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Perhaps the worst problems are in higher education, although it was the matter least mentioned by the Conservatives. Since the 1998 reforms, average student debt has doubled from about £3,000 to £6,000, according to the Barclays student debt survey. Students now expect to graduate with a five-figure debt of as much as £20,000 according to the National Union of Students. The situation is particularly bad for students on longer courses.
The National Audit Office report on student participation confirms that young people from poorer backgrounds are significantly less likely to participate in higher education. That is precisely the problem that the Government think that they need to address, but are failing to address. The NAO report states:
Forty-seven per cent. of full-time students now have to work in term time. According to the NUS, the average number of hours worked per week is 11. Research carried out by Newcastle university suggests that 35 per cent. of its students who have jobs could have achieved a higher grade for the year if they had not been in employment.
Two consequences follow. First, debt and the fear of debt are a big disincentive to young people who want to enter higher education. They also have an impact on the quality of students' university education once they get there. There are solutions, however. In Scotland, tuition fees have been abolished and means-tested grants restored. In Wales, means-tested grants have been reintroduced for further and higher education students. That makes a difference, and we can see the results. According to the most recent UCAS figures, the number of Scottish students applying to Scottish universities is up by 8.8 per cent., while the number applying to English universities is down by 4.5 per cent. Scottish students are voting with their feet. The contribution of Scottish students to the overall increase in applications is disproportionately high, with an increase of 8.8 per cent. overall, compared with just 2.7 per cent. in England.
Mr. Levitt: Under Liberal Democrat policy in Scotland, do not all students have to pay an exit fee on leaving university, whereas in England and Wales, half of all students do not pay such fees at all?
What about the famous 50 per cent. target? How is participation to be measured? Interestingly, we recently discovered exactly what the Government are going to do when they announced to the Public Accounts Committee something called the initial entry rate. Instead of looking at the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds who are actually in higher education in 2010, when they come to measure the figure against their target, the Government are simply going to guess how many of that group will go into higher education at any time over the next 12 years. All that they will have to do is work out what increase they need to guess to meet their target, and, lo and behold, they will meet it. It could not be easier. That is not a calculation but simply guesswork.
Where are we starting from? What is the figure now? The Public Accounts Committee revealed that the Government seriously overestimated the existing participation rate. In her evidence to the then Education and Employment Committee a year ago, the Minister then responsible for higher education put the figure at 44 per cent., which was 6 per cent. off the Government's target. In evidence to the PAC, however, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills has admitted that the real figure is 41 per cent., 9 per cent. off their target.
Not surprisingly, the Government are gradually including more and more groups to meet their target. Government statements have variously defined the target as "50 per cent. going to university", "50 per cent. entering higher education", "50 per cent. having the opportunity to enter higher education" and "50 per cent. having higher-education experiences", whatever that may mean. Perhaps it refers to an open day to help people decide whether they want to enter higher education.
There are real problems in our education system, but there are things that we can do about them. We must remove the dead hand of central interference, and end the destructive notion that Downing street always knows best what is right for our children. We must value the professionalism of teachers and academic staff, and trust them to make their own judgments. We must provide genuine freedom, removing the constraints that hold back innovation and creativity throughout the system. Above all, if the original policy was "education, education, education", surely what the Government must now do is invest, invest, invest.
Mr. David Miliband (South Shields): I am delighted to be able to contribute to this debate. I hope to describe some of the changes being made in education in South Shields, but also to illuminate some of the problems that I think should be the subject of national debate. This is an opportunity for some honest talking. I welcomed the tone of the speech delivered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has had to leave. When I last appeared on a television programme with him, his first answer was so long that I had no chance to make my own contribution at the end. Having also spent some 50-odd hours in a Standing Committee with him, I must say that my sorrow at the fact that he could not open the debate
I deplore the unremitting negativism of the Opposition motion and also the tone of the speech made by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). According to my calculations, he spent about 30 minutes denouncing everything about the education system, 12 seconds saying that his policies were under review and could not be revealed, and about a minute producing warm waffle about his long-term aspirations. I wonder what message that sends to the 430,000 teachers in the education system. I wonder what prospect they see of politicians having much to add to their daily worksometimes a daily grindgiven the negativism of the hon. Gentleman's approach.
The hon. Gentleman gloried in the fact that he is now best friends with the National Union of Teachers. In fact, his observations reminded me more of the NUT as it was when I was at school in 1981 or 1982 than of the more balanced statements that have emerged from some NUT leaders recently. I also think it unworthy of him to denounce achievements in maths in the motion and then to praise the national numeracy strategy, even claiming at one point that he had invented it. I suppose that we should be grateful for small mercies: unlike some of his colleagues, he did not call for the Secretary of State's resignation. None the less, the word "crisis" was bandied about several times, not just in the motion but in the hon. Gentleman's speech. Such hyperbole does no one any good.
Those of us who are interested in education have a common interest in ensuring that the fact that it is not currently appearing on the front pages of the newspapers does not mean that its importance is lost. I find it regrettable that the Leader of the Opposition has only once, to my recollection, chosen to raise education at Prime Minister's Question Time; those of us who care about it should make sure that it remains a top legislative and budgetary priority as we approach the Budget statement and the spending review.
My perspective is framed by experience in South Shields and the borough of South Tyneside. The area has a strong sense of community pride. It would not deny the existence of its problems, not least the second highest unemployment in Britain, but it has enormous potential. That is brought home to me every time I visit one of the 30-odd schools in South Shields; I have visited more than half of them so far.
The daily experience of education in South Tyneside simply does not tally with the picture presented by the hon. Member for Ashford. It tells a very different storya different story about some of the things that are wrong, as well as about what is going well. The changes taking place in my constituency are significant and, in some cases, staggering. The delegated schools budget, which in 1996-97 was some £42 million, will next year rise to £64 milliona cash increase of more than 50 per cent. In concrete terms, that means more than £1,000 extra per pupil for books, computers and extra teachers, which are important for any thriving education system.
The hon. Gentleman said that he agreed with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) that public service budgets should be protected. He should listen more carefully to his own leader who, in an interview in the Financial Times in December, slapped down the shadow Chancellor and made it clear that tax cuts came before public service investment. Someone else said, rightly, that the Conservatives' websiteConservatives slash educationis a better indicator of Conservative education policy than the warm words of the shadow Secretary of State.
Another important aspect of educational improvement concerns the under-fives, where South Tyneside has traditionally had a strong record. One hundred per cent. of parents are offered a nursery place for their child. Some 88 per cent. take it up in a mix of public, private and voluntary provision. That has been supplemented for 2,000 families through the introduction of the sure start programme.
On primary schools, which were an important part of the contribution by the shadow Secretary of State, 30-plus primary schools in South Shields have embraced the national literacy and numeracy strategy. Significantly for a constituency of socio-economic disadvantage, the primary schools perform better than the national average in the key stage 2 tests. In the past six months, there have been positive Ofsted reports on Marine Park and Harton junior schools. That is an indication of the trend.
On teacher numbers, the situation outside London and the south-east is very different from that within it. There is a stable and committed teaching force in the north-east. Its work is complemented by 50 learning mentors and more than 190 classroom assistants, who take care of precisely the sort of bureaucracy and tasks that teachers do not want to do and in fact should not be doing, but who none the less make a vital contribution to dealing with some of the discipline problems that were mentioned in passing by the shadow Secretary of State. The learning mentors in Mortimore comprehensive school, which I visited last week, make a significant contribution to tackling some of the problems of poor discipline that are a serious issue for many children.
There is no point in denying the significant strains connected with recruitment in some subjects, but that should not be used as a basis for denouncing the whole approach to teacher education. I thought that the facts presented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State were compelling in that regard.
In relation to adult skills, which the shadow Secretary of State did not mention at all, South Tyneside further education college has just been made one of the pathfinder centres of vocational excellence in Britain. About 16,000 students pass through its doors in any one year. Its specialism is marine studies; my constituency occupies the corner of the Tyne and the North sea.
The college is doing important outreach work into the community. Some 1,500 adults now have access to community places for learning through learndirect, which has not been mentioned today and which was helped by the individual learning accounts, whose demise I regret.
Those achievements are a tribute not only to the Government but to the thousands of people who work day in, day outnot just the teachers but the support staffin schools in my constituency. They present a far more accurate picture of education in Britain than the overblown rhetoric of the Opposition, but it would be remiss of me to pretend that everything in the garden was rosy and that all the problems had been solved. That would be absurd. I would like to pick out four issues where local experience in South Tyneside can illuminate some national questions that need to be dealt with.
The first relates to the need to raise expectations in secondary schools. As I mentioned earlier, primary school performance in South Tyneside now outstrips the national average, but in secondary schools there is a significant dip in performance. Sometimes there is a dip straight after the holidays for 11-year-olds. By the time they enter the first year of secondary school, we can see that they are being turned off education. Despite a recent positive Ofsted report on Harton comprehensive school in my constituency, there remains a huge issue about how we tackle a low expectation/low performance equilibrium in too many of our secondary schools.