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David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman has leapt from the assertion that standards in our schools are not rising to the contention that standards are therefore falling. Surely the two are not necessarily linked.

Mr. Gibb: There is no evidence that standards are rising, despite masses of claims made by Ministers and others that they are. It is important that politicians study the data honestly and give them detailed scrutiny to ensure that we are not being fed misinformation about what is going on in our schools. If we do not do that, we cannot develop policy based on what is really happening.

The Labour manifesto clearly said that the Government would increase the amount of setting, but six and a half years later there is no increase in the amount of setting in our schools. Some 62 per cent. of lessons in our comprehensive schools take place in mixed-ability classes. The response from the Department for Education and Skills has been to argue that the evidence on setting is mixed. That is the view that one would take if one merely read the summary of the literature prepared by the state funded National Foundation for Educational Research. The actual literature shows clear and strong evidence in support of setting or streaming.

The two key protagonists in this debate are Robert Slavin, who is against setting, and J.A. Kulik, who is pro setting. Slavin argues that setting works against egalitarian, democratic ideals by sorting students into categories from which escape is difficult or impossible, whereas Kulik argues that setting results in significant increases in educational attainment, especially if the curriculum content is tailored to ability levels. I think that it is absolutely clear from the data that setting works and that it particularly helps children from non-academic backgrounds and ethnic minorities.

The DFES's response is to say that most core subjects are setted in our schools and that the 62 per cent. of lessons taking place in mixed-ability classes are just for non-core peripheral subjects. Is the DFES saying that 62 per cent. of lessons are non-core and peripheral? Does it mean that history and geography are peripheral? Just 26 per cent. of history lessons are setted; just 24 per cent. of geography lessons are setted. Therefore, three quarters of lessons in those important subjects take place in mixed-ability classes.

The vast majority of maths lessons are setted—the figure is 80 per cent.—but in science the figure is only 60 per cent. In modern foreign languages, it is only 59 per cent. What about English? Is not that a core subject? In English, just 45 per cent. of lessons are setted.

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In 13 per cent. of schools, there are no setted lessons at all. No one should be fooled by the claim that specialist schools are changing all that. The proportion of lessons that are setted is precisely the same in specialist schools as it is in non-specialist schools.

There is no doubt that Ministers face enormous difficulties in challenging the status quo and the dominance of education academics, whose influence flows deep into the veins of our state education system, but it is time that politicians started to represent the genuine concerns of parents, to tackle the controversial issues that lie at the root of the poor performance of British education, and, particularly Ministers to apply themselves to challenging the false statistics and surveys that are designed to conceal that failure from policy makers. That failure remains glaringly apparent to parents.

5.31 pm

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): I want to return to the issue of university and student funding. When the Secretary of State concluded his remarks, he said that the Government had the courage to reform. In my short contribution I will try to encourage them to be even more courageous than they intend to be.

I support the Government's moves to grasp the nettle and to address what is an important issue. I fully support many of their objectives. They want to increase provision for the sector, which is essential. I know from first-hand experience of the universities close to my constituency that it is easy to see the signs of underinvestment. The capital backlog in our universities needs to be addressed. Teacher:pupil ratios have been deteriorating. Urgent issues of academic pay need to be addressed, so it is right to get additional resources into the sector—it is right for universities, for students and, of course, in the long term, for our country.

The Government want to improve access and participation levels. That, of course, has to be right. They want to plan to meet rising demand for universities. That also has to be right. The principle of asking graduates to contribute more to help to meet those costs is also right. That principle was established in Dearing. I have heard no serious approaches or suggestions that go against that.

I welcome the Government's intention, in embarking on further reform, to abolish universal up-front fees, because there is evidence that that has placed strains on family budgets. I also welcome another objective: in the longer term, the Government want to begin to shift the distribution of taxpayers' subsidy towards those in younger age groups in the education system. That is an important long-term investment and will help us to address the access issue.

Having said that I support all those objectives, I suppose Ministers may wonder why I have signed early-day motion 7. It is because there are some problems with the proposals as formulated. As I say, I want the Government to be more courageous.

My view of what the problems are largely comes out of the big conversation that I have had on that very subject in my constituency with Warwick and Coventry universities, their vice-chancellors, senior administrators, staff and students unions, who have

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helped me to think about all the issues involved in the reform. I want to acknowledge the help that I have received from sixth form students at Aylesford, King's High, Kinglsey, Myton, North Leamington, Trinity and Warwick schools in my constituency, whose valuable input helped my thinking on this important subject. Following my discussions with those groups, four main concerns have emerged.

The first is the 50 per cent. target, which has got in the way of a proper focus for the debate. It is too blunt and, if anything, too modest. Currently, we have 43 per cent. participation and we know from trends in the numbers getting two good A levels and in demography that another 250,000 places will be demanded shortly in any event, taking us close to the 50 per cent. target. Getting that figure into the debate has blunted the argument. We need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve in the longer term and to be more ambitious, although not with a target in mind. We must then be prepared to put funding in place to help deliver that ambitious growth.

The second area of concern has come largely from the universities and concerns displacement. If the additional income comes in from top-up fees, there is concern that the Government might at some point in the future claw back the taxpayers' contribution; not within the current comprehensive spending review, but beyond it. Universities will be looking for a long-term contract with the Government if we continue in this general direction of reform, which is the right one.

The third area of concern is variable fees, which have been addressed by many hon. Members this afternoon. I accept that we have a multi-tier university system already; the issue is whether we are to mitigate or aggravate it. The evidence I have is that most universities will go straight for the full £3,000. After all, the real range for them is under £2,000, as they are already getting just over £1,000 from fees that are currently in place; the lift in income is not even £3,000.

I have a suspicion that many in the Russell group are settling for £3,000 to get the principle of top-up fees established and will want to move to higher fees quickly after that. We must be more confident that the scheme that comes in will be sustainable and will not be a staging post towards the creation of an inaccessible British Ivy League.

The fourth area of concern is debt. Evidence as to whether there is a debt deterrent is inconclusive, but it is clear that students of today and tomorrow see it as a growing problem. We need to bear in mind the fact that we are talking not just about tuition fees, but about maintenance costs.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am not going to have the time to do so.

I want to run through some proposals and suggestions. First, the Government could do more to bring in certainty. Students anticipating the scheme want to know what the full fee element of their entire course is to be and want that to be transparent from the outset. If we have that, might we also have some payment flexibility? I welcome the abolition of universal upfront fees—it is better that they be replaced by fees

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payable after graduation—but many students would like flexibility and to retain the option of paying as they go to pay down the debt that they will face at graduation. Many would prefer to make ongoing contributions to the cost while they are at university, rather than face it all as a debt at the end.

If we set up a system whereby an account is opened for the student when the course starts and they or their parents can pay down the debt, whatever debt remains at graduation will be what is payable afterwards. I urge the Government to consider that issue.

We could consider another area of flexibility, which offsets the area that I have just mentioned. We should perhaps allow a period of deferral after graduation, before debt repayment starts. Many students have expressed to me their concern that the debt will become repayable as they start work—at just the time when they are perhaps buying a house and incurring all manner of other expenses. The Government should be prepared to consider deferral for a period of years, on the understanding that the debt will accrue a real rate of interest while deferred. It is not realistic to expect deferral free of charge.

I urge the Government to look again at the proposed reintroduction of grants to see whether they can be raised to a more realistic level. As has been suggested, some funding for that would be available if we did away with fee concessions. We should also look again at the link with the education maintenance allowance, which will be set at £1,500. Many youngsters who qualify for it will, on entering university, discover that their grant is only £1,000. That is a step down in educational support, and we need to smooth out that difference.

I urge two long-term reforms on the Government. The British university sector is very bad at raising income from endowments, which is currently running at 1.8 per cent. of total university income. We need to get that figure higher. May we discuss with the universities, and perhaps with the Treasury, introducing tax concessions to help build up sizeable endowments in the long term? The bare bones of the second long-term reform that I urge on the Government are already there. Can we not consider allowing people to convert into education trust funds the child trust funds that we are introducing? Where parents or youngsters want to do that, the Government could make a further contribution at the point of conversion. When such funds finally matured—I accept that this is a long-term reform—many youngsters would have in their possession a nominated fund that would meet the full extent of the cost of their university education.

These are, I hope, constructive suggestions that the Government will take on board. If the Bill can be improved and made a little bolder and more courageous, they might find that it commands the support of the House.

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