Ben Bradshaw

Working Hard for Exeter

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My Speech on School Funding

Below is my speech in a debate on school funding in Westminster Hall yesterday.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I hope to take considerably less than 10 minutes, Mr Walker, although I may take one or two interventions.

We all agree that every child and family deserves the same chance in life when it comes to state-funded education; but at present, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) has so graphically shown, that is not the case. He chose to give figures rounded up or down to zero, but I will give the exact figures produced by the Association of School and College Leaders, which show that, on average, the 10 best-funded areas received grants of £6,297 per pupil this year, compared with an average of £4,208 per pupil in the 10 most poorly funded areas. That means that schools in the best-funded areas get 50% more per pupil than those in the worst-funded areas. As he said, for secondary schools of typical size, the gap amounts to nearly £2 million, the equivalent of 40 full-time teachers.

Devon schools are among the worst funded in the whole of England. We receive £23.4 million less than the national average, and our three and four-year-olds receive £3.7 million less. That means that each individual Devon schoolchild receives £270 less per head than the average for England, and three and four-year-olds receive £620 less per year than the average for England.

The situation in Exeter is even worse, because it is the only urban area of any significant size within the former Devon education authority area. Because of the extra cost of providing school transport or of maintaining small village schools in rural areas, my schools in Exeter are, in effect, hit by a double whammy: they are in one of the lowest-funded counties in England, and they lose out again because they have to cross-subsidise the cost of providing education in what is a largely rural county. Places such as Oxford, Norwich, Cambridge and Ipswich suffer similar double discrimination.

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving me a helpful cue. Does he agree that shire areas in the south-west and the east of England, such as mine, have long suffered from underfunding? That has seeped into the public consciousness, thanks to some powerful campaigns. In my county, the Cambridge News has run a fantastic campaign, and we are beginning to win the argument with the public.

Mr Bradshaw: I entirely agree, and I will come to some of the historical reasons for the underfunding in a minute, but first I want to mention one of my fantastic headteachers in Exeter, Moira Marder, who is the executive head of two of my high schools: St James school and Isca college. She has done comparisons of funding with two cohorts of very similar schools around England and found that St James and Isca are the worst funded of their cohorts in the whole of England. All Members’ local authorities will have suffered big cuts, but our local authority has suffered a 27% cut in funding—nearly 40% in real terms—and we still have to find £135 million over the next four years.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): An additional problem Wokingham has, as a very low-funded authority, is that a large number—about 13,000—of new homes are being built in very few years. We need to build extra schools and provide extra school places, and the sum is simply far too mean to allow for the extra costs of setting those up.

Mr Bradshaw: We face exactly the same challenge in Exeter, which is a growth area. We have huge additional housing developments everywhere, and I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns that the funding formula does not keep up with the growth in demand caused by those developments and growing populations.

I mentioned a moment ago the cost of school transport. I was staggered to discover that transport now takes up 50% of Devon’s total non-schools education budget—that is £20.9 million out of a budget of just over £40 million. Children in Exeter suffer a further injustice. Because none of our schools has a sixth form, all 16-to-19 education takes place at Exeter college. It is an excellent further education college, but as we all know, historically FE has been significantly worse funded per student than school sixth forms. That is now being addressed, but it still has not been addressed completely. FE has also suffered far bigger cuts in real-terms funding under the current Government than schools as a whole—indeed, we are told that further big cuts to FE are in the pipeline. I would argue that children in my constituency therefore suffer a triple disadvantage when it comes to education funding. They are in one of the worst-funded areas of the country—Devon; as urban dwellers, they subsidise the high cost of providing education in a rural county; and from 16 upwards, their only provision is FE, which itself is funded less than schools and faces huge cuts.

In spite of that situation, thanks to the hard work of teachers and students in my constituency, since I have been the MP we have seen a significant improvement in attainment across schools and at Exeter college—but that happened largely in the years of growing investment, when it was easier to deliver. In the past couple of years, there have been worrying signs in some of the schools that that improvement has stalled and might even be going into reverse. I have absolutely no doubt that part of the reason for that is that the headteachers, who are excellent, are struggling to keep the schools running in an effective way and provide the education and the service their students deserve because of the dire funding situation.

I know—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) touched on this—that a significant reason for that underfunding is historical. I hope the Conservative Members present will hear me out on this. Allocations are based on historical funding levels. I used to cover the education authority in Devon when I was a local radio reporter, and I know that in the past allocations were based on historical funding levels, largely—as we can see from the number of Conservative Members here today—in Conservative shire authorities, which did not spend as much on education as Labour metropolitan authorities. I know that there are exceptions, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness indicated, of Labour authorities that would benefit from a reallocation. That historical underspending is one of the main causes of the current injustice.

Given that the Government have moved almost entirely away from funding education through local authorities and that funding is now passported directly to schools, surely there is now no excuse for central Government to persist with this injustice. It is not fair to the children in the constituencies of all the Members of Parliament who are here today and the many who I know would have liked to be here but cannot. At the very least, what we need in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review is a clear commitment, as other Members have said, not only to an intention but to a timescale for delivery, so that we narrow the gap over a small number of years, so that the children of my constituents and of other Members’ constituents have exactly the same opportunities as those in the rest of England. We owe it to them and to future generations. That is a just system, and that is what we should push for.

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