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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Our concern is clear: all those who have ability should have access to universities, including the top ones. We are tackling that in a number of ways. Through the Higher
Helen Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that as almost 66 per cent. of students who achieve three grade As at A-level come from schools in the state sector, it is time that some of our leading universities looked seriously at the way in which they set out to attract those youngsters, and at their admissions procedures, to ensure that they are fair and really based on merit, rather than on the schools that people went to. Does he agree that it is scandalous for the Opposition to defend the privileges of the few rather than ensuring that all our youngsters have a proper chance to develop their full potential?
Mr. Wicks: We should certainly acknowledge the fact that many comprehensive schools now enable very bright youngsters to get first-class A-level results, and we should pay tribute to the comprehensive system. We are now working with universities, including Oxford university, through summer schools and the rest, to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to university. As for the Opposition, by their interests they shall be judged. Today they have spoken about selection, grammar schools and elitism. Our interests are rather different. We are concerned with all children, all schools and fair access to universities.
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): It was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who spoke about elitism in universities. That was his obsession and no one else's. What has the Minister to say about the evidence that the vice-chancellor of Oxford university gave the Select Committee on Education and Employment yesterday, when he said that the Chancellor's attack was ill informed and might have damaged Oxford's efforts to attract the greatest possible number of the brightest and best, wherever they come from?
Mr. Wicks: Oxford university's own working paper on the subject many months ago recognised the problem that, for different reasons, many able boys and girls from state schools, who have good A-levels, are not getting into our top universities. Now, instead of just having a row about it, we must move on to remedy the situation, and that is what we are doing. I predict that in future more able boys and girls from state schools will go to our top universities. That will be the test, and I am confident that we will succeed.
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor's introduction of education maintenance allowances for 16 to 18-year-olds will probably be the best legacy of this Government's first term, as it will enable more young people from lower socio-economic groups to get into university? Will the Department encourage the Treasury to extend that scheme universally?
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Is the Minister aware of evidence given to the Select Committee by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service, the Higher Education Funding Council, the Sutton trust, the Independent Schools Association and universities, suggesting that a barrier that prevents people from less well represented areas and poorer backgrounds from applying to universities is fear of debt? Can he explain to the House how the removal of maintenance grants from the poorest students helps them to access higher education? Is not the student support scheme that he introduced making students from poorer backgrounds still poorer, and will that not be the legacy of this Government that people remember?
Mr. Wicks: I think that the answer to that long question is no. We are introducing opportunity bursaries so that students from poor backgrounds have an opportunity to go to university; 40 per cent. of university students do not pay tuition fees, and the number will increase. The student finance system is fair. We are increasing the number of our young people who go to university, while maintaining quality. Under the previous Administration, unit funding per student declined. We will not tolerate that. We are maintaining quality as well as quantity. There was a time when the Liberal party attacked elitism rather than defending it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): Plessington Catholic high school will become a beacon school in September 2000. It has submitted an expression of interest under the Government's ICT learning centres initiative. The Government office for the north west will work with the school and give it a preliminary assessment by the end of July, so that it can work up a full application by 6 October 2000.
Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. Friend agree that schools such as Plessington have high standards in information technology and communication skills, which can help materially in raising standards? Will she join me in congratulating Plessington on the work it is doing in the context of the community learning sector, in partnership with business, to make those skills and technologies available to people who would not previously have had access to them?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): The average size of classes in secondary schools is 22.0--[Hon. Members: "That is 22."]--about five lower than in primary schools. If head teachers spent the extra funding that they received in the Budget on teachers, the pupil-teacher ratio could be reduced by 0.4. In addition, since January 1998 we have already reduced by 300,000 the number of children in infant classes of more than 30 pupils.
Mr. Gray: Will the Minister join me in congratulating the excellent Wootton Bassett comprehensive school in my constituency, which came top of the A-level league tables last year, and is just about to start a new PFI scheme for a new school, brought in by the Conservative- controlled Wiltshire county council? Will she also admit to an error in her answer? The average class size today is 22.02, not 22.0, as she said. The figure of 22.0 applied last year. Will she agree that that compares disgracefully with the 21.66 average class size when the Government came to power? They committed themselves to reducing the average class size, but it has gone up, which is making it more difficult for ordinary comprehensive schools across England to compete with Wootton Bassett.
Jacqui Smith: I am always willing to congratulate schools on achieving high standards, and I am willing to do so today--but the hon. Gentleman is wrong. Average class sizes have fallen and primary class sizes have fallen, but there has been a 0.1 per cent. increase in secondary class sizes in the past year. That is a trend that has been going on since 1988. As I have already pointed out, we are delivering on our pledge, which was to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds--a pledge that means 12,000 additional places in popular schools and £5.8 million for Wiltshire to support that initiative. We said that we would do that, and we are delivering.
Of course, the situation in secondary schools is slightly different. Head teachers should be allowed to use the extra money that we are putting into secondary schools and decide how they organise their classes. I am sure that if he visits secondary and primary schools, the hon. Gentleman understands that. We pledged to reduce primary class sizes and we are doing that--and we are reducing class sizes overall as well.
Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. In the past year, average class sizes have fallen for key stages 1 and 2, in primary schools, and overall. We have to judge the matter in the light of the Leader of the Opposition's pledge to do away with other "gimmicky" money--the money that we are putting in to reduce class sizes for children aged five, six and seven. We said at the election that we would do that, and we are delivering on that pledge. The Tories would take that money away if they ever got into power.