SIR NICHOLAS SOAMES’S SPEECH IN THE FUNDING OF WEST SUSSEX SCHOOLS DEBATE

2nd November 2016

Sir Nicholas Soames leads a Westminster Hall debate on the ‘Funding of West Sussex Schools’.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the funding of West Sussex schools.

Good morning, Mr Gray, and thank you very much. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in Westminster Hall. [Interruption.]

 

Order. Will one of the sound engineers deal with the echo? There is something wrong with the machine.

 

I am grateful to have the opportunity, with my West Sussex colleagues, with whom I have been working for a considerable period of time on this matter, to draw the House’s attention on this occasion, which certainly is not the first, to the question of fair funding for West Sussex schools. I am fortified by the presence and support of my hon. Friends and parliamentary colleagues for West Sussex, who have been campaigning on this matter for a long time now. We have campaigned together and are wholly in agreement. Those of my hon. Friends who are able to be here will speak to explain the case further to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I welcome her to her place and am delighted that she will answer on behalf of the Government. May I say to her at the beginning that the very rude things I will say about her Department are absolutely in no way aimed at her at all? I regard her, as we all do, as an exemplary and remarkable Minister—none of this happened on her watch.

For the 32 years I have been a Member of Parliament—I am an amateur compared with my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who has been here much longer than me; he is not the Father of the House but practically the grandfather of the House—the treatment of West Sussex in local government finance terms has been unfair and indeed wholly unsatisfactory. The issue of today’s debate is really the catharsis of 30 years of financial bad treatment for West Sussex. In respect of education, it is now a question of fairness.

The position is surgically plain. West Sussex has per pupil funding of £4,198, which is £438 per pupil below the national average and makes schools and academies in West Sussex the fifth worst-funded nationally. That is not acceptable to the West Sussex Members, it is not acceptable to our county council, and much more importantly it is increasingly unacceptable and causes great anxiety to parents, pupils, headteachers and staff. We look to the Department for Education to fix it.

The current situation puts us below our neighbours in East Sussex and Surrey, and well below the very well funded urban authorities of the city of London, which comes right at the top of the pile with double the funding of West Sussex. Our position in West Sussex is therefore very bad. There is no other way of describing it, not least since we all agree that every child deserves the same chance in life when it comes to state-funded education. Frankly, they are not getting it. The figures graphically show that, in West Sussex, it is emphatically not the case. It is not even as if the results are anywhere near as good as they should be. Indeed, they are disappointing and must improve. Resources are a part but only a part of that equation.

The West Sussex Members of Parliament met Ministers in September last year and again in February this year to press the case. We met the Minister for School Standards 10 days ago for a useful meeting, and we are to meet the Secretary of State this very afternoon. The aim is to try to find a sensible way forward to resolve a crucial and unacceptable situation, and to try to understand the thinking of the Department for Education. It has big reforms to come and will look for our support. We need to fix the grassroots basis of the funding of local education before we move on to some of those more exotic, and indeed welcome reforms. They will require our support, but without this situation being fixed, it is difficult to see how that can occur.

 

It is not only a question of long-term funding. As Conservatives, we were all elected on a manifesto commitment to fix fair funding for the future. I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that there is a lot of concern about the immediate funding for schools and a requirement for transitional funding. I wonder whether he will come to that in his remarks.

 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him for the work he has done in leading our group, and for the enormous amount of work he has done on behalf of headteachers and schools, not only in his constituency but elsewhere. He is quite right, and I hope that by the end of this inadequate speech, he will feel that I have dealt with some of those problems. It is not just the future but the now. We need to resolve the position between the now and the future—we all welcome strongly the introduction of the new funding formula.

All the West Sussex Members—I am sure those who speak will make this point—are entirely satisfied that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, the Minister for School Standards, the Under-Secretary who is here today and their officials accept that West Sussex schools are underfunded compared with the national average. As I said, the figures are there in stark reality. What we really need is for them to act now and restore some balance to a situation that is out of kilter.

As I say, we warmly commend the Government for bringing forward the new plan for the national funding formula, which will be introduced from 2018, and the release of a very small sum of additional money already given by the Department surplus. The Minister knows that West Sussex Members of Parliament, supported by headteachers and parents in all our constituencies, have lobbied vigorously for urgent consideration to be given to the adequate provision of transitional funding to help tide over hard-pressed local schools until the new formula can be introduced. West Sussex schools can thus get on an equal footing with those in other counties, which is surely only right and fair.

On 14 September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when giving evidence to the Select Committee on Education on her roles and responsibilities, confirmed that her Department was approaching this matter in a sensible and rational way and that it was

“going to provide interim support.”

That was in her answer to Q221 in evidence to the Select Committee. It is that question on which we will press her this very afternoon, so that we can get to a better school funding system in an orderly and sane manner, based in future on pupil numbers, and less on some extraordinary and archaic formula based on past political considerations, which will recognise that West Sussex has been losing out for years.

As I have said, the present situation is both unacceptable and wrong, and we insist on its being put right. It is not correct or fair that a typical secondary school in the Mid Sussex or Horsham constituencies, for example, will receive more than 15% less than the national median funding for schools.

When on 7 March my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the then excellent Secretary of State for Education, announced in a written statement a consultation on national funding formulae for schools and high needs, she made the point that the transition to the new system should be manageable. It is that question that we look to the Minister of State, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to help us resolve this morning. It is the collective judgment of all the West Sussex Members of Parliament, who have worked closely together and have gone carefully into the matter, that present levels of funding will, without transitional funding, inevitably have a damaging effect on local schools and children’s learning. Each of us must speak for our own constituency—my hon. Friends will do so—but in Mid Sussex, as things stand, good schools are placed in the intolerable position of having to preside over further real cuts to school budgets that are frankly no longer sustainable.

The Government have rightly urged schools to achieve efficiencies, but those have already been adopted by the schools in my constituency and elsewhere, not least to meet the new costs arising from, among other things, increases to teachers’ pension and national insurance contributions for 2016-17. Having listened to the concerns of parents, councillors, headteachers and teachers, and having consulted more widely, we all agree that school budgets are already squeezed to the limit. It is, I am afraid, understandable that headteachers are considering a number of dramatic measures, some of which I wholly disapprove of, to make ends meet. We therefore ask the Under-Secretary, and will ask the Secretary of State this afternoon, to allocate transitional funding to support our schools to meet those serious cost pressures until the national funding formula is introduced.

A powerful letter sent to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by a number of West Sussex headteachers, with the support of a number of my parliamentary colleagues, sets out a request for £20 million of transitional funding. That would represent an increase of approximately £200 per pupil across West Sussex. That sum of money would put our schools back on a more or less even keel against the arrival of the national funding formula.

I want to mention the special concerns of special needs schools in my constituency and West Sussex more generally. They find it very hard going to deliver the education service that I know the Under-Secretary and her ministerial colleagues would insist be delivered to children who have considerable difficulties. They are trying very hard, but in some cases they will simply no longer be able to do it. The situation in West Sussex special needs schools is very serious. Woodlands Meed school in my constituency is a remarkable school, but is in an untenable position. Not only has the county council treated it extraordinarily badly and, in my view, dishonourably, over the question of new building to consolidate schools into one, but its financial situation is extremely serious. It is impossible for the children at the school to be educated properly without the necessary support staff. I make a plea today for children with special needs in West Sussex; they are not getting a fair crack of the whip.

My hon. Friends and I, and the county council, are well aware of the restraint required in public expenditure. However, we believe that the situation in our county is very serious. We all earnestly entreat the Under-Secretary and her ministerial colleagues to consider favourably the coherent, sensible and reasonable requests that we make on behalf of our constituents.

 
Wednesday 2nd November, 2016
Volume 616
No 55. Col 363WH
 

Minister’s Reply

 

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on introducing this really important debate on funding for schools in West Sussex. He presented it in his usual robust, assiduous and charming style. I also congratulate his colleagues from West Sussex, who present a formidable, united front on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) are a veritable tag team to be reckoned with. I know that when they go and speak to the Secretary of State this afternoon, they will make their case powerfully and persuasively, as they have done today. I know we all share the same ambition: to see a country that works for everyone, where schools improve and where every child, no matter which county, constituency or part of the country they live in, has the opportunity to go to a good school, to get a great education and to fulfil their potential.

Let me start with the fundamental reason we are here today: to make sure that our children benefit from an outstanding education. We need good schools in every area of the country. Investing in education is truly an investment in the future of our nation as a whole. That is why we are committed to providing equal opportunity for all children to succeed, irrespective of where they come from in the country and where they happen to grow up. A fair funding formula is a fantastic way of achieving that and providing a crucial underpinning for the education system to act as a motor for social mobility and social justice, as we all desire.

As many of my hon. Friends have said today, the Government are prioritising investment in education. As pupil numbers increase, so will the amount of money for schools. This year the core school budget will be more than £40 billion—the highest on record—which includes £2.5 billion for our most disadvantaged children through the pupil premium. That funding is also protected for the rest of this Parliament. The current funding system is holding us back, though. I do not think anyone in this Chamber disagrees with that. It is preventing us from getting the record amount of money that we are investing to the parts of the country where it is most needed.

 

I am grateful for the constructive and helpful way in which the Minister is winding up the debate. To pick up her point about the welcome increase in education expenditure and the number of new pupils coming into schools, the excellent St Paul’s Catholic College in Burgess Hill—a really good school in my constituency—has had a 31% increase in pupils, but there is so little money and room to manoeuvre in its staff budget that it does not have enough staff to cope with that 31%. It makes do, but it does not have adequate staff, which is one of the problems of the existing baseline and why the school needs the transitional funding to get through to the national funding formula being introduced.

 

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will talk shortly about the transitional funding, which I know he and his colleagues from West Sussex are all very keen on.

We are clear that without reform the funding system will not deliver the outcomes we want for our children. As many Members have said today, it is outdated, inefficient and unfair. There are two reasons for that: first, the amount of money that local authorities receive is based on data that have not been updated for more than a decade, so although local populations have changed the distribution of funding has not, and the impact of that is hugely unfair. We have heard many of the relevant figures today. West Sussex is receiving just under £4,200 for every pupil, whereas in Birmingham, for example, that figure is £5,200. Although there will always be variations in the amount different areas receive, because their needs and local costs vary, a system that creates such significant differences cannot be fair.

 

Will the Minister enlighten the House about whether any areas will lose out because of the introduction of a new national fair funding formula?

 

We are still in the consultation period, the next stage of which will be announced shortly, so I am not able to comment on that today.

Different local authorities take very different decisions about how to distribute their funding. There are 152 different local formulas, so a primary pupil in West Sussex with low prior attainment currently attracts £863 in extra funding, whereas in Trafford, for example, they attract more than £3,000 extra, and in four local authorities they get nothing. My county, Hampshire, provides no extra funding for pupils in receipt of free school meals, whereas Warrington chooses to allocate more than £3,000 to each secondary pupil in the same situation. That is why we are committed to fixing the system.

Earlier this year we launched a consultation on the new fairer funding formula for schools. The second stage, including the details of the national funding formula, will be announced in the next few weeks. Our aims are clear, and I hope Members from all parts of the House will agree that they are worthy ones. We want to create a formula that is fair, objective, transparent and simple. It should be clear how much funding is available for each pupil and that should be consistent wherever they are in the country. From 2018-2019, we intend to begin moving towards a system where individual school budgets are set by a national formula and not by 152 locally devised ones.

The reforms will mean that the funding is allocated fairly and directly to the frontline where it is most needed. They will also mean that funding reflects the needs of pupils, so the higher the need, the greater the funding. The reforms will be the biggest step forward in making funding fair in well over a decade. It is therefore vital that we take time get them right. We need to debate the important principles that will underpin this and listen to the submissions that are coming back as part of the consultation. We have a responsibility to ensure that the system we set up now enables schools to maximise the potential of every single child.

I am aware of the concerns raised by hon. Members today that fairer funding for schools in West Sussex and other parts of the country is very much overdue. We agree that the reforms are vital, but they are also an historic change, which is why we have to take the time to consider the options and implications very carefully. We cannot afford to get this wrong. Crucially, we must consult widely with the education sector before we make changes. We will carry out the second stage of that consultation later this year and make final decisions in the new year. The new system will be in place from April 2018.

In the meantime, we have confirmed arrangements for funding in 2017-18 so that local authorities and schools have the information and certainty they need to plan their budgets for the coming year. That is so important, because a key message coming out of the first round of the consultation is about the ability to plan ahead and certainty about the future. Schools need to know where they stand.

Areas such as West Sussex, which benefited from the £390 million that we added to the schools budget in the previous Parliament, will have that extra funding protected in their baseline 2017-18, as they did in 2016-17, but I take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West, who said that West Sussex received a disproportionately low amount. We will look into that.

The next stage of our consultation, which is coming out shortly, will set out the detailed proposals for the national funding formula and show how the formula will make a difference to every school and local authority budget in the country. We will explain how quickly we expect budgets to change. We have been clear that we want schools to see the benefits of fairer funding as quickly as possible, but the pace of change must be manageable for them. The strong message is certainty and the need to be able to plan ahead. We fully take on board the real-term impact on budgets of the recent changes to pensions and national insurance contributions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned.

All local Members have spoken about the transitional arrangements. I hear them and I know that they will make a powerful case to the Secretary of State this afternoon when they see her. The Minister for School Standards has been working hard on the arrangements. As usual, we will finalise school funding allocations for the coming financial year in December, taking into account the latest pupil numbers from the October census.

Reforming the funding system to ensure that areas such as West Sussex are fairly funded is only half the story. As hon. Members have pointed out, as with all public services, it is vital that schools spend the money that they receive as efficiently as possible. The most effective schools collaborate through academy trusts and federations, or as part of teaching school networks or clusters. They share knowledge, skills, experiences and resources to drive the important changes that support their school’s education or vision. Schools are best placed to decide how to spend their budgets and achieve the best possible outcomes for their students. Lots of schools in West Sussex are already doing that, despite having very low funding compared with other parts of the country. We recognise that the Government have a role to play in ensuring that schools are supported to make every single penny of their funding count. That is why we launched a package of support for schools in January that includes new guidance and tools to help them make the most of the funding they receive, and we will continue to update and improve that offer to schools.

I am enormously grateful for the support that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex and the other West Sussex Members have given to the agenda. They have all raised important issues. I hope that they are reassured, more than anything, about the Government’s long-term commitment to reform school funding so that there is a fairer system for children in West Sussex and across the country—a system where funding reflects the real level of need, so that pupils are able to access the same educational opportunities wherever they happen to live.

A fair national funding formula underpins our ambition for social mobility and social justice, and will mean that every pupil is supported to achieve the very best of their potential, wherever they happen to live. Although we should recognise that there are challenges currently, and that challenges will lie ahead, I hope all hon. Members give support to and work with the Government to achieve that vital aim.

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