Education should always be a priority. Whatever financial situation we find ourselves in, we must never bankrupt our children’s future – they only get one shot.
That’s why one of the key priorities for the Lib Dems has been to invest extra money in education – starting with free nursery care for two year olds from poorer backgrounds, through to the Pupil Premium, giving schools money to spend on the most disadvantaged pupils.
The Premium was on the front page of our manifesto, and now we’re delivering it in government. Here in Cambridgeshire, our schools are getting £1.8 million to help 2,100 children from poorer backgrounds get a good start in school, with flexibility for heads to work out how best to spend it for their pupils. Every child deserves a fair start in life.
But Cambridgeshire does badly in terms of the basic funding that pupils get. Ever since the Tory County Council under Baroness Blatch cut back on funding for schools in the 80s, Cambridgeshire has been under-resourced. Under Labour, that reduction continued, with pupils in Cambridgeshire getting far less funding than pupils almost anywhere else in the country. In 2009-10, it was £309 less, per pupil, per year, than the English average – some £34 million across Cambridgeshire.
And this Government has not fixed the problem – yet – with Cambridgeshire continuing to be at the bottom of funding for pupils. There can be no justification for providing schools in Cambridge with the least per pupil funding of any local authority in England. Pupils here in Cambridgeshire deserve to be treated on a level playing field with everyone else. And it’s not as though Cambridgeshire is a cheap place to live, or a uniformly wealthy area. This must change. I managed to get a debate in the House of Commons about this issue – a chance to highlight the problem that has persisted for decades. I want the Government to finally act.
In preparing for the debate, I contacted head teachers across Cambridgeshire to find out first-hand what the funding situation is like. Although the Pupil Premium funding is gratefully acknowledged, the baseline funding problems continue.
Just think what each school could do with an extra £300 for every pupil it has – more teaching assistants, smaller classes, more activities, better school buildings – a huge amount more. The national budget is limited – but Cambridgeshire kids deserve what everyone else gets.
There are also very pressing issues facing the two sixth form colleges in Cambridge. Hills Road and Long Road Sixth Form Colleges educate thousands of 16-19 year olds, to a consistently high standard, yet they are faced with many funding discrepancies as opposed to their school sixth form and further education college counterparts – pupils are ineligible for free school meals, they must pay VAT on goods and services and receive less funding per pupil.
The principals of both sixth form colleges told me of a funding situation where they are struggling to keep their heads above water. And this could get much worse. All we are asking for is equitable treatment – sixth form colleges should be treated no better and no worse than other providers of sixth form studies. That is why I was so pleased to have secured a Parliamentary debate on the matter of school and sixth form funding in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. I pressed the Minister on why it is Cambridgeshire receives the least per-pupil funding, why our successful sixth form colleges are being disproportionately punished and why we are risking our young people’s future. All children deserve a fair start, which is why we are targeting education funding on those who need it most, while also balancing the books. But Cambridgeshire needs to be treated fairly.
You can read a transcript of my debate here