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School Funding (Worcestershire)

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2012

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I should start by placing on record my interest in this matter as a governor and associate governor of Hallow primary school in my constituency for many years.

Worcestershire is one of the lowest-funded counties in the country for education. It is 147th out of 151 for per pupil funding and a long-standing member of the f40 group. According to the National Governors Association, the guaranteed unit of funding for pupils in Birmingham is £5,689, yet in neighbouring Worcestershire it is only £4,601—a difference of 20%. That has been going on for years. Mrs Susan Warner, head teacher of Lindridge primary school, said to me in one of the many letters that I have received on the subject:

“There is very little reasoning behind this unfair distribution and it appears to be purely historic, with no-one really understanding how the allocations were made in the first place.”

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State signalled his intention to deal with the national unfairness of the school funding formula with “Consultation on School Funding Reform: Proposals on a Fairer Funding System”. That was welcome, but in an environment in which the overall school budget is only rising with inflation, it apparently will not be implemented this side of 2015.

In the meantime, the Department has decided to simplify the allocation formula for the direct schools grant, replacing the outdated and unfair national formula with a clearer one by reducing the number of allowable factors from 40 to a maximum of 12. The principle of a single flat amount per pupil in each stage of education from primary to sixth form makes sense. It is intuitive and, given that 80% to 85% of the cost of each school place relates to the salaries of teachers whose rates are set nationally, it makes sense to have a per pupil amount of funding that is broadly the same nationally.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and useful debate for the county of Worcestershire. She talks about the ratio of staff costs being 80% to 85%, but in Wyre Forest we see that rising as high as 95% as more experienced staff go up the internal pay scale. That puts even more pressure on schools locally to try to perform with these very limited budgets.

I thank my honourable constituency neighbour for that observation. Staff costs certainly form by far the largest part of a school budget. It makes sense to have money follow the pupil, as that gives a clear signal to schools that they will do better if they can attract more pupils. The pupil premium, which has been welcomed at £600 per pupil on free school meals, will be even more welcome in Worcestershire when it is increased from 2013 by 50% and set at £900 per pupil. As the pupil premium now links to the pupil level the concept of income deprivation, it stands to reason that the main pupil funding allocation should be set more equally at national level as well. If the pupil premium is a national amount, why should not the main per pupil amount be more equal, too?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate. I want simply to strengthen her case by pointing out that Gloucestershire has the same argument as her own county. We, too, are underfunded compared with, say, Bristol. That is obviously unfair, and we need a national approach to the matter.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the examples in Stroud.

If, as the formula seems to do, we move closer to a per pupil amount across the county of Worcestershire without making any correction to the national unfairness, we shall run into a crucial problem. Small, mainly rural primary schools form an integral part of the fabric of county life in a dispersed constituency such as mine. Where distances are large and sparsity is high, we find that the village school is the focus and beating heart of the village. Rural schools are likely to have fewer children on free school meals, for a couple of reasons. There is a lower chance of meals being served and a much higher chance of the possible social stigma being known, and there is therefore lower take-up. Those schools thus miss out on the pupil premium, as can be seen from the fact that Worcestershire has just over 1% of the pupils on roll in England, but less than 0.75% of the pupil premium for 2012-13.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She has made the case admirably for the small rural schools in her constituency, but she will be aware that some of the smaller schools in my constituency, which are urban schools and receive quite a lot of pupil premium, are also negatively affected by the changes. Does she agree that for the Government’s pupil premium policy to work and for their funding reforms to work really well, we need fairer funding on an underlying basis to make progress?

I do agree. How lucky my hon. Friend’s constituents are to have such a tireless champion and voice for fairer funding for Worcestershire.

Today, I ask the Minister to allow the county council to have more sector-variable lump sums that can be set locally. Some flexibility at local level is essential. Small rural primary schools are a priority for Worcestershire county council and it has a democratic mandate to take that approach. In addition, it is in its interest to do so, as travel and building costs would rise sharply if there were a consolidation of the smaller local primary schools. Furthermore, parts of Worcestershire support a middle school system, and the local authority should have some flexibility to reflect that.

I welcome the Minister’s letter of last week, confirming that there is a minimum funding guarantee extended out to 2015—a per pupil guarantee of minus 1.5%—which will help to moderate the impact of the changes up to 2015. However, Worcestershire needs more flexibility—it needs more money. More flexibility over a lump sum from the local authority could insulate small rural schools from too much fluctuation. Even after that guarantee, a school such as Eldersfield primary in my constituency would have a 5.5% fall in its budget by 2015, despite educating each child to an excellent standard for a frugal £3,523 per child.

I have so far been contacted by primary schools in the villages of Castlemorton, Martley, Broadwas, Grimley and Holt, Clifton-upon-Teme, Astley and Hallow, Great Witley, Eldersfield, Lindridge, Kempsey and Pendock, many of which have asked whether the funding formula is a deliberate attempt to close or merge village primaries and move towards a system of larger urban primary schools. Will the Minister please assure the dedicated teachers and governors and the parents of children at those rural primary schools that there is no such policy and that the value of village primary schools to their communities is fully recognised by the Government?

I hope that the Minister can also resolve the funding problem. Village schools should be considered unviable only if they do not attract pupils on a sustainable basis. Allowing local authorities, such as Worcestershire county council, to have a larger amount to use as a flexible lump sum to support those valuable schools would allow them to continue to serve the large rural areas that still make up such a large part of Worcestershire and, indeed, England.

I rise to take part in the debate with the consent of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and my first duty is to congratulate her on securing it and expressing her case so clearly and compellingly. I associate myself with everything she has said and that my hon. Friends have said in interventions.

I rise primarily because the schools in the Evesham pyramid in my constituency would be most seriously affected were the policy to proceed unamended. The schools in the Evesham pyramid would lose about £1.3 million, and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire made so very clear, is against the backdrop of a very unfair funding formula. They cannot afford to lose that amount of money. No school could, but certainly not schools that are in a badly funded authority to begin with. I say in parenthesis that even the minimum funding guarantee, with a maximum reduction of 1.5% per pupil, threatens the viability of some smaller schools. A cumulative two or three years at 1.5%, against a very low base, is threatening for many schools.

There are a number of reasons why in Evesham the situation is particularly serious. There are more smaller schools perhaps, and also a middle school arrangement, which is not always understood by officials at the Department for Education. I understand why—middle schools are not very prevalent these days—but they are an important part of the education landscape in Worcestershire, and certainly in Evesham, and their particular needs must be taken account of in funding arrangements.

We have talked about small village schools, but I must emphasise that it is smaller schools that are affected, not just village schools. There are two high schools in Evesham, which would both lose money under this arrangement. One—the smaller of the two—would lose £250,000. It cannot afford to lose £250,000. So, it is not only the small village schools that are affected, but, surprisingly, some significantly larger schools.

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that perhaps the Government were wrong to attempt this welcome reform—I entirely agree with the reform itself, because it is absolutely right in principle—before they had digested the underlying problem in relation to having a fairer funding formula at national level. Change in distribution in a badly funded county is fraught with danger, and I fear that it will be difficult to find any arrangement that prevents some significant loss for some schools unless we first have the fairer funding that the county so desperately needs.

However, I am confident that a solution can be found that mitigates the effect. I am encouraged by the attitude that the Government have taken so far, and I have reassured head teachers and governors in my constituency that I believe that the Government’s heart is in changing this policy and ensuring that it does not have the devastating impact that it would have if it proceeded unamended.

I am grateful to the extent that there is a minimum funding guarantee, for example, for a third year, but a higher lump sum does no good in Worcestershire—we cannot afford it and do not have the money to fund a higher lump sum. However, a variable lump sum, certainly between sectors, could lie at the heart of a solution that I believe would reduce the devastating impact of this policy and give smaller schools some hope of survival in the face of what would otherwise be a very arbitrary and unfair policy.

Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Weir. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing the debate. I must also declare an interest as a governor and trustee at Vaynor First School academy.

This year, although the number of students receiving good GCSEs fell across the nation, in Redditch we had nothing short of an exams boom. Despite funding challenges, three secondary schools in Redditch gained results that placed them in the top tier of the most improved schools across the country. Two schools, Arrow Vale and Trinity high, are recently converted academies, and that has had a hugely beneficial effect on the way that they run and operate, and ultimately on the success that they have had.

More importantly, from speaking to the head teachers it is clear that those schools now have greater ambition and, crucially, believe that they can compete with the best. However, while the structure, with the rolling out of academies, is finally in place for our county to achieve, funding is not. On funding, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire pointed out that the county is ranked nationally 147th out of 151. Worcestershire is more affected than other counties by this funding arrangement because we are at the bottom of the schools funding league.

The way out of that is a fairer national funding formula, which this Government have promised following 13 years of a Labour Government who completely failed to address the issue. It is absolutely vital for the children of Worcestershire that we receive a fair deal. The crucial point is that the recent exam results from a few schools in Redditch are on the back of unfair funding, so imagine what we could achieve if we had fairer funding. The truth is that in the age of an ever more competitive national and global work force we cannot continue unfairly to disadvantage the future of our children, whose only fault is that they were born in Worcestershire.

Thank you very much, Mr Weir, for calling me to speak.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing this debate on an issue that is extremely important for her constituency and that is obviously also important throughout the country. Once again, she is proving to be a most effective champion of her constituency interests.

My hon. Friend warned me before the debate started that the MPs from Worcestershire have a tendency to hunt in packs and her pack is behind her today, if I may say so, in the form of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), for Redditch (Karen Lumley), for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who have all backed up the points that she made in a very effective way. We have other Members from Gloucestershire and Devon, who are clearly also taking an interest in this debate.

As the Minister for Schools, I am very well aware of the strength of feeling in Worcestershire schools and in schools in some other parts of the country. There is concern about some of the changes that we are seeking to make to the school funding system, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has set out some of those concerns very clearly today. I have received a number of representations from other hon. Friends, and from concerned local head teachers and governors throughout Worcestershire.

Therefore, I am grateful for this opportunity to address some of those concerns and to offer a reassurance that, as we move to a fairer funding system, we will do so very carefully and at a pace that enables proper consideration, consultation and sensitivity about the issues that are being rightly raised today by local MPs.

Our aim is for every child to succeed in school, regardless of their background. That is why the Government, despite having to make difficult decisions elsewhere in public spending, have made school spending a priority and protected school funding over the course of the spending review period, as my hon. Friends will be aware.

We have also introduced, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the pupil premium which, by the end of the Parliament, will have targeted an additional £2.5 billion to disadvantaged pupils. My hon. Friend mentioned that sometimes the take-up of the pupil premium is a concern in rural areas. She might be interested to know that the Department will publish in a few weeks’ time some interesting national figures showing the take-up of the pupil premium and free school meals in different parts of the country, and highlighting the challenge there is in some of the more rural areas to ensure that take-up is as high as it should be.

The Government need to work with local councils, schools and MPs to ensure that in some of the areas where there is a low take-up we address that, to ensure not only that youngsters get the free school meals to which they are entitled but that the extra funding we are making available gets through to the schools that need it.

We also need a system to support the investment that we are putting in through the pupil premium and to ensure that pupils are not disadvantaged as a result of a school funding system that, as my hon. Friends have indicated, does not distribute funding fairly. Sadly, under the previous Government, when there was a much bigger opportunity to increase education spending, the opportunity was missed to bring in a more rational formula. The current system for funding schools is in need of reform. It is based on an assessment of need that dates back to at least 2005-06, and that has not kept pace with changing demographics and the needs of pupils across the country. It is very complicated, meaning that head teachers, governors and parents are often unable to understand how their school budgets have been calculated and why.

That outdated funding system has meant that Worcestershire, as hon. Friends have already mentioned, is one of the relatively lowest funded authorities in England, ranking at 147 out of the 152 authorities. It is not right that schools with very similar circumstances can receive, without good cause, vastly different levels of funding for no clearly identifiable reason. Data taken from the 2010-11 section 251 returns, which set out local authority budgets, show that funding between similar secondary schools can vary by up to £1,800 per pupil, which is an enormous amount and clearly not fair.

It is also not right that the system is so complex that school leaders are often unable to understand how their budgets have been calculated. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made a statement on 26 March 2012 announcing the Government’s clear intention to introduce a new national funding formula during the next spending review period. I appreciate that hon. Friends would like that to be as soon as possible, but there are obviously a lot of constraints that I will discuss in a moment on the introduction. However, the commitment is clear and is something I feel strongly about, as does the Secretary of State.

A new national funding formula would distribute money fairly across the country, targeting need properly and getting rid of some of the anomalies that make the current system so opaque. However, dismantling a system that is so entrenched and complicated is far from easy. It is important that we introduce full-scale reform at a pace that schools can manage. The last thing that we want, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire said, is to cause destabilising changes to school budgets that cause anxiety in schools and among parents and distract schools from delivering high educational standards for their pupils.

That is why we are trying to move gradually towards introducing a new funding system, at a pace that gives us sufficient time to agree the construction of a new formula and to allow schools enough time to adjust to changes in their funding arrangements. Making the local system simpler and more transparent will mean that, when we do come to address the national system, there is far less complexity for us to untangle.

The first step we are taking is to ensure that within local areas pupils begin to attract similar levels of funding regardless of where they go to school. At present, local authorities can use up to 37 factors and countless sub-factors when distributing money to schools. I understand that in the past there has been a tradition of funding schools based on the facilities that they offer, the pay scales of their teachers, the size of their buildings and, even in some cases, the number of trees and ditches on their estate.

Our view is that the majority of money that we spend on education should be based on the pupil, not on the school characteristics. If a pupil chooses to go to a particular school then the funding is available to fulfil that choice, and it is not locked in to the school down the road because it happens to have more expensive teachers or a swimming pool to maintain. Rather than giving money to schools based on their size or other circumstances, local authorities will now have to distribute the majority of funds based on pupil numbers and characteristics. That is very much in keeping with the aims of a funding system that is pupil led and that is fair and transparent.

The new arrangements will mean that funding will be distributed differently, and there will be some shifts between school budgets as we move towards a more consistent way of funding schools. Our aim is to start to iron out inconsistencies and unfairness, which pupils in schools are currently experiencing, to create a fairer system. We remain committed to ensuring that good, small schools are able to thrive under the new arrangements.

We know that small schools often play a vital role in communities, not least in rural areas, and it is not our intention that any good school should be forced to close as a result of these reforms. That is a commitment that my hon. Friend asked for in her speech, and I hope that she will take that as a commitment from the Government. There is no secret agenda to close small, successful schools. I hope that she and her hon. Friends will take that message back to their constituencies.

We are allowing local authorities to allocate a lump sum of up to £200,000 in their formula. The intention of the lump sum is to cover the fixed cost of a small school—for example, a head teacher, a caretaker and some administrative support—and no more. It is not intended to protect the historic grants that were given to some schools and not others to pay for things such as floor space, specialist teachers and so forth.

We have heard a number of concerns—we heard them from my hon. Friend today—about the requirement to have a single lump sum for primary, middle and secondary schools. Although I recognise that the curriculum costs are different in each phase, I reiterate the point that the lump sum is not intended to pay for the curriculum costs. The lump sum should pay for fixed costs, and the per-pupil funding should pay for the curriculum costs. We will, however, review those arrangements, and I will explain more about that review shortly.

The reforms will require local authorities and school forums to break out of historic approaches and to think radically about the way in which money is distributed to schools in their areas. I realise that it is the implementation of the new simplified arrangements that is causing anxiety among schools in Worcestershire, and that there are particular concerns about the impact the changes will have on small and middle schools in rural areas such as Evesham, Pershore and Upton.

Officials in the Department have been in contact with staff at Worcestershire county council to understand why the concerns have arisen and to offer advice. I understand that Worcestershire county council has already agreed to the new funding formula—it did so on 18 October —but it has done so for one year only. I am informed that Worcestershire county council will review its local formula in light of the issues raised during its recent consultation, and in line with any changes made by the Department for 2014-15.

As I said, our main priority is stability and certainty for schools, which is why these reforms will be implemented carefully and with great consideration, as my hon. Friends have requested. The Secretary of State already announced in June that schools will continue to have planning certainty through the minimum funding guarantee, which means that, in most cases, no school will lose more than 1.5% of its budget per pupil in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

In addition to that and in response to concerns raised by my hon. Friend, her colleagues and other hon. Friends, the Department has confirmed within the past few days that a minimum funding guarantee will continue to operate beyond 2014-15. We cannot confirm the exact value of that guarantee as it covers the next spending review period; we need to know our budget for that period and to have Treasury approval before giving any such guarantees. None the less, we are absolutely committed to protecting school budgets from unmanageable falls, and I hope that that will also be an assurance for my hon. Friend.

At the moment, we have made it clear that we will continue it beyond the period of 2014-15. Although we are not in a position to make an announcement yet, given that we are seeking to move to a national funding formula, it is highly likely that we will need some form of protection for a considerable period. I will be happy to update my hon. Friend when we are in a position to say more.

The minimum funding guarantee is excellent, and I am sure we all welcome its extension, but is it not the obvious answer to the turbulence of moving towards a national formula? Therefore, is there any reason for the Government not to move towards a national formula, using the minimum funding guarantee, before 2015?

Moving straight to a national funding formula without the transitional arrangements would be even more challenging and would create an even larger departmental postbag. I understand my hon. Friend is doing his best to push Worcestershire’s case, but the Secretary of State is right to be going about this in a measured way as we are seeking to bring about a complex change.

In any case, the extension of the minimum funding guarantee beyond 2015 should reassure the several Worcestershire schools—including the Hanley Castle pyramid, Prince Henry’s high school and Evesham high school—that have contacted me to express concerns about a potential cliff edge in funding from 2014-15 if the minimum funding guarantee were to end. I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will take that message back to other schools concerned about a cliff edge. The last thing we want is for parents not to send their children to those schools because of fears that are not well grounded.

I also reassure my hon. Friends that we have decided to carry out a thorough review in early 2013, starting now effectively, of the impact of simpler formula factors. We will work with local authorities to explore the effect of the different factors that we have, including the lump sum, which is a key element of Worcestershire’s formula, as well as those that we have eliminated.

We have made it clear that we want to prevent the changes from having unacceptable consequences for good schools. That is why a review will be so important in evaluating the effects and will enable us to make any necessary adjustments in the following year, 2014-15. As a consequence of the representations that have been made today by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire and her colleagues, I will ask officials to add Worcestershire to the shortlist of authorities that have been particularly assiduous in making representations to the Department and that I would like officials to talk to over the period of the review, which we hope will report back in the springtime—spring being a slightly flexible season.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friends for drawing attention to the concerns of Worcestershire schools about our school funding reforms. I hope I have been able to provide some reassurance that our aim in making the reforms is ultimately to ensure that England has a fair and transparent funding system in which funding follows pupils and there is consistency within and between different areas of the country. I know that Worcestershire shares that ultimate aim with the Department. I also hope that my hon. Friends understand that we are listening carefully to their concerns and, where necessary, are responding to them.

I commend my hon. Friends for making their representations so effectively to the Department that the Worcestershire file is probably the largest of any county. I look forward to maintaining contact with Worcestershire in the run-up to the decisions, which we will make and announce next year.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.