HC Deb 29 April 1999 vol 330 cc458-61
2. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

If he will make a statement about the inclusion of information about (a) average class sizes and (b) money spent per pupil in future published tables of test results at ages 11 and 14; and if he will publish such results and information for tests at age seven. [81516]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

I have been trying to work out from which wing of the Conservative party this question comes.

We currently have no plans to increase further the amount of statistical data and information published in performance tables. However, I should—under pressure, of course, from the hon. Gentleman—be prepared to publish details of the pupil-teacher ratios and the rise in the number of children being taught in classes of over 30 pupils in the last 10 years of the previous Government.

Dr. Lewis

May I reassure the Secretary of State that, like all my questions, this one comes from the mainstream of the Conservative party? Does he accept that there are three main probable causes of the inadequacy of primary school pupils turned out into secondary education—first, the inadequate sums being spent; secondly, there are too many children per class; and, thirdly, rotten teaching methods? Does he accept that, until we publish data on class sizes and amounts spent per pupil, it will be impossible to tell whether the first two causes are behind inadequate results at the primary level, or whether the cause is really, as I suspect, rotten teaching methods?

Mr. Blunkett

From that, I deduce that the question came from the absolute denial wing of the Conservative party. Yes, there was an £80 per pupil drop in spending under the Conservatives. Yes, there will be a £235 per pupil increase under this Government in their first term in office. Yes, there was a continuing worsening of the pupil-teacher ratio; yes, we have already reversed that, and, for the first time in 10 years, primary pupil-teacher ratios have improved. We have managed to get 130,000 infant children into classes of fewer than 30 in the first year that we embarked on the attempt. Yes, of course, rotten teaching methods make a difference—which is why we are always glad to receive the odd moment of support from the Conservative party for the literacy and numeracy strategies that they did not introduce.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

What does the Secretary of State say to the school that I visited last week, which because of the rigid implementation of the class size policy is having to turn away pupils whose parents want them educated there? Because funding is allocated per capita, the school is losing money too, and because it is losing money it will have to lose teaching assistants, so there will be fewer adults per class. Everybody is losing because of the rigid implementation of the policy. Many schools throughout the country are trapped in that way. What does the Secretary of State say to them?

Mr. Blunkett

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman visit schools among the majority that have discovered that with the investment that we have made already in the reduction of class sizes, there are 2,700 extra teachers and 600 extra classrooms. That has allowed us to accommodate a further 12,000 parental preferences for schools under admissions pressure such as the one that he has described. In other words, we are reducing the number of children in classes of more than 30 at the same time as we are expanding preference and increasing the number of classrooms and teachers. That is the exact reverse of what the Conservative Government achieved in their 18 years in power.

3. Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

If he will make a statement on the steps he is taking to improve standards of achievement in further and higher education. [81517]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. George Mudie)

The Government have shown by word and deed their determination to improve standards of achievement in both further and higher education. In further education, we established a standards fund of £35 million this year, and £80 million next year. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is developing new methods of ensuring rigorous and comparable standards in higher education.

Mr. Cawsey

I wish my hon. Friend well in his endeavours, and I am looking forward to his visit to my constituency tomorrow. Does he accept that the need to drive up standards in the post-16 sector should be met by adequate and fair funding? Is he aware that studies by the National Audit Office and others have shown that, in my area, for instance, John Leggott sixth form college, which enjoys a national reputation for the standards achieved by its comprehensive intake, has funding 30 per cent. lower than the sixth form of the Queen Elizabeth school in Gainsborough, which is a selective grammar school? Will he use his good offices to look into the figures and ensure that all schools in the post-16 sector get fair allocation of resources, to achieve the higher standards that he wants to put in place?

Mr. Mudie

I am indeed looking forward to my visit to sunny Scunny, as we call it in Yorkshire. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating John Leggott sixth form college, which has a deserved national reputation for its excellence. His remarks must be set against the November settlement announced by the Secretary of State, which put an additional £725 million into the further education sector. None the less, I am aware, as is the rest of the House, of the specific point that he made. We recognise that the system that we inherited from the previous Government has its inequalities, and that is one matter that may fall to be dealt with under the post-16 review.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

It is the first time I have heard Scunthorpe described as sunny Scunny, but I will take the Minister's word for it. The Liberal Democrats support the Government's attempts to drive up standards in further and higher education, but does the Minister accept that it is also important to meet the access targets? Does he also accept that the disastrous introduction of tuition fees has meant a decline in the number of applicants to higher education, including a 28 per cent. decrease in the number of mature applicants? Is it not time for the Government to abandon the Prime Minister's target of 500,000 extra students by the end of this Parliament?

Mr. Mudie

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman's figures. I shall give the House some interesting figures. In 1994, the number of applications for home undergraduate places was 2.3 million. In 1996, long before tuition fees, the number was down to 1.753 million. For 1998, the figure was 1.791 million. The 1997 figure was higher because the loans system gave mature students an opportunity to apply, and 1997 was an exceptional year compared to the trend for 1994–98. If the figure for 1997 is removed, the number of applications rose in 1998.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

Given that the public standing of universities, and Consequent league tables, tend to be based on research excellence and research funding—I do not wish to argue with that important focus—does my hon. Friend feel that the universities are striking the right balance between research reputation and high-quality teaching? Does he agree that we need to do far more to drive up teaching standards in our universities, in an age when more of our young people are going to university from a variety of backgrounds and tuition fees have to be paid?

Mr. Mudie

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have put an additional £1.4 billion into research, but we are aware of the need to keep a balance. As my original answer accepts, we are always keen to improve standards and we are aware of the need to work with the higher education sector to keep improving teaching standards.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I am delighted to hear that the Minister will visit John Leggott college, but I have to tell the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) that when I was last in Scunthorpe visiting the college it poured with rain, so the town may not live up to the Minister's advertisement for it.

In the context of the post-16 review, the Minister mentioned the great concern about the inequality of funding between different types of sixth form institution. Can he give a guarantee to school sixth forms that none of them will be closed as a result of the post-16 review against the wishes of local parents, teachers and education authorities?

Mr. Mudie

I shall certainly give that guarantee unequivocally. Sixth forms have an important part to play, alongside further education colleges and sixth form colleges. Anything in the post-16 review that did not build on sixth forms or, especially in the inner cities, failed to strengthen, improve and expand them would be strongly opposed by the Government.

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