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9.30 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker), who is a true professional, finishing his speech precisely on time, which is most welcome.

We have had an excellent debate, and it is a privilege for me to be in the position of selecting some of the edited highlights. One was when the Secretary of State told us that teachers would not recognise the schools system that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) described. We have a Secretary of State who does not listen, and whose remarks were an essay in complacency. She does not believe what teachers say. She stands at the Dispatch Box and says, "I am not complacent," and every time she does so, teachers start to count the spoons.

The Secretary of State says that no school's budget will be lower than it was four years ago, but when I tabled a question asking her to list schools with a budget lower than that of four years ago, I received the answer that those figures are not collected centrally. The Government do not know whether schools have higher or lower budgets than four years ago; all they can say is that the matter is devolved to local authorities.

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The Secretary of State went on to discuss learning support units. Members on both sides of the House will have been amused to hear her say, first, that under the previous Government there were none, and then reluctantly admit to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) that there was one, after he had said that he used to teach in it. Eventually, she admitted also that she herself had taught in one some years ago.

On individual learning accounts, the Secretary of State gave us a further insight into her Walter Mitty world. There have been 8,200 complaints, but she gave the House no estimate of the scale of fraud involved. She said that the ILAs were the best scheme and the biggest success in adult learning that there had ever been. We have to ask Ministers why, in that case, it has been withdrawn. Why will they not guarantee the reintroduction of ILAs, or say when they will be reintroduced or what they will be called?

Another highlight was the speech of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). We look forward to hearing from him on these occasions. He told us that he has been so busy recently that we were lucky even to see him in the Chamber. We are grateful to him for giving the House the benefit of his knowledge and experience. He accused the former Secretary of State of having lit the fuse of a ticking time bomb on teacher numbers, which proved his ability to mix metaphors just as well as the Liberal Democrats mix messages, which they are in the habit of doing.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, will shortly return to his place. He is doubtless rushing here as I speak. [Interruption.] I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. He said that his local head teachers beg him not to distribute the Hansard report of our debates because, apparently, they are so dull. A helpful suggestion is that he could shorten the text by excising his own remarks, which would help head teachers in his constituency. Having accused the Opposition of running an invent-a-crisis unit, the hon. Gentleman went on to say that there are serious problems in higher education, and that if we do not tackle them soon we will be in serious trouble. We do not need to invent the crisis; the crisis exists, and the Chairman of the Select Committee has himself acknowledged it.

It was a particular pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) making an excellent contribution to the debate, pointing out the shambles in the financing and structure of higher education. He quoted a senior Minister who admitted that the Government's policy is a complete disaster. It was reported that the review of student finance had concluded before it had even been set up. In a thoughtful speech, my right hon. Friend gave wise advice to both the Opposition and the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) always makes an important contribution to education debates. He made constructive criticism of the Government's failure to deliver more than fine words, and focused on post-16 education and the Government's failure to meet their target of increasing the number of FE students by 700,000.

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It is important to dwell on the situation in further education, given that the Association of Colleges has made it clear that it, too, perceives serious problems in the Government's handling of the further education sector. The association notes that

It goes on to complain of "initiative overload"—a refrain all too often heard from those involved in all aspects of the education world.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) highlighted the plight of good training providers in the ILA debacle and complained that the rug had been pulled out from under them. According to the Secretary of State, that was due to the scheme's success; none the less, those providers have been left high and dry by the ILA scheme's suspension. That situation was also highlighted by the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) who, in a typically entertaining contribution, raised the important case of a training provider in his constituency. He pressed the Minister for the timetable for the restoration of the ILA scheme. I see the Minister listening intently and I know that he looks forward to enlightening the House on that precise point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid–Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) focused on the Government's failure to tackle unfair variations in education standard spending assessment. He spoke of the desperation of head teachers in his constituency who have been forced to consider taking legal action against the Government by their concern that no action has been taken in four and a half years, despite the many pledges and promises of action.

The hon. Member for Mid–Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) talked about the problems of the additional costs allowance, although I think that she might have meant the area costs adjustment. One relates to house prices in London, the other to house prices in Poole, but I am sure that the House knew what she meant.

Mrs. Brooke: I assure the hon. Gentleman, most definitely, that I meant the additional costs allowance: the extra cost of living allowance that is given in the south-east—

Mr. Levitt: The area cost adjustment.

Mrs. Brooke: No, I do not mean that. The allowance goes towards salaries, which covers public service workers—[Hon. Members: "The area cost adjustment."] There are two things: there is an additional costs allowance and the area cost adjustment. I know which one I mean.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intervening, but as my mother would have said, that is as clear as mud.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) gave a compelling account of the realities of education in Britain today. He also provided a refreshing perspective on the future shape of education policy.

However much the Government want to deny it, there are grave problems in education. The crisis in teacher morale is resulting in more posts being filled by

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unqualified teachers, more qualified teachers being forced to teach subjects for which they have no appropriate subject qualification, and more teachers coming from abroad on short-term contracts. By piling more bureaucracy and interference on teachers, the Government are driving them out of the profession. To an increasing extent, heads of schools around the country are having to appoint the only applicant for an advertised post. To say that that threatens standards in schools is not to denigrate teachers; it is simple common sense.

There is also considerable and increasing unease in schools with sixth forms throughout the country. They fear that the future of their sixth forms is no longer secure. Why are funds for sixth forms protected for only one year? Why is the protected level to be based on figures that are a year old? Why are funds to fall if numbers fall, but not to rise if numbers rise? Why are schools not permitted to make direct representations to their local learning and skills councils when they are concerned about levels of funding?

It is little wonder that schools draw such little comfort from Ministers' assurances when so many have been forced to accommodate the costly new post-16 curriculum, which in many instances costs about £50,000 or more a year, without 1p of additional funds reaching schools. Schools are still suffering from the effects of the AS-level fiasco. Exam overload has affected students and it has also affected exam boards, leading to increasing concerns in schools about quality and consistency of marking. That is both between AS modules and between AS modules and A-level expectation.

Further worries confront schools over the future funding of performance-related pay. The threshold funding is assured only to 2004. Will the Minister tonight reassure schools that the cost—it is frequently £100,000 a year or more for schools—will be funded beyond 2004? What assurance can the hon. Gentleman give that the upper levels of performance-related pay will be funded into the future? If he cannot give such assurances, what are the implications for morale of a performance-related pay scheme where there are no funds to reward continuing performance improvements?

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford opened the debate with a serious charge of incompetence and meddling by the Government, leading to widespread, chronic and growing problems in education. We have had some outstanding contributions to the debate, and the witnesses for the prosecution have made a compelling case, proving a catalogue of crimes, including incompetence in the handling of ILAs, presiding over a crisis of teacher morale, making intolerable the lives of teachers by piling bureaucracy on to their shoulders and by falsely claiming—

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