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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): New clauses 1 and 2 are important, because they give the House the chance to look very seriously at OFFA. In this context, I must allude to some remarks that I made earlier about Ofsted. Unfortunately, my new clause, which would have made OFFA into a body more like Ofsted, did not get the attention of the Speaker, but new clauses 1 and 2 bring to the House's attention the strength of OFFA. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made some telling points when he spoke earlier, but I disagree with him on the strength of OFFA. If we are to intervene effectively in what is an education market whether we like it or not, whether we would like to reshape it or not, and whether it is imperfect or not, we need the tools to do so. We had a good debate on how people can assess the market and adjust it for the benefit of all participants. OFFA is one of the instruments that could be used to make an imperfect market a little more perfect.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the use of the word "market" has heavy political and social implications, especially for Labour Members. Although he accepts that there is now a market in higher education, does he agree that neither the current situation nor that proposed in the Bill will by any means produce a free market? The market is extremely restricted and contained, so that term must be used with the caveat that we do not, and will not, have a free market.

Mr. Allen: The pretence that there has ever been a wholly free market—which is a theoretical concept—is an offence to logic, but it is equally an offence to logic to pretend that we do not currently have a highly distorted market. The problem is that if we want to clean it up and to the use the language of the market, people unfortunately bring to the discussion a lot of emotional baggage about what that means.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell kindly alluded to my remarks in Committee on how a distorted market affects my constituency. Nottingham, North

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sends the fewest young people to university of any constituency in the United Kingdom. The people in Nottingham, North are not congenitally thicker than people elsewhere, but their life chances are perverted at an early stage because the market of brains, ability and talent is not allowed to work. The way to solve that is not to preserve the current system in aspic, but to take on the market, make sure that it works effectively and remove as many of its imperfections as possible.

One tool that we can bring to bear on that process is OFFA. Unlike the hon. Member for Epson and Ewell—on occasion I have disagreed with Ministers, too, on this—I feel that OFFA is not the tiger that we need, but something of a pussycat.

Jonathan Shaw: If we all agree that admissions are the sole responsibility of the institution, what additional powers does my hon. Friend advocate that OFFA should have?

Mr. Allen: I shall gladly explain my request, but my hon. Friend will be bored because he heard it all in Committee. We have heard from Opposition Members, whose view is honest and sincere, that we need a light touch, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education has taken that further by saying that we should have a light touch but not a soft touch. However, I think that we need a slightly firmer hand on this particular tiller. Statistics tell us that over the past 40 years, working-class kids' chances of getting to university have not improved one jot. There are still only 20 per cent. of working-class kids, and fewer in my constituency, who make it to university. I do not want to rush into legislation, to use the term of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, but concluding a 40-year experiment is not rushing. The need to ensure that the talent that is out there is allowed to breathe, and that talented young people realise their full potential, is long overdue. People whom we represent feel that it is long overdue, as does our party.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend knows of my admiration for what he is doing in Nottingham, North to put right what has been wrong for far too long in terms of opportunities for children. However, does he agree that in the period since 1997, we have had the right strategy of intervening as early as we can, with Sure Start, free nursery places, and massive investment in primary, junior and secondary schools and in education maintenance allowances? All of us will agree that in one sense, 18 is too late. We must make the intervention earlier.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench repeat over and over, rightly, that the subsidy for education, which everyone in this country should be proud of, is far higher at the latter end of education than at the earliest moment. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee for repeatedly renewing calls on Sure Start, on all our schemes to improve emotional intelligence and social behaviour before school and on the effort to bring literacy and numeracy into play at primary school. When those measures were introduced, none of them found much favour from Opposition Members, but Ministers

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pushed them through with the support of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, and they are starting to make a real difference.

I repeat that the life chances of young people in my constituency and in the constituencies of many colleagues are not falsified at the age of 18; the dice are loaded from birth, and sometimes before. We need to examine a much wider picture and ensure that the money goes in at the earliest possible opportunity. If youngsters are allowed to flourish prior to going to school—we have all read primary school Ofsted reports from difficult parts of our constituency—they will benefit massively from the education on offer. That is how we must look at this particular question, and we must ensure that the process is pursued right up to the age of 18, through an OFFA with teeth.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Given how my hon. Friend described his constituency and his constituents, does he think that they would agree with the wording of new clause 1, which describes equality of opportunity as desirable? Would he choose a stronger form of words?

Mr. Allen: I would choose far stronger words, and I did so in Committee. I still hope that the Government might consider my proposal. OFFA is essentially a reactive body. If we look at the way in which it was created through the consultative paper, and the way in which we talked about it in Committee, we see that OFFA is reactive to whatever universities propose in their access plans. However, I want OFFA to make proposals, to be innovative and to tackle some of the problems and their causes, just as we would expect any other body related to educational institutions to do. If Ofsted goes into one of my local primary schools, it comes out and produces not just a bland report on achievement but a sharp report on what is needed in that school, and on how to support teachers and end the problems that have caused under-attainment. Similarly, I want action-oriented proposals from OFFA.

I know that we have had to compromise to get parts of the Bill through, but we must return to that matter at an appropriate point. That is why one of my amendments in Committee referred directly to a proposal of the Chairman of the Education Committee, which has done such superb work in this field. Although it was able to undertake only brief, if comprehensive, pre-legislative scrutiny of the provisions, one of its proposals was that we review the operation of OFFA and see whether we can take it further and give it more teeth, so that we can assess how the problems are being tackled, rather than just providing a snapshot of those problems. I hope that the Minister will take up that idea informally, even if it is not passed as an amendment to the Bill.

2 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I do not think that anybody in the House would disagree with the premise that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward—that generations of young people in many constituencies have been denied access to higher education as a result of low expectation, and often as a result of low standards in local education authorities and schools. We both start from that point. What worries me about his language is the idea that, in a

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constituency such as mine, where about 70 per cent. of young people enter some form of higher education, those very young people should be penalised as a result of their efforts and the fact that many of them have been born into lower or middle-class families. Does he agree that it should not be a question of either/or? We are not seeking to replace certain groups of students with others. That is what worries us about the whole issue of social engineering within this framework.

Mr. Allen: Of course it is not a question of either/or, but let us be absolutely clear about this: social engineering is already happening, and we need to recognise it. There is already a market, and we need to recognise that. If we think that the current market is imperfect, which it is, and if we agree that the current social imbalance, which certainly exists, has not arrived by accident and is wrong, we need to do something about those things. The pertinence to the new clause is that OFFA potentially gives us a way to strengthen the teeth that will allow talent to flourish—not to give anybody an easy ride, not to give anybody access to university who does not have the qualifications, but to ensure that the abilities that are out there are allowed to flourish. It is a way of freeing up the abilities, not forcing people into university. In many ways, the hon. Gentleman is setting up a straw man, because the people who would like that the least would probably be those who were forced into a university when they knew perfectly well that they were not qualified. I accept that he was not intending to say that.

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