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House of Commons

Thursday 15 January 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Higher Education

1. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Which five local education authorities had the lowest percentage of students going on to higher education in 2003. [147866]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): The latest available figures are for students entering in 2002, and they show that Thurrock, Manchester, Hackney, Kingston upon Hull and Knowsley had the lowest proportion of 18-year-olds entering full-time higher education courses.

Mr. Pike : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but I am sure that he will recognise that, within Lancashire, Burnley has a low take-up of people going on to higher education. We need to encourage our schools to encourage their students to want to go on to higher education. However, does he believe, as I do, that his move to abolish up-front fees and to provide grants and other assistance is likely to remove the barriers that exist for lower-income families in areas such as Burnley?

Mr. Clarke: I very much agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. I know that he shares my view, and that of the Government, that improving the schools and basic education in Burnley is an important element in being able to achieve what we all want to do. I was in Lancashire on Tuesday this week and spoke to the leadership of the county. One of the issues discussed was investment in Burnley. We need to focus both on the schools and on the higher education package that is before the House.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): There is a substantial burden of new costs associated with the Government's Higher Education Bill—costs that have increased as a result of some of the concessions that the Secretary of State has been forced to make. Will the costs be met within the higher education budget or by additions to that budget?

Mr. Clarke: The former.

Mr. Yeo: If the costs are going to be met within the higher education budget, does that not imply that

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universities will not receive the full benefit of the income generated by top-up fees? If that is the case—and possibly even if it is not the case—is it not clear that the cap of £3,000 to the fees will mean that university funding needs cannot possibly be met by fees charged within the Government's cap? Will they not therefore be announcing quite soon an increase in that cap? Is the Secretary of State aware that any verbal assurance that he tries to give on this matter is undermined by the fact that the whole policy represents a breach of the promise that the Government made to electors less than three years ago?

Mr. Clarke: I explained very clearly to the House last Thursday the precise safeguards that we have in place to ensure that any increase in the cap would take place only after very full consideration and by a vote of every Member of the House. It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to make these observations when his proposals would take hundreds of millions of pounds out of universities and would reduce by hundreds of thousands the number of places available in universities.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that although we do well in terms of overall performance for A-levels and degrees, we have one of the worst performances in the OECD for young people staying on in education post-16? If more people are going to go on to higher education, is it not essential that when the educational maintenance allowance programme rolls out in September this year, the learning and skills councils and local education authorities have a real campaign so that we can get the issue on the radar of families who would otherwise ignore the prospect of staying on post-16?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything he says. The fact is that the early evidence on the educational maintenance allowance is very positive from the point of view of staying on. I am confident that the rolling out nationally from September that he describes will be very effective. That is the fundamental reason why we have decided to extend and strengthen the higher education grant part of our package that we shall be considering in the Bill later this Session.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD): The Secretary of State has just confirmed what we all know. Students from the poorest parts of the country tend to go least frequently to university. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the new scheme would be

However, the only way in which students from poor backgrounds will benefit financially under the new scheme, as opposed to using their grants to pay off their fees, will be if they go to some sort of second-class university where the fees are actually lower than the top-up fees. They can then use some of their grant for maintenance. Is that not a rather odd way of introducing more social justice? In effect, there will be a bribe for the children of poorer parents to go to second-class universities, thus leaving more places at the more prestigious universities for the children of the toffs.

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has it completely wrong. I do not know whether he would, for example,

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describe Cambridge university as a second-class university. With his educational background, he may do so. The fact is that the bursaries announced by Cambridge university of £4,000 a year for such students—

Mr. Rendel: Are they part of the scheme?

Mr. Clarke: They are entirely part of the scheme. It is as a result of the Office for Fair Access that these bursaries are being announced, and the £4,000 from Cambridge, plus the £1,500 grant, plus the fee remission mean that a student from a working-class background going to Cambridge will, in effect, receive £6,500 to £7,000 a year to deal with their expenses. That is a significant element, and I would not describe that as putting such students at a disadvantage.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I represent a constituency that historically has a low take-up of higher education places. While I recognise that certain measures in the Higher Education Bill will remove some of the financial disincentives for potential students, will my right hon. Friend outline the steps being taken to break down some of the cultural and aspirational blocks to students in areas such as mine?

Mr. Clarke: Higher quality schools is absolutely central to the specialist schools that I identified in particular, as is the education maintenance allowance programme—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) referred—to encourage students financially. The whole structure of apprenticeship skills training leading to foundation degrees and the higher education courses in further education colleges make university courses more attractive. There is a whole package, of which the Bill is just one part, to focus on the issue to which my hon. Friend referred of raising higher education take-up rates in the poorest communities.

Synthetic Phonics

2. Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the use of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading in primary schools. [147867]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The National Literacy Strategy has put phonics—synthetic and analytic—right at the heart of literacy teaching in primary schools. That has contributed to the sustained improvement in literacy standards among primary school children.

Mr. Gibb : The Minister may be aware that at the Kobi Nazrul school in a deprived part of Tower Hamlets, 92 per cent of 11-year-olds achieve level 4 in reading, while a school in a leafy middle-class suburb can achieve only 71 or 72 per cent. Is it the case that one of those schools places much greater emphasis than the other on synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading? Does the Minister accept that if he wants the delivery unit to

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report progress on his stalled target for reading, he must insist that greater emphasis is placed on synthetic phonics in primary schools?

Mr. Twigg: I also pay tribute to the school to which the hon. Gentleman referred and to others in Tower Hamlets, which have demonstrated the great importance of phonics teaching—including synthetic phonics—in primary schools. Prior to the national literacy strategy, many schools were using synthetic phonics barely or not at all. The take-up is much greater than it used to be. I am considering whether we should conduct additional research to evaluate the different programmes available, to ensure that best practice is shared among primary schools throughout the country.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Has not the literacy hour—which provides a framework within which teachers can use look-and-say, phonics and synthetic phonics—been an enormous success? Should not the Department identify good practice, examine professional judgment, and promote best practice?

Mr. Twigg: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Earlier this year, we published "Excellence and Enjoyment" to build on the success of the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies. Some 60,000 additional 11-year-olds are achieving at least level 4 as they leave primary school, which is important progress. As my hon. Friend said, the literacy hour and broader literacy strategy have been vital to the progress made by primary school pupils and teachers.

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