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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

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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

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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,

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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 be obliged to make

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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

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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 be. 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.

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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.

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