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State and Private Schools

12. Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): If he will make a statement on relations between the state and private school sectors. [59114]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): We welcome closer collaboration between independent and maintained schools in raising standards. To promote partnership, we are supporting 47 projects with £600,000 this year, and a further £1 million from April 1999. We established an advisory group to monitor partnerships and build bridges and we accepted all the recommendations in its recent report.

Dr. Wright: Does my hon. Friend remember the historic occasion last month when she addressed the headmasters and headmistresses conference jamboree and received a standing ovation? Does she think that she received that ovation because the teachers think that we

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have invented a system of noblesse oblige, subsidised by the state and sanctified with the language of partnership? When more than 50 per cent. of the applicants accepted at Oxford and Cambridge still come from the 7 per cent. of private schools, might it be that an attack on educational inequality needs another dimension, even if ovations become somewhat more muted?

Ms Morris: I remember well my visits to independent sector conferences for different reasons, and I was heartened by the response I received from the Headmasters Conference in Jersey. My hon. Friend gave his explanation for that good reception, but I am clear that the conference was pleased to have a Government who wanted to work with it in partnership on a common agenda to raise standards. The conference was heartened by the initiatives that we have set in train for the two sectors to work together and it was pleased that we have committed ourselves to a further £1 million over two years to enhance that work.

The best way to end the disadvantage that some children face in our school system is not to attack others but to ensure that we raise standards in all schools. We are doing that through our literacy and numeracy strategies and through continued investment in the maintained sector. I look forward to continuing the good start we have made in maintaining relationships with the independent sector.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): The bottom line of the Government's approach to the private sector in schools is that they have closed the doors of many ancient institutions of learning to the children of those parents who cannot afford to pay the fees. Is not the difference between the two parties that we gave those children a seat at the table, whereas the Minister thinks that they should be content with the crumbs that fall from the table?

Ms Morris: If that had been the case, I would not have received a good reception from the HMC when I visited it in Jersey. Under this Government, no school will get the crumbs from somebody else's table. We care about giving every child a chance and the solution is not to give some a ladder into the independent sector, but to be deadly serious about making every school a good one. It is inexcusable that under the right hon. Gentleman's Government, the message given to children from disadvantaged areas was that they should escape from the maintained sector because the Government did not exercise their responsibility for it properly. That will not happen under this Government. Parents can be assured that their children will receive a good quality education without having to leave the maintained sector.

University Places (Take-Up)

13. Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): If he will make a statement on the take-up of university places in the current academic year. [59115]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. George Mudie): Overall the total number of accepted home applicants has already exceeded the final 1996 figure and is running at just 4,000 below the comparable 1997 figure of nearly 300,000.

Dr. Jones: What does my hon. Friend's analysis of the take-up of university places this year tell him of the

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prospects for the Government achieving their aim of increasing the proportion of people from lower-income backgrounds obtaining higher educational qualifications?

Mr. Mudie: Without being complacent, we are clear that the increase we projected of 500,000 additional students in further and higher education by 2002 will be achieved. My hon. Friend knows how keen my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to widen participation and it is clear from an analysis of this year's figures that fears that working-class youngsters would be put off applying to university by the fees have not been realised. The figures have stayed at the same level and we are confident that we will achieve a wider participation.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the Minister agree that it is alarming that the number of applications from mature students has slumped for next year? Many such students want the second chance offered by a return to learning, and many have family

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responsibilities. Will he commit the Government to monitoring the impact of charges imposed to see whether they are having a particular effect either by sector or by type of student? That would allow us to see whether Dearing was right and the Government wrong, as I strongly suspect is the case.

Mr. Mudie: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has ended on such a sour note. We agree that the figures should be carefully analysed. The number of youngsters applying for next year has gone up, and there are several reasons for the drop in the number of mature students. Mature students had the flexibility to move their applications forward to 1997, which was not available to younger students. Other factors are demography--that cohort was 3 per cent. down--greater participation in higher education by some groups, and a stronger labour market. Those factors may explain the numbers, but I agree that analysis is necessary, and I share the hon. Gentleman's ambition to increase the number of mature students.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I have your guidance on the extraordinary answer that I received earlier from the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)? I asked about the Government's U-turn in abandoning plans to publish a merit table for all schools covering 14 to 16-year-olds, and the Minister said that there would be a statement on the matter later today. Will you remind Ministers, Madam Speaker, of the importance of ensuring that statements of such consequence are made first to the House?

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. We will publish full performance tables in a day or two. There will be no statement to the House today, but I shall issue a press release about a minor change to performance tables. That does not affect our commitment to value-added tables, or to ensuring that information is available on GCSEs and the points system.

Madam Speaker: Thank you.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I hope that you may clear up some confusion that has arisen. I refer to the House of Lords of yesterday, when a Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said:

Just a few minutes later, another Minister, Baroness Jay, said:

    "My Lords, this Bill has now been lost for the Session. However, it will be introduced in the next Session under the procedures of the Parliament Acts."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 1354-60.]

I ask, therefore, whether you, Madam Speaker, will delay Prorogation in order to allow a Minister to come to the House--helpfully, the Leader of the House is already here--to explain what is going on. Contradictory statements have been made by Ministers in the other place.

Madam Speaker: As the right hon. Gentleman and the whole House know, I am not responsible for Government statements. Nor am I prepared to suspend Prorogation. I shall, however, suspend the House until 3.50 pm.

Message to attend the Lords Commissioners:

The House went;--and, having returned:

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Royal Assent

4.19 pm

Madam Speaker: I have to acquaint the House that the House has been to the House of Peers, where a Commission under the Great Seal was read, authorising the Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Statute Law Repeals Act 1998

Waste Minimisation Act 1998

Regional Development Agencies Act 1998

Scotland Act 1998

Northern Ireland Act 1998

Registration of Political Parties Act 1998

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