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Literacy and Numeracy

6. Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): What steps the Government have taken to improve standards of literacy and numeracy in schools. [127925]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): The national literacy and numeracy strategies, supported this year by funding of £200 million, have transformed the quality of teaching, and raised standards in primary schools. In the 1999 key stage 2 tests, the number of 11-year-olds achieving the expected level for their age increased by six percentage points for English, and by 10 percentage points for mathematics.

Mr. Watts: The Government's initiative in St. Helens is improving the level of attainment of most children, and is very welcome. What does my hon. Friend think would happen if we implemented the Tories' proposals, and sacked all those involved in that important initiative?

Jacqui Smith: I, too, congratulate both the teachers and the support staff who have been involved in the raising of standards in St. Helens.

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. Much of the success of the national literacy and numeracy strategies has been due to local support from experts in training, and teachers who have been able to promote the better teaching of reading, writing and mathematics. They have been funded through the standards fund, which was described by the Leader of the Opposition as "a gimmicky grant." I do not think that those children or the parents who are benefiting from the higher standards in our schools think that it is gimmicky to support local

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education authorities and schools to teach our children to read, to write and to add up better than they did under the previous Government.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the head, the staff, the pupils and the parents at Western Coyney infants school in my constituency, which has just been awarded beacon status? They have an excellent record on literacy and numeracy. Is not that award even more commendable owing to the fact that the school does not select its pupils and is in the middle of one of the most socially and economically deprived areas in my constituency? Does it not show the success and determination of the Government in raising standards?

Jacqui Smith: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating the teachers, the children and the governors at that school, because it is clear that the standards that we are seeing in literacy and numeracy have been achieved because of the commitment and enthusiasm of teachers and of those who support them in LEAs, and by the Government's commitment to ensuring that we raise standards. The work has been done at school level and many congratulations are due to those who have done it.

Computers for Teachers

7. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received about computers for teachers. [127926]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Michael Wills): We have received a significant number of representations about late payment of claims and many thank-yous for the scheme, the first ever to give teachers real help to buy a computer for their own use. However, all delays are a matter of regret. As soon as I became aware that delays were taking place, we took urgent action to remove them. More than 90 per cent. of eligible claims have now been paid. The remainder will be paid in the next few days, subject only to their eligibility.

Mr. Amess: Will the Minister now admit that the computers for schools scheme has been incompetently managed? Will he explain to my constituent, Mrs. Day, who is one of the 10 per cent. of teachers who took up the scheme, how £15 can adequately compensate her for her wait, which was five months, and for the money that she had to borrow to pay her child's university tuition fees? How much has the scheme cost? How many £15 compensation payments will he make? Will he reassure the House that the new assessment scheme, which has been taken up by 80 per cent. of teachers, will not be incompetently managed?

Mr. Wills: I can assure the hon. Gentleman on all those points. May I go through them one by one? If he had read his correspondence, he would have the answers to most of his questions already. As he well knows, as soon as the matter was brought to my personal attention, I acted on behalf of his constituents. If he goes back to the correspondence and reads it, he will receive the answers to a lot of his questions.

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I repeat our regret that there have been delays, but we have got a grip on the problem--there are no further delays. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about the number of payments, we are not yet in a position to tell him that. [Interruption.] The reason why we are not yet in a position to answer that question is simply that the priority, as I am sure he will agree, is to get the small minority of remaining claims paid.

I ask Conservative Members to bear one thing in mind: it is the first ever such scheme. If I were a teacher, I would far rather wait a few weeks to get £500 from a Labour Government than 18 years to get absolutely nothing from a Tory Government.

New Deal (Over-50s)

8. Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of new deal pilot schemes for people aged over 50 years. [127927]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): New deal 50-plus was widely welcomed in the nine pilot areas. A total of 1,050 people were helped into work through the package of support that it offered. More detailed evaluation findings will be published from later this month. As my hon. Friend knows, the Prime Minister launched the programme nationally in April.

Ms Blears: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that, in the Manchester and Salford city pride new deal area, we have got more than 200 people into work in the past six months? They include Mary, who had not worked for 13 years, who got a job as a sales assistant at Boots the Chemists, and whose life has changed dramatically--she has made new friends and is earning a decent income for the first time in years; and George, who is now a manager on £30,000 a year in Manchester through the new deal programme. Those opportunities would be destroyed by the Conservative party.

We must be aware, however, that many people over 50 need extra help to get into work. Will the Government ensure that the extra support for young people to prepare them for work will also be available to people over 50 who want the chance of a fresh start and hope for the future with the Labour Government?

Ms Hodge: The answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question is a simple yes, we are aware of the additional requirements. The answer to the first part of the question is that I congratulate those of her constituents who have successfully found work. Since the scheme went national, every week so far, 600 people over 50 on voluntary schemes have been helped into work by the new deal 50-plus.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Given that there are just short of 3 million people over 50 but under retirement age who are not working, half of whom have not worked for five years, why have the Government

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skewed their policy frivolously to waste resources on the new deal to so little effect, while that cohort have been denied the resources that they require?

Ms Hodge: It is an outrage for a Conservative Member to dare to stand in the Chamber and talk about the number of over-50s out of work. In the 20 years before we came into government, the number of over-50s in work decreased from 84 per cent, in about 1979, to 66 per cent. when we came into office. That was the legacy that we inherited. The sums that we are spending on adults in the new deal overall are similar to those that we are spending on young people. We do not want to consign anyone to the dustbin of unemployment.

Small Schools

9. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): If he will make a statement on the small schools support fund. [127928]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): We are spending £40 million on the small schools support fund from September 2000 to 31 March 2001. We want to encourage schools to pilot new ways of working with others. I hope that the pilots will benefit schools in two ways: first, to help them to identify more efficient and cost-effective ways of working, through sharing and collaborating with others; and secondly, to raise their standards even further.

Mr. Clapham: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that between 1993 and 1997, during the Tory Administration, 450 schools closed. In my constituency, that affected the four villages of Hood Green, Hazel Head, Crane Moor and Crow Edge. Can she say how the new support system for small schools will halt the Tory trend of closing rural schools, and what types of benefits that support will bring back to the rural community?

Ms Hodge: This Government have reduced the closure rate for rural schools from 30 to four each year. We have done that by investing in and deliberately supporting rural schools in their efforts to stay open. In my hon. Friend's local education authority, if not in his constituency, 37 nursery, primary, special and secondary schools and referral units will be supported by the small schools budget. It is up to them to find the most appropriate way of maintaining themselves, whether that is through information technology, additional staff development or the sharing of facilities.

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