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School Funding: North Northumberland

Volume 628: debated on Monday 11 September 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and especially so this evening as we find ourselves the last ones standing after a lengthy evening of voting on the important European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Northumberland voted to leave the EU, as I did, and as we progress the people’s call, I want to make sure that the children currently coming through the schools in my constituency, and those who will follow, are well prepared academically to take up all the opportunities that the United Kingdom, as a sovereign state once again, will afford them. The reality, however, is that at present north Northumberland’s children are being short-changed on account of years of being right at the bottom of the list in funding formula allocations, exacerbated by, until May of this year, a Labour council that skewed the education grant in favour of the urban-based children in the south-east of the county, to the relative detriment of children in the rural areas of north Northumberland and the market towns of Alnwick, Amble and Berwick.

To help change those children’s destiny, we need to change how we frame the education package across the county. We need to rethink radically how we sustain an effective transport network to get every child to school each day. The House should bear in mind that the catchment area for Glendale valley schools, for instance, is some 250 square miles, so continuing to pay bus companies large sums of money to provide limited services, and charging post-16 students’ families more than £600 per year per pupil for transport passes, is simply unsustainable. It often feels to me that we have cartels operating to ensure that bus companies providing services bid up the costs as a way to underwrite other service provision. That cannot be the way to maximise the effective use of education budgets. Surely this is money that could be spent on frontline teaching, education resources and tools to give our children the very best chance in life, which is what a country such as the United Kingdom should be affording them wherever they live.

The new Conservative leadership at Northumberland County Council is determined to change radically how we provide transport for our kids, but we need the Department’s assistance. The present arrangements with bus companies do not provide value for money to the taxpayer. My councillors want to lead the way in providing innovative solutions on rural transport, including for school pupils, that can provide better and bolder solutions to the problems we face. In Alnwick we have an excellent social enterprise, NEED—North East Equality & Diversity —which provides accessible transport solutions to individuals and organisations. My councillors want to find ways to use this social enterprise model to create appropriate bus size provision across my most rural communities.

To that end, I would like to encourage a new system that will empower schools themselves to no longer have to rely on the big bus companies with a very limited offer, but to create a community transport solution, perhaps something like the yellow bus model we see in the United States. I call on the Minister, therefore, to pump-prime a Northumberland project that puts education and transport needs at its heart. I ask him to sit down with me, councillors and the relevant Transport Minister to help design a community transport hub that can flex to the needs of the most rurally based children and others in communities currently cut off from so much by the lack of public transport.

I sought the hon. Lady’s permission to intervene because I wanted to support her comments. As she will recognise, Northern Ireland had some of its best examination results for a great many years—they were the envy of many parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Should the Minister not contact the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Education Department to see how that educational success was delivered within the limits of the available school funding?

Indeed, we will look into that, and perhaps my hon. Friend will help us make progress.

I hope that the Minister will commit to driving forward—excuse the pun—this rural transport hub project by seeking grant funding to help pump-prime it. We can be so much smarter with the money we have if we do not have to spend it on a double-decker, one-size-fits-all offer. The current provision cannot solve the complex issues in our rural communities, and off-the-shelf approaches do not reflect the realities and problems facing my sparsely populated communities. The project would be an opportunity to show the art of common sense in action both for our school children and for others needing rural transport solutions, and also—I speak always as an accountant—for the taxpayer.

Secondly, I bring to the Minister another radical proposal to improve the educational and future life chances of Northumbrian children. I like to call it “academy plus”. He might recall that back in 2011, when I was a governor of Berwick High School, in the northernmost point of a county of more than 2,000 square miles, we decided that following years of neglect by Labour-run county hall, we should take advantage of the academies offer being driven forward by the new Conservative-led Government. And so we duly did. We had to do so, however, without a sponsor, because none of the world-class universities of the north-east would commit to becoming one—Berwick Academy seemed too remote; it was not big enough, having a school roll of only 800 pupils; it was too difficult to engage with the pupils because of the distance from Tyneside or Durham. It was depressing that we could not get them to take a strong lead and help us to build aspirations.

The county now has several academies, but it has continued to be an enormous challenge to find academy sponsors, or more recently academy chains, to take on those schools. There are a number of reasons for that, but key to the challenge is perhaps that it has proved difficult to make Northumberland a first-choice destination for teachers, given that they also have the option of Newcastle schools or of going over the border to Scottish schools. A primary school in town with a roll of 300 pupils will afford more personal development and career options than a—wonderful, in my opinion—tiny rural school of 50.

How might we find a radical way to provide an excellent education for our rural Northumbrian pupils now and for the long term? How can we create a dynamic offer for teachers to come to Northumberland? Now is the time for bold, challenging thinking. It is the very least our young people deserve. Is the Minister minded to consider how our Conservative council could become the lead partner in building an educational framework similar to that of a traditional academy trust? At the moment, all bar four of our county’s academies are failing to give our children the very best. Those good or outstanding schools are the Duchess’s High School in Alnwick, King Edward VI in Morpeth, Queen Elizabeth in Hexham and Cramlington Learning Village, which until recently was in special measures but is now making great progress. All the others, however, are in the “requiring improvement” category, and the overriding message from Ofsted is repeatedly that the challenges facing the leadership of each school are made more difficult because each teaching group is working in isolation. It means that no one is winning for our children’s future. Our primary, middle and secondary schools across the county will all need more support if they are to climb from their present situation to outstanding reports.

I am proposing a plan to develop in Northumberland a pilot programme for recruitment that can provide support and the right tools to generate educational leaders who can work together under a coherent and cohesive educational outcome framework. I would like to see our schools commissioner on board with this new plan, alongside Northumberland County Council, drawing in the best from university education leaders in the north-east and business leaders on our local enterprise partnership to create an umbrella of educational direction and drive results for all our schools.

I want to see our schools maintain their own heads and governing bodies. That would not be about forcing federations on different communities. What we need is an educational framework that overarches all of them so that, for instance, school readiness is tackled across the patch and parents cannot play schools off against each other. All our kids would be part of one Northumberland partnership, which would create an umbrella framework of higher achievement in all schools. We need to drive standards forward to meet the needs of our children’s future career choices. So this is my second request to the Minister: I ask him to find radical solutions to the unique challenge of providing the very best educational outcomes for Northumberland’s children, and to work with our schools commissioner and my passionate new Conservative county councillors to create the new partnership framework. We think of it as “academisation plus”.

There will be a need for some initial investment to make that happen—my county council will need to set up a back-office management support system, with a few co-ordinators and an educational lead—but for a small investment, long-term positive outcomes for the unique nature of Northumberland education can be driven forward. There can surely be few more positive and beneficial expenditures of taxpayers’ money than expenditure on the future workforce and leaders of our country. Our children deserve to be able to fulfil their dreams. They deserve to have an education that creates possibilities and opens doors, and—regardless of location, class or means—to be equipped with an education that can stand the test of any challenge presented by the world in which they will grow up.

I have been listening intently to what the hon. Lady has been saying. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), there has been collaboration between schools at a certain level of higher education, from the sixth form onwards. Because not every school can deliver certain subjects individually, half a dozen schools have come together. One example is Glastry College, of whose board of governors I am a member; Strangford Integrated College is another. St Columba’s College in Portaferry, a Catholic-controlled maintained school, has joined Bangor Grammar School, Bangor Academy and Sixth Form College and Movilla High School. All those schools are working together for the betterment of the children involved.

That is exactly the sort of vision that we hope to have in Northumberland. Given the enormous expanse of territory, the challenge for our children is the need to spend hours travelling in order to achieve the flexibility and the breadth of education to which those living in a city, or even in a less sparsely populated county, might have easier access.

If children are indeed to fulfil their dreams, we will need departmental leadership from the Minister to help Northumberland County Council host the new concept. I understand that education action zones used to exist, and I also understand that £77 million has recently been allocated to education output areas, but that will be directed towards the development of education in cities. Northumberland, our most sparsely populated English county, needs such investment too.

I have always been a believer in nudge politics. We humans always respond better to encouragement and carrots than to chastisement and sticks. However, if long-term outcomes for the children of Northumberland are to be as good as they can be, we need university voices to be heard in rural communities where aspiration to a top-quality education, whether it involves apprenticeships in engineering or university studies in the sciences—I speak as a mathematician, and I apologise for the bias—are still not always understood or valued. What is considered elitist and far beyond can become within reach: indeed, education for life can become a passion for all those children. The 21st century, in which they will live, demands that we accept our responsibility to give them the tools and the passion to learn, as well as all the standard basic skills. That should be taken more seriously than it has been in the most northern county of England for too long.

I want to see an educational leadership framework that gives each and every one of my schools the nudge that they need to rise to the educational challenges ahead by supporting them with a coherent educational framework of which everyone is a part. There would be no rivalries, no catchment area battles, no school partnership lines in the sand, but an overarching educational Northumberland nudge partnership. As the Minister himself said in a speech last week,

“a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

The teachers and councillors of my beautiful, unique and most sparsely populated of English counties wish to do exactly that for the children in their care.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) on securing this important debate. I know she cares passionately about education in general and the schools in her constituency in particular, so it is a pleasure to be discussing these issues with her this morning—as I realise it now is.

This Government want to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, receive a world-class education. Over the past seven years, we have made significant progress. There are now 1.8 million more children in schools that are rated as good or outstanding than in 2010, and the attainment gap is beginning to close. Since 2011, the attainment gap at secondary school has closed by 7%, and at primary school the gap has closed by 9.3% over the same period. This is important progress, but there is more to do to ensure that every child receives the education they deserve to fulfil their potential.

Thanks to a curriculum that ensures that all children are taught the core knowledge they need to be successful, the promotion of the evidence-based teaching practices such as Asian-style maths mastery and synthetic, systematic phonics, and the hard work of hundreds of thousands of teachers, standards across England are on the rise. According to the latest international figures, secondary pupils in England outperform pupils in the other nations of the United Kingdom. However, despite nearly nine in 10 schools being rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted, there are still more than 1 million pupils attending schools that are not yet good enough. While much has been achieved over the past seven years, there is a lot more to do.

One of the obstacles to providing a good school place for every child is the current anachronistic and unfair funding system, which sees different schools in different parts of the country receiving very different sums of money for pupils with similar characteristics. The data used to allocate funding to local authorities are over a decade out of date. Over that period, for example, the free school meals rate has fallen by around a third in Blackburn and has more than doubled in Lincolnshire, but the funding each local authority receives has not responded to these changes. That is why this Government are determined to reform the funding system, and we are well on the way to making that a reality.

In March 2016, we launched our first stage of consultation on a national funding formula. We asked for views on the principles that should underpin it and its overall design. Subsequently, in December last year we launched the second stage of our consultation, on the detailed design of the formula. As part of the second stage, to ensure maximum transparency we published detailed illustrative impact data for all schools and local authorities. This enabled us to hold a truly national debate during the three-month consultation.

Under those proposals, schools in Northumberland would have gained 1.2% more funding on average, and schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency would have gained 2.2% on average. Since publishing those proposals, we have been able to identify additional funding for all schools.

Throughout the consultation period on the national funding formula, the Secretary of State and I met headteachers, governors and many hon. Members from across the House, and I want to thank all those who contributed to the more than 25,000 consultation responses we received. Informed by that feedback, we will introduce a national funding formula from April 2018, as planned. This will put an end to the unfair postcode lottery system by ensuring that all schools in England are funded on a consistent and transparent basis.

I agree with my hon. Friend, however, that funding, while important, is only part of the issue, and what also matters is how local solutions are created and drive improvement in pupil outcomes; my hon. Friend has raised a number of important points regarding school transport, academy sponsorship, and teacher recruitment and career development.

On school transport, local authorities have responsibility for the provision of home to school transport. In consultation with schools, they are best placed to determine the specific needs of a particular local community. They already commission a range of free and subsidised transport services, spending around £1 billion each year on home to school transport. The existing home to school transport framework allows local authorities the flexibility and freedom to make transport arrangements which best suit the needs of pupils and offer value for money for their local communities.

I am curious to know whether, when we have the examples of sparsely populated areas in Northern Ireland, Wales and the highlands and islands in Scotland, lessons could be learned for England, especially Northumbria, as the most sparsely populated county in England—I have learned something this evening and it was worth waiting for. Can we learn from examples around the United Kingdom that might help the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) in her quest to give a nudge to the education authorities in her area?

I am sure we can learn from the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom, as we learn from other countries around the world, on school transport and on how the funding system works, and on the curriculum and other issues. In our new national funding formula, we include an important element of sparsity as a key component. That will be reflected in the way that the schools in Berwick and Northumberland are funded—although not of course in other parts of the United Kingdom, as I am responsible with the Secretary of State only for school funding in England.

I accept that rural areas have their own challenges. In recognition of the extra costs that providing services in sparse rural areas can require, the Government have increased the rural services delivery grant to the most sparsely populated areas from £15.5 million in 2015-16 to £80.5 million in 2016-17. The Department for Transport is also supporting pilots in local rural authorities to determine how integrated transport services can offer value for money.

We keep the school transport framework under review. We have looked at different approaches to providing a national home to school transport framework and we have found that those do not offer better value than the current system, but that is not to say that local approaches will not do so. I encourage all local authorities to keep their transport arrangements under review and to identify ways in which they can improve the services they offer.

The Secretary of State has recently undertaken to review our guidance on home to school transport and I will ensure that this correctly reflects the flexibilities that local authorities have in providing it. I would be interested to hear more about Northumberland County Council’s proposals so that we can consider them in more detail.

On academy sponsorship in Northumberland, I understand my hon. Friend’s argument about the historical lack of sponsor and multi-academy trust capacity in the wider local authority, though I should point out that 13 academies in Northumberland are rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding. It is important to support and encourage local authorities to respond to their own challenges and opportunities, and local partners should work together in the best interests of their schools and pupils.

We must, however, ensure that schools that have become academies are able to enjoy the freedoms afforded by academy status. As such, there are constraints in place that prevent local authorities from establishing multi-academy trusts which mean that no more than 19.9% of trustees or members of an academy trust can be associated with the local authority, including serving councillors.

We are, however, making progress in developing local solutions and using the expertise of established trusts from neighbouring local authorities. The 13 academies I mentioned that are rated good or outstanding should also form the basis of new sponsors of multi-academy trusts in the future. In neighbouring authorities, for example, the Three Rivers Learning Trust—whose lead school is the King Edward VI Academy, rated outstanding by Ofsted—has recently been approved to sponsor underperforming schools. Although currently based in and around Morpeth, the regional schools commissioner’s team is working with the trust to provide further support in wider Northumberland.

Multi-academy trusts from other local authorities are also moving into Northumberland to provide support, including the North East Learning Trust and WISE Academies—two high-performing trusts with good track records in delivering school improvement. Janet Renou, the regional schools commissioner for her area, is fully committed to working with the county council and has already had a productive meeting with Wayne Daley, the new lead member for education, and his team. She is keen to work together to develop joint strategies to increase attainment and capacity across the county.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly acknowledged that teachers are fundamental to the education system. The quality of teaching is widely recognised as being the biggest in-school factor affecting the outcomes of children and young people. The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is why we need to ensure that we continue to invest in the quality of teaching and in the support and development that teachers get throughout their careers. The Secretary of State announced earlier this year that we would be exploring options to strengthen the qualified teacher status to establish a stronger sense of career progression for all teachers, including those at the beginning of their career and more experienced teachers seeking to excel in the classroom or to go into leadership. We intend to consult on those proposals later in the year, and I hope that my hon. Friend and the teachers and school leaders in her constituency will feel able to contribute to that consultation process. However, we recognise that there is more to do to support schools to attract and retain top graduates, and we are taking steps to understand and address school-level variation in teacher supply. Over the past six months, we have been working with schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities to understand why some schools are facing more significant supply challenges and, crucially, to design and develop solutions to those challenges.

In conclusion, the Government’s record on education over the past seven years is a cause for pride. Last year, 147,000 more six-year-olds were on track to become fluent readers than in 2012 thanks to the introduction of systematic synthetic phonics. However we cut the numbers, England outperformed the rest of the UK in the OECD’s most recent PISA science assessments. The proportion of pupils studying the EBacc core of academic subjects at GCSE has risen from one fifth in 2010 to two fifths last year. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers is shrinking at both key stage 2 and key stage 4. But we have more to do. We must spread opportunity and excellence to all corners of the country, so that every child—whatever their background and wherever they are from—receives the education that takes them as far as their talents will allow.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.