The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): The new deal for lone parents is the joint responsibility of our Department and the Department of Social Security and is operated through the Employment Service. New deal personal advisers offer a comprehensive package of advice and support to lone parents on income support and have helped 78,000 lone parents into work since the start of the programme in 1997.
Mr. Healey: I thank my hon. Friend. Is she aware that in the Rotherham and Barnsley district, 289 lone parents have moved into work in the past nine months, which is 55 per cent. of those participating in the programme, compared with the national average of 35 per cent? Will she pay tribute to the quality of our personal advisers, the rapport that they strike with their clients and their knowledge of the local labour market? Does she recognise that one other factor in our success rate is that the background of the personal adviser team covers the Child Support Agency, the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service? Will she reassure me that that will continue when the personal adviser meetings become mandatory for income support claimants after 30 April?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): We have created the first ever legal entitlement for 16 to 18-year olds to free education and training for young people, which we are supporting with a range of measures, including the new Connexions service for 13 to 19-year-olds, financial support through education maintenance allowances and reform of qualifications and programmes to secure high standards in academic and vocational options for all 14 to 19-year-olds.
Helen Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Has he had an opportunity to look at the recent Education and Employment Committee report on access to higher education, particularly the recommendation that zones similar to education action zones should be set up for higher education to improve aspirations and to widen access for youngsters who have no tradition of staying in education? Does he agree that that would benefit areas such as the centre of my constituency and many others like it; ensure that all suitably qualified youngsters have a chance of higher education, wherever they come from; and end this country's current gross waste of talent?
Mr. Wicks: We welcome the Select Committee report and will study its conclusions with great care. We already have the excellence challenge because of our concern that all children with good academic qualifications should have an opportunity of going to all universities, including the best in this country. We have also introduced opportunity bursaries for young people from communities with no background of going to university. We are concerned to bring into practice opportunity for all, including those from the poorest backgrounds.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Does the Minister agree that one of the greatest threats to the expansion of further education provision for 16 to 24-year olds is the disparity in pay and conditions between lecturers and teachers? Does he agree that that is felt particularly in sixth form colleges? What do the Government intend to do to address that acute problem?
Mr. Wicks: We are aware of the disparity between schools and sixth form and further education colleges and we want to address that issue in the long term. There has to be levelling up. Discussions are taking place with both sides--trade unions and employers--about pay in sixth
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Will my hon. Friend and the education team look closely at the Select Committee report published only this morning, particularly the clutch of proposals aimed at getting young people from poorer backgrounds into higher education? Will he look particularly at the premium paid to universities, which we recommend should increase from 5 per cent. to 20 per cent. so that it can reach back to the 16-year old who drops out of education or to 11 and 12-year-olds so that there is a culture of education around them and an ambition to go on to higher education?
Mr. Wicks: As I said, we welcome the Select Committee report. When I chaired the Committee, I was in on the report's birth, so I certainly welcome it. We are spending £150 million on the excellence challenge and opportunity bursaries. The 5 per cent. extra for those from poorer backgrounds is something for something--not a profit to the university, but money that is required to support those students. We shall certainly consider all proposals with great care.
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): In the decade to 1997, the number of students going to university from the poorest homes doubled; since Labour took office, the number has stood still. Do the Government recognise that replacing the student grant with a loan that has to be repaid from earnings of £10,000 annually acts as a deterrent to families who have never earned more than £10,000 annually? Will the Government join Conservative Members by agreeing to raise the threshold for student loan repayment to £20,000 annually? We believe that those students have the potential to earn £20,000 annually, and much more as well.
The number of young people from poor backgrounds attending university is increasing. The policies that we are putting in place will enable more young people from poor backgrounds to go to university, including our best universities. Our system of fees and loans is fair to students, fair to families and fair to the taxpayer. Very soon, 50 per cent. of those going to university will pay no tuition fees at all.
Mr. Wicks: Education maintenance allowances are still a pilot exercise--albeit on a large scale as they now cover one third of the country. The early results are showing improvement in participation and a better approach by students once they are in college. The feedback from the young people and teachers whom I meet is excellent. Obviously we shall have regard to the pilot findings when addressing the issue of a national roll-out.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Does the Minister recognise and appreciate the relationship between staying-on rates and the quality of life that children experience in the statutory period of their schooling? If that experience is nasty and brutish, is it not also likely to be short as they strive to get out of education at the earliest possible opportunity? If indiscipline and disruption is their experience--[Laughter.] Labour Members laugh, but Opposition Members are angry because people's lives are being blighted by disruption and indiscipline in schools. If, as Ofsted revealed, that is a growing problem, and if that problem is linked to the failure to recruit teachers--which in itself stops people staying on at school--is it not time that Ministers replaced their indifference with a commitment and determination to stop our children's lives being blighted and our teachers' careers ruined?
Mr. Wicks: We shall obviously very carefully consider the recommendations and points in the Ofsted report; I think that that is what the hon. Gentleman was referring to. We have 1,000 pupil support units in our schools to help us tackle that problem. We have also made some very clear statements about the need to eradicate bullying in our schools. We will do anything to support school governors, head teachers and teachers in tackling the problem. We are very concerned to tackle the problem. We are not complacent about it, and we are moving in the right direction. Every one of our young people should be able to be taught, and our teachers should be able to teach, in an environment that is conducive to learning.