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Mr. Speaker: Order. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) must be quiet.

Mr. Collins: Why instead—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Do not tell me what to do.

Mr. Collins: Why instead has the Secretary of State chosen to set in stone the age-old British divide between academic and vocational qualifications that has bedevilled our society and economy for 150 years? Does she not realise that in the 21st century every child, perhaps especially the brightest, will need vocational as well as academic qualifications? How can she possibly expect to achieve parity of esteem if some young people obtain A-levels and others a diploma, and there is no overlap between the two?

Why did the Secretary of State choose to throw away the chance for a consensus on the diploma? Why did she not build on the extensive efforts that Sir Mike Tomlinson himself made to try to reach very broad agreement? Why, when her predecessors issued invitations for discussions with other parties, did she not do the same? Of course, the teaching unions would not be happy with the view that both she and I take over A-levels, but they would have been a lot happier than they are today if she had delivered an overarching diploma, would they not?

The Secretary of State chose to listen to members of the No. 10 policy unit rather than to her Department or to outside advice. She has thrown away the chance to get
 
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substantial agreement across parties and the education sector. She will not now be remembered as a great reformer. This was her first big test. She has flunked it.

Ruth Kelly: I found the hon. Gentleman's reply most entertaining, and his new-found enthusiasm for vocational education and training and a diploma a little surprising. But it is hard to take the hon. Gentleman seriously when his priorities for the state education system are to use £1 billion of taxpayers' money to subsidise the private education of an elite few—a sum equivalent to cutting more than 24,000 teachers and more than 22,000 classroom assistants—and when his proposals for driving up standards in schools are to slash the number of Ofsted inspections, so that a child could go the whole way through secondary school without that school being inspected.

The hon. Gentleman's new-found conversion to a diploma just reminds me how opportunistic the Conservative party really is. Is his new proposal for a diploma also based on a return to selection at 11, or a return to selection at five, and a grammar school in every town? Far from agreeing that every child should be stretched to their full potential, he is preparing to cast us back to the past, when his party argued that standards are maintained only if a majority of children fail and a minority succeed. Far from transforming vocational education and training, he and his party would relegate vocational education to the second-class, second-best training that it was under their leadership. In 1997, there were 75,000 apprenticeships; today there are more than 250,000.

The hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of not raising standards in primary schools. Let me tell the House what we have achieved in primary education. Everyone agrees that the increase in standards since 1998 has been dramatic. Even David Bell, the chief inspector, in his recent Ofsted report said that there have been significant improvements in literacy and numeracy standards since the introduction of the national strategies. In literacy, English 10-year-olds were the third most able readers out of 35 countries in recent international assessments, and between 1995 and 2005 standards in maths have risen faster than those in any other country. We have made progress. We have world-class standards in primary schools and record results in GCSEs and A-levels, but we have to go further. We must ensure that there is no cap on aspiration, no limit to a child's potential.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we will raise the school-leaving age to 18. The answer clearly is no. We want every child to want to stay in learning until they are 18 or 19 years old, because they have the chance, for once, to learn in a way that motivates them, in the place that motivates them, with real qualifications that have real currency with their parents, employers and our universities, including our top universities. If we manage to do that, we will really, once and for all, have bridged the vocational-academic divide.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we have accepted the Tomlinson proposals on English and maths and on functional literacy and numeracy. Yes, we have, and we have gone much further. We have made it a condition of getting the diploma that children not only achieve functional literacy and numeracy, but continue from the age of 11 to be given real stretch, and also space for
 
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catch-up in English and maths, until they reach the required standard. Our new proposals for the GCSE diploma will have English and maths at their heart. We will also change the league tables to ensure that English and maths are a component of their five A to C grades. We are toughening English and maths to ensure that children who achieve high grades have a real grasp of literacy and numeracy.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our proposals, because this is a once-in-a-generation chance to transform standards and increase opportunities. The proposals provide, not just at GCSE, a much greater focus on the basics, but real stretch, in vocational as well as academic subjects. We will continue to keep that under review to see how much stretch we can provide, offering additional extension papers at A-level, offering the opportunity to all children to study HE modules at school, and introducing the extended project recommended by Sir Mike Tomlinson. We will see if we need to go further by looking at breadth in the curriculum as well as stretch.

The proposals are a radical reform that should be welcomed across the political spectrum. We have done a lot, but there is a lot more to do. I want a society in which people with ambition are not thought to be getting above themselves, and in which children from all backgrounds have high aspirations. I commend the proposals to the House.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for the courtesy of providing an advance copy of her statement today.

I always try to begin on occasions such as this by welcoming something in the statement, but to be perfectly honest that has been quite difficult today. However, Liberal Democrats welcome the move to post-qualification applications to university. When does the Secretary of State expect to introduce that, because it needs to be quick, and the universities must not stand in the way? Tomlinson was clear that we should also be raising the bar in terms of literacy, numeracy and ICT for post-16-year-olds. Will that be included?

We also welcome the emphasis on maths and English, a commitment on which all would agree. Does the Secretary of State agree that she must now abandon the league tables, which concentrate on five A to C grades, and that instead, any information on student performance at 16 from the Government should show whether students have achieved a level 2 in English, maths and ICT as a prerequisite, and we should abandon the idea of getting a GNVQ, building up four equivalent GCSEs and including that in the Government's success targets?

Will the Secretary of State explain what she means by a genuine comprehensive system of education in every area? Does that mean that there will be no comprehensive schools, but a combination of other schools that make up a comprehensive package, or does it mean abandoning grammar and other schools as well?

From the outset, we have supported the Government's fundamental desire to increase the vocational offer, to extend the time that students spend in education and training and to make demands on our
 
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brighter students. We are with the Government on that. Indeed, Mike Tomlinson recommended all those things in his report. However, it went one step further. For the first time in my professional life—indeed, in my lifetime—it brought together the academic and vocational strands. The Government appear to have abandoned that fundamental principle at the heart of Mike Tomlinson's proposals.

There has been huge consensus about the Tomlinson proposals. When the only major figure who stands against them is the former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, we know that Tomlinson must be right. However, instead of supporting the spirit of Tomlinson, the Secretary of State has cherry-picked the proposals and thus undermined their integrity. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on 12 January on "Today":

If today's statement reflects what he meant by that, God help us, because it represents not radicalism but reaction.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that continuing to separate GCSEs and A-levels from the vocational offer perpetuates the very division that Tomlinson hoped to bridge? How does she intend to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational programmes now that the diploma in its entirety has been rejected? How will she encourage academically able young people to take up vocational options when she has effectively described the vocational diploma—


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