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School Funding: Cheshire West and Chester

Volume 621: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered school funding in Cheshire West and Chester.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I start by declaring an interest: both of my children, who I normally do not like to mention, are of school age and attend schools in my constituency.

It is tempting to use hyperbole when describing the looming education situation in Cheshire West and Chester—phrases such as “black hole” or “cliff edge” come to mind—but I will try to avoid such a tone, such is the gravity of the situation that my local schools face. I start by paying tribute to Chester schools. We are lucky to have a group of schools in my constituency at both primary and secondary level that provide quality education, despite the current pressures they face, with a team of headteachers giving strong and clear leadership, both educationally and pastorally. It is no surprise to me that 90% of schools in the borough are rated good or outstanding.

There have been issues with performance in a couple of schools in the past, but the hallmark has always been collaboration and mutual support, either across the city and the borough or with more locally focused initiatives such as the Blacon Education Village project, where the primary schools and Blacon High School, in the most deprived part of my constituency, work together to raise standards and expectations across their combined patch. I say that to demonstrate that my local headteachers are sober and dedicated professionals who are absolutely committed to the vocation they love and not in any way head-banging hard-line political agitators. When they tell me and local parents that there is a problem and I hear phrases such as “cliff edge”, we can be sure they mean it.

We know that, in the context of the current financial climate, as identified by a National Audit Office report, the schools budget faces a £3 billion gap. Schools funding is protected, but that does not take account of other costs such as salaries, maintenance costs, inflation, the apprenticeship levy, national insurance and, critically, rising pupil numbers.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a problem with the 40 local authorities that are not fairly funded—the f40 group—which includes both Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East?

I agree. The hon. Lady represents parts of Cheshire West and Chester, and Cheshire East, which is one of the few boroughs that is even worse off than Cheshire West and Chester. She has seen the harsh end of it, and I am sure she is fighting the corner for both boroughs.

The problem is that the situation was already tight before the new funding formula. Steve Williams, chair of governors at St Werburgh’s and St Columba’s Primary School, reminds me of the governors’ view nationally, which is that the £3 billion gap will lead to an effective 8% cut in school budgets on its own. They say:

“As far as budgets go we are now in the trenches. The new formula may mean pupils get a fairer portion but it will be a fairer portion of not enough.”

The Government then introduced the national fair funding formula.

In Cheshire West and Chester, we were already £400 per pupil below the national average, near the bottom of the pile. In 2015-16—coincidentally, a general election year—we received a £9.4 million uplift to bring us closer to the national average. The Government recognised we had a problem.

I am very grateful. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that £9.4 million was very hard fought for by members of the f40 and by a number of MPs. I certainly was fighting on behalf of my schools in Eddisbury to get that slice of funding, and we do not seem to see that coming forward in the current proposals from the Government.

The hon. Lady refers to the hard work that was undertaken, which is reflected in hard work being undertaken now, but the Government recognised a problem previously with the £9.4 million, whether that was because it was a general election year or not—who knows? I hope they now recognise that the structural problem remains, and that it needs to be addressed in the same way it was addressed just a couple of years ago.

We received the £9.4 million uplift to recognise that problem, so we have moved from the bottom of the pile to the top, but only in terms of suffering the biggest cuts. We stand to lose £4.2 million in the first year, rising to £6.4 million beyond that. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the damage that those cuts will make is to quote the headteachers’ public statements. Damian Stenhouse, head of Christleton High School, has said he faces a reduction in funding of £169,000, forcing him to reduce staffing, have larger class sizes, increase teacher loads, which runs the risk of increased sickness absence, and decrease support for more vulnerable pupils.

John Murray of the Catholic High School, Chester, has told parents that funding for his sixth-formers has dropped £200,000 since 2011 and that the school faces a further £54 cut per child next year, combined with £78,000 of local and national funding formula cuts, making increased class sizes much more likely. Paula Dixon, head of Upton-by-Chester High School, which is rated good with an outstanding sixth form, told parents:

“If the outcome of the NFF is to financially disadvantage schools like ours we will have little option but to further erode the breadth of our curriculum offer to our students at both Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 levels and increase our class sizes in order to generate sufficient staff savings to achieve the level required, as our non-teacher staffing expenditure has been cut to the bone already.”

Dave Wallace of St Oswald’s Primary School in Mollington has said that the cut of £429 per pupil will mean losing one of the 5.4 teachers he currently has, which will have, in his words,

“a significant impact on the standard of education in what is an oversubscribed village school.”

Marian Ryder, head of St Clare’s Catholic Primary School in Lache, another less advantaged area, joined the school when it required improvement and has been recognised with her staff by a positive Ofsted report for the improvements they are making. However, she tells us that the reduction of her budget means they will have to look at staffing structures.

At primary and secondary level, in the rural parts of the constituency, on the big estates and in the centre of my city, the story is the same: staff cuts, increased class sizes, fewer subjects offered, attainment levels likely to fall and support for the neediest pupils diminished. I am also fearful that areas such as sport and music will be the easiest options to cut. Those not only enrich our children’s lives but improve health. They get children active and used to being active, which continues into later life and has health benefits. Once again, short-term cuts lead to long-term damage; it is a false economy.

The Government’s response has been to call for greater efficiency savings, but I know that my schools are already running beyond maximum efficiency. One high-achieving local multi-academy trust, which includes Mill View Primary in my constituency and has twice been rated outstanding, is a case in point. It tells me that, since 2011, it has done everything possible to make cash stretch and cut costs, setting up businesses in catering and out-of-hours services, reducing the number of teaching assistants, turning off heating after lunch, limiting the amount of paper any member of staff is allowed to use, putting limits on photocopying and printing and asking to see a fully used Pritt Stick before a new one is issued. They still achieve top Ofsted marks because of their staff. However, staff cannot be expected to continue to achieve with ever dwindling resources.

This is back of the sofa stuff, scrabbling around for pennies, and that is before the new fair funding formula comes in. If we add to that the £57 million of Government cuts to the local council’s overall budget, there is no slack left. For the Government to tell the NAO that they expect schools to make savings through “better procurement”, and by using their staff “more efficiently”, wholly misjudges the scale and the nature of the problem, and is downright insulting to staff and parents at schools such as Mill View.

I note that several areas of the country have benefited from the funding formula. West Sussex gets an extra 1.9% and Hampshire gets 0.7%. Surrey gets an extra 1.7%—perhaps they had a special deal. I do not doubt that these funding formulas are hard to draw up, but it must surely be evident to Ministers that they have got this one wrong. I do not believe it was their intention to redistribute cash from north to south. When every single school in my constituency is looking to make staff cuts and almost every headteacher is writing to parents with, frankly, understated stories of impending financial chaos, it is evident that something has gone very badly wrong.

I urge Ministers to please reconsider this badly conceived idea. I will make one party political point. When attainment levels start falling, as they will, and when class sizes start rising, school trips are cancelled, swimming lessons are cut, opportunities for learning music no longer present themselves, teachers leave and are not replaced, teachers are asked to teach lessons in subjects that they are not qualified to teach and specialist support for needier children is cut, I will have to make it absolutely clear to my constituents where the responsibility lies. It will not be with the heroic staff at my local primary and secondary schools or the outstanding leadership of my local headteachers. I urge the Minister to see that his Department has got this one wrong. The national fair funding formula provides neither fairness nor funding, and must be changed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this extremely important debate, and I thank him and the Minister for allowing me to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend for the excellent work he does in championing education across Cheshire West and Chester. I, too, declare an interest. My wife is the cabinet member for children and young people on our local authority of Cheshire West and Chester, and I, too, have two children attending schools in my constituency that are affected by the cuts.

As my hon. Friend said, we are very proud of our schools in west Cheshire. It is not an accident that no schools in our area are rated as inadequate—it is the result of a huge amount of work by our teachers and by everyone involved in education. However, it is clear that, if the planned funding cuts go ahead, all that progress will be under threat. I have received letters from headteachers across my constituency who warn of the profound impact of the proposed changes. That includes warnings of reductions in staffing, difficulty in maintaining high standards, a reduction in the commitment to extracurricular activities, including sports and the arts, and, in some cases, threats to the future viability of schools.

I have received letters expressing concerns about the funding cuts from the following schools: Willaston Primary School, Little Sutton Primary School, Cambridge Road Primary and Nursery School, Woodlands Primary School, St Winefride’s Catholic Primary School, St Mary of the Angels Catholic Primary School, Neston Primary School, Sutton Green Primary School, Parklands Primary School, Woodfall Primary School, Bishop Wilson Primary School, Parkgate Primary School, Childer Thornton Primary School, The Whitby High School, Ellesmere Port Catholic High School and Neston High School. I have also received correspondence from the National Association of Head Teachers, representing all secondary schools in Cheshire West and Chester. The length of that list should indicate to the Minister the scale of the problem. It is only fair to make him aware that I am also receiving lots of correspondence from parents of children attending schools in the constituency who are deeply concerned about what they see as unfair and damaging cuts.

The cuts are not only deeply unfair; they break a promise in the Conservative manifesto, which stated:

“Under a future Conservative Government, the amount of money following your child into school will be protected.”

If the new national funding formula is implemented, that promise to the people of this country will have been broken.

I am sorry, but I do not have time. We need to hear from the Minister as well.

In fact, that promise has been not just broken but comprehensively shattered, with 98% of all schools facing a real-terms reduction in funding for every child.

I will take the Minister through just a few of the comments that I have received from parents. They take a huge interest in their children’s education and can articulate far better than I can what the proposals might mean for their own children. One parent said:

“I have never contacted an MP before but I am so concerned…the thought of losing staff, support staff or cuts to opportunities is horrifying. The staff work so hard to provide them with enriching experiences that will disappear if cuts are made and their education will suffer”.

Another said:

“The new funding scheme will see a serious reduction in standards, staff and teaching, ultimately lowering outcomes for children and young people across the country and in turn reducing opportunities for the next generation in society”.

It is very sad to see those letters from parents who are extremely concerned about the proposals.

Finally, I want to read out a letter that I have received from a head at one of the primary schools in my constituency, which sets out the scale of the challenge we face. He told me:

“Today, schools are expected to do more and more by politicians and society—overweight and inactive children—‘schools can sort that out’. The increase in childhood mental health problems—‘schools can sort that out’. The poor standards of speech and language when pupils start school—‘schools can sort that out’…Simply, we are expected to do so much more with so much less!

This is alongside the recent, ridiculous, increase in expectations in standards of attainment in the end of Key Stage tests and the negative impact that has had on staff, pupils and the teaching profession.

This year, to save money, I have started to teach some lessons and we will have to seriously consider the staffing levels at our school for 2017-18.

We have worked hard to create a team of talented, experienced and dedicated teachers and teaching assistants. These people are the vital ‘bricks’ in the education we provide. The proposed funding cuts will mean that some of these ‘bricks’ may need to be removed and, as a result, the weaker the team we have built will become, the poorer the education we offer will be and the weaker the ‘foundation’ we provide.

In my opinion—quality teachers and TAs make the biggest impact in education. Reducing the funding to schools will result in schools losing the very people we have spent years investing in and training. The result will be—less teachers, less TAs, larger classes and an even further decline in staff morale and attainment.

I believe that as a school we will also have to reduce the number of extra activities we offer our pupils—e.g. fewer clubs, fewer art days, fewer visits and visitors to school...We are already in a difficult position financially and attainment will suffer should the cuts go through under the new National Funding Formula. ‘Balancing the books’ has become one of the worst aspects of my job. Begging letters to parents for equipment, repairs and resources are common in some schools. I feel that class sizes will increase and the curriculum will be pared back to the basics as a direct result of the NFF. To put it bluntly—children will be the losers.”

That sums up perfectly the challenges that we currently face.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Members for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on the thoughtful and considerate way in which they have approached this debate. I am grateful also for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach).

Today I am standing in for my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, who has unavoidable duties elsewhere, but I am pleased to be here, because this opportunity has allowed me to look in more detail at the topic of fair funding. Now more than ever, no matter where they live and whatever their background, ability or need, children should have access to an excellent education, and I think there is agreement that the current funding system prevents that. We currently have a postcode lottery, which is random and haphazard and means that money is often not getting to the places that most need it and to the poorest students.

Few people will disagree that the system is unfair. One example that particularly struck me from the first consultation was that the same school, with the same kind of pupils, would get 50% more funding in Hackney than it would in Barnsley. We have to change the historical unfairness by introducing the national funding formula; that is why it was a key manifesto commitment. It will mean that the same child, with the same needs, will attract the same funding regardless of where they happen to live.

We launched the consultation in March. We asked for views to underpin the formula. More than 6,000 people responded, and there was widespread support for the proposals. In December, we launched the second stage. That document sets out the detail of the formula and shows how it would impact on every school in the country, but I stress that this is a consultation. We have allowed more than three months for the consultation. This debate is incredibly important, and I will feed back to the Schools Minister what Members have said today. Indeed, the consultation will stay open until 22 March.

The purpose of the proposals is to focus money towards the pupils who face the greatest barriers to success. The formula is designed to boost support for those who are deprived and live in areas of deprivation, but who may not be eligible for free school meals and the pupil premium. Those pupils are from the families who are just about managing—no doubt many constituents of Members here today, and many of mine. Overall, under the proposals, more than half of all schools will benefit from increased funding through the formula. They will see overdue increases in funding of up to 3% per pupil in 2018-19 and up to a further 2.5% per pupil in 2019-20. No school will face reductions of more than 1.5% per year or 3% overall per pupil as a result of the formula.

The issue is that the unfairness in the system, involving the f40 group of worst-funded councils, is locked in by that 3% cap. In fact, councils that transfer money from their general schools budget into higher needs are actually penalised under the current formula. I hope that the Government will listen to representations made in that regard.

Of course we will listen and, as I said, I will feed back all the comments made today to my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards.

A substantial part of the reason for the change in the formula is to ensure that money goes to the most deprived students. We want to ensure that every child can achieve their full potential and succeed, and that means directing funding to those who need the extra support. We know that disadvantage has a significant impact on pupils’ attainment. That is seen throughout the school system and is compounded in areas of higher deprivation.

This is not about north versus south, to comment on what the hon. Member for City of Chester said. We can look at the biggest gains in the north: Derby is gaining by 8.6% and Barnsley by 6.9%. Deprived areas of the north-west, where there is much higher deprivation, and my colleagues’ constituencies, are getting significant increases. Halton local authority has very high rates of deprivation and is seeing a 2.2% increase in funding for its schools, as do St Helens, which is having a 1.6% increase, and Salford, which will have a 2.6% increase. Areas where there are high levels of deprivation are seeing increases in their funding. That is why we publish data for every school in the country—so that they can see how the formula affects them.

Both my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) have areas of real deprivation as severe as in some of the areas the Minister has just mentioned. Does he accept that a local authority is a broad area that has different levels of wealth and poverty?

Of course every area will have areas of deprivation, but overall the hon. Gentleman’s area has less deprivation than others, and because we do not have an unlimited pot of money we are trying to make sure that the money goes to those in the most need. As I said, there is a consultation; we are hearing from parents, colleagues across the House, governors and schoolteachers so that we can get this historic change right.

The changes make it all the more important that we get funding right. We want to put schools on an even footing. As the hon. Member for City of Chester mentioned, all schools need to make the best use of their resources, ensuring that every pound has the maximum impact on standards. He was right to highlight that more than 93% of schools in his area and that of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston are good or outstanding—148 of them, which is 37 more than in 2010. That suggests that although funding is incredibly important, it is about not just funding but the quality of teachers. I pay tribute to the teachers and schools in their constituencies who have made it possible to have such a good record in education.

We will continue to produce a comprehensive package of support. We have recently published a school buying strategy and will try to improve that model over the coming months. I know that the hon. Members here today have played an important role in the f40 group, which has campaigned for years for fairer funding. I recognise that because of that campaign, Members may have expected an increase in funding for schools under the national formula. I am sure that the hon. Member for City of Chester will understand that the national funding formula has been designed to ensure that funding is allocated according to need on the basis of up-to-date measures. However, we have deliberately set a long consultation period so that we might hear the widest range of views.

I thank hon. Members representing the Cheshire West and Chester constituencies for their dedication to this important topic and for raising it in the way that they have. We have continued to fund the pupil premium, which goes to the poorest pupils, and their constituents get a sizeable amount it. The schools budget does take pupil numbers into account and will rise as pupil numbers rise throughout the Parliament.

The introduction of the national funding formula will be a historic reform. It is the biggest change to school funding in more than a decade. Of course it is difficult, as the hon. Member for City of Chester was fair enough to acknowledge, but for the first time we will have a clear, simple and transparent system that matches funding to children’s needs and the schools that they attend. It will enable all schools equally to create opportunities for their pupils and provide a first-class education. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is looking forward to engaging with Cheshire MPs later today. I hope that what I have said will reassure hon. Members that the Government are committed to reforming school funding and making it fair for all schools in the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.