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Small and Village School Funding
Wednesday 17 July 2019

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)


Westminster Hall
Department for Education
Sir David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair) - Hansard

Just before we start the next debate, there are a lot of colleagues here, and it would be very helpful if, through a note, those who have not already written expressing a wish to speak could let me or the Clerk know, so that I can make sure that no colleagues are disappointed.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien (Harborough) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:31 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding for small schools and village schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. This debate is about two things that overlap but are not the same: small schools and village schools. My focus will be firmly on primary schools. About a fifth of schools are in villages, and on average they have just over 100 pupils, compared with an average of about 400 for schools in large cities. These village schools are good schools; only about 8% are not good or outstanding, compared with 11% nationally and about 15% in towns and small cities. They are also much-loved institutions, at the heart of their community, and they are where the community gathers for special occasions. Just the other day I was at the Church Langton Primary School fête watching the children do some intense Japanese drumming. I could equally have been at the Foxton family fun day or any number of other wonderful occasions in my constituency.

Village schools are also where people meet each other and the community organises. For example, the campaign for a road crossing in Lubenham in my constituency is being spearheaded by the children of Lubenham Primary School, and I am being bombarded by their very neatly handwritten letters. It is no wonder that people feel that a village loses its heart if it loses its school.

Sarah Newton Portrait Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con) - Hansard

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Like his constituency, Cornwall has many village schools. They make sure that our villages survive, because by having the school there, a younger generation of people come into the village, renewing its life. Without those schools, there is a real risk that those villages could become dormitory towns for second homes or for people who have retired.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:32 p.m.

My hon. Friend is completely correct. However, rural schools, partly because they are small schools, have been much more likely to close in recent years. I thank the Department for Education for the historical data it provided to me on this, and Pippa Allen-Kinross at Schools Week for helping me to analyse it. Since 2010, 61% of schools that have closed and not reopened in another form have been rural schools, meaning that rural schools have been twice as likely to shut as urban ones. Since 2000, 150 rural primaries have closed.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:33 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the debate. What he outlines in his constituency and other parts of the United Kingdom mainland is replicated in Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister does not have responsibility for this, but for the record, is the hon. Gentleman aware that since September 2010, 98 of the 230 schools that closed in Northern Ireland—42%—were rural, according to Schools Week analysis? Does he recognise the difficulties that creates for rural dwellers and socially isolated children?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:36 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is completely correct. This challenge affects all of the United Kingdom. For rural schools that closed, the average walk to the next nearest school is 52 minutes, which in practice means driving or getting a bus. There is a cost to the taxpayer for this transport, and a cost to parents and children for driving a long way, so there are all kinds of reasons why we should want to preserve our village schools.

I will turn to small schools more generally, including those in urban areas. I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for digitising older data for me that revealed a dramatic transformation in the scale of our schools over recent decades, and a decline in the number of small schools. The number of pupils at state primary schools in England is roughly the same as in 1980, but the schools that they attend are completely different. In 1980 there were 11,464 small primary schools with fewer than 200 pupils, but in 2018 there were just 5,406. The number of such schools has halved over the decades.

In contrast, in 1980 there were 949 large primary schools with more than 400 pupils, but in 2018 there were more than 4,000, so the number of large schools has quadrupled. The number of really big primaries with more than 600 pupils increased from 49 to 780, while there are now more than 100 what I call “super jumbo” primary schools with more than 800 pupils, which often have playtimes in shifts and hundreds of staff. This is a huge change in the nature of our primary schools, and it is visible in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. In fact, since 2002 Wales has seen the most dramatic decline in the number of small schools, followed by the north-west and Yorkshire.

This huge change in our primary schools has come about without any real discussion or political choice. It seems to me a move away from the natural small scale for small children, and there is no obvious policy rationale for it. Small schools are not bad schools. Schools with 200 pupils or fewer are just as likely to be good or outstanding as other schools. In fact, schools with fewer than 100 pupils, which account for about one in eight schools, are more likely than average to be good or outstanding, so this is not about academic standards.

I think two different things are driving it. The first is planning, which is outside the DFE’s remit. We do not build new small schools, and we do not make developers pay enough for the infrastructure needed for new housing. Instead, our bitty, piecemeal development allows developers to get out of paying for new schools, and we cram more pupils into existing schools, building classrooms on playing fields. Secondly, wider catchment areas mean more car journeys to those schools, and because builders often put schools in residential areas, there are a lot of cars driving into streets that were never intended for them, leading to a lot of congestion. People tell me that makes their village no longer feel so much like a village.

However, DFE could do some things about the declining number of small schools. We should increase the lump sum element of the national funding formula. Do not get me wrong: the national funding formula is extremely good and has meant that the funding rate per pupil in my constituency has gone up twice as fast as the national average. It helps underfunded areas such as mine to catch up with the national average, although there is still a long way to go. It would be very helpful to increase the lump sum—the part of the national funding formula intended to help small schools.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:37 p.m.

Is another problem with the national funding formula that the system of gains, caps and floors—in place for transitional reasons, which we all understand—compounds historical unfairness? While 3% of a very small budget is still quite limited, 1% of a very large budget is still quite a lot for those schools to enjoy.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:39 p.m.

I think my hon. Friend is correct, and I think we both want to see a faster transition to a fairer overall settlement. However, I want to focus on the point about the lump sum.

Leicestershire County Council was historically a strong supporter of small schools and had a lump sum of £150,000 per primary school. In the national funding formula, that is only £110,000. When consulting on the national funding formula, the DFE acknowledged that that number was lower than the average for most local authorities. As local authorities converge on the national funding formula, as they should, the pressure on small schools may intensify. The proportion of the core schools budget going through the lump sum declined in the last year, and the gap between income and expenditure is much smaller for small schools, indicating a financial pressure. In fact, larger schools have about twice as much headroom per pupil. Small schools are definitely feeling the pinch.

I hope and expect that, under the next Prime Minister, we will see a big increase in school funding. A good way of delivering that would be to increase the lump sum within the national funding formula. About a fifth of primary schools get more than 20% of their income from the lump sum, and for them an increase could make the difference between staying afloat and closing. There has been some discussion about increasing sparsity funding as an alternative, but I am a bit sceptical. Fewer than 6% of primaries get sparsity funding, and only 1% get the full amount; a number of small schools in my constituency that are under pressure would not be eligible. That is one reason why only a third of local authorities have included a sparsity element in their local formulas. Increasing the lump sum, if I could beg the Minister to do that, would be simpler and better. For a little more than £800 million, we could take the lump sum back up to £150,000 and get my village schools back to where they were.

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:39 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I support his last point. One of my local authorities, North Lincolnshire Council, made a policy decision not to close any small schools, so the schools in my constituency with 45 or 50 children will remain open. However, the key issue that my local authority has asked me to raise with the Minister is the core funding costs. Admin costs, in particular, for a small school of 46 or 50 children are not dissimilar to those for a school of 100 to 150 children, because the same admin function is still needed. I therefore think that the point my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) is making is really important, and I want to offer him my full support and say that it is exactly the same point that my local authority is concerned about.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:41 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend. He is right and has brilliantly teed up something that I intended to say: the future for small schools and rural schools can be very bright. There are two reasons for that. One is that more and more people want to live in villages, and technology allows people to do that and work from home, rather than having to live in a major city. The other reason is the growth of multi-academy trusts—rather an ugly phrase for families of schools. The growth of those families of schools is enabling small schools in effect to combine the advantages of being a small school—the human scale and the connection to the community—with the advantages of being part of something bigger, which are being able to share resources, people and back-office functions and to learn from one another. Therefore, if we get behind them, village schools can have a really bright future.

I was in one such school just the other day in South Kilworth in my constituency. In many ways, it was a very traditional scene. I was watching the new school hall being built, thanks to school condition improvement funding, and the children were practising their maypole dancing. The fields were ripening around us and the sun was shining. It was a beautiful scene. We could have been time travelling, but that school is a modern school. It is part of a family of schools, which are helping one another to improve. It is a really good school and exactly the sort of thing that we want to keep in our communities. There are these very exciting opportunities opening up for small schools, but we need the Minister’s help to relieve the financial pressure on them if we are to fully achieve the potential of small and village schools.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair) - Hansard

Order. The winding-up speeches will start at 5.15 pm, so there is about five or six minutes per person.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:41 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on securing this important debate. My constituency has two secondary schools with fewer than 200 pupils, 10 primary schools with fewer than 50 and, by my reckoning, three primary schools with fewer than 30 pupils. They are all really good schools. They are small because the area that they serve is sparsely populated and we live huge distances away from one another. However, small schools are enormously vulnerable.

If a school with a decent-sized population to serve has a bad Ofsted report or a difficult period of leadership, or if there is a dip in the birth rate, that does not kill it, but if a small village school that is absolutely vital experiences any one of those things, that could be the end of it, and the damage to the community is immense. Just two summers ago, we lost Heversham Primary School, which had once had 60 kids. It had a period of difficulty, went down to 11 or 12 kids and was closed. The ongoing damage to that village and its community is huge. Small schools are vulnerable, yet utterly vital.

In my time in Parliament, and in my time as a parent, a local school governor and what have you, and as somebody who worked in education, in teacher education, for many years, I have never known schools’ budgets to be as tight as they are today, particularly for small schools, because they do not have the wherewithal to get through difficult periods. I think that what happens is that because headteachers keep quiet, the Government take advantage. Headteachers keep quiet for two reasons. First, teachers do not like to get overly political by talking about the level or lack of funding that their school has to cope with.

Also, headteachers do not want to risk any competitive advantage that they have. If I, as a headteacher, say that I have had to sack three teaching assistants this year, pupils or parents looking at my school will think, “Well, I’ll go somewhere else instead.” I think that all of us, but particularly the Government, take advantage of headteachers’ perfectly understandable reticence about talking about the state of play at the schools they serve so admirably.

I therefore want to pick out what was said by the 16 schools in the Kendal area that wrote a collective letter to all of us. They said that Westmorland and Lonsdale had seen school funding cuts of £2.4 million, which was equal to a cut of £190 per pupil per year, and that that had led them collectively to reduce the numbers of teaching and non-teaching staff and support for the most vulnerable pupils; to make reductions in small group work for children who need additional support, reductions in teaching resources and equipment, reductions in subject choices in secondary schools and reductions in the range of activities at primary schools; and to cut back on repairs to school buildings and so on.

One head of a small school told me that his school income had gone down by £204,000 since 2014. Staffing costs had gone up by £232,000 in the same period. He had got rid of teaching assistants and reduced administrative support time and had had to increase charges for school meals, the breakfast club, music tuition and so on. There were reductions in catering hours and in midday hours. Anecdotally, another head brings her husband in at the weekend, outside his own job, to do all the maintenance and janitor work for the school, because it cannot afford anybody to do that full time.

Underpinning all the problems is the ongoing issue of special educational needs funding, which hits schools of all sizes, but particularly the smaller schools, because proportionally it is a bigger blow. The Government make schools provide and pay for the first 11 hours of special educational needs support. That means that they hit and they hurt and they punish those schools that do the right thing and they reward those schools that do not take children with special educational needs. That is wrong and it needs to be changed.

The quality of experience of a young person at a small school is so obviously so wonderful and so treasured and something that parents will travel out of area to take advantage of. The quality of teaching and leadership and the diversity of skills that are needed to teach in and to run a small school are that much greater, but the failure to fund schools properly across the board hits smaller schools the worst, even though smaller schools, especially in Westmorland and Lonsdale, are the best.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan (Chichester) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:46 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on securing this important debate. Access to a high-quality, fulfilling education should not be based on geography. Children do not choose where they live and grow up, so it should never be a barrier to their fulfilling all their ambitions.

The Government have taken important steps to level the playing field through the national funding formula. I recognise that. It moves us towards rebalancing some of the disparities in the old system. We are moving away from more than 100 different funding models across the country, which meant that there was little fairness and no transparency whatsoever. The national funding formula allocates an increase in funding for every pupil in 2018-19; and for the historically underfunded schools, such as those in West Sussex, increases could not have come sooner.

The changes to the funding model will ensure that funding is provided in a more balanced way across the country, not least because for the first time the money that schools receive is comparable across counties and local authorities. However, a key challenge for rural schools, both in West Sussex and across the country, is pupil numbers. This is a more precarious funding model for rural small schools, as there can be significant annual variation in the number of children coming into each year. Some schools have become very worried when just one family are moving out of the area, as they rely on every single child for income.

Sarah Newton Portrait Sarah Newton - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:48 p.m.

In areas where there are armed forces personnel, such as my constituency, it can be a real problem if, when they are deployed overseas or sent to different parts of the country, the family moves from a small school. It seems very unfair, when people are serving their country and doing the right thing, that the primary schools are adversely affected in that way.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:48 p.m.

That is a very good point. I had not thought of it, but of course in that kind of area there will be a massive impact as children move from place to place.

I am aware that, for the most isolated schools, the new funding formula has a sparsity factor that aims to provide some funding certainty for rural schools, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough said, very few schools actually qualify for that. It does not cover the financial needs of these schools.

The fixed sum for primary schools in West Sussex has dropped from £150,000 to £110,000, so each rural primary school needs to find more than 12 new pupils to keep the same level of funding as they had. That is incredibly difficult, because it is not possible to get 12 new pupils from these areas. The challenge is on top of the fact that the Chichester district is the fifth lowest funded local authority for primary and the sixth lowest funded for secondary. In the Chichester district, many of our schools fall within the South Downs national park, where new homes are not being built; they are few and far between. That only exacerbates the pressures on our precious rural schools. At Harting Church of England Primary School, the headteacher now predicts the future intake based on families living in the village and surrounding areas, and it will continue to decrease. That is a problem.

I understand that many rural small schools are now taking on a greater quantity of children with special educational needs and complex behavioural issues who have often been excluded from other schools. They do that to bolster numbers, because each child brings with them a pocket of funding. Although that funding allows schools to keep their doors open, it does not cover the subsequent additional support that these schools need from teaching assistants.

I recognise that funding for special educational needs has risen from £5 billion in 2013 to £6.3 billion this year. However, schools still face challenges in addressing the rising levels of special educational need, not least in West Sussex, where 13.5% of all pupils require SEN support, which is well above the national average of 11.6%.

Having looked at the school budgets, to me the challenge is clear. Most schools spend more than 80% of their budget on teachers and staff. That is a real challenge, because little is left for essentials, pencils, books and digital equipment. My local schools are using other funding streams to survive. Loxwood Primary School has a weekly cake raffle to raise money for iPads and a wish-list website where local businesses, friends of the school and parents donate items. I checked that website the other day and I saw everything from a paper guillotine to paint brushes and books. The school has just crowdfunded 15 laptops thanks to the generosity of a local charity, the parent teacher association and the parish council. That work is inspiring, but it should not be necessary. Schools such as Loxwood are the beating heart of their communities. The teachers should spend their time educating the next generation, not fundraising.

My constituency is packed with fantastic schools and dedicated teachers and parents who go above and beyond for their schools and students. They maintain exceptional standards despite facing pressure. In advance of the upcoming spending review, I encourage the Department for Education to continue to engage closely with the schools and local authorities, to develop a deeper understanding of the pressure these schools face, and to consider the level of income required to maintain such excellent standards.

These schools are the beating heart of communities up and down the country. They offer the best education to young children and they are the centre of all kinds of community activities. They ensure that our precious village life is maintained.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:52 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on securing this important debate on small and rural schools. I thank the Minister for everything he has done and will continue to do. He has listened to many MPs on this side of the Chamber lobbying for more to be done for our schools, but we also recognise that almost 2 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools under this Government and during his many years as Schools Minister. I want to put on record my appreciation of him.

I have frequently spoken of my schools’ need for more funding. I have a 200-square-mile constituency—which you have visited, Sir David—75% of which is an area of outstanding natural beauty, so we have many small village schools. I am concerned not only about funding for all of those schools, but particularly about Broad Oak Primary School, which is under threat of closure. That is a new experience for me in my four years as MP for Bexhill and Battle. The villagers, pupils, parents, governors and staff are hugely concerned about what will happen. It is a classic case of there not being enough pupils. As was mentioned, the reduction in the block grant makes it harder for smaller schools to continue. Broad Oak Primary School has a capacity of 140, but approximately 80 pupils. That is a problem for my area: we have many schools but not enough pupils.

However, those small schools play a vital role in the community. Broad Oak is a good example. Because it is a small and nurturing school, more pupils with special educational needs can find the right environment for their needs there, but that adds to the cost. While schools receive £6,000 per student with SEN, they often spend an extra £6,000 from their own budget, to provide the proper required education. That compounds the challenge for Broad Oak.

I would appreciate some guidance from the Minister. What can I do to mount a case? I understand that where there are not enough pupils and a school is no longer viable, difficult decisions must be made to support the other schools. At the same time, however, small is good and small needs nurturing.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:55 p.m.

It is vitally important to note the contribution that small schools make to rural communities. They can be the heart of a village, holding it together. If the school closes, the village effectively dies. People do not want to move there, because there is no school. They are vital to keeping communities alive. We might save money in the short term, but in the long term it will cost more.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:55 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A village school is the heart of that community. As villages have lost other services, the school is often the only bedrock in a village; without it, we lose the heart and soul of the community. That is why I am concerned about the village of Broad Oak.

Part of the rationale in the consultation by East Sussex County Council is that a number of pupils travel from outside to attend the school. I am a Conservative; I believe in choice. We have championed the ability of pupils and parents to choose the school that is best for them, so that should not be used as an argument for closing the school.

If we require pupils to travel further—pupils from some villages will have to travel to other schools—we have to increase the school’s budget for transport. One cost often knocks out another. Further, if pupils rely on the bus service, they miss out on the rich, after-school learning and sporting activities, and the social part of school. Private schools are able to deliver that, but in rural areas we are hampered by the bus service: students have to leave at a certain time otherwise they will not get home. That is a big concern.

I look to the Minister for assistance, to help me make the case that small schools are good schools, so that the villagers in Broad Oak will continue to be able to educate their children in their local school, with pride in their community.

Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas (St Ives) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:56 p.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Sir David, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on securing the debate.

I have 56 schools in my constituency, and 40 of them certainly have fewer than 100 pupils—unfortunately, some as low as 30, or perhaps just over. That is a real challenge. The problem, as has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and others, is that taking that school away means that the community suddenly ceases to function, and that is exactly what has happened in my constituency.

About 18 months ago, the St Martin-in-Meneage Primary School was closed. That was not as a result of what we might call natural wastage—pupils were not leaving the school in year 6, but were taken out by parents because of problems in the school. Everyone concerned was slow to react and it therefore became unsustainable. We lost a perfectly good school and an excellent facility for the local community. As soon as that happened, families moved out and people considering moving in changed their minds.

Other schools in the area are now full, and we have an empty school building that still has to be maintained for that purpose. However, it is much more difficult to reopen a school than to save it. I did all I could, as did the commissioners, but unfortunately we could not win the argument.

I agree with many things that have been said, and I do not want to repeat all of them, but I will make some quick points. The first is on capital funding for small schools. I go to a school every Friday whenever possible. The main issue that I see, and which I hear about from staff and children, is the quality of the estate, and that needs concentrated work.

The Minister’s commitment to the subject has already been mentioned, and he has been fantastic. He has been to my constituency considerably more times than any other Minister—to be fair, I except my immediate constituency neighbours, as they live right next door. Early on he visited St Erth Community Primary School, which is in need of a hall, as he might remember. The school has grown, and done everything it can to try to make its existing building work, but it does not have a place in which the school can meet. That reduces the opportunity for assemblies and all the other things we had in our school halls when we were small. Other schools in my constituency are in the same situation, and we cannot find a solution that will allow them to build a school hall. I am keen to hear from the Minister about any capital that might be available for making schools fit for purpose with a clean, dry and warm environment, good toilets and facilities such as a school hall.

It has already been mentioned that although a small school, with 30 pupils or slightly more, may not be able to afford the teaching assistants that it requires, it will tend to attract more children with special educational needs because of its size, the real commitment of its teachers, and their wonderful work. That puts enormous pressure on the schools; I do not like to say it, but they are victims of their own success. They do a great job—I visit them, and they are great fun to be at—but the funding to properly support each child to get the very best start in life is just not there. As Conservatives, we want our children to have all the opportunities available. I know that the Minister understands that, but we need to win the argument with the Treasury and the Chancellor, whoever that may be in a week or two.

Also mentioned earlier were the armed forces covenant and the impact on schools of having armed forces children. If a child’s parent is in the armed forces, a veteran, in the regular forces or a reservist, the school benefits from a premium. However, it does not benefit if—as is often the case in Helston in my constituency—the child’s parent is in the merchant navy, because they are not described as being in the armed forces community. As I argued yesterday in our debate on defence spending, the experience of modern-day merchant navy personnel means mums and dads can miss the whole summer holidays because they are away at sea, and they are exposed to threats from pirates and rogue nations. The premium is there to help schools to support children in distressing situations. I would argue that one way of supporting schools and funding them for the work that they do so well would be extending the armed forces covenant to include the merchant navy. I would be very interested to see what the Minister can do to make that case to the Ministry of Defence, and possibly the Treasury.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) made a very important point about funding. We expect new money for education, certainly by next April, and we will be grievously disappointed if it is not there. It is really important for money to go where it is most needed. My hon. Friend made the important point that if the growth in funding follows the national funding formula, some schools will benefit far more than others. A very small school that has been underfunded, as happens in Cornwall, can expect far less growth. I would like the Minister to consider that point, as I am sure he has already, because there is a case to be made that funding needs to be targeted at the schools that most need it.

In Cornwall, we have quite a perverse situation. Cornwall Council defends its actions, probably rightly, but to ensure that children with special educational needs are supported, it has had to take funding away from our schools—not only the high needs block funding, but some of the baseline funding. That has left every single school—the 56 schools in my constituency and all the others around the county—with less funding per pupil for a sustained period. That means that when the national funding formula comes into place, our schools will continually and consistently be underfunded until we get the fair and happy funding that we all desperately look forward to.

I need not say any more; I think I have made my point. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts (Witney) (Con) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 5:03 p.m.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) on securing this critical debate, and I join all hon. Members in their praise for small schools, village schools and rural schools. My constituency has a great many: about 70% of Witney’s schools are village schools or rural schools, and 90% of them are rated “good” or “outstanding”. That is a tribute to the outstanding work to all the teachers who have worked so hard to make the quality of education so high. I declare an interest: my wife is a governor at one of those schools—Bladon Church of England Primary School, the village primary school where I live.

As hon. Members have said, we cannot overestimate the importance of a village school. It is the centre of the community—the beating heart, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) said. It might have been where our parents, our grandparents or we ourselves went to school, and it may be where our children go. It is a crucial way to build links with the local community. What makes such schools so special? As has been said many times, their nurturing and caring nature and the amount of attention that individual schools can give results from their relatively small size. However, that is also one of their great challenges.

I have been to the majority of schools in my constituency and spoken to teachers, parents and governors. I have visited assemblies, seen the projects that pupils take part in and attended the school fêtes that often happen during the summer. I have had conversations and really tried to understand the issues in detail. As I am sure the Minister and many hon. Friends will understand, school funding is a complicated issue that repays detailed study—I have certainly tried to study it. Having had all those conversations with teachers, because I very much value that close relationship, I think I can make some suggestions.

West Oxfordshire is an f40 area—a rural area that historically has been underfunded. I do not think that it is terribly helpful to make any cheap political points about cuts; the Minister will tell us that there have not been cuts, because core per-pupil school funding has been protected for the duration of the spending review. However, I make it absolutely clear that my primary schools—my small schools, rural schools and village schools—face significant cost pressures.

There are a number of reasons for those pressures, which I hope the Minister can help with. Some of them may be a result of funding very well-deserved teacher pay rises. Pension costs were another major concern, although I understand that they are now covered. Several hon. Members have mentioned special educational needs provision, which is critical and of increasing concern for our small schools. There has also been a reduction in the spending powers of local authorities; many things that were once covered are no longer free, and schools are expected to pick up the cost. It may not be direct, but the net effect is the same: our excellent schools are trying to do much more, to less effect. In some cases, that may be due to pupil numbers, which are critical because all these schools are functioning on the tightest of budgets. From speaking to the teachers, I am clear that they are making every penny count, certainly in my constituency in west Oxfordshire, but the funding is on a per-pupil basis. That can be a problem, because if the catchment area is relatively small—if it is a village, a rural area or perhaps even a small town—a fluctuation in pupil numbers can cause real concern.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who mentioned military forces. A quarter of the entire Royal Air Force is in west Oxfordshire, based in Carterton and the whole area around RAF Brize Norton. It is certainly a concern, not just for village schools but for Carterton primary schools, that those personnel are posted, so the schools do not necessarily know from one year to another how many pupils they are likely to have at a particular stage. That causes significant budgeting challenges. Even for the best-run school in the world, not knowing how many pupils it will have makes things harder. In some areas in my villages, there may be a low birth rate, an ageing population, or families moving in and out because they are in the armed forces or for other reasons. That has had a major effect in several villages in my area.

The effect of multi-academy trusts has been very helpful in many cases. The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust is shared by my constituency and the Prime Minister’s, as she was kind enough to recognise at Prime Minister’s questions last week. The trust has 12 schools in my constituency—small schools such as Bampton Primary, Leafield Primary and Wootton-by-Woodstock Primary. They are doing a fantastic job of providing outstanding education, but all such organisations, whether they are small schools on their own, local authority-run or part of a multi-academy trust, face uncertainty about pupil numbers.

If we are looking for ways to support small schools, one idea that has not yet been suggested is a dedicated funding stream for small schools—let us call it a small schools grant or a small schools loan—whereby schools can bid for funding if they have low pupil numbers or other temporary budget pressures. If school that usually has stable numbers but it has a year in which there is a dip, that will cause it great problems, but if it could apply for assistance from the Government or the local authority by way of a dedicated funding stream, that would be of great assistance, because it would give that school the certainty it needs for that year, which may help it to deal with factors such as a low local birth rate. Of course, it will also deal with money in the long run, because the local authority will not have to worry about things such as schools closing and having to relocate children or support them in that time. The cost to the community of school closures is, as other hon. Members have said, absolutely devastating and must be avoided at all costs.

I am very grateful to the Minister for coming to Westminster Hall to respond to this debate. We are all passionate about our local schools and my suggestion about a dedicated fund is just one that might assist them. I also echo the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives when he said that we must ensure the funding is in place. Of course I make the plea for more school spending in the spending review, although I appreciate and understand that that is a plea that I should direct at the Treasury and not at the Minister, but we must ensure that it goes to the right place. Our small schools—rural and village schools—provide outstanding education and we must provide the funding they need; I look forward to seeing that funding in due course.

Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 5:11 p.m.

As ever, Sir David, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) on securing this important debate; it is very important that we talk about the funding of small and rural schools. I also congratulate him on the really powerful speech he made in the main Chamber last year about one of his favourite teachers, who had passed away. For many of us, speeches in the main Chamber do not often stand out, but that was a really memorable one. For him personally, education and standing up for his constituents is very important, and it was great to be in the main Chamber for that speech.

The Minister for School Standards and I have had this debate before. In fact, I said to him today that we should go for a drink some time, because at the moment I see more of him than I do of my wife. That is because we spend so much time either in the main Chamber or here in Westminster Hall discussing school funding cuts and budget pressures. If we are not discussing West Sussex, Cornwall, Stoke-on-Trent, Chichester, or Westmorland and Lonsdale, then it is Liverpool, Merseyside or Manchester—week after week after week.

I want to put this debate in context for Members from rural constituencies who are passionate about their schools, so I say to the hon. Member for Harborough that Leicestershire has had to take £51.9 million out of its budget since 2015. That is probably the root cause of most of the reasons why primary schools in rural or urban areas are facing problems at the moment. Many of the concerns about this issue have been really well articulated today, so well done to all Members who are standing up for schools in their constituencies. However, all the challenges for schools are amplified for small schools, as we have heard this afternoon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on his speech, in which he said that small schools struggle because they do not have the economies of scale that some multi-academy trusts or local education authority schools can achieve in urban areas. I think he said that small schools lacked the “wherewithal”.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), which is in West Sussex, shares a local authority with the Minister. I have to say with some passion that that authority has had to take £61.3 million out of its school budget since 2015. The Minister will come back and say what the Government have done since 2017, but this is the stark reality. As the hon. Lady said, too few schools seem to receive money from the hailed sparsity formula, which was supposed to be the silver bullet to help schools in rural areas. Maybe the Minister can tell us, through his officials or in writing, how many schools in rural areas are receiving money via this fabled sparsity formula.

It was interesting that the hon. Lady spoke really passionately, as she often does, about a school—I think it was Loxwood school—that had to set up a donations web page to fund a guillotine. That is the state of school funding in our day and age on the Minister’s watch. There are parent teacher associations. Who was it who said that schools are the “beating heart” of communities? I think it was the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas). They are, particularly in rural areas. Unlike many schools in urban areas, schools in many rural areas have PTAs, or they have parishes that help out, but that is the state of school funding; it has had to come to rely upon PTAs, donation web pages and companies helping out to buy basic products. Of course, one of the other problems that rural schools have is that, being in rural areas, they do not often have huge companies around them, as schools in cities often do.

The Minister has a huge problem. I forget the exact statistic, but somewhere around 100 schools—I will check out the exact number; it has been put on the record before—containing about 70,000 pupils are not brokered. That is another problem that schools in rural areas face. The Government are struggling, through these multi-academy trusts, to get enough brokers to broker those academies. So we literally have to thank the Lord for the Church of England, because if the Church of England did not have its thousands of schools in our rural areas—I also thank the Church for its schools in our cities—this Government’s policy would be in real difficulty.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), which is on the other side of Sussex, also contributed to the debate; his constituency is in an area where £37 million has been lost. It is always an honour to play football with him, and recently, we played at Stamford Bridge—I think it was in a game to “Show Racism the Red Card”. It was the only football game that I have ever played in where my boots were cleaner coming off the pitch than they were when I went on. He is an excellent footballer and I congratulate him on standing up for his schools.

The hon. Member for St Ives spoke about Cornwall, where £51 million has been taken out of the schools budget since 2015. He made a hugely valid point about special educational needs practice, which is often overlooked in these debates, even though it is an issue in urban areas, too. Where there is a school with really good SEN practice, parents want to get into that school, but the school has to put the money up front and is disadvantaged because of it.

Sorry—it was the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), in his excellent speech, who talked about rural schools being the “beating heart” of the community. He is right, but I have to say to him that Oxfordshire schools have lost £37 million. He did not want to hear about the cuts, but I am afraid that he has to hear about them from me, because no amount of national funding formula, no amount of sparsity funding and no amount of special funding for rural schools—even though such funding may be a good idea that the Department might wish to look at; I will let the Minister respond to that suggestion—will get away from the fact of the cuts that have happened across the whole of Oxfordshire, in addition to what he said about the pension rises and pay rises, which we still do not have certainty about, and the SEN provision.

The Minister knows that I sound like a broken record on schools funding, but it appears that no matter how many times it is raised or whoever raises it—including his colleagues on the Government Benches—this Government are not listening to the grave concerns of hon. Members, leaders and teachers about the impact of school funding cuts.

It is really interesting. I do not want to proselytise on a party political point, but the leadership candidates of the Conservative party—sorry, what is the Health Secretary’s seat?

Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 4:25 p.m.

I thank the Minister. The right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) pledged £15 billion of new schools money in that leadership debate. All the candidates know, from courting Conservative Members over the last few weeks, what the No.1 concern is for Conservative Members, and they have responded to those concerns in the leadership debates.

Across the country, our schools are experiencing £2.7 billion of cuts. There are concerns from teachers, including thousands of headteachers, many of whom protested right here in Parliament, and there are cuts to special educational needs and disability provision, which is an even more acute challenge for small schools, as they cannot amass economies of scale when they are buying additional support and resources.

Statistics from the Department itself show that the number of children and young people in England with SEN, or with education, health and care plans, rose by 34,200, an increase of 11% from 2018. However, research by the National Education Union has found that special needs school provision in England is down by £1.2 billion because of the shortfall in funding increases from the Government since 2015. No doubt the Minister will come back in his speech with what has happened since 2017.

The Government’s own data shows that as of January 2018, 4,050 children and young people with EHC plans or statements were awaiting provision; in other words, they were still waiting for a place in education. Over 500,000 children are now in a super-sized class, and there is an unquestionable recruitment and retention crisis in our schools, with the Government having missed their own targets five years in a row. For the second year running, more teachers are leaving the profession than joining it. That has a huge impact on rural areas, especially if we take into account the price that teachers have to pay to afford a house in those areas, not having had an effective pay rise in 10 years. That has really affected the ability to get the quality and calibre of teachers required in rural areas.

Rural areas also suffer—[Interruption.] Do I need to wind up, Sir David?

Mike Kane Portrait Mike Kane - Hansard

I am terribly sorry, Sir David; I was just hitting my stride. Career progression is more difficult in rural areas and for rural teachers, as cities often offer an agglomeration of impacts so that teachers can develop professionally.

Under Labour’s national education service, we will invest properly in our schools. Investment will be delivered under Labour’s fully funded and universal vision for a national education service that will cover all our schools, both rural and national, that need funding put into them—not just at the spending review, but today.

The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb) - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 5:21 p.m.

It is a pleasure to reply to this debate under your beady eye, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) on having secured this debate, and on his excellent opening speech. The Government recognise the importance of rural schools and the need to maintain access to good local schools in rural areas, which, as hon. Members have said, are so often at the heart of their communities.

I also echo my hon. Friend’s recognition of the strong educational standards in many rural schools. Although we know those schools face special challenges, we also know that they rise to those challenges and perform well. In terms of attainment, both primary and secondary, rural schools have on average outperformed urban schools over the past three years, and 89% of rural primary schools have been rated either “good” or “outstanding”.

We want to ensure that school funding levels support an education system that offers opportunity to every child in this country. To continue to support all schools, including those in rural areas, the Government have prioritised education funding while having to take difficult decisions in other areas of public spending, as we seek to reduce the unsustainable annual budget deficit from 10% of GDP in 2010—some £150 billion a year—to under 2% now. As a result, core funding for schools and high needs has risen to £43.5 billion this year, and high needs funding has risen to £6.3 billion. However, we recognise the financial pressures that schools face, as described so well by my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) and for Witney (Robert Courts).

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) reminded me of our visit to St Erth Community Primary School, which I enjoyed. I remember being lobbied by its school council, which was almost as compelling as my hon. Friend in making the case for capital for the school hall. Although I cannot pre-empt decisions that will be made as part of the forthcoming spending review process, we are of course looking to secure the best deal possible for our schools, both revenue funding and capital funding. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough recognises the decisive and historic move towards fair funding that this Government have made by introducing the national funding formula. The NFF is now directing money where it is most needed, based on schools’ and pupils’ needs and characteristics rather than accidents of geography or history.

Schools are already benefiting from the gains delivered by the national funding formula. It has allocated an increase for every pupil in every school, with significant per-pupil increases for the more underfunded schools, including those in rural areas. For example, as my hon. Friend mentioned, funding for schools in his local area of Leicestershire has increased by 5.5% per pupil compared to 2017-18. That is equivalent to an extra £31 million when rising pupil numbers are taken into account. As he stated, we do direct funding to provide additional support for small and remote schools, especially those in geographically challenging areas that do not have the same opportunities to find efficiencies as schools elsewhere.

The national funding formula provides a lump sum for every school as a contribution to the costs that do not vary with pupil numbers. That gives small schools certainty that they will attract a fixed amount each year, in addition to pupil-led funding. Although there is general agreement that schools face fixed costs, the evidence available suggests that there is no agreement on the scale of those costs, or that they are the same for all schools. In the previous system, local authorities awarded their schools very different lump sums, ranging from £48,480 to £175,000, and there was no obvious reason why local authorities chose those different amounts. It is important to maximise the funding available for the factors that are directly related to pupils’ characteristics, so following our extensive consultations with schools, we set the lump sum at £110,000 for each school within the national funding formula. However, the beauty of a national funding formula is that we can tweak it from year to year.

The formula also includes a sparsity factor, which allocates an additional £25 million specifically to small and remote schools. When the lump sum is coupled with that sparsity factor, it provides significant support for the small and remote schools that play such an essential role in rural communities. A small rural primary school eligible for sparsity funding can attract up to a total of £135,000 through the lump sum and the sparsity factor. Of course, we continue to look for ways in which the national funding formula can be improved; in particular, we are considering how to improve the methodology for calculating sparsity eligibility in future, and we will consider the suggestion my hon. Friend the Member for Witney made of a dedicated rural school funding stream.

Local authorities have a duty to provide sufficient school places for all pupils in their area, including reviewing provision where populations have grown or declined. Consequently, local authorities have the power to close maintained schools; that is a local decision, and neither Ministers nor the Department play a role in the process. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) will be pleased to know that given their importance, we have a presumption against the closure of rural schools. Although that cannot mean that no rural school will ever close, the case for closure must be strong and in the best interests of educational provision for pupils in the area. When a local authority proposes the closure of a rural school, it must follow a well-established statutory process that takes full account of that presumption against closure. That includes a representation period, during which all those affected by the proposals can submit their views and suggestions.

To enable my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough to respond to the debate, I will conclude. Our rural communities are part of the historic fabric of this country, and the schools that serve them are fulfilling a vital and valued service both locally and nationally. I believe that by working closely together, we can make sure we deliver on our ambition to give every child a world-class education, wherever they live.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien - Hansard
17 Jul 2019, 5:28 p.m.

I thank all Members who have taken part in today’s debate. I know that many Members are not in the building this afternoon, so I am particularly grateful for the eloquent and thoughtful speeches we have heard. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) in strongly praising our brilliant Schools Minister, who is a relentless and hard-working champion for higher educational standards. If the next Prime Minister has any sense, he will be promoted; if he has very good sense, the Minister will be kept in place, because he is doing a good job.

I thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) for his praise for my previous speech in the Chamber. I thought his own speech would have been stronger if he had acknowledged that there has been a real-terms increase in spending per pupil since 2010—an amazing achievement given that we inherited the biggest budget deficit since the second world war. Perhaps if he finds himself in a position of power in future, he can avoid dropping one of those again.

I thank all the Members who have taken part. We heard important points about capital and buildings from my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), and important ideas about smoothing out budgets from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle spoke about the importance of not relying on a bus, because children miss out on after-school activities. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) about some of the things small schools are doing to cope in an authority where there has been an even bigger drop in the lump sum.

Small schools and village schools are an important part of the fabric that makes up this country. I do not want to wax too lyrical, but I genuinely think that if we continue to lose those schools at the rate we have seen in recent decades, in my lifetime, we will be losing an important part of this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered funding for small schools and village schools.