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School Funding: Gloucestershire

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered school funding in Gloucestershire.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome the Minister to his place, and I welcome my Gloucestershire colleagues; I am sure they will have things to say, but I know they will be very brief, because I want to make some points.

I will start with the caveat that this debate is about schools funding. There was an excellent debate on a petition on college funding a couple of weeks ago, so I have restricted my remarks to schools funding, but many of them also apply to the college situation in our county. I will begin with four quick quotes:

“We are no longer at the ‘reduce your photocopying stage, provide your own pens and pencils’ stage in Gloucestershire. We are at the ‘don't expect a TA but do expect a class size of 35 and certainly don’t expect a payrise’ stage.”


“Inclusive schools like ours have to use 85% of the money intended to support vulnerable children with additional needs, to top up the Per Pupil Funding just to reach the same level as local selective schools. This is resulting in a two-tier education system where inclusive schools receive less money.”


“One of the more tragic results of the cuts for our more vulnerable pupils will be the financial disincentive to give these children places. In an increasingly ‘competitive’ climate there will, sadly, be schools actively finding ways to turn these children away so they become someone else’s problem.”


“Like many schools, we have had to set a deficit budget to protect the education of the children in our school. We are finding more children with significant complex educational needs are being placed with us who must be supported from existing budgets with a knock-on effect for the rest of the children within school.”

Those quotes were from a teacher in Gloucestershire, a headteacher of a comprehensive in Gloucestershire, a headteacher of a village primary school and, lastly, a governor.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for giving way, and I have a lot of sympathy with the people he is quoting. Does he agree that we are spending a record amount on education, but the distribution system is totally unfair, and the difference between the highest-spending local authority and one of the lower-spending local authorities, such as Gloucestershire, is completely unfair?

It is unfair. I will outline my own views on that; as someone who supported the f40 group for a long time, as did the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members, I think we have a distribution problem as well as a problem of how much money is in the pot.

The national background is a lack of funding. The Minister might have something to say about the 3.5% pay award, which is having a dramatic impact in all our schools. Staffing costs are rising, and we have faced particular downward pressure on pupils aged 16 to 18, with a 20% cut since 2010-11. I emphasise the cuts to special educational needs and disabilities provision, which mean that it has in no way kept pace with rising demand.

Does the hon. Gentleman share the experience I have encountered in schools such as the Ridge Academy, Belmont School and Bettridge School? Those schools have to deal with a cohort of pupils whose needs are far more complex than ever before, and that underlies part of the increased demand on their resources.

That is a very fair point and I concur, but of course those other pupils who might have gone to Belmont and so on are now in mainstream schools, which is causing additional pressures on schools across the board. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that there was something like an 8% cut in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18. Although the Chancellor’s little extra might go some way, in reality it is only £50,000 per secondary school.

Let us come on to what we are really interested in: Gloucestershire and the national funding formula. In Gloucestershire, the national funding formula is still not producing a fairer redistribution of funds, as my neighbour the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pointed out. Gloucestershire secondary schools remain near the bottom in league tables of school funding, ranked 130th out of 149 on schools block funding. According to the House of Commons Library, Gloucestershire secondary schools received £4,886 per pupil compared with the English average of £5,229, and primary schools received £3,949 compared with the average in England of £4,059.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that some hon. Members in this House whose schools get far more than £5,200—some of them, I am afraid to say, Labour Members—were very indignant at the idea that schools in places such as Gloucestershire should get a bit more?

There is a need to raise this issue for all our colleagues, which is what I am trying to do. I agree; it is not a party political issue, but crosses the spectrum, and we must all work together to do something. I am sure the Minister will have something to say about that in a minute.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Is not one of the problems the fact that Gloucestershire is viewed as being a very rich county, but, although there certainly are areas of affluence, there are many that have special needs and deprivation? We need only look at the very different reading levels between schools even within one constituency. It seems to me that the current formulas do not take that properly into account.

I agree; we know our county has areas of deprivation, which I will touch on. The new national funding formula suggests that about half of Gloucestershire’s 40 secondary schools will receive the minimum per pupil spend of £4,600 in 2019-20 and then £4,800 in 2020-21. We are not really catching up. That does not take into account the broad spectrum of need across our county.

I will move on to the acute problem of SEND. Gloucestershire has a special needs crisis; I do not use that word in anything other than its genuine definition. Gloucestershire’s predicted overspend on SEND is now set to be £4.7 million, up from £3.3 million last year. The number of children with education, health and care plans in Gloucestershire has almost doubled since 2015. The Government’s announcement in December of extra funding for SEND resulted in £1.35 million for Gloucestershire and led the council to withdraw its request to transfer funds from the schools block into high needs, which had led to some controversy, as my Conservative colleagues will know.

However, that was only a sticking-plaster; it is not a long-term strategy for addressing high needs overspend. As Gloucestershire County Council’s lead education officer, Stewart King, told the schools forum in January, the overspend puts Gloucestershire in

“a very serious and challenging position”.

GCC has also now reduced the financial support it provides for individual children with SEND. Schools are forced to pick up the financial burden of SEND support and are using general funds to meet additional needs, or are unable to meet the need of individual children. Even the Conservative-run county council has identified the problem. Councillor Richard Boyles, in letters that I have now received, identifies how much of a problem this is, and the council continues to ask us as MPs to lobby for a fairer funding formula. The impact of this funding crisis is clear: increased class sizes; a reduction in the number of teaching assistants; less support for SEND students; and a reduced curriculum. Many schools will also not be able to implement the full 3.5% pay rise, or if they are able to, they will have to make redundancies.

The pressure on places and rising class sizes, particularly in special schools, is where the acute need is most felt, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said. We have to be sympathetic to that. However, there is also an issue with inclusivity, with schools that have taken the most vulnerable children facing the most difficult consequences, because we do not fund those children. High numbers of SEND children are hidden in the system.

The reality, as we now know, is that the majority of our primary schools are likely to face an in-year deficit. Quite simply, Minister, the schools do not have enough money. We can argue about the distribution issue, but at the moment the acute problem is that we need more money, particularly for SEND education.

The hon. Gentleman makes several good points. We would all like to see more money for schools in Gloucestershire, and he is right that secondary schools have faced considerable pressures. He is also correct to mention the £1.35 million SEND funding that the Government have given for both this year and next year. Those two years are guaranteed, and the Minister will no doubt want to say more on that. However, I am a bit puzzled by my distinguished constituency neighbour’s occasionally rather strong language. He referred in a tweet to deep, unjustified and ongoing cuts. That is not actually true, is it? The amount of money per primary and secondary school pupil in Gloucestershire has gone up and will go up further. Would he like to comment on the language we use as we lobby for more money?

I will comment on that. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Although Brexit has completely overwhelmed Parliament, I have been inundated with comments from headteachers, teachers, teaching unions, parents and even some pupils. Their message is that they face cuts. We can argue about how much those cuts are and how they came about, but the reality is that they face cuts. That is what they say. I have another page of quotes that I could read out that say what the situation is like.

I hope the Minister does not feel that we disagree in any way generally. We are saying that, specifically because of the SEND situation, we now face a very difficult problem in Gloucestershire, which is having an impact across all schools. We need to do something about it, and I hope that the Government are sympathetic.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) about those people’s feelings. I suggest he talks to people from schools in his constituency, whom I presume feel very much the same as those in schools in my constituency: that is, that they have faced a lot of pressure, which is now beginning to feed into the system with dire consequences.

The point is not what our constituents tell us. It is understandable that every parent, teacher and school should ask for more. The point is the language that we use. When the amount of money is actually going up, to talk about deep, unjustified and ongoing cuts is surely wrong. In a sense, the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that himself, because he removed that tweet within about four hours of posting it. Will he confirm, for the record, so that all our teachers and parents are clear, that there are not ongoing per-pupil funding cuts in Gloucestershire? That money is going up and will continue to do so, on which the Minister will no doubt tell us more.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are cuts. He should go into schools in his constituency and see what is happening. I have now received hundreds of responses from people at the sharp end who believe, maybe wrongly, that there are cuts. We can argue about the figures—the absolute figures may look better than the reality—but the situation is that the schools that I represent face some dire situations. That is why I am here today.

The hon. Gentleman can secure his own Adjournment debate and defend what is happening. However, I think I have more of the moral high ground, and I defend what I say because I believe that there are cuts. I do not think that it is in any way justifiable to conclude anything other than that we face a very difficult situation. I came here to pinpoint a particular problem—SEND funding—but within the wider environment of a difficult funding outlook for our county.

I intend to give the Minister plenty of time to respond, so I will not say much more. I will make three points in conclusion. First—the point I have really concentrated on—increasing SEND need has demanded a funding response that Gloucestershire has not been able to meet. That is why, despite what the hon. Gentleman says, our SEND funding will still be in deficit. That may be because more people are applying for EHCPs, but the reality is that they have to be able to meet the genuine demands of people who see their children suffer.

Secondly, this is not about scaremongering but about the reality of the impact of what has happened over a long period. The unfairness of the system dates back to the previous Labour Government, which is why I have always supported the national funding formula. The difficulty is that we are not there yet, and we will not get there for some considerable time. The reality is that the differential is getting worse in the short run, and we stand to be worse off. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds is nodding. I hope the Minister will do something about that.

Thirdly, I have just come from a drop-in session on children’s mental health. Children’s mental health is having a real impact on what we need to meet additional needs in our schools. These issues are having a real impact on our children at the moment, whether on their mental health or through our inability to deal with their special needs.

I hope the Minister is listening and that we can move forward on this. Even though we might disagree on certain aspects, five MPs from the county are here to say that the funding situation is not right and that it is affecting our pupils, staff, and parents and so on. I hope that the Minister will pay some urgent attention to us, so that we can begin to deal with this. I hope he will give me some good news.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; I look forward to the 10 or 15 minutes ahead of us. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) on securing this important debate and on his introduction of it. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for their important contributions. All of them continue to make strong representations to the Government about school funding in their area.

The Government are determined to create an education system that offers opportunity to everyone, no matter their circumstances or where they live. Schools must have the resources they need to make that happen. That is why we are investing more money in our schools, helping them to make the most out of every pound they receive, and delivering on our promise to make funding fairer through the introduction of the national funding formula. In 2017-18, funding was for the first time distributed to local areas based on the individual needs and characteristics of every school in the country. That will also happen in 2018-19, for the second year running. This historic reform is the biggest improvement to how we allocate school funding for a decade and directs resources where they are needed most.

We all want to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, receive a world-class education. We have made significant progress on that, thanks in part to our reforms. The attainment gap between rich and poor children is shrinking, the proportion of pupils in good or outstanding schools has increased from 66% in 2010 to 84%, and primary school children have achieved their highest ever score on international reading tests.

While more money is going into schools than ever before, we recognise the budgeting challenges that schools face and that we are asking them to do more. Because of that, and because children only get one chance to have a great education, the Government have prioritised school spending, even while having to take difficult public spending decisions in other areas.

In total, across the country, core funding for schools and high needs will rise from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-20. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that real-terms per-pupil funding for five to 16-year-olds in 2020 will be more than 50% higher than it was in 2000. We can compare ourselves favourably to other countries. The UK spends as much per pupil on primary and secondary state education as any major G7 economy in the world, apart from the United States of America.

As well as providing additional funding for schools, we have made funding fairer by introducing the national funding formula. Under the previous system, schools with similar pupil characteristics received significantly different levels of funding for no good reason, meaning that some schools were not getting the resources that they needed. That is why it is so important that we have delivered on our promise to reform the unfair school and high-needs funding systems and introduce a national funding formula. Government Members have been particularly active over the years, through the f40 group, in ensuring that we have a fairer funding system.

Schools are already benefiting from the gains delivered by the national funding formula. Since 2017, we have given every local authority more money for every pupil in every school, while allocating the biggest increases to the schools that have been most underfunded. The underfunded schools will attract up to 6% more per pupil by 2019-20, compared with 2017-18. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester is absolutely right to insist on care in how we use language. He will be aware that the School Cuts website has been criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for some of the things stated on that website.

Gloucestershire schools will receive gains of 3.1% per pupil by next year, compared with 2017-18. That will mean an extra £19 million in total when rising pupil numbers are also factored in. On high needs, we have recently announced that we will provide £250 million of extra funding across England over this financial year and the next. In Gloucestershire, that means that the local authority will receive an additional £2.7 million across this year and the next, on top of the increases that were already promised.

It is important to keep it in mind that the purpose of the national funding formula is not to give every school the same level of per-pupil funding. Although that would be simple, it would not be fair. It is right that schools that have pupils with additional needs, such as those indicated by measures of deprivation or low prior attainment, should get extra funding to help those pupils. In addition, schools in more expensive areas, such as London, require higher funding per pupil to reflect the higher costs that they face. That extra funding is vital to support children who face greater barriers in education, be that because they come from a disadvantaged background, have low prior attainment or speak English as an additional language. Every child deserves to get the help that they need to reach their full potential, and that is why the national funding formula has protected the £5.9 billion of funding for additional needs across the system.

We do recognise the challenges faced by the lowest funded schools. In the national funding formula, we have included minimum per-pupil funding levels to guarantee that every school will attract a minimum amount of funding for every pupil. In 2019-20, the formula will provide at least £4,800 per pupil for every secondary school and £3,500 for every primary school. In Gloucestershire, secondary schools in particular benefit from that measure, with about half of secondary schools attracting extra funding as a result. We have not limited gains for schools benefiting from the minimum amounts, so the very lowest funded schools will see their funding increase fastest, and some schools will attract gains of 10% or more by 2019-20.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is very important that we look into the causes of why high needs provision, in particular, is coming under the pressure that it now is? We have the Milestone School, the Ridge Academy, Belmont School and Bettridge School—so many excellent special schools—but the reality is that they face such huge demands now and we have not really got to the bottom of the reason for that. Is it issues in childbirth? Whatever it is, we need to get to the bottom of it.

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. That is something that the Department is looking at very carefully. There are reasons for it, and we know what they are. They are to do with medical advances, the use of private schools—private special schools—and so on. We are providing capital funding to help particular local authorities that have much higher high needs expenditure to address those issues. There is a capital pot and also a development fund, to help them to make those important decisions.

We acknowledge that the national funding formula represents a big change to the funding system. We understand the importance of stability to schools and we want to ensure that there is a smooth transition. We have therefore confirmed that for the next two years, local authorities will continue to be responsible for setting school budgets at local level. I may have got my years wrong at the beginning of this contribution: 2018-19 is of course the first year of the funding formula and 2019-20 is the second year. We have also confirmed that, in 2020-21, we will allow local authorities to use their local funding formula to allocate the funds. But we will allocate the funds to local authorities on the basis of the national funding formula.

We are pleased to see significant progress across the system in moving towards the national funding formula in its first year. Many local authorities have chosen to move towards the national funding formula locally, with 73 local authorities moving all their factor values towards the NFF, and 41 matching the NFF factor values almost exactly. It is the case that 112 authorities, including Gloucestershire, have introduced a minimum per-pupil funding level factor in their local formula. I am very pleased that so many authorities across the country are showing such strong support for our national formula.

Alongside the local flexibility, we recognise that there needs to be a degree of discretion locally to change the balance between schools and high needs funding. Although we want schools to benefit from all the gains and protections afforded by the national funding formula, it will take time for spending to be aligned to the allocations calculated at national level. The ongoing flexibility will help to ensure that the transition to the formula takes place in a way that best meets the needs of local schools and pupils.

We are committed to supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities to reach their full potential, and we expect all schools to play their part. That is why we have reformed the funding system to take particular account of children and young people with additional needs, and introduced a new formula allocation to make the funding for those with high needs fairer. As mentioned previously, we have recently announced that we will provide £250 million of additional funding for high needs throughout England over this financial year and the next. We recognise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has said, the high needs budget faces significant pressures, and that additional investment will help local authorities to manage them.

Of course, the response to pressures on high needs budgets cannot just be additional funding. That is why we have also set out plans to support local authorities in their role of providing strategic leadership and oversight of the provision for children and young people with SEND. We have announced other measures to support local authorities: a £100 million top-up to the special provision capital fund for local authorities in 2019-20 for new places and improved facilities; the removal of the cap on the number of special and alternative provision free school bids that we approve in the current wave; reviewing current SEND content in initial teacher training provision; and ensuring a sufficient supply of educational psychologists to carry out the statutory functions in relation to the EHCP process, and to support teachers and families. We will continue to engage with local authorities, health providers, families, schools and colleges to work together to manage the cost pressures on high needs budgets and ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities get the support that they need and deserve.

We recognise that schools have faced cost pressures in recent years. That is why we have announced a strategy setting out the support that we will provide—current and planned—to help schools to make savings on the more than £10 billion of non-staff expenditure across England.

Does the Minister agree that the key thing is not that funding has been cut but that costs have increased and therefore the issue is how we can share best practice among schools in order to make savings that will help to reduce any deficit that they might have?

My hon. Friend is right. We do want to spread best practice. We have a cadre of school resource managers to help schools that are particularly struggling with their budgets to find savings. Other measures are national buying schemes for things such as printers and photocopiers and the roll-out of a free teacher vacancy listing website to help schools to find teachers and drive down recruitment costs, which are a big burden on schools at the moment. We have created a benchmarking website for schools that allows them to compare their costs with those of other schools.

I again thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I reiterate our commitment to providing every child with the opportunity to reach their potential. The extra investment that we are making in our schools, the fairer distribution of school funding, and support to use those resources to best effect, will help us to make that a reality.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.