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Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I shall be brief, as there is little time left. The Green Paper contains some good ideas, and some bad ones. That is typical of this Government, but the belief that improvement can be regulated underlies too many elements in the Green Paper.
The Government must be aware that teachers and head teachers are buried in initiatives already. They complain endlessly about the flow of initiatives. The Green Paper risks adding to the flow of new initiatives, ideas and changes, leading to less stability in our schools, and giving heads and teachers less time to sort out the initiatives with which they are dealing already.
The Government therefore must be very cautious about how they proceed with these proposals. It is very important that any change adds value to the present system, and does not attempt to turn it upside down, as that would merely make matters still more difficult for the hard-pressed teachers to whom I and my colleagues speak every week. Again and again, they refer us back to the problems that they face with work load, with initiatives, and with the requirements laid on them by central Government.
I have two points to make about the Green Paper. The first has to do with the proposals for examinations. Much earlier, we heard about the Liberal Democrats' proposals for GCSEs. I am profoundly worried by the Green Paper's proposal that some pupils should abandon GCSEs, for a very straightforward reason.
The Green Paper refersrightlyto the need to create a vocational route in our education system that is an "equally valued pathway". I believe that we will not generate such a pathway by tinkering with our exam systems. Creating a system in which many pupilsprobably the brighter onesdo not take GCSEs but move straight to AS-levels and A-levels would take us back 20 years, to the time when we had a system of O-levels and CSEs.
In effect, that would lead to the creation of a second-class exam system for pupils perceived to be less able. We must not allow that to happen. From my own childhood, I remember that a stigma was attached to pupils who took CSEs rather than O-levels. The introduction of a single examination system at 16 was a positive step towards removing that divide. I should hate to see that divide restored because of the introduction of a system that allowed some pupils to fast-track into the A-level syllabus and ignore GCSEs. The result would be that a huge question mark would hang over the heads of those who did take GCSEs, and the implication would be that they were second class.
My second point has to do with sixth forms. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) spoke about the role of sixth form colleges. However, the Government make a virtue of the need for teachers working with pupils in the 11 to 16 age group to prepare those pupils for what they will encounter in the curriculum for 14 to 19-year olds. The danger of fragmentation of education by the removal of sixth forms is very great. It worries me that, despite all the assurances we have heard from Ministers, sixth forms are suffering financially as a result of the transition to LSC funding.
The Green Paper contains much to be welcomed, and many aspirations that all Members share. There are pitfalls, however, and the biggest is this: we must not impose on heads and other teachers, or indeed on college lecturers and principals, more change that would turn their lives upside down in the wake of the changes of the past few years. The steps we take must be careful and measured, and must secure the stability of our system rather than destabilising it at what is a very difficult time for schools and colleges throughout the country.
Life is often difficult for young people between 14 and 19. They experience too many hormonally driven distractions: they have to decide what to wear on a Friday or Saturday night, for instance. We have to square the circle, as a society. As those young people make their decisions, we must decide how to meet the needs and wishes of individual students without making them feel that they have been on a rollercoaster through education and straight into work, while also recognising that we must meet the skill needs of national and local economies.
My constituency certainly lacks the skills that are needed to support its growing knowledge economy. We have a shortage of both software developers and computer network technicians. That tells us something about the two levels of skill that we need from those emerging from the education and training system. My point is that there must be a balanced approach that respects the needs of the individual while meeting overall needs. I welcome the existence of that balanced approach in the thrust of the Green Paper.
Too many of our young people are still disengaged from their education. All too often, their parents may have had an unfortunate school experience and may therefore not have the aspirations for their children that we might have for oursand, indeed, for theirs. I commend the focus on "drivers for change" and the raising of standards in the Green Paper. I particularly welcome its focus on beacon schools, a number of which can be found in my constituency. Such schools provide an incentive for improvement and continuous development, similar to the incentive provided by other mechanisms such as "Investors in People" and charter marks.
One issue that is, perhaps, underplayed in the Green Paper is the role of beacon local education authorities. They are mentioned, but to no significant extent. My constituency contains an LEA that provides support for schools. Suffolk county council was identified by the Government as a beacon council for its work in partnership with schools: it was a constructive LEA, working with schools in difficulty. It gained its status because it had a clear vision about support for schools, consistent criteria for the triggering of early intervention, flexible support systems and effective statistical models. By those means it sustained a good "family" of LEA schools. There were never any grant-maintained schools in the area.
Much progress has already been made, as the results show. Suffolk has achieved a faster improvement than other counties in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving five or more grades between A* and C. In 1997, 47.4 per cent. achieved such grades; by 1999, that figure had risen to 53.5 per cent. I commend the Labour-led county council's current policy and performance plan, which establishes a target of 60 per cent. during the life of the current council, towards 2005. LEAs can play a positive and essential role in negotiating with schools, and in cajoling and encouraging them to achieve those targets.
The target of five A* to C GCSEs covers some 50 per cent. of young people's achievement. There is a long statistical tail behind that, and I am glad to see that the Green Paper refers to the number who achieved just one GCSE, and to those who achieved A* to G qualifications. Those targets are equally important. We must also remember the care system targets as set out in the quality protects management action plans, which were developed by social care services and education departments.
I therefore welcome the intention to raise the value of vocational qualifications and to introduce flexibility into the curriculum. That is the way to re-engage disaffected young people. As others have said, the effective use of work experience has a positive role to play, and in that regard I draw the House's attention to the young people whom I met at a print works in West Flanders, who were experiencing Europe as a potential world of work opportunities.
As the Green Paper makes clear, mechanisms exist to enable young people to stay on in higher education, and on that point I leave the House with a final thought. When I first entered politics as a councillor in the late 1980s, under a Tory council and a Tory Government, only 28 per cent. of young people in Suffolk stayed on in post-16 education; now, about 70 per cent. stay on. In Ipswich, new sixth-form schools have been built, and partnership sixth-form schools such as Coplestone and Holywells high school have been established. I therefore welcome the broad thrust of the Green Paper, and I hope that the Minister will respond to some of my points.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. Like many newly elected Members, I have spent some time visiting schools in my constituency. I have visited primary and secondary schools, and some further education colleges in the local area, but my odyssey is by no means complete. By and large, I have been very impressed by what I have seen, but I have also encountered some concerns in my discussions with teachers. I undertook to raise them in the House, if possible, so in the context of the debate I shall attempt to keep my word.
One concern was pay, especially in relation to housing costs. Obviously, that is a particular problem in London and the south-east, including Essex. There is also the issue of disruption in the classroom, which has been touched on. Suffice it to say that most teachers join the profession to teach children, not to act as police officers. Many teachers want firmer action to be taken against disruptive pupils. Although there have been some recent changes in policy in that regard, most teachers to whom I spoke think that there is further to go.
Many teachers have complained to me about what they call the Sunday evening syndrome[Interruption.]which I should like to explain to the Minister if she would pay me just a moment's attention. Teachers have to sit down in the middle of Sunday afternoon and spend hours filling in paperwork, so that they are up straight, as it were, for their return to work on Monday morning. A large proportion of their weekend is given up to bureaucracy simply so that they can go to work on Monday and begin their job as normal. Teachers find that intensely irritating and I would like to think that the Government would be prepared to do something about it. It was best summed up to me by one teacher who said:
My final point concerns post-16 education and the funding of sixth forms. Essex county council was given several guarantees by Ministers that no school would be worse off as a result of the transition to funding from the learning and skills council. It is my understanding from the county council that because of the complexities and vagaries of the funding formula, when the mathematics are eventually worked out, many schools with sixth forms are materially worse off. In that sense, Ministers have not honoured their commitment. I invite them to reconsider the formula to see whether something can be done. To take Ministers at their word, it may be that they did not realise the implications of what they were doing. Perhaps they could now right that wrong.