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COMMONS EDUCATION QUESTIONS: 22 OCTOBER 1998

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School Transport ...
School Transport

George Turner (North-West Norfolk): What representations he has received on arrangements governing travel from home to school following publication of the Government's White Paper on the future of transport. [55093]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Charles Clarke): We have received more than 100 letters from members of the public as a result of the White Paper, and we welcome people's views on how its aims can be put into practice. On 13 October, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport, my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health and I hosted the first meeting of the school travel advisory group, which was attended by a wide variety of interested organisations. The group will be making recommendations.

Dr Turner: As a fellow Norfolk Member of Parliament, I am particularly pleased to give my hon. Friend a warm welcome to his new role at the Dispatch Box. Will he acknowledge the many problems, especially in rural counties such as Norfolk, that arise from school transport? As a new member of the ministerial team, will he take a fresh look at some old issues?

Dr Turner: In doing so, will he consider the clear need for integration between the variety of methods of transport? For example, safe walking and safe cycling need to be examined with bussing to school. Moreover, will he use the Government initiative on raising standards--action zones--as a way forward in experimentation and innovation, so that new partnerships can produce better solutions for the next millennium?

Mr Clarke: I thank my hon. Friend. I am always a little too quick out of the traps. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaigning on this issue. He is right to say that, in Norfolk and rural counties throughout the country, this is a major issue. A total of£380 million a year is spent by local education authorities on school transport. We are prepared to look afresh at those issues. That is why we had the meeting on 13 October to which I referred. It was a joint meeting between the Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, of Health and for Education and Employment. We believe that the publication of the Government's White Paper on integrated transport strategy gives us a basis for addressing those issues in a proper way. In that context, we are prepared to look at experimental schemes to investigate ways in which we might approach the issue in particular localities.

Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): From Her Majesty's Opposition Benches, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as a junior Minister. I have seen him around Parliament for many years, although only latterly as a Member. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is unjust that, although free school transport is available, not all pupils in secondary education are entitled to it as of right? I am referring particularly to the decision of some local education authorities--I am thinking about one that is Labour controlled--not to allow sixth-formers in secondary schools in my constituency and throughout the county of Cheshire to take advantage of free school transport. Will the Minister look at that? Does he not think that the situation is unfair?

Mr Clarke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those words of congratulation. I do not think that the situation is unfair, but I acknowledge that the current legislative framework, which was established in 1944 and which has not been amended substantially since then, is very much out of time. That is why we need to look at all the issues across the whole range in the context of an integrated transport strategy. The group I mentioned earlier is looking at each of the issues carefully and will take account of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. It is extremely important to emphasise that the way to solve this problem is through integrated transport strategies of the type that the Government are pioneering and that we hope will deliver results in the future.

LEAs (Capital Projects)

5. Peter Pike (Burnley): What additional funding in constant value terms is now available to local education authorities for capital projects in 1998-99. [55094]

The Minister for School Standards (Estelle Morris): In 1998-99, an additional£347 million has been made available to local education authorities for capital projects. That is over and above previous plans. Some£257 million pounds has been made available through the new deal for schools programme; the remaining£90 million was announced by the Chancellor in his November 1997 Budget to reduce infant class sizes, eliminate the need for outside toilets and improve energy efficiency in schools.

Mr Pike: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to achieving good school premises and to spending on them the money that is necessary after 18 years of neglect and financial starvation for local education authorities and schools? Will she confirm that the Government recognise in the comprehensive spending review and the doubling of money available over the next five years that the condition of school premises plays a vital part in the education of our children?

Ms Morris: I am delighted to do that. My hon. Friend has been assiduous in campaigning for capital resources for schools in his constituency. He will be delighted that his local authority has received£4 million in new deal for schools money -£2 million more than in the last full year of the Tory Government. Our children have a right to be educated in schools that are decent and fit for learning and our teachers have a right to work in that sort of environment. We started from an incredibly low base given the disastrous approach of the previous Government to the quality of our school buildings. However, we have begun to turn that around and we shall continue to do so in the rest of this Parliament.

Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): A school in my constituency may benefit from private capital being invested to improve its facilities if the Minister's previous answer were to be clarified. Does the Minister welcome the involvement of private sector firms, which may make a profit, in managing schools that need to be turned around? Does she agree that it would be discriminatory and unfounded to disallow such profit-making organisations from playing a part in improving standards in our schools? Does she agree that to deny them the right to play such a part would mean denying the schools the opportunity to make use of a range of talents and resources that they may need to help them?

Ms Morris: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to thank me for the extra£2 million NDS funding that his local authority has received. Like the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), he preferred to try to score political points instead of considering the needs of children. If Surrey proposes plans to the Department, we shall consider them, as we have said that we shall, and as we have an obligation to do. I must say that, if the hon. Gentleman and his political colleagues in Surrey had paid half as much attention and given half as much passion to stopping their schools failing, we should not be in this position.

Common Funding Methodology

6. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What plans he has to establish a common funding methodology for 16 to 19-year-old students. [55095]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (George Mudie): None, but we are alive to the concerns of the issue and will watch closely the effects of three factors: first, the use that local education authorities make of the greater freedoms provided by the fair funding regulations; secondly, the effect of the extra money--£100 million this year and£255 million next year--that we have put into the further education sector; and, thirdly, how well and quickly the collaborative protocol agreed between the further education sector, the LEAs and the TEC National Council has an effect.

Mr Chaytor: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and add my congratulations on his appointment to the Front Bench. Will he meet representatives of the college sector to discuss the issue further? When will the latest version of the funding costs comparison report be published?

Mr Mudie: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the ten-minute Bill that he introduced yesterday on the subject. The document will be published as soon as possible and certainly this year. I am happy to meet him and any of his colleagues on any occasion to discuss the matter.

Tim Boswell (Daventry): Will the Minister with responsibility for lifelong learning accept congratulations from the Opposition on his appointment to an important position? Does he accept that the funding problem is by no means new and that successive Ministers, including myself, have wrestled with it and tried to mitigate the consequences? In the real world, the problems are caused not so much by the different funding streams or the fact that further education has traditionally been funded at the margin and schools have been funded on an average cost basis, but by the danger of destabilising sixth-form provision. Having said that, will the Minister accept that we welcome the attempts to bring the various parties together? Anything that he can do to reduce the problems will be welcome.

Mr Mudie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. The funding problem is difficult and we all wrestle with it. I do not wish to be political, but the problem was made worse by the era of competition between the sectors that was introduced by the previous Government and by the cuts that the further education sector experienced. Now that we have increased the money for further education, we might have a better atmosphere in which to work towards a solution.

Literacy Summer Schools

Literacy Schools

7. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What assessment he has made of the value of the 1998 literacy summer schools; and if he will make a statement. [55096]

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