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Speech in debate on School Funding in West Sussex

Mike Kane MP, Shadow Minister for Schools: 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will just point out the political geography of the room. I did a similar debate the other week with Merseyside MPs, and the Minister for School Standards was on his own on the Government side. Being a Greater Manchester MP, I thought I was probably more isolated from my colleagues in that debate than I am today, but I will not go into those traditional rivalries when we are talking about West Sussex.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on securing this debate and on standing up, so eloquently and effectively, for the schools in his constituency and county. From my brief time in this place over the past two years, I know that politics can be like herding cats. To have so many—five—Members from the county pressing the Department and the Under-Secretary today is good to see. I would like to have seen the Minister for School Standards but if, as Woody Allen said, 80% of success is showing up, I am glad he is representing the other 20% today.


I want to make some remarks about the campaign and congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), who has clearly put in a shift, on organising it. Headteachers from 250 schools in the county have said that they need the transitional funding—the campaign has brought all of them together. The campaign has delivered a letter and petition with the names of 100,000 parents on to the Prime Minister—that is an incredible feat, so very well done. Headteachers are saying that they need the additional funding and cannot replace staff, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who talked about retention and selection. They have campaigned very effectively and today we have heard the statistics about the differential levels of funding. Members have spoken with passion about individual schools in their constituencies.


The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex made two incredible points. One was that it is a fundamental basic in policy to fix schools funding—we have huge differentials across the nation. He also spoke with passion about special educational needs, which we do not do often enough. I hope, unfortunately, to find an ally with the education for all Bill, because clearly this issue is not mentioned at all. Any education Bill coming through Parliament should have special educational needs at its heart. I hope we can turn that around collectively.


Last week the Government U-turned in abandoning some of the education for all Bill, which would have included the fair funding formula. We now know, as has been alluded to by Ministers, that it is going to be kicked into the long grass for quite some time, which has created uncertainty. Back in July, the Secretary of State said that she would bring forward the next stage of the consultation


“once Parliament returns in the autumn.”—[Official Report, 21 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 969.]


That was on 21 July and, to the best of my knowledge, we still have not had that statement. It would be good if the Minister could say today when we will be hearing that because Members on both sides of the House want to know.


At the moment, a confused and chaotic narrative is coming out of the Education team on a number of issues. Labour Members support the fair funding formula, but as the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, the Government have been really good in the past few years with subsidiarity in decision-making—the funding formulas for skills and apprenticeships are a completely devolved function to Greater Manchester. The hon. Member for Horsham alluded to the fact that education and skills are vital to our national productivity. Traditionally, the precept has been set where local authorities could always top up the education resource that they were given from Government, which some counties and metropolitan authorities have done well. However, in the past few years, particularly with the London Challenge, they have had an enormous amount of resource, although I do not deny that that has come with an enormous amount of success.


The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham rightly talked about the Thomas A Becket Junior School and the comparative differential. We probably know that the Thomas A Becket Junior School has come from a lot further down in terms of its results and attainment, but the differential is still too large to be fair. We believe that, as with the London Challenge, we should invest in all our schools rather than take money from some to give to others—that is taking from Peter to pay Paul—which is what we do not want when the fair funding formula is introduced.


I disagree slightly with the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs about protected budgets. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that school budgets will have fallen by 8% over the course of this Parliament—the budget was protected only in cash terms rather than in real terms, meaning that the schools budget is at the mercy of rising pressures, pupil numbers and the impact of inflation on the true value. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham alluded to those pressures in his excellent speech. There are pressures on recruitment, selection and retention of teachers, particularly in areas such as his, which has rising house values and a heated economy, with people having to travel to London to work.


With inflation rising to a two-year high and many predicting it will rise again in the light of Brexit—if we have a chaotic Brexit, the situation could be worse—it looks as though schools funding will face even higher real-terms cuts. The IFS has said that, over the course of this Parliament, funding will fall for the first time since the mid-1990s, making it harder for us to secure funding for schools. It estimated that in April 2016, there would be a 7% real-terms reduction in per pupil spending between 2015-16 and 2019-20. In that context, how will the Minister secure fairer funding for schools? Will it come at the expense of schools in the most disadvantaged areas?


In conclusion, I pay tribute not only to all the Members who have stood up so effectively for schools, but to the schools in West Sussex and to West Sussex County Council, which is doing its best in difficult circumstances. We have a chaotic school funding system and the Government are dragging their feet on getting to grips with it. I hope the Minister enlightens us today about the way forward.

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