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7.20 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for providing the best advertisement yet for the literacy hour. I am not sure about the numeracy hour--I did not count six Rs, but I counted a W somewhere.

I join in the tribute that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) paid to the thousands of teachers who do a good job for children in our schools every day. They have responded magnificently to the many demands that the Government have made on them. Most teachers are good teachers. The Government will acknowledge that, and they will be rewarded.

I have some sympathy with the comments of the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who made a sensible speech about the need for transparent funding.

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He acknowledged that the funding system that his Government bequeathed us left much to be desired and should have been changed many years ago. The characteristics that the right hon. Gentleman outlined--accountability, transparency and ensuring that everybody knows where the money has gone--guide our work on devising a better system of funding. However, that does not detract from his responsibility for being part of a Government who did nothing to improve the system in the years when they were in power.

Mr. Dorrell: Will the Minister clarify whether her remarks mean that the Government accept the principle of per capita funding for each pupil in a school?

Ms Morris: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to a similar question from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough by saying that he was interested in an entitlement for children, and in providing a different amount of money for each age group. That remains our position.

I thank the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for his contribution. As ever, it was interesting to listen to his comments. It was probably even more interesting for his Front-Bench colleagues, given that he has banned them from speaking about grammar schools in his constituency. Perhaps that is why the House filled up when he spoke. I hope that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) listened carefully. Tonight was probably her last chance to hear the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon speaking about grammar schools.

I am saddened by those on the Tory Front Bench, who seem to spend their time travelling around local authorities to look for the cloud in the silver lining. They seem to advertise for problems and say, "Wherever there's a problem, we'll come and look at it." However, for every local authority that Conservative Members visited or mentioned in the debate, they could have talked about the good things that were happening there, too.

In every local authority that Conservative Members visited, they could have seen extra classrooms and extra teachers, funded through the class size initiative. In every local authority, they could have found children who have nursery places, but would not have had them were the Conservative Government still in power. In 62 of the 150 local authorities, they could have marvelled at the opportunities created by the sure start scheme. In every local authority, they could have seen some of the 20,000 extra classroom assistants that the Government have funded. In every school, they could have celebrated with teachers the increase in literacy and numeracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said, they could have marvelled at and shared in the sheer joy that many children experience in the structured learning that is based on best practice.

In every local authority, Conservative Members could have found teachers who have already taken advantage of the money for training in information and communication technology. They could have welcomed the increase from 5 per cent. to 62 per cent. of primary schools that are connected to the internet. They could have talked to the new head teachers in every local authority about the way in which they would use the new laptop computers that the Government recently provided. They could have chosen to visit schools that were financed through the new deal for schools and seen the capital work that is going on.

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Everything that I have described could have been seen on any tour of the country. I know that everything is not perfect and that much remains to be done. Some schools still need repairing. However, after all the years of neglect, and of education being part of a Cinderella Department under the previous Government, we have made genuine progress in two and a half years on capital, curriculum, working with teachers, training leaders and out-of-school activities.

Conservative Members have been guilty of sleight of hand tonight in the way in which they have discussed funding. Not one of the initiatives that I have mentioned--from class size to classroom assistants, from national grid for learning to the new leadership college for head teachers--is funded through the straight revenue grant to schools. If Conservative Members want to present a fair picture of the Government's achievements in resourcing, they should not simply examine school budgets. They should add to that the money for the new deal for schools and the £1.6 billion of standards fund money.

The standards fund money is not awarded to pet political projects; it is used for reducing truancy--we care about that--so that we can develop new key stage 4 mechanisms to motivate children who might otherwise be turned off. That money will be used to ensure that, for the first time, children who are excluded receive full-time education rather than the pitiful two, three, four and five hours a week that they received under the previous Government. Standards fund money will be used to ensure that, for the first time, all head teachers have a qualification that means that they have the skills to do the job. That money, as well as the increase in funding, is being given to schools.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because I know that she has only a short time to speak. She claims that we considered only the revenue grant that was given to schools. That is not true. The figures that I cited to show the Government's failure to deliver on funding were figures for net public expenditure on education. They included everything that the Minister mentioned. Does she now accept her failure?

Ms Morris: The figures show that during this Parliament, education spending as a share of gross domestic product will increase, whereas it decreased under the previous Government. Before the general election, we made a pledge to the electorate to increase education spending, and we shall keep it.

I share the anxieties of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough about attracting the brightest and the best into the teaching profession. For decade after decade, falling numbers of people have been attracted to teaching. The hon. Gentleman spoke as a head teacher when he mentioned the lack of money that was available for promoting staff. I ask him to look back and remember that when he wanted to promote members of staff, he could do that only by giving them management or administrative responsibilities. Through the reform of the teaching profession, the Government have, for the first time, ensured that head teachers will be able to give points for classroom practice and reward existing excellence in schools. We have made it clear that that money will be available, that it will not mean a change in contract and that teachers will not be asked to take on extra responsibilities.

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In two years' time, we shall review our method of feeding that money into schools. That makes sense. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave an absolute pledge last week that the extra money would be provided. I hope that that is a cause for celebration: at long last, we have put teaching back at the centre of school activities. We should reward teaching, not management and administration, for which the likes of the hon. Gentleman and I managed to get our responsibility points.

The Tories are keen to promote the notion of free schools. I have no problem with allowing good schools to get on with doing what they do best. However, I have a problem with the concept of free schools when it means no literacy or numeracy hour, no sharing of good practice, no focus on reducing truancy and exclusions, and no class size policy. There is no point in Conservative Members moaning about class sizes; in free schools, classes would be allowed simply to increase, exactly as they did under the previous Government. There would be no measures to act quickly if those schools required special measures or were failing. In 1997, that attitude of let it all hang out and laissez faire led to the circumstances in which four out of 10 youngsters could not read, write or do sums, in which the backlog in school repairs cost £4 billion, in which exclusions increased year after year, and in which there was no focus on standards.

Rather than travelling around the country, the hon. Member for Maidenhead should consider her constituency, where the number of infants in classes of more than 30 has halved in the past two years. In Maidenhead, £128,000 has been spent on 15 teachers, and more than £250,000 has been spent on six classrooms. That is bettered by the constituency of the hon. Member for Buckingham: the number of children in classes of more than 30 has fallen from 6,500 to fewer than 1,500 under this Government and he has netted money for 21 new classrooms and 99 new teachers. Hon. Members should believe what happens rather than the words of a party whose representatives are travelling the country to find failure. Let us rejoice in the success of our teachers and our schools, note that we have made progress and be determined to achieve even more.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:--

The House divided: Ayes 123, Noes 300.


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