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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1083—continued

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention must come to a close.

Mr. Miliband: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think I got the drift of the intervention.

The independence of the QCA is absolutely vital in the setting and marking of examinations and in the relationships with awarding bodies. I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) 100 per cent. about that. However, the QCA plays other roles; it is the Government's curriculum adviser, too. Simply to call for the wholesale independence of the QCA does not give due deference to its two roles. When the hon. Gentleman sees the memorandum of understanding, I hope that he will feel that we are doing sufficient justice to the independence required in assessment while recognising the shared interest in curriculum development.

The changes that we are proposing in the 14 to 19 phase are about offering young people greater flexibility to pursue programmes that excite and motivate them. But let us be in no doubt that, to achieve that, we need cultural as well as structural change. We are really talking about greater opportunity and choice, and we have to break the important cultural taboo on the relationship between academic and vocational study that I mentioned earlier and which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor).

There is a second cultural challenge. As I have said on several occasions, we need to banish the English curse that more means worse—that more choice will mean lower standards and that more achievement means diluted assessment and diluted achievement. Standards are rising, because teaching is getting better and students are working harder. I for one am happy to celebrate that, but I will not rest until we have a system that matches the potential of young people with the opportunities that they deserve. That will take time and it will take ideas, but we are ready for that. I look forward to the views of the House.

3.18 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): The debate is welcome, even though, sadly, it has been overshadowed and somewhat curtailed by other events.

We are discussing a crucial phase of young people's education: the possible remodelling of the whole secondary school curriculum, the future of public examinations and much more. It is regrettable that we have only three hours in which to do justice to so much. I hope that we shall have further opportunities in the not too distant future to return to this important subject.

Much in the Green Paper is welcome. We welcome the honest assessment of some of the problems that need to be tackled, some of which the Minister has mentioned today. Nearly half our young people do not achieve five good GSCEs and 61 per cent. do not achieve a good GCSE grade in English, maths and science. Five

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per cent. of our youngsters emerge from the system with no GCSEs at all. As the Minister knows, that problem is much worse in many of our cities; the figure rises to more than 10 per cent. in Hull, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle and Manchester. He and I agree that that situation is not acceptable and that we must work to overcome it.

We very much welcome the attempt to improve vocational education, to regain the interest of those who are disaffected and to improve the skills of our young people. But as the Minister will expect, we also have some concerns and significant differences with the Government over how to approach these matters.

There is a real problem with vocational technical education in this country. It has been a preoccupation of those who make policy for 150 years. The Minister resisted the temptation to give a historical discourse, and I shall resist it as well, but it has long been recognised that we have fallen short in this area. The repeated attempts that Governments have made to tackle it have never been truly successful.

The Learning and Skills Council reported in "Skills in England 2002" a position that is worsening by some measures, stating that nearly a quarter of companies say that there is a skills gap, a measure that was up 7 per cent. on the figure for the year before.

As Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, has written:

She went on:

This is a route that we hope to explore further. Why cannot England have the kind of excellent specialist technical schools that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) saw in Holland on Monday?

We are worried that the Government may be setting the wrong tone in the way in which they pursue an objective that we share. If they share our objective of strengthening the vocational offer, as the Minister puts it, and achieving higher esteem for technical education, then by setting a costly and unnecessary target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education they are piling financial pressure on to universities and students, when they should be giving more weight to the vital role of the further education sector in bridging a growing skills gap.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should maintain participation at 43 per cent. rather than seek to increase it to at least 50 per cent., is he also suggesting that children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not currently going to university can never hope to get there? Or which young people who go currently is he suggesting will not go in future?

Mr. Brady: Absolutely not. What I am suggesting is that entry to university should be based entirely on merit, and that our objective on getting people from less

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advantaged background into universities should be based not on messing about with qualifications and the routes they take to get there, or by social engineering in the admissions process of universities, but on improving the performances of schools and ensuring that children come out of schools with the qualifications they need to get into university.

I am strongly opposed to an arbitrary target of 50 per cent., which has no educational or other justification. It has been plucked out of the air. It is causing problems and has no real purpose. We should not set an arbitrary objective for the number of young people going into university. We should allow it to find its own level. The emphasis the Government are giving by stressing the more academic university route runs the danger of pulling attention away from the area where there are real problems in our education sector, the vocational and technical area and the role that the further education sector could perform, which should be expanded.

Chris Grayling: Does my hon. Friend agree that in setting the 50 per cent. target the Government completely failed to explain the connection between that target and the labour market, leaving open the real fear that they are creating university places without knowing what the training will be and what the end product will be in terms of employment?

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would not want to be pulled too far into a debate on higher education. But there is a danger that pursuing the target for the target's sake will result in an expansion in the number of places, a continuing expansion in the number of young people emerging with ever-increasing levels of debt, and, as my hon. Friend suggests, a disconnection between the needs of the labour market and the qualifications with which young people are emerging. That may mean that those young people do not receive the benefits that Ministers constantly say young people gain from a graduate qualification, because they will not be emerging into highly paid professions. Some will face long periods of unemployment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that modern apprenticeships can lead into higher education, that foundation degrees can lead into higher education, and that the one way in which we undermine the possibility of changing our culture in regard to vocational education is to suggest that we have a sheep and goats approach to our education system? That is why vocational education and training have failed historically.

Mr. Brady: I could not agree more. The Minister is absolutely right: those routes should be ways into higher education and to university. The danger is that if instead all that the Government do is to fix a 50 per cent. target, the target will be to increase the number of places, not to find more people coming in through those routes or through the more traditional A-level routes. That is a mistake.

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Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Brady: I shall give way once more, before I make progress.

Mr. Chaytor: Would not the hon. Gentleman accept, in respect of his point about raising standards in schools, that if the current trends in performance at both GCSE and A-level continue, the 50 per cent. target will automatically be met over the next seven years?

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