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1 Feb 2011 : Column 837

To be serious, I am aware of his excellent track record while he was principal of that sixth-form college in raising the aspirations and attainment of disadvantaged learners. I am sure he will agree that that is a key priority for the available funding. If he is looking for takers for concert tickets, I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)-one of the old rockers in the House-will endeavour to go along and bring great gaiety of the proceedings, as he always does to proceedings in this House.

We are replacing what we see as the inefficient EMA programme with a new discretionary learner support fund to focus resources on those in real financial hardship and to ensure that no learner is prevented from staying in education as a result of their financial situation. That is also why we are increasing the amount of 16-to-19 funding for those learners from 2011-12. Funds will be increased by more than a third to £770 million. We will not dictate to schools and colleges how they should use that funding. They know best how to attract and provide for disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-old learners. However, I would expect some of the funding to be spent on the activities previously funded under enrichment, but targeted specifically at the learners. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds).

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The Minister is right to comment on the record of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, at John Leggott sixth form college. On the issue of EMA funding, will protections be put in place to ensure that when colleges are near to each other and are in competition, the discretionary learner fund is not used as a way of recruiting students to a particular college, and that it is genuinely used for the students and young people who need it?

Tim Loughton: That is a very good point, and it will certainly be taken into consideration. I will pass those comments on to the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). We have to add such practical considerations to the mix as the proposals are rolled out.

For future years, we have said that we will consult on a review of the funding formula with a view to operating a young person's premium to support attainment by the most disadvantaged students. The coalition Government's determination to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds lies at the heart of the radical reforms we are introducing to ensure that young people reach adulthood with the knowledge and aptitudes needed to lead rewarding and successful lives.

Bill Esterson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. In quoting the principal of Hugh Baird college, I mentioned employability skills. The Minister has touched on the preparation of young people for leaving education. With youth unemployment hitting a million, that is a key challenge for the Government and for colleges. I urge him to ensure that, whatever changes are made, the issue of employability skills, which was covered under the entitlement fund, is taken on board. I
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accept his point about targeting learners from the most deprived backgrounds, but very often people are missed by such approaches. A wider group of young people is affected, as was the case with the withdrawal of EMA.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Employability skills are an important complement to qualifications. In this increasingly competitive world, with the concerningly high levels of youth unemployment, we must ensure that every possible tool is available to young people to make themselves employable in the work force, for example in areas where we have requirements in the current highly competitive global trading environment.

Attainment at 16 is the strongest predictor of participation and achievement beyond that age. That is why we set out a clear programme of reform in the schools White Paper that is intended to raise standards so that by age 16, all young people have the basics they need to go on to further education and training. We know that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are least likely to participate post-16, as Members have said. That is why we are focusing additional support on them, to ensure that they make the progress needed to go on to further learning. The pupil premium will target extra funding to the most deprived pupils, to better ensure that they reach the critical transition at age 16 with the knowledge, aptitude and attitude to go on to even higher success.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe asked me a couple of specific questions, one of which was on when the allocations will be made. Individual institutions will get the details of their allocations by the end of March. If we can make it sooner, we will, to address the issue of clarity, which he rightly mentioned. He asked whether we would look again at the disruptive impact there can be on different groups of post-16 students, and I shall pass on his comments. He also asked whether I would meet him and a delegation to discuss these matters. I am absolutely delighted, on behalf of the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, to offer him that very meeting with the person most appropriate to take on board his views and appreciate the comments that he will make. I will ensure that my hon. Friend's office gets in touch with him very soon.

We are committed to full participation for 16 and 17-year-olds, but because of the financial constraints in which we find ourselves, we have had to make difficult decisions to deliver on the priorities. We might not have made some of those decisions had the financial position been better, and they have not been easy, but they have been made with the principles that I have set out in mind-focusing support on the most disadvantaged, addressing the attainment gap and giving greater autonomy, control and freedom back to people who run institutions at the sharp end.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I am in some ways an observer in the debate, and I have been listening with great care. It seems to me that there is a risk that in concentrating on the most deprived, we will take away from the next group up. Many of the additional features in the education system are important if we want to see more young people equipped to go to university, as I think the Government do. People from that next group
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up will be missing the skills and so on that those from private schools have, so is it really better to help the deprived at the cost of another group of people who also need help if we are to close the gap to university entrance?

Tim Loughton: I think the hon. Lady appreciates that one cannot get a quart out of a pint pot, and that is the dilemma in which we find ourselves. For too many years, the biggest scandal in educational achievement at all levels has been that the most disadvantaged, measured as those who have free school meals, have seen the achievement gap widen. They have not had the opportunity to compete on a level playing field and achieve aspirations that many people take for granted. That is not fair, it is not sustainable and it will not be tolerated under this Government.

That is why it is morally right, and the most practical way forward, to ensure that we target as much help as possible on particularly disadvantaged students at all levels. That will mean that everybody else has to share some pain, and ideally that would not have to happen. However, if it is a question of priorities, I want
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disadvantaged students to get the extra leg-up and extra support that, too often, they cannot provide for themselves. The Government, the Department and the House have a duty of care to ensure that that extra help is available.

The Government have shown that they have the mettle to make the difficult decisions. These are going to be turbulent times, but the Government also have the nous to shift funding from lower-priority areas to where it is genuinely needed. I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe for bringing the debate before us this evening and for making his comments in a measured and well-informed, albeit anoraky way. This is a matter of great concern to him and all hon. Members, whether they have further education sixth forms in their constituencies or constituents who use neighbouring ones. We will endeavour to monitor the impact of the changes, particularly on the most disadvantaged, and ensure that we get the best bang for our buck and make the very best impact on those who need it most.

Question put and agreed to.

10.25 pm

House adjourned.

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