The government wants cross-party support for a new standard spending assessment for schools which would reflect local needs rather than pupil numbers, school standards minister Estelle Morris told MPs.
She was replying to a debate initiated by Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat MP for Truro and St Austell, who claimed schools in Cornwall had consistently been underfunded and criticised the way in which SSAs for rural areas were calculated. He accepted the government had inherited a Conservative legacy of schools in crisis, but the situation in Cornwall had got worse, not better.
In the last year of the previous Conservative government, children in Cornish primary schools were allowed£69 less each than the average for children in the rest of the country. Under the Labour government that had risen to£89 less for each Cornish child. In 1996-97, each secondary school pupil received£84 less than the average for the rest of the country; under labour, the amount is now£97 less per child.
The minister added: 'I am not going to justify a formula which, for no good reason, seems to treat children differently in different areas. I cannot fathom why that should be. However, I will defend a system that acknowledges that in different localities there are different legitimate needs and expenses...
'When we come eventually to devise a fair SSA, it will never be an amount per head. We cannot come up with a formula on which everyone agrees, but I suspect that arguing for the average amount for children in Cornwall may not be in the long-term interests of members representing the area. I caution them against arguing that too often'.
And Ms Morris warned: 'We tried in vain to change the formula for this year, but we could not get agreement. If political parties do not agree, we face a geographical alignment. We will not get two bites at the cherry, and we did not want to change the formula and get it wrong. We have agreed that, over the next three years, we will try to come up with a formula that is right. The hope that I offer...is an acknowledgment by a minister that the formula is not fair and a determination, with a bit of give and take and some realism from members of all parties representing all geographical areas, we can improve it'.