James Heappey MP Speaks In Fairer Funding Debate

Westminster Hall

Thursday 5 November 2015

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

backbench business

School Funding

2.53 pm

James Heappey (Wells) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this debate, and on all his work, not only to secure fairer funding for education in rural areas, but on broadband, public services and health—the full works. His work is much appreciated.

I also pay tribute to Somerset County Council, which vigorously campaigns on the unfairness of the funding that our county receives, and to the many schools that have contacted me and supported the F40 petition. It is no wonder that the schools do so, because we feel this unfairness acutely in Somerset—the county is 135th out of 150 funding authorities. We are £160 per pupil above the lowest-ranked funding authority, but we are fully £3,327 behind the very highest. We are in the bottom fifth across all three dedicated schools grant funding blocks. If Somerset were to receive just the average, it would receive nearly £40 million extra a year.

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Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) said that we are all used to being at the bottom of the table. I grew up supporting Aston Villa and Bristol rugby club, so I am familiar with that territory. I dream that those clubs might one day reach mid-table mediocrity, which, for now, is exactly what I aspire to when it comes to school funding in Somerset.

Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I am sure that is the minimum to which my hon. Friend aspires, rather than the maximum. I, too, would like Lincolnshire to reach that point—and then move further upwards.

James Heappey: Indeed. I have long since given up on seeing Villa in the Champions League and, for now, just those dizzy heights of mid-table would be perfectly good because it would solve the unfairness and deliver an extra £40 million for our county.

When we make that case, the problem is that people say, “But surely you are robbing Peter to pay Paul.” I will therefore make a brief comparison between Somerset and Southwark. I have no axe to grind against the good folk of Southwark, but I would like to indulge my penchant for alliteration, and Somerset and Southwark work well. I suspect, however, that the comparison is not atypical.

Ten years ago, the funding for primary schools in Somerset was £3,570 per pupil per annum, and for secondary schools it was £4,520; in Southwark, at the same time, it was £5,480 for primary schools and £7,210 for secondary schools. In other words, Southwark received about 55% more funding than Somerset. Over the 10 years since, the gap has narrowed very slightly; there is now some 50% more funding over the river than at the other end of the M4. Over those 10 years, however, the attainment gap has not only closed but reversed. Ten years ago, 47.3% of pupils in Southwark achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 56.6% of pupils in Somerset. There was clearly a need for intervention, and well done to the Government of the day for intervening, but the problem is that now Southwark soars on 62.9%, while Somerset has stood still on 57.7%.

Of course, I applaud the Government for increasing funding to improve standards in inner-city schools, but the gap has reversed and will widen if we do not address it now. I know the Minister will agree with that in principle, but he must tell us today when we will see a decisive move to close that attainment gap between urban and rural areas before it widens further. Now is the time to put it right so that all children are funded equally and so that we can ensure equality of opportunity for all our kids, regardless of where they live.

 

3.39 pm

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing the debate. As a physics teacher for more than 20 years in Glasgow, listening to the debate has been absolutely fascinating for me. Our two nations are so closely linked, but our education systems and the funding of them are poles apart. I have learned quite a lot this afternoon and scribbled lots of notes. I would like to make some comments, some from a personal perspective, on the points raised and to point to things that have been done in Scotland that may be worth considering.

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Scotland has neither the funding variations that we have heard about today, nor the discrepancies. There are slight differences in some places such as in the highlands and islands, where teachers might be encouraged to work with relocation funding—it supports them in setting up a new home—but other than that there are not great discrepancies. There are differences between rural and urban schools in Scotland, but figures of £2,000 sound incredible to me, and I am amazed that the issue has not been dealt with.

It is not just that there are discrepancies in funding; I think there is a real underfunding of education, and that is one issue that has not been addressed. I have just looked this up, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the average funding per pupil in England—Members can correct me if I am wrong—sits at about £6,000. The average in Scotland is £6,738. I would argue that the average probably needs to be even more in Scotland, but it is about where Governments decide to spend money. Education and closing any attainment gap are at the heart of the Scottish Government’s agenda. To combat the effects of poverty and to ensure that children have the best possible start in life, the Scottish Government have invested £329 million in early years education.

Kevin Foster: Does the hon. Lady think it would be worthwhile if a pupil premium was introduced in Scotland, similar to that in England? Through that, the money would follow the pupils with need, rather than the areas in which they live.

Carol Monaghan: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions that. When he was speaking, I made a note that this pupil funding is now being introduced in Scotland. The Scottish Government are looking at directing funding to where it is most needed: to pupils in deprived areas. That has already been done. Another thing that has been done in Scotland is the continuation of the education maintenance allowance to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds from deprived backgrounds remain in education. That has been expanded to include students in further education colleges. There is a recognition in Scotland that funding must follow pupils.

James Heappey: The hon. Lady is giving us a very interesting explanation of how education works in Scotland. It is encouraging to hear that Scotland uses levers such as direct pupil funding through the maintenance allowance to help those who have particularly hardship, but that is underpinned by a standard formula across the country. We should learn from that south of the border.

Carol Monaghan: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is what I was trying to say in my opening remarks: Scotland does not have the massive discrepancies that seem to be present in the constituencies of other Members.