Robin Walker MP
Member of Parliament for Worcester
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    Speech in Parliament on fairer funding for schools

24/04/2012

Thank you Mr Gray, it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship and I am mindful that Worcestershire’s lowly place near the bottom of the league tables for school funding is just one above that of Wiltshire so, although as Chair you can make a limited contribution to the content of this debate, it is very appropriate that you are here to preside over it.

I would like to declare an interest as an unpaid member of the executive of f40, a cross party group, which campaigns on behalf of Wiltshire, Worcestershire and the other authorities, which are among the worst funded in the country.

I would like to congratulate my honourable friend for Gloucester for securing today’s debate. He and I have worked closely together on a number of issues, representing as we do two of England’s finest cathedral and rugby cities and it is always a pleasure to hear him speak so eloquently and wittily for the interests of his constituents and schools. Interests on which Gloucester, Worcester and it seems Warrington speak with one voice.

I am also pleased to be able to speak before a Minister who understands very well this complex and challenging area of policy, one who has a firm grasp of the issues facing our schools, has given a great deal of time to colleagues and campaigning groups on this issue. He has previously expressed the clear and unequivocal view that the current system of school funding is flawed and reform is necessary.

Indeed, before I put my pleas and concerns to the Government, I think it is important to recognise that there was a great deal in their announcement of 26th March “Next steps towards a fairer system", which was warmly to be welcomed.

In his foreword to the paper the Secretary of State said “The current system is opaque, inconsistent and unfair with huge differences between areas.”

I could not agree more.

He promised a new national funding formula after the next spending review. The right answer on the wrong timetable in my opinion, but nevertheless the right answer.

He has also announced moves to significantly simplify local funding formulae and create much greater transparency.

The latter point in particular I welcome as transparency may be the key to breaking down the vast disparities and lack of consistency in the current system.

If by this, Ministers mean that school governors will have more notice of their funding arrangements in future, I strongly welcome such a move, which has been called for by every school governor I have ever met.

If it also means that school by school, area by area we will see the per pupil funding that is actually received – something that has not been possible to date – then I would welcome this all the more. I would point out to Ministers that this could provide the decisive weapon to expose once and for all the disparities of the system and one that organisations such as f40 will use to great effect.

There are also some welcome moves to protect special needs funding and simplify arrangements for early years provision.

The Government has set out welcome plans to end disparities within local authority areas but, with a perhaps understandable concern to limit turbulence, they have so far resisted the call to deal with disparities between authorities until 2015.

Whilst there is much to praise, this last point is, I believe, a profound mistake.

The biggest and most obvious flaws with the current funding system are the yawning gaps it leaves in per pupil funding between neighbouring authorities.

The gap of £1088 between annual per pupil funding in Worcestershire and neighbouring Birmingham, the gap of nearly £900 between Leicester and Leicestershire, the lowest funded authority and the stunning gap of nearly £5000 between their funding and that of the highest funded authority in the country.

These we have often discussed before and, I accept there are many reasons for the disparities, historic and political. The Minister has accepted the point that there is no longer any firm formula that underpins them, that the successive layers of government priorities that created these gaps, have ossified over the years and the gaps grown ever wider as spending has grown, creating an unfair, indeed, unjustifiable system.

It’s extremely welcome that the government has recognised the problem, as indeed the last government suggested it was beginning to do. However it is not enough to recognise a problem, the challenge is to correct it.

When the last Labour government opened a consultation on funding reform but proposed no preventative action, I and many others here, accused them of dithering. Now that my own Coalition government, whose education reforms I support and whose pupil premium I have praised, is proposing no action until after the next spending review, I cannot do otherwise.

To accept the need for fundamental reform, but to postpone any move towards it would be like a dentist recognising the cause of toothache that makes their patient’s life unbearable, then offering to deal with it in three years time.

If such a case came to our surgeries as MPs we would act with outrage.

On behalf of all the teachers, headteachers, parents and above all pupils in our schools we must demand swifter action now.

This is not a question of a system that rewards the neediest areas and gives least to the best off.

If that were the case the City of London would hardly be the best funded authority in the country, nor Kensington and Chelsea in the top ten. Since the introduction of the pupil premium, the fact that many f40 authorities are receiving a good chunk of pupil premium funding, shows that there are significant levels of deprivation in many f40 areas.  

In my own urban constituency I have wards which are amongst the most deprived in the entire country. However, the low level of underlying funding, before the allocation of pupil premium means that many headteachers tell me they need that extra money to break even, to keep their schools afloat, and cannot spend it for what it was intended for, to improve the chances of the most deprived.

Of course we recognise that it isn’t possible to correct this problem overnight. Ministers have said that their consultation threw up widespread support for reform but also much concern about turbulence.

It is interesting to note that all the teaching unions came out in favour of postponing the issue. In doing so they may have been representing many members but they were certainly failing to represent the interests of their members in f40 areas.

Both the many MPs I have spoken to about this issue and the volunteers who make up the f40 executive, recognise the need to avoid setting one part of the country against another in a scrap for funding. We also recognise that it is incredibly difficult to radically change the system at a time when spending is under extreme constraint.

We can idly wish that the last government had been quicker to act, more determined to deliver, but what is done is done. The opportunity to correct the glaring inequalities in the system during the days of ready money has been lost forever.

In the tougher conditions of today however, the need for fairer funding is all the greater. Worcestershire school leaders tell me that they understand the need for constraint and like other  public servants, they are straining every sinew to deliver more with less, but they are harder pressed to do so when there is an open and acknowledged injustice in the way they are funded.

In Worcestershire we have schools within a few miles of the boundary with Birmingham that must deliver lessons on a budget hundreds of pounds per pupil lower, must compete for teachers with a much better funded authority and are now being asked to accept the same constraints as that authority, having missed out on many of the benefits of easier times.

It would be neither fair nor reasonable to make no move in the lifetime of this Government to right these wrongs.

I am grateful that, within days of his March announcement, the Secretary of State met with the Chairman of f40 and a number of its local authority members to hear their concerns. Neither he nor the minister present today would be surprised at the profound disappointment they expressed at the decision to postpone moving towards a new formula until 2015.

At that meeting he agreed to accept further representations from the group on changes that would not hurt the funding of any other authorities, but would mark a first step, however small, towards greater fairness. f40 have since sent him their suggestions, which I strongly support.

Mark Twain wrote “the secret of getting ahead is to get started”. f40 have suggested a number of options for getting started.

They looked at the cost of bringing all the lowest funded authorities up to the level of Lincolnshire, the 41st worst funded authority and found that this would cost almost three hundred million pounds. They looked at giving each of the lowest funded authorities a small flat cash bonus to help, but found that the difference would be too small and the process would simply rearrange the league table, pushing some authorities outside the f40 down the tables.

Under their preferred option, they have proposed making the shift towards Lincolnshire levels of funding but making it proportionately, taking each of the lowest 40 one third of the way towards that level. This modest suggestion has the advantage of giving most help to those who need it the most, whilst not altering the fundamental balance of funding.

f40 have suggested that the £99 million cost should be sought directly by ministers from the Treasury, but, knowing the harsh constraints on public spending that are Labour’s unfortunate legacy, I would ask that ministers consider whether any of it can be found from other sources within the Education budget.

£99 million is less than the set up costs of the new Education Funding Agency.

£99 million is a very small amount relative to the £1.25 billion earmarked for the pupil premium next year or the £2.5 billion it is set to reach in 2015, yet it could make a major contribution to the work of that vital premium, ensuring it has its intended effect in the areas that it currently has difficulty in reaching.

£99 million is a tiny amount in comparison with the £36.5 billion paid out under the Dedicated Schools Grant to local authorities and schools around England. If this £99 million were taken equally from all those authorities better funded than Lincolnshire, it would equate to just 0.4% of their DSG funding and cost no single authority more than £4 million.

I hasten to add that this is not what I or f40 propose, because we would prefer to see no authority lose out in the quest for fairer funding, but I would point out to the Ministers that such a change would be a small step towards a fairer system at a cost that would enable them to stay well within their Minimum Funding Guarantee that no school lose more than 1.5%.

At the end of the day it is up to Ministers to decide the best way of meeting this challenge.

What we are all here for today is to urge them to do so.

To illustrate how this problem has developed: By the first year of the Labour Government in which my predecessor in Worcester used his maiden speech to promise fairer funding as a result of the abolition of the assisted places scheme, the gap between Worcestershire and the national average stood at £230 per pupil, whilst between us and our neighbours in Birmingham it was £380.

By the end of that Labour Government the gap with the national average had risen to £371 per pupil and doubled to £760 against Birmingham.

The Coalition agreement focused on fairness. However it is disappointing to record that under the Coalition Government this unfair gap has widened further. In the current financial year it stands at £482 per pupil with the national average and £1,088 with Birmingham, almost three times the gap in 1997.

For too long the system has been working against us. For too long we have faced an ever widening gap.

This government has been brave to recognise the flaws in the system and right to recognise the need for fundamental reform. However, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out “well done is better than well said.”

Today we are asking for a downpayment on reform. A firm signal that the changes, we all agree are needed, will be delivered and a first step towards delivering them.

The last government completely failed to deliver on this issue but this government not only can, but must deliver.

I urge the Minister to respond positively to the urgent representations from f40, to set much needed change in motion and to deliver a real improvement for schools in Worcestershire and across all those areas that have been left behind.

We must not only talk the talk on fairer funding but walk the walk as well.

Shakespeare said that “action is eloquence”. The government has displayed great eloquence on this issue. Now is the time for action.

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