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House of Commons

Thursday 6 July 2000

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 13 July.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Further Education

1. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): If he will make a statement on the funding of further education. [127920]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I announced last November that there would be an additional £365 million for the further education sector next year. That is a real-terms increase of 7.7 per cent., the largest single increase that the further education sector has ever received. It will bring the total to £3.9 billion.

Mr. Ruffley: Is the Secretary of State aware of the grave concern of many FE colleges, including my own, the West Suffolk college in Bury St. Edmunds, which feel badly let down by the performance of the Further Education Funding Council this year? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many colleges have not yet even received clear indicative allocations of their basic funding? Is he aware that agreements relating to Learn Direct, adult growth programmes and the standards fund have not yet been completed in advance of the new financial year in August?

When will the Secretary of State get a grip? Will he undertake to make sure that the Learning and Skills Council that is to take over from the FEFC performs better and behaves in an efficient manner, so that FE colleges are not subjected to the delays and confusion which are marring further education at present?

Mr. Blunkett: I shall certainly make sure that the Learning and Skills Council acts effectively to pull together the further education and training and enterprise funding and to deliver it with high quality and effective management. We are pleased that Bryan Sanderson has

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agreed to be the chair of the new Learning and Skills Council and that Nick Reilly, the managing director of Vauxhall, has agreed to be the new chairman of the adult learning inspectorate. I am certain that, between them, they will ensure that the quality and improvements that we seek will be achieved. If there is a particular problem at Bury St. Edmunds, I shall be happy to look into it with my colleagues and to make sure that the college gets the information that it needs.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): May I inform my right hon. Friend that many of the FE colleges that I visit as Chairman of the Select Committee tell me that the Government have indeed got a grip on funding? There are still some complaints about efficiency savings and the need to find another 1 per cent. this year to pay for the pay rises, so it is not all sweetness and light in the FE sector, but there is a widespread feeling that we are moving in the right direction. I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), but is my right hon. Friend aware that serious concern has been expressed about the running of the FEFC? I, too, welcome the appointment of Bryan Sanderson and, perhaps, the start of a new page in the history of further education, which the Government have initiated.

Mr. Blunkett: We have had a proud record of avoiding some of the difficulties inherent in parts of the private sector with regard to training in further education, but as my hon. Friend knows, we have taken draconian steps to tackle inefficiency and the quality of provision in colleges. We are pleased that this year we have managed to get 45 colleges out of category C in relation to their financial management. That is an important achievement, but there is much still to do. That is why we have been rigorous in tackling failure wherever it occurs.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Although any increase in funding is welcome--provided that it is a real increase, not a smoke-and-mirrors type of increase--there is still concern in further education colleges because they cannot pay lecturers competitive rates, particularly in market- related sectors such as business and computing. It is extremely difficult for them to recruit and deliver in those areas. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why, despite his claims to have a grip on the situation, and his projections of a rapid increase of 700,000 in further education enrolments over two years, the actual turnout can best be described as flat-lining on a base, and is in fact genteelly declining under his stewardship?

Mr. Blunkett: It was the Conservatives who did away with demand-led expenditure, which led to a dramatic fall in the number of students recruited to further education. We have--we make no apology for this--combed out the inappropriate franchising, which led to what can only be described as a complete fiddle of the numbers in further education. The 1 per cent. drop in full-time equivalent students will be reversed as we put £240 million next year into improving and increasing access.

The measure of what we are doing is our commitment to the standards taskforce agenda, which is about a massive expansion in the sector, but also underlining it with quality. We have a challenge: to meet the skills needs of tomorrow. When I speak this afternoon at the skills

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festival in Birmingham, I shall underpin that by giving a clear commitment to the expansion and status of vocational education, including the introduction of a vocational GCSE.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): I welcome the extra funding for further education, which is widening opportunities and participation, but will my right hon. Friend consider a quid pro quo: removing the cap on student numbers at some of our best universities providing that they agree to increased participation by those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds?

Mr. Blunkett: We are involved with the Higher Education Funding Council in the direction of resources for next year, particularly the additional cash that will be available specifically for improving access. I welcome the steps that have been taken by Mansfield college in Oxford, and others, and we are keen specifically to target further education, tertiary and sixth form colleges, a neglected area in terms of university access, to ensure that their best students can be recruited to those universities.


2. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): What his policy is on selection in schools. [127921]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): It is a matter for local parents to decide whether or not local grammar schools continue to use selective admissions. The admissions code of practice gives schools guidance on other issues and it is for the schools adjudicator to resolve disputes where they arise, including on issues of partial selection.

Mr. Chope: That is not a very satisfactory answer from the Minister. Why is it the Government's policy to force popular schools to select pupils on the basis of whether their parents can afford to move into their catchment area? That is one of the most pernicious aspects of the Government's selection policy. Would it not be much fairer to allow school boards to decide for themselves their own admissions criteria?

Jacqui Smith: There we have an outrider for the Leader of the Opposition's speech this week, asking us to create a sort of free-for-all in admissions policies--presumably that would be what the Opposition wants--which would presumably also apply to primary schools, whose governing bodies would also have the right to select. Are we now to see the nightmare vision of primary moderns in our system--not just a return to the 11-plus, but a 4-plus for our children?

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): Is my hon. Friend aware that, following the interview by the shadow Education Secretary on Channel 4's "Powerhouse" yesterday, many schools in my constituency are extremely worried, particularly primary schools, that they will have to consider selection by academic ability, and that many

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of them will be left as part of a second-rate tier of schools? What on earth can we do to avoid that threat posed by the Conservative proposals?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend raises a matter of considerable concern among parents. It is important that we continue with the planned situation, which gives parents the chance, where possible, to choose, but also, through the admissions forum, provides much more certainty about what will happen. The key point about our proposals, by contrast with those of the Opposition, is that it is not possible to allow both parents and schools to choose. Our emphasis is that, wherever possible, parents need to be able to express a preference, not that schools should have the right to weed out children whom they do not want, thereby depriving parents of their choices.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the hon. Lady is in review mode, will she confirm one thing that she will not do and three things that she will? Will she promise to do nothing to make it easier to abolish a grammar school, promise to limit petitions to one every five years, promise to allow grammar school parents the right to vote in all ballots, and promise to adopt the Conservative policy of making every school a free school--free to select its pupils, free to choose its term times, free to manage its budget, free to arrange its transport, free to enforce its discipline and free to run its own affairs?

Jacqui Smith: I think that I lost count of the questions as we went through them. The key matter is that we made it clear that, where grammar schools exist, parents will decide the future of their selective admission arrangements. We have extensively debated concerns about balloting arrangements. We have no plans to review the threshold. We have no plans to take away the right of parents to decide on the future of selective admission arrangements, which is what the Opposition's proposals would do.

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