Health and Education

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:55 pm on 16 November 2006.

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Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather Shadow Secretary of State for Education 4:55, 16 November 2006

My hon. Friend has pre-empted the point that I was about to make. We are of one mind. The Secretary of State made some interesting announcements outside the Chamber today. He said that the Government were looking at ways to reward schools for taking children from poorer backgrounds, which I applaud. May I suggest that he consider the policy that we have been studying, which my hon. Friend mentioned a moment ago?

The system of pupil premiums is used by a number of other countries to target money on the particular child, rather than trying to second-guess what extra help a school might need because of the deprived area in which it is situated. Deprivation funding is at present a complicated mess, as the Government know. Their child poverty review, which was published in December 2005 but received almost no publicity, recognised that.

Some money is automatically allocated by the centre. Some money must be applied for by schools. Some is distributed on the basis of deprivation. Many of the proxies used to assess deprivation are out of date. Some money is given directly to schools and some is given to local authorities. Some of the money is not redistributed to schools, and much of it fails to reach the front line. So why not put all those complicated streams into one pot and target the money on the individual child?

That would have several advantages. First, students who need extra help would have the extra money allocated to them to pay for that extra help. Secondly, schools that at the moment, because of league tables, have a disincentive to take the students whom they fear may struggle would gain an incentive to take those students because they would come with a little extra money attached. Thirdly, if the extra help is there for students who struggle, they are far less likely to be disruptive, because they would be having the extra support that they need to benefit and to achieve.

That targeted system works well in the Netherlands, for example, and I hope very much that when the Government come to look at this that the Secretary of State—I know that he has announced that he will be consulting on such areas—will consider adopting this policy. They have acknowledged that their deprivation funding is not reaching the front line, so I hope that he will consider the policy that Liberal Democrats think would make a real difference.

To return to the reference in the Gracious Speech to "vulnerable members of society", the key to that is ensuring that all schools are of a high quality, and much of that is about personnel. It is about ensuring that we have appropriately qualified teachers and head teachers in all our schools. The shortage of qualified teachers is particularly prominent in those schools that are worst performing, and they are often in the very deprived areas—the areas that take the most vulnerable members of our society who most need that expert teaching and intervention.

The Budget announced that the Government had accepted the Liberal Democrat idea of money to retrain teachers who are teaching in an area for which they are not qualified, but they agreed only to run pilots in science. I hope that they will extend that to other areas, such as modern languages, which is also of critical importance, and where there is an enormous shortage of highly qualified teachers.

We face a real crisis in recruiting good-quality leaders for our schools, and without them we have no hope of driving up performance in underperforming schools. We need a system for fast-tracking young teachers through the system, and those returning to work after a career break, perhaps for a family, to ensure that it is flexible enough so that they can attain headship. We need to consider why it is that so many of our black and ethnic minority teachers do not attain headship. There must be barriers stopping very talented teachers from different backgrounds attaining headship and those must be researched and removed.

It is baffling to me that the Government would initiate two major reviews of the further education sector, yet produce a Bill in between both of them that fails to implement most of the recommendations of either. Foster recommended major changes to simplify the funding of further education, but no one is expecting anything so dramatic to be in the Bill when it is published. Leitch will not report until December, but we are told that the Government will tweak the Bill if Leitch proposes anything contradictory to the Bill after it is published. I am left wondering whether the Government either anticipate that there will be nothing dramatic in the Leitch review that is worth implementing, which would be extremely depressing, or whether they simply do not intend to implement the recommendations. Or perhaps we face the prospect of another Bill from the Department, such as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill in the previous Session, which was constantly rewritten as it went through the House. I hope that that will not be case, because it is not a very sensible way to make legislation. It did not produce good legislation that will hit the issues that need to be tackled.

The Secretary of State has said that 2007-08 will be the year of skills. If that were the case, all hon. Members would strongly endorse it, but the Government have not spun the fact that there will be anything dramatic in the Bill. Perhaps the Secretary of State is completely changing practice and keeping all the ideas ready for the Bill to be produced, but I fear that that is probably not the case. I suspect that if there were anything dramatic and exciting to be published in the Bill, we would have heard about it by now. Why not take advantage not just of the Leitch report being published before Christmas, but of the Lyons review, simplify the complex and confusing funding arrangement between learning and skills councils and local authorities and shift the 16-to-19 funding to local authorities?

Then we could have joined-up funding. It could herald the beginning of a system whereby money could follow students as they move between schools and colleges, mixing vocational and academic courses. Schools and colleges could collaborate on a fair footing, not one whereby college students find themselves short-changed by about £400 each. The Government have asked for healthy cooking courses to be implemented in all schools. Many schools do not have the equipment to do that, but colleges often do. We need better collaboration, and it can be achieved only through fair funding.

We expect the Bill to have one eye-catching proposal—to allow colleges to award foundation degrees. That appears to have come from nowhere. It was not in the White Paper or in the Foster review, and nobody appears to have been consulted about it. It recognises that for many students of all agents, the route into higher education is through further education. I am grateful to the Government for that However, would not it be more meaningful if on the back of that recognition, we had a flexible system that encouraged students to move between those institutions? That would recognise the reality for many students who, because of family responsibilities or caring responsibilities, or because they need to work part-time, find that they need to begin their education in their local area at a local college, but may then wish to move and do other parts of their course at another institution? Followed up by a sensible and radical funding system, that would be the beginning of a truly radical policy.

What about the Chancellor's instruction to Leitch that he should look particularly at the link between skills and welfare to work? Will that be covered in the Bill? The Government commissioned Leitch to identify the UK's optimal skills mix in 2020 to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice, and to consider the policy implications of achieving the level of change required. When will they introduce the legislation to implement that? Will they publish another Bill in the next Session to put forward those proposals from Leitch, or will it not happen? The Leitch review may herald exciting advances, but only if the Government put it into practice.

The area of adult skills falls between different portfolios far too easily. When hon. Members ask questions about it, we are too often told that adult courses are all about Australian cake-making or tarot card reading. It gets belittled and everyone thinks it is very funny. However, the Chancellor recognised, as do we, that adult skills courses are a vital link with getting people back into work, and Liberal Democrat Members recognise that. We do not want to hear any more of the Government's rhetoric to the effect that adult skills courses are the bottom end, or the fluffy end, of course provision and are not vital for access to education. For many people, they are the only route back into reskilling and work.

The proposed Bill leaves many questions unanswered. Liberal Democrat Members will continue throughout the Session to hold the Government to account, particularly on the phrase in the Queen's Speech about maximising opportunities for the most vulnerable members of our society.