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Lord Jacobs: My Lords, as a former owner of a driving school, I was always concerned that although pupils had sufficient lessons to enable them to pass the test, in many cases they did not have sufficient driving experience. Although we tried to persuade them to gain driving experience with their parents, often that was not possible. Will the Minister therefore give serious consideration to the idea of a provisional plate, in particular so that we can survey students who take the test to find out how many hours of non-tuition experience they have obtained?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there are two aspects to that matter. The first relates to the pre-test period. It is clear--I concur with the noble Lord's experience--that many candidates come forward without sufficient hours or breadth of experience. We are trying to address that problem by introducing a more structured approach to pre-test learning. The second aspect relates to the rather high level of accident propensity of those in their first year or so of driving. The noble Baroness's P-plate proposal seeks to address that situation. However, so far the conclusions on the matter are inconclusive. There are already some provisions in the legislation relating to penalties which apply to new drivers. We are considering other, currently voluntary, schemes such as Pass Plus and P-plates.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, will the Minister consider another angle relating to my noble friend's Question; namely, if P and R-plates were used, perhaps the rest of us would give the drivers displaying them more room and not carve them up? I am not saying that I personally carve them up, but a good deal of carving up goes on in the roads. My noble friend's proposal might reduce road rage and create more tolerant drivers.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am greatly in favour of anything which decreases the propensity of any of us to road rage. I am not entirely sure that having a variety of different plates to which one may respond differentially is necessarily the best way of reducing road rage. However, as I said, all those proposals are currently under consideration and they will feature to some degree in the strategy.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, if the idea of plates finds favour with your Lordships, would it not be a good idea for those who use mobile telephones to

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have to use a plate showing, let us say, a red telephone? That would give others the opportunity of avoiding them earlier than otherwise would be the case.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, there may be a serious point behind the noble Viscount's suggestion. As he will know, the department has recently been trying to point out to the public the danger, particularly to other drivers, of using a mobile phone while driving. I am therefore glad of the opportunity to underline that point here today.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, my noble friend's suggestion has many merits. The involvement of youngsters in death and injury is extremely distressing, particularly if many are involved. Would a further advantage of P-plates be to make it possible to limit the number of passengers that an inexperienced driver may carry?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is a slightly two-edged proposition. In the case of drink-driving, for example, it is advantageous that one may swap the role of driver and that three or four people, one of whom does not drink, may therefore travel in one car. Any move to make drivers always drive on their own, particularly within that age group, could have detrimental as well as positive effects.

Defence Contractors

3.24 p.m.

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether certain major defence contractors have been instructed not to submit any further accounts before the end of the financial year.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the answer is no. That is because the Question is based on the erroneous premise that government can instruct contractors when to submit bills. As the noble Lord knows, what we do every year is to discuss with industry how to manage expenditure most effectively. This year is no different.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, does the Minister's reply mean that no instructions have been given but that it has been admitted tacitly that it would be wise to leave bills unsubmitted until the following year? If that is the case, what will be the effect of the Budget in that year?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, no instructions are given. The MoD routinely enters into agreements with its suppliers to promote commercial relationships which benefit both parties. Details are commercially confidential between us and the individual companies. Arrangements are freely entered into on both sides.

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Learning and Skills Bill [H.L.]

3.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 98 [Inadequate sixth-forms]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 209:

    Page 43, line 34, leave out ("(inadequate sixth-forms)") and insert ("(sixth-form centres)").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 210.

The amendments that I have tabled will almost inevitably necessitate further consequential amendments, but I prefer to leave it to the Government, with the help of parliamentary counsel, to resolve how that may be best accommodated. I have tabled the amendments because many outside the Committee and certainly a number of Members of the Committee believe that the Bill as set out constitutes a threat to the future of sixth forms.

The Bill will change the way in which school sixth forms are funded, but it will also give the local skills council significant new powers over them, which is where a great deal of uncertainty begins. At present, funding for school sixth forms is distributed via LEAs' individual formulae for their secondary schools. Under the new system, the local skills council will make grants to local education authorities for sixth-form provision, which they in turn will distribute to schools as part of their local schools' budget. The question arises as to the formula that the local skills council will use in distributing funds to the local education authorities. Of course, there may be winners and losers, not least because different LEAs currently have different funding priorities, directing either more or less money to school sixth-form provision than is suggested by their standard spending assessment.

The National Association of Head Teachers of course supports the changes in funding mechanisms, but on the important proviso that they will deliver enhanced resources for sixth forms to support them in delivering the wider post-2000 curriculum for 16 to 19 year-olds. The detail of how the funding system will work is of crucial importance to the sixth forms themselves. It needs to be teased out from the Government as soon as possible. The local skills council is also being given the power to develop schemes for the assessment of the performance of those providing post-16 education and training and, crucially, it will be able to base its funding decisions on those assessments. It may also attach conditions to grants. Therefore, the Bill seems to allow the LSC to

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determine how much money individual sixth forms may receive; indeed, whether they will receive any money at all.

There are also questions about whether a local learning and skills council could look at sixth forms in its area, make value for money judgments and determine what is taught and where, such as rationalising the teaching of minority subjects at the expense of parental and pupil choice. Both situations would be unacceptable. The National Association of Head Teachers has expressed its concern on this point.

This form of intervention is unwelcome. Not only will the LSC have wide-ranging powers to intervene, but both LEAs and the Secretary of State will retain their respective powers of intervention as well. School sixth forms will have to be mindful of yet another line manager, in addition to remaining focused on what they should be concerned about--that is, standards in the classroom.

One of the greatest threats to school sixth forms rests in Schedule 7, where the local skills council's powers to propose the closure of inadequate sixth forms are spelt out. A sixth form is considered inadequate if it is failing or likely to fail to give an acceptable standard of education or if it has a significant weakness in one or more areas. In a rural primary school, only a small number of students may be taking a subject. Is that determined to be a weakness? Do we know quite what will constitute a weakness?

Unlike under the School Standards and Framework Act in relation to schools, no procedures are set out to tackle problems and help turn the sixth forms around. Instead, if two inspection reports identify the sixth form as being inadequate, proposals for closure can go forward. It is important to note that not only may the inspections be carried out by persons other than Ofsted inspectors, but there is also no minimum period between inspections. That would give sixth forms no guaranteed timeframe within which to turn problems around. It goes even further. The Bill allows the first report to be counted retrospectively.

With the local skills council having such wide-ranging powers over 16 to 19 provision, it is important that sixth forms have representation on the national and local councils and are consulted properly on any changes to provision, particularly as they account for at least one-sixth of the £6 billion--or £5 billion, depending on which Minister one listens to--which is to be the LSC budget. The Bill raises so many issues that will need careful examination. Those include the powers for local education authorities to create new 16 to 19 maintained schools, which again will have an impact. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, introduced an amendment on the previous day in Committee about the creation of new schools impacting on existing provision in an area.

Despite attempts to assure those who are concerned about sixth forms, they face an uncertain future under the Bill. Their demise would be a great loss to many pupils. It would much reduce their choice of the type of

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educational establishment they wish to attend. These uncertainties are greatest in the rural areas of this country. In such areas it would be quite easy to exercise a subjective judgment that there was a weakness simply because in a rural secondary school one gets considerable fluctuations from year to another. Indeed, many schools are very innovative in how they work co-operatively together or with their local FE colleges to overcome some of the difficulties. In A-level classes in many rural schools both first and second year sixth-form studies will be taught. Such schools will resort to all kinds of innovations. But the power is there to make a subjective judgment that that constitutes a weakness and thereby could trigger the closure proposals. The Minister shakes her head, but it is important not just to give verbal assurances but to put something on the face of the Bill to give some assurance to those schools that that kind of judgment not only will not be made but cannot be made. I beg to move.

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