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Mr. Hoon: It is clear that the reason why we would want to accede to this request—if that is what we decide to do—would be because we would be in support of an ally. We cannot go into a coalition and then simply cross our fingers and say that there are certain circumstances under which we will not participate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that for a moment. Were we to refuse that request, it would go to the heart of our relationship not only with the United States, but with other members of that alliance.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend say a little about the logistical prerequisites of any such further deployment, with particular reference to the greater need for armoured vehicles?

Mr. Hoon: Those are matters that will be the subject of the reconnaissance that is about to take place and they will be taken into account by the chiefs of staff in their advice to Ministers.

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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, from conflicts as diverse as Malaya in the 1950s to the Balkans in the 1990s, the British Army has both developed and implemented peacekeeping strategies that are superior to those of any other army in the world? Does he recall the dispute between the British and the Americans over the occupation of Pristina airport and the way in which that was resolved? Does he therefore think that he should pay more attention to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that, if the British are deployed in this way, it is vital that they have a key input into the counter-insurgency strategy that is followed?

Mr. Hoon: As I made clear, the request is for British forces to participate in operations in a discrete and particular area of Iraq and therefore their position will be no different from the one that they are in today in conducting operations in the south of Iraq.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute not just to the troops, but to the excellent work of those in the RAF, many of whom will have come from the Vale of York. If he accedes to the request, will he not be moving further away from his target of having 24 months between operational tours? Does that not support the thesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) that we need more battalions rather than fewer?

Mr. Hoon: Unfortunately not, because the very people who have the least opportunity of a 24-month rotation are those who have precisely the kinds of skills that we are intending to reinforce by redeploying the four battalions from Northern Ireland into those areas of shortage. It is no good the hon. Lady shaking her head. If she really is concerned about those who have been most stretched in recent times, she needs to look at the logistics and at engineers, intelligence personnel and signallers, who are precisely the kind of people who support operations. If she looks carefully at what I said, she will see that our intention is to use the strength released from those four battalions to help those shortage areas.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): This is clearly no time for narrow partisanship or opportunistic repositioning. Speaking as one of those who voted for the war, would back exactly the same text again, believe that the Prime Minister has been honest on this subject throughout and think that the coalition forces should finish the job that they have quite properly started, may I put it to the Secretary of State that, subject to the caveats that he has very properly highlighted this afternoon, in seeking to reinforce United States efforts to establish security in Iraq and fight terrorism there, he is entitled to receive the strong, principled and consistent support of people in all parties for doing what is right, however inconvenient it may be?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I assume that he was not accusing the Government of opportunistic repositioning. He seemed to be directing his gaze towards his own Front Bench.

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Tomlinson Working Group

4.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I should like to make a statement on the reform of education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds on the occasion of the publication of the final report from Mike Tomlinson's working group on 14 to 19 reform.

I welcome the working group's report and commend it wholeheartedly to the House. I am extremely grateful to Mr. Tomlinson and his colleagues for their very hard work over the past 21 months. They have consulted widely and openly, and have now produced a cogently argued, challenging and compelling vision of the future. Through their regular engagement with the many stakeholders, including schools, colleges, universities and employers, I believe that they have laid the basis for the development of a broad consensus on the best way forward. I believe that it is important that this consensus extends across the whole House, so I have encouraged Mr. Tomlinson to keep in touch with the main Opposition parties and have authorised my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards to give early briefing to their spokespeople.

I appointed Mr. Tomlinson with the view that the status quo is not sustainable. Doing nothing is not an option. Under the current system, many of our young people achieve very high standards, whether in schools, colleges or work-based training, and move on to higher education or employment. But too many drop entirely out of education or training by the age of 17. Some do not have sufficient grasp of the core skills that they need for work and life. Others cannot find a straightforward path to meet their vocational ambitions. Some are simply not stretched enough to enable them to fulfil their own potential.

When we published our policy document "14–19: Opportunity and Excellence" at the beginning of last year, we concluded that those problems could not be solved simply by short-term measures, important though they are. Longer-term reform is also necessary. We therefore asked the working group to advise on a framework for qualifications that would enable all our young people to achieve their full potential, motivate them to stay in learning after the age of 16 and also reduce the burden of assessment on students, their teachers and the examinations system.

The working group's report covers all aspects of the curriculum and qualifications framework for the 14 to 19 phase. Its recommendations have far-reaching implications for the structures of education and training. They include proposals to introduce the study of core skills in literacy, numeracy, communication and ICT for all 14 to 19-year-olds; direct employer engagement in the development of vocational programmes; provision of coherent routes to fulfil vocational aspirations; the introduction of an extended project to replace coursework; and a more academically stretching system of assessment. Each of these will require short and medium-term reforms. On that basis, the report recommends development of the diploma, with the recommendation that, over time, all existing academic and vocational qualifications would be brought within its framework.
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The report argues that that approach has many advantages. It would establish a single coherent, understood qualifications framework for the first time. It would put vocational and academic qualifications on a common footing, again for the first time. It would promote greater personalisation of the curriculum to meet the needs of individuals and greater choice for young people. The report also argues that a diploma would stretch our most able young people while re-engaging with those who currently drop out of learning. Such an approach would, of course, bring great challenges, as the working group acknowledges. It would be the biggest single reform of qualifications in any of our lifetimes.

Mr. Tomlinson's report rightly states that the Department for Education and Skills and its partner organisations must undertake further work before a blueprint for reform is drawn up and that the reforms will take at least 10 years to introduce. I agree with the careful, deliberate approach to reform adopted by the working group, and I accept it. Above all in that complex area, we owe it to our young people to ensure that the stability of the qualification system is paramount in our thinking and that reform is based on consensus, evolution, careful planning and the rigorous piloting of any change.

For those reasons, I shall, of course, consider the report carefully, and I intend to make positive and detailed proposals in a White Paper early in the new year. The White Paper will include my assessment of how the working group report measures up to the five tests that I set when the working group's interim report was published. The tests are: excellence—will the system stretch the most able; vocational—will it address the historical failure to provide a high-quality vocational offer that motivates young people; employability—will it prepare all young people for the world of work; assessment—will it reduce the burden of assessment; and disengagement—will it stop our high drop-out rate at 16?

In preparing the White Paper, I shall, of course, work closely with my colleagues with responsibility for education and training in Wales and Northern Ireland, which share our qualifications framework, and with our statutory partners. I am writing today to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ask it to undertake the necessary work to enable us to develop our detailed proposals for the White Paper. I shall also discuss my proposals with a wide range of stakeholders, including schools, colleges, universities and employers, and I look forward to hearing the views of the Education and Skills Committee in due course. I expect this to be the first of many opportunities to consider those crucial issues in this House.

I am determined that any evolution of the system must increase public confidence in the system. My approach will therefore build on all that is good in the current system, including the real and great strengths of A-levels and GCSEs. The Tomlinson report rightly confirms the place in the system of A-levels and GCSEs, which it seeks to build on and which will stay as the building blocks of any new system. Mike Tomlinson's report also makes it clear that assessment must and will continue at all levels on the basis of rigorous, trusted and externally marked examinations, but, again as Mike's report proposes, we will need to consider the
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number and nature of those exams. We also believe it essential that full public accountability for results is maintained, including the publication nationally of exam results, school by school, at 16 and 19.

The Government have made tremendous strides in taking action to raise standards in primary and secondary schools, and we have also addressed both the challenges of higher education and the development of the nation's skills base. Now we must move on the reform of 14 to 19 education and training. A number of the most pressing problems are already being addressed. For example, this September saw the first 1,000 pupils on young apprenticeships start their programmes and the introduction into the national curriculum of work-related learning for all 14 to 16-year-olds, with an increased take-up of vocational qualifications. The increased flexibility programme allows 14 to 16-year-olds to spend time out of school in colleges or work-based learning, in which approximately 90,000 pupils are currently involved.

The working group's proposals give us an opportunity to consider more far-reaching reform that will shape 14 to 19 education for decades to come. Its proposals have implications for every young person in school, college or the workplace, and for those who work with them. The opportunity is great, but with it comes the heavy responsibility to turn Mike Tomlinson's vision of a 14 to 19 system that meets the needs and aspirations of all our young people into a practical reality, and I hope that both sides of the House share that objective.

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