Education secretary Charles Clarke defended the studies into regional pay announced by chancellor Gordon Brown in his Budget speech.
But during the continuing debate on the Budget, Mr Clarke preferred to emphasis his aim of establishing closer links between employers and education to tackle the UK skills shortage. Most opposition MPs claimed that because of the government's centralising policies and its new local authority funding formula which took little or no account of the real costs of employing staff, council tax was rocketing and some schools, in particular, were facing a financial crisis which threatened redundancies.
Mr Clarke said it was important that children received a much earlier understanding of the world of work. The government rejected the idea that held by some people in education that vocational education was for the less academically gifted. It was in the process of implementing the proposals of the Howard Davies review of enterprise and education and in the next few days would announce how the pilots would provide pupils with five days of enterprise experience. The pilots would begin in September this year and cover about 250 secondary schools.
The chancellor had announced the appointment of enterprise advisers to work with 1,000 secondary schools from September 2003. In addition, there had been a substantial increase in the numbers on modern apprenticeships, said Mr Clarke, and it was important that more than 25 per cent of 22-year-olds should have entered an apprenticeship by 2004. The government estimated that 320,000 young people would participate by 2006.
The Department for Education and Skills was working closely with the department of trade and Industry, and would publish a white paper on skills in June. Two central themes underlay the approach: the establishment and development of sector skills councils, bringing together major employers and educators for each major sector; and driving the commitment to skills at all levels throughout life.
Mr Clarke added: 'The regional development agencies and local learning and skills council pilots, which have already started in the north-east, north-west, south-east and east of England, are trying to pool budgets for regional development agencies and training in those areas. All those initiatives focus on trying to get employers to commit themselves properly to training.'
Adam Price, Plaid Cymru MP for East Carmathen and Dinefwr, asked the education secretary to allay his constituents' fears that teachers in Wales, the north of England and Scotland would not be paid any less than teachers in the south of England.
Mr Clarke said the education system in Wales is devolved. Mr Price might want his friends in the assembly to have something to say about the issue.
But, retorted the MP, pay is not devolved.
The education secretary replied: 'I am well aware that pay is not devolved, but education is. The fact is that we already have variable pay across the United Kingdom for public servants and for teachers.
'In London, the teachers' pay review body, with the support of the government, recently gave a significantly higher settlement to teachers in inner London - quite rightly, in my opinion - because of the clearly different cost of living here. That debate has to happen.'
Shadow education secretary Damian Green commented: 'If the government were really serious about broadening skills, they would have done more for hard-pressed further education colleges. Further education offers the best opportunity for all our citizens to reach what we consider to be the acceptable minimum level of skills.
'Of course colleges must work with business; many do so already, with much success; it beggars belief, however, that the taster for this summer's skills strategy did not even mention colleges. That shows how low FE colleges come in t he government's pecking order.'
Mr Green said the national insurance increase for teachers would costs schools £170m this year, not to mention money it would take from colleges, universities, non-teaching staff and local education authorities. In addition, there had been an increase in employers' contributions to the teachers' pension fund and 'a monstrously unfair local government settlement'.
He continued: 'The secretary of state's former employer, Neil Kinnock [Mr Clarke headed the then Labour leader's private office] had his finest hour when he talked about his disgust at a Labour council sending taxis around Liverpool to make council workers redundant. What an irony that we now have a labour government sending redundancy notices around the whole country to teachers and teaching assistants.
'Things can only get worse. The local government settlement will bite over three years, getting tougher by the year, which threatens the so-called historic work load agreement of 15 January. Already, the National Union of Teachers has refused to sign it, but now, because of the funding crisis precipitated by this government and this chancellor, the National Association of Head Teachers is threatening to pull out as well.'
Mr Green the process of centralisation had gone much too far, and it had wrecked the government's policy of investment and reform. 'The government have increased spending, yet schools face funding cuts and students will pay higher fees to universities that will be under ever more government control. More money is coming from the taxpayer, yet everyone in education feels worse off,' he added.
Liberal Democrat spokesman Phil Willis said schools were genuinely expecting - as they had for the past two years - for the chancellor to demonstrate some largesse by giving them direct grants He commented: 'In 2002 he announced a boost in funding to improve school buildings and pupil behaviour worth £204m. In 2001, the boost was worth £800m, an average of £10,000 extra per school i n direct revenue grants. Of course, that was an election year.'
This year, of all years, schools could have done with a similar boost. Salary and pension increases - with 40 per cent of the upper pay scale not funded - coupled with the national insurance increases had hit school budgets. The chancellor could have used his Budget to throw those schools a lifeline, but he chose to do nothing, added Mr Willis.
Hansard 11 Apr 2003: Column 508 - 587