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1.52 am

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): My first duty is to congratulate the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) on securing this debate. In fact, I shall congratulate him on two other things: first, on persuading his two colleagues—the hon. Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois)—to remain with him at this late hour. If he speaks to me after the debate, I shall tell him which one was yawning during his peroration.

The second reason to congratulate the hon. Gentleman is that this is, in fact, his second speech tonight. I was recently a humble Back Bencher, so I know that it is an honour—it is humbling—to speak once a month. It is a rare privilege to speak twice a month, but to speak twice in one night suggests that one has a relationship with the Whips Office that would be a source of great suspicion among one's colleagues; but I congratulate him none the less.

I was very pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman congratulate the teachers and pupils in his constituency. It may be for the benefit of the House to know that key stage 2 results—in other words, those for 11-year-olds—in the hon. Gentleman's constituency last year were 75 per cent. in English, 71 per cent. in maths, 87 per cent. in science. There were rises across all those three categories, and those improvements in standards were reflected at the age of 14, at key stage 3.

The hon. Gentleman was gracious enough also to congratulate the Government on their £600 a year increase in funding for each pupil in Castle Point. I am very glad that he is as pleased as I am that that is going ahead. Funding in Essex has increased from about £470 million in 1998, to £630 million in 2002–03—an average increase of more than 5 per cent. a year. He will know that the standards fund has also increased from about £7 million in 1998–99, to £45 million in 2002–03. The school standards direct grant, which goes direct to head teachers, is now worth more than £7.5 million a year.

No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased that the recent spending review confirmed those record rises in investment. He congratulated the Government on how far we had gone. That sounded like a plea for even more spending, so I welcome him to the ranks of the rebels in the Conservative party. I trust that he will continue to advocate higher spending on education, despite the unwillingness of his party's Front Benchers to do the same.

The hon. Gentleman is legitimately concerned about funding being passed through to schools. He read out a letter dated 2 July; I, too, have it to hand, and I will not

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mention the name of the school that wrote to him either. He left out from his reading point 3 of the letter, which set out a complaint about the passporting by Essex LEA of the funds given by the Government to schools. In 2002–03 Essex county council received an increase in its education standard spending assessment in excess of £37.5 million—a boost of about 6.35 per cent., which was above the national average of 5.7 per cent. Essex LEA chose not to reflect that increase in its education budget, and that failure to passport may have prompted some of the concerns that led Essex heads to write to me and to the hon. Gentleman.

For the hon. Gentleman's benefit, I will give him a preview of the letter that will soon be winging its way to him in response to his letter to the Secretary of State. Among other things, it says:

that is, me—

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about proposals on reform of the funding system. The proposals that the Government have put on the table are about producing the best possible match between the distribution of funding and LEAs' relative needs and costs. The current consultation process aims to try to find a way forward that balances those two needs. He will know that the consultation runs until 30 September, and I hope that he and his colleagues will make representations to that review.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I thank the Minister for giving way, especially as I did not notify his office of my intention to intervene. I am grateful for his courtesy.

I have two brief points. First, the Minister will be aware of the great concern in Essex about the entire restructuring of SSAs. I am therefore glad to hear his comments, and we shall indeed all make representations.

Secondly, is it not a fact that Essex passes on a greater proportion of its funding to schools than any other shire LEA in the country—with the possible exception of Lincolnshire, according to last year's figures?

Mr. Miliband: I chose my words reasonably carefully. I did not want to launch an all-out attack on local government when putting forward the proposals. I believe that it is true that Essex LEA's delegation is about 87.1 per cent., which is an honourable record; however, this year the increase in SSA given by the Government was not passported on, which is a source of some regret.

The hon. Member for Castle Point expressed concern about teacher recruitment. He will be as pleased as I am that the national vacancy rate has fallen from 1.4 per cent. in 2001 to 1.2 per cent. in 2002, which is the result in part of the 9,000-person increase in the teaching force achieved over the past year—the fastest rise in 20 years—and in part of the increase in teachers' pay. In addition to the overall pay increase, teachers and heads will be especially interested in the extra recruitment and retention initiatives that have been made available by the Government.

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The hon. Gentleman's area, I know, falls outside the areas receiving London fringe allowances, and we recognise that that causes problems, but I hope that he will accept from me that we want to address such issues in the context of the local government funding review that we hope will come into play in the next financial year. He should know that there is a special recruitment and retention fund available for the recruitment of teachers, from which Essex received £2.1 million this year—the second-highest allocation of any LEA in the country. We are not complacent about the issue: we are working with the Teacher Training Agency and other relevant bodies to ensure that we make progress, not least on housing, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to pay tribute to the work of the specialist schools in his area. We know from Ofsted's evaluation that in four out of five schools, specialist designation has been a catalyst for innovation in the schooling system and has helped to sustain the momentum of improvement. The specialist school programme is about celebrating the different strengths of individual schools within a revitalised comprehensive system.

I heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the innovative proposals being developed locally for a new specialisation proposal involving several schools. I hope that he will understand when I say that, as the judge of

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that competition, it would not be right if I were to meet him and individual heads. However, my Department makes itself and its officers available to discuss with schools proposals that they might make, as does the Technology Colleges Trust.

I shall certainly also pass to David Bell, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, the hon. Gentleman's concerns about early education and the Ofsted inspection regime. If he cares to write to me with the individual complaints, I shall certainly take them on, because we take them extremely seriously.

I conclude by once again congratulating the hon. Gentleman. Even at this late hour, he has held the attention of the House with his lucid exposition. I assure him that education is safe in the Government's hands. I look forward to continued support for the measures that we are taking both to invest in the educational system and to reform it in order to support high standards.

The independent inspectorate—Ofsted—reports that we have the best generation of teachers ever in this country. We certainly know from test and examination results that we have the highest scores ever. I believe that those are the result of hard-working teachers and hard-working pupils doing their best in the nation's schools. There are great things happening. I look forward to greater things, both in Castle Point and in the nation at large.

Question put and agreed to.

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