Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this debate. However, although it is very important that we discuss and focus on the Government’s new proposed funding formula and its impact on Devon, we should not lose sight of the big picture, which is that funding for all schools in England will fall dramatically in this Parliament. The National Audit Office has confirmed that by 2020 English schools will suffer overall a cut of 8% in real terms in their funding.
As the right hon. Member has already said, huge expectations were raised when the Government said they would consult on the new formula. At the time, I warned Ministers in a meeting with them that changing any funding formula when overall funding levels are falling is a risky business, because it inevitably creates more losers than winners. My assessment of what is being proposed for Devon rather mirrors that of the right hon. Gentleman, namely that we are just fiddling around the edges here. Overall, Devon would gain a tiny amount—a 0.38% rise in overall schools funding—but many schools would lose out. As he has already pointed out, that minuscule improvement would be more than wiped out by the cost to our schools of the increase in the apprenticeship levy, although that is only a 0.5% increase and is dwarfed by the overall cut of 8% in school funding in this Parliament that I referred to a moment ago.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about a “triple whammy”. If Devon faces a triple whammy, Exeter will suffer a quadruple whammy, because—like many cities in shire counties—we are already at a double disadvantage. Devon schools are already among the worst funded in England, receiving £270 per pupil less than the England average, but Exeter schools lose out even more badly because they subsidise the huge cost of providing school transport in a largely rural county and the cost of keeping open small rural schools. Two of my high schools, St James School and Isca Academy, have each lost £300,000 a year since 2014.
Despite Exeter’s position, under the Government’s new proposed formula we will lose out by 0.14%. All the Government seem to be proposing for my constituency is to take money away from primary schools, the majority of which would lose out in the new formula, to give a tiny bit more to most, but not all, of my high schools. That is not robbing Peter to pay Paul; it is more like robbing Peter to pay Peter. The overall impact will be that by 2020 the average student in Exeter will suffer a £420 cut in annual funding compared with 2015-16, and that is after seven years of coalition and Conservative Government. That will have very serious consequences for children’s education in my constituency.
Two of my primary schools in the least well-off parts of Exeter will actually lose funding. I have been told by a headteacher that one primary school in Exeter is planning to move to class sizes of 45 to cope with the funding squeeze. Under the Labour Government, we got class sizes down to a maximum of 30. We are losing teaching assistants, school counsellors and support for children with complex and special needs at a time when the Government claim they are concerned by the deterioration in young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Since the Labour Governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown invested significant extra resources in all our schools, attainment in Exeter’s schools has risen significantly. We have also benefited from five brand-new high schools, which replaced the dilapidated schools that I inherited in 1997, and new and improved primary schools. That has given a huge boost to the life chances of my constituents’ children, and that progress has been maintained despite the funding freeze since 2010. However, that quality will not survive the sort of cuts our schools now face. As the right hon. Gentleman has already said, Conservative-run Devon County Council is proposing to raid the schools budget even further, to the tune of £2.22 million, because of the big deficit it faces in the budget for children with special needs. I am sure we all agree that Devon must fulfil its legal obligation to some of our most vulnerable young people, but that will mean a further cut of £33 per pupil cut to schools funding across the county.
There is widespread reporting in the media and discussion in this place about the crisis in our health and social care system, but we are also seeing the beginning of if not a crisis, then a serious deterioration in education. We have a recruitment, retention and teacher morale crisis, even in an attractive place like Devon, where people like to live and work. But the Government, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, focus on irrelevancies, such as their ideological obsession with free schools, forced academisation and the reintroduction of selection. I hope that we see real opposition from Devon’s Conservative MPs to some of those damaging Government policies, rather than just warm words. They should stand up and fight for the interests of Devon’s children and families and vote against their Government’s damaging policies.