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The way in which the Budget dealt with some environmental challenges was disappointing, although it would be churlish not to put on record my appreciation of the £50 million to be spent on preserving rain forests, a move that I wholly applaud. I also applaud the extra £6 million for the low-carbon buildings programme. A time will come, however, when grant subsidy by the Government will not be sufficient for the introduction to the United Kingdom of alternative, sustainable ways, with low greenhouse gas emissions, of generating heat and electric power. I recommend to the Financial Secretary that the energy
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review include some analysis of adopting the system in Germany, where the buy-in tariff on self-generated electricity provides a return to the individual of four times the price paid for purchasing electricity centrally. That system has dramatically increased the amount of power generated by renewables sources to 10 per cent., at no cost to the German Government and with no grants. The better buy-back price guaranteed for a period of 20 years, with the cost spread out among all electricity users, means that the average German household spends only €2 extra on their electricity bills, while still delivering a 10 per cent. renewable rate. Neither this country’s renewables obligation certificate, nor Ofgem’s proposals for consultation on the removal or replacement of the current ROC system, replicate the German success, which has led to widespread localised electricity generation through photovoltaic cells, wind or combined heat and power.

Communities in this country are anxious to get involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Again, Germany provides substantial examples of local investment by local people in combined heat and power schemes, thus removing the burden from Government but ensuring that the community has the right conditions to fund effectively their own environmental programmes. Will the Financial Secretary consider a third way in the range of individual savings accounts provided to encourage personal and private investment in energy-saving projects? Either personal involvement in an ISA dedicated to that purpose or changing the operation of venture capital taxation to encourage more investment in localised schemes, coupled with improved buy-back prices for electricity, could radically transform the opportunities for localised power and heat generation.

The Financial Secretary should also consider the derogation on duty for biofuels. When the price of oil went up, the numbers wishing to invest in biofuels production substantially increased. It has become clear during the Select Committee’s inquiry, however, that some producers reduce production as the price of oil decreases, as it is no longer profitable, and the duty derogation does not provide an effective subsidy to cover the additional costs. Is it not possible to vary that subsidy according to the price of hydrocarbon fuel, so that the amount of money going back to a biofuel producer when the price is $80 or $90 a barrel is considerably more than when the price decreases to $50 or less? Take-up of the Government’s help to the second-generation biofuels industry needs further encouragement if we are to sort out the food-fuel paradox, because such investment is slower in this country than in continental Europe.

I am surprised that those on both Front Benches have shown so little imagination in regard to aviation emissions. They could have come up with better ways of drawing to passengers’ attention the carbon implications of their journeys. I would favour not a tax but a carbon offset scheme, enabling people to know how much carbon their journeys were costing. Some of the work of the CarbonNeutral Company, for instance, could help to identify the carbon cost of journeys. Most important, the money raised could be put in a pot and help to fund carbon dioxide-reducing activity. Perhaps there could be a special lottery fund for localised and community-based activity, or a fund to give further support to projects such as the low carbon buildings programme.

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BP has developed a carbon offset programme allowing motorists to offset with money the carbon in the fuel that they buy. The company tells me that the results of its customer survey convey the clear message that customers want the money to be spent locally rather than remotely. The time has come for more imaginative offset programmes. It must be made clear to people that the money they have to pay as a consequence of their carbon expenditure can be spent on reducing carbon in their areas and communities.

Budgets are like Chinese meals. This Budget is certainly like that. You noticed it on the day, but you woke up the following day wondering what it really was that you ate. I know from my time as a Treasury Minister that this will turn out to be rather a disappointing Budget. The cheers on Budget day collapsed very quickly as people saw the true meaning of the so-called 2p off tax. What it really means is a tax take from the less well off: a reduction in payable tax credit. Disappointment will be inevitable, and the forthcoming attraction is a public expenditure round that will squeeze the amount available for the provision of Britain’s vital and valuable services.

In the light of the observations of the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), I look forward to a real change of tenure at both No. 10 and No. 11 Downing street.

2.31 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who always has something interesting to say in debates such as this—although both he and I often find ourselves addressing a half-empty Chamber on Thursdays.

I shall concentrate on the education implications of the Budget. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that we would continue to invest in education, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills described some of the effects of that this afternoon. It is a policy that the Government have espoused throughout their term in office, and their investment has produced spectacular results. Standards of literacy and numeracy have risen dramatically in our primary schools, and the key stage 3 strategy is improving results in secondary schools. More young people are obtaining five good GCSEs than ever before, and we ought to recognise and celebrate their achievements, because they are too often denigrated when the results are published. There are many hard-working young people who are achieving very good results.

Nevertheless, as we all know, under-achievement and inequality remain in the system. The Select Committee on Education and Skills has drawn attention to that in a number of reports. The way in which we tackle inequalities is crucial to education spending. There is still too wide a gap between our best schools and the schools that are struggling. It has been a scandal for many years that young people can leave school at 16 and be given no further education or training, and it was good to hear the Secretary of State commenting on how we propose to tackle that in the future.

It is also true that a young person’s chances of proceeding to higher education are still overwhelmingly
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determined by the social class into which he or she is born. That inequity must give Ministers sleepless nights, but the social and economic consequences are also potentially catastrophic. We know—we heard it again this afternoon—that the number of unskilled jobs in the economy is set to decline, and that the number requiring higher-level skills will rise. If we do not tackle educational low achievement and under-achievement, there is a risk that a section of our society will not be able to obtain jobs and that the gap between the haves and the have-nots will increase, with consequent damage to civic society. That is how high the stakes are in respect of education, because what is at stake is the kind of society that we produce, not only in economic terms but in a host of other areas as well.

The Government have taken steps to tackle under-achievement. There have been valuable initiatives such as those to do with children’s centres and extended schools, but many such initiatives attempt to tackle the problem through making changes to the structures of the school system, and I have concerns about how well that works, because I think that the jury is still out on a number of them. First, there is doubt about how well some of the initiatives gel with what the Government are trying to do in other areas—making schools the focus of their community, for example, or having extended schools. There is also an issue to do with dynamic leadership, which we talk about often in terms of education. That is important, but unless such dynamic leadership feeds through to improvements in teaching and learning—unless it is embedded in the system—when the leader moves on, the school might decline again. We should focus our education spending much more on developing the curriculum and improving teacher training. Those are the keys to improving education.

The results of some of the initiatives that have been taken are difficult to interpret at this stage—and the evidence is sometimes contradictory. Ofsted has so far inspected only nine academies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) talked about Mossbourne community academy, and the more I have read about it the more it has become clear that it is a very good school—in fact, I learned more this afternoon about education in Hackney than I have for a long time. Of the nine academies inspected, overall effectiveness was judged to be good in three, satisfactory in five and inadequate in one. That shows that the performance of academies differs; some are very good, while others have not achieved good results. It is too early to say how this programme will work through.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Although we agree that there are some positive spending measures in the Budget, does the hon. Lady also agree that it contains nothing that suggests that the Government will reach their target of having 400 academies—that is the new target, which is double the original 200 figure?

Helen Jones: The Government’s target is to get good schools, which is the right target. Parents want a good local school—whatever title we give it. That is why I want to focus on teaching and learning.

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Some academies are very good, but the intake of some academies is very different from that of their predecessor school. That is a plus in one sense, but it also makes it extremely difficult to compare results because we are not comparing like with like. Some academies have a very high expulsion rate—much higher than that of the local authorities in which they are situated. If difficult and challenging children are moving to other schools in the system, that also makes comparing results difficult, because the challenges presented by such children are not tackled, but moved somewhere else.

There has also been the specialist schools programme. The Education and Skills Committee—and that Committee in its previous incarnation as the Education Committee—has made it clear that there are varying assessments of that programme. It is undoubtedly true that many specialist schools have improved their results and that they have offered further opportunities to many children, but let us look at last year’s results. The average point score at GCSE in specialist schools increased by 10.5 per cent. but it increased throughout the secondary school maintained sector by 10.8 per cent. It is therefore very difficult to draw conclusions from those results at these early stages.

It sounds confusing, but education can be confusing, because it is very difficult to establish control groups when starting new things. To make matters more confusing, in some areas certain things have worked and Government interventions have been very successful. For example, in 1997-98, 45.9 per cent. of schools in the most deprived wards were in special measures; by 2004-05, that figure had fallen to 28.8 per cent. Primary schools with the highest number of children on free school meals—a good rough index of deprivation—had narrowed the results gap on schools with a smaller proportion of children on free school meals.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that a key issue in raising standards in schools is leadership, and that investment in head teachers is helping to drive up standards in the most deprived parts of constituencies? That is certainly true in my constituency.

Helen Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend—that is a very important point. What seems to have worked in the primary schools that I am referring to is a combination of rigorous focus on the curriculum—including literacy and numeracy—better support for teachers, better materials and better overall support. However, it is important to recognise that, although good management of a school is important in itself, we must ensure that it feeds through into improvements in teaching in the classroom. Ofsted’s report on academies found that although leadership is a strength for most academies, that has as yet led to minimal improvements in teaching in the classroom.

If we are to tackle this problem, our education spending must in future focus on the curriculum, teaching and improving teacher training. Alongside that is the question of how we get our best and brightest teachers into our
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most challenging schools. The biggest single indicator of low educational achievement in this country is not ethnicity or gender, but poverty: the simple question of whether a child is born poor. Of course, that does not mean that all poor children are destined to fail—some schools prove triumphantly that that is not so—but it is more likely to happen.

So in making our spending decisions, the first question that we need to ask is, what do we do about the curriculum? What do our children need to flourish in the 21st century? The problems that they will face are quite different from the ones that we have had to face. They are growing up in a world of vast movements of people. They will indeed be global citizens, and many of them will work abroad at some time in their lives. Families are scattered and communities often fragmented; schools have a role to play in dealing with that. Most of all, our children are growing up in an age of mountains of information: in a multi-media age in which, at the touch of a button, the internet can provide information—some good, some bad—on every subject under the sun. Unless we teach them to deal with that information overload, we will not be preparing them adequately for the world in which they will grow up.

I accept that we in this country are not good at talking about the schools curriculum. We tend to assume that we know what everyone should learn, and usually, it is what we ourselves learned. As a result, our curriculum is still based on a 19th-century curriculum. It has been tweaked here and there and bits have been added and subtracted, but it is recognisable as the same curriculum. That is not good enough for the 21st century. We need to ask much closer questions about what our children learn. If we all accept, as I assume we do, that the building blocks of the curriculum are literacy and numeracy, because they are the foundation of all other learning, we have to ask, “What next?”. I wish to make a few suggestions. They are not prescriptive or even a full list, but they are suggestions that we should debate—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I wonder whether the hon. Lady, when she makes her suggestions, will be able to link them to the comments in the Budget speech that the Chancellor made.

Helen Jones: I will try to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. My argument is that our money should be spent on developing the curriculum and on training teachers to deliver it. That is the key to improving teaching and learning.

My first suggestion is that our children should learn about their own country, its history, traditions and culture. That is easy to say, but it takes a lot of thought and spending to develop that curriculum. If there are two historians in a room, they will have three different views on how to deliver the history curriculum. English teachers will argue for a long time about what children should be reading.

I suggest that we need to be guided by two points: we need to prepare our children for work, but we also need to prepare them to live. Education is about living well, and the decisions that we make about the curriculum, and the money that we put into it, should be guided by
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the desire to ensure that our children have access to the best. We should educate them for leisure, as well as for work.

Secondly, children need to learn about at least one other culture. Culture is accessed through language, and we have heard the comments in Lord Dearing’s report on the teaching of languages in primary schools. What he said was largely correct, but it still raises questions about how the money can be provided for developing the materials that will be needed to teach languages in primary schools and to train teachers to deliver that curriculum.

There is also a question about which languages should be taught. Traditionally, in this country, most people have learned French or German at school. If we are to move to teaching other languages, developing the staff to deliver them will have major implications for public policy and finance. It is right that we should do so, but long-term financial decisions have to be made about how to spend our money.

The third point is about science education. The Secretary of State said in his opening remarks that we are now getting more maths and physics teachers into our schools and more people are taking those subjects at university. But it is vital that children leave school with some basic scientific literacy—an understanding of scientific methods and of how science has shaped our world.

Children also need to leave school with certain skills. When the Education and Skills Committee considered citizenship education, for example, it found that we need to encourage active citizenship in our young people. They need to learn how to take responsibility and about the need to take part in their community. We need to consider whether all young people should undertake some community service as part of their progress towards leaving school. Perhaps an over-arching leaving certificate should include some such service—

Stephen Williams: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones: I will give way as the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Committee.

Stephen Williams: The hon. Lady attended the Committee yesterday when we heard evidence from the University of Manchester that it now requires all its undergraduates to do 60 hours of community service a year. Perhaps that model could be replicated in schools, even if not for so many hours.

Helen Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and reasonable point, if we want to produce rounded citizens, but the question is how we direct our public spending to free up teachers to carry out such projects. Long-term decisions need to be taken. We need special people to deliver that. We need teachers who can inspire young people, and access the support that they need for learning. That is much more difficult than it ever used to be. We live in an age of internet chatrooms: everyone’s opinion is considered to be equally valid, regardless of their knowledge of the subject, so it is very difficult to inspire respect for learning.

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