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8.15 pm

Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on persuading his party to give an Opposition day to the subject of education. I notice that the motion is couched mainly in terms of investment, which is of course important, but I want to start by talking about what I might crudely term output--the word the Minister used.

I recognise, as did the Minister, the many achievements of our young people, schools and teachers; and I add my congratulations to the others offered to the Phoenix school in Hammersmith. I also congratulate the eight schools described in the Ofsted report as having been taken out of "special measures" over the past 12 months. That is a major achievement--a great recognition of their efforts. We wish them even greater success in the future.

I do not think that there is any doubt that our young people who achieve at the highest level are comparable with those anywhere else in the world; yet, over the past 18 years the Government have failed to tackle the continuing and growing problem of under-achievement. The result is that, as we approach the millennium, we are failing to reach even the modest targets that we have set ourselves as a nation.

Let us look at the evidence. This year's results showed that about 45 per cent. of pupils gained five or more GCSE passes at grade C and above. That falls well below the target of 55 per cent. of young people achieving that much by the year 2000. The proportion of young people gaining advanced-level qualifications is smaller in the UK than it is in our competitor nations: 80 per cent. of young people in Japan qualify to university entrance level, and in Germany, 75 per cent. of 25 to 28-year-olds have an advanced-level qualification. A smaller proportion of our population qualifies at level two or above in vocational skills than in countries that compete with us.

This under-achievement at 16 and into adulthood must be a cause for concern, but perhaps of greater concern is the fact that, lower down the age range in the years of compulsory school, it looks as though we are not likely to catch up with our competitors before 2000 or even beyond it. Yesterday's Ofsted report pointed out that, in the schools inspected this year, literacy rates at key stage 1 were lower than they were in the schools inspected last year. I agree that the sample of schools was different, but we tend to draw conclusions from chief inspector's reports.

We have known for a while that the number of 11-year-olds not achieving the literacy skills that could be expected of them is above 40 per cent. It is thus not surprising that among 16-year-olds there is still a long tail of under-achievement. One in 12 young people did not gain a single GCSE pass in last year's examinations--the figures for boys are worse than for girls. So the problem

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we face amounts to a pattern of poor literacy at seven and 11, no examination passes at 16, and a failure to stay in education and training beyond the years of compulsory schooling.

I do not want to take away from pupils' excellence and achievements or from the percentage rise in last year's GCSE passes, but, as a country, we have a cultural problem because the divide between achievers and under-achievers is greater than in other countries. That must be a great concern. Let us encourage excellence, and let us look for it in every child and in every school. But that excellence must include higher attainment levels for all pupils and all young people. In recent years, the divide between achievers and under-achievers has grown so much that it is becoming not only an educational problem but a social problem.

In this country we have somehow to create a culture in which young people know that to earn they have to learn. To achieve that, however, we will need a Government who understand that we must invest to succeed. I do not think that money is the answer to all our difficulties in the education service, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Bath or any Opposition Member thinks or would suggest that, but money is important, and it is a crucial element. We have a Government who claim, on the one hand, that money is not important; but, on the other, they try to claim credit for increasing expenditure. They are wrong on both counts. Yes, money is important; and, no, the Government have not increased expenditure in recent years.

The hon. Member for Bath quoted some figures from the Library, according to which, since 1992-93, the standard spending assessment has fallen in real terms in both the primary and, more particularly, in the secondary sector. That is what the officials say; but the Government claim otherwise. This financial year, Ministers claim to have invested an additional £878 million in schools. They also said that they were making available an extra 4.5 per cent. In the overall settlement for local authorities, however, there was no real increase over the previous year.

The truth is that, if local authorities managed to protect or increase their education budget this year, as many did, they did so at the expense of other services. They juggled the money in the bank, but the money in the bank did not increase by one jot.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Is the hon. Lady aware--I learned of it today, on a visit to the Wirral--that, next year, Labour-controlled Wirral council is planning an education cut of £1.2 million, but that, if it chose to, it could spend that money? It is planning a budget for next year which, unlike those of most authorities, will be £4 million under cap.

Ms Morris: The Liberal Democrats are beginning to sound a little like the party in government, because, when they attempt to fight Labour at the local level, they manage to find imagined money in the budget to spend on education. They do exactly the same thing in Birmingham. I do not know the exact breakdown of expenditure in Wirral, South, although I thought that there was an agreement between the hon. Member for Bath, who leads on education for the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour Front Bench that there is no extra money for

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education. I cannot imagine how on earth the hon. Member for Newbury supposes that Wirral, South has somehow--above and beyond every other local education authority in the United Kingdom--managed to make available extra money, unless it has something to do with a forthcoming parliamentary by-election.

This year the Government have tried the same trick on expenditure as they tried last year. They claimed in the Budget that an extra £830 million would be made available for education--but where is it? Where is the cash? Where is the money? When Ministers talk about an increase, they are not talking about real pounds and pence or about real money; they are talking about the standard spending assessment, which is the amount that they think that local authorities should spend. So it is all words. It is not cash, but words, and it is certainly not an increase in grant. It is a con trick. It is also a rather silly con trick, because, from current budgets, councils would have to cut spending by £41 per pupil if they were to spend at the level advised by the Government.

So there we have it: there is no extra 4.5 per cent. for education next financial year, and local authority associations have estimated that the grant appears set to rise, in real terms, by as little as 0.5 per cent. I do not know whether Ministers believe what they say about expenditure, but I can assure them that no one in the real world believes a word they say about increased education expenditure.

Parents do not believe the Government, because they can see class sizes rising. In the past four years, the percentage of children in classes of more than 30 pupils has risen from 24.9 per cent. to 31 per cent. Teachers do not believe that there is an increase in expenditure, because they know that there is comparatively less money for books and equipment. Local governments do not believe that there is more money for education expenditure, because they know that there is less money for capital expenditure and repairs.

What about the great Conservative conversion to nursery education and the great flagship policy--the "clear blue water"--of nursery vouchers? The scheme has not even got off the ground, and £56 million has already been cut from the Budget. The same difficulties exist in further education.

Mr. Robin Squire: After the hon. Lady's repeated comments, I should say that the figures that she has quoted are the result of updated estimates on four-year-olds. Not a single parent will be denied their voucher or the opportunity to use it.

Ms Morris: They may not be denied their voucher, but they will be denied their place, and I think that they will be far more concerned about places than about vouchers. I am always staggered that the number of four-year-olds changes as they change from being three years old to four years old. I do not know where they have all come from--perhaps they are born rather late in life. However, if the Minister has managed to secure sufficient places for four-year-olds within the current Budget, why did he not use £50 million to extend nursery provision to three-year-olds rather than cutting it from the Budget?

Mr. Squire: The simple answer--although I do not think that the hon. Lady will discover it for herself in the

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next few years--is that, when the Government present their Budget each year, they make their best estimates for the subsequent two years. Those estimates are invariably updated, in many ways. That figure is simply one example, which she has latched on to.

Ms Morris: I am still staggered to think where all the four-year-olds have gone to. However, the Minister did not answer the question that I asked. As he has been able to cost the policy at less money, perhaps his commitment to nursery education would be more credible if he had transferred that money to expanding nursery provision for three-year-olds.

Further education has been badly treated in recent weeks. It has been thrown into confusion and chaos by the Government's refusal to meet the Further Education Funding Council's claim for demand-led student enrolments beyond the end of last term. No commitment will be made to fund the demand-led element in the remainder of this year, or in 1997-98. That is a clear breach of promise. Those enrolments have been used to stimulate growth in further education, and at comparatively low cost. However, now the Government refuse to pay, and thousands of students across the country are likely to be affected.

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