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13 Mar 2003 : Column 417—continued

School Buildings

6. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): What steps he is taking to improve school buildings. [102704]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): Since 1997 almost £10 billion has been made available to meet priority building needs in schools. The Government have recently set themselves the aim of ensuring that secondary education facilities in every part of England are rebuilt and renewed to 21st century standards, while we continue to improve the quality of provision in primary schools. My written statement to the House on 26 February outlined a new approach to achieve that goal, starting with £5.1 billion available in 2005–06. We are now consulting widely on those proposals.

Syd Rapson : I thank the Minister for his informative answer. Will he lend his support to the Paulsgrove and Wymering learning community project, which has replaced five elderly schools with one new multi-million-pound state-of-the-art facility that will enable the whole community to benefit from education, not just the children at school?

Mr. Miliband: I think that I am right in saying that I met some of the parents, teachers and pupils from the Paulsgrove area when they came to the Jubilee Room to make a fascinating presentation about their education project. I am extremely tempted to make a friend of my hon. Friend by promising my support for his application to the private finance initiative round currently under way—but I fear that if I do, I will also make a large number of enemies. However, I promise that the application from Paulsgrove and Wymering will be taken seriously, as will all the applications for the current round of PFI funding.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I acknowledge the fact that schools' capital funding is

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better now than it was during the deplorable previous 20 years. However, there is a still a huge backlog of work; across the country there are more than 20,000 temporary classrooms which should be replaced. When will we see a scale of funding that acknowledges that problem and establishes an organised replacement programme for temporary classrooms throughout the education system?

Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman was on firm ground with the first half of his question, and I agree that there have been major steps forward. He should know that this year about £3 billion is being allocated to capital improvement, but by 2005–06 it will be £5.1 billion, which is a major improvement by any measure. He is of course right that too many schools are in need of major investment—an investment to which we are committed. The plans that we announced a couple of weeks ago set out a bold vision for education investment on the capital side, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will see the benefits in his constituency, as we all will all over the country.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): One of the most remarkable achievements of the past five years is the way in which primary school results in coalfield communities have been catching up with those in the rest of the country for the first time ever. On the allocation of resources, so that we can finish the job in secondary schools, will the Government take due notice of the fact that we have an over-representation of clapped-out buildings? Give us the buildings and tools, and we will finish the job at secondary level.

Mr. Miliband: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his commitment to education and social renewal in coalfield areas. I think that I am right in saying that we may discuss the issue later this Question Time, and I look forward to that. I can assure my hon. Friend that his commitment is recognised and that the bids that are in at the moment will be taken seriously.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): How can schools in West Sussex continue to maintain their school buildings when, as a result of the second lowest increase in central Government funding and a 22 per cent. reduction in the school standards fund, they face a cut in funding of between £40 and £55 per pupil? Is it the Government's policy that West Sussex should be socially excluded from the Prime Minister's commitment to education?

Mr. Miliband: It is very unwise of the hon. Gentleman to start talking about cuts in education when his own Front-Bench spokesman on Treasury affairs has committed his party to a 20 per cent. cut in Government funding for public services. He is unwise to venture into that area. I urge him to be extremely cautious about bandying around figures for cuts when every authority in the country was guaranteed an increase of at least 3.2 per cent. per pupil in the education funding settlement announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions in December.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): My hon. Friend is on record as saying that if children are to attain the best

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possible educational standards they need to be taught in modern school buildings. The children in my constituency are being taught in some of the worst buildings in the country, and teachers are working hard to try to improve standards. When will my hon. Friend attend to the appeal made on behalf of the local education authority, governors and teachers, and myself as MP for Normanton, to ensure that we get the buildings that children are entitled to if they are to receive the best possible education?

Mr. Miliband: My hon. Friend has been pressing the case for Normanton schools with real passion. Previously, he has put a similar question to my hon. Friend the junior Minister—[Laughter.] I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), who was doing such an able job earlier in allocating responsibilities. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the commitment that he seeks for his constituency is shared by the Government. We hope to come forward with our response in the not-too-distant future.

Student Debt

7. Sue Doughty (Guildford): If he will make a statement on current and projected levels of student debt. [102705]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): The average publicly owned debt of a borrower with a new income-contingent loan, entering repayment in April 2003, is estimated to be £7,240. Information on students' private-sector debt, such as overdrafts and other commercial loans, is not available centrally. The student income and expenditure survey 2002–03 will collect information on younger full-time students' current debt and expected debt on graduation.

Average levels of student debt for future cohorts of leavers will depend on a number of factors, including average course length, the proportion leaving their course early, and the proportion of loan entitlement actually borrowed.

Sue Doughty : I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware that high levels of debt form a real deterrent to disadvantaged and low-income groups, such as the ethnic minorities, single parents and women? What assessment has been made of the impact of that debt on those groups?

Mr. Clarke: I am aware that debt can act as a disincentive in precisely the way that the hon. Lady has suggested. A number of research projects, including some commissioned by my Department, illustrate the points that she makes. However, in connection with the higher education White Paper, it is important to set the debt issue against the fact that we intend to allow students to defer the up-front fee of £1,100, which at present they have to pay. We also intend to raise the repayment threshold to £15,000—to make repayment through the tax system more affordable—to maintain the fee-remission scheme for students, and to reintroduce grants of up to £1,000, so that students from lower-income backgrounds have more money to live on.

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Also, any debt incurred will of course be based on a zero real rate of interest, not the sort of rate involved in using a Barclaycard, or in a car loan or mortgage.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Many adults who enter university education have to give up jobs to do so. When they return to the labour market, they may not find jobs that are better paid than what they gave up, but they decide to go to university not to enhance their financial status but because their interests in education change, and they want to move into other things. Will not those people be deterred from making such a decision if they think that they will be left with debts that they might not be able to handle?

Mr. Clarke: I accept that mature students enter university and higher education for a variety of motives that are different from those of people who go straight from school. That is one reason why the proposed £1,000 grant will go directly to independent students of the type described by my hon. Friend. It is also important to note that any debt repayment is entirely income contingent, with a £15,000 basic level. If the individuals concerned earn less than that when they go back to work, they have to pay nothing. If they earn, say, £20,000 a year, they will have to pay something of the order of £38 a month. As I said to the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty), I acknowledge that this is a legitimate issue, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that we are trying to take steps to deal with it.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The Secretary of State has just mentioned the welcome reintroduction, proposed in the White Paper, of maintenance grants worth £1,000. However, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Welsh National Assembly has already introduced Assembly learning grants of £1,500. What discussions is he having with the National Assembly to secure a transfer of responsibilities and funding in connection with student funding, to ensure that students in Wales are better off as a result of the White Paper, and not worse off?

Mr. Clarke: We are discussing, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, the Wales Office and the Welsh Executive, precisely those questions. However, detailed work is being done to assess the financial implications of the sort of change that the hon. Gentleman suggests. It will be some time before we can come to a firm view on this and make the proper assessment. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when we have come to that view we will publish the information so that people can see clearly the basis of any judgment that we finally make.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government are impaled on a hook of their own making on the issue of student debt? Will he now drop his target of 50 per cent. going to university—a figure rejected by most institutions, parents and students—which would be responsible for pushing up the cost of higher education by so much? Does he not understand that most young people want to go to university where they meet the academic requirements and do not want to be saddled with massive debts for years afterwards or to have their

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admissions decided by a regulator who attaches more importance to their parents' income and education than to their own academic achievements?

Mr. Clarke: The last point is total nonsense. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the proposals to widen access to 50 per cent. of the population are not generally welcomed. They have been widely welcomed both by the higher education sector itself and by all those concerned with the future of the economy. That is for the very good reason that in future the competitiveness of the economy will depend on high-level qualifications, and jobs will be for people with such qualifications, rather than for people who leave school at 16. That is why we focus on that. I know that the Opposition want to shrink university education and go back to the days when between 6 and 8 per cent. of the population went to university, but that simply shows how out of time they are.

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