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Mr. McLoughlin: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I   think I heard the Secretary of State say that the Government are to publish a White Paper tomorrow. Bearing it in mind that they have designated today as the day to debate education, would it not have been more appropriate and courteous to the House to have published it today?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for me.

4.7 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I think that Members on both sides of the House would probably agree that the Secretary of State's speech was disappointingly thin, but let us begin on what I hope is a note of consensus: all Members of the House agree that schools, teachers and pupils are working very hard, and often very successfully. They are to be praised for what they do and congratulated on what they succeed in doing, despite the difficulties and challenges that they face.

The Chancellor boasted in his Budget speech of all the extra money he has put into education. To be clear, the   Conservative party does not doubt that he has put a lot of extra money in. We do not assert that it has all been wasted and we do not propose, contrary to the wholly unfounded assertions of Ministers, to do anything other than increase spending on education in general and schools in particular very strongly in coming years.

I hope that we hear no more of the juvenile nonsense that we heard today about the absurd fiction that Conservatives plan to sack every nurse, doctor and
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teacher in the country. Frankly, it demeans public debate when such charges are thrown around. For the record, and for the Secretary of State's benefit, we do not intend to slaughter the firstborn either.

There are, however, genuine problems with this Administration's education record. For example, the Select Committee on Education and Skills has pointed out that it is often difficult to see that the Government's education proposals have been properly thought out or that they are delivering appropriate value for money. It has warned that the Government should not continue to overclaim the effect of some of their increases in expenditure.

The Select Committee has also pointed out recently that the Government's city academies, although they are based on city technology colleges and therefore are not something with which we differ in principle, have yet—shall we put it mildly?—to prove their full successful potential.

This very morning, a programme for international student assessment, or PISA, study indicated that investment in high technology and computers, welcome though it is, is by no means guaranteed to produce higher outputs in terms of better exam results or a better   grasp of literacy and numeracy. The Statistics Commission has again warned the Government that they should not overclaim the progress on literacy and numeracy. I am delighted that this week, unlike last, the   Secretary of State seemed to heed that warning. The National Audit Office, no less, has pointed out that the   Government have spent £885 million on anti-truancy initiatives without making any progress. Indeed, on the Government's figures, truancy is now one third worse than it was in 1997.

Furthermore, calls have been issued by employer organisations, universities and others indicating increasing concern about the extent to which exams are not as robust as they ought to be. Clearly, when an A grade can be awarded in GCSE maths for 45 per cent. of the marks, or a pass mark awarded in one GCSE exam for 18 per cent., something is fundamentally wrong. This party has a strategy to reverse those problems, starting with a root and branch clear-out at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The Secretary of State appears to have no answer at all beyond a vague promise to examine A-level standards again in 2008. That is simply not good enough.

The Chancellor, in his Budget statement, used some interesting language:

He used the word "guarantee" twice. What does the Red Book say about those figures? On page 149, in a footnote, it states:

So much for a guarantee. Head teachers up and down the land feel that they have been here before, because the last time the Chancellor gave us such a Budget was in
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2002, which was followed by some of the most acute financial crises for many of our schools for 10 to 15 years or more.

We welcome the principle of additional sums being paid direct to head teachers, but we wonder why all sums are not paid direct to them, as they would be under the Conservative party's proposal to make all schools grant-maintained and to take local education authorities out of the funding process entirely.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): On the subject of guarantees and promises, will my hon. Friend confirm my understanding that our party is committed to the education spending plans of the Labour party? Therefore, were a Minister to come to Worcestershire to   promise the delivery of a new school—say, the Christopher Whitehead school in Worcester—that could equally be guaranteed under our party's proposals. What is more, our proposals would also guarantee a narrowing of the funding gap between Worcestershire schools and the shire counties schools, which has grown monstrously in recent years.

Mr. Collins: The answer is yes. Indeed, I, too, visited the Christopher Whitehead school a little while ago, and unlike the Minister for School Standards, I did not claim that only by voting for my party was there any prospect of that school getting additional funding. Since he was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that that school would get extra funding—which it has needed for at least the past eight years of Labour Government—only if Labour was re-elected, I am happy to confirm that it would of course get that money under a Conservative Government, along with a great deal more financial freedom.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): When I was chair of a finance committee in the metropolitan borough of Sandwell in the early 1990s, we had to make something like £8 million of cuts in Sandwell's education budget. Let us compare that with the growth in the education budgets for Sandwell under the Labour Government, which the Opposition have made a welcome commitment to sustain. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the essential difference that explains why such commitments can be made is that this Government have turned round the economy with a huge increase in public resources which can be invested in our public services? That was lacking under the Conservative Government.

Mr. Collins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that any increases in public spending in the future, under this or any other Government, will depend on the state of the economy. I must tell him, however, that the turnaround in the economy occurred considerably before 1997, and that the longest period of economic growth since records began—to which the Chancellor seems always to refer—started considerably before 1997.

All of us—Members in all parts of the House—accept that one decision by the Government for which they do deserve a great deal of credit, in the context of the present state of the economy, is the decision to make
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the   Bank of England independent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join in the joy and delight being expressed throughout the House that one party is still committed to an independent Bank of England—the Conservative party. All the others want to put it under the control of the European Central Bank.

Mr. Bailey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again.

If head teachers are to be trusted more and more with running their own budgets, even under the Chancellor's schemes, why are they not trusted to exercise the same professional freedom in deciding their own policies on admissions and exclusions?

The Secretary of State referred to the national literacy strategy. She used some very interesting terminology—terminology that I think she will find herself under considerable pressure to justify in the coming weeks and months. Of course she will not be responsible for these matters in the coming months; but she will be under pressure to justify it in the coming weeks, at least. She said—I think I quote her correctly—that she believed that the national literacy strategy was "almost entirely" composed of synthetic phonics. I must tell her that that is not the view taken by a good many distinguished experts, who point out that if synthetic phonics are to work, they must be used not alongside other approaches but first, fast and exclusively. How can any education system be seen as remotely satisfactory when—even according to the Government's figures, and even after the Government have dropped the pass mark—one child in four fails to reach the required standards in literacy and numeracy?

The Secretary of State also referred to the group of young people who are not in education, employment or training. No doubt we will debate that again tomorrow. She failed to mention that the number of such people has increased, not decreased, since 1997.

We thought that, in the light of weekend press reports, the Secretary of State might have something to say about the Government's response to Jamie Oliver's campaign for better school meals. We learned from The   Observer yesterday that the Prime Minister has apparently identified that as a high priority, and has   committed additional resources to it. The first thing that should be said is that no party that has been responsible for any part of education spending at national or local level in the past 20 years should be anything other than ashamed by what Jamie Oliver has discovered and publicised. It is clear that both resources and strategy have been badly wrong for many years, and they are still badly wrong today. Will the Secretary of State confirm, however, that the issue was barely mentioned in the five-year plan for education, sidelined in the three-year spending plans, ignored in the public service agreements, and not mentioned in the Budget?

It would have been helpful if the Secretary of State had been able to clarify—given that both she and the Prime Minister were quoted at great length in yesterday's and today's newspapers—whether they have identified a single penny of new money for initiatives in that regard, and where any such money would come from. When the Conservative party announces its
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response, very shortly, it will not take a great deal for that response to be considerably more substantive than what we have heard from the Government to date.

The Secretary of State rightly mentioned child care. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Secretary of State for the family, will set out our detailed proposals soon, but I   shall say a few words now. The Government have a mixed record—not a record of unmitigated failure, but not one of unmitigated success either. There has been a genuine and substantial increase in the number of state-funded places available in nursery education and child care places for very young children.

For that reason, I am happy to confirm again that we will preserve and improve Sure Start, and will not abolish or cut it. However, since 1997 there has been a sharp decline in the number of places provided by individuals and groups that are not funded by or subject to the direction of the state. There has been something of a failure to recognise or understand that parental needs and preferences are not uniform or identical. There has been little to no research into or focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of child care provided. In particular, there has been little analysis of why children aged 11 and above in Scandinavian countries seem to perform appreciably better than ours, even though they do not start formal education until the age of seven or later. In short, when the Chancellor announced in his Budget statement that he simply wants more years of education, rather than a focus on quality, many will have sighed with irritation rather than pleasure.

Our priority is not to spend less on education; it is to continue to increase spending strongly, but to spend the money more wisely. We will reduce the number of administrators in the Department for Education and Skills by two thirds, transferring all the money direct to the front line in schools. We will do away with the absurdity of the Government's top-up fees scheme, which will cost the taxpayer £1.1 billion a year, in order to give universities an extra £900 million a year.

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