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5. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): What measures he is taking to increase access to affordable child care in London. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge): The national child care strategy has created 83,000 new child care places in London in less than four years. That is more new places in London alone than the 74,000 places that the previous Government created throughout Britain in 18 years. We have also funded 31,052 new free nursery places in London. Together with the tripling of the child care budget, an extra £155 million from the new opportunities fund, £200 million for 900 neighbourhood nurseries, start-up grants for child minders, free nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, changes in child care tax credit, that means that, by 2004, we will have greatly increased access to affordable child care in London.
Ms Buck: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. May I take this opportunity to congratulate everyone involved in St. George's school, which, as the House will know, is the school where headmaster Philip Lawrence was tragically murdered six years ago. It has just received a clean bill of health from Ofsted, which is a tremendous credit to the acting head teacher, Lady Stubbs, all the staff, the parents, the governors and the education authority.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Conservative- controlled royal borough of Chelsea and Kensington recently received £1.5 million through the early years development partnership for nursery education, and the joint highest local government settlement--6.5 per cent.--in the country? Does she share my astonishment that the council is proceeding with the closure of Ladbroke nursery, which is attended by a number of my constituents' children? Does she agree that the council should review its decision and take advantage of the Government's support? That would ensure that the local authority makes provision for all the parents using the nursery who need child care in Kensington and Chelsea.
Ms Hodge: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Marie Stubbs and her staff on the work that they have done at the school. May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done on supporting the national child care strategy in her constituency?
Plenty of new resources are available to increase the number of child care places in every area in the country. There is an especially generous settlement for Kensington and Chelsea, so there is no excuse whatsoever for closing nurseries and losing child care places. I endorse entirely my hon. Friend's comments on the council's action.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The saccharine self-congratulation of the hon. Lady and her soothing bromides this morning simply will not do. Is she unaware that, according to figures published in April 2000 by her Department, the proportion of children in nursery classes with 31 to 35 pupils has risen by one fifth since the Government took office? Is she aware that, under her watch, more than 1,500 pre-school playgroups have closed? If she is not aware of those things, will she become aware--and, furthermore, abandon the forced cattle-truck mentality that has besmirched the Government's performance, and create a level playing field with genuine competition and free choice for parents?
Ms Hodge: I am delighted to have the opportunity to engage with the hon. Gentleman. I know that those in the Press Gallery find it difficult to accept some of the words that we use, and I do not want to say "mendacious toe-rag", so I shall use the term "economical with the truth". We replaced the unhealthy competition that led to a decrease in the number of places available in playgroups with a planned partnership between all sectors to increase the number of places in every part of the country.
As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, following declines in the number of places available in playgroups over time, we have finally turned the corner. This year there are almost 6,000 more places. Across the country, we have created new places for more than 500,000 children, and we are in line to create free nursery education places for all three and four-year-olds in class sizes of one to 15.
6. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): How he plans that the creative partnerships initiative and the pupil learning credits will raise educational standards. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): The £35 million that we announced for pupil learning credits and the £40 million announced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for creative partnerships will raise standards by offering pupils innovative and creative opportunities to learn. Children and teachers in my hon. Friend's constituency will get the chance to work directly with artists, cultural organisations and the creative industries. That will pay dividends in raised self-esteem and improved attendance, and will encourage a lifelong commitment to learning.
Valerie Davey: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate the two Departments on those imaginative programmes. There is good practice on which to build in Bristol. Multi-A, an arts charity based in my constituency with business backing, already enables more than 3,000 youngsters every week to have tuition and to visit live performances of the arts. Today, 400 youngsters, having had ballet workshops from the English National Ballet, will see "Giselle" at the Bristol Hippodrome. Given all that, does my hon. Friend recognise the description of schools as
Jacqui Smith: When I visit schools I recognise that, as the former chief inspector said in his last report, teaching is improving. That means that children not only have access to the basic skills that are crucial, but are becoming well rounded and creative children. I congratulate Multi-A and other such organisations on the very good work that they are already doing. We want to build on that with creative partnerships and pupil learning credits, which will also support sporting and other activities.
As a mother, I want my children to learn a musical instrument, to go to the theatre, to surf the net for fun and learning, to play football, to read "Harry Potter" and other books at home for pleasure. I expect that many hon. Members with children feel the same; but the difference between Labour Members and the Tories is that we think that if it is good for our children, it is good for all children, and we will invest in it, whereas the Tories would cut it.
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Do Ministers accept that, to raise education standards, it is no good the Government having a continuing alphabet soup of initiatives, tsars, taskforces and websites? The only way to raise standards is to have more good teachers. The Government have a serious problem with the recruitment and retention of teachers. Some 10,000 teacher training places have gone unfilled during the Government's lifetime, and teachers in Oxfordshire are leaving the profession because they are simply not paid enough. When will the Government grasp the nettle and pay teachers more so that we can have more teachers, better recruitment and better retention?
Jacqui Smith: That sounds like a pre-emptive strike to cut the money for creative partnerships and pupil learning credits--if we were unfortunate enough to have a Conservative Government. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need good teachers. There are almost 7,000 more teachers in schools in England; if we had followed Conservative spending plans, there would be 10,000 fewer. The increase in the number of teachers
Conservative Members should join Ministers in praising and supporting teachers, and in encouraging more people to enter the profession. They should stop talking it down.
7. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): What further measures the Government propose to increase the United Kingdom's skills base. 
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): As part of our strategy for achieving a high skills and a high value-added economy, we have established the national skills taskforce, put in place measures to address basic skills needs--they are set out in the document that was published on 1 March--and created the Learning and Skills Council, which will be on stream from 1 April. We are also establishing new technology institutes and centres of vocational excellence throughout the country.
Mr. Mackinlay: The Secretary of State can stick his chest out about yesterday's news of the lowest unemployment for 25 years. However, does he appreciate that new problems arise, such as a skills shortage at a time when we are achieving almost full employment? In my constituency, there are many semi-skilled, unskilled and de-skilled people. Statistics show that only 22 per cent. have access to the internet, whereas the figure is approximately 86 per cent. for the professional classes.
What measures will the Government take to ensure that the people I represent, and my right hon. Friend's constituents, are enabled, emancipated and given access to the internet, in the interests of the United Kingdom economy and so that they can fulfil their moral right to develop their skills and personalities, and enjoy new technologies as others in the United Kingdom do? That's socialism!
Mr. Blunkett: I am in favour of all that. I was pleased that my hon. Friend's constituency received funding for two new learning centres and that I was able to launch the online programme a week ago. It provides for the development of more than 2,000 learning centres throughout the country, linked to the learning grid and our programme of investment, which was reinforced yesterday in our Green Paper. The programme is directed at those with skills needs and those who face the greatest hardship and difficulty. By doing that, we can ensure that we have an inclusive society, in which people have good quality, lasting jobs and are able to take advantage of the strength of the economy, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has ensured.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the Secretary of State agree that we will not increase the skills base by putting pupils on buses that drive past excellent schools that they are not allowed to attend? Ribblesdale high
Mr. Blunkett: The question appears to be: do we agree that, whenever possible, children should be able to attend their local school, free from restrictions that prevent that and force them to pass schools that others attend? I agree. It is a pity that Conservative party policies, especially those on selection, would preclude that.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are further to increase the United Kingdom's skills base, every child must leave school having realised their full potential? Will he assure the House that under-achievement, right back to primary school, and the individual needs of children will be identified early, and that that support will continue post-primary school until children leave the school system?
Mr. Blunkett: I do agree with that. I am glad to get back to the subject of skills, because I realised that the previous question was not related to the one on the Order Paper. I am happy to confirm that carrying the basic skills literacy and numeracy programmes through primary to secondary education, engaging young people aged between 14 and 19, and developing classroom and work-based high quality vocational routes are all crucial. Developing the modern advanced apprenticeship schemes and vocational GCSEs and A-levels will contribute to achieving that.
Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement this morning of the largest single overseas offshore contract, involving 750 jobs in my constituency, is a major boost for the north-east and a fulfilment of the Government's pledge to spread prosperity throughout the regions? Does he also accept that the biggest problem faced by the hard core long-term unemployed in places such as Hartlepool is a persistent lack of skills and a low level of employability, and that we need in constituencies such as mine targeted intervention by the Government and agencies, so that that gap can be remedied and people who want to work can fill the job vacancies that have been generated in the economy?
Mr. Blunkett: Like my right hon. Friend, I greatly welcome the investment and creation of jobs in his area. I congratulate him on his excellent efforts in ensuring that. At the risk of incurring the most venomous writing of Matthew Parris, I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on the fact that his area was a pathfinder in developing the new deal programmes for specific skills training. Indeed, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities and I announced an extension of action teams for jobs to link people who are in danger of losing their jobs to the skills that enable them to take the new jobs announced today.