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15 Nov 2002 : Column 295—continued

Mr. Willis: I agree significantly with the hon. Gentleman. However, if he is saying that the way in which SATs are externally imposed on schools encourages their use as a diagnostic tool, I disagree with him. In my opinion, teachers make the very best use of everything within their purview. We are saying that at key stage 2 our aim is that 80 per cent. of children should achieve level 4 in literacy. If this means that we are teaching children about adjectival clauses, even though some of them can barely read because they are still working at level 1, there is something wrong with the system. We need a system that is more tailored to individuals; that does not mean that it has to be rigorous.

I fell out with the previous Secretary of State when she said that unless we keep the testing in place, teachers will slip back from the standards that we have achieved. I disagree fundamentally with that approach. We cannot hope to develop professionalism and good leadership in schools if we then say to teachers, XUnless we keep checking up on you, we know that you will fall back."

On funding, our policy is quite clear: from birth through to the age of 14—what is now key stage 3—we would expect the greater level of funding to be raised through local income tax. That should come as no surprise to the Secretary of State; it has been Liberal Democrat policy for a long time. He may disagree, but that is our policy.

The Secretary of State fell into the trap of saying, XThat means we will not be able to put in central initiatives". That is exactly what we are trying to avoid. We do not want every initiative to come from the centre.

Since the Government came to power, they have raised the amount of money that they spend themselves—the money that is not spent through the traditional standard spending assessment route—from #500 million to just over #4.5 billion. I am delighted that that money is coming into education; I am not complaining about it. However, if one speaks to head teachers around the country, one finds that most of

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them want an increase in their baseline funding. They are not interested in the endless bidding for pots of money. They want to be able to plan for the longer term. Our attitude to the issue marks the fundamental difference between the centralising tendency of a Labour Government and the devolutionary approach of the Liberal Democrats.

I have not forgotten the issue of truancy and shall come to it later. However, before I move on from my discussion of schools, I wish to point out that we have innovation if the Secretary of State says so; schools can have autonomy if he says so; they can have specialist status if he says so; they can have advance specialist status if he says so; and they can become an academy if he says so. They cannot do anything anywhere unless he says so. If that is devolution and giving local schools the power to be able to get on with their lives, it is very different from the type of devolution that I envisage.

To return to the manifesto—[Interruption.] I am sorry—I meant the Gracious Speech. It was a Freudian slip. I am suffering today, and there is another hour of this. The 42 words on the Government's top priority did not refer to legislation, but we are not too bothered about that. There has been a lot of legislation in recent years. However, those words were a set of meaningless platitudes, and the Secretary of State did himself a disservice today by making a speech that was endlessly self-congratulatory. There were promises of reform—reform is the catchword—and yet more reviews, but where are the policy proposals?

Yesterday's Financial Times contained the headline, XClarke in fresh drive to boost workers' skills" and the article said that the Secretary of State was aiming to stimulate debate and highlight areas of low demand. It was acknowledged five years ago that the skills deficit was a problem. Every householder in Britain knows that one cannot get a plumber, carpenter or electrician. Businesses are desperate to get technicians and manufacturers are desperate for key skilled workers. Since 1997, we have had the Moser report, four national skills taskforce reports and skill sector reports. Units in the Secretary of State's Department and in the Prime Minister's office have been dealing with the issue. The learning and skills councils have been set up and the training and enterprise councils have been ended, but what has been the result? After six years of recognising the problem, the Secretary of State announced yesterday that the Government would publish a skills strategy in the spring of 2003 for discussion. There will also be an announcement that Dolly Parton will back the drive to boost skills. That is it: a further review and policy statement, and Dolly Parton will appeal to today's teenagers just as much as the Secretary of State and I might fail to do.

Today, we read of a #2.5 billion investment in adult skills, and that sounds like big bucks. However, it is exactly the same money that has been announced on four previous occasions. If the Secretary of State is saying that new money is going into the sector for new initiatives that will back the skills strategy or, indeed, support Dolly Parton—pardon the expression—let us hear that today. I do not believe that he is saying that.

Why in the Secretary of State's speech and in the Gracious Speech did we not hear about a raft of proposals to follow up the ones on vocational and educational skills for 14 to 19-year-olds that were

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announced in the Green Paper? There was common agreement on both sides of the House that the Green Paper was a worthwhile document that provided a platform for moving forward. Despite that consensus, there is stony silence from the Government.

Why was there no mention of the further education sector in the Gracious Speech? Why is the concentration on universities and not on the further education sector, which is the engine room for post-16 education? I was delighted that the Secretary of State referred to it today.

Last year, 808,500 16 to 19-year-olds attended FE colleges in the UK compared with 533,000 in schools. More students took A-levels in FE colleges than in schools and more students went to university from FE colleges than from schools. FE provided more work-related training than all the private sector providers put together and the vast majority of private employers. However, the impression remains that the FE sector belongs in the Nationwide league and not the premier league of education and training providers. It is as though XDFES Digital" has pulled the plug on colleges and their lecturers, who are left fighting for scraps as they look enviously at the premier schools division.

There was nothing in the Secretary of State's speech to resolve the massive dispute that is going on in FE between staff and lecturers and the Association of Colleges and its colleges. How can we value this vital sector if we simply say, XIt is nothing to do with us, guv. Let them fight it out."? However, I understand that the Secretary of State will make a major announcement on FE next week, and perhaps the problem will be addressed at that point.

The challenge for the Government is to create a seamless service from 14 onwards, with a simple goal of keeping all young people in education or training at least until the age of 19. That is an ambitious target. Some 79.4 per cent. of young people stay on after 16, but half that number have left by the age of 19. They have dropped out. Nearly 500,000 16 to 18-year-olds do not participate in any education or training, and one in 10 of them is not involved in education, training or employment. That is why we are bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league table for level 3 skills. We are not attracting or retaining students in education and training.

Perhaps the most depressing statistic of all is that the majority of people who reach 19 without formal qualifications—even at level 2—do not get them by the time that they finish their working life. That stigma not only remains with them, but creates an economic and social barrier that stays with them. I compliment the Secretary of State and assure him that Liberal Democrats will do everything to support his efforts to deal with that problem. However, he must run up the flagpole a statement that makes it clear that the Government's current attitude that education is for the best and skills are for the rest will change. Every speech that he makes must make it clear that education and skills are for all.

We must not introduce a vocational programme that is seen as second to academic programmes. If the Secretary of State goes ahead with the proposals of the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education that we should have stand-alone colleges for 16 to 19-

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year-olds and that the FE sector should be the dumping ground for those who cannot get into academic institutions, he will do an immense disservice to education and skills training.

The Secretary of State challenged me on the issue of truancy and exclusions. I say to him in all sincerity that, if his attitude is to encourage Daily Mail headlines saying that we shall remove benefits from, or fine, the parents of truanting pupils and that we shall put single mothers into prison, the Labour Government will fail. There is absolutely no evidence that such policies will work. I take a Xlongitudinal" view of these matters: if we cannot re-engage young people with education and training and create a curriculum in our schools that turns young people on, not off, such draconian proposals will do little other than penalise families who are already under great strain.

Who will police the powers? Who will pick up the truants? The Secretary of State knows and the Department has published what the short, sharp truancy sweeps cost. If they are to be made permanent and continual, we will have to have an army of people on the streets to pick up kids. How can one tell whether someone is truanting? Even during the Department's experiments, huge opposition was encountered from the parents of students who were picked up when going to the doctor, looking after a sick mother, or engaged in other legitimate activities. One of the ludicrous proposals made by one of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues was to give the milkman or the postman a set of vouchers to find truants. We need to do more than that.

The Liberal Democrats will support proposals that are tough on truants and tough about exclusions, but we will do so only if there is a balance between carrot and stick. We want more of the carrot from the Department for Education and Skills. Earlier this week, many of the Department's officials attended a reception that I organised with Inaura, a charity working in the area of exclusions. There are some splendid examples of boroughs and local education authorities that have tackled exclusions in a positive and supportive manner. Exclusion-free zones, managed transfers and the principle that a child who is kicked out of a school is not kicked out of society should all be fundamental to the Government's thinking. I hope that they will pick up those ideas and use them.

I am dismayed that no mention is made in the Gracious Speech of the appalling debacle of this summer's A-levels. It now appears that there was no crisis: Sir William Stubbs should not have been sacked, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley should not have resigned, and thousands of parents, teachers and students have simply been experiencing paranoia. We are told that it was a storm in a teacup and we should no longer discuss it—but if the Secretary of State believes that the issue will go away, he is burying his head in the sand. Had it not been for the dogged determination of the media that the right hon. Gentleman derides, especially The Observer, the Government would have been allowed to bury that bad-news story a long time ago.

Thousands of students, teachers and parents are angry. They believe that the system let them down this year, and they are right. Furthermore, faith in our examinations system will not be restored while so many

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questions remain unanswered. Evidence given to me and to the Tomlinson inquiry suggests that tens of thousands of grades awarded this summer could still be wrong. Having met Mike Tomlinson this week, it is clear to me that he knows that this year's grades are no guide to the relative performance of many students and schools. In respect of the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA board's English literature examination, Mr. Tomlinson went further, saying:

That one subject affected 9,000 students. A similar problem, affecting 6,000 students, arose with the psychology examination. If the Secretary of State can sit on the Treasury Bench saying, XThis has nothing to do with me, guv—those students can go to hell," we are in a very bad state of affairs. [Hon. Members: XNo!"] At last, some animation.

Everywhere I go, I hear evidence that justice has not been done. Most MPs—including the few currently in the Chamber—know of cases in which A-grade coursework reappeared as unclassified. We now know of cases in which students who were native speakers of Russian, French or German failed to obtain more than the minimum grade in their oral examination. That is like telling an Olympic swimmer that he can just about get his 25-metre certificate. That was the extent of the discrepancy between students' work and the grades they were given. It is no good saying everything is fine because we have had a short inquiry; plainly, everything is not fine.

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