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Student Hardship

7. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What assessment he has made of reports from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in respect of alleviating student hardship. [875]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): Our objective is to break down the barriers to wider participation in higher education, so that 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds will enjoy the opportunity of higher education by 2010. Our system of student support provides targeted support for students most in need while balancing, overall, the costs between student, family and taxpayer, but we shall continue to keep that under review, bearing in mind our participation objective and different approaches elsewhere.

Mr. Rendel: Is the Minister aware that, according to a recent Barclays report, the average level of student debt is £6,500 and that that is expected to rise to up to £12,000 within a few years? Given that both the Cubie and Rees reports recommended radical reform of student financing in order to relieve student hardship in Scotland and Wales, do the Government accept that similar radical reform is necessary for English students, so that student hardship can be relieved throughout the United Kingdom?

Margaret Hodge: Many of the surveys that I have looked at since I have been a Minister make for a rather blurred understanding. The issue of student hardship is not as clear as the hon. Gentleman makes it out to be. For example, although students may incur a debt while at university, their earnings after university are 20 per cent. higher than those of people who did not go to university. That means that, over their lifetime, they are likely to earn

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£400,000 more. If that is set against the potential debt, it is not a disincentive to participation. Most students recognise the benefit of higher education.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I welcome the suggestion that my hon. Friend intends to keep the situation under review, but does she accept that there is growing evidence in constituencies such as mine that tuition fees are a disincentive to young people to go into higher education in the first place? In keeping the situation under review, will she at least keep her mind open to the possibility that there may be a case for reform in the near future?

Margaret Hodge: I can assure my hon. Friend that I will keep the situation under review. I draw to his attention the fact that, at the start of this autumn term, we expect over 50 per cent. of students not to have to pay tuition fees. We have targeted support, particularly for poor students, by quadrupling the hardship and access fund and by introducing the excellence challenge: a total of £190 million will be available over three years.

I wish that we could to reach our target of increased participation in higher education, which we know is of benefit to individuals, society and the economy, just by dealing with student hardship. The reality is that nine out of 10 young people who achieve two A-levels do participate in higher education. The real challenge is to increase the number of young people achieving two A-levels. That comes under our schools agenda—our 14 to 19 agenda. A particular problem is the haemorrhaging of young people, who achieve five A to Cs at GCSE level and then do not stay on to do further education full time.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must appeal again. I wish no offence to Ministers, but the replies are far too long. I must get through the Order Paper.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I congratulate the new Department for Education and Skills team and in particular the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who had an important part to play in my political career because I was a resident in Islington in the late 1980s when she was presiding over that shambles of a council. Indeed, it led to a legacy in education that resulted in none other than the Prime Minister ensuring that his own children no longer went to Islington schools—but I shall move to a serious point. We shall discuss in the House this afternoon the whole issue in relation to our allowances. [Interruption.]

There is an implicit understanding that there are great costs involving staff in central London. May I ask the Minister—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am afraid I shall have to stop the hon. Gentleman.

Adult Basic Skills

8. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): If she will make a statement on her plans to improve adult basic skills. [876]

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The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): The Government are fully committed to helping the estimated one in five adults who do not have adequate literacy, language or numeracy skills. The Prime Minister launched our strategy for improving adult basic skills on 1 March, and our manifesto reaffirmed our intention to help 750,000 adults to achieve basic skills by 2004. We are now working to deliver on that commitment.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and add my congratulations on her well deserved appointment.

May I remind her of the very interesting proposal in the national strategy for basic skills, which argues the case for a form of paid educational leave for low-paid workers with poor basic skills? Has there been any progress in implementing that proposal? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principle of paid educational leave could be considered more generally for groups of low-paid workers with poor basic skills?

Estelle Morris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I share his concern and determination to ensure that low-paid workers can access training in basic skills. Indeed, it is a truism that such workers are probably low paid because they do not have the basic skills; that just makes sense. I should remind my hon. Friend and the House that, under our strategy, basic skills education is free to everybody, whether they are in work, in part-time work or seeking work. One of our biggest challenges is to identify who those people are.

Such people are often not very confident about coming forward to say that they lack basic skills. As my hon. Friend knows, we shall be doing all that we can over the coming months both through pathfinder and through pilot projects to attack the problem at every level—when people turn up for interviews at jobcentres or apply for jobs in workplaces, and when they are not in work. I shall certainly reflect on what my hon. Friend says. As the strategy progresses, we shall no doubt want to return to the matter.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I welcome the new Department for Education and Skills team and the announcements on improving adult basic skills. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government's major investment in nursery education will also help to prevent children leaving school and becoming young adults without basic skills, and that decisions that she has had to take in that area are a recognition of past failure to identify and address the specific needs of individuals?

Estelle Morris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I disagree with him absolutely. Really tackling literacy and numeracy problems is about working with children before they start school, when their language is developing. If they are behind at the age of four or five, they often find it very difficult to catch up. Given our work in early-years education—not just on nursery places but on training staff so that they can teach what is appropriate at that age—together with our literacy and numeracy strategies, I would be immensely disappointed if the same number of adults had problems with basic skills in decades to come. It is a failure of the education

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system if people leave school and are still not functionally literate. In that sense, I agree with the hon. Gentleman—the question is very much one of remedial work.

Educational Maintenance Allowances

9. Mr. John Grogan (Selby): What plans she has to extend the geographical coverage of educational maintenance allowances. [877]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Education maintenance allowances are now available in about 30 per cent. of the country as a pilot scheme. Our manifesto said that we would build on that, drawing on the evidence of the pilots. Early results are very encouraging, and we will be considering the case for expansion in the next spending review.

Mr. Grogan: I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post, and urge him to consider extending the education maintenance allowance scheme to every local education authority in time. All evidence suggests that the scheme has been extremely effective in encouraging staying-on rates, particularly for young people from low-income families. If he is minded to have more pilot schemes, will a greater proportion be introduced in rural counties, where participation rates can be as much of a problem as in urban areas? For example, staying-on rates in North Yorkshire declined by six percentage points in the five years to 1999.

Mr. Lewis: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and others who have done so much to draw attention to the plight of coalfield communities, attracting the resources needed to rebuild them after the wanton destruction and neglect under the Conservatives.

We made a conscious decision to pilot educational maintenance allowances, which now cover about 30 per cent. of the country. Early evidence suggests that they are making a significant contribution to supporting young people so that they can stay in education. That is what they are for. We are anxious that, before we make a final decision on whether to extend the allowances throughout the country, we have qualitative evidence to show that they are the most effective way of delivering that objective. We believe that more and more such evidence will emerge. Early indications are indeed very positive, and when we make decisions about the future we will certainly consider the points that my hon. Friend has made.

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