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House of Commons

Thursday 10 January 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Student Support

1. Patrick Mercer (Newark): What plans she has to consult the National Union of Students over the new system of student support. [23789]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): My hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning met Owain James, the president of the National Union of Students, in the summer to discuss student finance. A review of student finance is now under way. We plan to consult on any proposal for change and, naturally, would expect the NUS to respond and contribute.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her reply. This is certainly the most emotive issue among my constituents in Newark and Retford who are involved in further education. Although a review is welcome, I see no evidence so far of consultation with the NUS, Universities UK and even the teachers' unions, on top of which there is confusion about the timing. May I beg for greater transparency? Let us have evidence at least of the open government of which we hear so much and see so little.

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman is a little unfair. We have made the principles of the review clear, and no one in the higher education world or the student body thinks that they are not free to send us their views; they have being doing that in great numbers. When we have proposals, we will publish them and then we will begin a proper consultation exercise. As we have said, the results of the review will be available early in the new year, which is roughly where we are, so it should not be too long from now.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Does the Secretary of State share my surprise, as an ex-president of the NUS, at the gall of the Opposition, who tried to shut down the NUS, in talking to us about consulting it? Will she please bear it in mind in the review that the NUS also represents students in further education, which is a vital stepping stone for many of our constituents who are

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still excluded from the higher education that they are capable of attaining, to the benefit of the community and the economy?

Estelle Morris: My hon. Friend is right. We have noted that the Opposition's views on education unions have changed a great deal in schools, as well as in higher and further education. She makes a valid point. When we talk about student finance, we often restrict our comments to people in full-time study between the ages of 18 and 21, who represent fewer than 50 per cent. of those who study. That has always been the case. She will know that, in the Labour Government's first four years, we spent resources to help part-time and mature students, and I assure her that in our on-going work—not only in the review, but in funding adult learning—we will not forget that incredibly important body. The number of students studying part-time in their mature years is likely to grow, not shrink, in the years ahead.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I declare an interest in that I have three sons in the student age group.

Given that the Secretary of State has already done two U-turns in the student finance proposals that she has leaked to the press, must she not give a much better answer than the wishy-washy one that she just gave when she said that the proposals will be made some time in the new year, especially as many thousands of students are currently trying to make up their minds about whether they should go to university this year or next year, when they might get a better financial deal?

Estelle Morris: I take the point, and we will publish our recommendations, or our thoughts and ideas, in due course. We have also made it clear—I am glad of the chance to clarify this important point—that we do not envisage major changes for entry in 2002, and I encourage all those who are considering applying to enter higher education to do so. The figures published only yesterday by higher education institutions show either a 5.4 or a 5.5 per cent. increase in the number of students starting to study this year. When they started in October, we had already announced that we were looking at student finance. I take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously. Students who start their studies this year need to know what their situation will be in September. We have talked about that, and we will make it clear again that they should apply. We do not envisage any significant change in the method of student finance for those who apply to enter this year and start in the next academic year.

School Autonomy Criteria

2. James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): What criteria she will use to determine whether schools have earned increased autonomy. [23832]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): The criteria will relate to two school characteristics—first, performance and, secondly, school leadership. On leadership, we will work closely with

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Ofsted, and I will provide the House with a draft consultation document on the detailed criteria before the Education Bill leaves the House.

James Purnell: I thank the Minister for that answer. May I draw his attention to schools, such as Alder High in my constituency, that do not perform outstandingly in terms of absolute results and league tables but do very well in terms of value added and that are rapidly improving? Will he explain how such schools, which would particularly benefit from the extra freedoms under the provisions for earned autonomy, will be able to earn that autonomy?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our aim is to establish a modern, effective comprehensive system that commands the confidence of every community in the country, building on the extra investment that we are making in schools. We want successful schools and teachers to lead a wave of reform, and our view is that giving them greater freedom, as will happen under the earned autonomy provisions, and removing some of the current constraints, will enable them to do so.

As my hon. Friend says, it is important that the opportunity should be available to schools in the whole range of local circumstances. In the consultation, we certainly intend to propose referring to the newly available value-added data to ensure that schools such as his have that opportunity, along with schools in other parts of the country.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Does the Minister accept that the concept of earned autonomy is insulting to the vast majority of Britain's schools that deliver quality results year after year? He refused to provide clear criteria in the Education Bill that we are considering, so may I suggest the criteria that we should use? If a school is not in special measures, or not showing serious signs for concern, it should automatically have earned autonomy.

Mr. Timms: No, I do not agree with that suggestion. It is right that we look to our most successful schools and teachers to lead the next wave of reform in education. If we had taken the hon. Gentleman's advice, we would not have had, for example, the literacy and numeracy strategies. We intend to set the criteria so that about 10 per cent. of schools will qualify for earned autonomy in the first instance. We will see how things go from there, but it is important that we look to our most successful schools to take the reforms forward and pioneer the innovations that we shall then want to apply throughout the whole system.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Most of us are pleased to support and accept more autonomy for our local schools, but is my hon. Friend aware of the problems caused by some foundation schools that set their own admission criteria, especially in areas such as Kent, where selective education is in place? What plans does he have to help to sort out the mess caused by Tory Kent county council,

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whose failure to look ahead and plan means that pupils in Aylesham village and other parts of my constituency are denied places in secondary schools in September?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend knows that we have taken the view that decisions about whether there should be changes in the selective nature of admission arrangements in some parts of the country, including Kent, should be made by parents locally. He will also be aware of the arrangements that we have made for that.

I reassure my hon. Friend that the provision for earned autonomy is certainly not about reintroducing anything like the old grant-maintained schools that were introduced by the previous Government. For example, there will not be any extra money for schools with earned autonomy. As to changes to admission arrangements, our view is that they are best dealt with locally.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): What powers will the schools with extra autonomy have that grant-maintained schools did not have?

Mr. Timms: We have proposed in the Bill that the extra freedom should be in two areas. The first is over the curriculum and the second is over teachers' pay and conditions. There is, of course, the possibility that we shall want to extend that list in due course in the light of experience, but that would require additional primary legislation. For now, we are sticking to those two areas.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am sure that my hon. Friend will not have read the Bolton Evening News this week. If he had, he would have seen headlines to the effect that schools across Bolton between them have banked more than £5 million as they wait for a rainy day. Each has a genuine reason for keeping the money in the bank, but would it not be better to bank the money centrally so that the cash flow could continue? If that experience has been replicated across the country, billions of pounds must have been banked. The money is not being used for the purpose for which it was designed, namely education.

Mr. Timms: That is a matter for governors to decide. I have, sadly, missed the latest issue of the newspaper that my hon. Friend mentioned, but I think that he will accept that schools have enjoyed great gains from their ability to make their own decisions about how to allocate their resources. They can decide their own priorities on issues such as maintenance and repair work. It is right that the resources are used for the benefit of children in each school and that they should be applied to that end. If there are concerns, I hope that the governors in the schools involved will ensure that the resources are applied properly.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The Opposition strongly support increased autonomy for schools, but what confidence can schools and parents have that the criteria will be open, clear and transparent when the Government persist in abusing their majority in the House, as they did this morning to prevent proper debate and scrutiny of the Education Bill? On Tuesday, the Committee lost 11 clauses because they were not debated—and four more this morning—because of the application of an absurd timetable by the Government,

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who use knives to prevent discussion of the important parts of the Bill while allowing time for those that no one wants to talk about.

Mr. Timms: I am mystified by the hon. Gentleman's point. The Government offered the Opposition an additional three hours of debate in Committee on Tuesday. We were keen to continue the discussion beyond the time that we actually took. We offered an extra three hours, but the Opposition refused them.

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