§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]9.30 am
§ Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this subject and to introduce this short debate. I welcome the Minister as I am glad that a Minister of State will respond to the debate.
All hon. Members say how much we value our armed forces, and we all mean it. They do a magnificent job for our country and security, and we should be very proud of what they do. However, we also have a duty to turn those words into action. When we have an opportunity to ensure that our armed forces can lead happy and contented family lives, we should do something about it. The issue before us today provides one such opportunity.
The recent war in Iraq and the continued risks that our servicemen take on our behalf make the debate even more relevant. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in his place, back from Iraq. We have all seen the television pictures of servicemen who died in combat being flown into RAF Brize Norton. Those pictures should reinforce the sense of debt that we owe.
I hope that the debate will range widely. The issue affects many parts of the country, and it is good to see so many hon. Members present. My focus will be relatively narrow. RAF Brize Norton, the country's most important air base, lies in my constituency.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
I think that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that RAF Lyneham, which is in my constituency, is the most important RAF base in the UK at the moment, unless the Government choose to move our Hercules planes to Brize Norton, in which case his local base may achieve slightly more importance than it has currently.
§ Mr. Cameron
In making that reference, I was just checking to see whether my hon. Friend was as alert and alive as I hoped he was. However, to many of us, RAF Brize Norton is the country's most important air base. It is already very big and, as he said, it may be about to get bigger. The possible closure of RAF Lyneham could see the relocation of many hundreds of servicemen and women and their families to Brize Norton by 2012.
The neighbouring town of Carterton, also in my constituency, is very much an RAF town. Its schools are closely linked to the RAF and educate many children from armed forces families. Those schools brought this issue to my attention, and I pay tribute to their work. My message is relatively simple: schools with a high proportion of children from forces families face particular issues and problems. The problems are chiefly 78WH associated with the high turnover of pupils and the costs that that entails—what I shall call "turbulence" and I believe the Minister will call "mobility". There are further pressures and costs when the parents of the children are sent overseas or into action.
The problems have, if anything, been getting more severe in recent years, not least because our armed forces have been involved in so many overseas actions. There is, as all hon. Members know, a high degree of overstretch in our armed forces. We are trying to do more with less in our armed forces, which has consequences for those left at home.
To put it simply, we need national recognition of the issues and problems and, more important, action to deal with them. Ensuring that the children of service personnel have a good education is in all our interests. It involves not only the Department for Education and Skills, but the Ministry of Defence. Problems with schools and family unhappiness can be a major cause of talented professionals leaving our armed services. We must ensure that that does not happen.
There are two types of service school. The first type is run by the agency, Service Children's Education—the SCE—in overseas countries specifically for the benefit of families stationed away from home. As I am sure the Minister will say and as hon. Members are aware, schools run by the SCE achieve extremely good results. Indeed, if it were an education authority, it would rank as one of the best in the country.
The second type is made up of the normal schools that are run by local education authorities in England for both service and non-service children. I shall focus today on that type. Before dealing with the position in my constituency, I want to make a point about statistics. The House of Commons Library tells me that there are 208,000 regular service personnel in the UK armed forces. However, it is much more difficult to find accurate statistics covering issues such as the number of forces schools in the UK and the proportion of forces children in those schools.
There even seems to be disagreement about the number of children of people serving in the armed forces. In his Adjournment debate in 1999, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is present, said that there were 85,000, but the then Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who is now the Minister for Industry and the Regions, said that there were 185,000. It would be useful if this Minister, perhaps not today but later, could give us clear statistics on that point. In addition, neither the SCE nor the Defence Analytical Services Agency was able to provide meaningful figures. I look forward to the Minister putting that right.
The situation at RAF Brize Norton and at Carterton is as follows: there are four well established primary schools with rolls ranging from 180 at St. Joseph's to 300 at the Carterton primary and the Edith Moorhouse primary school. The percentage of pupils from armed forces families ranges from 30 per cent. at St. Joseph's to more than 80 per cent. at the Gateway primary school. There is also a new primary school, St. John's, with just 100 pupils. The secondary school, Carterton community college, has more than 750 pupils with 20 per cent. of them from forces families. The numbers and percentages can vary widely, which is the nature of the problem.
79WH At the nub of the matter is the question of why a high proportion of children with a forces background leads to problems. The main reason is the high turnover of pupils, also referred to as turbulence, which owes something to the RAF connection, as I said earlier. The percentage of pupils arriving and leaving within an existing year ranges in the schools from 20 per cent. to 75 per cent. Last year, in the Gateway school, which I visited recently, there was a 45 per cent. turnover of pupils who had arrived after the school year had begun and left before the end of that year. That is far and away above anything experienced by a standard primary school in a town or village; it means that half the school arrive and leave each year within the year.
Such a vast turnover of nearly half the school makes it impossible to maintain continuity in any section of a school's life, and that makes teaching and planning a much harder prospect than would be the case in a standard primary school. There are different elements to that turbulence. First, the numbers arriving and leaving within a year are rarely the same, and different years and classes are affected. The numbers are unpredicted and wholly unpredictable. Secondly, turbulence can lead to large changes in overall pupil numbers; school rolls can rise and fall dramatically. For example, the Gateway school had an average roll for the years 1999 to 2002 of 312 pupils, then suddenly, in 2003, the roll fell by 50 pupils to 262. That was not because of poor results or parental choice, but because of movement of the armed forces, which is out of the control of the school.
The unpredictable nature of the turbulence can, with little warning, leave schools either over or understaffed, which has a great knock-on effect on budgets. Once an experienced professional has been laid off due to low school numbers, it is no simple task to replace them when the roll increases again. That is particularly true in the south of England where many head teachers tell me that they when they advertise for a new teacher, they get only two or three responses.
Thirdly, there may be a large number of what are called ghost pupils, who arrive and leave within the same year. If they arrive after the vital counting date, which in most cases is 16 January, and then leave before the end of the year, the school gets no additional funding for those pupils. I hope that the Minister will take note of that point.
§ Mr. Gray
Is my hon. Friend aware of a secondary problem? For security reasons, some parents are reluctant to allow their children to declare themselves at school to be from service families. For example, in Wiltshire, the reported number of children from service families is lower than the actual number.
§ Mr. Cameron
That is an extremely good point. It is one reason why the statistics are not as up to the mark as they should be. Perhaps the Minister will have something to say about that, too.
On the subject of ghost pupils, at the Gateway school last year, 10 pupils arrived after 16 January 2003 and left before 16 January 2004. As far as the funding is concerned, they never existed. That represented £15,000 of lost funding, yet all those children had to be 80WH integrated into the school, plans had to be written for them, reports compiled, and teaching and marking undertaken, to say nothing of everything else that a school does. Of course, other schools have to cope with ghost pupils, but not on that scale.
Fourthly, there is the issue of children coming from forces schools abroad. Many come from Germany, Cyprus or other bases. Some of them will not have been taught the national curriculum and those that have special needs may have had different provision in schools overseas. In some cases, there will have been much better provision for them; the head teacher at the Carterton primary school gave me an example of someone who had fantastic special needs attention through the SCE, but the school in Carterton did not have the necessary resources to provide it.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)
Clearly the SCE schools will be subject to exactly the same pressures as my hon. Friend has described, but they seem to do well. Their results are higher than the national average. Does he think that that might have something to do with the funding? Some 13,000 pupils are being educated in SCE schools at a total operating cost last year of £75 million. That works out at slightly under £6,000 per pupil. That might partly explain why they are doing quite well.
§ Mr. Cameron
My hon. and gallant Friend makes a good point. There are clearly good results in the SCE. Funding probably has something to do with it, but there may be other reasons too. We give the extra funding to the SCE because we recognise the special role that the forces play and the difficulty of being posted overseas. My argument is more about the schools back at home. It is important that they are adequately funded so that we can give pupils the support that they clearly need.
The turbulence in pupil numbers can lead to a number of other problems. It becomes more difficult for teachers to set targets. If there is a high turnover of pupils, is target setting the right thing for teachers to do when they will have to work so hard to integrate the new pupils into each class? In addition to the work required to update targets, more time is needed for report writing. As children come and go, teachers will spend a lot of time showing parents and children around their schools. There is an increase in record keeping and in the myriad of documentation that now surrounds every school.
There is also an issue with benchmarking. That point was raised in a debate here in 1999 with particular reference to the work of Dr. Janet Dobson of University College London. She was quoted as saying:Schools with large numbers of children from forces' families expressed a particular concern about benchmarking as it currently operates. Not only did they have to cope with high levels of mobility and other aspects of family disruption associated with service life but their low level of free school meals meant that their performance was compared with schools that they perceived as being more stable and affluent than their own."—[Official Report, 25 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 785.]Does the Minister think that the situation has significantly improved since then? If so, perhaps he could update us on the Department's thinking since 1999.
81WH The fact that many parents of the children in these schools are posted abroad and sent into armed conflict creates another set of problems that needs to be addressed. As Mike Curtis, the head teacher of Carterton primary, puts it:Situations where the armed services are at war with another country or are involved in armed conflict have been continual since I was appointed as the head teacher five years ago. The support mechanisms that we have in place in our school to support parents and children during these difficult times are extensive. The present war and conflict in Iraq caused a great deal of anxiety amongst the parents left at home and with their children who were worried about their parents' involvement.That can he a particular issue for state boarding schools. In Burford, we have an excellent example of such a school: 60 per cent. of its boarders are from forces families and many of them had parents involved in the recent conflict. Extra mechanisms need to be set up to support those pupils and those families. There is extra support for children through explaining, talking and listening, there is extra training for the teaching assistants so that they can manage these situations, and there is a parent support service in many of the schools. Sadly, of course, there is the need for bereavement counselling on occasions. All those extra initiatives and the extra work take time and cost money.
When men or women are posted abroad or into armed conflict, the number of single parent families in areas such as Carterton, Colchester, Aldershot or those represented by hon. Members here today effectively increases. Some of the postings can be for four months, nine months or even longer. Many of the families who move to Carterton or to other military establishments around the country have no extended family in the neighbourhood to help them. A single mother in another area might be able to ask her father, mother, an aunt or an uncle to help with picking up the children from school and so on.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con)
Will my hon. Friend comment on a point that has long caused me concern? When a service family is posted to an area, they are sometimes told that all the schools of their choice are full. For example, if there are no vacancies in the four secondary schools on the Gosport peninsula, a service family is told that their child must be educated miles outside that area. Is that fair? Would it not be reasonable for Ministers to issue a directive to encourage local authorities to reserve spaces for service families that are posted to an area?
§ Mr. Cameron
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are both in favour of giving parents a choice of schools, and that should apply equally to service families. He is saying that that choice is sometimes not available, and I hope that the Minister will address that point when he responds.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)
May I assist my hon. Friend with his excellent presentation on behalf of all Members with military families in our constituencies? The problem of admissions is even worse. Talavera infant school in my constituency has been allowed to hold three places from the beginning of the year until August to accommodate children from service families. It has now been told from on high—not by Hampshire county council—that it is no longer 82WH allowed to hold those three reserved places. That is a Government action, and the Minister must explain that decision.
§ Mr. Cameron
My hon. Friend makes the extremely good point that schools are put in a difficult position. They either leave places open to provide choice at the risk of receiving no funding for those places if they are not taken, or they try to fill those places thereby denying service families a choice. The fact is that they are special schools that require special attention. That is the crux of the matter that we are discussing.
The Minister would expect me to mention the "F" word—funding—and I will not disappoint him. It is my understanding that there is no specific national funding stream for schools with a high proportion of children from armed forces families, but local education authorities can allow extra money for that purpose. Oxfordshire county council recognises the strength of that argument, but it has not yet been able to make extra money available. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), Councillor Tony Crabbe, the executive member for schools, stated:We have recognised this problem in the Oxfordshire education department and hoped to include some additional financial support for these schools in this year's education budget. We consulted schools on the possibility of including a special factor in the schools delegation formula. The proposal received considerable support. In the event we were unable to include this factor because a no-growth education budget was the best we could achieve without an unacceptably high increase in council tax, and as a result of the poor education settlement.We have debated that point many times in the House. I hope that the Minister will consider the issue on a national basis, because the forces are a national institution and it is a national problem.
§ Mr. Cameron
There is the option of top-slicing the budget and giving it to forces schools, but that will always create tension with non-forces schools. As the forces are a national institution, we should consider the issue on a national basis. I hope that I am wrong, but there seems to be confusion among Ministers about whether the Government will consider the issue positively. I have found two written answers from the Minister for School Standards to the hon. Member for Colchester. In the first, the Minister said:The Department will be considering the overall needs of such schools through a working group being set up this autumn."—[Official Report, 20 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 428W.]That sounds positive and I look forward to hearing more about it. However, in an answer to a question about two particular schools, the same Minister said:There is no need for specific or additional funding from central Governmentforschools with a large proportion of pupils who are the children of Service personnel."—[Official Report, 23 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 555W.]83WH That does not sound as positive, and I hope that we can clarify the position this morning.
I have taken up too much time but will make three pleas to the Minister. First, there is a need for recognition of the problem at a national level. As I said at the outset, our armed forces do a great job for us, and we should do a good job for them in return. The head teacher, Mike Curtis, whom I quoted, suggested in the letter that he wrote to me and copied to the Department—all the schools in Carterton agreed with this suggestion—that those schools should be calledforces schools in the UK.Identification of those schools would be a function of the proportion of children coming from forces families. Recognition would not just be warm words. Ofsted inspectors, for example, when inspecting those schools, would immediately recognise their specific problems, some of which I have described, and others that have been raised with me by hon. Members in interventions.
Secondly, there is the need for funding, either as standards grant or directly to the schools. The case has been made about all the extra work that needs to be done and the pressure created by the turbulence or mobility. That matter needs to be addressed, and it is hard to see how it can be done without extra money. There seems to be a case for the Minister to address the issue on a national basis, as the services are a national institution.
Thirdly, the Carterton schools have suggested that a working party be set up, consisting of head teachers from a selection of relevant schools and the Minister. I know that there is an organisation called the National Association of State Schools for Service Children, and that the head teacher of Alderman Blaxill School in Colchester is its key contact. I should be grateful if the Minister could give us an update on that point, explain what work the association is currently involved in, and what such a working party would examine.
I look forward to hearing contributions from other hon. Members. The nub of the issue is simple. Forces schools in the UK face special pressures, and require special attention. Given the special job that the armed forces do for us, providing such special attention is the least that we can do for them in return.
§ Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) not only on securing the debate, but on the excellent presentation that he made. I endorse every word that he said, and also support the spirit of the interventions.
The Secretary of State visited Colchester garrison schools on Monday 9 June, as reported in the headline in the Colchester Evening Gazette,Funding promise by Education Secretary during schools visit. You will get more money.If that were the case, I suspect that today's debate would not be taking place. Four days later, the Colchester Evening Gazette carried a further, lengthy report on the visit, about which I knew nothing until it was in progress. It reported:Garrison schools have explained the cost of war to education minister Charles Clarke.84WHThe schools in Colchester, which have children from the garrison, are suffering budget shortages due to falling roll numbers, after the arrival of a new regiment in town was delayed due to the Iraq War.And garrison schools took the opportunity to explain the problem to Education Secretary Charles Clarke, when he visited town this week.The report then quotes Mr. Richard Bourne, the chairman of the governors of Kingsford junior school. Mr. Bourne is a Labour borough councillor and county councillor, who was fully aware of the visit. I suspect that what we witnessed was more a Labour publicity stunt than reality. The visit was reported at length, and that is why I have pursued the case through tabling parliamentary questions, why I am pursuing it again today, and will continue to do so until the Secretary of State's promise is delivered.
I should also point out that Councillor Bourne was so involved with the visit—a visit that the Member of Parliament knew nothing about—that he collected the Secretary of State from Colchester North station, drove him to the school and conducted the day's visit. The Evening Gazette reports that Councillor Bourne said thatschools knew that they would be getting more pupils when the new regiment arrives but in the meantime had to cope with less money.
He said: 'Garrison schools have had a major problem. They have got a particular problem in funding.'
The chairman of the Colchester-based National Association for State Schools for Service Children, Ian Poulter, said Mr Clarke promised to get a report on the problem.
Mr Poulter, who is head of Alderman Blaxill school, said: 'We asked Mr Clarke to investigate the possibility of some cushion for service schools in times of this kind of matter.'
He said the impact on his school was about £65,000 to £70,000—or £2,000 per child who he would have expected in school with the arrival of the new regiment.
Teachers also discussed the emotional and educational impact the war has had on schoolchildren. I have mentioned that schools in Colchester—and throughout the country—with a large number of children who have a parent serving in the Army are still waiting for the additional funding that they believe was promised by the Secretary of State when he met head teachers and governors during a visit to the town seven months ago. Hon. Members may wish to know that I raised that matter at last month's Defence questions, after an excellent question from the hon. Member for Witney. I said that the Secretary of State hadpromised the head teachers of schools with a large component of children from military families that more money would be forthcoming. When will that be delivered?The Defence Minister replying said thatthere have been more discussions about the matter in relation to the Colchester garrison",—[Official Report, 15 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1316.]But seven months later there has been no progress.
The heads who met the Secretary of State were left with the distinct impression that not only did he accept the special situation faced by schools with a large number of children from military families, but that he had given a personal assurance that these issues would be addressed. However, seven months later nothing of any material substance has happened. I tabled several written questions pursuing the Secretary of State's 85WH promise—all to no avail. I have also raised the matter in the House of Commons, and I mention it again today. I hope that the Secretary of State will be embarrassed into keeping the promise that he gave to head teachers of Colchester schools all those months ago.
The importance of children as a factor in the retention of soldiers in the Army, Air Force and Navy cannot be underestimated. If a soldier feels that their children are getting a bad deal from the education system, he or she may take that into account in considering whether to leave the armed forces.
The schools that I have mentioned do not just have fluctuating numbers of children on which the funding is based. Other requirements that are caused by changing schools can affect education—the turbulence factor—and those provide reasons why there should be additional support funding for schools with a large component of children from a military background.
I secured an Adjournment debate on this subject on 25 October 1999—it can be found at column 782. No doubt the Department for Education and Skills, as it is now, has that on file. It would be nice if my contribution and the reply from the then Minister could be revisited. The National Association of State Schools for Service Children was formed in 1999. In the autumn of that year, there was a conference in London called "A Fairer Deal for Forces Families", which I believe the Department attended. Sadly, however, there was no ministerial presence.
In welcoming the formation of the NASSSC, I said:I wish to pay tribute to the pioneers—those schools in Colchester with a strong Army involvement who, in 1992, formed the Colchester Association of State Schools for Service Children. The schools involved are Kingsford infant and junior; St. Teresa's primary; St Michael's primary; Alderman Blaxill secondary; the splendidly named Montgomery infant and junior; and, from elsewhere in East Anglia, Wimbish and Debden primary schools.
The numbers of children from service families attending those schools range from almost one in five pupils at St. Teresa's Catholic school to 95 per cent. at St. Michael's."—[Official Report, 25 October 1999; Vol. 685, c. 783.] I have referred to what I consider to be a high-profile publicity stunt visit by the Secretary of State. However, we must give credit where it is due, because my constant probing and prodding prompted Councillor Bourne to respond on two occasions to justify that visit. In a letter to the Colchester Evening Gazette of 9 July 2003, he said:The Garrison schools are still hoping for some form of additional help. and for acceptance of their particular problems.That is good news. On 8 July, in a letter to the East Anglian Daily Times, he said thatthe heads asked if there was any other way central government could help with the particular problems this year. We await the answer and close examination of the actual parliamentary answers does not rule out such help. We wait in hope!He is still waiting; we are all still waiting.
I wonder whether the Minister for School Standards can recall the letter that he wrote to me on 1 August 2003 in response to a letter that I wrote to the Secretary of State. In the third paragraph, he told me:As a result of the problems high lighted by NASSSC, my officials are planning to convene a small working group with representatives of the Local Government Association, the Ministry of Defence and authorities with a high proportion of forces children to revisit the funding regulations and guidance to see how they could be adapted to take full account of the needs of 86WH schools suffering MoD related turbulence. In addition, my officials have already been in contact with Mr Poulter, the Chair of NASSSC, at Alderman Blaxhill School"—Blaxill is spelled incorrectly—with a view to arranging a mutually convenient date to visit schools at the beginning of the new school term. I do feel this is the best way forward at this stage rather than a further meeting with the Secretary of State.That letter was signed by the Minister for School Standards, although unfortunately the name typed underneath was spelled incorrectly.
Not hearing anything, and wondering what was going on, Mr. Poulter wrote to the Secretary of State on 5 November and said:You will doubtless remember your short visit to Colchester on 9 June this year when members of this organisation"—that is, the National Association of State Schools for Service Children—met with you to discuss funding for service schools (particularly Army) and concerns we have following deployments to Iraq.
Early in September (8th) colleague Headteachers and I were pleased to meet representatives from DfES charged by your office to research the issues we had raised with yourself.
To date we await outcomes from the research within the context of exceptionally tight budgets this year anyway. We are finding that managing effective educational provision for our students with the added pressures we raised with yourself, now seven months into the financial year, of extreme concern to us.
I do hope you are able to respond with some encouraging news for ourselves and our governing bodies, for as you know, we do believe from your response to us in June that you do consider our schools to deserve special financial consideration both in the exceptional circumstances this year and via funding calculations for the future. The Secretary of State replied on 28 November. He said that he certainly recalled his visit to Colchester, and went on to say:I asked my officials to investigate the concerns raised by yourself and your colleagues over the education of service children attending state maintained schools.
A small working group including representatives from my Department, the Service Children's Education Agency and the Ministry of Defence has been established to look into the issues raised by yourself an representatives of similar schools and is currently I understand considering a number of options. The group is scheduled to provide me with an update of progress including a proposed action plan by the end of November. I will of course ask my officials to contact you with a progress report. I understand from Mr. Poulter that, as of a little more than 24 hours ago, the message has not yet arrived, so he is still awaiting the dispatches.
This is a sorry affair; the visit promised so much and has delivered nothing. Let me quote the parliamentary answer the Secretary of State gave me:The commitment that I gave to those head teachers…is that we are addressing the 250 schools altogether in the country that have that problem as garrisons move around, and we are discussing with the Ministry of Defence and others how we can give such schools the kind of stability that they seek."—[Official Report, 17 July 2003; Vol. 409, c. 465.]The talking has been long; the German Government managed to demolish the Berlin wall in far less time.
§ Several hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair)
Order. Prior to this debate, no one contacted the Chair, although one 87WH Member approached me verbally before our debate commenced. For the benefit of the Chamber, therefore, I must remind hon. Members that it is the convention to commence the first of the three winding-up speeches at least 30 minutes before the debate's conclusion. I ask those who wish to catch my eye to bear that in mind when making contributions and interventions, and when responding to interventions.
§ 10.5 am
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
May I apologise for not having written to you, Mr. Cook, before the debate? I was not aware that we had to do so. I thought that the whole point of this Chamber was that we could just turn up and speak. However, I apologise, and shall ensure that I write in future.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on a learned and clear exposition of the turbulence factor in funding for military schools. That applies just as much in my constituency and throughout the whole of Wiltshire as it does in his constituency. The fact that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) took the opportunity of going through the complicated and internecine discussions that he has had with the Department for Education and Skills over many months and years shows how important the issue is in his constituency, too. I congratulate him on his contribution, and on achieving the headline in the Colchester Evening Gazette that referred to fact that the Secretary of State intends to put up extra money to take account of the turbulence factor that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney so clearly described. I very much hope that the Secretary of State is ready to live up to that headline.
I shall not repeat the complicated and interesting arguments that my hon. Friend made, which apply equally in Wiltshire, but I shall highlight a couple of facts about Wiltshire, which might set his arguments in context. We have 36,000 primary children, of which 9.6 per cent. are from military backgrounds. Some 5 per cent. of the secondary pupils are from similar backgrounds. Of our 260 schools, 24 are acknowledged as having a large military presence. To take account of the turbulence factor that my hon. Friend described so well, Wiltshire county council has done something rather different from Oxfordshire; namely, it has decided to give special funding to those schools that are badly affected by using a complicated formula, which I will not bore the Chamber with. Last year, a total of £544,037 was made available to those 24 schools.
That special funding is laudable, and I have no problem with it, although I know that some military schools argue that it is not enough. There is a downside to it, however. The other 236 schools that are not military are effectively sacrificing that £544,000 and are, in a way, cross-subsidising the military schools. That is a little unfair on the other schools in Wiltshire. There is no reason why they should be doing that. If the DFES acknowledges that extra costs are involved in having a large number of military children in schools, extra funding should be available to Wiltshire county council as a whole to take account of that. That is my first point, 88WH which relates to the turbulence factor and the extra administration costs that my hon. Friend described so well.
We should also take into account two other things that my hon. Friend did not mention. First, Wiltshire has identified a high percentage of children with special educational needs in military schools. Of the 3,862 service children in Wiltshire, 199 are either on a statement or a statement is expected for them shortly. In other words, 5.4 per cent. of military children are on statements. That compares with an average of 2 per cent. across England. That is a high percentage—[Interruption.] The Minister tells me from a sedentary position that the average is 3 per cent. The average is 2 per cent. in Wiltshire, but it might be 3 per cent. nationally. Certainly, 5.4 per cent. is a high number of SEN children. I shall not comment on why that is the case, but it nevertheless seems to be statistically accurate.
I pay tribute to the work of one school in my constituency that operates from the Services Cotswold Centre. It is a specialist centre set up for services families who might be split up or who are temporarily homeless. The services centre operates a school at the centre purely for services children so it is a 100 per cent. services school. The centre provides an outstanding service particularly to the Army, and to a lesser extent to the Navy and the Air Force. It is a wonderful school facility for children who are often disturbed or having difficult times in their family lives. I commend the school, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education and Skills will continue to support it in the way that they currently do. It is an expensive school: there are a very small number of children and a very high turnover factor, but it makes an enormously useful contribution for our service families. The Minister might like to consider that point about SEN.
There is a third specialist point that applies particularly at present in Wiltshire, but which applies elsewhere. Because of the Gurkhas—and, to a lesser extent, other foreign servicemen—who are now making such a useful contribution to the defence of this nation, we have a particularly high and growing incidence of English as a second language in service schools in Wiltshire. In my constituency, we now have a company of Gurkhas in the Royal Logistic Corps at Lavington, and Stanton St. Quintin primary school has employed a teacher who speaks the Gurkhas' language to take account of that difficulty. That is another cost to add to those that have been mentioned.
Turbulence is an extremely important factor and I hope that the Government will consider providing extra funds to deal with it. It is an inherent problem when there is a high percentage of service families in an area. In addition, it would be useful if the DFES took account of the higher percentage of SEN children that might be in these schools and of the pupils with English as a second language, particularly with regard to the Gurkhas in areas such as mine.
I doubt that the Minister will say that he has listened carefully to the arguments and that he is prepared to chuck out extra money to address these difficulties.
§ Mr. Gray
As my hon. Friend says, "You never know", and we hope that the Minister will do that.
89WH I understand that a working party has been established to consider these matters. I value that; it is useful. Officers in Wiltshire county council would happily play a part in the discussions—and the Department might particularly like to consult Mr. Parker, who has been helpful to me in preparing for this debate.
The difficulties are great: we are the sixth worst-funded county in England. Education funding in Wiltshire has been under considerable pressure until this year. Before the Minister looks in his brief and quotes some statistic at me about how much extra money we got, I will say that he is right that education funding has picked up this year. Wiltshire has received extra money in this settlement, but it is still one of the worst-funded counties in England.
I hope that the working party will take account of my points about turbulence, SEN and English as a second language.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)
In view of your remarks, Mr. Cook, I will be brief.
I begin by quoting from the quinquennial review of the SCE. It states:The children of people in the Armed Forces need to be educated and retention, recruitment and mobility will suffer if this important aspect of the military component is not given sufficient priority.Given what we are now expecting of our armed forces, and the fact that they are significantly under-strength, we have to take serious account of that point. For the military population, this is an important issue. Housing, health and education are crucial ingredients in keeping servicemen and women in the services, and that is especially the case for those with young families.
The issue of providing the children of service men and women with a sound education is complicated by the increasingly frequent operational need to move their parents at regular intervals. That was ably described by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, and by the other hon. Members who have spoken. Those children have to change schools frequently within the United Kingdom, often transferring from English to Scottish curriculums. Many of them go abroad with their parents, and when they come to schools in the UK, they are often exposed to the English curriculum for the first time. There is therefore a need to compensate for the difficulties that services families inevitably face. Perhaps that turbulence should be countered by maintaining standards at a higher level than would ordinarily be the case for schools in England. Perhaps that would involve higher teacher-pupil ratios.
For those reasons, we have an agency charged specifically with the education of services families when they are overseas. In effect, it operates as a local education authority—admittedly, a rather small one—and accounts for 13,000 pupils educated overseas. As I said in an earlier intervention, its operational costs in 2002–03 were £75.5 million, which works out at about—by my back-of-a-fag-packet estimate—£5,800 per pupil. Those costs are not directly comparable, because there are additional costs such as overseas allowances for staff and so on. However, we have taken account of the 90WH special needs of services families in the creation of the agency, which acts, in effect, as a local education authority. That agency has set standards that are higher than those of English schools, and those standards, as the quinquennial review published in May last year shows, are being achieved. We are therefore making the effort to ensure that services families get the special treatment that they require to meet the special circumstances that have been so ably described by my hon. Friends.
The key question is whether we are meeting only part of the equation. The SCE accounts only for those 13,000 pupils who are educated overseas. For the rest of the equation, we rely on local education authorities funded by the Department. Is the Department living up to its part of the bargain? Is it doing what it is required to do? The story given so far in this debate is that it is not, and that there is something left to be desired. I draw the Minister's attention to recommendation 8.6 of the quinquennial review, under the heading "Financial Management". The recommendation is that abetter formal mechanism for consultation and linkage between MOD, DfES and HM Treasury should be explored".I hope that the Minister will say something about how that is being explored. Clearly, we cannot go on with a situation in which services families' needs are well addressed by the SCE when they are educated abroad, but not properly addressed, as has been described by hon. Members, when they are educated in this country.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), I apologise for failing to notify you in advance of my intention to contribute to this debate, Mr. Cook. Like my hon. Friend, I was not aware that the convention is that one should notify the Chair in advance. I have now learned of that convention.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing the debate and on speaking for all of us in such a comprehensive and effective fashion. I am sure that the importance of the issue to the county of Hampshire has not been lost on those attending today, given that no fewer than four hon. Members from Hampshire are here or have taken part in the debate. They include my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham will address the concerns of Hampshire county council so, to save time, I will not cover that issue.
I hope that the House will appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West is so concerned about the issue that he has taken time out of his post-operational tour leave to attend and contribute to the debate. I am sure that we would wish to salute our hon. and gallant Friend for his assiduity in looking after the interests of service families.
First, it is obvious from this debate that all the schools about which we have spoken have a serious problem of forward planning that does not apply to other mainstream schools in this country. I will give the Minister just two examples. Marlborough infant school in Aldershot faces a clawback of £20,000 this autumn 91WH because the numbers that are likely to appear in the autumn were not provided for in the original estimate. As a result, it could lose its classroom assistant, or it might have to cut out specialist provision, such as music. The difficulties faced by such schools, which result from turbulence, have real consequences. Talavera infant school, which is also in Aldershot, faces a similar clawback. I have 4,500 to 5,000 troops in Aldershot, and I am sure that the Minister will recognise that turbulence is a big issue in garrison towns such as Aldershot and Colchester. Those are examples of two schools that will face difficulties.
The Minister will probably tell us that, in the good years, the schools will have had provision made for numbers that did not materialise, and therefore will have been overcompensated. It is true that, by deft management, the schools have managed to avoid getting themselves into too much difficulty. Nevertheless, my two examples illustrate the practical consequences of turbulence.
Secondly, I reinforce the intervention that I made on my hon. Friend the Member for Witney about admissions policies. Talavera has maintained three places to be filled later in the year, and it has been allowed to do so by Hampshire county council, which understands the difficulties of turbulence. However, the county council has now been told—I assume by the Minister's Department—that it will no longer be allowed to provide that dispensation. That will have an adverse effect on Talavera school. The school is popular in the constituency, and non-service families are attracted to it. The result is that the school fills up with non-service families. If the school is no longer allowed to hold those three spaces—a modest number out of the maximum 270 places—families returning from operations or posted from elsewhere will have to wait or to go elsewhere, because those places will have been taken by non-service families. Mothers arriving in the garrison find it difficult to exercise their choice when it comes to finding a school for their children, and that has a damaging effect.
As everyone will acknowledge, this year has been particularly difficult. The Iraq war has led to an enormous amount of churn in the military establishment. Units have been moving all round the country. They have been deployed to Iraq and then moved back. It has been a particularly fraught time. I hope that the Minister has taken into account what has been said across the Chamber today about the way in which teachers in such schools manage to cope with difficulties that other schools in the country do not face.
Such schools—particularly infant schools and junior schools—face the problem of dealing with children whose fathers, and in some cases mothers, are out on active service and who see evidence of that, in the case of the Iraq war, on television every day of the week. Talking to families during the conflict, I encountered two groups of wives. The first group was fixated by the television. Those wives turned the television on when they got up in the morning and were glued to it throughout the day. They were looking for their husbands. It is important that the nation understands the effect that the wall-to-wall coverage of war has on families.
92WH The other group of wives was completely different. They switched the television on in the morning, watched for half an hour to see what was happening and then switched it off until after the children had gone to bed, when they switched it on for another half an hour to get an update. It is important that the Minister and the Government recognise that the schools must deal with the difficulties and trauma of children whose fathers and mothers are out on operations and the effect that that has, as well as the unsettling nature of coming to a school from somewhere else.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West spoke about children coming from overseas and different curriculums. Teachers must accommodate such children. One headmistress told me yesterday that, just as children get settled, they are told that they will be moving and so no longer have an interest in the school. They just start to bond with other pupils when mum and dad say that they are on the move. The child is no longer interested in what is happening in their school, but is looking forward to the next stage at a new school. I pay tribute to the teachers in those schools who do an enormous amount to wrestle with those problems, which are not faced by other schools.
Finally, my hon. Friends said that educational provision is one consideration that people take into account when assessing the value of a job. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West referred to a report on how military recruitment and retention were affected by factors such as mobility and education. I have been told that some mothers are getting exasperated, particularly when they are moved to Aldershot—this could equally apply to Colchester, Catterick, Lyneham, Brize Norton or anywhere else in the country—and find that they cannot get their child into the local school. What happens then? They go home and say to their husband, "What kind of life is this for us? You may be enjoying yourself doing the job you want, you may be enjoying this activity, but for the family it involves constant turbulence, turmoil and disruption. It is doing your children no good." I wonder how many MPs hear that line—no names. The difficulties that their children face at school place huge pressure on soldiers and service personnel.
I hope that the Minister will take that into account and also that he will get a move on with the consultative committee that he spoke about earlier. Perhaps he might involve some of us in that consultation.
§ Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)
I wish to thank the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for focusing on this forgotten area of education. It has certainly been an education for me to listen to hon. Members. I shall not in any way feign omniscience, but I can claim a certain amount of empathy. Like many service children, I changed school an inordinate number of times during my education, which took place centuries ago. I had been to five schools by the time I was 14—without, I rush to add, being expelled from any one of them.
I can testify to the fact that there is a learning curve every time one moves school. One must get used to different staff, different peer groups and, often, a different curriculum. What was bad for me is quite normal for at least 100,000 service children throughout 93WH this country. They have to put up not only with changing school but, in some cases, with changing country.
There is some recognition of that in the education system. For example, there is a list of approved maintained and independent hoarding schools for service families. The SCE is supposed to be consulted about local admission arrangements in areas where local authorities are particularly involved with service personnel, though some hon. Members have questioned how effective that consultation process has been and whether it has actually delivered what it is supposed to deliver.
In a previous debate, a Minister—I am not sure which Minister it was—said that some effort is made to try to synchronise movements of children with obvious turning points in the curriculum such as the end of term.
The SCE is a top-performing education authority. Research shows that local authority schools that are not in the SCE and that take a large number of the children of service personnel do commendably well despite the obstacles put in their way. The Dobson study said that such schools performfavourably in comparison with other schools where there is a similar high level of mobility".I am not sure what that means because I am not sure what benchmark is being examined. I cannot think of other schools that have such a high level of mobility as the primary schools in Colchester, unless I include inner-city schools that experience sudden influxes of immigrants.
The schools' predicament is widely recognised as being special. That was acknowledged by the formation of the National Association for State Schools for Service Children. However, there is a general feeling in the Chamber that the special circumstances of such schools are not sufficiently recognised. There is no special grant to deal with their specific curricular and pastoral needs. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) dwelt eloquently on the pastoral needs of service children and their families.
Despite the enormous turbulence and dislocation, there is not much evidence that local authorities can capably adjust to sudden roll fluctuations and fund the schools appropriately. Two factors aggravate the general problems of service schools. First—this has not been mentioned hitherto—there is the relentless testing regime. Whenever children move schools, some tests are due. School transitions should be as seamless as possible to give children adequate time to find their feet. The Minister could legitimately argue that one new factor is that, wherever children go, the curriculum is the same, and adjustment is therefore made simpler. Nevertheless, children and their families are keen to do well, but moving to a new school means facing a set of tests, which is an added problem.
The second problem is the increase in Army movements. I recently visited my local regiment, the Queen's Lancashire, where I was alerted to a point that I had not thought about sufficiently. The activity level of the forces in the recent years has already taken its toll on family life and continues to take its toll. The father in service families is often absent for longer than had been expected, and such special circumstances matter. 94WH Everyone recognises that our soldiers have done their duty, and we are looking for the education system to do its duty by their children.
Two points must be considered. First, we must treat the matter as a funding issue. Special credence should be given in the standards fund for the individual schools that face the problems that Members have alerted us to. Secondly, the matter should also be treated as an organisational issue. The hon. Member for Witney talked about ghost pupils and other Members have discussed falling rolls. We know that local authorities are, by and large, funded by formulae, which need constant revision through consultation with Ministers. When there is a large number of service families in any one county or local authority, there is certainly a need for the Minister to be especially vigilant to ensure that schools are not disadvantaged by the formulae used by local authorities.
§ Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing the debate and on the quality of his introduction. He set out the problems clearly, and his points have been echoed in the contributions of other hon. Members.
It is interesting that we do not understand the scale of the problem. The numbers given for the children involved vary between 85,000 and 185,000. It is important that the Government understand how many service children are educated in the state sector. Clearly, any issues concerning funding must be resolved with a thorough understanding of the numbers of children and of which counties are affected.
In his analysis of the problem, my hon. Friend touched on the topic to which the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) referred: exams and target-setting. A head teacher of a school in my constituency told me that since she set the SATs targets for year 6, she has had 18 extra children in that class. She has a tight monitoring regime in place. and assesses children's needs closely, so I do not think that she will have a problem ensuring that children continue to make progress. However, within the context of setting targets and schools being measured against those targets, a clear issue arises when there is a great deal of turbulence and when the pupils whose targets are set at the start of the school year are not there at the end of the school year or when the SATs targets are set.
My hon. Friend also highlighted the recognition in many LEAs of the problem of mobility or turbulence that applies to the high proportion of service children in schools. In Oxfordshire, as he identified, the county council recognised the problem, but felt that there were no further resources available to tackle it. Each LEA should make its own decision about the allocation of resources to particular schools to tackle the problem. I shall return to that issue shortly.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) has talked about the issue before: I heard his question in Defence questions a couple of weeks ago. I feel that I know the Colchester Evening Gazette inside out, and almost as well as I know his correspondence with the Minister on this topic. It appears that we have had a list of, if not necessarily broken promises, certainly unfulfilled promises from the Government.
95WH My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) raised the important issue of children with special educational needs in Wiltshire schools. We know that such children need a great deal more support than others, and we should ensure that there are adequate resources to meet their needs.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) was right to pay tribute to the work of the SCE, which is important in educating service children who live abroad. I am sure that the Minister will tackle some of the issues arising from the quinquennial review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who also represents a Hampshire constituency, tackled some of the problems affecting schools there. Hampshire has a high number of military bases and garrisons, such as those in Aldershot and Andover. There is a naval dockyard in Portsmouth, naval facilities in Gosport, and air bases in the north of the county, as well as the port of Marchwood, which serves the armed forces. Hampshire has particular exposure to these problems, and he was right to highlight the problems faced by schools in his constituency arising from the clawback of resources when pupil numbers change. Money is then taken away, often unpredictably, from those schools, and they cannot manage properly or effectively.
The converse is also true. As I have already said, a teacher from a school in my constituency commented that she has had an extra 18 pupils since September, and until the school's roll numbers are re-assessed, resources are not going to that school to educate those extra 18 pupils. There are two issues: the unexpected clawback of funds, and the increased burden on resources when there is an unpredicted influx of children into a service school.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot raised the issue—as did my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers)—of admissions to local schools from service families and what provision can be made. The particular incident that I should like to highlight from the experience of schools in my constituency is the one in which primary schools have perhaps one or two classes that are full whereas in classes of other years there is incapacity. We have seen situations in which families—say, with three children—have been turned away or the families have chosen not to go to that school because the class for one of the children is full and cannot take that child, even though the mother wants, rightly, to send all her children to the same school.
There are many ways in which LEAs can look at the funding issues. I think that all LEAs with children from services families recognise that there are unresolved issues. In Hampshire they look at the number of children who leave or join the school—other than in July and September—as a means of assessing mobility, turbulence and determining how that should be recognised financially.
Other LEAs count the number of services children in their schools and allocate funding on that basis. However, through lack of resources, some LEAs, such as Oxfordshire, are not able to recognise that cost or have decided, as in one case I am aware of, that the problem is so pervasive across all its schools— 96WH Oxfordshire is a relatively small LEA—that no additional funding is needed because all schools are effected almost equally by the problem.
It is right, as hon. Members have indicated already, that there is no additional funding from the Government to cover this need. In one of the many answers that the hon. Member for Colchester received from the Government, the Minister referred to a review of mobility to be carried out in the context of the annual school census. I would be grateful if the Minister would take the opportunity today to explain how far that work has gone to and what is the timetable for completion. I understand from the answer to the hon. Member for Colchester that it is unlikely that any additional resources will be received before the end of the three-year formula freeze in 2006–07.
§ Mr. Hoban
The Minister corrects me, but his answer in July was 2006–07.
It will be some time before LEAs receive additional resources to tackle this problem. The variety of responses that LEAs have had in allocating money to represent mobility shows that there is no easy solution. Could the Minister tell us of the work that Professor Barber or Andrew Adonis have done in looking at the distribution of direct funding to schools from central Government and whether they have considered the issue of mobility of services children?
Education issues arise because services families move from school to school. That topic has been raised by several hon. Members in the debate. One of the big issues for any child moving between schools, particularly within the key stages, is the level of knowledge that they acquired by the time they move to a new school. Clearly a number of schools have developed their own resources and methods of gauging this, through rapid assessment when children arrive at the school, through close monitoring of progress and ensuring that children are not left behind. The national curriculum and the literacy and numeracy strategies enable schools to have a better idea of where children are in that process, perhaps tackling some of the issues that the hon. Member for Southport raised in his remarks.
Social issues also need to be resolved within schools. One of the biggest issues facing children when they arrive at a new school is to establish themselves in the school's social networks. In my constituency, Ranville's junior school identifies buddies to work with children who have just joined a school, so as to create friendship networks to enable them to become part of the school quite quickly. However, the strategies needed to tackle the social and educational issues divert resources from other people in the school. Teachers' and sports assistants' time is taken up, enabling children to become acclimatised and assimilated within the school to which they have moved. It is the view of several teachers to whom I have spoken that it takes about half a term before these children settle down in their new school. Clearly, if they are then told that for operational reasons their families will have to move to another part of the country, they will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot said, quickly start to lose interest in that school and look to move on.
97WH We talked earlier about the working party that the Department set up in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence and the SCE, which is looking at some of the issues involving the education of children from service families. To date, we have talked particularly about that in the context of funding. What work will that team do to look at strategies for easing the transition of pupils from school to school and for establishing best practice? It is important that best practice is shared when possible. I understand that some visits to schools have already taken place, but I am not yet clear about what the outputs of that working party will be, and when it will report.
It is easy to talk about the negative aspects of the issues that children from services families create for our schools and for school funding and, to an extent, all of us have done that today. However, there are some positive aspects to having service children in maintained schools. Children from service families tend to be more gregarious and outgoing. They have a more varied and wider range of experiences than many of the children in school, and the head teachers to whom I have spoken talked positively of the benefits that the children—and their families—can bring to the school in terms of their experiences and their support for the work of the school.
The Royal Navy in south-east Hampshire encourages its officers and men to become school governors and part of parent-teacher associations. Indeed, in Hampshire, a naval officer works with a group of local schools advising on security—an important issue for any school, but particularly for those in which there is a high proportion of children from service families.
There is a sense that some of the services, although willing to help, wait to be asked. If we are to tackle some of the recruitment and retention issues that we know affect all three services, the services should consider some of the ways in which private organisations tackle the relocation of their staff in order to ease the transition of children into new schools—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot raised that issue. When the National Air Traffic Services moved its operations to my constituency, parents already living there were asked to act as a reference point. They checked that there were places available in local schools. Those issues are important.
There is much more that we could say about the education of children from services families. It is an important issue across many parts of the country. I sense that people recognise the problems that exist. I hope that we will hear from the Minister about the Government's role in resolving some of those problems.
§ The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)
I am delighted to respond to this excellent debate. The strains and stresses on our armed forces are closer to the front of our minds in this and in recent years than they were 10, 15, or even five years ago. The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) did an excellent job of outlining some of the issues. I congratulate him and all hon. Members on their contribution to the debate.
I single out two contributions: that of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)—I am sure that we are all delighted that he is back safe and sound—and that of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. 98WH Hoban), who is making his debut on the Front Bench. His political career began in South Shields, as all great political careers do, as he tramped the streets of Ocean road. Although the electorate did not necessarily show their devotion to him when he stood there, I am sure that they are pleased that he has gone on to other things.
I first want to make some general remarks about the funding situation, and then I shall move on to the points raised in debate. Three points about schools funding are important in considering the issues facing armed forces families and their children. First, in our constitutional settlement, the funding of schools is a shared responsibility for central and local government—a shared responsibility for raising money for schools, and for distributing that money.
Some may believe that we should move to a national formula in which the Department for Education and Skills decides on the funding of every school in the country. That is not the Government's position. We believe that it is right that local government is in a position to make decisions about the distribution of funds locally. We believe that local government has an important role to play and that we need a strong partnership with local government in order to deliver for teachers and pupils. In that context, one needs to think about whether a national pot of money should be set aside, and how that might fit into a constitutional arrangement with an important role for local government.
Secondly, this has been a difficult year for school funding—there is no point in pretending otherwise. There has been a big increase in investment, but also a big increase in costs. Substantial extra funds have gone in, but particular strains exist in different parts of the country, and I do not want to hide that fact. Over the past three or four months, the Government have been able to show a clear determination to deliver predictability and stability for 2004–05 and 2005–06, along with significant extra funds.
My third general point relates to mobility, which has been mentioned in several contributions. There are 50,000 fewer primary school students in our primary schools this year than there were last year. There will be 55,000 fewer again next year, and 60,000 fewer again the year after. For the first time since the introduction of local management of schools in 1990, we are seeing significant reductions in pupil numbers, and that is contributing to turbulence.
There are also movements in and out of schools, and it is in that direction that much of the debate has flowed. I shall correct one misconception that has dominated the debate: the Department distributes money to LEAs on the basis of pupil numbers not for the current but for the previous academic year. For example, the LEA budgets for 2003–04 were set on the basis of primary school numbers in January 2002, and secondary school numbers in September 2002. That is a lagging indicator so that if a school loses some pupils in January, it does not lose the money in April. LEAs are free to take a similar approach to the distribution of funds to schools. It is important to realise that such lag and flexibility are built in.
I did not understand the reference to in-year clawback made by the hon. Member for Fareham. Perhaps he could drop me a line about it, and I shall respond.
99WH I want to move on to specific issues raised about the education of services children. Hon. Members are right that we do not have an exact number for how many children from services families attend state schools in this country; obviously, it fluctuates. The Ministry of Defence estimates that it is between 80,000 and 100,000, and I shall stick to that estimate. The largest proportion of moves is in connection with Army families. It is significant that we have talked in the debate as if all the armed forces are the same, but there are particular issues relating to Army personnel, who are the most numerous and mobile. They move either in entire units or as individuals. More than two thirds of moves of Army personnel consist of moves by individuals. Moves can take place at any time of the year and are subject to operational needs. However, I am pleased that, over recent years, the Army has made an effort to concentrate moves in the school holidays, and especially in summer holidays as that obviously makes transitions easier.
Services families want their children to complete whole years of schooling, and the Army is doing its best to meet that aspiration. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke powerfully about the importance of ensuring that families of serving soldiers are secure and content with their provision—they must be if they are to perform to the highest standards, and if recruitment and retention are to be maintained. I certainly concur with that.
There were several references to the working group that the Secretary of State has set up. It includes departmental officials, and representatives from the agency, Service Children's Education, and the Ministry of Defence. The main function of the group is to listen to the concerns of schools and explore the most appropriate ways of addressing the issues that they raise. Members of the group have visited a wide range of schools, including Carterton primary school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Witney to try to gauge all the issues.
I shall offer some early reflections on the group's findings. First, schools with services children are affected in different ways, with some schools experiencing a constant trickle of pupils in and out of the school, and others being affected by unit movements in which large numbers of children move in and out of schools at a particular time. Secondly, schools with highly mobile populations have considerable demands placed on them, both in terms of administration and the induction of new pupils. Efficient communication of information and records between schools has been identified as an especially important aspect of the process. Third, pressures on schools also occur when children with special educational needs arrive. My briefing today did not include the suggestion that there is a higher proportion of children with special needs in services families, but we will contact Wiltshire county council about the figure of 5.4 per cent.
There can be delays in assessment, which cause difficulties, and problems in the retention of staff because of budget changes, and it has been brought to the group's attention that there are concerns about the supply of teachers of English as a second language. The subject of soldiers from Fiji was raised in respect of 100WH Wiltshire schools, and I am glad that boarding schools were mentioned, as I am speaking at the State Boarding Schools Association on 19 January.
In response to concerns that were raised, the SCE and the Department are working together to develop the National Association for State Schools for Service Children's Education into an organisation that operates more formally than at present. We hope that it will be an effective organisation representing schools with service children nationally and commenting on policy matters. The schools contacted so far have expressed support for the proposal. We have identified about 500 schools that need to be involved, and the SCE, with the Department's assistance, is in the process of writing to all the schools and arranging regional meetings to promote the development of regional organisations that will feed into the national organisation. A national conference is anticipated later this year.
We are working to see whether data from the SCE schools overseas can be involved in the pupil level annual schools census. Software is being exchanged and we hope that it will improve the flow of information and the sharing of data. It is significant that we are advising schools that the SCE and the Ministry of Defence are introducing a tri-service schools liaison policy to assist service families in meeting their aspirations.
Mobility is not a factor that affects only service personnel, but the Department has a duty to think about how it should be addressed. Recently, we supported a pupil mobility project in which 51 schools from 26 LEAs were involved in projects developing, trialling and evaluating strategies to narrow the achievement gap between mobile and static populations and Ofsted are reporting on it.
Hon. Members were concerned not just about the academic standards but about financial support. The issue of pupil mobility was examined in great depth by the education funding standards group, set up in preparation for the review of local government finance in 2003–04, including studies from Janet Dobson and others. I shall place the relevant papers in the Library. The group could not reach a consensus about the efficacy or need for a mobility factor in the funding formula for distribution to LEAs but it was clear that LEAs should have the power to introduce a mobility factor that reflects the needs of their area. We are considering whether it would be practicable to apply the mobility factor to LEA formula funding. However, we are clear that it could not interfere with the freeze on the formula that we have said should exist until 2005–06; 2006–07 would be the first year of any change.
Some school budgets have suffered as a result of troop movements to Iraq as pupils have left schools. However, LEAs can give additional funding to schools whose numbers have fallen by at least 20 per cent. because of armed forces movements. That is the case in Oxfordshire, but Essex has decided not to adopt that approach. LEAs can include factors that give extra funding for high turbulence levels or compensation for significant falls in numbers on the roll. If schools in other areas believe that insufficient account has been taken of those factors, they can seek changes through the schools forum.
The issue of admissions was raised by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who is no longer present, and by the hon. Member for Aldershot, and I 101WH will clarify the matter. Steps were taken to address the concerns of service children when the new admission framework in the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 was drawn up, including consultation on the draft code of practice. The code of practice gives specific advice—I underline the word "specific"—that admission authorities should ensure that the needs of the children of service families are taken into account. It states that although those authorities are not allowed to reserve places for blocks of children—that would not be sensible given the uncertainty of movement—they may accept applications from parents returning to the area some months in advance and may allocate a school place to them. That is how we have tried to give the flexibility that hon. Members seek. In recent years, we have also addressed the issue of access to higher education for students from service families who have spent time overseas. We hope to continue to support children from service families where appropriate.
We are considering the points raised by hon. Members with the seriousness that they deserve. There are no easy answers to the variety of issues raised, but I can assure hon. Members that we are committed to addressing these matters in a serious and sustained way.