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Education And Skills

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Teacher Vacancies

1.

What assessment he has made of the number of teacher vacancies. [114994]

National statistics published by my Department on 29 April show that, between 2002 and 2003, the number of full-time teacher vacancies in maintained schools in England fell by 1,140, or 25 per cent. The national teacher vacancy rate is now below 1 per cent. At regional level, the number of vacancies has fallen in eight out of the nine Government office regions, including a 35 per cent. drop in Yorkshire and Humberside.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am rather surprised by the statistic, because I spoke recently with Barnsley local education authority and I was told that we have fewer vacancies in Barnsley than there have been for a good number of years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that indicates that things are beginning to change and that teachers are being attracted to areas that are regenerating their economies and renewing their social structures, and that at the same time we are retaining teachers with experience, which is beginning to show through in areas such as Barnsley?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The figures confirm the experience of his colleagues in Barnsley and what he is describing, in that the national teacher vacancy rate is now 0.9 per cent. That indicates how well our policies are succeeding in delivering better teachers, better classrooms and better results.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the teacher redundancy crisis at Edenham high school in Croydon is only the tip of the iceberg? Schools such as Woodcote high, Coloma girls and, as reported in today's Croydon Guardian, another school, Coulsdon high school, are on a four-and-a-half-day week. The problem is that contrary to what the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, the education budget in Croydon is inadequate. To make it worse, the local Labour authority has siphoned off £1.7 million for non-educational purposes.

The Government blame the council and the council blames the Government. Six years ago, the Prime Minister said that his top priorities were "Education, education, education." Today, we see only shambles, chaos and children caught in the crossfire.

I am very well aware of the position both in the schools to which the hon. Gentleman has referred and in Croydon generally. Croydon is one of those authorities that has not passported all its money to education, as it should have done. We have made it clear to the local education authority that it should do that. Croydon is also one of those authorities that is working with schools to try to resolve this situation in an effective way. My Department is also working with LEAs, such as Croydon, specifically discussing with them the best way to proceed. I would say to head teachers that they should work closely with the LEA to resolve the situation, rather than taking the sort of steps that were taken yesterday.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable to parents and to children for pupils to be sent home early from schools? Does he agree that it is time to re-examine regional distributions? Does he agree also that it is time to examine whether funding should be made directly from his Department to schools? Further, will he agree to meet me to discuss with representatives from Croydon a strategy for this year to next year to ensure that there is sufficient cash for our children's education?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful question. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has met colleagues from Croydon, and will continue to do so. [Interruption.] I meant that seriously—it was a helpful question. It is important that we have a proper debate about the funding issues in schools. It is important also that Members represent their constituents' interests in the way that both the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and my hon. Friend have sought to do. It was not an ironic remark.

I will not inflate the situation by using strong language about what has gone on in the schools, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that schools should not be closing for even part of the day in the current circumstances while the LEA, the Department and schools are working together to resolve these problems in an effective manner.

May I, too, ask the Secretary of State a helpful question? What sort of message does he think it is sending to potential teachers that there may be vacancies in many areas but there will be 3,000 redundancies throughout the country, and 92 in his and my education authority? Has he yet seen the letter from Dr. Bryan Slater, the chief education officer for Norfolk county council, to his Department, which line by line refutes the arguments advanced by the Department that in some way Norfolk has not passed on all the funds to schools? In those areas where funds have not as yet been passed on, the irony is that that has not happened because of the Department's guidelines. Surely the buck stops with the right hon. Gentleman and his Department, not with schools and not with LEAs.

I have two things to say in response. First, the survey reported this morning in the newspaper to which the hon. Gentleman referred is, as the newspaper itself acknowledged, a self-selecting partial survey in which only one in 17 of those surveyed responded. It bears no relation—I emphasise this—to information that we have had from local education authorities about the situation.

Secondly, on the Norfolk case, the document that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which referred to 92 potential redundancies, is a paper that the authority sent in response to recent ring-rounds and which was copied to trade unions and others, and no doubt it is in the public arena. As the LEA said, and I have had confirmation of it this morning, it represents all possible cases. The cause is a mix of budget problems and falling rolls. However, there are as many vacancies as posts at risk, so the LEA is working to re-deploy as many as possible. In addition, the 92 potential redundancies were from before the devolved formula capital announcement that I made a week or so ago, so the actual number, according to the LEA, will be nothing like as big as the figure mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. That story is repeated throughout the country. LEAs are working, like Conservative Norfolk county council—I give it credit—with schools, teachers and my Department to ensure that the problems are minimised. The kind of partial survey published in The Times this morning, based on inaccurate and outdated information, does nothing to assist the situation in any way.

As my right hon. Friend rolls out his specialist schools policy, will he be extremely careful to examine the impact that that will have on teacher shortages in particular subjects, and will he study carefully the Select Committee's report, "Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision", which was published this morning? It might give him some useful guidance in that area.

I will study my hon. Friend's Committee's report extremely carefully. I have seen the news reports of its publication, but as I am sure he will understand, I have not yet had a chance to study the report itself. I will take account of what it recommends. The overall teacher vacancy position that I described shows the kind of measures that we can take to improve the quality of education in all types of schools throughout the country.

The Secretary of State just sought to rubbish the survey in The Times this morning, which suggested that there will be 3,000 teacher redundancies as a result of the Government's funding crisis in schools. If he thinks that that is the wrong figure, how many teachers' jobs does he think are at risk because of the funding crisis?

We believe that the overall level of redundancies—there are falling rolls in some parts of the country—will be of the same order as in past years. That is the precise question that we are discussing with LEAs, as I described in response to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). We are not in a position to make an estimate at this stage, but I can say that both the particular figures cited—the 92 in Norfolk and the 3.000 in the self-selecting survey published in The Times today—are massive exaggerations.

The Secretary of State seems to be admitting that some teachers at least will be made redundant as a result of the funding crisis. He knows that the redundancy notices will have to go out by the end of this month. His Department underspent by £1 billion last year. Why does he not take some useful action and use some of that money to stop teachers being sacked? The crisis is real, and his response so far has been hopelessly inadequate.

We debated the matter at length last week. We expect a reduction of about 50,000 pupils in nursery and primary schools this year and over the next two years. That is spread unevenly across the country. LEAs are trying to manage the falling rolls as best they can, but it leads to difficult situations in particular schools. Let me cite another local authority to praise it. Yesterday, a special meeting of Northumberland county council agreed to give £1.5 million to the county's 213 schools in a bid to boost budgets. The funds are being recycled from a contingency fund. According to the council's press release, that will prevent 19 threatened redundancies in 14 schools, and allow other schools to boost their education budgets. Such action is being taken by LEAs throughout the country. I cite only one example. It indicates that we are working with LEAs to resolve the problem, and that is what we will do.

Higher Education Funding

2.

What publicly funded scholarships and bursaries are available to assist students from low-income backgrounds to participate in higher education. [114995]

A number of publicly funded bursaries already exist for students from low-income families. They include opportunity bursaries, learning allowances for student parents, and student awards from hardship funds. The Government also fund student bursaries for those training in public sector work—teaching, social work and a range of health professions. From 2004, new students will be able to apply for the new higher education grant of up to £1,000 each year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I hope that she will agree that the current system is complicated for potential students. Will she consider a proposal to reintroduce state scholarships that are based on merit and means tested? Such scholarships could be both publicly and privately funded, and would help to achieve her objective of improving access for students from low-income backgrounds.

I accept that we need to be better at getting proper information out to potential students about the funding that is available to support them during their university degrees. We have a system of what could be termed state scholarships in terms of the fee remission scheme and the introduction of the higher education grant. Going beyond that, we want institutions themselves to accept responsibility for ensuring that they have bursary schemes to support students from low-income families, rather than having further central prescription. However, I am always willing to consider new ideas from hon. Members.

Does the Minister agree that one does not raise the aspirations of one group of children by suppressing those of another? Is there not every likelihood that that is what the access regulator, or "Offtoff", will do? Here is a suggestion to the Minister: scrap "Offtor, leave universities free to admit on merit and spend the savings on poor students, of whom there are all too many under this Government's policies.

I find it very hard to understand how cutting student numbers can open access and increase opportunities, particularly for those from low-income families who wish to attend universities. I also find it very hard to understand how the Big Brother regulator that the Opposition undoubtedly want to introduce to tell universities which courses they can and cannot offer would improve access for students. It may well be that the hon. Gentleman does not like our proposal to introduce OFFA, the office of fair access, which will ensure fair access for students in all our universities, but I am not sure that I think much of the Opposition's idea of simply telling students to OFF off.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proportion of children from poor households going to university in this country is still far too low? Does she know of any other country in the world that does not have a target to increase participation? Can she tell me what proportion of households pay the full tuition fee at the moment?

I completely concur with my hon. Friend that too few young people from low-income households are going to university. The thrust of all our policies is to ensure that the brightest and most talented young people, from whatever background, get the opportunity to go to university. I also concur that no developed nation that is aspiring to compete economically in the global economy is not increasing the number of people who are participating and going to university. Finally, he is right to draw to the attention of the House the fact that only four out of 10 young people currently pay the full contribution to the fee that we ask of students.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is absolutely right; information is not getting through to students, as the Minister admits. That is because the way in which she answered the question was about as clear as mud. Why is she spending so much time and money setting up all these complicated schemes that no one understands, when the simple solution is so obvious? My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) announced our policy to great acclaim last week. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State knows that this is right. The way to encourage more young people from all backgrounds to come into higher education is to scrap university fees altogether. Why do not the Government simply abolish the tax on learning?

I welcome the hon. Lady's guest appearance. I am delighted that the Conservatives have finally introduced a policy on higher education—one of their first—and I am sure that it will unravel very quickly. Underlying it is the clear message that if someone wants their child to go to university, they should not vote Conservative because under their policy there would not be a place for that child.

It seems obvious that only a minority of students would benefit from a limited supply of scholarships and bursaries. If we want to widen participation in higher education, as we all do on this side of the House at least, we should reintroduce state grants for all students. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the only realistic way forward in the long term?

I would make three points to my hon. Friend. First, four out of 10 young students do not have their fees remitted. Secondly, with the introduction of a higher education grant on top of a well-subsidised student loan, a third of the student cohort will receive £1,000 a year. Thirdly, by abolishing the payment of an up-front contribution towards the cost of fees, no student will have to contribute to the cost of their education during their time at university. Graduates who benefit personally from gaining a degree should contribute over their lifetime to the cost of that degree from their earnings. It is therefore graduates who pay, not students.

Criminal Records Bureau

3.

If he will make a statement on Criminal Records Bureau checks for teachers. [114996]

The average turnaround time for Criminal Records Bureau checks on teachers is less than five weeks. Head teachers have discretion to allow teachers to start work before receiving their disclosure, provided that they have been checked against list 99 and all other relevant pre-employment checks have been carried out.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure he will recall the chaos into which the CRB descended last year, when many thousands of teachers were awaiting checks, schools were in limbo, and children were left wondering whether there would be a teacher in their classroom. Will the Minister confirm that it would be wrong for the CRB substantially to increase its charges for disclosures well above the rate of inflation to make good the cost of its cock-ups? Would it not be wrong for teachers, local education authorities and children to have to pay more to make good the errors of the CRB?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the CRB is now processing 40,000 disclosures a week, and the backlog to which he referred is all but cleared. The full operation of the CRB is obviously a matter for the Home Secretary, and I understand that he has the various issues under review.

If the backlog is all but cleared, why does Essex county council have 400 applications outstanding, 50 of which were made a year ago? That is spectacular incompetence, even by the Department's standards. When will Essex's outstanding applications be cleared?

The honest answer is that Essex is part of the "but" rather than the "all" in my earlier description of the CRB's activities. It is processing 40,000 applications a week, and I am sure that it will come to the Essex disclosures as soon as possible.

Connexions Partnerships

4.

If he will make a statement on the publication of the first three Ofsted reports on Connexions partnerships. [114998]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I am pleased to say that Ofsted has judged all three partnerships to be good. In each case, Ofsted found that the partnership enables young people to reach good levels of achievement; has a good overall quality of practice; has a good understanding of the communities that it serves; and has good leadership and management, together with committed staff.

I thank my hon. Friend. With that positive outcome and, I trust, a further good report from the west of England Connexions Partnership board, will he confirm that Connexions partnerships make a real difference to young people in their progression to their adult working lives?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for supporting the work of Connexions in her constituency. While I cannot disclose the results of the Ofsted report in her area, she will not be disappointed. To underline the progress that Connexions is now making, in a recent independent survey of more than 16,000 young people who have used the service, 91 per cent. said that they were satisfied or very satisfied; 90 per cent. agreed that Connexions had a lot to offer young people; 86 per cent. felt that it helped them to understand all the options available to them; and 68 per cent. said that it had helped them make life-changing decisions. Up and down the country, Connexions is beginning to make a real difference to the life chances of young people.

Those are fine words, but can the Minister confirm that the Ofsted report says that only around half of Connexions staff have direct contact with young people, and that in Lincolnshire and Rutland that figure dropped to just 40 per cent.?

Can he also confirm that this year, with a budget of £429 million, the Connexions service is spending just £4.5 million—1 per cent.—with voluntary organisations that work with the most vulnerable young people in our society? Does he accept that growing bureaucracy is one of the main reasons why many voluntary organisations often see Connexions as a rival, not a partner, and what steps is he taking to address that problem before voluntary organisations completely lose faith in the Connexions service?

In a recent debate, I made a commitment to the hon. Gentleman that I would analyse the relationship between Connexions and the voluntary and community sector. I can bring him the good news that in fact the proportion of money that is spent on voluntary and community services in Connexions partnerships areas is not 1 per cent. The guidance said that it should be 5 per cent.; we believe that on average it is 6 per cent. We accept that the development of a new service will have strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses that were identified in the initial Ofsted report included the need for better quality assurance systems and for a more strategic approach to the involvement of young people. We must address those concerns.

We do not pretend that an entirely new service has got everything right. It is important, however, to support the positive partnerships that are taking place and to recognise the fact that young people are getting an integrated service that brings together all the professionals in communities to ensure that they can overcome the barriers that too often get in the way of progressing and achieving in their learning and their lives.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, welcome as the Ofsted report is, it is even more important to get the kind of positive response that he got from parents and users at the Connexions centre in Burnley when he visited it? That shows that the Connexions service is doing an excellent job, and supports what the Ofsted report says.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's comments. Burnley is going through difficult times. On my recent visit, it was encouraging and reassuring to meet young people who are benefiting from the Connexions service by seeing life chances and opportunities opening up. We need such policy developments to ensure that people in areas such as Burnley do not turn to extremist parties, but see the direct benefits of mainstream politics and politicians. One of those benefits is the development of the Connexions service, an initiative of which the Government are incredibly proud.

Tuition Fees

5.

What evidence he has evaluated on charging different fees for different higher education courses. [114999]

8.

What evidence he has evaluated on charging different fees for different higher education courses. [115002]

As our White Paper identified, a number of independent reports have shown that graduate earnings vary significantly, depending on a student's chosen course and university. For example, a new report published this week by the Centre for the Economics of Education confirms that graduates from Russell group universities are likely to earn more than those from other universities. Given that difference in potential earnings, and given the need to increase funding for higher education, we consider that the fairest way to proceed is to have a variable fee regime.

My right hon. Friend knows that courses in the science and engineering disciplines are far more expensive to run than other courses, and that we are desperately short of good-quality graduates in those fields. If differential fees are allowed, universities might take the option of charging higher fees for those courses. Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the continuing closure of science and engineering departments? The latest announcement is that King's college's chemistry department might close. Would not the introduction of differential fees make matters worse?

I share my hon. Friend's concern about any potential closures of university science and engineering departments. We are discussing with universities and the industries concerned how to mitigate that. I do not accept, however, that a variable fee regime would have the implications that he describes. In fact, there is a good deal of evidence that for both men and women, higher returns over and above two or more A-levels are associated with studying medicine, law, economics, maths and engineering—subjects such as those that my hon. Friend mentions—and it is not unreasonable that the fees regime should reflect that.

My right hon. Friend mentioned medicine as a subject that might fall into the category that needs special attention. He knows that there is an increasing need for doctors in the national health service, partly due to the immense investment that we are making in it. Does he share my anxiety and that of the British Medical Association that the differential fee policy could have a disproportionate effect on medical students? Has he evaluated the potential effect on the supply of doctors?

My hon. Friend's focus on the state of medical education is correct. I am discussing the way in which we tackle such issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We are considering several alternative routes, including the golden hellos and handshakes that already apply in some disciplines. My hon. Friend is right to raise the matter, but I believe that we have solutions to ensure a continuing supply of good, high-quality medical students who are committed to expanding the health service.

Given that the latest evidence shows that some courses carry a negative graduate premium, does the Secretary of State accept that, according to his logic, those who take such courses should be paid to go to university?

I do not accept that, hon. Members will be surprised to know. The impact of the regime will happen over four or five years as we ascertain the way in which universities and vice-chancellors decide to deal with specific courses. There will be much more variety in fees than people currently believe. Some universities will probably reduce the fees from the current £1,100—possibly even to zero—to take account of some of the factors that the hon. Gentleman described. We will therefore have a more diverse system, which will be generally beneficial.

Industries in the United States put millions of dollars without strings attached into their local universities, thus allaying many of their financial problems. Why does not that culture prevail in this country?

I think the reason is that the relationship between the higher education sector and industry is not strong enough. We are actively promoting discussion about that. For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I hosted a seminar with the Confederation of British Industry and universities to discuss the matter. As my hon. Friend knows, despite the extra money from business to which he referred, American universities charge fees that are massively higher than anything that we anticipate in this country. I do not believe that there is a connection between the issue that my hon. Friend raised and the variable fee regime.

The Centre for the Economics of Education study to which the Secretary of State referred concluded that the introduction of differential fees would make the signal that is attached to a degree fuzzier to employers and reinforce existing divisions in the university sector. Does the Secretary of State agree?

I do not agree. The most interesting fact in the survey is the 2.5 to 6 per cent. variation in earnings premium for students at Russell group universities. It concludes that some universities could charge between £3,000 and £7,000 a year more, and that that would be justified by the premium. We suggest nothing like such a variation, but it is reasonable to show clearly and directly that society and the individual benefit from university education. That should be acknowledged.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that excellent regional universities—for example, the University of Northumbria at Newcastle and Sunderland—are anxious that they will be at a disadvantage if an élite group of universities, mainly in the south-east of England, are allowed to raise their fees to figures upwards of £10,000 a year, as today's newspapers reported the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education as saying?

First, nobody is anticipating putting fees up to that kind of level. Secondly, my hon. Friend's question gives me the chance to pay tribute to the five universities in the north-east that are working extremely well together to promote the kind of collaboration that we have been describing, precisely to avoid the effects about which my hon. Friend has expressed concern. It is through that form of collaboration that we can establish a regime that will enrich the university sector as a whole in an entirely beneficial way.

Teacher Redundancies

6.

What discussions he has had with teaching unions about teacher redundancies in financial year 2003–04. [115000]

Ministers and officials have regular discussions with teaching unions covering a wide range of issues. We are working with local government to ensure that the growth in teacher and support staff numbers is sustained, as promised in 1997 and 2001.

Does the Minister understand the real concern in Poole that, in an authority area in which more than 100 per cent. of the standard spending assessment has been passported to schools, there are going to be redundancies among teachers and classroom assistants? Parents in Poole do not want excuses; they want an acknowledgment that there is a problem and a will to sort it out.

I am slightly disappointed by the tone of the hon. Gentleman's question, since he came to the Department with a group of representatives from Poole and had an extremely useful meeting with me about these issues.

The hon. Gentleman might say that, but I have had a letter from the chief executive in Poole saying how useful the meeting was, and that one of the things that had resulted from it was a new dialogue with the schools to try to overcome the problem. That is the kind of action that we like to see.

May I urge the Minister not to take any notice of Conservative Members crying out for more resources? Many of the authorities that are making people redundant—or claiming that they will have to do so—are receiving vast amounts more than authorities such as St. Helens. Will he resist those calls?

I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for schools in St. Helens and that he is as pleased as I am by the enormous increase in achievement in both the primary and secondary sectors. The Government's commitment is to a fair system of funding, and I am glad that my hon. Friend thinks that it is working well.

Will the Minister now admit that he has been entirely wrong? Will he come to Leicestershire and see how we are having to set deficit budgets and make teachers redundant because of the Government's failure of policy? Apparently, everyone else is wrong except those on the Government Front Bench. Well, what about the story in The Times which says that 3,000 teachers are to be made redundant across the country? They cannot all be wrong. How about the Minister saying sorry and admitting that he is wrong?

There are important and serious issues around the country. Thanks to the Government's economic policies, Leicestershire has half the level of people on income support than the national average, and that is reflected in its funding position. It is also significant, however, that the variation in funding for different schools across Leicestershire is one of the highest in the country. There is fully 10 per cent. difference between the schools that have been helped the most and those that have been helped the least.

The Minister will be aware from his visit to my constituency that standards in all the schools are continuing to rise very encouragingly under the policies of his Government. It would, however, be a pity to see certain schools falling back on account of the very marginal shortfall in Coventry, which got the full 7 per cent. The Minister will be aware that this does not involve a huge amount of money—about £1 million—and if there could be some sort of indicative arrangement as to what we might expect next year, the schools would be encouraged to carry on with their full complement this year.

My hon. Friend has spoken well about the achievements in Coventry schools. I know that the local education authority is working hard with the local schools to ensure that any problems are overcome, and making use of the flexibilities that were offered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week.

Vocational Qualifications

7.

What progress has been made on increasing flexibility for vocational qualifications to meet local employer needs. [115001]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is now working closely with the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency to develop a high-quality system of vocational qualifications that will respond to the needs of both employers and learners.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating further education colleges on the excellent work that they do in meeting employers' training needs. Is he aware, however, that they face two major difficulties in doing so? First, they can offer only the formal qualifications approved by the Government, which are often not what local employers want. Secondly, the provision of training of the type that is wanted at the time and place required to meet the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises is difficult within the funding regime administered by the Learning and Skills Council. Will the Minister assure the House that he will be meeting representatives of the FE colleges to try to overcome those obstacles and to allow the colleges the freedom and flexibility that they need in order fully to meet employers' needs?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the centrality of further education in the context of employer training. We think that the new "success for all" investment and reform vision for further education will give colleges incentives to form much closer relationships with employers. We also believe that the skills strategy we will publish next month will be fundamentally concerned with creating an education and training system that is far more focused on employers' needs than has historically been the case. We want, for instance, to ensure that funds give incentives for the development of the right kind of relationships, and that the qualifications framework is flexible enough to make employers want to sign up for investment in vocational qualifications.

I believe that the reform of further education and the skills strategy will deal directly with the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

I am delighted to hear that the education and training programme is to be focused more on employers' needs. Was my hon. Friend—like me when I read about it at the weekend—a little distressed to learn that most resources for training in work tend to be taken by those who are already highly educated? Are the Government not right to focus on those in vocational education now, if we are to close the productivity gap on which the Chancellor is concentrating? Is not what my hon. Friend has just said absolutely right?

I am always delighted to hear colleagues describe what I have said as "absolutely right"—and relatively non-controversial.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. One thing that the skills strategy will seek to do is to clarify, once and for all, what constitutes appropriate state investment in education and training. We must give priority to those seeking qualifications up to level 2 if we are to narrow that productivity and competitiveness gap, and we must ensure that we get the best possible value for money. That is not to say that higher-level qualifications do not matter, but when it comes to adult learning we must put resources into helping people to achieve level 2 qualifications.

If more employers, or their nominees, volunteered to serve as governors in schools and colleges, could they not bring influence to bear and create greater flexibility in the sphere of vocational qualifications? Will the Minister pay tribute to employers who serve voluntarily in school and college managements, and encourage more to do so?

I do pay tribute to those individuals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear his wish to see a daily, dynamic relationship between employers and schools, colleges and universities. One way in which such a relationship can manifest itself is through employers serving on governing bodies. That would also make educational institutions focus more on the needs of the labour market than they have historically.

Over the next couple of years, we shall be introducing enterprise education into the national curriculum for the first time, and we are building much closer local relationships between employers and schools, especially through the specialist schools programme. That is fundamental to improving educational opportunities for young people, but also to improving the competitiveness and productivity of our economy.

Qualifications And Curriculum Authority

9.

What plans he has to improve his Department's monitoring of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. [115004]

Ministers and officials hold regular meetings with the QCA. It is currently focused on the smooth delivery of this year's tests and exams, but a new memorandum of understanding between the Department and the QCA will be published shortly.

Does the Minister recall that this time last year Werneth high school in my constituency was one of 500 schools that did not receive their English and maths key stage 3 exam papers until two days after the exams? Does he recall that it took four months for the QCA to admit to the schools that it had provided an unacceptable level of service? Is he satisfied that this year he has a tight enough grip on the QCA to avoid a repetition of the stress and the pressure on schools and children that that failure caused?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has left us in terrible suspense about whether the exam papers have arrived for this year. Such confirmation would be rather more comforting proof than would fine words from me that the system is working better. I have had no reports that Werneth high school has been suffering problems this year.

School Budgets (Cornwall And Scilly Isles)

10.

What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the 2003–04 budget settlement upon schools in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. [115006]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The increase in education formula spending share for Cornwall for 2003–04 is 6.4 per cent., and the increase for the Isles of Scilly is 6.6 per cent. I welcome Cornwall county council's decision to pass on more than 105 per cent. of the increase in schools funding to its schools budget, resulting in an increase in the local education authority's schools budget of 8.9 per cent.

I am very grateful to the Under-Secretary for that response. When I debated this issue with the Minister for School Standards on 2 April, he accepted the fact that the LEA was passporting—indeed, more than passporting—funds to local schools. Where has all of the Department's promised money gone, and has it got its sums right? What comfort can the Under-Secretary offer to schools in my constituency and throughout Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which are having to make very difficult decisions about issuing redundancies to highly valued teachers?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he is doing on this issue following the debate in April. We have made it very clear that this is a shared responsibility between central Government and local government, and the Department is working with the LEA. The additional flexibilities announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week should assist with that process. We want to continue to work with Cornwall to ensure that the money gets to where we all want it to be—in the schools.

Higher Education

11.

What proposals he has to help students from modest backgrounds to gain access to higher education. [115007]

Under our proposals, no student will need to pay up-front tuition fees. We will also reintroduce maintenance grants and require universities charging higher fees to offer bursaries. Unlike the Conservatives, we intend to increase opportunities for students from modest backgrounds to access higher education—not cut them.

Does the Minister accept that one consequence of the existing funding regime for higher education is that increasing numbers of students are staying at home and going to their local university, rather than going away—as many of us did in the 1970s—and enjoying, let us say, the wider benefits of higher education? Is that not regrettable, and does she not agree that her proposal to increase tuition fees will actually make the situation worse? Would it not be better to scrap them?

When the hon. Gentleman went to university, probably one in 10 young people did so; now, four in 10 do so. There are many and varied ways in which people participate in higher education: some at their local university, some in the workplace, some part-time, and others through e-learning. That should be welcomed. The proposition of the hon. Gentleman's party to abolish any contribution towards tuition fees would simply mean fewer students, less resources and less independence.

One of the obstacles to access to higher education for many people in my constituency is the distance that they have to travel—the nearest university is almost 100 miles away. Will the Minister therefore agree to study Sir Brian Fender's recent report, which points the way forward for greater access to higher education in Cumbria?

I am looking forward to reading Sir Brian's report on access to higher education in Cumbria, and to discussing the recommendations with hon. Members representing that area. I agree entirely that we have to ensure proper access for every talented young person, wherever they live.

Does the Minister not understand that the proposal for a variable fee regime could he the final straw for many students from modest backgrounds? Their parents, if they struggle through the bizarre and byzantine forms of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, discover that they are eligible for various tax credits. But if they struggle through the equally byzantine forms of the Department for Education and Skills, they discover that their children are not eligible for a student loan. Will that not be the final straw for such people?

The final straw for students from low-income backgrounds, in terms of ensuring access to higher education, would be the Conservative party's policy, which would cut places and yet again centralise university admissions.

School Playing Fields

12.

What policy his Department has on the sale of school playing fields. [115008]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

We are committed to protecting school playing fields, which is why we introduced legislation in 1998 to stop uncontrolled sell-offs. I will shortly be placing in the Library a portfolio that sets out our policy, and which lists those applications that have been allowed and have resulted in the loss of land capable of forming a school sports pitch.

May I raise two concerns with my hon. Friend—about London local authorities selling school playing fields in other local authority areas; and about school extensions that are encroaching, a victim of success, on to school playing fields? Is my hon. Friend confident that the current guidance is strong enough to deal with all eventualities?

I am confident that guidance is strong enough, though we must keep it under review. We have said that we want to stop the previous Government's policy of forcing schools to sell off their playing fields. Approval is now given only when the remaining playing fields and sports facilities meet the needs of local schools and local communities. We have also introduced the requirement that, when a sale takes place, all its proceeds go to sports provision or education. I am sure that all will welcome that.