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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1086—continued

Mr. Brady: I do not accept that. I shall come to some comments on qualifications. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are very real concerns about the rigour of qualifications. I welcome some of the remarks that the Minister made in opening, because those concerns need to be addressed. We cannot automatically assume that the improvement in exam performance is always a sure indicator of an improvement in standards. As the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in education, he will know, as I do, that there are universities that are now, for instance, giving remedial coaching in mathematics to students who have A-grades in maths A-level.

Mr. Willis: Name one.

Mr. Brady: I could name one, and it is not that far from the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I shall not do so, but I had that conversation with a professor of computing at a particular university only a few days ago. Hon. Members who take an interest in education know that there are real concerns and that universities and employers are encountering difficulties sometimes with apparently well-qualified students, where the substance of their qualifications does not seem to meet the apparent qualification level. So I do not accept the point that the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made.

In suggesting that everybody should aim for university, which is not really the right route for everybody, in pursuit of egalitarianism the Government risk falling into the trap of giving a message that is elitist and is focused on the academic.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) rose—

Mr. Brady: I shall not give way. I want to make progress.

If we want to increase opportunity, the Government say, ever more people should go to university. If we want to raise the esteem of vocational qualifications, they say, we should call those qualifications "GCSE" or "A-level". That is not the right route for vocational qualifications. It risks a further loss of rigour in our academic qualifications.

Helen Jones rose—

Mr. Brady: The hon. Lady, whom I know well and respect, knows that I have given way a good deal. I am happy to give way when more time is available.

I welcome the fact that the Minister indicated that a baccalaureate-type qualification falls very firmly into the category of longer-term possible reforms set out in the Government's response, because it is essential that

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we now focus on restoring the rigour and reliability of our A-levels. The discussion of replacing the whole examination will do nothing to tell people sitting A-levels in the next few years that the exams are fair and credible. A baccalaureate may bring more breadth to the curriculum, but if breadth is at the expense of depth, it is the last thing that we want. We saw a loss of rigour in exams when we moved from O-level and CSEs to GCSE and to modular A and AS-levels. We must not allow that to happen again in moving to baccalaureates from A-levels.

One of our strongest concerns about the impact of Curriculum 2000 and A-levels is that, in all too many cases, the pressure of time put on students at that point in their education removed the opportunity for those in the lower sixth year to engage in other activities, such as sport, drama and music. That is one of the reasons why we have argued for scrapping the AS-level, which was, in any event, introduced so incompetently. AS-levels have not only caused a reduction in the breadth of the educational experience—the Minister raises his eyebrows, but I stress that that experience goes much wider merely than the academic courses of study on offer—but have put in place a round of public examinations in the lower sixth year.

Ms Munn: The hon. Gentleman has obviously not been informed by his Conservative colleagues on the Select Committee on Education and Skills that we could find no witness who would scrap AS-levels.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Lady should try harder. I am sure that, if she were to follow the Under-Secretary's example of talking to young people, she would find many people who deeply regret the experience of the implementation of Curriculum 2000 and the damage that it caused.

Putting in place an extra round of exams in the lower sixth year has led to young people being over-examined, and we also saw the confusion about the proportion of marks accounted for by the AS-level modules—modules were accorded 50 per cent. of the marks when they merited only 40 per cent. of them. That was one of the main factors that led to last summer's A-level fiasco. If, as the Government's response says, our first priority is to ensure the smooth running of A-levels this year and beyond and if the Government are serious about restoring the credibility of A-levels, they should look again at withdrawing AS-levels.

We welcome the idea of some children spending a significant amount of the post-14 education learning in the workplace, but, again, we have some real concerns; we welcome it only if they have a high-quality learning experience. That proposal was first mentioned some time ago by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). He was then talking about a fairly small percentage of children—the disaffected and disengaged, persistent truants and those who cannot be kept engaged in the traditional educational route—but the proposal has now grown into a major plank of the Government's policies for 14 to 19- year-olds.

That initiative gives rise to some serious worries. First, quality may suffer; kids must not make the tea for the local employer. I know that the Minister does not

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want that to happen—it is not what we want to happen—but I hope that he will recognise that, in trying to offer such a massive provision of workplace training for children throughout the country, there is a danger that quality may not always be maintained. Secondly, there is a concern that sufficient priority will not be attached to guidance. If children are to be channelled into vocational routes at 14, we must ensure that they are the right ones. As the Guidance Council says,

The Minister will be aware that serious concerns are being expressed about the way in which the Connexions service is being implemented; the focus is too much on those who may drop out, although many others need the guidance and support that ought to be made available.

The Guidance Council goes on to pose some questions to the Government:

careers education and guidance—

[Interruption.] I am glad that the Minister seems to have a copy of that briefing note, so I hope that he has prepared some good answers.

How will the Government monitor consistently high quality in the development of individual learning plans at the start of key stage 4, when crucial decisions need to be made? How will the development of initial teacher training and leadership programmes reflect the need for tutors and other staff to play an enhanced role in the career planning and review process? The Government's plans put far greater emphasis on the need for good guidance for young people. If there is more flexibility, there will be a greater diversity of routes from the age of 14. We have to ensure that young people take those choices and make those decisions with the proper guidance and support.

We also welcome the proposed greater flexibility in the curricula, but that, too, gives rise to concerns. One of our most serious worries relates to what the future will hold for language teaching in our schools. We are prepared to accept that the compulsory teaching of a modern foreign language up to 16 is not appropriate for everyone, but we are worried that language teaching beyond 14 will decline under the Government's proposals before adequate provision is in place to fulfil their pledge that all school children at key stage 2 will have the opportunity to study a modern foreign language by 2010. The Minister believes that that will be achieved with the help of an army of language assistants, but he told me in a written answer on 21 January that in our 25,000 schools we have only 29.5 full-time-equivalent language assistants. We wish him well with his pledge, but at present it looks very much like pie in the sky. Even if he meets his target, we will be replacing compulsory languages post-14 with optional languages in junior school. The Government risk leaving the next generation even less able in foreign languages than those generations that have gone before. It also seems odd,

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I might add, that citizenship classes will be compulsory, but the study of history, geography and languages will not.

We have one overriding concern—that schools that have coped with a state of constant change and reform over 15 years or more are now to be faced with yet another upheaval: more uncertainty, more curriculum changes and more changes in the exam system. Schools that have worked hard to accommodate the birth of the GCSE, the national curriculum, local management of schools and curriculum 2000—the latter being unfunded and, sadly, bungled—are now to take on a whole new 14 to 19 approach, the funding and direction of which will itself be split between the local education authority, which will, at least for now, pass on funding for 14-to-16 provision, with the Learning and Skills Council funding 16-to-19 provision. I should be interested to hear further comment from the Minister as to whether that will be the long-term picture, or whether he envisages that the role of the learning and skills councils will expand towards the start of the 14-to-19 phase of education.

All this comes at a time when teachers and heads in even the best schools are struggling with ministerial red tape and interference. As the head of an outstanding local school in my constituency told me on Friday,

I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that if these changes are to succeed, it will be because of strong leadership in schools, not micro-management by the Department for Education and Skills.

In conclusion, we welcome the Green Paper and the debate that it invites, but urge the Government to proceed with caution and to look for quality in vocational and academic education. If they proceed with the haste that accompanied the introduction of AS-levels, the education of a generation will suffer.

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