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Orders of the Day


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [16 March.]


Motion made, and Question proposed,

Question again proposed.

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

3.46 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): Last week, the Chancellor set out the Budget choice facing our country: to continue to build on a platform of sustained economic growth and investment in the future of our country through education, skills, early years provision and child care, or to cut £35 billion from public services. That is not a question of potted plants at the Department of Trade and Industry, as the   hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr.   Collins) suggested last time we debated the subject in this place—no, it is a sum equivalent to every teacher, doctor and nurse in this country.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): Is the Secretary of State seriously telling the House that she wants people to believe—I dare say that she does, so rather does she believe herself—that any incoming Government would sack every nurse, teacher and doctor? Why does she not treat these debates with a degree of seriousness?

Ruth Kelly: Is the shadow Secretary of State disagreeing with his own shadow Chancellor that a £35 billion cut from public services is "vast", as the shadow Chancellor said on "Breakfast with Frost" last week? Does he agree that £35 billion of cuts is vast, or not? Can he confirm that he would match the £9.4 billion spending programme that the Chancellor announced to rebuild or refurbish every primary school in Britain? Can he confirm that he would make the extra spending on Sure Start, skills or junior apprenticeships, or make the £1.5 billion investment in further education colleges?

Mr. Collins: Yes. Now can we have a real debate?
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Ruth Kelly: I am delighted about that, because the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said that those are non-priority areas. Indeed, when he was shadow Secretary of State for Education he described Sure Start as the beginnings of the "nanny state".

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Perhaps we could address issues that mean something to the people who may be watching this debate instead of engaging in the usual political knockabout. Will the Secretary of State tell the House exactly what is happening to adult education funding under her Government? The Sidcup campus of Bexley college has certainly been hampered for funds and does not see the fabled growth that we hear about from Labour Ministers.

Ruth Kelly: It has increased; indeed, it has increased significantly, and I shall come to the House tomorrow to talk further about that. We are making unprecedented investment not only in skills, but in further education colleges to update and transform them to deliver the skills that this country needs.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Coming back to the question posed by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about whether the Conservatives would slash everything if they were in government, they would take us back to the old days when we had fewer teachers and doctors and were knocking down schools and hospitals. That is the sort of policy that they want to pursue, and he is not being honest about that. This is not knockabout—it is serious stuff.

Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I   am delighted that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has now committed his party to doubling spending on Sure Start over the next three years and having 3,500 children's centres in this country. That is not what his right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has set out in his medium-term fiscal strategy, which says that spending on schools and child care social services will be protected, but that there will be a freeze in the non-schools budget.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The Secretary of State has been advised robustly by my hon. Friend the   Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr.   Gibb) about the desirability of using synthetic phonics in the effective teaching of reading. If she agrees with that proposition, will she confirm to the House that we will not have to put up any more with the ramblings of Kimberley, Meek and Miller, who are three so-called experts in the teaching of reading? They are on record as saying:

The right hon. Lady had the good fortune to have a privately financed education, but millions do not and never will. Is not that sort of nonsense responsible for the destruction of the life chances of a generation of school pupils in state schools in this country?
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Ruth Kelly: I am pleased to say that the hon. Gentleman, whom I admire greatly, is right on the subject of synthetic phonics. We have a synthetic phonics strategy in our schools—it is called the national literacy hour. We introduced it in 1998 and its approach is now almost entirely based on synthetic phonics. Indeed, if   hon. Members look at the results of the Clackmannanshire study, to which I believe the hon. Gentleman is referring, they will find that they are remarkable compared with those of control groups in Scotland that do not use synthetic phonics. However, if its results are compared with those under the national literacy strategy taught in England, the gap is not the same. He will agree with me that it is right to teach our children phonics. I want that teaching to be ever improved in our primary school system.

It is our ambition to be the best-educated, best-trained and best-skilled country in the world. All the evidence shows that if we really want to offer children the best start in life, we must invest in the early years. That is why children and families are at the centre of our strategy. It is right that we do more to support parents and families with young children.

The children who face the greatest challenges in learning to read and write need to be helped at an early stage. By 2008, we will be investing almost £1.8 billion in Sure Start, thus doubling the funding available now. Over the next five years, early years will become a fundamental part of the welfare state which will be able to respond to the varied needs of children and families. By 2010, we will extend from 500 to 3,500 the number of Sure Start children's centres, so there will be one in every community offering information, health care, family support, child care and other services. We will extend the free early education entitlement for all three and   four-year-olds to 15 hours a week, thus working towards our goal of 20 hours a week.

We must continue to invest in our schools and to reform them so that we drive standards ever higher, promote good behaviour and widen opportunity. All parents have the right to have their children educated in modern facilities and orderly classrooms with strong discipline and good standards of teaching. We now have   more teachers than before, with more than 28,000 recruited since 1997. There are now 105,000 more support staff in our schools.

The standards of teaching are better than ever before. Our children are gaining the best results ever at age 11,   GCSE and A-level. Those results compare with the best in the world, but we must go further. Some 78 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieve level 4 in English and 74 per cent. gain level 4 in maths, but we know that the chance of children achieving five good GCSEs is almost seven times higher if they reach those expected standards. We must support teachers in driving standards ever higher. To do that, we need to focus on the needs of every child and have first-rate places in which children can learn. Last week, the Chancellor announced the 15-year programme to rebuild or refurbish all our secondary schools to world-class standards. He said that that strategy would be extended to all our primary schools.

For those children who have not reached the expected standard in literacy and numeracy by the end of their primary school education, we will continue to place a
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relentless focus on the basics at secondary school, thus ensuring that every child who leaves school is equipped with functional English and maths for work and for life.

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