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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1102—continued

4.33 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate on what is, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, a crucial phase in the education of our young people. Fourteen to 19 is an age at which people set the course of their future life, and at which, we hope, they become aware of the opportunities opening up before them. However, during that phase it is vital that we keep their interest in, and enthusiasm for, education, and we do that best by making sure that they achieve success.

It is fair to say that, as the White Paper sets out clearly, some progress has been made under this Government. More children are getting five good GCSEs, and numeracy and literacy standards are rising. However, the White Paper also sets out clearly the problems that we still face. We are far too low down the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's league table of people who stay on in education after 16. There is too much variation between schools. As has been said, in some schools fewer than 10 per cent. of children get five good GCSEs. It would be a sorry failure for the nation if we allowed that to continue, and a tragedy for the young people involved. They would fail in school and not acquire the habits of lifelong learning that they will need in the future.

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I suggest to Ministers that we should take a far more radical look at what our young people need to learn to equip them for the society in which they grow up. That will not necessarily be what we needed to learn. I hope that we will not be afraid of asking what education is for.

We must also be careful about defining education purely in economic terms. Of course, schools should equip young people to earn a living. That is basic, but they should do much more. If we fall into the trap of thinking that we should provide a purely utilitarian education, we shall fail—economically, culturally and spiritually.

If education is about more than jobs, however, it is also about not doing what we used to do, simply for the sake of it. When we design an education system, we are always influenced by our own values, by the education that we wanted to receive, and by our history. My hon. Friend the Minister of State did not want to give a history lesson, but one historical fact has bedevilled English education. In the 19th century, the Taunton commission decided that there would be three types of secondary education for three different social classes. Ever since, we have thought of subjects in those terms.

My plea is that we stop doing that. We must start thinking about what young people will need for the society in which they grow up. They will need high qualifications for employment, and they will have to change jobs rapidly. Increasingly, they will spend part of their working lives abroad. Many people will live away from their families, with all the lack of support that that entails. Also, people will be deluged with information all the time. We must equip them to cope with that.

The White Paper rightly sets out some of the minimum standards that all young people should achieve in English, maths, science and ICT. I support that proposal, and I hope that the House can agree about it. However, I want to go further. We should provide young people with choice, but we should also be talking about a minimum level of education that goes wider and which all our young people ought to achieve. Some of that could be delivered through traditional subjects, but some would be part of the wider curriculum. I want to set out some suggestions for discussion. It is important that we reach some consensus on the matter. Chopping and changing is no good for students, parents or teachers.

First, I echo the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), that people should acquire scientific literacy, regardless of the other subjects that they do. People need a basic understanding of science, its history and how it has shaped our culture. My hon. Friend was right to note that they also need a means of assessing risk, and pointed to the number of scare stories that have to do with scientific facts. People cannot assess risk. We would be missing out a major part of our young people's education if we do not teach them how to do it.

We must not fail to teach young people how to deal with the deluge of information. They are growing up in the internet age. We must make some effort to teach them how to distinguish fact from opinion, good information from bad information and well researched

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information from mere speculation. If we do not, we will not be training them to cope with the world in which they are growing up.

Dr. Pugh: Does the hon. Lady agree that an inherent weakness of the current A-level system is that it inclines students to think of themselves as either scientists or non-scientists at the tender age of 16?

Helen Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman; that can be a weakness of our system, if young people are given the wrong advice. It is partly due to the university entrance system, so perhaps we should be encouraging young people to study a much broader swathe of A-level subjects.

All young people should grow up with some knowledge of the history, customs and institutions of the country in which they live, but they are also citizens of the world and they need to know about the problems and opportunities in the world in which they will grow up. They should have knowledge of at least one other country and its culture.

I have grave doubts about our post-14 language teaching. I cannot believe that most of our young people are not capable of coping with learning a foreign language. I support the Government's attempts to introduce foreign languages earlier, in primary school. Although some children cannot deal with learning a foreign language at that age, many more could do so if the teaching was right. German or Swedish workers can give television interviews in English and I refuse to believe that our young people are inherently less able than them.

I support the introduction of more practical and vocational subjects in schools, but it must be carefully done. Used properly, such subjects can be a way of engaging and maintaining young people's interest in education. However, we must not divide young people into sheep and goats at the age of 14; there must be pathways between practical subjects and higher vocational or academic education. The Labour movement, in particular, should remember that categorising people at the age of 14 does not always work, any more than it always worked at the age of 11. If such categories had been fixed, Ernest Bevin would never have been Foreign Secretary—there are many similar examples.

An important aspect of the Green Paper was not included in the White Paper. The Government are rightly introducing citizenship classes, but we need active citizens. Some form of community service should form part of the final leaving qualification in whatever leaving certificate we eventually introduce. There are several reasons for that.

First, we need to help our young people to grow up by learning to accept responsibility and to help others. There are several good voluntary schemes and we need to make wider use of them. Secondly, there is an increasing generation gap, because there are fewer extended families and people are moving away from their families. We can narrow that gap through voluntary service. For example, in my area, there are many older people who worry about keeping their gardens tidy and many young people who could help them and benefit from that contact. Finally, we need to

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show our young people that being a member of society carries obligations as well as rights. We must assist them to learn about their obligations at an early stage.

I raised an important point in my earlier intervention. Some of our children sit far too many examinations at the age of 16. That has two dangers. First, it squeezes some important subjects out of the curriculum. Secondly, it can lead to children being spoon-fed for their exams, which means that they do not develop the necessary research skills, which are essential for learning in later life. They cannot read around the subject or undertake projects that are not exam-related. I hope that we can help schools to develop other methods of improving and assessing students' work, which can be used alongside public examinations, because both are equally important.

4.45 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): It is a privilege to take part in this debate. I was going to apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) for missing part of his speech, but he is returning the compliment by missing part of mine, having left the Chamber for a short while.

I wanted to make a brief contribution because I believe that there is a need to concentrate on many education issues, and I am not confident that we are quite getting the response right. It is not necessarily a matter of party politics. In some ways the problem is a lack of understanding of what is going on in the country.

I should like first to speak generally and then to talk about children and young people who are losing out—perhaps one or two in my own constituency.

My constituency is very mixed; it is agricultural, but it also has a great deal of industry. Like many others, it requires many skills, including those needed in the health services. I find that there is a great skills shortage. There is a shortage of teachers, for example. Every time I meet head teachers they tell me how difficult it is to recruit. It is not that they have a great number of vacancies, but the quality of applicants is not what it should be. One head told me openly last week that if he had the choice he would not employ a number of teachers now in his school if he could find others who were better. He thinks that they are substandard. That is not a very good situation.

We know that in the health service there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, but less talked about is the shortage of scientific staff. People are not training to go into that kind of work.

Part of the aerospace industry is in my constituency. I was able to ask a question about it earlier today. There is a shortage of people entering the industry, of people wishing to go into what might be perceived as a dirty job. Being an engineer is perhaps not as glamorous as certain other types of work.

We have skills shortages in so many walks of life, yet we are apparently educating many people to degree level. I am the first to acknowledge that the party I support, when in Government, considerably increased the number of people going to university. I think that that was a good thing. I did not have the benefit of a university education. I wish I had.

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Something, somewhere, is going wrong when more and more people are entering university but many leave as graduates with no job to go into or enter jobs that do not require degrees. I am not saying that one should go to university only in order to obtain a better job. The value of the education must also be taken into account. But there is something wrong when so many young people find themselves in jobs for which they are over-qualified or have no jobs at all. We must question, therefore, whether the Government's 50 per cent. target is necessary.

As I have said, while there are graduates who have no jobs or who are doing jobs that do not require degrees, we have many skills shortages throughout the country. So something, somewhere, is not working. We need to address that problem, and I am not convinced that we are doing so.

I turn to the second part of my speech, in which I want to concentrate on the children we are leaving behind. As several hon. Members have already mentioned, there is a problem of children and young people missing out. Statistics from the last century show that most people have become more prosperous and that health services and housing have improved. Yet we seem to have developed an underclass of people. It is an awful phrase, which was used earlier, but I cannot think of a better way of putting it. We have a class of people who miss out completely. They miss out on better health services; they miss out on better housing; they miss out on prosperity. One of the reasons is that they also miss out on education.

At least 50 per cent. of the prison population, and possibly nearer 60 per cent. now, are illiterate or semi-literate. I would not for one moment say that illiteracy is an excuse for committing a crime. Somebody who is illiterate and commits a crime must be punished. There is a question about what that punishment should be, but they must comply with the law just as the rest of us do. However, we also have to accept that there is an obvious link between no education and crime. Our education system has been developing for an awfully long time, so we have to question why so many children leave school without the basics of education.

Hon. Members have rightly concentrated on GCSEs, international baccalaureates, A-levels and degrees, but the other side of the issue is that a lot of our young people are leaving school without even being able to read and write. That is a tragedy. It is a waste for them, and it is a tragedy for society, because those people often go on to commit crimes. The statistics show that 40 per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and a third of car thefts were carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds when they should have been in school. Not only are they missing out on the education that might get them good jobs, but they are causing an awful lot of problems for society. We must ask ourselves why that is happening.

I want to touch on another issue that is linked to that problem: special educational needs, which is a subject very close to my heart. There is a very good special educational needs school, called Alderman Knight, in my constituency. Its pupils are frequently physically handicapped, but they also have learning and behavioural difficulties. That school does an excellent job. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)—who also declines to hear my speech at

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the moment—visited that school not long ago, and she was very impressed by what she saw. I ask the Minister to visit that school, too, because it is under threat of closure. Gloucestershire county council is not Conservative run. I do not seek to make a party political point, but it is run by an unholy Lib-Lab pact.

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