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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman seen the Royal Economic Society report published today, the questions that it raises about the value of technology in education, and the finding that the more pupils used computers, the worse they got at the basics of arithmetic?

Mr. Willis: I confess that I have not read that report, but I have seen the announcements about it. We should not give way to that sort of neanderthal approach to information technology. The idea that using the internet and the huge resources available to youngsters in their home and in the classroom takes away from other aspects of learning is a nonsensical concept.

Many youngsters have internet access in the home, but 2 million children do not. Those who have access to the internet at home have a whole world of information at their fingertips. We should not deny those opportunities to children who are often the most needy. Research by the e-Learning Foundation shows that children of single parents are particularly at risk from digital exclusion, yet it is often they who would benefit most. Removing the digital divide is too important for any one party to address, and I hope that after the next election there can be an all-party taskforce to consider how we ensure that digital access is available to every child throughout the country.

The commitment to primary school refurbishment is welcome. An additional £9.4 billion of expenditure to rebuild or refurbish half our primary schools over 15 years is ambitious, but the programme will not start until 2009, and without careful strategic planning at local level we may see what we have seen at secondary level—the development of a two-tier primary system, with thousands of schools still out of the programme by 2020.How do the Government intend to prioritise the primary school rebuild programme? Will it be done through local education authorities or will it, as happened with the secondary programme, be directed from the Secretary of State's office? Can the Minister confirm or knock on the head the impression that the new resources for rebuild will be given only to projects where extended school provision is offered? Will voluntary-aided primary schools be included in the programme? Where they serve communities with open admissions, as is usually the case in rural areas, will they receive 100 per cent. capital support or will they have to provide the capital element? That applies particularly to the Church of England, which is the main provider of primary education in rural areas. In other words, will the voluntary-aided capital programme and the capital programme for controlled schools come together?

The development of new, exciting primary schools will make a real difference to the learning opportunities of our youngest children, but I think that the Secretary of State will agree that it would not make as much
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difference as allowing children to be taught in small classes by qualified teachers supported by trained teaching assistants. The Prime Minister often boasts about what the private sector has to offer in education, but the key selling point in any independent prep school prospectus is not about buildings but about children being taught in small groups. That is because any parent or teacher believes, as all the research confirms, that giving children greater individual attention when they are developing their learning skills pays massive dividends in later learning.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab): We would all agree that smaller class sizes are highly   desirable. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman accepts, per capita funding for students in the independent sector is at least double what it is in the state sector, and that is after this Government have practically doubled per capita funding. Class sizes of 15 would be marvellous, but how does he propose to pay for them?

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I am coming to that point. It is important not to have fanciful economics in terms of how we will pay for election promises.

The Government have done a good job as regards early years. We support the Sure Start programme, and it is good to hear Conservative Members say that they will support its continued roll-out. We support the extra 3,500 early years centres by 2010, and that will certainly be in our manifesto. But I ask the Minister this: why compromise that huge achievement by moving children from groups of eight, or at the most 12, in nursery classes to groups of 30 or more when they reach infant classes in primary schools? I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that that does not make sense.

The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 said that there could not be more than 30 children in a class, but the response of the Department for Education and Skills to a recent parliamentary question shows that a significant numbers of classes in our infant schools have   more than 30 children in them. There are good explanations for that, so I do not think that schools are bypassing the policy. I think that there are about six categories under which children who arrive in an area may join a class and thus take its size above 30.

If we are talking about investing billions of extra pounds into early years education, why compromise that if there is another way of achieving the objectives? Liberal Democrats have chosen to invest resources to reduce key stage 1 infant class sizes to 20. That would require employing 15,000 more infant teachers, so the project is large. We would pay for that by scrapping the   child trust fund. We have always made it clear that it is far better to invest in children when they are five and six than to give them something that they can cash in at the age of 18, so we have made a policy choice. We could use that £1.5 billion to give our youngest children the best chance that they have ever had at the beginning of their school careers.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The aim of having infant class sizes of 15 is highly desirable, but if primary schools continue to admit similar numbers of children as at present while they are taught in classes
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of   30, it is logical that schools will need twice as many rooms and that the internal layout of schools will need to be completely reconfigured. How would the hon. Gentleman overcome that problem?

Dr. Desmond Turner: Liberals do not like minor details.

Mr. Willis: With due respect to the hon. Member for   Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), either we will have a sensible debate in the House on an important issue, or we will not. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made a sensible intervention. I   actually suggested class sizes of 20, not 15, but the logic behind what she said was right. The Government are putting more than £9 billion into a primary school build programme, so we would prioritise that and ensure that additional classrooms were available to accommodate additional teachers.

I also tell the hon. Lady that the demographic trend shows that the number of children coming into our primary schools is significantly down. Something in the region of 6,000 classrooms and teachers will become available simply because of falling rolls. It is logical to the Liberal Democrats that rather than allowing those teachers simply to go out of the door through redundancy or retiring early, let us use them as part of our recruitment of 15,000 teachers and ensure that they are working with our youngest children to give them the start in life that only the wealthy could afford in the past. The Conservative party and the Government might not accept that that would be a proper use of the £1.5 billion that the Chancellor has set aside for the child trust fund,   but the Liberal Democrats will go into the election saying that giving children a flying start to their education is our priority.

I was pleased that the Chancellor indicated in his Budget statement that he was adopting a Liberal Democrat policy that he heard first at a conference of the Association of Colleges—I think that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury was at the conference this year. I spoke at the conference about a policy of colleges for the future. The Liberal Democrats have always asked what is the point of renewing all the schools when what is often needed in communities is new colleges. To be fair, the Chancellor has come on to that ground and given an extra £350 million for the final two years of the spending review, which will make a total amount of £1.5 billion. That welcome new money should be seen as a down-payment. I hope that, when the Secretary of State makes her statement on skills at the Dispatch Box tomorrow, she will say more about that capital investment in our stock. If we could bring together the   colleges for the future and schools for the future programmes and view them as one entity, we would do an enormous amount to build an infrastructure for our young people in the future.

The Liberal Democrats would like the £5 billion of capital resources that is earmarked for the increasingly discredited academy programme to be used to rebuild and build facilities for 14 to 19-year-olds. We will make a quantum leap in the 14 to 19-year-old programme to   improve our depressing figures for truancy, school exclusion and so on. If we give young people a flying
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start and wonderful options at the age of 14 to 19, including the exciting things that the hon. Member for Norwich, North mentioned, we will keep kids in our schools and in learning, feed into industry and higher education, and have well-motivated and qualified young people.

When the Economic Secretary winds up, perhaps he could say a little about whether the 35 per cent. ceiling on what the Learning and Skills Council can give as a capital grant for rebuilding a college will be retained or whether colleges will get access to 100 per cent. capital funding in the same way as schools if they rebuild their kit. It is grossly unfair that one sector gets 100 per cent. funding from the state and another, which we regard as crucial, does not.

Although the Chancellor has at last acknowledged the need to invest in further education stock, today revealed another example of the scandalous injustice that affects two thirds of our 16 to 19-year-olds—the 700,000 people who study in FE colleges. Those young people, who disproportionately come from poorer, less traditional and less affluent backgrounds, are short changed by the sum of approximately £500 a year—a loss of some £500,000 to the average FE college.

The Budget was an opportunity to make some progress towards the commitment, made during the passage of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, that schools and colleges that delivered the same programme would receive the same funding. Five years on, the gap is 12 to 14 per cent., despite initial claims to the contrary by the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education in a parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) on 21 February. When I challenged the Minister, he admitted in a parliamentary answer on 17 March that he   had conveniently dealt with only part of the funding gap in his reply to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green. He stated:

We welcome that acknowledgement because we have never had it previously.

We are committed to creating a level playing field between schools and colleges for revenue funding. However, it is difficult to quantify the problem when   Ministers refuse to provide accurate information about the funding gap. Will the Secretary of State agree   to place in the Library—it would be good if she   did it now—the recently completed report of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which the   Learning and Skills Council commissioned? It quantified the funding gap and is the definitive research into that. We therefore know what we are talking about. I hope that when the Economic Secretary responds, he will give a commitment about when that research will be published so that we can all have access to it.

Further education is constantly left out when we discuss education in the House but it is crucial if we are to deliver the skills agenda that the country needs. It cannot be right that lecturers in FE colleges are paid on average 8 per cent. less than teachers in schools, and that gap must be closed. It cannot be right that the facilities in our FE colleges are often outdated and overcrowded,
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or that enrichment programmes are often decimated in order to make a budget's ends meet. This hardly shows a commitment to world-class vocational options.

Yet, as sharp-end delivery struggles for resources, there appears to be little brake on the spiralling cost of administration. Administrative costs for the Learning and Skills Council have now rocketed to a massive £330 million, with additional administrative costs added to almost every programme. I hate to give succour to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, but these spiralling costs represent a real issue that needs to be addressed. There is no one else in the Chamber at the moment who sat on the Learning and Skills Bill Committee, but we were told at the time that huge savings would be made by moving from the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils to the new Learning and Skills Council. However, in 2000—the last year in which they operated—the FEFC spent £29 million, and the TECs £118 million, on administrative costs. Yet, four years later, the administrative costs of the Learning and Skills Council have spiralled to £330 million. That is a huge additional cost, yet we were told in 2000 that there would be a £50 million reduction as a result of the introduction of the LSC.

The 47 regional learning and skills councils have grown like Topsy. They now have huge bureaucracies to deal with relatively small amounts of money, yet any major decisions get referred to Coventry. The adult learning inspectorate now spends £28 million a year, and   the new Sector Skills Development Agency—the Government's pride and joy—now has a budget of £188 million over the next three years. I want to know what all these organisations actually do to add value to the front-line services that are delivered in the workplace and in our colleges.

The Liberal Democrats believe that it is time for a radical realignment to simplify the structure and to amalgamate the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency with the regional development agencies to form single regional skills and development agencies. We need to slash red tape and bureaucracy, and use the savings to bridge the funding gaps in colleges so as to provide the resources to skill our work force. Further education and the skilling of the nation are crucial issues, and we are delighted that the   Secretary of State is to come to the House tomorrow with a new statement. In the meantime, I   hope that the Minister will be able to respond to a number of the issues that I have raised today.

5.22 pm

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