13 December 2007

What are we fighting for?

Continued from Page one.

Called by Owen Paterson, the debate reflected another quaint British tradition. For, although he is shadow Northern Ireland secretary, he is also constituency MP for North Shropshire. He must, therefore, in addition to dealing with high matters of state, keep his feet very firmly on the ground, and stay in touch with local issues. Can you imagine an EU Commissioner being thus concerned? But then, of course, they don't have to put up with irritating little distractions like getting elected.

However, not only this an example of the "high and mighty" descending from on high to deal with the problems of mere mortals, he was joined by his fellow Conservative Shropshire MPs, Daniel Kawczynski, representing Shrewsbury and Atcham, Philip Dunne from Ludlow and Mark Pritchard from The Wrekin.

The problem which Owen flagged up, in a debate which did not start until 10.18 pm, was that Shropshire is one of the largest inland counties, but with 289,000 inhabitants is also one of the least populated in the UK, with long distances between its small towns and villages. This makes the delivery of public services costly and difficult.

In the front line is a network of 141 primary schools, 22 secondary schools and two special schools, collectively performing well ahead of national averages. Yet despite their success, and the approval of children and parents alike, they do this with funding which is considerably less than average. In fact, Shropshire has the second lowest funding of all 34 England upper-tier authorities.

Amazingly, this delivers currently £3,551 per pupil from a grant of £139.3 million, while the all-England average funding is £3,888 per pupil, leaving Shropshire with £337 less per pupil. If Shropshire received the funding of an average local authority, it would be £13.23 million better off. And. bad though the that situation is, in 2010-11 the gap increases to £385, leaving Shropshire's children £15.1 million behind

Taking a broader perspective, the situation looks even more bizarre. The City of London, for instance, receives £7,089 per pupil and the London borough of Tower Hamlets receives £6,028. Another London borough, Ealing, which, has an almost identical number of pupils as Shropshire, in the order of 39,000, receives £4,634 per pupil but in a much less sparse area. If Shropshire had the same funding, it would receive an incredible £42,486,428 extra. However, Owen made the point that he was not after more money. He did not want to see a penny more raised in tax. His complaint was with the distribution system that parcelled out the tax money from Whitehall back to Shropshire.

As to the performance, why Shropshire should be able to deliver such good results is, in itself, a minor miracle. Locally, it is attributed to the very fact that there are a large number of schools on the edge of economic viability, many with overlapping catchment areas where parents need to use cars to deliver their children to the schools. They can just as easily go to one rather than another, so an informal system of competition exists which have schools driving up their standards simply to stay in existence.

While local factors drive up standards, the reason for the disparity in funding is the highly bureaucratic centralised government formula which allocates education funding according to centrally dictated criteria, heavily weighted to favour inner city "deprived" areas – which just happen to be predominately Labour.

To add to Shropshire's woes, however, demand is falling: according to official projections, there will be 3,400 fewer pupils on the roll from 2001 to 2012. There are currently 2,500 unfilled primary school places, which will rise to 5,450 by 2012. And that will lead to a cumulative shortfall of £3.8 million by 2010-11 for which, under the current regime, there is only one remedy: school closures. No less than 20 schools are threatened.

However, "official projections" could well be wrong. As elsewhere, there has been extensive new building in Shropshire recently and dramatic increases planned for future years. Live births in Shropshire bottomed out in 2001, at 2,628, and rise to 2,767 in 2005.

Furthermore, women are choosing to have children later, so nationally, fertility rates for women aged 30 to 34 rose from 78.2 births per 1,000 women in 1986 to 104.6 per 1,000 in 2006. Current research suggests that the trend towards later maternity is strongest among women with better educational qualifications, with some postponing child rearing to pursue their careers. That could well be the case in Shropshire, where there has been an unprecedented increase in mid-range housing with an average age of occupants that conforms more with higher birth trends, which may, therefore, fuel an unexpected surge in the school-age population.

Another factor that is almost impossible for the "official projections" to recognise is the increase in population due to the massive – but recent – influx of immigrants. So flaky are the statistics that, when Poland acceded to the EU, the government predicted that only 13,000 Polish immigrants would come to this country to work. The actual figure was well over 600,000 and, ironically, 13,000 babies have been born to Polish women in this country since EU accession.

Population estimates assume inward migration contributing nearly 6 million to the projected rise of 7.2 million in the UK's population between 2004 and 2031 - equivalent to six cities the size of Birmingham over the 27-year period.

But the crucial point about rural schools is that they do not just provide educational facilities. In one instance, a village of 237 houses has only a village hall, a church, a working men's club and no other public facilities. The school, therefore, is currently used for out-of-hours activities, including a breakfast club, a computer club and other community enterprises.

Promoting this multi-use itself lies at the heart of government policy, with local authorities directed to explore ways in which schools can involve the local community, adults, families and local business partners, yet this particular policy is not due to take effect until 2013.

With the case made, a feature of the adjournment debate is that the minister is obliged to be present and to respond. In this case, it was the Parliamentary under-secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families, a Labour politician by the name of Kevin Brennan.

It would have been unrealistic to expect Brennan – who by that time had been joined by the secretary of state, Ed Balls and his deputy Jim Knight – to have done much more than counter with a litany of achievements of the current government. That is what ministers do. But one substantive point did emerge: that the government would launch in January a major review of the distribution of schools grants, with a full consultation starting in autumn 2009. The funding of schools in rural areas would be one of the issues explored.

In that frame, Owen was able to secure a firm public commitment that the schools minister would meet all the Shropshire MPs to discuss issues arising, together with an affirmation that a higher level of empty places in rural schools should be expected and that "the presumption against closing rural schools continues".

To secure a meeting was a real achievement. The issues had been raised, dialogue had commenced and the way was open for negotiation – MPs from an opposing Party discussing matters of concern to their constituents with senior members of the government.

Of course, the problems would be less acute if the system was not centrally managed, with local communities able to raise their own money rather than relying on government handouts. But the point was that the system, however imperfect – and that it is – allowed direct approach by and negotiation between elected representatives and the key decision-makers in government.

Ignored, unappreciated and barely recognised, this is the nuts and bolts of democracy. It is a system that cannot be replicated on a continental scale. How could any EU commissioner be expected to attend debates with the direct representatives of such a small area as Shropshire and, even if he could, how could he begin to accommodate the specific needs of one tiny corner of England when confronted with the competing needs of 450 million people?

Yet, as the EU extends it tentacles into ever-larger areas of governance, the opportunities for ministers to address specific concerns of elected representatives diminish. In this case – for the time being – the issue was education, over which ministers still retain some power. But in many other areas, it would be pointless having any debate. The ministers could do nothing and promise nothing.

As the scope for dialogue between ministers and elected representatives diminishes, we are all diminished – and democracy with it. This is what we have lost, and this is what we are losing, all in the name of the vainglorious European "project".