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House of Commons

Thursday 9 February 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Electoral Commission

Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. John Heppell): I have to inform the House that the address of 18 January, praying that Her Majesty will reappoint as electoral commissioners Jonathan Glyn Mathias for the period of two years, and Sukhminder Karamjit Singh CBE for the period of four years, was presented to Her Majesty, who is graciously pleased to comply with the request. The appointments will become effective from 19 January.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Education Maintenance Allowance

1. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): How many children in Cleethorpes have received the education maintenance allowance; and if she will make a statement.[49937]

11. Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): How many children in Hackney, South and Shoreditch have received the EMA; and if she will make a statement. [49947]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): Data are not available at a constituency level. At the local authority level, for the period September to December 2005, 2,062 young people in north-east Lincolnshire and 2,775 in Hackney received one or more EMA payments. Up to 7 February 2006, 403,949 young people in England had received one or more such payments.

Shona McIsaac: The figures are indeed encouraging, but very few parents in areas such as Grimsby and Cleethorpes have higher level qualifications. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we sell staying on at school to them as well as to young people? What is she doing to promote staying on at school and the take-up of EMA with such families?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The historic problem is that far too few of our 16 and
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17-year-olds choose to stay in education and go on to further or higher education. In fact, we have one of the lowest rates in the industrialised world. EMA payments remove the financial barrier that some young people face who would otherwise choose to study. Fundamentally, the question is how we raise aspirations and involve parents in their children's education, and raise the sights of all children. That is why parental engagement is so important in the education system. It will make most difference for our most disadvantaged young people.

Meg Hillier: My constituency of Hackney, South and Shoreditch is an area of great poverty, but there is no poverty of aspiration. That is demonstrated by the fact that parents and young people have chosen to take up EMAs, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we need serious consensus on the issue? Has she received any indication from the Opposition that they now back EMAs, which are so valuable in Hackney?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State is responsible only for matters in her Department.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point. We must have consensus, in this House and across the country, if we are to raise young people's aspirations, encourage them to progress and get parents involved in education. It is also important that we remove the financial barriers that prevent young people from taking part in education. I look forward to the time when the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and his colleagues back the idea of EMAs.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): For a moment, Mr. Speaker, I thought that the Secretary of State was going to challenge your ruling. I wrote to her on 5 January, on behalf of Charlotte Cook, who is the Isle of Wight's Member of the Youth Parliament. She is concerned that the household income threshold for eligibility for the Christmas bonus might take elder siblings' earnings into account. Will the right hon. Lady set her mind at rest and assure her that the disincentive to elder siblings remaining at home and working will not occur?

Ruth Kelly: I would take the hon. Gentleman's question a little more seriously if he and his party supported the idea of EMAs. However, I am glad that he champions the needs of his constituents, who appreciate the value of EMAs. I look forward to his taking that message back to the constituent whom he mentioned and his other constituents. I can tell him that three-quarters of young people receive the bonus, and that we have designed the system in such a way as to remove the financial barriers that prevent our young people from being involved in post-16 education, and to give them an incentive to continue their studies.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What proportion of students who have received an EMA payment have not gone on to a second year of learning?

Ruth Kelly: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the precise figures, but I can tell him that there are now 17,000 more 16-year-olds in further education than
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there were in 1998. The extra financial payment is clearly making a real difference to the lives and opportunities of those young people.

University Students (Sickness Certificates)

2. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How many university students in England presented sickness certificates for their examinations in 2005? [49938]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): That information is not collected centrally by any organisation. Universities are responsible for their own assessment procedures, but they are guided by a code of practice issued by the Quality Assurance Agency and their practice is independently scrutinised by external examiners and QAA auditors. The QAA believes that universities are adopting more systematic approaches to the consideration of medical certificates and other extenuating circumstances submitted by students.

Chris Bryant: I am not sure how we can know that universities are doing that if we do not know what the statistics are. I am an external adviser for the Oxford theology degree—[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] Well, it just shows what a terrible state education in Britain is in. We have noticed over the past five years a dramatic increase in the number of students presenting sickness certificates and the worry is that faculties and universities are dealing with the issue differently. If we are to prevent a sicknote tendency from growing in our universities, the Government may need to do more to promote good practice.

Bill Rammell: I am aware of the role that my hon. Friend undertakes, because we have discussed the issue. The role of external examiners is crucial in upholding quality standards in British universities. The QAA is in regular contact with institutions through its institutional audit mechanism. It says that it has identified a trend towards a more systematic approach and equalisation between departments in the management of the process. QAA is not aware of any generic concerns about an increase in the number of medical certificates, and the key point is that acceptance of students' claims about illness are now far more likely to lead to a deferral or resit than an adjustment to students' marks. That should reassure us about academic standards in terms of student outcomes.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does the Minister agree that students will not reach the point at which they can submit a sickness certificate if they do not reach their final year? Does he share the concern of academics reported in the media this morning that first-year undergraduates do not have the necessary standards of literacy and numeracy? Bearing in mind that they have undergone their secondary education exclusively under a Labour Government, what has gone wrong with their education?

Bill Rammell: The issue is what has gone right with education and schools under this Government. Over the past eight years, we have consistently increased investment and significantly improved results. We are, however, aware of the concerns, which is why we are
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reforming the 14 to 19 agenda. We very much want universities to be part of that process. The hon. Gentleman mentioned drop-out rates, but the past several years have seen a reduction in drop-outs, because the system has been improving.

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