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Skills Training

9. Mr. Robert Ainsworth: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what plans she has to improve skills training for small firms. [33206]

Mr. Paice: During the last 18 months both skills for small businesses and the skills challenge have been targeted at small businesses. Two weeks ago, we announced further measures to simplify and improve our small business support.

Mr. Ainsworth: The Minister should be aware that representatives of both the construction and the construction engineering industry have recently been quite scathing about the Government's inability to provide training for small businesses in those sectors. I hope that he will also know that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry recently said that the Government appeared to have no framework for training targeted at small businesses. Is that not disgraceful, given that the Government have lectured us for so long about the importance of small and medium enterprises? When will we hear a little less rhetoric, and see a little action to provide the training that is necessary if small enterprises are to succeed?

Mr. Paice: I find it fascinating that the hon. Gentleman quotes the two industries that still retain statutory training boards, which I thought the Labour party always espoused. The statutory boards for the construction and engineering construction industries are responsible for designing policy. As to the future, I said in my first reply that the Government have helped thousands and thousands of small firms through the skills for small businesses support scheme. The skills challenge that we ran last year also enjoyed massive support, and the benefits will be

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immediately available to the thousands of firms that were involved. The same information will be available to help other small businesses. I remind the hon. Gentleman that nearly one half of all the companies in this country that are committed to the Investors in People standard have fewer than 50 employees.

Mr. Ainsworth indicated dissent.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but those are the facts and he should take them on board. The Government have a proud record of helping small businesses in training.

Mr. Spring: Is my hon. Friend aware of the enormous increase in upgrading skills across the small business community in my constituency, as we know from the Small Business Bureau analysis? The total number of organisations involved in the Investors in People initiative is 22,000, of which nearly half employ fewer than 50 people.

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend is a champion in the House for small businesses not only in his constituency but throughout the country. He is right to emphasise the importance of the Investors in People standard, which is the most appropriate lever for promoting training in businesses of all sizes. In most cases, the problem is not funding but helping small businesses to make time available and acquire the motivation for training. The usual response from the small business man is, "I am too busy running my business." The Government's policies are aimed at addressing that situation.

Mr. Byers: Can the Minister confirm that more than half the work force are in firms with fewer than 100 employees? Given the significance of that sector of the labour market, will the Minister explain why, under the Government's public expenditure plans, the small business budget is to be cut next year? Given also the real difficulties that small firms have in training employees, why do not the Government adopt Labour's proposals to target financial assistance on small firms, so that they can be part of the skills revolution that the country needs?

Mr. Paice: The majority of people work for businesses with more than 50 employees, which is why our lifetime learning targets--as part of our national education and training targets--are aimed at that size of business and beyond. That is the way to connect with the large number of people working in sizeable businesses and helping the majority of employees. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Government should copy Labour party policies. If he thinks that we are going to introduce compulsion, which is Labour's policy for small businesses, so that young people will be let off and sent to college--

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, in the case of 16 and 17-year-olds.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman says yes. Labour would require small firms--not encourage or persuade--under threat, to let young people go to college. That would destroy employment opportunities for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of young people.

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State Schools

10. Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what actions her Department has taken since 1988 to improve the quality of education in state schools; and what further plans she has for improvement. [33207]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: The whole thrust of Government policy over the past 16 years has been to raise standards. I have recently announced plans to reform teacher training, improve discipline and promote school self-improvement. Yesterday, we published a White Paper to extend self-government for schools and to increase choice and diversity in our school system, which will also help to raise standards.

Mr. Pawsey: My right hon. Friend's answer outlined the action taken so far by the Government and the action that they will take when they are re-elected in a few months' time. Will she confirm that the White Paper that she announced yesterday will ensure the transfer of more than £1 billion from local education authority administration to the classroom, give parents and schools much greater choice and allow the emergence of additional technical schools?

Mrs. Shephard: I can indeed confirm that the White Paper will extend independence for schools, freedom for grant-maintained schools and choice for parents. An additional £1.3 billion will be delegated to schools, giving them more control over what they do. I confirm that the White Paper proposes a welcome expansion in the very successful programme for specialist schools and colleges.

Mr. Don Foster: Does the Secretary of State agree that accurate methods of measuring performance will have to be in place before the Department for Education and Employment can claim that its measures have led to improvements in education? In that context, does she agree that standard assessment tasks would be an inappropriate measure, given the uncertainty about the definition of the various levels of SATs and the recent changes in the SATs marking system?

Mrs. Shephard: The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has been redefining levels with schools and teacher associations. It is very important that all such matters are taken seriously--the SCAA is certainly doing so--because test marking must be entirely consistent. That is in hand, there is no problem and the work is continuing.

Mr. Dunn: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we are now witnessing the final destruction of social engineering in education? Will she further confirm that we are about the elimination of Stalinism in local education? Finally, will she confirm that we are about maximising choice and exposing the hypocrisy of those who say one thing and do another?

Mrs. Shephard: I certainly confirm that we are seeing the end of Stalinism, and very welcome that is, too. I remind my hon. Friend, although he needs no reminding, that the pathetic and backward-looking response of Opposition Members yesterday to our proposals to provide for the

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aspirations and ambitions of parents and children--by increasing independence for schools and choice for parents--showed that their ideas are indeed stuck in the time warp so clearly defined by my hon. Friend.

Ms Hodge: Will the Secretary of State confirm that when she was asked about selection procedures in secondary education at a meeting with the National Union of Teachers in Norfolk in 1994--after she had become Secretary of State--she said:

Yes or no?

Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Lady has been most assiduous in her researches. She might be better advised to get on with what I understand to be her allotted task of preparing Labour's policy on nursery education, which is a long time appearing. I advise her to concentrate on her day job.

Mr. Brazier: My right hon. Friend's recent proposals on discipline, designed to improve the quality of state schools, were especially welcome. Are not her proposed measures to return to teachers the power to discipline unruly pupils, with or without the consent of their parents, absolutely essential and welcome?

Mrs. Shephard: They are indeed essential, and since being elected my hon. Friend has been most assiduous in pursuing that cause. He will therefore welcome our proposals, which we shall enact if parliamentary time allows, to support teachers in the classroom.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Given the Secretary of State's newly found enthusiasm for secondary modern schools in every town, will she tell the House whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed the estimated £2 billion extra cost of the Prime Minister's pipe dreams, whether she has assessed their impact on surplus places in our schools and why she remains obsessed with structure when the country is crying out for the raising of standards in education? Are not the Government's education proposals about as much use as a chocolate fireguard?

Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Gentleman is never short of a colourful phrase or two. I remind him that if structures increase the independence of schools and increase choice and diversity, they can contribute to the raising of standards.

I made the position on costing absolutely clear yesterday. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends cannot have it both ways. They are either in favour or more independence for schools and more choice for parents, in which case they should support our policies, and in particular yesterday's White Paper, or they are not, in which case they should condemn those members of their Front Bench who not only support our policies, but take advantage of them for their own children.

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