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House of Commons

Thursday 22 November 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—

Schools (Staffordshire)

2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If she will visit schools in Staffordshire to assess the condition of the (a) buildings, (b) heating and (c) associated infrastructure. [14632]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): The Secretary of State has no current plans to visit schools in Staffordshire. Staffordshire has, as requested by the Department, already carried out an assessment of the condition of its school buildings. Since 1997, £92 million has been provided to help meet the capital investment needs of schools in the county, and £39 million more has been allocated for the next two years.

Michael Fabricant: Well, that would seem to be a rather complacent reply on behalf of the Secretary of State, which is, perhaps, not typical of her. She may well know that, two or three weeks ago, head teachers from throughout Staffordshire came to the House of Commons to meet all the county's Members of Parliament and talk about their budgets. Duncan Meikle, the headmaster of King Edward VI school in Lichfield, said that his budget for those services has already run out this year, and pointed out that it is the worst budget he has had since he became headmaster of the school four years ago. Is it not typical of Education Ministers, like Health Ministers, that they talk about millions, even billions, of pounds, but when it comes down to it, services are getting worse?

John Healey: I remind the hon. Gentleman that his question was about capital, not services. We are not complacent; we are investing a massive amount of extra money in schools. Four in five of Lichfield schools have already benefited from targeted capital allocations since the election, and all Lichfield schools, like all the schools in every constituency, have benefited from direct funding through the new deal for schools. Over the next three years, £22 million more will be going direct to Staffordshire schools, and if the hon. Gentleman talks to two of Lichfield's head teachers, he will find that they are

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part of the asset management forum in Staffordshire and they can tell him exactly what the plans are for capital investment in his county.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): Does my hon. Friend accept that the problems with Staffordshire schools and their buildings stem from the years and years of under-investment under Tory Governments? Does he accept that, in my constituency, although there are complaints about the needs of school buildings, many schools are seeing real benefits from the extra money being provided for capital spending?

John Healey: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is right, of course. We faced a massive backlog after two decades of Tory under-investment in our schools, and we still need to catch up in Staffordshire. The new asset management plan, prepared by the local education authority with schools, shows that over the next five years £72 million is needed for the county's schools. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that £52 million has already been allocated for the next two years.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): But can the Minister guarantee that capital spending in Staffordshire schools will not be financed through the sale of school playing fields? In a year when there has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of playing fields being sold by the Government, is it not time that they started to live up to their promise to stop the sale of playing fields, or is the former Minister for Sport right when she says that the Government have lost the plot on the issue?

John Healey: When the Conservatives were in power they did not keep any check on the sale of school playing fields. There are new rules and new controls, and under this Government the number of playing fields sold has been way down on the number sold under the, Conservative Government, and the proceeds of sales are earmarked for education purposes.

Most of the new capital investment will now be formula-based and dedicated under the new asset management plans prepared by LEAs with schools. That is the guarantee of local control, of local decision making and of local transparency, and it means that the investment provided centrally will find its way into schools.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituency has enjoyed unprecedented capital investment over the last four years? We have a new primary school, several new computer suites and science laboratories, new extensions and additional nursery provision. However, I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that one local school has just suffered a devastating fire, in which the catering buildings and gym facilities were totally destroyed. Will he congratulate the school, the staff, the LEA, the pupils and the governors on the magnificent way in which they have coped in very difficult circumstances over the last two weeks? The school was closed for only one day, and Staffordshire LEA now—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister has got the drift.

John Healey: First, I pay tribute to the experience and expertise my hon. Friend brings to the subject as a former member of the Education Committee and one who knows a great deal about the system. It is telling that the picture of the education system that she paints differs starkly from the one painted by the Conservatives.

As for the fire at my hon. Friend's local school, I congratulate all those who made tremendous efforts to pull together and ensure that only one day of schooling was missed. In addition, I undertake to make sure that our Department provides all the support that we can and should provide in such difficult circumstances, to make sure that the school recovers as it needs to after such a catastrophe.

Student Finance (Wales)

3. Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What recent discussions she had on student finance with the Secretaries of the National Assembly for Wales. [14633]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly covering a range of issues, including student finance.

Adam Price: I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, however brief. She will be familiar with the contents of the National Assembly's Rees report, which in June showed that student debt had increased threefold since the abolition of the maintenance grant; and that the greatest debt was found among students from the poorest backgrounds, who were most likely to drop out of university because of financial problems and least likely to enter university in the first place because of the psychological barrier of having to borrow, in some cases, more than their parents earn in a year. Does she agree with her Labour colleague in the National Assembly that the best way to widen participation in higher education is to reintroduce the maintenance grant? If she will not endorse that position, will she at least devolve powers over higher education funding to Wales so that we might at last get the system that best suits our circumstances?

Margaret Hodge: We want to increase the number of students from working class backgrounds who go through higher education, but it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We need to raise their attainment at school so that they get the necessary qualifications to go to university, and we need to raise their aspirations. As I have said before, almost half of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not during their school years hear about university as an option for them. Until we change that, we will not get those young people into university.

In addition, we are examining issues of student finance and student funding and reviewing them to ensure that everybody, whatever their background, has access to a university place.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The Minister will be aware that one of the reasons why some Members voted

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against the introduction of tuition fees was their likely effect on mature students entering higher education. Will she comment on figures for the period since tuition fees were introduced, which show about 7,000 fewer mature students now entering higher education?

Margaret Hodge: I have to say that my hon. Friend's figures are not correct. This year's acceptance figures—we do not have entry figures—from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show an increase of 12.5 per cent. in the number of 21 to 24-year-olds accepted, and an increase of 7.7 per cent. for those aged 25 plus. We should compare that with the increase of less than 2 per cent. in the number of Scottish people entering university. It is now generally accepted that people who gain a personal advantage from university education in terms of increased earnings over a lifetime, which average out at about £400,000, should make a contribution to the cost of that post-compulsory education. The issue is how and in what way.

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