David Laws: Our children need more fairness over education funding

OUR education system is packed-full of inequalities and unfairness. Nationally, children from a disadvantaged background are only half as likely to leave school with five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with those who are better off.

Too often, education in England perpetuates inequality instead of tackling it, with poorer children starting school already struggling and falling further behind as they grow older. It is shameful that after 13 years of a Labour Government such a stark gap is still so apparent.

But figures recently obtained by the Liberal Democrats revealed a further unfairness, and one which affects many young people in the Yorkshire area. We found that rural schools are getting a very raw deal when it comes to funding, when compared with those in towns and cities.

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An average rural secondary school with about 500 pupils could be getting nearly 200,000 less cash for teachers, books and other resources than an urban school. Such a huge funding gap means children in areas like Yorkshire risk falling behind their counterparts in inner London, who benefit from more generous funding and support.

The latest GCSE results suggest that this unfair way of funding schools is already having an impact, with a worrying performance gap existing between the achievements of the most disadvantaged children in rural and urban areas.

Contrary to popular belief, the poorest children in rural schools now seem to be falling behind those in the inner cities.

In North Yorkshire last year, less than half of those children entitled to free school meals – the most disadvantaged youngsters – achieved five decent GCSEs. Yet in Hackney, central London, a beneficiary of many of the Government's city initiatives, 60 per cent of the poorest pupils achieved this benchmark.

What is equally worrying, is that the gap between the poorest and the better off in North Yorkshire is a shocking 30 per cent whereas in Hackney it is only 10 per cent. When it comes to education performance, it now looks like inequality in the countryside is often greater than in some of our inner cities.

Sadly, the Government has chosen to turn a blind eye to the problems facing rural schools. Indeed, many are struggling to survive – between 2004 and 2008, 62 village primaries were shut – the highest closure rate since the 1990s.

And although the gap between rich and poor in rural areas is equally apparent, schools are simply not given the money they need to tackle it. Labour's approach to education has too often been focused on the inner cities.

They've launched the City Challenge, the Excellence in Cities Programme and the London Challenge. Even the Government's flagship academies programme has been largely focused in cities. Many of these Government initiatives target additional money at inner city schools, making it easier for them to buy new resources, recruit and retain more excellent teachers and offer children who are struggling more individual support.

The way school funding works makes it very difficult for schools outside the inner cities to tackle this shameful achievement gap. That is why the Liberal Democrats want to make school funding fairer by investing 2.5bn of additional money in our schools, enabling them to cut class sizes and offer extra tuition to children who are struggling.

We have set out clearly how this would be paid for, with the bulk of the money coming from changes we would make to the tax credit system.

The extra cash would be distributed fairly through a Pupil Premium giving schools the additional money they need to provide better support to those children falling behind, no matter where they are in the country. Schools will be free to use this money to raise standards in a way that suits their priorities and wouldn't be restricted by some central Government diktat. It would make a real difference in Yorkshire's classrooms.

We are committed to giving every child a fair chance in life and are convinced that the extra money we want to spend on schools would help to transform education in England for the better. In these difficult

financial times, making this sort of financial commitment isn't easy. But today's children must not see their education suffer because of the mistakes of the past.

Giving up on education now would be unforgivable and that is why this extra investment is so important. We will continue to make this case

over the coming months, pressing for a funding system which is fair to children throughout our country.

David Laws MP is the Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman.