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Access Funds

3. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): If he will make a statement on access funds in further education. [127922]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Access funds provide help with transport, course and living costs. They are available to students of 16 and over in schools and colleges. Access funds have been increased from £9 million in 1997-98 to £63 million this year.

Mr. Goggins: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. At City college, Manchester, where I am a member of the governing body, access funds increased from £96,000 two years ago to more than £700,000 in the current year. I warmly welcome the Government's strong commitment to extending student support and widening participation; but what action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that further education colleges are held firmly to account for the way in which they distribute the new funds?

Mr. Wicks: That is an important point. As the fund increases, we need to be rigorous about its allocation.

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The National Audit Office has considered arrangements centrally and has found them to be acceptable. Our departmental auditors are working with the Further Education Funding Council to ensure that arrangements for managing and allocating funds at college level--considerable funds, now--are robust. As with any social security system, if I may put it that way, we must ensure that those in need get these funds and not those who know how to work the system.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the Minister share my concern at the cut in Government spending on further and higher education by removing student grants? Will he apologise to those students who are now not able to go into further and higher education? Will he apologise also for failing to meet the Government's pledge of increasing expenditure on education as a proportion of GDP?

Mr. Wicks: I would share the hon. Lady's concern if for one moment what she suggests were true. We are proud that we have introduced record funding for further education and extra funding for university education. It is important in both sectors that we enable more of our young people, and older citizens, too, to benefit from further and higher education, and that we do not sacrifice quality when we go for quantity. That is what we are doing, and that is our policy.

Foundation Degrees

4. Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): If he will make a statement on foundation degrees. [127923]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Foundation degrees will offer a new vocationally focused route into higher education and employment. They will equip students with the specialist technical knowledge and employability skills needed in our new economy and contribute to wider participation by attracting many people who do not enter higher education.

Mr. Darvill: I am grateful for that reply. Does my hon. Friend agree that foundation degrees provide an excellent opportunity to link higher education and employers more effectively so that we can meet the new high levels of skills needs? Does he agree also that it is typical of the Opposition's contempt for vocational learning that they oppose foundation degrees?

Mr. Wicks: One of the great challenges for the Government is achieving a better interface and overlap between the academic and the vocational. The foundation degree is part of that strategy. The skills taskforce has told us that we are short of people at associate professional and technician level. The foundation degree will be an attractive route for many people, some of whom will have completed modern apprenticeships to get into university.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): We strongly support the foundation degree principle and its vocational basis. There is a niche in the market for such a degree. However, there is an inconsistency in the Government's thinking, in that the funding will be provided by the Higher Education Funding Council rather

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than the Learning and Skills Council. Is it not a slight on our further education colleges that they cannot bid directly to run foundation degrees, which would form part of their core market? The ability to bid directly would be preferable to depending on crumbs from the rich man's table to deliver the programmes. When the Minister and the Secretary of State attend the festival in Birmingham today, will they review the position and try to ensure that there is a seamless progression between further education and higher education, to avoid creating needless barriers?

Mr. Wicks: As the hon. Gentleman knows, many further education institutions provide higher education through partnerships with universities. We expect them to play a role in future. The hon. Gentleman also knows that we are keen to establish close links between the university sector nationally and the new Learning and Skills Council. We shall do that. Even more importantly, we need to build on relationships between universities and the wider community. That means close links with local learning and skills councils.

Specialist Schools

5. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): What plans the Government have to extend the specialist schools programme. [127924]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): With the additional 55 specialist schools that were announced on 20 June, there will be a total of 534 such schools by September. That compares with the 181 specialist schools that we inherited in 1997. We have, of course, altered the funding to ensure collaboration with the cluster of schools in the area, and developed the programme so that it reaches out into the local community.

Mrs. Williams: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In view of proposals that the Conservative party recently announced, will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he believes that it is sensible or indeed possible to expand specialist schools without granting them targeted extra resources?

Mr. Blunkett: Specialist schools have specific additional resources to share with neighbouring schools and to develop the core specialism on which their designation is based. If Conservative party proposals were adopted--bearing in mind that half the resources they mentioned involved double counting--and we did away with the standards fund and specific resources, we would not be able to fund and match-fund the specialist school programme. As with much else that was announced on Tuesday, Conservative policy would unravel a programme that has been highly successful in raising the standard and quality of education in schools, and in contributing to the education programme in their communities.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Secretary of State talks about opportunity for all; what has he to say to people who do not live in an area that has a specialist school?

Mr. Blunkett: I say that, with collaboration, including the use of information and communication technology,

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we are now able--and when we reach our target of 800 specialist schools in the next three years, will be even better able--to ensure that those schools reach out and provide the additional specialism in the locality where it is needed. For example, we are developing the sports college programme. Sports co-ordinators, who will work with primary and secondary schools in an area, will be attached to it to provide not only a targeted specialism, but the ability to draw in the wider community of schools and the neighbourhood, thus enabling them to develop and enjoy expertise.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable success of Clough Hall technology school, which he visited some years ago, in my constituency? It has been successful not only in exam results but in other ways. I welcome the different approach to specialist schools that the Government have adopted. It means that each school has to share its resources with the community and with other schools. That contrasts with the previous Government's approach, which meant that every specialist school could take all the resources for itself, without sharing them with the community. The new approach has meant that Clough Hall shares resources with Maryhill high school, with the community, and with after-school clubs.

Will my right hon. Friend consider joint approaches by individual schools in regard to the according of specialist status? This sharing approach--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady is supposed to be asking a question, not making a speech.

Mr. Blunkett: We are happy to consider joint approaches. In fact, we have already done so, and were pleased to announce not only the joining of schools that have faced particular challenges, but the joining of schools with different emphases. There is, for instance, an interesting joint proposal for specialist status from a grammar school and a secondary modern, which will unite their endeavours to raise standards rather than divide both schools and pupils.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Yet again, the Government are changing their line on free schools. We have had spin line number five, six or seven from the Secretary of State today. The only double counting on education funding comes from this Government, who claimed that there was an extra £19 billion for schools when there was less than £6 billion.

Does the Secretary of State accept that last year the average percentage of pupils gaining five or more GCSE grades between A and C in specialist schools improved by two thirds as much again as in other schools? Does he also accept that, of the top 100 schools in terms of GCSE results, nearly half were former grant-maintained schools and about a quarter more were church schools?

Mr. Blunkett: Of course I accept the statistics about specialist schools. With the London school of economics and Leeds university, we sponsored the research that the hon. Lady has used. We are pleased about what has happened, because we have emphasised the need to build the confidence of teachers, and that of schools generally,

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in their ability to concentrate on and subsequently develop from a specialism. That is why we are dramatically increasing the number of specialist schools.

Let me say how pleased I am that the hon. Lady has made it here this morning. Given the bruising that she got on Tuesday's "Newsnight", and the complaint submitted by her party to the BBC that she cannot really take it, I feared that she would not turn up.

Mrs. May: The real problem is that this Government cannot take the truth of what they are doing in education. Specialisation--a separate ethos, and freedom for schools--has been shown to raise standards to the benefit of children. Today, we see the head of a rural primary school taking a £10,000 pay cut to become a lorry driver, because he is fed up with the mountain of bureaucracy. Should not the lorry be taking away the paperwork, not the head teacher? Is it not time that the Government got off the back of schools, trusted teachers and parents, and set schools free to raise standards?

Mr. Blunkett: Under the proposals announced by the Leader of the Opposition on Tuesday, all head teachers would have to become drivers, because under those proposals the transport provided by their authorities would be withdrawn.

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