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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows what I am about to say.

Adam Price: Forgive my passion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is there for a good reason.

Unless we get a fair funding formula, we will never be able to redress the balance. To give the House a example, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has recently had to inform Welsh universities that they will receive a paltry 0.6 per cent. increase in their budgets next year. They were expecting 5.4 per cent. The repercussions for the quality of education in Wales could be serious if staff are attracted over the border. The Government are short-changing Wales because of the operation of the Barnett formula. They are also short-changing the United Kingdom in terms of education.

I must tell the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) that education spending, even towards the end of the current triennial spending review, will still not have reached the same level as a proportion of gross domestic product as it had back in 1981-82, under Mrs. Thatcher.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is right to emphasise the importance of productivity. The most worrying feature is the failure to invest in education, which goes right to the heart of the United Kingdom's economic decline throughout the past century.

It was not until 1963 that we had technical universities. That was 70 years after the Germans had created similar institutions. It was not until the middle of the 1960s that we saw an expansion of university education, the

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mainstreaming of comprehensive education and the introduction of the maintenance grant. Instead of building on those gains, the Labour Government are rolling them back. I cannot understand why the generation who benefited most from the gains to which I have referred, and the party that espoused them, are turning their back on such important steps forward.

The crisis in our education system is structural and endemic, not cyclical. It has been present for years over successive Administrations, both Labour and Conservative. I suggest to the Minister that instead of publishing the Education Bill in the next few weeks, we have an extended period of debate. We need to get things right. So many mistakes have been made in the past. We have had initiative after initiative from successive Governments, and they have failed. We need to have a multinational debate that draws on the innovation that we are seeing in the devolved Administrations. That is a debate that we must get right for the sake of all the countries of the United Kingdom.

8.12 pm

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): I am grateful to the Opposition for initiating the debate. It is certainly an improvement on their previous one on spin. If they are to be true to their intention to talk about public services and to reconnect with the electorate, today's debate is a step in the right direction. However, if they are to succeed in that task, they must put forward some positive policies. There was precious little of that in the contribution of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), and precious little about any aspect of education outside schools in their manifesto. I shall concentrate on further education for adults.

In a way, the Opposition's lack of policies on education puts the occupants of their Front Bench in a privileged position. It means that they are safe from making a series of U-turns. However, I shall be interested in hearing about their policy on privatising universities through an endowment fund, paid for by Spectrum, when the Opposition spokesman winds up. I cannot promise entirely to understand what that policy means in practice. I am in good company, because Nick Timmins of The Sunday Telegraph, I think, described it as a policy in such a mess that it would make Harry Potter proud. Will the Opposition persist with it in their policy review? If so, I shall be interested to learn how they will fund it.

I am also interested in ascertaining whether the Opposition will back the policy that their new leader advanced in his election campaign. He floated the idea of education vouchers to allow people to take their children out of state schools and put them in private education. I am not against the use of vouchers. The individual learning accounts policy, which has been discussed at length today, involves vouchers. It is a way of encouraging people to take up education by putting purchasing power in their own hands.

The real question is the end to which vouchers are put. Vouchers can be used for egalitarian ends to increase fairness and to promote demand, and I think that that is what ILAs have done. The great danger is when vouchers are used to increase division. If we use vouchers in our education system, there is also the great danger that private schools will continue to refuse the Government any say over their admissions policy.

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That is in great contrast to the way in which vouchers have been used in America. For example, the Milwaukee experiment, which may be the source of inspiration for the Leader of the Opposition's policy, insists that private schools that take part in the scheme allocate places through a lottery, which can help ensure that the policy is used for egalitarian ends. The danger of his suggestion is that it will increase inequality in our system and take able children out of the most difficult schools. Has the Opposition's policy review been quietly dropped since the leadership election?

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman speaks about influencing the admissions policies of private schools. If we have an assisted places scheme of the sort that was introduced by a previous Conservative Administration, it is implicit that it will have such an impact. It will have an effect on the sort of children who go to private schools, certainly in terms of their socio-economic profile. If we divorce ourselves from the private sector, there is no contact with or effect on the admissions policies of private schools.

James Purnell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. He referred exactly to the problem with the old assisted places scheme, which allowed private schools to cherry-pick a few individuals. That meant reducing the possibility of improving the generality of state schools. The scheme benefited only the few individuals and the private schools involved.

Mr. Andrew Turner: From that reply to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), it seems that the hon. Gentleman sees no way of improving state schools unless there are able children in them. Surely we have a responsibility for many less able children.

James Purnell: I am grateful for that intervention as well, although it represents a complete misunderstanding of what I was saying. If we are to improve the spectrum of ability in schools, we must have a spectrum of ability in state schools. The danger of the assisted places scheme was that it undermined that goal.

Neither side of the House can be proud of its record on adult literacy and numeracy. There are still about 7 million people who have genuine problems with adding up, reading and spelling, and that should shame us all. Labour Members should acknowledge that the Opposition, when in government, introduced some interesting policies in this area.

I was reading Hansard today, and I came across a debate on these matters in 1998, which was illuminated by a contribution from the hon. Member for Ashford, who was then a recently appointed Conservative education spokesman. He made a number of interesting points. The kernel of his argument was that the Government might have good intentions but he doubted whether they would have the money to back them up. He said:

that is the then Minister—

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The figure that the hon. Gentleman discussed in that speech was £500 million. It is worth noting that since then the Government have put in well in excess of twice that figure. They have provided more than £1 billion. We have not only put our money where our mouth is, we have done far more than was expected of us at that time. I hope that the Opposition spokesman will congratulate us on that at the end of the debate.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made a point, in response to my intervention, about the standards fund and questioned whether that funding was genuinely reaching the education sector. I, for one, make no apology about the use of the standards fund. It is right that the Government should have a standards agenda, which was ignored for too long in the FE sector under previous Governments. That money is put to use training teachers, supporting head teachers and management training and, most of all, encouraging excellence and allowing excellent FE colleges to spread their experience around the sector and support those organisations that are failing. That is exactly the kind of targeted intervention that will raise standards and ensure that the funding formula rewards success and compensates for difficulties and failure. That is entirely welcome; I know that it is welcomed in many parts of the FE sector.

Far from being in crisis, adult education is an area in which the Government have a proud record. There has been significant policy research in that area, including the Moser report, the Kennedy report and the Select Committee report on further education. Shadow Ministers spoke about a quiet crisis; there has been a quiet revolution in FE policy and adult education policy generally. We inherited a badly broken system in which there was competition between TECs, private training providers, FE colleges and working men's clubs. The individuals involved, mostly young people, lacked any sort of impartial advice; they were often pushed from pillar to post and took courses that were not necessarily right for them, often of low quality.

It may not be covered by the media much, but that situation has been turned on its head. The introduction of the ConneXions service, which has been rolled out around the country, will ensure that individuals get the advice that they need. They will have a personal adviser who will be on their side and who will not try to convince them to go into a particular TEC or FE-recommended course. He or she will try to work out what is best for the individual, which is a fundamental change to the system. The education maintenance allowance, which already covers about a third of the country, will make sure that people who want to stay in education have the means to do so; people will not have to go to work at 16 simply because they cannot afford to stay in FE. I very much hope that the Chancellor will look favourably on that policy in the comprehensive spending review.

The Learning and Skills Council was established to ensure that there is genuine strategic leadership in that area of education policy and that different areas of the system continue to work together. On top of that, the franchising system that the previous Government introduced has been reformed. It is worth pausing on that scheme briefly because, in the 1998 debate on education, the hon. Member for Ashford referred to it. As Opposition

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Members will know, the franchising scheme was introduced in 1994 by the Conservative Government to allow FE colleges to reach out to parts of the learning market that they were not reaching and work with organisations in buildings outside the traditional FE sector. The scheme was controversial, and some people were worried that colleges were being encouraged to seek profit rather than concentrate on the needs of the learner. Even people, such as Helena Kennedy, who were sceptical about the scheme, decided, after looking at it that, in the main, it provided genuine benefits by increasing access to learning.

Commenting on that scheme and the controversy about how well the money had been spent, the hon. Gentleman said:

I congratulate him on that enlightened view. One reason that our political system has sometimes failed to tackle deep-seated policy problems is that it is difficult to innovate; if one tries new ways of doing things, a harsh light is shone on the initial stages of policy. Any failure in those initial stages is too often greeted by cries of derision and ridicule, which try to make out that the policy has been a total failure and should never have been introduced in the first place.

When I read the hon. Gentleman's speech, I welcomed his balanced view that we should tolerate failure in Government policy, learn from mistakes and improve policy in subsequent years. I was disappointed, of course, when I heard him this afternoon, as he did not have such a balanced view of ILAs. Contributions to the debate from both Government and Opposition Members, which I have greatly enjoyed, demonstrate that there is widespread support for the idea of ILAs; it is recognised that they have brought people into learning who were not previously engaged in it. The Government should be congratulated on the fact that about 2.5 million people have taken them up. Of course, we all recognise that there have been problems with the details of the scheme, but the Secretary of State illustrated how limited those problems were; they can be solved and addressed through a better system of registration and accreditation. I agree that we can learn about how that has been done in Scotland and Wales, where there appear to have been fewer problems than in this country.

In conclusion, I thank the Government for making it clear that they will learn the lessons of the scheme. When they introduce another scheme, I urge them to ensure that it builds on the principles of ILAs and retains at its core the principle of giving purchasing power to individuals so that there are new types of provider and purchasers' demands affect the overall system. I also look forward to the conclusion of the Opposition's policy review and their contributions to policy formation. The job of any Opposition is not just to oppose, but to make positive contributions. However, I urge them to recognise the overall success of the Government's policy, and I urge Members on both sides of the House to be proud of what the Government have achieved on education.

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8.27 pm

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