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Adult Learning

7. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): If she will make a statement on funding for adult learning in (a) 2006–07 and (b) 2007–08. [22047]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The Government are broadly maintaining overall public spending to support adult learning, on average, until 2007–08, but we are shifting priorities in line with the national skills strategy to provide more longer and expensive courses to equip adults for employability. Less public funding will be   available for   leisure and recreation, so adults in non-priority areas will need to pay more, but at an average hourly cost of £1.94 by 2008, I think that is still a very good deal.

Kelvin Hopkins: Last Friday the Learning and Skills Council announced that there would be 230,000 fewer adults in education by 2007–08. Surely that contradicts our commitment to lifelong learning. Will the Minister look again, seriously, at funding for adult education?

Bill Rammell: That figure relates to publicly funded adult education. Part of the strategy means that if adults   value the provision, we must ask them to pay a little more. Faced with a choice between supporting adult skills for the purpose of employability and to drive up productivity, and supporting adult leisure and recreation, I am convinced of which is the higher priority and where the money should go.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): Notwithstanding the Minister's desperate spin, just six   days ago he announced swingeing cuts in the Learning and Skills Council's funding of shorter adult   education courses. Where is the freedom for further education colleges when they are forced to remove half a million places—half a million people's chances to learn skills that, in today's world, the country desperately needs in order to meet the demands of local businesses? Is the Minister proud of the fact that he is scrapping courses leading to, for instance, a certificate in care skills, a foundation certificate in meat and poultry hygiene, a Red Cross qualification in preparing for an emergency, the award in providing a healthier school meals service, or the St. John's Ambulance lifesaver for babies and children?

Bill Rammell: There is no reason why our funding announcement should mean that those courses will go, but I will take no lectures from the Conservative party about further education funding. In the past eight years,   the Government have increased the funding by 48 per cent. in real terms. Let us compare and contrast that with the 15 per cent. real-terms cut that the Conservatives delivered during their last five years in power.

The key question for the Conservatives is this. If they   disagree with our strategy, what would they do? In   the absence of a willingness to spend more public money, if they do not agree with our priorities, what would they cut in order to fund theirs? Funding for
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16   to 18-year-olds, the roll-out of the national employer training programme, or funding for adult basic skills?—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is answering the questions today.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that adult learning courses are provided at Worcester sixth-form college and Worcester college of technology, both of which are in my constituency and both of which are excellent institutions. There is, however, no post-16 provision in local secondary schools, although that does not apply elsewhere in Worcestershire. My constituents are at the wrong end of a 13 per cent. funding gap. When will it be closed?

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): When there is a Tory Government.

Bill Rammell: When there is a Tory Government—the Government who cut further education funding by 15 per cent. during their last five years in power.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) is particularly concerned about the issue that he has raised. I shall be meeting him shortly to discuss that and other issues. We have taken action to reduce the funding gap between further education and schools without putting schools at a disadvantage, and over the summer my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools gave a commitment that we would try to tackle the funding anomalies between sixth forms and further education. We hope to make an announcement in the coming weeks.

City Academies

8. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect of value added tax on city academies. [22048]

The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith): My officials have had a number of discussions with Her Majesty's Treasury and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs officials about VAT and academies. We are also having discussions with academies about the issue.

Simon Hughes: What we want is an answer. The Minister will know that when the Prime Minister attended the opening of the new buildings of the City of London academy in Bermondsey on 12 September, he gave a paean of praise to city academies, including these words:

If that city academy must now find an extra £3.5 million so that it can open its doors to after-school, weekend and community activities—and the director of education for Southwark has made it clear that it will not be possible to deliver the programme that was intended—will Departments get their act together, sort
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out the problem and prevent that threat, involving millions of pounds, from hanging over not just our city academy but every other city academy in the country?

Jacqui Smith: I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but we need to be clear that the specific issue under discussion does not prevent academies from providing community use of their facilities. It does limit their ability to charge for such use, which is an important issue that we are absolutely determined to sort out. That is why, for example, my officials are already working with the academy in the hon. Gentleman's constituency to consider ways of managing the situation and the practicalities of academies reclaiming VAT and accounting for output tax over the economic lifetime of the building. But I share his concern and I want to ensure that we sort this matter out. We are committed to doing so because we are committed to ensuring that academies play that role at the heart of their communities.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): May I raise with my right hon. Friend another problem? These VAT rules mean that there is a strong bias in   favour of new construction, rather than the improvement and conversion of existing buildings. That is why Newcastle's Liberal Democrats, when they asked the Government for a city academy, decided to close a perfectly good large school in my constituency with the   largest ethnic minority student intake in the city. Does she recognise that precisely this difficulty will apply to foundation schools and to future trust schools?

Jacqui Smith: I do not accept my hon. Friend's final   point. There is a specific factor relating to the independence of academies that leads to the particular VAT issue that we are considering. I do not know the details of the school to which my hon. Friend refers, but we should remember that such things are happening in Newcastle and other authorities in the context of considerable extra investment not only through academies, but through the building schools for the future programme, which will increasingly lead to new build and much higher quality school buildings—including across our entire secondary estate—over the next 15 years. But where there are specific, small, technical but nevertheless important issues that prevent us from achieving modernisation and community use of such facilities, we will of course work across government to sort out the situation.

Looked-after Children

9. Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): What steps she is taking to tackle academic under-achievement by children in care. [22049]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): Improving the educational achievement of looked-after children is a key priority for this Government. Thanks to the significant sums that we have invested, especially through the quality protects and choice protects programmes, we are making some progress. We are building on this in a number of ways—for example, via
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the duty on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children that we introduced earlier this year.

Ms Johnson: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. As a former chair of social services, I know from first-hand experience that a high priority has been given to looked-after children—a development that started under my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St.   Pancras (Frank Dobson). I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the large number of young people and children who are on the at-risk register. What steps can she take to encourage that group to do their very best in education?

Maria Eagle: I am happy to join my hon. Friend in commending my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson), whose intervention in this matter as Secretary of State for Health in 1998 is still remembered very well by those responsible for looked-after children. However, we still have to do more. My hon. Friend referred to children on   the at-risk register, not all of whom would be looked-after children. There is no doubt that such very vulnerable children can face far more obstacles in ensuring that they progress as well as other children during their school years. The increasing emphasis that   we are placing on targeted and personalised support—not only for the gifted and talented, but for the vulnerable—should ensure that such children get the proper support that they need when they need it, in order to overcome the extra obstacles that they face.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that children who languish either in institutional care or, indeed, in serial fostering arrangements face particular challenges, anything that the Government can do on that front to improve their prospects will be warmly welcomed on both sides of the House. May I ask the Minister in particular what is being done to ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for such children, first, for reading, and secondly, for adequate and monitored homework?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman raises some important points about stability of placement. One of the real difficulties that some looked-after children have in doing as well as they should at school and reaching their potential is that they are frequently moved—whether it be from foster placement to foster placement or from school to school. That often presents difficulties, making it more likely that such children miss more chunks of their schooling than others. We need to do more and we have a target to try to ensure greater stability in placement, which the Department is currently striving hard to reach. The further effort that we are going to put into targeted and personalised support—identifying the needs of these children through the children's trust arrangements, which will ensure that every child has more support at an earlier stage—will be an important step forward and help to ensure that these children are not left behind, languishing at the bottom of the pile, as too many of them currently do.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating
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Collingwood college of Durham university in my constituency on its excellent mentoring scheme, whereby university students mentor looked-after children in the area, help them with their studies and, most importantly, raise their educational aspirations? Will she look into ways of fully recognising and expanding that scheme?

Maria Eagle: I would be happy to pass on my congratulations to the college and institution that my   hon. Friend mentions and to the people who are doing that work. I am looking into seeing what further proposals we can make to improve the opportunities for support and extra help that looked-after children receive, and I am convinced that improving the reality of   corporate parenting and improving the reality of mentoring, support and high aspiration for each individual child who is looked after has to be a way forward. We need a pushy parent for every one of these children and I am looking into ways of carrying that forward.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): One of the great unsung scandals of the education system is the achievement of looked-after children across all the qualification ranges. She quite rightly mentioned the problem of multiple foster placements. If   a child is moved from one end of an authority to the   other, the continuity and stability goes and, unsurprisingly, the educational achievement lapses. Does the Minister agree with our proposals for authorities to have a cap on the number of foster placements that can be made in a year for a particular child, other than in exceptional circumstances? That would help to give them stability at the same education provider.

Maria Eagle: We are pursuing that aim—I agree that it is important—to improve the stability of the lives of looked-after children so that they do not have multiple placements. The hon. Gentleman referred to a cap, but it   is hard to impose a cap because of—[Interruption.] The problem is that individual circumstances make it difficult. Our target will, however, focus the minds of local authorities—it is already doing so—on increasing stability. That involves fewer placements for individual children, but there may be circumstances in which it is right for a child to move from one placement to another. That mitigates against the use of something as inflexible as a cap, but there is no disagreement between what the   hon. Gentleman said and what we think about the importance of stability in the lives of these children.

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