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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1107—continued

Dr. Pugh: Was that not a party political point?

Mr. Robertson: It was not a party political point at all. Gloucestershire county council wants to close that school. It has already closed one special school in Gloucestershire—Bownham Park, Stroud—and it has two further schools on the agenda for closure. A former Minister who dealt with special education told me that the Government's reforms and proposals should not be seen as a green light to the closure of special schools—okay—but why is it happening?

I ask the Minister to come to Gloucestershire to visit Alderman Knight school and to look the teachers, parents and, more importantly, the pupils in the eye and tell them that he thinks that that school should close. I do not believe that his heart is cold enough to do that. I know a number of Labour Members—perhaps I have had a drink with them downstairs, gone on trips with them and perhaps even gone horse racing with them—and I know that they would not want that school to close, so why has Gloucestershire county council got that agenda? Why is it allowed to get away with that?

Special educational needs is a big issue in itself, but the wider point that I want to make is that such closures will not help to reduce the number of people who are missing out on education. The Government said that they have an inclusion policy. Yes, a lot of people with special needs can be included in mainstream schools, but very many cannot. I ask the Minister to consider that very important point.

4.53 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this very important debate. There is no doubt that 14-to-19 education is being increasingly portrayed as the missing link in extending access to higher education. I say that because currently 90 per cent. of students who gain two or more A-levels go on to higher education before they are 21. However, only 19 per cent. of them come from the lower socio-economic groups, as opposed to 43 per cent. from the higher groups. Additionally, for generations now, the prevailing attitude in education has been "academic good, vocational bad." That attitude must change, and I am delighted that the White Paper advocates how that can best be achieved.

I am sure that the Minister will recall the Adjournment debate on education in the coalfields that I initiated just before Christmas, in which I quoted the report, entitled "Patterns of educational achievement in the British coalfields", produced by Sheffield Hallam university in 2000.

The four main findings of the research that I drew to the House's attention were as follows. First and foremost, the proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSE passes at grades A to C is 7 to 10 percentage

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points below the national average. Secondly, educational achievement 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. That coalfields case study underlines exactly why we need to get a firm grip on the 14-to-19 agenda.

One of the major initiatives that the Government have embarked upon to improve attainment in secondary schools has been the development of specialist schools status. I am glad about the recent announcement that will give all secondary schools the opportunity to apply for specialist school status. This week, I was even more delighted with the news that Ridgewood school in Scawsby, in Doncaster in my constituency, has become one of the first four engineering specialist schools in the country. I am also delighted that the Government are creating two new specialisms of humanities and music as from October this year. It is also good news that rural schools will be allowed to incorporate a rural dimension into their chosen specialist bid.

Another important Government initiative that has been extremely successful in my constituency is the Barnsley education action zone. The Barnsley EAZ, which was set up in 1998, was one of the first 12 in the country. It contained 21 schools—three secondary schools, 16 primary schools, one special school and one nursery school. In the EAZ, the number of seven-year-olds who read to the expected standard has increased by 12 per cent., compared with the national average increase of 4 per cent., in the past three years, and there are similar figures for 11-year-olds. There has been a 16 per cent. rise in the number of young people doing well at that age, although the effects are less marked at secondary level than at primary level.

That brings us back to why we must positively address the 14-to-19 issue. What we need to do can be showcased by my experience as a governor at Willowgarth high school in Grimethorpe, which is part of the EAZ. I declare an interest in that context. Although Willowgarth is a very deprived school—36 per cent. of the pupils are entitled to free school meals—its improvement has been greater than EAZ average. It has moved from a dismal record of 13 per cent. of pupils gaining five A to C passes in 1998 to 35 per cent. gaining five good passes in 2001—a remarkable increase of almost 200 per cent. in its success rate in less than four years. Before the EAZ 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 the 14—an incredible performance that speaks for itself.

Another important feature of Willowgarth's success is the fact that 35 per cent. of pupils who left the school last year 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—ICT—qualification, in the form of a GCSE pass or a GNVQ, which helps better to equip

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children for the world of work. In my opinion, the main reason why the EAZ has been so successful at Willowgarth is the broadening of the curriculum to include more GNVQs and the extension of the school day to support targeted students. The EAZ staff have provided that support, which is vital to continuing educational success in the coalfield communities. The excellence in cities initiative, which now largely supersedes many EAZs, is especially important. Willowgarth intends to bid for technology school status, and I commend the school to the Minister.

Barnsley and Doncaster have benefited in recent years from education maintenance allowances, which have made a difference to the staying-on rates. I am pleased that the Government have decided to provide them nationally from September 2004. I want to make a positive suggestion about them. We should track the students who qualify for EMAs to ensure that the allowances have the desired effect. I should also like the Government to consider extending the EMA to higher education instead of the maintenance grant. That would mean seamless movement from the junior to the senior EMA. We should pitch it at £1,500 rather than £1,000.

It is great news that we are going to discard the unhelpful distinction between vocational and academic GCSEs and A-levels, and that more vocational GCSEs will be created. I am also pleased about expanding the modern apprenticeships, which have been successful in Barnsley in the past.

If we are to achieve the aims that the document on education for 14 to 19-year-olds sets out, the agenda must be partnership driven. No school is an island. Each school and every partner organisation must work together to bring out the best teaching from schools, colleges and work-based learning provision. It will require local education authorities to play an enhanced role, working in tandem with all secondary schools and the local learning and skills council. The role of LSCs has not been mentioned sufficiently.

In areas of high economic deprivation such as Barnsley and Doncaster, it is also essential to involve the local economic regeneration forums to ensure that local vocational courses accurately reflect local business requirements. Learning and skills councils have a major co-ordination role to play with local schools, further education colleges and universities. A more collegiate approach should be established between specialist and non-specialist schools.

To overturn the inadequacies of our secondary school system, we must create educational opportunities for all. The new specialist school system needs to be part of an overall network of educational provision in a local education authority. Every school should have a distinctive part to play, and schools should complement rather than compete with each other.

To achieve such inter-school co-operation, the Department must make school transport a greater priority. For too long, the Department has adopted the attitude that transport is the sole responsibility of the LEA. It must play a much more positive role in assisting LEAs to develop imaginative school transport policies, such as those that Select Committee members witnessed in Birmingham last year.

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Before I finish—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman will not be able to finish because he has had his 10 minutes.

5.3 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). My family is rooted in the coalfield communities of east Durham and I therefore know the importance of education for the self-improvement and advancement of those who live in such areas.

I was enticed to speak in the debate through a series of conversations in the past six months with constituents and employers about the importance of vocational and technical education. The evident lack of skills in south-east Hampshire shows the need for enhanced skills. For example, the director of a listed company in Hampshire who is approaching retirement has chosen to do plumbing at a night class. That is not because he wants a second career, but because he wants the skill to do his own plumbing work. Hon. Members might have thought that we should be training younger people to do those jobs.

To echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), there is clearly a relationship between a lack of numeracy, literacy and technical skills and problems in communities. My hon. Friend mentioned the educational attainment of people in prisons. Last summer, I spoke to people who worked in a jobcentre in Fareham. They said that many young people—especially men—who were coming on to the job market but were finding it difficult to find a job had poor literacy and numeracy skills. I also spoke to people at a local housing association who had found that, among their tenants, it was the young men who were the most in need of skills training but the least willing to receive it.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned the 9 per cent. of people who leave school without qualifications. Some young people are disaffected with schooling, resulting in high levels of absenteeism or truanting. They are missing out on the skills training that they need if they are to play a part in society.

Part of the problem lies in the way in which we present education to our young people in schools. There is too great an emphasis on the merits of academic education, to the exclusion of other skills in other areas. The Government make great play of achieving 50 per cent. participation in higher education among 18 to 22-year-olds. To those who are not academically able, that gives the impression that vocational training is second rate. No parity of esteem exists for academic and vocational education—which reminds one of the binary divide between polytechnics and universities, which the Conservative Government abolished. We have to have that parity of esteem so that people acknowledge the value of vocational education and so that people who are disaffected with education, or disengaged from it, can see the point of it.

To improve vocational education, we must have greater co-operation between the school sector and the further education sector. As the Minister said earlier,

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we must ensure that local provision of training matches the needs of the community. It was therefore disappointing to read in the Ofsted report that came out earlier this month that

in further education—

A great deal of work clearly needs to be done within the further education sector to improve the provision of courses. The needs of the local business community must be considered before it is decided what vocational training should be offered. People who finish vocational training—either at school at the age of 16, or in post-16 education—have to be able to see that their training has value. There have to be employment opportunities at the end of it. The skills that the business community needs must be matched to the skills that are taught in the local FE colleges.

We have to look beyond the provision of training courses by the FE sector. There could be other providers, such as businesses. I draw the attention of the House to a scheme in south-east Hampshire, where HMS Sultan, which is a training establishment for the Royal Navy, is offering one-year residential courses for people taking part in a modern apprenticeship scheme. That has received many positive comments from employers. They have found that the young men and women who left school at 16 and who have gone on the residential course for a year come out of the process much more mature and better equipped for the world of work than they were a year earlier. We need to offer more diverse provision to ensure that we give young adults good vocational training and good training in life skills. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) mentioned the importance of teaching young adults the skills that they need to live as well as the skills that they need to work.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred to workplace training. The Ofsted report was critical of the quality of that training, and it is important that the young people who receive training in the workplace find that it is of good quality. Therefore, the learning and skills councils, the FE colleges and commercial training providers must work together. In my area, much of the vocational training in the Navy is provided by a commercial company, Flagship Training, which is part of Vosper Thorneycroft. It is recognised by the Learning and Skills Council as providing good quality training to apprentices in the area.

The Ofsted report mentions failings in vocational training, the FE sector and workplace training, but it sets a benchmark as to where we should be. If we are to bring about parity of esteem for vocational and academic training, it is clear that we need to make significant improvements in the way in which courses are provided and taught. Young people who are currently disaffected with education should enjoy training courses that are equally as good as the academic courses that their peers receive elsewhere.

The Government and those involved in education face the challenge of ensuring that children and young adults receive the right level of education in good quality

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courses, so that they are motivated and understand that they have a role in society. They should see that society has something to offer them and that they have something to offer to society. That is how we can tackle the problems that the country faces from the disengagement of young people—particularly young men—in our local communities.

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