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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1089—continued

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind all hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

3.38 pm

Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I intend to be brief, and therefore shall not take up all the points that I would wish from the speech by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). I must say, however, that I completely reject his contention that there is a lack of rigour in the examination and assessment structure and, by implication, that today's youngsters are not as well qualified as they appear to be. I believe that we have the best qualified youngsters coming up through the education system that we have ever had, and that our responsibility is to try to build on that and to improve it for the future. If I agree with him on one thing, it is his concern about foreign language teaching and the pace of change, which I hope Ministers will keep in mind throughout the next few years.

I agree with the basic analysis presented by my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards. He is right that structural weaknesses remain in the education system, especially in relation to the low status of

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vocational education and the narrowness of academic education. That has been a problem for many years, and we must address it. I am glad that we are having a grown-up discussion about what should happen post-14, because it is important to tackle that problem now.

In such a short debate and with such a brief time in which to contribute, I simply want to mention three aspects of post-14 education and use my constituency experience to try to give a flavour of the necessary changes. I welcome the changes to the GCSE—for example, the ability of young people in future to do a GCSE in engineering. It is good to increase the range, although doing that is not problem free.

It is difficult to attract the right teachers for engineering. However, the teachers are there if we can lure them back, and perhaps the greater problem is getting the right facilities. Many further education colleges opted out of subjects such as engineering after their incorporation because of high overheads. If we are to encourage schools to provide a more adventurous range of GCSEs, we must deal with such problems and help them to have the quality facilities as well as the quality teaching that they need.

There is much scope for co-operation between schools on the post-14 curriculum. That has not happened in the past, and it has become more difficult, especially during the time when schools were almost asked to compete for grant-maintained status. We can redevelop some co-operation and use the fact that not all schools will be able to offer the same range of GCSEs to get them to work together more closely.

In Dewsbury, we mainly have high schools for 11 to 16-year-olds. Some have specialist status and others have beacon status. They all have different strengths and they are not a million miles apart. For vocational GCSEs—I appreciate that we are not to use the term, but I am trying to convey the concept—some schools could specialise in specific subjects and co-ordinate their timetables. For example, pupils from Thornhill high school in my patch could go to Earlsheaton high school for engineering lessons. Wednesday afternoons could be designated for switching schools. Some imaginative thinking would benefit everybody. I volunteer Dewsbury for any pilots that the Minister deems appropriate to test that further.

We need to ensure that we have quality post-16 provision throughout the country. It must be provided where people want it. I welcome the fact that more youngsters are doing AS-levels and I reject the comments of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West about those qualifications. I welcome the fact that more youngsters go on to study A-levels.

However, in Dewsbury, almost all our academically minded youngsters are exported for post-16 education. As I said, our schools are mainly for 11 to 16-year-olds. There are extremely good sixth form colleges in neighbouring towns, especially Greenhead college and New college in Huddersfield. There are also good colleges in Leeds and Wakefield. Although Dewsbury has one school that caters for 11 to 18-year-olds, the town does not have quality AS-level and A-level provision. It is wrong that youngsters have to travel outside their area for such education.

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Dewsbury college is good at what it does. It offers a wide and increasing range of courses, but it deals with part-time and mature students in particular. Not many 16-year-olds who want to do AS-levels and A-levels go to that college for the limited number of courses on offer. We could build on co-operation between institutions. My ideal solution—which I think could also work elsewhere—would be to have a new sixth form college working in collaboration with existing high schools. Somebody from those high schools could be on the governing body of the sixth form college, and staff could be shared because not every school has every speciality. Such a solution could enhance the education on offer to 16-year-olds. We have to consider this urgently, because the number of 16-year-olds who get five or more good GCSEs and want to stay on in education will increase. We have an opportunity to provide better education and to consolidate the co-operation that should exist, and will increasingly exist, between schools. Again, if the Minister is looking for areas for pilot studies, I volunteer mine.

My third point touches on something that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said, but also on other issues. The hon. Gentleman talked about vocational routes as if they were rigid—once people were on such a route, they were on that and nothing else and could never get off. Some people are concerned that, if we are not careful, we may—despite having ended the 11-plus—be introducing the 14-plus. Nobody wants that; nobody wants a sudden divide into one route or the other at age 14. It is very important indeed to get the structure of qualifications right.

Hon. Members have mentioned an English baccalaureate and one or two hon. Members have mentioned credit accumulation. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards of a Labour party document of many years ago entitled "Opening doors to a learning society". That document said that credits for GCSEs, BTECs or GNVQs could build into one overarching qualification that could become an English baccalaureate, although perhaps under another name. We have to incorporate that concept into our education system. I urge my hon. Friends to treat this issue, which has been around for a long time, as urgent.

This is an exciting time in education for this age range. They are impatient for more opportunities and the time is right for us to push the boat out and be more adventurous. We should do so not to create turmoil but to create greater and better opportunities for youngsters who are achieving but could achieve even more in future.

3.47 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor). She makes a powerful case for what is a fundamental philosophy of Liberal Democrats—that of decisions being taken locally rather than at the centre. Her former colleague Baroness Williams of Crosby, in a discussion that I had with her last week, made exactly the same comments about Labour's past policy documents on credit accumulation. It is nice to see that some people remain faithful to their beliefs, even though they may have moved about the House.

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We welcome the strategy paper on education for 14 to 19-year-olds and we thank the Minister for making time for a debate. We are not often given the chance to debate policy papers, and it is important that we debate this one. We also broadly welcome the thrust of the proposals. Anyone reading through the document and the Green Paper would find it hard to disagree with the stark analysis of system failure going back not just a few years but many decades.

We are pleased that the Government are prepared to take a measured approach to their proposals for system reform, especially on qualifications structures. Despite the rather sad comments of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), it is clear in the document that there is to be a measured approach to many issues. A knee-jerk reaction to a new qualifications structure would be absolutely disastrous for young people who are just starting year 10.

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: Of course, I would be more than excited to.

Mr. Brady: Has the hon. Gentleman not just said exactly what I said?

Mr. Willis: With respect, that is not what I heard. Perhaps I should be terribly disappointed.

Despite the fact that some things need to be taken slowly, we cannot simply allow them to go on as they are at the moment. There has been a lack of progress over many years. I spent most of my professional life working with the sort of youngsters for whom the Green Paper and reports such as "Bridging the Gap" and Helena Kennedy's wonderful "Learning Works" raised expectations and hope. The Minister provided his expertise to the social exclusion unit for many years. At least, he certainly offered his advice when he had a more important job as a political adviser.

"Bridging the Gap" identified the fact that, in 1988, 170,000 16 to 19-year-olds were not in work or training of any sort. Another 280,000 were in work but received no training. Most of them had no skills. That is a damning indictment of the system but, five years after the report was published, we are in exactly the same boat. Doing nothing for the next five years is therefore not an option.

In 1988, we created a post-grammarian curriculum for all. I am not overly-critical of what happened then and in the Education Reform Act 1988. The post-grammarian curriculum has been a real success. The fact that in 1988, 35 per cent. of young people got the equivalent of five good GCSEs and that the figure is more than 50 per cent. today is testimony to what has happened since then. It is also testimony to the success of the comprehensive system, which has delivered those results.

That curriculum approach coincided with the decline of craft, practical and laboratory work in schools. Such work was squeezed by the curriculum. Furthermore, between 1988 and 1997, we saw virtually the end of apprenticeships in the workplace and the end of most industrial-based training schemes. All that has come home to haunt us.

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Since 1988, the temptation has been to have a more academic education for all that is intended to serve individual and societal needs. The obsession with GCSEs, performance tables and competition between schools and colleges was the hallmark of the previous Government, but it has severely distorted the education market for 14 to 19-year-olds.

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