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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.
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. 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:
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
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."
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
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?
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?