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Education Maintenance Grants

8. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of education maintenance grants on post-16 participation. [147873]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): In the evaluated pilots, the number of 16-year-olds participating in full-time education increased by 5.9 percentage points. That represents a significant increase, and reinforces the importance of extending education maintenance allowances to 16-year-olds in all parts of England from this September.

Mr. Barnes : I welcome that reply—and I do not normally say that.

I recognise that the scheme must be phased in, with pilot schemes followed by participation by 16-year-olds. Some students in the second year of their national vocational qualifications courses are not eligible, but learner support funds provide one-off grants for the purchase of books and equipment. Could provision be extended so that people do not miss out entirely during their later years of study?

Mr. Lewis: One of the proposals in the skills strategy that we launched in the summer is to allow young people in full-time education beyond the age of 19 access to maintenance grants. That will give them a new opportunity. However, we will also try to ensure that all learner support funds are used to support young people, raise their aspirations and enable them to stay in education—especially those from communities in which that is not currently the norm.

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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Given that those who stay in education after the age of 16 earn more in later life than those who do not, would it not be consistent with the Government's other policies for them to charge fees for their education rather than giving them money?

Mr. Lewis: No, it most certainly would not. Let us consider the logical conclusion of the Conservatives' higher education policy. They would tell 16-year-olds "Take an education maintenance allowance, but you cannot have a university place." The Conservatives would reduce the number of places significantly, and which young people would lose out? Those who were eligible for the allowances.

Nothing changes in terms of the dividing line between the Government and the Conservatives. We want everyone to have equality of opportunity.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I welcome the rolling out of maintenance allowances across the country to regions such as mine, but will the Minister ensure that his AimHigher programme continues to be funded? I have seen it operating in schools in my constituency, encouraging young people in years 9 and 10 who would otherwise not even have thought of going to university to begin planning their school careers with that in mind.

Mr. Lewis: I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue that programme, which has been very successful in persuading young people that higher education is a serious option when it has not been on their radar screens hitherto. The combination of our investment in Sure Start, our school standards agenda, the work of the Connexions service and our proposed reforms of education for 14 to 19-year-olds is helping young people to fulfil their potential in a way that has not been possible before.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): With the maintenance allowance, the Government have established the principle of using taxpayers' money to encourage students to go on learning, thus gaining wider career opportunities and greater earning potential. Can the Minister explain how that policy is consistent with that of variable tuition fees, which is predicated on substantial student debt, with students having to repay money because of the possibility of those wider career opportunities and greater earning potential?

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman has clearly taken advantage of the literacy programme, but not of the numeracy programme. As a consequence of the proposals presented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week, the reintroduction of a maintenance grant to support young people while they are undertaking higher education is entirely consistent with education maintenance allowances. If the Higher Education Bill were voted down, what the Conservatives would be voting for would be no maintenance grants and the continuation of up-front fees.

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Valerie Davey (Bristol, West) (Lab): I welcome the maintenance allowances that reached Bristol in the roll-out programme this September. Does the Minister agree that such direct funding on an income-related basis encourages more young people from low-income families to consider going to university?

Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely. The important thing about increasing access to university is enabling far more young people to gain the necessary qualifications by the age of 18 and getting them to believe that university is a serious option. That is how we will widen participation and genuinely ensure that higher education is available to all who want and are able to pursue it in our country.

School Budgets

9. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of local education authorities from Norfolk and Suffolk to discuss school budgets for the next financial year. [147874]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets representatives from Norfolk on a regular basis. This year's package of funding includes a targeted transitional grant made available to local authorities, which would otherwise have the smallest increases in support for education over this year and next. Norfolk is eligible for £5.3 million and Suffolk for £3.1 million.

Mr. Bellingham : Has the Minister had a chance to see the recent article by Steve Downes, the education correspondent of the Eastern Daily Press, who flagged up the possibility of £400 million being necessary to repair and upgrade Norfolk schools, given that one in nine classrooms in the county is below the accepted standard? He will also be aware that I am very concerned about the reorganisation in the Hunstanton area, which will require an upgrade. We are very grateful that Norfolk will benefit from a substantial private finance initiative project, but what is our share of "Building schools for the future" likely to be?

Mr. Miliband: I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman asked that question. I follow Steve Downes's articles in the Eastern Daily Press carefully—especially when the hon. Gentleman shows them to me just before Question Time. I am glad that he referred to the increased capital funding for Norfolk. The "Building schools for the future" programme is designed to enable every local education authority in the country to modernise the secondary school estate over the next 10 to 15 years. The funds will be distributed on the basis of need, the power of the educational vision to deliver on improved standards, and the capacity of the LEA to deliver the programme. We are waiting for the bids to come in, and the moneys will be allocated on that basis.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): May I ask my hon. Friend not to listen to what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said about

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school buildings in his county? I taught in Norfolk for 10 years before entering the House in 1997. I can tell my hon. Friend that many of the schools then were rotten and had leaking roofs; that many of the children were taught in sheds called "mobile classrooms", except they never moved; that the Tory county council was proud of how little it spent on education under a Tory Government; and that there has been huge extra investment since 1997 in Norfolk and Suffolk. The hon. Gentleman's point was completely wrong, and the remaining defective buildings are remnants from the dark days of the Tory era.

Mr. Miliband: I am glad that my non-aggression pact with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) can now be abandoned and that I can make it absolutely clear that capital funding, which was a mere £4.9 million for the whole of Norfolk in 1996–97, is now £39.7 million. That puts right the dark days that were left to us.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): Is the Minister confident that the transitional target money to which he referred in his answer will help all the schools that set either a deficit budget or used reserves or money for capital projects to balance the books this year, or will we hear more from schools in East Anglia about teachers being laid off and staff being cut?

Mr. Miliband: What we will hear more of is the Conservative lead spokesman on education in Norfolk county council, who says that the money to which the hon. Gentleman referred will replace the funding that was missing last year. In fact, he went on:

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