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House of Commons

Thursday 12 October 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nursery Education

1. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What meetings Ministers have had with representatives of the nursery sector in the last six months; and if he will make a statement. [92857]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): Ministerial colleagues and I have held a number of regular meetings with representatives of the early-years and child care sector over the past six months. They have enabled us to highlight the progress that we are making, with the help of the sector, in delivering our commitments in the 10-year child care strategy. Those commitments include establishing, ahead of schedule, the 1,000th Sure Start children’s centre, as the Prime Minister announced last week.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but does she share my concern that the funding that nurseries receive from the Government does not meet their true costs?

Beverley Hughes: No, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view about that. In fact, the unprecedented funding that the Government have committed to our youngest children—to early-years education and child care—has enabled the substantial growth in the private and voluntary sector, which is contributing not only to full day care, but to sessional care. Indeed, in his own area, in the 12 months up to the end of 2005, the private and voluntary sector contribution to that market share has risen from 74 to 78 per cent. for provision for three-year-olds. As we continue to extend the free offer to all families, I am sure that we will see that proportion grow, and that is important to us because diversity in the sector is giving parents choice and driving up quality.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Has my right hon. Friend discussed the importance of diagnosing in the early years whether a child needs special educational help? Is she aware that the Select Committee on Education and Skills has done a great
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deal of work on the issue? Indeed, the recently published special educational needs report links into it. Will she take a message to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that the Select Committee is deeply disappointed by the response that we have received this week to that important and significant report?

Beverley Hughes: I am sorry that my hon. Friend expresses that view, but I think that he knows that we will debate at length his Select Committee’s important report on children with special educational needs.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): When?

Beverley Hughes: As soon as the business managers allow us, we will do so.

It is also important, however, to view the issue in the context of the much wider reforms that the Government are making in children’s services, particularly in children’s centres and children’s trusts, as they are requiring all services to work to together to identify at a much earlier stage the problems that children have and to bring those services to bear around the child and the family in an integrated way, so that their problems are addressed comprehensively and early. That early intervention is very important for children with special educational needs.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Can the Minister explain why popular and high-quality nurseries are not allowed to charge top-up fees? There is a particular demand for that in London and the south-east, where my constituency is located. The principle is established in higher education; why not in nursery education?

Beverley Hughes: Because what we are providing—this is a real dividing line between the Government and the Opposition—is a free entitlement to all three and four-year-olds for 12 and a half hours’ provision at the moment, increasing, we hope, to 15 hours and beyond. The hon. Gentleman is asking for that free entitlement to become a subsidy for better-off parents. The private sector could then make higher charges and better-off parents would be simply allowed to use that subsidy. We will not entertain the prospect of discriminating against poorer families. We will not allow the generation of a two-tier system, in which some families can afford a better quality of care, but poorer families cannot. This will remain a free entitlement for all families—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether it is Government policy to support a mixed economy in the provision of child care services? The £3 billion that the Government put annually into the provision of free places gives necessary choice to parents, particularly those of limited means.

Beverley Hughes: Absolutely. Diversity is really important because it not only gives parents choice, but it also drives up quality throughout the sector. I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to correct some of the myths that are flying around. It is still the case that private and voluntary settings provide 81 per cent. of full day-care places. They provide 90 per cent. of sessional places. So they
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have the vast majority of market share, both for full day care and for sessional places. That is good; it is what we want to see. Public sector provision is not driving private and voluntary sector providers into the ground—quite the opposite is true. The money that we have put in has allowed that sector to grow, and that is very important.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): We have heard my hon. Friends’ concerns about nursery funding in their constituencies and I am sure that the Minister is aware of the facts. The dedicated schools grant that local authorities receive to fund free nursery places is under £4 an hour. Is she aware that the National Day Nurseries Association gives examples of where, throughout the country, the cost of staff and overheads alone is nearer £5 an hour? Her transformation fund sets the hourly cost of child care at almost £6 an hour. Little wonder that a report from Camden council says that 90 per cent. of nurseries—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has made her point. I know what she is telling the House, so the Minister will know.

Beverley Hughes: It is up to local authorities to allocate the dedicated schools grant, both across the age ranges and for early years, between the sectors. It is right that they have the discretion to do that, because they take account of the market situation and local circumstances. The Government have put an unprecedented amount of money into early years: more than £20 billion since 1997. If the hon. Lady were to stand up to speak again, I would ask her: is her party committed to continuing that funding so that the—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That will do.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I welcome, and draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to, the new children’s centre in Frankley in my constituency, which will be a great asset to a very deprived part of the area, and also the roll-out of the children’s centre programme? However, I draw her attention to the fact that it is important, as there is availability of capital, for there not to be an over-preoccupation with the physical structures. The ethos of Sure Start—bringing together integrated services and ensuring real responsiveness to local users—is equally, if not more, important.

Beverley Hughes: I agree with my hon. Friend. As the second phase of Sure Start children’s centres proceeds—building on the 1,000 that are in place already and moving to 2,500 over the next two years—the issues that he raises will be important. The key issue is the quality of services for children, to improve their development, but there is also the involvement of parents and the local community in the governance arrangements. We know that by involving parents we are not only doing the best for children, but we are helping those parents—many in disadvantaged situations—to raise their confidence and, through their involvement in children’s centres, perhaps to acquire the skills to get into training and work and to improve their quality of life. That is what children’s centres are doing throughout the country. I am pleased that my hon. Friend will see further children’s centres in his area over the next two years.

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Science Degrees

2. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What percentage of students are taking science-based degrees; and if he will make a statement. [92858]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): More than 40 per cent. of students are taking science-based subjects. Today, there are well over 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than in 1997-98. Crucial to stimulating demand at higher education level is increasing the numbers choosing to study science in schools. We announced a range of new measures to achieve that in the “Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps” document that we published last March.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that, during the years of this Government, the number of students studying biology and chemistry, in particular, and physics has fallen. Will he assure the House that he will attempt to address that problem, not by dumbing down the teaching of science, as has been reported most recently, but by improving, for example, the access to laboratories in schools and persuading young people that there are worthwhile careers in science to be pursued? In my area, for example, the aerospace industry finds it difficult to recruit science graduates. Will he address that problem, rather than trying to dumb down the subject?

Phil Hope: As I said, there are 130,000 more young people studying for science-related degrees than when we came to power in 1997. In fact, UK universities produce two to three times more science graduates than the OECD average. Our lead on that, overall, has increased. In 2004-05, there was a higher than average increase of 10 per cent. or more in the number of students accepted to study subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry. There is no question of our dumbing down science. The new science GCSEs maintain the breadth, depth and challenge of the current ones. They provide a sound basis for further study of science at A-level and beyond.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Given that the Prime Minister said recently that we are going to have a new generation of nuclear power plants, what are we doing to ensure that we have adequate science graduates to meet the needs of the nuclear industry in the future?

Phil Hope: Some 135,000 students are studying engineering and technology overall, although I do not have the figures for the nuclear industry in particular. However, that represents a good supply of engineers. If the Government were to decide to go ahead with new nuclear power stations—that will obviously be a matter for debate in the House—we would keep the need for additional engineers under review. I might add that Cogent, which is the sector skills council for the nuclear industry, has applied to establish a national skills academy. We will consider that over the next few weeks as a mechanism to ensure that there is an adequate supply of engineers for the industry.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): How can the proportion of science students increase when the number, let alone the proportion, of pupils taking A-level maths, further maths, physics and chemistry is declining? Do not the Government accept responsibility for the botched curriculum reform that has led to the decline of specialist science teaching in state schools?

Phil Hope: No. Speaking as a former science teacher, I strongly welcome the new key stage 4 science curriculum. I wish that I was teaching it now, but I am fulfilling my educational role at the Dispatch Box by explaining to Opposition Members that which they clearly do not understand. The new science GCSE has the full support of the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Association for Science Education. If that is not good enough for hon. Members, in today’s edition of The Times, the high mistress and head of science of St. Paul’s girls’ school writes:

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to give that lesson to Opposition Members.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): As a former science teacher, the Minister will be blindingly aware that science-based degrees require science-based universities, so will he agree to meet me and a delegation of staff and students from the university of Reading, because its physics department is threatened with closure by the university council, despite the receipt of more than £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money last year to establish a centre of excellence for the teaching of physics?

Phil Hope: I cannot comment on a possible closure because no final decision has been taken. My hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning will be happy to meet such a delegation. It is not up to the Government to micro-manage the university system in such a way. However, through the Higher Education Funding Council, we try to ensure that the number of physics graduates and others is maintained national and regionally so that we have the supply of such graduates into the employment system that our country needs.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): If the new science GCSEs are working so well, why do the best schools, which produce a disproportionate number of the best results at A-level and a disproportionate number of the science entrants to university, still insist on separate GCSEs for physics, chemistry and biology?

Phil Hope: The difficulty for Conservative Members is understanding what goes on in our education system. Of course, we want those who have the aptitude to take three separate sciences, so we will be encouraging and enabling more of them to do so. However, in addition, we have been providing the new science and additional
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science GCSEs since September. Conservative Members seem to be contradicting themselves at every opportunity this morning. They wish to portray themselves as champions of the environment on the one hand, but they now want to reject the new opportunity for young people to debate key scientific topics such as global warming as part of the science curriculum. They cannot have it both ways. I suggest that they put their weight behind supporting our hard work—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most successful ways of increasing the number of science graduates is through the foundation-degree route? Rather than simply concentrating on schools, we should be examining good examples of colleges and higher education institutions working with industry. For example, at Airbus in north-east Wales, there is a superb example of a foundation degree working excellently to bring us more science graduates.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I had the privilege of visiting Airbus a few weeks ago, I met some of the students who were undertaking foundation degrees. Many thousands of people in the work force are taking foundation degrees. The essence of the value of foundation degrees is that they are tailor-made to suit the needs of employers. At higher levels of study—level 4 and above—for employment that provides support to industries in terms of productivity, profitability, innovation, growth and development, foundation degrees are a real platform for people at work to improve their skills for the benefit of themselves, their companies and the country as a whole.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): In spite of what the Minister says, I think that he would acknowledge that 30 per cent. of university physics departments have closed in the last eight years and the numbers studying chemistry have declined by 17 per cent. in the last 10 years. Against that background and in light of what he said earlier, I hope that he will support our amendment in the Lords which would entitle every pupil to triple science. Does he agree that we will never inspire our children to study physics as long as, in most of our schools, 80 per cent. of those studying physics are taught by someone with a degree not in physics but more likely in biology? Does he agree that the situation is a disgrace and needs to be remedied?

Phil Hope: To return to the real world, the fact is that we want more of our teachers to have degrees in the relevant subjects, and we are introducing a science diploma so that existing teachers can develop a specialism in subjects such as physics—the example the hon. Gentleman gave—to ensure that our young people get the best possible education. It is our investment in science laboratories, in schools across the piece and in the number of teachers that has resulted in the best ever GCSE and A-level results in this country since counting began; and that is despite the opposition from the Conservative party.

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3. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the number of racist incidents among students in higher education; and if he will make a statement. [92859]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We do not make this assessment centrally. We have, however, established robust legal protection against racism and as a result individual universities should have clearly identified procedures in place for dealing with racist incidents. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 places a general duty on university governing bodies to promote race equality in their institutions.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister has, I know, read the report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, which talks about systematic racism going on in universities. It refers to a brick being thrown through the window of a Jewish student and a poster bearing the words “Slaughter the Jews” pasted on a Jewish student’s front door. This is being done by some extreme Islamic groups. The report’s main conclusion is that the response of vice-chancellors is at best patchy. What can the Government do to try to ensure that there is a consistent approach to combating anti-Semitism and all racism in all of our universities?

Bill Rammell: I am aware of the report; I gave evidence to the inquiry. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great interest in these issues. I urge all vice-chancellors to take anti-Semitism and all forms of racism very seriously. The Government have placed strong legal obligations on all public bodies to tackle racism. The work that the equality challenge unit is doing with universities is the best way to spread good practice and tackle the issue.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree, however, that one of the issues, as I have learned from speaking to students, is a reluctance on the part of some students to report incidents in the first place because they are not convinced that they will be dealt with properly by university authorities?

Bill Rammell: I certainly hope that my hon. Friend’s concerns are misplaced. We have to create a climate of confidence, and the report by the all-party inquiry makes an important contribution. It is important that the Government take the lead and make it clear that we expect universities to take these issues very seriously.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Will the Minister and the House join me in condemning the BNP in Broxbourne who target young people with their racist lies and filth? Will the House also join me in congratulating the young people in my constituency on turning their back on that nonsense and ensuring that we have happy, settled schools in Broxbourne?

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