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15 Nov 2002 : Column 292—continued

11.24 am

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). I now understand why he has not been offered a place on the Front Bench, but his comments are always apposite and to the point. I welcome that.

I welcome the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to the Dispatch Box and congratulate him on his appointment. It is the first time that we have met across the Dispatch Box since his appointment.

I would not wish to let the departure of the previous Secretary of State go without some mention. I, too, thought that she was less than generous about her own achievements as Secretary of State. I have been involved with Secretaries of State, I suppose, ever since I entered primary school at the age of five. She certainly was able to talk the language of teachers. She was able to restore a significant amount of confidence in our schools and for that I and my colleagues pay tribute to her. We were delighted that she was able to introduce good sound Liberal Democrat policy to the education service. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) row back from proposals to get rid of sure start. It was in the 1997 manifesto of the Liberal Democrats but not in that of the Government. We were delighted when that issue was picked up and the policy put into operation.

We are delighted too that the previous Secretary of State was able to carry forward the pledge of early years places for all three and four-year-olds. That was an important achievement that has not been given the status that it deserved. Without a good early start for young people, many problems result later.

I suspect that the previous Secretary of State's greatest contribution was achieving the comprehensive spending review settlement for the Department. Many felt that her lack of bruising skills would result in the Department not getting those resources. Liberal Democrats welcome the significant resources that have gone into the education budget through the CSR. What

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we are arguing about now is how those resources should be spent. There will be a healthy debate rather than one in which we say that we are going to outbid each other for the resources. We recognise that and pay tribute to her.

One area of contention that remains—the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Ashford made it clear—is higher education funding. To address one of the challenges that the Secretary of State threw out, I do not think any of the political parties has an answer to how to fill the #9.7 billion black hole that the universities have identified. If higher education is to be expanded and, despite the fiddling of the figures, the ambition of 50 per cent. of students or more going into higher education is to be realised, one cannot project the 1960s post-Robins model of higher education into the 21st century and say, XWe can afford that." My challenge to the Secretary of State, if we are in the business of talking across the Dispatch Box, is to look not simply at the funding issue but at the re-engineering of the higher education product.

I find it offensive to hear hon. Members call degrees Mickey Mouse degrees— I criticise the hon. Member for West Lancashire for doing so. If the Secretary of State, the Government and indeed our party are serious about a vocational route into higher education, we have to incorporate some of those vocational elements that traditionally were not part of higher education in the product, rather than simply deriding them. Media studies, which is often one of those Mickey Mouse courses that people deride, has a higher take-up in employment than virtually any other subject, so let us not get into that puerile debate. Let us look at how we re-engineer higher education to ensure that all of us can meet our aspirations and in particular that we offer to every student who goes into higher education one simple guarantee: the guarantee of quality. At the moment I do not believe that we offer quality in higher education and that must be addressed. I wish the Secretary of State well in his post.

Let me say something else about honesty. The reference by the hon. Member for Ashford to his past hairy self and the one to silver-backed gorillas in the sketch in The Times yesterday are quite unfair. Liberal Democrats want the Secretary of State to stand up for education and skills against the No. 10 policy unit. We want the Department to introduce its own policies, argue in its own right and have rows with the policy advisers in No. 10 who seem to dictate and dominate everything that happens. I wish the Secretary of State well in that too.

I suspect, knowing a little of the right hon. Gentleman, that he was not involved directly in this year's Gracious Speech. Indeed, it was clearly missing a public services trade descriptions Bill. What the right hon. Gentleman and other Secretaries of State have said so far in the debate on the Queen's Speech bears no reality to what is happening on the ground. Despite his rhetoric this morning about greater freedoms for our public services, it was clear today, just as it was clear from the speech by the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, that the dead hand of Government will continue to be at the centre of what is happening in public services.

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I now turn to the issues that the Secretary of State addressed at the Dispatch Box. It was an interesting departure, in that because he has absolutely nothing to say and no Government policy initiatives to announce, he now engages the Opposition parties on their policies. He issued a number of challenges. The first one related to specialist schools. I could not answer better than the hon. Member for West Lancashire. In many ways his excellent speech encapsulated what is wrong at the heart of the specialist schools movement. Let me say to the Secretary of State, as I said to his predecessor, that I do not object to the Government's intention that all schools should have a specific ethos. That is absolutely right. Nor do the Liberal Democrats object to supporting the special ethos with additional resources.

We have exactly the same objection as the hon. Member for West Lancashire: this is a divisive system. It is impossible to create diversity in schools when, for example, the arts specialist school in my constituency is a Roman Catholic school that is significantly oversubscribed by Roman Catholics. We cannot create diversity within the community in that place. We cannot create diversity if Lady Lumley school in Pickering, which is the only rural school in a massive hinterland, becomes a physical education college, because all the children in Pickering and the surrounding rural areas go to that school.

The Secretary of State was absolutely clear about that in his speech, which was reported in The Times. As I said in an earlier intervention, he said that he did not expect all schools to become specialist schools. That disappoints me. The Secretary of State seems surprised; perhaps his speech was badly reported, but that is exactly what it says in the article.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify the matter. I specifically said in my speech to Ofsted—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) that it was an excellent speech—that I believed that every school should have the ambition to be a specialist school and that the Government will seek to promote that, so I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's description of what I said.

Mr. Willis: I am delighted that the Secretary of State intervened, because that is not how his speech was reported. If he is saying that the 60 per cent. cap on specialist status has now been lifted and that all schools can have it tomorrow, I am delighted. I have just conducted a survey of 250 schools that were unsuccessful in their application for specialist status. In most cases, the criteria on which they were turned down were spurious. The Secretary of State must know that around the country there is a real sense that schools are bidding for specialist status not because they want to be an arts college, a science college or whatever, but because they want #500,000. If the Secretary of State is saying that that will make no difference to communities over the next few years, I am sorry but I have to disagree with him, as the money would be badly spent otherwise.

The Secretary of State referred to targets and testing. I would include league tables in that. I am delighted that he has read the document that was presented at the Liberal Democrat party conference. We believe that Britain has a testing system instead of an education

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system. Children now face 105 external tests between starting primary school and leaving school at 19. That cannot be right. Particularly at key stage 1, where it is an abomination to have SATs for seven-year-olds, we would prefer diagnostic tests that would allow a teacher to help individual children to improve by concentrating on particular deficiencies. At the moment, the tests are for the benefit of the Secretary of State as they are used to check on what schools are doing as a generic group of institutions. We need to concentrate on individual children. If the Secretary of State wants to pillory me for that, I shall stand up and be pilloried, as I think that defending the rights of individual children to a high-quality education rather than taking a systematic approach is desperately needed in our primary schools.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many teachers use SATs to identify pupils' weaknesses and establish individual performance improvement plans for them? In that way they are being used in primary schools to drive up standards across the board and for individual pupils.

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