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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) has covered the ground fairly well. The key point that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) did not make in his summary of the position in Leicestershire was not to pay sufficient attention to the inheritance that our Government acquired on 1 May 1997, in terms of the condition of the
 
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capital assets of local education authorities and the condition of schools—the absence of ICT networks, the leaking roofs and the poorly equipped laboratories.

Such things need staff and revenue funding to support them in the medium and long term. No one denies that; but wherever one turns in north-west Leicestershire one can see projects that have benefited from the more far-sighted and generous approach adopted over the last eight years. One can see the laboratories at Castle Donington community college, the IT area at Ibstock community college and the major classroom complex at Broom Leys primary school, which had the highest number of mobile classrooms of any school in the whole of north-west Leicestershire until the problem was tackled relatively early on in the Labour Government.

Mr. Robathan: My experience before May 1997 was not quite as the hon. Gentleman states. There were problems in education then, and I raised them with the Conservative Government at the time. Were there any computers at Ibstock community college, where there is such wonderful IT provision, before 1997?

David Taylor: The number of computers installed has been significantly increased. Of course, technological development has meant that they are much more powerful and more important in the curriculum and other aspects of the school. No one is suggesting that the Labour Government are responsible for technical development in the world of ICT—although there may be a line in the manifesto that we have not yet seen to cover that.

I have already referred to Warren Hills community primary school and its head, David Lloyd. There, I also met Noel Melvin, the principal of King Edward VII community college—an upper school in Coalville—and the head teacher of Castle Rock high school in Coalville. The fabric of that school, like that of a good number of other Leicestershire schools, was built in the mid to late 1960s and has started to deteriorate in a major way. During the period of office of the hon. Gentleman's party—between 1979 and 1997—the school was never able to obtain funding.

I am pleased to say that, a few weeks ago, I attended the launch of the major building work that is taking place at Castle Rock high school. That is the sort of thing that parents in the Coalville area, which is that school's catchment area, will take into account on general election day, whenever that may be—it may be June 2006; we do not know—but we must not let people take for granted the capital improvements in the infrastructure of schools in north-west Leicestershire and, indeed, the county of Leicestershire. No one suggests that there are not continuing problems. There will always be problems in an education system that attempts to reflect a rapidly changing society and an ever more complex economy. There will always be competing demands and shortfalls relative to the desired expenditure and the projects that need to be financed.

The hon. Member for Blaby mentioned planning, preparation and assessment, and he is right to suggest that schools are concerned that that must be funded from 1 September 2005. I hope that the Minister will have some words of encouragement in relation to PPA. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that he
 
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supports the principle of PPA, so do I, and as with a good number of initiatives over many years, the funding of the initiative is as important as its objectives and underpinning principles. Without funding, initiatives will not be successfully implemented and, in some cases, can be counter-productive.

One of the first Adjournment debates that I initiated during the 1997 to 2001 Government related to bureaucracy and paperwork in primary schools. It is true that the smaller the school, the greater the number of hats that individual teachers need to wear.

Mr. Reed: I have written to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and others about the consultation on the school funding arrangements. If, like me, my hon. Friend has visited a school and the head teacher has shown him the accounting books for the previous standards grants, he will know that they are extremely complex and run to many pages on many different aspects of those grants. Does he agree that the new single standard grants will make an enormous difference by simplifying the accounting that takes place?

David Taylor: That is undoubtedly true. I ought to declare an interest: my wife works in the office of Ibstock junior school and a good deal of the paperwork that she tussles with daily could be disposed of if the funding systems were rather more streamlined. It is certainly good to know that there has been some incorporation of one-off standards funds into the main grant distribution formula, but a lot more could be done in that regard.

The Minister has a great deal to answer in the debate and much of what he says will be positive, but I wish to make a final point. I am not known as a knee-jerk loyalist, and the Whips and the hon. Member for Blaby would assent to that assertion.

Mr. Robathan indicated assent.

David Taylor: No doubt, the Whips would like such things to happen more often.

I have raised one thing frequently with Education Ministers. In fact, I shall bring a delegation from a number of schools in the Ashby area to see the Minister's colleagues on 22 March to talk about funding and the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and the hon. Member for Blaby. However, the one thing that concerns me above all others in relation to the Government's plans for the world of education and the role of local education authorities—in this case, Leicestershire county council—is that there has been a great deal of talk about the direct funding of schools. The Government have not announced their intention in that regard, but it seems to be an open secret that, some time in a third term, that might emerge as a principle for education funding. I would regret that in a number of ways because it would result in the final enfeeblement of LEAs.

Although some LEAs have not been successful, particularly in cities, our own LEA in the county of Leicestershire has been a leading-edge authority. It has been successful in community education and in funding music and the arts over a long period. It has been regarded as one of the leading authorities in handling
 
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special needs. Indeed, it was—and bravely for an authority that had been Conservative controlled for a long time—in the vanguard of comprehensivisation long before it became a national requirement.

I would regret the enfeeblement and disbandment of the local education authority of Leicestershire. As far as I am aware, Labour has never controlled it—certainly not in the post-war years. We were in the lead on the authority for long periods between 1974 and 1997, but we never had a majority. My remarks are therefore not driven by any political motive, but I would regret the ending of the LEA even though direct funding would at long last tackle the problems that underpin what we are debating. The problems of pockets of deprivation in what is an otherwise prosperous area would, at least and at last, be tackled effectively by the schools in Loughborough, Coalville, Hinckley and in parts of the constituency of the hon. Member for Blaby. They would receive the funding that is appropriate for their particular needs.

I shall listen closely to the Minister's response. Although it may be invisible to us, I am sure that he has hidden about his person a cheque, which is dated tomorrow, in which the words "Leicestershire county council" appear in the column for the payee. I look forward to hearing that good news.

9.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Derek Twigg): I might disappoint my hon. Friend on that, but I hope that my speech will reassure him about what is happening to education in Leicestershire.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on securing the debate. I know of his concerns on this issue and the work that he has done previously. My hon. Friends the Members for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) are also true champions of schools in Leicestershire and have put education at the forefront of their work in the House.

I would like to start by talking about the performance of schools in Leicestershire. When we speak about education, it is important to recognise the outstanding work that is carried out in our schools. I am pleased to say that the figures published in April 2004 show that there are now 2,500 more teachers in schools across the east midlands than in 1997. The number of support staff has increased from 11,000 in 1997 to 20,000 in 2004. In Leicestershire, regular teaching numbers have increased from 4,800 in January 1998 to 5,220 in January 2004—a 9 per cent. increase. Over the same period, the number of school support staff working in the county rose by 73 per cent.—from 1,660 to 2,880. The teacher vacancy rate in January 2004 was 0.2 per cent.—just 10 vacancies.

I would like to put on record my gratitude for the work of those teachers and pupils in Leicestershire who have been responsible for significant improvements in the quality of education in the county. For example, the percentage of pupils leaving primary schools in Leicestershire and doing well in English by achieving level 4 and above has risen from 66 per cent. in 1998 to 80 per cent. in 2004, which is two points above the national average. In maths, the increase has been from
 
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62 per cent. to 76 per cent.—again, two points above the national average. I am sure that the House will agree that that represents outstanding work in primary schools.

For the transition to secondary school education there is equally impressive evidence of what is happening in Leicestershire at key stage 3. In English, provisional results show that 80 per cent. of pupils achieved level 5 and above in 2004, which compares well with the national average of 71 per cent. It represents a rise of six percentage points in Leicestershire pupils' achievement since 1998. In mathematics, 81 per cent. of pupils achieve level 5 or more, which is eight points above the 2004 national average of 73 per cent. and a significant increase on the 68 per cent. in 1998. I am pleased to see that the number of Leicestershire pupils achieving five A to C grades at GCSE has continued to increase and is now above the national average.


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