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16 Oct 2002 : Column 325—continued

Phil Hope (Corby): I have just been on the phone to a number of teenagers in my constituency who recently passed their A-levels. They were watching Prime Minister's Question Time. They were absolutely shocked and furious to hear the grades that they achieved described as not being worth the paper they were written on. One of them received four grade As at AS-level and three grade As at A2-level. Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity, on behalf of the Conservative party, to dissociate himself from those remarks and apologise to the thousands of teenagers slandered by the Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Green: The people who should be apologising are the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for what they have done to the A-level system. For 50 years, A-levels were the gold standard in education in this country. In five years, the Government have managed to destroy that gold standard.

The Criminal Records Bureau was the second disaster. The third disaster that the Government have had in the last two and a half months is in their truancy policy. On 9 October, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg)—who sits here, quietly chuntering to himself—announced yet another range of tough measures on truancy, to follow the last range of tough measures on truancy that he announced on 18 June. By coincidence, this latest tough package was released on the same day as the new truancy figures, which showed that, despite all their initiatives, the Government have completely failed to cut truancy at all.

According to the Government's own figures, exactly the same number of half-days are lost through unauthorised absence as in 1997–98. The Government have made no progress, despite the fact that one of their first promises was a drastic cut in truancy. In December 1998, in the comprehensive spending review public service agreements—on which the Prime Minister was so keen a few moments ago—the Government promised a reduction by one third in school truancy by 2002.

As 2002 approached, the Government realised that they were going to miss the target. A sensible Government would have taken some measures to ensure that they hit the target. Not this Government; when they see that they are going to miss a target, they change the target, which is what they did. They dropped the 1998 target, hoping that no one would notice; sadly for them, we did. They replaced it with a target to reduce truancy by 10 per cent. from the 2002 level; the House will recall that that there has been no reduction in that level since 1997, which was the previous target. The Government's policy on truancy would be laughable were it not so serious.

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The director of Truancy Call, a charity dealing with truants, revealed that, on a typical school day, some 50,000 children are playing truant in this country. That is a genuinely terrifying statistic. If the Government took some effective measures against truancy, they would probably do more than anything else to stop too many vulnerable young people getting on the conveyor belt to crime. Sadly, they have failed to take any effective measures, and their response to that failure is not to try to find effective measures, but to fiddle the figures.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): What measures would the hon. Gentleman take if he were the Minister responsible?

Mr. Green: The most important long-term measure that we learned about from other countries—[Interruption.] The Government are addicted to short-term measures—a fact never better displayed than by that reaction. The best thing to do for most of those 50,000 children is to make school relevant to them. The biggest historic failure in our education system, going back some 100 years, is that of vocational education. We need to provide excellent, world-class education for the less academic children, as well as the more academic. Frankly, under successive Governments we have failed to do that. This is one of the most important long-term changes that we need. One hugely beneficial side-effect would be that the school day would be relevant to all pupils at all levels of academic attainment. That is the long-term way to treat truancy.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I have given way enough in the past few minutes.

The fourth recent disaster to hit the Secretary of State was the primary school attainment figures, which were published last month. They showed that the Government missed their key targets for English and for mathematics among 11-year-olds. On this, I have some sympathy with her personal plight. When the Home Secretary was doing her job, and he made his now notorious pledge that he would resign if the targets were not hit this year, we all knew that, by 2002, somebody else would be carrying the can. Sadly for the Secretary of State, it is her.

There are three key issues that the Secretary of State could, and needs to, address. First, in her tough-talking moments she has been prone to saying that heads and teachers in failing schools will have to go. So if schools do not hit their targets, someone takes responsibility and goes, but if Ministers do not hit their targets, no one takes responsibility and no one goes. The next time the Prime Minister complains about cynicism in modern Britain, he might like to look close to home to find some of the causes. Secondly, since the Secretary of State is not hitting the existing targets, what on earth is the point in setting new and more difficult ones for future years? Can she tell the House what she proposes to do if those targets are missed as well?

Thirdly, the right hon. Lady will see that improvements in both English and mathematics have completely stalled in the past three years. The figures

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have barely moved, and about a quarter of our children leave primary schools unable to read, write or count at an acceptable level. I dare say that she and I would agree that that is completely unacceptable. If we look at the figures for 2000, 2001 and 2002, we see that they have not moved. Literacy and numeracy hours have done some good, but it looks as though radical change will be needed to move the attainment figures from the plateau on which they are stuck. So far, her Department has shown no sign of recognising that the figures are stuck, and that radical change is needed to achieve anything better. This debate provides a chance for the Secretary of State to make it clear that she sees the scale of the challenge. So far, all that we have had from the Government is bluster, but when a quarter of our young people are leaving primary school unable to read, write or count properly, that is a national disgrace.

The fifth and most serious of the current crises is, of course, the A-level fiasco.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten the House as to the proportion of 11-year-olds who did not meet basic standards in mathematics and reading when we took over?

Mr. Green: Rather than bobbing up and down with Whips' questions, the hon. Gentleman should listen to what I just said. I said that the literacy and numeracy hours have done some good. The figures went up from the mid-1990s to 2000. Since 2000, the English figures have stuck at 75 per cent., and the mathematics figures have fluctuated between 71 and 73 per cent. [Interruption.] Government Back Benchers can chunter as much as they like, but the fact is that we are stuck with a quarter of our primary school pupils being inadequately educated. If they are happy with that, fine, but I am not, and Britain's parents will not be happy with it either.

The fifth and most serious of the current crises is, of course, the A-level fiasco. Yesterday, the Secretary of State tried the old trick of defending herself against a charge that no one in the House was making—that she interfered personally to fiddle the grades—while trying to ignore the charges made in this House and by many teachers, parents and pupils. Those charges are that she presided over a system that was bound to fail, and that she had been warned that it would fail.

The Secretary of State said yesterday that no one had warned her. I remember Nick Tate, the QCA's former chief executive, saying that the QCA had warned her that the system was about to fail. She rejects the charge that she ignored the warnings, because she has no defence against it, and she has no defence against it because it is true.

Today's reports on the latest Tomlinson findings must make fairly grim reading for the Secretary of State. The editorial in today's edition of The Independent stated:

and I am delighted to read that newspaper saying what I said yesterday.

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Most serious of all, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition noted in Prime Minister's questions, is that Mike Tomlinson said yesterday that schools are left with no idea of what an A-level is. The Secretary of State is fond of quoting the parts of Mike Tomlinson's report of which she approves. I hope that she has analysed carefully what he said yesterday. He challenged the Government over A-level reforms by warning that the qualification was clouded in confusion. He said that it was Xamazing" that schools were in the third year of the changes brought in under Curriculum 2000, yet still did not know what examiners expected of students. I think that he is being especially polite.

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