It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing the debate. He said recently in the Exmouth Journal that he would raise his concerns in Parliament, and it is good to see politicians keeping their promises—he has certainly done so today.
Under this Government, schools are facing their first real cuts in 20 years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) summed it up. We have to look at the big picture, because many rural schools are affected. We had a similar debate about the Minister’s county of Sussex, which is very poorly underfunded, a few weeks ago, and Members had exactly the same concerns. Their hopes were raised by the proposed introduction of the manifesto commitment of a national fair funding formula, but up and down the land most people’s hopes are being dashed. We must put this in the context of what was announced in the Budget: £3 billion will be taken out of our education system by 2020. That is an 8% cut. In my constituency, it is an 11% cut, so no matter what we do with the fair funding formula, it will be insignificant, given the situation that schools face.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies initially predicted the real-terms cuts of 8% that I mentioned, but the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted sharply rising inflation over the course of the Parliament, so the cuts will get even worse. The right hon. Member for East Devon spoke eloquently about fairness, but nothing is fair about that. The funding formula was supposed to redistribute a sum of money to help schools where help is inadequate and to provide our children with the excellent education to which they are entitled, as pointed out by the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones).
The National Audit Office has said that the Department for Education is expecting schools to find a total of £3 billion in savings over the course of the Parliament, but the Department has failed to communicate to schools how to do that, given the pressures pointed out today, such as the apprenticeship levy and rising costs and national insurance costs.
The Opposition support the principle that all schools should have a fair funding formula, but the answer is not simply to take money away from some schools and to redistribute it in different budgets across the country. The solution is to invest in education and to help every child to receive an excellent education, as pointed out by the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). He talked about an education oasis so, with an Oasis reference and my being a Mancunian, I should ask him not to “look back in anger”. He spoke with passion about his concerns and the consequences of Government action. A whole range of both Conservative and Opposition Members are extraordinarily disappointed.
Given cost pressures, inflation and an increase in pupil numbers, schools budgets are facing real-terms cuts. There has already been a sharp rise in the number of secondary schools that are in deficit, reaching nearly 60% of the total in 2014-15, according to the National Audit Office. According to the North Devon Gazette, only three schools in Devon are set to gain extra funding under the proposed national funding formula, as announced by Secretary of State. The changes to education funding have been branded “ridiculous” and “a shambles” by Devon headteachers. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) rightly pointed out that the Government are simply not listening at the moment, and while they are still in consultation, we have to plead with them to start listening.
Michael Johnson, the headteacher at Chulmleigh Community College, said he had received calls from other headteachers who simply did not know what they were to do. He said:
“Early indications are that all or most Devon secondary schools will receive less through the new funding formula.
I have had other secondary school headteachers telling me today ‘I don’t know what I am going to do now’.
Nationally, this formula offers the same money for more children and we have now got increased costs that we have had imposed upon us.
With the limited information available to us at this time, we believe that most secondary schools in North Devon will not be better off and will continue to face budgetary shortfalls.
So far, this exercise looks to me like the same budget has been through a hot-wash to present it differently. It looks like a shambles to me.”
That is a headteacher in one of our schools.
Mr Glenn Smith, the principal of Honiton College, said that Devon is one of the lowest-funded education authorities in England:
“Whilst the announcement in the…2015 Autumn Spending Review of firm proposals for the introduction of a new fairer national funding formula from April 2017 was most welcome, this promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ has since been delayed by 12 months and we still await further information around the detail, timing and implementation of any such policy.
Meanwhile the legacy of an unsatisfactory funding settlement has been further worsened for schools by rising expenditure demands owing to national policy decisions beyond our control, notably those associated with staffing costs.”
Mr Smith sent a stark warning to the Department that harsh cuts in Devon might see some of the smaller schools not able to produce a balanced budget, in effect putting them into special measures, so they might therefore be lost altogether. He worried:
“Maybe, when some Devon schools start to buckle under the increasing financial pressures, the government will start to make education a priority once more.”
The right hon. Member for East Devon said that we should not be too political, although he was critical in quite a party political way of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Governments. Mr Smith of Honiton College, however, said:
“Tony Blair’s top three priorities for government were: Education, Education and Education—God knows how far down”
the importance and fairness of education policy have gone. Schools did extraordinarily well under that Government: schools were rebuilt and they got more money than they had had in a generation.
I was beginning my teacher training in 1997, and I spent most of the time going around with buckets to collect the rain. By the time I left education, 10 or 15 years later, after the Labour Government, if the roofs had not been rebuilt, it was only because the school had been rebuilt. The only thing going through the roof were standards and attainment, so Labour Members will not stand for any lectures about our record.
On top of that, the hon. Members for Newton Abbot and for North Devon rightly pointed to the requirements for special educational needs in Devon, where there is a particular problem. “Schools Week” has done an analysis of local authorities’ high-needs budgets, which are given a set amount by the Government depending on how many special needs pupils each council caters for. Many heads are already struggling to cope.
Devon faces a £4.5 million shortfall this year, and the council is proposing to move £55 per pupil from its schools block funding—the money for pupils in mainstream schools—to its high-needs budget. Lorraine Heath, headteacher of Uffculme School, said that the reallocation would cost her school £56,265,
“which I have not budgeted for”.
That was her reaction. She said that the only way to meet the cut would be to reduce staff numbers and to increase class sizes.
In conclusion, may I praise the Devon MPs who are holding the Government’s feet to the fire on the issue? They are standing up for their constituencies and their county. I also remind them, however, that it is their party’s Government that is doing this.