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We welcome the extension of the mentoring scheme that the Secretary of State announced. It appears to involve people at university visiting schools and
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arranging programmes in schools through the school system. Surely it will be far more complicated now that two Departments are involved instead of one.

The Secretary of State referred to extra spending of £400 million. Will he confirm that the sum is within the education spending totals that the then Chancellor announced earlier this year, and thus in the totals that were already set? If so, will he make it clear where exactly the resources are coming from in the overall Budget that the now Prime Minister announced when Chancellor of the Exchequer? [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We must not have mutterings from the second Bench. The House listened courteously to the first statement; that should also apply to this statement.

Mr. Willetts: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Secretary of State can respond to the questions, which will concern many people in higher education, including students.

Will the Secretary of State tell us more about the prospects for the future of the bursaries scheme? There has been media comment in the past few weeks about what might happen to bursaries, and the Minister with responsibility for higher education, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), made carefully drafted comments, in which he appeared to cast doubt on their long-term future. Will changes to bursaries form any part of the package and funding changes that he announced?

On a wider point, does the Secretary of State accept that approximately 90 per cent. of people who leave school with two good A-levels already get to university? The deep challenge that we must all confront is that, if we want more people to have access to university with the right qualifications to benefit from higher education, we need to examine what is happening in schools. Is not the fundamental challenge, which everyone raises with us, increasing access to the GCSEs and A-levels that students need if they are to have a prospect of getting to university? Is not that the problem that the Government need to tackle?

Let me tell the Secretary of State about a visit that I recently paid to one of the excellent summer schools, which are aimed at broadening access to university. There, teenagers who had not previously thought of going to university suddenly realised that they could benefit from it, and then one saw their shock when they realised that the GCSEs that they had been studying, and perhaps the A-level for which they had been entered, were not those that they needed to do the course about which they had become excited. The Government’s targets and points system mean that many teenagers are encouraged to do the GCSEs and A-levels that do not offer them the best prospect of getting to university.

Meanwhile, study of the subjects that are often crucial to getting to our most academically valuable universities are declining. There is a decline in the number of people who study modern languages and individual real sciences at GSCE and A-level in state schools, and an increase in the proportion of students who study the crunchy and more academic subjects—further maths and modern languages—at private
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schools. How can the Government achieve their objectives of widening participation if the only lever that they pull changes the maintenance grant when fundamental improvement in the quality of education at school is the key? Is not that another reason why splitting the Department for Education and Skills in two will make it harder to achieve those important objectives?

Mr. Denham: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and congratulate him on his appointment—I welcome him to his new job. I have known him for a long time and always admired his wide interest in social policy. In his previous job in particular I admired his intellectual honesty, and I hope that he gets more support from those behind him in his current job than he did in his previous post.

My impression is that the hon. Gentleman does not have a great deal to say about the package. It is a shame that he has not grasped its importance to delivering two things: the skills that we need as a society to prosper and the opportunity for many of our fellow citizens, especially young people, who currently do not fulfil their full potential. I hope that, perhaps in later debates, we will get a more generous welcome for the Government’s reforms today.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s specific points. The package is not about part-time students. However, last year, the Government introduced a system of support for fees. Many higher education institutions offer support for part-time students through access to learning funds. In 1997, when the hon. Gentleman was last in government, there was no support for part-time students, and most of today’s part-time students would not have had the chance to be in higher education. Part-time study is important and we are building, especially with industry, co-funded courses in higher education. We expect many, if not all, to be on a part-time basis, and to deliver the higher quality vocational skills that are needed. We therefore recognise the importance of part-time education in the overall picture.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the splitting or creation of the two Departments. Some years ago, I was the Minister with responsibility for children and young people, and personally I feel that there is a compelling logic to having a Department—which the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Ed Balls) now leads—that is able to look at family and children’s issues in such a coherent way. There will be certain issues at the interface between my right hon. Friend’s Department and mine, which we will sort out—they are easy to identify, and they will be easy to tackle—but the gains for our children from having the focus that the new structure offers will be enormous. I do not believe that it will make the slightest difference to the already successful scheme involving university students going back into school to work with students, particularly in science, maths, technology and engineering—the subjects that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about—to ensure that they have the right qualifications. We have already recognised the importance of that work.

The bursary scheme is enormously important. I have been in this post for only a few days—

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Mr. Willetts: Five days?

Mr. Denham: Eight days. I have been in post for only eight days, but the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) encourages me to say that we have no plans to change the bursary scheme. It is an important part of all this. Indeed, my statement slightly understated the extent to which some students will be better off, because many bursary schemes offer an amount that is much more generous than the minimum that I mentioned.

Of course higher school standards are important throughout the system. We already have the best ever school standards. The standards in our poorest performing schools have improved faster than across the education system as a whole, and that will continue to provide students who will come into higher education. We all know, however, that at the moment some of those students will get to the age of 16 and lose their way and go out of the system because they do not think that university is for them. These measures will address the needs of those students and get them into higher education.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I genuinely warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new job. What a way to start. His statement is good news for working people and their families, and for students who will be encouraged to enter higher education for the first time. Those of us who have looked at this area know that what is needed is the full package, and that the earlier we start, the better. My right hon. Friend will know about my passion for the mentoring role, which is at the heart of the recommendations. I welcome them very sincerely.

Of course, all of us who are interested in education will add one proviso. The full package must go right the way through, keeping these young, talented people in the system so that they go into higher education and then into postgraduate education, so that they can become PhDs, researchers and leaders in technology and innovation. But we will give my right hon. Friend a little time before he needs to come back to us on that.

Mr. Denham: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. However the Select Committee structures are determined by the House, I am sure that we will be drawing on his considerable expertise in this area and in this new role. Mentoring is enormously important, and some young people do not get the necessary support at home to achieve their full potential. If we can provide it in other ways, that is enormously important.

A second matter on which I agree with my hon. Friend involves another part of the story that we can tell. The higher education institutions are doing increasingly effective work on ensuring that, once students have entered higher education, they stay there and complete their first degree or other qualification as successfully as possible. That is essential. Internationally, we have a very good completion rate in higher education. I am convinced that the measures that we have put in place today will relieve some of the pressures that can divert students who feel that they cannot complete their courses,
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or who are diverted from their studies by having too much paid work. The provisions will help people to do as well as they possibly can at university.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. May I say how much I look forward to working with him? I also welcome the fact that the Prime Minister was here earlier. I am afraid that he is not in his place now, as usual for the Liberal Democrat response. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that he was here at the start of the statement; I hope that that means he will be making student support a priority. I certainly welcome the recognition that the previous system was woefully inadequate, and that a family on an annual income of £17,500 is hardly wealthy. My concern, however, is whether the extension of maintenance grants to more people might be a prelude to lifting the cap. Is that the Secretary of State’s intention? I would be grateful if he could make that clear.

The Secretary of State spoke earlier about part-time students. Does he recognise the challenges for students who are studying at less than 50 per cent. of a full-time course and who therefore have no access whatever to maintenance grants? Part-time students are often older or poorer. They are more likely to be from an ethnic minority background, and very likely to have caring responsibilities. Yet they are just the kind of people whom Leitch recommends must be attracted into education. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the income of such students is severely affected by having to pay fees up front? Does he propose to change that? I must remind him that we were vehemently opposed to the introduction of those fees in the first place. Similarly, does he have any plans to extend maintenance loans to students studying courses in further education colleges?

Is the Secretary of State considering introducing a national bursary system? I should like to add my comments to those that others have made about the increase in funding for mentors. That is welcome, as long as it happens at a very early age, because young people make choices about their future as they enter secondary school. He failed to answer a question from the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on how the proposals are to be funded. Does he intend to fund them by cutting other aspects of the higher education package, or should we expect to hear of changes to the interest rates on maintenance loans over the next few years? I hope that he will make that clear in his response.

Mr. Denham: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I, too, was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was on the Treasury Bench for the statement. I confess that I might have had more difficulty getting this package through in my first eight days in office had it not been for the considerable support that I have received from him.

Nothing that we have announced today prejudges the review of the fee system which is in the pipeline for 2009. This will not affect it in any way. It will happen as has been promised, and nothing should be read into today’s announcement in regard to that review. Part-time students have already been discussed. A decision had to be made about the intensity of study
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that would attract assistance with fees, and the decision was made a few months or a year ago to limit that assistance to those who were studying at 50 per cent. intensity or more. There are some people who fall outside that category, but many of them are in work, and that is the reason for the low intensity of their study. Also, there are special provisions for those whose ability to study is limited by a disability. We put together a good package; it was certainly much better than anything that had existed previously for part-time students.

We have no plans to have a national bursary system. There is a minimum requirement, but we believe that there are advantages in individual institutions shaping the bursary scheme to their intake and to the type of students that they attract.

On the CSR settlement and allocation, the House will have to wait until later in the year for the details to be published. However, what I have announced today comes within our CSR settlement limits. Nothing that I have done today puts in jeopardy any commitments that we have already made in higher education, including the funding of student places or the desire to increase the number of participants in higher education.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): May I very warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State for this exciting and important new Department? He has made an excellent start with today’s statement, which will be strongly welcomed by students at both the universities in Oxford and by everyone in the country who wants to extend access to university to people from poorer backgrounds. I particularly welcome the guarantee, which is a radical and progressive innovation. Will it not be crucial for that to be effectively communicated to prospective students and their families? Will my right hon. Friend tell us a little more about how he will get the message across about just what a big improvement this is?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. He raises a very important issue. We already have a communications group, which my Department inherited from the previous Department, and its members include Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the Association of Colleges and other key stakeholders. We will want to bring that group together at a very early stage to look at how we can effectively communicate that message right down through the system. Taking into account the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, we will need to ensure that that message goes to young people who are well below the age of 16, so that expectations build up among much younger school children and their parents about the system that lies ahead of them.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I tell the Secretary of State that although it is natural to want to address the Member who asked the question, other hon. Members might not be able to hear him unless he speaks into the microphone?

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Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Will the Secretary of State clarify that the effect of his announcement is that the staff-student ratio will remain the same and not continue to worsen? Is not the real issue with access that the millions spent on school buildings have not been matched by the changes in curriculum, testing and teachers’ working practices that are necessary to challenge ability and to improve standards in our secondary schools?

Mr. Denham: What I have said, and I repeat, is that the settlement enables us to say to universities that we will maintain the real level of funding per student as student numbers increase. Of course, individual institutions have to take decisions about how they want to staff themselves up. It is not for me to start dictating that. However, that is the funding commitment, which I am able to repeat.

As for schools, I simply say that I know that the standards that we are achieving in our schools are at the highest ever level. We have had particularly rapid improvements in some of the most poorly performing schools and most poorly performing areas. There is a way to go, and we want to build on that success, but I do not think it is the case that we have failed to raise school standards across this country; quite the opposite.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the package, not just for the 14,000 students at Loughborough university, but for many of the parents for whom it will make a difference. While the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is in the Chamber, may I ask the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills to use the Sure Start programme to drive down even deeper and earlier in a child’s life to encourage those parents who probably would not have considered higher education as an option for their child even at that early stage? Staying on in education beyond 16 was never considered in our family, so I know from experience that encouraging that expectation is an important consideration.

Will my right hon. Friend at some stage explain to me, perhaps in writing, what additional support can be given to the type of students at Loughborough university, with its connection with the 2012 Olympics and the additional support that is required for our future athletes who are based there?

Mr. Denham: I hope that it will be acceptable if I write to my hon. Friend on the particular point about students at Loughborough. It is important, and probably needs a better reply than I would give this afternoon.

As for taking the message right down through society, I have a hope for the Department—a rather bigger one almost than I have set out—that we create and embed a culture of going to higher education across our society in a way that we have not yet achieved. We have got more people going to university and have improved access from the poorer groups, although not to the extent that we want, but we need to achieve a culture in this country whereby most parents—indeed, all parents—think that going into higher education is an option for their child if they have the ability to do it. Sure Start is one of the ways in which parents’ aspirations are changed. The most
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remarkable thing that I found out about Sure Start in my area is that we thought that it was for the children, but it was the parents who suddenly realised how much more they could do. It is because of that that children benefit so much more. We will work to get that message across.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): First, may I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and welcome his first statement? It is essential to raise aspirations among youngsters from low-income families and to remove the financial impediments that there may be for them to access higher education.

The Secretary of State is probably aware—this may be uncomfortable for the Labour party and some members of the Conservative party—that because of Northern Ireland’s excellent grammar school system and the retention of academic selection, 25 per cent. more youngsters from low-income families gain admission to higher education. In light of that, and the fact that many of them will go to universities in Scotland, England and Wales, will he tell us which measures will apply to youngsters from Northern Ireland, so that there is uniformity of financial provision for them? What discussions does he intend to have with the Ministers for Employment and Learning and for Education to ensure that the parts of the package that might not apply to students from Northern Ireland will be replicated in Northern Ireland through the Department there?

Mr. Denham: I made it clear, but I repeat the point, that this is a package for English domiciled students. It applies to them, and them alone, wherever they study within the United Kingdom. On grammar schools, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), whose views are rather distinct from his.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I warmly welcome the statement. It is true that the number of young people from working-class and lower-income families who are at university is still too low, and in terms of the Oxbridge and Russell group universities, the level is a disgrace. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he intends to promote a review of the education maintenance allowance? Eligibility for that is crucial for the commitment that he made to support 16-year-olds through higher education. Some young people are still just beyond the fringes of eligibility for EMA and would benefit from higher education, but they are leaving the system at that point. We need to do more for that group of young people.

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