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15 Mar 2007 : Column 502

David Howarth: I can give the hon. Gentleman some support—although, as a Cambridge academic, I might have to declare an interest to do so. The request for information about parental background was removed from the Cambridge application form because it was thought that applicants might think that it might prejudice their application and that it would have an adverse effect on access.

Mr. Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for injecting some common sense from the Liberal Democrat Benches—on this occasion, at least. I hope that the Minister will take account of what he is being told because his position on the matter under discussion is mistaken.

The imbalance in respect of the uptake of difficult subjects is producing perverse incentives. Let me give an example. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) talked about the need to encourage people to study science subjects, and we are all keen to keep our science departments open, but there is a paradox involved in that. If a university admits a good science candidate, the chances are—statistically, this is very likely—that they will come from a relatively well-off background and from a relatively successful school. Therefore, the university might achieve the objectives of admitting a good science candidate and of expanding science education in this country, but it will not achieve the objective of widening participation.

As I—and the Minister, too—never tire of saying, in terms of science, success is followed by success. Let me give a statistic that the Minister should have used when addressing the Liberal Democrats: engineering graduates enjoy an earnings increase of £243,730 as opposed to an increase of only £34,494 for those, like the Minister and me, who were so unwise as to study an arts degree. That point is a great advertisement for science, and it should be used more widely by all Members to evangelise on the benefits of the study of science at university.

However—to return to my core point—the tragedy is that we deprive our children of a realistic choice of what to study much too early in the system; that happens not at university, but much earlier. As well as taking steps such as recruiting more science teachers and making science more interesting, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) that we should take a harder look at the effects of the league table system, and particularly the extent to which the tables build in disincentives to study what I call the crunchy subjects. As my hon. Friend suggested, it would be a sensible reform if we were to give a special weighting in school performance assessment and league tables to such difficult subjects—which are the subjects that universities look at in particular in deciding on admissions. That is the key to what I, the Minister and everybody else wants to achieve, which is to expand the classic route to university.

Paul Farrelly: I want to return to the crunchy issue of Connexions. The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the importance of good career advice for acquiring information, confidence and aspiration, and he has made it clear that he would not get rid of such advice, but that he would reform it. Lest Members think that
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he might be making policy on the hoof, will he tell us what is the key reform that he would implement in respect of Connexions?

Mr. Johnson: It is particularly important that students have better advice on the right mixture of GCSEs necessary to gain admission to the place they want to go, but we will not solve the problem we are discussing by addressing the careers advice system alone. We must make sure that all children in all schools have equal access to the vital utensils that they will need to get to higher education. The hon. Gentleman trivialises the matter by endlessly banging on about Connexions.

Let me turn to a point that has been repeatedly made: everyone involved in universities who is listening to this debate and my speech—and everyone else who is listening—would say that we are missing out addressing a huge chunk of matters relating to how we could widen access to higher education. The hon. Member for Bury, North made just that point a moment ago. We should not think of higher education as an 18-24 issue or even as an 18-30 issue. We have to encourage all sorts of groups to think of themselves as university material at all kinds of ages.

We should also be expanding part-time study and it is interesting to hear the focus on that point in the Chamber today. We are clearly all getting pressure from constituents to expand part-time provision and find an imaginative way—I am sure that the Government can think of one—to ensure that part-time students have the same access to financial help as full-time students. That would be very expensive, and I am not making any spending pledge, because I would be immediately jugulated. I am conscious that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) is in his place and watching me very carefully, but it would be good if we could consider the issue. I heard what the Minister said about not wanting to drive out business funding, and the point about dead weight is well taken, but there has to be some way to help part-time students.

It is sad that one sector that has declined under this Government is the adult and community learning sector. The Minister shakes his head and I hesitate to disagree with him, but the numbers for that sector are down on 1997.

Mr. Sheerman: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is being extremely entertaining, but he has been speaking for nearly half an hour. Could he just get on with the argument, because we are waiting for it? We have heard a lot of waffle, but what is the Conservative party’s view on how to broaden access?

Mr. Johnson: That is very disobliging of the hon. Gentleman, who was being kind to me earlier. I have already made it clear that we have two concerns. The first and most important is that the school system is not adequate for the job of widening participation in the way that we all want to see. That is why we should look again at the league table system, and there was some nodding by Labour Members when I made that point—but perhaps the hon. Gentleman was nodding
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off —[ Interruption. ] Perhaps they were shaking their heads. I said that we must ensure that people did not face any disincentives when choosing to take the crunchy subjects that universities value and that assist people in getting into higher education. That would be a useful reform and it has been promulgated by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, who is in his place on the Front Bench.

Secondly, we should consider part-time students, who come disproportionately—

Dr. Francis: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnson: I keep being interrupted and asked to make fresh points. I am obviously stimulating much thought in what passes for Labour Members’ minds.

We should do more to stimulate part-time study, because part-time students—as Labour Members will know—come disproportionately from low-income groups. The Minister recited the figures today, but we all know that 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force is already in work. We need to keep training them and, as the Minister rightly said, to become more competitive.

I wish to end with a thought about increasing participation generally, not only in universities but in education as a whole. It is widely recognised that one of the failures of this Government, to which the Minister did not allude, is that there has been a 15 per cent. increase, to 1.25 million, in the number of 16-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. We are seeing, time and again, the results of failures at earlier stages of education. We need a better vocational route for those people and a better progression from further education to higher education. I am glad that progress has been made, although I realise that the Further Education and Training Bill was a rushed job, spatchcocked together at the last minute— Interruption. ] I thought that was what the Minister said. However, he has been imaginative and conciliatory in his solution to the difficult problem of further education colleges issuing degrees with no co-operation with universities. I think he has accepted that articulation agreements will be in the Bill—I hope he will reply on that point—which is a good thing, because the agreements will ensure that there is integration and co-ordination between FE and HE institutions.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that co-operation between local FE colleges and universities will be an opportunity to release the huge untapped pool of talents of women who did not go to university when they were younger and have now brought up their children? They will be able to undertake a course of academic or other study and acquire a degree without having to move away from home or give up their other responsibilities.

Mr. Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right. We support the broad thrust of the Bill because it will help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, as long as we make sure that the FE and HE sectors are properly interlocked and not in pointless competition. We support the measure not because we want to aim at pointless targets of 50 per cent. participation in higher
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education, but because we believe that universities have enormous power to change society and to change people’s lives. That is why widening participation is a vital objective, provided we remember that we cannot ask universities to remedy the divisions and injustices that have already appeared in British education. Any serious attempt to widen participation must address the serious and growing gulf in performance between our schools.

3.27 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): We should congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning on his role in initiating this debate on widening access. It is high time that we debated the subject in the House. The Select Committee on Education and Skills has just embarked on a major inquiry into the sustainable university and the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is welcome to participate in any of our sessions. I am sure that some of the distinguished people who will give evidence over the next few weeks will be of great interest to him.

We must look seriously at the progress report on higher education. Much of what the Minister said is right and should be welcomed. I hope I shall not be castigated by anyone in the university world if some of my remarks are a little uncomplimentary about the higher education sector’s timidity in meeting some of the challenges.

I think all parties agree that getting less-privileged young people into higher education is a difficult job, and that although all the statistics show that there has been gradual improvement, it has not been fast enough for most of us. What should we do about that? We know that more than 90 per cent. of 18-year-olds with the appropriate qualifications go into higher education. Most young people who remain in education after the age of 17 go on to higher education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who has left the Chamber, suggested. That is to be celebrated, but those figures do not include enough kids from poorer backgrounds. We need to raise both our aspirations for those young people and their achievements.

Can I have my cake and eat it? What irritates me about some of our colleagues—not just Opposition Members, but Labour Members too—and many media commentators is that they pontificate about what goes on in our schools but do not actually visit them. In my job, I make sure that I get a strike record of visiting two or three schools a week. That means piling in an awful lot during term time. However, there is nothing like it.

If you, Madam Deputy Speaker, picked up The Sunday Times and read the education stories and finished with the last page and an article by the former chief inspector of schools, that would almost drive you to suicide. The only thing that prevents a suicidal act in my case is the prospect of visiting a real school on the Monday or Tuesday. If we go to a school, we see the good teaching, great learning and the highly motivated staff.

The best teachers that I have seen in my lifetime are now coming through. The new generation of teachers make wonderful school leaders. Indeed, last week, I
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spoke at the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham and saw how many new young heads are coming through aided by inspirational new programmes such as “fast track” that identify early on the young teachers who have the potential to become heads. I met two only last week. They are aged 29 and they are heads of their schools. That is truly inspirational.

Mr. Chaytor: Before my hon. Friend moves on from discussing the educational guru of The Sunday Times, he will recall that he played an important part in the demise of the former chief inspector. Given Mr. Woodhead’s continuing influence over a large section of the British establishment in respect of education policy, does not my hon. Friend think that Mr. Woodhead would be a suitable candidate to bring before the Select Committee at a future hearing?

Mr. Sheerman: The guru status and influence of that particular gentleman can be exaggerated. I will have to think about my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman has just repeated a comment that he made in questions to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills earlier. He seems to be under the misapprehension that Opposition Members do not visit schools. May I assure him that he is preaching to the converted? I, and every colleague I know, frequently visit our schools and share his concern and interest.

Mr. Sheerman: I was just trying to get the balance right. I meet many Members of Parliament who do not visit many schools, and I urge them to do so. However, let us put that issue to one side for a moment.

We want to raise the aspirations of 18-year-olds. However, what was disappointing about the speech of the hon. Member for Henley was that he did not go below the age of 18 and explore what we can do to stimulate those pupils further. There was a broad generalisation that we must improve schools. Of course, that is so, but there has already been a steady improvement. However, he did not mention the fact that the independent sector is good at identifying what he calls the “crunchy subjects”. I am always a bit cautious about crunchy subjects because one person’s crunchy subject is not the same as another’s. Is economics a crunchy subject? Is law a crunchy subject?

Mr. Boris Johnson: I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that English and mathematics are crunchy subjects. The disgrace of our education system is that 44 per cent. of children still leave primary school unable to do reading, writing or basic mathematics. That is where the division begins and that is exactly the point that I was making throughout my speech.

Mr. Sheerman: That is the Woodhead argument, is it not? It is not true. That is not the percentage of children leaving school at 11 with those low levels. The hon. Gentleman does the children and teachers of this country an injustice by exaggerating the levels of illiteracy and innumeracy. Perhaps he can provide me with the facts or statistics that would authenticate his wild view, or perhaps he will change his view after two minutes as he did about the Connexions service as the
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result of an earlier intervention. It is not right to talk about low levels of performance. The performance of children in our schools is improving steadily, although of course it is never good enough and we want it to be better.

Let me talk about the responsibility of higher education in that respect. I have taken the Education and Skills Committee to visit many of the ivy league universities in the United States. People in those universities do not sit there, concerned and worried about the lack of bright students from less privileged backgrounds. The universities have a technique for identifying where those students are and a rigorous way of going out, finding them and bringing them into their institutions. If we look at the overall performance—particularly of the research-rich universities in our country—it is lacking, in terms of what our universities could learn from the United States. Stanford, Princeton and other leading ivy league universities in America have a map of America that shows every state, city and community. They know where the students are coming from and they know when they are underperforming in terms of attracting students from a particular state or municipality. They are so well organised that they use their alumni, as well as professional staff, to visit schools in areas from which they do not get students.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, slowly but surely, universities in this country—certainly in the north-east—are changing? However, we have to get to a situation whereby universities visit not just secondary schools, but primary schools to light the little touch paper there and to put the idea of going to university not just into the kids’ minds, but more importantly—especially in families where there is no tradition of going into higher education—into the parents’ minds.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Jeremy Wright: I agree entirely that it would be much better if British universities did what American ivy league universities do in identifying those who can most benefit from a higher education, but the hon. Gentleman must recognise that the major difference is the amount of funding and the resources that American universities have to do that with. I am sure he would agree with me that many British universities do as much as they possibly can with the limited resources that they have available.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. American universities, and especially ivy league universities, have greater resources. When one meets a president from somewhere such as Stanford, he will have 50 MBAs standing behind him. That does not happen with most vice-chancellors in most universities in Britain. But let us get the balance right. I am not condemning universities in this country; I am saying that they could do far more in terms of going down their supply chain and looking at where their talent comes from and, if there is a deficiency, doing something positive about it.

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