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3.20 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I welcome the opportunity to join in this debate to discuss the 14 to 19 curriculum and the Green Paper that the Under-Secretary outlined. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his speech and for his courtesy in informing the House that a constituency engagement will take him away from us. I can only hope and assume that that engagement is a fund raiser for the Shakers, in which case the whole House will join in wishing him well. Contributions may be sent to Bury football club, either through its website or directly to the club at Gigg lane, Bury. I urge all hon. Members who have not already added themselves to the roll of honour on the website to do so as soon as possible. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. The Bury connection is very strong. I appreciate his kind words and wish him well in his ministerial career.

I will have some nice things to say about the Green Paper and some of the aims and aspirations behind it. The Conservative party is concerned to ensure that our criticism of education policy comes from the same general base as the hon. Gentleman would expect, which is with an understanding of the aims of education in this country, but with the sharp edge that is necessary to turn decent aspirations into reality.

As always, the devil is in the detail. Parties of all colours realise when in government that good aspirations can sometimes flounder. It is therefore the job of the Opposition to point to some of the matters in the Green Paper that need a little more consideration if they are not to spoil the aims and aspirations in the way that I shall outline.

Before I consider the Green Paper in detail, I must deal with three vital areas that must be addressed if the curriculum is to be delivered satisfactorily. First, I pay tribute to the hard work that is going on in all our schools. From my county of Bedfordshire to Yorkshire, teachers, their support staff, governors, pupils and parents are working extremely hard to make education work. As the Secretary of State has said more than once, we are asking more of them every day. That is why some discrimination in the documents that the Government are continually sending them is necessary as those documents are getting in the way of the staff doing their jobs.

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As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), made clear in the debate on Tuesday, the paperwork that the Department produces for schools is reaching mammoth proportions, which is preventing heads from doing their jobs. If we add together all the documents sent out between April 2001 and February 2002, they total 4,333 pages for head teachers to plough through. In April 2001, documents with a total of 853 pages were issued to primary schools. Assuming that each page takes two minutes to read, those documents would have taken more than 28 hours just to read, which is equal to three and a half working days.

No matter how diverting or interesting it is to knock up some new idea or develop policies such as the 14 to 19 curriculum, doing so must not deter the Government from tackling the problems that are undermining schools: the specialist teacher shortage, the burden of paperwork, and behavioural issues with pupils. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the work that is being done to improve behaviour and the like, but that comes on the back of the Government's failed exclusion policy, which they have now changed.

I visited Orpington college yesterday and talked to a newly qualified teacher who had just started in his job. I asked him why he was in the college rather than the schools sector and he said that it was because of behaviour—he wanted to be in a place where children wanted to learn. That is a message for all hon. Members, not only for the Minister. All teachers want to be in places where children want to learn. Behaviour problems are causing a major crisis for schools. While we are concentrating on one policy, let us not take our eyes off the other ball.

Secondly, I stress the crucial importance of the further education sector in making the post-16 curriculum work. The quality and purpose in further education is extraordinary. I have been delighted in the past few months to visit a variety of different colleges: Barnet, Bedford, Dunstable, Thurrock and Orpington. I was most impressed by the commitment and the close connection between staff and their students, which might be due to the intimate connection with the local community and the need to be closely involved with employers. I found genuine esteem for the students and the courses that they are doing. I will return later to the difficult issue of vocational education. People in those colleges have real concerns, however, and unless they are tackled, the hopes of delivering some of the 14 to 19 curriculum through further education will be damaged.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has just left the Chamber, made a point about pay and recruitment, and he is right. It is my impression from talking to principals that the FE sector is worried about core funding, which continues to go down because the new money coming into FE is always tied to initiatives. Colleges must bid for all the money and there is a sense that new money is centrally directed, which has led to a lack of trust in the sector.

David Wright (Telford): Given the aspirations of the Leader of the Opposition to reduce public expenditure to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product and the funding

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issue that the hon. Gentleman is raising, where would the cuts fall in further education if the Conservative party were in power?

Alistair Burt: I will knock that argument on the head before it consumes every debate. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said clearly that the public services will be the first call on the Exchequer when we return to office. We have made that clear in all our actions in the past few months. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will care to get to his feet on the day of the Budget when the Chancellor may have some rather different things to say about the public services than he has hitherto said.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: Will the hon. Gentleman help the House by explaining the proportion of Government expenditure that is not spent on public services?

Alistair Burt: About 60 per cent. is not spent on public services. We commonly talk of education and the health service as such services. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is including social security. I was drawing that distinction, but perhaps he was not.

People in further education are concerned that they are not quite trusted to handle their budgets. The core funding issue and the efficiency drive are causing them real problems. Academic pay and recruitment have reached acute levels. Those teaching in FE do not have some of the advantages of teachers in schools, such as housing allowances, golden hellos and laptops. Consequently, there is now a drift from further education into schools, which is affecting the ability of the FE sector to deliver.

Despite that fact, performance in the FE sector is exceptionally strong. Accordingly, the way in which the Minister for Lifelong Learning is treating the sector is unwarranted and it is causing completely unnecessary anger and concern. All Ministers sometimes have difficult things to say to those in their Department or in the area of their expertise and work. However, one must get people on one's side at some stage, particularly if one wants to give any sense that one understands the problems that they are facing. When the Minister wrote in The Independent on 7 March,

she must have been unaware of the degree of anger that she has caused in the sector.

As the Association of Colleges pointed out, FE colleges receive 20 per cent. less funding for every individual who goes through an A-level programme than schools get for their A-level students.

According to the Further Education Funding Council inspection report of 2000–01:

How does that square in any way with the hon. Lady's unwarranted attack?

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): I was interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman referred to his visits to various

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colleges and in his subsequent comments. Is not the Green Paper all about how we work with that sector to extend opportunities to young people and improve them? In his travels around the sector, did he not find an overwhelming welcome for the Green Paper?

Alistair Burt: I am awfully sorry, but no. The hon. Lady is absolutely right in her first contention: the whole point of working together is to build up a partnership. However, I put it to her—she should put this to her hon. Friends—that the Minister for Lifelong Learning's idea of creating a partnership may be to go around saying the sort of stuff that she has been saying, but it is just not working. Today, she will find that the chief executive of the Association of Colleges has made that clear in a very strong speech. The point is to build a partnership, but to improve it the Minister has to get people on the Government's side in the first place, and she is patently not doing that.

It is too early to get a sense of how much all the colleges welcome the Green Paper. They do welcome some things, as I shall go on to say, but they have not given an unequivocal welcome—that would never happen. At the moment, for them to be willing to listen to the Government, they must have some sense that the Government care about them and their sector, and the remarks made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning are not helping in that regard.

Yesterday I met John Harwood, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council. We wish the council well in its role, into which it is now settling. It has a variety of issues to resolve, from teething troubles to the fact the performance will be patchy from area to area. We would want it to stand up for the further education sector.

I shall take the Minister back to a remark that he made following an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) in relation to the 14 to 19 curriculum and its funding. The Minister said that there were no plans for the LSC to take over funding for 14 to 19-year-olds. I assume that that is absolutely firm. Is he prepared to reiterate that that will not happen? If not, perhaps the Minister for School Standards would like to revisit that point in responding to the debate.

My third point on the other things that need to be considered before the curriculum can be adequately delivered relates to the concerns about the budget. The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) may have some more concerns about public expenditure when we get to Budget day. Where has education slipped to in the pecking order? We have had two hints. The first is the continued delay in the review of student finance. Again, some of the remarks made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning have been designed to suggest that there will not be very much new money for students or universities.

While we are about it, can we finally have a definition of higher education? Again, the Under-Secretary said that the target was that 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds should have had some form of higher education experience by 2010. Is he aware that, since 25 October last year, we have been asking his colleagues to define

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the term "higher education experience"? Six months later, we still do not have one. People cannot have a target unless they know what it relates to.

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