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House of Commons

Thursday 8 February 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—

FE Colleges

1. Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): What plans he has to ensure that further education colleges are able to respond to demand for skills. [119645]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): We have invested heavily in further education to ensure that colleges are able to respond to the demand for skills. The further education White Paper sets out a major programme of reforms to transform the FE system. Those reforms renew the economic mission for FE, make plain its central role in equipping young people and adults for productive employment, and put the interests of learners and employers at the heart of the system. Many of the reforms are being taken forward in the Further Education and Training Bill.

Kitty Ussher: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In Burnley, we have double the national average of people employed in manufacturing, yet employers tell me that they find it hard to find the skills they need. I am sure that the bid currently before the Higher Education Funding Council for a new university faculty specialising in engineering will help, if approved, but will my hon. Friend confirm that he will also allow colleges to offer foundation degrees in response to employer demand without a complex and lengthy accreditation procedure?

Bill Rammell: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s commitment in working with her local college. Part of the way in which we face up to the skills challenge that she has outlined is through the train to gain initiative. The capital project involving a new further and higher education centre, which she has strongly supported, is going through the approvals process. I strongly welcome her support for the right of high-quality, high-performing further education colleges to be able to award their own foundation degrees. There will be a very robust quality assurance system. In order to face up to the significant skills challenges that we face, we need as much flexibility and innovation in the system as possible, and this measure will certainly help.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Government are talking about making it compulsory for 16 to 18-year-olds to stay on in full-time education, but for many of them it will be a cruel and unusual punishment unless they get the relevant tuition that they need. What will the Minister do to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of teachers in places of higher and further education so that those young people can learn the skills that they need, and we need, for the future in areas such as plumbing, bricklaying and electrical work?

Bill Rammell: I take it that that was partly a speech in support of the ideas that we are considering as regards what happens to young people up to the age of 18. It is important to make it clear that we are not proposing that they should be forced to stay in school until the age of 18 if it is not in their interests. However, there is arguably a strong case for saying that people need to retain a commitment to and involvement in education and training, whether part-time or full-time, through to the age of 18. I agree that we need as many teachers as possible covering a range of disciplines, although I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the fact that we have increased funding in the further education sector by 50 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years, in stark contrast to what went before, is helping us to do that.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I know that my hon. Friend is familiar with Lowestoft college, which has four centres of vocational excellence, worked with more than 550 employers last year and has 288 apprentices. The college wholeheartedly welcomes the Leitch report and wants to be part of inspiring people as well as providing training, but it questions whether, with train to gain in its infancy, we can get to a fully demand-led system as soon as 2010.

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools just whispered to me that it is a good day to hear from Mr. Blizzard, but I could not possibly comment on that.

I strongly agree that some very positive work is being done at Lowestoft college, which I visited last year with my hon. Friend. Getting to a fully demand-led system is a creditable ambition, because this is about ensuring that the qualifications and courses that are provided are genuinely what employers want. We have set out an ambition for the majority of that to be in place by 2015. The Leitch review contains a more ambitious set of proposals. We are considering those and will respond around the time of the comprehensive spending review later this year.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Minister knows of my personal commitment and that of my party to our further education colleges, which do so much good for so many. He also knows of the Opposition’s constructive approach to foundation degree-awarding powers. However, will he reconsider the need to ensure FE-HE links through statutory articulation agreements; to guarantee rigour with appropriate parliamentary scrutiny; and to pledge that the matter will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis after an agreed period of time? Further education deserves to be treated as grown up and universities deserve to know that degrees will rigorously teach and test genuine competence.

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Bill Rammell: I genuinely welcome the hon. Gentleman’s constructive approach and that of Opposition Front Benchers to the important issue. There is a joint recognition that we need as much flexibility in the system as possible to confront our significant skills challenge. We have already set out in the House of Lords the robust quality assurance mechanism. The articulation agreements, which will ensure that no further education college can go it alone and that there has to be a relationship with a university, are a key part of the proposal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I shall write to Members in the other place shortly before the Bill is before the House on Report. I hope that he will then realise that we have tackled the concerns that he and others have expressed.

Pupil Funding

2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What the average funding per school pupil will be in (a) Leicestershire and (b) England in 2007-08; and if he will make a statement. [119646]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): The school funding settlement for 2006 to 2008, announced in December 2005, gives Leicestershire a guaranteed unit of funding per pupil through the dedicated schools grant of £3,429 for 2007-08, which is a real-terms increase of a third since 1997. The England average is £3,888, which is a real-terms increase under the Government of just below 40 per cent.

Mr. Robathan: Yet again, Leicestershire comes bottom for funding in shire education authorities. The education of a child in Leicester city, just a few yards across the Braunstone lane from my constituency, is apparently worth £542 more than that of a child in my constituency in Braunstone town—if my maths is right, and I believe that it is. I took a delegation to see the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) when he was Education Secretary to complain about that. He said that that must never happen again, but it has. When will the Government produce a much more level playing field? What do they have against Leicestershire pupils?

Jim Knight: Naturally, we have nothing against Leicestershire, Somerset or even Dorset people. We ensure that funding is allocated on the basis of need, but we give deprivation priority. I note that the hon. Gentleman is interested in taking money away from Leicester to give it to others in Leicestershire. That is the logic of his comments. I presume that he would want similar redistribution in Birmingham and other areas around the country. We are examining the matter carefully. I note his interest and his points, but we need to reflect deprivation in funding settlements to give every child the best possible start.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I declare an interest as a governor of Ibstock community college and of Ashby school. Of course, those schools and others would like a better deal from school funding. However, did not Gareth Williams, the director of children and young people’s services at the Conservative-controlled county council, explode the myth about Leicestershire’s position when he said
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that it was funded somewhere near the average and that educational achievement and funding at the margin are not especially linked?

Will my hon. Friend the Minister accept an invitation to Ashby school, where I used to chair the governing body, to examine the quality of education that is available in our county from the money that we receive?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend makes some important points and I agree with him. I shall examine my diary sympathetically and discuss ways in which I can respond positively to his warm invitation.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Staffordshire does not do as badly as the county that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) represents, but it is still 132nd in funding out of 149 local education authorities. Does the Minister understand the frustration of people in Staffordshire and other counties when there is no clarity about the way in which the scale is calculated? It is especially frustrating because Labour candidates in Staffordshire in 1997 promised equal funding throughout England, apart from Greater London, for all pupils. That promise has clearly been broken.

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman should know that we promised to increase radically and improve the amount of funding available to our schools. We have fulfilled that promise for the people of Staffordshire. The increase in real terms under the Government for schools in Staffordshire is 39.1 per cent. It is 88th out of 148 in respect of the increase in education funding. I am sure that he welcomes that.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend confirm the major real-terms increase in funding for the Liverpool education authority? Is he satisfied that the funding is being used to tackle under-achievement, including among Somali and Yemeni children?

Jim Knight: I certainly can confirm that increase. The statistic involved is a 43.6 per cent. real-terms increase for the young people of Liverpool. We are looking closely at the local education authority’s performance in delivering for all the young people, including those from the ethnic groups that my hon. Friend mentioned. Indeed, I had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, and others, last week, at which we had a detailed discussion on some of the improvements that Liverpool is making. We want to work closely, through the Government office, to support it in dealing with all children in Liverpool.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has raised an important point. There is a huge differential between the allocation of resources to schools in towns and cities and schools in shire counties. Does the Minister agree that, if deprivation is to be recognised, it should be recognised through a different form of funding rather than through education funding? Surely it is only right that every child in this country, whether at primary or secondary level, should receive the same
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sum. Deprivation can be reflected through other funding. The Cheshire schools funding forum has recently met, and it is deeply concerned about what appears to be the discrimination against the children in the county of Cheshire, which does have areas of high deprivation.

Jim Knight: I am well aware of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) has spoken to me at some length on behalf of his constituents about the levels of deprivation in his area. Cheshire has had a 38.7 per cent. real-terms increase in school funding over the past 10 years. As I look at the next funding round, I want to ensure that the money that we rightly allocate in respect of deprivation and disadvantage—which are important determinants of education outcomes—finds its way to the schools that need it within the authorities. In that way, those schools in the more deprived areas of Cheshire that really need the funding will receive it.

ESOL Funding

3. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on reform of funding of English for speakers of other languages provision. [119647]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Since 2001, almost 2 million people have taken up the opportunity to improve their English language skills through the Skills for Life strategy. Changes set out in the Learning and Skills Council’s annual statement of priorities in October 2006 will build on that success by focusing funding more effectively, through full fee remission, on vulnerable learners most in need of taxpayers’ support. The Government will continue to make a significant contribution to fees for others.

Mr. Love: Although I understand the rationale behind that policy, may I make a plea for flexibility? My hon. Friend will be aware that many asylum seekers have to wait much longer than the minimum period to get their status resolved. There are also many immigrants earning the minimum wage in low-skilled jobs who find it extremely difficult to pay for the courses. Will my hon. Friend allow some flexibility in the policy in recognition of those constraints?

Bill Rammell: I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. It is clear, however, that the present situation is unsustainable. We have seen a tripling of numbers and a tripling of funding. If we simply go on increasing the budget, it will hit other elements of the Skills for Life programme. On asylum seekers, 80 per cent. of claims are now being dealt with within eight weeks, so it cannot be seen as a public funding priority to continue to fund learning for those who will not have the opportunity to remain in the United Kingdom.

On my hon. Friend’s other point, we have consulted widely as part of the race equality impact assessment, and I have met representatives of the Refugee Council and trade unions. I am trying to determine whether there is another indicator of low income besides the working tax credit that we could use to determine low income, in order to enable people to access free provision. It is also important to make it clear that,
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when the changes come through, people on low incomes will still get free ESOL provision. I estimate that that will involve at least 50 per cent. of the current cohort.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister will be aware that earlier this week the Secretary of State stressed the importance of Britishness in the national curriculum. This country benefits hugely from an influx of new citizens who contribute immensely to the national health service, other public services and economic growth, but one of the barriers to effective social cohesion is the mastery of the English language. How can we promote social cohesion and build a successful multicultural Britain when there are constraints on the spending that would enable people to speak our shared, common language?

Bill Rammell: I agree that it is important for us to give people opportunities to learn, study and understand English, for the purpose of community cohesion and for many other reasons. That is why we have tripled the budget and the numbers since 2001. However, the present situation is unsustainable, as the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has pointed out. We need to make a change.

I must say that I find the Opposition’s position inexplicable. They appear to be advocating an uneven playing field—

Mr. Speaker: Order. What they appear to be doing is nothing to do with the Minister.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that our ethnic communities already have to achieve a certain level of English to acquire citizenship, and that from April they will have to achieve a certain level of English to secure indefinite leave to remain? I agree that we cannot go on and on increasing the number of places, but we do not want people to be sent away because they do not speak English when there is nowhere for them to learn it.

Bill Rammell: I take my hon. Friend’s comments seriously, because I know that she has spent a great deal of time working on the issue, but the impact of the current unsustainable position is that in parts of the country people are having to wait for as long as two years to obtain a place on an ESOL programme, and the most vulnerable individuals are losing out most. The changes we are making are intended to ensure that such people gain access to provision. However, as part of the race equality impact assessment and in response to points that have been made to me, I am considering a number of ways of ensuring that the most vulnerable are genuinely protected.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is it a good thing or a bad thing that one in eight primary school pupils in England does not have English as a first language? If it is a good thing, why is English tuition not being properly funded? If it is a bad thing, why has the situation been allowed to develop?

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Bill Rammell: The argument that English tuition is not being properly funded simply does not bear scrutiny. We have significantly increased provision both in ESOL and in schools.

The position of the Opposition parties lacks credibility. Given that the Conservative party is committed to £21 billion-worth of public spending cuts, I do not see how it would be able—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister should take advice from the Chair while the Speaker is in a good mood.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am sorry to tell the Minister that I think that the position of the Government lacks credibility. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) are absolutely right. The Government cannot change the rules and say that people need to speak good English to become British citizens and must pay huge fees to the Home Office, and then deny them access to the very funds that will allow them to learn English adequately. Will the Minister please reconsider? Will he meet Members who have constituency interests in the matter—and those who may not, but who understand the principle—and review the Government’s policy?

Bill Rammell: If my right hon. Friend wants to discuss the issues with me, I am certainly prepared to meet him. I have already been meeting Members on an ongoing basis and discussing the proposals with them in detail. Let me make it clear, however, that every learner will continue to receive Government funding to the tune of 62.5 per cent. of the costs of the course, and that more than 50 per cent. of the current cohort will have continuing access to free provision. At present those in the greatest need—some of whom are probably in my right hon. Friend’s constituency—are having to wait for 18 months for access to the courses, and I do not think that we can allow that to continue.

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