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House of Commons

Thursday 11 January 2007

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—

Youth Opportunity/Youth Capital Funds

1. Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): How many young people have been involved in the allocation of youth opportunity funds and youth capital funds; and if he will make a statement. [114148]

10. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): What steps his Department has taken to involve young people in the allocation of youth opportunity funds and youth capital funds. [114158]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): More definitive data will be available at the end of this financial year. The data that we have so far show that more than 9,000 young people have been involved in making decisions about how the two funds have been used, and that a further almost 24,000 have been involved in developing and submitting bids for the funding. The guidance published on how the funds should be used makes it clear that young people must make those decisions. I expect the numbers involved to grow significantly as the use of funds develops over the next two years.

Lynda Waltho: I thank the Minister for that answer. Tory-controlled Dudley council has just announced that it will cut all grant aid to voluntary youth projects in my constituency, so I very much welcome the youth opportunities fund and the capital fund, which give money directly to my young constituents to manage. So far, 16 projects in Stourbridge have been funded with those resources, including a Cyberbus and projects involving a climbing wall and basketball coaching, while disability and inclusion projects have also been funded in that way. A total of 318 young people have put forward project ideas, all of which have been considered by young people. A big step forward has been made to empower those young citizens and encourage them to make their own decisions, but will the funds be sustained beyond March 2008?

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Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and for her support locally to ensure that the funds are spent as they are meant to be spent. The funding is designed to put decision making into the hands of young people so as to increase their participation and citizenship, and to increase the number of positive activities available for them. I wrote to all local authorities last February to make it clear that the funding represents additional resources made available for that specific purpose, and that it was not a substitute for local authorities’ mainstream provision. I am watching very closely to make sure that authorities in Dudley and elsewhere understand that that is the case.

My hon. Friend was right, however, to say that some exciting projects in Dudley and in her constituency of Stourbridge have been funded. As she said, 318 young people have been involved in submitting applications and the 16 projects include disability and inclusion projects, girl racers, peer mentoring and a Cyberbus. That shows that young people want to grasp the opportunity to decide what is available for them in their local areas.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I note that this question is grouped with Question 10, which is in the name of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra). Can the Minister assure me that he was notified of that grouping? That is significant, because he may enter the Chamber later. Can she tell me that he was so informed?

Beverley Hughes: I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but I personally cannot confirm that. I was informed by my parliamentary section that the questions would be grouped.

Mr. Speaker: Thank you. If the hon. Gentleman comes in later, I shall call him, as I have no guarantee at this stage that he has been informed of the grouping.

Adult Learning

2. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): How many places there were on adult learning courses in 2005-06; how many places there are in the 2006-07 financial year; and if he will make a statement. [114149]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): In the 2005-06 academic year, there were about 4 million funded adult learner places. Figures for the 2006-07 academic year are not yet available. As set out last October in the Learning and Skills Council’s annual statement of priorities, funding for adult learners from 2005-06 to 2007-08 will increase by 7 per cent., including an additional £300 million for Train to Gain activity. We are committed to realigning funding to support Government targets, apprenticeships, Train to Gain and free first full level 2, while protecting support for disadvantaged adult learning and securing more resources for those with learning difficulties and disabilities.

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Mr. Jackson: I thank the Minister for that answer, but how can we have confidence that only 200,000 places will be lost out of the 3.5 million that were announced last April? Just before Christmas, the Government announced that a change in focus in further education policy meant that as many as 500,000 adult education places might be lost. Will the Minister explain the discrepancy?

Bill Rammell: I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to a period before the most recent changes were introduced, but it is undoubtedly true that the reprioritisation of funding to support skills for employability has delivered higher-than-expected levels of achievement, both at full level 2 and in adult basic skills. Most of the learners who have been lost were involved in non-priority learning. Up to now there has been a cross-party consensus on this matter, but it is important to bear it in mind that the reduction in adult FE volumes must be seen in the wider context of total adult provision. We expect more than 350,000 adult learners to be involved in Train to Gain by 2007-08. The Foster review, the Leitch review and the Government’s FE White Paper received cross-party support and focused on the importance of skills for employability, which has to be our priority.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be more flexible in the provision of courses as part of our commitment to lifelong learning? Does he agree that individuals and employers need to follow the Government’s example and contribute more to lifelong learning provision?

Bill Rammell: I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. No one can criticise this Government’s FE funding record over the past nine and a half years. In that time, we have increased funding by about 50 per cent., in real terms. That compares very favourably with the 14 per cent. real terms cut that was imposed in the five years before 1997. On the back of that increased state investment, we have to see a greater contribution from both individuals and employers if we are to meet the skills challenges that Sandy Leitch set out for us.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the Minister accept that as well as many courses closing, a number of previously well-attended courses are becoming prohibitively expensive for a number of people as a direct result of the Government’s policy of concentrating resources on 16 to 19-year-old education and qualification-based learning?

Bill Rammell: Interestingly, the evidence shows that the average hourly cost of an adult education class has increased over two years from £1.42 to £2.05—still a relatively modest sum, with significant protection for those on means-tested benefits. But the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he supports, as I believe he does, the substantial increased investment in skills for employability, he cannot say that the individual should not have to make a greater contribution towards non-priority learning. It is interesting and instructive that the public back us in this view. Three separate independent surveys have
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suggested that the public believe that for non-priority adult leisure and recreation, the individual should pay a little bit more.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to say that skills for employability are essential, but what progress has been made in discussions with LSCs in distinguishing between leisure courses and community courses that encourage people back into education who might otherwise not go on an accredited course? They are different, and often LSCs confuse the two.

Bill Rammell: I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in this issue. It is important to focus on level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs—but it is also critical that the stepping-stone provision that gets people up to level 2 is preserved and maintained. That is why we have established the foundation learning tier. We want to identify those courses that lead to progression. The commitment that we made in the FE White Paper is that over time, as resources allow, we will seek to make that an entitlement.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister is right to highlight the importance of lifelong learning, not least to match the skills required by industry to the courses put on by colleges. Will he congratulate Macclesfield college on the number of courses that it is organising relevant to the needs of local industry and commerce? I recently attended the opening of the European Centre for Aerospace Training at Macclesfield college by the director of the local learning and skills council. The centre is very relevant to the needs of industry and commerce.

Bill Rammell: I am more than happy to endorse the record of Macclesfield college. I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up very strongly on its behalf. The focus on skills for employability is key. Sandy Leitch’s report states that our economy is changing. We are going from 9 million skilled jobs to 14 million, while at the same time the number of unskilled jobs is falling from 3.5 million to 600,000. Unless we equip people within the workplace with the skills to face up to that challenge, we and they will lose out significantly.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts in funding for training in English for speakers of other languages, effectively ending free tuition for low-paid migrant workers from next September, is rather at odds with statements from Ministers, including the Chancellor, about the central importance of migrant workers learning English?

Bill Rammell: It is important that migrant workers learn English. Both the numbers and the funding for ESOL have tripled in recent years, but the current funding framework is unsustainable. In some parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for those in the greatest need. That is why we are saying, as we are across the FE system, that the individual and the employer have to make a contribution. Nevertheless, even with the changes, more than 50 per cent. of those currently receiving free ESOL training will continue to do so.

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Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): If I understand the Minister correctly, that means that there will be a 50 per cent. cut in funds for English for speakers of other languages. I am grateful for the question asked by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I remind him of the words of the Prime Minister, who said that, when people come to this country

it is vital that—

[Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, “and settle here”, so perhaps that is the answer, but will the Minister explain the logic to many baffled immigrants who seek to learn English and integrate in this country, and tell them why funding for that vital course has been cut?

Bill Rammell: From the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I assume that he thinks there should be different treatment for people coming to this country compared to British citizens. I do not take that view; there needs to be a level playing field, and where individuals and employers can make a contribution, they should do so. The current position is unsustainable. As I said, in parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for people in the greatest need. Unless the hon. Gentleman is making a commitment to additional public spending for ESOL, his intervention completely lacks credibility.

Music Teaching

4. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): What measures he proposes to increase the teaching of music in schools in low income areas. [114151]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): All schools already have to teach music to five to 14-year-old pupils, in accordance with national curriculum requirements. The Government are investing an additional £30 million in 2006-08 to back up their pledge that over time every primary child who wants to will have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The distribution of that money gives more to areas of high deprivation.

Andrew Mackinlay: I welcome the reiteration of that policy, but it was laid down by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) four Education Secretaries ago. What remains is a postcode lottery for schoolchildren wanting to learn to play a musical instrument—the chances are higher in Esher than in many working-class areas. I look to the Labour Government to remedy that wrong and to ensure that some of the poorest and most disadvantaged of our schoolchildren have the opportunity to enjoy and learn to play quality music, particularly—although rock and technology are important—classical and traditional music. That is what is required from the Labour Government. Can we get on with it?

Alan Johnson: I am glad to hear my hon. Friend talk about rock—he is known as the Robbie Williams of Thurrock in many parts of the House.

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I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. I agree entirely about the importance of music for all children, particularly for those in deprived areas, because on many occasions it is music and sport that get children engaged in education, which leads to other benefits. I want to make two points. The first is that we have provided a pot of money—£2 million, weighted for deprivation—to local authorities to buy and repair musical instruments. For some reason in my hon. Friend’s authority—the socialist republic of Thurrock—

Andrew Mackinlay: It is Tory controlled.

Alan Johnson: Perhaps that is the explanation. For some reason, Thurrock’s £3,254 share of that money has yet to be picked up. It is available for the 2006-07 financial year.

My hon. Friend talked about disadvantaged children, and my second point is that I announced at the Barnardo’s conference in December that as part of our children in care Green Paper and the proposals arising from it, every child in care should have the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument. The philosophy behind our Green Paper is that the state should be a better parent, and just as a parent would try to provide the opportunity for a child to learn a musical instrument, so, too, should the state. This month, we are talking to a range of music experts about how we can ensure that every child in care has that advantage.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I welcome what the Minister said about the importance of music in the school curriculum. Is he aware that in my borough of Bexley there is excellent music teaching and provision across the whole borough, irrespective of the social background of the area? Will he urge other local education authorities to look at the provision in my authority to see whether they can replicate it?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Bexley is excellent at music. Although we have made tremendous progress, I want to ensure that the same quality of provision that exists in Bexley and many other local authorities is applied across the country. One of the important developments is the music manifesto, where we put together independent voices in the music industry. There are 500 signatories and they have made a number of recommendations to us over the year to which I will respond in a speech on 16 January. One of the recommendations is about how we use singing in schools and about ensuring that there is singing in all schools as a precursor to greater music education. There are lots of excellent colleges in the state sector and the independent sector that, in partnership, we can use to achieve those objectives.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): My local authority of Sandwell, which historically is in a low income area, has an outstanding schools orchestra, which has reflected great credit on the local authority. Central to that has been the funding stream for music standards in schools, which I believe is to be reviewed in 2008. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that that central funding stream is maintained so that music provision in authorities such as Sandwell can continue to reflect credit on those involved.

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Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to that pool of money. It amounts to £64.5 million this year and will rise to £83 million in 2007-08. The pot for Thurrock is £400,000. He asked me a question that I cannot answer until the end of the comprehensive spending review, but it is quite evident that the focus that we have put on music learning throughout our time in government is going to continue.

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