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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

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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:

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

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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 be 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.

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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:

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.

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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

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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.

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