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House of Commons

Thursday 15 March 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Thursday 22 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Higher Education

1. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): If he will make a statement on the level of unit funding in higher education. [152549]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Good morning, Mr. Speaker. The Government are planning to spend £1.7 billion more on higher education in England over the six years to 2003-04. For the first time in more than a decade, there will be a real terms increase in the unit of funding per full-time student of 0.7 per cent. in 2001-02, with fully funded increases in student numbers over the following two years.

Miss McIntosh: I welcome that answer, but will the Minister give us the true figures of unit funding? They reveal that unit funding has decreased for students because their numbers continue to rise. In the 1997-98 financial year, the unit cost was £4,850; it has now gone down to £4,770, with no prospect of it rising. What message does that give those who wish to enter higher and further education?

Mr. Wicks: I do not agree with the hon. Lady's analysis. Unit funding will increase over the next three years, as I said, and by 0.7 per cent. in 2001-02. I understand the Opposition's embarrassment because when we contrast our record with that of the Tory years, we see that funding per student in higher education fell by more than £2,500, or 36 per cent., between 1989 and 1997. The Conservatives undermined the universities; we are investing in them.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): My hon. Friend no doubt receives a lot of external advice on the funding of

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higher education. Has he yet had an opportunity to assess how much it would cost to endow the universities with a sum sufficient to generate their current level of income? Does he agree that if that were to happen, top-up fees for students would be inevitable?

Mr. Wicks: I have not made the estimate, but Universities UK has. It has independently estimated the cost of the Tory endowment plans at £101 billion. We are not certain where that money is to come from--I do not know whether it is in the Tory spending plans--but, clearly, logic suggests that it would be through the introduction of top-up fees. While we have a fair student finance system, they have to become the top-up Tories.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Is not the real position that the Government are unable to defend their record over the past four years on the level of funding per student? In a Parliament, now is the time when one refers to the Government's record. The Government, rightly, say that in primary education student funding has increased, and is not that a good thing? The truth is that under this Government, despite their discredited tuition fee policy--charging students and making poor students poorer by abolishing the grant--the unit of funding has gone down.

Mr. Wicks: I never know where the Liberal Democrats are coming from. The hon. Gentleman voted against the continuation of maintenance grants during the Report stage of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not want to listen because they do not like the truth. The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), said in March 1998:

The hon. Gentlemen are now saying something different. Being a Liberal Democrat means never having to be consistent, except consistently in opposition.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinarily rich for the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) to attack the Government on unit funding when the previous Government cut it savagely year on year? Neither of them had the grace to refer to the range of additional measures that this Government have introduced--opportunities of bursaries, access funding and so on--that add significantly to the welcome increase in unit funding that the Government have announced.

Mr. Wicks: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Having secured the funding of our universities and having introduced a fair and efficient student finance system, the future challenge is to increase the numbers of our young people able to go to university, for which the Prime Minister has set a target of 50 per cent., and to ensure that those from backgrounds and communities with no previous experience of higher education have that opportunity. That is why my right hon. Friend has introduced the excellence challenge, with more than £190 million over the next three years and different ways,

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including summer schools, of enabling those children to have that opportunity of going to university. We are about quantity, while ensuring quality; but within that, our goal of equality is also crucial.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): May I invite the Minister to acknowledge that the inflation increase is really in his estimate of the cost of the Conservative proposals? It has risen from the estimate of £80 billion given by his noble Friend Baroness Blackstone at a meeting in the Palace earlier this week, to more than £100 billion. That suggests that his study of the Taylor report and our proposals has been less than comprehensive.

In the light of that, let us turn back to the Government's stance. Will the Minister acknowledge that, after countless questions and letters, and even a full Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and me, he has still not given us the detailed figures that underpin his assertion that unit funding will increase over the next three years? Given that independent figures prepared by the Library show that, at best, the amount will be functionally static--therefore, a £10 per capita increase could not be reconciled with the Minister's assertion that the increase will be 0.7 per cent. per annum--will he come clean and give us the actual figure on unit funding that will benefit students?

Mr. Wicks: I believe that the hon. Gentleman has received the figures in correspondence from me, but let me give the unit cost in real terms: in 2001-02, it is £4,800; in 2002-03, it will be a little more, but more or less £4,800; and it goes up to £4,817 in 2003-04. It is a real terms increase over those three years--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) makes a zoo-like noise, presumably to hide his embarrassment about quarrelling with us over the detail of our--[Interruption.] I do not know what the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is saying, but then I never do--[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) quarrels with us about the details of our increase; he has nothing to say about the fact that, during the Tory years--[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] Tory Members are saying "Ooh" because they are so embarrassed that, during the Tory years, the percentage declined by one third. They have nothing to say about that.

Hon. Members: Ooh!

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind Ministers that they should not worry about the Tory years. Question Time is about Departments--that is what Ministers should worry about.

Literacy and Numeracy

2. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): What evidence his Department has collated on the effectiveness of his literacy and numeracy strategies. [152550]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): Before I answer the question, I should like to welcome the permanent secretary, Michael Bichard, to the Gallery and thank him for the enormous work that he has done at the Department for Education and Employment. Before--[Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that he should not make reference to anyone in the Gallery.

Mr. Blunkett: I am suitably reprimanded, Mr. Speaker.

The national literacy and numeracy strategies have transformed the quality of teaching and have raised standards in primary schools throughout the country. The principal pieces of research into their effectiveness are the Office for Standards in Education reports on the first year of the numeracy strategy and the second year of the literacy strategy, published last November, and a report by the Ontario institute for studies in education, published last July.

Mr. Dismore: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating schools in Hendon? Between 1997 and 2000, they achieved an overall improvement of 10 percentage points in English and 12 percentage points in maths. In one year, 1999-2002, Parkfield primary school achieved improvements in English of 26 percentage points and in maths of 24 percentage points, and is one of the 19 schools in Hendon to win a school achievement award today.

Mr. Blunkett: My congratulations go to Parkfield and to all the schools that have been driving forward, using the professionalism of teachers, for which we are grateful, in adapting and developing the literacy and numeracy programmes to make them so effective right across the country. My congratulations go to the 19 schools in Barnet that have received improvement or excellence awards and to the 6,800 schools throughout the country that have also received such awards.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): There was a time when the Secretary of State and the Government linked such strategies to the importance of class sizes. The link was watered down in the Green Paper, which states:

Leaving aside the fact that secondary school class sizes have risen and that average classes at key stage 2 have become bigger under Labour, how does the Secretary of State reconcile the fact that the number of children of nursery-school age taught in classes of more than 30 is greater under this Government than under the Conservatives? If age is so important, why are our youngest children being taught in larger classes? Is the policy simply incoherent? Have the Government failed by their own measurement? Or was the policy driven by political expediency, rather than the genuine interests of our youngest children?

Mr. Blunkett: Class sizes and the pupil-teacher ratio have not risen in key stage 2--seven to 11-year-olds. They have improved, and the hon. Gentleman knows it. We have reduced, by 450,000, the number of five to seven-year-olds who are taught in classes of more than 30. In 60 education authorities, we have pilot programmes running to reduce the size of nursery and reception classes, with the aim of providing an adult-pupil ratio of 1:15 in reception classes. We have increased nursery

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provision by 120,000 since the general election. We are the only party committed to universal nursery provision for all three and four-year-olds.

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