Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Boswell rose

Mr. Willis: I make an exception of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), to whom I shall give way.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, although I detect a certain pre-emptive nature to his comments. I simply wish to ask him whether, when we debated lifelong learning in Westminster Hall recently—a debate in which the Minister for Lifelong Learning and I both participated—he was able to share his thoughts with us at that time.

Mr. Willis: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am rather busy. [Interruption.] I have a lot of activities. Members of the Conservative Front Bench can be replaced often, but I have to spread my talents around.

The Government have failed most of all with those young adults who need their help the most. Last year, 23,000 pupils left our schools with no qualifications at all. The truth behind that statistic is that many of them played truant for one or two years before the end of their compulsory school lives. The provisional figure for this year shows a rise to 25,000 in the number of young people leaving school with no qualifications.

The child poverty figures are similarly chilling. Despite the Government's rhetoric, 43 per cent. of children in London still live in poverty. In the borough of Tower

6 Nov 2001 : Column 137

Hamlets, the figure is an appalling 74 per cent. Those statistics are also associated with a huge rise in juvenile crime, especially in those areas where there is a high incidence of young people leaving school with no qualifications. It is not rocket science. The problem has always existed, but it is a major problem and we ignore it at our peril.

The Government inherited from the previous Conservative Government two other problems: one in four adults unable to perform the most basic mathematical computation, and one in three unable to find the name of a plumber in a telephone directory. Sadly, those ratios are exactly the same today. I accept that the Secretary of State has made inroads into the problems associated with primary and early-years education, but there is still a huge distance to go before that blight on our society is stamped out.

What is the Government's response to the problem? The White Paper has been delayed, and I presume that the education Bill will also be delayed. I hope that the Minister responding to the debate will give the date on which that Bill will come before the House, so that we can dismiss the reports that have appeared in the media.

Some of us still believe in the comprehensive ideal. I know that Conservative Members have never really believed in that, or been committed to it, but Liberal Democrat Members have. We are disappointed that, to tackle the root problem of youngsters who constantly fail in the education system, the Government are to introduce a programme of secondary schooling that sets out deliberately to tier our education system in such a way that those with the least continue to have the least.

Liberal Democrats have no objection to specialisation, or to the idea that each school should have an ethos. That is nothing new: whether one likes it or not, every school that one visits claims to have its own, special ethos. We find it appalling that the Government should adopt a policy that allows them to decide which ethos a school can pick. The policy also means that only half of all schools will get the money to support that ethos. The Secretary of State tells us that in 2005 half of Britain's secondary schools will be specialist schools and will have received £500,000 in extra money. However, if those schools are not going to be measurably ahead of their counterparts that have not received the same resources, they should not be given the money in the first place.

It is sad that although the schools that are doing well under Labour will be rewarded with more resources, those desperately trying to deal with the 23,000 to 25,000 youngsters without qualifications will not get any extra resources at all. That is not fair, and I hope that the Secretary of State will address the point.

Estelle Morris: That is not so. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this Government have taken more action to ensure that schools that serve particularly challenging areas are eligible, and succeed in applying, for specialist school status? If he were to consider the percentage of free school meals provided by specialist schools, he would find that we have shifted that immeasurably. Does he acknowledge that our programme for the 400 secondary schools in which less than 20 per cent. of pupils achieve five A-starred to C grades ensures

6 Nov 2001 : Column 138

that they receive extra resources? He paints the picture as though the only extra source of funding comes from specialist school status. That is not the case; the funds are targeted where they are needed.

Mr. Willis: I am more than happy to concede much of what the Secretary of State says. I have undertaken an analysis of the schools with specialist status, and she is right that such a shift has taken place, compared with the previous regime in which the very affluent schools in our communities were the only ones to be given that status. However, she would agree that, for example, the secondary modern schools in Kent have less and less chance to meet the Government's criteria, given that 45 per cent. of pupils are put into grammar schools in some areas and that children with real learning difficulties are often left out. She would also accept that many schools and many of the head teachers who speak to hon. Members say that they opt for specialist status not because they want to pursue a particular specialism, but simply because they want the extra £500,000 involved, which will improve the overall education of their youngsters.

Finally, the absence of any comment on further education from the speeches of Conservative Members was telling. I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that unless we can turn on the further education sector so that it deals with the army of young people and adults who are ill-educated, under-skilled and ill-qualified, we shall not address many of the fundamental issues in our society.

Many people in further education, especially college principals and lecturers, feel that the Government are paying lip service to that sector. There is a drift in policy between the Secretary of State, the No. 10 policy unit, which seems to control so many things these days, the Learning and Skills Council in Coventry and the 47 sub-regional learning and skills councils. The way in which the chief executive was so dismissive of the sector in his comments on the "Today" programme and the way in which the chairman classified the FE sector as market traders shows a lack of understanding and commitment at the very top of the Learning and Skills Council about the needs of the FE service.

I and many Conservative Members who were involved with the Learning and Skills Act were promised that the reorganisation would result in a saving of £50 million, but we are now told that it has resulted in a £43 million excess cost—a difference of nearly £100 million. If that happened elsewhere, there would be a hue and cry, but it is not mentioned when it happens in education. That is unacceptable.

The FE sector now faces one of the most difficult and challenging populations of young people that it has ever had to face. If the Government are serious about getting those young people into education and training, they must recognise that young people need a personal service, but the overall funding for the FE sector has decreased by 5 per cent. during the lifetime of the first Labour Government. Since 1995, the core funding for its basic budget is 9 per cent. lower. That does not emphasise the needs of the FE colleges. I have tried to raise the issue of those at the bottom of the spectrum.

6 Nov 2001 : Column 139

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): I have some figures that suggest that funding for further education has risen significantly—in fact, by £200 million. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that?

Mr. Willis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reading his intervention so well. I urge him to take a serious interest in the FE sector, because if one examines FE budgets, one finds that core funding has gone down since 1995. Colleges have to bid for money from a standards fund, and that means that they face the same problems as schools. Unless they are successful in a beauty contest, they do not receive the money.

Colleges in some of the most deprived areas where we are desperately trying to get people into college do not have the resources that they need. That leads to a perverse situation. If colleges do not meet their targets for 16 to 19-year-olds, they lose huge amounts of budget and that means that they cannot go into the market for those over 19. That is barmy.

James Purnell: If the hon. Gentleman examines unit funding per pupil, he will find that the amount has been stabilised under this Government and is about to go up. Does he accept that the trend has been reversed?

Mr. Willis: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. He will know from the note that has been placed in the Library that that will not take place until 2002-03. We are not even there yet. It is hard to pay bills from something that one might be promised in two years' time. The Chancellor also tells us that we have a war to pay for, but I shall not go into that. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] No, but I point out that it might be the next excuse for not being able fully to fund the public sector. We shall have to watch for that.

The introduction of education maintenance allowances has been one of the Government's good ideas. Liberal Democrats supported them when they were introduced and we continue to support them. However, only 30 per cent. of the areas of Britain have access to them; why not everyone? They are easy to introduce and operate and they would encourage all 16 to 19-year-olds wherever they are. But the Secretary of State has not committed herself to that target.

The national skills taskforce recommended that everyone should be entitled to level 2 training throughout their lives, but the Government have not responded to that recommendation. The taskforce also said that level 3 training was so crucial for 16 to 25-year-olds that it should be free up to level 3. The Government have not responded to that even though it is a major need.

On individual learning accounts, I do not want to comment on the issues relating to fraud. We do not have access to the information that the Government and the Director of Public Prosecutions have, but we agree with the hon. Member for Ashford that there should be a full inquiry. All the details should be put on the record and the House should have a proper debate on what went wrong during the process.

However, we urge the Secretary of State not to abandon the principle of individual learning accounts. Many students received their first access to further education through them, and Liberal Democrats are wedded to the principle behind them. She suggested, however, that a

6 Nov 2001 : Column 140

scheme might be introduced to replace them. If so, a number of people might become disillusioned as one system finishes and another begins, and many providers might go out of business in that period. The Secretary of State will have our support—and I am pretty sure that of the whole House—if she ensures that young adults who want access to training can obtain it with the minimum of fuss. I urge her to try to sort out the mess as soon as possible and to have a replacement scheme on the blocks ready to go.

Next Section

IndexHome Page