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Mrs. May: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the sad things about the Secretary of State's response was

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that she completely failed to listen to my point about the need for a proper national debate on post-14 qualifications? A range of qualifications is available. We need to consider what is right for young people. This is not merely about tinkering around with the number of exams taken at AS-level.

Mr. Willis: I confess that I agree with the hon. Lady—and I have made the same point. However, I hope that she agrees that we cannot say that we will reconsider the curriculum and qualifications for everyone apart from the relatively small group of students who do A-levels. The Secretary of State and I know that every year 10 per cent. of young people leave school with no qualifications—they simply drop out. Indeed, most of them have dropped out well before they get to the end of year 11. That is the reality.

How do we keep those young people in the system? How do we create a curriculum and qualifications structure that not only brings them into schools but into colleges and onwards? That is why we must have a radical overhaul. If the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Government can actually agree on that, this debate will be momentous in relation to the next four or five years.

Mr. Bercow: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although there is undoubtedly a case for considering a broadening of the post-16 curriculum, it is essential that we at no stage devalue the academic content of what is undertaken simply to achieve the Government's politically correct totem of 50 per cent. participation in higher education?

Mr. Willis: That is an insulting intervention from such an ostensibly intelligent Member—[Hon. Members: "Ostensibly?"] I use my words advisedly. Nothing has been said during this debate from any Bench that suggests that we want to undermine academic excellence. That is not the case—[Interruption.] It is certainly not what we want. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the baccalaureate is used in some countries, in some areas or in the private sector as a route to academic excellence and broadening, I should like to explore that in this debate—[Interruption.] I should like to respond to the hon. Gentleman, if he will stop shouting at me.

Mr. Bercow: I am not shouting.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is speaking rather loudly from a sedentary position.

We also need to consider that army of youngsters who achieve nothing and gain nothing from the system. We must not think in terms of an exclusive either/or decision.

One of the greatest omissions from the Learning and Skills Act 2000 was that it completely ignored higher education. If there is to be a genuine continuum of lifelong learning, higher education must be part of it. Last week the Minister for Lifelong Learning—who is deep in conversation at the moment—said that she was prepared to examine the relationship between FE and HE and between the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Our party is on record as saying that we want the Learning and Skills Council and the HEFCE to be combined, except for

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research fund moneys. It is important that we do not create a new 14 to 19 structure and then find that there is a barrier when people try to move between the FE and HE structures.

I hope that the Minister will agree that we are trying to make progress by holding this debate, rather than merely picking a fight with the Government.

2.35 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I welcome the Opposition's choice of this subject for debate, but it is especially surprising given that, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) pointed out, the Conservative manifesto made no reference to a policy on post-16 education. During their past four years in opposition, the Conservatives put little emphasis on the subject. Furthermore, their record during their last four years in office was dire.

I associate myself with some of the hon. Gentleman's critique of the period between 1993 and 1997, although given that his criticism of the Tory record was so strong I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats did not feel able to table their own amendment to the Tory amendment. Unfortunately, they seem to agree with the substance of the Tory amendment.

Between 1993 and 1997, following the incorporation of further education colleges, funding for the post-16 sector was squeezed, year on year, in a way that it never had been in any UK public service during any four-year period. The result was tremendous staff demoralisation and an enormous exodus of further education lecturers from the profession. There was a huge rundown of the staffing base, leading to the recruitment of a large number of part-time, temporary contract staff, with inevitable instability and uncertainty for the institutions.

There was a continual struggle with a funding methodology that was more arcane and complex than any that had been used for any UK public service. The management of colleges throughout the country struggled day to day as they grappled with that funding methodology in a constant effort to beat the system.

I hark back to the oft-cited fact that 1 million extra students were recruited during that period of Tory Government. In fact, the figure was entirely the result of creative accounting. The real number of students fell as the system started to fall apart. The impact of competition between colleges led to greater confusion about what was on offer. The numbers were maintained on a wholly notional basis. I speak with some feeling on that point, because before I became a Member one of my jobs was to beat the system in exactly that way.

During that period, we saw the introduction of a pseudo-enterprise culture in the post-16 sector. Sadly, as the years passed, some of the Conservatives' heroes of that enterprise culture finished up running pubs in north Wales with their girlfriends rather than the colleges they should have been running. Some of them are still fugitives from justice. Others ended up in jail—if they did not end up there, they should have done. The record of the last Conservative Government is dire. Many of the problems currently facing the sector are entirely attributable to that period.

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It was depressing that the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) concentrated most of her remarks on AS-levels and on schools. She made passing reference to further education colleges and sixth form colleges, but made no reference to adult training. There was no reference to young people who leave school with no qualifications. There was minimal reference to students who continue along the vocational route.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that head teachers, parents and sixth formers are greatly concerned that the Government's approach to post-16 education ignores our sixth forms and treats them as second-class citizens and that the Government are much more interested in colleges and other aspects of post-16 education? Would it not be appropriate for the Government to send a signal to our sixth forms, which deliver so much quality, that they do matter?

Mr. Chaytor: I am very aware that the vast majority of 16 to 19-year-old students are taught in colleges, not in sixth forms. The overwhelming majority of post-16 students are taught neither in sixth-form colleges nor in sixth forms, but in general further education colleges or tertiary colleges, or they study outside the institutional framework. We have to set the importance of sixth forms in that context, and I shall return to them later in my remarks.

In contrast with what happened between 1993 and 1997, the Government have recognised the importance of post-16 and lifelong learning in the past four years. That recognition has been supported by remarkable new investment in the sector, by record new numbers of students—I am talking about real bodies, not the creative accounting of students entering the sector—and by the widening of participation and the extension of educational opportunity to different social groups.

Mrs. May: I am somewhat surprised by the hon. Gentleman's claims of record increases in student numbers in further education. In fact, the number of students has fallen by 189,000 under this Labour Government.

Mr. Chaytor: I remind the hon. Lady that we are debating post-16 education, not simply that for 16 to 19-year-olds. I include the number of students who are 19-plus, and I am talking about the increases in higher education and in the number of students who stay on beyond 16, which is higher than ever before.

Mrs. May: I am happy to inform the hon. Gentleman that there has been a net fall of 110,000 in the total number of students in further education and in higher education.

Mr. Chaytor: We could spend all afternoon trading statistics. [Interruption.] I am happy to do so, but all I can say is that in the past four years more young people have remained in education than ever before, partly because we are now moving forward to a much broader definition of what constitutes post-16 education. We are no longer hung up on the sixth form or the A-level as the only significant post-16 qualification. We are continuing towards the Government's target of getting almost 50 per cent. of

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18-year-olds into higher education by 2010. Such a continuous extension of educational opportunity was simply unthinkable during the Tory years.

I do not want to reinforce the obsession with AS-levels. Although it is clear that there have been difficulties with implementation and serious questions remain for the QCA and the examining boards, that is not the most serious issue in post-16 education today. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that a consensus appears to be emerging that AS-levels alone are not the issue and that the more profound issue is the importance of a coherent curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds. I look forward to the Government doing more work on that as the months pass, so that we can quickly have such a curriculum, which exists in many other European countries whose levels of achievement and participation are far higher than ours.

I cannot be the only Member in the Chamber who has a 17-year-old son who has spent the past 12 months studying the first year of curriculum 2000. I have been able to observe at first hand the differences between his experience and that of my daughter, who studied traditional A-levels two years ago. Frankly, I observe comparatively little difference in the work load, although I accept that the frequency of assessment is a problem and that the concept and implementation of the key skills programme has been almost an unmitigated disaster—a point that the hon. Member for Maidenhead did not mention at all. The QCA's interim report contained serious criticisms of the key skills programme, and there is a need for urgent reform, preferably for year 2 of curriculum 2000. I will pass on to my son the hon. Lady's generous remarks to all those students following curriculum 2000 this year, and I am sure that he will be very grateful for them.

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