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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

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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 be 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

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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