26 February 2019
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown highlights school funding problems in Gloucestershire

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown highlights funding problems facing headteachers in Gloucestershire and calls for similar schools with similar demographics to receive the same level of funding irrespective of where they are in the UK. 

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this very important estimates debate.

I would like to start where the Chair of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who made an excellent speech, finished. Every child in this country deserves a fair chance to get on the ladder of opportunity to the best of his or her abilities. While I warmly welcome the record funding that is going into education in this country at the moment, the problem is that, in some areas on the ground in our constituencies, it does not feel like that. I want to concentrate on those areas, particularly the funding of schools and further education colleges.

I welcome this debate and the increase in the departmental expenditure limit, up from £66.4 billion to £77.9 billion, although most of the increase is to cover the write-off of student loans. I also welcome the introduction of the new funding formula’s money for schools in April 2018, which should provide £4,800 per secondary pupil and £3,500 per primary pupil. The problem, as my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench know, is that the local authority distributes this money, which means that quite a number of schools in my constituency do not even receive that amount.

I am grateful to follow my friend the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, on which I serve as deputy Chair. Secondary schools in her constituency—I do not mean this in any personal or political way; her constituency just happens to be at the top of the league—receive on average £7,840 per pupil, which is a 64% increase on schools in my constituency. I ask my colleagues on the Front Bench whether that is really fair. In addition to that 64% increase, quite a lot of the schools in her constituency get the pupil premium money. One wonders, given the funding streams in this country, whether there is an element of double counting.

Of course school costs will be higher in a central London constituency, but even in Gloucestershire, costs such as the national teachers’ pay award increase in 2018, the apprenticeship levy imposition, additional HR costs, increased pension costs, higher levels of special needs and higher rural bus costs, all of which are imposed by Government, amount to about 6%. Therefore, if the Government increase their cash amount this year by 1%, it is effectively a 5% budget cut, which has to be met by efficiencies. Things have been pared down over a number of years.

Mr Will Morgan, the excellent head teacher of the excellent Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water, recently wrote to me to say:

“Over recent years we have made many savings—class sizes, teacher contact time, TA support, service costs, reducing leadership, etc. Despite this, if finances continue as they are and we do nothing, we will be in deficit as a school at some point in the 2021-22 academic year.

One of our strategies to try to alleviate this ‘cliff edge’ is to ask parents to donate—for many, including myself, this goes against what we should be doing”.

That is what is happening on the ground. We need to fund our schools at a level at which they can operate properly.

When I have discussed this with various Schools Ministers in recent years, they have always told me that their Department was going to do some work on what it really costs to run a secondary school and a primary school. There are certainly inescapable costs: the teachers have to be paid, the buildings have to be maintained and kept warm, and there has to be an administration function. Let us find out what it really costs and ensure that no school anywhere in the country goes below that level. As others have said before, if we go below that level, schools have to make cuts, either in teachers or in curriculum subjects.

Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his significant speech, and I concur with the point he has just made. In the London Borough of Lewisham, 71 of 73 schools are facing cuts, and are losing £8.8 million between 2015 and 2020.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. Nobody wants to see any schools having to make cuts; they want to see every school trying to attain outstanding Ofsted reports, to be able to educate all their children and pupils to the best possible standard according to their abilities.

I say to my colleagues on the Front Bench that I believe the maxim should be that similar schools with similar demographics, wherever they are in the UK, should receive similar funding. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an example in the time available. I ask my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench how they intend to address that problem, and bring to their attention two other problems in the primary and secondary sector. Gloucestershire is a well-run local authority. At the moment, it does not run a deficit in its education funding, but a number of local education authorities do. However, we have two serious emerging problems in Gloucestershire, which I hope my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will listen to seriously.

The first relates to the higher needs block. In Gloucestershire, the higher needs block has increased by 40% over three years. We were incredibly grateful when the Minister announced an extra £1.3 million over two years. That will be helpful over the next two or three years, but we have to address the structural problem. We have to work out why it is that in Gloucestershire schools—I believe Gloucestershire is not alone—there is a very large increase in special needs. I am sure it is all to do with the education and healthcare plans. How they are granted and funded, in particular for out-of-county placements, place a very high burden on the budget.

The second point I would like to bring to the attention of my hon. Friends is the significant increase in the number of exclusions in some schools, so that they do not have to bear the costs and difficulty of dealing with difficult pupils. It does seem—I ask my hon. Friends to do some work on this—that certain schools have consistently higher exclusions than others. That must be to do with a school’s policy, rather than a policy that suits the individual pupil. That cannot be right. I would like to know what happens to those excluded pupils. Some return to school and that is good. Some are withdrawn from the register entirely and may be home educated, where they receive pretty scant attention from the state. Some will be educated excellently at home, but I suspect some will receive little education at home. Some will be looked after by social services. Sadly, some will end up in the criminal justice system. That cannot be right.

Finally, in the last minute available to me, I would like to talk about further education. The principal of Cirencester College, the only college to trial T-levels in Gloucestershire at the moment, contacted me the other day to say that rather than the £4,800 per pupil it would get in the national funding formula, he is receiving between £3,600 and £4,000 per pupil. That amount has been constant for five years, despite increased costs. He says he has had to reduce subjects, teachers and mental health services, and that the funding is half of what a university student receives. He says his funding for doing the same job should, in all fairness, be the same as if his pupils were receiving A-level education in sixth form. He has higher costs in a rural area and says rurality should be one of the factors in the formula. That would help schools in rural areas like his.