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School Budgets (Norfolk)

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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What assessment he has made of the impact of (a) the increase in national insurance contributions and (b) the new formula spending share on school budgets in Norfolk. [108251]

My Department is analysing in detail the impact of the changes in Norfolk and other local education authorities on the basis of the LEA returns now being submitted as a result of financial decisions. On Norfolk, I have discussed these matters closely with the director of education and the chief executive of the county and I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the county council's decision this week to add £500,000 to the extra £1.6 million that the Government were able to allocate recently to help schools in Norfolk.

I join the Secretary of State in welcoming the extra money allocated to Norfolk county council, but will he meet head teachers in my constituency, perhaps with me, so that he could hear directly from them the scale of the problem with this year's budget? I received a letter from a head teacher on behalf of the North Walsham cluster, which set out the position of all the schools in that cluster and pointed out how many schools were facing cuts in staff and teaching support assistance. The situation is pretty bleak, so will the right hon. Gentleman meet those teachers?

I have already met people from schools in my own constituency and my neighbouring constituency of Norwich, North. I understand that Norfolk representatives of the National Association of Head Teachers are seeking a meeting with me and I am prepared to meet them. I have also had substantial email and letter exchanges with schools, including some in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

The questions that I am putting to Norfolk county council include the following. Why is 41 per cent. of the standards fund—a total of £6.3 million—being held back from schools? Why is 1 per cent. of the individual school budget—£2.84 million received during the year—also being held back from schools? Why was the non-individual school budget increased by 29.5 per cent., which is a substantial amount, much higher than that received by many other authorities?

The hon. Gentleman may join me in considering why the Norfolk formula allocation has such wide variations in budget share per pupil—for primary schools, the lowest is an 18 per cent. decrease, while the highest is an increase of 95 per cent. The upper quartile primary schools have had embedded increases of an average of 16 per cent., with the lowest quartile receiving only 7 per cent. Those are sharp differentials. The county council does not have a system of floors and ceilings, which it should have, as we do in the country as a whole. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in asking the county to explain itself on those matters.

May I express similar concerns to those of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)? I have done a survey of schools in my area and many are in exactly the same position with a shortfall in funding, perhaps requiring redundancies. They also welcome the Government's massive investment in education and the extra £1.6 million, which will go a long way. I also congratulate Norfolk county council on adding the extra £500,000. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Norfolk local education authority to put all that extra money in the schools that are facing difficulties, redundancies and staff cuts, thereby ensuring that there are no redundancies this year and, I hope, for the foreseeable future?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and, like him and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), I acknowledge the concerns of schools. However, the wide variations in the figures between schools are extremely striking. We have to understand why that is, because the budget for each individual school is affected by a combination of the Government's allocation to the LEA, the council tax increase, and the county council's formula for allocating money. We are analysing those factors carefully and I will report back to colleagues in Norfolk.