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2. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
(Con): What criteria are used in selecting books to be given free to pre-school age children under the Bookstart programme. 
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): Bookstart is administered by Booktrust, an independent charity that invites all UK publishers to submit books for consideration. If accepted, they are generally acquired from sponsoring publishers at a fraction of the usual retail cost. Booktrust chooses books on the basis of quality and adherence to safety standards, as well as content and suitability. It operates a selection panel that meets approximately every six to 12 months. The panel consists of librarians, health visitors, speech and language therapists, early-years educationists and Bookstart team members. It is independent and has no Government involvement.
Tim Loughton: May I add my support for the invaluable work that Booktrust does and for the Government's support for the Bookstart programme? We all know that reading between parents and very young children, which is an important part of attachment theory, can help their development later. What is she doing to ensure that as many parents as possible are able to access this scheme, particularly if they have reading difficulties themselves? Given the great expertise shown by this charity, which has been going since the 19th century, will she ensure that the choice of books and materials is left to the experts at the charity, and is not undermined by the heavy hand of political correctness and interference from within her Department?
Maria Eagle: We do not interfere with the way in which Bookstart carries out its functions. We encourage all parents, local authorities and Sure Start units to make sure that they take advantage of it. Between 2005 and 2008, we expect to give out 4.5 million books. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports the aims, which are to enable and support children's early communication, language development and social and emotional development, and to get parents used to reading to their children and sharing storytelling and rhymes. That will assist all children who are able to access the scheme to develop to their full potential.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Minister mentioned the number of books that she anticipates being distributed. What is her assessment of the impact that the scheme will have on improving reading standards, and how will that be measured?
Maria Eagle: We always evaluate such schemes. Obviously, it is too soon to do so in this case. The scheme is going national, in its three different phases, from this year. There will be evaluation, but it stands to reason to expect that children who read early and often, and who get into the habit of doing so with their parents, will develop earlier the kind of skills that they need to succeed in school.
3. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire)
(Con): What assessment her Department has made of Sir Andrew Foster's report on the further education sector; and if she will make a statement. 
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The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): Sir Andrew Foster published his report "Realising the Potential: A review of the future role of further education colleges" on 15 November. We think that it is an excellent report. It sets out clearly and convincingly the priorities that we must address. We want to take time to consider the report in discussion with colleges and other stakeholders. We shall announce in the spring the next stage of our reform of further education.
Mrs. Dorries: The Minister will be aware of the significant funding gap between FE colleges and mainstream schools. She has said that she will close that gap by only half. Given that, according to the Association of Colleges, our FE colleges take many children from poorer backgrounds, does she really believe that teachers in FE colleges should be paid less than those in secondary education?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Lady is confusing two things: the funding gap and how we fund further education colleges, and the use of the money that we grant to further education colleges. Over the past eight years since 1997, funding for further education colleges has increased by 48 per cent. in real terms. Furthermore, last week, I was able to tell the Association of Colleges that we have proposals that will narrow the funding gap by 5 percentage points by the 200607 academic year. From 2008, further measures will narrow it by another 3 percentage points. I should have thought that she would welcome those measures.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What plans has my right hon. Friend to improve basic skills training for the most difficult and disadvantaged young people? Will further education colleges work with independent providers such as Rathbone, a charity that works with young people who are not in education, employment or training? How will my right hon. Friend ensure that the "easy" young people are not cherry-picked, and that efforts are focused on those who are terribly disadvantaged and most in need of those efforts?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is a fundamental requirement of social justice for those who do not acquire basic skills at school, or do not secure the equivalent of five good GCSEs, to have a second, third or even fourth chance to do so later in life. I recently announced that more than 1 million adults had taken advantage of our skills for life initiative, and had acquired basic skills in the work place.
The way to deal with my hon. Friend's concerns is to give individuals the entitlement to receive that training and extra help free of charge. We are therefore reprioritising funding in the way that I described to the Association of Colleges last week. We are ensuring that public funds are used to give the most effective support to the learners who need it most.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
(Con): Walford and North Shropshire college delivers 500 courses to more than 8,500 adults at 150 venues. It is proposed that such activity be undertaken by voluntary groups, museums and libraries. That is totally inappropriate in a thinly populated rural area. May I
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bring the principal of the college, Mr. Ron Pugh, to meet the Secretary of State and explain that the Foster report is an urban-based document that cannot work in rural areas?
Ruth Kelly: I do not accept that it is an urban-based document that will not work in rural areas, although of course we will consider all the issues raised in it carefully over the next few months. I am not aware of the position of the hon. Gentleman's further education college, but if he puts it in writing I shall be happy to discuss the best course of action with him.
Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on announcing last week that she would reduce the funding gap. Her announcement was welcomed by all who are genuinely interested in further education. While the momentum is in our favour, may I urge her to go that little step further and examine the treatment of sixth-form and further education colleges for value-added tax purposes? Will she try to ensure that they are governed by the same regime as schools?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend has raised a complex and important point. As he knows, tax issues are dealt with by my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, but we discuss the issues regularly to ensure that we use facilities to best effect and meet the requirements of learners who need them most.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): The Foster report has been welcomed by the Government and, indeed, by Members in all parts of the House. On page 52, it makes two criticisms: of the Department's micro-management of the Learning and Skills Council, and of the Learning and Skills Council's micro-management of the further education colleges. When will the Secretary of State stop micro-managing, and stop her Department micro-managing, those two disasters, in orderI quote Foster's damning verdict on the Government
Ruth Kelly: I think that the report is absolutely right to draw attention not just to the situation in FE colleges, but to what the Department and the LSC could do better. We need to reflect on the report and see whether we can improve our management of the situation. The LSC has just announced a radical programme of change, which will mean the loss of 1,300 jobs as it moves away from the process that the hon. Gentleman describes as "micro-management" towards much greater regional clarity about its role.
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