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6.49 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): We have had an interesting debate. The House has been right to focus its attention on our important proposals for education for those aged 14 to 19. There has been a great deal of progress in education over the past five years, with dramatic improvements in primary schools as the literacy and numeracy strategy has been successful in raising standards.

This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in a speech to Demos how we shall apply those lessons to the middle years, for 11 to 14-year-olds, and we are starting to see evidence of improvements. Some 50 per cent. of teenagers achieved five good GCSEs last summer, a year ahead of our target date. In addition, we received a positive assessment, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Pisa study, of our 15-year-olds. That international comparison was published just before Christmas. Extra investment has also borne fruit in our schools.

That said, it is certainly the case that many challenges remain. In particular, those challenges come at ages 14 to 19. Too many people drop out of education much too early. In 1998, there were fewer 17-year-olds in education in Britain than in all other OECD countries except Turkey, Mexico and Greece. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly drew attention to our poor performance by comparison with other countries on level 3 qualifications. We must do better, and we will.

There are other challenges. The Pisa study drew attention to our high overall achievement, but also pointed out that the gap between those who do and do not do well in Britain is a big one in international terms. We need to close that gap and to fire the imaginations of many more of those who lose their enthusiasm for education much too early. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) gave an interesting example from Yarborough school of how that is being done around enterprise. We need more examples of that kind.

We need to address skills shortages and to raise the skills of those entering the work force in order to boost productivity and promote economic growth. We need to ensure that we meet the needs of those likely to struggle at GCSE while also stretching and challenging those whom we expect to do well at A-level. The Green Paper will allow us to address all those challenges.

I welcome the consensus about the need for more opportunities for high-quality vocational options, as the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) has just said. We need to meet demand from young people and employers. We shall offer eight new GCSEs in vocational subjects from September, and several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), said that we shall need additional

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subjects. I agree with that, and we look forward to offering more subjects from 2004. It is important to make the point that those examinations will be rigorous. They are not a soft option, and they will attract academically able young people. They will develop important skills that employers will prize.

We cannot realistically offer these new options, however, if we also insist that every pupil does everything that the national curriculum currently requires. That is the reason for a more flexible curriculum at 14 to 16. The core compulsory subjects will be restricted to those essential for progression—maths, english, science, and information and craft technology.

Points have been made about modern and foreign languages, particularly by the hon. Member for North–East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) in his characteristically courteous contribution, by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury in her impressive and wide-ranging speech. We fully recognise the importance of modern foreign languages. That is why we propose a statutory entitlement to them for all pupils at 14 to 16. That will mean that those subjects will continue to be available to those who want them.

We have a poor record of teaching and learning modern foreign languages, and the hon. Member for Fareham told us that one third of schools are currently disapplying the national curriculum requirement. I am not sure whether that is right, but the Green Paper makes it clear that the requirement for MFL is disapplied for about 32,000 pupils, which is a large number. If that is so, why should we pretend that there is an effective compulsory requirement at present? Why require people to go through the cumbersome disapplication procedure if it is in their best interests to do something other than MFL?

Mr. Brady: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms: Given the time, I had better press on. I will give way in a moment if I am able, but I started rather late.

We are committed to tackling the long-standing problems. We do not think that the answer is to force reluctant, uninterested and potentially disruptive 14-year-olds to study languages. However, we do want to get young people interested in learning a language at an early age—my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) made this point—and to provide them with the opportunity to continue with that interest throughout life. We made that proposal in a pamphlet published on the same day as the Green Paper, which set out our ambition for all primary school children to have an entitlement to study languages within 10 years and for there to be at least 200 specialist language colleges by 2005.

All that means that young people will have significant choices to make at 14—more significant than they would have had to make in the past. I agree with those who have pointed out that we need to ensure that they will have the advice and support to choose wisely, with their parents and teachers.

We are building up modern apprenticeships, with targets for many more young people to take them up and a national framework that defines the basic standards and

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will strengthen the relationship between employer and apprentice. Of course, apprenticeships almost entirely disappeared during the 1980s. The fact is that we need to be investing in the skills of young people at the workplace. The system of foundation and advanced modern apprenticeships is allowing us as a nation to do that once again.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said a good deal on that subject and I thank him for the welcome he gave to the vision and to a number of the specific proposals in the Green Paper—the learning plan, for example. He suggested that our proposals for modern apprenticeships were too small scale. I do not think that that is the case. We have set a target of, I think, 28 per cent. of young people going into such apprenticeships by 2004. It is a substantial programme. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to involve employers very closely in the design. We are doing so with the sector skills councils, and as the proposals come to fruition, he will see that the high ambitions that he rightly set out will be met.

An important point that goes to the heart of the discussion is that we need to switch the focus of attention from what young people achieve by the age of 16 to all that they will achieve by the age of 19, whether they have been at school, in a college or earning a wage. GCSEs at 16 are a staging post in secondary education, not a finishing post. I do not believe that what we are proposing amounts to downgrading GCSEs, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, nor do I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that they should be downgraded. They are not the end of secondary education, however. That is the importance of the matriculation diploma at age 19 as a target for every young person to aim for throughout their teenage years, signifying recognition for their achievements, whether they have been pursuing academic or vocational options, or a mixture of the two.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in opening the debate, we also want the diploma to recognise wider interests—citizenship, volunteering and wider activities. I am one of those who think that there is some merit in the name "matriculation diploma"—[Interruption.] If we had had to put that to the vote this afternoon, I might have found myself in something of a minority. One reason why I think that it has some merit is that people will be able to matriculate. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was talking of the benefits of graduation and I agree that there are some benefits. However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one matter—I think he said that having different levels of the diploma might be unhelpful. I was recently in the United States looking into graduation. I was struck by the fact that it is often at different levels in US high schools. I was at a school where there were three levels.

This has been an interesting debate and it has been very useful from our point of view in helping us to make decisions on the basis of our proposals. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made some important points about rural issues. That is why the Green Paper draws attention to the need for pathfinders in rural areas. I was also interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) about the Dyslexia Institute, which is not an organisation with which I am familiar. I would certainly be interested to know more. A number of my hon. Friends also made important and useful points.

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We have set out today our plans for a coherent 14 to 19 phase of education. We want to get away from the fragmentation to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred at the beginning of the debate. This week, I launched at Canary wharf the first of 56—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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