HC Deb 15 June 1993 vol 226 cc726-7
8. Sir Michael Neubert

To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on staying-on rates at 16 years.

Mr. Boswell

I greatly welcome the increase in the participation rate of 16-year-olds in schools and colleges —up to 80 per cent. in the current year in England, compared with 56 per cent. in 1979–80. Our expenditure plans for further education will give a further substantial boost to participation, lifting us towards the top of the international league table in staying-on rates for 16 to l9-year-olds within the next three years.

Sir Michael Neubert

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a result of this welcome rapid and long-overdue increase in the number of 16-year-olds in Havering staying on at school, the new sixth form college is short of full capacity? In the circumstances, would not it be good sense to allow the grant-maintained Frances Bardsley girls' school in my constituency to keep its sixth form and, at the same time, maintain diversity of parental choice, including the opportunity of single-sex education for girls up to the age of 18?

Mr. Boswell

I can confirm that all Ministers in my Department are interested in the great themes of diversity, choice and quality in the provision of education in schools and colleges just as much after the age of 16 as before the compulsory leaving age. My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on the specific set of proposals concerning the Frances Bardsley school, but I will ensure that these are carefully considered by my right hon. Friend. Of course, any representations made by my hon. Friend, or by any other hon. Member or interested party, will be considered most closely.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

Is not the sight of the Minister preening himself while firmly burying his head in the ground intriguing? Why does he not address the facts? According to the Audit Commission, between 30 and 40 per cent. of 16-year-olds who entered further education courses this year will not succeed and fewer than two in five of our 18-year-olds are still in education. By any measure, Britain lags behind the rest of the industrialised world. What does the Minister intend to do about it?

Mr. Boswell

I might start by giving the hon. Gentleman some basic knowledge of anatomy. It would be quite difficult for even the highly skilled team on this Bench to preen themselves while burying their heads in the sand. However, I shall leave aside that minor infelicity and deal with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I have said that we are by no means happy with the level of drop-out from further education or other post-16 provision or with the educational standards of those involved in that process. We are very grateful to those, including the adult literacy and basic skills unit, who have helped to expose the deficiencies. We are anxious to repair those deficiencies, just as we are tackling the staying-on rate, to which I have referred. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support our proposals for the national curriculum and the testing regime, as the deficiencies should be tackled at source and not left to the stage of post-16 provision.

Mr. Devlin

Is not it the case that, hand in hand with the increased staying-on rate at age 16 goes the 35 per cent. increase in the number of students attaining a first degree in the past 10 years? Is not that a truly tremendous achievement, brought about by the Government and something which deserves praise at every turn?

Mr. Boswell

My hon. Friend is entirely right; it is a great achievement and deserves praise, although it rarely gets it from the Opposition.