HC Deb 06 February 1979 vol 962 cc196-8
14. Mr. Banks

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she is satisfied that the current syllabus of teaching in schools prepares pupils adequately for the learning of a skill in adult life.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

There is no national syllabus of teaching in schools, but the importance of preparing pupils for working life is being increasingly recognised. The Green Paper "Education in Schools" stressed the importance of the basic skills of numeracy and literacy, and authorities have been asked in my Department's subsequent circular 14/77 to report on steps taken to promote these. Emphasis is being placed on school—industry liaison and curricular developments in mathematics and science. I have recently appointed a committee of inquiry under Dr. Cockcroft into the teaching of mathematics in schools.

Mr. Banks

Does the Secretary of State agree that the trend under this Government reveals a growing number of unfilled vacancies for skilled motor mechanics and engineers, for example, even when there are about 1½ million unemployed? Does she agree that the best foundation for learning, or wanting to learn a skill, is the quality of the teaching? What steps will she take to ensure that teaching is improved?

Mrs. Williams

I cannot agree. There has been a dramatic increase in the last three years in the number of young people seeking courses in engineering and technology in higher education. This has been the most dramatic increase for many years.

I believe strongly that we must try to move forward on the basis of the proposals made by some of the training boards for starting vocational courses in the last two years at school. I hope that that will lead to full-time further education for youngsters studying for qualifications in skills.

Miss Maynard

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we should be trying to help all pupils to develop their potential to the full and not training them to pass examinations, to run a complicated society or to obtain knowledge about a skill? Does she agree that our job is to give them the opportunity to develop their potential? Is not that what education should he about?

Mrs. Williams

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. She may know that in our Green Paper we said clearly that children should be taught what it is to live in an industrial society, in a democracy and in a multi-racial society. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that many boys and girls are motivated in the last year or so of schooling by the opportunity to study vocational work and skills. We certainly do not wish to stand in the way of their having the opportunity to do that.

Sir William Elliott

Does the right hon. Lady appreciate that there are those of us in the House from such areas as mine, the Northern area, who for years have said that there is, masking a high unemployment rate, a great shortage of skill? In consequence, we have been advocating that the last two years of the school curriculum should be much more geared to industrial requirements and skills.

Mrs. Williams

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said. I should not wish to gear the last two years only to industrial requirements. However, boys and girls should have the opportunity to start on a process that leads to qualifications for skills in those years if they wish to do so. One of the aims of setting up the inquiry into mathematics, to which I referred in answer to the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), was precisely that mathematics should be devoted to the mathematics of everyday industrial life as well as to the more abstract requirements that are demanded, for example, by A-level courses.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a good basic education of broad character in the earlier years is one of the finest preparations for future life? Does she agree that we must guard against too early specialisation and against using education to fill slots in unemployment on a narrow basis, which could be interpreted as the view of some hon. Members?

Mrs. Williams

My hon. Friend is right, in the sense that a broad education is much the best thing that we can give children in a rapidly changing technological society. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking a supplementary question that enables me further to clarify my argument. Where boys and girls in their last year at school would benefit from some secondment to, for example, a further education college, the schools and colleges should work together to make that possible. As we all know, there are boys and girls of great ability who find the more academic type of course not attractive to them.