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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. A large number of hon. Members are trying to catch my eye and time is moving on. Unless contributions are considerably shorter than they have been, some of them will be disappointed.

7.45 pm

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): I listened intently to the hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). At first, I was lifted by his recognition of the improvements that have been made to the education system. He talked about the numeracy hour and literacy hour and what contribution they have made. Unfortunately, that feeling did not last long. He is wrong to say that it is the Opposition's role just to criticise the Government. He accepted that some good things have happened in the past four years, but one would not think that from the motion on the Order Paper. It refers to the "crisis" in our education system, and to problems in schools and with our lifelong learning policies.

It is a shame that the Opposition have not only whipped up such great fear by suggesting that there is a crisis in our education system, but have provided no alternative policies. I listened, as always, carefully to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) when he introduced the debate. He said either nothing or little about what the Conservatives would do to improve the policies that they are criticising.

I am not saying that everything that the Government are doing has produced an education system without fault. There are things that we can and should be doing, but we should recognise how far we have come in those four years. The hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire suggested that spending has fallen under this Government. When we came into power in 1997, spending on education as a percentage of gross domestic

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product was 4.7 per cent. In the current year, it is 5 per cent. I know that maths is perhaps a problem for some Conservative Members, but I am sure they can work out that that is an increase, and we intend to increase our spending on education to 5.3 per cent. in the forthcoming years.

The increase in education spending has made a difference to schools in my constituency, which is why I am disappointed to see references to crisis and falling standards on the Order Paper. That does not reflect what is going on in my constituency where 77 per cent. of all 11-year-olds reached the level expected of their age in English in 2000. That is up from 73 per cent. in 1999 and compares with an average of just 75 per cent. in England. So we are doing better than the rest of the country. The improvements in my constituency have been brought about by the literacy hour and the important support that we have given to schools to ensure that standards improve.

However, the achievements of the literacy hour are not the only consideration; the numeracy hour is also important. Some 75 per cent. of 11-year-olds in Watford reached the level expected of their age in mathematics tests in 2000. That is up from 72 per cent. in 1999. It compares with 72 per cent. for England in 2000, which has increased from 69 per cent. in 1999. Again, those figures show improvements in the standards of literacy and numeracy for our 11-year-olds. They should be recognised, because the effort has been made not only by the Government, but by schools. Teachers in my local schools have worked hard and made improvements. Although Watford is a great place, one of the best in the country, I cannot believe that it is exceptional in that respect.

I know that the Government have done a great deal to improve recruitment levels, and greatly improved figures have emerged in the past week, but there are staffing problems. Those are due not only to a reluctance to work in primary or secondary schools, but go much wider than that. People are discouraged by the high cost of living in Hertfordshire, London and other parts of the south-east. The hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire suggested that there is discrimination between Hertfordshire and Worcestershire in the funding of pupils, but he failed to recognise that the costs of public services are significantly higher in Hertfordshire and other parts of the country.

Mr. Luff: With a national curriculum and national pay scales, which costs are significantly different?

Ms Ward: People moving to Hertfordshire face a much higher cost of living, so the costs of building and cleaning schools and hiring support staff have to be built in to the schools' budget. I am conscious that many hon. Members who represent areas that do not benefit from the additional costs allowance are likely to descend on me shortly. That is why Hertfordshire, in its great wisdom, accepts that there should be a review of the additional costs allowance, although there should still be recognition of the high costs faced by areas such as Hertfordshire. The needs of other areas should also be recognised, and those involve deprivation, as well as high costs, but if changes are to be made, Hertfordshire should not lose out simply to provide more funding elsewhere. We should aim to raise standards throughout the country, rather than lowering them by failing to recognise the funding needs of schools.

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There have been great improvements in the standards of school buildings in my constituency. A great deal of work has been done, due to money that the Government have made available over the past four years. However, I say to the Government, in constructive criticism, that there is a need for flexibility in capital grants. In late September and October, I spent some considerable time visiting many primary schools in my constituency, to listen to the views of head teachers and other staff and to see how they are getting on. They were enthused, and morale was certainly much higher than Conservative Members have suggested. However, teachers raised with me the need for flexibility in capital grants.

Some schools had reached a good standard in care and repair of their buildings, but still had money allocated to them in capital grants. They would have liked to be able to spend that money on other, more important, needs, rather than being restricted to trying to find aspects of the building that needed improvement. I ask the Government to consider that carefully.

Schools recognise the importance of having additional funding that head teachers can determine how to use. Many have spent it on computer suites and additional classroom assistants. Many have used it to try to achieve even higher standards in the numeracy and literacy hours and in standard assessment tests. I am greatly impressed by what those teachers have done, and I take this opportunity to say that, by and large, teachers do a fantastic job in what are often difficult circumstances. We should not pretend that that is the end of the story; we should set standards to encourage teachers continually to improve their work. I know that the Department has already reviewed the paperwork sent to schools, and we are already seeing a reduction in bureaucracy. It is important that we set high standards for schools and ensure that they reach them.

I turn now to a school in my constituency which demonstrates the great improvements that have taken place under the four years of Labour government. When I first became a Member of Parliament, many parents did not want their children to go to Westfield secondary school, and it suffered from that lack of interest early in the selection round. However, there has been a massive improvement in the school over the past four years, thanks to the drive, determination and vision of the head teacher, staff and governors. Westfield is now a specialist technology school. Pupil numbers have risen; children go there not because they cannot get in anywhere else but because they and their parents make it their first choice. That is a sign that the Government's policies are working.

Schools such as Westfield still face problems, however. They still have more than their fair share of children with special needs. I am referring not only to children with statemented special needs but to those who are on the special needs register, who may include pupils with problems of antisocial and unacceptable behaviour. The Government need to consider how we ensure that all schools take responsibility for sharing out such pupils. Ultimately, a bias in the number of special needs pupils within a school has an effect on its results and its place in the league tables. Parents look at those factors, but they do not see all the information behind them. Getting to grips with that problem would make a real difference in my area.

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The debate is an important, valuable opportunity for me and other hon. Members to say that the Government have made genuine improvements in schools and in higher education. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the Opposition have decided to criticise our policies. Their Front-Bench spokesmen found no opportunity to welcome all the good things that we are doing or to tell us what they would do. I realise that most of them plan to scamper around Europe and find good ideas in the education systems there. This will be a good opportunity for those who are keen on Europe to develop their enthusiasm. Perhaps those who are not so keen will develop new, positive views about Europe. I hope that in their search for policies, the Conservatives will recognise that the important changes in our schools have made a difference. A partnership between teachers, parents, governors and the Government has brought about the improvements that I have seen in my constituency.

7.59 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I cannot remember who said that history repeats itself, but politicians repeat each other. I am sure that we all agree that we have reached the stage in the debate at which many of the salient points have already been made, so I shall try to accede to your request to keep my comments brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There have been interesting points of agreement across the Chamber, and variable political geometries formed between the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) and the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). I find that heartening, because it provides evidence that we can start to build a new consensus that challenges some of the monolithic thinking on education that has emerged from the Government in recent years. In the absence of a Liberal Democrat amendment to the motion, I invite my Liberal Democrat colleagues to support the amendment standing in my name, which makes some positive remarks about the policies of the Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition Administration in the National Assembly for Wales.

We live in interesting times. I am non-sectarian by nature, so to me the beauty of the post-devolution era is that I can attack the Labour party while at the same time supporting it. We do not have a single British Labour party education policy any more; we have at least three and if local government is included—I have in mind the work of Jeremy Beecham in England—we have four. Hearing the hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) raise the spectre of Marxism made me fear that there is a danger of the Government's education policy collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions.

It might have escaped the notice of many right hon. and hon. Members, but individual learning accounts are happily continuing in Wales, the reason being that they were not handed over to private contractors as they were in England. Instead, they were given over to ELWa—Education and Learning Wales—the public sector organisation for education and training, which has delivered the policy in close collaboration with local authorities. Therein lies an important lesson for the Government, who are obsessively preoccupied with privatisation.

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It is useful to read "The Learning Country", the paving document that was published by the Labour Education Minister in Wales on the same day as the UK Government published their White Paper. It throws some of the differences into sharp relief. In Wales, the publication of league tables for secondary schools has been scrapped—we never had them for primary schools. Tests for seven-year-olds have been abolished and free school milk has been re-introduced for the under-sevens.

That Labour paving document celebrated the comprehensive school system—and rightly so, given that that system was born in Wales. The first comprehensive school was created in 1947 in Anglesey, and I remember that in his first speech of the new Parliament the Prime Minister trumpeted the fact that Anglesey had returned to Labour. May I suggest that Labour returns to Anglesey and looks at the principles of the comprehensive education system that are being upheld in Wales? Let me quote for the benefit of the Minister—who might care to listen to my speech for one or two seconds—a comment made by a Labour Minister in the Assembly. She said "I don't believe the private sector has a role in the delivery of education". The Government's mantra in education is autonomy and diversity, and long may we see those in Wales.

I remain concerned about England, not only because I am an internationalist who has family in England, but because the terms of the debate in England affect the nature of the debate on the future of education throughout the United Kingdom. I am particularly concerned about the constant pushing of the privatising agenda, which undermines the public sector ethos—although those are not my words. They appeared in the recent eloquent article in The House Magazine by Lord Skidelsky, in which he made the point that there was a direct connection between problems of recruitment and low morale in the education profession and the fact that over many years the public sector ethos has been undermined by moves towards privatisation—and unhelpful remarks such as the Prime Minister's director of communications talking about "bog standard" comprehensive schools, for which an apology is still awaited.

I welcome the fact that Wales is allowed to pursue its own course in these matters. We have particular problems of our own to address—for example, the alarming gap that is developing between Wales and the rest of the UK in terms of educational attainment. More than three quarters of a million—780,000—young people and adults in Wales have severe literacy and numeracy problems. I am concerned that because of the inadequacies of the devolution settlement—the fact that we do not have primary law-making powers, nor a fair funding formula—we will not be able to deliver the separate education agenda that has been developed in recent years, nor be able to implement measures that are in line with Welsh needs and Welsh values.

I offer a few examples. The Labour-led Administration in the National Assembly have called for the scrapping of tuition fees and the reintroduction of a targeted maintenance grant. Are the Labour Government in Westminster going to deliver on that Labour demand? We have had the Rees report, the Cubie report and the Callender report, commissioned by central Government, all of which have shown the massive problems—affecting students from low-income backgrounds in particular—

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arising from the abolition of the maintenance grant and the introduction of fees. I do not need to rehearse those arguments tonight.

It is ridiculous that we have to come to this place to ensure that there is a clause in the forthcoming education legislation that is diametrically opposed to every single value and principle currently espoused by the Labour Administration here in Westminster. The House will have to approve a clause that reflects an entirely different set of values. Would it not be a far preferable constitutional settlement that allowed that primary legislation to be dealt with in Wales by the politicians who are directly accountable in that respect?

We are led to believe by the Secretary of State that Wales will be allowed to follow its own course, so there is perhaps a more pressing constraint: resources. Incredibly, in Wales—the part of the United Kingdom that currently has the worst educational attainment—education spending per head is lower than it is in England. Spending per head is 2.3 per cent. higher in England than in Wales, and that gap will widen over the next three years. The figures I am about to quote are not my own; they are those produced by the Labour Administrations in Wales and in Westminster. The National Assembly's education budget is to increase by an average of 5.75 per cent. over the next three years, whereas the budget in England, where educational attainment is better, is to increase by 8.24 per cent. By 2003-04, education spending per head in England will be £985, whereas in Wales—one of the most disadvantaged regions in the UK—it will be £900. Try justifying that—you will find it very difficult indeed.

The reason is the operation of the Barnett formula, which Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, and others on your own Benches—

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