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Michael Gove: I certainly believe that what we need is more good comprehensive schools. One of the striking features of Finland’s education system—the feature that is crucial to its success—is the quality of people
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entering education, and specifically the quality of people entering primary and secondary teaching. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent. of graduates. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I should add that the Government’s support for the Teach First programme, for example, and the efforts Lord Adonis made when he was at the Department to ensure that more people from top- performing universities with high-level qualifications entered teaching were right. We will do everything we can do to support such steps.

However, it is important not only that we get good people into teaching, but that we know that the exams are of a high quality, and, as the hon. Member for Yeovil pointed out, it is worrying that Kathleen Tattersall herself, the current chair of Ofqual, has said she is not clear about how standards should be maintained over time. The Secretary of State was reticent about the role that he has, but I understand that, under clause 138 of the Bill, he has the right to intervene to specify minimum standards. He can lay out in a memorandum of understanding to the chair of Ofqual exactly what he may require in any examination. Independence is important for any regulator, but it is quite right for the person properly elected and chosen as the Minister to lay out certain minimum requirements, and I hope that in the course of debate in Committee the Secretary of State or one of his ministerial colleagues will have a chance to give us further and better particulars on what exactly he intends to do to ensure that there are certain floor standards in examinations.

Mr. Laws: Can the hon. Gentleman clarify the position that his party intends to take on how independent Ofqual should be in relation to standards? He will know that the Government have said that Ofqual’s role is not to monitor education standards as a whole, but to monitor the existing qualifications and assessments. Is that his position also, or does he envisage a wider role for Ofqual?

Michael Gove: I notice that the Secretary of State looks curious. I too find the question curious, because it lacks the acuity that I normally associate with the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to give Ofqual a broader remit than that outlined in the Bill: I just want a degree of specificity about the role that the Secretary of State can properly have to be laid out in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman feels that the Bill gives the Secretary of State too much power, that would be interesting.

Mr. Laws: I am interested that the Secretary of State is amused by the question, because I was citing the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report. As I understood it, the Government were saying that they were not willing to allow Ofqual to use its own devices—for example, sampling mechanisms—to determine what had happened to standards. Instead, the Government envisaged the much narrower role for Ofqual of simply policing the existing qualifications. Does the hon. Gentleman envisage the narrower role or the wider role?

Michael Gove: That is genuinely helpful. I do not believe that a wider role is necessarily required, but it is important that we ascertain in Committee and in any secondary legislation that might be introduced exactly
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how Ofqual might operate. It is certainly the case that I believe that, if necessary, Ofqual should have the independence to commission research—indeed, it has that power under the Bill—to embarrass a Government who have fallen down in a policy area, or to show up examination boards and qualification providers that are not doing their jobs properly. I am encouraged by what some of the examination boards have been saying about Ofqual using its powers more vigorously to that end.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman has given the House some worrying examples of people who think that standards have slipped dramatically over recent years, but many people have given evidence to the Select Committee that the issue is more complicated and that standards have been maintained. I say that because of the concern that students, and their parents, are told every summer that the qualifications that have been achieved with great hard work are worth nothing. We are in danger of falling into that trap even though the evidence given to the Committee by the QCA—which is doing a responsible job, and I have not noticed it being bullied by the Minister—was that standards are being maintained.

Michael Gove: I entirely take point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee. It is because I want to give parents a degree of confidence that I believe that it is right to create this regulator. We support that aspect of the Bill.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman really believes that the examples that he quoted give an accurate picture of school standards, does it not follow that that must feed through into the universities? How does he explain the vastly increased numbers of young people going to university, and does he believe that those graduates are less well qualified that previous generations of graduates?

Michael Gove: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions universities, because I am worried by the extent to which universities are laying on remedial teaching for students taking mathematical, science or engineering degrees. For example, Imperial, one of our best university colleges, has had to lay on remedial lessons for some of the finest students from our state and independent schools. I am all in favour of increasing participation and getting more people into university, and I also believe—as I said earlier—that students are working harder than ever. It is important that we do everything that we can to encourage and celebrate achievement wherever it exists, but it is also important that we can be sure that an examination continues to be worth what it is commonly understood to be worth.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is important to celebrate the success of students, why did he not celebrate the success of our young people aged 10 and 14 who did the best in Europe in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study? Instead, he trotted out some line about Kazakhstan.

Michael Gove: Kazakhstan did better than us, and I thought that was worrying. If the Minister is relaxed about that, it reflects curiously on him, because he is
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normally a tiger on standards so I would have thought that he would be worried. In addition, as he knows, many high-performing European countries, including Flemish Belgium and Finland, were not in the study, and as he also knows a, welter of other studies, including PISA—the programme for international student assessment—tell a very different story about what is happening. It is important to ensure that we have a degree of independent corroboration, which is why I support the introduction of Ofqual. It is natural that the Minister should choose statistics that flatter his Government’s record; his predecessor the Minister for School Standards—now the Foreign Secretary—always quoted from PISA when it appeared to flatter the Government, but when PISA tells a different story, it is no longer flavour of the month or year in the Department. That is entirely understandable and I can appreciate why Ministers do it, but it is why we need Ofqual.

Mr. Chaytor: To return to the point about graduates, is the hon. Gentleman saying that today’s graduates are less capable than his generation of graduates?

Michael Gove: Absolutely not. As well as welcoming the creation of Ofqual, I welcome the provisions on Ofsted and the Government’s inspection regime. I specifically welcome the relaxation of the Ofsted regime for good schools and the more risk-based approach to their regulation. It is something we advocated 18 months ago and I suspect that a similar idea was coursing through the Government’s bloodstream, so it is good to see it reflected in the legislation.

I also welcome the Secretary of State’s proposals for the reform of what we shall no longer call pupil referral units. Again, change and reform in the area was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who made it clear that it was important to have first-class alternative provision for children who have been excluded from school. Exclusion is a last resort but it is crucial as one of the weapons that heads need to maintain good order, and it is just as crucial that we have high-quality provisions for pupils who have been excluded.

The suggestions being made around the Bill and in the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement last year seem to us to make good sense. It is important to go beyond local authorities and get alternative suppliers into the business of creating what will be the alternative provision of the future—the short-stay schools to which the Secretary of State referred. Furthermore, in Committee, we shall do everything possible to support the Secretary of State’s wish to improve the education of children and young people who are in custody.

On the subject of looking beyond local authorities for organisations that provide a great service, we support the direction of travel in the Bill on child care. The private and voluntary sector provides much pre-school care and education to a high standard. The early years are crucial and we welcome the broad extension of the entitlement to free care for three and four-year-olds that the Government have brought forward. We specifically welcome the provisions in the Bill to ensure equity in funding between the maintained sector and the private and voluntary sector in the provision of nursery education and child care. It seems to us that a more level playing field is the right way to proceed.

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Ms Dari Taylor: If the hon. Gentleman is saying that pre-school support and nursery care are so important why are we left with the statement that

The absolute fact is that two centres in my constituency are now under threat, so I should appreciate hearing from the hon. Gentleman.

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect and affection, asks “Why am I left with this statement?” The reason why she is left with that statement is that the Labour Whips office cannot find anything better to give her, which is a great pity and a disservice to her. The truth is that we will match every penny that the Government are committed to spending in the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget. We shall not cut Sure Start at all; we support provisions to ensure that Sure Start children’s centres are put on to a statutory basis. We have specific concerns that the Government have failed to ensure that access to Sure Start is spread as equitably as possible. We are concerned by the work of the National Audit Office that shows that existing Sure Start children’s centres have failed to reach some of the most excluded individuals in our society, which is why we support an extension of the health visitor programme and the restoration of universal health visiting as a way of getting children—especially those in need—into Sure Start. That is what we aim to support.

Ed Balls: The last time we discussed these matters, the Opposition’s position was that although they would protect the schools budget in 2009-10, they would cut the non-schools budget by £200 million. Does the Conservative spokesman’s statement suggest that he has an exemption from next year’s cuts, and has the shadow Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills team been left to pick up the tab?

Michael Gove: There is no need for the Secretary of State to ask me that when he could have rung me at any time in the past month or so to find out the truth. For quite some time now the Labour party has argued that we would cut the non-schools part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget, but we made it clear that the DCSF budget is ring-fenced; the Opposition will match the budget that the Government have set. [Hon. Members: “You’ve got it wrong!”] No. It is understandable why, in his partisan zeal, the Secretary of State should have misunderstood, but I hope that he will reassure his colleagues in the Labour party, and voters who may have received Labour party press releases about the future of children’s centres or anything else, that whatever else may change if the Opposition take over, funding for DCSF provision will not. His support in reassuring people and ending scaremongering would, as ever, be greatly appreciated.

Ed Balls: It was interesting to find out that when the Leader of the Opposition said that the schools budget would be protected, he in fact meant the DCSF budget. Can the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) give the same assurance for 2010-11? Also, am I on to something in suggesting that the problem has been transferred to the Opposition’s plans for the 2009-10
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DIUS budget? The Leader of the Opposition was very clear about the multi-billion-pound scale of the cuts in 2009-10; if the axe is not to fall on DCSF, it sound like bad news for DIUS.

Michael Gove: I mentioned the Secretary of State’s partisan zeal earlier. Having found that one of his foxes has been shot, he is anxious to find another. However, if he had paid attention to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, he would not have gone down this particular route. I know that he is restless in his search for dividing lines. I remember the interview that he gave to the New Statesman when he was just a humble Back Bencher—or at least a Back Bencher: he said then that he had had enough of consensus in education policy, and wanted to get back to good old-fashioned dividing lines. As I say, he is desperate in his search for one.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): There does seem to have been something of a volte-face in the Opposition’s policy, but if that is the case, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sure Start also requires other Departments to play a role, not least the Department for Work and Pensions. Is he making further commitments for other Departments to ensure that Sure Start continues to be funded in the same way? Will those Departments have to ensure that funding goes into Sure Start, too?

Michael Gove: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We are committed to ensuring that we fully support Sure Start children’s centres. That is why I said that we are glad that there is to be statutory provision for them in the Bill. That is why I mentioned, in the context of the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), that we are anxious to ensure that more people use the centres. That is why the Department of Health is extending the provision of health visitors. If we were intent on allowing Sure Start children’s centres to wither on the vine, to be underfunded, or to be undercut or undermined in any way, we would not have made those commitments.

Jim Knight rose—

Michael Gove: I would like to make a bit of progress, but of course I give way to the Minister.

Jim Knight: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being extremely generous, both with his time and in giving clarification. I note that he said that we could have picked up the phone; we did write to him and ask him for clarification on the issues, but he never replied. While he is clarifying matters, perhaps he could tell us whether he is still committed to the £4.5 billion cut to the Building Schools for the Future programme that he set out in his policy document last year.

Michael Gove: I am given to understand by an hon. Friend that the Minister did write to me— [Interruption.] —as did the Secretary of State. However, my internet provider has a spam filter, which means that junk mail is automatically excised, so anything that emanates from the Labour party or DCSF’s special advisers automatically find itself in the bin. On Building Schools
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for the Future, as the now right hon. Minister for Schools and Learners knows, we are committed to ensuring that every penny that is spent on building schools remains there for school buildings.

Mr. Redwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the Government’s approach is that they think that it is the sum of money, rather than how one spends it, that matters? Will he promise me that when he is in office, he will make sure that we spend it an awful lot better than they do? They waste so much of it on the quangocracy.

Michael Gove: As ever, my right hon. Friend is bang on the button. Talking of quangocracy will inevitably draw the attention of many hon. Members to the fountain of quangos created in the Bill, which I shall shortly turn to. First, I shall say a few words about apprenticeships.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing the number of apprenticeships. Again, that idea was pushed first by the Opposition, most vigorously and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), and also by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has been arguing that we should refocus the Train to Gain budget in order to generate an extra 100,000 apprenticeships.

I noticed that the Secretary of State said that the Bill was the first legislation on apprenticeships for 200 years overall, but in 1994 Lord Hunt of Wirral, who was then the Secretary of State for Employment, created the very idea of the modern apprenticeship—an idea that was derided at the time, when the Labour party was in opposition, only subsequently to be adopted by it. I am glad that the Government have seen the merits of Lord Hunt’s proposal. It is only a pity that there is a gap between the rhetorical claims that they make for their apprenticeship scheme and the achievements on the ground.

In 2003 the Prime Minister, as he then was not, said that there would be 320,000 apprenticeships by 2006. The reality was that there were only 239,000. Nothing abashed, in 2007 he said that he would double the number to 500,000, but the next year the total fell by 13,000. Figures from August to October in 2008 apparently showed an increase, but if we dig below the figures, we see that the increase is entirely due to an increase in the number of apprenticeships for people over 25. The number of apprenticeships open to those who were 16 to 18 or 19 to 24 fell.

Overall in the past year we have seen a fall in the number pursuing level 2 apprenticeships, from 56,000 to 49,000, and a fall in the number pursuing level 3 apprenticeships—those that would be understood as full apprenticeships in European countries—from 27,000 to 24,000. Overall the fall is between 7 and 12 per cent. in the number pursuing apprenticeships. In construction, one of the areas where industry has been most engaged with the apprenticeship programme, the fall has been more than 30 per cent. in the past year—more than 6,000 apprenticeships gone.

I note that the Secretary of State said that there would be a new requirement for Building Schools for the Future contractors to help fill that gap, but that provokes the question to what extent those contractors were falling down on the job beforehand. I suspect that
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many of those contractors were those who were shouldering their responsibilities to take on apprenticeships. It would be interesting to know the precise estimate of the additional number of new apprenticeships that will be created by the requirement that the Secretary of State is imposing.

Ed Balls: The answer is 1,000 more apprenticeships by the end of the next financial year.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but that still leaves us 5,000 down on the number of apprenticeships in construction. The fall in the number of apprenticeships at level 3 is particularly worrying. We are training fewer people at level 3 than we were a decade ago. As the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee—an independent Committee—pointed out, most of the increase in apprenticeship numbers

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