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23 Feb 2009 : Column 64
6.3 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to add my voice to those who have mentioned the sad death of Lord Dearing—or Ron, as I knew him. His contribution to education in this country was immense, but what stands out in my mind is his consideration of the future of higher education before the 1997 election. His report achieved all-party agreement and higher education would have been profoundly different without it. More recently, my Committee has been considering testing and assessment, is concluding an inquiry into the national curriculum and will go on to look at inspection. Ron Dearing’s name runs throughout all those issues. The education sector will be poorer for his loss.

On a lighter note, Ron’s sense of humour was amazing. It was a sight to behold him and Ken Baker—Lord Baker, I should say—going around together to promote university technical colleges. That was a lovely last campaign for Lord Dearing, and we shall miss him.

I turn now to something that would have been of great interest to Ron, and that is where we are after nearly 11 years of Labour education policy and this latest Bill. As Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I have noticed how some colleagues complain about how disgraceful it is that we have new legislation that will take our mind off the job of running schools and upset people because the quango structure will be changed. On the other side are the people asking why the Government do not provide more direction or make more high-profile, sweeping changes right through from early-years, pre-school education to higher and adult education. We have to achieve a balance, as all Governments try to do.

As I have said in previous Second Reading debates, three pillars of reform—testing and assessment, the national curriculum and inspection—are associated with the period between Baker and Balls. Those reforms have now been in existence for 20 years and it is therefore a good time to reflect on them. Some of the elements of the Bill do that, although it is something of a catch-all Bill.

I shall start with apprenticeships. In this case, the Government gave both my Committee and the Business and Enterprise Committee the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny—it was all that we had time for. It was an experiment for the two Committees, which worked for the most part blind to the other’s work but came to very similar conclusions, which is not a bad recommendation. Broadly speaking, we welcomed the proposals on apprenticeships. All of us worried about the ambitiousness of the Government’s targets, and whether they could be delivered—especially as by the time we wrote our report, we were in recession, a time when it becomes ever more difficult for the private sector, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, to think about taking on more apprentices. Those of us who have been here for a long time remember the collapse of apprenticeships under a previous Prime Minister. We had wonderful apprenticeship schemes in some of the premier companies in this country, but they fell away, and it has taken a long time to get back to that quality of training and to rebuild the apprenticeship infrastructure.

People can get carried away by the term “apprenticeships”, and the Committee considered the issue of quality control. Some of us with constituencies that still have a strong
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engineering base—as I do in Huddersfield—assume that an apprenticeship lasts three or four years and is intensive and of high quality. It is paramount that when a person finishes an apprenticeship, they not only have a good qualification that will more or less provide them with a career for life, but are well remunerated. That is true of some apprenticeship schemes, and those in engineering seem to set the gold standard. Many apprenticeships are short term nowadays, lasting as little as a year, so they are rather different. Some are not served with employers but are programme-led.

We drew quality control to the Government’s attention, because we need assurance that qualifications are of good quality and lead to well-remunerated employment. Both Select Committees said, “For goodness’ sake, make sure that in every school the apprenticeship option is brought to the attention of young people coming up to 16”. Absolutely. Why not? It provides a wonderful opportunity that is better suited to the talents of many young people than staying on at school until they are 18 and then going to university or seeking employment.

Apprenticeship is a good option if it is the right apprenticeship for the young person. I believe that young people should be told what the career they are entering will bring them as an income. That was one of the things I wanted to add to our report, although we did not include it. They should know how often on average they would need to change jobs as a hairdresser or in retail or distribution, where the training is much shorter but incomes are much lower. The assurance of the good life in some sectors, based on an apprenticeship, is not what it is in others, so people need better knowledge of the career steps beyond the short apprenticeships offered in some sectors.

The Minister’s response to our pre-legislative report was rather late. We reminded him that it was due when he was giving evidence to the Committee a few days beforehand and it arrived in the nick of time so that it could be attached to the documents for this debate. Our challenge to the Government is that there can never be a better time to train than during a recession. If we do not have training during a recession, we might as well give up on the commitment to train. This is when we have to train; the Government have to become more active and recognise that the private sector will be more reluctant, unless it is given inducements—unless it is made beneficial for small, medium and large companies to take on apprentices. When companies are finding it difficult to make ends meet and to obtain bank loans to continue production, there must either be generous help for the private sector or public sector apprenticeships will have to be pulled into play in a way that we have not considered seriously for a very long time—if ever.

As most of us know, the major employers in constituencies such as mine 30 years ago were household names—the big engineering and textile companies and chemical companies such as ICI—that employed many thousands of people. Today, the main employers are the university, the health authority, the hospitals, schools and colleges. The picture is totally transformed, and those are the jobs people do. If we want apprenticeships to grow, we have to embed them in the health service, local government, universities and all the public sector areas. If we do not do that, we shall not have high-quality apprenticeships and we shall not have them fast.

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I made a recommendation to the Department and to the Prime Minister 10 days ago, when my right hon. Friend was giving evidence to the Liaison Committee. I asked him if he could

The Prime Minister said:

That is quite a commitment and I hope it will be translated into Government action.

Most people who have spoken so far—certainly the Front-Bench spokespeople—have mentioned Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency. It is interesting that nearly everyone has homed in on the replacement for the QCA. The agency has a history, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) took some pains to talk about the evidence for deteriorating standards in young people’s GCSEs and A-levels. In an intervention, I pointed out that it was easy to find such evidence; indeed, the QCA appeared before the Education and Skills Committee, and the Children, Schools and Families Committee has visited other countries—for example, to look at the Swedish model, which I prefer to the Finnish model, as some members of my Committee know. However, countries like the UK—big urban nations such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain—share the same difficulty as us: it is difficult to track standards over time, because everyone’s system changes to some degree.

The Committee asked questions of Ken Boston, the former head of the QCA. He is a fine public servant who had the honour and integrity to resign when he thought that he had got things wrong in terms of the testing regime last summer. That should not detract from the fact that he is a fine public servant and I thought he was a very good head of the QCA. When he gave evidence to the Committee, he made a robust defence of the maintenance of standards over time. We have to find a balance, because we can easily fall into the arguments set out in The Sunday Times, The Times and the Daily Mail—that standards have gone to pot and that none of our children does any work or achieves qualifications worth the paper they are written on. We all know about that kind of populist nonsense, but under my chairmanship, when the QCA was regularly interrogated over a long period, we received pretty satisfactory answers about the maintenance of standards over time.

Mr. Gibb: If the QCA has done such a good job to date in maintaining standards in our public examination system, what is the problem that the Bill seeks to address?

Mr. Sheerman: I was about to come to that point. There has been debate about the political independence of the QCA; it has been common currency that people wanted a more arm’s-length qualification body. We have also heard the argument—

Mr. Gibb rose—

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Mr. Sheerman: Could the hon. Gentleman wait for me to finish my point?

There is an argument that we should have a more robust and independent qualifications authority—a regulatory body that has teeth. I am one of those who believes that we have to wait for such things to develop over time. I shall wait to see whether the person appointed to lead Ofqual on a permanent basis has the robust character that will make the organisation what it can and should be.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman has much experience in this area. Does he agree that one of the real problems with the QCA was that it was trying to deal with two separate functions—qualifications and the curriculum? The new organisation, with a single focus, can let others develop a curriculum that is really appropriate and can then consider the appropriate qualifications that will follow.

Mr. Sheerman: In our long relationship, that is probably the most helpful thing that the hon. Gentleman has ever said to me. He is absolutely right, and I was just about to come to that point. We want a robust body. Ofqual is a good improvement, although that will depend on the person who runs it—on how robust they are and how determined they are to make something of the post. If someone is appointed a Supreme Court judge in the United States, but he or she is a mouse, they will not make an impression. However, if we give a person the power, they could make something of the office.

Mr. Laws rose—

Mr. Sheerman: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has had so much time to speak.

Mr. Gibb rose—

Mr. Sheerman: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I will give way only to Back Benchers.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is absolutely right. There was a strong case for splitting the bodies, and having a separate qualification development agency. Of course, the idea has developed over time, and the development is partly the result of nudging from the Select Committees. The Children, Schools and Families Committee has not yet finalised its report on the national curriculum, but my view is that we have needed a strong, independent voice on the national curriculum and curriculum matters for a long time. Very few people have mentioned the issue today; I am surprised that the Front Benchers did not mention it at all. If we really want a robust curriculum, independence and integrity are needed, and we need the issue to be considered over the long term.

Mr. Gibb: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Sheerman: No. I am not giving way to Front Benchers; they get far too great a share of speaking time in the Chamber.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way to me?

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Mr. Sheerman: Yes.

Mr. Stuart: I am extremely grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee. Does he agree that something else is required: the will on the part of Ministers to resist regularly intervening and interfering? Intervening and interfering takes away a culture of independence and undermines the system’s ability to work in a thoughtful, long-term way for the benefit of learning.

Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend makes a good point— I mean the hon. Gentleman; it is hard to get that right when Opposition Members are on the same Committee as me. The fact is that in politics, we all like to deal in conspiracy theory. We all want to believe that a Minister rings people up and says, “You do this for me or there’ll be trouble,” or, “Do this or you’ll never get a renewal of your contract.” In my experience, if a Minister—they are only in post for a couple of years before they move on, anyway—had phoned up Ken Boston and said, “Ken, I want you to do this,” Ken, being an Australian, might have used pretty strong language in response. We might all talk about issues of political independence, but although there might be drift and there might be cases of people getting a little bit too chummy, I have seen no evidence of overt political interference. We need the two bodies to work properly, we need to ensure standards over time, and we need an independent curriculum watchdog if we are to get the curriculum right over time.

I want to make a couple more points, generally on issues that arise from the Select Committee’s inquiries. I cannot resist mentioning local government’s new responsibilities towards young people with a custodial sentence. I am a bit worried about that, because there has been turmoil. The Education and Skills Committee, as it was, only got a handle on education in prisons when the Home Office lost responsibility for the issue and it passed to the Department for Education and Skills. We could then get involved. We held a thorough inquiry on the state of education in our prisons—it is still not very good. Most people know that. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) knows extremely well how we feel about the fact that many people in prison or in custody have such a poor record when it comes to their start in life; they may have been in care, or may suffer from all kinds of special educational needs.

It worried me when we saw the chaos brought about by Government changes to policy on the National Offender Management Service. We all know about the NOMS fiasco and what it did to prison education and much else. The Prison Service is still recovering from that, and now there is to be yet another change. Surely we need a consistent national approach to the educational needs of people in custody; looking at the Bill as printed, I am not sure how it is to achieve that.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I hear what my hon. Friend says, but would he accept that there was similar concern when primary care trusts were given responsibility for the health of prisoners? There was some anxiety, but those fears were not borne out in practice. We know that health services for prisoners have improved. Surely that evidence suggests that when
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local authorities get responsibility for education for young people in custody, they should provide them with a better service?

Mr. Sheerman: This is one of the first times that my hon. Friend and I have disagreed about anything in public. The change with regard to health was absolutely right; it works well. I am worried, because I do not know how the education and training side of things will work, and how we will ensure consistency in a very difficult area. Like or loathe him, David Freud and I have discussed how we can change prisoners’ lives, and I think that he is absolutely right: we cannot focus on just one aspect of a prisoner’s life, such as education or skills, and leave out housing need, addictions and other issues. We have to provide the full Monty, either when the person is in prison or when he or she comes out. It is a complicated job. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners may put my mind at rest, but at the moment, the custodial side of things worries me a good deal.

It also worries me a bit that local authorities are to take over careers services. I have been around long enough to know that the last time they did so, they did not provide them very well at all. As a result, that responsibility was taken away from them. I want to make sure that the next bunch who do it, do it well. I am co-chair of the Skills Commission with Dame Ruth Silver. We looked at the information, advice and guidance. It is changing fast in a changeable and challenging area, and I am not sure whether the local authorities have the right tools to do the job. I am worried that many local authorities are ceasing to hold open competition and to use good private sector expertise in delivering information, advice and guidance. Again, under the Bill, I am not sure how that will work out. Does the Minister want me to give way? I will make an exception and give way to him, although he is on the Front Bench.

Jim Knight: I am staggered at my hon. Friend’s generosity in allowing me to intervene from the Front Bench, without my even asking, given what he has said about Front Benchers’ interventions. The main legislation on the issue was the Education and Skills Act 2008. We said then that the information, advice and guidance standard would apply and would be rigorously enforced. The Bill before us seeks to ensure that that careers advice includes advice on apprenticeships. That is a significant and important part of the Bill, and we will continue to work with local authorities to make sure that they improve information, advice and guidance.

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