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Departmental Allocations

Volume 615: debated on Monday 10 October 2016

2. How much she plans to allocate for work in her Department on (a) the fairer funding formula for schools and (b) the forthcoming Green Paper on grammar schools in the next six months. (906515)

Both the national funding formula reform and the consultation document “Schools that work for everyone” are vital parts of the Government’s ambition for an education system that promotes social mobility and a true meritocracy. As my hon. Friend will know, work is under way on both. Future activity will be strongly driven by the outcomes of the second stage of consultation on the national funding formula and, of course, the Green Paper.

Given the mixed views on grammar schools and the huge amount of work that will be required to ensure that no child is left behind, which I certainly fear they might be, will the Secretary of State please explain how grammar schools can possibly be a higher priority than fixing the flawed funding model that has resulted in thousands of children being seriously underfunded for decades in counties such as mine?

I very much recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns about funding. This was precisely why, shortly before the House went into the summer recess, I set out my determination to get on with the work of bringing forward a national funding formula. We will be responding to the first stage of the consultation shortly and at the same time setting out the next stage of how the formula will work in practice. We also need to challenge ourselves to look at how we can have more good school places, particularly in parts of the country where there are still not enough and particularly for disadvantaged students. We need to get on with both those pieces of work.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I have made a special journey down here today to ask the Secretary of State a question. There is another group of schools that offers real social mobility and in which the education gap is the most narrowed. More than 98% of these schools are rated good or outstanding, yet they are in the areas of highest deprivation and the majority of their children are eligible for free school meals. They are our much-valued nursery schools, but their funding is putting their ongoing viability at risk. Would it not be better if she focused on their continued attainment, rather than on grammar schools?

I agree with the hon. Lady that early years provision is a vital part of the education system, which is precisely why we have been consulting on how we can have a sensible approach to its funding, but I disagree with her characterisation that we are cutting funding. That is simply not correct.

The Secretary of State will surely agree that fairer funding for schools is a top priority, but another priority must be to ensure that we have adequate skills training, especially in the professional and technical sectors. I believe that that should be a key objective of the Green Paper. Will she reassure the House that that is also her priority?

I made it very clear in my Conservative party conference speech last week that one of our biggest challenges is to ensure that we make the same progress in technical education that we have seen in academic education over recent years. This is vital for the more than 50% of children and young people who do not go on to university, and it will be vital for our employers if we are to have a Brexit Britain that can be successful.

21. Nursery schools give children the best possible start in life. Now, as a consequence of the review of the funding formula, the funding in Birmingham could be cut by up to half, closing nursery schools all across the city. Does the Secretary of State not recognise the immensely damaging consequences that would flow from that, not least for social mobility? If we kick away the ladder of opportunity when a child is three or four, they might never recover. (906537)

The reality is that we are providing an additional £55 million for maintained nursery schools for at least two years while we consult the sector. We are looking at children’s centres at the same time.

Thanks to the casting vote of the Liberal Democrat mayor, North East Lincolnshire Council has approved a motion in support of grammar schools. Given that the coastal communities have poor educational standards, may I invite the Secretary of State to allocate some of her Department’s time to looking at the situation in North East Lincolnshire?

My hon. Friend rightly raises his concerns about ensuring that the young people and children in his area get the best possible start in life. We have published our Green Paper and are consulting on how we can achieve this. There are still too many parts of our country where good school places are not available to children, and that is unacceptable. We should look at all the measures that we can take to change that.

Is the Secretary of State encouraged by the fact that two thirds of those canvassed on this issue support the Prime Minister’s policy of increasing social mobility among those from poorer backgrounds through the increased provision of grammar schools? Will she assure us that she will not be deterred by siren voices or the barrage of criticism of this policy from those who are ideologically opposed to it even though they had the benefit of a grammar school education themselves?

The hon. Gentleman sets out the situation very clearly. He points out that, for children on free school meals in particular, grammars are able to close the attainment gap because the progress that those children make is double that of their better-off classmates. Labour wants to close that opportunity down and we want to level it up—that is the difference.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comment that the national funding formula remains a priority. Schools in Somerset are hanging on for the introduction of that fairer funding model. Will she encourage the Chancellor to look favourably on the plight of rural schools so that they can be properly funded until that funding formula comes into being?

I assure my hon. Friend that I am very conscious of the particular challenges that rural schools face. In fact, in the original first stage of consultation, the issues of sparsity and funding, and of looking at the percentages of children in schools, were on the table because they do matter. I am well aware of the issue, and we will try to do our best in the second stage of the consultation to ensure that the sorts of challenges that schools face and need funding for are met.

Given the cuts that have already been outlined by Members, can the Secretary of State tell the House whether she has secured new funds from the Treasury to meet the spending commitments outlined in the Green Paper?

The Green Paper outlined additional funding from the Treasury in relation to setting up new grammars. The hon. Lady will be aware that, at the same time as steadily bearing down on the huge deficit that the previous Labour Government left us, we have managed to protect the real-terms core funding for schools, but that is no thanks to the legacy of financial disaster that was handed over to us.

I believe the word that the Secretary of State was looking for was “no”. Perhaps she can tell us how much has been spent on trying to find any facts to support the Government’s policy of segregated schools. Spending public money on policy without any evidential basis is simply wasting it. When she last came to the House, she could not cite a single piece of evidence that the policy would improve social mobility. Has she found any since?

A lot of what the hon. Lady says is incorrect. She will be well aware that a report by the Sutton Trust clearly set out the improved attainment of free school meal children, in particular in grammar schools. It is totally untenable for her to set out her concerns about grammar schools while resolutely being opposed to any kind of consultation document that looks at how we should reform them. We want to look at how we can reform grammar schools. The education system has changed beyond all recognition over recent years, and it is right that we now look at what role grammars can play in a 21st century education system.