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6.43 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) made some constructive points, and the debate has been an unusual one for an Opposition day. It is easy to associate such a day with hard words and criticism. There has been some of that, rightly, but there have also been some constructive contributions. If I were to single one out, it would be that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who has caused me to attenuate a large chunk of what I might have said on higher education. I am sure that the House will have no difficulty with that.

The underlying situation is that while we all understand that it is all very well to trade insults across the Chamber, there must be a common basis and understanding in our commitment to education. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was, rightly, at great pains not to challenge the motives of the current ministerial team or indeed the general competence of teachers. I strongly agree with him. We must start with a measure of consensus and make constructive—I hope—criticisms, but criticisms nevertheless. Motives and even some passion in the commitment to education are fine, but Governments must deliver.

The debate highlights a problem that I have felt for some time that the Government are running into. They are what I call an adjectives, or an epithets, Government. There are some fine words. I select my special favourites: "modern", "joined up", "high quality" and even "world class". But the difficulty is that they do not always attach to nouns, or perhaps I should say that they are so portable that they are transferred between nouns and, in any case, the nouns do not attach to reality.

When considering the Government's record on education, which, do not forget, now extends to nearly five years, I am reminded increasingly of the old story of the laconic teacher who completed the report in the Michaelmas or autumn term, "Trying"; in the spring term, "Still trying"; but by the summer term had got to "Still very trying."

The House will understand that, as my specialist area is post-16 education, I shall not say much about schools, although many issues of morale, and indeed of Government behaviour towards schools, are mirrored in what has happened further on. As others have spoken on it, I shall touch briefly on the serious problem with teacher training, recruitment and retention. Of course, there are good teachers around, and good new teachers, but it is not always easy to secure them, and in certain places, the applicants for new posts are not as many as to give a realistic choice or the ideal choice.

I find it predictable but depressing that the recent NUT survey showed that the main problems with teacher retention related more to pupil behaviour and the weight of Government bureaucracy than to teachers' pay. Perhaps we would take too long if we were to go into that tonight, but the Government will have to deal with all those issues. One in particular that they will need to look at afresh is the impact of housing costs in areas of high pressure.

I turn to post-16 education. The main difference, it needs to be said, is that the education system at post-16 begins to deal with volunteers, rather than conscripts,

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whether they are more or less willing to learn. Accordingly, issues of student recruitment are immediately relevant. In that area, the Government have been foremost in setting targets, and whether they have been fulfilled is an even more precise measurement than whether school standards have risen.

That brings me to the withdrawal of individual learning accounts. The Government are guilty of two equivocations. The first—the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and others were right to mention it—is that we need to know whether it is a temporary suspension pending reintroduction. I can think of a number of things that have been withdrawn in the Chamber that have never come back. Secondly, there is the issue of whether the Government think that what they have done has been a success or a failure. The one will inform the policy decisions for the other.

There has been much talk about fraud. No one holds any brief for that. It must be stopped, but it is extraordinary that on the back of a comparatively small amount of reported fraud, the whole programme has crashed within 12 months of its national roll-out. I cannot help feeling that there is an underlying motive of funding, bearing it in mind that the original estimates depended on 1 million people taking up the scheme, and that that was predicated on a reduction of money held in training and enterprise councils of £150 million—£150 each. If take-up has reached 2.5 million, that immediately creates a serious budget crisis for the Department.

On the significance in practice of individual learning accounts, unusually, I pray in aid the Deputy Prime Minister, who pleased me on one occasion when he appeared at Prime Minister's questions by knowing about ILAs and being broadly, though not uncritically, in favour of them, but then he perhaps let himself down somewhat when he said:

If they did that job and they are being removed, that job is not being done. Frankly, I thought his remark a little offside, because I had as a Minister, and retain, a strong commitment to further education and lifelong learning. There is no difference between us on that. I differ from the Government on that only in their implication that such a commitment started only in 1997.

It is disturbing that the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, in a recent briefing note, referred to

If nothing else, the Government can belie that by finding ways of supporting both providers and individuals who felt themselves cut off in midstream following the sudden announcement, and by instituting as soon as possible transitional arrangements, if necessary, and then replacement ones at the earliest possible moment.

I hope that, in doing that, the Government will have regard to two matters of substance. First, the history of demand-led initiatives in FE and HE, under Governments of both parties, shows that they can escalate very quickly as the market responds, and a more measured pace of expansion may be appropriate. There is no point in having, to borrow a phrase, boom and bust.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): The hon. Gentleman will recall the notorious demand-led element

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of the further education funding methodology, for which I think he had some responsibility, under the Conservative Government. Does he remember that that Government withdrew it at very short notice, causing chaos in the financing of further education colleges throughout the country?

Mr. Boswell: I do not in any sense seek to act as an advocate for that demand-led element, which in fact came slightly after my time, but I was indeed, delicately, making the point that I thoroughly agree that all Governments must be careful not to lose control of the system, because there can be bad consequences if they do. Indeed, some reparatory work had to be done to ensure that the system could continue. The hon. Gentleman is right about that. We need a sensible pace of expansion, with the right kind and levels of incentive.

The second matter to be considered is that support, including student support, may be better delivered through accountable local providers, in a decentralised way, than through cash handouts from the centre, which may be subject to abuse and more difficult to control. That is a matter for discussion.

If ILAs have been successful in overshooting their target, they are perhaps the only element in education post-16 for which the Government have achieved that. What has happened to Government plans for an expansion of 700,000 students enrolled in FE over a two-year period that will elapse next year? In fact, such enrolments have been trending inexorably downwards by about 1 per cent. a year. As Ministers will know, the FE sector—I do not run it down, I report it as I see it—is characterised by financial pressures, staff stress and significant student dropout, which is highly wasteful, and that is even before various bits of the education establishment start hectoring FE on quality issues.

The underlying causes of that must be tackled. It is important for Ministers to emphasise the distinctive virtues and roles of further education and vocational qualifications, rather than seeking falsely to assimilate them in some overall post-16 agenda, including higher education.

The Government have set a 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education. By definition, that target cannot have been missed yet, because it runs through most of the current decade, but given the disappointing levels of higher education recruitment, especially in the access areas, for people from less-advantaged homes, I predict that it, too, will come under pressure, unless the revised arrangements that are to be phased in resolve the situation.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the 50 per cent. target?

Mr. Boswell: I have some scepticism about it. One needs to ask whether Ministers themselves agree with it. I think that they will seek to wriggle out of it by redefining either participation or higher education. If the Government say that they want 50 per cent. of adults to participate in some relevant and appropriate continuing education, without reference to level, location or timing, I am all for that—I want far more adults, at all levels and from all backgrounds, to participate—but I do not think that we should necessarily define what those adults are doing as higher education.

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