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Teather Calls for Fairer Funding for Brent Schools

July 1, 2004 7:31 PM
By Sarah Teather MP in Hansard, speech by Sarah Teather in the House of Commons
Sarah Teather

Sarah Teather Calling for Fairer Funding for Brent Schools

It is a great pleasure to have been able to secure this debate about education in Brent and to have the opportunity to bring to the Minister's attention a number of issues, particularly about funding. My constituents, local schools and the council-it is Labour-controlled, but we have been working together-have raised the issues with me.

Those who know my constituency will be aware that Brent is a highly diverse borough, but also an area of great need. Brent East borders Camden to the east and Westminster to the south. It stretches north-west up to Neasden, taking in Kilburn, Queen's Park, Willesden Green and Dollis Hill en route. Most of my constituency lies within the tube's most central zones-1 and 2.

The Audit Commission has said that Brent is an area of significant deprivation. It is the 13th most deprived London borough. Unemployment in Brent East stands at about 6.9 per cent., a third higher than the average figure for the UK. Deprivation is particularly apparent in the south of my constituency in Carlton Vale, the area that borders Westminster.

The picture is similar in the schools. A recent report by the Audit Commission and Ofsted on Brent local education authority said that "Brent is an outer London borough but faces many of the same challenges as those in inner London with high levels of deprivation in five wards in the south". Brent's schools have many inner-London characteristics. For example, 31 per cent. of pupils in my constituency are eligible for free school meals, compared with an inner-London average of 39 per cent., an outer-London average of 19 per cent. and a UK average of about 17 per cent.

Brent is one of two boroughs in which whites are a minority. Its schools are even more diverse: 72 per cent. of pupils in Brent's schools are from ethnic minorities, and around 130 languages are spoken in those schools-an extraordinary figure. English is an additional language for more than half of all pupils. Pupil mobility is high and is growing. That diversity and pupil mobility are partly due to the large number of refugees in the borough; there are about 17,000 refugees and asylum seekers, some 7 per cent. of the overall population. Children of refugees and asylum seekers make up 8.3 per cent. of children in Brent's schools.

There are 27 schools in my constituency: 24 primary schools and three secondary schools. Of the constituency's primary schools, 12 are voluntary aided, 11 are community schools and one is a foundation school. In addition, the borough supports five special schools, four nursery schools and two pupil referral units. Between the two most recent Audit Commission and Ofsted reports in 1998 and 2003, Brent's primary schools steadily improved, as did the progress of vulnerable pupils. The borough's secondary schools were praised in the last report for highly satisfactory progress. The report noted, however, that most of the poor performance issues stemmed from underfunding of education, and I want to turn to that.

Despite the inner-London characteristics that I have highlighted, Brent, along with five other London boroughs-Ealing, Merton, Newham, Haringey and Waltham Forest-has a legal obligation to pay inner-London weighting. However, that obligation is not recognised in the funding that the borough receives from central Government through the formula spending share, which assumes that it is an outer-London borough. The obligation appears to stem from the pay board review of 1974 and subsequent legislation, but is now defined in the teachers' pay and conditions requirements of the Department for Education and Skills. Brent LEA has estimated that it costs around £3.5 million a year to pay the extra London weighting to its staff. Brent's contention, and that of the other five affected boroughs, is that they are penalised by having to pay the inner-London weighting because they do not get the compensatory funding via the FSS from central Government, unlike the other inner-London authorities. The argument is that the imbalance should be remedied by a specific grant to the six boroughs concerned, which would be much simpler than trying to tinker with the highly complex funding formula.

The Minister may argue that those councils receive more than the difference between inner-London and outer-London weighting through other money from the grant system, taking into account their outer-London status. However, he will be aware that the inner-London element of the FSS takes into account factors other than pay or inner-London weighting, such as the need to pay extra to retain teachers by moving them more quickly up the pay spine. Whatever the solution, the situation is clearly an injustice. Will the Minister please consider this or another proposal to resolve the funding shortfall in Brent?

What are the implications of that shortfall for schools? As a result of the budgetary pressures, Brent LEA spends a much higher percentage of its school budget on pay-85 to 90 per cent., compared with an average of about 70 per cent. for other LEAs. That is highly significant. High wage costs result in reduced funding for other areas; that is common sense. Brent cannot provide the teaching assistants that it feels it needs; it cannot refurbish buildings; and it has a higher proportion of schools in budget deficit than the rest of London. Some 12 Brent primary schools, about 20 per cent; of the borough's total, are in deficit, compared with 12 per cent. in Greater London. Five Brent secondary schools are in deficit, 37 per cent of the total, compared with 24 per cent in Greater London.

Refurbishment is a particular concern for such schools. The executive summary of the Government's consultation document, "Building Schools for the Future", stated: "School buildings are important to pupils' education." The research showed a clear link between capital investment and school standards. In practical terms, the budgetary pressure has prevented the council from taking action to replace the portakabins in the John Kelly secondary schools.

Brent has a poor stock of school buildings; the lack of available cash for maintenance means that many have a large backlog of minor repairs that may well be more expensive to fix now than if they had been dealt with sooner. Brent is desperate to be part of the second wave of "Building Schools for the Future", which is due to be announced in the autumn. At the moment, some schools are forgoing expenditure in the hope-indeed the expectation-that BSF funding will be made available soon.

The budgetary pressure has other implications for Brent schools. Although most special educational needs support comes from the non-delegated part of the schools budget, the growth of some of the more innovative and exciting schemes is being hampered by pressures on the delegated portion. For example, the council is keen to provide extra, preventive, support for pupils with special needs through behaviour support teams in mainstream schools. Such work is highly inclusive and works with children ahead of their being statemented; they may never be statemented, but they need that extra support. I am sure that the Minister would agree that that is vital work.

The Minister may argue that Brent council is not spending the expected spending share allocation on education, although it has passported 100 per cent. of the FSS increase in the past two years. That underspend is largely due to a large historic debt burden, owing to decisions made by the council when it was under Conservative administration. It made decisions to lay off many staff and pay for early retirement, and the heavy costs of paying pensions continue to be a problem for the council.

The Minister will know that a council can find it difficult to get out of the trap of underspending in a particular area, because of the various checks and balances that tie its hands. For example, Brent's revenue support grant is, in effect, capped by a ceiling on the percentage increase in the FSS. If the council attempted to raise more revenue to meet that or any other shortfall, it would have to resort to local revenue-raising powers. However, the gearing effect in local government funding means that that would require a substantial increase in council tax, and councils were warned that if they increased their council tax too much, they would be capped. So the council finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. In January, extra funding was announced for local authorities, and Brent received a relatively generous £4.2 million from a total of £340 million. However, those extra funds were intended to ease budgetary pressures on environmental and social services. It would be disingenuous to imply that such funds would solve the problem in education.

In addition to the problem of inner and outer-London weighting, Brent suffers as a council because of the ceiling on possible increases in Government funding. The council estimates that that cost it about £1.3 million this year. A similar funding dichotomy affects Brent's further education sector. The Learning and Skills Council is implementing revised area uplift costs in further education and reducing the number of London areas from three to two. Brent is the only borough not to have moved from the old London area B to area A. Its uplift therefore remains at only 12 per cent., compared with 20 per cent. for those in area A. That affects sixth-form colleges, but it particularly affects the College of North West London in my constituency. As the Minister will know, the college is already at a disadvantage because the LSC agreed in evidence to the Education and Skills Committee that further education colleges are under-represented in funding compared with sixth-form colleges. That college has a high proportion of students who are asylum seekers or refugees, and it suffers particular disadvantage. On Friday, it heard that it would have to cut 220 full-time students in 2004-05, which is equivalent to about 1,000 part-time students. There is no additional funding for any college covered by the London West LSC, even though it knows that it is one of only four LSC areas to have exceeded its overall targets.

The schools whose sixth forms are funded by the LSC to the tune of about £15 million have also lost out because of the lack of uplift. That translates to an annual cost of about £800,000. Hon. Members may not think that that is very much, but it probably equates to about two teachers for each of the 13 sixth-form colleges in the borough and is highly significant.

I want to make a final point about the implication of funding pressures in Brent for the provision of voluntary aided status to two faith schools in my constituency: the independent Jewish Menorah high school for girls and The Avenue independent Islamic school. Following provisional agreement of VA status for those two schools, Brent council obtained permission from the DFES to include their pupils in the borough's pupil level annual schools census return for 2004.

That is important, because it means that the schools' pupil numbers will be included in the Government's calculation of Brent's RSG for 2005-06. However, as annual increases in funding cannot rise above the Government's ceiling, granting either or both schools VA status would mean that Brent might not obtain any additional funding for the schools in 2005-06. The council has argued that the simplest solution to that problem would be to amend the 2004-05 education formula spending share baseline by the amount that those extra pupils would have attracted in that year. The additional grant would not then be treated as a pure gain for Brent and hence would not be subject to the ceiling or scaling factor.

The transfer of independent faith schools to VA status is very much in line with the Department's policy of encouraging as wide a spectrum of educational provision as possible in the maintained sector. Indeed, it has agreed capital funding of about £8.5 million for those two schools, and that will be at risk if the council cannot support the applications. I have written separately to the Minister for School Standards asking for a meeting about that, but I hope that the Minister who is present will be able to respond to those points.

In conclusion, I thank the Chamber for providing me with the opportunity to raise the important issues of education and funding in Brent. I ask the Minister to take action to address the shortfall of funding and its impact on students in my constituency. I accept that in all arbitrary funding calculations there are winners and losers. However, I am sure that the Minister agrees that in an area of such considerable deprivation as Brent East it should be a priority to remedy such an injustice.