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House of Commons

Thursday 25 October 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Further Education

1. Clive Efford (Eltham): If she will make a statement on her plans to widen participation in further education. [6685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): Further education is central to the provision of high-quality academic and vocational opportunities for learning. FE colleges make a great contribution to raising skill levels, improving basic skills, boosting employability and widening access to learning. More than 4 million people learn via FE each year. The Learning and Skills Council is examining the potential for FE to deliver further growth in adult participation.

Clive Efford: I thank my hon. Friend and take this opportunity to welcome him to the Dispatch Box, the first opportunity I have had to do so.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the widespread concern in FE colleges about the comments of Mr. John Harwood on the BBC's "Today" programme last week. Does he agree that if we are to deliver on our targets for participation in further education, Mr. Harwood will need the co-operation of people in further education colleges? Does he accept that his statement conflicts with the findings of the chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council, who found that, in 1999-2000, 93 per cent. of colleges were satisfactory or above? Does he agree that if we are going to deliver on our programme to improve education, we do not need to repeat in the FE sector the mistakes that were made in Ofsted, where officers made inflammatory and unfounded statements through the media?

John Healey: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The range of people who learn through FE and the range of courses that they can follow is second to none anywhere in the education system. I have seen some excellent provision. Co-operation will be the key, but we cannot get away from the fact that the variation in quality and performance between courses and colleges is too wide. That is why we place so much importance on the

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standards fund, which we have doubled this year, the new inspection regime, and the Learning and Skills Council working with FE colleges to raise standards.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I too genuinely welcome the Minister to his new post. Does he not recognise that further education colleges feel extremely battered—a combination perhaps of financial pressures, curriculum pressures on staff and worries about falling student numbers? Given the perhaps compressed reports by the chief inspectors following their initial inspections, and the remarks of Mr. John Harwood, which may have been distorted in transit, will the Minister take this opportunity to affirm clearly that the great majority of further education provision is satisfactory or indeed positively good, and provides a foundation on which improvements can be made?

John Healey: The majority of provision is good, but we want it to be better. I understand the pressure that is felt in the sector, but the sort of resources for which the sector has been crying out for years are starting to go into FE. A total of £527 million extra via the LSC has been earmarked for FE this year. A real-terms increase of 3 per cent. is due next year. The hon. Gentleman has been a strong champion of the FE sector. He may regard those resources as overdue, but he cannot deny that they are going in.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): I welcome my hon. Friend to his position and endorse what has been said about raising the morale of staff whom we expect to deliver higher quality for all people who use further education, but does he agree about the importance of the education maintenance grant in widening access? It is pivotal to getting people from non-traditional backgrounds into higher education. I welcome the long-overdue review of student finance, but if there is money around, please let us not forget further education, an important part of the equation in expanding education post-16.

John Healey: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments about the education maintenance grant. We are looking carefully at the impact that it has had in the pilot areas. As part of the new spending review, we are reviewing funding and support for adult learners across the board. What is certainly true—it is a point powerfully made—is that achieving our ambition for students in higher education by the end of the decade turns centrally on the ability of further education to play a part.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I too welcome the Minister to his position. We share his aspirations for a vibrant and high-quality further education sector. He will be aware that individual learning accounts were used by further education colleges markedly to widen participation in learning. How does he think yesterday's announcement of the sudden closure of the scheme will affect those aspirations? How long has he known of the problem of fraud and abuse? Is it true that 5,200 complaints were received before any action was taken? How much money is involved? How many people

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have been affected? What form will an inquiry take? All things considered, does he not think that he should be here making a statement?

John Healey: First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench and look forward to debating with him. He is right to say that individual learning accounts have been widely used by further education colleges, which are among the 1,600 public sector learning providers registered under the ILA scheme, out of a total of 8,500. The scheme exceeded our expectations and expanded beyond its capacity. We hit the target of 1 million ILA accounts one year early. The scheme has helped many individuals to take up new learning, including through further education. However, it recently became clear that the scheme was open to exploitation. Despite the changes that we made to its administration, the problem was not stamped out. We have not taken this step lightly, but my right hon. Friend and I have decided to suspend the operation of the scheme. We feel that it is the right thing to do because it affords protection for individual learners who were paying for their learning through individual learning accounts, as well as protecting public finances.

Educational Standards

2. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): By what means her Department will ensure that educational standards are maintained when the private sector is involved in school management. [6687]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): Lines of accountability will not change. Local authorities, school governors and head teachers will retain their current responsibilities for school improvement, and Ofsted will continue to inspect. External partners will be subject to an agreement setting clear and demanding performance targets.

Mr. Colman: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will she confirm again that local education authorities that perform well will continue to be responsible for ensuring school improvement and holding schools accountable?

Estelle Morris: Yes, absolutely. I am happy to go further than that and say to my hon. Friend that our best local authorities are needed to support our weaker local authorities. I take the pragmatic view that the education of children is too important to waste and we must use whatever source from whatever sector, as long as it is good quality, to raise standards in our schools. Yesterday I was in Leeds, where an external partner is helping to raise standards. Next week I am going to celebrate the connection between Warwickshire and Doncaster. Warwickshire, which is very strong, has helped Doncaster, which is less strong. In both cases, the Ofsted report shows that progress is being made.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I assure the Secretary of State at the outset of our exchanges that when the Government genuinely promote excellence, discipline and diversity in schools she will receive support from the Opposition, and when they do not we shall want to know why. In that regard, can she clear up the contradictory

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messages that she sends about using the private sector to drive up standards in some schools? Her White Paper has warm words about this, but her article this month in The Parliamentary Monitor, which presumably is meant to be read by many of her right hon. and hon. Friends, is much less keen on the private sector. Can she tell the House whether she regards the private sector as a last resort, or will she allow it to play a widespread positive role in enhancing standards?

Estelle Morris: First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment and look forward to our exchanges across the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate his whole team, in case I do not get the chance to do so later.

We are quite clear that the private sector is not a last resort, but there will be cases when all else has failed and we look to private sector expertise to help us raise standards in schools. For many years now, I have invited good schools and local authorities voluntarily to seek partnership with the private sector if they think that it is in their interests. There may be cases where individual schools and local authorities seek to do so as a last resort, but in those instances we may call in another public sector partner.

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about the Opposition's willingness to use the private sector. I remind him and his party that this Government freed up the law to enable schools to use whatever sources they need to raise standards. In 18 years, the Conservatives made no move in that direction. We are guided by very simple principles: what works for children is what we want in our schools. However, there is a clear line of public accountability for the expenditure of public money. Whether we spend that money in the private sector or the public sector, the Government will hold to those clear lines of public accountability.

Mr. Green: The right hon. Lady has not entirely cleared up the contradiction. She said that the private sector was not a last resort and then in the next sentence said that it could be used when all else had failed, which sounds to me like the last resort. So we have to explore that contradiction further. If the right hon. Lady is as keen as the last part of her answer suggested, can she explain why, consistently throughout the Government's term of office, Labour local education authorities have blocked the use of this option for improving schools? Indeed, the only place where it has been fully utilised is Conservative Surrey. Does she not agree with me that at a time of teacher shortages, a crisis in school discipline and falling standards in maths among 11-year-olds, a sensible Government would force their party to take any opportunity to help schools in difficulty and not reject one option because of an old-fashioned ideology that still lives on in the Labour party?

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman will do better in his post if he learns to read and listen. I clearly put it on record that the private sector can be used as a last resort, but it will not always be used as a last resort. That is as clear as it gets, and if the hon. Gentleman does not understand that answer I fear for the leadership of the Conservative education team.

Let me take up the hon. Gentleman's point about the performance in maths among 11-year-olds, which is a real success story. I pay tribute to the teachers and classroom

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assistants and all those who have worked in our schools to bring that about. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to take an approach that damns teachers when they do well and that fails to acknowledge achievement and progress. I am incredibly proud of our key stage 2 results and I wish that the hon. Gentleman were too.

It is quite clear that we will use whatever we can to raise standards. The Government have actively promoted partnerships between schools and local authorities. We have learned from local authorities that get it right. In developing our policy in Whitehall, we listened to what happened in Guildford, Liverpool and elsewhere. I will never apologise for that—for the Government learning from what local authorities and schools do well.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to make an appeal. I am trying to get down the Order Paper, so short, sharp questions and answers would be very much appreciated.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): On privatisation, the National Assembly for Wales said in its recent White Paper that it saw real risks in a shift to what it described as

Does the Secretary of State agree?

Estelle Morris: All I say to that is, "Long live diversity."

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