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Free Tuition

6. Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the introduction of free tuition for a first level 3 qualification. [66209]
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The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): There will be a new entitlement to free learning for level 3 qualifications for those aged 19 to 25, supported by an expanded adult learning grant. The 19–25 entitlement and national rollout of the adult learning grant will both be implemented from 2007–08.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend agree that the entitlement to a level 3 qualification and the extension of the adult learning grant are very important to young adults in constituencies such as mine, where post-16 staying-on rates historically have been very low? Will he tell the House what his Department will do to let young adults in my constituency and elsewhere know about these new entitlements?

Bill Rammell: One of the biggest challenges that we face is the low level of participation at age 16 in this country. Historically, young people, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, have hit a brick wall in terms of their entitlement to free education to level 3 at age 19. This provision will really help. We are reviewing the information, advice and guidance service to ensure that we effectively get across the new entitlement to as many young people as possible.

Sixth-form Colleges

7. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): If she will encourage the establishment of more sixth-form colleges; and if she will make a statement. [66210]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): Yes, the recent further education White Paper, "Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances" reaffirmed our commitment to a strong and growing sixth-form college sector. The White Paper announced that new sixth-form colleges should be considered an option where new 16 to 19 provision is needed locally, including where there is a 16 to 19 competition, and a presumption in favour of proposals from successful colleges wishing to expand to deliver new specialised diplomas. We expect to issue guidance on that in the coming months.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She will recall from a parliamentary answer given to me earlier this year that a direct and strong correlation exists between sixth-form size and exam success. Sixth-form colleges, such as that in my constituency, perform superbly well. It is argued that had sixth-form colleges been left with local education authorities, another 100 or more would have been created. Will she intervene directly to ensure that many more sixth-form colleges are created to the benefit of thousands of students every year?

Maria Eagle: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the great interest that he takes in this matter. He is a governor of one of his successful local sixth-form colleges, and has always pursued assiduously the interests of sixth-form colleges, which can bring diversity to the local provision of education for this age group. He can be assured that we want to support sixth-form colleges and their expansion where they are
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successful as part of a local mix of provision that allows children to go where they will do best, whether that is to local schools, sixth forms or colleges.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Is not the Minister aware that where there are sixth-form colleges alongside selective and other schools with sixth forms, the difference in funding given by the state to sixth-form colleges, such as that in Colchester, is disproportionate? No group of schools with sixth forms will voluntarily give up their sixth forms to create a sixth-form college unless the local education authority oversees it.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are closing the funding gap to which he refers, so proper choice and appropriate diversity should be much more available to suit the local area. I hope that he can support that.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): As the road has been taken once before of trying to impose sixth forms on Staffordshire schools, may I warn my hon. Friend about the flak that she will take? If we are to encourage schools to come together and youngsters to make the choice that suits their needs better, that is fine, but we should not send out the signal that we will take such a valuable asset—the sixth form—from secondary schools.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend can be assured that we are not saying to any school that they should or should not have a sixth form. The appropriate mix for local children and young people to do best, and to improve the strength and capacity of the local education system to provide vocational courses for young people, is what we aim to strengthen. That is a matter for local people. We are seeking not to impose or to tell schools or colleges how they should do that locally but to support their choices.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): In all the briefings that I have had from Dr. Paul Rispoli, the excellent principal of the successful Reigate college, the issue of differential funding has recurred constantly. I note that the Education and Skills Committee says that

Is the Minister saying that from now on courses will be equally funded and that her promotion of sixth-form options at schools will not be at the expense of colleges, because such schools will be better funded than colleges?

Maria Eagle: As I said to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), we are closing the funding gap referred to by the college principal by some eight percentage points over the next two years. We are trying to ensure that proper choice is available locally to young people and other learners to learn in the environment that they consider suits them best, vocationally and academically. I hope that both the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and his college principal feel able to support that.
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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): As an alternative to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), in suitable cases may I commend Stafford's collegiate approach? All secondary schools, one sixth-form centre and one further education college have pooled their resources to offer the widest possible choice of courses to sixth-form students. Is that not a good way of improving the educational offer to all sixth-form students?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend has given a good local example of best practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) could have done the same had he chosen to ask a question about Campus Luton. It is right for areas to be able to organise local provision in the best possible way for them and their young people, and that is what these changes, and the extra support for FE and sixth-form colleges, are designed to achieve.

GCSE (Science)

8. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): If she will make a statement on changes to the science GCSE. [66211]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We are improving the science GCSE by making the school science curriculum more engaging, catering for a wide range of students' interests and aptitudes, and still maintaining the breadth, depth and challenge of the current curriculum. We are also introducing a new statutory entitlement to study science programmes leading to at least two GCSEs.

Mrs. Dorries: Countries such as China are making massive economic advances in subjects such as science and technology. Why does the Minister think it appropriate, in the face of such global economic competition, to dilute the standard of science that is taught in our schools and to close Nobel prize-winning science departments in our universities?

Bill Rammell: I assume that the hon. Lady is referring to the proposals for Sussex university that are currently being considered. Universities are autonomous—that is one of the strengths of our university system—but even if the Sussex proposals go ahead, the places will be picked up by neighbouring universities. Whatever is happening in one institution should not dilute the fact that in the current academic year we have seen a 12 per cent. increase in the number of students applying to study chemistry, and will see a further 5 per cent. increase next year. I believe that developments are moving firmly in the right direction.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): In 1997, the state of the science laboratories in many of our schools was absolutely terrible. The Government invested a considerable amount in improving those facilities, but may I suggest that we need to go further?

Bill Rammell: We are committed to going further, as my hon. Friend will see if he looks at our projections for the future. In the coming financial year we are investing
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some £6 billion in the capital investment infrastructure in our schools, which is 10 times the sum that was invested in 1997.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): At our last Education Question Time, the Minister for Schools said that in future all pupils would be entitled to study two sciences at GCSE level. We welcomed the Chancellor's Budget announcement that in future all pupils who achieved level 6 in science at key stage 3 would be entitled to study the three separate sciences at GCSE. Currently, 480,000 students take the double-award GCSE, compared with just 43,000 who take GCSEs in the three separate sciences. Does the Minister agree that all pupils should be given the opportunity to study the three separate sciences? What action will he take to encourage all schools to make them available to all pupils?

Bill Rammell: First, our proposal for reform of the science GCSE programme will help to ensure that there is progression to higher levels in science learning. Secondly, we propose to establish co-operation between schools, colleges and universities by 2008, so that every child who wishes to choose triple science will be able to do so. I consider that to be a significant advance.

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