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Specialist Schools

8. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): How many specialist schools there are in the UK; and what the projected number is by 2001. [114605]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): As of September 1999, 403 specialist schools were operating in England. Our plans provide for about 200 specialist school designations by September 2001, taking the total number to more than 600.

Charlotte Atkins: Is my hon. Friend aware of the tremendous improvement in exam successes in my local specialist technology school, Clough Hall school, and the great work that it does in sharing information technology

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resources with the rest of the community? In view of that, will she tell me what support is given to joint school bids for specialist status, given the Government's enthusiasm for spreading the benefits of specialist school resources to the wider community?

Jacqui Smith: I am aware of the very good results achieved at Clough Hall technology school, where the proportion of pupils gaining 5 A* to C grades rose from 27 per cent. in 1996 to 39 per cent. in 1999. I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating staff and pupils on that excellent effort.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the process that schools go through to become specialist schools as essential to ensuring the level of success being achieved. I can reassure her that we will look carefully at plans advanced by schools working together to achieve the improvement in standards evident at Clough Hall. That improvement is, after all, the aim of this area of policy.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Does the Minister accept that the children who will gain most from education at a specialist school are those with ability and interest in that specialist subject? However, specialist schools are able to select only a small proportion of pupils on the basis of aptitude for the specialist subject, as defined by the Government. The maximum benefit is therefore being gained by the few, rather than by the many.

The Government have already lost a court case brought by Wandsworth council on the adjudicator's decision to reduce partial selection in some of its schools. Moreover, the Government are in court today for a case involving the ruling of an adjudicator on selection for a specialist school. Will the Government accept, therefore, that their whole adjudication process is fundamentally flawed? Does it not reflect the Government's prejudice against providing the education that is right for every child? Does it not show that the whole adjudication system should be scrapped immediately?

Jacqui Smith: No, the Government do not accept that. However, the hon. Lady's question illustrates the Opposition's obsession with the selection of the few. Our commitment is to raise standards for the many.

Training Opportunities

9. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): What action he is taking to provide jobseekers with more flexible training opportunities. [114606]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): We provide a wide range of help to unemployed people to support their efforts to move into work. All those opportunities are designed to be relevant to individual needs and the requirements of the local labour market.

Mr. Goggins: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I am also grateful for the Government's commitment to flexibility. However, will my hon. Friend examine the eligibility criteria for work-based learning for adults? That scheme provides work experience and training for adults who have been out of work for more than six months. Does

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she agree that that can sometimes be too long to wait? Will she consider making the training available earlier, when job seekers often are more highly motivated?

Ms Hodge: We are introducing changes to the work-based learning scheme in April. Our aim is to reduce the constraints on the national vocational qualification framework, for example, and to focus on achieving better skills levels. We are always open to considering further improvements. We have asked the new deal taskforce to report back to us if changes are needed to improve the employability of people in the labour market.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What discussions has the Minister had with the Foreign Secretary to ensure that the outcome of any meetings that might take place in Portugal today will not damage the flexible labour market?

Ms Hodge: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that this country will be leading the discussions in Lisbon today, to ensure that those flexibilities relevant to a successful labour market will be sustained. Our record shows that there has been the biggest increase in 10 years in the number of people who are active in the labour market, that we are enjoying the lowest unemployment levels for 20 years, and that the Government have brought about the creation of 800,000 new jobs. That demonstrates that we can lead in Europe.

Top-up Fees

10. Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): If he will make a statement on top-up fees in higher education. [114607]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I, and the House, have specifically ruled out top-up fees. Over the three years of the spending review, an additional £1 billion plus has been allocated to higher education. We have reversed the efficiency gains that were running at 4 per cent. under the previous Government, and we have also put a real-terms increase of 11 per cent. into universities. Therefore, we feel justified in ensuring that we do not fragment the system.

Mr. Brooke: As the relevant Minister at Education questions a month ago deftly--even brazenly--avoided answering my question on whether the Government would accelerate their promised review of tuition fees, would the Secretary of State answer that question? If top-up fees have been ruled out, and if, as the Government indicated on Tuesday, schools remain their principal educational priority, how are we to sustain and maintain our world-class universities?

Mr. Blunkett: First, I have already announced a 5.4 per cent. increase for 2001-02. Secondly, a £1.4 billion investment in research is taking place with the Wellcome Trust, with 75 per cent. of research funding going to the top 30 university departments.

To pick up on the speech that I made at Greenwich, we want to ensure that universities in this country link together through the use of information technology--but also join, as many are doing, with those in Europe and

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north America to share teaching and research resources. We want to ensure that their excellence is available in this country and is enhanced by the available expertise in world-class universities elsewhere.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the experience in Australia, where top-up fees were introduced in 1996 and led to a reduction in overall applications and a narrowing of the social base of students going to Australian universities. Would not the replication of such a system in Britain run completely counter to our aspiration to get 50 per cent. of the under-30s into universities by 2010? Is not that a powerful reason why Ministers are right to resist Conservative party pressure on top-up fees?

Mr. Blunkett: Anything that discourages open access to all universities and their departments in this country is, in my view, wrong. Those who argue for substantial differentiation in fees have to answer where the resources would come from to pay for those on low incomes to enter university departments, given that the top-up fee that they were levying would have to pay for that and for any improvement in quality. They would also have to answer how it would be possible for any Minister to argue with the Treasury for additional resources if those resources were going to be obtained by the universities levying fees on students rather than sharing the costs, as we are at present, with the taxpayer.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Does the Secretary of State's reassurance that he has ruled out implementing top-up fees carry the same, more, or less authority than the Government's statement at the election that they had no plans to introduce tuition fees?

Mr. Blunkett: As we did not say that, the question is grossly misleading. We indicated the changes that we would introduce in maintenance payments and the repayment system. We spelled that out in our documents and our manifesto. We indicated that we were perfectly willing to consider the recommendations on fees in the Dearing inquiry report. In fact, we ruled out the Dearing proposal, espoused by the Conservative party, that all students should pay a contribution towards fees. Instead, we exempted those on low incomes, so that in England more than one third of students pay no fees at all.

School Playing Fields

11. Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): What his policy is on school playing fields; and if he will make a statement. [114608]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): We are determined to protect playing fields that are needed by schools and their communities. To achieve that, we introduced legislation in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that stops local authorities in England from disposing of, or changing the use of, school playing fields without the prior consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In June last year, we published for all to see the tough criteria against which we assess applications.

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Mr. Ottaway: I am baffled. I have just heard the Minister say that she is determined to protect playing fields in our schools. Is she aware that the council has applied to sell the playing fields of Haling Manor school in Croydon and to build a housing estate on the site? Will the Secretary of State sign that off, or is it the fault of the Labour council?

Jacqui Smith: I am aware of that application, which was approved in February 1999, before the final criteria for applications were agreed and issued by my Department. To that extent, given that we have significantly toughened the criteria since we came to power, that decision has rather more relevance to the extremely lax situation that existed when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power than to the very strict criteria that are now in place.

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