The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): My Department's excellence challenge will encourage applications for higher education among young people in many of the country's most disadvantaged areas by raising their attainment and their aspirations. In addition, through its postcode premium, the Higher Education Funding Council for England supports universities in meeting the additional cost of recruiting and retaining students from those groups.
Tony Cunningham: I thank the Minister for that reply. For about 11 years, I taught in Netherhall comprehensive school in my constituency. It was attended by many talented young people who deserved to go to university but did not, because their parents, grandparents and friends had never been. There is a lack of expectation and aspiration. Will my hon. Friend share her thoughts on how we can improve and increase the expectations and aspirations of those children, who deserve the opportunity to go to university?
Margaret Hodge: I share that view and that desire to raise aspirations and prior attainment levels among children, especially from the lower socio-economic groups, so that there is equality of opportunity for our young people. Raising aspirations is a long and slow process. It is shocking that almost half of young people from the lower socio-economic groups never hear about university as an option for them during their school years. We need to tackle that problem by working with those children from a young age, with their teachers and career advisers and with their families. Many of our programmes are intended to do that.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Does the hon. Lady accept the fact that her attempts to achieve the laudable aim of widening access have so far been monumentally ham-fisted? She said that in some cases, universities should not award places on the basis of A-level results. What would she say to an applicant who had worked hard and obtained good grades but was denied a university place because the Minister's political interference meant that the university gave it to someone with worse results?
Margaret Hodge: What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the difference between this Government and the Conservative Government is that for generation after generation the Conservatives denied good quality education to the many and focused opportunity only on the elite, whereas we are determined to change that. I would then tell him that we want the very best brains to have the opportunity to go to our best universities. The issue that I raised was that many of our universities need to think about how they recruit and assess potential in selecting their students.
I would draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention three studies carried out by three universitiesBristol, Cardiff and the department of economics at Warwickall of which say the same thing, which is that applicants accepted from comprehensive schools do better than those
Mr. Green: Clearly the Minister has nothing to say to the applicant whom she has unfairly excluded. She said that the Government were manipulating the money for universities so that applicants from certain postcodes were favoured. Surely the basis for university admissions should be what young people can learn, not where they come from. Just as it was wrong 50 years ago for crusty dons to prefer good chaps from their old school, it is wrong now for Ministers to impose political tests for university admissions. Does the hon. Lady not accept that the way to widen access is to improve the schools, not to bully the universities?
Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that universities control their own admissions. The additional resources that we give to universities for taking in students whose parents are unlikely to have attended university reflects the additional teaching and support that those students may need to get the best out of their university experience. It is our desire to ensure that we stop focusing on the elite, and provide opportunity for the many. That is what governs that funding. For the hon. Gentleman to pretend
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Young people from lower socio-economic groups who miss out at school can be picked up by the adult education system at a later stage. Some do not take advantage of that opportunity because they are late developers, but others do not because their home life has not provided the necessary knowledge, understanding and encouragement, although they can become amenable to such influences at a later stage. What is being done to improve access for adult students who may not have prior qualifications?
Margaret Hodge: I agree entirely with those who say that we should open opportunities not just to young children, but to those who perhaps did not have a proper chance at the beginning of their education. One purpose of the reform agenda for the further education sector is to ensure that the quality of education offered will provide the sort of progression to which my hon. Friend refers. The introduction of foundation degreesmany of which will include work-based experience, leading to the higher education qualificationis another initiative in that direction.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): In the 1960s, 70 per cent. of students at Oxford and Cambridge universities came from a state school background. These days, the figure is much lower; indeed, it has declined over that entire generation. In the Minister's opinion, what is the reason for that, and is there a connection with the ending of grammar school education throughout most of the country?
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): May I turn my hon. Friend's attention to Anglia Polytechnic university, the other university in my constituency, and the huge problem that many of its students experience in finding reasonably priced accommodation? That is a common difficulty in constituencies such as mine, which have very high housing costs. Has my hon. Friend carried out an assessment of the cost of accommodation for students in such constituencies, and does she consider that such costs might deter some students from poorer backgrounds?
Margaret Hodge: Most of the analysis that we have undertaken suggests that the level of loan is sufficient to cover students' basic accommodation and living costs. However, we are anxious to ensure that the costs associated with attending university do not become a deterrent to students' deciding to move on to higher education. The purpose of the student funding review is to address issues such as those raised by my hon. Friend.
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): The school workforce working party, which includes all teacher and head teacher associations and several other key education partners, continues to meet regularly. One key issue for that group is teacher work load. The school teacher's review body is expected to report on work load shortly.
Dr. Lewis: I thank the Secretary of State for that rather bland reply. Does she recall her recent written answers to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, which revealed that, in the past 12 months, documents with no fewer than 1,601 pages have been sent to secondary school teachers, and that documents with no fewer than an astonishing 2,839 pages have been sent to primary school teachers? Does the Secretary of State stand by her statement to the House of 10 January, when she said that
The trouble with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and his Front-Bench colleague the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) is that they ask questions and receive written answers, but they are only interested in how many pages have been sent out. They never ask about what was on the pages, how useful it was or what use teachers made of it. Just for clarity, I shall itemise two documents in the pages to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. There were 370 pages in the numeracy key stage 3 document that was sent out. I have not met a maths teacher working with children in the early years of secondary education who does not think that what we are doing in respect of such teachers' continuous professional development is of good quality, and that it will lead to higher standards.
Another document was 115 pages long. It dealt with schoolteachers' conditions and pay: is the hon. Member for New Forest, East suggesting that we should not send that out? As long as he appears only to count the pages, rather than looking at what they contain, I do not think that he will make progress on this matter.
Derek Twigg: Last year, the key stage 2 results for schools in Halton and the rest of the country showed the biggest improvement on record. Recently, I visited Ditton primary school in my constituency, to open a new building for which local people had been waiting for 20 years. No such new building would ever have happened under the Tories, and people were delighted with it. It has great new facilities, and the environment for teachers and staff is excellent. However, teachers told me that they were worried about the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy with which they had to deal. The school has excellent results. Will my right hon. Friend say whether there is any chance that schools with proven track records in terms of delivering the required results could be granted some sort of exemption or flexibility in that respect?
Estelle Morris: First, I am delighted with the progress that has been made, in terms both of academic attainment and of building work, at the school to which my hon. Friend refers. I hope that he will take my thanks and congratulations to all those who have worked so hard to achieve that.
My hon. Friend is right. I do not know the details of the school in question, but schools that perform well are now subject to far less frequent visits by Ofsted inspectors. We need to make more progress in that respect. Our approach is that we need a strong framework for accountability, which allows us to guarantee to parents that we are on top of underperformance. Increasingly, however, we are able to give more flexibility and
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): The Secretary of State will be aware that Bognor Regis community college in my constituency has been on a four-day week for the first half of the current term owing to teacher shortages. I hope that the matter has been resolved for the remainder of the term, but is not that school's experience an indication of the seriousness of the teacher shortage, which is caused by an excess of paperwork, poor discipline in schools, and poor teacher pay?
Estelle Morris: In my answer to the previous question I explained that teacher pay has gone up and that lecturers in further education have noticed the difference, so the hon. Gentleman cannot claim that the problem comes down to teacher pay.
I am delighted to hear that the school in Bognor Regis to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be back to full-time education next week. Of course I share his concern: no hon. Member would want his or her children to be in a school offering only short-time education because of teacher shortages. I do not underestimate or diminish the nature of the problem for some schools. I have always said that we are not complacent. I intend no comment on the school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but some schools facing especially challenging problems find it far more difficult to recruit and retain teachers. We have been working closely with the head teacher and the local authority to do what we can to help. I hope that our contribution has been appreciated and useful.
I am not complacent, and acknowledge that real problems exist for some schools. Overall, however, in terms of vacancieseven in London, where traditionally they have been the most difficult to fillyesterday's figures showed that the huge investment that we have put in over the past few years is beginning to bear fruit. We will continue to monitor and to offer whatever help we can to those at Bognor Regis community college. I hope that from Monday onwards, things go really well there and continue to improve.
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): My right hon. Friend has partly anticipated my question in her welcome remarks about Ofsted's light touch. Will she confirm that she intends Ofsted to have a much lighter touch when it comes to the majority of schools and for its visits to be much less frequent? In that way, we can show teachers that we trust them to deliver our education service on our behalf.
Estelle Morris: We must remember that, on average, Ofsted visits a school once every six years. It is not as though its inspectors are in school, every day of the week, every week of the year. I do not think that that is unreasonable. Ofsted offers us the ability to guarantee to parents that we will spot underachievement and take action to remedy it. Ofsted also identifies good practice and success which we can share and celebrate. We must seek to move this forward and reduce the amount of paperwork that Ofsted asks for. I know that David Bell, the successor to Mike Tomlinsonwho is in his last week in post and to whom I wish to pay tribute for the work