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Student Grants

6. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): If she will bring forward proposals to reintroduce student grants. [40724]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): Our review of student finance is considering a number of options. We shall make an announcement on the outcome of the review when it is complete and will consult on proposals for change.

Mr. Thomas: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Will she accept that the decision to reintroduce student grants in Wales was triggered by an independent report that clearly showed that poorer students were not accessing higher education in Wales and that maintenance grants needed to be reintroduced? I cannot believe that the situation can be very different in England. Does not the Minister think that equity demands a maintenance system for poorer students in England and does not the Barnett formula and the decision by the National Assembly of Wales also have an implication for her Department?

Margaret Hodge: I am surprised by that contribution because the strength of devolution is that the National Assembly can and does take decisions that differ from those taken by this Parliament. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would support that. I wish that

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ensuring that more people access our higher education system was as simple as introducing student grants. The issue is much more complicated and is equally about raising the attainment of young people in schools, keeping them in school and raising their aspirations so that they see university as an option for them.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): My hon. Friend will be aware that there are many students from low-income backgrounds in my constituency, especially those studying at Anglia polytechnic university. Those students are finding it a struggle. Many work such long hours that it impacts on their studies. Could she make it clear to the House that the Liberal Democrat campaign to abolish tuition fees has no effect on poorer students because they do not pay tuition fees? However, in the review of student finance, will she look sympathetically at the introduction of maintenance grants for students from low-income backgrounds?

Margaret Hodge: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the fact that half of our students pay no fees and only a third pay the full fee. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the full fee barely covers a quarter of the actual tuition cost and the rest is met by Government. The purpose of the review of student funding is to ensure that debt, or the fear of debt, does not prevent people—especially those from low-income backgrounds—from going to university. We will have that at the centre of our concerns.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Has the Minister studied the survey undertaken by UNITE, a company that provides accommodation for students? The poll was carried out by MORI and involved some 1,600 students. It drew attention to growing student debt and the increase in part-time working by students, especially those from low-income families. What is the Government's reaction and what response will they make?

Margaret Hodge: I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that survey, because it also said—I hope that he does not mind me quoting some figures at him—that more than 90 per cent. of those involved believed that their university education was worth while, 86 per cent. enjoyed university, 88 per cent. were happy with their lives and 86 per cent. were optimistic about their future. So the survey gave a balanced view. It is true that more students—about half—now work part time and we need to get the balance right between supporting themselves through part-time work and continuing their studies. It is also true that average debt on leaving university is going up, although not as much some predicted. One of the reasons for that is the greater generosity of the loan scheme compared with the scheme that was in place under the hon. Gentleman's Government.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the key criterion being considered in the review of student finance is the 50 per cent. target? Does she agree that in working out how we can reach that target the most important factor is raising the number of people staying on after 16 and that, therefore, in considering the priorities for funding we also have to think

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about education maintenance allowances? Those are already making a big difference in my constituency and need to be extended further around the country.

Margaret Hodge: I completely concur with my hon. Friend's important points. The rate of young people staying on in full-time education and training after the age of 16 is very poor. If we cannot increase that rate—on which our 14 to 19 agenda is focused—we will not build the skills that are needed to be successful in the economy. One of the most effective levers that we have so far identified for supporting an increase in participation after 16 has been the introduction of the education and maintenance allowance. Over 5 per cent. more students have stayed on at 16, and even more have remained in education at 17 and gained achievements. We will build on that and bear it in mind as we determine how to move forward on student funding.

Grammar Schools

7. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): If she will make a statement on the future of grammar schools. [40725]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): Our position remains unchanged. There will be no new grammar schools, but changes to the future admission arrangements of existing ones are for parents to decide through the ballot process.

Hugh Robertson: I thank the Minister for that answer. However, he will be aware of the confusion and distress caused to many parents in my constituency by the adjudicator's recent decision on admissions policy in Kent. One of the things that is often said at my surgeries is that that is regarded as a covert attack on the grammar school system. Will the Minister therefore confirm to my constituents, who simply want the best possible education for their children, that the Government have absolutely no plans to abolish grammar schools.

Mr. Timms: I can confirm that, as we have done on a number of occasions. The situation in Kent is complex, and there are competing interests between those parents who want a comprehensive school place as their first choice and those who want a good comprehensive as a fallback if their children are unsuccessful in grammar school selection. There have been three adjudicated decisions recently in Kent, which have addressed different issues. Our priority is raising standards across the entire secondary system, and it is clear that we are succeeding.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Does my hon. Friend agree that raising standards across the whole secondary sector would be easier if that sector were properly consistent? The presence of grammar schools distorts pupil admissions to schools in some areas. It creates a problem in Greater Manchester in particular, where some boroughs have had comprehensive education for a generation but admissions procedures are totally distorted by the drag effect of authorities where grammar schools exist. That is not in the interests of getting 50 per cent. of pupils into higher education, especially among poorer people.

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Mr. Timms: As my hon. Friend knows, we do not favour selection at 11. Research shows that the most able pupils perform just as well at comprehensive schools as at grammar schools, if not better. However, where grammar schools exist, local parents should be able to determine whether they should continue. That is the right way in which to make that decision. We also take the view that existing grammar schools can contribute to raising standards in other local schools, and they should be encouraged to do so. However, it is right that those decisions should be made locally through the ballot process that we have established.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Is the Minister aware of the financial problems that are being caused to grammar schools in Buckinghamshire and to a fair number of comprehensive schools elsewhere by the Learning and Skills Council's decision to withhold an element of the sixth form capitation payment on the mistaken assumption that 10 per cent. or more of those sixth form students will drop out before completing their courses? Will he agree to review that policy?

Mr. Timms: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the funding for sixth forms has been transferred to the Learning and Skills Council. I am aware that there have been some local difficulties. We have provided additional grant to seek to address those problems, but these are matters for the Learning and Skills Council to conclude. All the evidence that I have seen is that those arrangements are being reached satisfactorily up and down the country.

Teaching Assistants

8. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): How many teaching assistants are employed in schools in England. [40726]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): There were 95,815 full-time equivalent teaching assistants in maintained schools in England in January 2001. That was an increase of more than 50 per cent. on the 1997 figure. The figure for January 2002 will be available in a few weeks.

Mr. Love: The number of classroom assistants in my local authority has increased from 440 to 650 in the past three years. As a result, educational standards have improved in six of my local primary schools by more than the national average. However, we must—and can—do more to assist. What is my hon. Friend the Minister doing to improve the training and qualifications of classroom assistants to help them support teachers better in the classroom?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the very important contribution made by teaching assistants to raising standards in schools up and down the country. The Government made a firm manifesto commitment to increase the support for teachers in schools with at least another 20,000 additional support staff of all types—teaching assistants and others—in this five-year term.

We have set aside £400 million over the next two years to recruit and train additional teaching assistants. Research confirms the value and importance of well

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trained and managed teaching assistants. They have a key role in our vision of a remodelled school work force in which teachers have the support that they need to be able to concentrate on teaching. We are investing in developing the necessary skills and non-vocational qualifications so that there is a better career structure for teaching assistants. That is a very important consideration in our discussions with trade unions and others about remodelling the school work force.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Does the Minister accept that classroom assistants at best can be a supplement to teachers, but never a substitute for them? Why, therefore, has the pupil teacher ratio in state secondary schools, which improved in the Conservative years, deteriorated every year under this Government—in Hertfordshire, and in most counties?

Mr. Timms: The right hon. Gentleman knows well that the Government are committed to achieving a substantial reduction in class size for infant schools. That reduction has been delivered. We have 11,000 more teachers today than in 1997, the end of the period of Conservative Government. Recruitment to teacher training is up by more than 20 per cent. this year compared with last year. We will have twice as many people this year as last in the graduate teacher programme, which allows people in mid-career to come into teaching. That shows that we are also making very good progress with teacher recruitment.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is right that teaching assistants are only a supplement. It is vital that we recruit more teachers and bring more people into the profession. We have put in place the measures to achieve that, and we are being successful.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that some of those teaching assistants work at North Derbyshire college in my constituency? That old mining college had to readjust totally after the pit closures, and there have been some reports that it has run into difficulties. I emphasise that I, the Labour- controlled Derbyshire local authority and other councils in the area are determined to ensure that the college, the largest employer in the district, remains. It was the Tory proposition to close things: it must be Labour's to repair things, mend things, make them successful and keep people in work.

I hope that the Minister has got the message.

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend has made his views very clear. We are waiting for the inspection report on that college, and we shall give its findings careful consideration.

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