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9 Dec 2002 : Column 32—continued

Mr. Clarke: I agree profoundly with my hon. Friend on the issue of sure start schemes, which have been tremendously successful. I have one in my constituency, and like that in my hon. Friend's, it has made a real difference. The challenge that we have to accept is not only to increase the number of sure start programmes, but to generalise the practice and experience of sure start, so that it spreads throughout pre-school education in her constituency and in mine. That is what we are trying to do.

I also take my hon. Friend's point about the importance of relations with parents. That is at the core of the sure start approach, and needs to be at the core of all our pre-school education. On language, all that I can say is that I heard what she has to say, and she makes an important point. Children of that age are obviously growing up in a society in which English will be the dominant language, and they should focus on speaking English well. That is an important part of the job—a job that exists both in school and in the home.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): Can the Secretary of State explain to the House whether he has reviewed the #50,000 barrier for specialist school status? It is an entrance hurdle that is proving a problem in many London boroughs, including my own of Bexley. On further education, which he touched on in his statement, can he assure us about the future of adult education colleges, many of which feel the squeeze? The issue concerns not just those who want to increase their skills for their working life, but the contribution to the community of those who have retired. Such people are increasingly feeling the squeeze because of the funding process for further education colleges such as Bexley college.

Mr. Clarke: For the third time, I am happy to confirm that we have looked again at the #50,000 figure, and in conjunction with the technology colleges trust we have set up a #3 million fund to help schools that want to be specialist schools. We have built the various partnership arrangements with a cash grant to reduce the #50,000 that they might have to pay, if they can demonstrate that they simply cannot raise the money by that means. We

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have heard the comments of many Members from both sides of the House, and of many schools, and have tried to respond constructively.

On adult education, the increase in resources for the Learning and Skills Council is extremely large. We believe that adult education is tremendously important, particularly issues of adult literacy and numeracy. Some 7 million people in this country still do not have basic level 2 skills. That is a blight on our system. A large amount of money is going into further and adult education because of the fundamental truth that we need to work much harder to ensure that people at all ages and levels, and of all skills, have the talents to meet the needs of the modern economy. That is where the resources will be targeted. That still leaves a place for adult education colleges of type described, which do tremendous work—I have taught in one myself—but the overall mission must be to raise the level of education and skills across the country, and in all areas.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Dennis Skinner.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I was having a very serious discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), Mr. Speaker.

I am not in the mood to be churlish because I went to see a consultant about 10 days ago and I got good news. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear."] However, the important thing is that Derbyshire authorities, including the authority in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), had a tremendous result of 12.5 per cent. in the local government settlement last Thursday. We hit the ceiling at 12.5 per cent. and Derbyshire county council got 8 per cent. There is no doubt that irrespective of any comments, the activity in education in the past three to four years has been tremendous, and we want to keep it going, especially in the coalfield areas that need rejuvenation. Keep up the good work—send the money to Bolsover.

Mr. Clarke: I am very grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks, and I am sure that the whole House will be pleased at his good news. He is right in what he said. We will keep the money coming, particularly to Bolsover.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Is it true that there will still be 65 separate avenues through which schools can claim money, even after the changes that the Secretary of State has made? Is he aware of the anxiety caused to many head teachers about the number of forms that they have to fill in? What is he doing to rationalise those forms and the system of grants?

Mr. Clarke: There are a couple of points to address. First, the vast bulk of money—about 99 per cent. of it—goes through six of those funding streams. It is true, as I announced in my statement, that we took six funding streams out this year, thus reducing the number from 71 to 65. I announced that we would take out another seven next year and further funding streams the year after. So we are steadily reducing the number of funding streams to reduce the complexity about which the hon. Gentleman and others have complained. He should not

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forget, however, that the overwhelming majority of resources are met through just six funding streams, and that is as it should be.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): My right hon. Friend will be aware that before last Thursday's announcement, every head teacher in Kent was briefed by Kent county council that they should be looking at 8 per cent. cuts in budget. Clearly, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was at one of those briefings. However, we now know that, overall, Kent will see a 6.6 per cent. increase in its education funding, which I welcome. In the context of increased devolution of education budgets, can my right hon. Friend reassure us that he will ensure that local education authorities get the funding through to the schools that need it? Will he also congratulate Kent county council on giving the news this weekend that Lawn primary school has made such improvements that the council is to keep it open?

Mr. Clarke: I am happy to congratulate Kent on its decision on Lawn primary school. I addressed Kent head teachers with the Conservative leader of Kent county council a couple of weeks ago and we discussed many of these points in a friendly and fraternal way. I am glad that some of the scaremongering that people engaged in before the local government settlement was announced last Thursday has been proved to be demonstrably false. The fact is that we have provided an increase for every school in Britain. Conservative Members should praise us for that rather than carping at us.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Secretary of State will recall that after five years of our pressing for it, the reform of the area cost adjustment has delivered a welcome substantial increase in the formula spending share for Cambridgeshire. However, the increase in the education formula spending share cannot be matched by grant because of the operation of the ceiling—only 70 per cent. of the notional increase is actually matched by grant. The Secretary of State referred to three-year indicative budgets. How is my local education authority to go about that process with the ceiling in place? Can it be lifted, for example, so that matters could be discharged in two years rather than three, or could we have indicative figures for the ceiling on grant changes in the two subsequent years?

Mr. Clarke: The reason that we have floors and ceilings—so-called—is that we want to ensure that none of the people who would lose most in any rejigging of the system lose as much as they might. However, that means that some of the people who might have gained most do not gain as much as they might. If we were to remove the ceilings for Cambridgeshire, we might have to remove the floors from some other counties, for example—

Mr. Damian Green: What about Kent?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman brings Kent into the equation and that is indeed an example. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) would like to discuss between themselves whether they want to

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remove the ceiling for Cambridgeshire and the floor for Kent, or keep the floors and ceilings in place. I shall be interested to hear their conclusion.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that his officials discuss with Lancashire county council at an early date the reorganisation of secondary schools in Burnley to recognise the fact that, for several years, we have had an admissions problem and that, this year, some parents set up a do-it-yourself school? Difficult decisions have to be taken. The resources are there, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that his officials discuss the matter with Lancashire?

Mr. Clarke: I am happy to guarantee that my officials will look at the situation in Burnley and if my hon. Friend would like to bring a delegation to meet the Minister for School Standards or myself to discuss the matter, we should be delighted to do so. It is important to acknowledge the fact that the existing resources—especially on the capital front—allow the resolution of some difficult long-standing issues such as those described by my hon. Friend. I hope that we can help to do that.

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