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Higher Education Funding

2. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): What publicly funded scholarships and bursaries are available to assist students from low-income backgrounds to participate in higher education. [114995]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge): A number of publicly funded bursaries already exist for students from low-income families. They include opportunity bursaries, learning allowances for student parents, and student awards from hardship funds. The Government also fund student bursaries for those training in public sector work—teaching, social work and a range of health professions. From 2004, new students will be able to apply for the new higher education grant of up to £1,000 each year.

Mrs. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but I hope that she will agree that the current system is complicated for potential students. Will she consider a proposal to reintroduce state scholarships that are based on merit and means tested? Such scholarships could be both publicly and privately funded, and would help to achieve her objective of improving access for students from low-income backgrounds.

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Margaret Hodge: I accept that we need to be better at getting proper information out to potential students about the funding that is available to support them during their university degrees. We have a system of what could be termed state scholarships in terms of the fee remission scheme and the introduction of the higher education grant. Going beyond that, we want institutions themselves to accept responsibility for ensuring that they have bursary schemes to support students from low-income families, rather than having further central prescription. However, I am always willing to consider new ideas from hon. Members.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Does the Minister agree that one does not raise the aspirations of one group of children by suppressing those of another? Is there not every likelihood that that is what the access regulator, or "Offtoff", will do? Here is a suggestion to the Minister: scrap "Offtoff", leave universities free to admit on merit and spend the savings on poor students, of whom there are all too many under this Government's policies.

Margaret Hodge: I find it very hard to understand how cutting student numbers can open access and increase opportunities, particularly for those from low-income families who wish to attend universities. I also find it very hard to understand how the Big Brother regulator that the Opposition undoubtedly want to introduce to tell universities which courses they can and cannot offer would improve access for students. It may well be that the hon. Gentleman does not like our proposal to introduce OFFA, the office of fair access, which will ensure fair access for students in all our universities, but I am not sure that I think much of the Opposition's idea of simply telling students to OFF off.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Does my hon. Friend agree that the proportion of children from poor households going to university in this country is still far too low? Does she know of any other country in the world that does not have a target to increase participation? Can she tell me what proportion of households pay the full tuition fee at the moment?

Margaret Hodge: I completely concur with my hon. Friend that too few young people from low-income households are going to university. The thrust of all our policies is to ensure that the brightest and most talented young people, from whatever background, get the opportunity to go to university. I also concur that no developed nation that is aspiring to compete economically in the global economy is not increasing the number of people who are participating and going to university. Finally, he is right to draw to the attention of the House the fact that only four out of 10 young people currently pay the full contribution to the fee that we ask of students.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is absolutely right; information is not getting through to students, as the Minister admits. That is because the way in which she answered the question was about as clear as mud. Why is she spending so much time and money setting up all these complicated schemes that no one understands,

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when the simple solution is so obvious? My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) announced our policy to great acclaim last week. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State knows that this is right. The way to encourage more young people from all backgrounds to come into higher education is to scrap university fees altogether. Why do not the Government simply abolish the tax on learning?

Margaret Hodge: I welcome the hon. Lady's guest appearance. I am delighted that the Conservatives have finally introduced a policy on higher education—one of their first—and I am sure that it will unravel very quickly. Underlying it is the clear message that if someone wants their child to go to university, they should not vote Conservative because under their policy there would not be a place for that child.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): It seems obvious that only a minority of students would benefit from a limited supply of scholarships and bursaries. If we want to widen participation in higher education, as we all do on this side of the House at least, we should reintroduce state grants for all students. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the only realistic way forward in the long term?

Margaret Hodge: I would make three points to my hon. Friend. First, four out of 10 young students do not have their fees remitted. Secondly, with the introduction of a higher education grant on top of a well-subsidised student loan, a third of the student cohort will receive £1,000 a year. Thirdly, by abolishing the payment of an up-front contribution towards the cost of fees, no student will have to contribute to the cost of their education during their time at university. Graduates who benefit personally from gaining a degree should contribute over their lifetime to the cost of that degree from their earnings. It is therefore graduates who pay, not students.

Criminal Records Bureau

3. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): If he will make a statement on Criminal Records Bureau checks for teachers. [114996]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): The average turnaround time for Criminal Records Bureau checks on teachers is less than five weeks. Head teachers have discretion to allow teachers to start work before receiving their disclosure, provided that they have been checked against list 99 and all other relevant pre-employment checks have been carried out.

Mr. Burstow : I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure he will recall the chaos into which the CRB descended last year, when many thousands of teachers were awaiting checks, schools were in limbo, and children were left wondering whether there would be a teacher in their classroom. Will the Minister confirm that it would be wrong for the CRB substantially to increase its charges for disclosures well above the rate of inflation to make good the cost of its cock-ups? Would

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it not be wrong for teachers, local education authorities and children to have to pay more to make good the errors of the CRB?

Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the CRB is now processing 40,000 disclosures a week, and the backlog to which he referred is all but cleared. The full operation of the CRB is obviously a matter for the Home Secretary, and I understand that he has the various issues under review.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): If the backlog is all but cleared, why does Essex county council have 400 applications outstanding, 50 of which were made a year ago? That is spectacular incompetence, even by the Department's standards. When will Essex's outstanding applications be cleared?

Mr. Miliband: The honest answer is that Essex is part of the "but" rather than the "all" in my earlier description of the CRB's activities. It is processing 40,000 applications a week, and I am sure that it will come to the Essex disclosures as soon as possible.

Connexions Partnerships

4. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): If he will make a statement on the publication of the first three Ofsted reports on Connexions partnerships. [114998]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I am pleased to say that Ofsted has judged all three partnerships to be good. In each case, Ofsted found that the partnership enables young people to reach good levels of achievement; has a good overall quality of practice; has a good understanding of the communities that it serves; and has good leadership and management, together with committed staff.

Valerie Davey : I thank my hon. Friend. With that positive outcome and, I trust, a further good report from the west of England Connexions Partnership board, will he confirm that Connexions partnerships make a real difference to young people in their progression to their adult working lives?

Mr. Lewis: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for supporting the work of Connexions in her constituency. While I cannot disclose the results of the Ofsted report in her area, she will not be disappointed. To underline the progress that Connexions is now making, in a recent independent survey of more than 16,000 young people who have used the service, 91 per cent. said that they were satisfied or very satisfied; 90 per cent. agreed that Connexions had a lot to offer young people; 86 per cent. felt that it helped them to understand all the options available to them; and 68 per cent. said that it had helped them make life-changing decisions. Up and down the country, Connexions is beginning to make a real difference to the life chances of young people.

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Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): Those are fine words, but can the Minister confirm that the Ofsted report says that only around half of Connexions staff have direct contact with young people, and that in Lincolnshire and Rutland that figure dropped to just 40 per cent.?

Can he also confirm that this year, with a budget of £429 million, the Connexions service is spending just £4.5 million—1 per cent.—with voluntary organisations that work with the most vulnerable young people in our society? Does he accept that growing bureaucracy is one of the main reasons why many voluntary organisations often see Connexions as a rival, not a partner, and what steps is he taking to address that problem before voluntary organisations completely lose faith in the Connexions service?

Mr. Lewis: In a recent debate, I made a commitment to the hon. Gentleman that I would analyse the relationship between Connexions and the voluntary and community sector. I can bring him the good news that in fact the proportion of money that is spent on voluntary and community services in Connexions partnerships areas is not 1 per cent. The guidance said that it should be 5 per cent.; we believe that on average it is 6 per cent. We accept that the development of a new service will have strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses that were identified in the initial Ofsted report included the need for better quality assurance systems and for a more strategic approach to the involvement of young people. We must address those concerns.

We do not pretend that an entirely new service has got everything right. It is important, however, to support the positive partnerships that are taking place and to recognise the fact that young people are getting an integrated service that brings together all the professionals in communities to ensure that they can overcome the barriers that too often get in the way of progressing and achieving in their learning and their lives.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend agree that, welcome as the Ofsted report is, it is even more important to get the kind of positive response that he got from parents and users at the Connexions centre in Burnley when he visited it? That shows that the Connexions service is doing an excellent job, and supports what the Ofsted report says.

Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's comments. Burnley is going through difficult times. On my recent visit, it was encouraging and reassuring to meet young people who are benefiting from the Connexions service by seeing life chances and opportunities opening up. We need such policy developments to ensure that people in areas such as Burnley do not turn to extremist parties, but see the direct benefits of mainstream politics and politicians. One of those benefits is the development of the Connexions service, an initiative of which the Government are incredibly proud.

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