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Vocational Training

7. Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon) (Lab): What plans she has to increase the take-up of vocational training in schools and colleges. [223604]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): In both the skills White Paper and the 14 to 19 White Paper, we have set out a series of reforms that should lead to an increase in the number of people undertaking vocational training in schools and colleges. Our plans for specialised diplomas, access to high quality training facilities and targeted support for employers and individuals will make a real difference to vocational training.
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Mr. McWilliam: I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer, but may I put to her the fact that, in too many schools, those pupils who wish to undertake a vocational course are still not regarded with the same esteem as those pupils who wish to undertake an academic course? May I also put it to her that the real wealth of this country is based on those pupils who complete a vocational course, rather than those who complete an academic course?

Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. May I say how much I have valued his contribution to the House over the years, not least during our dealings in the Finance Committee? It is imperative that we raise the esteem of vocational training and that our young people realise that vocational training and education is valued in our society. I think that we can do that by involving employers and higher education institutions in the design of the curriculum that young people follow. They can thus learn the subjects that they want to learn in the way in which they want to and in the place that motivates them. When we achieve that, rationalise vocational and academic qualifications and introduce new specialised diplomas that are recognised by young people, parents, employers and the higher education sector, we will transform the opportunities available for young people.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the Government on now taking seriously vocational training, and thank them for what they are doing. However, how would the Secretary of State respond to Mr. Mark Vinall of South East Essex college, who asked me yesterday why in the White Paper the Government have failed to meet the needs of vocational learners? He states that they are protecting A-levels at the expense of vocational learners and that that is a missed opportunity. How would she respond to Mark Vinall's comments?

Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations, although I am now a bit confused about whether he supports the 14 to 19 reforms. We have preserved the best of both by preserving qualifications—A-levels and GCSEs—that are recognised by parents and valued by employers and HE institutions, and combining the opportunity to study for those qualifications with truly high-quality vocational training. Such vocational training will be designed by employers and the HE sector so that there are real routes for progression. When we combine the best of both, we will offer young people, for the first time, a high-quality, valued route including vocational training.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): Is it not the case that people have been confused for years because of the morass of vocational qualifications and that that has led to their devaluation in the marketplace as seen by parents, users and employers? Addressing that is thus the key to success in achieving parity of esteem. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that a key factor is the fact that places such as Rochdale are offering the education maintenance allowance for the first time, which means that it now has the highest staying-on rate in its history and the biggest take-up of EMA in the north-west? Will she give us more
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information about the eight pilots that are to be rolled out throughout the country, which were announced by the Chancellor in the Budget, that will give £75 to people who have not stayed on in education or training in order to encourage them to do such education or training? To my mind, and certainly to that of my constituents, that will be of huge benefit when trying to ratchet up skills, as well as educational attainment.

Ruth Kelly: I agree with my hon. Friend—as always she is spot-on. At present there are 3,500 vocational qualifications, which makes things confusing for employers and HE institutions, and most confusing for the pupils themselves because they do not know which courses will lead on to further qualifications, or the right courses to pursue for their careers. She is right to draw attention to the education maintenance allowance. Our pilots show that the staying-on rates among young people in the target groups drawing EMA increased by 5.9 per cent. That is why the announcement in the Budget that we will pilot a combination of such allowances and children's benefits to attract young people who are currently not in education, employment or training to do some real training, which will in turn get them a job, has the potential of ensuring that all young people stay in training or learning of one form or another right up to the age of 18 and beyond.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend comment on a headline in a newsletter that has been widely circulated in my constituency, which reads, "Fees for school sixth forms planned for Blair's 3rd term"? Is there any foundation at all for such a headline?

Ruth Kelly: Absolutely none.

Repayment of Teachers' Loans Scheme

8. Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): What recent representations she has received about the annual review mechanism of the repayment of teachers' loans scheme. [223605]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Dr. Kim Howells): My right hon. Friend has received a small number of representations, including one from my hon. Friend, appealing against the removal of individual teachers from the repayment of teachers' loans scheme as a result of failure to complete the annual review process.

Mr. Challen: May I respectfully remind my hon. Friend of the correspondence that I entered into last month about the case of my constituent, Emma Seymour, who did not return her form in time, because it was sent to the wrong address? She claims that she told the Student Loans Company that she had informed it of her change of address, but it did not have any proof. It is difficult to prove that one has informed someone of a change of address. Does he agree that the rules are designed to penalise fraud, and are not meant to penalise
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bona fide hard-working student teachers? Will he agree to meet me to discuss the case to see whether there is a way through?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend will know that the annual review mechanism was built into the RTL scheme because it is essential that teachers verify annually their eligibility for the scheme to safeguard the large amount of public funds that are involved. I understand that, partly as a consequence of discussions about this case, including my hon. Friend's strenuous efforts, the SLC has undertaken to review the appeals procedure in such cases, including Miss Seymour's. It has said that any changes that are to the advantage of the cases under review will be implemented without delay. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that he will be able to meet the appropriate Minister from my Department.

Teaching Staff (York)

9. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What the change in the number of (a) teachers and (b) classroom assistants in schools in York has been since 1997. [223606]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Twigg): The number of full-time equivalent teachers in York local education authority has increased by 100 since January 1997 to 1,390. The number of teaching assistants has more than doubled by 260 to 400 over the same period.

Hugh Bayley: I am very pleased that York schools have more teachers and, as a result, smaller class sizes. Does the Minister agree, however, that the quality of teaching is just as important as the number of teachers? Can he tell the House what help the Government are giving teachers to enable them to keep training throughout their professional careers, so that they continue to improve the quality of the lessons that they give children?

Mr. Twigg: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ofsted has said that we have the best-ever generation of newly qualified teachers, which is clearly a cause for optimism. The House is currently considering the Education Bill, which will extend the remit of the Teacher Training Agency to oversee teachers' continuing professional development. That will be extremely important in ensuring that we continue to have the very best teachers.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): When I visit schools in my constituency head teachers tell me that they are deeply concerned that the amount of core funding relating to the employment, recruitment and retention of teachers has gone down under the Government. There are more grants than core funding, which does not provide the security that head teachers would like. What is the Minister doing about that?

Mr. Twigg: The hon. Lady is right that there are concerns about the number of ring-fenced grants for which schools must apply, which is why we are moving to a system of a single grant for schools. We are
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consulting with schools, teachers and local education authorities to give schools the simplicity and the certainty that the heads in her constituency would like.

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