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6.6 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I am grateful to the Opposition for calling the debate today. It is not long since we had a debate on education in Opposition time, and on that occasion I took 24 minutes, as I recall, to describe some of the major improvements that have taken place in High Peak and Derbyshire since the Government

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came to power. I got so excited in my enthusiasm that the only reason I sat down was sheer exhaustion. The opportunity to carry on where I left off is a temptation, indeed.

I remember describing to the House the four new schools that we have had in my constituency in four years; the fact that more than half the schools have had extra classrooms, extensions or major capital investment; the fact that in Derbyshire we had the worst key stage 1 class sizes in the country, and we now have no child in an infant class of more than 30; the fact that we now have the highest standards of achievement ever in our schools in Derbyshire; the fact that we have had single regeneration budget cash to tackle the shortfall in adult literacy; and the fact that we have had better than inflation standard spending assessment increases in Derbyshire education spending every year. The House knows these things. They are established facts.

David Taylor rose

Mr. Levitt: I know what my hon. Friend is about to say, but I shall allow him to intervene in any case.

David Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure that his A-level in telepathy was worth while. Yes, I am about to point out that Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and other shire counties receive substantially smaller amounts expressed in terms of SSA per primary school pupil and per secondary school pupil. We are 6 or 7 per cent. adrift of the average county and 13 or 14 per cent. adrift of Hertfordshire. Does my hon. Friend, like me, look forward with some anticipation to the ability of the new formula to redress that injustice?

Mr. Levitt: Indeed. Unfortunately, the matter is not within the remit of the Department for Education and Skills. There is no point in reforming the defunct Tory system of SSAs, unless it is done in a way that will benefit people in the consistently underfunded counties such as Derbyshire and Leicestershire, as my hon. Friend explained.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans) rose

Mr. Levitt: In the spirit of democracy, I shall let a Member from Hertfordshire intervene.

Mr. Pollard: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. In Hertfordshire, our costs are very much higher than in other counties. That has been recognised, and that is why we get the extra SSA. Does he accept that?

Mr. Levitt: I accept that teachers are paid on a national pay scale, that Hertfordshire teachers and Derbyshire teachers are paid on the same rates, and that the vast majority of the education budget goes on teachers. My hon. Friend and I could continue the discussion in private, perhaps.

I shall continue with the list of achievements. As a former teacher, I congratulate the Government on the fact that they have taken seriously teachers' arguments about work load. I accept the argument that there are teacher vacancies not because we have a historic shortage of teachers, but because we have created new teaching

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opportunities faster than we have been able to fill them. I am delighted to say that in the primary schools of High Peak, we are seeing the benefit of classroom assistants. Teachers in those primary schools tell me that they did not think that classroom assistants could produce such a benefit, how grateful they are that they have them, and what a wonderful job they can do to add to the community life of the school.

Earlier, hon. Members referred to the number of people who qualified as teachers but who are no longer teaching, and to the drop-out rates. I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's reply. But there will be teachers who, like me, started to teach in the mid-1970s, who will recall that at that time there was a three-year watershed, and the number of teachers who qualified then and who were still in the job five years later was not that high. I suspect that it was not even as good as it is today.

In the 1970s, teachers who did not feel satisfied had somewhere else to go. Throughout the recessions of the 80s and 90s, teachers who, after a few years, felt that teaching was not the job for them, did not have the same opportunity to get out. Given that we are now retaining teachers at an historically high level at a time of a thriving economy, when we all know that we are unlikely to end our career in the profession where we started it, our achievement is significant.

No teachers have complained to me that they have received the £2,000 bonus unjustifiably, and the pay increases for the average classroom teacher during the past few years will ensure that, when we address the work load issue and other things that will benefit teachers, the retention level will be still higher; and we will have well motivated teachers with high morale contributing to the excellence of the service that is provided.

I return to the point that I made earlier to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) in an intervention about teacher morale. When I was on Derbyshire county council from 1993 to 1997, there was only ever one item on the agenda, and that was cuts. Year after year, we were forced to cut our education budget as a result of the Government's use of the iniquitous SSA system, to allow class sizes to rise, and to decimate our youth service—a non-statutory provision within the education budget; in short, we let our education service go to seed. I am delighted that that situation has been reversed and I look forward to that progress continuing.

I want to touch briefly on two areas that I was unable to cover in my previous contribution on this subject during an Opposition day debate; they are higher education and—the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) will be pleased to know—independent learning accounts and adult learning generally.

On higher education, I want to tell the House of another success story. Shortly after I was elected to this place, I helped to negotiate the merger between the High Peak further education college and the university of Derby, one of the first mergers of its kind. It is already a success, not just because of the prestige of the degree courses provided but because the university has been enabled to develop in a new and comprehensive way to serve a rural community. The university has now pioneered distance learning. It has outposts in factories, community halls, libraries and even pubs throughout Derbyshire, where people can access courses online, particularly those that are vocationally oriented.

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At the same time, the university has acquired our most famous and prestigious historical building, the Devonshire Royal hospital in Buxton, with a dome bigger than almost any other dome of its kind in the world. It is a beautiful building that the university is developing into a brand new campus, saving our heritage site, and delivering in the centre of Buxton, not just for High Peak but for the whole country, high level courses in subjects at the heart of the local economy, such as sustainable tourism and hospitality-related issues. The most important aspect of the university is that it is bringing real education opportunities to ordinary people, whether from a traditional university background or otherwise.

It has been fascinating to hear Opposition Members' views on individual learning accounts. They are right; what has happened is an embarrassment, and there is no getting away from that. It should not have happened. But they were over-subscribed. They were brought in to provide a service that had not hitherto been provided. Independent learning accounts gave many ordinary people their first opportunity. It was the first time since they had left school that they had got the message that education was for them. With a £200 computer literacy and information technology course, people had the opportunity to further their professional development and vocational ambitions, in many cases finding that an extra dimension, an extra value, had been given to their lives. People on doorsteps have said, "Thank heavens for the ILA. Thank heavens I went back into education." Having done one course, they have gone on to do another.

In my constituency, there has also been the excellent sure start initiative; this nursery scheme, which I commend to hon. Members, will shortly bring adult learning within its framework. Those parents who are benefiting from sure start will find opportunities for learning themselves in parallel with their children, and I commend that excellent initiative to others.

Today, education is open to all. ILAs, the university of Derby and the learning and skills council are co-ordinating post-16 education generally. The Minister will know that Derbyshire has one or two problems with the funding of the learning and skills council and the post-16 budget, and I am sure that he or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are about to sort those out—I look forward to that. I certainly look forward to the replacement of ILAs with something more sustainable that takes the values of ILAs and applies them more widely.

I look forward, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, to the end of the SSA system, and to a fair, transparent and constructive system that will get rid of that nasty, divisive, politically corrupt system that we used to have under SSAs, when counties such as Derbyshire were singled out for bad treatment by the Tory Government year after year. Next April will see the end of the SSA system and I am confident that we will have a much fairer and more transparent system which will be another break with the past, another break with the Tory tradition of cuts, and another opportunity to invest, invest, invest in education for all.

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6.17 pm

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