Peter Aldous welcomes the Government's announcement of an additional £14 billion for schools and calls for a focus on a fairer funding formula for Suffolk and the needs of pre-schools, special educational needs, sixth forms and colleges.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) on securing this debate.
East Anglian schools have had a raw funding deal for many years. The Government’s announcement last week of an additional £14 billion for schools nationally provides an opportunity to put right that unfairness, which so wrongly penalises pupils in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. It is important that that money is spent wisely, in a pinpointed and targeted way, and that priority is given to underfunded areas such as East Anglia. To be fair, the Government do recognise the latter need.
Time is short, so from a Waveney and Suffolk perspective I shall briefly highlight the four issues that I believe need to be addressed. First, the national funding formula needs to be made fairer, simpler and more transparent. Suffolk is a member of f40, a group of education authorities that receive the lowest per-pupil funding settlements. At present, the formula does not give enough basic entitlement to schools and allows too much for add-ons, resulting in big funding differences between different local authorities and schools across the country. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, as local authorities have faced ever tighter budgets, schools have been asked to take on more and more work traditionally undertaken by others, including youth work and parental and mental health support, as we have heard.
Secondly, it is also necessary to ensure that pre-school early years funding gets through to those organisations and groups—often from the private and voluntary sectors—that do great work in deprived areas where there are gaps in the provision of primary schools. A good example is Little Buddies in Lowestoft, which has suffered significant funding cuts at the same time as incurring additional costs. We have heard about the pension scheme costs, and it is important to welcome the Government’s announcement that the £4.5 billion required for teachers’ pensions will be met from outside the Education budget. I urge the Government to work with local education authorities and, through them, with pre-schools such as Little Buddies, to ensure that they receive a fair share of the additional funding now being made available.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about early years funding—which is notoriously complex, it is fair to say. I am not sure about the pattern in Waveney, but certainly my area has some fantastic maintained local nursery schools, which incur additional costs and have been under considerable financial pressure. Does he agree that it would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that this additional funding will flow through to those excellent maintained nursery schools?
The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. A lot of the problem is that, although the Government announced the additional funding for early years two or three years ago, the money is not getting through to several establishments, such as Little Buddies and the Rainbow Day Nursery in the Harbour ward in Lowestoft. We had meetings with the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), and the county council, and we had a lot of difficulty working out where the problem arose and why the money was not getting through to those schools. The urge for simplicity and transparency in how this money is spent is very important.
The third point, as we have heard from a number of Members, is about special educational needs. This is a problem throughout the whole country, but I sense that it is a real problem in Suffolk. The county faces—I will not call it a perfect storm; that sounds awful—an imperfect storm of factors that create a real problem in SEN provision in Suffolk. The first is obviously rising demand: there is a yearly doubling of requests for education, health and care needs assessments. Secondly, complexity of need is rising, particularly for children with autism. Thirdly, the council receives historically low levels of funding for high-needs learners, compared with other local authorities.
A lot of the problem is caused by funding for specialist placements coming from the dedicated schools grant. As Suffolk is an f40 authority, its overall funding for schools is lower, and therefore its funding for higher-needs learners is also that much lower.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept a fourth point from me: the local authority’s lack of any ability to make coherent plans, because of the undermining of its ability to plan across the entire county?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I was coming on to my fourth point, which might broadly coincide with his. An historical issue in Suffolk, probably for the best part of 20 years, is the low number of special schools and special unit places in the county itself, meaning that Suffolk has to buy more places—both in the independent sector and out of area—at enormous cost. This problem needs to be put right. It has happened over a number of years and, I suspect, over a number of different administrations running Suffolk County Council. It will not be put right overnight. To be fair, the council recognises the problem, but I sense that it will be with us for a few years to come.
The fourth point, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), is about the need to ensure that sixth forms and further education colleges are properly funded. The 16-to-19 age group has been overlooked in recent years. In a town such as Lowestoft, it is important that funding for this group is put on a financially secure and long-term footing.
Colleges and sixth forms provide an important bridge from the classroom to universities and the workplace. In a coastal town such as Lowestoft, where there has been long-term economic decline, these schools, sixth forms and colleges are the cornerstone on which we can rebuild the local economy and give young people the opportunity to realise their full potential and, in doing so, to increase social mobility. The additional funding that the Government provided for sixth forms and colleges is a welcome step in the right direction, but at £200 per student, it falls short of the minimum £760 per student sought by the Sixth Form Colleges Association in its “Raise the Rate” campaign.
As we know, a lot is going on at present, but whatever the outcome of Brexit, nothing is more important than investment in the next generation. The Government have recognised this with the extra funding provided. They now need to work with schools, the regional education commissioner and the local education authorities to ensure that this money is spent prudently and properly on tackling the unfairness that has built up in East Anglia over many years.
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