colleges.

I have already mentioned that the guidelines should not be seen as the sum total of what is available to authorities for capital expenditure on education; they are more a catalyst to which can be added other resources such as capital receipts, and other sums made available by virement from other resources at the disposal of county councils. I am glad to see, from an observation of the educational spending patterns of recent years, that Cornwall makes significant use of those flexibilities.

In the voluntary-aided sector, we have met in full the considerable bid for committed expenditure of over £1 million. The authority's bid for new works was entirely in respect of minor works, and here we have made available a sum of £90,000, which should enable the authority, at its discretion and, no doubt, in consultation with the dioceses concerned, to start a number of planned works at primary schools in the coming year. I hope that that news is welcomed by hon. Members. In further education, the authority received an allocation for its sole bid for a new major building project.

The other subject that the hon. Gentleman raised was teachers' morale. I am familiar with the contents of the letter that he has received from the National Association of Head Teachers and other organisations. We recognise the extremely hard work put in by teachers throughout the country. We welcome their devotion to their work and acknowledge a debt of gratitude to them especially as they have undertaken the introduction of the Education Reform Act 1988. The implementation of the national curriculum and other new provisions place a great demand on teachers.

We have been at pains to make it clear that teachers deserve both recognition and respect for their professionalism and commitment. Teaching is an attractive career. Some 25,000 people enter or re-enter the profession each year. Applications for primary initial teacher training are up by 15 per cent. The proportion of teachers leaving teaching for other paid employment is less than 1 per cent. each year.

Clearly, pay is important. Teachers' pay has risen by 40 per cent. overall since March 1986. This year we have given the interim advisory committee a remit to examine, in particular, the pay of head and deputy head teachers. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the total sum given to the interim advisory committee is twice that given last year. It is important to recognise that the Government have taken steps to make teachers' pay a high priority.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the new pay machinery. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had a constructive round of meetings with the teachers' unions and employers a short while ago. He is now considering the points made to him and he aims to put in place machinery for the 1991 settlement. He is pursuing the matter vigorously, but he does not underestimate the difficulties that remain. I hope that I have managed to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government take schools, education, capital and teachers seriously.