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Postgraduate Students

3. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): What support her Department gives to postgraduate students. [6688]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): My Department provides financial support for postgraduates through research councils and the Arts and Humanities Research Board, bursaries for PGCE teacher training students and awards for disabled postgraduate students.

Brian White: During the recess I spoke to a number of my constituents who are doing postgraduate research at Cranfield or through the Open university. Apart from commercial sponsorship of the sexy subjects, they consider that there is a real problem in respect of bread and butter research. Postgraduates cannot get access to student loan schemes and, although they are on low wages, they cannot get access to passported benefits. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that her Department will examine and review these issues?

Estelle Morris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Postgraduate research is immensely important. There has been a 13 per cent. increase in the number of full and part-time students studying at that level and we have increased the funding that is available. By 2003 the grant will be some £9,000, which is a sizeable increase. I take my hon. Friend's comments seriously. It is a matter

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that my Department will continue to monitor and we will make sure that we take whatever action is appropriate at the appropriate time.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): In terms of postgraduates, will the right hon. Lady explain why the Under-Secretary with responsibility for adult skills has written to all hon. Members about individual learning accounts to explain why the Government have closed down this scheme? The letter seems incredibly unfrank and lacking in any candour. It talks about closing the scheme because it

but it makes no mention of fraud or of the fact that the police are investigating 279 providers. May we have a bit of frankness and candour rather than spin?

Estelle Morris: I think that we have been exceptionally candid about this. In the Education and Skills Select Committee yesterday, I made it clear that there were two reasons why we were withdrawing the scheme. First, it had exceeded its capacity early, with 2.5 million people benefiting from ILAs who might not otherwise have done so. Secondly, as I said in a parliamentary answer yesterday and as my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), made clear today, we have received complaints and we are not entirely happy that all the money that has been paid out has gone to top-quality schemes. It is entirely responsible to act as we have done: to give those who have ILAs four to six weeks to draw them down, and then to withdraw the scheme, making it absolutely clear that our commitment to good-quality adult education is cast iron and that we will introduce a further scheme.

PFI Contracts (Capital Return)

4. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What her estimate is of the rate of return of capital in schools funded wholly or partly by PFI contracts. [6689]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): I refer my hon. Friend to the written answer that he received on 16 October, at column 1182W. The rate of return to a private sector contractor in a schools PFI contract is fixed as part of the annual payment made by a local education authority for delivery of the services specified in the contract, and as such is a matter between the local education authority and its private sector partner. All PFI contracts in schools have to demonstrate better value for money than public sector traditional procurement.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does not the Minister accept that the traditional form of public sector funding of capital development in education is both cheaper and more accountable than PFIs? The evidence collected by the Treasury Committee on health PFIs, for example, shows that in many of them there is up to an 18 per cent. return on capital. Nothing like that rate of return has ever been paid by traditional funding methods in the public sector.

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Is not it better for education to fund new developments directly through taxation, rather than bringing in the private sector to make money out of it?

John Healey: No, I do not accept that private sector financing has no part to play. I remind my hon. Friend that PFI contracts can proceed only if the value for money is better than that of public procurement comparators. Payments to private sector contractors must be linked to levels of service. That brings benefits to the public sector in terms of new buildings and guaranteed high levels of maintenance.

You would not expect me to answer about the health service, Mr. Speaker, but we have no evidence of profiteering in the education sector. If my hon. Friend has, I would like to see it.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I support the gist of the Minister's answer, but I invite him to go slightly further and explain that the value of PFI contracts comes from the private sector not only building the capital assets but running them. Surrey county council has done that for schools in Surrey. Why do the Government need legislation to force Labour authorities to go down the same road?

John Healey: Nobody needs legislation to encourage authorities, under whatever political leadership, to apply for PFI schemes: 90 out of 150 local education authorities have shown an interest in applying. Part of the benefit is that the risk over the long term of the contract period is transferred to the private sector. There are also benefits in freeing up head teachers from having to manage buildings and allowing them to concentrate on the curriculum. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that in one PFI contract the contractor's pay is directly linked to exam results.

Class Sizes

5. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What assessment she has made of the relationship between class size and examination results. [6690]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): My Department and local education authorities have jointly commissioned the university of London's Institute of Education to research the effect of smaller class sizes. The preliminary findings suggest that smaller classes, particularly reception classes, are indeed beneficial.

Dr. Lewis: That research, if accurate, contradicts the findings of other recent research, which suggests that there is little significant correlation between class sizes and academic performance, and examination results in particular. Given that there is such a contradiction, why will not the Government take up the eminently practical suggestion, made time and again, that when league tables are published showing examination results, the class sizes should be shown alongside, so that people can assess whether there is a correlation?

Mr. Timms: The evidence is that, in reception classes in particular, smaller class sizes are very beneficial. That of course is why we have focused our work in this area

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on infant classes. The average infant class size is now 25.2, compared with nearly 27 in 1997. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the fall in infant class sizes has been significant, from 27.5 to 25.4. I hope that he will welcome that progress and the resulting improvements. Of course there are many other factors at play, but the evidence to which I have referred shows pretty clearly that the progress we have been able to make in reducing class sizes has made an important contribution to raising standards in those infant classes.

Junior class sizes are also falling, and secondary class sizes have fallen for the first time in 10 years. All those improvements have made an important contribution to the dramatic rise in standards that this Government have brought about.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Are the real improvements in standards in key stages 2 and 1 down to reduced class sizes for five, six and seven- year-olds or to the increased number of classroom assistants being employed and the massive investment in early years education? I believe that in 2004 all three-year-olds will have access to a free nursery place.

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to those great improvements as further important factors in bringing about the dramatic improvement to which she referred. Let us acknowledge, too, the great importance of the numeracy and literacy strategies delivered so successfully by teachers over the past four years, which have also had a decisive beneficial effect.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): The Minister will be interested in the new Tory policy of larger class sizes. That is one for the House to note. Does he accept that, irrespective of class sizes, what drives up standards is good-quality teachers? Will he comment on the fact that his Department has spent £9.2 million on recruiting 111 fast-track teachers, and assure the House that every one of them will go into so-called failing schools so that they can reap the benefit? Given the Secretary of State's comments earlier, does he feel that the £83,000 per teacher given to the private sector to recruit those teachers represents good value for money for the taxpayer?

Mr. Timms: The Conservative policy is not a new one: class sizes were rising for many years under the previous Government.

It is true that the quality of teaching is vital to raising standards. The fact that teaching quality has improved is undoubtedly a major part of the explanation for the dramatic improvements in standards. Fast-track teachers will indeed spend some of their time in schools facing challenging circumstances. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the benefits of the energetic approach that we are taking to bring new and able people into the teaching profession, increasing the number of teachers, because we need more able teachers to be able to maintain the pace of improvement that we have achieved.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Considerable progress has been made at key stage 1 in reducing class sizes and improving standards, but does the Minister share my concerns about the large class sizes, sometimes

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approaching 40, not only in Nottinghamshire but throughout the country at key stage 2? Should not our priority now be to get those class sizes down?

Mr. Timms: We have of course made progress at other key stages, too. Junior class sizes have now fallen for two consecutive years, and we have allocated more than £36 million this year to schools that increased their intake to help meet the infant class size limit and ensure that infants transferring to junior classes continue to benefit from smaller classes. That will certainly help, but it is important that we keep the matter under review and maintain the pace of progress that we have seen in recent years, so that we can continue the dramatic improvement in standards in junior classes.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): In spite of a fall in numeracy levels at age 11 this year, in a written answer the Minister confirmed the targets of 75 per cent. for next year and proposed increased targets of 85 per cent. for literacy and numeracy by 2004. He said:

If the Government are so confident, why was the Secretary of State backsliding yesterday by telling the Education and Skills Select Committee that it will not matter if targets are missed, and why are she and her Ministers afraid to put their jobs on the line as her predecessor would?

Mr. Timms: I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, but I hope that in his future contributions to our debates he will want to celebrate the dramatic improvements in key stage 2 results in our junior schools in numeracy and literacy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reaffirmed our commitment yesterday to the targets that have been set and it is important that the hon. Gentleman and others contribute to a celebration of the great progress that has been made.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Minister agree that smaller class sizes enable teachers to give more individual attention to individual pupils? Does he also agree that if more diagnostic testing was done in the early years to identify the weaknesses that children experience and the help that they need, later results would be better?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. The evidence that the Institute of Education has provided supports the benefits of smaller class sizes in the early years. The work of the early years partnerships is also helping to identify problems early in a child's school life so that appropriate support can be provided. He is right to say that that is important.

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