Fiona Bruce MP speech re school funding in the Congleton constituency

Please find below speech given yesterday by Fiona Bruce in the House of Commons.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

I want to speak today about just one issue of great concern, which is how negatively the proposed new national funding formula for schools will impact on schools in my Congleton constituency if it is not revised. It is critical for the children of my constituency that it is.
Prior to the announcement last week, my constituency schools were already among the poorest-funded in the country. We therefore expected a good funding increase. After this announcement, however, headteachers tell me that theirs will be the very worst-funded schools in the country. The most poorly-funded local authority used to be £4,158 per head, but this will now be Cheshire East, at £4,122 per head. Imagine my heads’ consternation last week when they discovered that their funding will not increase, but actually drop. I use the word consternation; they used the word outrage. No wonder that within 48 hours of the announcement no fewer than five headteachers came to my constituency office to express their utter dismay.
A year ago, I took a group of headteachers to meet the former Education Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), to ensure that he heard directly their concerns on the poor funding for Cheshire East schools, and to implore him that the new formula must address them. And this was after a similar meeting in the previous Parliament, when Cheshire East local authority officers met his predecessor for the same purpose. In addition, hundreds of my constituents signed a petition for fairer funding. This issue is far from new, which is why last week’s announcement was so shocking.
My headteachers are asking how Cheshire East has become the most poorly-funded area, after they made such a convincing case to the Minister at their meeting. They thought they had been heard. I, too, find it difficult to understand.
What is particularly concerning is that these are some of highest-performing schools in the country, but there is a point at which their laudable level of achievement cannot be maintained. Only yesterday, the Secretary of State said in this place that she had been able to ensure that underfunded areas would be able to “gain up to 3%” over 2018-19 and 2019-20. My schools are facing exactly the opposite—not a rise of 3%, as the majority of my high schools face a reduction of 2.9%.
Before I relay some of the unpalatable options facing headteachers in my constituency, let me set in context last week’s announcement, because a number of other factors make the funding reductions for my schools far worse. First, the National Audit Office has said that schools face a reduction of 8% in funding in real terms by 2020, due chiefly to unfunded increases in employer costs. That makes the average savings to be found not over 2%, but over 10%. In addition, the reduction in the educational services grant will mean a further hit for academies in my constituency, which means all seven high schools. Even graver, there is still no local plan in Cheshire East, which has led to hundreds of new houses being built without additional funding for the proportionate increase in the number of children attending schools. This effect of so-called “lagging” means that schools are required to educate additional children with no additional funding.
What do headteachers tell me will be the effect of this new formula on their schools? With reference to the primary schools, Martin Casserley, headteacher at Black Firs Primary School, says they will be forced into significant reductions, including reducing support staff to help special educational needs children.
The high schools will lose £800,000 a year between them. Eaton Bank alone will face losses of £300,000 over three years. Headteacher Ed O’Neill says this would be “deeply damaging” and
“the removal of the educational services grant…and the NAO-calculated pressures mean that total savings of 12% will have to be found.”
Richard Middlebrook, head of Alsager High, who was nominated for headteacher of the year and is a national leader of education, says that the only way to survive would be to open for only four days a week, narrow the curriculum or close the sixth form—all completely implausible.
Dennis Oliver, headteacher of Holmes Chapel High, also a national leader of education, is looking at the removal of all teaching assistant posts, or the loss of all technicians, or the loss of eight non-viable sixth-form groups, or removing heating and lighting for a year or removing general resources for children, such as paper and books. John Leigh, head at Sandbach High and a long-established Ofsted inspector, tells me he risks losing his school’s “outstanding” status. He now has a £200,000 deficit as a result of lagged funding, due to new housing in Sandbach. He believes that the only feasible way to run the school would be to remove the rich programme of extracurricular activities, reduce the curriculum offer and/or reduce the number of sixth-form classes. He is already teaching 12 hours of maths a week himself to help balance the budget.
Sarah Burns, headteacher at Sandbach Boys School, has calculated that losing the entire music, art, business studies or geography departments could achieve the reductions, but that is simply not possible for a school that is a regional leader in music and the creative arts. She is concerned about the recruitment and retention of key staff while managing a reduction of 2.9% and she calculates it will actually be 5%, taking other factors into account.
David Hermitt, chief executive officer of Congleton Multi-Academy Trust, of which I am a patron, is facing a reduction of 2.4% at Congleton High, but he tells me that in addition he has been educating over 50 children every year for free for the last three years due to the increased housing nearby, equating to over £200,000 per year of missing funding in each of the last three years. This has depleted healthy reserves. He says the school has made every cut it can to ensure that it has a balanced budget. He says that,
“we have increased average class sizes, removed some subjects from our post 16 provision, increased contact time for teachers and reduced the amount spent on books and computer equipment.”
I am proud to be patron for this well-run multi-academy trust, which is already helping to drive down back-office costs for the three schools in the trust by providing central services of finance and human resources.
Middlewich High faces even deeper reductions as a result of the change in funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities, for which it has a dedicated unit. It is a lead school for emotional health, and Members may recall that during Prime Minister’s questions recently, I drew attention to its outstanding work with the most vulnerable students and families. However, Keith Simpson, its headteacher, has said,
“as Head I have no option but to reduce staffing from this area in order to meet a minimum number of teachers to provide a curriculum.”
He added:
“This is alongside the shortfall in SEND funding for schools that maintain a truly inclusive intake. This short-term view will only store up problems for society and other services in the long term. I feel that the holistic support for children and families is being sacrificed and has no educational value in raising standards for our most vulnerable students.”
Those headteachers, whom I know well, are utterly dedicated and professional, but the concerns that I have expressed on their behalf today have been increasing for several years. They have concluded that the proposed national fairer funding formula is not fit for purpose, certainly in Cheshire East. They are asking the Government to go back to the drawing board after listening to the outcome of the current consultation, and I am asking for the concerns that I have expressed today to be included in that consultation. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will refer them to the Schools Minister, and will convey my request for an early meeting with him to which those headteachers will travel at short notice; and I hope that the Schools Minister will not just hear but act, by reviewing the impact of the new funding formula on the schools in my constituency. Without such a review, there will be grave implications for the education and life chances of the children about whom those headteachers care so deeply.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members in the Chamber a happy and restful Christmas.
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