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Mr. Blunkett: I understood that as much as the hon. Lady's gobbledegook. I understand that Surrey county council let Kings Manor school down.

Miss Widdecombe: Lib-Lab.

Mr. Blunkett: Liberals? The last time I met the chair of education in Surrey, he was a Tory. Perhaps he has defected in the past 24 hours. Let us face it: people who cannot run their schools and who advocate that the mayor of Jersey should cut costs in schools by a third have a great deal to learn. The Conservative party places the emphasis on competition, not competence, and on helping some parents to avoid failure rather than avoiding failure for all parents and their children. That is the difference.

I want to deal with one or two of the more salient points raised by the hon. Member for Maidenhead. First, I should hate us to disagree on things about which we do not disagree, because there is plenty about which we can genuinely fall out. I assure her that our special educational needs proposals do not involve setting targets for reducing statementing or any of the suggestions that she made. I do not want Members to get into a party political football match about issues on which we should be uniting to provide new rights and opportunities to raise standards for those with special needs and their parents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) made that point eloquently and also spelled out very clearly indeed our policy and the commitment that we are making to the inner city through excellence in cities and backing teachers and head teachers who are doing a good job. I congratulate those whom he mentioned tonight on the work that they are doing and the improvements that they are achieving in his constituency and in many others across the country. They are achieving those improvements with our backing, because we are putting in place the resources and the support necessary to make it possible for them to raise standards.

Mr. Robertson rose--

Mr. Rowe rose--

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson).

Mr. Robertson: On special educational needs, will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the special schools? Will he confirm that he believes that a number of children simply cannot be integrated into mainstream schools because of the difficulties that they have?

Mr. Blunkett: I have made it clear on a number of occasions that there will and must be diversity of provision available for those with special educational needs. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, a Conservative Member says, "Stop knocking special schools." If any Conservative Member can find a single occasion on which I have knocked special schools, I shall take lectures from him. I happen to know something about

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them because I went to one and two of my three sons have dyslexia--I know a damn sight more about them than Conservative Members ever will.

I am in favour of providing specialist education, day or residential, for those children who particularly need it. I want integration where parents and children wish it and can benefit from it. It is as simple as that. Those ideas are not dogmatic; they are in the interests of the individual child. That is the way in which we should proceed for all our children, and we should not promote the idea of selling off or giving away schools. It is the cheek of the day for the Conservatives to call schools "free". They want funding by the state, but without any cohesion in terms of admissions, any integration in terms of places, any connection in terms of co-operation, or any belief that schools can spread excellence, one to another. Instead, they believe only in competition and knockout education politics.

We believe in something entirely different. As we have set out today, we believe that beacon schools can spread excellence, one to another, and that the achievement of excellence in cities will, as it spreads across the country, ensure that learning mentors can work with individual children and their families. We believe in using learning support units because we want to ensure that children are not dumped on the street when they are in difficulties, but are reconnected with education so that they can reconnect with life.

A child who is dumped on the street is a potential criminal. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary can confirm that 65 per cent. of those on remand have a reading age of eight or below. That is why we should wholeheartedly condemn the Conservatives' idea of abandoning targets on exclusion and truancy. They want to go back to the bad old days in which out of sight, out of mind children were on the streets, creating havoc in the neighbourhoods.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way on that particular point, which he raised earlier in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The right hon. Lady did not answer.

Mrs. May: My right hon. Friend did answer, because she made the point that the Secretary of State was distorting our proposals.

The targets to reduce exclusions could lead to heads being forced to keep disruptive pupils in class. That is in the interests of neither those children nor the others in the class who want to learn. We propose that heads exclude where necessary, but that children who are excluded are provided with an appropriate education out of school, away from the peer group pressures that are causing their problems.

Mr. Blunkett: When the hon. Lady's party was in power, exclusions and truancy increased year on year. The education that such children received averaged two hours a week. The previous Government were not interested in tackling the problem head-on; unlike us, they did not invest in a learning support unit for every two secondary schools in an inner city and also learning support for full-time education for children across the country.

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Of course we want disruptive children out of the classroom to prevent them from disrupting the education of others. Teachers must be able to teach, but we must ensure that those children do not become the criminals of the future, at great cost to the community. We do not want another generation of imprisoned and disfranchised men and women, in trouble with the law in the inner cities, whose children have no expectations or aspirations.

We are endeavouring to break the cycle of generational unemployment, underachievement and educational failure. That is the reason for our policies, such as sure start, for early years. We have invested in doubling the number of nursery places and our policy to reduce class sizes has been successful. Some 304,000 children have been taught in classes of fewer than 30, thanks to our class size policy. The proportion of children in large classes has fallen for the first time in 10 years. The teacher-pupil ratio, including at junior school level, has fallen for the first time in 10 years.

Mrs. May: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Mr. Blunkett: I am not wrong. These are actual statistics for infant and junior classes. The teacher-pupil ratio in early years and nursery education has fallen for the first time in a decade. We are making a difference at every stage of children's lives.

Mrs. May: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of children in class sizes of 36 or more has doubled under this Government?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I will not confirm any of the hon. Lady's statistics. I will confirm that the teacher-pupil ratio has fallen from 23.7 to 23.5 in primary schools and that we have reduced infant class sizes of more than 30 from 485,000 to 181,000 in the past 18 months. We are making a difference--we are fulfilling our pledges right across the board. We are ensuring that children who were abandoned by the previous Government are given a chance through the literacy and numeracy programmes, which are working. The achievement of a 5 per cent. increase in literacy and a 10 per cent. increase in numeracy speaks volumes.

What does the Conservative party propose in its new document? It even wants to abandon the national curriculum which it introduced when it was in power. Conservative Members call their proposal freeing up schools to do what they like, when they like. Does that mean no literacy or numeracy hours? Does it mean abandoning the teaching of history, geography, sport, music or art? It is like a kind of self-perpetuating anarchy--a community in which school is set against school and parent against parent.

Yes, we are in favour of parents having a direct say. That is why we have increased the number of parents on governing bodies. It is why at the Charter school in Dulwich we got together with parents to create a wholly new school. Working with its neighbouring schools, it will be part of the area's admissions policy and will complement, not compete with, the local education system.

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We want parents to be involved, we want new types of schools and we want diversity. On Thursday, we shall announce new sports and arts colleges. We are providing real opportunity with collaboration between teachers and local authorities, between Government and parents, and between schools so that they make a difference rather than knock each other out. We intend to do the same for post-16 education.

Today, we announced the largest ever investment in further education in one year. We have been pleased to announce--I am proud to repeat it tonight--a 10 per cent. cash increase for further education in 2001. It will enable sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges to take on the challenge and give people a first and a second chance. They can give adults, as well as young people, the chance of a high-quality education wherever they are, and skill the nation for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) challenged me to repeat what we said when we first came to office; I shall do so now. We want a knowledge-based economy in which we rely on all our human capital, not just on a small elite educated to a higher level, abandoning the rest to their fate. We want an economy that is deeply committed and necessarily dependent on a population that is able to use all its talent to the full. We want to skill people through further and higher education so that we can take on the global economy and compete and lift our productivity in the 21st century. We should be able to take on the best that the world has to offer, whether through information and communication technology or through basic skills.

That is why the learning and skills councils, nationally and sub-regionally, will be able to deliver. Of course they will have the power to determine what happens in their own localities. They will have independent budgets, which will allow them to choose. We will have ripped out the Soviet-style wholesale warehousing system that ensured that money intended for the training and skilling of our people was hived off into administration and bureaucracy. Instead of sitting on our hands and waiting for the rest of the world to pass us, we are investing in the education of our people at every level, from the earliest years through to lifelong learning.

In response to the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), yes, we will take on the challenge of quality in higher education--but it must be real quality that is respected across the world if we are to compete with the rest of the world. People in Singapore do not look for second rate and second class, but for first class that they can buy anywhere in the world, from North America to Europe.

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