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Mr. Carswell: The Minister well knows—I have written to his Department—that the decision to build Bishop’s Park college was taken by central Government. Indeed, I have asked for the correspondence between the local authority and the Department to be released, so that we can resolve whether the decision was made centrally or locally. Thus far, the Minister has refused to release the correspondence. If he released it, I am pretty sure it
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would show that the decision to build the school was made in Whitehall, not the town hall. I would be happy to discuss the matter further here or elsewhere subsequently. Bishop’s Park college shows that despite a great deal of money being spent, little regard for local need was shown. The fate of the college shows in microcosm what happens when education decisions are taken centrally and on high. It bodes ill for the Building Schools for the Future initiative.

The Education and Skills Bill graciously permits—I say that with a sense of irony—young people to remain in work provided that they are engaged in part-time training. That is a further extension of the “Government knows best” philosophy, and is wrong because it means that officialdom needs to approve before young people can do what they wish to do. It will make hiring young people more costly and bureaucratic, which is a bad thing.

It is a conceit of politicians that they can run things efficiently and better. All the evidence suggests to me that they cannot, and that is also the case with raising standards in education and schools. I venture to suggest that any improvements will take place despite, not because of, the Bill. People will gain skills and education because they want to do so, and choose to do so, not because Government decree it. It would be good if more young people remained in education and training. Rather than extend officialdom, however, Government should empower young people; instead of placing an obligation on young people, Government need to give them more freedom.

The Bill will entrench the power of officialdom in LEAs, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Learning and Skills Council to determine what skills are taught. As a member of what was the Education and Skills Committee, I have been deeply uninspired by some of the officials who have appeared before the Committee from time to time. Using officialdom to determine what skills are taught is a form of central planning. Economic change makes it likely that the country will need new skills, yet it is almost impossible to know accurately what those skills will be. Twenty years ago, who could have known what software design skills were needed? Five years ago, who could be certain what know-how was required? Economic change requires innovative skills. I very much doubt that officials at the LEAs or the QCA are best placed to know what innovations are around the corner. It was not those people but a university drop-out who gave us Microsoft.

To conclude, let me put two questions to the Minister. Truancy today is at its highest for a decade.

Jim Knight: Wrong.

Mr. Carswell: From a sedentary position, the Minister says that that is wrong. I am happy to dispute the statistics with him. The statistics to which I have access clearly show that truancy today is at its highest level for a decade. No amount of spin can deny that.

Jim Knight: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. The mistake that he makes, which is made by most Conservative Members—and by most newspapers, it is true—is to conflate unauthorised absence with truancy. The two
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are not the same. If we were to ask any head teacher in the country whether unauthorised absence is truancy, they would say no. Much of the unauthorised absence is due, for example, to parents wanting to take their children on holiday during term-time and head teachers refusing to authorise that. I do not equate that precisely with truancy. I do not condone it—I think parents should ensure that their children attend school—but I do not think it is the same as truancy.

Mr. Carswell: I am flattered that the Minister should intervene on me twice—and I say yes in a sort of Jeremy Paxman-esque way, with due cynicism. I have statistics in front of me on pupil absences in England; I am quoting a document produced on 25 October 2007, and I would be happy to share it with him afterwards. I stand by what I say: truancy today is at its highest level for a decade. If the Government cannot get all those truants to remain at school at age 16, how on earth will the Bill keep them at school until 18?

The second point that I make to the Minister—again, I would be happy for him to intervene—is that rather than focus on the time spent in education and on the quantity of education, why do the Government not focus on the quality of education until age 16? Surely it is a failure of the Government to provide good education up to age 16 that explains why so many choose to leave school at 16.

8.24 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak on this Bill and to welcome it. I am one of those old-fashioned socialists who still believe in government and the role of the state in improving human life. If there was not a state, and if there was not government, I believe that we would live a pretty nasty, brutish and short life. It would also be a very unequal life, because were the kind of libertarian approach that many Conservative Members advocate given free rein, we would see more inequality, and more of the problems that we are trying to deal with today.

The Bill is a serious attempt to address a problem that has been with us for decades. As another former teacher in further education, I remember well the alienated young people who used to come on compulsory day-release. I had a nice mixture of well-motivated A-level students and day-release students, who sat there brooding and resentful. I saw the difference, and even with talents such as those in this Chamber, inspiring some of those people would have been difficult.

One point that has been made many times—particularly by those on the Opposition Benches, but I agree with it—is that the real problem lies further down in schools. Rather than saying, “Let’s just focus on schools,” we need to do two things—we cannot just leave to one side and forget those people who missed out in school and therefore finished up at 16 with insufficient numeracy, literacy and other skills. We must look after those people as well, and that is why the Bill is important.

I shall dwell on some points that have not been mentioned in the debate. I welcome the slightly expanded role for local authorities that is provided by the Bill. That looks to me like the beginning of building up and back from the fragmentation of public services
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in recent decades and over quite a long period before that, and of co-ordinating services again, with even an element of democratic control, which would be good.

Another point about local authorities is that they had a large role in providing apprenticeships in the past—a role that ought to be massively expanded now. In the construction sector in particular, local authorities took on apprentices in direct works organisations and provided a source of skilled workers for the private construction sector. It was understood that getting people into industry with skills, through apprenticeships, was part of government-subsidised training. I hope that direct labour organisations will be given their head, and that local authorities will again soon be given a much bigger role in doing their own construction work, and therefore have a basis for providing many more apprenticeships in that sector in particular.

Another issue is the variety of education provision on offer. Anybody looking at Britain from the outside must think that we have had some kind of mad Maoist revolution, with a thousand flowers blooming, because almost no local authority’s pattern of provision is similar to that of the next-door local authority. There must be 20, 30 or 40 different patterns in every local authority. If we were to compare how they function, we might find that one was better than the others, and we ought perhaps to adopt it. I do not suggest another wholesale revolution to impose a system of education, but I do think that some systems of education, or patterns of provision, are better than others and would help with the problem that we now face. I would say this, would I not, but I think that Luton has the right system. We have a system of 11-to-16 high schools, and the best further education college in the country. I say that advisedly: it was the first FE college to be given beacon status, and has repeatedly been given a grade 1 in inspections. We also have one of the best sixth-form colleges in the country, if not the best. It too has beacon status, and has repeatedly been given a grade 1. As I happen to be vice-chair of the governors of that college I might be expected to boast about it, but I bask in reflected glory. The fact that the college is so good is not to do with my input; it is to do with the wonderful staff and management, and indeed the fine students.

That kind of provision seems to me ideal in the context of the problem that we currently face—alienated 16-year-olds who do not want to stay at school, especially if they are in a sixth form in which all the high-fliers are doing their A-levels and going to university, and they themselves are not doing very well. If they have the opportunity of going to a very good further education college which is large and has an enormous variety of provision, they will be more inclined to consider education or training after the age of 16.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take a positive approach to sixth-form and further education colleges and 11-to-16 high schools, because I think that they work. I also hope that we can start to bring the elements of our education system together, rather than letting them continue to fly apart as they have done for a long time.

In Luton we have had problems with provision for 14-to-19s. Three or four years ago we were given a poor report, but it was not to do with the colleges; it was to
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do with certain schools. Those problems have now been addressed by good head teachers who were brought in to solve them. Schools in my constituency that were in special measures have now come out of them. We have a collaborative approach, Campus Luton, which covers schools and colleges. One thing that I have discovered from my experience of our sixth-form college is that such colleges learn from other sixth-form colleges. There is cross-pollination, which I think would also be a good thing in schools.

The problems in schools have been mentioned many times today. They are serious, and they have not yet been rectified. I am now going to be controversial. I think that many of those problems derive from a deeply misguided revolution in teaching methods which started some 40 years ago. I believe that informal methods—kindly described as child-centred education—were a profound mistake. Generations of young people have missed the chance of being taught mathematics and English properly. Now we are struggling gradually towards where we should have been all those years ago, and starting to reconsider phonics and a more rigorous approach to the teaching of mathematics to ensure that people have those skills when they are very young. For children who miss out on mathematics in particular—although the same can perhaps be said of literacy—starting at the age of 10 is much more difficult than learning at seven. The longer it is left, the harder it is.

I remember that 25 years ago, at the height of the mad “informal methods” revolution, the head teacher at William Tyndale school in London—I do not know whether anyone remembers that famous school—said, “If half the children in my school can read when they leave at the age of 11, I shall be very pleased.” He thought that that was success; I think that it was appalling. Fortunately the head teacher was sacked, but it was a turning point. People thought that the revolution had gone so far that it had become completely insane.

The problem was that tens of thousands of teachers had been told that that was the way in which to teach, and it was hard for them to be told in mid-career, “I am sorry, but the methods that we told you about when you were at teacher training college are actually rather mistaken, and we ought to start returning to some of the more rigorous approaches to the teaching of mathematics, reading and writing”—methods that I experienced in the 1940s and 1950s. Many teachers did not like being told that, and were very defensive.

Several of my relatives were teachers. At dinner I would occasionally mention the suggestion that children should sit in rows, be quiet and listen to what the teacher was trying to tell them. The hostility of those teachers was such that I was almost booed out of the room. I could understand their not liking what I said, but I did not retract it because I happened to think it was right, and I think we are now starting to recognise again that it is right.

I also believe that there is something different about Britain, in comparison with other European Union countries. Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that five years ago the top 10 per cent. of our academic achievers were among the best in the world, while the bottom 10 per
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cent. were among the worst in the world, or at least in the OECD areas. The disparity between the two was enormous, which shows that something was profoundly wrong.

There are other factors in Britain—other social phenomena—which make us very different from other countries. It was revealed recently that the teenage pregnancy rate in Britain is six times higher than that in Holland. In other respects Britain and Holland are very similar countries, with similar populations, a fairly large proportion of minorities and diverse communities, but there is something different about Britain. We have not really got to the bottom of what the problems are, and we ought to start doing some deep research comparing ourselves with similar countries in Europe to find out what they are.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I read a lot about the comparisons between educational achievement in other European countries and in Britain. Some research was done by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research under Professor Sig Prais; Lord Moser was also involved. Even the abilities of those who were apparently doing well were compared. When apprentice plumbers in France and England were given a simple mathematics test, it was found that all the French plumbers could do all the sums quickly—in five minutes—and none of the British plumbers could do any of the sums at all. There was something profoundly wrong with what was happening.

We have talked about functional illiteracy and functional innumeracy, and contrasted the UK with other countries. The Moser report, published only seven years ago, suggested that 50 per cent. of people here were functionally innumerate, whereas the Leitch report suggests a much lower number. If half the population cannot compute properly, there is a serious problem. We are not just talking about 10 per cent.; it is broader than that.

I may have mentioned before the fact that I worked as a researcher in a trade union before I came into this House. Occasionally, some of the negotiators would sneak into my office and ask me to tell them precisely how one calculates a percentage. These people were negotiating percentages for thousands of members, but they were asking me to tell them how to calculate a percentage. These people were graduates, yet they could not calculate a percentage—something was wrong.

We are not facing up to the difficulties. We do very well with the top 10 per cent. and very badly with the bottom 10 per cent, but many problems lie in the middle group. I hope that when we examine apprenticeships and extending education and training from 16 to 18—it is right to do that—we will look rather more widely than just at the people with obvious and glaring problems, and get to the bottom of what our real educational problems are.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech and I agree with most of it. How would he address the problem that many people in the educational establishment are very resistant to the return of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading in our primary schools? How would he advise a Government to resist that backlash against the synthetics phonics movement?

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Kelvin Hopkins: I hope that in this Chamber we can persuade Ministers to say to civil servants, “We are going to go for synthetics phonics now.” [Interruption.] I am glad to say that the Minister for Schools and Learners seems to be in agreement.

Jim Knight: We commissioned Jim Rose to carry out the review, and he came out firmly in favour of synthetic phonics. We then produced “Letters and Sounds”. I was in a primary school in west Bristol this morning, where I saw children using that extremely effectively. We are using our national strategies teams to ensure that it is being used effectively up and down the country. Jim Rose is now doing a review of the primary curriculum, and we chose him specifically to ensure that synthetic phonics and the effect on literacy is built into the new primary curriculum.

Kelvin Hopkins: I say hooray to that. I am pleased that the Minister has made a great stride in the right direction and that we are making progress, although resistance still exists. I have heard too many anecdotes—there is not time to tell them all now—of head teachers who would threaten teachers with the sack if they showed any signs of using traditional teaching methods. We hope that that has now passed, but many teachers still feel uncomfortable with those methods, which were thought to be tried and tested before they were kicked out 45 years ago.

I shall finish by again making an uncomfortable comparison with other countries in Europe. I am talking about another Sig Prais bit of research, which was shown on television about 15 years ago and which compared kitchen manufacturers in Germany and in Britain. The shop floor workers in Germany would take an order in English and translate it without difficulty into a custom-made kitchen arrangement for an order for Britain, including all the calculating and measuring. They contrasted that with the situation in Britain, where not only did the workers not have a clue about any foreign language, but they did not even do their own calculations. People in the office did the calculations and the workers did the routine cutting. There was a sharp contrast, even among skilled workers, between Germany and Britain. I have spent some time travelling around Europe with the Industry and Parliament Trust to look at industry, and there are marked differences. Things are improving in Britain, but we have some way to go.

I may incur the wrath of all primary school teachers if I say that 35 years ago 60 per cent. of primary school teachers in Britain had failed O-level maths, but they were still responsible for teaching the elements of mathematics to all our children. That was very worrying. O-level maths may not be necessary in junior schools, but if teachers are so uncomfortable with mathematics that they cannot pass O-level, they will not be very confident communicating the subject to children in school. I know that we have moved on from there, but this country still has a serious problem with mathematics and basic literacy, and I hope that the Government will address that in future.

Jim Knight: By way of further reassurance for my hon. Friend, I can confirm that not only do people have to have GCSE or O-level maths to teach, but they
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have to have passed functional skills tests in both maths and literacy. That is for all subjects, not just maths or English, because we accept the point that it is vital that all teachers should have that basic competence.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information and I have now finished my remarks.

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