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24 Oct 2002 : Column 396continued
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): The Department does not assess statutory proposals for changes to schools, as I think my hon. Friend knows. Such proposals are decided by the local school organisation committee or, if it cannot agree, by the independent schools adjudicator. I understand that proposals for the removal of surplus places in Catholic primary schools in Liverpool originate with the archdiocese concerned, in partnership with the city council.
Mrs. Ellman : I accept that Liverpool city council has prime responsibility for decisions on school closures, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that insufficient attention has been given to the link between regeneration opportunities and educational provision in this inner-city area? Is he aware of the work of the parents action group in this regard, and would he be willing to consider its views on the link between regeneration and educational attainment?
Mr. Miliband: My hon. Friend will know that I visited her constituency in June, and I was very impressed not only by the tributes paid to her and her work on regeneration and education but by the work being done by the city council in tandem with voluntary organisations in the city and, specifically, in her constituency. If her parents action group wants to come to London, I will certainly meet it here, unless I get back to Liverpool before that.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The statutory maximum walking distances were set in 1944. Local education authorities have the power to consider
Mr. Todd : In 1944, there were about 1 million vehicles on British roads; there are now 24 million. In 1944, footpaths were heavily used by people walking to work, and provided a safe means of transit. They are now much less safe in areas such as mine. Is it perhaps time for us to review the limits?
Mr. Twigg: As I said in my answer, local authorities have discretionary powers, and there are some good examples of authorities that have chosen to exercise them. My hon. Friend's own local authority does so in a number of respects. The social exclusion unit is conducting an inquiry into the links between poor transport and access to key services, including education, and work. We are awaiting the unit's full report, but officials in the Department for Education and Skills have been working with the unit, and that may well provide a basis for us to take this debate a little further forward.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Traffic conditions have changed, but so have the circumstances of the schools system: we now have specialist schools and the concept of parental choice, for example. All those changes militate against the system that was set up in 1944. When we add to that the fact that, in rural areas such as my own in the county of Somerset, a huge amount of money is spent on school transport without any recompensethanks to a ridiculous formula system that does very poorly for us and many other areas of the countryit becomes clear that it is time for a fundamental review of the school transport system. Will the Minister please put that into place at the earliest possible opportunity, to coincide with the change in the local authority funding system that we shall discuss later today?
Mr. Twigg: I cannot promise to make it coincide with the new funding formula. This is an immensely challenging area. I have been taking a look at the matter and I will continue to do so. If the hon. Gentleman has a scheme in mind that would be workable and that I can sell to colleagues and to the House, I would be delighted to consider it.
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Education Act 1944 also allows bus companies to permit three children under the age of 15 to sit on a double seat? That leads to gross overcrowding on scheduled bus services taking children to school in my constituency, especially from the village of Llandogo. Will my hon. Friend seriously consider this issue, and get rid of this rule?
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): In addition to the reasons given by two hon. Members for reviewing this legislation, will the Minister also take into account the fact that, because of deteriorating road
Mr. Twigg: It makes a change for the Department for Education and Skills to be accused of not being centralist enough, but I will certainly look at the representations that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is clear that support exists in all parties for looking at this matter, but I repeat that any change would involve losers as well as winners, so I need to look very carefully at how such change would work. However, I certainly appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about parents' concerns for their children's safety in the light of increased traffic volumes, pollution and the rate of crime.
The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge): We are firmly committed to widening participation in higher education, so that all our brightest students, whatever their background, enjoy the full opportunity to develop their potential. Through our secondary school reform agenda, we want to raise attainment levels. Through the introduction of the education maintenance allowance, we want to encourage young people from low-income backgrounds to stay in full-time education; and through our XExcellence Challenge" programme, we want young people to aim higher.
Jane Griffiths : Does my hon. Friend agree with me and the staff and students of Reading university that action is needed not only to widen participation, but to enable universities in constituencies such as mine with a high cost of living to have a student body with the widest possible background?
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): My constituent Katy Smith was one of the students who took part in yesterday's lobby of Parliament on student debt. She made the powerful case that student debt deters people from poorer backgrounds from applying to university. Before the last election, the then Education Secretarythe current Home Secretarypromised not to introduce top-up fees for students. Would the current education team like to inherit that promise as well?
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Does my hon. Friend agree that debt is cyclical, and is it not time that we looked at the way that we pay students? They have the least experience and a small amount of money, so rather than giving them everything up front at the beginning of term, would it not be better to give them the choice of monthly payments? That would help them to manage their finances much better.
Margaret Hodge: My hon. Friend has made that suggestion to me on several occasions, and I am delighted to inform him that I have asked the Student Loans Company whether that is a feasible option for the future payment of loans.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): The Government will carefully consider all the suggestions that are put to us in response to the consultation; indeed, we will be having a long debate on that this afternoon. We will announce decisions on the new funding system by early December, along with the provisional settlement for 200304.
Mr. Steen : Of the four options for education funding proposed by the Government, none eliminates discrimination against Devon's children, who get a raw deal when compared with many of their county cousins. Will the Minister ensure that the new education funding formula, when it comes about, is egalitarian and eliminates the postcode lottery of funding for schools?
Mr. Miliband: You will know, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman and I had a good debate in Westminster Hall at which I learned a lot about the particular problems of education in Devon. He and I are corresponding on some of the facts underlying the matter. Labour Members of the House are always happy to commit ourselves to an egalitarian solution.