HC Deb 21 March 2002 vol 382 cc473-535

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

2.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak about the proposals in the Green Paper entitled, "14–19: extending opportunities, raising standards", which the Government published on 12 February. Unfortunately, due to a prior long-standing engagement in my constituency, I will not be able to stay for the whole of the debate, and I offer the House my apologies for that. I will, of course, read the report of the debate with great interest.

It is also appropriate to say at this stage that I am aware that the spokesperson leading for Her Majesty's official Opposition is the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), which strengthens the Bury connection. This is probably the only kind thing I will say about the Opposition during my speech; the hon. Gentleman is still spoken of very highly in the Bury, North constituency that he used to represent. I am sure that he will agree that the priority for us all at the moment is to save Bury football club from extinction.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will use this opportunity to make constructive contributions. The Green Paper offers all those with a genuine commitment to education the opportunity to contribute their ideas, experience and to express their concerns. It poses as many questions as it prescribes solutions. Political knockabout and serious scrutiny have their place in the proceedings of the House but we are sincere in our desire to achieve maximum consensus as we seek to transfer an exciting vision into effective reforms which transform the life choices and life chances of all our young people.

I am proud of the fact that last week we published probably the first ever young people's version of a Green Paper, demonstrating our commitment across government to consult young people on policy developments that impact on their lives. For too long we have treated young people as passive recipients of reform. As the Minister with responsibility for young people and learning, I am determined that their status as users and consumers of the education system should be recognised and acted upon.

I want to put our 14 to 19 proposals in the context of our overall vision for high-quality education and training. As hon. Members will know, the past five years have seen dramatic improvements in education. Spending on education has risen from 4.7 per cent. to 5 per cent. of gross domestic product—an increase of £13.6 billion. The exam results of those aged between 14 and 19 continue to improve, and Ofsted recently confirmed that the quality of teaching found to be "good or better- has never been higher.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

Given the improvement in exam standards to which the Minister refers, can he explain why the gap between the best and worst performing schools has widened, not narrowed, as is outlined in the Ofsted report?

Mr. Lewis

Twenty years of under-investment and neglect of the most socially excluded communities and the most disadvantaged young people have probably led to that situation. This Government have introduced a number of specific measures to tackle that very problem. Literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools are proving to work. A new key stage 3 strategy aims to tackle the fact that too many young people stagnate at that stage in their education or at worst go backwards. We have floor targets that are specifically focused on those schools and local education authorities that are not performing as well as they should; we are focusing resources and attention on those individual schools and LEAs. Therefore, it is not accurate or reasonable to suggest that the gap has grown in recent years. There is clear evidence that the Government's policies are designed to ensure that every individual young person, whatever their social background, whatever community they live in, gets the opportunity to achieve their potential.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

Of course, educational standards are improving under this Government, but does my hon. Friend not agree that the widening gap between schools is more a result of effective selection that is gradually taking hold following the policies of the previous Government, moving away from the comprehensive ideal?

Mr. Lewis

I agree with my hon. Friend that that has not helped the position. It created a two-tier system of education in this country. During those years—and prior to them—we concentrated our efforts on educating a small elite. That was not sensible if we were trying to create either a socially inclusive or economically successful society.

Although 14 to 19 education and training is improving, much more remains to be done. Too many young people still leave learning at 16 with few or no qualifications, and too many still drop out at 16, which often leads to negative consequences—unemployment, low-paid work or, even worse, a drift into a world of drugs, antisocial behaviour and crime.

Similarly, only six out of 10 in the 15 to 24 age range attain level 3 qualifications in the UK—compared, for example, with nearly nine out of 10 in Germany. Only three out of four 16 to 18-year-olds in England were in education and training at the end of 2000—well below European and OECD averages, so there is an urgent and clear case for reform.

If we want to be a successful nation with an effective high-skills economy, there is no alternative: more people need to be better educated than ever before, and we must end the culture of leaving learning at 16. We believe that we have already made a good start.

At primary school level we have focused on embedding the basic skills of numeracy and literacy. That has produced the largest and most sustained improvement ever seen in primary school results. We have also put in place measures to improve education between the ages of 11 and 14. Through the key stage 3 strategy, we aim to build on the successes achieved at primary school, to ensure continuous progression from primary school to the early years of secondary education and to improve the quality of teaching by investing in teachers' professional development.

We have put other initiatives in place to address particular problems in the secondary education sector: for example, various strategies to close the gap between the highest and lowest performing schools. I have already referred to the expansion of the excellence in cities programme and to increasing the number of beacon and specialist schools. We are also supporting teachers and pupils in tackling bad behaviour, through formal behaviour management training, learning mentors, learning support units and the creation of the new Connexions service.

We are committed to increasing and broadening participation in higher education so that by 2010, 50 per cent. of those aged between 18 and 30 will participate.

The challenge at 14 to 19 is to build on that good work. We want to achieve several objectives: raising the participation of young people in post-16 education; supporting the retention of young people in that sector; improving their attainment; and encouraging their progression onwards into higher education and skilled jobs. At the same time, we want to address the fact that educational underperformance disproportionately affects those from lower socio-economic groups.

We know of various current barriers to achieving those objectives. One is the fact that some young people are clearly turned off by the options currently open to them. Speaking to educationists and others around the country in consultation on the Green Paper, there is no doubt about that. Many teachers and head teachers welcome this debate because they know that the current system is not working for a core of young people within their schools. The system is undoubtedly turning them off learning.

Many young people are, of course, happy to pursue a traditional academic GCSE/A-level route, but many others would benefit from a different mix of styles and types of learning. In recognition, we want to put in place new pathways of learning, so that from age 14 young people will be able to follow learning programmes more tailored to their individual aptitudes and aspirations. We want to build an educational learning experience around individuals' strengths, needs and aspirations rather than offer an inflexible range of opportunities that often leads to a cycle of failure, exclusion and social problems.

We believe that our capacity to raise the status of vocational learning will be crucial. We have already introduced vocational A-levels and from this September we are introducing GCSEs in vocational subjects, so that any young person who wants to pursue a vocational career can have access to high-quality learning options that they will find demanding and rewarding.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Will the Minister explain how introducing vocational A-levels, which by definition will not offer access to at least 50 per cent. of our youngsters, will improve access to the training and vocational enterprise that he claims the Green Paper is intended to promote?

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman argues that vocational A-levels are somehow outside the reach of many of our young people. He is right that we must ensure that all young people have a clear pathway to success. We believe that if vocational education is to succeed, it must be viewed as a high-status, high-esteem option. One of the historical problems with vocational education is that is has been perceived as a second-rate easy option.

The introduction of vocational A-levels is at its early stages and we are willing to acknowledge that they may be inappropriate for some students. In the wider context, we are willing to engage in a genuine debate about how best to create educational qualifications and experiences that are as high status and stretching as academic options, but which are not the same and do not have the same assessment processes. It is our responsibility to get those reforms right, and further examination of vocational routes and qualifications will be part of finalising our response when the consultation is over. If vocational courses become the same as their academic alternatives, it will defeat the object.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I welcome the Government's re-evaluation of the importance of vocational education. The Minister may know of some interesting developments in Stroud, where a consortium has been set up between three 11 to 18 schools and the local further education college. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to pay a visit in future. One problem that the project has encountered is the differential in pay between staff in schools and those working in the further education sector. Until those pay and conditions are sorted out, it will be difficult to realign the sectors. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Lewis

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. If 14 to 19 reforms are to achieve their full potential, it is important to raise the status of further education in this country. We must demand higher standards, a clearer focus, a much closer partnership between schools and the FE sector; but we must also invest in that sector to ensure that it becomes the high-status option for young people that it deserves to be. The Government understand that success and investment in FE is central to our capacity to deliver our objectives.

In providing individually tailored learning programmes, it is important to ensure that young people are stimulated and motivated to learn. If we do not achieve that, we will not achieve any of our objectives. Crucially, young people must acquire skills relevant for today's world. The local economic needs of communities, as well as today's competitive global economy, are important, and we must secure a better match between the worlds of education and of work.

Providing a range of options is only one piece of the jigsaw. For students to benefit from increased choice, there must be more flexibility in the national curriculum between the ages of 14 and 16. We therefore propose to narrow the core of compulsory subjects to English, maths, science and information and communications technology—the subjects that we believe are vital for progression in learning.

Young people should also study some other essential subjects that are key to personal development: religious, careers and sex education and physical exercise. Similarly, from this August, citizenship is to become a statutory part of the national curriculum. We are also proposing that all young people undertake some work-related learning.

We remain committed to the principle that all young people should be entitled to a broad and balanced learning experience. With this in mind, we also propose a statutory entitlement to access a subject in modern foreign languages, design and technology and the arts and humanities. Young people would not be obliged to study those subjects, but schools would he obliged to make them available. That is consistent with the message that we hear repeatedly from head teachers and teachers who are trying to teach young people subjects in which they do not want to participate.

The pace at which pupils move through the system is also important. Traditionally, all young people have done that at pretty much the same pace and have passed or failed whether they were ready or not. The system has not taken sufficient account of the different ways in which people learn. We propose that more young people should experience, where appropriate, accelerated or slower paced learning, so that they can take courses at the time that is right for them. It is unlikely that accelerated or slower paced learning will be taken up by the majority of students, but it will certainly be of benefit to the highest achievers and those who need more time to achieve.

As I have said, we want to raise attainment for all young people, but we also want to help the high achievers to fly. Accelerated learning is one way of doing that; another way is by increasing the challenge at A-level. The Green Paper proposes introducing more demanding questions into the A2 papers that are taken at the end of an A-level course. In this way, they will give some students the opportunity to show their greater depth of knowledge, skill and understanding, without the need for a separate examination paper. We propose to introduce a higher "A distinction" grade to recognise this greater depth. Of course, we will continue to set the existing A to E grades at their present levels to ensure that A-level standards are maintained.

The Green Paper contains other proposals for 16 to 19 learning within a more coherent 14 to 19 phase. For example, we are committed to raising the status of modern apprenticeships to meet today's skills needs. Modern apprenticeships provide high-quality work-based learning. They are a key rung in the vocational ladder, enabling young people to progress from GCSEs towards their chosen profession and, if they so choose, foundation degrees. The modern apprenticeship provides practical benefits in terms of gaining high-status employment and young people who opt for that high-status route also have the opportunity to go on to a degree course. It is not necessarily either a vocational or higher education route.

We are upgrading modern apprenticeships by introducing technical certificates to deliver broader knowledge and understanding, alongside the national vocational qualification and key skills. We will also take forward the main recommendations of the modern apprenticeship advisory committee, chaired by Sir John Cassels.

Honourable Members may have seen the national television advertising that began on 4 March, which is the first stage of a three-year marketing campaign to promote modern apprenticeships and boost participation. How many hon. Members are told by employers and parents that it is a pity that we no longer have the old apprenticeship system? We do have an apprenticeship system—it is called the modern apprenticeship system. It is important that we raise the profile and status of modern apprenticeships and make employers and young people far more aware of the opportunities that they present.

We have begun work to establish a national framework for apprenticeship. By 2004, we aim to increase by 35,000 the number of young people entering modern apprenticeships before they are 22. Also in 2004, we aim to fulfil our manifesto commitment of an entitlement to a modern apprenticeship place for all 16 and 17-year-olds with the necessary qualifications.

The Green Paper also proposes a new award to mark the completion of the 14 to 19 phase. An overarching award should be available to young people to recognise breadth and depth of achievement by the age of 19. It could be called the matriculation diploma, but if hon. Members have a better idea, I would be delighted to hear from them. We believe that the matriculation diploma would be a common outcome, achievable by any of the available 14 to 19 pathways. That is important in terms of parity of status. Young people will be able to gain the overarching certificate by going down an academic route, a mixed academic and vocational route or an exclusively vocational route.

Such an award would have the benefits of, among other things, focusing young people on outcomes at 19 rather than at 16 and giving them something to aim for over the whole 14 to 19 phase. It would widen young people's horizons beyond individual formal qualifications, encourage the development of the whole person and would convey valuable information to employers and higher education.

The Green Paper asks for views on whether there should be such an award and, if so, what its precise content and structure should he. It offers for discussion a model that would allow young people to achieve the diploma at three levels—intermediate, advanced and higher. It suggests that those who do not achieve the award at any level by age 19 but have remained in learning and made a sustained effort should be given a record of progress setting out their achievements. It also suggests that an alternative to that model could be a certificate that simply sets out attainment available to all young people on leaving learning at 19.

For the first time in our education system, it is proposed that young people should be encouraged to participate in voluntary work, active citizenship activities, wider activities such as art, music and sport as well as work-related learning and to receive recognition for doing so. That responds to the concerns increasingly expressed by employers that young people progressing from the world of education to the world of work often lack communication, interpersonal, teamwork and leadership skills, all of which we regard as essential to successful businesses and high-quality public services in a modern world.

Some other things have to be done to make the new structure and reforms work. Under the proposals, the age of 14 would become a more significant decision point than it is now. A flexible, more individualised, 14 to 19 programme of learning would involve wider choices, made earlier. It is therefore essential that young people receive the support, information and guidance to choose wisely. We have set out various proposals, including the effective use of the Connexions service, to ensure that that occurs.

It will also be important to engage parents, in a way that we have not done previously, at this crucial time. We should remember that when we talk about giving young people a variety of options and greater flexibility, parents continue to be the most significant influence on the choices that they make.

Our proposals also have significant implications for the institutional structures by which education is provided. To make a reality of the 14 to 19 phase, we must develop the kind of institutional structures that can deliver the full range of opportunities.

We do not expect every school, college or workplace to deliver the whole variety of a 14 to 19 curriculum on its own. However, if an institution offers only part of a young person's programme of learning, access to complementary facilities should be available elsewhere. In other words, a range of institutions in every area should be able to contribute to a comprehensive and diverse pattern of local provision. This means that area-wide planning of provision—bringing together providers from various sectors and backgrounds—will need to feature much more prominently in our ways of working. We need schools, colleges, training providers, small and medium-sized enterprises and universities to work far more closely together in the future.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Minister says that we need area planning to co-ordinate the whole of the 14 to 19 phase. Is he saying that learning and skills councils will in due course take over the funding and the planning of that phase?

Mr. Lewis


To succeed, in terms of the new relationships between institutions that focus on the individual learner, we believe that there will need to be a new commitment from all those involved. We also acknowledge our responsibility to encourage collaboration by removing barriers to co-operation, rewarding good practice and providing some financial assistance.

We also intend to use pathfinders to assess different models of collaborative working and to develop best practice that will inform the full national development of the 14 to 19 phase. This innovative work is already taking place in institutions in a number of areas; because of their experience of the limited way in which they can allow all young people between 14 and 19 to achieve their potential, those institutions are collaborating and working together. We want to use pathfinders to focus attention on that good practice so that, in areas where it has not been the norm, we can bring institutions together and support closer working relationships.

The reforms will give us a more coherent 14 to 19 phase of learning, providing balanced programmes of learning that meet the individual's needs, interests and aspirations, offering flexible progression from age 14 to post-16 learning. That will lead to an education system in which young people want to keep learning throughout the 14 to 19 phase and beyond, and which directly improves young people's employability.

The solutions that we offer in the Green Paper are not set in stone. We are consulting widely on them, and for longer than usual—until the end of May.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Will the Minister undertake to publish the consultation when it ends in May? It would be useful to hear what trade unions and others have to say about the implications for teachers and lecturers.

Mr. Lewis

We will publish the results of the consultation. Hon. Members will not expect to receive a copy of every letter and submission, but a representative summary will be published. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It will be an accurate and representative summary. We are committed to consultation. The Green Paper could have been prescriptive on areas in which we have asked open-ended questions. In that respect, it is an important document. We want to hear from the widest possible variety of individuals, educationists and politicians on how we can raise the status of vocational education—something that no Government have ever achieved. There are no easy answers or quick-fix solutions. We want to listen to people who have practical experience of trying to make the system work day to day. I am sure that the Opposition will want to rescind their cynicism about our commitment to consultation.

The solutions in the Green Paper are not set in stone. Reform must be introduced over a reasonable period. We accept that that will require significant change to the status quo. It is important to introduce change in a measured way over a number of years and to get those changes right.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Will my hon. Friend consult with young people who are in education and listen to them more carefully than any politician has ever done before?

Mr. Lewis

I entirely agree with the sentiment behind my hon. Friend's comment. Last week, for what I suspect was the first time ever, we launched a Green Paper specifically for the young people who will be most affected by the changes that we propose. Before the end of May, we shall hold several consultation events to ascertain the views of young people. We should also ask young people who have gone beyond the 14 to 19 phase what worked and what did not, and how the system could be better.

We are committed to consultation and engagement with young people. That is not easy—it could be done tokenistically or superficially, but we want to do it in a genuine way. We want to reach not only articulate young people who are already well served by the system, but those who are disengaged so that we can find out their reasons for their disaffection and to see how our reforms respond directly to their concerns.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich)

Will the Minister share with the House his experience in front of several hundred young people at the UGC cinema in Ipswich when the Suffolk Connexions service was launched? There was a lively direct engagement between the Minister and those young people.

Mr. Lewis

It was a memorable occasion. The first speaker was the young and impressive leader of the local authority—little did I know that he would soon join us in the House of Commons. He was pelted with aeroplanes by the young people in the audience. The next speaker was hissed and jeered. I was due to speak next, and I can assure the House that I made probably the shortest speech ever given from a public platform. The young people then asked me whether I would meet a juggler who was performing elsewhere in the exhibition centre. He in turn asked me to lie on the floor, and when I did, he swapped his juggling sticks for knives. The face of the civil servant accompanying me was well worth seeing.

During the few months in which I have had the privilege of being the first Minister for young people, that and many other experiences have told me that they are amazingly sophisticated and articulate, able to tell us exactly where the system is working or failing. In the past, we have ignored them at our peril. We have treated young people as passive recipients of services rather than seeing them as users and consumers. The Government are absolutely committed to changing that, as am I.

Mr. Willis

The Minister makes a powerful point. Does he accept that one of the things that young people find most disillusioning is being asked for their views, then having them totally disregarded? That may be why he was pelted in Ipswich. Does the Minister agree that the largest recent survey to be carried out with young people was the one on the future of faith schools? Young people gave expansion of faith schools a total thumbs-down, but the Government simply ignored them.

Mr. Lewis

No, I do not agree with that. When I asked the people who claimed to have undertaken extensive consultation how many young people had been consulted, the number turned out to be so small that the evaluation evidence was entirely meaningless. The hon. Gentleman should not make such a spurious point in support of an argument that he usually articulates in a way that I respect but do not agree with.

When one speaks to audiences of young people, it is important not to make promises that cannot be kept. We must be honest about the resource limitations within which politicians must work, although that would make it difficult for the Liberal Democrats ever to engage in constructive discussion with young people.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

Does the Minister agree that anyone who has experienced opinion polls run by the Liberal Democrats during by-elections would do well to be jaundiced about anything that arose from that method of gauging people's opinions?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. May I remind the House that we are debating education for 14 to 19-year-olds?

Mr. Lewis

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted that the Bury consensus continues so far into the debate.

The credibility of our engagement and consultation with young people is important. Frankly, they expect us to fail to deliver and to let them down. Politicians in general—whatever their party—are not held in high regard by young people. Our work of engaging day after day in debate with young people is essential if we are to restore the integrity of democracy and do something about the low turnouts—particularly among young people—that are the biggest threat to that democracy. All Members of Parliament have a special responsibility to do something about the breakdown of the relationship between the political process and young people. I urge every hon. Member to make an effort in his or her constituency to engage with that by consulting young people on the 14 to 19 Green Paper. We shall receive favourably the results of any such consultation.

Our reforms are important and we must take time to get them right. It is absolutely essential that we ensure that more young people achieve their potential. We are committed to seeing them attain good qualifications and to giving them the education that they need if they are to be successful in today's high-skilled economy. The Government are committed to rebuilding our country on the dual foundations of social justice and economic success. We want a fair society in which every young person has the chance to fulfil his or her potential and in which we no longer tolerate having far too many young people being consigned to the margins of society. We are committed to a successful society, with the skilled work force who are so essential in an increasingly competitive global economy and in which we bridge the competitiveness gap, which continues to hold our country back.

Our proposals for the reform of 14 to 19 education and training are an integral part of the society that we seek to build. I commend them to the House.

3.20 pm
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire)

I welcome the opportunity to join in this debate to discuss the 14 to 19 curriculum and the Green Paper that the Under-Secretary outlined. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his speech and for his courtesy in informing the House that a constituency engagement will take him away from us. I can only hope and assume that that engagement is a fund raiser for the Shakers, in which case the whole House will join in wishing him well. Contributions may be sent to Bury football club, either through its website or directly to the club at Gigg lane, Bury. I urge all hon. Members who have not already added themselves to the roll of honour on the website to do so as soon as possible. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. The Bury connection is very strong. I appreciate his kind words and wish him well in his ministerial career.

I will have some nice things to say about the Green Paper and some of the aims and aspirations behind it. The Conservative party is concerned to ensure that our criticism of education policy comes from the same general base as the hon. Gentleman would expect, which is with an understanding of the aims of education in this country, but with the sharp edge that is necessary to turn decent aspirations into reality.

As always, the devil is in the detail. Parties of all colours realise when in government that good aspirations can sometimes flounder. It is therefore the job of the Opposition to point to some of the matters in the Green Paper that need a little more consideration if they are not to spoil the aims and aspirations in the way that I shall outline.

Before I consider the Green Paper in detail, I must deal with three vital areas that must be addressed if the curriculum is to be delivered satisfactorily. First, I pay tribute to the hard work that is going on in all our schools. From my county of Bedfordshire to Yorkshire, teachers, their support staff, governors, pupils and parents are working extremely hard to make education work. As the Secretary of State has said more than once, we are asking more of them every day. That is why some discrimination in the documents that the Government are continually sending them is necessary as those documents are getting in the way of the staff doing their jobs.

As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), made clear in the debate on Tuesday, the paperwork that the Department produces for schools is reaching mammoth proportions, which is preventing heads from doing their jobs. If we add together all the documents sent out between April 2001 and February 2002, they total 4,333 pages for head teachers to plough through. In April 2001, documents with a total of 853 pages were issued to primary schools. Assuming that each page takes two minutes to read, those documents would have taken more than 28 hours just to read, which is equal to three and a half working days.

No matter how diverting or interesting it is to knock up some new idea or develop policies such as the 14 to 19 curriculum, doing so must not deter the Government from tackling the problems that are undermining schools: the specialist teacher shortage, the burden of paperwork, and behavioural issues with pupils. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the work that is being done to improve behaviour and the like, but that comes on the back of the Government's failed exclusion policy, which they have now changed.

I visited Orpington college yesterday and talked to a newly qualified teacher who had just started in his job. I asked him why he was in the college rather than the schools sector and he said that it was because of behaviour—he wanted to be in a place where children wanted to learn. That is a message for all hon. Members, not only for the Minister. All teachers want to be in places where children want to learn. Behaviour problems are causing a major crisis for schools. While we are concentrating on one policy, let us not take our eyes off the other ball.

Secondly, I stress the crucial importance of the further education sector in making the post-16 curriculum work. The quality and purpose in further education is extraordinary. I have been delighted in the past few months to visit a variety of different colleges: Barnet, Bedford, Dunstable, Thurrock and Orpington. I was most impressed by the commitment and the close connection between staff and their students, which might be due to the intimate connection with the local community and the need to be closely involved with employers. I found genuine esteem for the students and the courses that they are doing. I will return later to the difficult issue of vocational education. People in those colleges have real concerns, however, and unless they are tackled, the hopes of delivering some of the 14 to 19 curriculum through further education will be damaged.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has just left the Chamber, made a point about pay and recruitment, and he is right. It is my impression from talking to principals that the FE sector is worried about core funding, which continues to go down because the new money coming into FE is always tied to initiatives. Colleges must bid for all the money and there is a sense that new money is centrally directed, which has led to a lack of trust in the sector.

David Wright (Telford)

Given the aspirations of the Leader of the Opposition to reduce public expenditure to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product and the funding issue that the hon. Gentleman is raising, where would the cuts fall in further education if the Conservative party were in power?

Alistair Burt

I will knock that argument on the head before it consumes every debate. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said clearly that the public services will be the first call on the Exchequer when we return to office. We have made that clear in all our actions in the past few months. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will care to get to his feet on the day of the Budget when the Chancellor may have some rather different things to say about the public services than he has hitherto said.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman help the House by explaining the proportion of Government expenditure that is not spent on public services?

Alistair Burt

About 60 per cent. is not spent on public services. We commonly talk of education and the health service as such services. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is including social security. I was drawing that distinction, but perhaps he was not.

People in further education are concerned that they are not quite trusted to handle their budgets. The core funding issue and the efficiency drive are causing them real problems. Academic pay and recruitment have reached acute levels. Those teaching in FE do not have some of the advantages of teachers in schools, such as housing allowances, golden hellos and laptops. Consequently, there is now a drift from further education into schools, which is affecting the ability of the FE sector to deliver.

Despite that fact, performance in the FE sector is exceptionally strong. Accordingly, the way in which the Minister for Lifelong Learning is treating the sector is unwarranted and it is causing completely unnecessary anger and concern. All Ministers sometimes have difficult things to say to those in their Department or in the area of their expertise and work. However, one must get people on one's side at some stage, particularly if one wants to give any sense that one understands the problems that they are facing. When the Minister wrote in The Independent on 7 March,

Students have a 50-50 chance of coming away from post-16 learning having achieved what they set out to do…Further education serves too many learners to be a lottery for success", she must have been unaware of the degree of anger that she has caused in the sector.

As the Association of Colleges pointed out, FE colleges receive 20 per cent. less funding for every individual who goes through an A-level programme than schools get for their A-level students.

According to the Further Education Funding Council inspection report of 2000–01:

The amount of good or outstanding provision in programme areas increased significantly between 1999–2000 and 2000–2001. Overall, in 2000–2001, 97 per cent. of lessons were judged to be satisfactory or better. The proportion judged good or outstanding was 62 per cent. How does that square in any way with the hon. Lady's unwarranted attack?

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

I was interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman referred to his visits to various colleges and in his subsequent comments. Is not the Green Paper all about how we work with that sector to extend opportunities to young people and improve them? In his travels around the sector, did he not find an overwhelming welcome for the Green Paper?

Alistair Burt

I am awfully sorry, but no. The hon. Lady is absolutely right in her first contention: the whole point of working together is to build up a partnership. However, I put it to her—she should put this to her hon. Friends—that the Minister for Lifelong Learning's idea of creating a partnership may be to go around saying the sort of stuff that she has been saying, but it is just not working. Today, she will find that the chief executive of the Association of Colleges has made that clear in a very strong speech. The point is to build a partnership, but to improve it the Minister has to get people on the Government's side in the first place, and she is patently not doing that.

It is too early to get a sense of how much all the colleges welcome the Green Paper. They do welcome some things, as I shall go on to say, but they have not given an unequivocal welcome—that would never happen. At the moment, for them to be willing to listen to the Government, they must have some sense that the Government care about them and their sector, and the remarks made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning are not helping in that regard.

Yesterday I met John Harwood, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council. We wish the council well in its role, into which it is now settling. It has a variety of issues to resolve, from teething troubles to the fact the performance will be patchy from area to area. We would want it to stand up for the further education sector.

I shall take the Minister back to a remark that he made following an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) in relation to the 14 to 19 curriculum and its funding. The Minister said that there were no plans for the LSC to take over funding for 14 to 19-year-olds. I assume that that is absolutely firm. Is he prepared to reiterate that that will not happen? If not, perhaps the Minister for School Standards would like to revisit that point in responding to the debate.

My third point on the other things that need to be considered before the curriculum can be adequately delivered relates to the concerns about the budget. The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) may have some more concerns about public expenditure when we get to Budget day. Where has education slipped to in the pecking order? We have had two hints. The first is the continued delay in the review of student finance. Again, some of the remarks made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning have been designed to suggest that there will not be very much new money for students or universities.

While we are about it, can we finally have a definition of higher education? Again, the Under-Secretary said that the target was that 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds should have had some form of higher education experience by 2010. Is he aware that, since 25 October last year, we have been asking his colleagues to define the term "higher education experience"? Six months later, we still do not have one. People cannot have a target unless they know what it relates to.

Mr. Willis

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman by saying that the answer to that question, which I have also asked, was published in Hansard today.

Alistair Burt

Ah, well. I think that that was helpful—thanks. Was the answer the result of an opinion poll taken by the hon. Gentleman's colleagues? We can rely on it, can we?

Mr. Willis

May I help the hon. Gentleman? The response is not helpful, but it is interesting.

Alistair Burt

The confusion among those on the Opposition Benches is an indication of the confusion caused by the Government in not providing an adequate answer to that question for six months. There are 190 specialists in the Department for Education and Skills dedicated to higher education. Since 25 October last year, we have not yet had a definitive answer. Even the answer published today has confused the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Willis

I do not understand it.

Alistair Burt

The hon. Gentleman does not understand it, and he understands education very well. So, it is back to the drawing board for all 190 of those educational specialists, and perhaps in six months' time we will have an answer.

The other sign that education is slipping down the agenda is perhaps the attack on further education, lowering expectations in that sector. If education, education, education has slipped down the list of the Chancellor's priorities, it will be enormously disappointing to people in that sector, and perhaps we should be prepared for bad times just around the corner.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt

Of course; a comment on the Budget would be welcome.

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman would welcome such a comment, but the Treasury certainly would not welcome it if I were to make it. Is he aware of the recent statement made by the former chief inspector of schools to the effect that the problem with the previous Conservative Government's education policies was that they did not give them early enough the importance that they deserved? Does not that contrast sharply with the massive amounts of extra investment that this Government have already put into education and skills during our first five years in office?

Alistair Burt

I am thrilled that the hon. Gentleman has read Chris Woodhead's book and is now prepared to quote it extensively. If he has been converted to what the former chief executive of Ofsted says, we would be delighted. Perhaps he will also comment on the remarks made by Chris Woodhead on page 85 of his book: These are problems that could be solved. In fact, as everyone knows the Government has chosen to make them worse. The hon. Gentleman may want to quote selectively from Chris Woodhead's book, but we have probably got rather more in our armoury than he has.

I should like to consider the Green Paper in detail, having put on record the things that need to be done to ensure that the curriculum is properly delivered. None of us would seek to quibble with the vision and aims expressed in the Green Paper. It states that the first challenge is to build an education system in which every young person and every parent has confidence. That is perfectly proper. It also states: Secondly, we must ensure that no young person is denied the chance of a decent education. Thirdly, we must reap the skills benefits of an education system that matches the needs of the knowledge economy. And fourthly, we must promote education with character. That is absolutely right. There is no reason why any hon. Member should take issue with that, but the difficulty is how to translate things into practical answers.

I welcome the attention that is being paid to flexibility. I also certainly welcome the effort being made to ensure that proper support, advice and guidance is given to young people, especially at the age of 14. When youngsters become that bit older and enter higher education, a key factor for those who do not complete their courses is that they have not had adequate information or preparation before they start them. So anything that can be done to help at an early stage is good, especially for those from non-traditional higher education backgrounds whom we all seek to encourage most.

The three main proposals in the Green Paper are, first, a more flexible curriculum that is more responsive to students' individual needs; secondly, to promote world-class technical and vocational education, which offers a positive choice and high standards and is not a second-class fallback; and, thirdly, the new matriculation diploma, to which all young people can aspire at the age of 19. All those are useful aspirations, but, alas, too many questions go begging.

The GCSE will be downgraded for academic pupils, but upgraded for less academic ones. Is it therefore a useful exam, or not? Languages will be upgraded in primary schools, but downgraded in secondary schools. Are foreign languages essential, or not? The curriculum is supposed to be more flexible to enable every child to achieve, but more exams are loaded on to 18-year-olds. Therefore, what should have been a set of radical proposals to reform vocational education and ensure that the brightest pupils are stretched, alas turns out to be too much of a hotch-potch of half-baked ideas.

First, let us consider the flexible curriculum. The Green Paper states that young people should be able to develop at a pace consistent with their abilities. In particular, it advocates greater flexibility to accelerate learning in key stage 3 and give able students the opportunity to take their GCSEs early or to drop them altogether in some subjects and begin the AS programmes early. The problem is that most of the flexibility comes from taking away the need to carry on with a language post-14. Languages will therefore not be compulsory.

The problem with that is that we already lag way behind our European competitors on language skills. Barely 25 per cent. of people in this country can speak a foreign language. I suspect that that is a self-assessment that we would all make with our pidgin 0-level French, and it shows that the depth of difficulties in relation to foreign languages is rather greater. Most of our European competitors have compulsory language teaching until the age of 18. Why should we not?

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

If the hon. Gentleman had ever tried to teach an unwilling 14 or 15-year-old a language when they were struggling with a range of other subjects, he would understand that it is vital not to force languages on them, but to ensure that they are enthused and excited by languages in primary school at seven or, indeed, earlier.

Alistair Burt

Two points come to mind. Does the hon. Lady apply that criterion to those who are unwilling to do maths, English or the like? Secondly, if youngsters are to be encouraged in primary school to feel that languages are appropriate, but suddenly find aged 14 that the Government do not consider them to be appropriate, where are the Government setting their sights?

Plenty of others have commented with great concern about languages being dropped. On 15 February, the Nuffield languages inquiry said: The Government has sent out the message loud and clear to young people—and to those who run their schools and teach in them—that language learning is a frill, an optional extra to education. It believes that the plan would have a seriously damaging effect on national competitiveness and on the overall education levels of our children. The Association of Colleges, in its submission on the curriculum, said: The removing of modern languages from the core is a retrograde step in relation to the future employability of young people in the global economy of the 21 st century. Industry is already reporting losing business because there are insufficient employees able to communicate with foreign buyers. It is arguable whether introducing modern languages into Primary School will engender the motivation to pursue languages beyond the age of 14. That does not even consider where the teachers are to come from. Accordingly, this may well not close a skills gap, but create a new one.

To rub salt into this particular wound, there are far too many life skills that are no longer compulsory components of the curriculum. Employers do not complain that their candidates do not have a clear enough vision of their future career path or that their health education is poor; they complain that the candidates do not have good enough key skills and basic general knowledge. This element of the Green Paper, therefore, would see valuable skills dropped for non-key skills that should be learned elsewhere in the family and the community.

The Under-Secretary said that there would be an entitlement for students to take a foreign language if they wished and that schools would be obliged to provide the teaching. What happens if one pupil in the whole school wants to take French?

Mr. Ivan Lewis

indicated dissent.

Alistair Burt

Is the Under-Secretary suggesting that a school would not be obliged to teach that pupil but that somewhere in the local area someone would be found to do it? Is it the latter?

Mr. Lewis

It is quite straightforward. The concept of collaboration between schools, colleges and training providers within an area would mean that the school had responsibility to ensure that that young person would have access to the teaching of a modern foreign language, whether in that institution or a neighbouring one.

Alistair Burt

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but again my response is that if collaboration is to be the order of the day and he is looking for collaboration with the further education sector, he had better make sure that things are levelled up in that sector. Otherwise, he will not find the collaboration that he is looking for.

The proposals for dropping GCSEs are vague. It is not clear which topics students could drop and which they could take early. It is clear that the proposals will downgrade the GCSE. If the brightest pupils are no longer taking the same exams as their less bright contemporaries, the latter will not feel that their qualifications are as valuable as when all students took GCSEs as their main key stage 4 examination. It removes the gold standard status from the GCSE and is an admission that GCSEs are now too easy. If that is the case, let us reform the GCSE.

Consequently these proposals are likely to create a form of exam apartheid, especially as in practice it is likely to be difficult to move between the two streams. The decision, therefore, to take all GCSEs or some GCSEs and AS-levels at the age of 14 will have a huge effect on future life chances. This may encourage some pupils to take AS-levels when it is inappropriate to do so and may encourage some schools to push their pupils to do AS-levels so that they move higher up the league table.

There is also a question mark over the overall appropriateness of the AS-level for GCSE students. Contrary to common belief, AS-levels are not a lower standard than A-levels; they are intended to be half an A-level course at A-level standard. Therefore, it is important to ask whether even a very bright 14-year-old would be able to take a course and an exam designed to be taken by a 17-year-old. It seems that the AS-level is being used by the Government to plug a gap in their policy, but it is not an appropriate plug.

I now come to modern apprenticeships and vocational training. The debate on vocational training is an important one for the country now, as it has been for almost 100 years. We perpetually seem to get this wrong in terms of attitude and the like. When we visit those involved in teaching a vocational subject, we do not get any sense from them that their pupils have less self-esteem or that there is less esteem attached to the course. This is something that we struggle with. I sometimes feel that those with an academic background fall over themselves to create or perpetuate the gap for some reason. The way they go on talking about the divide and the problems of esteem in vocational education sometimes adds to the difficulties.

There is no difference in the worth of an individual, no matter what course they take. The demand that is made of us is to do the very best with all our talents to the best of our ability. Those talents may best be fulfilled in academic or vocational courses, and now increasingly in hybrids between the two—that is what it is all about. We will do all we can to assist the Under-Secretary in this. I remember coming to the House many years ago and talking to employers who said that they were sick of the fact that they could not get enough young people with basic skills and craft skills. They felt then that there was a problem in Britain in relation to that issue. It has been clouded by class and terminology for far too long. We will give every assistance we can to help deal with that, but whether these proposals are necessarily the right ones is another matter. On the general issue, we want to be very supportive.

I am pleased that the Under-Secretary paid tribute to the scheme for modern apprenticeships which we introduced. Although the Green Paper does not give a great deal of detail on this, the idea is that pupils who intend to pursue a modern apprenticeship will be able to study predominantly vocational courses until they are 16. The Green Paper says that the Department for Education and Skills will be working with the Learning and Skills Council to ensure that modern apprenticeships are of a high enough standard and will provide students with employable skills.

There is already in the proposals a compulsory work-related learning component, and the Green Paper reaffirms its existence for all pupils in the future. I draw the Under-Secretary's attention to the Association of Learning Providers, which wrote to me shortly after the Green Paper was published, and wished to participate. It says that the key to making sure that modern apprenticeships and relationships with the workplace go well is to give sufficient choice to employers and learners to make sure that the schemes are the right ones. It goes on: The new national framework should be sufficiently flexible to allow employers and learners choice. It should also permit innovation on the part of private and voluntary learning providers in devising programmes that meet the needs of different industry sectors and approaches to learning. I will send the letter to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that he will find it helpful.

The problems are as follows. There is a danger that businesses will not be adequately consulted either on the content of the vocational qualifications or during the creation of modern apprenticeships. The Under-Secretary must make sure that this does not happen. It is not clear how the Learning and Skills Council will interact with the vocational training that is available for the under-16s. That is a real problem if under-16s go to further education colleges in order to take some of their vocational GCSE courses.

The general idea on work-related learning is fine, but there is no structural or compulsory element to the proposals. The Under-Secretary has said that this would happen and would be a must. That must be firmed up in the Paper because unless there is structural change, it is unlikely that this will work.

I share with the Under-Secretary a sense that perhaps the matriculation diploma will not necessarily go into the Oxford English Dictionary with as much ease as a "Delia" did. It will not trip off all our tongues, so we should find some other name, perhaps one relating to graduation. The whole concept of graduating from high school has become popular with youngsters who see it portrayed in films from the United States where it is part of the culture. Perhaps some sort of graduation diploma, providing that it is not confused with anything further up the education scale, might be right. Let us have a think about it.

There is a problem, however. The proposals for the diploma are vague. For example, they do not state whether other activities, such as citizenship education and sport, will definitely be included in the assessment. The diploma will over-simplify the current examinations system. The suggestion is that employers, further education colleges and universities cannot tell the difference between pupils' achievements. For example, students with five A* grades at GCSE will get the same intermediate grade as those with five C grades, yet employers and further education colleges will not view them in the same way. John Bangs, the head of the National Union of Teachers education department, summed it up best when he said: It is difficult to see why a separate certificate is needed for those with higher grades. It is not beyond the wit of the universities to develop their own means of distinguishing between highfliers without undermining A levels for other pupils. The diploma also attempts falsely to compare different skills, such as an achievement in English with an aptitude for woodwork with being a good football player. Including other non-academic/vocational subjects in the assessment creates problems. How will we assess non-academic and vocational achievements? How will we deal with the fact that a student who has one A and two B grades at A-level, an AS-level at any grade and a qualification in citizenship will be awarded the top higher diploma, while a student with just four A grades at A-level will get only the lower advanced diploma? That does not make sense.

The Green Paper sets out many good intentions. However, the main aspects on which the Minister will concentrate to deliver the aims are seriously flawed. Unless those are dealt with, the aims will not be achieved. We draw the Government's attention to those difficulties. There is much devil in the detail, but we, too, want the central aims delivered. The fundamentals are in place. However, unless the difficulties in teaching and schools, the disparity in further education and the budgetary problems are properly dealt with by the Secretary of State and her team, none of those aspirations will be delivered. We give full notice that as much as we support some of the principles behind the aims, we will also examine the flaws carefully in order to ensure that the delivery matches some of the words that the Government use, at least at some stage in their term in office.

3.52 pm
Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I know him best from his days as MP for Bury, North and, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, that is how we still think of him. On that basis, I am sure that we all join him in wishing Bury football club well in its current difficulties. I am not sure whether it does either of us any good when I say that the last football match I saw him at was a Bolton Wanderers game. The match was good, so it was obviously not last week.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Conservatives want the central aims of the Green Paper delivered. However, I doubted that when I listened to him. It will always be the case that the devil is in the detail, but we are debating a Green Paper, not the details of legislation. It is important to concentrate on the general direction in which we want education to go for this age group. I welcome the debate and the fact that we are concentrating more attention on 14 to 19-year-olds.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the Government have delivered a great deal in terms of educational improvement in the past few years. Much of that is reflected in the improved performances in many schools. The schools achievement awards are out tomorrow, and I look forward to writing to the successful schools in my constituency. There have been many successful initiatives, and many of them are interrelated. We should not forget that.

At the beginning of the week, I read some comments by right-wing so-called researchers who said that we should dump pre-school education because it does not do children any good. The Government's work on pre-school education has laid the foundation for the teenagers of the future so that they get far more out of education and achieve even more than they do now. It is important to realise that those facts are related so that we have an overall approach to education.

It is right to focus on this group of teenagers, partly because the Government have done much to move in the right direction in so many other aspects of education, and partly because there are difficulties with the education of those young people. In addition to issues covered by the Green Paper, the Minister should bear it in mind that those parts of the country with a middle-school system still experience some difficulties. In that system, young people of 14 take key stage 3 exams when they have only been in the school for a short time. That problem has not been mentioned so far, and it complicates an already complicated situation. It will have to be taken on board when further details of our approach for the age group are worked out.

The Green Paper says: We must build a flexible system around the needs and aspirations of individual pupils". No one could disagree with that. However, it is important that that aspiration on the part of the Government is put in the right context. We need a flexible system, but we do not want a fragmented system. We have to get away from the categorisation that has given sound opportunities to some in the age group, but not to others. There have been so many tiers and layers that it has often been difficult for those advising young people, as well as the young people themselves, to know which route to take. Should they go for intermediate GNVQs, GCSEs, AS-levels or modern apprenticeships? Should they go to a sixth form college, an FE college or stay in their own college? The choices are almost bewildering. In some geographical areas, that makes it difficult for everyone involved.

We are lacking the framework to encompass all that we offer. Although I absolutely believe that we need flexibility, it needs to be within a coherent structure. It must offer all young people—not just the academic few or those who are deemed suitable for vocational education—more choice than they have at present. However, it must also give value to those opportunities that are not properly valued now.

The Green Paper refers to meeting the needs of young people, but who decides what those needs are? How do we inform young people and ensure that they get advice and support? The situation on the ground is patchy. In some areas, it is very good; in others, it is not. The same is true of aspirations. We have to improve young people's aspirations and stretch all pupils, but are we sure that we have the right mechanisms in place?

I do not want to go through the whole Green Paper, but not enough has been made of one critical consideration. The document refers to girls' achievements and records. It also mentions motivation. However, the lack of motivation on the part of young people is one of the key problems in education. We need to place an even greater emphasis on that and probably carry out more research. More people need to be interested in motivation, especially what makes it tail off.

There is academic work on that. A few years ago, the department of education at Keele university charted the dips in performance, in interest and in attendance—the critical points in the education of girls and boys. The dips were not parallel, but the elementary work of examining what is happening and then considering why, can help to improve our knowledge of how to motivate young people and how to keep them interested in education. There are some very good teachers around, many of whom are good individual motivators, but we still have to do more to understand what triggers motivation and what keeps people in the system and interested. Flexibility in the system will help, but there are other steps that we must take.

I want to discuss another matter that the Green Paper touched on, but not sufficiently—ensuring that young people, especially this age group, learn how to learn. They need to become individual learners, as opposed to being taught a skill or how to pass an exam, which, although critically important, is not the be all and end all for this age group. All young people need to develop that skill because they will have to change direction throughout their lives, and if they can crack learning as a process at that age it will stay with them for ever.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, wondered what young people might think about the Green Paper. I commend the Minister for producing a separate document, including a questionnaire, that is aimed at young people. It is a simple guide, but none the worse for that. There is always the danger that such documents may sound patronising, and we can always find examples of the odd phrase that is not quite right. As the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said, young people will not be queueing up to discuss the matriculation diploma—although some might come up with other names that would be unmentionable in the House—but they may have ideas about it.

It is worth the Minister giving some time, thought and effort to ensuring that young people respond to the guide. He should particularly target this year's A-level takers, because they are the cohort that first had to do key stage 1 exams and tests, key stage 2, AS-level, and so on. Those young people have had experience of just about every change that has been introduced in education, so it is important to seek their views. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows one 18-year-old from whom he can expect to hear about the matter.

I want to say a word about AS-levels, partly as the parent of someone who took them. There was much criticism of AS-levels, including talk about overload. In fact, if young people are interested in the subjects that they are taking, they do not necessarily regard the work as overload. It is important to motivate young people and to ensure that courses are tailored to those who take them. We should aim for the broader-based education that many people have talked about for a long time, but has not often been delivered. The Green Paper makes proposals on GCSEs and the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds. It suggests that the curriculum should include core subjects—English, maths, science and information and communications technology—and, within those, citizenship, religious education, sex and health education, physical education and work-related learning. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire questioned whether the proposals were right and were what employers wanted. It would be hard to think of dropping subjects such as physical education or work-related learning from the list, because they are key ingredients in the education that all young people need.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's concern about foreign languages being no longer compulsory post-14, however—although that may be wishful thinking on my part. I can easily imagine the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins)—the difficulty of teaching youngsters who are not wholly motivated towards education. If such youngsters have to study yet another subject that they find tedious, boring and not especially relevant, that could turn some of them off education.

Perhaps the answer is that there should be a presumption that people will study foreign languages without making it compulsory although that, too, could give rise to difficulties. If we introduced foreign languages at an earlier stage, young people might be less inclined to be turned off in the way that has been suggested.

Mr. Hopkins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems of learning foreign languages is that so many young people have not mastered our own language very well? Improving young people's literacy in our own language would be of tremendous assistance when they learn a foreign language.

Ann Taylor

I am sure that is the case. I am also sure that the money that we are investing in pre-school education—helping young children to articulate their feelings, getting them interested in more than watching television by encouraging them to play with other children and become aware of books through reading or having stories read to them—will better prepare children for primary education. The literacy hour is already having an impact. The benefits are cumulative and will give us the scope—if we can find the teachers—to teach foreign languages at an earlier stage.

My main concern about the suggested subjects relates to a point made on page 5 of the guide where young people are advised that they would be able to follow other courses including some linked directly to the skills and knowledge needed for specific jobs or careers". That is fine, but we need to consider the status of the "other courses" or we shall be in danger of creating yet another divide of the type that has dogged British education for far too long.

I have two questions for my ministerial colleagues on vocational GCSEs, which we have already discussed. The guide includes quite a lot of material about them and is encouraging as to their introduction and success. It lists a range of vocational subjects that will be available from September 2002: applied art and design, applied business, engineering, health and social care and so on. Some other relevant subjects could and should have been included. I do not understand why subjects such as plumbing, electrical work or car maintenance were excluded. Many of the young people whom we are trying to target already have an interest in those subjects, so studying them would be extremely relevant and might actually switch those young people back on to education and motivate them in future.

Ministers may reply that individual schools cannot cover all those subjects. However, schools cover all the conventional subjects so perhaps they should consider including other subjects. If they cannot, we could and should—and will soon have to—encourage greater co-operation between groups of local secondary schools. That is something of a hobby horse of mine. Co-operation could be undertaken through a consortium or a looser co-operative. There is great scope for that, especially given the specialist schools status that many schools are achieving. Such a partnership approach could offer a wider range of subjects. That is one way of making sure that specialist schools do not have a divisive impact on their locality. If they are knitted into working with other schools in the area, they can offer more collectively than they could individually.

Charlotte Atkins

My right hon. Friend spoke about co-operation between schools. Does she think that such co-operation should extend to further education and sixth form colleges?

Ann Taylor

Absolutely. I make no distinction there. Fourteen-year-olds who want to study certain courses, such as car maintenance, need to be able to go wherever those courses are on offer. Networking and collaboration is bound to strengthen the totality of the education provision in any one area.

My second question for the Minister about vocational GCSEs is very simple. Why are we so intent on giving them a different label? Why are we so intent on calling them vocational GCSEs? Why cannot we simply call them GCSEs? That point may seem very trivial.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

I reassure my right hon. Friend that what were known as vocational GCSEs have become GCSEs in vocational subjects. Ministers have insisted that we will be introducing new GCSEs from September. They will not be labelled "vocational", as we regard that as unnecessary.

Ann Taylor

I hope that that is the case. We should not say that we are offering GCSEs in vocational subjects because we do not say that we are offering GCSEs in academic subjects. We should just say that we are offering GCSEs in various subjects which are all of equal worth. It is critical that they are all of equal worth.

Will the Minister consider reinforcing the point about equal worth by introducing a credit accumulation system, so that the matriculation diploma to which he referred can be given, at its different levels, for whatever combination of points, subjects and experiences is deemed necessary? If we ensured that every subject at GCSE—whether it was history, health and social care, geography or car maintenance—was worth the same number of points in a credit accumulation system that formed part of matriculation, we would reinforce parity of esteem, which has so often been lacking in the past. That is important if we are to motivate young people.

In the FE sector, and in education more generally, there are problems concerning who will teach all the extra subjects. The Minister and the hon. Member for North"East Bedfordshire touched on that problem when they mentioned pay and conditions in the FE sector. A more important problem is the fact that when the FE sector was incorporated and it underwent the changes introduced by the previous Conservative Government, many valuable courses were dropped because they were expensive to run. Many colleges dropped the same courses, so we lost the talents of certain categories of lecturers and teachers. We may have to make an effort to bring some of them back and to ensure that they can make a contribution. If we are to have new courses, it is important that the curriculum and the quality of teaching are right from the start. If we do not get that right, the new GCSEs will be off to a poor start, and it may be difficult to recover from that.

I support the concept of a matriculation diploma, although I suggest that we offer a prize for whoever comes up with the best name for it because none of us wants to call it that. I am not sure, however, whether a matriculation diploma is the entire answer. The document says that Ministers are considering an alternative to it, presumably for the youngsters who do not reach the threshold. At the moment, many people would be excluded from having a matriculation diploma because they do not get five A to C grades. We can expect more youngsters to hit that target in future, but some will not. The existing record of achievement could be developed so that we do not need to invent yet another diploma.

I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind that, at the moment, some of the youngsters who do not meet the threshold of five A to C grades never get the opportunity to catch up: once they are a failure, they are always a failure. Some are able to pick up another grade when they go on to other types of education, but some are not. If we are to have partnership arrangements, I hope that the Minister will consider making provision for those youngsters who might repeat year 11 successfully with a tailored course.

In a town such as Dewsbury, young people could, without suffering any stigma, take their GCSEs in the same school, a neighbouring institution or an FE college, where they would be supported and brought up to the threshold. There is scope for action there. The document concentrates on fast tracking, but we must consider those who need a bit of help, not least because of the variation in the maturity of people at that age.

On fast tracking to stretch the brightest pupils, I do not think that this is the major problem for this age group, although it is bad if children get bored at school at any level. I have no objections to giving an A* grade for a mark of 90 or higher at A-level, when an A is given for 80 or above, but I do not think that it is a big deal. I ask the Minister whether it is right to put even more pressure on young people. I am not sure why fast tracking is being proposed. I have read that it is because universities want more help in sorting out the highest of the high-fliers. I think that universities should be happy with people who achieve A grades, rather than trying to tweak every point out of them. University interviews and attitudes towards students also come into it. However, I could talk about that at length, so I had better not start.

I know that some schools encourage youngsters not to take GCSEs. I am not sure that that is always a good idea. It is good that youngsters know what level they have reached, and very often they do not want to be excluded from what their peer group is doing. There are other ways of ensuring that we stretch them without the risk of isolating them from the majority of their year group.

Mr. Brady

The right hon. Lady is making a very good speech and I am listening with great interest. Is she concerned, as I am, that if we take the brightest, most able children out of GCSEs, we may not achieve the parity of esteem for the vocational subjects that we would all like to see?

Ann Taylor

Yes, that is part of the problem, but not the primary part. Whether or not a child takes a GCSE early very much depends on the maturity of the child and the subject. It is much easier for 14-year-olds to take GCSE maths than it is for them to take GCSE English. They can accelerate more easily in a narrow subject such as maths; they need a degree of maturity to do themselves justice in an English course.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about getting brighter children to do GCSEs. I was not going to make this point, but most of the schools that miss out GCSEs are private schools. Their pupils have the confidence to see them through, but most young people want to work with their peer group. Some want to be stretched, and some will not be able to stand the pace, so flexibility is required. Time pressures might not be so severe under a system of credit accumulation in which credits are picked up as a student goes along, and credits achieved early are just as valuable as those achieved late.

I have been speaking for a long time, but I want to make a couple more points, the first of which relates to support networks. It is important that every institution, be it school, sixth form or further education college, has in place the right network to support and advise young people. The Green Paper mentions the presence of the careers service and Connexions in schools and colleges, but although that is important, it is not enough. The document appears to expect too much from the Connexions service; perhaps more attention should be given to helping schools and colleges to advise and mentor young people and help them to make decisions about their future.

Finally, let me say a few words about the institutions in which young people are taught and how we measure their success. The way in which exams are used to measure success should be revisited. Many youngsters from my constituency go to a sixth form college in Huddersfield, Greenhead college, which I know well. Its former head, Dr. Kevin Conway, and his colleagues devised a system of assessment of the college and of individual courses that I believe points the way forward for the assessment of educational institutions. Many sixth form colleges evidently agree, because most now use the system of value-added assessment for internal purposes and when considering how to improve what they offer young people.

The system does not merely take into account raw scores, but considers the ability of the intake based on GCSE grades at 16 then assesses the value added by the time that final results are in. That is done college by college and subject by subject, but it can be done pupil by pupil to determine whether a pupil is being well served or is missing out, whether it is worth taking an additional exam after AS-level, and whether it is worth resitting an exam if the pupil does not do well at 18.

I commend that work, which is supported by the local learning and skills council, to Ministers. I am sure that they are aware of that more sophisticated technique, which I believe is far better than comparing colleges and schools using simple league tables based on raw examination results. I hope that it will become the way forward for all education institutions.

The Green Paper gives a good start to the debate that must now take place on the future of 14 to 19 education. I am sorry that the Conservative spokesman got sidetracked into political points, because we should discuss the issue constructively. There is much meat in the Green Paper, which points the way forward; we can discuss the details later. I believe that the document offers more opportunities to our young people—opportunities for which they are ready and which they deserve—and I commend it to the House.

4.24 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), whose comments were thoughtful and careful. I wish I had a Bury connection—I have been desperately trying to think of a way to draw together with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis). Alas, I can think of no connection other than the fact that as a youngster I played at Gigg lane against Bury schoolboys and against the Bury team that played against Burnley in one of the junior leagues. I hope that that connection is sufficient to enable me to join the Bury club. I thought that the first diploma to be offered might be the Bury diploma, which would receive a lot of support—albeit not among those who live in Manchester.

I apologise for slightly misleading the House earlier. A question was asked about the definition of higher education—here I apologise to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. It was originally asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on behalf of the Liberal Democrat education team, and the answer was published this week. I shall read it out for the benefit of those hon. Members who are interested. It says: The purposes of higher education are: to provide high quality teaching to a widening body of students; to undertake research and scholarship which competes with the best in the world; to transfer knowledge and understanding to the economy and the wider community for the benefit of all; and to sustain a culture which underpins our democracy and encourages critical thinking."—[Official Report, 18 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 112W.] So there we have it.

Alistair Burt

Does the hon. Gentleman share my bemusement at the fact that after six months the question, "What is the definition of higher education for the purposes of the Government's target of 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds being in higher education or having had the higher education experience by 2010?" has still not been answered?

Mr. Willis

I recognise—[Interruption.] That is a new definition coming in, which is somewhat confusing. The fact that it took six months for the combined talents in the Department to come up with it is slightly worrying, but we have it now and the House can rest easy in the knowledge.

I applaud the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State for allowing this debate on the Green Paper "14–19: extending opportunities, raising standards" to go ahead. It is the first time since I became a Member of Parliament in 1997 that an education Green Paper has been debated. If this is a new way of working, it is to be commended, and I congratulate Ministers on it.

Like the right hon. Member for Dewsbury, I support the idea of engaging young people in the debate. Although we could all criticise the publication that is to be distributed among young people, it is a commendable effort by the Department and reveals an approach that I urge all Departments to adopt. The more we engage young people in broader social policy, the more chance we have of engaging them in the major political debates and in the community.

The Minister might well correct me on this point, but it strikes me as sad that the document does not fully address one of the greatest problems of exclusion among young people—the fact that black, Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani youngsters are far more likely not to continue their education, far more likely to be excluded, and far more likely not to engage in the education process. It is interesting that many members of those communities make a real effort to return to education later in life. When considering the responses to the Green Paper, I urge the Under-Secretary to think about those communities in particular and to engage them in the debate.

My party will respond positively to the Secretary of State's challenge. We urge all those with influence in the education world, be it political or otherwise, to engage appropriately. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made it clear that we have failed in this area in the past, and this is a good opportunity for us to succeed.

I assure the Minister that, although some of my comments may be critical, they are meant to be helpful. I am sure that he and the Minister for School Standards will take them as such.

There can be little dissent in the House about supporting the challenges laid down by the Secretary of State in her introduction to the Green Paper or the aims set out in chapter 1.4. The outcomes in chapter 1.29—higher levels of participation; a commitment by all to lifelong learning; increased employability; more rounded students; a reduction in truancy; and a greatly improved system of 14 to 19 education and training—are all worthy. Indeed, they are so worthy that I expected motherhood and apple pie and an acceptance of creationism to complete the list. However, I shall not go into that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because that is for another day.

I can say in all sincerity that I applaud the vision of a coherent 14 to 19 key stage, but it is sad that, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire rightly said, the report has missed some of the hard issues that were so courageously identified in "Bridging the Gap", in the Moser report, in the national skills taskforce reports and in successive annual reports from the Office for Standards in Education and the Further Education Funding Council about our schools and colleges.

The Green Paper is ultra cautious and the proposals it contains are far from coherent. To be blunt, I believe that since 1944 our education system has served the majority of young people aged 14 to 19 pretty well under Governments of any political persuasion. The raising of the school leaving age, the post-Robbins expansion in higher education, the advent of comprehensive education and the reforms of the late 1980s, including the introduction of the national curriculum and local management of schools, have considerably enhanced the life chances of many of our young people.

However, that is not what the Green Paper is principally trying to address. It is supposed to be addressing the life chances of the 5 per cent. of our young people who gain no GCSEs, the 50 per cent. who do not achieve five good GCSEs and the 15 per cent. who are not in any form of education or training by the age of 18. I want to concentrate on those areas.

Throughout the Green Paper, mention is made of the fact that it is supposed to address the chronic skills shortage that threatens to leave the United Kingdom floundering in an ever more competitive global marketplace. Some 20 per cent. of adults lack functional literacy and numeracy, 36 per cent. have lower than level 2 skills compared with 27 per cent. in France and 17 per cent. in Germany. The estimated cost to employers of low skills in our economy is £10 billion a year, and social exclusion through low wages, lack of satisfaction and lack of opportunity creates a vicious circle of social and economic deprivation for individual workers. The Green Paper does not fully address those problems.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

I have listened to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that there is a lack of research in certain areas to quantify the broad statements that he is making, especially in relation to the coalfields? In coalfield areas between 1944 and the present time, young people in many schools have been described as pit fodder. There is a lack of information on the section of the community who have been badly represented and are lumped into the grand category of underperformers.

Mr. Willis

With respect, I do not quite know what point the hon. Gentleman is making, other than to support my comments. The reality is that most of the indices of educational and training performance or access to training show that, up to level 3, we significantly underperform compared with our European competitors and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development averages. That is the point I was making. It does not matter whether these young people are in the coalfields of Yorkshire, the former steel areas of the north-east or the rural areas of Cornwall, if they are underachieving and not fulfilling their potential, that is an issue for the House and for the Green Paper.

John Mann

Will my hon. Friend give way again?

Mr. Willis

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman calls me his hon. Friend, and I shall give way.

John Mann

I am agreeing with his points about underperformance. Does he agree that it is precisely that breakdown by specific areas that is lacking? In the coalfields in particular, the tremendous underachievement and lack of aspiration has not been recognised. I have tabled 30 parliamentary questions on this issue in the past two weeks, but all the answers give the same broadbrush categorisation and cannot give specific figures for the coalfields. A breakdown of key areas of the community is essential in tackling underachievement and lack of aspiration.

Mr. Willis

I did not want to belittle the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. I thought that he was supporting my comments. I totally agree with him. When the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and I sat for many happy hours considering the Learning and Skills Bill, we knew that that would be one of the objectives of the Learning and Skills Council, especially the regional councils. They would do the research that the hon. Gentleman wants. [Interruption.] The Minister, who is noted for his courtesy, says from a sedentary position that it is a bit early. I would like to know when the Learning and Skills Council will deliver on anything, let alone on this key area. Frankly, I am fed up with constantly hearing the excuse that it is too early. This is a vital issue, and we cannot plan for skills shortages unless we have the data that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) rightly referred to, and I thank him for that.

It is precisely because of the skills shortages, which have been identified by hon. Members on both sides of the House, that I am surprised that in her introduction to the Green Paper the Secretary of State does not mention training. Not once in the introduction is that word mentioned, yet the person who wrote chapter 1—it may well have been the Minister—obviously recognised the importance of training, because it is included as a key aim and a key outcome. It says that the Government aim to achieve a greatly improved 14–19 system of education and training which is of world-class standard and of which we can be proud. My criticism is that the Green Paper does not reflect training needs.

I understand the Secretary of State's caution about vocational education and training. She is right when she says that she wants to wage a war on vocational snobbery. However, that requires more than indignant words: it needs an understanding of the problem, courage and huge commitment, especially in resources. Skoda did not turn round the image of its cars by indignant outpouring. It did so by making its product affordable, desirable and of high quality. There is nothing wrong with espousing the concept of vocational training provided that the product we deliver to our young people is desirable, affordable and of high quality.

Mr. Hopkins

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

I shall give way, provided that the hon. Gentleman does not drive a Skoda.

Mr. Hopkins

As I come from Luton, I drive a Vauxhall. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this problem seems to have been cracked on the continent, particularly in Germany, where vocational qualifications seem to have equal status with other forms of educational qualification?

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment. That is clearly the case, and not just in Germany. I visited Holland, where vocational education, especially that from 14 to 19, has a parity of esteem with what people in this country would describe as academic education. In Scandinavia, one finds exactly the same: vocational education is regarded as an alternative way of delivering education and training, not as an inferior or superior system. What is patently wrong with our vocational system is that, all too often, it appears to be second best and sub-standard. That is why we have real difficulty in turning young people on in that way.

That is not a new problem. I began teaching in 1963—I know that that is a long time ago—in a secondary modern school in Leeds. In the same year, the Newsom report was published, which some hon. Members will remember. It was appropriately named "Half our Future". I wondered whether the Green Paper would be called "The Other Half of our Future". The Newsom report stated: all schools should provide a choice of programmes including a range of courses broadly related to the occupational interest for pupils in the fourth and fifth years of a five year course". The outcome of that report and Government policy from 1963 onwards was remarkable for its lack of success. It singularly failed to deliver for the youngsters who were identified by Newsom as requiring an alternative curriculum at that time. It was unsuccessful because, in Newsom's words, it aimed to reflect the "reality" of working-class adult life.

A huge message must be received by the Under-Secretary and his colleagues before they bring the White Paper back to the House. We must never return to the days when we had a pseudo class-ridden education system. To compliment the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, the 1988 reforms were aimed at doing exactly the opposite—they tried to establish a middle-class education system for all, with middle-class values. I do not say that in a derogatory way; that was the aspiration. Before we throw that out, we must be sure that we have something better to put in its place. We must not, therefore, make the same mistake. Instead, we must aim to create a world-class training culture beginning at 14.

Vocational GCSEs may broaden the existing curriculum. I accept totally the point made by the right hon. Member for Dewsbury that we have got into the habit of calling them vocational GCSEs, and I do so purely as a way of picking up from the Green Paper. Will they capture the imagination of a target group of young people who know that they are unlikely to fare better in assessment terms than they do now? Vocational GCSEs are not the whole answer. If we are to introduce parity with GCSE qualifications, we might, by definition, make some marginal inroads into the 50 per cent. who do not get 5 A to Cs. However, let us not pretend, other than by dropping the standard, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire seemed to indicate, that that will address the issue.

The key training initiative in the Green Paper is the modern apprenticeship. It appears, however, that the advice from the Secretary of State's advisory committee is being ignored. Sir John Cassels, in his report, "The Way to Work", found that apprenticeships were too peripheral to education and training. He reported that young people do not choose them, parents do not value them as a worthwhile route, careers advisers see them as a last resort, and, what is more, 93 per cent. of Britain's employers are not engaged with modern apprenticeships at all, yet that is the big idea for the training programme in the Green Paper.

The Under-Secretary would also accept that, when inspection was introduced in 1988, it highlighted huge problems of weak initial assessment, poor induction, poor tackling of key skills, a hit-and-miss approach to off-the-job training, and poor monitoring. To be fair, I also accept that, since inspection has been introduced, those standards have risen. The reality, however, is that modern apprenticeships may be a good idea for a small number of young people but are not the mass panacea that is required if we are to meet some of the huge training needs of our students. I therefore urge the Under-Secretary, as it is not apparent in the Green Paper, to put employers at the centre of the training agenda. If he does not do that, and focuses purely on delivery by schools and colleges, he will fail and he will have missed the boat.

I offer the Under-Secretary the concept of chartered institutes on the lines of traditional guilds, which could be given the responsibility for developing training programmes at prescribed levels. The Government could ensure that chartered status means a right of access to higher education, and allow employers to have direct access to funding on a level playing field with other providers. We cannot hope to win the support of employers if they are not equal partners. Without their endorsement, work-related education and training will never succeed.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the replacement of the national training organisations with the sector skills councils will make a significant contribution towards improving those relationships? Does he also accept that the key to making this work in local communities is for educational institutions and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular to have much closer relationships than in the past; and that mentoring is making a significant contribution towards that? Does he also accept that, in terms of the modern apprenticeship, the very reason for establishing the Cassels commission was to tackle the issues that he has identified? We have agreed to practically all Sir John Cassels' recommendations.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his intervention and for the passionate way in which he responded to those accusations. I totally agree with him about breaking down the NTOs into sector-related and—as I would call them—chartered institutes. We must engage consumers, too. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury talked about having a plumbing GCSE, and I agree that we must give our trades the kind of esteem that we give other areas of the curriculum. Giving chartered status to tradesmen engenders confidence in the consumer, too, so that can he a win-win situation.

The key to the success of the whole of the Government's programme on 14 to 19 education is empowerment of individual students. We applaud the concept of an individual learning plan for each student. We do so because it was in our 2001 manifesto. We are therefore delighted that the Under-Secretary has picked up yet another good idea. I am pretty sure that when he and his colleagues are in my constituency, spending huge amounts of money, they will talk of nothing else.

Young people must be empowered to move from institution to institution. I include employers and private providers in that provision. The needs of young people, and not of providers, must be paramount. However, students must be supported by access to concessionary travel and education maintenance allowances. Those in work must also have the right to time off for study. The objectives will not be achieved if students do not have the necessary support mechanisms.

It is no good offering greater choice and diversity to people in rural Devon or rural north Yorkshire. The infrastructure must be put in place to allow them to take advantage of diversity. It is no good claiming that education maintenance allowances work if they are not extended to students throughout the country.

Mr. Syms

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is very important that pilot schemes cover rural as well as urban areas, to determine how students make choices. He is also right to say that matters such as transport are very important in rural areas.

Mr. Willis

I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Students aged between 14 and 19 must have access to independent and individual careers education and guidance. At the moment, that is in very short supply.

I have no problems with the Government's policy with regard to the Connexions service. It started by trying to help those students who most needed support. They were identified as low achievers who would probably drop out of the system otherwise. However, the idea that bright youngsters who might get more than five GCSEs at grades A to C do not need individual guidance or support is wrong.

We must get away from the proposition that only schools can supply that guidance. In the past, schools have often used their influence to draw students into the programmes offered on those schools' menus. We must offer young people a menu involving a variety of institutions and employers, and that means that each student must also have access to individual advice.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire spoke about providers, and especially about further education colleges. I do not often agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but I do on this occasion. When the Minister for School Standards responds to the debate, will he register an objection to the appalling comment made by the Minister for Lifelong Learning, which was repeated on the BBC programme "Newsbeat" on 7 March? She said:

If you are a learner in a further education college, you have a 50-50 chance of coming out of that college having achieved what you set out to do, and that is not good enough. Was the Minister for Lifelong Learning speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister, or was she simply barking mad on that day? There is no evidence to back up that appalling slur on further education colleges. She must know that 68 colleges in this country have been inspected so far, and that only three have been judged inadequate. The inspectors found that 92 per cent. of teaching was satisfactory or better, that 93 per cent. of curriculum grades achieved were satisfactory or better, and that 58 per cent. of those grades were good or outstanding.

We should celebrate our colleges, not denigrate them. We should not tell students not to go to them because they might end up with nothing. [Interruption.] The devil is in the detail, and I see that the Minister for Lifelong Learning has just entered the Chamber. I shall repeat what I have just said for her benefit. I can tell her that I asked the Minister for School Standards, when he winds up, to deal with her remarks of 7 March, in which she claimed that 50 per cent. of students were likely to leave college without achieving what they went to college to achieve.

In 2000–2001, 85 per cent. of youngsters who entered FE colleges achieved the qualifications that they entered college to achieve. That huge achievement rate is to the credit of our colleges.

If all that interests the Government is the number of students who enter further education, embarking on full-time courses—if that is the Government's vision, and how we are to measure success—the whole thing will fail: it will be an absolute waste of time. I applaud the student who enters an institution and, after one term, says "This is not for me" and thinks about where to go from there. I applaud the student who, after six months, drops out because of family arrangements or financial problems, and returns to college later. Are we to denigrate the college because a student falls on hard times—because, for instance, a young mum becomes pregnant again? That is what the Minister is saying. We must have a flexible system, because ultimately flexibility is the key.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West made a point about the funding and organisation of education for those aged 14 and above, to which the Minister responded very abruptly. Indeed, she dismissed it out of hand, which is a pity. At present the education of 14 to 16-year-olds is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and benefits from an additional grant from the Department for Education and Skills. Under the Learning and Skills Act 2000, however, learning and skills councils can fund their education, and under the new Education Bill they can also fund employers. Learning and skills councils also fund 16 to 19-year-olds in schools, and in further education colleges there are 73 different funding streams. It is sad that Ministers are saying that all that can be dismissed, and does not really matter.

Let us consider the case of a student who spends some time in a school, some time in a college and some time in a workplace. Let us consider the bureaucratic paperchase involved in the attempt to audit the situation—to establish where the money comes from, and to whom it goes. That must not happen.

As my party has not made a firm decision in this regard, I will speak openly to the Minister. We were very supportive of the regional agenda, but the Government should not dismiss the idea of a single structure for 14 to 19-year-olds out of hand. It is surely a matter for discussion, regardless of whether the learning and skills legislation is the right vehicle.

I am delighted that the Minister accepts that the issues of GCSE and the 16-plus barrier must be examined. I respect the view of some Conservative Members that GCSE in its present form should be retained and that all students should take it, full stop. However, I do not agree: I think that the examination has outlived its usefulness as a universal qualification for those aged 16-plus. It might well be used as a staging post if schools or colleges wanted that, but at present it constitutes a genuine barrier.

David Hargreaves, the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has made some important comments about GCSE. He says that in the case of many students it is an irrelevance, and that Government and indeed educators should stop always looking for age-related examinations and start looking for examinations to be taken by students when they are ready to take them.

The right hon. Member for Dewsbury referred to the unit-accreditation system. I think it is entirely right for the sector we are discussing: we must constantly accredit young people's achievements throughout the process.

I accept that we must have national norms. Perhaps we shall have a Bury certificate or diploma, or a Barking certificate—but that joke was made earlier, and it fell flat even then. Such a certificate is an interesting proposition, and one that we will seriously consider. We must not return to the idea that we can liberate the framework for 14 to 19-year-olds, while retaining a barrier that says schools are failing unless students meet the Government's target for five A to C grades. That is a major issue that the Government must address.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

Given the consensus that a far more individual-based learning programme is in the interests of the system and of young people, does the hon. Gentleman agree that GCSEs will still be appropriate for many young people? Does it remain his party's policy that GCSEs should be abolished?

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman should read again my north of England speech, a copy of which I kindly gave him. What my party and I object to is the universalist approach whereby all students should take GCSEs at 16. If an institution decides to examine literacy and numeracy to the national standards through GCSE english and mathematics at age 14 or 17, that is a matter of agreement between the student and institution concerned.

I urge the Minister to avoid getting bogged down. If we want to liberate the process, we cannot at the same time argue that we must judge schools and ensure that they keep to their task through the principle of five GCSEs at grade A to C for 16-year-olds. The Minister should not turn his back on the idea of scrapping league tables for 16-year-olds, and of finding different ways to evaluate student progress and what schools, colleges and other providers do.

Mr. Lewis

I accept that we need to refine the way in which we measure performance, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if our reforms for 14 to 19-year-olds are to work, the issue is not the scrapping of league tables? I suspect that the speech to which he refers contains an element of spin. Is it his party's policy that GCSEs should be abolished?

Mr. Willis

Other Members would probably rather speak than hear us bandy words about. I made it absolutely clear in my north of England speech that the universal application of GCSEs has had its day, but I have no problem with a school's wanting to use GCSEs as part of its process.

Before the Minister gets too excited, I should explain what happens in some of the schools that I have visited. In year 11, students in those schools spend two to three weeks before Christmas preparing for their mock GCSEs. In the run-up to Easter, they spend another three or four weeks in preparation. They have a further four weeks' study leave, and then they spend three weeks sitting their GCSEs. That is some 13 weeks in total. After that, they have nine weeks off. If the Minister is condoning that amount of lost educational opportunity, he must say so. I want us to use that time in a much more productive and valuable way.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I tell the House that the first four speeches have taken 139 minutes, with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) clocking up the longest innings so far? To my mind, that represents self-indulgence. There are 11 hon. Members trying to take part in a debate that can now last only about 90 minutes. I ask for rather more restraint on their part if I am to satisfy as many as possible.

5.4 pm

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

It is almost a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). We last debated together in a television studio, when we were on opposite sides of the argument. I agreed with much of the sentiment behind his speech.

On Shakers' credentials, I was a regular supporter at Gigg Lane years before any of the Front Benchers, and, I suspect, before my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor).

The ages between 14 and 19 are when most young people decide which route to follow of the many available. Some will follow an academic route from secondary school to higher education, some will go to further education and some will leave school at 16 and go to work, or a combination of the two. That time is the gateway to their future. My constituency has excellent secondary schools, all with full rolls and highly successful sixth forms. Indeed, three of my schools came top in the performance league tables.

We have an ongoing problem with a shortage of school places, as a result of which some students have to travel outside the town to secure a secondary school place. Each year, the county consults on how to resolve the problem. One year, the villages to the north are selected and the next the villages to the south, so the problem is batted about. This year, the villages to the north have been selected, with the Tory county council deciding that Sandringham school, which is bang in the middle of my constituency, should be allocated to Harpenden, which is—incredibly—five miles away. That beggars belief, and I have written to the Secretary of State to seek advice. I also presented a petition to Parliament last night, asking that that crazy scheme be overruled.

All the sixth forms are highly successful, offering a range of academic and vocational courses. We also have a good FE college that provides a huge range of academic, vocational and recreational courses. All the post-16 providers work together in consortiums to ensure that the range, level and quality of arrangements for our students are first class.

A cause for concern is the change in the funding arrangements, whereby the Learning and Skills Council has taken over responsibility from the local education authority. Our secondary schools are especially worried about the continued funding of their sixth forms. Over the years, a gap has opened up between the funding per pupil for sixth forms and for FE colleges. The worry is that a levelling down will occur, which would seriously jeopardise the continuing viability of our successful sixth forms.

St. Albans has benefited from much capital expenditure over the past few years, including a new roof on Nicholas Breakspear school, a new gymnasium at Loreto school, a new sports centre at Marlborough school and new science facilities at Beaumont school. I could go on and on. Only this morning, the Under-Secretary with responsibility for early years and school standards opened a nursery centre of excellence—one of only 50 in the country—in my constituency. Many millions of pounds have been spent.

Extra revenue has also been made available, in one form or another, to all our schools. By far the most popular form is the one-off sums—typically £50,000 for a secondary school—that the Chancellor has announced periodically. Those sums are not ring-fenced and can generally be used by schools to meet their own priorities. It is rumoured that later this week some more money will be available for teachers as part of the school achievement award.

Some of our secondary schools were shut last week when the National Union of Teachers staged a one-day strike. I have total sympathy with and understanding of teachers' real concern, although I have my doubts about their method of drawing attention to it. However, I have stood on picket lines myself in years gone by.

Teachers deserve to be treated the same as other professionals. It costs a teacher the same as a police officer to live in an expensive area. Teachers in my area receive a £750 cost of living allowance, whereas police officers receive two and a half times that amount.

I wish to address the subject of apprenticeships. We are acutely short of plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others with light skills. Young people do not seem to be attracted to those highly skilled and highly paid trades. That shortage is seriously undermining our local and regional economy. One of the reasons for the shortage is that those skills are less valued than computing or business studies skills. Each skill is of equal value and we need brain surgeons and plumbers—and more of the latter. When water is pouring through the ceiling, I know which I would prefer to be on hand.

It is imperative that we actively promote the concept of vocational skills. I recently met the Federation of Master Builders, which shares my concern. It proposes an innovative idea whereby young people start their apprenticeships in year 11. We all know of young people who see little value in continuing their studies in year 11 but who might be happy to begin their transition into work while still at school.

Another scheme is run at Feltham young offenders centre. One of the training arms of Ford motor company has set up a pilot scheme to train young offenders to become motor mechanics. The scheme has been working since October with, I am told, 20 young offenders taking part. Once they have finished their sentence, they will complete their apprenticeship in a Ford garage in their area.

That seems a fantastic scheme. It is a great credit both to Ford and the prison authorities. My guess is that those young people will grow in confidence and self-esteem as a direct result of that initiative, will end up with a marketable skill and will resume their role as a productive member of society.

I pay tribute to Tony Bartlett, who retires today after being head teacher at Marlborough school in my constituency for the past 18 years. He is an educator to his fingertips, an inspirational leader who has transformed a failing school. It is now full—it has a full sixth-form—and is immensely popular. His retirement is a loss to education. He is one of the best men I know and I wish him well. I commend the Green Paper.

5.10 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

My contribution will be equally brief, given the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute to the debate.

My perception of education at the moment is that there is a crisis. When I visit schools, two things clearly emerge. The first is the amount of bureaucracy—the circulars to schools from the Department for Education and Skills, and the amount of time it takes teachers and head teachers to read them. The second is the shortage of teachers.

A total of 300,000 qualified teachers under the age of 60 are no longer in education. In 2001—in this era of acute teacher shortage—83,400 people who held teaching certificates had never used them. The number of teacher vacancies has risen in England and Wales. In 2001, it rose to 5,079, up nearly 60 per cent. on the 2,977 vacancies in 2000. Therefore, many of my schools are struggling to deliver core subjects in the curriculum.

I recently visited Poole high school, which has a problem with mathematics teachers. The problem is not unique to Poole high school; it affects many schools throughout the country. The school has a number of classes with no maths teachers; pupils are simply being supervised. The situation is made a lot worse by the fact that the Government are funding more advisers, the pay scales for whom are leading more teachers to leave schools; Poole local education authority has lost six experienced teachers. I am not sure that there are the means of delivering many of the Green Paper's lofty aspirations.

I welcome a number of things in the Green Paper. We clearly have a chronic skills shortage throughout the United Kingdom, and to tackle it a much broader range of skills will have to be delivered. Three quarters of 16 to 18-year-olds in England were either in education or in training at the end of 2000, which is below European, OECD and G7 levels. If we are to retain a world-class economy and be not the fourth largest economy in the world but the third largest, we must produce a lot more people with a greater range of skills.

I welcome the teaching of citizenship, which is long overdue and necessary. Problems arise when we create pathways whereby people have to go to more than one institution. The difficulty in rural areas is that people are not going to have the same choices as those in urban areas. When I was on the education committee in my former life as a local councillor, the question of people having to travel between institutions tended to loom large.

As the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) said, advice for pupils will be remarkably important. The Green Paper says that there will be little additional burden on teachers, that there may be more training and that there will be implications for employing more teachers, but I do not think that it says enough about that. Although it sets out the vision, as it were, it asks lots of very wide questions, as the Minister acknowledged in his reply to my intervention. When we get the consultation about where we are heading, we will have to decide how to execute policy. With a shortage of teachers, it will be very difficult to execute a policy over the next few years. That is my principal point.

My next point is on funding. One of Dorset's disadvantages is that it is in the south-west of the country and does not get the area cost adjustment. Poole borough council suffers grievously from not receiving the area cost adjustment. There are gaps—about £200 per pupil in the resources that Poole and Hampshire receive—affecting almost all age groups. It will be difficult to deliver good-quality education. The area cost adjustment is worth 6.2 per cent. extra to our neighbour in Hampshire. If that were available to Poole, the local education authority would receive an extra £3.482 million a year. During my five years as an MP, Poole has been deprived of about £17.5 million of education provision for its pupils.

When the Government decided to remove post-16 funding and introduce learning and skills councils, they institutionalised the area cost adjustment within those funding arrangements. Many schools in my area are suffering from a shortage of teachers and of resources. They work hard and produce good results in the national league tables, but it is not easy without full support. Delivery in Poole will therefore require greater emphasis on securing the requisite teachers, and better and fairer funding for our local schools, which we are not receiving.

The document has important implications for teacher supply and teacher work load, and more should have been said about them if we want the strategy to succeed.

Those are my major points. In order to give other hon. Members a chance to contribute to the debate, I shall conclude.

5.16 pm
Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

I welcome the opportunity to talk about the Green Paper on "extending opportunities, raising standards". Let me say straight away that the title should include an additional element about "developing aspirations". I refer not just to the aspirations of young people, but to those of their families, who have a crucial role in developing potential.

Those involved in education in my constituency generally welcome the Green Paper, particularly its tone, intention and direction. Any criticisms have been constructive and should help to inform the Government in their efforts to help 14 to 19-year-olds to reach their potential. The Government's long-term commitment to education, particularly the concept of education for life, is especially welcome. Any age is the right age to develop one's education.

The Green Paper is all about seeing young people as whole people who have individual differences, strengths, weaknesses and talents. The reference to ensuring high-quality advice and guidance, to which several hon. Members have referred, is also important. If young people are to make the right choices at 14 and then get to wherever they want to go, we have to help them. That applies particularly to young people with special needs, who have an untapped wealth of potential that we should help them to fulfil. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) mentioned that we need expertise, time and the right people in place to support 14 to 19-year-olds and help them decide where they want to go.

I want to make three main points relating to collaboration or partnership, vocational development and encouraging a wider range of young people to set their sights on getting to university.

Last week, at Yarborough school in Lincoln, I saw in action a good example of the intent of the main proposals in the Green Paper—an enterprise activity. A number of 15-year-old students who had been specially selected and had agreed to participate were looking for a niche for their talents; they found it in work that took place over two days, sponsored and supported by Stamford Homes. Teams of young people worked together to seek planning permission for, build, market and sell homes in Lincoln. They were even required to fill in planning application forms, for which they have my greatest admiration. They also earned the admiration of the planning officer at Lincoln City council, who was impressed by their work.

The activity involved team building, communication, self-confidence, conflict resolution, presentation and marketing skills, development of business acumen and the ability to use maths and English, to name just a few skills. That is the sort of activity to which the Green Paper refers. I asked the young people involved whether it had made a difference and whether they might consider staying on at school. As we all know, unless young people stay on beyond 16, they might never consider university. Their answer was yes, because they could see a niche in their school for their talents and skills. I commend Yarborough school and Mr. Legg, the head teacher, and his team, for seeing the possibility of working with a company such as Stamford Homes to offer young people such an opportunity.

The school is also developing incubator units for young people who want to start a business. We have nothing similar in the locality, and we need to be able to provide support and facilities if we are to encourage young people to consider going into business.

As we head towards April's Budget, it is interesting to note that an independent review by the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Howard Davies, which was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, recommends that business people should go into the classroom and discuss careers and enterprise with pupils. Mr. Davies urges the Government to allocate many millions of pounds to the programme, which, as he rightly points out, would offer pupils a grounding in finance and the economy. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will consider that in his budgetary considerations.

Let me give an example of collaboration and partnership with industry that is taking place in my constituency. As several hon. Members have said, industry and business are vital to the Green Paper's success. Alstom Power, a company that makes gas turbines in my constituency, has taken up the challenge. At its conference centre in Lincoln, it hosted the national launch of the science and engineering ambassadors scheme. The idea is to send ambassadors to schools to spread the word that engineering and science-based careers are exciting, worth while and should be considered. Fifteen young Alstom engineers have agreed to tell young people about the opportunities available if they work hard at subjects such as science, engineering, technology and maths. As Alstom currently has 30 science and technology vacancies, it obviously benefits that company and others to encourage would-be engineers to train and appreciate the advantages of that. Mark Papworth, the managing director, said that he would like to see young people flow through the education pipeline directly into businesses such as ours". There is a place for them, and the Green Paper has to make that happen.

The science and engineering ambassadors scheme is a model for good practice, and I hope that Ministers will promote it. The City of Lincoln community college, a school that is bidding to become a specialist engineering college with the support of Alstom Power, believes that we must quash the myth that engineering is a dirty and undesirable industry in which to work. Barbara Peck, the head teacher, has said that students have limited pictures of engineering and science, fixing on stereotypes and a history of redundancies. That sets the wrong tone when it comes to persuading more people into engineering. I hope that the science and engineering ambassadors scheme, in which role models say "I've done it, it's worth doing", will bring more young people into engineering.

To widen participation it is important not only to meet the Government's target of having 50 per cent. of young people go into higher education, but to consider who those people are. The Green Paper offers us a way to do that. The figure for those who apply to university from Lincoln is barely half the national average. In certain wards—Abbey, Boultham and Park—participation in higher education is less than a third of the national average. Clearly, a problem exists to be addressed in my constituency, and elsewhere.

The key to widening participation is early intervention. Many people would say that 14 is too late, and I hope that Ministers will consider that. Connexions, further education colleges and universities must be able to engage young people at 14. Not all schools allow access, but I was pleased to accompany my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning to the university of Lincoln to see a widening participation scheme in action. As part of a scheme involving local schools, young people were invited to the university to experience what it might be like.

The university should be congratulated for working with 11 associate schools, including the City of Lincoln community college and Ancaster high school. The Green Paper should encourage such good practice. Associate schools sign up with the university so that it can offer them academic advice, technical and other resource advice, opportunities for staff development and focused open days. Ex-pupils who are now university of Lincoln students can go back to their schools to promote the idea of going into higher education.

Key to the process is the making of early conditional offers to individual students who, for a variety of reasons, need to be encouraged to think about going to university. I asked some of the young people whether anyone from their villages had ever been to university. The answer was no, and that they had never thought about it. Having visited the university, however, they could see that it was possible. That is the kind of work that the Green Paper needs to encourage.

On vocational development, the Green Paper proposes that all young people should undertake some work-related learning. We could all learn something from that. Recently, I was shadowed by Caroline Bray, a student from Lincoln Christ's Hospital school, who wanted to find out what it is like to be a Member of Parliament—if anyone wants to know, they had better ask her. I learned a lot from her work placement, not least because she asked the questions that we rarely have time to ask ourselves. If business and industry encourage and support work placements, it is not only the young people who will benefit—the firms will benefit too—and those young people may be able to see their future role, whether as Members of Parliament, entrepreneurs, managers or whatever.

As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, the vocational option should not be seen as a second option; it should be seen as a positive choice which can feed much into specialist schools. There are some exciting possibilities and I am not sure that they have been fully considered. Perhaps the Green Paper could encourage the combination of subjects, as is done in universities. Science and engineering could be put together, as could history and the heritage industry and foreign languages and tourism. That policy could contribute to a move away from vocational work being seen as second class which it is far from being.

I am interested in the new award at 19, possibly to be called a matriculation diploma, as it would raise aspirations and would better prepare young people for working life. They would participate in activities related to active citizenship, work-based learning and wider interests. That part of the Green Paper interests me because I believe that to succeed in the world these days one needs to be more than merely academic; one needs to be a grounded person who has a real understanding of what life is about. I hope that the new award at 19 will focus on that.

To gain success and the achievements set out in the Green Paper, we need to challenge certain perceptions. We talked about the need to challenge the notion that vocational courses are inferior to academic courses; they are not. It is important to promote the schemes that I described, which are supported by companies such as Alstom, as well as the associate schools programme at the university of Lincoln and to support new specialist schools.

Finance is another area that concerns me, and those concerns were endorsed when I met a group of students at the university of Lincoln to discuss positive ideas for student financial support. I realised that their perception of the level of repayments on loans was far in excess of the reality. That is important because if we want to encourage young people to stay on at school so that they can go to university, they must know what the reality is. Those students were not aware that six out of 10 students in Lincoln pay no fees or that a graduate has to earn more than £10,000 before any repayment on their loan is required. Indeed, a graduate earning £11,000 a year would be repaying £90 a year.

As was endorsed in my discussions at the Bishop Grosseteste teacher training college in Lincoln, a number of potential students and their families are put off staying on at school in order to go into higher education because they are frightened of debt. If the fear of debt is preventing people from fulfilling their potential, we have two problems—the problem of actual debt and the even bigger problem of not understanding the true picture. We have a job of work to get the true information across so that people are not unnecessarily worried.

On education maintenance allowances, North Lincolnshire college and the Lincolnshire LEA certainly consider that there is a need for them nationally, and they would like their scope to be extended.

I very much welcome the Green Paper; it gives us a very strong basis on which to work. Education, as we all know, is the key that unlocks the door. It gives choices that people may be denied, possibly because of their backgrounds, and it opens minds. I believe that education is a great leveller upwards. We should raise expectations, not lower them.

The Green Paper allows us to envisage a plan not only for individuals and their families, but for industry, the education system and the country. It is time that we removed artificial ceilings on aspirations, and we, as a Government, have a responsibility to do so. I commend the Green Paper to the House because I believe that, by extending opportunity and raising standards and aspirations, it will take us along the right road.

5.36 pm
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

I read the Green Paper with interest, but I saw little on special needs training and teaching for children aged 14 to 19. I tried to find out whether there was an audit of special needs teachers and trainers in the United Kingdom, but there does not seem to be; nor could I find out how many teachers are special needs trained. When I talked to people at the Dyslexia Institute, which is by far the largest special needs training body in the country, they said they could stream children aged 5 to 6, but by the time those children become 14—or young adults—they can do little because by then the education system has almost failed them.

I wonder whether the Government would consider the American system. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were reading wars in America, believe it or not, and a debate in Congress on how children would be taught to read from an early age to when they left college at 19. Congress passed the Reading Excellence Act and gave $110 million for 10 years' research into longevity and convergence—in other words, how reading will be affected in future. America is therefore almost at the forefront of special needs teaching in the world.

In the United Kingdom, there has been three years' research into literacy on behalf of all children and there is only enough money to evaluate 250 children. Unfortunately, because of the amount of money given to the researchers, they have had to lower the age from 14—which they wanted to use—to seven and a half. The money was given by the Department for Education and Skills, the lottery and, interestingly enough, W. H. Smith. Together, those three bodies gave £500,000 to examine that very complicated and difficult subject. However, as I have said, there is nothing about that in the Green Paper.

I also wonder whether the Minister is aware that the Dyslexia Institute is directly helping children aged 14 to 19 who are on remand or bail. Instead of excluding them from the education system or not allowing them to take part because they have been stigmatised in the eyes of society, the institute is trying to help with their education because a lot of those people have special needs problems. They can then return to mainstream education, so that they can read, write and articulate themselves, as we can, and be given the chance to go forward and get jobs or start apprenticeship schemes. That issue needs to be considered because, again, nothing in the Green Paper addresses it.

I also considered the school census, which I mentioned in a debate two days ago. The Government want to include in the schools census children's names, addresses and postcodes, on which I have a particular view, but I wonder whether there is a chance to include special needs training. If no one keeps such records and considers the issue in the longer term, people will not be able to carry out certain academic research and we will not be privy to it. Surely one way of doing that is to include that information in the schools census, so that education departments, research establishments and other organisations have a chance to evaluate what special needs training those young adults will require, not only now but 10 to 20 years from now.

The legal ramifications are interesting. In America people have taken the American Government to court for failing them in education. Under the convention on human rights that we have enshrined in our legislation, will we have the same problem, at least potentially, whereby we have not developed a child's ability as far as we could because we have failed in special needs? I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that.

The Minister could consider helping the Dyslexia Institute. It has 360 staff, most of whom are teachers and virtually all part-time on a low wage. It is trying to pioneer distance learning for as many people as possible throughout the United Kingdom. It covers the whole United Kingdom. In that way it can deal with problems without somebody having to get to a certain location, unlike the Learning and Skills Council. People can log on at a library or some further education centre to continue study on, for example, the three Rs. The institute is looking for some help from the Government. I see nothing about this in the Green Paper, yet this is the very age group that needs help now.

A slight problem arises with the devolved countries of Wales and Scotland. The Scottish education system is different from ours and faces a problem getting enough specialists through the system to teach in Scottish schools. The situation in Wales is better because the system is the same as in England. Again, would the Minister look at that?

This country is the undisputed leader in this type of education within Europe. We are leading the way, which is marvellous, but can we keep the momentum? The Dyslexia Institute is exporting its expertise to European countries in an effort to take education forward. An hon. Member made an interesting point about language training. Any dyslexic will find English and other languages difficult. If we can encourage other countries to take part in language training, surely it will be of benefit to us all.

Last year the Dyslexia Institute looked at 3,048 young adults and children across 145 outposts and 94 extra outposts to try to make sure that all young people regardless of age have a chance of being seen by a specialist if they feel that they need help. It is also working to look at 7,200 psychological assessments. Special needs covers not just the inability to interface in mainstream schools, but help at other levels. I am not saying that any part of the community is better or worse than another; I am just saying that people need to be assessed at that level. The fact that the institute with the small amount of resources at its disposal is looking at 7,200 people a year shows that there is a problem at this level.

In summary, I ask the Minister to look into this for the future because there are ways to address it. Research has been done in America and is being done here, but it needs a commitment from Government to look ahead. Since 1970 when dyslexia, dyspraxia and other conditions were discovered, all Governments have failed to address the problem through a lack of financial commitment. I ask the Government to give a commitment in the Green Paper or in future legislation that they will provide funding or look into funding, either through county councils, specific educational trusts, universities or other organisations, to help these children as they cannot help themselves. Direct intervention is needed by Parliament to put money into education departments across the United Kingdom. This is a United Kingdom problem; it is not specific to any one area. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board and will not let our children down. In this area we all fail our children.

5.44 pm
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I must declare an interest in that I am vice-chair of governors at Luton sixth form college. I have been associated with the college for nearly two decades. It was the first sixth form college, is one of the largest and has a tremendous record of success in educating young people. There is also a first-class college of further education, Barnfield college, in my constituency. We have heard much about further education colleges and their successes. I taught A-levels in various subjects, so I have some experience.

When I was teaching in the 1970s, I noticed that the enormous difference between those studying A-levels and those studying other subjects was one of social class. In our college, we tried to educate A-level students and others, such as day-release students doing manual courses, in the same classes, at least in liberal studies. That is where those social divisions really showed up. Our educational problems have been complicated by social divisions. I am glad to say that they are reducing, but I fear that if we are not careful, those social divisions will re-emerge and become strengthened by the fragmentation of our education system, particularly at secondary level.

I worry about some of the Government's initiatives on specialist schools. The parental choice approach to secondary schools is also causing problems of social class. That will undermine not just the comprehensive system, but our success in bringing those who have not achieved so highly up to the standards of which they are capable—standards that we want them to reach.

Widening participation means considering those who are at the bottom end of educational achievement, not those at the top. Fragmenting the system and introducing specialist schools is to do what we have always done: considering the top end, rather than the bottom. Those of us who had the good fortune to go to university and who had a fairly pressured, rigorous secondary education have had all the advantages, and we must ensure that the rest of the population—the two thirds, or three quarters, who never had them—have them in future, especially those in the bottom two or three deciles.

Luton sixth form college has many successes. At the moment, 60 per cent. of its students are from ethnic minorities. Every year, 500 ethnic minority students, mainly from the Asian communities, obtain A-levels and go on, mostly into higher education. In terms of integrating into society people who have come from the far-flung fields of Pakistan and Bangladesh, from the Indian communities and the West Indies, Luton sixth form college is doing a tremendous job at every level. However, it has its problems.

The Sixth Form Colleges Employers' Forum Ltd. recently published a document called "In a Class of their Own". I know that it has been passed on to the Minister, who has kindly written back saying what a good document it is. All hon. Members should get hold of a copy, and I draw attention to the last page, which states that if we doubled the number of sixth form colleges, we would transform education in this country.

The sixth form college is a very efficient way of educating people. Such colleges take students who have lower abilities. The value-added factor for marginal ability students is tremendous in sixth form colleges. That is because they have optimum-sized classes. Very small classes do not work, neither do very large ones. The optimum class size of sixth form colleges really does work. In addition, a variety of teachers teach the same subject. That leads not to competition between the teachers, but to a variety of approaches, which leads to best practice from different teachers. Students who have particular strengths can tune their subjects carefully because they have the maximum possible subject choice owing to the large number of parallel classes. That cannot be done in small school sixth forms.

I went to a small school sixth form, so I know that they do a good job in many ways, but they are limiting. Sixth form colleges provide all the advantages of variety, which helps students to play to their strengths. They will not be tied to particular groups of subjects because that is all that is taught in the school.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Doubling the number of sixth form colleges, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, would effectively remove school sixth forms. Surely he realises that many pupils and parents value school sixth forms and want to retain them.

Mr. Hopkins

I believe that one London borough has replaced its school sixth forms with a sixth form college. That can be particularly effective in densely populated urban areas. If one can explain to parents that a sixth form college will make their children perform better and get better results, most will accept it. On the other hand, I appreciate that sensitive problems are sometimes involved. People who know great schools that they have been through and loved can find it upsetting and threatening to see them change.

For our education system to be successful, we must consider what works, and sixth form colleges, like colleges in general, work. In Luton, we have state high schools for 11 to 16-year-olds, one Catholic high school for 11 to 18-year-olds, the sixth form college and a big further education college. That works in an area where a high proportion of parents are from non-traditional backgrounds. Many are from ethnic minorities and some come from extremely poor backgrounds, but their children do well because our system works. Rather than having theories that favour a certain system, such as allowing small schools to develop their sixth forms, let us do some research to find out what works.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

A powerful principle in this matter is that of choice. We should allow parents, and indeed students, to choose of their own volition which is the better option—a local sixth form college or a sixth form in a school. We should not take them down one route and reduce their choice by abolishing sixth forms and putting everyone into sixth form colleges.

Mr. Hopkins

I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the situation in Luton, where the great majority of people want their youngsters to go to the sixth form college because it is a good college and they know that they will do well. That is fine, but if one does as the hon. Gentleman suggests and allows free choice, banding out into social classes will recur. That does not help education.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North poole)

local choices can be important, and the hon. Gentleman is giving a local illustration. However, does he agree that another solution is for sixth forms to work together, co-operating rather than competing to allow for a certain range of subjects to he taught at certain schools? In an urban area, that could enable a young person who has not matured sufficiently to stay in their own community school for at least several days a week.

Mr. Hopkins

I entirely accept the hon. Lady's point, but it goes at least halfway, if not further, towards what I am advocating: collaboration to achieve economies of scale and a sufficient variety of subjects for students to choose to suit their needs and talents. Sixth forms in some schools could specialise in certain subjects and have more students, more teachers and optimal class sizes. The hon. Lady makes a fair suggestion, and it would not lead to the problem of disrupting schools and upsetting people who are attached to their schools. However, sixth form colleges should at least be given a fair crack of the whip.

My final point concerns the serious funding gap between sixth form colleges and schools. Sixth form college teachers are paid less than school sixth form teachers, and the funding per pupil that colleges receive is about one third below that received by schools. They are not treated well, yet they do a fantastic job. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who has left the Chamber, referred to the danger of funding for school sixth forms being levelled down to equal that of colleges. I ask Ministers to honour our commitment to sixth form colleges by pressing the Treasury to level up the funding so they are treated as fairly as schools. In time, we will move towards education provision by sixth form colleges, and the sooner we do so the better.

5.54 pm
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

I want to focus my comments principally on the Green Paper, which deals with "extending opportunities, raising standards". It contains much that we can all support. I particularly welcome the possibility for pupils to fast track on their exams, but we must bear in mind the central importance of GCSEs and the risk that if we leave GCSEs to less able pupils, there may be a problem with parity of esteem. I am also pleased to see the emphasis on high-quality vocational education. It is important that when we offer children a vocational route, the education that they receive is of a high quality, and I shall turn to aspects of that in a moment.

The introduction to the Green Paper refers to the need to engage those young people who have traditionally been alienated and disaffected from school. The objective to meet the needs of those pupils is absolutely right, and I share the aspiration in the Green Paper to have a more flexible curriculum to re-engage those children. There is a distinct logic in the idea that to attract children into school and keep their attention, we must make sure that we match their aspirations with the choices on offer in the curriculum. Having said that, I have a major concern about the implications of introducing flexibility to the curriculum. I refer in particular to the proposal in the Green Paper to make the taking of a modern foreign language in the 14 to 19 age group, and especially the 14 to 16 age group, voluntary.

The importance of foreign languages must be apparent to those of us who have worked in multinational companies. We realise the extent to which we, as a nation, are at a disadvantage compared with our colleagues in France, Germany, Italy and countries further afield because of our inability to grasp the basics of a modern foreign language. We are sending out a very perverse message to our European neighbours and to our children if we encourage children to take foreign languages in primary school, but tell them at 14 that languages are an option that can be dismissed. It is the educational equivalent of that Victorian headline, "Fog in the channel. Europe cut off'. It reinforces the impression that so many people in Europe have of us being an isolated nation rather than one that takes part in the full range of cultural links that are possible if people speak a foreign language.

It is now possible for schools to disapply the element of the national curriculum that requires children to take a modern foreign language. According to the Green Paper, a third of schools take advantage of that for 5 per cent. of pupils. The opportunity to do that is widened by the Education Bill which, under powers of innovation and autonomy, will allow children to disapply specific parts of the curriculum. We can create space in the curriculum for additional vocational topics without telling pupils that a foreign language is entirely optional.

I turn now to the quality of vocational education. We need to be clear that we are not shunting low achievers and those who are disaffected or bored into poor-quality vocational education. That message would demonstrate that there was no parity of esteem between vocational and academic subjects.

In setting the curriculum for vocational GCSEs, we need to make sure that we fully engage local business communities and talk to organisations such as the CBI and the Engineering Employers Federation. Their comments should be reflected in the content of the curriculum, so that employers recognise and accept it, and when they are confronted with students who come from school or college with vocational GCSEs, they will know that the value of those qualifications is equal to that of physics, French, English or maths. They will also know what skills and attainments children have acquired by studying vocational GCSEs. If we fail to achieve that comparability in the minds of employers, we will not meet the aspiration of achieving parity of esteem for vocational and academic GCSEs.

To achieve employers' acceptance of vocational qualifications, we must ensure that the teaching of the subjects is skilled. The Government talk about choice, diversity and partnership in the provision of vocational education, so I hope that they will take into account the vast number of private companies that already provide good-quality vocational education to people who are in work, and consider the talents that such companies have that can be harnessed in the schools sector. I especially welcome the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) that chartered institutes become the providers of some of the vocational qualifications. As a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, I recognise its ability to provide continued professional education both through its membership and district societies, and by employing the services of professional firms and other organisations.

Organisational issues surround the creation of the 14 to 19 age group. My constituency contains five 11 to 16 schools and one further education college. I am not sure how schools will accommodate what will in effect be three levels of attainment for those in years 10 and 11: foundation GCSEs, higher GCSEs and perhaps hothousing children to AS-levels. Although there is much talk of partnership, organisation and arrangements between schools and FE colleges, I wonder whether bussing children from school to school to meet their entitlement to access to the humanities, modern languages and other subjects is the right approach.

I wonder whether we are heading back to having three tiers of schooling: primary school, middle school, and secondary school—with the sixth form that many people want in their local communities—covering 14 to 19-year-olds. We might decide that the way to achieve the high-quality vocational education we seek is to stop having schools with specific specialties such as engineering, science or the arts, and instead set up specialist schools simply to provide vocational education, perhaps centred on FE colleges.

Although I have covered the main points I wanted to make, I have one final comment. Too often in education, we have seen headlines today, but no delivery tomorrow. If we set aspirations for high-quality vocational education for disaffected children within our school system, we must ensure that the Government deliver on their objectives.

6.3 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

I welcome the Green Paper. For too long, we expected the one size fits all structure to meet the needs of all pupils; it did not, so pupils often voted with their feet and left after 16. We have that problem in north Staffordshire, where too many young people decide not to stay on post-16. Only three of every four 16 to 18-year-olds were in education at the end of 2000. That record will not ensure that Britain closes the gap between it and its European competitors in the provision of skills.

I am pleased that the Green Paper is broad enough to tackle high-fliers as well. They often feel constrained by what is on offer in terms of the range of subjects, the ability to take exams early, and the flexibility to enable them, for example, to attend lectures at the local university. Why should they not be able to do so? However, I am not totally convinced about the new tier of achievement at A-levels if it is only so that universities can single out the best pupils. Our universities should look for more than A-level results; they should follow their American counterparts and consider a far broader range of abilities. They should seek evidence that students are doing things other than A-levels and that they have that extra spark, rather than look for more of the same, or the best of the same.

The problem for high-fliers is that timetables often do not allow them to take the range of subjects that they want to study. For instance, they are often not able to take maths and further maths. We should ensure that high-fliers and others have access to high-quality, vocational courses. That is the way to raise the status of those courses.

High-fliers who want to take a large number of exams cannot do so because there is only a short time to fit them all in—perhaps only three weeks. I hope that the practice of taking exams early will become much more common than it is at present. Some schools refuse to do that.

Some people see the proposals on language learning as downgrading language skills, because they are not included as core compulsory subjects. I disagree. Trying to motivate 14-year-olds who do not think that languages are for them is like hitting one's head against a brick wall. It is important not to cajole them, but to inspire them by starting much earlier.

I am delighted about the commitment that by 2012 all primary school children should be entitled to study languages. I would much rather it were sooner, but I realise that we have to build capacity in our primary schools to achieve that. I believe that extending and revitalising the language assistant programme will help, primarily because primary schools will not be teaching grammar, but will enthuse children to develop oral language skills. We should also look to our universities, which have overseas students and language students who could work with pupils in our primary schools. That might not only enthuse pupils, but could also encourage students to take up a teaching career. We could do with them in our primary and secondary schools.

Many primary schools, especially in the most deprived areas, have breakfast clubs. Why do we not use those to enable children to speak a foreign language once a week? Why not have a French café where children could ask for their cereal or croissant and use their language skills. We must show that language is fun and has a practical purpose. Kids who do not go abroad for their holidays need to know that speaking a foreign language is a practical skill. I would also welcome summer schools, when a whole day could be spent pretending to be in France using French.

Mr. Hopkins

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Charlotte Atkins

I am sorry, I shall not give way as other Members want to speak.

Children at primary school level do not have the inhibitions that older students have when experimenting with languages. Information and communications technology is a great boon to language teaching. Westwood high school in Leek has a fantastic language laboratory, which was paid for by Britannia mutual building society. Students can learn and work independently, and teachers can listen to their efforts without them being aware that their attempts at pronouncing French, German or Spanish are being overheard by the teacher. That is a great way to build students' confidence.

There is a great shortage of linguists in north Staffordshire, so I am pleased that we will be promoting specialist language colleges, and that there will be 200 by 2005. However, I am concerned because my local schools, which I have been pressing for specialist language status, say that there are hurdles to becoming specialist language schools. Perhaps the Minister will address that problem in his closing remarks.

I would like a much broader range of languages to be taught, not just the standard German and French. I am surprised that Spanish is not offered more often, given the huge markets in Spanish speaking countries in South and Latin America.

I was very concerned when I read in Overseas Trade magazine that, in February, ambassadors from Germany, France, Italy and Spain had issued a joint plea for language teaching in England to be improved. Clearly, we must do that. As the German ambassador to London said: You are selling in European and global markets—but you are hardly ever able to speak the languages of your markets. That demonstrates that we are missing opportunities to export and build our businesses abroad.

I was very pleased that the Green Paper drew attention to the work of my local further education college. The collaboration between Leek college and Meadows special school has greatly improved the employment opportunities of young people with learning disabilities. The Honeycomb project offers young people not only craft and vocationally-based opportunities, but social and emotional development opportunities, including hair and beauty, self-presentation, art, use of the college multi-gym and ICT activities. The heart of the project is a furniture recycling and wood manufacturing business—pupils experience a real work environment in which they make a full contribution to the business. Leek college has always had a good reputation for working with young people with special needs. I am delighted that the Green Paper has given that national recognition.

I welcome the introduction of quality vocational GCSEs and their focus on pupils of all abilities. They have the potential to excite young people, especially those who are turned off by the mainstream curriculum. A large proportion of students do not fit neatly into the route from GCSEs to A-levels or the route from NVQs straight into the workplace. It is important to cater for those students. The principal of Stoke-on-Trent college, Graham Moore, raised with me a valid concern: the difficulty that schools may have in making vocational GCSEs sufficiently practical and in not having equipment available. NVQ students have always had to be assessed in the workplace, which has been increasingly difficult on courses such as construction and catering, as small firms do not have the necessary range and quality of training experience. Vocational GCSEs must not suffer from the same problems.

Although I accept that the funding gap for students in further education and schools may cause difficulties, it is important that schools work closely with colleges to provide a real range and choice of courses. Students will then be able to exploit the facilities in FE colleges. That is already happening in Leek. Leek college and Leek high school are sharing their skills and facilities to provide the best possible outcome for students in the college and the school. Under the previous Conservative Government, colleges were encouraged to compete and to embrace market forces, which did no help colleges. I am therefore pleased that that approach has been rejected in north Staffordshire. We have developed a concordat whereby all four local colleges work together—and try not to compete head to head—to provide, between them, the courses that are required locally.

We must also be realistic about how quickly we can get vocational GCSEs off the ground. Of course we want to introduce them quickly, and some will be introduced by September 2002. The major influx of those courses, however, will occur towards 2005. It is important to get them absolutely right and to ensure that more schools are ready to deliver a broader curriculum. Schools and colleges must deliver real choice for their pupils.

Provision must be for boys and girls. We hear a lot about the under-achievement of boys, but let us not forget that there is still a real gender divide in science and ICT. The situation in chemistry is better, but three times more boys than girls achieved passes at physics A-level in 2000.

In the crucial ICT sector, where we have such shortages, about 24,000 girls achieved A* to C grades in GCSE computer studies in 2001, compared with 32,000 boys. In the same year, about 4,000 girls achieved an A-level in computer science, compared with 13,000 boys. It is clear that girls are not engaging in ICT in the same numbers as boys. I fear that the expectation persists in some areas that boys will take to computers, and that girls will not.

The situation in the workplace is even worse. The number of people in ICT jobs has risen by more than 50 per cent., but the proportion of women in those jobs is falling—from 25 per cent. in 1995, to 22 per cent. now. Women account for only 8 per cent. of the work force in software engineering. The success of girls in school should not blind us to the gender stereotyping that still persists.

Huge challenges lie ahead. The Green Paper will address many of them. We have made a huge and beneficial start.

6.16 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I shall be brief, as there is little time left. The Green Paper contains some good ideas, and some bad ones. That is typical of this Government, but the belief that improvement can be regulated underlies too many elements in the Green Paper.

The Government must be aware that teachers and head teachers are buried in initiatives already. They complain endlessly about the flow of initiatives. The Green Paper risks adding to the flow of new initiatives, ideas and changes, leading to less stability in our schools, and giving heads and teachers less time to sort out the initiatives with which they are dealing already.

The Government therefore must be very cautious about how they proceed with these proposals. It is very important that any change adds value to the present system, and does not attempt to turn it upside down, as that would merely make matters still more difficult for the hard-pressed teachers to whom I and my colleagues speak every week. Again and again, they refer us back to the problems that they face with work load, with initiatives, and with the requirements laid on them by central Government.

I have two points to make about the Green Paper. The first has to do with the proposals for examinations. Much earlier, we heard about the Liberal Democrats' proposals for GCSEs. I am profoundly worried by the Green Paper's proposal that some pupils should abandon GCSEs, for a very straightforward reason.

The Green Paper refers—rightly—to the need to create a vocational route in our education system that is an "equally valued pathway". I believe that we will not generate such a pathway by tinkering with our exam systems. Creating a system in which many pupils—probably the brighter ones—do not take GCSEs but move straight to AS-levels and A-levels would take us back 20 years, to the time when we had a system of O-levels and CSEs.

In effect, that would lead to the creation of a second-class exam system for pupils perceived to be less able. We must not allow that to happen. From my own childhood, I remember that a stigma was attached to pupils who took CSEs rather than O-levels. The introduction of a single examination system at 16 was a positive step towards removing that divide. I should hate to see that divide restored because of the introduction of a system that allowed some pupils to fast-track into the A-level syllabus and ignore GCSEs. The result would be that a huge question mark would hang over the heads of those who did take GCSEs, and the implication would be that they were second class.

My second point has to do with sixth forms. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) spoke about the role of sixth form colleges. However, the Government make a virtue of the need for teachers working with pupils in the 11 to 16 age group to prepare those pupils for what they will encounter in the curriculum for 14 to 19-year olds. The danger of fragmentation of education by the removal of sixth forms is very great. It worries me that, despite all the assurances we have heard from Ministers, sixth forms are suffering financially as a result of the transition to LSC funding.

Schools in my constituency are suffering in that way. Last week my county council in Surrey discussed a scheme to rebalance sixth-form funding. As a result of the LSC formula imposed by the Department, schools are losing out or gaining in a very haphazard fashion. They will, I know, seek the Department's support for the rebalancing of the system and the formulae. I hope that the Department will provide that support.

The Green Paper contains much to be welcomed, and many aspirations that all Members share. There are pitfalls, however, and the biggest is this: we must not impose on heads and other teachers, or indeed on college lecturers and principals, more change that would turn their lives upside down in the wake of the changes of the past few years. The steps we take must be careful and measured, and must secure the stability of our system rather than destabilising it at what is a very difficult time for schools and colleges throughout the country.

6.21 pm
Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich)

I applaud the quality of today's debate, and thank the Government for initiating it.

Life is often difficult for young people between 14 and 19. They experience too many hormonally driven distractions: they have to decide what to wear on a Friday or Saturday night, for instance. We have to square the circle, as a society. As those young people make their decisions, we must decide how to meet the needs and wishes of individual students without making them feel that they have been on a rollercoaster through education and straight into work, while also recognising that we must meet the skill needs of national and local economies.

My constituency certainly lacks the skills that are needed to support its growing knowledge economy. We have a shortage of both software developers and computer network technicians. That tells us something about the two levels of skill that we need from those emerging from the education and training system. My point is that there must be a balanced approach that respects the needs of the individual while meeting overall needs. I welcome the existence of that balanced approach in the thrust of the Green Paper.

Too many of our young people are still disengaged from their education. All too often, their parents may have had an unfortunate school experience and may therefore not have the aspirations for their children that we might have for ours—and, indeed, for theirs. I commend the focus on "drivers for change" and the raising of standards in the Green Paper. I particularly welcome its focus on beacon schools, a number of which can be found in my constituency. Such schools provide an incentive for improvement and continuous development, similar to the incentive provided by other mechanisms such as "Investors in People" and charter marks.

One issue that is, perhaps, underplayed in the Green Paper is the role of beacon local education authorities. They are mentioned, but to no significant extent. My constituency contains an LEA that provides support for schools. Suffolk county council was identified by the Government as a beacon council for its work in partnership with schools: it was a constructive LEA, working with schools in difficulty. It gained its status because it had a clear vision about support for schools, consistent criteria for the triggering of early intervention, flexible support systems and effective statistical models. By those means it sustained a good "family" of LEA schools. There were never any grant-maintained schools in the area.

Much progress has already been made, as the results show. Suffolk has achieved a faster improvement than other counties in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving five or more grades between A* and C. In 1997, 47.4 per cent. achieved such grades; by 1999, that figure had risen to 53.5 per cent. I commend the Labour-led county council's current policy and performance plan, which establishes a target of 60 per cent. during the life of the current council, towards 2005. LEAs can play a positive and essential role in negotiating with schools, and in cajoling and encouraging them to achieve those targets.

The target of five A* to C GCSEs covers some 50 per cent. of young people's achievement. There is a long statistical tail behind that, and I am glad to see that the Green Paper refers to the number who achieved just one GCSE, and to those who achieved A* to G qualifications. Those targets are equally important. We must also remember the care system targets as set out in the quality protects management action plans, which were developed by social care services and education departments.

I therefore welcome the intention to raise the value of vocational qualifications and to introduce flexibility into the curriculum. That is the way to re-engage disaffected young people. As others have said, the effective use of work experience has a positive role to play, and in that regard I draw the House's attention to the young people whom I met at a print works in West Flanders, who were experiencing Europe as a potential world of work opportunities.

As the Green Paper makes clear, mechanisms exist to enable young people to stay on in higher education, and on that point I leave the House with a final thought. When I first entered politics as a councillor in the late 1980s, under a Tory council and a Tory Government, only 28 per cent. of young people in Suffolk stayed on in post-16 education; now, about 70 per cent. stay on. In Ipswich, new sixth-form schools have been built, and partnership sixth-form schools such as Coplestone and Holywells high school have been established. I therefore welcome the broad thrust of the Green Paper, and I hope that the Minister will respond to some of my points.

6.27 pm
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. Like many newly elected Members, I have spent some time visiting schools in my constituency. I have visited primary and secondary schools, and some further education colleges in the local area, but my odyssey is by no means complete. By and large, I have been very impressed by what I have seen, but I have also encountered some concerns in my discussions with teachers. I undertook to raise them in the House, if possible, so in the context of the debate I shall attempt to keep my word.

One concern was pay, especially in relation to housing costs. Obviously, that is a particular problem in London and the south-east, including Essex. There is also the issue of disruption in the classroom, which has been touched on. Suffice it to say that most teachers join the profession to teach children, not to act as police officers. Many teachers want firmer action to be taken against disruptive pupils. Although there have been some recent changes in policy in that regard, most teachers to whom I spoke think that there is further to go.

The principal issue that I want to discuss on those teachers' behalf—it arose time and again—is the burden of paperwork. In December 2001 alone, secondary schools received some 510 pages of instructions from the Department for Education and Skills. At a rate of two minutes per page, it would take 17 hours to digest those instructions from the centre. To that must be added the considerable amount of paperwork that individual teachers have to cope with in their own right—not least in respect of performance-related pay.

Many teachers have complained to me about what they call the Sunday evening syndrome—[Iinterruption]—which I should like to explain to the Minister if she would pay me just a moment's attention. Teachers have to sit down in the middle of Sunday afternoon and spend hours filling in paperwork, so that they are up straight, as it were, for their return to work on Monday morning. A large proportion of their weekend is given up to bureaucracy simply so that they can go to work on Monday and begin their job as normal. Teachers find that intensely irritating and I would like to think that the Government would be prepared to do something about it. It was best summed up to me by one teacher who said:

I know how to teach. Why do I need to spend hours filling in forms so that someone I have never met can second guess everything I'm doing—just let me get on with it. Too many teachers are leaving the profession and 40 per cent. of final-year students never even make it into the classroom. The point was made to me that it is not just about pay, although that is clearly an issue; and it is not just about discipline, although that is clearly an issue too. Much of the problem is the bureaucracy. It is persuading teachers to leave the profession, taking with them skills that their potential students can ill afford to lose. Teachers in my constituency want to teach. They want less bureaucracy, not more. I promised to make a plea on their behalf, and I hope that I have done that. I just hope that the Minister will listen to it.

My final point concerns post-16 education and the funding of sixth forms. Essex county council was given several guarantees by Ministers that no school would be worse off as a result of the transition to funding from the learning and skills council. It is my understanding from the county council that because of the complexities and vagaries of the funding formula, when the mathematics are eventually worked out, many schools with sixth forms are materially worse off. In that sense, Ministers have not honoured their commitment. I invite them to reconsider the formula to see whether something can be done. To take Ministers at their word, it may be that they did not realise the implications of what they were doing. Perhaps they could now right that wrong.

6.32 pm
John Mann (Bassetlaw)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for squeezing me into this debate. I have only one point to make. I have a plethora of documents on education, both Government and party political, from the 1940s onwards and I am familiar with them all. But one factor is missing from every single one—the coalfields. The inner cities get a lot of attention and a lot of literature is devoted to them. There is no question that poverty in the inner cities is far greater in reality than poverty in the coalfields. However, what the coalfields have, more than any other area, is a poverty of aspiration and expectation.

That poverty of expectation was there throughout the last century and it remains to this day. In the mining villages, boys were expected to leave school at 15—a bit later it was 16—and work down the pit until they retired at 64 or 65, unless they had an accident and faced early retirement. Girls were expected to marry one of the boys and stay at home or, in more enlightened days, work in a textile factory to earn additional money, and then retire. The one thing that was not needed was high educational attainment.

The big difference between the 1940s, the 1950s and now is the behavioural questions. The behavioural problems in schools nowadays are not the same as those that existed then, because fathers sorted out any problems underground in the pit. The pits, by and large, are not there any more. That is a fact and that is how society now operates.

The biggest problem that I see in my surgery is literacy. Scores of retired miners cannot fill in the compensation forms for pneumoconiosis because they do not have the necessary literacy skills. Many of them have not sent the forms in yet because they are terrified of getting them wrong. There are queues at the citizens advice bureaux, which are filling in forms for people who cannot spell. That is still a major problem.

There is another big problem. Those kids all went to the secondary modern schools. In the pit areas, especially our pit area—the Dukeries—old barns on farms are being converted. Old manor houses have sold off land for middle-class housing. In those villages, primary schools are often attaining 100 per cent. in terms of Government standards. At the secondary schools, kids from existing or former pit villages have still got a low level of aspiration and low results. Those factors mesh together and disguise the problem.

We need three things. First, the Government's biggest achievement has been to start to sort out primary schools. Higher expectation and more money have made the biggest impact in my area—far more impact than any other scheme. Secondly, 14 to 16-year-olds have been lost before, but that is where it really hits homes. People talk about teaching kids French, German or Spanish; in some of the schools, we would like the kids to attend classes in the first place, learning and getting leadership and management skills, which they can use in the world of work. Therefore, I applaud the initiatives.

The final and crucial thing is that we should not run down what the Government are doing. On capital spending on schools, I will tell the House what I want. Bids are in from my area at the moment; I know that the Minister cannot comment. We have put in for every secondary school in every mining area to be rebuilt. Imagine the impact it would have on the aspirations of young people, their parents and grandparents if it was announced next week that every secondary school in the mining villages would be rebuilt as new. That is what I would call delivery.

I would welcome such an announcement next week. If we do not get it next week, we will keep pressing. That is what I mean by delivery. That coalfield perspective is crucial. That lack of aspiration and expectation is crucial. I salute this team of Ministers. I believe that they are the first in 50 years to recognise the difference of the coalfields and the importance of aspiration. More of it please.

6.37 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

It is a pleasure to respond to what has been an excellent short debate. It is also a pleasure—I am sure that the Minister would agree—to have a debate on this important aspect of education. The difficulty has been to fit in all those on both sides of the House who wanted to speak, which has been a pleasure to see. It has been a pleasure to listen to the contributions.

There have been too many contributions to go through all of them in detail but I will mention a few. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) made an excellent speech. She referred to the importance of pre-school education, and the importance of flexibility but not fragmentation in education. She also referred to the almost bewildering choice of qualifications and groups in education, which is an important concern. She was clearly wasted in the Whips Office. We are pleased to hear what she has to say now that she is a free woman again.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) accused the Government of peddling motherhood and apple pie—and a bit of creationism as well. He talked about the lessons from Skoda and how the esteem of vocational training can be improved only through quality and not through rebadging, which is a valid point. His speech was not so much a Skoda as a stretch limousine, but we will forgive him that, since we have grown used to it.

The hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who unfortunately is not in his place at the moment, was worried about the threat to successful sixth forms, a concern that many hon. Members on both sides share. He was concerned that the Learning and Skills Council may pursue the route of levelling down funding, rather than levelling it up, a point that was raised by other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) spoke about the crisis of bureaucracy, the shortage of teachers, and the chronic skills shortage. He spoke about the problems of teaching the same children in a variety of institutions, particularly in rural areas where travel can be a difficulty. He referred to the iniquities of funding which affect hon. Members on both sides of the House and various constituencies in much the same way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) made an important contribution, referring to the importance of special needs and the teaching of reading. He paid a particular and welcome tribute to the work of the Dyslexia Institute.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) voiced concern about the possible fragmentation of the education system and the dangers of a more socially divisive form of education. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) voiced his strong concern about the future of language teaching if the Green Paper proposals were to come into being. He also spoke about the importance of real quality in vocation education and the difficulties caused by bringing in early AS-levels in 11 to 16 schools, something that may be compounded by the uncertainty about the funding arrangements and structures, about which we heard more today from the Under-Secretary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), in a brief but cogent intervention, said that teachers were already buried under initiatives from the Government and referred to the danger of tinkering with the exam system, as set out in the Green Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) mentioned the burden of paperwork and spoke tellingly of the Sunday evening syndrome that affects teachers in his constituency.

The Under-Secretary talked about the Bury connection, and went on to say that he hoped there would be no political knockabout in the debate. Unfortunately, I was led to fear for his short-term memory, because he immediately went on to attack the previous Government on the basis of spurious figures that he claimed about education funding, passing over the fact that the last Government spent a higher percentage of the nation's wealth on education than the Labour Administration from 1997 did. He went on to blame the recent widening of the gap between high and low achievement on the previous Government: again skating over the fact that it is happening now under this Government and is not attributable to the Government who went before.

The Under-Secretary spoke about the group of young people who have been put off education by the content of the curriculum. That is a concern that Members on both sides take seriously and recognise must be dealt with. He spoke about a cycle of failure and about social problems. He also mentioned language teaching and made it clear that schools must offer languages, even if no one takes them. What is the percentage reduction in those taking languages post-14? What in practice will be the effect of what is being set out?

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the Under-Secretary made it clear that he thought that schools might be statutorily required to offer the teaching of modern languages, but that it might be provided by another institution; schools did not need to offer it within their own institution. Rapidly, this commitment—such as it was—is becoming a meaningless pledge.

If languages are not taught in the institution where the pupil studies but are offered elsewhere, what are the implications for travel costs? How will they be met? What are the implications for disadvantaged pupils, for whom the difficulty may be greater? What are the implications in rural areas, where it may be difficult to move from one institution to another? Is it not less likely that people will take languages in the 14 to 19 period of their education if they have to go elsewhere to do so?

We heard about modern apprenticeships and the matriculation diploma. We are concerned that the future planning of 14 to 19 education appears to be something of a black hole in the Government's thinking. It is not clear whether the Government wish the area planning of education to be executed by learning and skills councils, local education authorities or some other body. Having said that they are not intending to move funding or planning to the learning and skills councils, the Government must make clear where exactly they want that funding and planning to take place and what the implications will be.

The Under-Secretary pledged that we would have not necessarily the publication of the responses to the Green Paper but "a representative summary" of responses. That gave cause for concern to all Members who have experienced the Government's tendency to publish only those pieces of information that appear favourable, and not always an open and honest sample of what they have received. The Government say that they want to raise the status of vocational education, an objective that we all share. However, they seem to want to do so by downgrading the GCSE still further, which gives real cause for concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire expressed several concerns on behalf of the further education sector, concerns which grow stronger daily. I know from constituency experience and conversations that I have had how angry people in that sector are, especially at the recent remarks of the Minister for Lifelong Learning. On reflection, she may want to retract those remarks and make it clear that good work is being done in that sector and great achievements are being made.

My hon. Friend also asked for a definition of a higher education experience, for which he has been waiting for six months. There seems to be no sign of such a definition.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), kindly drew attention to the recent literary work of the former chief inspector of schools and invited us to quote from it. I wish that I had more time to quote those views about the Government—the book contains some wonderful quotes. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties are already digging into it. [Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning says that she has not bothered, but perhaps she should. I offer her this quote: The Government should stop flailing around inventing new recruitment wheezes. It should stop wasting public money on what must be a hugely expensive advertising campaign…Deal with disruptive children. Cut the paperwork and the distractions. Reform the approach to pay. Action on these fronts would, at very least, ease the current crisis. We are grateful to the Under-Secretary for drawing attention to the former chief inspector's comments. They do not necessarily paint a flattering picture of the Government's achievements to date.

In the Green Paper, there is a huge shift away from the Government's mantra when they first arrived on the scene in 1997, claiming that they were about standards, not structures. The Green Paper presages massive structural change. Its objectives are common to both sides of the House, but there are real fears about the approach. Esteem for vocational education will rise with standards in vocational education. That will not happen if the Government proceed with a policy to allow vocational GCSEs for the less able while early AS-levels are provided for the brightest pupils. Pupils in such circumstances—those who are most able to cope with the exam overload—will be spared it. Those who are stretched to cope with GCSEs at 16, AS-levels at 17 and A-levels at 18 will still have to face the overload that currently damages the breadth of their experiences in the curriculum and outside it.

There is an inherent contradiction in the Government's policy on languages. To say that they want more at primary level, fewer at secondary level and more for adults is absurd. Now that we have had confirmation that languages need not be offered in all schools, the concern is even stronger.

The Green Paper risks taking us round in circles. We envisage far more bureaucracy and confusion for qualifications and the planning and funding of 14 to 19 education. It does nothing to lift the threat to their future that sixth forms already feel. It risks devaluing vocational qualifications and accelerating the demise of GCSEs. We shall support the Government in seeking better vocational education, parity of esteem for vocational education and greater flexibility. However, I hope that the Minister for School Standards will accept that the debate has flagged up real concerns on both sides of the House about the Government's approach, and I hope that he will take them seriously.

6.49 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

We have had an interesting debate. The House has been right to focus its attention on our important proposals for education for those aged 14 to 19. There has been a great deal of progress in education over the past five years, with dramatic improvements in primary schools as the literacy and numeracy strategy has been successful in raising standards.

This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in a speech to Demos how we shall apply those lessons to the middle years, for 11 to 14-year-olds, and we are starting to see evidence of improvements. Some 50 per cent. of teenagers achieved five good GCSEs last summer, a year ahead of our target date. In addition, we received a positive assessment, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Pisa study, of our 15-year-olds. That international comparison was published just before Christmas. Extra investment has also borne fruit in our schools.

That said, it is certainly the case that many challenges remain. In particular, those challenges come at ages 14 to 19. Too many people drop out of education much too early. In 1998, there were fewer 17-year-olds in education in Britain than in all other OECD countries except Turkey, Mexico and Greece. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly drew attention to our poor performance by comparison with other countries on level 3 qualifications. We must do better, and we will.

There are other challenges. The Pisa study drew attention to our high overall achievement, but also pointed out that the gap between those who do and do not do well in Britain is a big one in international terms. We need to close that gap and to fire the imaginations of many more of those who lose their enthusiasm for education much too early. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) gave an interesting example from Yarborough school of how that is being done around enterprise. We need more examples of that kind.

We need to address skills shortages and to raise the skills of those entering the work force in order to boost productivity and promote economic growth. We need to ensure that we meet the needs of those likely to struggle at GCSE while also stretching and challenging those whom we expect to do well at A-level. The Green Paper will allow us to address all those challenges.

I welcome the consensus about the need for more opportunities for high-quality vocational options, as the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) has just said. We need to meet demand from young people and employers. We shall offer eight new GCSEs in vocational subjects from September, and several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), said that we shall need additional subjects. I agree with that, and we look forward to offering more subjects from 2004. It is important to make the point that those examinations will be rigorous. They are not a soft option, and they will attract academically able young people. They will develop important skills that employers will prize.

We cannot realistically offer these new options, however, if we also insist that every pupil does everything that the national curriculum currently requires. That is the reason for a more flexible curriculum at 14 to 16. The core compulsory subjects will be restricted to those essential for progression—maths, english, science, and information and craft technology.

Points have been made about modern and foreign languages, particularly by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) in his characteristically courteous contribution, by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury in her impressive and wide-ranging speech. We fully recognise the importance of modern foreign languages. That is why we propose a statutory entitlement to them for all pupils at 14 to 16. That will mean that those subjects will continue to be available to those who want them.

We have a poor record of teaching and learning modern foreign languages, and the hon. Member for Fareham told us that one third of schools are currently disapplying the national curriculum requirement. I am not sure whether that is right, but the Green Paper makes it clear that the requirement for MFL is disapplied for about 32,000 pupils, which is a large number. If that is so, why should we pretend that there is an effective compulsory requirement at present? Why require people to go through the cumbersome disapplication procedure if it is in their best interests to do something other than MFL?

Mr. Brady

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

Given the time, I had better press on. I will give way in a moment if I am able, but I started rather late.

We are committed to tackling the long-standing problems. We do not think that the answer is to force reluctant, uninterested and potentially disruptive 14-year-olds to study languages. However, we do want to get young people interested in learning a language at an early age—my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) made this point—and to provide them with the opportunity to continue with that interest throughout life. We made that proposal in a pamphlet published on the same day as the Green Paper, which set out our ambition for all primary school children to have an entitlement to study languages within 10 years and for there to be at least 200 specialist language colleges by 2005.

All that means that young people will have significant choices to make at 14—more significant than they would have had to make in the past. I agree with those who have pointed out that we need to ensure that they will have the advice and support to choose wisely, with their parents and teachers.

We are building up modern apprenticeships, with targets for many more young people to take them up and a national framework that defines the basic standards and will strengthen the relationship between employer and apprentice. Of course, apprenticeships almost entirely disappeared during the 1980s. The fact is that we need to be investing in the skills of young people at the workplace. The system of foundation and advanced modern apprenticeships is allowing us as a nation to do that once again.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said a good deal on that subject and I thank him for the welcome he gave to the vision and to a number of the specific proposals in the Green Paper—the learning plan, for example. He suggested that our proposals for modern apprenticeships were too small scale. I do not think that that is the case. We have set a target of, I think, 28 per cent. of young people going into such apprenticeships by 2004. It is a substantial programme. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to involve employers very closely in the design. We are doing so with the sector skills councils, and as the proposals come to fruition, he will see that the high ambitions that he rightly set out will be met.

An important point that goes to the heart of the discussion is that we need to switch the focus of attention from what young people achieve by the age of 16 to all that they will achieve by the age of 19, whether they have been at school, in a college or earning a wage. GCSEs at 16 are a staging post in secondary education, not a finishing post. I do not believe that what we are proposing amounts to downgrading GCSEs, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, nor do I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that they should be downgraded. They are not the end of secondary education, however. That is the importance of the matriculation diploma at age 19 as a target for every young person to aim for throughout their teenage years, signifying recognition for their achievements, whether they have been pursuing academic or vocational options, or a mixture of the two.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in opening the debate, we also want the diploma to recognise wider interests—citizenship, volunteering and wider activities. I am one of those who think that there is some merit in the name "matriculation diploma"—[Interruption.] If we had had to put that to the vote this afternoon, I might have found myself in something of a minority. One reason why I think that it has some merit is that people will be able to matriculate. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was talking of the benefits of graduation and I agree that there are some benefits. However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one matter—I think he said that having different levels of the diploma might be unhelpful. I was recently in the United States looking into graduation. I was struck by the fact that it is often at different levels in US high schools. I was at a school where there were three levels.

This has been an interesting debate and it has been very useful from our point of view in helping us to make decisions on the basis of our proposals. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made some important points about rural issues. That is why the Green Paper draws attention to the need for pathfinders in rural areas. I was also interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) about the Dyslexia Institute, which is not an organisation with which I am familiar. I would certainly be interested to know more. A number of my hon. Friends also made important and useful points.

We have set out today our plans for a coherent 14 to 19 phase of education. We want to get away from the fragmentation to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred at the beginning of the debate. This week, I launched at Canary wharf the first of 56—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.