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24 Oct 2002 : Column 391continued
The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge): We have no plans to make widespread changes to the financial support arrangements for students entering or continuing in higher education in 2003.
Matthew Green : Given that students entering university now and perhaps going on to a public sector job would face at least 15 years of repaying their loans at 9 per cent. of their earnings above #10,000, will the Minister take this opportunity to state that the Government will never introduce commercial rates on loans, which would add another five or more years to the repayment of those loans for the average public sector worker?
Margaret Hodge: I am not in the business of pre-empting the higher education strategy document that we will be publishing at the end of the month. However, our income-contingent loan scheme is far superior to the old mortgage-style loan scheme that the previous Government introduced, as it ensures that people repay their loan according to what they earn.
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): As a member of the National Union of Teachers, may I associate myself with the comments that have been made from these Benches about our former Front-Bench colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris)? Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's understandable comment about not pre-empting announcements which I am glad to hear are to be made later this month, will she take this opportunity to reaffirm what I understand has always been the Government's policy: their opposition to top-up tuition fees in universities?
Margaret Hodge: My time is slightly ahead of me. We shall announce our higher education strategy document at the end of next month. I am not in a position today to make any statement about what will be incorporated in it. What I am happy to say is that we will ensure that debt and the fear of debt do not inhibit students from participating in higher education, and that we want to create not a social elite but an intellectual elite in which everyone, according to ability, is allowed to develop his or her full potential.
Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): The Minister will be aware of the Assembly learning grant which was introduced in Wales at the beginning of the current academic session. Can she tell me why grant awards to low-income students are being classed as income and therefore being clawed back by the Government from part-time studentsa practice that I understand is not followed in the case of the English and Welsh universities access fund?
Margaret Hodge: I understand that negotiations are proceeding as we speak between my colleagues in the Welsh Assembly and those in the Department for Work and Pensions over whether the new grants should be classed as income for benefit purposes. I look forward to learning the outcome.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the important aims of student support should be to ensure that children from worse-off backgrounds can go to university, as they currently cannot, and not to continue to give unwarranted support to children from better-off backgrounds?
Margaret Hodge: I have often said in the House that I think that in future we will be judged, in relation to increasing participation in higher education, on whether we have managed to change the socio-economic profile of those who enter it. I have also said, and will reiterate, that we have set ourselves a complex challenge. We need to raise standards in our secondary schools to ensure that more young people from lower-income groups stay at school, and we need to raise their aspirations so that they aim higher and see university as an option.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of the Secondary Heads Association, the National Association of Teachers/Union of Women Teachers, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers on 4 September to discuss the matter.
Mr. Djanogly : With thousands of applications still outstanding, Cambridgeshire county council alone still has some 40 checks outstanding, yet all the applications were put in before June. The situation is becoming serious. I have received a letter from the leader of the council, and the leaders of the Liberal and Labour groups, expressing deep concern about the new disclosure service. They complain about long delays in recruitment inevitably impacting on service users. They say that recruitment itself is problematic, and that existing staff are under increasing stress. Given that backlog of thousands, what will the Government do to sort out the shambles?
Mr. Miliband: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about this important issue. I am pleased to say that the processing system has undergone significant improvement in the last four to six weeks, and that the throughput of disclosures has risen over that time. One assurance I can give the hon. Gentleman is that the Department has agreed on a special fast-track procedure where particular problems exist, so that the Criminal Records Bureau can deal with the issues as quickly as possible.
David Burnside (South Antrim): In maintaining the highest possible standards in relation to criminal records, will the Minister, on behalf of the Department, have discussions with his opposite number in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure thatat ministerial,
Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): The Minister will recall the debate on this subject in Westminster Hall in which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), said that the most effective way of getting a prompt record check was to use the telephone service provided by the CRB. In that case, why are almost no schools or voluntary organisations aware of the service, even though it could have saved them many weeks in getting a check processed? What plans does he have to make it better known? He will also be aware that those who have to fill in the formsthe people who know most about this subjectare frustrated that they were never consulted about either the nature or style of the form? How does he intend to simplify the form and involve schools, voluntary organisations and their advisers in that process?
Mr. Miliband: We take seriously the need to tackle the roots of this problem. The special team sent in by the Home Secretary under Mr. Patrick Carter is looking at every stage of the CRB process. It will also have discussions with a wide range of colleagues and interests to ensure that the form is as processable as possible. On the hon. Gentleman's point about publicity, my understanding is that a number of people have been using the phone line and other mechanisms of getting in touch, but I shall look into the concern that he raised.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): We continue to invest in a range of measures to establish good behaviour and discipline in all schools. Teachers dealing with the most challenging behaviour have access to in-school support from learning mentors and others. We stand by the head teacher's right to exclude the most disruptive pupils in the best interests of the school community as a whole. Such pupils now have access to full-time education outside the school. We will set out shortly the next stages of our strategy to improve pupil behaviour, discipline and attendance.
Mr. Pond : Will the Minister accept from me later a brief dossier from head teachers in Gravesham about the effects of disruptive pupils in their schools? The dossier includes a report of an incident yesterday in which a nine-year-old kicked his teacher, but could not be sent home because his parents refused to collect him.
Mr. Twigg: I will be very happy to receive the dossier from my hon. Friend, who highlights one example from a number of very disturbing cases. Much of the focus of the strategy has so far been on secondary schools, but he is right to emphasise that, tragically, many such cases are arising in primary schools. Staff in our schools have a right to work in an environment where they are not subject to violence, abuse and harassment, and parents have a duty to take responsibility for their children.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Is the Minister aware that many head teachers find when they become caught up in issues of process in relation to appeals panels that they have no guidance about that process? When he modifies the appeals panel process this January, will he consider the guidance that head teachers are given about the specific processes that are needed to ensure that they are watertight in any legal discussions?
Mr. Twigg: That is exactly what we are doing. We are saying that we want appeals panels to be more effective and want to ensure that somebody with practical classroom experience is included on every panel. We do not want the panels to overturn the decision made by a head teacher simply on the basis of a technicality. We want to balance the interests of the individual child who might appeal with the wider interests of the school community. We have listened to the concerns of head teachers and taken them on board, which is why we will issue the new proposals starting in January.
John Mann (Bassetlaw): There is often a link between disruptive behaviour and experimentation with drugs. Can some changes be made to the guidelines on the national curriculum for secondary schools to ensure that every school has to have high-quality anti-drugs education?
Mr. Twigg: I met my hon. Friend earlier this week, when he took the opportunity to present me with the report of his local inquiry into the use of heroin. The findings are extremely disturbing. I am considering the advice and guidance that is given to schools on drugs, alcohol and tobacco. We are listening to a range of people who work in the field and we will be looking to see that the curriculum meets those challenges.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Does the Minister recognise that many children who are excluded from school have disruptive behavioural problems not by chance, but as a result of medical disabilities? Such children already have special educational needs, but when their schools can no longer cope with their disruptive behaviour and they have rightly to be excluded to protect the education of other children, current policy means that they receive only a few hours' education a week. I know one little boy, Michael, who has Simpson-Golabi-Behmel syndrome, which means
Mr. Twigg: I want to ensure that people have full and equal access to education regardless of their disability or their special educational needs. That is why we legislated in the previous Parliament with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. That is also why we have extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to cover schools. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, however, that this is a big challenge: services are not universally good and a lot more work needs to be done. I am working with many of the organisations in the field to try to deliver a general improvement in the quality of service.