Michael Connarty: I would not like to accuse the hon. Lady of trying to debunk a promise on the basis that it is good for the Liberals but does not reflect the Government's position. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) quoted the Prime Minister as saying that we will narrow the gap. The Chancellor said in his Budget that we will do away with the gap and match spending on public sector students to the level in the private sector. I should have thought that that is a significant move forward. I certainly welcome it and I hope that the hon. Lady will do so without being churlish.
I think that the Chancellor actually said that he would match the level of funding to that of today rather than talking about the gap. As the
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Secretary of State said earlier, there is no timetable for narrowing that gap. It depends on the rate at which private sector spending increases.
Despite the spin and nonsense, the Budget contains genuine bonuses and good proposals for education with which I wholeheartedly agree. I shall highlight a few of those, because it easy for us to spend a great deal of time castigating the Government about things that we disagree with.
First, let me highlight a proposal that nobody else has mentioned and that is unlikely to gain any headlines, spun or not, but which is none the less welcomethat is, that we should move towards a simpler and less burdensome assessment of research in our universities. We will need to look at the detail of that. However, it seems eminently sensible to move towards a metric system in place of the existing research assessment exercise and to run the old system in conjunction with the new. That is likely to be welcomed by all, especially universities. We look forward to the Government clarifying those proposals.
Secondly, the Budget includes a genuine acknowledgment of the depth and scale of the problem of the shortage of specialist science teachers. Although that is rather late, as it comes 18 months after Professor Smith's report, it is welcome, as are some of the proposals. Liberal Democrat Members have for some time pointed out that it will not be possible to fill all the gaps in the system merely by recruiting new specialists, and that we must also invest in retraining teachers currently teaching in areas outside their own specialism. We made an election pledge to do that in our 2005 manifesto. The Budget announces pilots to begin that process. We look forward to the results of those pilots. I urge the Secretary of State to extend the scheme to language and English teachers, where there is also a critical shortage. I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged the shortage of specialist science teachers, particularly in physics and chemistry. The Institute of Physics and others have called on the Government to break their target down for recruitment to identify those areas of specialism in particular, and it is welcome that they have done so.
The detail of the commitment to recruit, retain and retrain new specialist teachers remains unclear, as the hon. Member for Havant observed. Will there really be 3,000 new teachers, as reported by the press, given that the detail is not in the Budget papers? If so, what steps are the Government taking to entice people into teaching and to prevent them from leaving? Last year, they missed their own target for recruiting specialist science and maths teachersand, indeed, specialist language teachers, where they fell short by a greater amount. What new activity are they proposing to ensure that they reach this target? Surely they need to look at this as part of a general problem with recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers. We have a critical shortage of head teachers and, despite six-figure salaries being offered, many posts lie empty for extended periods. The Government need to get to the bottom of why so many people do not want to do the job. I suspect that when they ask teachers and teaching unions why schools find it so difficult to recruit highly qualified teachers, they will find that, despite the spin in the White Paper about freeing up schools, it is teachers who are
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desperate to be freed from the endless edicts from Whitehall and want far more freedom to teach a curriculum that meets the needs of their students.
The money allocated to personalised learning is welcome, but the details of how it will be allocated are not clear, and I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification. John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders has described the current system for targeting extra funds on disadvantaged students as spraying funds around like Dick Cheney on a quail shoot. He points out that money is failing to reach the most disadvantaged students, with some schools doing comparatively well despite the fact that they are in low-performing areas. It is not clear from the Budget documents or from previous announcements whether the Government intend to target money based on data surrounding schools or on deprivation figures for the local authority. We urge the Secretary of State to go further and consider targeting on the basis of individual pupils. We are examining the detail of how such a scheme could work in practice. It could absorb many of the existing funding streams for disadvantage and focus on underachievement as well as on disadvantaged students, no matter what school they study at, to give a greater incentive to take those students and to provide the support that they need.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that what would make the most difference in this respect is smaller class sizes, with very young children being the most important age group. That is why we would like class sizes for infants to be reduced to 20. We accept that it is an expensive commitment, so we would want to use the money allocated to the child trust fund to pay for it. We believe that it would be more effective to invest money in a child's education at five than to give them something that they can cash in when they are 18.
I have mentioned some of the proposals that I welcome and others where I disagree with the Government's focus. Let me conclude by saying a few words about some glaring omissions as regards the proposals on further education. I had hoped that they would be clarified by today's White Paper, but that is not so. The greatest disappointment in the Budget, and indeed in the White Paper, is that while it repeats the earlier aspiration of closing the funding gap between schools and colleges for the same provision, there is no timetable and no concrete commitment to achieving itit is another uncosted aspiration. The young people who study in FE colleges are disproportionately from less affluent backgrounds, and each is short-changed by about £400 a year.
The White Paper contains some welcome warm words about a new set of principles for funding 14-to-19 learning such as laying out comparable funding for courses irrespective of institution, recognising genuine costs and advocating an approach that should not limit students' choices. However, the task has been hived off to a technical funding group and I am worried about how much will get implemented and over what time scale. Students and colleges need these changes now. Programmes such as the increased flexibility programme are not funded to the level of true costs, with many colleges, including the College of North West London in my constituency, reporting that they
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subsidise the programme heavily, with a dramatic impact on courses in other areas. The Government cannot push on with an agenda of contestability and rely on the good nature and social justice ethos of colleges without adequately funding them.
If we are looking for a place from which to squeeze money, perhaps the Learning and Skills Council should be a prime target for cuts. I welcome statements in the Budget about slimming down that obese organisation, but its costs are astronomical. They run at more than 10 times the costs of the equivalent body in higher education. The LSC is a bureaucratic monster, unaccountable to local people, barely accountable to Parliament and unpopular with colleges. The Government should take a firm hand with it. One of my favourite idiot edicts from that organisation said that science and maths courses should be a low priority in London and proposed that colleges should cut them. Thankfully, it appears to have seen sense, but that is indicative of an organisation that is grossly out of touch.
The new first level 3 entitlement up to the age of 25, which is included in the Budget, is welcome and has been our party policy for some time. However, the allocated £25 million looks likely to cover only those already paying for the course. Given the statements of the Chancellor and the Secretary of State about the importance of that qualification to the economy, will the LSC be charged with recruiting more students to study at that level? If so, where will the money come from? Are colleges expected to take it from existing adult provision and cut that even further? We already have a crisis in adult provision, not only in basket-weaving or underwater swimming, but in core courses, which are vital to the economy.
The Budget announces the roll-out of the train to gain programme, but the Government do not seem to have taken account of the IFS report, which said that the scheme had little if any impact in the pilot areas because those who trained under the pilot schemethe national employer training programmewould have done so anyway. What changes have the Government made to the scheme to take account of the IFS evaluation? They cannot bleat about the importance of evidence-based policy if they choose to ignore evidence that is presented to them.
The Budget contains some welcome proposals, marred by the usual dodgy statistics and over-inflated claims. However, it also contains some glaring omissions in policy areas that specifically target under-achievement in the most disadvantaged groups. If it had a school report, it would read, "Not bad, but could do a lot better."