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Education and Skills (14 to 19)

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly? There is a statement.

Ruth Kelly: I would like to make a statement about the reform of education for 14 to 19-year-olds.

I would like to start by putting on record my thanks to Sir Mike Tomlinson and his working group members for their time and effort. They issued us with a challenge: how to fulfil the needs and aspirations of every young person. Today, I shall set out how we will meet that challenge.

We have made much progress in raising standards in our schools. As a result of smaller class sizes and the literacy and numeracy strategy, we have the best ever primary school results. As a result of the continued record investment and reform in our secondary schools, we also have the best ever GCSE and A-level results. There are more young people in apprenticeships than ever before, but we now need to go much further.

Historically, our education system has produced a high-achieving elite while failing the majority. In today's global economy, in which our national competitiveness increasingly depends on the skills of each and every person, we cannot afford to let so much talent go to waste. We cannot afford to let intellectual snobbery leave us with a second-class, second-best vocational education system.

I agree with Sir Mike's analysis: there are historic weaknesses in our education system which we have to tackle. Too many young people are unattractive to employers, deficient in the basics of English and maths, unprepared for further study and unable to demonstrate their true potential. I want all that to change.

I want to transform the opportunities available to young people. I want the same emphasis on vocational education as we currently have on academic. I want all young people to leave school competent in the three Rs. I want every pupil stretched to their full potential. All teenagers should have the opportunity of a place in education, training or on an apprenticeship. Education maintenance allowances are already helping overcome financial barriers. I want to end the scandal of our low staying-on rate at 17, increasing it from 75 per cent. to at least 90 per cent. over the next decade—effectively making the current school-leaving age a thing of the past.

There are some who argue that to transform opportunities for our children, we should scrap the current system of GCSEs and A-levels. I do not agree. We will not transform opportunities by abolishing what is good, what works and what is recognised by employers, universities, pupils and parents. We must build on what is good in the system, and reform and replace what is not working.

In my reforms, there will be a relentless focus on the basics. It is totally unacceptable that at least 70,000 16-year-olds a year are weak in the basics of reading,
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writing and arithmetic. I want and expect much more. I want every young person to be competent in English and maths before leaving school or college—to be able, for example, to work out their family budget or write a clear description for an insurance claim.

I am therefore toughening GCSE so that, in future, no one will be able to get a higher grade in English or maths without mastering the basics. I shall free up the curriculum—starting at age 11—to make space for extra help and support in English and maths to ensure that children who fall behind can catch up. I shall introduce a new diploma to recognise the achievement of those who achieve five good GCSEs or equivalent, including English and maths.

We must also transform vocational opportunities. Our programme of apprenticeships has made an excellent start in this. We must build on that and go further. We need qualified health care professionals, software designers, plumbers, graphic designers, engineers and much more—all competent in the basics, all with specialised skills and all ready to acquire more skills as they progress. To achieve that, we need specialised qualifications that include both practical skills and academic content, with English and maths at their core as well as relevant GCSEs and A-levels. We need all universities to value those qualifications, and we need employers actively to seek out students who hold them.

The key is to give employers a real say. To do so, I shall introduce new specialised diplomas and ask employers, via their sector skills councils, to sign off their content. Specialised diplomas will be made available in 14 broad subject areas—reflecting key sectors of the economy—at levels 1, 2 and 3. They will replace the current system of around 3,500 separate qualifications. The first four employer-designed diplomas—in information and communication technology, engineering, health and social care, and the creative and media industries—will be available in every local area by 2008. I am pleased to tell the House that major employers such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Rolls-Royce, Nissan, the national health service and the BBC have already agreed to work with us on their design. A further four specialised diplomas will follow in 2010, and an entitlement to all 14 will be in place in every local area by 2015.

Employers will have never been so involved in designing the courses studied by our young people, guaranteeing that those qualifications add real value to young people's employment prospects. We will also involve universities in the design of level-3 diplomas to ensure that the young people who take them are ready for higher education.

We must provide real opportunities for young people to be stretched to achieve their full potential. I expect all diplomas and A-levels to offer optional, more challenging questions for the brightest students. We will also pilot other measures to add stretch, including an extended project, as suggested by Sir Mike, and the use of HE modules in schools and colleges.

Our top universities have told us that they need more information to differentiate among top achievers, especially for popular courses. I shall act immediately to make A-level unit results available to universities before they make offers of places. In the longer term, moving to
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post-qualification application to universities will mean that final A-level results and unit grades are available for all candidates.

There are those who argue that we should challenge our A-level students further, by demanding breadth in the curriculum as well as stretch. Some schools in the state sector do that already by offering the international baccalaureate, often alongside A-levels. I understand those arguments, but there is no clear consensus among pupils, parents, employers or universities on whether or how it should be done. I also believe that so soon after the introduction of curriculum 2000, stability is important. I will therefore work with employers and universities to see whether we can identify what, if anything, would add value to A-levels, and I will review progress in 2008.

Our education system has not done enough for those most at risk of dropping out of the system, resulting in pupils and society paying a high price. I believe that the key to remotivating those teenagers is to broaden the range of places in which they can learn. I shall enable pupils to mix school with college and employer-based learning to suit their needs. I shall introduce a new programme for 14 to 16-year-olds to provide intensive support to allow learning at work, based on our existing and successful entry to employment programme, which is currently available only to those over the age of 16.

These measures are a radical package, which we will introduce with care, and schools, colleges, employers and other local partners will need to work together to deliver it, each contributing their own expertise for the benefit of all pupils in the area. In doing so, we will move from a system of comprehensive schools to a genuinely comprehensive system of education in each local area.

I believe that every child has equal worth; that every child has potential; that the job of the education system is to develop and extend that potential; and that, in doing so, education must enable all children and teenagers to achieve and prepare for life and work, equipping them with the skills that employers need.

There are many ways to achieve and many ways to prepare young people, all of which have dignity and value and all of which deserve respect. Those are my values, the values of this Government and, I believe, values that the whole country will share. This White Paper embraces those values. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for allowing me to see a copy of her statement half an hour in advance. I would thank her for the chance to see a copy of the White Paper in advance, but sadly it did not arrive.

Let us start on the points where there is consensus between us. We are agreed that A-levels and GCSEs should remain, but that they should be much more challenging for the most able. We are agreed that vocational education must be massively expanded and dramatically raised in status. We are agreed that no child who is able to learn to read and write should ever leave school without those fundamental skills. We are agreed that participation rates among older teenagers must rise at least to the levels seen in other countries. We are agreed, in short, that despite all the hard work of
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teachers, schools, pupils and parents, the current education system in Britain has been letting down far too many for far too long, right across the spectrum from the most to the least academic.

We are also agreed, I am sure, that Mike Tomlinson and his team should be thanked. We would go further. We do not just thank him and his team, we congratulate him on a creative, important and imaginative report. Sadly, it seems that the Secretary of State came not to praise the Tomlinson report, but to bury it. Not one diploma for all, but at least 15 different diplomas for different categories of children; no new challenging qualification in literacy and numeracy; and no integration of academic and vocational qualifications. There is not much left of Tomlinson, is there?

The Secretary of State told the Sunday papers categorically that she would make exams harder. Why, then, today did she just say that she would see if "we can identify what, if anything, would add value to A-levels, and I will review progress in 2008"? There was no commitment; after eight years, all we get is a promise to look at it all again in another three years—all talk, yet again.

Exams have not been getting harder in the last eight years, have they? The former chief examiner Tony Whelpton said:

Will the Secretary of State scrap the AS-level and the option to resit A-level modules over and over again? She has given the impression that she will get the present Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to make exams more challenging, but these are the very people who have allowed A-grades at GCSE to be handed out to candidates with just 45 per cent. of the marks and permitted a pass mark to be set at just 17 per cent. Will she confirm that she still has confidence in the very institutions that have debased our exam system? If she has, why should anyone believe that standards will get any higher at all?

The Secretary of State says that she wants to raise the effective school-leaving age to 18. Let us examine whether that is a stunt or a real pledge. Is she undertaking to change the formal, legal school-leaving age set down by statute—yes or no? Teenage truancy has risen by a third since 1997. If she cannot keep 14 and 15-year-olds in school, why should anyone believe that she will be able to keep 17 and 18-year-olds there?

The Secretary of State said that she wants to improve basic literacy and numeracy, but her statement on this is somewhat unclear. Is she accepting or rejecting the specific Tomlinson recommendation for a new and entirely separate assessment in literacy, numeracy and ICT that every child would have to pass before getting a diploma? Will she at last embrace the academic research from this country and around the world, which demonstrates unequivocally that by far the most effective way to spread literacy is to teach phonics?

The Secretary of State claimed that literacy and numeracy have been improving under Labour. However, the independent Statistics Commission said only last week that

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The Secretary of State did not mention any caveats in her public comments this afternoon.

The National Audit Office reported two months ago that the number of adults without adequate literacy and numeracy skills is growing by 100,000 a year. The CBI says that one in three companies has to provide remedial training for school leavers who have not mastered reading, writing and arithmetic. In 2003, the CBI survey of 500 companies showed that 34 per cent. were not satisfied with the numeracy and literacy standards of 16-year-olds. In 2004, that figure rose to 37 per cent. Even someone who has learned maths under this Government knows that 37 per cent. is higher than 34 per cent. It is getting worse, not better, isn't it?

The biggest disappointment today is that the Secretary of State has not accepted Tomlinson's central recommendation for an overarching diploma, embracing both academic and vocational qualifications, that every school leaver would be expected to get in at least some form.

The Secretary of State and I agree that A-levels and GCSEs should remain clear and permanent parts of the system. Last year, there were cross-party talks on this issue and it was clear that agreement could have been reached that results at A-level and GCSE would be printed loud and clear on the front of the diploma. That would have preserved the integrity of those exams while still enabling other achievements in vocational qualifications, longer-term projects and basic skills to be properly recognised. Why instead—[Interruption.]

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