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Education and Skills

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 29 June 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Adult Education

1. If he will make a statement on recent changes to the provision of adult education courses at colleges. (80879)

In 2006-07, we plan to invest £4.8 billion in further education for young people and adults, an increase of around £2.5 billion since 1997. Our overall investment in adult learning will be broadly maintained at £2.9 billion and will be focused increasingly on our priorities of providing support for those adults who lack basic skills or the level 2 platform of skills for employability, and of ensuring opportunities for developing skills at level 3. It is essential that funding is prioritised on those areas if we are to address skills weaknesses and improve productivity.

In Cornwall, courses aimed at people with special educational needs have been cancelled because of reductions in the additional learner support funding stream. Given the Department’s targets for concentrating money on provision for 16 to 18-year-olds, can the Secretary of State give any hope to the vulnerable people who depend on those SEN courses that no further cancellations will be made?

I should very much like to know about what is happening in Cornwall. We should not cut funding for the 640,000 people with learning difficulties and disabilities in this country. That provision must remain a priority, and it is not part of the reprioritisation that I set out in my response. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me, we will look into the matter further.

There is much to be applauded in the priorities that my right hon. Friend has just set out, but does he agree that community education is the basic building block that allows people to get back into education? Often, it is the glue that holds the whole system together. Will he look carefully at how his decisions are impacting on community education for adults?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I do not think that he, or his Committee, would disagree that there is a need to reprioritise, but there is concern about the community support that he mentioned. We are maintaining funding at £210 million for learning for personal enrichment. That is safeguarded and ring-fenced in the Learning and Skills Council budget.

My hon. Friend asked about courses designed to introduce people onto the ladder of opportunity and skills, but the effectiveness of some courses has been questioned in the past. For example, with regard to entry into employment, the statistics do not show that the courses always lead to progression. That is why we are looking at the foundation learning tier, as we want to turn the current complex structure into a much more coherent set of units that is easier to understand and operate. My hon. Friend makes an important point about a matter that we will look at in the future.

The Secretary of State will know that the Leitch review of skills made it clear that, because of demographic change, it is vital that we reskill and upskill the existing work force to meet the challenges of a changing world economy. However, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has said that the Government’s target culture has discouraged hard-to-reach groups from returning to learning. Will the right hon. Gentleman say why the number of people studying at further education colleges—not just those with special needs, but including all those between 25 to 59—has fallen by 9 per cent. in the past year?

I do not accept that comment from NIACE. The Leitch review, and the review that we have had from Andrew Foster, will be crucial in pointing us in the right direction, as will the further education White Paper that will subsequently become a Bill. The problems in FE were highlighted in Andrew Foster’s report, which showed that the sector has put up with poor provision for too long. There are some very good FE colleges, but others still believe that employers should accept their thesis about the education that they require for their work force. There has been too little engagement with employers, but we are putting them at the heart of the matter and trying to do something about the alphabet soup of qualifications that currently exists. We are also working to sort out the units available in foundation learning to which I referred earlier, and I believe that we can tackle the problems in FE by adopting those approaches. Certainly, the FE sector is much more of a priority now than it ever has been for previous Governments.

I accept the merit of the reprioritisation policy, but will my right hon. Friend look at how the funding formula operates? Last year, for example, the better that learning and skills councils seemed to do in encouraging participation among 16 to 18-year-olds, the worse they seemed to do with the 19-plus allocations. That was especially true in north Yorkshire.

I will look at the point that my hon. Friend raises, but I am glad that he supports our reprioritisation policy. The problem with FE and adult skills is that to prioritise everything is to prioritise nothing. We are concentrating on longer courses for people with no level 2 qualifications whatsoever, whatever their income, and we will also introduce an entitlement to level 3 for 19 to 25-year-olds on a similar basis. That must be our priority, but I shall certainly look into whether provision for 16 to 18-year-olds is affecting adult participation rates, as described by my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State will be aware of concern in Hull and the East Riding about the reduction in courses, particularly for older people. The Government’s policy is a commitment to lifelong learning: education does not exist purely to increase skills to help people into the workplace and to aid the economy but is about broader issues. I am sure that he, like me, will have had concerns raised at his constituency surgeries. Will he respond to those concerns, perhaps giving reassurance to those who see courses that add to their quality of life being cut back? Will he give a message I can take back to those I represent?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say those problems have also been raised with me. There are problems across the country, and saying that we will reprioritise or that we will increase the level of fees in further education is not easy. There was always an implicit expectation that there would be a contribution of 25 per cent. from students, but very few colleges introduced that. We are gradually moving towards the expectation of a contribution of 50 per cent. by 2010. From constituents I have spoken to, and this is reflected in the MORI poll, I think that most people accept that if they can make a reasonable contribution to a course that they are pleased to be taking—whether in languages, learning for recreation or learning just to increase knowledge—they should make a contribution. When that is explained, along with our priorities for the country and the economy, people tend to accept what is, I accept, a sometimes difficult message.

Runaway Children

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that children who run away or go missing from care or home have someone to talk to and a safe place to go. (80880)

I acknowledge the excellent work that my hon. Friend is doing to raise the issue of children and young people who run away from home. They certainly need someone to talk to and somewhere to go, but they also need help with the underlying problems that cause them to run away in the first place. It is the responsibility of local children’s services, working closely with the police and the voluntary and community organisations, to provide the help that young runaways need. The Government are supporting them strongly through the Every Child Matters programme, which is driving improvements for all children and young people but particularly for the most vulnerable.

I thank my right hon. Friend, particularly for considerable improvements in safeguarding vulnerable children. May I draw her attention to National Missing Persons Helpline, a charity that has set up a 24-hour helpline for runaways, and which, in 2005, took 57,000 calls? Will she, with me, meet people from the helpline to discuss the role that it can play in safeguarding very vulnerable children who run away?

The helpline is one of a number of important vehicles by which children and young people who run away can get some immediate advice, although I think it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of children who run away return home within 24 hours, which should be our primary objective. The helpline also gets considerable funding from the Home Office—about £900,000 this year, including £600,000 core funding. I am certainly willing to arrange a meeting to discuss the work of the helpline if that is thought to be useful.

In addition to the other support that they rightly receive, when, how and to what financial tune will children who run away from home or care be offered personalised learning, either to prevent their falling behind, if at all possible, or to assist them to catch up and fulfil their potential?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. The position of children who are looked after by the local authority—in care, as we used to call it—is of considerable concern, not only because some go missing but because in their general outcomes they are falling behind other children and young people, which should not be the case. That is why the Government, across a number of Departments, are working hard to see what are the barriers to progress for looked-after children, including issues around why they might run away. We shall publish a Green Paper outlining a range of issues, including precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman rightly raised, which is the need for dedicated personalised support so that children do not drift in care and achieve the same improved outcomes we want for all young people.

International Students

3. If he will make a statement on the plan to attract an additional 100,000 international students to the UK by 2011. (80881)

The objective of the second phase of the Prime Minister’s initiative for international education is to secure and sustain the UK’s position as a leader in international education in both the further and higher education sectors. We are working with the British Council and the higher education and further education sectors to increase the number of international students studying in the UK and to support UK universities and colleges in developing collaborative partnerships with institutions overseas.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I am very pleased with the Government’s measures to attract more foreign students. My constituency certainly houses one of the best international schools in the country, Concord college, and I invite the Secretary of State to come along and see the work that is done there. Its impact on the rural local economy is huge, with so many foreign students coming in and contributing to it, so it is important that we continue to get our fair share of foreign students coming to learn in our country.

I would be delighted to visit Shrewsbury at some stage in my schedule to see that college in action—

In Atcham and in action. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is absolutely right to stress the importance of overseas students, particularly to the UK economy. It is estimated that overseas students bring in £5 billion in fees and other spending while they are over here. Overseas students studying in the UK are crucial to our need to address the economic problems of the 21st century, particularly in respect of globalisation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is exactly why the second phase of the Prime Minister’s initiative was announced in April

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the Labour-led Scottish Executive’s fresh talent initiative, which not only encourages students to study in Scotland but to live in Scotland after they have qualified. Can the Government learn any lessons from that initiative?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we are already learning the lessons in our discussions with the Scottish Executive. The Scottish Executive and the UK Government are involved in a constant process of learning from each other in respect of such initiatives.

But the Secretary of State will be aware that Scotland’s fresh talent initiative offers overseas students a two-year visa extension if they go to a Scottish university. If they go to an English university, however, it is only for one year and it applies to a much more restricted range of subjects. Is it right to have separate visa regimes for overseas students going to Scottish and English universities?

We make different decisions, which is what devolution is about. Our decision to extend the visa by 12 months, which we recently announced, is based on the demography and availability of work in this country. It is a different decision, but along the same lines as that reached by the Scottish Executive. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), we will learn the lessons from Scotland, but the circumstances are different north and south of the border. We believe that the extension to 12 months is the right way to proceed.

I have with me a list of reserved subjects post-devolution. Among the reserved subjects for UK policy are

“Nationality; immigration, including asylum and the status and capacity of persons in the UK who are not British citizens”.

Although education is a devolved matter, visa rules are not. Is the Secretary of State really telling the House that he believes that having different visa regimes for students in Scotland and England are consistent with the devolution settlement that his Government introduced?

Yes, but there is no contradiction between that and our deciding that there are different circumstances—demographic factors, employment prospects and so forth—in Scotland as opposed to the UK. Actually, the extension to 12 months has been widely welcomed by UK universities and there has not been a big debate about what happens north and south of the border. The circumstances are different. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is not a devolved issue, but it does not detract from the different circumstances in the two countries.

In figures given in the Official Report on 6 June at column 536W, the Department showed that, in higher education institutes alone, there are almost 1.9 million students studying in Britain. Incidentally, 100,000 of those study at the four universities in Greater Manchester. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only the impact on the local economy while the students are studying in Britain but the continued contacts and influence that they take with them when they return to their countries are important?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and has identified a crucial element. Not only the money they spend in this country but the links that they retain with this country after they have left university are important. That is one of the principal reasons for the Prime Minister’s initiative, alongside other separate initiatives for considering links with, for example, Russia and China. All the initiatives are important for the future of this country.

Drug Use

4. What progress is being made on meeting the Government’s target for reducing drug use among young people. (80882)

The overall picture of drug misuse among young people is one of stability with some downward trends in the use of specific drugs. The Government have set out a comprehensive national programme to deliver local universal, targeted and specialist services for young people to make a further impact on reducing drug misuse. Local areas have been very effective in focusing children’s services’ attention on substance misuse issues.

I am grateful for that answer but I hope that my hon. Friend is aware that the amount of money for the young people substance misuse partnership grant in Stoke-on-Trent is around half of that of Nottingham, which is a comparable city with similar problems. Given that overall funding for drugs services in Stoke-on-Trent is around £11 a head compared with £23 a head in Nottingham, what extra resources are the Department prepared to direct towards tackling that curse on our young people in Stoke-on-Trent?

My hon. Friend makes his point about his constituency in his customary manner. I expect him to champion his constituency and its causes and he is doing that today. I reassure him that there is no postcode lottery for drug treatment, but a formula that was set up with the assistance of academics at the university of York. We specifically examined local demographics and the prevalence of misuse, and we ensure that the overall pooled budget—the young people substance misuse grant—is spread around the country by focusing on those elements through the formula. However, there are 30 high focus areas and another 18 will be announced shortly.

What assessment has the Under-Secretary made of the quality of some of the printed material that is used in drugs education? Does he share my concern that some of it contains far too much value-free information and not enough of a robust warning to young people about the dangers of drug taking to their health, education and career prospects?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point but it is important to talk to young people not necessarily in the language that she and I speak but in a language that they understand. The information and advice service FRANK has been especially useful—there have been 1.3 million calls to the FRANK helpline, 11.3 million hits on the website and more than 82,000 e-mails. From 1998 to now, the British crime survey figures show that, among 16 to 24-year-olds, the use of cannabis has reduced by 16 per cent., that of amphetamines is down by 66 per cent., that of LSD has decreased by 83 per cent. and that of glues has reduced by 66 per cent. There is much more to do but information and advice services such as FRANK help to solve the problem.

Engineering Students

5. What assessment he has made of changes in the number of students studying engineering at university in the past 10 years; and if he will make a statement. (80883)

In the 1990s, the total number of engineering students in our universities was falling. Since 2002-03, there has been a 6 per cent. increase. We are committed to continuing that trend. Our 10-year science and innovation investment framework sets out our strategy to develop a strong supply of engineers, scientists, and technologists.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Has he seen the report that the Royal Academy recently published, called “Educating Engineers for the 21st Century: the Industry View”? It concluded that university undergraduate engineering education needs to be completely overhauled. The academy has also asked for stronger collaboration between industry and universities as well as schools so that we can have engineers in the 21st century. I ask my hon. Friend to take those recommendations seriously and implement many of the ideas in the report.

I thank my hon. Friend for his detailed interest in these issues. The report is interesting; we are already responding to a number of the issues raised in the research and I know that the academy welcomes many of the steps we are taking. Links and collaboration between the education system and companies are important to ensure that the needs of industry are understood and reflected in the curriculum. In particular, the establishment of the sector skills councils, the move on specialised diplomas and the establishment of foundation degrees are helping us to change the situation.

But of course the number of first degrees in engineering has fallen from 21,000 in 1996-97 to only 19,500 last year. The Minister will be aware of his Department’s report, “An Assessment of Skill Needs in Engineering”, which concluded that one of the main reasons for that reduction is the limited number studying maths and science subjects at school, where there has been a drop in entries for A-level maths, for example, from 56,000 in 1997 to just 46,000 last year. What steps are the Government taking to boost the uptake of maths and science at A-level? Will they allow the state sector to opt for the IGCSE in maths and the three sciences, which many schools in the independent sector are adopting because of their dissatisfaction with the new curriculum?

However the hon. Gentleman plays with the figures, it is a fact that since 2002-03 there has been a 6 per cent. increase in the number of students of engineering. That increase is on the record and it is important. Undoubtedly, we need to stimulate greater interest and demand at school in the stem subjects. A range of initiatives is in place to achieve that, and there is some evidence of improvement. However, we also have to enthuse young people about the importance of science, and some of the changes that we are developing in the curriculum to get young people to look at the processes of science rather than just learning by rote will be important. We need to get some practical issues across, too, such as the fact that in terms of the graduate earnings premium a person with a stem degree will earn a third more than someone with a non-stem degree. If we start getting those facts across to young people, I think we shall be able to shift the trend.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the opportunity for schools, such as Ridgewood school in Scawsby, Doncaster, in my constituency, to apply for specialist engineering status will have a positive impact on the number of students who will study engineering at university in future?

My hon. Friend is correct. The specialist schools programme has helped us to take the agenda forward. In addition, our commitment by 2008 to ensure that all pupils achieving at least level 6 and over at key stage 3 will be entitled to study three separate science GCSEs, if necessary through collaboration, is an important step forward.

Child Sex Offenders

6. What his policy is for the protection of children from other children with a record of sex offending. (80884)

We recently published revised guidelines, “Working Together to Safeguard Children 2006”, which set out three key principles for local agencies working with children who abuse others: first, there must be a robust, co-ordinated approach on the part of all agencies concerned in a case; secondly, the needs of children who abuse must be considered entirely separately from those of their victims; and, thirdly, there must an overall assessment of risk, which must include the risks to the victim, the abuser and others, particularly other children, whether in a family setting, in a school or in the wider community.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that answer and in particular for her emphasis on the last point. Will she tell me why it is believed that abusers between the ages of 16 and 18, or indeed over the age of 18, in further education colleges where there are youngsters as young as 14 should be treated any differently from employed abusers?

First, those who are employed are in a position of authority and trust vis-à-vis children and young people, which is not the case for those who may be students. I know that the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about the issue so I want to reassure him. Where an abuser is a child and the victim is a child there are many cases of a different nature: in some, the risk to other children will not be very great at all, because the abuse has arisen in a specific situation, but in others, there will be a more generalised risk to other children, which is why I stressed in the final part of my answer the need for agencies to look at each case individually and to make decisions on the basis of the risk posed by an individual young person to any other young people. Indeed, in some cases that will include the need to provide for education—whether further education or education before the age of 16—that is not in a mainstream education facility. That option is open to the agencies concerned.

As one of a number of very useful initiatives, the Labour-led Scottish Executive have appointed a team of professionals with expertise in the area of adolescent sex offending to work urgently to produce a strategy that will produce swift, effective action to deal with those young people. Can the Minister say whether we on this side of the border are learning lessons from that group and working with them to ensure that our own strategy is improved and made as effective as possible?

Yes. There is close collaboration. We also have on this side of the border our own joint programme, including all the relevant agencies and victims’ organisations, to develop national service guidelines based on research evidence of interventions that we think are effective and that have been properly evaluated. That is an important point in this difficult subject. We have also supported, through the Department of Health, the development of sexual assault referral centres for children—one initially in London and one at St. Mary's centre in Manchester. They are providing beacons of excellence and setting standards of good practice in this difficult area of work for professionals to draw on.

Playing Fields

7. When he expects to decide on the bid by Churchdown School, Gloucestershire, to sell part of its playing field for the purpose of developing sports facilities; and if he will make a statement. (80885)

The application by Churchdown school for permission to sell part of its playing fields is under consideration. The School Playing Fields Advisory Panel will discuss the application at its July meeting, which I understand is on 20 July, and a decision will then be taken by the Department.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The importance of the project to the area will be confirmed by his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who represents the next-door constituency. A while ago, the school had a lottery application turned down that would have funded very important sports facilities in an area in which some 10,000 people live, and which lacks such facilities. That extremely important project is a community partnership, so will the Minister do all that he can to speed up the decision? I believe that it has been on the Minister's desk for some time now, and I ask him to treat it with the seriousness that I really do think the project deserves.

It has not been on my desk for some time. As I said, it is currently with the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel but I have spoken today to officials who have been looking at the case, and, assuming that the panel’s decision is unanimous and uncontroversial, I will ensure that the school receives the decision by the end of this term.

Tuition Fees

8. What assessment he has made of the impact on universities and students of removing the present upper cap on variable tuition fees after 2007. (80886)

The new variable fees regime starting this year will make a strong contribution to giving our universities the funding they need. It is providing, for the first time in a generation, a step change in funding for our universities while maintaining access. We have made it clear that we shall appoint an independent commission to look at the performance of the new system in 2009, and that no changes to the cap will be made before the commission has reported to Parliament.

I am very grateful for that response. It is worth reminding the House that it was this Government who legislated to ban top-up fees and the anarchy and cut-throat competition that they would have produced. It is important to have a system, but every time it changes there is a dip in the number of applications, so will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that young people in particular are aware of the advantages that the new funding scheme brings both to them and to universities, and encourage young people to take up those opportunities?

I thank my hon. Friend. We should certainly do that. We should take some encouragement from the fact that the underlying trend in applications this year is upwards. We also need to continue with the joint communications campaign that we have established to get across the real benefits of the new student financial support system that is coming in this September. For example, students no longer have to pay before they go to university and only pay the money back when they are in work and earning more than £15,000 a year. The repayment terms are very affordable and, crucially, for students from poorer backgrounds, we are bringing back non-repayable grants. I am confident that if we get those messages across, we will get many more people going to university.

The student income and expenditure survey this year found that one in four students considered not going to university because of concerns about debt. Does the Minister not think that lifting the cap would only make the situation worse?

I have made the position on the cap clear. I saw that piece of research and it simply does not bear out in any way, shape or form the reality of what is happening with applications for this academic year. If that were the true situation, we would see a significant downturn in applications. I am sometimes challenged about the stance of the Liberal Democrats on this issue. In Scotland, under the Scottish Executive, where the Liberal Democrats are in a partnership Government, they are supporting a postgraduate repayment system that, in principle, is no different from the system that we are bringing in this year.

Citizenship Education

Citizenship remains an important part of the national curriculum. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is currently reviewing the key stage 3 curriculum, which includes citizenship. We have recently announced a review, led by Keith Ajegbo, to explore the possibility of including British social and cultural history in the citizenship curriculum. Any changes will come into effect from September 2008.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that most helpful and comprehensive reply. Would he accept from me that citizenship should include the teaching of tolerance, freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, civil and community responsibilities and an understanding of democracy, and also, more than ever perhaps, an understanding of the history of the United Kingdom and the huge achievements of the British people over the centuries throughout the whole world?

I am in danger of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. The framework for key stage 4 of the citizenship curriculum specifically refers to students being taught about the legal and human rights and responsibilities underpinning society. It does not mention the European Union and the value that that has brought to British cultural and social history, but I am sure that he would agree that that should form part of that curriculum, as well.

May I welcome what the Minister has said? I hope that, in any citizenship course, there will be reference to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) as being an essential part of British history. Has the Minister seen a leaflet produced by the Children’s Legal Centre that sets out the rights and responsibilities of young people from the age of 13 onwards? In discussing citizenship, is it not important to look also at the rights and responsibilities of young people? Will he ensure that that is included in any discussion of citizenship?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The citizenship curriculum covers issues relating to social and moral responsibility, political literacy and community involvement. Within all of that, the rights and responsibilities of every citizen in this country, what they are and how they can be exercised, and how young people have rights and responsibilities and can exercise them, must form a key part of what goes on in the classroom across the whole of school curriculum, as we generate an ethos of understanding and encouraging active citizenship by all our young people.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that education in global citizenship and sustainable development is vital. What financial arrangements are in place to support the development of curriculum materials and teacher training in that?

Some £600,000 is being invested to provide continuous professional development over the next two years for some 1,200 teachers who teach citizenship in one shape or another in our schools. Within that continuous professional development, there will be opportunities for teachers to examine a variety of ways of engaging young people in that topic in the classroom and to do so in ways that involve young people in an active process to explore the role they play locally in their communities, nationally, in Europe, and, of course, across the planet in terms of global citizenship education. There are great opportunities to improve and deepen the quality of the citizenship education that young people experience.

May I agree with the Minister that it is the delivery of a high-class, high-quality curriculum across the piece that will best develop the ideas of citizenship, both as a national of Britain and a citizen of the world? He might wish to pay a compliment to Oxley primary school, which, on every standard, has been found to be outstanding in every aspect of the curriculum. The children who arrive at that diverse, inner-city school have many problems, but they have none the less achieved magnificently. The contribution that the school makes to the idea of citizenship is far in excess of any narrow understanding of what may be put forward elsewhere.

I am more than happy to celebrate along with my hon. Friend the achievements of Oxley primary school in his constituency. It is important to recognise that citizenship starts at the primary level in our school system and runs right through the secondary curriculum. In key stages 1 and 2, for primary school children, PSHE—personal, social and health education—and citizenship education are combined to give young people the kind of experience that my hon. Friend describes. Most importantly of all, as well as being taught in discrete lessons, the subject features right across the curriculum—in maths, English, history and geography classes—so that young people can see and experience the values and ethos of active citizenship and we can bed in the spirit and attitude of becoming positively engaged in local communities.

School Places

10. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the provision of additional school places in Northamptonshire to accompany planned housing expansion. (80888)

Local authorities are responsible for planning school place provision in their area, as I made clear last time we had oral questions. Decisions are taken locally and Ministers have no role in the process. The Milton Keynes and South Midlands learning and skills group meets regularly to enable joint and long-term education planning across the area, which includes Kettering. The group includes the Government office for the east midlands, local authorities and other key stakeholders, and its last meeting took place on 27 February 2006.

With 100,000 new houses planned for Northamptonshire over the next 15 years, there is growing local concern that the present strain on school places will be exacerbated. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient Government financial and other support to the local education authority and other agencies involved to ensure that there will be full and complete provision of school places for Northamptonshire’s growing population?

We are confident about the level of capital support that we are giving Northamptonshire and, indeed, the country as a whole. Northamptonshire and its schools are receiving capital support of more than £90 million over the current spending period. That includes more than £8 million that is based on the new pupil places criteria. It is up to the Tory council in Northamptonshire to spend that money wisely. We must not try to learn any lessons from the Conservative party on capital funding. When it left office, it was spending £600,000, but we are now spending 10 times that on capital.

I welcome the £120 million that the Labour Government are spending on schools in Northampton, which means that every single school in Northampton is being either rebuilt, or substantially extended. Will he join me in praising the head teachers who have managed their schools superbly through a difficult reorganisation and, in many cases, while their schools have been building sites? We are now seeing the first real signs of improvements in performance in the schools. Will the Minister come to Northampton to see some of the wonderful new buildings that are being completed and to meet the head teachers to talk about the improvements that the children are achieving?

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and pay tribute to the head teachers who do a superb job to sustain high-quality education, despite the building work that goes on around them as a result of our £6 billion capital spend—that is the budget for this year and it is, of course, rising. I visited a school in Lancashire last week on which a big capital spend had just been completed. The teaching of art classes had carried on in a room with only three walls for a few months while the building took place, yet the school still produced absolutely first-class GCSE results.

Would the Minister, after visiting Northampton, North, come to Wellingborough to see John Lea school? Unfortunately, the school is not there now. Instead, there is a housing site. That is because the Government and a Labour-controlled county council knocked the school down. What a disgrace.

I know that the hon. Gentleman gets agitated about these issues. It is difficult for me to visit a school that is not there; I would struggle with that. I know that the hon. Gentleman is continuing to talk to his hon. Friends who run the county council to ensure that they provide proper provision for his constituents.

Building Schools for the Future

Derbyshire has an excellent Labour authority. I have met excellent Labour members from that authority, who brought along a delegation from the county council to talk to me about the strong case that they are making for a local education partnership model for Building Schools for the Future. I am considering the case that has been made with colleagues on its own merits and against the national precedent which, if I were to accept the case for Derbyshire, would be set.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He rightly draws attention to the strong performance in comprehensive performance assessment terms of Derbyshire, but does not mention—he could have done—the strong track record of delivering major capital programmes within the county through a locally developed model. Will my hon. Friend carefully consider the risks of adopting a national framework that is as yet untested in a county that currently has the capability to do exactly what is required to time and to budget?

There are many things that I could mention about the excellence of Derbyshire. I wanted to leave some things for my hon. Friend, who is an excellent advocate for his constituents and his county. As for whether there is an untried national framework, there is the Building Schools for the Future programme. It is an enormous capital programme; it is a huge injection of capital spend into our education system to replace or renovate all secondary schools by 2020. In doing so, we have to be conscious of how we manage the market in terms of construction and how we integrate information computer technology, construction and design to produce transformational education as part of the new buildings scheme. We must balance our national programme against any precedent that may be set by Derbyshire. My hon. Friend and his colleagues have made a strong case.

Does my hon. Friend agree that when we met him, along with the four-star representatives from Derbyshire county council, we played a better game than Federer did yesterday? We scored on every point. Does my hon. Friend agree also that if Liberal Democratic control of Liverpool can be provided with an exception to the rule, a four-star authority should also qualify? Will it help our case if we agree now to meet that nice man, the Secretary of State, to clinch this?

Certainly they were four-star reps. I was not delighted with the result in the tennis yesterday. I cannot say that I was immediately reminded of the performance of my hon. Friend’s friends from Derbyshire. Now he mentions it, his friends were very effective during the meeting. The precedent set by allowing Manchester and Liverpool to have their own model was due to particular circumstances, given Manchester’s proven track record in delivering for the Commonwealth games, which was a major capital programme, and Liverpool’s ability properly to integrate the elements which I outlined earlier. I will be discussing the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State this afternoon. We may well decide that we need a further discussion with my hon. Friend and his colleagues from Derbyshire. I will make that decision with the Secretary of State later this afternoon.

In that further discussion, will my hon. Friend note that a precedent would not be created, given the unique combination of Derbyshire’s consistent track performance record assessment and the timing of the waves in Derbyshire for Building Schools for the Future, which means that he could allow the first wave in Bolsover to proceed with the existing partnership? Will he note, too, that the people whom we met were quite unable to explain to Derbyshire Members what a private sector company such as Capita could offer the learning experience and IT integration, compared with experienced Derbyshire county council staff and existing partners?

I am certainly aware of the timing of the two waves—I think that there is a four or five-year gap between them. As my hon. Friend knows, there was a strong case for allowing the Derbyshire framework to proceed with that early wave, largely in Bolsover, before making a judgment about whether or not it worked. It is a strong argument, but as I said, I must weigh it against other arguments on precedent and project risk.

Research Funding

12. If he will make a statement on the decision to move towards allocating research funding along metrics-based lines. (80891)

The Government’s proposals for a metrics-based research assessment and funding system to be introduced after the 2008 research assessment exercise were published on 13 June. Consultation will close on 13 October and final decisions will be announced before the end of the year.

I congratulate the Minister, both on his answer and on his sprint to the Dispatch Box. I shall allow him to get his breath back, and ask whether he agrees that any changes must be accepted by the university community as a whole. While a metrics-based system may well benefit science-based universities such as Loughborough, Sussex university, my alma mater where I did my masters degree, may be at a disadvantage because it is humanities-based. Will he bear that in mind to ensure that no single university will be disadvantaged by that approach?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest. He will know that the research assessment exercise has been successful in driving up quality, but we must ensure that the new metrics-based approach continues that trend. The approach has some advantages, as it reduces costs and administration, but we must get it right. That is what the consultation is designed to achieve, and we will work with universities in the coming period.

Order. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) complained that I called three Members from one side of the House, so may I point out that he should put in his book the fact that I called him after the allotted time? It is important to be even-handed, so he should hold back his complaints until he sees what the Speaker does.