School Funding

Nick's speech in the Westminster Hall Debate

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing the debate, along with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), and for the way in which he has run this campaign and made his case.

This is a basic issue of fairness. I am sure that hon. Members will all be competing today to explain how poorly our schools are funded, but few will do better than me in that respect, because although West Sussex might be seen as a leafy and affluent county, it is not entirely so—there are significant pockets of deprivation, though less so in my constituency. West Sussex has a schools block unit of funding—so, per-pupil funding—of £4,198, which makes it the fourth worst-funded authority in England. Not only is that level of funding well below the England average of £4,612, but it puts us below our neighbours East Sussex, which has £4,442, and Surrey, which has £4,300, and of course well below the very well funded urban authorities, of which the City of London, with £8,587—double the funding of West Sussex—comes right at the top. If West Sussex were funded just at the average level for all county councils, our schools would receive an additional £15 million per annum. If we were funded at the level of our statistical neighbours—similar authorities—we would receive nearly £12 million per annum more. Our position is relatively very poor.

Some evidence of that can be seen in teacher-pupil ratios. Let us look at the United Learning academies and its urban schools. The Paddington academy has a pupil-teacher ratio of 1:8, whereas the Lambeth academy has a pupil-teacher of 1:12. At Midhurst Rother college, the first rural academy, serving my constituency in West Sussex, the pupil ratio is 1:17. Steyning grammar school, which is not, in fact a grammar school, serves my constituency and is in the state sector. It has a pupil-teacher ratio of just under 1:17.

The figures I have given include the pupil premium; nevertheless, the disparity is very substantial. In an environment of flat cash, despite the fact that spending in this area has been relatively protected by this Government—that was a manifesto commitment—compared with other budgets, such as the police budget, which are being very substantially cut as we all know, additional pressures are finding their way to schools for such things as national insurance and pension costs. It will be hard for schools to deal with flat cash if their funding is already on the floor. What heads and chairs of governors from schools in my constituency are saying to me is that they already face a difficult position because of the relatively poor funding.

We are grateful for the £390 million uplift that the Government have so far provided and to which the Minister rightly drew our attention. However, in West Sussex, that means that we received less than £1 million a year more, whereas the actual gap, if we were funded at the average level of county councils, is something like £15 million.

I do not believe that there is necessarily a link between public sector performance and resourcing. We cannot always say that improving public services means giving them more money, but I think that we are making it harder for schools when they are funded at the level that they are and when the unfairness is so manifest. This is not about politics—about proposing a political solution. It is about an objective level of unfairness. I therefore welcome both the Government’s manifesto commitment to deal with the problem, and the fact that the Minister has been so ready to listen to me and my colleagues in West Sussex about the unfairness. I urge the Minister to listen to what hon. Members are saying today: what we now need is a realisation of the manifesto commitment with an announcement in the spending review about redressing the unfairness in a timetabled way, so that we can prove that we do believe in fair funding for schools across the country.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, in a debate that is, at least on the Conservative side of the House, a complete sell-out. As has been noted, there have been several debates on this issue over the years. I have held one, but I do congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), not least because the timing of his debate today, in the run-up to the autumn statement, is particularly apposite. His hard work is much appreciated by us all.

It is also worth noting that there are no fewer than four Gloucestershire MPs here today. That shows both our keen interest in the issue and an interesting characteristic of the debate, which is the pride in being towards the bottom of the league table. That is the reverse of the normal situation when it comes to supporting a football or rugby club. Much has been said already, and I do not intend to try to compete with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on being at the bottom of the league, but I do want to highlight the challenges that my hon. Friend the Minister faces and to ask him about particular areas where he might be able to help us today.

The situation in Gloucestershire is not unlike that in other places. The average spend per pupil, at £4,365, is considerably less than the national average, but it is worth pointing out that that gap has narrowed as a result of the changes made this year. They narrow the gap in terms of underfunding against the national average from 7.7% to 5.5%. More telling is the difference between one school in my constituency, the newly formed Gloucester academy, and a school in Tower Hamlets. Both those schools have very similar, mixed, multicultural pupils. In the case of Gloucester academy, they speak as many as 25 different languages, but the Gloucester academy pupil, on average, receives £5,443, whereas a pupil in the school in Tower Hamlets receives £8,256. The difference amounts to £2.1 million a year, and given that 80% of schools’ costs are in teaching, teachers and people, that puts significant pressure on the most important element of any school’s success—the teaching staff.

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that all children in this country, wherever they live, deserve the best education that we can give them? It is just not fair that children in Redditch, 5 miles away from Birmingham, receive £1,000 less each per year.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but there is another aspect to this, which we must be aware of. I understand that the new Bishop of Gloucester, Bishop Rachel Treweek, the first female diocesan bishop in the land, will intervene in the House of Lords to help the F40 campaign, but she will be aware that fair funding for children across her diocese in the county of Gloucestershire will mean redistribution, which will probably arouse claims of unfairness in her previous patch in Tower Hamlets. This is a balancing act in terms of what is fair for all of us, and the Minister will have to juggle with that.

In the statement on 16 July, the Minister committed himself to making schools and early education fairer and said that he would put forward proposals in due course. I know that he will do so and that he will see the manifesto commitment simply to “make schools funding fairer” come true, but today I should like him to focus on the when, the what and the how. The when, in a sense, is the easiest bit, because the autumn statement is coming and we also have the commitment from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in her letter to the Chairman of the Education Committee, my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), which may inhibit a little what the Minister can say today.

The what will be all about the rebalancing—the winners and losers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) pointed out, one person’s fairness may be another person’s slight unfairness, but there is an absolute as well as a relative aim to go for. In addition to the what question, we have to look at the how, which is the process. It is easy for us to highlight the anomalies, but the Minister and his Department must find a solution, a process and a timeline.

The Library briefing paper contains a telling chart—exhibit A, which I am holding up, Mr Walker. In this flow diagram, there are simply too many elements. There is the guaranteed unit of funding, which was based on planned local authority spend some years ago, with three variables plus

“some subsequent additional funding for ministerial priorities.”

Then there is the dedicated schools grant, which was based on assessed levels of need plus locked-in historical decisions on spending, which I suggest led to the gap widening during the five years of the previous, coalition Government. Then there are four other grants, plus the local funding formula, in which there are 14 allowable factors, and local authorities can choose which values are actually used for each factor. That is too complicated, and I hope that the Minister today will confirm that whatever new process is introduced, it will be simpler, easier to understand and much fairer for everyone.

Mr Gyimah: My hon. Friend rightly touches on the point about the process. What I can say at the outset is that whatever the outcome of the spending review, there will be very careful consultation with everyone concerned, which means, I suspect, that this will not be our only debate here on fairer funding in terms of how we get to a resolution.


To read the full debate, click here.

Nick HerbertSchools funding