HC Deb 27 March 1996 vol 274 cc1031-42 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Last year, I invited Sir Ron Dearing to review the framework of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds and to advise on ways to strengthen it. Sir Ron has completed that review and has now reported to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. His report is published today, and copies are available in the Vote Office. I am very grateful to Sir Ron and his team for their work.

We can be in no doubt about the importance of this report. To compete internationally, Britain needs a highly motivated, well-educated, well-trained and adaptable work force. We have set very demanding targets for the improvement of education and training and the achievement of qualifications by young people and adults. They are targets that we must meet or exceed to keep pace with our competitors.

Not long ago, most young people left education or training as soon as they could. Now, nearly nine out of 10 16-year-olds stay on, and they do better than ever before. More young people are getting good GCE A-levels. The new general national vocational qualifications are fast becoming recognised as a worthy alternative route. National vocational qualifications are well established and valued by employers, and their take-up is growing. There remains much to do, however. That is why I asked Sir Ron to take a long look at the qualifications framework, and to make proposals to improve it.

The recent report of the Select Committee on Education made it clear that the period between 16 and 19 is a crucial phase of education and training. It is a time when many young people build on earlier success in school to pass through gateways to employment or higher education. For others, it is a second chance to develop the skills and knowledge they need to make a good start in life.

The needs and aptitudes of young people and adult learners are diverse. Our system of education and training and the qualifications must therefore be responsive, flexible and innovative. Qualifications must also be rigorous and of the highest quality and standards. That is the task that we asked Sir Ron to undertake, and I am delighted to be able to welcome his report as a major step forward.

Sir Ron has conducted a thorough and far-reaching review, and consulted widely. He has given many pointers for further progress. Some proposals can be carried forward immediately; others need further work by qualifications bodies and other bodies before they can be given full effect.

To that end, I am writing today to the chairmen of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications setting out the Government's views on the proposals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will take appropriate action for the relevant bodies in Wales and Northern Ireland.

I should like to highlight the most important measures that the Government propose in response to Sir Ron's review. We support the proposals to strengthen the existing framework of qualifications and to make it clearer and more accessible, by building on the high-quality qualifications that already exist and by introducing common national certificates. I also welcome the proposal to introduce a demanding new national diploma to encourage greater breadth of achievement.

SCAA and the NCVQ have already established a joint committee to take those proposals forward. The aim is to have the new framework in place, and to begin awarding new certificates, in September 1997. Like Sir Ron, as changes are made, I recognise the need to take fully into account the needs of employers and of adults who also use the qualifications.

We welcome the proposals further to strengthen the rigour and standards of A-level examinations and create a new-style AS-level. No one should be in any doubt about the Government's determination to ensure that our qualifications remain of the highest quality. I am asking the regulatory bodies to carry forward Sir Ron's recommendations, and to put detailed proposals to me later this year.

We welcome the proposals for the reform and strengthening of training for young people in England and Wales by the creation of a new system of national traineeships, following the successful introduction of modern apprenticeships. There will also be development of training arrangements for those young people who reach the age of 16 not yet ready for, or clear about, their next steps in learning throughout life.

My Department will shortly consult employers, the education sector and other interested parties on the detail of the new arrangements, which we intend to implement on a phased basis from September 1997. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will consult as appropriate for Wales.

If young people are to make the most of the opportunities that Sir Ron's proposed framework envisages from age 16, there are implications for the learning that takes place before that age. He has therefore recommended the introduction of the national record of achievement to young people before the age of 14, and consideration of new initiatives to provide new opportunities for 14 to 16-year-olds.

I welcome those approaches and will publish a consultation document next month that will invite views on those and other ways of making more effective use of work-related learning to help raise attainment among young people.

A vital part of Sir Ron's report concerns the key skills that are necessary for work and lifetime learning, particularly literacy, numeracy and information technology. Those skills are needed at increasingly high levels for the work force of tomorrow. The proposals will create opportunities to develop them, and incentives to do so, for all 16 to 19-year-olds pursuing education and training. We are asking the qualifications bodies to make detailed proposals to adjust existing qualifications and develop new ones. We shall consider, in partnership with employer organisations and the qualifications bodies, how best to take forward Sir Ron's wider proposals.

The report highlights the central importance of careers education and impartial guidance about the full range of education, training and employment opportunities. Our reforms of the careers service are designed to provide more effective guidance.

Sir Ron has taken into account, and built upon, two important reviews of vocational qualifications that overlapped with his review. He has endorsed the proposals of the review led by Dr. John Capey to make GNVQ assessment and grading more rigorous and manageable. Those qualifications are highly motivating for students, but there must be clear, consistent, national standards through a simplified assessment regime that focuses on the quality of students' work.

Sir Ron has also endorsed the findings of the review of NVQs by Gordon Beaumont. That made recommendations to make NVQs more rigorous, to reduce the jargon that has grown up in them, and to increase the range of assessment methods used. I am today writing to the chairman of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications asking him to take forward action to improve GNVQs and NVQs in line with the recommendations of both reviews.

Finally, Sir Ron proposes that we should follow the successful merger of the Education and Employment Departments by bringing together the work on academic and vocational qualifications of SCAA and the NCVQ. I think that there is a strong case for a single body having responsibility for qualifications and also curriculum matters, but I want to be sure that the worlds of employment and education support it as the best way forward. I will consult widely on that part of the proposals in the next few months, before taking a final decision. My right hon. Friends will be conducting separate consultations on matters relevant to Wales and to Northern Ireland.

While we have made great strides in recent years in improving education and training for young people, we must continue to improve. To do that, we need a range of rigorous and high-quality qualifications. Only in that way can we build a well-educated and highly skilled adult population for the 21st century. Our international competitiveness and the future prosperity of today's young people depend crucially on our success in educating and training them to the highest level they can reach. Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for a reformed framework of qualifications set a powerful agenda for change. I thank him, and I accept the challenge of that agenda.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

I endorse the Secretary of State's remarks, and offer our thanks and appreciation to Sir Ron Dearing for the work that he has done in producing the report. We welcome the broad thrust of the report and the Secretary of State's statement this afternoon, which echo the principles and the programme that we laid out in our document only a week ago. [Interruption.]

However, was Sir Ron not precluded from examining the key issues of structure and funding within which his proposals must be viewed? Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he was working within a framework of market competition that sets school against school and sixth form against college? Instead of receiving advice about their best route, young people are encouraged to stay on a particular route based on the existing framework.

The destructive market approach—which sets institution against institution and college against college, and which sees the Further Eduction Funding Council, local education authorities and training and enterprise councils at odds with each other—is an unsatisfactory and an unacceptable way forward.

Is it not deeply complacent for the Secretary of State to parade the notion this afternoon that the staying-on rates at age 16 are satisfactory, when last year the number of students in full-time education fell? [Interruption.] Only 59 per cent. of 17-year-olds are in full-time education in the United Kingdom, compared with an average of more than 80 per cent. in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. [Interruption.] At age 18, the figure falls to 38 per cent. The number of students receiving advanced qualifications in this country is half that in Germany and Japan.

Is it not time to set aside the deep complacency—which manifests itself in the heckling of Conservative Members—and come together to introduce a programme of change that will transform this country's future knowledge and skills base?

How can the Secretary of State commend her changes to the careers service when they have led to fragmentation and to privatisation? Some 30 per cent. of students taking A-levels drop out, and the drop-out rate in the vocational field is also extremely high. Sir Ron's proposals for traineeships point clearly to the total failure of the Government's youth training scheme, which for years we said was unsatisfactory.

This afternoon, the Secretary of State had the cheek to compare it with the modern apprenticeship scheme, which is obviously completely different, with differing aspirations and a different level of achievement. The low status and the narrow base of the YTS is rightly condemned in Sir Ron's report.

We commend the emphasis by Sir Ron Dearing's report and by the Secretary of State's statement on rigour and quality. However, does the Secretary of State agree with me that it is time to ensure—through a programme of information, education and advice—that employers and those in the education service are clear that the vocational route can offer the same rigour and the same quality as the academic route?

Does she agree that underpinning those routes by the core skills, and by extending and developing the A-level route, is a key way forward in terms of breaking down the artificial barriers, the demarcation lines, that have bedevilled this country, and have led to only 27 per cent. of our adults having a vocational qualification, compared with two thirds of the population in Germany, for example?

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that it is time to plan so that we can avoid the conflict between vocational and academic skills, and draw them together into a common route that will allow this nation to go forward using the real talents and skills of all our people? Would that not set aside the prejudice that has existed for far too long against those who dare to soil their hands by being engaged in industry and commerce? [Interruption.] It is no good Government Members heckling me, because if it was not true, we would not be in the position that we are in today, and the Deputy Prime Minister would not have undertaken a skills audit and admitted that the nation is in the plight it is in.

Finally, does the Secretary of State agree with me that it is unfortunate that there is any delay in tackling the issue of how to overcome disaffection and alienation in the 14-to-16 age group? We commend the way in which she is dealing with the proposals on the national record of achievement, but it is time to have common cause between the parties in overcoming the alienation and the difficulty that so many young people have in relating to the current curriculum. Is it not time to give young people hope—hope of a job, hope of learning, hope of being trained, and hope of having a future where they can earn and deliver for their families what we took for granted in generations gone by?

Mrs. Shephard

If the hon. Gentleman wanted a common cause, he has not gone the right way about it, in the extraordinary way that he has sought to present the successes of the education policy over the past 16 years or so. Nevertheless, I thank him for his guarded welcome in so far as he has given it. As far as funding is concerned, clearly he will be aware that we are now spending a record amount on education. He will also be aware that there is reference in the report to extra sums for developing GNVQs and the careers service.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman confirm the Labour party's position: that it is against healthy competition—which we believe drives up standards between institutions. It is for that reason, of course, that we have introduced an independent and excellent education and guidance service. It will give independent advice to young people, so that they can choose the appropriate route for themselves.

In relation to staying-on rates, the hon. Gentleman ignored the fact that the Government have been congratulated by the OECD on the improvement in staying-on rates: 90 per cent. of 16-year-olds, 80 per cent. of 17-year-olds and 60 per cent. of 18-year-olds are in full-time education or training. However, we accept that more needs to be done—and that is why we are having the report. Indeed, approximately 83 per cent. of people in our work force have qualifications.

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman seeks to denigrate youth training, when there are excellent outcomes for young people who complete the course. Where we need to take care—this is an issue that is addressed by the report—is on the question of those who drop out of youth training, just as those who drop out of A-levels and out of GNVQs will have their interests addressed by the detail of the report.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of core skills—or key skills, as Sir Ron calls them. This concern has routinely been expressed by employers and by universities. The proposals in the report, which we shall accept, tackle those questions by introducing literacy, numeracy, IT and other skills at every level in the qualifications network. I wish that the hon. Gentleman had given the Government some credit for developing GNVQs and NVQs. GNVQs are very motivating and they are rigorous and demanding, but more needs to be done. That is why I have said specifically that we intend to accept the proposals from Dr. Capey, backed by £30 million to ensure that those reforms of GNVQs are in place.

The vocational route is, of course, extremely important, but what matters in both academic and vocational routes is the question of standards and rigour. That is what this report underlines.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. May we now have brisk exchanges—questions and responses?

Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby)

May I say how much I welcome Sir Ron's report today? It echoes many of the recommendations and considerations that the former Education Select Committee gave to the issue, as my right hon. Friend said in her statement. When she writes to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and to the NCVQ to attempt to broker this marriage, will she stress again, as she has just done, the question of rigour and the absolute need for acceptance by all concerned—the teachers, employers, parents and pupils themselves—of the equivalence between the vocational route and the academic route? Without that acceptance, nothing that is proposed will work.

Mrs. Shephard

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome, which is especially valuable given the distinguished position that he holds as Chairman of the Select Committee on Education. I certainly intend to write to the chairmen to emphasise the importance of rigour. When my hon. Friend has had time to absorb the report, I am sure that he will be glad to discover that the equivalences between the different routes will be given clearly on the backs of the proposed certificates. That will help young people, their parents and teachers, and, above all, employers and admissions tutors.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I too welcome Sir Ron Dearing's proposals and the Secretary of State's ready acceptance of many of them. I especially welcome proposals that will break down the barriers between academic and vocational courses and qualifications, because they reflect proposals made by Liberal Democrats as long ago as 1992.

In response to the Secretary of State's answer to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), does she agree that—notwithstanding existing levels of expenditure—there will be a need for increased expenditure if the proposals are to be successful in raising levels of achievement? Does she also accept that more needs to be done about YTS than merely re-badging and relaunching a scheme in which currently only about 50 per cent. of those on the scheme get any qualification?

Mrs. Shephard

I note that many have claimed authorship of these ideas. It is a pity that those people did not take the opportunity to support the Government in divisions and debates during the past 16 years.

On the question of extra resources, I might have expected that request from the hon. Gentleman. I have already explained that there will be some extra resources to ensure that GNVQs become fully rigorous. Otherwise, I see no need for vast extra resources. We need to re-target and make the current framework more coherent and the qualifications more rigorous. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not have had time yet to consider the proposals for national traineeships, but he will find that his anxieties are fully met in the proposals we have set down.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the saying that success has many fathers? We have seen some of the fathers in the Chamber this afternoon.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will disregard the entirely predictable and carping criticism that we have heard from Opposition Members. The overwhelming majority of the nation's parents, students and teachers will warmly welcome this review. It will do much good. I especially liked the reference to A-levels and NVQs. The golden thread that runs through the review is the intention to improve quality in standards and to increase rigour. That all augurs well for further education.

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend is quite correct. The motif running through the entire report is an increased requirement that the system deliver rigorous standards.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

I too welcome most of Ron Dearing's proposals, and congratulate him on them. I particularly endorse the suggested new national award. The Select Committee, of which I am a member, suggested that some months ago, and I am glad that Sir Ron has taken it up.

There has always been a considerable divide in status between vocational and academic qualifications. Is the right hon. Lady satisfied with the Dearing suggestion that equal status for the two can be achieved?

Mrs. Shephard

The pathways and their destinations are equal but different. The best way to achieve parity of esteem has to be an insistence on the rigour of the vocational route, as the report proposes.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement, especially on her emphasis on quality, standards, rigour and discipline. All four are very important. Is it her view that the proposals in Sir Ron Dearing's review will provide, for traditional and high-tech manufacturing industry and the wealth-creating industries of the United Kingdom, the qualified, motivated young people who are so desperately neccessary for future economic progress?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend's interest in manufacturing industry is well known. I believe that he will take great comfort from the sections of the report devoted to improvements in standards and rigour in A-levels, and to stretching the most able students. The proposals for mathematics and science may also please him; there are proposed special papers and additional mathematics, and a whole range of measures which I know will be welcomed by my hon. Friend and by the manufacturing industries that he represents so frequently and so ably in this Chamber.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is there not a danger of this country becoming besotted with the idea of examinations for all different groups of people? In many walks of life, the people who put out fires, those who save lives, and many others who do essential jobs do not get A-levels. Someone can become a Member of Parliament—for what it is worth—without passing any of these high-falutin' exams. Some can even become Prime Minister without a barrel-load of A-levels. People can win Hollywood Oscars without all these exams. Or they can finish up like the nobs opposite—the elitists who send their kids to Eton to be addressed by Vinny Jones. So much for examinations!

Mrs. Shephard

I am not sure what qualifications the hon. Gentleman has. I suppose he would like to say that he was well formed in the university of life—although I think that he has some qualifications hidden away. I thank him for his graceful compliment to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister; I shall convey it to him.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, and endorse the importance of rigour in exporting British education. May I, however, draw to her attention yet again the minority of young people with special learning difficulties who find it difficult to compete in the present structure? There are already signs that the amount of money paid out by TECs for these contracts in 1996–97 is being reduced, even though the money going to the TECs is being maintained. I know how hard Ministers in the Department have worked on this, but it is still a matter of enormous concern.

Mrs. Shephard

I know that my hon. Friend has a special interest in these areas. I refer him to the relevant section of the report, which includes excellent and practical proposals on helping those with special educational needs; and on those who have under-achieved and who need leaning on so that they can get on the qualifications ladder. I feel that my hon. Friend, who has a special concern for this subject, will be encouraged by that part of the report.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

How many youngsters currently in the 16-to-19 age group do not have the job, education or training that they have been promised by the Government for years, coupled with the youngsters between the ages of 14 and 16 who are now dropping out of school?

Does the Secretary of State agree that tens of thousands of young people throughout the country are becoming a growing army of alienated and disaffected youngsters, many of whom are drifting into crime, prostitution and drug dealing, and are wasting their lives? What is being done to give those youngsters some hope, some purpose, some idea why it is worth bothering to pursue the plans that she outlined this afternoon? What are all the agencies that are involved in this sphere doing proactively to try to encourage young people to come forward to benefit from some of the schemes to which she referred?

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the youth training guarantee, which seeks to deal with and offer, through training, help to young people who are not in education or a job. I also announced that we shall consult next month on proposals for 14 to 16-year-olds, and bring the workplace nearer to the classroom. The hon. Gentleman is right—indeed, this matter is covered in the report—that there is a wastage of under-achievers, of young people who are demotivated.

The key must be good teaching and the national curriculum. There is no question about that. The proposals for 14 to 16-year-olds, plus the entry arrangements that are described in the report, which will bring together some of the agencies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, should do a great deal to reduce that regrettable wastage.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

Will my right hon. Friend accept—from someone who spent 30 years in teaching—my congratulations on her repeated use of the words "rigour" and "rigorous"? Will she assure us this afternoon that those words, in addition to applying to vocational training and academic skills for examination, will also apply immediately and effectively to the key skills of mathematics and English, on which everything else depends?

Mrs. Shephard

I can reassure my hon. Friend. I have already described what is proposed in terms of core skills. If my hon. Friend looks at the proposals for mathematics, he will be greatly encouraged, and I hope enthused.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I particularly welcome the part of Sir Ron Dearing's report that refers to careers guidance, but was rather puzzled by the Secretary of State's reference to careers guidance and her use of the word "rigour". Can she assure us, despite the dogmatic way in which she has tried to privatise the careers service around the country, tumbling it into turmoil across England and Wales, that there will be consistency in the careers service, and that the rigour and quality that our young people deserve will be assured?

Mrs. Shephard

There will be greater consistency as a result of the new arrangements than there has ever been before, with free-standing careers services across the country free to develop services in the way in which they wish. There will be higher uniform specifications. I truly believe that the standard of service will improve.

Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy)

I compliment my right hon. Friend on commissioning, as well as Sir Ron Dearing on producing, this excellent report, in particular the emphasis that is given to core skills as well as standards, because it is only thereby that qualifications will achieve parity of esteem. In particular, I welcome the extension of the national record of achievement. Does she agree that that is one means whereby young people can be encouraged to have pride in their achievement?

Mrs. Shephard

The national record of achievement has indeed been fairly well used by schools, but we want to extend its use so that it will encourage lifetime learning, and therefore it needs a proper relaunch. It needs to be made more specific. That is what is proposed in the report.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, for many young people who were given to understand that this was what they must do, because A-level was the gold standard, it has been an educationally unrewarding experience to pursue perhaps one or two A-levels to a mediocre standard? For far too many young people, the narrowing of their intellectual horizons at the age of 16 that A-levels have meant has been false gold.

Mrs. Shephard

Certainly the number of dropouts from A-level courses is highly regrettable. It is very wasteful in terms of the young person concerned, the school and resources overall. The hon. Gentleman will be encouraged by the requirements of the new national diploma, which are two A-levels or a GNVQ as well as the study of four subject areas and the obtaining of core skills. That surely represents a practical broadening of education, retaining the rigour and standards of A-level and GNVQ, without destabilising the whole system.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Everyone who is concerned about standards will have cause to be grateful to Sir Ron Dearing and my right hon. Friend. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that one of the crucial tests of the success of the reforms will be whether undergraduates are able to master the written and spoken English language? There is great concern about that.

Mrs. Shephard

As always, my hon. Friend makes a telling point. As he will know, we have proposed a return to the separate recording of spoken English in GCSEs. Specific proposals for mathematics make clear our intention to introduce separate recording of skills in calculation, estimation and statistics. That, I think, will be a great help. The report contains a good deal about the improvement of standards in those basic skills at every level; it is a very important component, about which I am enormously enthusiastic.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)

I welcome the Dearing report. May I draw the Secretary of State's attention to Sir Ron's criticism of the youth training scheme? Does she accept that criticism? If she does, is she prepared to replace the scheme with a scheme that gives our young people high-quality training and access to modern apprenticeships that will enable them to find secure full-time employment?

Mrs. Shephard

I have already spoken about youth training. It should not be forgotten that 71 per cent. of those who complete their courses achieve qualifications or jobs. That is not to be sneered at. The report, however, proposes a system of national traineeships, entry to which will require some form of qualification. A number of other reforms are proposed, which I would expect to find favour with the hon. Gentleman if he is really concerned about this age group.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I warmly welcome the step forward that the report represents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that diversity in NVQs, GNVQs and A-levels strengthens the system and increases opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds? May I invite her to disagree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said that competition between institutions was damaging for that age group? Does she not agree that the assisted places scheme, sixth form colleges and tertiary colleges, for instance, offer diversity of provision and are very strong in themselves?

Mrs. Shephard

We certainly think that diversity helps to drive standards up, by, among other things, encouraging competition between institutions. One of the aims of the report, however, is to introduce coherence to the framework of qualifications. Notwithstanding diversity, such coherence is needed—not least for the sake of employers, but also for the sake of young people, their parents and those who teach them.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I welcome the commitment to strengthen careers education and guidance. Will my right hon. Friend carefully monitor progress and check whether opportunities in the armed services are put to young people? Yesterday, I visited Bassingbourn barracks of the Army Training Regiment, where young people make their first entry to the service. When I spoke to some of the young people, I discovered that they had not heard about opportunities in the armed services during their years in school.

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend will be aware that, until very recently, the armed services had their own systems of recruitment, which, in a sense, were rather separate from careers arrangements that are made centrally. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be reassured to know that I recently took part in a joint launch with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence on a project about careers in the armed services. Further work is to be launched shortly after the Easter recess. I think that I can reassure my hon. Friend on all points.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

From everything that my right hon. Friend has said, it seems that this is a sensible package, as one would expect, since it is the brainchild of Sir Ron Dearing. Does she agree that, if we are serious about parity of esteem, there seems to be a good case for merging at an early date the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority? Will she take note of a very important point that has not yet been made—that Sir Ron Dearing deserves a peerage?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend will know from the document that the merging of SCAA and NCVQ is proposed. I want to consult on that. There are two proposals—one for a merger and one for a division of the functions—and we wish to consult on the alternatives. Such a proposal makes much sense, but it would create a very big organisation. We need to be certain that industry and academic interests would be happy with that. In terms of my hon. Friend's second suggestion, I am sure that the Hansard record can be brought to the attention of absolutely anybody who would like to see it.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Will the Secretary of State recognise that the Opposition have every right to draw a distinction between our whole-hearted support for the main proposals in the Dearing report, on which we congratulate Sir Ron, and our anxiety about her response to what now needs to be done? Is it not obvious that, if we are to offer young people a full range of opportunities across the academic and vocational spectrums, we will need greater co-operation between providers at local level than her view—which is that these institutions can carry on in the damaging and somewhat dysfunctional competition in which they engage at present—would suggest?

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady also recognise the battering that this sector received from the Chancellor and from her last year in the November Budget? It so grievously affected sixth form colleges and FE colleges that some of them are in severe financial difficulties. For the right hon. Lady to give effect to Sir Ron Dearing's proposals, it will be necessary for her to ensure that there is no repeat of that onslaught in the forthcoming November Budget—if there should be one from this Government.

Mrs. Shephard

That was a rather sour, disappointing little response by the hon. Gentleman, I must say. What a pity, at the end of what was otherwise a rather decent session.

The further education sector was protected in the last public expenditure survey round. TEC resources went up by 5 per cent., and we are spending a record amount on education. I also remind the hon. Gentleman, because he does need reminding, as do all his hon. Friends, that there is not necessarily a connection between rigour and standards and what is spent. That has been the consistent position of the Government and of Conservative Members.

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he might spend an improving hour reading the document and examining the Government's proposals in this very important sphere. He could then perhaps come back with a slightly more encouraging response.