The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten) : Good playgroups with a sound educational base have a very important part to play in pre-school provision. More than 750,000 children now attend about 20,000 playgroups throughout the country. Pre-school playgroups have a vital role in the educational future of the country, so I can announce that, subject to parliamentary approval, the grant to the Pre-school Playgroups Association for 1994-95 will increase to about £1.2 million for its training activities, an increase of 35 per cent. over the previous year.
Mr. Haselhurst : Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be warmly welcomed by people who run playgroups and by all the parents who participate in, and are grateful for, such activity ? Will he offer further reassurance that there is no threat to the validity of the pre- school playgroup experience in the light of the fact that there is to be a spread of nursery education ?
Mr. Patten : There is none whatever. I know that there are some excellent playgroups in the Saffron Walden area. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the future of the pre-school playgroup movement is safe in our hands. I believe that pre-school playgroups are an integral part of the English way of life and a very important part of English village life. They will also be a very important part of educational provision for children aged three and four under the terms of the announcement that we shall make, in the not-too-distant future, about our plans.
Mr. Spearing : The House would certainly agree that there is a need for pre-school playgroups and I agree with the Secretary of State that they perform a most useful function. Does he agree, however, that they are complementary to nursery education, its known accommodation, staffing and practice standards and the personal qualifications of its staff ? Does he therefore agree that there should be further debate, if that is possible, of a Bill relating to the assessment of need for nursery education, so that the two wings can be balanced to the benefit of all concerned ?
Mr. Patten : That is the first time in 15 years that the hon. Gentleman has said publicly that he agrees with me. It is a pretty unusual afternoon. The hon. Gentleman has made me rather worried, although I recognise his expertise as an ex-teacher.
Pre-school playgroups, whether run by voluntary organisations or by the private sector, have a very important part to play. They are run on the sites of a good number of local education authority primary schools. They are complementary, I think, to the work that is done by state-provided nursery schools and nursery classes and also to the work done by the private sector in pre-school provision, as well as the Montessori groups. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we aim for mixed provision for three and four-year olds in the future.
Mr. Whittingdale : I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's support for pre-school playgroups, but does he agree that one of the best ways to increase parental choice would be to introduce a voucher system, which would allow parents to take advantage of the excellent private and voluntary provision, as well as public provision, of pre-school education ?
Mr. Patten : I am reviewing all possible ways of developing pre- school provision along the lines that I have just described to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). At present, nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out.
Mrs. Ann Taylor : I feel that it would not be right for any of us to speak about education today without first expressing our sympathy to the parents of Nikki Conroy and the people at the school in Middlesbrough who were affected by the tragedy yesterday. When will the Secretary of State take control of policy making on early years education ? One day the Prime Minister tells us that he is mad keen on nursery education and the next the Minister of State says that she regards it as inappropriate. When will the Secretary of State stop playing piggy-in-the-middle--or is he so concerned to protect his own bacon that he does not dare to disagree with either of them ? Valuable though the contribution of playgroups may be, it is no substitute for quality nursery education. When will the Secretary of State show some commitment and give a lead on nursery education ?
Mr. Patten : There were a lot of questions there. First, may I associate myself entirely with what the hon. Lady said about the tragedy in the constituency of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). Those in my office were in touch with the hon. Gentleman yesterday and I have written to the chairman of the school governors to express the Department's sympathy. The whole House shares the hon. Lady's feelings and I am pleased that she mentioned the matter. On nursery provision, it is important that we look in future not at fixed models of the past but at innovative and fresh ways of providing a better standard of pre-school provision for three and four-year-olds. As I said earlier, nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. But I am sorry for the hon. Lady, who has recently been criticised by leading Labour figures such as Mr. Neil Fletcher, the last Labour leader of the Inner London education authority, and Professor Michael Barber, the recent deputy general
Column 779secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Both have accused her of being backward-looking ; I would only add, neanderthal. Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Patten : I welcome the existing investment in education by the private sector, and have asked the funding councils and the Funding Agency for Schools to make further expansion a high priority. I shall publish in the summer an information pack designed to encourage wider investment, and am reviewing the possibility of further and perhaps quite radical action.
Mrs. Lait : Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Hastings college on its success in attracting private finance ? Will he undertake to draw those initiatives to the attention of East Sussex education authority, which is known to campaign actively against grant- maintained schools, to ensure that that authority realises that private sector financing will not displace public funding ?
Mr. Patten : On the first point, my hon. Friend is right ; Hastings college has a splendid record of attracting private sector investment, on the back of funds coming in from foreign students, to build new buildings in Hastings. On the second point, I regard as disgraceful Liberal Democrat and Labour-controlled East Sussex county council's recent behaviour in attacking grant-maintained schools.
Mr. Grocott : Before the Secretary of State gets too excited about private funding of public education, will he take the opportunity to acknowledge the dismal failure of the funding policy for city technology colleges, 80 per cent. of which are paid for by taxpayers ? Given his unwillingness to answer any questions whatever about the operation of those colleges, will he acknowledge that they represent the only area of public life where taxpayers foot 80 per cent. of the bill in return for 0 per cent. of the power ?
Mr. Patten : Our 15 technology colleges are 15 beacons of educational excellence in our inner cities. They are popular with parents, and students are queuing up around the walls to get in. The existing CTCs are being followed by a second wave of technical colleges in which we have had more than 200 expressions of interest. Needless to say, the Labour party has already pledged to abolish them, should it ever get the chance.
Mr. Dunn : Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that we want as much variety as possible in the funding and type of education and that the Opposition oppose the existence of CTCs, grammar schools, grant-maintained schools, the assisted places scheme and Church schools ?
Mr. Patten : I would be wrong, politically and factually, if I did not take this opportunity to say that my hon. Friend is right. The Labour party's typical backward-looking way has already been picked up by Professor Barber, Mr. Fletcher and other Labour party supporters. If only Opposition Members had listened to Professor Barber, who used to be a special adviser to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the Labour party might have some sort of educational policy ; as it is, it has nothing at all.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Robin Squire) : We consulted extensively last autumn before introducing thcurrent Education Bill and have discussed our reforms with a number of representative bodies during the past six months.
Mr. O'Hara : How many of the bodies consulted approved of the Government's plans to reform teacher training ? Have parents been consulted about the implications for their children of increased and extended exposure to apprentice teachers under the proposed system ?
Mr. Squire : The hon. Gentleman has interpreted the Bill incorrectly. For a start, no school will be brought into training unless it chooses to--no compulsion is involved. Secondly, the Bill will ensure the more effective deployment of resources for initial teacher training, and I should have hoped that a majority of hon. Members would welcome that.
Mr. Pawsey : I hope that my hon. Friend will disregard the ill- considered comments of Labour Members. Is he aware that his statement will be widely welcomed by parents, as the reforms involve schools and allow practical teaching to take place more closely with individual children ? Will my hon. Friend also join me in condemning some of the extraordinary practices of teacher training colleges in the past ?
Mr. Squire : My hon. Friend, with his wide experience, is absolutely right. There will be--there already is--an explosion of interest in school- centred training among teacher trainees, who are interested in this new form of training for those with three or four years of university experience who want more training on the job. It is working very well, and the Bill will cement the new system in place.
Mr. Don Foster : Does the Minister accept that his commitment to high-quality teacher training sits ill with his Department's failure to ensure that highly qualified teachers have the necessary resources at their disposal and high-quality buildings in which they and their pupils can operate ? Does he agree that the Department's proposals to tackle the backlog of repairs and maintenance in school buildings are wholly inadequate ?
Column 781Democrats trail around the country will pay for this proposal. We shall be keeping a close eye on it--the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt of that.
Mr. Bryan Davies : Are we really to be treated to another display of overweening arrogance by the Secretary of State, following the mauling that his Bill has received in another place ? Does he really intend to reverse Labour's amendment, backed by some of the most right-wing members of his own party, and insist on school-based courses for teachers' education, with no input from higher education--even though the pilot scheme on which the proposals are based will not have been completed until this sorry Bill has completed its passage through the House ?
Mr. Squire : The Bill is in excellent shape, and we look forward to its arrival here from another place. I note in passing that the idea of a teacher training agency has been accepted by the other place, where their Lordships rejected the Opposition's alternatives. As the hon. Gentleman would expect me to say at this stage, the Government are carefully considering their position on the question of school-centred teaching in response to the amendment.
Mr. Harry Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that the remarkable professional behaviour of the teachers at Middlesbrough yesterday showed the high quality of the teaching profession and the fact that schoolteachers have a substantial contribution to make to the education of new members of their profession ?
Mr. Squire : I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House when he congratulates the teachers involved in yesterday's horrific incident. Day in, day out, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that teachers do across the country, exhibiting skills which, fortunately, do not usually have to be deployed in such dreadful circumstances.
4. Mrs. Dunwoody : To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will hold urgent discussions with the voluntary organisations representing the mentally handicapped about the local government reorganisation and local education authorities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth) : Voluntary organisations, like other bodies interested in these matters, will wish to ensure that their views are made known to the Local Government Commission. The commission is required, among other things, to undertake consultations with local interests.
Mrs. Dunwoody : Does the Minister accept that the Government have a special responsibility ? It is they who are recommending reorganisation, and they should protect special schools and meet the needs of the mentally handicapped. What are they doing about that ?
Mr. Forth : The Government have recently done a tremendous amount generally for special needs and for the mentally handicapped : there are new responsibilities for the schools themselves ; the opportunity for special schools to consider grant-maintained status, which will give them a new independence from local education authorities ; a special needs code of practice ; and a new tribunal. All these will ensure that special educational needs will have a place in our education system that would have been
Column 782unknown a few months ago. They were thoroughly embedded in the Education Act 1993. We can look forward with great confidence to special educational needs making a huge step forward and occupying a special place in education.
Mrs. Browning : Is my hon. Friend aware that county councils' reluctance to place children with both learning difficulties and physical disabilities in schools run by charities in the voluntary sector is threatening the viability of those schools, and means that such children are now faced with more generic provision, rather than receiving the excellent specialist provision that charities provide ?
Mr. Forth : If my hon. Friend is right--I hope that she will give me some evidence that I can examine--I can reassure her that the provisions of the Education Act 1993, together with the code of practice for special educational needs, give parents new rights of choice, which I am sure they will exercise frequently in favour of the very schools that she mentions. There is a permanent place in our education system for all special schools- -those currently run by local authorities which may become grant maintained in the near future and particularly non-maintained special schools.
Mr. Win Griffiths : May I emphasise the Opposition's welcome for the potential in the code of practice for helping to deal with the problems of children with special educational needs, and for the wide range of consultation papers that the Department for Education has issued on all the related problems ? However, I remind the Minister that--as his boss will know very well--the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that the practicality in local authorities and schools is that, despite the Government's good intentions, their policies are seriously failing children. Will the hon. Gentleman follow the good samaritan's example and provide proper funding for those in need ?
Mr. Forth : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. I wonder whether his last sentence represents a new spending commitment on behalf of his party. If so, I wonder whether he has checked it out with the shadow Chancellor ; he may want to take it up with his hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman is rushing to judgment prematurely. We are at the earliest stages of the new regime for special educational needs. The opportunity of grant-maintained status for special schools only starts next month and the code of practice and the tribunal come into effect in September. We must all give schools and local education authorities the opportunity to demonstrate how they can use what will be made available to them to provide for special needs, before rushing to judgment as the hon. Gentleman has done today.
Mr. Raynsford : Does the Minister recognise the extreme anger felt by parents, governors and teaching staff at that excellent primary school which has to operate in conditions that are overcrowded, substandard and reminiscent of Victorian times ? When will the hon. Gentleman recognise that until we provide proper facilities for our young children in primary schools, we cannot hope to achieve the excellence in education which they deserve and which we should be providing for them ?
Mr. Forth : I am very much looking forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman when he comes see me with a delegation from the school on 12 April ; we can discuss these matters then. In the meantime, it is certainly open to governors of the school to approach the local education authority and discuss whether, for example, a small minor works project could be used to tackle some of the more urgent needs of the school. Funds should be available from the local education authority and I would strongly recommend that course at this stage, pending my looking again at the case for the school, as I shall when I meet the hon. Gentleman.
6. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the United Kingdom participation rate in education for 16-year-olds ; and what information he has on comparable rates in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell) : Some 94 per cent. of 16-year-olds in the United Kingdom took part in some form of education and training in 1990, the latest year for which international comparisons are available covering both full-time and part-time education. That compares well with the position in other OECD countries for which data are available, where participation by 16-year-olds ranges from 100 per cent. in Canada to 71 per cent. in Spain.
Mr. Greenway : That is a very encouraging reply. May I give my hon. Friend the even better news that 74 per cent. of 16-year-olds in North Yorkshire actually stay on at school ? Will he continue to build on the progress already made, to make vocational education and training really worth while and relevant for young people so that they achieve the best qualifications that they can and so achieve something of value to employers ?
Mr. Boswell : I am delighted to hear the good news from Yorkshire, where the importance of investing in the future is fully understood. That mirrors national provision : there has been a tremendous increase in the number of young people who stay on at school, obtaining satisfactory academic and vocational qualifications or taking training courses in parallel.
Rev. Martin Smyth : I welcome the Minister's response. Does he accept, however, that too many parents--especially in areas of high unemployment--tend to encourage their children to take dead-end jobs rather than equipping themselves to do better jobs in the future ?
Column 784join in breaking that tradition. The more young people stay on, the more chance there will be of our having a highly skilled labour force and a competitive economy in the future.
Sir Dudley Smith : I welcome my hon. Friend's comments about staying on at school : that is excellent. Will he also tell us how we compare with other OECD countries in terms of rural schools ? If the position in this country demonstrates excellence and good endeavour, will he do all that he can to preserve those rural schools, in view of the excellent comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier about the need to preserve the rural scene ?
Mr. Boswell : My constituency is quite near my hon. Friend's, and I am aware of his concerns about Warwickshire. I have noted his comments, as, I am sure, have my colleagues ; but he will appreciate that, while it is likely that representations will be made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we cannot comment on individual school reorganisations.
Mr. Tony Lloyd : The Minister should start by admitting that some 40 per cent. of 16 and 17-year-olds do not complete the courses that they begin ; that participation rates for 18-year-olds are very poor by international standards ; and that study after study shows how badly our young people do compared with those abroad. As Ministers would not expect so little
Mr. Lloyd : As Ministers would expect a good deal more for their children, will the Minister now tell us what he intends to do to ensure that all our young people get as much as children in Japan, Germany and France ?
Mr. Boswell : We are determined to deal with the deficiencies exposed in "Unfinished Business" : we are determined both to increase the staying-on rate and to ensure that those who go on to attend either sixth form or further education colleges sustain their education through to the age of 18. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman cited some figures relating to 18-year-olds, although the question relates to staying on at 16.
It is important to keep people on course for that time. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has noted the helpful proposals of the Further Education Funding Council, which are designed both to counsel young people and lead them to the appropriate course and--through the appropriate funding mechanism--to ensure that they stay on that course and complete it.
Mr. Boswell : We need high take-up of appropriate and demanding vocational qualifications in the next three years if we are to achieve the challenging national targets for education and training. There are already more than 80,000 students taking GNVQs : that is well on course to meet our aim for one in four 16-year-olds to start GNVQ courses in
Column 7851996. Our longer-term aim is for half all 16 and 17-year-olds to take GNVQs at foundation, intermediate or advanced level.
Mr. Trend : Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be parity of esteem between GNVQs and A-levels, particularly for employment purposes ? What are the Government doing to achieve that, bearing in mind the fact that many Conservative Members do not want a dilution of the high standards for A-levels ?
Mr. Boswell : I entirely agree that there should be parity of esteem. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has conveyed that parity between vocational A-levels and their academic equivalents ; we now need to ensure that the highest possible standards and appropriate rigour are observed in the delivery of the vocational qualifications to which I have referred. I recently launched a six-point plan to improve the position, and I am confident that we shall achieve those standards.
Mr. Rooker : How many of the 6 per cent. of 16-year-olds to whom the Minister referred in the previous question, which was not about staying-on rates, who are missing out on education will go on to vocational training ? Why was not the answer to the original question 100 per cent ?
Mr. Boswell : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has slipped a question. I shall try to respond to him because the two questions are closely related. In conjunction with our colleagues in the Department of Employment, an offer of high-quality vocational education or training is already available to everyone. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has recently announced proposals for a modern apprenticeship scheme. We have put great emphasis on increasing the staying-on rates either at school for education or at college for training and we have nothing to be ashamed of in the huge expansion in staying-on rates and the acquisition of appropriate
Mr. Fabricant : I am reassured by that answer. Is not it the case that 30,000 of our most able young people, although not perhaps our most wealthy, benefit from the scheme ? Is not it ironic that it is the Labour party which carps against schemes such as this, despite the fact that many on the Opposition Front Bench benefited from it, while we are the party of meritocracy and equal opportunity for our young ?
Mr. Patten : Many on the Government Benches would have loved to have the educational opportunities in private schools, direct grant schools and independent schools that many Labour Members had. What really matters is educational excellence--giving children a chance in life. That is what we want to see with the assisted places scheme. I am in favour of the much more competitive education system that we now have. I am fully in favour of
Column 786independent schools but I want to see our grant-maintained schools and our maintained schools giving them a good run for their money, which many do, as our performance tables of academic results show.
Mr. Patrick Thompson : Does my right hon. Friend agree that many parents and their offspring will testify to the success of the assisted places scheme ? Is not it true--it is certainly my experience--that schools and teachers also benefit from the scheme ? Is not any proposal to do away with it the result of narrow-minded thinking by those who are against choice in education ?
Mrs. Ann Taylor : How does the Secretary of State justify spending almost £100 million of taxpayers' money on the assisted places scheme to subsidise independent schools when, at the same time, Ministers are complaining that there are 1.3 million surplus places in our schools ? Is not that another example of the inefficient use of taxpayers' money, which is so desperately needed in other sectors of education ?
Mr. Patten : The hon. Lady benefited from a direct grant school education and good luck to her. The Government are interested not in ideology, organisation or in sums of money put in but in academic excellence on behalf of our children and young people and the results that those young people produce. It is as plain as a pikestaff that up and down the land we get exceptionally good value for money from the public money invested in the assisted places scheme because the vast majority of children who benefit from those places obtain spectacular academic results.
9. Mr. Tredinnick : To ask the Secretary of State for Education how many staff were employed in the education department of Leicestershire county council annually over the last five years for which figures are available.
Mr. Tredinnick : Does my hon. Friend think that because local management of schools has been so successful, particularly in Leicestershire, and because there is an ever-increasing number of grant- maintained schools, there should be serious reductions in education departments, not least in Leicestershire, which is controlled by a Lib-Lab pact ? Is not that something which the Department should be encouraging ?
Mr. Squire : My hon. Friend must be right in what he says. Indeed, had he been inclined to do so, he could have added that further education colleges and sixth-form colleges have now also started to run themselves. All this adds up to a sound reason why all LEAs across the country should be reducing their central staff.
Mr. Keen : Is the Minister aware that a demographic time bomb is ticking away in higher education--for instance, in the subject of chemistry, more than 25 per cent. of the staff are more than 55 years old ? Should not the Government plan, as the French are doing, to make sure that in future there are sufficient staff in higher education ?
Mr. Boswell : It is nice to know that there are still some people on the Opposition Benches who believe in indicative planning, but the Government do not. We are certainly aware of the age profile of the academic work force and, indeed, some of the problems in individual departments. We shall continue to keep an eye on the situation. But, first, grown-up universities and colleges must determine their own academic staffing profiles and, secondly, we now have a larger range of students than ever before from which to choose potential recruits for the academic world.
Mr. Hawkins : Will my hon. Friend confirm that we have virtually achieved our manifesto commitment of one in three young people in higher education--whereas in 1979 under the Labour party the figure was only one in eight--and that expenditure on higher education is due to rise in real terms over the next two years ?
Mr. Boswell : It is for local education authorities to decide how much to devote to each area of the education service, including discretionary awards, in the light of local needs and circumstances, their own priorities and the resources available to them.
Mr. Howarth : Is not it the Government's responsibility, having presided over the greatest disruption in pupil education in recent years, to make sure that resources are there so that those people who have suffered can have a second chance ? While the Minister is at it, why does not he apologise for all the disruption ?
Mr. Boswell : I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman has in mind. I doubt whether he has in mind the fact that public funding for the maintained schools sector has risen by more than 45 per cent. in real terms since 1979 and that my right hon. Friend and my colleagues have been driving up educational standards.
However, since the hon. Gentleman asks what our responsibility is, I can tell him that it is to provide, as we do, more than £17 billion through the standard spending