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The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): We recently outlined plans to improve the quality and rigour of modern apprenticeships, taking account of the recommendations of the skills taskforce and others. We will be consulting on the proposals, which are part of our drive to raise quality and standards in learning, and secure coherence and progression on the work-based route. That will involve foundation modern apprenticeships, which will subsume the youth and national traineeships, as well as expanding the advanced modern apprenticeships that have been so popular.
Shona McIsaac: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in an area such as mine, which has oil refineries, chemical industries, docks and a great deal of manufacturing, it is vital that we provide high-quality modern apprenticeships and vocational training for young people who choose not to go into full-time education after leaving school? That will address the skills gap about which industry in my constituency complains, following years of cheap, low-quality youth training schemes peddled by the Conservatives.
Mr. Blunkett: It is essential that such high-quality routes are available; 350,000 young people have entered such schemes, almost 150,000 of them on the advanced modern apprenticeships. The programme that we are putting in place will increase the taught-time element, the specified period of off-the-job training, and the minimum period of training, and will tighten the entry requirements. There will be a clear route to complement the drive to get young people to stay on in full-time education at 16, to ensure that no one enters adult life without the qualifications to guarantee that they can get and hold a job.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): Training for serving teachers in information and communications technology is part of our three-pronged integrated strategy for those technologies: first, an unprecedented £700 million investment in computers in schools and in the supporting infrastructure; secondly, a national curriculum that provides for the teaching of information and communications technology in our schools and its use across the curriculum; and finally, a £230 million teacher training programme in the use of those technologies, provided by the new opportunities fund.
Mr. Twigg: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Although training is essential, it is not in itself the answer to the problem. The money is welcome as well, but part of the difficulty that I see in my constituency and elsewhere is getting schools wired up quickly enough and having the equipment installed. What is being done to speed up the wiring and re-equipping of schools, to ensure that they get the full benefit of the Government's strategy?
The internet will be crucial to the future of those technologies and to the future of our children in schools. That is why we are investing £37 million in developing broad band consortiums on a regional basis, to make sure that every school in the country has proper broad band access in the future. We are already making considerable progress on that. When we came to office in 1997, only 17 per cent. of primary schools had access to the internet. In 1999, the figure was 62 per cent., and we are on target to make sure that by 2002 every school in the country has access to the internet.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Following the Government's regrettable decision to abolish the assisted places scheme and thus deprive children from lower- income families of the opportunity to go to independent schools, are not the Government making another mistake by excluding teachers from independent schools from training in information and communications technology? Should not we be taking down barriers between the state and the independent sector rather than putting up more barriers? Is not putting up barriers in that way likely to prove damaging to the state and the independent sector? Is it not utterly feeble of the Minister to say, as he did in a written answer to me, that
Mr. Wills: No. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman could not find it within himself to welcome the fact that we are working together to explore these opportunities. Perhaps I may give him a short lesson in why we have taken the steps that we have. Scarce resources must always have priorities attached to them. The making of hard choices is a difficult concept for an Opposition who are so busy stapling themselves to their tax guarantee, but hard choices are what we have to make, and that is what we have done. The new opportunities fund training is targeted at the national curriculum. It supports the literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools and it complements Government funding for ICT equipment in state schools.
Independent schools do not operate within the national curriculum, nor are they required to address other Government strategies. Eligibility for the training depends on there being sufficient ICT equipment in schools and on satisfactory ICT development plans being in place. We cannot require such a coherent and integrated approach in the independent sector, so we thought it right to target our resources on the state sector. We make no apologies for doing that. Parents are well aware of that when they choose independent schools for their children. It is for the
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): Schools in my constituency welcome the further development of the equipment and the training, but I should like to hear further from my hon. Friend the Minister on the extent and nature of that training. Will he confirm that it is not simply training in the use of the equipment, but that it is a tool in the education service for the further development of the curriculum?
Mr. Wills: I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The whole purpose of the training is to teach teachers not how to switch on computers but how to integrate them into the curriculum; how to deliver all the technology's benefits for children's educational experiences and learning. That is important. We have allowed a great deal of local flexibility and autonomy for schools to choose the particular method of training that best suits their particular circumstances, and also to choose the providers that suit them best. There are about 50 separate providers of such training from which schools may choose.
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): The Government are well on course to deliver their pledge to reduce the size of infant classes to 30 pupils by September 2001 at the latest. Statistics published recently show that the number of five, six and seven-year-olds in infant classes of more than 30 went down by half from January 1999 to January 2000. By this September, we expect as few as 3 per cent. of children to remain in infant classes of 31 or more.
Mr. Stevenson: The £2.3 million made available for staff and buildings in Stoke-on-Trent, which this year alone will mean an additional 40 primary school teachers, is extremely welcome. Does not my right hon. Friend's reply starkly illustrate the difference between the Government, who deliver on their pledges, and Conservative Members who sit back and criticise? Is not another success the increasing number of children who now find that, because of the Government's policy, they can go to their first preference school? Is not that in stark contrast to the Opposition's dire predictions when the Government announced the policy?
Ms Morris: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I congratulate Stoke-on-Trent local education authority on developing a plan that has reduced the number of children in large classes from 2,500 at the time of the general election to only 750 now. Stoke-on-Trent LEA will deliver the pledge a full year ahead of time, which is very much in the interests of children in my hon. Friend's constituency.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Although I greatly welcome the reduction in class sizes in infant schools, will the Minister deal with two problems that result from that? Contrary to the experience of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), in my area the rigidity of the admission appeals criteria means that many frustrated parents cannot get their children into schools with limited accommodation. Secondly, there are knock-on effects for class sizes in the upper end of primary, middle and secondary schools. When will there be a timetable for reducing class sizes for older children?
Ms Morris: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's question stands up. The recent statistics on junior schools show that this year, for the first time, there has been a reduction in the number of classes of more than 30 children in junior schools which cater for seven to 11-year-olds. Our class size pledge has not been at the expense of older primary school children--far from it. Class sizes in infant, junior and primary schools are down. That shows the importance of what has happened over the past three years.
The hon. Gentleman is right in that the pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools has increased from 17:1 to 17.1:1. What decision would he have made on allocating resources in the first three years of a Parliament? We made a pledge on class sizes in infant schools because that is where small classes matter.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made money available in the Budget. It will be paid directly to schools so that they can decide how to spend it. If every secondary school decided to use that money to employ teachers--they could do that if they wished--there would be 3,500 extra teachers. Rather than halting the increase in secondary school class sizes, such a decision would reverse it. We have fulfilled our pledge on infant and primary schools; the decision on secondary schools is in the hands of head teachers.