For Islwyn, in the room of the right hon. Neil Gordon Kinnock (Chiltern Hundreds). [ Mr. Derek Foster. ]
excellence--feel very much under threat? Is it not a pity that, despite choosing the best schools for their own children, Opposition Members still seek to deny choice, diversity and excellence to everybody else?
Mrs. Shephard: I am delighted to hear that the three grammar schools in Plymouth are popular and successful, and I hope very much that a change of local government organisation will not put those excellent and succesful schools under threat. The Labour party's stance on choice and selection is a great puzzle for those who follow these affairs. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the hon. Members for Peckham (Ms Harman) and for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) seem to support parental choice, at least for their own children. Perhaps it is a case of one rule for Opposition Front-Bench Members and another for the rest of the country.
Mr. Jamieson: Is the Secretary of State aware that six grammar schools were closed in Plymouth in the 1980s, a time when there was a Tory Devon county council and a Tory Government and--I might say--a time when the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) was a member of the Social Democratic party and advocating the closure of those schools? Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest threat to grammar, grant- maintained, primary and comprehensive schools in Plymouth is the severe cuts in their budgets which have been brought about by her Government?
Column 124greatest threat to excellence and high standards in our schools comes from the Labour party, which has devoted so much time during the past decade to opposing every possible measure which would improve standards in our schools.
Mr. Steen: Is the Secretary of State aware of the outrageous and disgraceful proposals by Devon county council to cut teaching staff in Plymouth grammar schools and others? They also intend to reduce the money which goes to those schools--rather than cut their own bureaucracy--to save some of the £650 million it costs to run Devon county council. Will she ring fence the education budget so that the council cannot do what it is threatening to do?
Mrs. Shephard: To ring-fence any portion of a county council budget is beyond my powers, but I hope that pressure from my hon. Friend and colleagues will prevent that kind of damaging cut in Devon schools.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): None, though my right hon. Friend has occasionally received correspondence generally on the accountability of colleges of further education.
Mr. Marshall: Does the Minister accept that the removal of democratic control and accountability has made possible the abuse of public funds and the distortion of education priorities, as happened in Derby and Birmingham? If he accepts that, and the report on those two organisations, what actions will he take to rectify the situation?
Mr. Boswell: I do not accept that the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and the independence that we have extended to colleges of further education, which they have warmly endorsed and from which they have benefited immensely, are contributing to their failure or lack of accountability, as precise rules--set out in their instruments of government, the 1992 Act and the financial agreements that they reach with the funding council--secure them.
There have been two cases of difficulty. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the reports on those two colleges, which have been prepared by independent persons at our request, it would be inappropriate for me to comment now. We are satisfied that the arrangements work well in general. The Opposition have not yet told the nation what they mean by bringing grant-maintained schools under a local democratic framework. That is a slogan, just as the hon. Gentleman's question was.
Mr. Ian Bruce: Does my hon. Friend realise that, by removing Weymouth college from the democratic control of Dorset county council, the college has been able to expand student numbers, its funding and its excellence, while all those schools that stayed within local education authority control last year received only
Column 1251 per cent. from the county council when the Government gave them a 4 per cent. increase in their revenue budgets?
Mr. Boswell: All that I can say is that I am not in the least surprised to hear that news from Weymouth because it is replicated throughout the country. This year, we are substantially increasing funding to colleges of further education and they are benefiting from our policies. That applies as much in Weymouth as in many other parts of the country-- Leicester included.
Mr. Kilfoyle: Is not it a fact that colleges of further education have had their governing bodies stacked with like-minded people, often from outside the community that they serve? Have not those governors often put the salaries of a few people at the top of the pyramid ahead of the welfare of staff and students and have not the Government, by their actions, allowed many of those community colleges to be divorced from the very communities in which they have their roots? Is that not further evidence of the fragmentation of further and higher education while this Conservative Government have been in charge?
Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman must do a lot better than that to keep his present position. I am not sure how many colleges he has visited, but the plain fact is that every one that I have been to has been grateful for the freedom that we have extended to them. We have also extended the framework and transferability of democratic accountability. There is much more accountability now. The problems at the colleges that were referred to earlier had their origins in the past, long before the independence of colleges. The hon. Gentleman should look and learn a little more about the further education sector and stop knocking it so much.
Mr. Allason: May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to South Devon college in my constituency, which recently won a charter award for excellence and is regarded as having far greater accountability to the local community than it achieved when it was in the hands of the county council?
Mr. Boswell: Indeed, my hon. Friend can rightly draw my attention to that college. I know of its achievements in obtaining a charter mark and being a winner in the further education charter competition. I meet Dr. Keen from time to time and have a great respect for what he has achieved. Surely the greatest tests of accountability are the readiness and willingness of students to select colleges and their obvious achievements when benefiting from their studies there.
Column 126redundancies in 1995-96 following consultations on the revenue support allocations for education in the next financial year.
Mr. Turner: I too have received many representations. Some of the letters that I have come from schools in Wolverhampton and they tell me of the impending crisis for their schools, and for schools throughout the country, unless the Secretary of State wins her battle with the Treasury to increase resources to schools during the next 12 months. In the midlands-- [Interruption.] Hon. Members do not want to hear the truth. Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the midlands, a £70 million shortfall is predicted and more than 1,000 teaching jobs will be lost because of the attendant massive increase in class sizes? Will she call on the Prime Minister to intercede to offset that crisis?
Mrs. Shephard: This year's settlement amounts to £17 billion, which allows for an increase of more than 1 per cent. compared with last year. Under the provisional capping arrangement, local education authorities, including those in the west midlands, will be able to increase spending next year. At the moment, local education authorities are comparing the settlement with their budgets and spending plans. That is not to compare like with like.
Sir Michael Neubert: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Havering has received the worst education settlement in the country bar none, followed by south Tyneside, Northumberland, Gateshead, Stockport and St. Helen's, with which it seems to have nothing in common, whereas the four authorities that have done best are all inner London boroughs? Will she undertake to look into the reasons for that catastrophic quirk and do all she can to alleviate its worst effects on the education of children in our borough?
Mrs. Shephard: My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot generalise on the position within individual LEAs. I remind him that the Audit Commission, for example, has calculated that more than £0.5 billion is held in individual schools' budgets and that LEAs have recourse to their own balances, capital receipts and transfers between budget heads. Of course, all the components of the budget are not yet known.
Mr. Don Foster: Does the Secretary of State stand by the prediction she made in a letter that she wrote to her right hon. Friends just before the Budget? Given that LEAs are expected to reduce expenditure on primary schools by £50 per pupil and on secondary schools by nearly £200 per pupil, does she accept that that will lead to significant cuts in the number of staff and rising class sizes, and that the quality of education will suffer as a result?
Column 127Teachers Review Body. It has not yet submitted its report. When it does, we shall consider its recommendations, consult and announce our proposals.
Mr. Pawsey: Is my right hon. Friend aware of an organised campaign by local education authorities that is designed to draw attention to inequalities in standard spending assessments? Does she agree that the principal reason for such a campaign is to distract attention from the divisive and confused policies of the Labour and Liberal parties, especially as they relate to a graduate tax, the abolition of grant- maintained schools and the ending of charitable status for the independents?
Mrs. Shephard: My hon. Friend is, of course, right. There are always gloomy predictions at this time of year and there is certainly evidence of a fairly vigorous campaign. In the slightly longer term, however, it will be unable to conceal the divisive and shambolic nature of the Opposition parties.
Mr. Faber: Has my right hon. Friend received representations from Edington school in my constituency, a popular and successful local village school? Is she aware that, in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy last Friday, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors on Wiltshire county council combined to vote through the closure of that successful and popular school? Is she willing to meet a small delegation of parents from the school who are now desperately worried about the future education of their children?
Mrs. Shephard: I am not yet aware of the case that my hon. Friend has mentioned. It is always a great pity when a popular and successful school is threatened with closure. As part of the appeal against those proposals it will no doubt be possible to arrange for representations to be made to me or to ministerial colleagues.
Mr. Hardy: While it is obvious that the Government will look for someone else to blame, does the Secretary of State accept that she and her Department expect many redundancies, perhaps mass redundancies, to be announced at many of our schools? How does she expect to maintain success in education against that background? Will she urgently look at the situation to avoid schools being placed in grave difficulties and to prevent standards and the maintenance of education being imperilled?
Mrs. Shephard: The STRB has not yet submitted its report, it is impossible to make the predictions that are being made so widely around the country. Whether or not class sizes will have to rise depends on local circumstances. I remind the hon. Gentleman that studies have never shown conclusive evidence of a link between class size and pupil performance. There is no reason to see marginal increases in class sizes as a threat to standards.
Given the right hon. Lady's prediction that the teachers' review body would award a pay increase for the coming year that will so exceed the amount that the Government have allocated for education that there will be mass redundancies and increased class sizes,
Column 128does she agree with her right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer who this morning recommended that, in order to avoid those redundancies, local authorities should emulate the Government, who are to sell off the Treasury building and then lease it back? He suggested that authorities should sell off local town halls and other buildings and use the capital receipts for revenue purposes to pay teachers' salaries. Alternatively, perhaps she will send him back to university to learn the difference between capital and revenue spending.
Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Gentleman is more than usually imaginative, although the interesting display of his continuing prejudice against the private and the independent sector in education is not equally imaginative- -a prejudice not shared, of course, by many of his hon. Friends. The STRB is free to recommend such increases as it sees fit, but I have asked it to take into account affordability. Pay levels should be no more than is necessary to retrain, recruit and motivate staff. The STRB will need to judge the extent to which schools will be able to fund pay increases when it makes its recommendations, without the florid solutions suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Nicholls: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about reports circulating the west country this week that at a time when the Liberal-controlled LEA has threatened to cause massive redundancies in our schools, it has created a £17 million reserve for non-statutory administrative functions? Will my right hon. Friend carry out an investigation to see whether that is true, because we cannot possibly rely on the LEA in question to carry out an investigation into itself?
Mrs. Shephard: What my hon. Friend reveals is interesting and one wonders how much of that kind of practice is going on in the rest of the country, particularly in those areas from which the most noise is coming. I shall be happy to look at the details of that case, although I am quite certain that my hon. Friend will not let it rest, either.
15. Mr. Sutcliffe: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues about the capital programme shortfall facing Bradford metropolitan council in relation to education expenditure.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Robin Squire): In December, my right hon. Friend and other ministerial colleagues and I considered the allocation of annual capital guidelines, ACGs, to all local education authorities with great care in relation to the Government's published priorities, which are as follows: commitments arising from previous ACGs or supplementary credit approvals; identified need for new school places and cost-effective projects to remove surplus places.
Column 129Full details are given in the Department's letter of 4 July 1994 sent to all authorities, a copy of which has been placed in the House of Commons Library.
Mr. Madden: Will the Minister ensure that, when the Secretary of State comes to Bradford on 1 March, she finds time to visit local authority schools and to discuss with parents, teachers and governors their anger at the way in which, in the past 16 years, the Government have consistently neglected the need for repairs, renovation and replacement of crumbling schools in that city? This year, we have received £5 million, when our real needs are estimated at £40 million plus. The last straw came when, some time ago, the Department allocated a large amount of taxpayers' money to provide a covered-in playground for Bradford city technology college.
Mr. Squire: The hon. Gentleman appears to be slightly confused. First, as he knows, my right hon. Friend is looking forward to visiting Bradford, and during that visit she expects to be able to visit one or more LEA school. Secondly, I am sure that the House would welcome some recognition from him of the substantial success of Bradford CTC instead of the constant carping that we hear. Thirdly, if he was not already aware, he will now be aware that all ACGs, as I mentioned, are allocated by formula and, to the extent that Bradford LEA's bid matches that nationally agreed formula, so proportionately it will receive more money.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to what he alleged to be a poor rate of building money provided by Government in recent years. He should be aware that support for schools' capital increased by 57 per cent. in real terms between 1986-87 and 1993-94. That is a good record, by any standards.
Mr. Sutcliffe: The Minister will be aware, though, that the Secretary of State's visit to Bradford on 1 March will not be the first visit by a Secretary of State. During every previous visit, Secretaries of State promised extra help and support for Bradford when they heard the undeniable case made by Bradford people. I hope that, when the Secretary of State visits this time, she will take away the opinion of the all-party committee on education in Bradford, which says that the need in Bradford amounts to between £70 million and £100 million. I hope that we receive, not simply tea and sympathy, but some of the money that we need.
Mr. Squire: I am sure that my right hon. Friend is delighted to hear of the warm reception that she will receive in Bradford--a warm reception that she receives in all parts of the country when she visits them.
I know that my right hon. Friend will listen carefully to arguments made to her, but the hon. Gentleman must understand and accept ultimately that, if we were to distribute the money under anything other than an agreed formula, he would be one of the first to say that something was wrong, and he would smell some sort of rat. We have to distribute in accordance with a formula. Provided that the arguments that he and his friends in Bradford make are in line with that formula, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will listen carefully.
Column 130county council receives a substantial increase in funding, but, far from handing that over, it has threatened a cut of between 6 and 8 per cent.? Not only that, but-- [Interruption.] --it has reduced the proportion handed down under local management of schools from 87 per cent. to 85 per cent.
Madam Speaker: Order. It is a good try by the hon. Lady, who mentioned Bradford only once and now is concerning herself, quite understandably, with Lancashire, but I am afraid that she must wait for a question on Lancashire. This is the other side of the Pennines, and both she and I know the difference.
5. Mr. Purchase: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the planned total number of students in higher education in 1995-96 and 1996-97; and what were the figures underlying the 1993 Budget statement.
Mr. Boswell: The planned total number of students in higher education in England is 961,000 for both 1995-96 and 1996-97. The figures underlying the November 1993 budget were 941,000 for 1994-95, 963,000 for 1995-96 and 968,000 for 1996-97.
Mr. Purchase: The Minister must know that demand for places is increasing far more rapidly and, that by the policies he adopts, he is denying the opportunity for many putative students to study at university. Does he accept the opinion of the Confederation of British Industry and many others that it is vital that a bigger and bigger percentage of our young people attends university to bring us up to date with the skills that we need for the 21st century?
Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman is stronger on assertion than on history. Student numbers have risen by 50 per cent. in the past five years. We are reviewing higher education and taking advice on the future size and shape of HE from interested parties and others who wish to contribute to the debate. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman listen to their suggestions before jumping to conclusions.
Mr. Rowe: About a year ago, my hon. Friend's predecessor told me that the Department was looking at the length of some degree courses. Does my hon. Friend agree that some students attending courses could complete their studies in a much shorter time than that laid down by the higher education institutions that they attend? Will he look again at the possibility of giving those students the opportunity to complete their studies more quickly?
Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It is very much a matter for institutions and their students to consider, as they are responsible for academic courses and academic standards. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is a plain mathematical fact that, the longer the length of a course for an individual, the lower the proportion of students who can be financed with the same given amount of money.
Column 131students today suffer severe student poverty? Will the Minister undertake a study of the relationship between student poverty and academic success?
Mr. Boswell: It is an interesting fact that every three years there is a student income and expenditure survey. The survey published last year revealed no evidence of widespread poverty. It also found that if students avail themselves of the grant and loan to which they are entitled, they receive as much money to maintain their studies as they did previously. We protect the real-terms value of the total students' support package. While there may be specific cases, it is appropriate to refer them to the access funds. The overall participation of students and the expansion in their numbers suggest that poverty is not a widespread or significant problem.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth): The tables published in November 1994 found that significant amounts of valuable learning time are being lost due to unauthorised absence. In the maintained sector, an average of 11 half-days were lost by every absent primary school pupil and 22 half-days were lost by every absent secondary pupil. Rates of unauthorised absence varied widely between individual local education authorities and schools, as did rates of authorised absence. The latter were published for the first time in 1994.
Lady Olga Maitland: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. In the light of what he has just said, what practical help can he give to head teachers who are experiencing difficulties with truants? Is he aware of a head teacher in my constituency who is trying to deal with a persistent truant who is only nine years old and who could one day become a criminal statistic unless something is done?
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend raises an important point that greatly concerns both me and the Department. I am sure that she will be aware that, last year, we supported 80 local education authorities with projects worth £14 million--this year, we supported 90 local education authorities with £15.5 million. We helped them to run imaginative schemes to identify and tackle truancy, and to find how best to deal with it. We will review the projects and disseminate the best of them to all schools. It is vital that all pupils are in school and learning; if they are not, they not only lose out educationally but could develop criminal tendencies, or worse. That is why we lay great emphasis on the fact that all pupils should be in school all the time.
Column 132indirectly. In addition, initiatives to raise standards in schools are eligible for funding from the single regeneration budget.
Mr. Enright: Does not a real cut of £20 million here on top of a cut of £13 million in inspection funds mean that the Government are mouthing things about quality, but will not put their hand where their mouth is?
Mrs. Shephard: No. [Interruption.] I think that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman and his rather extraordinary image; I certainly disagree with the sentiment that he has tried to express. The GEST programme for the next financial year provides £250 million for local education authorities and schools to spend on 20 priority areas, including school effectiveness, and on a number of in-service training areas, particularly for primary teachers, concentrating on a grasp of the basics. All those areas will contribute directly to raising education standards.
Mr. David Shaw: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that adequate funding is available under the GEST programme and other programmes for the 100 or so state schools which are located on the route between Islington and the London school at Brompton Oratory?
Mr. Steinberg: Is the Minister aware that considerably fewer funds are available under the GEST programme now than five years ago, yet the changes in the national curriculum orders mean that schools must perform many more tasks? Will the Secretary of State consider allocating more funds to the GEST programme? Otherwise, it will be a huge failure and teachers will be very disappointed indeed.
Mrs. Shephard: As I pointed out to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright), a great deal of money--nearly £250 million-- is devoted to the GEST programme. I also made it clear that components of the GEST programme are designed specifically to maintain high standards and to provide training for teachers. The hon. Gentleman should look also at the resources that are now devoted to inspection and testing, all of which are designed to increase and improve education standards.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard: There are 69 grant-maintained secondary schools in Essex, more than in any other local education authority area. Two thirds of the maintained secondary schools in the county are self- governing.
Dr. Clark: Is my right hon. Friend aware that grant-maintained secondary schools in Essex are highly regarded by governors, staff, parents and pupils, which contrasts with the county council-run sixth form college in my area where examination results are very poor? Therefore, does she understand that grant-maintained secondary schools in my constituency need to establish their own sixth forms? When will she respond to the applications by King Edmund school, Rochford, and
Column 133Greensward school, Hockley, and will that response come in time to put in place the September arrangements for pupils?
Mrs. Shephard: I am aware that grant-maintained schools in Essex are very popular and successful, and I am also aware of my hon. Friend's concern about the proposals for those two schools. I undertake to give him a decision, in all possible haste, about the future of those sixth forms.
Mr. Bottomley: May I put it to my hon. Friend that, as the agreement was made in 1970--25 years ago--we can expect the names of the schools to come out in five years' time under the 30-year rule, or will the schools' names be kept more secret than Cabinet secrets? While we are awaiting those names, is it not about time that more attention was drawn to the results of the research by Professor Michael Rutter and others, showing that the features of a school--ethos and structure--make a difference, and it does matter to which schools parents send their children? Is it not important that all education authorities re-read that important book?
Mr. Forth: The undertaking of confidentiality was given by the researchers before the schools and teachers agreed to take part in the project. It was not necessary for the Department to know the identity of the schools and the researchers did not provide that information to the Department. Therefore, the Department has kept no official record of the schools that participated and, regrettably, my hon. Friend's ingenious and impassioned suggestion cannot be followed up.
On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, of course a great deal of valuable research has been done, within the Department and outside, on school effectiveness in the broadest sense. We want to know more about what makes a good school: the contribution by the head teacher in particular, the governors, the staff and the parents. We are working hard increasingly to identify what elements make a good school so that we can disseminate that to the other schools and give them the opportunity to improve.
Mr. Boswell: The chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council for England is responsible for ensuring that public funds are used for the purposes for which they were given. He has a duty to ensure that institutions have proper arrangements for financial
Column 134management and accounting. The council has also implemented a range of measures to prevent the misuse of public funds.
Mr. Cunningham: Does the Minister accept that there is substantial evidence of abuse by further education colleges, primarily because the regulations governing those colleges are extremely weak? Will the Secretary of State undertake to review those procedures?
Mr. Boswell: I am surprised at that because the Further Education Funding Council has introduced a range of measures. These are enshrined in the initial Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the instruments of governance of the colleges, the financial memoranda between the various colleges and the council and other audit controls which are imposed, and strengthened by the fact that the principal of the college is himself or herself the accounting officer for the purpose and has an important statutory role. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific evidence of malpractice or financial irregularity, I hope that he will draw it to the attention of the funding council. I have none.
Mr. Jacques Arnold: Will my hon. Friend also examine the good use of funds in the further education sector, in particular the brand new facilities at North West Kent college, which were inaugurated by the Duke of Kent in Gravesend this morning?
Mr. Boswell: I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on that further advance in the further education sector. We are providing an additional 4 per cent. of funding for that sector in the coming year. We are making big demands on it and it is rising to the occasion.
Mr. Beggs: What advice is given to further and higher education authorities to prevent fraud gangs from masquerading as students and getting away with millions by faking student identities to obtain grants?
Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question, although it is more germane to higher education. We and the higher education institutions and local education authorities have been concerned for some time about organised student frauds. The hon. Gentleman may have seen press reports on that matter only this morning and I hope he will have noticed that we have made available from Department for Education funds the sum of £120,000 for better computerised matching of similar, apparently similar or fraudulent entries in our determination to stamp out the problem.