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14 Jan 2008 : Column 727

There are a lot of problems in the post-16 system that need addressing. The major problem is not with the system itself but with what happens pre-16, as a number of Members have already mentioned. For example, in his response to the Green Paper that led to the Bill, Dr. John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders said:

He said that we have to re-engage those young people, which will be a “huge challenge”. Will compulsion really be the way to achieve that, when most of that group have already switched off, dropped out or even truanted before 16, let alone after? In his response to the Green Paper that led to the Bill, the children’s commissioner said:

The problem arises before the NEET group appears, not just at age 16.

Why do so many fail to engage pre-16? A lot of what I say will be coloured by my experience working in schools for 22 years, the experience of my three children, who have been through the state system, and my experience of serving on the Education and Skills Committee for six years, looking at different education systems across the country and throughout the world. One of the problems is that we have had three landmark changes in education, all of which have worked against the interests of the sort of education that we want to see in schools. The shift that took place between the ’50s and the ’70s was from selective schools to comprehensives, in so far as we have ever had such schools—we have never had a system of well-funded and respected local community schools or comprehensives in this country, as can be seen Finland, which tops the programme for international student assessment studies, or PISA studies, for success.

Then there was the O-level system, which was designed to be attempted by only 40 per cent. of the population and failed by a chunk of them, with perhaps only 30 per cent. passing, after which the certificate of secondary education was added, to cover the other 60 per cent. Finally, the two were merged in the GCSE, the introduction of which I was involved in, as a head of department back in the 1980s. Then there was the raising of the school leaving age, or ROSLA, the last occasion being in 1972-73. My year group at school was the last that could leave at 15 with no qualifications whatever and go into unskilled work, as some of my friends did.

One of the problems with all those landmarks was that we tried to impose an academic, grammar school-style curriculum on everyone. Being a mini grammar school was seen as the only thing worth doing, because academia was all that counted in this country. That was worsened by the massive, over-detailed, over-prescriptive and over-academic national curriculum, and further worsened by the intense atmosphere of frequent high-stakes testing, league tables and the professional pay review process, all of which I experienced in my professional career before being elected to this place. Let us remind ourselves
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that, as has been said, truancy has increased in the past 10 years, as the Government introduced those measures. Perhaps we should look at what effect those measures had on increasing the rate of truancy.

The two big PISA studies show that our rate of success in literacy and numeracy has fallen, from one study to the next, as the children who went through the literacy and numeracy strategy in junior schools came through to the secondary level and into the PISA age range. I taught children who were already turned off the school process at the age of 11—between 1979 and 1997, under the previous Government, as well as between 1997 and 2001, under this Government. By the age of 14, that situation was much worse; by 16 it was a nightmare. Some of those children had been a problem in school at the age of 14, 15 or 16, but when I went to visit them on work experience in the summer of year 10, I met entirely different people, working in an adult environment and doing something that they were enthused by. We have to harness those two sides of school to the benefit of everyone, in order to pre-empt the creation of the NEET group.

We must allow schools pre-16 the funding, the class sizes and the curriculum flexibility to engage all our children, not just the academic. We must not turn off such a significant proportion of our children. However, we are told that innovation and freedom from the national curriculum can be exercised only by schools that are outside the state system—the tiny minority of academies, for example, or the trust schools in their original version, before the watered-down version introduced after a Government Back-Bench rebellion altered the previous education Bill. Schools have to be outside the system.

What folly is it that says that we need innovation in our schools, but that we cannot trust education professionals to deliver it? We are told that the vast majority must be regulated to within an inch of their lives in order to teach in our schools—and yet if a school is taken over or set up by an outside body such as a religious body, or by millionaire used-car salesmen, fashion designers, carpet kings, creationists or wealthy City slickers, all of a sudden the school can have curriculum innovation. I just do not understand the logic of that, and have said so repeatedly in the Chamber in the past six years.

The current situation is nonsense; it is the education policy of the madhouse. I have worked under five heads, four of whom—not who the first one he was a traditionalist ex-senior Army officer—wanted to innovate, but were increasingly frustrated as the years passed by the diktats from the Minister in Whitehall. We should allow that freedom to all our schools, not just the chosen few set up by random outside bodies or wealthy individuals.

I hope and trust that those in my party who are now talking about free schools, possibly in the same vein, will not go down the route that the Government and the Conservative party have followed. I am reassured in part by the conversation that I had with my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and will watch the policy developments carefully over the next year.

Finally, it seems that the same situation applies to post-16, too. I am glad that the Minister for Schools and Learners is back in his place, because although I
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would not want to misquote him, he said in an earlier intervention—I wrote this down, because I was so shocked by it—that one of the values of compulsion post-16 would be the “galvanising effect” on those working with young people. It is almost as if the only way that those who work in FE post-16 can deliver a good education to their charges is to force an unwilling client group, which will then scare those FE tutors into doing their job properly.

I have visited lots of colleges, including Chesterfield college, North Nottinghamshire college, Chester college and colleges across London—I also visited many when I was a teacher—and I have never met an FE principal who did not want to innovate and experiment. They would tell me, however, that the major obstacles that they faced were Government policy, Government funding processes and the dead hand of central Government. We must free up our schools and colleges and not try to impose ever more intensive and detailed central Government control. We must trust the education professionals, not the random amateurs from outside who set up schools.

8 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Another teacher, I am afraid, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Newly qualified, I started teaching in the early 1970s at what was then the Crown Hills secondary modern school in Leicester. I quickly learned my place in the school hierarchy when I was given the ROSLA class, which contained those who were there as a result of the raising of the school leaving age. More experienced colleagues were given the opportunity to teach the CSE group, and the heads of department got the small number of students who were doing O-levels. I am not sure whether it was a case of me being dumped on the ROSLA class or it being dumped on me, but it was certainly a rough first year of teaching. I am convinced that I learned more in that year than the students ever did.

The reality was that a high proportion of those who were obliged to stay on for that extra year did not want to be there and resented the fact that they had to be. The situation was complicated by the fact that those who could leave at Easter did so, and those who could not left in the summer term as soon as they could get away with doing so. Indeed, there was often much relief for me and my colleagues when the most disaffected students decided that it was not worth turning up after Christmas.

That was a model for how not to do it, and a lot has changed dramatically since then, not least at what was the Crown Hills secondary modern school. It is now fully comprehensive and a very successful sports college. It is enormously grateful to the Government for what they have done to enable it to meet its full potential as a college, allowing it to meet the needs of the diverse range of students from different backgrounds who attend it. It now quite rightly receives much praise and many awards for its work.

The other thing that has changed dramatically is that the Government have learned the lessons from the raising of the school leaving age at that time. They are right to emphasise that the Bill is not about raising the
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school leaving age in that way; it is about enabling young people between the ages of 16 and 18 to have a range of opportunities to extend their education and training in a range of different environments, rather than leaving them stuck in a classroom with an inexperienced teacher who had little to offer them except attempting unsuccessfully to do his best to entertain them during the time that they were interred together. The Government have recognised that such an experience, although perhaps worth while in the longer term, was traumatic for those who were a part of it. They are right to stress that we need to offer a right not only to education beyond the age of 16 but to training, and a right for that education or training to be relevant to those who take part in it and, we hope, benefit from it.

The Opposition parties have, understandably, made much today of the compulsion involved in the proposals in the Bill. Whether it is necessary or not, we all hope that that power will not have to be relied on a great deal by those involved in making a success of the extension of education and training to the age of 18. None the less, I am convinced that it will be necessary. Although there were many failings in the way in which the raising of the school leaving age was introduced in the early 1970s, it would not have been possible to achieve it without the element of compulsion that underlay it.

It was interesting to listen to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) talking about the encouragement that he had given over the years to successive cohorts of young students to stay on beyond the age of 16. I think that he would acknowledge—as would other hon. Members who have been involved in education—that we were not always successful in encouraging those who ought to have stayed on to do so, and that that situation would be unlikely to change, for many of them at least, were there not to be a degree of compulsion involved in the extension of education and training to the age of 18, as the Government are proposing.

Paul Holmes: I recall one particular student, a very bright girl whom I taught, who would not stay on. Her mother was a single parent, and she had several younger siblings. She felt that it was her duty to go out and get a job, however low paid, rather than continue in education. Had we been in a world where we could mix and match a lot more and do part work, part qualification—which we are closer to achieving now than we were then—I think that she might have stayed on and continued her education. I do not think compulsion is the answer.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I entirely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I have experienced similar situations with young students, but I remain convinced that such students would not have been adequately susceptible to the persuasion that he or I—or those who now have these roles in education—could offer them. Only compulsion will make it possible for them to resist the pressures, whether from family or from society more generally, to leave and do something that they might perceive to be more exciting. I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point, however, about the need to include in the Bill, as the Government have
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done, the provision for this to be done on a mix-and-match basis, so that it will be possible to tailor what these young students will be compelled to do in order to meet their needs.

I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) when he spoke earlier of the need for those involved in education, both in the Government and more generally, to think outside the box. I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members will have seen that much thinking outside the box is already taking place in education. A lot of groundwork has already been done to enable the realisation of the Government’s vision of doing something other than just sitting 16 to 18-year-olds in a classroom for an extra couple of years and forcing them to suffer what many of them have already become disaffected with, even before reaching that age.

I want briefly to mention two examples of very good practice in my constituency. The first is Leicester college, in the higher education sector. It is one of the largest further education colleges in the United Kingdom, and it deals with total student numbers of 27,000-plus. It is a good example of the ability of the education sector generally to deal with the diverse needs of its students and with the needs of the community that it serves. It has won many awards, and tailors its courses to include subjects that are relevant to the students and to the local community, including print skills, retail, construction and enterprise. Increasingly, information technology and computing are among its successes. It is also doing an increasing amount with one of the local universities, De Montfort university, and providing a good example of taking forward existing opportunities to meet the challenges that will undoubtedly come from increasing the age of participation in education and training from 16 to 18.

I also want to mention Regent college in my constituency. It was set up as a sixth-form college on the premises of a former grammar school. It had a heavy academic bias at its inception, but it has now adapted to the needs of its community in a way that is really quite remarkable, under the impressive leadership of its principal, Eddie Playfair. The college now deals with a very diverse intake of students, including increasing numbers from the newly arrived Somali community in the city, and it is able to offer a varied curriculum—from A-levels and GCSEs to a whole range of vocational courses. It can also support students who would traditionally have looked only to the FE college for courses that interested them.

Regent college thrives because its students want to be there, which is the whole point of the proposals in the Bill. As I argued earlier, compulsion needs to be one element, but success will be judged overwhelmingly by whether students want to be in education. It is the case that many education institutions in my constituency and throughout the UK are already thinking outside the box and are already recognising that they need to offer courses that are relevant to the local economy, but relevant above all to their students, so that they will continue to want to be there.

I mentioned dealing with ROSLA in my earlier teaching career. Later in my career, I became a special needs teacher, so I am painfully aware that, despite my efforts and those of my colleagues, our successes were often somewhat limited. The UK figures on the
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number of people who are still functionally illiterate or innumerate present a major challenge to us all and reflect the fact that we were not as successful as we wanted to be when those people first came into education. The Government’s targets for increasing literacy by 600,000 and numeracy by 400,000 by 2011 are very ambitious, but are absolutely essential and worth while.

I began by talking about my experience of ROSLA. During that year of teaching, I was often asked by those very reluctant students why on earth they were there. My response was that it was for their own good. I tried to explain in a little more detail than that, but that was the essence of it. It is also the answer given to young people in education generally—that they are there for their own good. I believe that the Government are right that we are entitled to say to 16 to 18-year-olds that it is for their own good that they remain in education or training, or in the very flexible range of alternatives offered in the Bill. We are also entitled to say that it is for society’s good and for the good of the economy, but the Bill’s extension of provision is most fundamentally of all for the good of those participating in 16 to 18 education and training. The Government and the whole education service face the challenge of demonstrating to young people that it is indeed for their own good and ensuring that, when we say that to them, it is really true.

I have no doubt that the Government are showing the necessary determination to deliver the quality of education and training that young people of that age deserve. Equally, I have no doubt that the Government and their partners in education more generally are determined to deliver for the benefit of those young people.

8.13 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I believe that the Bill is another piece of legislation designed primarily to make the Government appear effective. It will do little to improve education and skills. If passing laws were enough to tackle social problems, Britain would be a utopia. If education Bills alone raised levels of education and skills, we would be the wisest, most skilled and best educated people on earth.

Education and skills are desirable. We need to see people participating in education not just to 18 but throughout their lifespan. Higher levels of education and skills are good not only for the individual but for wider society. In view of the many economic changes and competitive pressures from the far east, it could be that improved education and skills are not just a good thing but a prerequisite for our country. On a recent Select Committee visit to China, I was struck by the appetite of the students I met there for education. In deciding what course to take or what university to attend, not only the student but the entire family—often several generations—participated in the decision. In the light of the challenge from China and other countries, we do not face competition simply in the manufacturing industry sector; we also face it in the sphere of intellectual value-added capital.

All that means that we need to enhance this country’s education and skills. The question remains, though, whether this particular piece of legislation will
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enhance education and skills. Like so much else done by the Executive in recent years, this law is built on an assumption that top-down Government action through Acts of Parliament best achieves the ends sought. I believe, however, that that is a flawed assumption.

In my own area of Harwich and Clacton, the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training is very high. Indeed, I believe it to be one of the highest in the country. It is not simply a case of statistics; these are real people whose life chances are being ruined. Does the Minister really think that an Act of Parliament is going to change that? Surely, all the Bill will do is raise the costs and, for want of a better word, the hassle of hiring a young person while reducing their chances of employment.

Kelvin Hopkins: Many Conservative Members have said that the Government should not be doing this and that there should not be top-down attempts to deal with these problems. Without Government action, however, the system would be left to itself and things would get no better.

Mr. Carswell: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman—I agree with his views on many things, not least Europe—I profoundly disagree with him on that issue. I believe that many things around us are the product of individuals pursuing their own interests rather than of officialdom and central Government planning. Many great, innovative things have come into existence in my short lifetime without any involvement of the Government. Indeed, I would say that most of the great things around us in the world are usually the product of individual action, not of Government.

Mention has already been made of the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which I shall briefly touch on. The Government have not only made many laws on education, but spent a great deal of money on it, which no one can really dispute. In the Clacton area of my constituency, for example, they have spent £14 million on a brand new school, Bishop’s Park college. The problem is not spending that money on education, which is excellent, but the fact that after just two years, they are trying to close the school down. It was opened formally by the previous Prime Minister two and a half years ago, yet it now faces closure.

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman said that “they” are trying to close the school, implying that the Government were trying to close it, but is it not the case that we do not have that power? It is a decision for Essex county council, which is controlled by the party that the hon. Gentleman represents.

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