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Indicative budgets have been agreed and put in place by all the PCTs in the country. That sounds marvellous, but what I and, so far as I can gather, many in the field have difficulty understanding is how far that means anything so far and how far it will be allowed to make any difference in practice. The PCTs retain all the
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commissioning powers. The new PCTs are therefore to be the only purchasers. Unfortunately, they have just been set up, as a result of a massive reorganisation, so most of them are just beginning to grope their way towards doing anything. The original idea in 2005 was that the GPs would do the commissioning themselves. The PCTs have now been put in charge, but they are now in the middle of a monster upheaval. They were originally set up to be purchasers and not to be providers, but the Government backed down on that, so they are a mixture of purchasers and providers. The PCTs are also extremely reluctant to give up their new commissioning powers to GPs. Meanwhile, GPs have their own budgets, but find that they have remarkably limited discretion over them.

John Bercow: Is there not a particular difficulty when an organisation involved in the commissioning process has responsibility but lacks power? The example that I have in mind is when a local education authority is charged with procuring speech and language therapy services but does not have the power to secure them because the therapists are principally employed by the cash-strapped primary care trust. Is that not a problem?

Mr. Clarke: It is entirely a problem. The moment a keen, go-ahead GP consortium—I have one in my constituency, although it is not the one that has complained to me particularly—wishes to make changes in its budget and use any savings to develop the service, it first needs the consent of the PCT. It is extremely difficult to secure the consent of the PCT. Most are not geared up to agree and many do not have the necessary skills. The result, as surveys in the Health Service Journal and so on show, is a high level of frustration, with GPs having signed up to the new approach but large numbers thinking that it has so far not made a significant difference to the standard of service in their areas.

I should therefore like to ask whether the bland reference in the Queen’s Speech to a patient-led service will lead to more progress in that area. At one time it was thought that the private sector would bring in expertise. The Secretary of State played that down in a speech that he made in February. He has now announced that there are private sector providers that will be able to give advice to PCTs, but only a small number of PCTs seem prepared to take that advice. I wait to see whether the Secretary of State will be any clearer about the way out of the present confusion, because he has to make the system work if he is not to find himself presiding over a service that is in an even worse crisis than on the day he took over.

6.55 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to say that this is my first speech as the new Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, although I understand that the Department has already been given a different name and is known within as the Department for curtains and soft furnishings. The acronym works, but it makes it rather confusing to remember what the new Department is called.

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On a serious note, we had the first meeting of our Committee yesterday, at which deep concern was expressed, which it was felt should be raised at the earliest opportunity, that two Front-Bench spokespersons from the official Opposition had been appointed to the two new Select Committees that replaced the Select Committees on Education and Skills and on Science and Technology. This is the first time that that has happened in the Select Committee system—

Mike Penning: No it is not.

Mr. Sheerman: I know that it happened in the past with the Liberal Democrats, but to my knowledge the latest development has never arisen before, and there is some concern among all the parties about that.

Mike Penning: What the hon. Gentleman describes has happened before, on the Select Committee on Health. It worked for three and a half years and there was no problem with the Chairman at that time.

Mr. Sheerman: I bring the matter to the House because concern has been expressed on an all-party basis that what has happened seems to run against the whole notion of scrutiny of the Executive. I make the point because all the members present at the first meeting of our Committee asked me to raise it, not only here but in the Liaison Committee.

The Queen’s Speech always gives us the opportunity to run across all the issues in it and all the ones that we wish were in it. Wearing a slightly different hat, I would have loved to go into detail about the Climate Change Bill, the planning reform Bill and the way in which the Government will, wisely we hope, provide proper management for a reduction in carbon dioxide. I would have touched on a wide range of issues if I did not have only 10 minutes, but I shall concentrate on education, not health.

I want to talk about raising aspirations, which comes right at the beginning of the Queen’s Speech and is an important theme. Any hon. Member who is the Chairman of anything to do with education in the House will have seen the range of things suggested for legislation, such as education and training until the age of 18. I introduced a private Member’s Bill in the previous Session, earlier this year, that proposed a similar provision, to ensure that children in this country are children until they are 18, as I have always passionately believed they are. If we are to have a children Act with outcomes for children, they should not stop at the age of 16, but apply right through to 18. My private Member’s Bill tried to push that. Do we allow children in the 21st century to leave school at 16 with no qualifications and go into work with no training? I am glad that my private Member’s Bill has been superseded by the Government’s commitment to a proper system for young people.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) was absolutely right in what he said about that. We have time to ensure that what we supply for young people between 16 and 18 is the right thing for them. For too long, the right thing has been for the academic high-fliers to do their GCSEs or A-levels and
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go to university. The system has also not been bad for people who stay on and decide to get a job with qualifications at 16 or 18. But, for a large number of young people in our country, there has been very little, post-16.

I celebrate the fact that we now have this Bill. We have time to get this right—in relation to expansion, for example. My right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for Health will remember when we used to discuss these matters in relation to Sandy Leitch’s proposal to expand the number of apprenticeships to 500,000. That is an important element of these proposals. If we are going to get this right, we shall need to provide a whole range of genuine alternatives for young people of very different kinds. Some of those might involve opportunities to work in the community. I would like to see them linked to apprenticeships and qualifications. For too long, apprenticeships in our country were time-served, not qualification-served. Not many people know that someone could finish their apprenticeship and still not have a proper qualification.

I urge the Opposition parties not to rush to judgment on this issue. Let us all try to get this legislation right. Please do not undersell it or misrepresent it. It is not about forcing children to stay on at school until they are 18. The Bill will provide a whole range of different opportunities through work, training, apprenticeships and the new diplomas. I remember Howard Newby telling the Committee that the British had a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy, but I hope that we can avoid that. We must create a genuine choice for young people at 16, 18 and beyond, and establish a viable alternative for all their talents.

The proposals for 18-plus are wonderful, as is the fact that we are going to reform apprenticeships. However, we also have a Bill on services for vulnerable children, and is it not about time that we did? That Bill is absolutely necessary. We have a shameful record on the way in which we treat the children who used to be said to be in care, but who are now described as being looked after. They are the very children who deserve the best help, the greatest care and the most investment; there are about 60,000 in our country at the moment. Historically, however, they have been shamefully treated, often by local authority departments. Instead of taking care of them responsibly, they deputed the job to institutions and to people who were poorly trained, poorly supervised and poorly paid. What is the result? Statistics have been given by other hon. Members, but one that was left out is that only 1 per cent. of that cohort goes on to higher education. That is shameful.

I see no political advantage in being ideological: I do not care who delivers the appropriate level of care to looked-after children. It could be the private sector or the voluntary sector. I favour the third sector as the supplier of much of that provision, or perhaps a reformed local government department.

John Bercow: I acknowledge the iniquity that the hon. Gentleman describes. The Secretary of State focused on a theme of the pursuit of excellence—I say this as a fact, not a criticism—very much in the context of post-16 because of the legislative programme, but should not we start at pre-school level? The hon. Gentleman knows that the I Can Early Talk programme has received a warm reception in 227 children’s centres
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across the country. Would it not be a good plan to roll out that programme—or a comparable competitor—across the country, so that no child of two, three or four years old is denied the help that he or she needs?

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman knows that I agree with much of what he says on these matters. His suggestion has a lot to recommend it.

Another good thing in the Queen’s Speech is the commitment to the work-life balance. We underestimate the importance of that for people of the modern generation, who have much more stress. In most families, both parents work, and there are many more single-parent families than there used to be. These factors can place great stress on the work-life balance.

I want to finish on a subject that stems from the whole notion of raising expectations. I am not making a narrow political point here, but something that we have failed in recently, and not just over the past 10 years, is social mobility. According to the fine work of the Sutton Trust, and to most of the research that I have seen from the London School of Economics, social mobility has slowed down.

All of us should be concerned to get something out of the policies in the Queen’s Speech, but I detect certain missing parts. Probably the most important speech on education this year was made by the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), which was rigorous in its intellectual capacity. It looked at the impact of selection on our schools, and at the damage that it does. He ended up by saying that selection

Labour has been too weak on this issue.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the LSE. Does he believe that Oxford and Cambridge are traditionally as fair as other universities? They still dominate the university system. Does he not agree that they go for the rich and the powerful within their enclaves?

Mr. Sheerman: I certainly agree with some of that, and I have an ongoing dialogue with the vice-chancellors concerned. It goes further than that, however. Children are badly served by selection, whether in Kent or elsewhere. Some get into the grammar schools, and that is fine, but I have been to a secondary modern in Maidstone where 100 per cent. of the kids are on free school meals and 65 per cent. have special educational needs. That is not the way to run the education service for our children.

The important thing about the very good article by the hon. Member for Havant is the rigorous logic by which he concludes that the selection and the grammar schools that we already have should be abolished. That is the fact of the matter. I have taken quite a long time to join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) in this campaign, but I now think that it is right. The days of selection have gone. Indeed, I will make myself even more unpopular—I am not saying this in a partisan spirit—by pointing out the real damage that is done by people opting out of sending their children to their community’s schools, their society’s schools, and sending them instead to schools in the independent sector. That undermines what we understand to be a good education, which should be based on the education of all the children in our
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community together. Getting the balance right between the poor, the more able, the less able, those with special educational needs and looked-after children is what we should be about. That is the mission before the House over this next year.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that hon. Members do not need reminding, but it might help if I point out that, as we are debating an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, their remarks must be confined to the broad terms of the amendment and not stray into other areas, as they could on the earlier days of the Queen’s Speech debate.

7.8 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will of course obey your stricture, much as I would otherwise have been tempted to comment on matters that need further attention in the Queen’s Speech, such as the encouragement of the move to nuclear power as part of our overall energy diversity. I will, however, refrain from going down that route.

I want to focus today on the Government’s education policies and, particularly, on the subject of science, which is mentioned in the amendment. Let me start by saying that some of the behaviour of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families during the debate would not have gone down very well with schools. Indeed, he might have been faced with exclusion, even if he did not break any of the rules of debate in this House.

There is no disagreement between the Conservatives and the Government on the need to encourage more participation. There is no desire to make a distinction between those who can succeed in academic life and those who struggle, and who would—as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) wisely pointed out—perhaps be better off following an alternative career path, and therefore an alternative educational path. Furthermore, Conservative Members understand that there are real issues around trying to keep the attention of children, whatever they are studying. The other day, I discussed some of those issues with a police inspector in my constituency. The police are trying to work with schools to keep children in school and to improve children’s behaviour, without which no effort by the Government or anyone else will make a significant difference to those who find it difficult to maintain attention.

In the past 18 months, I have been preparing a submission to the shadow Cabinet on education and science. I have considered existing apprenticeship and training schemes and visited Network Rail’s impressive training scheme in Gosport, which takes youngsters when they are 15 to 16-years-old. The first year of that course is residential, and it will train our future engineers for the railway system, which is commendable. In many cases, those children did not want to stay on at school, but they will obtain a structured education within that engineering apprenticeship.

We must reach out and find more options. I do not believe that the Government are attempting to extend
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the school leaving age to 18, and I share their idea that we should try to find diverse ways of encouraging youngsters to engage in something that will ultimately benefit them and society, and I am sure that my hon. Friends do, too. However, there is an issue: my concern is that in that desire to be inclusive, we are misunderstanding the concept of “excellence”. Of course, everybody should be excellent, but we should not set the barrier for excellence at the point at which everybody can be excellent. I hope that the Secretary of State for Health will take that point on board in answering the debate. It is, of course, easy to malign someone such as me for saying that we must ensure that we keep striving to improve the top level of attainment in this country, but I am not saying that we should forget those who cannot attain it. As I have a short amount of time to speak, however, I want to concentrate on my real concerns.

I shall start with a controversial point. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said that Conservative Members are against a 50 per cent. target for university education. I want to rephrase that point: we would like 50 per cent. of young people to be able to go to university—we would like to see more and do not see why the target should be 50 per cent.—but the issue is what we mean by “university”. If only 25 per cent. or fewer of those young people get a decent A-level, it is almost certain that the others will not be able to aspire to getting into our best universities. There are all sorts of ways in which we can try to help them—I will not repeat the speech made by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East—but we cannot ignore the fact that we have a problem. Meanwhile, global competition is expanding, and our best youngsters are being induced to go not only to American universities, but to Australian universities, which is not good for the United Kingdom.

There has been some criticism of our best universities for not widening their intake—in many cases, they have strived to do so, and many of them have schemes to work with schools that they have identified locally—but we must recognise that we need to improve the standards of entrance, even from today. There has been a decline not in the intelligence of 18-year-olds, but in the standard that they are asked to reach. In mathematics, for example, some of our top universities have to spend at least two terms, and possibly even the first year, bringing students up to the standard that used to be achieved by students when they entered university, and that example involves top-grade entry. That means that we have a problem in making sure that our best children are stretched.

There is a bigger issue. As I said in an earlier intervention, if one considers the number of youngsters who are taking chemistry, physics and maths—in the past year, there has been some debate about the figure for maths, which may well be due to a blip—the situation is extremely worrying. Unless we change that, we will not encourage this country’s youngsters, who will subsequently become employees, to obtain the necessary skills. Many of our companies already say that they are extremely concerned by that point.

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Dr. Gibson: Chemistry and physics are old world subjects, and there is so much contact now between different sciences—for example, environmental sciences comprises chemistry, physics, biology and so on. Is the hon. Gentleman not a bit behind what is happening in the real world?

Mr. Taylor: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman—I almost addressed him as my hon. Friend, because we have worked together so much on science subjects—I do not agree with him. One must have a grounding in the subject first, before one becomes multidisciplinary. It is perfectly reasonable for universities to offer the subject of forensic science as a more appealing name for chemistry, but actually chemistry lies at the bottom of the subject. Unless one has done chemistry at A-level, it is very difficult to study any multidisciplinary subject at university that requires that core knowledge. The number of students taking such core subjects is declining, which is worrying.

Will the Secretary of State for Health pass on to his colleague the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that it is a particular worry that more and more schools are adopting a leaving-certificate approach to A-levels in which general science will do? General science might be interesting, and it might be a tick in the league table, but it does not get students into the best universities to study science.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I support the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of the so-called hard sciences of physics and chemistry. Employers in forensic science want graduates with degrees in chemistry and do not look so well on graduates with degrees in forensic science or, for that matter, forensic science and music, which is offered at some universities.

Mr. Taylor: Putting forensic science with music sounds interesting. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The core of the problem is the qualifications of teachers. Some 26 per cent. of state 11-to-16 schools have no physics specialists, and 12 per cent. of them have no chemistry specialists. I urge the Government to address that point. As well as trying to embrace more and more people in our education system and finding ways to keep their attention and improve their skills, we need to work out how to stimulate young people to take sciences and how to keep their attention as they go through the system.

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