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Bill Rammell: I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman. His constituency borders mine. Members of all political parties must challenge the filth and hatred promoted by the BNP. We need to rebut its lies, smears and innuendo,
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and we need to work at that together. I congratulate the young people who have ignored what the BNP is putting forward.

Educational Attainment

4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What additional measures his Department has considered in order to reduce the number of school leavers not attaining basic standards of literacy and numeracy. [92860]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): Since 1997, the number of children achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, including English and mathematics, has increased by almost nine percentage points. We are determined to ensure that every child masters the basics. From this year we will measure the proportion of children achieving five A* to C grades, including English and mathematics. We are investing £990 million in personalised learning to provide more catch-up lessons in English and maths. The key stage 3 curriculum and English and maths GCSEs are being reviewed to emphasise functional skills.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I welcome the Government’s response and the investment that they are making to improve standards of literacy and numeracy, but does he agree that many school leavers do not achieve the basic standards, and that there is still a genuine problem? Even with the Government’s best efforts, we have to do more about that. Will he consider carefully what additional help he can give to try to alleviate the problem, and will he consult people in schools to find out exactly what is required to bring such children up to standard?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right that there is more to do, and I have just described the initiatives that we are introducing. At the heart of the issue there is an expectation of high attainment and absolutely no excuses. If we get the basics right, and if, for instance, we can ensure that children succeed at level 4, that key stage at which they leave primary school with the basics of English and mathematics, everything else in their future education can be built on that platform. All the evidence shows that that is the crucial stage. We have moved from 63 per cent. of pupils reaching that stage in English to 79 per cent. of pupils doing so, but we need to move further. I agree with my hon. Friend that more has to be done, but of course that does not detract from all the excellent work that teachers and head teachers—not politicians—are doing in our schools to bring about the enormous improvements that have taken place in the past nine years.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): The Government were quick to require schools to teach phonics, but that was only one area highlighted by the Rose report. Why have the Government not addressed other areas, such as speaking and listening skills, which are a foundation for achieving literacy and numeracy?

Alan Johnson: We have concentrated on phonics, but that does not mean that we have ignored the other excellent suggestions in the Rose report. Phonics has received coverage, and the issues that the hon. Lady
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mentions have not, but they are a crucial part of the foundation stage. Jim Rose and his people are absolutely right to highlight the importance of listening and speaking skills. In addition, the “social and emotional aspects of learning” project is hugely successful, and is being rolled out across primary schools. The teachers to whom I have spoken think that it is long overdue and will bring about a huge improvement in those soft skills that pupils increasingly need in the modern labour environment.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Why do we allow children to keep progressing through the school years when they have serious difficulty in reading? Frighteningly high numbers of children in the higher years of our secondary and upper schools cannot read well. The head teachers to whom I speak in my constituency would like the flexibility, within existing budgets, to give intensive remedial reading provision to those children. Why can they not do that?

Alan Johnson: In my reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), I said that £990 million is being invested in personalised learning. We have asked Christine Gilbert to produce a report on the subject, which is imminent. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is right: we should concentrate on catch-up, and on ensuring that children who do not reach the right standard at level 2 and level 3 receive the kind of attention that they need to reach that key stage at level 4. Some 66 per cent. of children who reach the right standard in English at level 4 aged 11 will go on to obtain five good GCSEs, but only 9 per cent of those who do not reach that standard will do the same. Level 4 is a crucial stage. The hon. Gentleman is right, but that is why I spoke about almost £1 billion going into personalised learning and catch-up, which is crucial to improving results.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Millions of Britons, without the ability to read a story to their children or write a letter, feel cheated. One in three employers send their staff for remedial training to teach them to read, write and count; and even if the Government reach their targets in 2020, 4 million Britons will not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. With 50,000 school leavers each year functionally illiterate or innumerate, do not the Government realise that they must tackle the skills problem at its root, in primary schools, or is it just that the Secretary of State does not have the skills to do the job?

Alan Johnson: I shall ignore that barbed remark, which wounded me deeply. It is extraordinary that anyone from the Conservative Front Bench should stand up and make criticisms about literacy and numeracy. The National Foundation for Educational Research published a report in 1996 that showed that for 50 years we had flat-lined on literacy and numeracy. Jim Rose, whom I mentioned earlier, said in the opening paragraph of his review of teaching of early reading—an independent review—

that is, 1989 to 1998—

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I applaud the previous Government for introducing accountability, introducing the regulator and ensuring that there were standards. However, nine years after they did that, nothing had happened, so we have put a huge amount of effort through teachers and head teachers to give children the skills that they need. We have raised educational attainment in literacy and numeracy massively, which is why people from countries all round the world are coming to the Britain to see how we did it.

Parenting Skills

5. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): If he will make a statement on the teaching of parenting skills in mainstream education. [92861]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): In personal, social and health education—PSHE— pupils are taught about the nature and importance of family life and bringing up children. They are also taught about the role, feelings and responsibilities of a parent and the qualities of good parenting and its value to family life.

Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for that answer, but given the number of dysfunctional family backgrounds and given the fact that nearly every child becomes a parent and that children are necessarily brought up by amateurs, is there not a need for increased focus on this important area?

Mr. Dhanda: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to work with children, and work at an earlier stage. A great deal of work is being delivered through PSHE, as I said, and through citizenship classes in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am sure, as in mine. Beyond that, in every community in the land we have parenting support programmes for young parents and older parents being delivered at over 1,000 children’s centres—there will be 2,500 of those by the end of 2008 and 3,500 come the end of the decade—and through 2,500 extended schools. That number will also increase. That is a fair indication of the Government’s commitment to children, to parents and to parenting skills.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that effective parenting is even more important than good schooling in ensuring educational attainment? In constituencies like mine, Ofsted report after Ofsted report on primary schools states that the teaching is great, the heads are superb, we have a rebuilt or refurbished school, but the kids still do not attain. The reports always give the same explanation: those children cannot speak in a sentence when they arrive at school and cannot recognise a letter or a number.

Will my hon. Friend look again at prior attainment before children get to primary school, so that before those children reach the age of two or five, or even when they are aged minus nine months to two or five years, we give the parents the support that they need to enable those children to take advantage of the great education that is now on offer?

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Mr. Dhanda: I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about this topic. He had an Adjournment debate about the SEAL project in his constituency and in Nottingham with my predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), when she was in post. I agree entirely that the focus needs to be at a very young age, and that the SEAL project and continuing work on that, targeting the under-twos, will make a real difference by ensuring that children are school-ready at a much earlier stage.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one key parenting skill, in which school leavers are often deficient, is the ability to prepare and cook balanced nutritional meals for children? Does he think that more should be done to improve the teaching of cooking skills in schools, which would address children’s diets not only for the five meals a week that they eat in school, but for the 16 meals that they eat in the home?

Mr. Dhanda: I particularly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question, not least because of comments, with which I fundamentally disagree, made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) about chips and burgers being passed through the school fence.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): I was misquoted.

Mr. Dhanda: The tape says otherwise.

As part of the offer that we announced this summer, we will provide children with the opportunity to learn. As well as the additional money for school meals, the five-point plan includes the objective of children reaching the age of 16 with the ability to cook nutritional, healthy meals. I am looking forward to seeing that being rolled out, and I know that Jamie Oliver and others support it.

Student Finance

6. Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the “Aim Higher” programme in informing potential students of the financial support available to them. [92862]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The new student finance package is better and fairer, giving more help to those who need it most. Assessment of our “Aim Higher” student finance information campaign has shown that awareness of tuition fee loans among potential students has increased significantly, and the assessment of other “Aim Higher” promotional activities, such as road shows, has been positive. We will continue our efforts to ensure that all students get the facts about what they are entitled to.

Stephen Williams: Under freedom of information rules, I have a copy of the media analysis of the “Aim Higher” campaign, which the Minister has referred to. Although he will take some comfort from the finding that his remarks were “consistently on message”, he should be less comforted by the fact that the penetration of the message was highest among social
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class A and lowest among social classes D and E, which is the opposite of what the campaign was meant to achieve. Will he ensure that this year’s campaign is directed at schools and colleges where participation in higher education is at its lowest?

Bill Rammell: On the key indicator of awareness of the tuition fee loan, which is effectively the end of the up-front contribution to the tuition fee, awareness has risen from 75 per cent. to 84 per cent., which is significant. I will throw back the challenge: will the hon. Gentleman join us in explaining the benefits of the new system? I get tired of hearing that the Liberal Democrats oppose tuition fees, given that they support them in Scotland. There has recently been a very interesting publication by a Liberal Democrat think-tank—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): There is a particularly low rate of going to university among children in care and care leavers. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that help will be given to local authorities in discharging their responsibilities towards children in care and care leavers in the form of “Aim Higher” advisers?

Bill Rammell: We are examining that issue closely, because we need to ensure that all the information gets across to children in care. In the Green Paper, we announced our intention to give an additional bursary to students who come from care and who go on to higher education, which is a significant step forward.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that “Aim Higher” has a complex task in encouraging potential students? Will he applaud an initiative in Derbyshire, where potential underachievers at GCSE maths were taken to Derby university for additional training to get their grades up? Those children were also introduced to maths students at the university and some high-flying groups were shown videos about the jobs that might be available if they were to enter maths education. Will he encourage initiatives to get underachieving and well-achieving children into university, where they can get used to learning in that environment?

Bill Rammell: I agree with my hon. Friend that we need more such initiatives. One of my frustrations is that too many young people who have the potential and aptitude to benefit from higher education still do not perceive it as an option for them. The “Aim Higher” programme targets young people and plants the seed of an interest in higher education, which is the direction that we should move in.

Student Finance

7. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the administration of student loans; and if he will make a statement. [92863]

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The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We have reviewed how students in England can obtain financial support for their studies in higher education. From September 2008, we will phase in a new service which will be mainly online and which will bring together applying for a place and applying for financial support. We will also change the Student Loans Company so that it is a national delivery organisation and further improve the collection of repayments through the income tax system.

Mr. Hepburn: The Minister will be aware that South Tyneside is part of the pilot scheme for student loans. Let me tell him that it is an absolute mess. Young people have not been paid yet, they and their parents are having to go into debt and they are having to consider whether to take up their university courses because they cannot afford the fees. There needs to be an investigation, compensation and a solution. The solution is to give it back to the councils, who did not make a mess of it, so that student loans do not become another debacle like the Child Support Agency or tax credits.

Bill Rammell: I take my hon. Friend’s concerns seriously. We are introducing these reforms partly because there was too much variability in performance on the part of local authorities in the administration of the student loans scheme. However, knowing of his interest in the issue, I have looked into it and spoken to the Student Loans Company, which told me that, in South Tyneside, of the 2,100 applications, all but 40—fewer than 2 per cent.—have been paid on time at the start of the new academic year. Of those 40, some were made very recently and others may have been paid part of their loan while the SLC is awaiting further information. Whatever the explanation, we need to get to the bottom of it. Contingency arrangements are in place, and I will work with my hon. Friend to ensure that the situation is sorted out.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is good to hear that the Minister is going to work with his hon. Friend to get the shambles of the Student Loans Company sorted out. Does he agree that one of the most important parts of student loans administration is the repayment of teachers’ loans scheme? Is he aware that there is a two-and-a-half to three-year delay in producing statements for constituents such as Mr. Chris Dutton of Chippenham, who asked as long ago as June 2005 for a statement of when his loan would be repaid? To date, he still has not got it. Today, the chief executive of the SLC told me that he hoped to get it sorted out by the end of the year. That is not good enough, and the Secretary of State needs to get this shambles sorted.

Bill Rammell: If the hon. Gentleman gives me the details of that case, I will ensure that it is dealt with quickly. I do not believe that we are dealing with a chaotic system or a shambles. However, there are difficulties—that is why we have conducted a very thorough and rigorous end-to-end review. We are consulting to get this absolutely right. The reforms that I set out earlier are the way forward to ensuring that we have a nationally uniform system that works in the interests of students.

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