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16 Oct 2002 : Column 343—continued

Mr. Willis: I do not know whether I am grateful for that intervention. I do not speak for Cumbria county council and it would be wrong of me to seek to do so.

Of course, the Government were right to broaden the post-16 curriculum. Indeed, it should be broadened even further, but if that is to be managed, far greater emphasis must be placed on internal assessment. To achieve that, as John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said yesterday in The Guardian, we need to establish credited chartered examiners. I hope that the Secretary of State will seriously consider that idea, which is not new. Teachers have already been doing similar work in music, drama, art and modern languages, but the proposal is one way of ensuring quality without making teaching the servant of an endless examination system. Alongside the abolition of league tables, the establishment of an independent QCA and the streamlining of the current examination boards into a single awarding body, such a proposal would do much to re-balance the emphasis in our schools towards teaching and learning, rather than testing and audit.

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What would not help, however, is a sudden abandonment of the AS-level and A-level system after two years, as the Conservatives propose. Neither do we want the sudden lurch towards the international baccalaureate at which both the Secretary of State and her Minister for School Standards have hinted. Many schools, but especially FE and sixth form colleges, have invested very heavily in the new AS-level programme. Many colleges are already reporting a downturn in the number of applicants for AS-level courses. A sudden abandonment would create huge problems for the sector.

The Liberal Democrats hope that, in addition to the Tomlinson report, the Secretary of State will take a much more long-term view of the whole of the 14-to-19 curriculum and examination framework. Simply considering A-levels in isolation from the rest of the 14-to-19 framework would be a huge mistake. We have applauded many of the ideas in the Green Paper on 14 to 19-year-olds, but the sector needs a comprehensive framework of qualifications to underpin its success. It is increasingly clear that a one-size-fits-all examination system is inappropriate, especially when the vast majority of young people stay in full-time education or training until they are 19. Further tinkering as a response to political pressure is simply not acceptable. Now is the time to establish a royal commission to consider this whole vital area, take on board the views of industry, universities, colleges and the rest of the education world and produce a qualifications structure in which all sections of society can have confidence.

Chris Grayling: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be contradicting himself. He said that we should not touch the AS-level and A-level system because our sixth formers need stability, but went on to say that we need to appoint a royal commission with a view to completely overhauling the examination system. What sort of message will that send to the sixth formers who are currently starting their courses?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who usually makes intelligent interventions, may regret those comments. If he does not believe that there is a crisis of confidence in our examination system, he must have been elsewhere for the past two months. We are all united about the need for a new curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds. [Interruption]. The Liberal Democrats and the principal Opposition are certainly united.

If we are to introduce much more realistic vocational options, we must have an examination system that meets that aim. The Association of Colleges produced an interesting proposal for an overarching certificate. The Government have introduced the idea of a graduate certificate. We should examine the whole process to ensure the confidence of employers and the education world.

The debate has been interesting. Doubtless Members of all parties will ask questions about the competence of the Department for Education and Skills. However, what matters is what works for young people, adult learners, the community, and industry and commerce. A discredited system and a Department in which people have no confidence do none of us credit.

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Let us consider higher education policy. Even before the review is published in November, the Minister is going around saying that we should have a market-led higher education system, that universities can go to the wall and merge without any discussion in the House. That discredits the Department and gives us the impression that the Secretary of State is not mistress in her house. The Minister for School Standards is looking for her job and the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education reports to the No. 10 policy unit. Unless we ask Mystic Meg for advice, we are clearly in a mess.

5.7 pm

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on education. He cares and is deeply knowledgeable about the system, unlike the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), the Tory spokesman. The latter epitomises the problems that the Conservative party is experiencing. He seemed to want to crawl around the minutiae of political debate with a loud hailer. One cannot communicate with the wider public in such a way.

Rob Marris: The quiet man.

Mr. Foster: I do not believe that he is a quiet man. It is right to have the debate, and it is right that the Tories tabled the motion and are attempting to hold the Government to account on education. However, they should recognise that they must have a little more vision and breadth of perspective to communicate with the voters, with whom they have failed to communicate.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems for the Tories on education is that they do not believe that an A-level or any exam is worth passing unless many others have failed it? As the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) showed today, their message is that competition is the only way to achieve success and improve standards.

Mr. Foster: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Innate elitism pervades much of the education system, not only the Conservative party. I entered politics to try to get rid of that, and many people from different parties are dedicated to such an objective.

One advantage of a long political memory is that, although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I remember reading about Tony Crosland and Edward Boyle, who were enormously respected by the education establishment. It was said of both of them, however, that their only function at that time was to hassle within the Cabinet and get a good Budget settlement, and that that was the end of their job.

The culture change that has occurred since those days is quite bewildering, not surprisingly, to many people, and not entirely welcome to everyone. It is welcome to me, except for the fact that the debate about centralism and localism is a perpetual one that will continue throughout the history of debates. From time to time, central Government become too centralist, and from

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time to time they devolve power to other bodies—local authorities, for example—only to discover that that is inadequate and that they have to claw back some power.

No one can doubt that education is the Government's top priority, not least because the Prime Minister has said as much so often, but it is so easy to say things. Why has he argued that it ought to be the top priority? He has done so partly because education is at the root of a strong economy. That is particularly relevant to my constituency, because we have always under-achieved according to all the measures of educational attainment. Far too few of our pupils have stayed on at school and gone to university; if we are to be a match for the fierce competitive world that is upon us—almost sweeping over us—we must attain far better levels of education and training.

Education is important not only because of the needs of a strong economy, but for reasons of social justice. That is one of the reasons that I came into politics almost 30 years ago. I had the advantage of a good education through the grammar school system, oddly enough, but the vast majority of my contemporaries—many of whom were just as bright as me—did not have that advantage, and were condemned for many years. Some of them never recovered, because of that system. I was determined that every child should have the same rights and opportunities as I had. That is what motivates the Prime Minister and everyone on the Labour Benches. I also concede that it has motivated many Conservatives over the years—for many of whom I have had enormous respect—and many Liberal Democrats. It is quite right that we should differ over how we should achieve that end, but that is our motivation, and a huge investment in education is absolutely crucial to achieving the objective of social justice.

I do not think that there can be any doubt about the huge investment that has been made by this Government since they took office in 1997, although some people may quibble about the statistics. I know that, for the first two years, we kept to the previous Tory Budget targets, but I was part of that decision so I have never complained about it, uncomfortable though it was during those two years. Since then, however, the investment in education has been enormous—I think that it has been unprecedented—and sustained. That is important in itself, but it is also important to understand that it has been possible only because of the economic competence of the Government.

I have been critical of the Government from time to time, as many right hon. and hon. Members know, but the economic achievement of getting low inflation, high employment and low unemployment at the same time, together with economic growth and the huge injection into all public services, is unprecedented in the Labour party's long history. It is also unprecedented in British politics. Until 1992, the Tories were thought to be the only party of economic competence, but Tory Governments never believed in or had the political will to make huge investments in public services. I can say with great confidence that such a configuration of achievements—low inflation, high employment, low unemployment and huge investment in public services—is pretty well unprecedented in the past 50, 60, or 75 years, or perhaps even longer than that.

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We should celebrate the Labour Government's economic competence and the political will that enabled them to make this huge investment in education, without which most of the exchanges across the Chamber would be highly irrelevant. Without more money going into schools for revenue and for capital, many of the points of detail would be completely irrelevant. When I have visited schools, especially in the past 12 months, head teachers, members of boards of governors and teachers have told me—I do not have to ask them—that the money is making a difference. Everyone who believes in public services, as I do, knows that we cannot achieve change without money as a lubricant.

We have made the investment, but we must make it work. In the days of Tony Crosland and Edward Boyle, Governments did not accept that as an objective: it was sufficient that they provided the resources, and the system had to deliver what it could within those resources. The Government have had the courage to intervene to try to make the money work effectively. In so doing, they have come up against many vested interests, and have often made themselves deeply unpopular with teachers, head teachers, teachers' associations and members of the Labour party. That has also been unprecedented. The Tories would have loved to intervene to make schools more effective, but they did not know how to do so and they did not have the political courage to tackle that problem.

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