I beg to move,
That this House
notes the mounting evidence of crisis throughout education;
deplores the Government's conduct in first ignoring evidence of fraud involving Individual Learning Accounts and subsequently stopping ILAs without notice;
regrets the growth of paperwork that is driving good teachers out of schools;
further regrets the failure of the Government to allow parents a real choice of schools for their children in many parts of the country;
condemns the Government's system of student support, which has discouraged applicants from poorer families and urges the Government to institute a proper public consultation on its replacement;
congratulates those teachers and students who are achieving good results despite the Government's interference;
and believes that standards will not be improved if the Government maintains its current policy of constant interference in the day-to-day running of education.
Let me break the normal rules of an Opposition day debate and start on a note of agreement with the Government. We agree that education matters as much as any public service. We believe, as I hope the Government do, that opportunities should be equally available to all children, whatever their background, and to all adults who need training. We recognise that teachers work hard and effectively in schools and colleges throughout Britain. But, and it is a serious but, this House needs to debate education today because in too many areas of education and lifelong learning there are widespread, chronic and growing problems. That is not because of any lack of interest from the Government in those matters. I know that the Secretary of State is deeply sincere in her commitment to the subject. The charge we make today is not malice or neglect: it is simple incompetence, combined with an irresistible desire to meddle in too many things.
During the past few months, the country has seen how the Government are visibly failing on issues such as transport and health. In education, the problem is subtly different. We are having a quiet crisis in education—in teachers' morale, in student debt and in adult training. The Opposition will not allow that crisis to remain quiet any longer. Today and every day, we will fulfil our duty to point out the many and growing failures of the Secretary of State's Department and in doing so we will defend the interests of those who work as educators and those who need to benefit from education.
I shall start with the current chaos over individual learning accounts, partly because the failure is serious in itself and also because it symbolises why the Government so often fail to turn good intentions into good policy. The simple truth is that the Department for Education and Skills, in the face of stiff competition, is the Whitehall champion in being driven by tomorrow's headlines and only tomorrow's headlines. "Announce in haste and repent at leisure" is the Department's motto. Never has that been more apparent than in the case of ILAs.
I shall take the House through the salient points of the 13-month disaster. The scheme was launched in September 2000, with great goodwill from those in the training industry who welcomed the idea of the Government providing £150 to help adults receive training. What has become apparent from our investigations over the past week is that the Government wilfully ignored warnings, even before the scheme started, that it was flawed. I hope that the Secretary of State will address that point directly in her reply, because the Government have tried in the past few days to give the impression that they became aware of the problems with fraud only in recent months. Letters that I have received today show that that was not the case.
"As more details of the scheme have emerged, we have expressed our concern both to DfEE officials and to Capita plc that there was insufficient detail in the rules of the initiative. As a responsible training provider we worried that this lack of detail left the scheme open to abuse, which would not be helpful to either the initiative itself, or the majority of the training sector."
The Department tried to address that issue with a cap on the value of the training, but the effect of that was not to stop fraud but to damage the programme, as Mr. O'Brien pointed out in a letter to the Secretary of State in October last year, which said that
"the government has put a very ill-advised cap on the value of the training. From
Throughout the life of the ILAs, the Government should have been aware of the potential fraud problem. They may have chosen to ignore the training experts, but one accusation I would never make of the Government is that they ignore the press.
So what have the Government been doing since
The problem that the Government have failed consistently to address is that no real checks were carried out on anyone posing as a training provider. Even if some old Labour remnants on the Government Front Bench will not read the Murdoch press, I am sure that they read The Mirror, which ran a story exposing ILA fraud on
After that press release was issued, further stories about fraud appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, the Birmingham Evening Mail and the Sunday Mercury. They detailed the various scams. There were even stories in The Irish News, so people in Ireland knew that there was a fraud problem. Only the Government appeared to be in the dark about it. Finally, on
However, that was not the end of the story. Two days after the ILAs were shut down, the Department for Education and Skills produced its key document for this Parliament, entitled "Delivering Results: A Strategy to 2006". Hon. Members from all parties will have read every word of this document but, in case they did not reach it, I merely draw their attention to the rather attractive pull-out section at the back. The section is called "Milestones on the Road to Delivery". As ever with this Government, the milestones get bigger the further away they are: more jam is promised for the day after tomorrow than for tomorrow itself. The key point is that there is only one milestone in the Government's education and skills policy for 2002, and the House will wish to know that that is to expand individual learning accounts.
The Government talk about joined-up government, but they cannot even join up the work of one Department. It is not a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing: in the Department for Education and Skills, the first finger does not know what the second finger is doing.
I fear that my hon. Friend has missed one vital component in the network of Government incompetence that he has set out. The Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills wrote to every hon. Member to explain the collapse of the ILAs. Is my hon. Friend aware that that letter made no mention of fraud at all, even though 279 fraud cases are being pursued by the police? Does not my hon. Friend agree that the purpose of letters addressed "Dear Colleague" should be to tell colleagues in the House what is going on—not to put about Labour party political propaganda?
My hon. Friend makes a good case. Did the Government continue not to know what was going on, or were they simply—and characteristically—trying to disguise what was going on? I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity today to enlighten the House as to which of those options hon. Members should decide is the truth. The Government have one policy milestone for next year, and they have missed it already. That is not merely a shambles, it is a scandal, and someone should own up to the responsibility.
I hope that the financial implications will be investigated fully, because many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been spent on the ILA scheme. Moreover, many genuine training providers throughout the country who were doing an extremely good job for people requiring training are now under threat. In Liverpool, the Everton Development Trust offers vital computer training to a deprived local community, but it is already considering making 10 people redundant.
Henley Community Online in Oxfordshire is seriously considering its future, although it provides exactly the kind of information technology skills that we need to create a modern and competitive economy. No wonder Mr. O'Brien, who has seen this sorry saga coming from the beginning, wrote again to me this week, saying:
"The current situation is wholly unsatisfactory. The suspension of the scheme—with no indication of whether or not it will restart, when that might be, or what might take its place—has created a vacuum in this vital sector. The legitimate training providers and the learning public are being penalised for the shortcomings of both the unscrupulous traders and the Department."
Neither the Government nor I would defend fraud, but would the hon. Gentleman care to estimate what proportion of people with ILAs receive fraudulent training? Is not that a tiny proportion of the 2.5 million people who receive ILA training?
I hope that the proportion that receives fraudulent training is very small, but my point is that neither I nor the Government know. The Government have been shelling out tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money not knowing whether the training is genuine or fraudulent in any individual case. That is why I have referred the matter to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. The hon. Gentleman raises the central issue: how much money is being spent on fraudulent training? Why did the Government not know that that was happening during the 13 months of the scheme? The House deserves to hear an answer to that question today.
As my hon. Friend has twice mentioned Mr. O'Brien's experience, he may be interested to know that Mr. O'Brien approached me last autumn, when I had some responsibility for such matters. Is it not entirely characteristic of the way in which the Government handle things that, last autumn and again this year, they have arbitrarily withdrawn a scheme at short notice? Last autumn, they reduced the entitlement and capped the scheme, without consulting the participants in the industry and with no attempt to remedy the alleged ills that caused them to take that entirely arbitrary action.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. The charge is twofold; there has been wilful neglect over many months, followed by panic—a reaction that penalises the innocent along with the guilty—and the Government are equally culpable on both counts.
Another body that has been involved from the start is the Association of Computer Trainers. I repeat that all hon. Members know how important it is to develop computer skills in this country. Retraining adults, giving them computer skills, is often the best way to provide them with opportunities in life that they would not otherwise have had, so I hope that the Minister will take to heart the contents of the letter that I have received in the past two days from the ACT, which states:
"no consultation has taken place with any of the members of ACT . . . despite numerous attempts by the ACT members to point out the flaws in the ILA scheme and the reporting of those 'cowboy' companies to various Government bodies . . . very little action was taken at the time and certainly no consultation took place as to how these situations could be addressed. In fact, despite the best efforts of the members of ACT they were completely ignored when it came to the question of what to do to ensure that the ILA could work properly."
Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on the role of Capita, which received £50 million from the Government to manage the scheme? Will he comment on Capita's management of the scheme and its efforts to tell the Government that real faults existed?
I am not sure about the details of Capita's involvement and whether it brought such issues to the Government's attention. If the hon. Gentleman has more to add, I suggest that he join me in giving evidence to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. The one thing that is beyond doubt is that all the serious bodies and all the genuine training providers in this country warned the Government throughout that there was something wrong with the scheme and that it was wide open to fraud, but the Government did nothing. That is unarguable, and it is the main burden of the charge that the Government have to address.
I have described the most dramatic recent collapse of the Government's policies for education and skills, but there are far too many more examples. One of the crises in our schools is that in teacher morale. I have already observed that the Department's besetting sin is that it prefers to sort out the press coverage rather than the underlying problem.
For example, in a case study last week, the National Union of Teachers commissioned Professor Alan Smithers and Dr. Pamela Robinson of Liverpool university to examine why so many teachers were leaving the profession. I shall come to the reasons in a minute, but it is worth noting that the Department's immediate reaction was to rush out welcome figures about teacher recruitment in the hope of muddying the waters for 24 hours—as ever, spin first, substance second.
Of course, that exercise did not work. Frankly, there is little point recruiting more trainee teachers if they never get in front of a class of children. On that specific point, the NUT's findings are stark. Of every 100 final-year student teacher, 40 do not make it to the classroom and another 18 leave in their first three years of teaching. In total, 58 per cent. leave within the first three years. That means—it is worth the Secretary of State considering this—that, for every final-year student teacher under the Labour Government, there is a better than even chance that they will not be teaching in three years' time. Is she proud of her Government's record on that?
I have been listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that teacher numbers have risen by 11,000 since 1997? Does that not show that the Government's policy is having success in keeping teachers in the classroom?
It is not immediately obvious that the hon. Lady has been listening carefully, but I welcome her to the debate. If she wants to dispute the fact that teacher morale is low and that there is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, she will not have to dispute it with me. She will have to dispute it in every staff room in the country. She is a conscientious constituency Member and I am sure that she visits schools in her constituency. She will find that there is a crisis in morale.
I was asked whether the Secretary of State was proud of her predecessor's record. It is a shame that he is not here, because I discovered that the crisis in numbers is acute in Sheffield, his former bailiwick. Last week, The Star in Sheffield reported:
"A Sheffield education department spokesman said there were still problems with certain subject areas such as science, languages and maths.
'It seems for many schools the vacancies reported in the summer have not been filled,' he said."
The Star adds:
"During the last academic year the worse difficulties were experienced in January and February".
That sums it up. Vacancies have not been filled and we have still not reached the worst part of the year. Things are likely to get worse before they get better.
On the point about recruitment and retention, does the hon. Gentleman recall that Conservative Essex county councillors said at the beginning of the year that Essex schools were on the verge of a four-day week? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that that dire prediction has been proved to be completely without foundation? Although recognising the challenge that recruitment presents, is it not incumbent on all politicians not to exaggerate the situation for our own party-political ends? We should particularly bear in mind that there are 11,000 more teachers in schools today than there were four years ago.
The hon. Gentleman has had his chance. If he talks to his colleagues in the county, he will find that Essex schools, like schools all over the country, are working extremely hard to solve the problem. That is why there was only a minor crisis in the summer. He will also find that teachers who are not qualified to teach a particular subject are increasingly being put in front of classes. That is how schools are trying to get around the crisis, and it is not ideal. The hon. Gentleman invites us to celebrate what is going on, but the NUT survey—[Interruption.] I am especially delighted that members of the Government Front Bench are prepared to pour scorn on the teaching unions; I am sure that that will be noted outside the House.
According to the NUT survey, 60 per cent. of teachers say that the work load caused by unnecessary paperwork is one thing that makes them want to leave. One teacher in Surrey wrote to me saying that in the first nine days of the autumn term he received nine different documents from the Government—a directive every day. As he says, no wonder there is no time for him to teach. Such nonsense discourages people from teaching.
I read the NUT report, and it is worrying. It refers to teacher retention and recruitment. On the age range of teachers, however, it states that they are predominantly over 40. Why is that? Why has it been difficult to recruit teachers who are now in their thirties? Is not it because the hon. Gentleman's Government did not recruit teachers? This is not a party political point.
The hon. Gentleman was doing well up to his last comment. It used to be possible to recruit teachers and it is increasingly difficult now. All those teachers who are now in their forties were recruited in the 18 years of Conservative government. The mantra that Labour Members were taught in 1997 to blame everything on the previous Administration has run out. This is the second term of a Labour Government. The previous Administration is their Administration. If there are problems with teacher retention and recruitment, it is their problem; it is not the responsibility of teachers or a previous Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem is that we do not know whether that is the case because education spending did not increase in real terms during the four or five years up to 1997? Since then, there has been, certainly in East Sussex, a 25 per cent. increase in education spending. Is not that the real issue?
Every single one of those facts is wrong. Average spending in the period 1992-97 was higher as a proportion of gross domestic product than in the first term of this Government, who cut education spending in real terms. That is why there are so many problems.
I am glad that Mr. Jones read the NUT survey, and I hope that Ministers have read it, because a lack of classroom discipline is cited ahead of pay as a reason for teachers being driven out of the profession. Some 45 per cent. of them say that that is a reason for leaving, yet the Government have consistently taken disciplinary powers away from head teachers over the past few years. If they do nothing else in schools in the next year, I urge the Secretary of State to return disciplinary powers to heads and teachers so that they can decide what happens in their schools.
I also urge the Secretary of State not to believe that she can spin her way out of the crisis. When the Government stifle teachers with bureaucracy and prevent heads from enforcing discipline, it steadily drives good teachers, who all our children need, out of the profession. Teachers are too intelligent to be fooled by the Government spin machine. They will not let their crisis in morale be buried, and neither will Conservative Members.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one unintended effect of abolishing corporal punishment in schools is that if a teacher lays a finger on a child, or is accused of doing so, he or she is suspended and investigated, which often results in undeserved professional ruin?
If Ministers do not think it a problem that teachers are suspended from work for a long period and then acquitted, with inevitable damage to their professional career, I feel sorry for them, because that is a serious crisis, which many teachers recognise.
The Government cannot hide from the fact that standards in maths for 11-year-olds slipped this year. If the Secretary of State is willing to take the credit when exam standards rise, she cannot evade responsibility when they fall. Her predecessor famously said that he would resign if the targets were not met by 2002, and I understand that as 2002 approaches, the right hon. Lady is prudently withdrawing from that commitment. However, parents cannot withdraw, and they want to know what is happening and what the Government are doing about it.
Parents also want to know why popular schools are too often prevented from expanding. I have received a copy of a letter sent to a woman in the west midlands whose experience is typical of parents throughout the country. The letter suggests that as she is unlikely to get her first choice of school for her children, she should put down three choices, but it then says that she is unlikely to get any of the other choices. The problems experienced by parents in exercising the choice that all parties want them to have is another crisis that the Government need to address.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the crisis in teachers' morale is certainly not helped when they find that their hard work with their pupils is not rewarded when exams come to be marked? At Doctor Challoner's high school in my constituency, which is an excellent grammar school, all the key stage 3 English tests had to be remarked, resulting in 54 pupils having their levels raised and five pupils having them dropped. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need reliable test results in which teachers, parents and pupils can have confidence?
My hon. Friend is right and she makes a powerful point.
I know, as the Secretary of State does, that there is much good work in our schools, but there would be so much more if the Government stopped interfering and let schools make more decisions for themselves. She and I were at the national teaching awards last week, and I am sure that she, like me, was in awe of some of the work being done by the best teachers and the best schools. I put it to her that no decision or interference by her, by me or by any other politician would improve the standards of such teachers and, too often, politicians are the problem, not the solution, in our schools.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that parents should have the right to choose the school, why did he support Mr. Hague when he said that he believed the Conservative party would free schools so that they could select between 20 and 40 per cent. of their pupils? Surely that is hypocritical if the hon. Gentleman believes that parents should have the choice.
As my hon. Friends say, the hon. Lady should ask the Prime Minister, but she should also ask the Secretary of State and consider her Government's policies on specialist schools. The idea that schools should be able to select a proportion of their pupils does not divide the two Front Benches, so if the hon. Lady believes what she said, and she may do so honourably, she is opposing the policy of her own party.
The crises are not confined to schools. The student loans system has hit so many problems that even the Department has noticed and decided to start again. Debt problems have become such a burden for so many students that all the Government's rhetoric about encouraging students from different backgrounds to go to university has been shown to be so much hype.
Not only was that crisis predictable, it was predicted. Four years ago, we said that the Government's combination of loans and fees would not work, and it has not worked. Our criticism now is that having messed it up once, the Government are not willing to have a full and open debate about how to do it better next time. Instead, they are going back inside Government to cook up another policy internally; only after they make a decision will they deign to have what they will, no doubt, call consultation, but which will in fact be nothing of the sort.
Further education is not spared the crisis. Teacher morale in FE is arguably lower than in schools, yet where is the money going? It is going into central bureaucracy. In The Times Higher Education Supplement last week, John Brennan of the Association of Colleges pointed out that the old system of funding FE and the training and enterprise councils cost £150 million, whereas the new system of the Learning and Skills Council will cost £193 million next year—that is £43 million less for front-line services.
Across the board, there is a crisis in education. The Secretary of State should learn from her predecessor, who spent his first few weeks at the Home Office undoing some of the worst policies of his predecessor and moving towards some of the policies first advocated by the Opposition. If he can do it, she can. The right hon. Lady has been left a legacy of too much interference, too much paperwork, demoralised teachers, angry parents, disillusioned students and an education sector that demands and deserves much, much better. I commend our motion to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"notes that by 1997 the education system had suffered from 18 years of neglect, schools funding had been cut, nearly half of 11 years olds were failing to reach expected levels in maths and English, teacher numbers had fallen by 30,000, nearly half a million infants were in large classes and roughly seven million adults suffered from inadequate basic skills;
welcomes the substantial progress made since then, including: education spending rising as a share of GDP to 5 per cent., record results at Key Stage 2, 11,000 more teachers in schools and infant and primary class sizes reduced;
further notes that recruitment to initial teacher training rose by 5 per cent. last year, the second year's rise after eight years of decline;
supports the Government's plans for continued investment in and reform of education, and its central goals of transforming secondary education to ensure higher standards for all, giving more people the chance to learn;
further supports the Government's pledge to expand higher education so that 50 per cent. of 18 to 30 year olds can benefit from higher education by 2010;
welcomes the announcement of a review of the student support system in the light of this recent pledge;
recognises the success of Individual Learning Accounts, while understanding the necessary public interest case for suspending them;
and believes that the Government's education policies form a coherent and radical programme that will deliver its ambitious targets and move the education system away from the neglect and waste of individuals' talents between 1979 and 1997.".
I, too, attended the teaching awards last weekend. I have nothing but praise for the organisers and especially for the teachers throughout the regions and the nation who were applauded at that event. However, the teachers with whom I spoke that evening would not have recognised the school system that the Opposition spokesman describes. They were talking not only about high standards and how enjoyable and fulfilling they found their job, but about extra resources, the success of the literacy and numeracy strategies, repairs to school buildings and the opportunity to be paid more for the job that they do.
I listened carefully to the speech that Mr. Green made to his party conference last month, in which he spoke of the importance of talking about the good things and of not knocking teachers. Today, I listened in vain for any acknowledgement of the improvements and achievements of the past four years. I shall not go on about the failures of past Governments—the hon. Gentleman is right, it was a long time ago—but I shall take a few minutes to describe the successes of the past four years, which have not so far been mentioned.
We have made incredible progress in raising standards in reading and writing, but the really magical aspect of the literacy and numeracy hours is where the most improvement has been made. Taking local education authorities throughout the country, we find that the greatest improvement has been achieved in Tower Hamlets, Newham and other deprived London boroughs on which the Conservative central Government turned their backs year after year. The success of the literacy and numeracy hours is not just that between 12 and 14 per cent. more children now enter secondary school with the basic skills they need to learn effectively, but that under the Labour Government we are for the first time beginning to close the gap between those who achieve and those who do not.
That success can be seen in GCSE performance statistics. We have almost reached the target of 50 per cent. of pupils getting five A-starred to C grades, but what is even more important is that the best progress is being made in areas of great urban deprivation under the excellence in cities programme. At the end of the first 18 months of that programme, the improvement in GCSE performance—pupils achieving five A-starred to C grades—in those areas far exceeded the improvement achieved throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman argues that if progress has been made, that has been done by the teachers, but if progress has not been made, that has been done by the Government. In fact, progress has been achieved through partnership. Yes, teachers have done the most work and should receive the most credit. Yes, the reason that standards have risen is that the quality of teaching in our classrooms has improved in the past four years. However, for the first time in two decades, teachers have had a Government who support them. That has not been confined to investing in education. I defy the hon. Gentleman to enter a school that does not acknowledge that it is getting more money in its budgets year on year now than it ever had under the Tories. I deny that he would find a school where an increase in capital cannot be found. The achievement has been brought about by dint of better quality teaching. That has been supported by greater investment in teachers and greater investment in building. There has been good solid work to ascertain what succeeds in terms of the literacy strategy, the numeracy strategy, excellence in cities, education action zones and the key stage 3 strategy.
All this has seen 40,000 more classroom assistants in our schools and more computers for children than we ever saw under the previous Government. It has brought about an increase in standards for which every person in the education service—not only teachers and government but local authorities, local advisers, governors and all those who work in supporting our schools—has reason to be proud.
I am not complacent. I know that there is still an historic connection between social class and education attainment. I know that for every child who goes to school and cannot read effectively by 11, there is a life chance denied. We face that and we challenge that. We come to terms with the situation and overcome it. That is done day on day. Four years of partnership and determination to address and raise standards has brought about the highest increase in standards at every age group that we have seen for many a year.
The right hon. Lady talks about standards improving over the past four years. Surely she would acknowledge that standards of behaviour in our schools have not improved over that period. Standards of behaviour, quality of life and discipline in our schools have deteriorated under the Government. That is the opinion of the chief inspector of schools, who highlighted the problem in his annual report, as the right hon. Lady will know. Why have the Government not addressed the problem? Why is the problem getting worse, and what will she do about it?
I shall start the second part of my speech by being in agreement with what the hon. Member for Ashford said in the first part of his. I agreed when he said at the Conservative party conference that a child who has never heard the word no by the age of five can hardly be thought to have the skills, confidence and ability to behave well at school, and that teachers pick up these problems. I do not differ substantially from what he said. I think that the behaviour of some children in schools is far worse than when I taught, and far worse than a generation ago. However, that is not the fault of the education service alone. It is often the fault of parents who do not bring up their children with the discipline and structure that they need by the age of five, and that is when it matters. Every child of that age should go to school knowing how to behave.
We are doing something about the situation by means of sure start and working with parents. We have spent £2 billion on early years rather than the £1 billion that was spent by the previous Government. There is an early years place for every four-year-old. There has been a massive increase in places for every three-year-old. This means that more parents—most parents want to be able to discipline their child—will have support before their child reaches the age of five and goes to school than ever before.
A third of our secondary schools is covered by excellence in cities. We have a programme of learning mentors that teachers tell us is helping them, and that is not only to deal with the problem of teaching other children, but to deal as well with the very children whose behaviour is causing a problem. There were no learning support units on site under the previous Government. These units are helping too because teachers can now ask a child to leave a class in the knowledge that he or she will go to an on-site learning support unit where they will receive the support that they need.
If a child is excluded, he or she does not get only two hours of education a week, which is what we inherited from the previous Government. We are moving so that by September 2002 we shall have reached our target of every excluded child getting full-time education. It is a disgrace that in 1997 the Conservative Government were prepared to allow some of the most vulnerable children not to receive full-time education if they were excluded. That is another example of how we are helping. I am not complacent, but our record of helping schools to cope with behaviour is better than it ever has been.
The right hon. Lady made a statement that was factually incorrect. Back in 1984, under the last Conservative Government, I taught in a school with an on-site learning support unit. Frankly, I do not know why she is talking such rubbish.
Of course I accept that individual schools had learning support units, but there was not a planned programme called "Learning support units"; that was initiated by the present Government—[Interruption.]
Wise words, Mr. Speaker.
There was not a concerted plan, with money committed year after year, called "Learning support units", which has now been rolled out in urban secondary schools. I do not deny that some schools made their own arrangements to deal with badly behaved children. In fact, like Mr. Turner, I taught at a secondary school with its own unit, but it was not called a learning support unit; there was no plan for a roll-out of learning support units, nor were there sufficient pupil referral units off-site or full-time education for pupils needing learning support.
If the hon. Gentleman remains calm for a little longer, I may look on him kindly later, but not now.
I may look even more kindly on the right hon. Gentleman if he sits down and lets me make a little progress. I want to have time to address individual learning accounts; I am in danger of not being able to do that if I do not make progress.
Before doing so, however, I shall touch on two issues raised by the hon. Member for Ashford as I am keen to set the record straight. For the record, last Thursday, the Teacher Training Agency published figures on teacher recruitment and retention, and we issued a supporting press notice. The figures had been planned by the TTA for a considerable period and, if the hon. Gentleman checks, I believe that he will be happy to withdraw his allegation that they were rushed out at the last minute in response to a survey and report by the National Union of Teachers.
Teacher recruitment figures are good and they demonstrate progress and success. They should be welcomed and applauded; they are a good thing for our education system. There are more teachers going into teaching than at any time since 1992; there is a second successive increase in the number of people choosing teaching as a career. More importantly, in almost every shortage subject, there is an increase in recruitment; there has been a 20 per cent. increase in maths and a 10 per cent. increase in other shortage subjects. I know that that is not enough and that we have not yet reached our targets but, after all, we have told the House that we inherited a historic failure to achieve targets; we achieved our teaching recruitment targets only during times of economic recession.
The important thing about the last two years is not just that we have improved teacher recruitment but that we have done so against the background of a tight graduate recruitment market. Graduates have real choices about where they go, with excellent financial offers from the private sector, the City and other companies. Nobody has to recruit as many graduates as the teaching profession, the Government and local authorities; if we include those who train through work-based routes, we have recruited more than 30,000 teachers this year, which is an 8 per cent. increase. I know that that is not enough—I am not claiming that for a minute—but hon. Members should remember that teaching is the first-choice career of most people leaving university in this country. There is not one profession, job or employer recruiting the number that we manage to recruit to teaching. In the past four years, against the background of a tight recruitment market, we have stemmed, slowed down, stopped and reversed the decline in the number of people going into teaching.
The Secretary of State talked about quantity and the number of teachers recruited. Will she give similar assurances about the quality of teacher recruitment?
I think that they are a smashing bunch; the people coming into teaching now are of a better quality than ever before. The hon. Gentleman belongs to a party that has talked about teacher morale; I cannot think of a worse way of attacking teacher morale than saying to young people joining the profession now that they are not as good as their predecessors a generation ago. They deserve our thanks, our confidence, our praise and our best wishes for entering the fine profession of teaching.
The hon. Gentleman might say that that is Government hype or a case of trying for headlines. He is generous in nature and I know that he is serious about his commitment to education. I take his comments seriously, which is why I advise him to look at the Ofsted report. It says that inspectors have found that newly qualified teachers are now as good as our more experienced staff. I sense that and see it when I go around schools. The NQTs are better prepared; they are good teachers; they have a real choice of careers to follow.
I may shortly, but I first want to move to the issue of retention.
I know that there is a problem with retention, but let us look at the figures. About 12 to 15 per cent. of those entering teacher training do not go on to teach. I am not saying that that is acceptable—I wish it were better—but it is probably reasonable. There have always been some who have gone into teacher training but not entered the profession. The drop-out rate from under-graduate courses is about 17 per cent. It is lower in teaching than in other courses. Some of the trainee teachers will not be good enough to pass the course; some will not like teaching; some will finish their teaching practice year but find that the profession is not for them. The figure of between 12 and 15 per cent. has remained pretty constant over previous years; it has always been the way. Others drop out before the end of five years' teaching. Again, some will have found that the profession is not for them. That figure has been pretty consistent, but I acknowledge that it rose last year.
The figure concerning teacher retention that is never quoted is that, of those leaving the profession, 13,000 a year return. They do not go for ever; they do not vanish never to be seen again. Let us remember that 70 per cent. of the work force is female and that many will leave for career breaks, to have children and to bring up families. Of course I worry about teacher retention. Retaining those whom we have done so well to recruit is always at the top of my priorities, but I ask Conservative Members and those outside the House to remember that 12,000 to 13,000 teachers a year return to the profession. I know that there is more to do on retention.
I shall remain incredibly calm, despite the right hon. Lady's speech. She talks sensibly of the very high quality of young teachers, and we on the Conservative Benches of course entirely agree with her, but she seems a little complacent about morale in the teaching profession. How does she react to the headline in The Times Educational Supplement, no less, which reads: "Labour fails to stem the exodus of teachers"? Does she agree with that?
For a headline in The Times Educational Supplement, that is par for the course—although I suppose that that is a different problem.
I thought that I had made the position clear. We have done more than any Government on recruitment. I know that we have more to do on retention, but we cannot keep teachers until we have them in the first place. When recruitment was a problem, I answered—I think—three Adjournment debates on the failure to recruit to the teaching profession. Now we have this debate about retention, but we should think about both matters, and that is a hugely important job.
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what I think about teacher morale—and it is borne out by what people tell me when I go into schools. It presents a real challenge. When we question teachers on many of the initiatives that we have introduced, they say that they are good and that they work. They say that the literacy and numeracy strategies and booster classes work, but that in order to manage their jobs and to meet the requirements of those good initiatives, they need more support. That is why we have provided more classroom assistants and support for teachers.
No, I want to turn to individual learning accounts.
I want to go through what I see as the order of events concerning ILAs. It is important to put on record exactly what has been happening, to offer reassurance where possible and to explain where there has been misleading information, let alone misleading selling. I return to why ILAs were launched. Let us remember that individual learning accounts were designed to attract people back to learning. Mr. Willis has always claimed that as a Lib Dem policy. No comment. Many of the people whom we were trying to attract back to learning had left learning at the age of 14 or 15 and never been back. Their memory of learning was of failure, low esteem, and getting nothing out of it. They did not feel that learning was for them.
Whatever previous Governments did in that regard—the previous Government did not do much—did not work for such people. They did not go back to learning. They now work in a labour market where skills are crucial and learning is necessary, even if one has not done it for 30 years.
No, I must make progress, but I shall take interventions after my comments on ILAs. For all the best motives, we set out to design a system that was user-friendly, did not entail too much bureaucracy, did not involve sheaves and sheaves of paper and was not difficult for users or providers to access. ILAs were launched in September 2000. Within a year, by July 2001, we had 1.5 million account holders, far exceeding our expectations. We expected to have reached that figure a year later.
Of those 1.5 million account holders, we received complaints from 0.19 per cent. Investigation showed that a minority of those complaints were about non-compliance. Every one of the complaints received by the Department in the first 10 months of operation was looked into. During that time, one company was subject to a formal departmental investigation. In that case, no fraud was found to have taken place. In January this year, we set up a learning provider support unit in the Department, which had the job of looking into complaints from individuals and providers about non-compliance. Each of the complaints from the 0.19 per cent. of account holders was looked into.
I will take interventions in a while.
At the end of July we noticed, because we collect the figures, a small increase in the number of complaints. As a result, we carried out a full re-registration process, which began at the start of July and was completed at the end of July this year. Far from failing to act in July, that is what we did because of the slight increase at the end of that 10-month period. As a result of the re-registration process, 700 providers lost their registration.
Over the next two months, which takes us into September, the number of complaints increased to 0.25 per cent. of 2.3 million learners. Mr. Gray has the correct figure for that. More accounts were opened, and complaints were received from 0.25 per cent. of account holders. Again, we took action. We established a compliance unit with Capita, which worked closely with us on the matter. I am grateful to those involved. They are our delivery partner. The unit started work on
During September we decided to withdraw all non-personalised application forms, which is where we believed some of the abuse and mis-selling had taken place. Individuals could apply for their ILA only by contacting the ILA centre directly or through the ILA website. That took effect on
We took action in July, monitored it and took further action in September. However, by October, there was another increase in complaints and an unusually high number of accounts had been opened. Consequently, we decided to withdraw individual learning accounts. The announcement was made to the House on
Before I do that, I want to give some more details of the 8,448 complaints. More than a quarter are about providers not complying with the rules of the scheme, mis-selling or potential fraud. Three quarters of the complaints have nothing to do with non-compliance. They relate to 404 learning providers—5 per cent. of those registered. Every allegation is followed up by our compliance unit or the Department's serious investigation unit. Cases of suspected fraud are referred to the police.
Until now, police have brought charges against four providers and 30 individuals. Radio 5 and the Radio 4 "Today" programme stated that 279 cases were being investigated by the police. That is not true. An Opposition Member repeated that figure; I understand that, given that it was broadcast by the BBC. I believe that the BBC has subsequently withdrawn the figure. I repeat that the police are investigating four providers and 30 individuals. I do not excuse what has happened; I do not like it, but it is important at the current stage in the development of adult learning and supporting adult education to put what has happened in perspective.
I want to put on record exactly what else has happened to the 2.5 million account holders. The ILA scheme is probably the biggest and, despite what has happened, the greatest success in getting adults back to learning. It is all right to hold a debate on collecting figures for mis-selling and abuse because that has occurred, and we have taken action at every stage. However, it is also worth talking about our evaluation evidence for what is working. Ninety-one per cent. of account holders say that ILAs have supported learning and fulfilled or exceeded their expectations; 84 per cent. believe that they helped to improve their knowledge and 59 per cent. feel that they helped them to become more confident.
There is nothing more serious than ensuring that we, as a Government and as a society, give every chance to people to return to learning, not only for skills but for leisure and fulfilment. The majority of people who have taken out ILAs experienced a quality of learning that exceeded their expectations. However, public expenditure must be as robust as possible and a good scheme must not be further damaged. I therefore believe that we took the right action in October. No one told us to do that; no outside body pulled us up but we monitored and investigated the complaints, kept track and tried to remedy the problems, and we made the decision that that was not enough and that we would withdraw the scheme. It was the right decision.
I give a cast-iron guarantee that we will build on the huge success of ILAs in the next few months and ensure that further plans for progress on adult learning will take the best from the best scheme that has ever existed, but also remedy its shortcomings.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. We would like to associate ourselves with many of her comments about the influence that ILAs have had on an awful lot of adult learners. However, in her press release of
"We have therefore decided to prevent any further take-up of ILAs. We are writing to all ILA account holders and learning providers registered with the ILA Centre to inform them that ILAs are going to be withdrawn and"— this is the crucial bit—
"to assure them that the decision to end the programme has not been made lightly."
From the Liberal Democrats' point view, that is a very serious statement from the Secretary of State. There has been nothing in her speech today to tell us whether this is to be the end of the scheme. Will she give an assurance that the scheme is not going to end? If it is to end, that would create a far more serious situation than the one we have contemplated so far.
The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question. He will appreciate that we have to have an evaluation of the scheme's strengths and weaknesses, and of what action we need to take. Without taking any more time than is necessary, we want to ensure that we remedy the scheme's shortcomings. I can give the hon. Gentleman a cast-iron guarantee that this is not the end of Government funding for adult learning, or of Government support for all those who find a lack of money a barrier to returning to education, learning and training. I am hesitating a little because I am loth to say whether the future provisions will be called ILAs or something else, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait a while for that decision.
The key is that, for everyone out there who benefited from the ILA scheme, this is not the end of the Government's commitment to adult learning, in terms of energy, resources, commitment or anything else that we can do to make it work. We are not, however, about to reopen applications for ILAs next week. We need to ensure that we have overcome the inherent problems in the way in which the scheme was operating.
May I tell the right hon. Lady why her explanation does not wash for a minute? She has spent 10 minutes telling the House that there were very few problems, that very little was wrong and that only four people were being investigated. Yet, completely out of the blue to everyone involved, she suspended this vital programme—I agree with her that it was vital—just like that, without any warning or any hint of consultation, leaving the training sector very angry. If there was only a very small problem, that is not the action of a responsible Government. Either the problem was much worse than the Secretary of State is telling the House, or the Government panicked and acted unreasonably in the face of what she describes as a very small problem. Which is it?
I have laid out as clearly and straightforwardly as I can the number of complaints that have been received.
I have said that there were thousands. There is no need for the hon. Gentleman to repeat it. I have already said that to the House; it is on the record.
I have laid out as clearly as I can the number of complaints. Perhaps we have different standards from the Opposition, but I thought that the potential misuse of public funds was sufficient reason for the Government to take action in the interest of public funding and of the scheme. Obviously, we went through how we should do that. I shall tell the House exactly why we did it with no notice, and I think that we were right. There would have been a risk if we had said, "Hang on. We think there is a bit of abuse of the system. We give you notice that we are going to withdraw the scheme in four weeks' time." What would those who were abusing the system have done during that four-week period? They would have abused it more and more, because they would have seen that the system they were abusing was going to be taken away. That is why we did what we did, and we did it absolutely fairly. That is why we said, "There will be no new accounts from tomorrow", or whatever the date was. Perhaps it was to come into force "in several days' time"; I stand corrected if it was not "tomorrow". We wanted to stop those very few rogue providers abusing the system further.
We have been absolutely fair to the 1 million people who had already signed up for ILAs but who had not yet drawn them down. We gave them until
I have spoken for far longer than I should have done, and I want to let other hon. Members in. [Interruption.] Hon. Members' comments are very touching, but I shall have to resist their invitations.
Let me return to where I began. I certainly view education—and the Government, my team and, I think, the whole House view it—as one of the most important public services in the country. We know that if we do not get education right as a nation, we shall not get anything else right.
Every Government's capacity to deliver depends on their ability to get the education system right. That is why we are proud of our achievements in early-years education, child care, sure start, literacy and numeracy, class sizes, rewarding teachers, getting more people into higher education, increasing funds for further and higher education and adult learning. That is why we will continue to communicate with schools: we will continue to work with them to spread good practice, to learn from them what works, and to take them further forward.
At the end of the day, I know what will deliver the quality education service that we all want. It will be teachers teaching well and lecturers teaching effectively—but they cannot do that unless the rest of the education service works with them. Every one of us has a part to play in that. I give a commitment to the House and the nation: this Government's record as a true, active, honest, good and worthwhile partner in the education service is a record of which we should be proud, and that is exactly the way in which we will go on working. We will not stop until the real problems of our education system have been overcome. As I have said, we will act in partnership. That is what we promised, that is what we have delivered, and that is what we will continue to deliver in the future.
It is refreshing to hear both Front Benchers begin an Opposition day debate in a great deal of agreement. We associate ourselves with many of the comments of the Secretary of State and of Mr. Green, especially his praise of teachers.
At the much-shortened Conservative party conference, it was pleasing that the hon. Gentleman used his first speech as education spokesman to make it clear to all teacher unions and, indeed, teachers that the Conservatives would now be the teachers' friend. He echoed those remarks today in quoting the National Union of Teachers extensively. Perhaps in future it will be Conservative policy that is made at NUT headquarters.
One can always dream.
The Conservatives are right to use a whole Opposition day to highlight the Government's failures. The Secretary of State tells a good tale, and is very supportive of what the Government are doing. No one would accuse her or her Ministers of not being committed to their briefs. The reality in the country, however, is very different, and we must address that reality today.
Nowhere is there a more glaring problem than in the Government's promises on expenditure. In 1997, the Prime Minister made it clear that a Labour Government would spend more of the nation's wealth on education than the previous Tory Government—a firm commitment that has not been fulfilled. During the four years before this Government went to the country, they spent 4.6 per cent. of gross domestic product on education, compared with the 5 per cent. spent by John Major's Government between 1992 and 1997. That is the reality; that is the promise that was not kept during the first four years of Labour government. Only if the Government compare 2000-01, their best spending year, with 1996-97, the Tories' worst, do they come out better.
The Secretary of State talked about every institution—schools, colleges and universities—having more money to spend, but she was disingenuous because it is only certain schools that have more money to spend. Certainly, if a school was part of an education action zone, it got some more money. If it is a specialist school, it will get more money. If it bids for the right amounts of the standards fund—or its local education authority does—it will get more money, but in reality a significant number of schools, colleges and universities are as short of cash at the end of four years of a Labour Government as they were at the beginning of Labour's term in office.
Every secondary school in my constituency received direct money from the Government around April each year, in some cases up to £60,000. Every primary school in my constituency received a direct grant. Many of them used that not just for additional items such as computers, but for important projects and extra classroom assistants. I do not understand why the schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency should be any different from every other school in every other part of the country.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting one of the problems that her Government have not dealt with. Schools in my constituency happen to be in North Yorkshire, one of the 40 worst-funded authorities in the country. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady sighs. I recognise that it is a tiresome point that we keep making, but schools in the poorest-funded authorities fare worse.
I recognise that that problem is historic and not particularly one of this Government's making, but they promised to solve it. There was a clear commitment before 1997 that a Labour Government would reform the standard spending assessment. That has not happened. One of the problems is the money that goes to schools in poorly funded local education authorities.
While the hon. Lady is in listening mode, I hope that she does not have any sixth forms in her constituency. If she does, she will suddenly find that they are being short-changed by a significant amount by this Government as a result of the sixth form funding guarantee.
Some hon. Members in the Chamber were on the Committee that considered the Bill—now the Learning and Skills Act 2000—that set up the Learning and Skills Council. We were given a guarantee that for the first two years there would be no difference in funding. What we find is that the funding for any additional students in any of those sixth forms is not £3,500 for a four AS plus three A2 package, which is the current average—not the highest or lowest—but £2,600. That is £900 less per student. That is not simply disingenuous, it is dishonest.
Can the hon. Gentleman help me? I have listened carefully to his comments. Of course his support for many of the points that were made by my hon. Friend Mr. Green is welcome, but it is notable that unlike on past occasions the Liberal Democrats have not tabled an amendment to the Conservative party's motion. Could he or the one other Liberal Democrat who is attending the debate shed light on whether that is because of incompetence, lack of care or because they agree with the motion and intend to vote with us? Possibly, consistent with Liberal Democrat policy, it is all three.
I shall come to Conservative policy in a second, but what my colleagues and I do with amendments is entirely up to us. At the end of the debate, the hon. Gentleman will see which way we vote.
I return to the funding of sixth forms and further education colleges, which is a serious point. We were also promised during the passage of the Learning and Skills Bill that funding for the FE sector would be levelled up so that it would no longer have to languish miles away. In fact, for that same four AS, three A2 package, for which colleges currently get an average of £3,030, from next April, they will get only £2,600, a drop of 14 per cent. in their core funding, as a result of the introduction of the new funding mechanism with the Learning and Skills Council. However that is dressed up, it is a real-terms decrease in the resources going into FE colleges.
The most serious point made by the hon. Member for Ashford, and the most serious accusation that we can level at the Government, is their failure to provide an adequate supply of teachers to our schools. In response, the Secretary of State made some clear points about what the Government have tried to do, but unless they can guarantee enough teachers of sufficient quality in our schools, the rest of their policy is of no consequence at all. Without the teachers, we have nothing.
"The Conservatives' failure to plan properly has created a ticking time bomb in terms of future shortage of suitably qualified teachers in key subject specialisms."
That was in The Independent on
There has been a 51 per cent. increase in the number of instructors, meaning that more children in our schools are being taught by unqualified staff, no matter how that is dressed up. There is now an army of supply teachers who keep our schools going in terms of bodies in front of children. In key subjects such as maths, despite the golden hellos, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of vacancies since 1997, which is a serious problem.
It is not surprising that we have a problem. There is low morale in our schools. Whether we like it or not, 2.5 million days were lost in teacher illness last year, often through stress and overwork. That has to be tackled. The NUT survey conducted by Professor Smithers and Dr. Robinson, which the Secretary of State frankly dismissed, is a damning piece of evidence. It shows that, last year, out of 100 final-year trainee teachers, 40 did not go into the classroom and a further 18 will leave within three years. The Government's own statistics show that in the past three years nearly 30 per cent. of newly qualified teachers had left their post by March of the first year of teaching.
We cannot afford that level of wastage when we are desperately short of professional staff. The Government need to do something about that. What is their response to the teacher shortage crisis? First, there is fast track. Let us have a group of super-teachers, they say, to be recruited and deployed by the Department: £9.2 million was poured into that scheme, to provide 111 teachers. How on earth can anyone justify using such resources to produce such a low output?
The targets for advanced level skills teachers were hopelessly missed, and those for initial teacher training have been missed every year since Labour came to power—to be fair, they were missed every year before that, too.
Most staggering of all, with shortages staring the Government in the face, they deliberately reduced the number of training places for postgraduates. That is how they have been able to manage the discrepancy. That is why the numbers between the targets and actual recruitment have started to narrow. In 1997-98, according to the Library, some 19,169 postgraduate places were available. By 2001, that had been reduced to 16,611. How can a Government serious about trying to recruit more teachers be prepared to contemplate a reduction in the number of postgraduate places available?
The undergraduate route into teaching is also being allowed to wither. We have seen a 25 per cent. fall in recruits in 1997. When the Minister responds to the debate, teacher recruitment and retention must be addressed up-front. We need answers on why the Government keep reducing targets while proclaiming a desperate need for teachers.
All that is depressing, but it would be wrong to accuse the Secretary of State, or her predecessor, Mr. Blunkett, of not being committed to education and the education brief. No Member of Parliament who had seen them perform would do so. Indeed, I would be the first to admit that when the Government came into power in 1997 they were left with a daunting mountain to climb. I like Conservative Opposition day debates, because they are like reading an annual report from Hogwarts school—there is always a little something missing.
I have been reading the Conservatives' manifesto on education, produced for the general election, because I thought that it would be illuminating to find out what their policy was. The document starts with Mr. Hague saying:
"We present here the most ambitious Conservative programme for a generation."
Let us remember that that was only five months ago. It was not an ambitious programme for under-fives, because they were not mentioned. That is 1.5 million children not involved in that ambition. The document contained no policies for young further education college students. Further education was not even mentioned in the document, even though it has become a big topic for debate today. That is a further 676,000 students ignored by the Conservatives. Adult learners did not fare much better, because they were not mentioned—another 1.9 million people not involved in the most ambitious Conservative programme for a generation. In fact, some 3.8 million individuals were ignored in that report from Hogwarts school—sorry, I mean from Conservative central office.
We should recognise that the Conservative party has had nothing to say on huge areas of the education service for the whole of the past four years and has said nothing today about what it would like to happen in future. Lifelong learning, which is part of the motion before us, was hardly mentioned at all by the hon. Member for Ashford, except in his attack on individual learning accounts. That is typical of the way in which the Conservative party has operated.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, although I detect a certain pre-emptive nature to his comments. I simply wish to ask him whether, when we debated lifelong learning in Westminster Hall recently—a debate in which the Minister for Lifelong Learning and I both participated—he was able to share his thoughts with us at that time.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am rather busy. [Interruption.] I have a lot of activities. Members of the Conservative Front Bench can be replaced often, but I have to spread my talents around.
The Government have failed most of all with those young adults who need their help the most. Last year, 23,000 pupils left our schools with no qualifications at all. The truth behind that statistic is that many of them played truant for one or two years before the end of their compulsory school lives. The provisional figure for this year shows a rise to 25,000 in the number of young people leaving school with no qualifications.
The child poverty figures are similarly chilling. Despite the Government's rhetoric, 43 per cent. of children in London still live in poverty. In the borough of Tower Hamlets, the figure is an appalling 74 per cent. Those statistics are also associated with a huge rise in juvenile crime, especially in those areas where there is a high incidence of young people leaving school with no qualifications. It is not rocket science. The problem has always existed, but it is a major problem and we ignore it at our peril.
The Government inherited from the previous Conservative Government two other problems: one in four adults unable to perform the most basic mathematical computation, and one in three unable to find the name of a plumber in a telephone directory. Sadly, those ratios are exactly the same today. I accept that the Secretary of State has made inroads into the problems associated with primary and early-years education, but there is still a huge distance to go before that blight on our society is stamped out.
What is the Government's response to the problem? The White Paper has been delayed, and I presume that the education Bill will also be delayed. I hope that the Minister responding to the debate will give the date on which that Bill will come before the House, so that we can dismiss the reports that have appeared in the media.
Some of us still believe in the comprehensive ideal. I know that Conservative Members have never really believed in that, or been committed to it, but Liberal Democrat Members have. We are disappointed that, to tackle the root problem of youngsters who constantly fail in the education system, the Government are to introduce a programme of secondary schooling that sets out deliberately to tier our education system in such a way that those with the least continue to have the least.
Liberal Democrats have no objection to specialisation, or to the idea that each school should have an ethos. That is nothing new: whether one likes it or not, every school that one visits claims to have its own, special ethos. We find it appalling that the Government should adopt a policy that allows them to decide which ethos a school can pick. The policy also means that only half of all schools will get the money to support that ethos. The Secretary of State tells us that in 2005 half of Britain's secondary schools will be specialist schools and will have received £500,000 in extra money. However, if those schools are not going to be measurably ahead of their counterparts that have not received the same resources, they should not be given the money in the first place.
It is sad that although the schools that are doing well under Labour will be rewarded with more resources, those desperately trying to deal with the 23,000 to 25,000 youngsters without qualifications will not get any extra resources at all. That is not fair, and I hope that the Secretary of State will address the point.
That is not so. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this Government have taken more action to ensure that schools that serve particularly challenging areas are eligible, and succeed in applying, for specialist school status? If he were to consider the percentage of free school meals provided by specialist schools, he would find that we have shifted that immeasurably. Does he acknowledge that our programme for the 400 secondary schools in which less than 20 per cent. of pupils achieve five A-starred to C grades ensures that they receive extra resources? He paints the picture as though the only extra source of funding comes from specialist school status. That is not the case; the funds are targeted where they are needed.
I am more than happy to concede much of what the Secretary of State says. I have undertaken an analysis of the schools with specialist status, and she is right that such a shift has taken place, compared with the previous regime in which the very affluent schools in our communities were the only ones to be given that status. However, she would agree that, for example, the secondary modern schools in Kent have less and less chance to meet the Government's criteria, given that 45 per cent. of pupils are put into grammar schools in some areas and that children with real learning difficulties are often left out. She would also accept that many schools and many of the head teachers who speak to hon. Members say that they opt for specialist status not because they want to pursue a particular specialism, but simply because they want the extra £500,000 involved, which will improve the overall education of their youngsters.
Finally, the absence of any comment on further education from the speeches of Conservative Members was telling. I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that unless we can turn on the further education sector so that it deals with the army of young people and adults who are ill-educated, under-skilled and ill-qualified, we shall not address many of the fundamental issues in our society.
Many people in further education, especially college principals and lecturers, feel that the Government are paying lip service to that sector. There is a drift in policy between the Secretary of State, the No. 10 policy unit, which seems to control so many things these days, the Learning and Skills Council in Coventry and the 47 sub-regional learning and skills councils. The way in which the chief executive was so dismissive of the sector in his comments on the "Today" programme and the way in which the chairman classified the FE sector as market traders shows a lack of understanding and commitment at the very top of the Learning and Skills Council about the needs of the FE service.
I and many Conservative Members who were involved with the Learning and Skills Act were promised that the reorganisation would result in a saving of £50 million, but we are now told that it has resulted in a £43 million excess cost—a difference of nearly £100 million. If that happened elsewhere, there would be a hue and cry, but it is not mentioned when it happens in education. That is unacceptable.
The FE sector now faces one of the most difficult and challenging populations of young people that it has ever had to face. If the Government are serious about getting those young people into education and training, they must recognise that young people need a personal service, but the overall funding for the FE sector has decreased by 5 per cent. during the lifetime of the first Labour Government. Since 1995, the core funding for its basic budget is 9 per cent. lower. That does not emphasise the needs of the FE colleges. I have tried to raise the issue of those at the bottom of the spectrum.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reading his intervention so well. I urge him to take a serious interest in the FE sector, because if one examines FE budgets, one finds that core funding has gone down since 1995. Colleges have to bid for money from a standards fund, and that means that they face the same problems as schools. Unless they are successful in a beauty contest, they do not receive the money.
Colleges in some of the most deprived areas where we are desperately trying to get people into college do not have the resources that they need. That leads to a perverse situation. If colleges do not meet their targets for 16 to 19-year-olds, they lose huge amounts of budget and that means that they cannot go into the market for those over 19. That is barmy.
If the hon. Gentleman examines unit funding per pupil, he will find that the amount has been stabilised under this Government and is about to go up. Does he accept that the trend has been reversed?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. He will know from the note that has been placed in the Library that that will not take place until 2002-03. We are not even there yet. It is hard to pay bills from something that one might be promised in two years' time. The Chancellor also tells us that we have a war to pay for, but I shall not go into that. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] No, but I point out that it might be the next excuse for not being able fully to fund the public sector. We shall have to watch for that.
The introduction of education maintenance allowances has been one of the Government's good ideas. Liberal Democrats supported them when they were introduced and we continue to support them. However, only 30 per cent. of the areas of Britain have access to them; why not everyone? They are easy to introduce and operate and they would encourage all 16 to 19-year-olds wherever they are. But the Secretary of State has not committed herself to that target.
The national skills taskforce recommended that everyone should be entitled to level 2 training throughout their lives, but the Government have not responded to that recommendation. The taskforce also said that level 3 training was so crucial for 16 to 25-year-olds that it should be free up to level 3. The Government have not responded to that even though it is a major need.
On individual learning accounts, I do not want to comment on the issues relating to fraud. We do not have access to the information that the Government and the Director of Public Prosecutions have, but we agree with the hon. Member for Ashford that there should be a full inquiry. All the details should be put on the record and the House should have a proper debate on what went wrong during the process.
However, we urge the Secretary of State not to abandon the principle of individual learning accounts. Many students received their first access to further education through them, and Liberal Democrats are wedded to the principle behind them. She suggested, however, that a scheme might be introduced to replace them. If so, a number of people might become disillusioned as one system finishes and another begins, and many providers might go out of business in that period. The Secretary of State will have our support—and I am pretty sure that of the whole House—if she ensures that young adults who want access to training can obtain it with the minimum of fuss. I urge her to try to sort out the mess as soon as possible and to have a replacement scheme on the blocks ready to go.
I apologise for briefly leaving the Chamber during the opening speeches, but there was an emergency involving some of my constituents, of which I gave the Speaker notice. It is not my usual practice, and I thank the House for its indulgence.
I welcome Mr. Green to his position as education spokesman for the official Opposition, and I look forward to listening to him in the coming months. I do not know how long his tenure will last, but I hope that it will be reasonably long. Continuity in education is everything. I saw him sitting at the back of the Education and Skills Committee recently and he is welcome to join us.
I have high expectations of the hon. Gentleman because I know that he has an interest in and knowledge of education. My welcome is genuine; I am not merely going through the motions. However, I should note that I recently received an e-mail from a head teacher of a successful sixth form college in my constituency in which he said, "Please, Barry, don't send me any more of those dreadful Opposition day debates. I have tended to circulate them to the rest of the staff and they found that knock-about stuff so depressing that I would rather not have the material." Somewhere in the subterranean passages of Conservative central office, there must be an "invent a crisis" unit. That does not help anyone.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said that people would have to be deaf and blind if they did not know about the lack of morale in some parts of the teaching profession, but we must consider what we say in Opposition day debates and the way in which they are framed. He said that six things were dreadfully wrong with the education sector—perhaps he could have found even more. I entreat him to raise the tone of the debate, because we can have a good one that is based on the facts. We could agree that since 1997 the Labour Government have not got everything right and, as Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, I might even say that the Conservative Governments from 1979 on did not get everything wrong, although I am tempted to say that most of it was.
There is a middle way. We can have a serious discourse on the future of the education sector. All hon. Members have a responsibility to raise the level of debate, rather than drag it down. Let us compare the tenor of today's debate with what happens in the Select Committee. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues participate in it—one of them is in the Chamber—and the quality of the debate is high. We are able to bury party differences in a constructive manner. I do not want the House to become a major Select Committee, but let us take our responsibility for the tone of the education debate seriously and raise its level. The hon. Gentleman repeatedly referred to a crisis; according to his predecessor, there was always a crisis. Let us change the terminology.
Let us give a sober assessment of the situation. We should accept that not everything that the Government have done since 1997 is wrong. If I were to do a proper school report on them I would say that their record shows them to be innovative, because they have tried new ideas and structures. Perhaps that is bad, but the Leader of the Opposition said on the "Today" programme this morning that the trouble with the Government's management of the health sector is that they are not introducing new ideas or partnerships and are not binding the private sector into the health service. In this debate, however, the Conservatives are saying that the problem is that the Government are innovative, that they have new ideas and are trying to introduce the private sector to education. They have been greatly criticised for that.
I defy the hon. Gentleman to find in my speech any criticism of the Government for trying to involve the private sector in state education. I made no such accusation, and I believe the exact opposite. I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman does, too.
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until a little later in my speech, when I will turn to his remarks on individual learning accounts.
Returning to the school report on the Government, as Chairman of the Select Committee, I find sure start very interesting and innovative. No one has mentioned sure start today, but much of the debate has been about how we can break the cycle of deprivation in education, and this Government, rather than previous Administrations, have introduced several exciting, innovating schemes that seem to contain the seeds of solutions to the problem of stimulating the imagination and creativity of children from birth to age eight. The Select Committee's report on early years education was very positive about sure start's achievements in areas of deprivation. In the school report, we can make a mark in the plus column for that.
We have identified a critical point, at about age 13, at which many people from relatively deprived backgrounds lose interest in education. How do we keep them in education and enthuse them? Two policies are on the right lines. One aims to provide a genuine vocational path to young people who are not academic in the traditional sense. For years, as I say every time I speak in the House on this subject, all the academic accolades have gone to the bright pupils, the top third who achieve the best marks in maths and classical subjects. The rest of the class has received very little reward. What I like about some of the innovations to which we have been turning our minds in the past four and a half years is that they aim to engage and reward the young people in the middle and at the back of the class. The Government are taking steps to provide a proper, recognised vocational channel for young people, and that is a remarkably positive aspect of this period of educational change.
Many of us outside education can see how important sure start is in breaking the cycle of educational deprivation, and we want to know when the Government will fully expand the policy. If sure start is successful, why is it not being rolled out faster? We know that there is a problem in ensuring that later sure start programmes are up to speed and are learning from the earlier ones, and that is acceptable. However, there is lots of evidence that sure start is successful, so it is the Government's responsibility to roll it out faster, and I urge them to do so. In the school report, they get a little bit of a plus and a little bit of a minus for that.
As with sure start, all the research that I have seen suggests that education maintenance allowances work: they retain young people in education and provide a stimulus that was lacking before. I understand that they are expensive, but we must be honest about our desire to achieve inclusion. Many hon. Members only see how much EMAs cost, and the considerable expense of rolling out the policy throughout the country. However, what is the cost of not doing so? Mr. Willis mentioned those who leave the education system with no qualifications. We know what that means in terms of the likelihood of such people suffering deprivation or achieving success, getting a job or falling into a life of crime. Such things can cost society a great deal of money. The cost of not rolling out sure start and EMAs has to be seen in that context. The final verdict is: interesting, but could do better.
Literacy and numeracy appear in the plus column. Some remarkable results have been achieved, especially among children aged up to 11. Most fair-minded people would agree that that is true. However, as Chairman of the Select Committee, I see inspectors' reports, hear evidence from the chief inspector of schools and examine the data, and from that vantage point I can see issues that have not been tackled adequately during the Labour Government's first four years. One of those issues is the 11 to 14 age group.
I understand that the Government's policy is to turn their mind to the question of how to achieve greater success with that group. In a sense, the Government are trying to apply the innovative techniques that have been used further down the age range to the 11 to 14 age group. I understand that the process will take time, but we must not delay tackling the problem of the performance of children who were previously doing quite well in school levelling off or declining after they turn 11. Remedying that problem presents a serious challenge. The news is not all bad: GCSE results for the top 50 per cent. of pupils are encouraging. However, as we know, the difficulty facing any Government is how to tackle the problem of the bottom 50 per cent.
Many aspects of higher education appear in the plus column. The Committee has carried out two inquiries into higher education—my hon. Friend Valerie Davey has been a participant. We have found some interesting developments in HE, especially the consistency of money flowing into research. That is a plus, although everyone knows that if we are to have world-class institutions the commitment to research must be continued.
On the other hand, there are serious problems in HE. If we do not tackle them soon, we will have serious trouble sustaining our world-class institutions. I am talking about the most exclusive club of HE institutions, including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and Nottingham and the London School of Economics.
We cannot continue to pay university teachers so little. I should declare an interest: when I worked for a living, I was a university teacher and I still have a vestigial connection with the Association of University Teachers. If we do not tackle pay, the quality of those who are attracted into universities and stay on to become professors will decline year on year. That presents a serious challenge to the Government, who must also tackle another significant problem that emerged from the Committee's inquiries: too few young people from the United Kingdom stay on to do postgraduate work, complete their PhD and go into university teaching. My interim verdict on HE—I intend to return to the subject shortly—is: a mixture of pluses and minuses.
Further education currently gives rise to the most entries in the minus column, but that is not a final judgment—I hope that the Select Committee's inquiry into FE will stimulate an increase in Government activity in that sector. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is right to point out that FE did not appear in the Conservative party's manifesto. I know that Mr. Boswell is interested in the sector, as he used to have ministerial responsibility for it. The FE sector is vital, not only for delivering conventional FE, but because many of the FE colleges will play an essential role in achieving the Prime Minister's target of 50 per cent. of young people entering HE.
Further education now delivers far more HE provision than was provided by the entire FE system when the Robbins report was written. It is salutary to think about that. It is an enormous sector and we must get it right, including the resources that flow into it and the salaries that are paid. The problem with so many people being on short-term and temporary contracts is one to which the Government must turn their mind. At the same time, they are coming under pressure on student finance.
Having agreed with a number of the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, we must fall out on something. I learned from the inquiry into access to HE and retention within it that there are no easy answers, so there is a great challenge. Perhaps most Members, or many—possibly those who do not have universities close to their constituencies form the higher percentage—do not recognise yet how vital the HE sector is to the future of our country in terms of competitiveness and producing the bright young people who will be the leaders in engineering, management and all the things that make the United Kingdom wealthy.
If we do not invest in our universities and we do not get things right, we shall be in serious trouble. Perhaps there are three challenges. First, we must get pay right. The same can be said about the flow of postgraduates into HE. Secondly, we must recognise that universities have an enormous role in the community, and I mean that in a big sense. It is about time that we realised that most universities in most regions are the biggest employers. They are the biggest bringers of wealth, the biggest potential for change and the biggest potential for innovation.
I would hate to see my constituency if the university were taken out. The same could be said of Manchester, with its four universities, and of Leeds, with its two great institutions. If HE institutions were removed from most of the towns and cities of our country, we would be left with an appalling tragedy. Indeed, there are certain areas where we need more universities, not fewer. I think especially of Cornwall, Bolton and a couple of other places.
Thirdly, some people said during our inquiry into HE, "The bravest thing that the Labour Government did after 1997 was to change the basis of student finance." We could no longer accept the situation that we found in our inquiry. It revealed that we spent roughly the same percentage per capita on HE as our major industrial rivals; we spent a bit less than many and a bit more than others. As a ball-park figure, the percentage was about the same. However, 40 to 45 per cent. of that spend was flowing into student support. That was double what any of our competitors were spending.
It is necessary to make a decision on priorities at some stage. Is the priority the quality of teaching? Is it the quality of on-going research? Is it the quality derived from using universities as an agent of regeneration in communities and the regions? Alternatively, are we to reintroduce a system that makes it comfortable for people who should pay something towards their own education? I believe that it would be extremely dangerous if we chose to go back to the old system of student finance rather than looking forward and ensuring that we keep expenditure in balance.
I wanted, as did the Committee, to have regard to the poorest students who were in trouble. Most of the evidence showed that there was a percentage of students from very poor backgrounds who were put off by the fear of debt and by the incomprehensibility of the system, which meant that they had to go to five different pots of money. We were also worried about the time that students were spending on part-time work. As I have said, these are matters of balance. I worry about the Government because they got the collywobbles about their resolve after a successful campaign by the Liberal Democrats during the election. Whatever interdepartmental inquiries are made, I hope that the repercussions for the rest of the system of starting to spend an enormous percentage of the higher education budget on student support are clearly understood.
I shall say a word or two about individual learning accounts. I tried to produce a balanced report; the Government have done some good things and some not so good things. I tried to be even-handed, but the Government should deal with some things very soon. I came to education late. I went to a smart boys' grammar school, but did not enjoy it much; I lived in a part of the world where people from humble backgrounds were made to feel different. The school I went to is down the river from Westminster; it is now a private school, but it was not when I was there. I had four years in industry before I got back into education; people helped me, first, get into further education, then into higher education. When I got into the London School of Economics, I found it difficult to leave education at all.
I like the fact that ILAs are there and that we introduced them.
Let us be fair; I shall come back to whether or not they are in existence in a moment.
ILAs are a wonderful idea. This is the first time that they have been introduced and they can bring about profound change. We often do not recognise in the House that changing the culture of our country means reaching people who have never been interested in education and training and getting them into training; doing so is a sign of real success. It is all very well getting middle class professionals or the band just below them interested in education; the difficulty is reaching the third of our population that has never had decent education and training. ILAs were beginning to achieve that. Ruth Silver from Lambeth college gave evidence to the Select Committee and spoke about the way in which ILAs were getting through to the very people whom we need to target with education, training and skills. We should not write off ILAs, as they have achieved genuine success.
I hope that the Secretary of State reads the Select Committee report, but I shall repeat what she told us. She said that ILAs would be frozen; there would be a period of suspended animation—to take up the point made by Mr. Barker—then they would be re-energized pretty quickly. That is what I understood, and I hope that it is true. However, the Department issued a press notices, which stated,
"Individual learning accounts to be suspended".
Two or three times the press release said that ILAs would be suspended, before going on to say:
"We have therefore decided to prevent any further take-up of ILAs."
To be polite, the language gets very dense; it is worrying that one does not know what is happening from that press release. To be fair, in the last Education questions, the Secretary of State, in the final sentence of one response, indicated that ILAs would be resumed in some form and would be back on track relatively quickly. There is one thing that Education Secretaries have to do; they have to do the job competently, which, I am sure, my right hon. Friend can do, but they also have to stand up to big brother. If big brother in No. 10 says, "I don't like what is happening with student support", he has to be stood up to and told the truth about student finance. If big brother in No. 11 says, "I don't like what is happening with ILAs", he has to be stood up to and told that, not only were ILAs very much his idea, but the money for them has to continue. ILAs are innovative, new, exciting and very largely successful.
I heard "File on 4". It was an excellent programme, and very funny in parts. It told the story of a man who had been convicted of selling supposedly leather sofas at £6,000 a time. When people complained because the furniture was in fact plastic, he moved into the ILA market and sold worthless CD-Roms, presumably creaming off the £175. The programme was hilarious in some respects, although I doubt whether the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend John Healey, found it funny. However, let us not obscure the fact that a small percentage of forgeries have been found in a very big programme, so the argument for reinstating ILAs quickly is made.
From everything that I have heard in this debate, I conclude that ILAs should be back on track—albeit modified—and celebrating innovation. We should say to the Opposition that innovation sometimes brings problems, that those problems must be recognised and fixed, and that innovation should not be abandoned. Not everything in good, innovative government will work, but some things should be tried. Mr. Dorrell knows exactly what I mean, as he tried a few things at the Department of Health. A good Government and good Ministers see what works, fix what can be fixed, and retain the vision.
One other chord has been struck in this debate: let us be real about the difference between what Ministers think is out there and what really is out there. I realised during the election campaign that if one does not let the people who are to deliver the vision construct that vision, they will not be keen on delivering it because they will not understand it. There is still a gap—I have said this to the Secretary of State on the record—between what the Government think they are achieving and what is translated to teachers, head teachers, support workers and others on the ground. I ask the Secretary of State to launch a campaign to reach out to those people. She has the right policies, and most of them attract more pluses than minuses, but she has a job in explaining them in order to deliver on her ideals.
I want to follow Mr. Sheerman in two respects. First, as one of the more short-lived predecessors of my hon. Friend Mr. Green, I, too, welcome him to his responsibilities on the Front Bench. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he opened the debate. He focused the attention of the House in particular on the question of teachers' morale and the absurdity of the policy on individual learning accounts as it has turned out in practice—and did so extremely effectively.
Secondly, I follow the hon. Gentleman into another aspect of education policy, which my hon. Friend mentioned relatively briefly but which did not merit a single complete sentence in the Secretary of State's speech: the shambles of the Government's policy on the financing and structure of higher education. The hon. Gentleman said that when we have a policy that does not work, we should acknowledge that fact. There are few better examples of a policy that does not work for which this Government are responsible than that which they introduced in the first weeks of the previous Parliament on the financing of students and on higher education more generally.
Perhaps I should begin my remarks on higher education by stressing that although there are sharp differences between the two major parties on the way in which we are likely to deliver policy objectives in higher education, there is no major distinction between those objectives. It is a truism that higher education is hugely important in the modern world. If we are to earn our living in the globalised economy, we must be a knowledge-based society. I hope that we also agree that the case for a vigorous and expanding higher education system is not purely utilitarian, based on earning one's living. It is also based on providing people with the opportunity to lead more fulfilling lives. We should always restate those objectives in parallel, not seeking to emphasise one to the exclusion of the other.
Furthermore, there is no divide between the two major parties—I hope—on the commitment to achieve the Prime Minister's stated objective of further increasing the participation rate in higher education from the 30-plus per cent. achieved by the previous Government, which has not yet been improved in the four and a half years under this Government, to 50 per cent. So far, so good; so uncontroversial.
However, we must then address the question of mechanisms. I suppose that there is no surer sign of problems in the evolution of this Government's policy than that old staple of a Government looking for a way out of trouble that is the planted press story which appears on August bank holiday Monday. I have seen the inside of a Whitehall Department, and boundless though my admiration is for Sarah Womack, the political correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, I very much doubt whether she picked up the following story on the grapevine on Bank holiday Sunday.
The article was clearly the result of the Government asking themselves what story they could place in the empty newspapers on Bank holiday Monday. The headline reads: "Blair plans a U-turn on university tuition fees". If one is to manage a good plant on a bank holiday Monday, one must first identify the problem that one is going to solve and, secondly, state in unambiguous terms, so that headline writers on duty over a bank holiday weekend can understand, what one intends to do about it.
On stating the problem, an unnamed senior Minister was wheeled out with a quotation for the article. He told The Daily Telegraph that the policy introduced by Labour in 1998 was a "total shambles". The quotation goes on:
"It's a disaster and hugely unpopular. It was a mistake, which came home to us on the doorstep when we were canvassing at the election, and that is being recognised in the Cabinet now."
There we have the Downing street plant, ahead of the bank holiday weekend, asserting that their policy was a disaster. On considering what to do about the problem, the first line of the story makes it clear:
"Tony Blair has ordered a rethink on university tuition fees".
That is simple and straightforward.
Then the briefing machine went quiet until the week of the Labour party conference. They use their material, these people in the briefing machine; one has to give them that. Kenneth Baker used to be told when Secretary of State for Education that he was never knowingly undersold. That principle could be applied more generally to this Government, as the story rode again.
Clearly, there was a problem at the Labour party conference, because on
"A full-scale review of university fees and loans has been ordered in an attempt to find the fairer system of student funding demanded . . . by Tony Blair."
The same story was therefore announced twice.
I invite the House to remember the days on which those two stories appeared. The first sighting of the story was on
"The die has been cast. Tony Blair has spoken and the United Kingdom plans to become the first country in the world where graduates will have to pay a tax as a way of funding their university education."
The story in The Independent continues:
"No one expected the Government to come up with such a radical solution to the mess it created of student finance after the 1997 election. Not surprisingly, there is amazement all round. University vice chancellors are as gobsmacked as senior civil servants, and even New Labour insiders are left with their mouths open."
According to the next paragraph of the article in The Independent,
"No details have been worked out and a number of real problems have to be overcome."
The review was announced on
"Estelle Morris began a review of student support arrangements in the summer."
As far as I am aware, that was the first time that the review had been formally announced to the world. I am not making a narrow party point or just the procedural point that Parliament might have been told about the review, as it concerned a controversial policy that was approved by Act of Parliament. The question therefore arises whether the matter was correctly handled in procedural terms.
Given the history of the past four and a half years on student finance, and given the fact that the Government have acknowledged that that was a shambolic failure, can we not learn from the mistakes of those four and a half years, and give ourselves more than 11 days from the announcement of the review to the announcement of its conclusions? In particular, perhaps we could have the 11 days the right way round, with the review announced before the conclusions. It is an absurd way to carry out the process of policy making in an area of vital importance to our national life.
Having made those points about the way in which the issue has come back on to the policy making agenda, I shall be slightly less confrontational. I go back to my starting point: the policy objectives are largely shared by the two sides of the House. The Secretary of State's speech to the assembled company of vice-chancellors on
The first issue that the Secretary of State highlighted in her speech to the vice-chancellors was equity of access. When she responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford at the beginning of the debate, the right hon. Lady made a powerful and emotional case that the Government had stood alongside pupils and students from low-income backgrounds and had sought to improve their life chances by using the power of the Government to improve the education opportunities available to them.
I do not deny that the Government have taken significant steps in some places to improve the school opportunities available to children from low-income backgrounds. I do not take that away from them, but I sought to intervene on the Secretary of State in order to remind her of the words that she used in respect of the higher education sector and the same social policy issue, and to ask her whether she was as pleased with the record of her predecessor as Secretary of State in improving equity of access to higher education as she clearly was with the improvement of the literacy and numeracy records for pupils from low-income backgrounds.
I quote to the House the words used by the Secretary of State on
"None of us can defend the position where five times as many young people from professional backgrounds enter higher education compared with those from unskilled and manual backgrounds—73-74 per cent. compared with 13-14 per cent.—and when that gap has not narrowed in recent time."
That is as close as a Secretary of State in office is ever likely to come to condemning the record of her own Government on equity of access for students from low income backgrounds.
The problem is not that that is new or unpredicted, or that no one knew that that would be the result of the policies introduced by the Government in 1997. We knew ahead of the event that that was likely to be the consequence of the policies that the Government introduced in 1997 and 1998. It was not just the Opposition who were arguing that that would be the consequence. It was one of the central findings of the Dearing report that if the Government followed the policy prescription that they ended up following in 1997-98, that would diminish the opportunity for equitable access, in particular for students from low-income backgrounds.
Dearing's version of the statistic that the Secretary of State quoted on
The failure of policy in the past four and a half years was identified by Dearing, and he made specific recommendations on how to address it. Before we go rushing into the Prime Minister's latest attachment to the graduate tax, perhaps it would be sensible to spend a few days at least, and preferably much longer, looking again at the Dearing report to see whether the things that have happened were predicted—I believe that they were—and whether the findings of the Dearing report should now inform our policy making in a way that they were not allowed to do four and a half years ago.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Was not the basic error that on the very day that the Dearing report was published, the then Secretary of State came to the House with his conclusions, which differed from Dearing's? Is not the moral that a period of reflection on what had been offered to the country at great length and expense should have taken place then and ought to take place now?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It took Dearing 14 months to produce—if I remember correctly—18 volumes. It took the Secretary of State a matter of hours to receive the report and come to the House of Commons with his conclusions. It is a classic example of acting in haste and repenting at leisure. My central point this evening is that we are in danger of seeing exactly the same thing happen again, because the Prime Minister has rushed off to the newspapers with a press release, and six weeks later has rushed back to announce the conclusions, without allowing the policy-making process proper time to assess the alternatives.
I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. However, no one has found the answer to the problem about which he speaks. When we had full maintenance grants and no fees, we could not get young people from low-income backgrounds into higher education. The answer probably lies elsewhere: perhaps in education maintenance allowances for 13 and 14-year-olds, but not in the old system.
It would be a mistake to rerun the Dearing committee's debate in an intervention and a response. Clearly, it is true that not only student finance has an impact on participation rates for students from low-income families. However, I have often said that although the Dearing report comprises 18 volumes, all of us who are interested in the issue should remember one sentence at its heart. The report traced the way in which the argument had changed during the committee's deliberations. The sentence states:
"We did not end up where we started."
I believe that my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell was in the Department when the Dearing review was set up and perhaps he could confirm that the Conservative Government and the Labour Opposition expected Dearing to recommend the abolition of the maintenance grant and its replacement with student loans, but the continuation of free tuition. Everyone expected that, including, as he has often said, Lord Dearing. That is why the sentence that I quoted is so significant.
The committee considered the evidence and the options and concluded that if public money continued to be directed at supporting students in higher education, equity of access should be provided by focusing public money on means-tested maintenance grants and expecting a private contribution from the individual through a tuition fee. Dearing's central conclusion was that we should have means-tested maintenance grants to support students from low-income backgrounds who go away to university, but that all students should be expected to contribute to the cost of their tuition from their future earnings through fees supported by a loan system.
The Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State rejected that conclusion in a hurry at the beginning of the previous Parliament. I believe that the Government should return to it and assess it more carefully at the beginning of this Parliament. Dearing's recommendation deals directly with equity of access, which is clearly and rightly important to the Secretary of State, given her earlier comments. However, Dearing also recommended that approach because he realised that if students pay tuition fees to universities, an important extra benefit accrues to the university system. It would make the universities more directly accountable to students and therefore, rightly, more responsible to the student body than to the Secretary of State and the Department for Education and Skills.
I have not said so previously, but I sharply disagree with the policy in the Conservative party manifesto to sell the spectrum to endow universities. That is an original Father Christmas policy, which would undermine the objective of making the universities accountable to their students. It would make them accountable to nobody. That is an unattractive idea. Contemplating selling spectrum to mobile phone companies almost seems like another world. That policy now seems less attractive for many reasons and I hope that we shall not pursue it.
Such a policy undermines the key message of Dearing: a proper, accountable and more independent university system, which moves away from the over-centralisation for which we were responsible in the 1980s and 1990s and gives universities genuine independence to develop a more flexible system, is provided through students being supported to pay fees. That would enforce a principle that the Government have not respected: extra money raised from students should be ring-fenced for the higher education sector. If students pay fees straight to the universities, that is the end of the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting contribution. Although we have a system of students paying fees and of accountability, half the students who go into higher education are not required to pay fees because of means-testing. Yet that has not tackled the problem of the differences in university attendance between the various social classes. On accountability to students, I am worried that the right hon. Gentleman comes close to advocating top-up fees, which the Government have rightly opposed. Will he clarify his position on that?
I shall not get into an argument on top-up fees, because I am basing my argument on the findings of Dearing. There are aspects in any document that runs to 18 volumes that I would not necessarily have written in exactly the same way. However, on policy mix for higher education, the Dearing report comes closer to setting out a coherent programme, which is likely to provide a vigorous university sector, than the policy that the Government have pursued in the past four and a half years or the policy idea in our manifesto for the general election.
Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that we have moved on since the Dearing report? I agree with almost all his comments apart from his conclusions, about which we have always argued. Since the Dearing review, the Cubie commission was set up in Scotland and produced some compelling evidence, and the Rees review has taken place in Wales. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that academic research is a vital complement to the Dearing report? After all, Lord Dearing's inquiry began almost six years ago.
Of course, I do not suggest that Dearing is the end of knowledge on the subject or that we should substitute one 11-day policy-making process for another. The lesson of events in the past four years is that we should take time to reflect. The Dearing report is the most serious, coherent and comprehensive review of the subject in the United Kingdom in the past six years.
I want to emphasise the value to the higher education sector of creating a world where a larger proportion of university income comes directly from students and does not pass through the Department for Education and Skills. That would provide a more flexible and responsive higher education sector. Let us revert to objectives—a subject that is not controversial. The Secretary of State made it clear in her speech on
"Over the last ten to twenty years, the higher education sector has seen a huge shift from being an elite to being a mass system, but without anyone necessarily thinking strategically about what we want our universities to be achieving."
That is a pretty damning criticism by a Secretary of State of a Government who have been in office for four and a half years. What type of institution will be required if we are to increase participation in higher education from the 30-odd per cent. today to the 50 per cent. that is the Prime Minister's objective? Surely it is absurd to believe that a vision of what a university ought to be, based originally on Oxbridge, the London School of Economics and a few other traditional universities, which had much less than 10 per cent. participation in the pre-1960 era, can be extended and made available to 50 per cent. of the population.
I am certainly not arguing for a return to polytechnics and colleges for advanced technology, or for creating artificial pigeonholes; quite the contrary. I seek a system in which institutions are more responsible to their student body, and are freer to work through for themselves how to meet the needs of their student bodies more accurately.
In this connection, it is worth recording the words of two distinguished people who have worked in the higher eduction sector and who have described in colourful terms what is wrong with the unduly straitjacketed world that higher education has become. Professor Zellick, the head of London university, states:
"It's a pretty thoughtless way of getting people off the streets and out of the dole queues and it isn't what the country needs. Nobody says that, so we struggle on doing lots of silly things and wasting money. You've got people of moderate academic ability doing questionable academic courses culminating in degrees, leaving university, as they arrive, with inadequate literacy and numeracy."
That is from the vice-chancellor of London university.
The former principal of Strathclyde university, Professor Sir Graham Hills, states:
"British universities are in decline. They are short of money, short of ideas and short of confidence. Within a generation they have ceased to be independent beacons of learning and radical thinking and have become obedient outstations of the Department for Education and Employment."
There is no disagreement in the House that we want to create a system of world-class institutions with equitable access. However, I sometimes think that hon. Members on both sides of the House are in denial about the consequences of the policy prescriptions that have been followed by the Labour Government over the past four and a half years. I do not absolve the Government who went before them from pursuing a policy of over-centralisation or from over-bureaucratising the university sector.
World-class institutions will not be created by bureaucratic diktat from the Department for Education and Skills. They will be created by providing a framework within which institutions are able to develop genuine world-class expertise. That result would flow from a much more liberal system, of the kind that Dearing envisaged—a much more attractive and compelling vision than the one currently on offer from the Government.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Dorrell, who gave a succinct and clear analysis of the current position of higher education. I welcome what he said about the broad band of agreement about the objectives. One of those objectives is equality of access, and there is a range of reasons relating to that, as my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman mentioned. One must be the quality of teaching that young people receive in schools to attain the standard to go on into higher education. I shall return to that aspect of the debate.
The National Union of Teachers' report is an important document—I declare an interest here: I am still a member of that trade union—but it is only one document to be added to the totality of the debate about the recruitment and retention of teachers. It is interesting that there seems to be a shift of emphasis—this is evident not only from the NUT but from the other teachers' unions—in the last paragraph of the summary of that document, which states:
"Policies for recruitment must be balanced by policies for retention."
Recruitment numbers are going up, as the Secretary of State made clear today. More young people are being attracted to teaching now, and are going to university and into postgraduate certificate of education courses in order to get into teaching. The issue now is retention. The NUT document goes on:
"It is important to listen to the teachers and address their concerns."
I am equally sure that the Government will do—and are doing—just that.
I would like to share my experience of schools in Bristol. I have visited schools and talked to head teachers and teachers about the present situation. I want to add my congratulations to teachers on all their hard work and commitment, because standards have gone up. For the Opposition to lead in this debate with such a tirade against teachers without recognising their achievements and the way in which standards have improved is nothing short of a disgrace. Standards are going up and there is a huge commitment from teachers. However, there is also a need to continue to retain teachers.
I want to speak briefly, from my experience, about the nature and quality of those being recruited and about the position of teachers leaving—and, indeed, returning to—the profession. I also want us to look at the profession in the same way that we are now beginning to look at other professions, because people no longer go into a profession and stay in it from their first day of work until they retire, as was the family tradition. People now move in and out of professions, often to the benefit of those professions; I believe that that is explicitly of benefit to the teaching profession.
At one of the schools that I visited recently, I met the head teacher and we soon struck up a conversation that went something like this: "Yes, isn't it awful? I've advertised for a teacher and a deputy, and I've had so few applications. Instead of getting 40, I've got four." However, when I asked him about the quality of the applicants, he replied, "Oh, I've made a really good appointment." The people applying at present are of the highest quality.
In a stable economy with high levels of employment, people who apply to work in teaching have made a firm commitment to teaching. The head teacher of that particular school readily admitted that the people coming through his door were of the highest quality. He now has a new deputy head teacher and two newly qualified teachers of the highest quality, following a tradition going back many years.
We acknowledge that the number of applicants has gone down. There are more jobs—particularly for women—out there in the market, and fewer people are applying for the reason that it is traditionally expected that they would be a teacher. However, the quality of newly qualified teachers is important.
Another school that I visited recently had three newly qualified teachers, all of whom had been mature students. They had gone back into education—in a way to which my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield referred—having experienced other employment elsewhere. They had tried other things. They had worked in retail, in business and in commerce. However, that work had not given those people the level of satisfaction that they had expected, and they had recognised, either through doing voluntary work with young people or through their own families, that teaching was an alternative. They came into teaching with good qualifications and with added experience. They brought to the classroom something more than those of us—I include myself in this description—who went from school to university to school without being able to bring a breadth of experience to young people.
I recently heard an amusing anecdote about a young person who had said "My mum has just got a job in the school: she is going to be the careers teacher. I don't know what she will be able to tell them; she has never done anything but teach". We laughed, but there is a sound point there. I am sure that qualified teachers, with all their generic skills, have much to tell young people—on the basis of wide experience in their own families, and of work known to them through family connections—about what they might want to do. I am sure that they want to instil in young people the highest possible aspirations. How much better it would be, however, for school staff rooms to contain teachers who have worked in the travel industry or in engineering. I am thinking of those who, because of their wider background in, perhaps, farming, can say to young people "There is a breadth of work out there that we can tell you about". That, I think, is enriching and good, and I think that the school to which I have referred, with its three NQTs—mature students—has acquired something that enriches both the staff room and the pupils.
The head teacher of another school, a beacon school, has moved on to offer elsewhere the expertise that built up the school. The deputy head—acting head, at the time of my visit—was very excited about the job for which she was going to apply. She told me that, even if she did not get the job, it would have been a challenge and a rewarding experience to be the acting head of a beacon school with so much going for it, and that it would be very good for her CV.
That teacher took me around the school and introduced me to two NQTs. Those young people had come straight from university. They had already worked in the school, they had been there as students, they clearly had aspirations and they were doing a really good job. The teacher then introduced me to one of the new nursery teachers, an older woman who had entered the school as an assistant teacher.
That woman had found her way gradually through the system. She had done her studying at night, while in a part-time job, and she was now back as a fully trained nursery teacher. That was excellent: she was an older person who had brought up her own family, she had much to offer the school, and she was going to stay in the locality for a good while. I am sure that the diversity provided by those with wider backgrounds and different experiences will prove valuable.
Subsequently, on a Saturday afternoon, I met a young man who has opposed me in two general elections, representing the Green party. He is a wonderful young man, very colourful—not just in terms of the name of his party, but in terms of all the work that he has done in youth clubs and with photography. He helped Sustrans, the cycling organisation, to get its million cyclists on the road for the millennium event. Although he had wide experience, however, he had never quite settled down—but now, he told me, he was doing a PGCE course.
That young man has worked in secondary schools in Bristol, and he now realises what fun young people can be. He can offer them all his experience, and no one will be able to get the better of him—although I am glad to say that I did in the general election! He will make a superb teacher: he empathises with young people, he has a lot of experience, he has a lot of go and he will bring something rich and valuable to the staff room as well as to young people.
Nowadays, it cannot be assumed that a teacher who enters the profession with qualifications at 20 or 21 will be a teacher for ever. I hope that such teachers will take a break, and then return. The Secretary of State suggested that we should consider not just the drop-out figures, but the figures for those returning to teaching. Surely it is beneficial for people to return with wider experience. I am thinking of those who may have entered the profession when young and then, perhaps, started a family. We should recognise the contribution made by women in bringing up children, and see it as a real plus on their CVs. Such experience—such "early years" work—is something they can bring back to teaching.
I am not as pessimistic as some have been today: I think that the figures should be viewed in more depth. We should understand what is happening in the profession as a whole. It is certainly becoming more demanding. I agree with Mr. Willis, who said that young people themselves now presented a greater challenge. They too are more demanding and difficult, in many ways, than those of us whose teaching experience took place 20 or more years ago. If we take into account those who bring more maturity, more qualifications and more experience of life to the profession, however, I think we can view the profession positively. We should bear in mind that more young people are choosing it, more mature students are returning, and more people who have had a taste of teaching and then gained wider experience are also going back.
I do not particularly want to return to the profession myself, but I recently replied to a student questionnaire that asked "If you were not a Member of Parliament, what would be your ideal job?" I thought about it for a long time—I thought of all the exotic things I might do—but, if I was to be honest, I had to write "Teacher". I did, however, add "On a good day".
There is nothing better than teaching—on a good day. There is nothing more exciting in the world than the exhilaration of helping young people, seeing their eyes light up and knowing that something has been understood and aspirations have been extended. I am here because I want to ensure that that right is extended to more young people—that they will have better-qualified and more experienced teachers with wider experience and more maturity.
We are fortunate in Bristol. I know that there are pressures on teachers in other parts of the country, which we do not experience to the same extent. We do not have as many applicants, but they are high-quality applicants—and in Bristol the idea of lifelong learning does not just mean adding a bit of adult education when people are older: that notion has now gone. Although it is a good thing, it is not what Labour Members mean by lifelong learning.
In at least two parts of the city—we are looking for a third—we have established sure start. We are breaking the cycle of deprivation by helping not just the youngest but their parents—whole families—to recognise the importance of education. We are on a solid foundation in developing more nursery education—and it should be remembered that by doing that, and through the provision of smaller primary school classes, we have increased the number of teachers throughout the country by some 11,000 over the past four years. More teachers are working in, particularly, nursery and primary education, which is important and a good priority for the Labour party.
That proud tradition has been built on in Bristol. In the primary school sector, there has been an improvement of 9 or 10 per cent. in literacy—in line with the national average—and a higher percentage improvement in science skills. I congratulate all teachers involved in that excellent work.
My severest criticism and my real concern—I trust that the Government will address it—relate to key stage 3. I have seen skills in Bristol in which the level for those 11 to 14s has been maintained, or has dipped. I do not think that that has been caused merely by the transition or the curriculum: I think we must look hard at the whole nature of what we are trying to achieve for the age group involved. We must target our interest in and support for teachers to ensure that this is another rewarding, improving step in education; otherwise those five A to C grades will not be achieved.
The number of A to C grades is rising slowly. Hon. Members who know Bristol as well as I do recognise that we have a specific problem at secondary level. With the city-wide review of secondary education, we will, I trust, deal with that.
On further education, the City of Bristol college, with its new site in the centre and its plans for the future, is drawing in more and more young people at 16. I want education maintenance allowances to be brought in widely across the city. I give every encouragement to the Front-Bench team to knock on the door of No. 11 and ensure that the finance is there to roll out education maintenance allowances across the country, including Bristol.
On higher education, the university of Bristol is part of the Russell Group. I have been a member of the university's council. I have argued the case for more local and state students going on to higher education. We have a new vice-chancellor, whose brief is to ensure that more children from state education go to the university. I will do everything—I know that other Labour Members in the city will do the same—to ensure that that objective is achieved.
We are fortunate. We also have the university of Bath and the university of the West of England. The work that they are doing in different ways to ensure internationally recognised excellence of provision and wide equality of access—the Prime Minister's goal is that 50 per cent. of people aged 18 to 30 have experience of higher education—will, I trust, be endorsed, encouraged and achieved with the contribution from the three universities in the Bristol area. Beyond that, we are encouraging people in Bristol to take part generally in wider access to education, ensuring that, through commerce and industry, there is the access; there is the motivation.
I end with something that is near to my heart, which is ensuring that older people get into information technology. The city has a centre for IT training, which the college set up, but which is supplemented largely by the university of the West of England. For those of us who until recently had never wanted to put our hand on a mouse, classes start at 7.30 in the morning and go on until late at night. People can leave work and go in for an hour. That resource, which is enabling people of all ages, is remarkable and good.
Only last weekend, I went to a fresh start course for the 45-plus age group to open an IT suite. I gather that Mr. Webb has the constituency with the most older people who are IT literate, but I assure him that the people of Bristol and outside are now looking to IT, if only to e-mail their grandchildren throughout the world.
That is all part of the wider education to which many more people are now aspiring thanks to a Labour Government. Let us not knock what has been done. Let us encourage it. Let us praise, particularly our teachers, and encourage more and more people of different ages to return to teaching.
Valerie Davey made some constructive points, and the debate has been an unusual one for an Opposition day. It is easy to associate such a day with hard words and criticism. There has been some of that, rightly, but there have also been some constructive contributions. If I were to single one out, it would be that of my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell, who has caused me to attenuate a large chunk of what I might have said on higher education. I am sure that the House will have no difficulty with that.
The underlying situation is that while we all understand that it is all very well to trade insults across the Chamber, there must be a common basis and understanding in our commitment to education. My hon. Friend Mr. Green was, rightly, at great pains not to challenge the motives of the current ministerial team or indeed the general competence of teachers. I strongly agree with him. We must start with a measure of consensus and make constructive—I hope—criticisms, but criticisms nevertheless. Motives and even some passion in the commitment to education are fine, but Governments must deliver.
The debate highlights a problem that I have felt for some time that the Government are running into. They are what I call an adjectives, or an epithets, Government. There are some fine words. I select my special favourites: "modern", "joined up", "high quality" and even "world class". But the difficulty is that they do not always attach to nouns, or perhaps I should say that they are so portable that they are transferred between nouns and, in any case, the nouns do not attach to reality.
When considering the Government's record on education, which, do not forget, now extends to nearly five years, I am reminded increasingly of the old story of the laconic teacher who completed the report in the Michaelmas or autumn term, "Trying"; in the spring term, "Still trying"; but by the summer term had got to "Still very trying."
The House will understand that, as my specialist area is post-16 education, I shall not say much about schools, although many issues of morale, and indeed of Government behaviour towards schools, are mirrored in what has happened further on. As others have spoken on it, I shall touch briefly on the serious problem with teacher training, recruitment and retention. Of course, there are good teachers around, and good new teachers, but it is not always easy to secure them, and in certain places, the applicants for new posts are not as many as to give a realistic choice or the ideal choice.
I find it predictable but depressing that the recent NUT survey showed that the main problems with teacher retention related more to pupil behaviour and the weight of Government bureaucracy than to teachers' pay. Perhaps we would take too long if we were to go into that tonight, but the Government will have to deal with all those issues. One in particular that they will need to look at afresh is the impact of housing costs in areas of high pressure.
I turn to post-16 education. The main difference, it needs to be said, is that the education system at post-16 begins to deal with volunteers, rather than conscripts, whether they are more or less willing to learn. Accordingly, issues of student recruitment are immediately relevant. In that area, the Government have been foremost in setting targets, and whether they have been fulfilled is an even more precise measurement than whether school standards have risen.
That brings me to the withdrawal of individual learning accounts. The Government are guilty of two equivocations. The first—Mr. Willis and others were right to mention it—is that we need to know whether it is a temporary suspension pending reintroduction. I can think of a number of things that have been withdrawn in the Chamber that have never come back. Secondly, there is the issue of whether the Government think that what they have done has been a success or a failure. The one will inform the policy decisions for the other.
There has been much talk about fraud. No one holds any brief for that. It must be stopped, but it is extraordinary that on the back of a comparatively small amount of reported fraud, the whole programme has crashed within 12 months of its national roll-out. I cannot help feeling that there is an underlying motive of funding, bearing it in mind that the original estimates depended on 1 million people taking up the scheme, and that that was predicated on a reduction of money held in training and enterprise councils of £150 million—£150 each. If take-up has reached 2.5 million, that immediately creates a serious budget crisis for the Department.
On the significance in practice of individual learning accounts, unusually, I pray in aid the Deputy Prime Minister, who pleased me on one occasion when he appeared at Prime Minister's questions by knowing about ILAs and being broadly, though not uncritically, in favour of them, but then he perhaps let himself down somewhat when he said:
"they do the job that the Tories failed to do, which is to train our work force."—[Hansard, 24 May 2000; Vol. 350, c. 964.]
If they did that job and they are being removed, that job is not being done. Frankly, I thought his remark a little offside, because I had as a Minister, and retain, a strong commitment to further education and lifelong learning. There is no difference between us on that. I differ from the Government on that only in their implication that such a commitment started only in 1997.
It is disturbing that the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, in a recent briefing note, referred to
"the way in which lifelong learning seems to have dropped down the agenda of DFES since the election."
If nothing else, the Government can belie that by finding ways of supporting both providers and individuals who felt themselves cut off in midstream following the sudden announcement, and by instituting as soon as possible transitional arrangements, if necessary, and then replacement ones at the earliest possible moment.
I hope that, in doing that, the Government will have regard to two matters of substance. First, the history of demand-led initiatives in FE and HE, under Governments of both parties, shows that they can escalate very quickly as the market responds, and a more measured pace of expansion may be appropriate. There is no point in having, to borrow a phrase, boom and bust.
The hon. Gentleman will recall the notorious demand-led element of the further education funding methodology, for which I think he had some responsibility, under the Conservative Government. Does he remember that that Government withdrew it at very short notice, causing chaos in the financing of further education colleges throughout the country?
I do not in any sense seek to act as an advocate for that demand-led element, which in fact came slightly after my time, but I was indeed, delicately, making the point that I thoroughly agree that all Governments must be careful not to lose control of the system, because there can be bad consequences if they do. Indeed, some reparatory work had to be done to ensure that the system could continue. The hon. Gentleman is right about that. We need a sensible pace of expansion, with the right kind and levels of incentive.
The second matter to be considered is that support, including student support, may be better delivered through accountable local providers, in a decentralised way, than through cash handouts from the centre, which may be subject to abuse and more difficult to control. That is a matter for discussion.
If ILAs have been successful in overshooting their target, they are perhaps the only element in education post-16 for which the Government have achieved that. What has happened to Government plans for an expansion of 700,000 students enrolled in FE over a two-year period that will elapse next year? In fact, such enrolments have been trending inexorably downwards by about 1 per cent. a year. As Ministers will know, the FE sector—I do not run it down, I report it as I see it—is characterised by financial pressures, staff stress and significant student dropout, which is highly wasteful, and that is even before various bits of the education establishment start hectoring FE on quality issues.
The underlying causes of that must be tackled. It is important for Ministers to emphasise the distinctive virtues and roles of further education and vocational qualifications, rather than seeking falsely to assimilate them in some overall post-16 agenda, including higher education.
The Government have set a 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education. By definition, that target cannot have been missed yet, because it runs through most of the current decade, but given the disappointing levels of higher education recruitment, especially in the access areas, for people from less-advantaged homes, I predict that it, too, will come under pressure, unless the revised arrangements that are to be phased in resolve the situation.
I have some scepticism about it. One needs to ask whether Ministers themselves agree with it. I think that they will seek to wriggle out of it by redefining either participation or higher education. If the Government say that they want 50 per cent. of adults to participate in some relevant and appropriate continuing education, without reference to level, location or timing, I am all for that—I want far more adults, at all levels and from all backgrounds, to participate—but I do not think that we should necessarily define what those adults are doing as higher education.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real target that the Government need to set concerns 14 to 19-year-olds and the removal of the drop-off point at 16, and that unless we can get more young people to stay on in school or in education or training after the age of 16, targets of 50 per cent. in higher education are meaningless?
I have considerable sympathy with that view. I have myself spoken about the need for a more longitudinal approach. One has to recognise the individual segments and not try to put them all together, but what goes on in school must have an influence on what happens thereafter—on access and readiness to learn—and is highly relevant. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that.
We agree about the importance of increasing participation at ages 16 to 19. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that further education is to be defined not simply in terms of three-year degrees, and that two-year foundation degrees, and the role of HNCs and HNDs, have been an extremely important part of it and will play an important part in meeting the 50 per cent. target?
Again, I have little difficulty in agreeing with that. Perhaps we are following obsolete models, or models that have a particular but not a universal relevance. I am anxious that Ministers should not disguise what they are trying to do by rebranding it to mean that everybody will go to university for three years and metaphorically carries an Oxford degree in their knapsack. That is neither appropriate nor necessary. I am sure that we can have flexibility in participation without eroding the differences between institutions.
Behind this debate lies the Government's attitude to students. My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood spoke most eloquently on the subject. The Government want to claim credit for more participation but are reluctant to fund it, so there is continuing pressure on the unit of student funding, challenging our universities' continuing ability to deliver excellence in teaching and research, and offering a miserable deal for some students. I expect that it is all right for those from more conventional backgrounds, who can fall back on a fairly conventional and professional home, where there may be financial support or help with resources, but it is hard indeed for the first-time access user, which is already reflected in recruitment figures.
There is a danger that the social advance of the democratisation of higher education, which took place largely under the previous Conservative Government, might get lost. It is at least clear from the Government's review of their policies that they are worried that that might happen. I hope that any changes will devolve as much as possible of the access responsibility, provided that the funds are also transferred, to the institutions themselves.
With regard to the interface with further education, the Government will have to pay attention to the overall financial mix and how that is to be balanced. That would be a better approach than some sort of notional fusion, at nominal cost, of the two sectors.
The world of education now realises that for all the fine words of nearly five years of Labour government, and a growing and undeniable responsibility on the part of that Government, nothing much in education has got better. The House will remember that as early as 1999 the Prime Minister called for a year of delivery. That year of delivery was supposed to have taken place in the last millennium. Our young people deserve access to high quality education. What worries us is that that might be progressively denied them, for one reason or another, but neither they nor us will forgive the Government if they fail now.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Boswell, who speaks with sincerity and knowledge on post-16 education. I remember him as a responsive Minister, although we could never get any resources out of him or his Government. I intended to speak on one aspect of the decision on individual learning accounts, but I am tempted to pick up one or two of the other issues mentioned in the Opposition motion.
I am not comfortable with several aspects of Government education policy, and my hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench would not believe me if I said otherwise. However, the matters that cause me some discomfort are not mentioned in the motion. I am not uncomfortable with the school building programme, which has been incredible. In my part of the world, we are setting up a brand new high school, which will solve problems that have been festering in Ormskirk for decades. I am not uncomfortable with the direct funding that has gone into schools, for head teachers and senior staff to distribute as they, with their local knowledge, think fit. I am not uncomfortable with sure start, and the magnificent work that scheme has achieved in Skelmersdale. I am not uncomfortable with excellence in cities, or with excellence clusters—we have one in Skelmersdale that is doing wonderfully well in bringing learning mentors into our schools.
Like Mr. Willis, I am a firm believer in the comprehensive ideal. I always have been and always will be. The comprehensive ideal was a failure only because it never properly existed. We were never able, with the best will in the world or with the power sometimes available to us, to bring in a system that did away with all the horrors of selection and the private system. The Opposition motion mentions
"the failure of the Government to allow parents a real choice of schools".
What does that mean? How can a real choice be provided? A person could have written that sentence only if he or she had never examined the situation and the complexity of the relationships between schools and their admissions policies—or the lack of them.
The only comment that Mr. Green made to support that element of the motion was the claim that the Government did not allow good schools to expand enough to give everyone real choice. What nonsense. The logic of that would mean we would end up with one school in Lancashire with everybody in it, because the parents all chose it as the best school. Many students already travel miles for hours every day to get to the schools that their parents think are most suitable. The selection that still exists in our system does not provide real choice for all parents.
The motion also mentions the issue of student finance, about which Mr. Dorrell talked cogently. The motion claims that the present system has
"discouraged applicants from poorer families".
Of course it has. We have never had a system that did not, and it would probably be difficult to invent one. Student finance has gone to pot ever since the Conservative Government started to fiddle about with student loans, and the Labour Government have not done anything satisfactory to solve the problem since 1997.
My one serious criticism of the Government I support is that they have not significantly altered the numbers of young people from working class homes who have entered higher education. I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the article in The Independent, because I jumped for joy when I saw the announcement of the possibility of introducing a graduate tax to finance students in higher education. I have always been a supporter of a graduate tax. It has always seemed to me the most efficient and fairest way to fund tuition fees, and I hope that any new scheme will also include a maintenance element. A graduate tax based on income means that we would not force people, as we do at present, to go for the highest-paid jobs. Many graduates are altruistic and wish to take jobs in the public services or overseas, which are not necessarily highly paid.
In welcoming a better system of student finance for higher education, we must also remember that students in further education have a rotten deal. It has always been the Cinderella service in terms of resources. We must address the issue of the education maintenance allowance, and I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and my hon. Friend Valerie Davey that it should be rolled out across the country as soon as possible. Some of my constituents are students at Wigan college and Southport college, which are in different education authorities. My constituents do not get the allowance but they sit next to young people from Wigan and Southport who are doing the same course and who do get the allowance. Those young constituents ring me to ask why they do not get the allowance. That is understandable, because Skelmersdale is as deprived an area as Wigan.
I taught in higher education for 20-odd years and I hope that if we introduce a graduate tax we also introduce an element that recognises that students have a responsibility to use their opportunity properly. One of the things that distressed me as a teacher in higher education was the small minority of students who utterly wasted their time at university. They did not turn up for lectures or produce assignments. They even skived off exams at the end and just dropped out of the system. We cannot introduce a good system of student finance unless we accept that students must bear responsibilities in return.
The motion also criticises the Government's
"current policy of constant interference in the day-to-day running of education."
I am married to the head teacher of a large comprehensive school in a difficult area in Skelmersdale. She makes no complaint about the amount of interference or bureaucracy. She says that she goes through everything rapidly, picks out the essential stuff and ignores the rest. That skill, of picking out the essential materials in the information that is presented, is one that all hon. Members have. We would have to work 24 hours a day to read all the tripe that lands on our desks. In the same way, good head teachers and teachers know precisely what they have to do. Teachers have always been able to manipulate whatever systems Governments put in place.
However, although the Conservatives criticise the Government's "constant interference", Mr. Hayes said in an intervention that discipline in schools was going to pot and demanded to know what the Government were going to do about it. In other words, the hon. Gentleman was demanding Government interference in schools. The question is whether one is attracted by what the Government are trying to do, or not.
I shall turn briefly to the difficulty of attracting people into teacher training and, ultimately, into the teaching profession. I think that, at a time of virtually full employment, it is remarkable that the numbers being recruited into teacher education should have risen. After all, who on earth would be a teacher when, to paraphrase George Orwell, prison is an alternative?
Teaching can be a dreadful job. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West said that on a good day it can be the best job in the world. I have been there and done that and I know that it was the best job in the world—on those good days. It can also be a job in which teachers put their personalities on the line day after day in front of 30 young people aged, say, 13 or 14—the age group that I have always found to be the most difficult. Teachers are tested and pressured, and it is no wonder that so many of them suffer stress.
That stress is what accounts for the drop-out rate among those recruited into teacher training. A first-year student going into a school for teaching practice is usually quite coddled. I have done a lot of that in my time, and I know how it works. Such students are given a light timetable and a decent class in order to ease them into what is a difficult job. In their second or third years, however, or when postgraduate certificate of education students do their third teaching practice, the proposition is somewhat different. They are on their own in class. I intend no criticism when I say that many people find themselves constitutionally incapable of carrying on and decide to choose some other profession. That has always happened.
I was involved in teacher education in the 1970s. We knew that a substantial proportion of our students would get through their courses successfully, and complete their teaching practices, but that they would go off and be accountants, for example, at the end. They would decide to use their brains in a different way, because teaching was not for them. We should not be surprised by the recruitment difficulties that are being encountered.
I am delighted that the Under–Secretary for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend John Healey, is back on the Front Bench, as I know that the aspect of ILAs about which I am most worried is really his pigeon. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that the ILA was a Liberal Democrat policy—no wonder then that it got into trouble. We should be more careful about to whom we listen.
It is bitterly disappointing that the ILA has had to be suspended. It has been crucial to the Government's lifelong learning policies, which I regard as visionary, important and even, in many ways, inspirational. I understand that the suspension was needed to tackle fraud in the system, but I suspect that the success of the ILA scheme, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has termed it elsewhere, meant that the sheer number of people who wanted to take advantage of it was the greater cause.
We should not be surprised that people take the money that they are offered to go on courses. The more attractively and efficiently that that money is offered, the more people will pick up on it. Wherever public money is made available, even for the very best of causes, the parasites will gather to try to take advantage. We sometimes call those people entrepreneurs: my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman said that the leather sofas that such people sell are made of plastic, but they have also gone into the business of selling ILAs.
I ought to point out that more than fraud is involved. Many people have encountered incompetence in the administration of the ILAs. My constituent, Susan Ashcroft, has allowed me to refer to her, but I have many other constituents in similar circumstances. She was working as a nursery nurse at a special school. She opened an ILA account to help her through a higher national certificate course in early childhood studies. She spent months inquiring into the ILA scheme, and had even contributed towards it, but no one at the ILA centre at Darlington could tell her what had happened to it. Eventually, she received an unsigned letter from Darlington telling her that her account was closed.
By then, Susan Ashcroft was committed to a course costing her £425 for the first year, and £300 for the second. We are still pursuing that mystery, but I do not think that the problem had to do with fraud. I think it was a matter of sheer bloody incompetence.
I believe that the Government should stamp ruthlessly on fraud and on bureaucratic incompetence, but I must explain to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary my serious concerns about the suspension of ILAs where that affects courses set up under partnerships between local employers, local further education institutions and trade unions.
I should declare an interest. I am a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and I am chairman of the USDAW group of MPs in the House. I describe myself as an "allied worker". USDAW totally supports the Government's lifelong learning project, and was immensely successful in using ILAs in the most practical way—to give its members access to learning.
The union has inspired partnerships with employers and FE colleges that have involved hundreds of courses and thousands of workers. Nearly all the workers involved have undertaken no formal education since they left school. By way of contrast, I understand that about 80 per cent. of all ILA applications came from people already participating in some form of lifelong learning.
The bids for union learning funds were often very vigorously tested, with the active encouragement of the previous Labour Government elected in 1997. The lifelong learning courses set up under the partnerships that I have described are fully accountable, and fraud cannot be involved. I shall give one example of the work that went into such a venture.
Ann Hickson was the learning representative at a call centre in Bolton that has a staff of 900. She signed up 500 staff members for ILAs. She should get a medal for that: she should not have to see all her work, and all the hope that it engendered, snuffed out. Thousands of low-paid and unskilled workers are involved in the partnership schemes. Employers supply the premises, so there is no extra travelling involved. That is important to people who work long hours or peculiar shifts. The FE colleges supply tuition and equipment, which for the most part means computers.
The union does the recruiting and negotiates the ILAs. That ILA component has been absolutely vital to ensure that low-paid workers participate. If nothing is done to address the current situation, those people are unlikely ever to apply for courses in future. That is the main problem. They have already been difficult to persuade on to courses, and the money available under the ILAs has just made it possible for the learning representatives to attract them. I prophesy that if things fall apart now, they will never come back to learning.
USDAW learners are new to adult learning—they are the women returners, the manual workers and those who have few or no IT skills. They are often people with basic skills needs; people with no qualifications; and people who lack confidence, do not believe that they can participate in learning and thought that whatever learning days they had were over at the age of 15 or 16, or whenever they left school. To attract such workers, the courses have to be accessible to those who have busy working lives, affordable and confidence raising.
No doubt, the partnerships involving other unions are exactly the same, but the USDAW partnerships have cracked all those problems through the work of their learning representatives. Learning centres have been or are being set up at Littlewoods in Bolton and Oldham; at Reality, which was once Great Universal Stores, in Wigan and Widnes; at Sainsbury's in Hoddeston and Haydock; at Kays in Leeds; Elthel Austins in Liverpool; and at Tesco in Welham Green.
I shall pick out one of those centres, which is right next door to me. At Reality in Wigan, 12.8 per cent. of the work force signed up. That figure includes 103 people on computer literacy and information technology courses; 12 on European computer driving licence courses; 18 on basic skills courses; and 18 on a Spanish course—perhaps that relates to holidays. Without an ILA, a CLAIT course costs 90 quid—beyond those people's means. With an ILA, it costs £15.99, which they can manage, and they are happy to do so. Moreover, Wigan and Leigh college says that there is a much lower drop-out rate than on college-based courses, simply because people find it easier to go to the courses after work.
The importance of that sort of development speaks for itself, and I ask the Minister whether he would consider a transitional scheme, especially for those current arrangements, to tide them over the period between the suspension and the emergence of whatever turns up after the reassessment. Perhaps equivalent funds, supplementary to those of the union learning fund, could be earmarked and administered through the union learning fund and Department for Education and Skills team. That could run until next summer, when the courses end, or until the new targeted scheme is in place, whichever is earlier.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had little choice but to do what she has done. I am grateful to her for the account that she gave in her opening speech about the measures that have been taken to address the difficulties that have come to light and for what she said was a cast-iron guarantee to commit funding to lifelong learning schemes, or whatever they are called, in the future. However, I hope that, in replying to the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister will address the specific issue that I have raised and that, if he is free later tonight or tomorrow morning, he can meet some USDAW representatives who are lurking about the House and dying to talk to him about it.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Pickthall, who is indeed an honourable Member. I am not sure whether I should say this, but I had some sympathy with his views on the problems involved with the word "choice". Many of my constituents cannot have a choice about school; they live in small villages with one school or are served by just one high school, so there is no choice. Perhaps a happier word might be "diversity", and hon. Members on both sides of the House find themselves in considerable agreement about that issue.
It is important to emphasise that we agree that not everything is bad in education. Far from it, as my hon. Friend Mr. Green said in opening the debate. We must remember that there are many fine teachers in many fine schools, and they are producing outstanding results for their pupils. There is no doubt that standards have been rising for a considerable period. The continuity in policies such as the national curriculum—introduced by the Conservative Government and maintained by this Government, although increasingly prescriptively—has contributed to that increase in standards.
There is lots to agree about, but the Secretary of State does not quite understand that the job of Her Majesty's official Opposition is to oppose. It is not our job to list all the ways in which we agree with the Government; it is our job to explain what we disagree with them about and to point out failures in their policy.
No, I absolutely do not. I am afraid that that is totally wrong factually, and I shall return to it later in my remarks. That is one of the great Labour lies that those at Millbank peddle so enthusiastically, and it has no foundation in reality whatever. Is that answer clear enough for the hon. Gentleman?
On the philosophical point, is the hon. Gentleman saying that that investment has not taken place? Is he saying that, if the Conservative party was in power now, it would immediately stop that investment? Would it continue that investment? He should tell us what his philosophy is.
I am forced to anticipate a later part of my speech. The answer is that the Labour Government managed to spend 4.6 per cent. of gross domestic product during the previous Parliament, but the Conservative party usually managed to spend 5 per cent. of GDP. The Labour party spent less, as a proportion of national income, than we did, which is nothing to boast about.
No, I must get on. There will be a section on funding later in my speech, and if there is time I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman then; he will have a chance to intervene.
I understand the concern expressed by Labour Members about the word "crisis", which features in the motion. I asked myself whether it is the right word to apply, and I think that it is. Teachers receive a new directive every day. Head teachers and governors are drowning in bureaucracy. Teachers are leaving in droves, no matter what the Government say. There are severe teacher shortages, and they are occurring in Worcestershire for the first time.
This is no criticism of those teaching in Worcestershire's schools at present, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that there is a real problem with the calibre of applicants for vacancies in Worcestershire, and head teachers in my constituency are worried about it. People are being appointed not because they are the best applicant, but because they are the only applicant for a job, and there is a need to fill the classroom with a teacher.
Surely one reason that there are teacher shortages is that the number of teaching posts has been increased by policies such as reducing class sizes to 30 pupils at key stage 1. That policy has been achieved successfully and has generated many new teaching jobs.
I am talking about secondary schools, where class sizes are rising, not falling—one of the other signs of crisis in the education system. As my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes said, Ofsted has warned that discipline is decreasing in classrooms. Head teachers are no longer free to expel disruptive pupils, and the Government should intervene to give back head teachers their freedom on the issue and to remove burdens from them. The ridiculous exclusion targets represent a recipe for disaster in many schools in my constituency. Moreover, there are gross discrepancies in funding between local education authorities, to which I shall refer later in my remarks.
If the hon. Gentleman believes that head teachers should have more power to exclude pupils, perhaps he will tell the House what he thinks should happen to that increased number of excluded pupils? Does he think that we should return to the policy that operated under the Conservative Government, whereby excluded pupils received very little teaching time, which increased the problem for those pupils and society generally?
I vow to speak more briefly than those hon. Members who have spoken before me, and I am being lured into subjects that I did not really want to discuss in detail. I have sympathy with what the hon. Lady says, as I do so often. I am not suggesting that exclusion and expulsion should be the first resort for head teachers; they should be the last resort. But head teachers should be free to decide whether exclusion is right for the rest of the pupils in their schools. They should not have an eye on what the Department for Education and Skills says should be their exclusion target. They should take a pragmatic decision, with the utmost reluctance, to expel or exclude when they judge it necessary, and those who are expelled or excluded should be sent to pupil referral units, or similar organisations, which are now quite widespread in Worcestershire. That is where the trouble-making children who can destroy the opportunities of the other children in a school should be sent. Of course, systematic troublemakers should be taught and looked after, but I do not accept that they should be included in mainstream schools. Head teachers, not politicians or civil servants, should make the decision.
I shall try to speed up now. My point about the Government is that, when it comes to public services—whether the schools, the police, hospitals or anything—they combine the two worst strands of communism: Stalinism and Trotskyism. They are Stalinist because they are fixated with central control and Trotskyist because they believe in permanent revolution, changing the goalposts all the time with innovation for innovation's sake. That is true of all the public services in my constituency. Targets are set from the centre and the structures around those targets change time after time after time.
The previous Secretary of State was particularly guilty of those charges. He was a directive junkie. Every day, a new instruction told teachers their job; on almost every subject, he knew better than the teachers in my constituency. He also liked telling us what he was doing. Virtually every week a new glossy publication came through the letterboxes of Members of Parliament. I suspect that those publications were not designed to encourage our understanding of education, but to further his ambition to be the next leader of the Labour party.
Each instruction for teachers means more change to absorb. Some of the changes are small and some are large, but there is always change. No wonder head teachers despair and teachers leave the profession. Recruitment may be up and we can rejoice at that. It is obviously a good news story, but there is no point in turning on the tap if the plug is out at the bottom of the basin. That is what is happening in teaching.
What about local accountability? The Government derided the previous Conservative Government with just cause for excessive centralisation and for taking powers away from local authorities. However, what are this Government doing? Local education authorities are, at best, an irrelevance and, at worst, a serious inconvenience for them. That is why they are plotting the abolition of LEAs as part of the move towards regional government. LEAs, such as Worcestershire, now just administer the inadequate resources that they receive from the Government. LEAs are blamed for failure and ignored when they succeed; they are irrelevant to the Government.
Ministers prefer to constrain what schools can do through increased national funding, the prescriptions of the national curriculum and a multitude of funding streams that are all targeted to achieve the Government's objectives and not those of head teachers in individual schools.
The hon. Gentleman referred to lies about funding, but I wish to correct him. He might like to comment on the fact that funding in the last term of the previous Conservative Government went down by £100 per pupil when, in the past five years of Labour Government, it went up by more than £500. Does he not accept that his GDP figure had more to do with the growth of the economy than with the status of education funding?
I have news for the hon. Gentleman. Governments can spend only what they can afford to spend. I think that the Chancellor might face problems in that regard in forthcoming years in this Parliament. I warn the hon. Gentleman to be careful about such comparisons.
Who do schools report to and who are they accountable to?
I hope not.
Schools should be accountable to parents, governors, pupils, councillors and LEAs. Is that end of the list? Heavens—no. A local head teacher sat down with me the other day and, off the top of his head, cited a few of the other bodies to which he was accountable. They include Ofsted, ConneXions, the Department for Education and Skills, the regulations implicit in the standards fund, external assessors for performance payments, visiting assessors for head teachers and governors, examination boards, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and—because he has a sixth form—the learning and skills councils.
I should dearly like to explore the learning and skills councils at some length, but I will not. They are a subject for debate in themselves as they are a seriously pernicious influence in that they remove a large chunk of local accountability. The proposals on their powers that are currently being consulted on are an outrage that the Government should abandon.
Not surprisingly, the problem with all these bodies is that they provide conflicting advice. The DFES often provides conflicting advice. At present, I am aware of a case—I cannot identify it because it is too sensitive—where the advice on exclusions is contradictory. The Protection of Children Act 1999 means that the head teacher is obliged to exclude, but circular 10/99 on exclusions means that he cannot. He is bound to break one of the Government's directives whichever course of action he takes. Such cases are repeated in area after area of education.
We can argue about the quantity that schools receive, but where do they get it from? Head teachers want a single metaphorical cheque in the post that tells them how much they will have for the next school year. They should be able to decide how to spend it. Instead, however, there are 29 streams of funding and the complexity of some of them—particularly the standards fund money—is so great that many head teachers say that they will not bother to apply for money any more. They do not want to go through all the lines of accountability and all the paperwork to obtain a relatively small sum of money. It is a big issue and the Government need to understand it.
I recently tabled a written question to ask Ministers how many separate funding streams there were. It was a numerical question—it contained the term "how many"—and the Minister for School Standards supplied me with a lot of words but not with an answer. I am not surprised, because I do not think that it was an answer that he wanted to give.
"we will increase the share of national income spent on education".
That manifesto pledge was spectacularly broken, and it is amazing that the Government amendment to our motion boasts about raising expenditure to the levels that they inherited from the previous Conservative Government. The amendment does not actually say that, but that is what it claims. The Government are taking credit for getting expenditure as a percentage of GDP back to the level that they inherited from us.
There has been a significant underspend by the DFES recently. How I wish that that underspend—it comes to about £1 billion—had been parcelled up into cheques and sent to the 40 or so worst-funded LEAs.
I said a lot about education spending in Worcestershire in a debate two weeks ago. I accept that Mr. Foster cannot respond because he is a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the DFES, but he accused me locally of scaremongering. I wrote to him to say that I objected to that, because all I was doing was giving publicity to a parliamentary answer that I had received from a Minister.
It was pretty scary. My right hon. Friend anticipates something that I may say later.
Let me provide the background to this case. Earlier this year, head teachers in my county mounted an unprecedented lobby. They were concerned that Worcestershire receives £9 million a year less than the average shire county—a big shortfall—and that results in a real problem for our schools. I have sought to be fair by pointing out that the problem has been created by both parties. In 1991, the Conservative Government introduced a formula that led to the current situation but, in 1997, the incoming Government did nothing to address the formula. They allowed the situation not only to go uncorrected, but to get worse. The major parties should hang their heads in shame; it is a problem for both.
The hon. Gentleman refers to an important point. He said that this Government did nothing to address the problem, but that is not true. Earlier, he referred to the increasing use of centralised funding streams, but does he not agree that schools in Worcestershire, like the schools in my constituency of Bury, North, have benefited from the use of central funding streams? That money was top-sliced from the standard spending assessment and, had it been distributed through the SSA, the differentials in funding would have been even greater.
I will not deny that there has been a marginal change as a result of that. The fact is, however, that Droitwich Spa high school in my constituency gets £460,000 less than a school in Hertfordshire. Therefore, there is still a huge problem. There has been some tinkering, but no attempt to tackle the real issues. However, we are promised a new formula in a year or so.
It is extraordinary that the hon. Member for Worcester and the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, who responded to a debate in Westminster Hall the other week, are trying to turn this into a highly partisan and political issue. The hon. Member for Worcester wrote to all the schools in his constituency with a letter that he wanted them to send to parents and that he wanted the parents to send back to him. I caricature the letter slightly, but it basically said that all the problems in education were the fault of the previous Government and that the only good things to have happened in schools were the achievement of the two Labour MPs for the county.
That stretches credibility a bit. The hon. Gentleman should listen to the wise words of the Secretary of State who said, when she opened the debate, that the previous Conservative Government were in power a long time ago. It is time for the Government to stop blaming us for the problems that they have created or, at least, have been a significant party to. More important, I do not think that politicians should take credit for things that others have done. We all know that people power won Worcestershire the limited extra £1.35 million last year. It was no achievement of any of the MPs. We all helped the campaign along and I am proud to have done that. However, ultimately, the power of the people of Worcestershire won the money for the county. It was not a lot of money—£1.35 million against a shortfall of £9 million—but it helped. I was grateful for it, but it did not exactly solve our problems.
In the debate last week, I asked the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills, whether the money would be repeated, but he ducked the question. So I drafted a written question and, for once, got an answer. The Minister for School Standards told me:
"We have no plans to pay transitional grant in 2002-03."—[Hansard, 29 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 531W.]
I was told in a separate answer:
"We have no current plans to make payments in addition to these general increases."—[Hansard, 26 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 465W.]
Therefore, I was told categorically by Ministers that there are no plans to repeat that one-off payment.
However, in a newspaper article the hon. Member for Worcester said:
"It is far too early to say what the financial position for the county council will be because the full government grant is not announced until December."
With respect, I have parliamentary answers on that and I do not like it when they are dismissed as irrelevant. They should not be, although for all I know that might be how the Government think of them. When he accused me of scaremongering, I was a bit upset and wrote to him. I said:
"You allege I am 'scaremongering' about the government's refusal to repeat the special £1.35 million again in the coming year, to Worcestershire's education authority.
The enclosed"— a parliamentary question—I only sent him one; I could, and should, have sent him two—
"shows I am not, and I will take a dim view of any repetition of this claim."
The hon. Gentleman's reply surprised me. I thought about raising it with the Chair, but decided that I could take care of myself. His letter, which is written on paper with the House of Commons letterhead, said:
You will take a 'dim view'. Oh, I am frightened!"— he has, of course, nothing to be afraid of: if we met in a dark alley, he is a good deal taller than me and I know who would come off the worse—
"Perhaps 'dim' is the best description I have over most of your comments to date on this matter.
I did not take kindly to being described as "dim". I always thought that I was quick on the uptake. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful for the approbation of my colleagues.
If the hon. Gentleman is an hon. Member, which he is, and he implies that I am dim, he must be right, so I worried about it. When I told him to stop saying that I was scaremongering and he told me that I was dim, I realised that he thought that I was scaremongering. He must believe that parliamentary answers count for nothing, or perhaps there is another explanation. I thought a great deal about the problem and realised that he was right: I was scaremongering. According to the dictionary, it means to encourage panic, and the Government's education policies in general and on funding in particular should cause panic in Worcestershire. They certainly scare me. Clearly the hon. Gentleman agrees that they are frightening. When he accused me of scaremongering, he was praising me for drawing attention to the failure of Government policy, not criticising me. I was indeed dim, and I apologise to him for the misunderstanding. I am grateful for his support for my attack on the Government.
I finish on a serious point. I received a note today from the Worcestershire head teachers forum about its fair funding campaign for 2001-02. It runs through some of the problems that Worcestershire schools face as a result of unfairness in the funding system. It expresses concern that it might take a long time for a new formula to be phased in and another generation of Worcestershire school children could lose out. The note states:
"Headteachers, Governors, Parents and other groups are now joining together to challenge this discrimination, if needs be through the courts. They are to raise funds to instruct a top London Barrister to formally challenge the SSA formula in the High Court under recent Human Rights legislation. The grounds for the challenge are that the government are knowingly not treating the children of Worcestershire equally as compared to virtually all other Education Authorities. Funds are available to correct this discrimination (the DfES had over £1 billion unspent in the last year) yet the government has 'no plans at present' to correct this iniquitous and discriminatory policy."
It is unprecedented for head teachers to club together and to produce money out of their own pockets, and to ask their teachers and governors to do the same. No public money is involved. The money is purely private to fund a legal action against the Government. The crisis is so deep in Worcestershire that those people are prepared to take that extraordinary step. I believe that they are right and I invite all the county's MPs—Conservative, Labour and Independent—to return to bipartisan politics on this vital issue and support the head teachers.
Order. A large number of hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and time is moving on. Unless contributions are considerably shorter than they have been, some of them will be disappointed.
I listened intently to Mr. Luff. At first, I was lifted by his recognition of the improvements that have been made to the education system. He talked about the numeracy hour and literacy hour and what contribution they have made. Unfortunately, that feeling did not last long. He is wrong to say that it is the Opposition's role just to criticise the Government. He accepted that some good things have happened in the past four years, but one would not think that from the motion on the Order Paper. It refers to the "crisis" in our education system, and to problems in schools and with our lifelong learning policies.
It is a shame that the Opposition have not only whipped up such great fear by suggesting that there is a crisis in our education system, but have provided no alternative policies. I listened, as always, carefully to Mr. Green when he introduced the debate. He said either nothing or little about what the Conservatives would do to improve the policies that they are criticising.
I am not saying that everything that the Government are doing has produced an education system without fault. There are things that we can and should be doing, but we should recognise how far we have come in those four years. The hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire suggested that spending has fallen under this Government. When we came into power in 1997, spending on education as a percentage of gross domestic product was 4.7 per cent. In the current year, it is 5 per cent. I know that maths is perhaps a problem for some Conservative Members, but I am sure they can work out that that is an increase, and we intend to increase our spending on education to 5.3 per cent. in the forthcoming years.
The increase in education spending has made a difference to schools in my constituency, which is why I am disappointed to see references to crisis and falling standards on the Order Paper. That does not reflect what is going on in my constituency where 77 per cent. of all 11-year-olds reached the level expected of their age in English in 2000. That is up from 73 per cent. in 1999 and compares with an average of just 75 per cent. in England. So we are doing better than the rest of the country. The improvements in my constituency have been brought about by the literacy hour and the important support that we have given to schools to ensure that standards improve.
However, the achievements of the literacy hour are not the only consideration; the numeracy hour is also important. Some 75 per cent. of 11-year-olds in Watford reached the level expected of their age in mathematics tests in 2000. That is up from 72 per cent. in 1999. It compares with 72 per cent. for England in 2000, which has increased from 69 per cent. in 1999. Again, those figures show improvements in the standards of literacy and numeracy for our 11-year-olds. They should be recognised, because the effort has been made not only by the Government, but by schools. Teachers in my local schools have worked hard and made improvements. Although Watford is a great place, one of the best in the country, I cannot believe that it is exceptional in that respect.
I know that the Government have done a great deal to improve recruitment levels, and greatly improved figures have emerged in the past week, but there are staffing problems. Those are due not only to a reluctance to work in primary or secondary schools, but go much wider than that. People are discouraged by the high cost of living in Hertfordshire, London and other parts of the south-east. The hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire suggested that there is discrimination between Hertfordshire and Worcestershire in the funding of pupils, but he failed to recognise that the costs of public services are significantly higher in Hertfordshire and other parts of the country.
People moving to Hertfordshire face a much higher cost of living, so the costs of building and cleaning schools and hiring support staff have to be built in to the schools' budget. I am conscious that many hon. Members who represent areas that do not benefit from the additional costs allowance are likely to descend on me shortly. That is why Hertfordshire, in its great wisdom, accepts that there should be a review of the additional costs allowance, although there should still be recognition of the high costs faced by areas such as Hertfordshire. The needs of other areas should also be recognised, and those involve deprivation, as well as high costs, but if changes are to be made, Hertfordshire should not lose out simply to provide more funding elsewhere. We should aim to raise standards throughout the country, rather than lowering them by failing to recognise the funding needs of schools.
There have been great improvements in the standards of school buildings in my constituency. A great deal of work has been done, due to money that the Government have made available over the past four years. However, I say to the Government, in constructive criticism, that there is a need for flexibility in capital grants. In late September and October, I spent some considerable time visiting many primary schools in my constituency, to listen to the views of head teachers and other staff and to see how they are getting on. They were enthused, and morale was certainly much higher than Conservative Members have suggested. However, teachers raised with me the need for flexibility in capital grants.
Some schools had reached a good standard in care and repair of their buildings, but still had money allocated to them in capital grants. They would have liked to be able to spend that money on other, more important, needs, rather than being restricted to trying to find aspects of the building that needed improvement. I ask the Government to consider that carefully.
Schools recognise the importance of having additional funding that head teachers can determine how to use. Many have spent it on computer suites and additional classroom assistants. Many have used it to try to achieve even higher standards in the numeracy and literacy hours and in standard assessment tests. I am greatly impressed by what those teachers have done, and I take this opportunity to say that, by and large, teachers do a fantastic job in what are often difficult circumstances. We should not pretend that that is the end of the story; we should set standards to encourage teachers continually to improve their work. I know that the Department has already reviewed the paperwork sent to schools, and we are already seeing a reduction in bureaucracy. It is important that we set high standards for schools and ensure that they reach them.
I turn now to a school in my constituency which demonstrates the great improvements that have taken place under the four years of Labour government. When I first became a Member of Parliament, many parents did not want their children to go to Westfield secondary school, and it suffered from that lack of interest early in the selection round. However, there has been a massive improvement in the school over the past four years, thanks to the drive, determination and vision of the head teacher, staff and governors. Westfield is now a specialist technology school. Pupil numbers have risen; children go there not because they cannot get in anywhere else but because they and their parents make it their first choice. That is a sign that the Government's policies are working.
Schools such as Westfield still face problems, however. They still have more than their fair share of children with special needs. I am referring not only to children with statemented special needs but to those who are on the special needs register, who may include pupils with problems of antisocial and unacceptable behaviour. The Government need to consider how we ensure that all schools take responsibility for sharing out such pupils. Ultimately, a bias in the number of special needs pupils within a school has an effect on its results and its place in the league tables. Parents look at those factors, but they do not see all the information behind them. Getting to grips with that problem would make a real difference in my area.
The debate is an important, valuable opportunity for me and other hon. Members to say that the Government have made genuine improvements in schools and in higher education. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the Opposition have decided to criticise our policies. Their Front-Bench spokesmen found no opportunity to welcome all the good things that we are doing or to tell us what they would do. I realise that most of them plan to scamper around Europe and find good ideas in the education systems there. This will be a good opportunity for those who are keen on Europe to develop their enthusiasm. Perhaps those who are not so keen will develop new, positive views about Europe. I hope that in their search for policies, the Conservatives will recognise that the important changes in our schools have made a difference. A partnership between teachers, parents, governors and the Government has brought about the improvements that I have seen in my constituency.
I cannot remember who said that history repeats itself, but politicians repeat each other. I am sure that we all agree that we have reached the stage in the debate at which many of the salient points have already been made, so I shall try to accede to your request to keep my comments brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
There have been interesting points of agreement across the Chamber, and variable political geometries formed between Mr. Dorrell and the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). I find that heartening, because it provides evidence that we can start to build a new consensus that challenges some of the monolithic thinking on education that has emerged from the Government in recent years. In the absence of a Liberal Democrat amendment to the motion, I invite my Liberal Democrat colleagues to support the amendment standing in my name, which makes some positive remarks about the policies of the Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition Administration in the National Assembly for Wales.
We live in interesting times. I am non-sectarian by nature, so to me the beauty of the post-devolution era is that I can attack the Labour party while at the same time supporting it. We do not have a single British Labour party education policy any more; we have at least three and if local government is included—I have in mind the work of Jeremy Beecham in England—we have four. Hearing Mr. Luff raise the spectre of Marxism made me fear that there is a danger of the Government's education policy collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions.
It might have escaped the notice of many right hon. and hon. Members, but individual learning accounts are happily continuing in Wales, the reason being that they were not handed over to private contractors as they were in England. Instead, they were given over to ELWa—Education and Learning Wales—the public sector organisation for education and training, which has delivered the policy in close collaboration with local authorities. Therein lies an important lesson for the Government, who are obsessively preoccupied with privatisation.
It is useful to read "The Learning Country", the paving document that was published by the Labour Education Minister in Wales on the same day as the UK Government published their White Paper. It throws some of the differences into sharp relief. In Wales, the publication of league tables for secondary schools has been scrapped—we never had them for primary schools. Tests for seven-year-olds have been abolished and free school milk has been re-introduced for the under-sevens.
That Labour paving document celebrated the comprehensive school system—and rightly so, given that that system was born in Wales. The first comprehensive school was created in 1947 in Anglesey, and I remember that in his first speech of the new Parliament the Prime Minister trumpeted the fact that Anglesey had returned to Labour. May I suggest that Labour returns to Anglesey and looks at the principles of the comprehensive education system that are being upheld in Wales? Let me quote for the benefit of the Minister—who might care to listen to my speech for one or two seconds—a comment made by a Labour Minister in the Assembly. She said "I don't believe the private sector has a role in the delivery of education". The Government's mantra in education is autonomy and diversity, and long may we see those in Wales.
I remain concerned about England, not only because I am an internationalist who has family in England, but because the terms of the debate in England affect the nature of the debate on the future of education throughout the United Kingdom. I am particularly concerned about the constant pushing of the privatising agenda, which undermines the public sector ethos—although those are not my words. They appeared in the recent eloquent article in The House Magazine by Lord Skidelsky, in which he made the point that there was a direct connection between problems of recruitment and low morale in the education profession and the fact that over many years the public sector ethos has been undermined by moves towards privatisation—and unhelpful remarks such as the Prime Minister's director of communications talking about "bog standard" comprehensive schools, for which an apology is still awaited.
I welcome the fact that Wales is allowed to pursue its own course in these matters. We have particular problems of our own to address—for example, the alarming gap that is developing between Wales and the rest of the UK in terms of educational attainment. More than three quarters of a million—780,000—young people and adults in Wales have severe literacy and numeracy problems. I am concerned that because of the inadequacies of the devolution settlement—the fact that we do not have primary law-making powers, nor a fair funding formula—we will not be able to deliver the separate education agenda that has been developed in recent years, nor be able to implement measures that are in line with Welsh needs and Welsh values.
I offer a few examples. The Labour-led Administration in the National Assembly have called for the scrapping of tuition fees and the reintroduction of a targeted maintenance grant. Are the Labour Government in Westminster going to deliver on that Labour demand? We have had the Rees report, the Cubie report and the Callender report, commissioned by central Government, all of which have shown the massive problems—affecting students from low-income backgrounds in particular—arising from the abolition of the maintenance grant and the introduction of fees. I do not need to rehearse those arguments tonight.
It is ridiculous that we have to come to this place to ensure that there is a clause in the forthcoming education legislation that is diametrically opposed to every single value and principle currently espoused by the Labour Administration here in Westminster. The House will have to approve a clause that reflects an entirely different set of values. Would it not be a far preferable constitutional settlement that allowed that primary legislation to be dealt with in Wales by the politicians who are directly accountable in that respect?
We are led to believe by the Secretary of State that Wales will be allowed to follow its own course, so there is perhaps a more pressing constraint: resources. Incredibly, in Wales—the part of the United Kingdom that currently has the worst educational attainment—education spending per head is lower than it is in England. Spending per head is 2.3 per cent. higher in England than in Wales, and that gap will widen over the next three years. The figures I am about to quote are not my own; they are those produced by the Labour Administrations in Wales and in Westminster. The National Assembly's education budget is to increase by an average of 5.75 per cent. over the next three years, whereas the budget in England, where educational attainment is better, is to increase by 8.24 per cent. By 2003-04, education spending per head in England will be £985, whereas in Wales—one of the most disadvantaged regions in the UK—it will be £900. Try justifying that—you will find it very difficult indeed.
Forgive my passion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is there for a good reason.
Unless we get a fair funding formula, we will never be able to redress the balance. To give the House a example, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has recently had to inform Welsh universities that they will receive a paltry 0.6 per cent. increase in their budgets next year. They were expecting 5.4 per cent. The repercussions for the quality of education in Wales could be serious if staff are attracted over the border. The Government are short-changing Wales because of the operation of the Barnett formula. They are also short-changing the United Kingdom in terms of education.
I must tell Ms Ward that education spending, even towards the end of the current triennial spending review, will still not have reached the same level as a proportion of gross domestic product as it had back in 1981-82, under Mrs. Thatcher.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is right to emphasise the importance of productivity. The most worrying feature is the failure to invest in education, which goes right to the heart of the United Kingdom's economic decline throughout the past century.
It was not until 1963 that we had technical universities. That was 70 years after the Germans had created similar institutions. It was not until the middle of the 1960s that we saw an expansion of university education, the mainstreaming of comprehensive education and the introduction of the maintenance grant. Instead of building on those gains, the Labour Government are rolling them back. I cannot understand why the generation who benefited most from the gains to which I have referred, and the party that espoused them, are turning their back on such important steps forward.
The crisis in our education system is structural and endemic, not cyclical. It has been present for years over successive Administrations, both Labour and Conservative. I suggest to the Minister that instead of publishing the Education Bill in the next few weeks, we have an extended period of debate. We need to get things right. So many mistakes have been made in the past. We have had initiative after initiative from successive Governments, and they have failed. We need to have a multinational debate that draws on the innovation that we are seeing in the devolved Administrations. That is a debate that we must get right for the sake of all the countries of the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the Opposition for initiating the debate. It is certainly an improvement on their previous one on spin. If they are to be true to their intention to talk about public services and to reconnect with the electorate, today's debate is a step in the right direction. However, if they are to succeed in that task, they must put forward some positive policies. There was precious little of that in the contribution of Mr. Green, and precious little about any aspect of education outside schools in their manifesto. I shall concentrate on further education for adults.
In a way, the Opposition's lack of policies on education puts the occupants of their Front Bench in a privileged position. It means that they are safe from making a series of U-turns. However, I shall be interested in hearing about their policy on privatising universities through an endowment fund, paid for by Spectrum, when the Opposition spokesman winds up. I cannot promise entirely to understand what that policy means in practice. I am in good company, because Nick Timmins of The Sunday Telegraph, I think, described it as a policy in such a mess that it would make Harry Potter proud. Will the Opposition persist with it in their policy review? If so, I shall be interested to learn how they will fund it.
I am also interested in ascertaining whether the Opposition will back the policy that their new leader advanced in his election campaign. He floated the idea of education vouchers to allow people to take their children out of state schools and put them in private education. I am not against the use of vouchers. The individual learning accounts policy, which has been discussed at length today, involves vouchers. It is a way of encouraging people to take up education by putting purchasing power in their own hands.
The real question is the end to which vouchers are put. Vouchers can be used for egalitarian ends to increase fairness and to promote demand, and I think that that is what ILAs have done. The great danger is when vouchers are used to increase division. If we use vouchers in our education system, there is also the great danger that private schools will continue to refuse the Government any say over their admissions policy.
That is in great contrast to the way in which vouchers have been used in America. For example, the Milwaukee experiment, which may be the source of inspiration for the Leader of the Opposition's policy, insists that private schools that take part in the scheme allocate places through a lottery, which can help ensure that the policy is used for egalitarian ends. The danger of his suggestion is that it will increase inequality in our system and take able children out of the most difficult schools. Has the Opposition's policy review been quietly dropped since the leadership election?
The hon. Gentleman speaks about influencing the admissions policies of private schools. If we have an assisted places scheme of the sort that was introduced by a previous Conservative Administration, it is implicit that it will have such an impact. It will have an effect on the sort of children who go to private schools, certainly in terms of their socio-economic profile. If we divorce ourselves from the private sector, there is no contact with or effect on the admissions policies of private schools.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. He referred exactly to the problem with the old assisted places scheme, which allowed private schools to cherry-pick a few individuals. That meant reducing the possibility of improving the generality of state schools. The scheme benefited only the few individuals and the private schools involved.
I am grateful for that intervention as well, although it represents a complete misunderstanding of what I was saying. If we are to improve the spectrum of ability in schools, we must have a spectrum of ability in state schools. The danger of the assisted places scheme was that it undermined that goal.
Neither side of the House can be proud of its record on adult literacy and numeracy. There are still about 7 million people who have genuine problems with adding up, reading and spelling, and that should shame us all. Labour Members should acknowledge that the Opposition, when in government, introduced some interesting policies in this area.
I was reading Hansard today, and I came across a debate on these matters in 1998, which was illuminated by a contribution from the hon. Member for Ashford, who was then a recently appointed Conservative education spokesman. He made a number of interesting points. The kernel of his argument was that the Government might have good intentions but he doubted whether they would have the money to back them up. He said:
"When we see the comprehensive spending review, we will know whether he"— that is the then Minister—
"will put his money where his mouth is."
The figure that the hon. Gentleman discussed in that speech was £500 million. It is worth noting that since then the Government have put in well in excess of twice that figure. They have provided more than £1 billion. We have not only put our money where our mouth is, we have done far more than was expected of us at that time. I hope that the Opposition spokesman will congratulate us on that at the end of the debate.
Mr. Willis made a point, in response to my intervention, about the standards fund and questioned whether that funding was genuinely reaching the education sector. I, for one, make no apology about the use of the standards fund. It is right that the Government should have a standards agenda, which was ignored for too long in the FE sector under previous Governments. That money is put to use training teachers, supporting head teachers and management training and, most of all, encouraging excellence and allowing excellent FE colleges to spread their experience around the sector and support those organisations that are failing. That is exactly the kind of targeted intervention that will raise standards and ensure that the funding formula rewards success and compensates for difficulties and failure. That is entirely welcome; I know that it is welcomed in many parts of the FE sector.
Far from being in crisis, adult education is an area in which the Government have a proud record. There has been significant policy research in that area, including the Moser report, the Kennedy report and the Select Committee report on further education. Shadow Ministers spoke about a quiet crisis; there has been a quiet revolution in FE policy and adult education policy generally. We inherited a badly broken system in which there was competition between TECs, private training providers, FE colleges and working men's clubs. The individuals involved, mostly young people, lacked any sort of impartial advice; they were often pushed from pillar to post and took courses that were not necessarily right for them, often of low quality.
It may not be covered by the media much, but that situation has been turned on its head. The introduction of the ConneXions service, which has been rolled out around the country, will ensure that individuals get the advice that they need. They will have a personal adviser who will be on their side and who will not try to convince them to go into a particular TEC or FE-recommended course. He or she will try to work out what is best for the individual, which is a fundamental change to the system. The education maintenance allowance, which already covers about a third of the country, will make sure that people who want to stay in education have the means to do so; people will not have to go to work at 16 simply because they cannot afford to stay in FE. I very much hope that the Chancellor will look favourably on that policy in the comprehensive spending review.
The Learning and Skills Council was established to ensure that there is genuine strategic leadership in that area of education policy and that different areas of the system continue to work together. On top of that, the franchising system that the previous Government introduced has been reformed. It is worth pausing on that scheme briefly because, in the 1998 debate on education, the hon. Member for Ashford referred to it. As Opposition Members will know, the franchising scheme was introduced in 1994 by the Conservative Government to allow FE colleges to reach out to parts of the learning market that they were not reaching and work with organisations in buildings outside the traditional FE sector. The scheme was controversial, and some people were worried that colleges were being encouraged to seek profit rather than concentrate on the needs of the learner. Even people, such as Helena Kennedy, who were sceptical about the scheme, decided, after looking at it that, in the main, it provided genuine benefits by increasing access to learning.
Commenting on that scheme and the controversy about how well the money had been spent, the hon. Gentleman said:
"The key point is not to be over-prescriptive. It is extremely dangerous to try to produce an all-embracing set of rules . . . The danger is that, by trying to drive out the bad, some of the good will go as well. I am sure that the Select Committee would recognise that there are dangers, and that some courses may not bear much scrutiny".—[Hansard, 6 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 767-68.]
I congratulate him on that enlightened view. One reason that our political system has sometimes failed to tackle deep-seated policy problems is that it is difficult to innovate; if one tries new ways of doing things, a harsh light is shone on the initial stages of policy. Any failure in those initial stages is too often greeted by cries of derision and ridicule, which try to make out that the policy has been a total failure and should never have been introduced in the first place.
When I read the hon. Gentleman's speech, I welcomed his balanced view that we should tolerate failure in Government policy, learn from mistakes and improve policy in subsequent years. I was disappointed, of course, when I heard him this afternoon, as he did not have such a balanced view of ILAs. Contributions to the debate from both Government and Opposition Members, which I have greatly enjoyed, demonstrate that there is widespread support for the idea of ILAs; it is recognised that they have brought people into learning who were not previously engaged in it. The Government should be congratulated on the fact that about 2.5 million people have taken them up. Of course, we all recognise that there have been problems with the details of the scheme, but the Secretary of State illustrated how limited those problems were; they can be solved and addressed through a better system of registration and accreditation. I agree that we can learn about how that has been done in Scotland and Wales, where there appear to have been fewer problems than in this country.
In conclusion, I thank the Government for making it clear that they will learn the lessons of the scheme. When they introduce another scheme, I urge them to ensure that it builds on the principles of ILAs and retains at its core the principle of giving purchasing power to individuals so that there are new types of provider and purchasers' demands affect the overall system. I also look forward to the conclusion of the Opposition's policy review and their contributions to policy formation. The job of any Opposition is not just to oppose, but to make positive contributions. However, I urge them to recognise the overall success of the Government's policy, and I urge Members on both sides of the House to be proud of what the Government have achieved on education. 8.27 pm
I should like to make a brief speech drawing on my personal experiences. I was chairman of a local authority education committee for a number of years before becoming a Member of Parliament.
I followed closely the argument of Mr. Sheerman, who talked about looking at the issue in the format of a school report in which there were pluses and minuses. I certainly acknowledge the pluses in my area; on the plus side, I give high marks to improvements in recent years in the provision for under-fives, which is critical. I accept that improvements in the early identification of special needs will take a long time to work through the system. I preface my remarks with that because it is vital; it has taken a long time to recognise that that is the real starting point and the basis of people's future achievements.
We must recognise that there are problems in our education system. Some of them are fairly deeply rooted in the policies of previous Governments. Much has been said today about achieving policy objectives. One difficulty in doing so is caused by time lags, some of which I should like to identify. I shall touch on the first two briefly.
First, it was an enormous shame that the Labour Government followed the expenditure plans of the previous Government for their first two years. That immediately introduced time lags into securing improvements. The second major time lag is in reforming the Office for Standards in Education—Ofsted. We are moving in a good direction and, having heard its new chief, I hope that Ofsted will become to teachers something positive and encouraging rather than negative and stressful, as in the past. That was one of the worst problems of all. It must be possible to improve our schools without causing quite so many nervous breakdowns.
We must acknowledge that our teachers and head teachers are suffering undue stress. To pick up again on the time lag, the Government are about to recognise—it should have been recognised years ago—the lack of non-contact time for teachers. Every teacher to whom I speak mentions that problem. It has become even more of a problem as a result of shortages, as teachers lose what little non-contact time they have in covering for their colleagues.
Head teachers are saying to me, "I've had to teach 80 pupils in the hall today because I didn't have enough cover." How can head teachers take on board all the initiatives, manage their budgets, in some cases make decisions about ground maintenance and goodness knows what, and manage their schools well? Of course, an awful lot do so, but the burden is intolerable and must be examined.
Several Members spoke about recruitment and retention. I do not feel as optimistic as some Labour Members. We have problems filling posts now. New teachers are coming on tap, but we face problems today and there is no evidence that we are recruiting at a sufficient rate. We should consider some of the incentives that are being introduced. At the beginning of the teaching scale, incentives are offered to people to gain postgraduate qualifications. A threshold has been introduced, too. What about those who have been in teaching for three to seven years? They see their new colleagues earning more than they did at the time and they have several years to work before the threshold—if they want to go for it, of course.
Surely we must consider the matter as a whole. Let us look at the threshold and how it was introduced. How much extra stress and strain did it put on people? How much did it cost for very few teachers not to be given exactly what their head teachers recommended? Would not it have been simpler to have introduced a decent salary scale for teaching a little sooner? I think so.
Members have mentioned the additional cost allowance. They will be aware that part of my constituency, Poole, has some of the highest house prices in the world. We do not qualify for the additional cost allowance. Trying to buy a house in millionaire's row is a real problem. In addition, building costs on the south coast are incredibly high.
I spoke about teacher shortages. We need even more teachers because our classes are still far too large. We have made a good start in the early primary years, but we must deal with the later primary years and the shameful record of secondary class sizes. Large classes are another important cause of stress in our secondary sector.
Even more changes are being introduced, which adds to the stress. In the secondary sector, there are proposed and actual key stage 3 changes. Was it really necessary to introduce more changes or publish another national test in such a way? Many independent schools, to which some Members like to refer, choose not to conduct key stage 3 tests, so why is it so important in our state schools? Will it not lead to conformity, rather than diversity? Are we not creating a straitjacket? I am concerned that we might lose the opportunity for children to study a wider range of subjects before they get down to the important task of studying for GCSE.
There has been repeated mention of funding. There are two education authorities in my constituency, both among the worst-funded 40 authorities. One is the fourth worst-funded education authority in the country. My time-lag argument applies with a vengeance. We have known for years about the inequitable distribution of funding for education, yet it will be another two years before the problem is addressed. How many children have suffered and will never catch up what has been lost because of teacher and book shortages in areas such as mine, where there is serious underfunding—an average of £274 per pupil less than the national figure?
We need transparency and openness, and we could move towards that even more quickly than the present rate of progress. The standards fund, the bids—the system is so complex. There are announcements, it is suggested that a local authority has been given funding for this, that and the other, but the funding is not always clearly identifiable—for example, the money for curriculum 2000. In my authority, we made every effort to pay our schools the money for the extra exam fees, but it could not be found in our standard spending assessment formula. There is such a lack of clarity, which I believe upsets the partnership between head teachers and the local education authority. That important partnership would be helped by clarity and openness from Government.
I sometimes wonder how many hoops and hurdles can be invented. Surely we can make life more straightforward. I believe in taking a straightforward view. We should praise our teachers and celebrate the achievements of all our pupils, but we must accept that we can do much more and that our children deserve much more.
Four and half years ago, almost to the hour, I gave my maiden speech in the Chamber. I am sorry that Mr. Luff, who made a stirring contribution earlier in the debate, is not in his place. He had the task of following me on that occasion four and a half years ago, when he welcomed me to the House and said how wonderful my speech was. That was nice to hear from an Opposition Member.
I shall give an update on one of the topics that I mentioned in that speech. I spoke about how the Government would be judged and what the criteria would be. I said that many people out there who were in two minds about the success of a Government would look not at the big picture, but at how things had changed in their locality. I spoke about an infant school at Chapel-en-le-Frith in the High Peak. At that time, it was a split-site infant school, with a main road through the middle of it. The building on one side of the road was rotten, Victorian, overcrowded and inadequate. On the other side of the road, there were 40-year-old terrapin buildings which were leaking, falling down and propped up. That was the symbol of 18 years of Tory education policy in the schools in my constituency.
In that maiden speech, I made a plea that we should be judged on what we did for schools such as Chapel-en-le-Frith. Six weeks later, metaphorically speaking, a cheque was in the post from the then Department for Education and Employment. In March 2000 the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett, came to Chapel-en-le-Frith to open the brand new infant school. The school was designed with infants in mind: it has low window sills so that the children can see out, and play areas in the middle of the complex so that they are safe from the outside world. That makes a difference and it is a wonderful school, which has gone from success to success. It has become an enhanced resource school, which means that it has extra money for taking on additional children with special educational needs, for whom it has become a centre of excellence. It is a success story.
Chapel-en-le-Frith school is one of four that have been replaced in my constituency since 1997. Tintwistle primary school followed soon afterwards, and Chapel high school, the comprehensive school that serves Chapel-en-le-Frith, is being rebuilt along with public leisure facilities. It is being combined with a replacement for a special needs school. That means four new schools in High Peak in four years. If we continue at the rate of one a year, I shall be delighted.
I have not lived in the constituency all my life, but in the 10 years that I lived there before 1997, only one school was built. Four in four years is therefore a vast improvement.
There are 65 schools in the constituency and an amount of capital expenditure that they had never previously experienced has been used for more than half of them on new classrooms, replacement classrooms and new facilities, including those for disabled children. Every school has received money for staff rooms—a necessary reward for teachers who often seemed to live in cupboards.
I visited two schools last Friday: Newtown, which has two new classrooms and disabled facilities on both its floors, and Grindleford, where a fine, tall Victorian building has been split horizontally to double the number of classrooms. A good job has been done at both schools.
I have been impressed with not only the extent to which new technology is being applied, but the use that is made of it in all the schools. We never considered that possible four or five years ago. Not only do teachers have computers, but they are in every classroom. Every school in my constituency is connected to the internet through the national grid for learning. Hope Valley college is the constituency's first technology college. It is a rural comprehensive school for pupils aged 11 to 16, and is 10 miles in any direction from the next secondary school. Through its technology college status, it has forged a partnership with every primary school in the valley to bring them into a common computer administration facility, to share and make economies of scale and to benefit from all the advantages of new technology. It has extra computers in its library and its classrooms. Although it is early days, it is worth pointing out the signs that investment in technology is producing.
Early signs show that such investment is tackling the boy-girl divide in attainment. Only two years of extra investment show a significant increase in boys' attainment. They have not quite caught the girls up, but their attainment has improved. That is also true of the girls, but the gap has been closed to some extent. That is an interesting early result from the school. I look forward to monitoring it further in future.
In 1997, Derbyshire had perhaps the worst record of key stage 1 class sizes of more than 30. It was appalling. Throughout the country, 477,000 children at key stage 1 were taught in classes of more than 30. That number increased every year for 11 years under the previous Government. We tackled class size head on. In September, not one child at key stage 1 in my constituency was in a class of more than 30 pupils. I believe that that applies to the whole of Derbyshire. That is a tremendous achievement, which brings genuine boons and advantages to the teachers, because it helps teachers to teach and children to learn, and it helps relationships, not least those between the adults and the children in the class.
Speaking of adults in classrooms, when I was visiting primary schools last week I was impressed by the number of adults around. Although one or two were parents who had come in voluntarily to help with reading schemes and so on, there were more educational care officers and classroom assistants than I had seen before. There was an altogether more thriving mixed adult-child community than I had previously seen in primary schools, and that is being welcomed by teachers, heads, governors and everyone else involved.
I am sure that those people will have been pleased to see what happened in the House yesterday, with the acceptance—at last, it may be said—of the new code for special educational needs. We look forward to that, now that it has been carefully debated and the Government have gone away and listened more than once to the arguments. We now have the basis for improving special educational needs provision still further. I hope that we can tackle what I perceive to be a particular problem, which is the early detection of special needs in pre-school children. If we can pick up those problems and start to address them at that stage, we can minimise the problems not only for the system but for individual children at a later date.
On the subject of picking up problems early, no one who has visited a primary school and talked to teachers can come away without realising that the vast majority of teachers appreciate what the literacy and numeracy strategies are doing. Those strategies have gone down very well with teachers and children, and are already leading to measurable increases in literacy and numeracy standards. They are addressing the problems of adult literacy to which my hon. Friend—my hon. neighbour—James Purnell referred, and the problems that have beset a generation of younger people who needed such help through the new deal and so on.
We also have beacon schools in the High Peak constituency—schools that are recognised for their excellence. We are using the facility of the beacon schools to disseminate information and to help others to learn.
There has been huge appreciation for the direct funding in the form of the no-strings-attached cash payments made to schools. There is, however, a two-headed danger attached to those sums. First, they create dependence. Secondly, because we raise the expectation of this additional funding, we need not only to avoid creating a dependency culture but to give assurances of longer-term funding for schools. The one-off—or even the one-year—settlement is no longer adequate. We need to examine longer-term settlements in terms of the cash payments made to our schools.
If I cast my mind back 40-odd years, I can remember my days in nursery school. I am delighted to say that everyone in Derbyshire has—
It is 43 years since I was at nursery school. I am not quite sure what to make of the hon. Gentleman's remark, but I shall take it in the spirit in which I am sure it was intended.
Children gain from nursery schools something that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. We not only have pre-school nursery provision for every four-year-old in Derbyshire, but are well on the way to having it for every three-year-old as well. I compare that with when I first started teaching in the mid-1970s. Mr. Willis can have another guess at my age from that, if he likes. I first started teaching in Gloucestershire and, at that time, there were no children whatsoever in state nursery schools in that area. All that is behind us now, and it has become par for the course that education authorities, in partnership with others, should and do provide pre-school education.
Derbyshire is perhaps the local education authority with the lowest central administrative costs, yet it has a long tradition of giving quality advice and support to its schools from the centre at Matlock. It is also the only local education authority in the past four and a half years to have gone to the Government at the time of the rate support grant settlement, made its case and got extra funding. The £2.8 million extra that we won for Derbyshire in 1998 has been included in every budget since then. Derbyshire's position as a low-funded authority has been recognised.
I was a member of Derbyshire county council from 1993 until 1997. In those days, councillors who were members of the education committee and the education authority had only one task to perform. Our job was to manage cuts—the cuts, cuts, cuts that were imposed on us year after year by the then Conservative Government. We have heard no apology for those cuts in the House since 1997.
Several of the most vociferous opponents of the present SSA structure—I give some credit to them—sit on the Opposition Benches. Where were they when their Government were imposing those cuts, cuts, cuts on the Derbyshires, the Worcestershires and the Nottinghamshires of this land? They have much to answer for.
We engaged in a very necessary consultation on the whole basis of education funding, in which parents, governors, heads, teachers, local authorities and councillors were all entitled and encouraged to participate. Derbyshire people made strong representations that we should not be at the bottom in terms of funding. I accept that, after four years of the current Government, the difference between top and bottom may not be as great as it was, and the extra funds that have reached schools via non-SSA avenues are significant. Nevertheless, there is still a pecking order, and I must tell my hon. Friend Ms Ward—if she is present—that the justifications we have heard tonight do not wash. I hope that the problems caused by the pecking order, and the fact that Derbyshire and 40 other authorities have consistently been at the bottom of the funding league for many years, will be addressed.
A time when more money is going into education is the time to make changes, because—one hopes—no one will lose. No one will have to suffer cuts, so others can receive more: the icing, as it were, can be spread to fill the gaps.
As for failing schools, I think we have accepted now and again that some schools' performance is not up to scratch. I am delighted to say that one of the schools I visited last week, which I mentioned a moment ago, has ceased to be a failing school and is now clearly very successful. I am proud that this Government turn around failing schools in an average of 18 months, having inherited from the last Government a position where more than two years of uncertainty and distress was caused by failing school status.
Mrs. Brooke referred to teachers' pay, and many Members have referred to teacher supply. The hon. Lady said that the problem of teachers' pay should have been resolved earlier, and she has a point. As I recall, it was teachers themselves who, by means of judicial review or other legal moves, delayed the implementation of the present pay structure—a structure about which there was much controversy at the time, but which, like all the arrangements I have mentioned so far, has clearly settled down well.
I share the frustration all must feel about the number of people who qualify as teachers and then either do not become teachers, or become teachers and do not stay long in the profession. When I became a teacher in 1976, it was the same: those who remained in teaching for three years had passed the first milestone, and many did not make the three years.
Last week I was at a dinner with some civil engineers who bemoaned the fact that only half those who gained civil engineering degrees went on to join the profession. I am sure that that is a problem that all industries and professions face, but with the present state of our economy there is competition for graduates. They can pick and choose where to go more than at other times. The other man's grass is often suggested to be greener.
I make one or two comments about some of the things that are going on in education that complement what goes on in schools. I am not quite getting bored with, and I never will get bored with, being invited to open Learn Direct centres. I have opened several in my constituency. I look forward to opening more—I do not get bored with them at all really. [Interruption.] I made the same joke when I opened the last one, so they have heard it before. They offer tremendous opportunities to people to partake in education, vocational or otherwise, particularly after they have left formal education.
The other week, I received a briefing from ConneXions, which will be up and running in Derbyshire from April next year. I was impressed with what it is doing. It is modernising and investing in the careers service, combining it with the youth service and with aspects of training, taking account of changes to the curriculum in schools with vocational education, and restoring prestige to vocational education, which disappeared from schools in the 1980s with the national curriculum. As a result, we lost a lot of vocational education, which was a vital choice for young people. All those influences have been brought together by ConneXions and I have great optimism that it will succeed.
I turn to individual learning accounts, which after all was almost certainly the business that inspired the Opposition to table the motion. I was impressed to hear that when parents in my constituency are invited to go on parenting courses, which happens sometimes regrettably—hon. Members will appreciate that often their education has not given them of the best in the past—no less than 60 per cent. choose to do another course. Many of those have been choosing ILAs as a way of taking that opportunity forward.
In some of those households, there is a choice. If they have £90, do they spend it on a computer literacy course or on the kid's school uniform? That is not a choice that they should have to face. They should have a right to education. The ILA has given them that right.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made a good point about continuity. We know now what the timetable is for the ending of the ILAs as they currently stand. We need to know quickly what the timetable is for replacing them with something that is at least as good.
To summarise, I am proud of what the Government have achieved in education in the past five years. I have been a teacher for about 17 years and a parent for 18. I was a member of a local education authority for four years. I spent 40 years in education, from nursery to the time when I left teaching, with hardly a break. I take note of what my hon. Friend Valerie Davey said about the need to have teachers with wide experience. I know what it was like in the past and what I would like it to be like in future.
I list five issues that the Government need to take on board. The first is the ILA. The second is the SSA, which must be resolved in favour of counties and local authorities that have suffered from underfunding for many years. The third is league tables; value-added measurement in school league tables is essential, especially when we have small schools dealing with children with special educational needs. Just a few children can distort the league table result for SATs, and that is unfair on both the special needs children and the school itself.
The fourth issue is teacher work load. I understand that an independent report is to be published later this month. I warmly welcome that, and I hope that the Government will respond positively and quickly.
The fifth issue is student funding for higher education. From the young voters in my constituency, I understand that even those who were not considering university felt discriminated against by the very fact that there were fees to be paid, even though half the students entering university today do so without needing to pay them. I hope that the Government will consider the situation quickly—although perhaps not as quickly as Mr. Dorrell was saying earlier—and seek to resolve it in a way that is acceptable to the majority of young people and young voters.
I know what the situation was like in the past, and I know that it can be still better, but we do not just want better, we want best, and we will deliver it.
Relatively new as I am to the House, I have yet to get to grips with the full magniloquence of some of the speeches that we have heard. I will not try to rival some of them in length. I have been very impressed by the compendiousness of some of the speeches from Government Members in particular.
I want to speak about a specific matter raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Green: the imminent closure of the Henley Community Online centre. Some hon. Members may have a stereotypical view of the inhabitants of Henley-on-Thames and believe that they all have computers in their bedrooms, but that is far from the case: in south Oxfordshire there are many disadvantaged people from all walks of life, and Henley Community Online set up a very useful service for the 220 people currently enrolled with it and many more applicants on the stocks. I have a sentimental attachment to it personally, because I was there at its inception, with a couple of gigantic rabbits—people dressed up as rabbits, that is.
Now, thanks to the Government, the centre faces closure in December, because 80 per cent. of its funds came from the individual learning accounts, on which the Government have just pulled the plug, without any more warning than an ad in the newspapers. There has been some mystification about why, if it was such a good scheme, it has been necessary to curtail it so violently. Perhaps I can enlighten the House.
If one wants to get an individual learning account one must get one's computer working and dial up the internet, fill in a form on a website and within three days one gets a seven-digit account number. One then presents this number to one's individual learning account provider. To find that provider is not very difficult: if one is fraudulently inclined one might simply look in the mirror. Lo and behold, the provider gets £200 of taxpayers' money sluiced into his bank account. I am abbreviating the procedure somewhat.
It will not tax hon. Members' imaginations greatly to see how that system could be abused. Perhaps Government Members with memories of the trade unions in the old days, when the printworkers used to fill in forms in the name of Mickey Mouse and so on, will know what I am talking about. The pertinent question is why the scheme was set up in that way in the face of repeated warnings both before and after its genesis. The Government probably wanted to meet a quota. Broadly speaking, they probably wanted 1 million people to sign up for ILAs, but as it was, they got 2.5 million, and quite a lot of fraud.
That fraud happened because the Government set up the scheme without the necessary safeguards. The Secretary of State said that they are investigating only 30 cases, but that cannot justify closing the scheme down overnight. I am sure that the real number is far higher. I especially enjoyed the bit when the Secretary of State said that she did not want to see a good scheme further damaged, so she has decided to destroy it instead—like the American general in Vietnam who destroyed a village in order to save it.
I agree with those hon. Members who have said that we must have a timetable for the restoration of the system with improved—or at least, some—safeguards. In the meantime, it would be wholly welcomed in my constituency if emergency funds could be provided to keep bodies such as the Henley Community Online centre going. Otherwise, innocent and well-meaning people who have worked hard to start something up will be punished not so much for the actions of the guilty as for the incompetent way in which the Government set up the ILA scheme and the incompetent way in which they decided to close it down.
I wish to put on the record the fact that I agree with some of the policies that the Government have put into operation since they came to power in 1997. I agree wholeheartedly with the literacy and numeracy strategies, although initially they were too prescriptive. I also agree that some funding should go directly to schools and not via the LEAs. I welcome the adjustments that the Government have made in that area.
Despite the Government's assertion that education is a key policy, it is no secret both inside the House and outside that education provision at all levels is a mess. We have heard before and we shall no doubt hear later this evening of the considerable sums that are being put into educational provision. However, as has already been pointed out, the sum of money is no higher, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than it was under the last Conservative Government. Even after the three-year spending increase, the figure reaches only 5.3 per cent. of GDP—significantly less than some of our European partners. As we Conservatives know, it is not only how much one spends that matters, but how one spends it. That is evidenced by educational performance in countries such as the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan.
I do not question the Secretary of State's commitment or intentions but she has several serious problems to resolve. She has inherited a debacle and under her guidance progress to date has not been promising. However, I accept that she is willing to reconsider policies that are not working and she deserves credit for having an open mind.
I wish to draw a picture on a metaphorical blackboard to reflect educational provision in England and Wales today. Three or four-year-olds benefiting from early years education have seen 2,000 pre-school places closed since 1997. Five, six and seven-year-olds who have moved into a new area, especially a rural area, may be without an education for some time because no primary schools have any spaces, and there is no ability to expand primary school education. They may be placed in taxis and chauffeured miles from their homes and families.
As children enter secondary school, they find that class sizes are on the increase and they often have no teacher. If they do, he or she may be a recent arrival from abroad. Disruptive pupils are encouraged to stay in school to meet Government targets, despite their impact on other students' education and teachers' attempts to instil discipline.
By some miracle, a student reaches AS or A-level, but then discovers that he will not be studying AS or A-levels at all. He certainly will not study the traditional three A-level system. He will be aware that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has said, euphemistically, that the review is due to "teething problems". Irrespective of that, he will be blamed for not working hard enough and his school will be derided for being responsible for the present confusion.
Friends of the person whom I am describing decide not to go on to higher education because they cannot afford it. Regardless of what Labour Members say, there is no doubt that the student loans scheme has exacerbated what was already a significant problem, with students from poorer backgrounds not going on to higher education.
This person progresses to higher education despite the Government's current policy on student loans. He is aware that a senior Minister has described the scheme as a "total shambles" and "a disaster". He is delighted to hear that the Government will do a U-turn, but his heart sinks as he hears that the Government may replace the existing scheme with one that will require him to pay more tax over a 25-year period.
A Scottish friend of the person about whom I am speaking has gone to university in Scotland. He studies under a system for which he has to pay nothing and which he will leave with no debt. My exemplar's parents will be asked to contribute financially to the university library to help buy books. Half way through his degree, senior academic staff will be made redundant because of funding shortages.
Despite his experience of education, this person is thirsty to drink from the cup of knowledge and wishes to further his education and training as an adult learner. He applies for an individual learning account, only to find that someone has fraudulently claimed his money. However, he is reassured to learn that he is not alone—indeed, that another 6,000 complaints have been made. He learns too that the Government have closed down the scheme two days after announcing that it was to expand. He is embarrassed to point out that
"the Department is paying a heavy price for its failure to consult adequately last year".
The person whom I am describing is so concerned by the standard of education in England and Wales that he decides to do something about it and become a teacher. He is positive about the move, and there is good news—in future, there is to be a golden hello. He is fortunate to be on the fast-track scheme, although only 111 people have been recruited at a cost of £80,000 each.
Many of the colleagues of the person whom I am using as an example do not complete the training. Indeed, 40 per cent. will drop out before completing the course. A further 18 per cent. will leave in the first three years of teaching.
The hero of my story sees statistics that show that in 1997, 18,600 teachers left the profession for reasons other than retirement. In 2000, the figure was 26,200. I accept the Secretary of State's assurance that some of those who leave return to the profession, but the figures reveal an increase of 30 per cent. in the numbers of people choosing to leave.
The person about whom I speak is rightly concerned that the teaching profession is ageing. Large numbers of teachers are approaching retirement age, and there are insufficient replacements. But when he goes into teaching, he finds that morale is low and the pay modest. There is constant interference from central Government, as inordinate and unprecedented volumes of paperwork and initiatives land on his desk almost daily. There is no freedom to teach, and no discretion or spontaneity. He has no time at weekends for family and, most significant of all, no time for preparation and development.
Teaching vacancy levels are running at 25 per cent. in the schools in which this person teaches, and there are no applicants for the vacant posts. In desperation, an acting head teacher may go to an agency to recruit from abroad, but parents rightly claim that the problem is affecting their children's education.
Some Labour Members have said in the debate that they do not believe that Conservative Members are making a positive contribution on this country's future education policies, but I have a few suggestions.
We should pay teachers salaries that their position and status in society deserve. We should ensure that performance management rewards good teachers and enables teachers to move into higher salary brackets without moving into management roles. In other words, we should keep the good teachers in the classroom.
Has the hon. Gentleman discussed his ideas with his Front-Bench Treasury spokesperson, just to make sure that the Conservative party could afford those increases when it gets its policies together?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As she well knows, the Conservative party is undergoing a policy review, and I hope to make my own contribution in my own personal way. However, not only am I making suggestions to those on my Front Bench, but I hope that Ministers will listen to them because to date, since May 1997, many of them have not been picked up sufficiently by the Government.
I should also like to suggest a reduction in paperwork. We must retreat from the centralised, dogmatic approach. In short, we must allow teachers to teach. We must consider improving coastal-strip weighting, which involves paying teachers more to encourage them to come to areas such as Skegness, which I represent, where some schools have a terrible teacher shortage because teachers will not move or travel from the midlands, where they are currently based, to the coastal areas.
We must reassess the funding. The money must follow the pupil. I represent a constituency that has many seasonal workers, so classes can fluctuate by between 20 to 25 per cent. in a year. That creates enormous problems when the funding is based on a snapshot of the number of pupils in a school at a particular time.
I make a plea to the ministerial team: they must allow schools to exclude disruptive pupils without penalty. The current policy is causing immense harm.
In conclusion, schools should be centres of excellence and our education system should be one of which we can be proud, creating diversity, choice and equality of access for all. Those involved are currently weakened, confused, overworked and underpaid, despite the best efforts of the teaching staff.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I should like to thank a few hon. Members—in particular, Mr. Simmonds, who has started to voice some of the enthusiasm that we have waited a long time to hear from Conservative Members, especially with regard to higher pay for teachers.
I thank the Opposition for the opportunity provided by today's debate. I also thank them for their conversion to spending and especially for their recognition that unions have a valuable part to play, which has been cited on many occasions. It is a pity that they did not recognise that during the 18 years when they were in power, and unions played no part in this country, but I welcome their late conversion.
I thank all our teachers for the work that they do for our children, especially in Staffordshire, and in Tamworth in particular, because I know exactly what they have to undergo. There is a very good LEA and a very good band of teachers, and we thank the Government for the money, especially the capital, that they have provided because the teachers do not now have to run around their classrooms putting buckets under leaks in the roofs every time that it rains. We have managed to put in new windows, to repair the roofs and to refurbish our schools.
Morale would be much higher were it not for a single fact: Staffordshire is the second worst funded shire county in this country. Although some people paint a picture of Staffordshire as a lovely leafy shire county, unfortunately it is not—we have pockets of what can only be described as urban deprivation. If we examine the standard spending assessment—and I urge the Government to do so very closely—we should seriously consider school catchment areas.
I could take certain schools out of my constituency and put them into any inner-city area, given that 60 or 65 per cent. of pupils in those schools receive free school dinners and 45 per cent. of the families are unemployed or on benefits. They have all the problems; they are entitled to single regeneration moneys; and they need extra staff. Although we have worked hard and well as a Government, we have further to go.
I should also like to thank my society for my education. I always remind myself of the phrase, "If you can read, thank a teacher." I thank my society for the money spent on my education. Given where I have ended up, I sometimes wonder whether it thinks that it got value for money.
I spent many years in education and higher education, but I overlooked one thing. I came to this place and sat on these green Benches, and I notice that through some form of osmosis—it has also happened to several of my colleagues and to some of the Opposition—I managed to acquire a PhD in hindsight. When we come here, we find it much easier to look back on the problems that we faced. I notice that an Opposition are always much cleverer than they were when they were in government. I do not know the reason for that; it is a miraculous event.
Added value in our schools is extremely important. Although some of the schools in my constituency are not well placed in the league tables, their catchment areas pretty well determine where they will finish up. No matter how much we try to understand how the system operates, expectations and parents' involvement are important. Poverty is not just a question of money. In the most deprived areas, parents have no expectations for their children and they do not push them. Failure to tackle that problem is the biggest mistake that we have ever made, because those children are now detached from society.
Three years ago, Oakhill school in my constituency was the 16th worst school in the country, but I am pleased to say that, since then, it has improved its results by 400 per cent. The students are now well motivated and a community education department is now attached to the school. Parents go to the school and, in some cases, they manage to keep just ahead of their children. However, they are able to take their children through education. The parents are involved and want their children to have a better life than they did. That achievement alone would justify four years of Labour government.
Lifelong learning has been a major theme in the debate. I am an advocate of lifelong learning, and I have played an active part in it in so far as my educational career has been rather chequered to say the least. After I left school, I carried on my post-15 education at evening classes. Because my company could find nothing other than a day-release course in Birmingham, I spent seven years doing one. I spent 12 hours a day—from 9 am to 9 pm—studying mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronics and instrumentation and control systems. I followed that with a further four years of courses to become a graduate of the Institute of Management.
The mechanics institutes were fine examples in that many people received their FE education through evening classes while being supported by their companies. I was supported by my company but, if I had failed, it would not have paid my fees. As an incentive, I had to pass the course.
I was lucky enough to take a degree at the London School of Economics, and then tried to return to industry. Unfortunately, I chose to do that in 1981. When I wrote to companies for a job, I received letters saying, "Sorry. We're shutting down and laying thousands off." I thought that I was causing the recession. I had not realised that someone had left open the door for another Government and that the then Government had a policy for streamlining Britain and its manufacturing base. That created extreme difficulties.
As a well-educated and well-qualified person, I looked around for opportunities and decided that the best thing would be to go into education. Therefore, I took a postgraduate course and went into further education, where I taught for 14 years. I joined a team of people that was so dedicated, hard working and underpaid that it was unbelievable. The qualifications and dedication of staff in our schools and colleges, and the remuneration that they receive, is not equalled anywhere else in western Europe. Every other society gives teachers much higher recognition and pays them accordingly. We ride on their backs and get their services much too cheap. People will never stay in education until we pay them properly.
However, those who stay in education are dedicated to the job. We have had a buoyant economy in the past few years and teachers, who are well qualified and have good skills, have been able to get jobs elsewhere. The ones who have walked have probably been right to do so because it was not the right job for them. In the recession, people were employed as teachers, especially in colleges, because they could not get a job anywhere else, and they were not necessarily the people we wanted.
We should be thankful for our teachers and the staff who work in schools because it is an awful job. We should not try to get them to sort out society's problems. If parents cannot get children to behave outside school, we will never get them to behave in it. Their behaviour starts with the parents and in the home. Schools can only work with what they are given. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have noted my few words.
We have heard a great deal about the extraordinary chaos and cock-ups surrounding individual learning accounts, not least the point so eloquently made by my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson. To be fair to the Government, we have also heard much about the progress that they have made, not least with the literacy and numeracy hours, which have made a welcome contribution to learning in my constituency's primary schools. However, for anyone who is sincerely interested in the education system, the reality is that something is deeply wrong at the heart of British education.
Figures on teacher losses are beginning to read like a first world war casualty list—not my words, but those of Friday's leading article in The Times Educational Supplement. It rightly explained that teacher recruitment levels may have finally crawled back up to those enjoyed under the last Conservative Administration, but wastage before recruitment has increased by almost 40 per cent. since Labour came to power in 1997—a staggering figure. Furthermore, one in eight teachers who begin training does not complete it; three in every 10 who do complete it do not join the teaching profession; and half of those recruited leave the profession within three years.
One of the most moving encounters that I had during this year's general election campaign was with a young primary school teacher in Battle who worked in the local school. He was hugely appreciated by his local community and dedicated to his pupils, but simply unable to carry on in his chosen vocation because of the intolerable bureaucratic labours that were placed on him. Something is going dreadfully wrong if young teachers such as him are being driven out of the profession.
The reality is that the Government's fine rhetoric masks a distinctly patchy record of achievement and an increasingly disturbing trend in the direction of policy. Centralisation, bureaucratic overload, directive after directive and narrow political targets are all conspiring to drive dedicated and capable teachers out of the profession. The fury of activity at the centre is doing nothing to address the problems of overcrowding, poor discipline, low morale and a crisis in retention and recruitment.
All too often, the Government treat our teachers—who are, after all, Britain's most educated mass work force—as though they do not have the common sense with which they were born, let alone a university degree and, invariably, postgraduate qualifications to boot. Every teacher whom I have met shares the zeal of the Secretary of State, but we need to empower teachers, not constantly to second-guess them in the classroom. It is right to challenge the education sector to do better, but we cannot expect the impossible. A state of perpetual change and interference in the classroom is rapidly producing diminishing returns.
It is not enough to tinker with existing pay scales and financial incentives to lure teachers into the profession or to entice them to stay. If the Government do not start to trust teachers more and bombard them with directives less, things can only get worse.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Barker, who is a true professional, finishing his speech precisely on time, which is most welcome.
We have had an excellent debate, and it is a privilege for me to be in the position of selecting some of the edited highlights. One was when the Secretary of State told us that teachers would not recognise the schools system that my hon. Friend Mr. Green described. We have a Secretary of State who does not listen, and whose remarks were an essay in complacency. She does not believe what teachers say. She stands at the Dispatch Box and says, "I am not complacent," and every time she does so, teachers start to count the spoons.
The Secretary of State says that no school's budget will be lower than it was four years ago, but when I tabled a question asking her to list schools with a budget lower than that of four years ago, I received the answer that those figures are not collected centrally. The Government do not know whether schools have higher or lower budgets than four years ago; all they can say is that the matter is devolved to local authorities.
The Secretary of State went on to discuss learning support units. Members on both sides of the House will have been amused to hear her say, first, that under the previous Government there were none, and then reluctantly admit to my hon. Friend Mr. Turner that there was one, after he had said that he used to teach in it. Eventually, she admitted also that she herself had taught in one some years ago.
On individual learning accounts, the Secretary of State gave us a further insight into her Walter Mitty world. There have been 8,200 complaints, but she gave the House no estimate of the scale of fraud involved. She said that the ILAs were the best scheme and the biggest success in adult learning that there had ever been. We have to ask Ministers why, in that case, it has been withdrawn. Why will they not guarantee the reintroduction of ILAs, or say when they will be reintroduced or what they will be called?
Another highlight was the speech of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Mr. Willis. We look forward to hearing from him on these occasions. He told us that he has been so busy recently that we were lucky even to see him in the Chamber. We are grateful to him for giving the House the benefit of his knowledge and experience. He accused the former Secretary of State of having lit the fuse of a ticking time bomb on teacher numbers, which proved his ability to mix metaphors just as well as the Liberal Democrats mix messages, which they are in the habit of doing.
I am sure that Mr. Sheerman, the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, will shortly return to his place. He is doubtless rushing here as I speak. [Interruption.] I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. He said that his local head teachers beg him not to distribute the Hansard report of our debates because, apparently, they are so dull. A helpful suggestion is that he could shorten the text by excising his own remarks, which would help head teachers in his constituency. Having accused the Opposition of running an invent-a-crisis unit, the hon. Gentleman went on to say that there are serious problems in higher education, and that if we do not tackle them soon we will be in serious trouble. We do not need to invent the crisis; the crisis exists, and the Chairman of the Select Committee has himself acknowledged it.
It was a particular pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell making an excellent contribution to the debate, pointing out the shambles in the financing and structure of higher education. He quoted a senior Minister who admitted that the Government's policy is a complete disaster. It was reported that the review of student finance had concluded before it had even been set up. In a thoughtful speech, my right hon. Friend gave wise advice to both the Opposition and the Government.
My hon. Friend Mr. Boswell always makes an important contribution to education debates. He made constructive criticism of the Government's failure to deliver more than fine words, and focused on post-16 education and the Government's failure to meet their target of increasing the number of FE students by 700,000.
It is important to dwell on the situation in further education, given that the Association of Colleges has made it clear that it, too, perceives serious problems in the Government's handling of the further education sector. The association notes that
"there is a general sense amongst colleges that policy is drifting/absent in a conflict between No. 10/DfES, Ministers and officials/the LSC and its 47 LLSCs."
It goes on to complain of "initiative overload"—a refrain all too often heard from those involved in all aspects of the education world.
Mr. Pickthall highlighted the plight of good training providers in the ILA debacle and complained that the rug had been pulled out from under them. According to the Secretary of State, that was due to the scheme's success; none the less, those providers have been left high and dry by the ILA scheme's suspension. That situation was also highlighted by Mr. Levitt and by my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson who, in a typically entertaining contribution, raised the important case of a training provider in his constituency. He pressed the Minister for the timetable for the restoration of the ILA scheme. I see the Minister listening intently and I know that he looks forward to enlightening the House on that precise point.
My hon. Friend Mr. Luff focused on the Government's failure to tackle unfair variations in education standard spending assessment. He spoke of the desperation of head teachers in his constituency who have been forced to consider taking legal action against the Government by their concern that no action has been taken in four and a half years, despite the many pledges and promises of action.
Mrs. Brooke talked about the problems of the additional costs allowance, although I think that she might have meant the area costs adjustment. One relates to house prices in London, the other to house prices in Poole, but I am sure that the House knew what she meant.
No, I do not mean that. The allowance goes towards salaries, which covers public service workers—[Hon. Members: "The area cost adjustment."] There are two things: there is an additional costs allowance and the area cost adjustment. I know which one I mean.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intervening, but as my mother would have said, that is as clear as mud.
My hon. Friend Mr. Simmonds gave a compelling account of the realities of education in Britain today. He also provided a refreshing perspective on the future shape of education policy.
However much the Government want to deny it, there are grave problems in education. The crisis in teacher morale is resulting in more posts being filled by unqualified teachers, more qualified teachers being forced to teach subjects for which they have no appropriate subject qualification, and more teachers coming from abroad on short-term contracts. By piling more bureaucracy and interference on teachers, the Government are driving them out of the profession. To an increasing extent, heads of schools around the country are having to appoint the only applicant for an advertised post. To say that that threatens standards in schools is not to denigrate teachers; it is simple common sense.
There is also considerable and increasing unease in schools with sixth forms throughout the country. They fear that the future of their sixth forms is no longer secure. Why are funds for sixth forms protected for only one year? Why is the protected level to be based on figures that are a year old? Why are funds to fall if numbers fall, but not to rise if numbers rise? Why are schools not permitted to make direct representations to their local learning and skills councils when they are concerned about levels of funding?
It is little wonder that schools draw such little comfort from Ministers' assurances when so many have been forced to accommodate the costly new post-16 curriculum, which in many instances costs about £50,000 or more a year, without 1p of additional funds reaching schools. Schools are still suffering from the effects of the AS-level fiasco. Exam overload has affected students and it has also affected exam boards, leading to increasing concerns in schools about quality and consistency of marking. That is both between AS modules and between AS modules and A-level expectation.
Further worries confront schools over the future funding of performance-related pay. The threshold funding is assured only to 2004. Will the Minister tonight reassure schools that the cost—it is frequently £100,000 a year or more for schools—will be funded beyond 2004? What assurance can the hon. Gentleman give that the upper levels of performance-related pay will be funded into the future? If he cannot give such assurances, what are the implications for morale of a performance-related pay scheme where there are no funds to reward continuing performance improvements?
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford opened the debate with a serious charge of incompetence and meddling by the Government, leading to widespread, chronic and growing problems in education. We have had some outstanding contributions to the debate, and the witnesses for the prosecution have made a compelling case, proving a catalogue of crimes, including incompetence in the handling of ILAs, presiding over a crisis of teacher morale, making intolerable the lives of teachers by piling bureaucracy on to their shoulders and by falsely claiming—
During the debate, the hon. Gentleman gave an assurance that he would try to be slightly positive and explain exactly what the Opposition's policies are. I hope that in the four minutes or thereabouts that he has left, he will keep to his promise. I would not wish to see another Tory promise broken.
The hon. Gentleman must understand that the job of Members on both sides of the House is to put questions to Ministers and to scrutinise what they are doing. In his earlier contribution, he showed a greater ability to question the Opposition than the Government.
The Government have been falsely claiming to have increased funds for schools, when money has been sucked into local education authority budgets, leaving schools to implement expensive curriculum changes without help. The Government have been negligently failing to tackle the gross iniquities of the education standard spending assessment. The Government have been leaving drift and neglect in further education. The policy in higher education, which a senior Minister described as a complete disaster, needs to be addressed.
We on the Opposition Benches want to see success in our education system. We want to see good discipline in schools successfully raising standards. We want also to see a fair and effective funding mechanism for students and for universities. In addition, we want to see real steps forward in life long learning. Instead, we encounter fiasco in life long learning, crisis in student finance and a collapse in classroom morale. We will continue to highlight these matters until the Government wake up and take them seriously.
I welcome the debate, as do my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench. I welcome it as a measure of the agreement, such as it has been on certain issues, across the House today. I welcome it also as a mark of the importance of education to all hon. Members. This is the first full Opposition day debate for a new and able Opposition Front-Bench team.
I welcome the debate as a sign that the Tory party is set to take education more seriously. That is in marked contrast to the manifesto in June, when there was more on farming than schools and more on foot and mouth than universities. There was not a single mention in the document of further education, through which 4 million people each year learn on a range of courses that simply cannot be found in or delivered by any other part of the education system.
The new Leader of the Opposition promised intelligent opposition; I look forward to that in due course. We have had a full debate, in which there were 19 contributions. I shall try to group them and deal with as many as possible but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me and understand if I do not deal with them all. In particular, I will deal with ILAs, which many hon. Members mentioned and for which I have ministerial responsibility.
The hon. Members for Ashford (Mr. Green) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who are spokesmen for their parties, talked up the crisis and talked down the measures that we are taking to tackle the problem. Whatever they argue, there are more teachers in schools this year than there have been in any year since 1984. The number of people going into teacher training is 5 per cent. up on last year's figure, which was 8 per cent. up on that of the year before. Crucially, recruitment to initial teacher training courses in shortage subject areas is going up. That is good progress, but it is not good enough; we are conscious that we still need to do more.
Those two hon. Gentlemen mentioned pressure and bureaucracy in schools, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Pickthall and the hon. Members for Mid–Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds). The Government are acutely aware of the pressures of paperwork in schools, and are therefore acting to simplify the funding system—the standards fund is an example. We are allowing greater flexibility in how such funds can be spent by schools and, of course, we have agreed to review teachers' work loads in recognition of the fact that we must free up their time to allow them to concentrate on what they do best: teaching and preparing lessons. Some of the pressure on schools comes from initiatives, such as the literacy and numeracy strategy and individual target setting, that are essential and have strong backing from parents and staff. Our job is to make sure that teachers get the support that they need to implement them properly.
My hon. Friend Ms Ward spoke about the differences that the level of resources is now making in schools in her constituency. My hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) also spoke on that. I see the same thing in schools in my constituency such as Thrybergh Fullerton Church of England junior school, which I visited on Friday. The fundamental point is that there has been a real-terms increase of £360 per pupil since the year before the election. I am staggered that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that a significant number of schools in his constituency are getting less money now than in 1997; I challenge him to give me the names of those schools.
Mr. Boswell spoke from experience, as he always does, about his concern about further education and prioritising resources for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield spoke about the importance of the sector. The hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough both spoke about a drift in policy in further education. I fail to recognise that description.
No, I am sorry. I am short of time.
Some £527 million more was earmarked for further education this year via the Learning and Skills Council, and a real-terms increase is due next year too. New initiatives have been announced, such as that on the first 16 centres of vocational excellence, with the target by 2004 of half of all general FE colleges becoming such centres. There are now 47 local learning and skills councils, which will periodically review each college in their areas. Strategic plans are being prepared about the needs of their areas, and budgets will be flexible from April to allow them to reallocate, in consultation with colleges, across their mainstream budgetary provision. I recognise that schools have come first since 1997, but further education is following. Investment and initiatives in the sector are substantial.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield spoke eloquently about the importance of universities. As he argued, they bring innovation and wealth as well as learning to the regions and local areas that they serve. My hon. Friend Mr. Levitt said that university and student support was one of his main concerns, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire said that his serious criticism was that the Government have significantly altered the number of youngsters from working-class backgrounds entering higher education. That is one of our reasons for reviewing student funding policy. I am glad that he recognised and welcomed that.
Mr. Dorrell agreed with our objectives but disagreed with our means, although he seemed to disagree more with the content of the Conservative manifesto published in June on university endowments, which he described as a Father Christmas policy. I shall take his constructive comments as representations to the review.
I am pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West, for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) and for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) and the hon. Member for Daventry reminded us of the importance of adult basic skills—an overlooked part of the education and learning system. I say to Mr. Johnson that I shall look at the position of the Henley Community Online centre.
On individual learning accounts, I say first and very clearly that I welcome the questioning in this Chamber on the matter. It is part of the proper role of Parliament that Government policy decisions and actions are scrutinised in this House, but I want to ensure that we get the figures straight and that hon. Members have a proper perspective of the problem. I want the House to be clear about the complaints that we have received, the proportion that relate to abuse and how few relate to fraud.
By the end of July, a full 10 months into the running of the national programme, the ILA centre had dealt with 1.5 million ILA account holders and received 3,096 complaints. Two months later, after one year of the scheme, the figure had doubled to 6,053 complaints. By the end of October, the number had risen to 8,448—in a programme of 2.5 million account holders.
There has been a significant increase in complaints since the summer, but that must be set in the context of the scale of the scheme. Only a quarter of those 8,448 complaints were about misuse, mis-selling or potential fraud. Other complaints related to matters such as the operations of the ILA centre, discount for particular courses, the late arrival of ILA packs and even requests to backdate ILA membership.
Those non-compliance complaints relate to 404 registered learning providers. The majority of those have had one or two complaints against them. However, there are currently 84 registered learning providers about which we have had a larger number of complaints and about which we have more serious concerns. In respect of all those, we are already carrying out or considering special investigation action. In each case in which we identify evidence of fraud, we involve the police. To date, there have not been 279 learning providers investigated by the police over alleged fraud: to date, the police have made 30 arrests in England, involving just four learning providers.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to read Hansard, where he will see that the figures indicate a problem on an increasing scale since the summer. People will always try to abuse or even defraud any large-scale publicly funded system. Let me remind Opposition Members about TECs. The National Audit Office estimates that in the last decade of their operation, about £100 million was overspent by them—money that went to training providers for training that was not provided.
The critical test of such schemes is whether the Government monitor them closely, act on abuse and deal with the problems in good time. Contrary to the accusations of Opposition Front Benchers, we have acted to give learners the advice and information that they needed, and to alter the system. We could not stamp out the abuse of the system, so we acted to withdraw the programme. We were right to do so to protect individuals and the proper use of public funds.
Finally on individual learning accounts, the hon. Member for Ashford accused me and colleagues of ignoring ILAs and the associated problems. May I tell the House how many parliamentary questions were tabled by the Opposition from the time of the election until
I welcome the comments of my hon. Friends about the impact, innovation and influence of individual learning accounts for thousands of new learners. Many aspects of the ILA model have proved popular and effective in encouraging people to take up learning, and in reaching people who had not done any learning for some time. We want to overcome the problems in the way in which the system was operated and build on the success of the ILA policy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that our commitment to enabling access to lifelong learning is cast iron, and that we will introduce a further scheme.
We are proud of the Government's achievements in our first term of office. Last week, we published a strategic framework for our Department that takes us through to 2006. In that document, we set out clear aims, creating opportunities for everyone to develop their learning, releasing people's potential to make the most of themselves, and achieving excellence in standards of education and levels of skills across the board.
We have set ambitious targets, which include, for children, access for every three-year-old to a free nursery place; child care places for 1.6 million children; and taking key stage 2 results beyond the 2002 target. For young people, the targets include getting 75 per cent. of 14-year-olds to achieve level 5 English, maths and information and communications technology, and helping 55 per cent. of 19-year-olds achieve a level 3 qualification. We aim to reduce by 750,000 the number of adults with literacy and numeracy problems by 2004.
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to