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16 Dec 2002 : Column 664—continued

Hon. Members: Object. COMMITTEES

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With the leave of the House, I shall put together motions 7 to 10.


Education And Skills


Hunting with Dogs

11.2 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): Having just witnessed the Second Reading of the Bill that many people hope will herald the end of hunting in this country, I rise to present a petition signed by more than 2,800 of my constituents and others calling for the abolition of hunting with dogs, making specific reference to deer, hares, foxes and mink. It was collected over a relatively short period, and it is certain that many more signatures could have been secured had that been the objective of the exercise.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Coalfields (Education)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

11.3 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): I am delighted to have succeeded at long last in the ballot for this important Adjournment debate. I can tell the House that I have been trying for at least a year to secure this debate. Before turning to the issue of education in the coalfields, may I be the first Member to congratulate the Minister for School Standards on the recent football award that he won for scoring a goal at Newcastle? I am sure that he will enlighten the House further when he comes to reply to the debate—[Interruption.] Yes, I know.

The coalfields of Britain are still an important area despite the fact that most pits have now closed. The coalfields are substantial, and range from Fife and Ayrshire in Scotland through the north-east, west Cumbria, Yorkshire, Lancashire to the midlands, and the Welsh valleys. There are even coalfield communities not so far from here, in Kent. In total, Britain's coalfields have about 5 million people living in and around them. What is more, they are strong Labour communities, commonly known as the heartlands, so the Government ignore their voice at their own peril.

The main stimulus for this debate was the publication in September 2000 of a report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills from Tony Gore and Nicola Smith of Sheffield Hallam university, entitled XPatterns of educational achievement in the British coalfields." The four main findings of the research that I draw to the attention of the House are, first and foremost, that the proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSE passes at grades A to C is 7 to 10 percentage points below the national average.

Secondly, educational attainment in the coalfields tails off badly in the mid-teen years, between the ages of 14 and 16. In primary schools, the gap between performance in the coalfields and the national average is relatively small and has tended to narrow over time. Thirdly, there is no evidence that performance in the mid-teen years relative to the national average is getting any better. Lastly, even among those staying on in full-time education beyond 16, performance in the coalfields still lags behind the rest of the country.

There is no suggestion in the research that the coalfields are unique. A number of comparator industrial areas show similar evidence of underachievement, but the research concludes:

The report also states:

For mining areas, the issue is a great worry, because it is in our children that the future welfare of our communities lies. The widespread closure of the pits in the 1980s and 1990s brought mass unemployment and

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social decline to many parts of Britain, none more so than in my area. In 1984 we had 10 pits employing 12,000 workers, and more importantly, the prospect of well-paid steady jobs in the coal industry for the young people of our towns. Less than 10 years later, all 10 pits were shut and a whole generation of workers was effectively written off as surplus to requirements by the previous Tory Administration.

Why do we have a record of underachievement in many of our coalfield areas? I suspect that one of the main causes of the problem is historical. At school-leaving age, young men and women could rely on getting a job at the pit or in its related industries. There was no need for qualifications, as the Coal Board provided on-the-job training throughout one's career, so there was a great tradition of schooling in coalfield areas. The most able children went into professional careers, such as management and surveying. The middle tier became electricians and fitters at the pit, and the less skilled became faceworkers or worked on the pit top or in haulage and so on.

Now times have changed, and the only way young people will get decent, well-paid jobs is if they are adequately qualified. The research is worrying. Without action by the Department for Education and Skills, another generation could go the way of the previous one. I do not deny that the present Government, more than any other before them, have made education their top priority. Government initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy hours are making a tremendous impact on the overall levels of attainment throughout Britain. However, good as these policies are, they are national policies from which all our children benefit, but they do not address the problem of the gap in performance that exists between the coalfields and the rest of the country.

In the coalfields and in other areas where performance lags badly, there need to be extra, targeted initiatives if those areas are ever to catch up with the rest of the country. I have mentioned the success of the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. Another Government initiative that has been extremely successful at both primary and secondary level has been education action zones. The Barnsley education action zone, which was set up in 1998, was one of the first 12 nationally. It contained 21 schools—three secondary schools, 16 primary schools, one special school and one nursery school. I should like to highlight the record of achievement of one of the schools in that zone, which is situated in my patch: Willowgarth high school in Grimethorpe. Willowgarth's improvement has been greater than the zone average. It has moved from a record of 13 per cent. of pupils gaining five A to C passes in 1998 to 35 per cent. in 2001. That is a remarkable increase of almost 200 per cent. in its success rate in less than four years. I had the privilege of presenting the annual achievement awards at Willowgarth some two weeks ago. It was a delight to see the look of satisfaction and pride on the faces of all the children and parents.

Achieving educational success is not the big mystery that it is sometimes made out to be. It is about a motivated work force, both teaching and non-teaching, working in harmony with the students and, equally as importantly, with parents and the local community, so that the school becomes a focus for local pride. That is what is now happening at Willowgarth. Before the

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education action zone was established, Willowgarth never came higher than 12th out of the 14 secondary schools in Barnsley in its record of achievement. It is now fifth out of 14—an incredible performance that speaks for itself.

Another important feature of Willowgarth's success is the fact that 35 per cent. of pupils leaving the school were accredited with work-related key skills. Some 90 per cent. of pupils leaving in 2001 did so with an accredited information and communications technology qualification—either a GCSE pass or a GNVQ—helping better to equip the children for the world of work.

In my opinion, the main reasons why the EAZ has been so successful at Willowgarth are the broadening of the curriculum to include more GNVQs and the extension of the school day to support targeted students. It is that sort of support, which the EAZ staff have provided, that is vital to continuing educational success in the coalfield areas, especially via the excellence in cities initiatives, which are now superseding many of the larger EAZs.

Incidentally, Willowgarth high school has submitted a bid for technology specialist school status. I endorse the bid and commend it to the Minister.

While I am on the subject of specialist schools, I should like to point out that all coalfield MPs were delighted with the Secretary of State's recent announcement that greater flexibility would be given with regard to achieving the #50,000 private sponsorship level. I know from my constituency's experience that that has acted as a major barrier to schools in coalfield areas in bidding for specialist school status. I have personally campaigned on the issue for some considerable time.

An exception to the #50,000 sponsorship rule can, however, be found in my constituency. Ridgewood school in Scawsby in Doncaster has submitted a bid to become one of the country's first engineering specialist schools. The bid has struck a chord with local businesses. Given Doncaster's international reputation as a centre of engineering excellence, that does not surprise me. After all, great steam engines such as the Flying Scotsman, the Mallard and the Blue Peter were all built in Doncaster. Some 70 local employers have already signed up to the bid and 20 have offered financial support, ranging from an offer of #150 from a small company to one of #10,000 from a major local engineering employer.

Ridgewood's record of achievement is very impressive. This year, it achieved a 65 per cent. rate in those gaining five GCSE passes with A to C grades. That was the second best record of any school in Doncaster. From a social inclusion perspective, more than 90 per cent. of the students achieved five A to G grades. Every student in the sixth form at Ridgewood was entered for exams and the school achieved the outstanding success rate of 100 per cent., with every student getting at least one A to G grade. That is also fantastic.

As I understand it, only a handful of schools nationally are so far bidding for engineering specialist school status. I commend Ridgewood's bid to the Minister as an exceptional one.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Doncaster's desire to become an education city. This is an excellent initiative, putting education at the heart of Doncaster's

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future regeneration. It is an extremely interesting project, co-sponsored by Doncaster council, Doncaster college and Huddersfield university. As the Minister probably knows, I am a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which will go to Doncaster in the new year to look at the education city project.

Another successful initiative from which both Barnsley and Doncaster have benefited is the implementation, in recent years, of education maintenance allowances. They have made a big difference to the staying-on rate among pupils over 16, especially in Doncaster, where there has been a 5 per cent. increase. I was delighted to learn that from next April EMAs will be rolled out nationally. As I am sure the Minister knows, my Select Committee has recommended that consideration be given to extending EMAs to higher education. I strongly support that idea.

There is no doubt that there is a major funding crisis in higher education that the Government must address. I am glad that they seem to be moving away from the idea of top-up fees, which I know would be very unpopular with students and parents alike. My bottom line is this: I will support the system that will take more students from poorer backgrounds to university. That should be the Government's main objective in trying to deal with the funding crisis. So far, we have signally failed to achieve that goal. I believe that tuition fees have produced a major barrier to higher education, particularly for students from mining communities.

The Minister may well say XHow can that be, as 40 per cent. of students do not pay tuition fees?" I would give two main reasons. First, a cash culture is still very prevalent in coalfield areas, which probably contain the highest percentage of people without bank accounts. Cash is still the key in those communities. Secondly, but more important, there is still an anti-debt culture in the coalfields as a direct consequence of the 1985 miners' strike. Many mining communities and families were brought to their knees financially by that strike, and it will be some time before the anti-strike attitude disperses.

It is for those reasons that I am becoming more in favour of a graduate tax, or an end-loading rather than a front-loading of student debt. I also feel strongly, however, that not just graduates should bridge the current funding crisis in higher education; the Government have a responsibility to play their part.

So far I have tried to highlight the Government's many achievements for the coalfield areas, but what more can be done? I would like the Government to consider two issues in particular. First, in response to the 1998 coalfield taskforce report commissioned by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Education and Skills has introduced no measures targeted specifically at the need to raise performance in coalfield schools and colleges. The coalfield communities campaign, which I am pleased to say is based in Barnsley and represents more than 80 local education authorities, would like the Government to consider measures intended specifically for coalfield areas, given the scale of the current problem of under-achievement.

Secondly, the most important deviation from the Government's Xone size fits all" approach has been the introduction, in 1998, of the excellence in cities

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initiative, which set a precedent by targeting areas where educational achievement lags behind. The trouble is that most coalfield areas tend not to be cities. The classic mining communities usually have a population of between 2,000 and 10,000, so most coalfield areas fail to qualify for this important source of special support. The Government must seriously consider rolling out the relevant features of the excellence in cities initiative to all coalfield areas—and I mean all of them.

In the coalfield communities, a generation of older workers has been discarded through the running down of the mining industry. The Government must not discard a younger generation of people in the same communities through failing to enable them to achieve acceptable educational standards.

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