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5.24 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I apologise for briefly leaving the Chamber during the opening speeches, but there was an emergency involving some of my constituents, of which I gave the Speaker notice. It is not my usual practice, and I thank the House for its indulgence.

I welcome the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) to his position as education spokesman for the official Opposition, and I look forward to listening to him in the coming months. I do not know how long his tenure will last, but I hope that it will be reasonably long. Continuity in education is everything. I saw him sitting at the back of the Education and Skills Committee recently and he is welcome to join us.

I have high expectations of the hon. Gentleman because I know that he has an interest in and knowledge of education. My welcome is genuine; I am not merely going through the motions. However, I should note that I recently received an e-mail from a head teacher of a successful sixth form college in my constituency in which he said, "Please, Barry, don't send me any more of those dreadful Opposition day debates. I have tended to circulate them to the rest of the staff and they found that knock-about stuff so depressing that I would rather not have the material." Somewhere in the subterranean passages of Conservative central office, there must be an "invent a crisis" unit. That does not help anyone.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that people would have to be deaf and blind if they did not know about the lack of morale in some parts of the teaching profession, but we must consider what we say in Opposition day debates and the way in which they are framed. He said that six things were dreadfully wrong with the education sector—perhaps he could have found even more. I entreat him to raise the tone of the debate, because we can have a good one that is based on the facts. We could agree that since 1997 the Labour Government have not got everything right and, as Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, I might even say that the Conservative Governments from 1979 on did not get everything wrong, although I am tempted to say that most of it was.

There is a middle way. We can have a serious discourse on the future of the education sector. All hon. Members have a responsibility to raise the level of debate, rather than drag it down. Let us compare the tenor of today's debate with what happens in the Select Committee. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues participate in it—one of them is in the Chamber—and the quality of the debate is high. We are able to bury party differences in a constructive manner. I do not want the House to become a major Select Committee, but let us take our responsibility for the tone of the education debate seriously and raise its level. The hon. Gentleman

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repeatedly referred to a crisis; according to his predecessor, there was always a crisis. Let us change the terminology.

Let us give a sober assessment of the situation. We should accept that not everything that the Government have done since 1997 is wrong. If I were to do a proper school report on them I would say that their record shows them to be innovative, because they have tried new ideas and structures. Perhaps that is bad, but the Leader of the Opposition said on the "Today" programme this morning that the trouble with the Government's management of the health sector is that they are not introducing new ideas or partnerships and are not binding the private sector into the health service. In this debate, however, the Conservatives are saying that the problem is that the Government are innovative, that they have new ideas and are trying to introduce the private sector to education. They have been greatly criticised for that.

Mr. Damian Green: I defy the hon. Gentleman to find in my speech any criticism of the Government for trying to involve the private sector in state education. I made no such accusation, and I believe the exact opposite. I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman does, too.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until a little later in my speech, when I will turn to his remarks on individual learning accounts.

Returning to the school report on the Government, as Chairman of the Select Committee, I find sure start very interesting and innovative. No one has mentioned sure start today, but much of the debate has been about how we can break the cycle of deprivation in education, and this Government, rather than previous Administrations, have introduced several exciting, innovating schemes that seem to contain the seeds of solutions to the problem of stimulating the imagination and creativity of children from birth to age eight. The Select Committee's report on early years education was very positive about sure start's achievements in areas of deprivation. In the school report, we can make a mark in the plus column for that.

We have identified a critical point, at about age 13, at which many people from relatively deprived backgrounds lose interest in education. How do we keep them in education and enthuse them? Two policies are on the right lines. One aims to provide a genuine vocational path to young people who are not academic in the traditional sense. For years, as I say every time I speak in the House on this subject, all the academic accolades have gone to the bright pupils, the top third who achieve the best marks in maths and classical subjects. The rest of the class has received very little reward. What I like about some of the innovations to which we have been turning our minds in the past four and a half years is that they aim to engage and reward the young people in the middle and at the back of the class. The Government are taking steps to provide a proper, recognised vocational channel for young people, and that is a remarkably positive aspect of this period of educational change.

Many of us outside education can see how important sure start is in breaking the cycle of educational deprivation, and we want to know when the Government will fully expand the policy. If sure start is successful,

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why is it not being rolled out faster? We know that there is a problem in ensuring that later sure start programmes are up to speed and are learning from the earlier ones, and that is acceptable. However, there is lots of evidence that sure start is successful, so it is the Government's responsibility to roll it out faster, and I urge them to do so. In the school report, they get a little bit of a plus and a little bit of a minus for that.

As with sure start, all the research that I have seen suggests that education maintenance allowances work: they retain young people in education and provide a stimulus that was lacking before. I understand that they are expensive, but we must be honest about our desire to achieve inclusion. Many hon. Members only see how much EMAs cost, and the considerable expense of rolling out the policy throughout the country. However, what is the cost of not doing so? The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned those who leave the education system with no qualifications. We know what that means in terms of the likelihood of such people suffering deprivation or achieving success, getting a job or falling into a life of crime. Such things can cost society a great deal of money. The cost of not rolling out sure start and EMAs has to be seen in that context. The final verdict is: interesting, but could do better.

Literacy and numeracy appear in the plus column. Some remarkable results have been achieved, especially among children aged up to 11. Most fair-minded people would agree that that is true. However, as Chairman of the Select Committee, I see inspectors' reports, hear evidence from the chief inspector of schools and examine the data, and from that vantage point I can see issues that have not been tackled adequately during the Labour Government's first four years. One of those issues is the 11 to 14 age group.

I understand that the Government's policy is to turn their mind to the question of how to achieve greater success with that group. In a sense, the Government are trying to apply the innovative techniques that have been used further down the age range to the 11 to 14 age group. I understand that the process will take time, but we must not delay tackling the problem of the performance of children who were previously doing quite well in school levelling off or declining after they turn 11. Remedying that problem presents a serious challenge. The news is not all bad: GCSE results for the top 50 per cent. of pupils are encouraging. However, as we know, the difficulty facing any Government is how to tackle the problem of the bottom 50 per cent.

Many aspects of higher education appear in the plus column. The Committee has carried out two inquiries into higher education—my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) has been a participant. We have found some interesting developments in HE, especially the consistency of money flowing into research. That is a plus, although everyone knows that if we are to have world-class institutions the commitment to research must be continued.

On the other hand, there are serious problems in HE. If we do not tackle them soon, we will have serious trouble sustaining our world-class institutions. I am talking about the most exclusive club of HE institutions, including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and Nottingham and the London School of Economics.

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We cannot continue to pay university teachers so little. I should declare an interest: when I worked for a living, I was a university teacher and I still have a vestigial connection with the Association of University Teachers. If we do not tackle pay, the quality of those who are attracted into universities and stay on to become professors will decline year on year. That presents a serious challenge to the Government, who must also tackle another significant problem that emerged from the Committee's inquiries: too few young people from the United Kingdom stay on to do postgraduate work, complete their PhD and go into university teaching. My interim verdict on HE—I intend to return to the subject shortly—is: a mixture of pluses and minuses.

Further education currently gives rise to the most entries in the minus column, but that is not a final judgment—I hope that the Select Committee's inquiry into FE will stimulate an increase in Government activity in that sector. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is right to point out that FE did not appear in the Conservative party's manifesto. I know that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) is interested in the sector, as he used to have ministerial responsibility for it. The FE sector is vital, not only for delivering conventional FE, but because many of the FE colleges will play an essential role in achieving the Prime Minister's target of 50 per cent. of young people entering HE.

Further education now delivers far more HE provision than was provided by the entire FE system when the Robbins report was written. It is salutary to think about that. It is an enormous sector and we must get it right, including the resources that flow into it and the salaries that are paid. The problem with so many people being on short-term and temporary contracts is one to which the Government must turn their mind. At the same time, they are coming under pressure on student finance.

Having agreed with a number of the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, we must fall out on something. I learned from the inquiry into access to HE and retention within it that there are no easy answers, so there is a great challenge. Perhaps most Members, or many—possibly those who do not have universities close to their constituencies form the higher percentage—do not recognise yet how vital the HE sector is to the future of our country in terms of competitiveness and producing the bright young people who will be the leaders in engineering, management and all the things that make the United Kingdom wealthy.

If we do not invest in our universities and we do not get things right, we shall be in serious trouble. Perhaps there are three challenges. First, we must get pay right. The same can be said about the flow of postgraduates into HE. Secondly, we must recognise that universities have an enormous role in the community, and I mean that in a big sense. It is about time that we realised that most universities in most regions are the biggest employers. They are the biggest bringers of wealth, the biggest potential for change and the biggest potential for innovation.

I would hate to see my constituency if the university were taken out. The same could be said of Manchester, with its four universities, and of Leeds, with its two great institutions. If HE institutions were removed from most of the towns and cities of our country, we would be left with an appalling tragedy. Indeed, there are certain areas

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where we need more universities, not fewer. I think especially of Cornwall, Bolton and a couple of other places.

Thirdly, some people said during our inquiry into HE, "The bravest thing that the Labour Government did after 1997 was to change the basis of student finance." We could no longer accept the situation that we found in our inquiry. It revealed that we spent roughly the same percentage per capita on HE as our major industrial rivals; we spent a bit less than many and a bit more than others. As a ball-park figure, the percentage was about the same. However, 40 to 45 per cent. of that spend was flowing into student support. That was double what any of our competitors were spending.

It is necessary to make a decision on priorities at some stage. Is the priority the quality of teaching? Is it the quality of on-going research? Is it the quality derived from using universities as an agent of regeneration in communities and the regions? Alternatively, are we to reintroduce a system that makes it comfortable for people who should pay something towards their own education? I believe that it would be extremely dangerous if we chose to go back to the old system of student finance rather than looking forward and ensuring that we keep expenditure in balance.

I wanted, as did the Committee, to have regard to the poorest students who were in trouble. Most of the evidence showed that there was a percentage of students from very poor backgrounds who were put off by the fear of debt and by the incomprehensibility of the system, which meant that they had to go to five different pots of money. We were also worried about the time that students were spending on part-time work. As I have said, these are matters of balance. I worry about the Government because they got the collywobbles about their resolve after a successful campaign by the Liberal Democrats during the election. Whatever interdepartmental inquiries are made, I hope that the repercussions for the rest of the system of starting to spend an enormous percentage of the higher education budget on student support are clearly understood.

I shall say a word or two about individual learning accounts. I tried to produce a balanced report; the Government have done some good things and some not so good things. I tried to be even-handed, but the Government should deal with some things very soon. I came to education late. I went to a smart boys' grammar school, but did not enjoy it much; I lived in a part of the world where people from humble backgrounds were made to feel different. The school I went to is down the river from Westminster; it is now a private school, but it was not when I was there. I had four years in industry before I got back into education; people helped me, first, get into further education, then into higher education. When I got into the London School of Economics, I found it difficult to leave education at all.

I like the fact that ILAs are there and that we introduced them.

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