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Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, is the Minister aware that over a quarter of the students in full-time education are mature? That is a trend which I understood had been welcomed by all. If the present drop in student applications continues next year, we shall revert to a system of full-time higher education which is restricted only to students aged 18-plus.

Will the noble Baroness confirm that that is not the Government's intention? Can she also explain how the drop in access and opportunity for mature men and women meshes with the Government's commitment to access and opportunity for all in the population? Are all students to be driven to part-time study?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am very much aware of the fact that a quite substantial number of mature students study full-time. There has been a small fall in the number of mature students taking up places this year. The figure is about 10 per cent. However, statisticians in my department who have been evaluating and monitoring this situation have made it clear that a substantial part of that fall is due to demographic decline. There has been a big drop in numbers in the age group 21 to 34 from which most mature students are drawn. The number has decreased by about 3 per cent. which explains 3 per cent. of the fall. Between 3 per cent. and 4 per cent. of the fall is explained by the rush last year of applications by those students who wanted to beat the fee system. That leaves a small unexplained part.

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Of course the Government will evaluate the situation to see whether it continues next year. However, I believe that a long-term levelling off in the number of mature students derives from the fact that the pool from which they are drawn is smaller as a result of the expansion in higher education for younger students.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, is there an upper age limit for mature students? If not, how mature can they be?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there is no upper age limit. This year, the Government decided to allow students between the age of 50 and 55 to become eligible for student loans. If any Members of your Lordships' House would like to take up a loan when they have a little more time on their hands the Government would be delighted.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government are to help part-time mature students, but may I press the Minister a little further? Is it not time that we offered such students the income contingent loans for which there is provision in the Teaching and Higher Education Act?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am sympathetic to the needs of part-time students. Anyone who knows anything about my background will be aware of that. The Government are considering a variety of different ways of supporting them. One way might be to make available, perhaps in a pilot scheme, some aspect of the new student loans regime.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister sounded sanguine about this year's fall in the number of mature students. It is not all explained by demographic change. Many universities are suffering greatly from the fall in the number of mature students; the problem for them is acute. The move to waive fees for part-time students would disadvantage the full-time mature students. When we talk about mature students, we mean those aged 21 to 24-plus for whom a higher education is very important.

The combination of the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants is causing great pain. As the academic year ends, it will be materially important to universities to keep their students, not, as my noble friend said, to lose them by their becoming part-time rather than full-time.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am not sure what the question was. One was not put. However, I am clear, and I thought I was earlier, that the Government will not be sanguine about a serious long-term decline in the number of full-time mature students. Perhaps I ought to explain to the noble Baroness that the vast majority of full-time mature students do not pay fees. They are categorised as independent students because they have no income, unless they have a large private income. Because they are full-time and not working they will not have to pay tuition fees.

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Residential Children's Homes: Services

2.53 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that all local authorities now employ in their residential children's homes staff and management of a calibre, and with training, appropriate to the needs of the children in their care.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Government are determined to improve the quality of services offered to children in residential homes. We recognise the need to improve the training and qualifications for staff employed in such homes and to ensure that they have the appropriate knowledge and skills for this very important work. We have put in train a number of initiatives to achieve this.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging Answer. Does she agree that it is an absolute scandal that, more than seven years after the implementation of the Children Act, fewer than one-third of childcare staff working in children's homes have any relevant qualifications whatever?

As regards the present training for the Diploma in Social Work, does she agree with the view expressed by the Residential Forum, which in a recent report stated that:

    "Courses leading to Dip. Social Work often fail to provide residential childcare workers with the range of skills and knowledge that they need to undertake the work of residential childcare"?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we need to take action in order to improve the number and proportion of staff working in children's homes who have qualifications. That is why we are funding the development of post-qualifying training in childcare for professional social workers and for other residential childcare staff to NVQ level 3. We are doing so specifically in order to improve the skills of those working in this sector.

As regards the content of the courses, I know of the report to which the noble Lord drew my attention and will consider it carefully. We have launched a national training strategy with a training organisation for personal social services. We are seeking to ensure that in the early days it concentrates on childcare as one of its priorities.

Baroness David: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that only about 100 newly qualified staff enter residential children's homes each year and that about the same number of staff leave? Can she tell us what qualifications the new entrants have?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I cannot answer my noble friend's question about the qualifications of the new entrants. I shall certainly write to her on that point. It is important to state that through the residential childcare initiative we have made progress in relation to officers in charge of children's homes. Now 89 per cent. of officers in charge have a qualification.

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It is important to recognise that the Government are supplying additional funding--£2.5 million in the first instance, rising to £3 million after three years--particularly for residential childcare workers to attain NVQ level 3. We are also providing funding to train top social service managers, which should have tangible benefits for residential childcare and help to implement the Quality Protects programme.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is it not a fact that it takes considerable time to train sufficient people? Although qualifications may be very important, some people may have relevant past experience. Is anything being done to bring back those who used to work in this sector in order to fill the void?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes the important point that we must look at the range of skills which are necessary to fulfil these important tasks. Because of the emphasis which is being put on the issue in the wide debate, I would not wish to diminish the importance of a level of formal training. However, an NVQ is employment-based training and there is no reason why it should not apply to people who are returning to this kind of work, perhaps after a career break.

Lord Peston: My Lords, my noble friend used the word "funding" on a number of occasions. Will she clarify her answer? Are your Lordships to understand that the funds being made available are dedicated or, in the common parlance, ring-fenced? In other words, will they be used precisely for the purpose of training people to work in respect of the needs of children in care?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, an overall £39 million training support grant for the next three years will be ring-fenced. Within that, the initiatives for childcare training will be separately ring-fenced. Inside that, the money for NVQ level 3 training for residential childcare has another barrier around it.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, if bad things go on within a home will staff be able to take those problems beyond its management so that something can be done without their losing their jobs?

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