Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: We are not immediately able to make detailed decisions about CrossRail.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I should not dare to take up much of your Lordships' time after the debate that we have had. I should like first to thank those noble Lords who have taken part, and in particular, the Minister. He has charm; he has eloquence; he has wonderful skill in footwork. He can change the subject without our noticing, and it takes an awful effort on the part of very much older people such as myself always to follow him.

I did understand, and was deeply grateful for, the start of his speech, which was extremely flattering to me. I must make it clear to the Minister, if he does not know it already, that I have an almost unlimited appetite for such words. However, I should add that, much as I longed to believe that I had won some notable victory over the Treasury during my time as Minister of Transport, I am terribly sorry, but I could not remember one. The Minister of Transport who actually won any kind of victory over the Treasury is a figure that belongs deep in the roots of mythology.

I have only two more things to say. The first is by way of slight apology for suggesting, as I did, that both the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the Minister at the heart of the matter, and the Secretary of State, who is really nothing much more than a chorus girl, had treated a rather eminent man such as Mr Kiley

14 Nov 2001 : Column 618

with shameful discourtesy. I omitted to say that the Prime Minister, by contrast, received and listened to Mr Kiley—something that was much appreciated.

The noble and learned Lord said that the whole of my plea was that we should give Mr Kiley a chance. That is true; it is a perfectly fair comment on my speech. But my reason for advocating that we listen to Mr Kiley and give him a chance is that he, unlike any of the other dramatis personae, has a record of quite outstanding success which has stood up to attempts to smear it. He brought with him at least a ray of hope, whereas the Treasury, which looks as though it will win this battle as it has won almost every other, is successful only in generating despair among the managers it refuses to support.

I have no desire to receive any Papers on this so I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Post-16 Education

6.11 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford rose to call attention to the arrangements for post-16 education; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put forward this Motion because I feel that many crucial decisions are made between the ages of 16 and the early 20s, decisions which often decide the pattern of our lives. It is therefore of immense importance that our education system is able to satisfy the needs and aspirations of our citizens during that important period.

We all agree that we wish to give young people the knowledge and skill to equip them to lead fulfilled and useful lives. I proposed this Motion because I am seriously worried that over the past few years decisions have been made which have meant that our crucial educational patterns are less effective in achieving those ideals than those of our near neighbours.

I begin with the A-level examination. For over 50 years the A-level examination has played an important role in our educational system. Many have felt for a long time, even when I was a young man leaving school, that it was too narrow a system and ought to be made broader. The model that was held before us over 20 or 30 years was the model of the baccalaureate. I must point out, as a matter of fact, that the French baccalaureate consists of a number of pre-arranged groupings of subjects. One takes a set menu and a set pattern rather than an à la carte menu from which one can take any selection of subjects. One examination is taken at the end of the course, and that is that.

Instead of embarking in our broadening process on the model that has been held out for decades, we chose to create the AS model; that is, four or so subjects are taken at a lower level in the first year of sixth form, and then two, three or more A-levels are taken at the end of the second year. That means constant examination. It is unique in Europe. Three examinations are taken in three years—GCSE, AS and then the A-level.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 619

Enormous pressure is put on resources. Time which used to be given to valuable though un-examined extra studies, which was a great feature of the English sixth form during most of my teaching career, is eliminated. But above all, no set pattern of subjects is imposed, as it is in France. So there is no guarantee that the AS system will result in broadening. A modern linguist could take three languages at A-level and another two or so at AS level. The French system rests on imposed patterns.

Further—this is important and I shall be interested in the Minister's comments on this—we must remember that one of the advantages of the old A-level (the narrow specialisation) and one of the reasons it was kept going for so long was that where three subjects were studied in depth, it meant that the schools could service the university course. In effect, the traditional A-level meant that the first year of university work was done at school. The broader courses of continental Europe demand, and always have, university courses of four years or more. That is the norm throughout Europe. The reason we were able to avoid that was because, in effect, the first year's work was done in the sixth form. A survey was carried out in France by the University of Strasbourg which showed that the standard reached in traditional A-level chemistry here in the early 1980s was equivalent to that reached in the first year of a French university course. Therefore, one has to ask whether the Government are prepared to finance longer university courses which may result from the ideal of a broader sixth-form curriculum.

The AS pattern—I am stating the obvious—has not been a success. In essence, it is the wrong solution to a broader sixth-form curriculum; there are too many examinations and insufficient thought has been given to resources or the university three-year honours course.

Another area of worry is vocational education. In England we worried and agonised over vocational education at the end of the 19th century. The Victorians were more effective in vocational education than we have ever been since. The whisky tax of the early 1890s financed technical colleges. We have desperately tried in many ways over the past 130 years to improve our vocational education. Yet, again, the decisions we have made in this regard have not necessarily done so.

Throughout almost all of western Europe—particularly in Germany, which has in many ways been a model for vocational education and has been imitated by Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland—the pattern has been to have separate institutions for vocational and academic studies, in Germany from the age of 13, and in France and most of what can be described as Latin Europe from the age of 16. There are also distinct examinations taken at the end of the course; for example, in France the Baccalauréat professionel is a separate vocational examination with standards set to provide professional prestige for vocational education.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 620

That seems to have increased the prestige and acceptability of vocational qualifications in a way that does not happen in England. Those who have travelled in Denmark or Germany may have noticed that German and Danish plumbers put their qualifications on the side of their van. I have never seen any English plumber write "GNVQ" on the side of his van. It is difficult—I speak as a former schoolmaster—to devise a common system of standards for an examination that is broad enough to cover Latin, Greek and higher mathematics and specific vocational standards as well.

But we have not modelled our pattern on those of our successful continental neighbours. Our policy is, in effect, to run single examination vocational and academic courses. Further to that, and an inevitable result of it, is that we do not have specialist vocational colleges such as exist in western Europe and the United States of America—the former as a result of state policy and the other as a result of market forces. In any state in the United States one finds specialist vocational colleges paralleling academic universities.

Again we must ask ourselves—these are fundamental points of structure—whether we have got the answer right. More worrying is that we have boasted over the past few years about the improvement in results gained at GCSE and A-level. In 1980, 8.8 per cent of the papers examined gained an A grade at A-level. In 2000, the figure was 17.6 per cent, which is 8.8 per cent doubled, whereas the number of papers taken increased by only a quarter during that period. Again, as a former schoolmaster, no one would be more delighted than me if such a dramatic change had occurred. I would certainly have expected a large bonus. However, recent evidence has been produced revealing that the standard has been lowered.

Jeffrey Robinson, a former chief examiner of the Cambridge board, claimed that in 1989 those taking intermediate level mathematics had to secure 65 per cent to obtain a grade C; in 2000 they had to score 45 per cent. That is a considerable drop. Recently, at a wedding I sat next to a senior history examiner from the same board. He told me that the standard demanded for a grade A in A-level history had fallen from 75 per cent to 65 per cent. That explains why, in the classes I taught in my latter years, when I thought I was successful, I gained more grade As than I had gained in the whole of my career previously.

That is alarming. It means that universities—I refer to the academic side—may select for demanding courses students who do not have the talent to undertake them. They are fooling themselves. That is not good; neither for the university nor for the students. A-levels are a crucial element in enabling higher education institutions to be given the right evidence on what course will suit each student.

However, there is an even more alarming development. We must remember that our degree qualifications are like our currency: they can be judged by people abroad. If we reduce the standard of entry and consequently reduce the standard of degree—whether for reasons of positive discrimination or

14 Nov 2001 : Column 621

whatever—we shall end up with a situation in which our university degrees are not recognised abroad. There have been problems with our physics degrees in Switzerland, and other problems are beginning to occur. In other words, this is not something we can fix on our own.

Above all, looming over the whole debate on post-16 education is the problem of funding. If we are to broaden educational courses, we need money for teachers, and so much more. It is deplorable that in Britain a university professor earns £46,000 per year. That is a low salary compared to the international league. It is not surprising that some of the television stars who appear in great history programmes are professors not in this country but in America. All these matters relate to funding.

In a letter to the chairman of the Learning and Skills Council relating to post-16 funding, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers stated:

    "Dear Mr Harwood, . . .

    1. No reference has been made to the schools' full entitlement to additional grants, eg Threshold, Upper Spine and Leadership pay money, SSG, Standards Fund and Formula Capital.

    2. The Real Terms Guarantee may well be flawed: the financial impact of Curriculum 2000 has not been allowed for. The £2,600 figure penalises higher spending LEAS. The compensation offered for 2001/02 injection of extra LEA funding is vague in the extreme. The one-off adjustment is inadequate.

    3. Why is any better provision via the Formula only available if it is affordable, and what does this mean?

    4. Why are LSCs saying that they cannot handle these issues?".

When the secretary of a major teachers' union writes that sort of letter and then circulates all his members to ask whether the Government are providing extra funds, one wonders whether "education, education, education" is really the answer to the problem.

We all support the Government's ideal, so often expressed, that our young people should obtain qualifications and skills that equip them for the new and complex world of the 21st century. However, I feel that the Government often ignore the realities of the situation and pretend that all is going well when it is not. I have given examples of grade inflation. When doubts are raised by professional people who have examined for 20 or 30 years, it is not enough to say, "You are belittling the achievements of children"; one is not. However, as any teacher knows, we have to be realistic and we should not tell people that they have done well when they have not.

I hope that the Minister will be able to address the problems. Perhaps I may remind her of the AS experiment; the continuing difficulties of vocational education; the problem of running a common system, and grade inflation but, above all, of the need for proper funding, about which situation teachers currently have grave doubts. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.26 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for

14 Nov 2001 : Column 622

introducing the debate. I cannot speak with the personal experience which he brings to this important subject. It is a long time now, more years than I care to remember, since I had responsibility for the lower sixth at the Tiffin School, although I am a member of the Corporation Board of Blackburn College, a distinction I share with the Foreign Secretary.

However, I share with the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, a commitment to the highest quality of education at all levels. I believe that that truly is the commitment of Her Majesty's Government also. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills spoke to the General Synod of the Church of England earlier today and shared something of her and the Government's vision and strategy. In my role as chairman of the Church of England Board of Education, I can say how welcome and well received were her visit and speech. Indeed, the Synod gave her the rare accolade of a standing ovation for the affirmation and challenge she gave to the Church's educational work within the maintained sector.

I wish to comment briefly on three aspects of post-16 education: the breadth of the curriculum, vocational education and local learning partnerships. I turn first to the breadth of the curriculum. As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, indicated, AS levels have had a difficult birth, though I am not so negative about their conception. They were perhaps introduced too quickly and without adequate preparation. Clearly, there have been problems concerned with resources and, as the noble Lord said, examination timetabling and marking. Universities and employers seem not to know how to rate them. It takes time for new initiatives to be appreciated. I believe that the jury is still out; at least in the reported comments I read in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and other local newspapers, that seems to be the case which headteachers are making at presentation of awards evenings in my part of the world. I hope that the Government will not be as discouraged as the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, would wish them to be, even though one has to admit that AS levels have been criticised by my old friend, Dr Nick Tate, who was one of the architects of the new examinations. AS levels should not be dropped but made to work. Excessive specialisation at 16 is not necessary, with so many young people going on to further and higher education. Those pursuing plans for arts or language courses have much to learn from other disciplines. We should continue to see how best that can be ensured.

Before I leave the question of breadth in the curriculum, I must add a word about the place of religious education in the post-16 curriculum. There has been a welcome reassertion in recent years that RE is compulsory at all stages of schooling. I would want to be reassured that that requirement is being faithfully and imaginatively followed in all schools and sixth-form colleges, for anecdotal evidence suggests that that is not always the case. Surely it is most valuable for young people to be able to stand back from intense study and reflect more widely on questions of meaning and purpose. Moreover, spiritual development

14 Nov 2001 : Column 623

contributes to effective learning for young people over 16, as for their younger brothers and sisters. There really is more to life than work.

That leads me to the Government's aims on vocational education. I welcome the intention to give vocational pathways equal status to academic pathways. But I look forward to seeing what that will mean in practice and hope that it is more than what was announced in September; an American-style graduation ceremony. I look for reassurance that freedom to vary the school curriculum to allow a more developed vocational emphasis will not be allowed to have the effect of further narrowing the curriculum and making it no more than a preparation for one kind of work. I wonder how, within the greater freedom, the compulsory place of religious education will be protected and, more widely, spiritual development assured.

Finally, I turn to local learning partnerships. I recall that during the passage of the Learning and Skills Act these Benches positively welcomed the Government's creation of the learning and skills councils at both national and local level. In particular, we welcomed the bringing together of further education and work-based education, and the extension of government support via local LSCs to voluntary bodies. Of course the term "voluntary bodies" includes the Churches, often very actively committed to learning opportunities of all kinds and at all levels, not least for those previously excluded from learning or who had excluded themselves from learning opportunities during compulsory schooling.

The Church of England, alongside other Churches, has a significant commitment to statutory education and to voluntary education. So the partnership with local government is very important to the Church and we work hard to achieve it. In some places, the Churches have been brought into successful partnership with the local learning and skills councils, but I am sorry to say that that is far from the case across the nation.

I want to ask that central government and the national Learning and Skills Council ensure that those partnerships flourish and develop effectively at local level. In the meantime, where that partnership has not been developed effectively, we have doubts about the Government's intention to give the local learning and skills councils a more significant role in making proposals for the provision of post-16 education. I look forward to the Minister's reassurance on the Government's commitment to the partnership between the LSCs and the voluntary bodies, including the Churches.

6.33 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke: My Lords, first, I must apologise to the House and especially to the Minister because a long-standing commitment means that I shall have to leave the debate early. Today I speak as the chairman of Landau Forte College, which is a city technology college and a comprehensive school in Derby. I have been its chairman for nine years.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 624

Children, and that includes those who are 16-plus, are candles to be lit, not bottles to be filled. The future of post-16 education in this country worries me. I hope that I am wrong, but the signs do not seem good. I shall mention only two of my worries. The first concerns AS-levels and the way in which they have been introduced without sufficient consultation.

AS-levels were pitchforked into the curriculum for school students in the first year of their A-levels—a year which in the past gave a brief breathing space. It was one year without the pressure of exams. Noble Lords will remember that up to GCSE-level school children are tested, first, at the age of seven, then at 11, then at 14 and then at 16. The following year, the first year of the A-level course and the vocational Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education (previously GNVQ) was always a great relief. In the past it gave students the chance to develop a new interest—for instance, working for the Duke of Edinburgh Award—or to concentrate on an old one—perhaps a musical instrument, a team game, acting or organising the lighting for a play. It even provided a little time to ponder and reflect. The great Sydney Smith—writing, I must emphasise, in Sketches in Moral Philosophy—stated:

    "There is one piece of advice, in a life of study, which I think no one will object to: that is, every now and then, to be completely idle, to do nothing at all".

The manner in which the AS-level was introduced showed no thought for the practicalities—certainly not enough. There is stress not only for the students, but also for the teaching staff. Timetabling becomes a nightmare, juggling with many more combinations of subjects not only throughout the year but also at examination time. The different boards for A-level and AVCE do not co-ordinate their dates, therefore a student may find herself or himself with three or four different exams crammed into a couple of days without a break. The staff have to spend hours supervising and the school budget for external examinations is unbelievably high. At Landau Forte, overall the annual budget for external exams rose by 20 per cent in the year in which AS-level exams were introduced. We are talking of thousands and thousands of pounds.

My second worry concerns the Learning and Skills Council, which has been in place since April this year. It is a huge organisation operating through 47 local learning and skills councils, explicitly focusing on skills and employer needs at national, regional and local levels. That body will have responsibility for planning, funding, monitoring and improving the quality of post-16 up to higher education level. It will concentrate on work-based training for young people and adult and community education. There are many good things and the opportunity sounds good for those who have dropped out of school, or who realised that they wasted their time at school, or who rightly want to improve their qualifications. But surely it is not the right body to take the academic, the liberal arts and the teaching of history, for example.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 625

Perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to an article written by Nicholas Foulkes which appeared in last Saturday's Financial Times. He stated:

    "Knowledge is the absolute key to history. Without it you cannot hope to understand the past—or the present".

Where does that fit into skills-based learning?

The really sinister aspect of the new Learning and Skills Council is that from the academic year 2002-03 onwards the council will also take responsibility for the whole of school sixth form funding. Even now Ofsted inspectors are required to inspect school sixth forms in two ways: first, as a part of the school; and, secondly, as a post-16 unit. Do the Government intend to do away with school sixth forms altogether? What measure of control will they apply?

I am not alone in my concern. Principals of specialist schools are anxious and apprehensive about the future funding of their sixth forms. The sixth form is an integral part of many fine schools. The specialist teachers of A-level subjects give and receive stimulus from sixth form teaching. At Landau Forte we have a vertical tutor group system. It is a delight to see the seniors giving help and encouragement to the juniors. This is especially true for junior boys who can see for themselves that the older boys are enjoying reading and learning a language and that it is not just a "sissy" thing to do.

Recently one inspector came to Landau Forte to find out why our boys' results were so good. "What is the secret?", he asked the principal, who replied, "We teach them".

I conclude with a simple plea to the Government. Please take care with new ideas which could cause unnecessary upheaval. There is so much that is good in so many of our schools. Over the years, I have visited a number of them in my capacity as a member of two advisory panels to grant-giving foundations. Please treat the teachers, especially head teachers, as professionals and work with them. As I believe President Kennedy said, if it is not necessary to change then it is necessary not to change.

6.43 p.m.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for initiating the debate. I could not help noting that all the previous speakers included references to the AS-level. I confess that I have some responsibility for the AS-level. However, it may be worth looking back at what this villain wrote to the Conservative Government, I think it was in 1996. If I remember rightly, they were warned that there would be penalties if the system were unduly rushed—and I think that it was. An approach was suggested in the report. It focused on how the AS could be used with the A-level to give real breadth over three domains of knowledge.

However, I have no intention to revisit my past adventures. I wish today to enter an entirely new area. If anyone were to interrupt my speech, it would be apparent that I could easily be floored on this subject.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 626

In this House I have been accustomed to hearing well-informed debates on education, schools, colleges, universities and, on occasion, lifelong learning facilitated by, for example, the UfI. But I want to speak about an issue which I do not recall being discussed but which I view as a necessary complement to what goes on in schools. It is necessary to complement the Government's wish to encourage staying on after 16 so that we catch up with other nations, improve standards in all our institutions, and achieve a 50 per cent participation rate in higher education by 2010. The necessary complement is apprenticeship.

A report was published in September by a committee under the chairmanship of Sir John Cassels. It tells us that we have something which is valuable but we are not using it well enough and we have very real problems. My only purpose in speaking today is to commend the report to the House and the Government. Noble Lords will know as well as I do that with the big run-down of our major industries in the 1970s and 1980s the old apprenticeships fell with them. Attempts were made by the Government through the youth training scheme and, from 1995, through the modern apprenticeship to give a new impetus to apprenticeships. The Cassels committee tells us that while the elements of a good apprenticeship scheme exist, the goods have not been delivered and there are real faults.

The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, referred to arrangements in several mainland European countries. In France and Germany, they are well developed. Apprenticeships at the NVQ2 level are 30 per cent higher than in this country. At NVQ or above, in Germany the number is two-thirds greater than in this country.

We have this strong commitment, which I support, to increasing the number of graduates. But—I say this from sensitive experience of trying to get someone to fit a floor, or to do some plastering or plumbing in my house—in our society the number of good craftsmen may be a touch shorter than that of graduates. In short, our society is distinctive not only in its approach to education but also in the way that we have not developed, as so many other countries have, a well-developed cadre of craftsmen and technicians. It is a fundamental weakness in the economy. The lack of a good scheme is a fundamental weakness in our arrangements for providing opportunities for all our young people to engage in developing themselves through training and education. We must have another highway for those youngsters who may not have academic talents or a taste for continuing in full-time education. Unless we have, we are wasting their talents.

What are people saying about our present modern apprenticeships? The Cassels committee reports that they are poorly known about or understood; they are inconsistent in delivery; poorly managed; in the minds of employers they involve too much bureaucracy. I have also seen it argued that they may lack an adequate entitlement to education during the apprenticeship period.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 627

Research undertaken for the committee demonstrates that while many people know in general terms that there is this thing called a modern apprenticeship, when it comes down to detailed knowledge, that is not the picture. Eighty per cent of teachers have said that it is a lack of knowledge and adequate information that is likely to have been a barrier to the take up of apprenticeships by young people. Market research through focus groups of pupils has shown that they are generally regarded as a poor alternative to staying on in full-time education even though some groups of students thought that they might be unable to cope with A-levels. Young people pursuing modern apprenticeships wanted them to be more widely known and respected. We have a big problem.

The committee made a battery of proposals but this is not the occasion to go into a long recital of them. I wish to mention a few of the key ones in order to promote knowledge of them. To raise the standard and the esteem in which they are held, the committee recommends the establishment of a national framework of apprenticeships which provide clear statements of their basic content and duration at two levels, foundation and advanced, with a national system for the award of diplomas by the national training organisations. There should be opportunities to progress from the advanced level into higher education and to an associate degree or perhaps a full degree. In other words, the committee recommends that there should be a national framework—a highway—for those who do not continue in full-time education but want to earn and learn.

There should be proper apprenticeship agreements between the employer and the apprentice in all cases, including an individual training plan providing for both on-the-job training with the employer and off-the-job learning subject to external circumstances. I could go on because I have quite a list, but I shall not.

Noble Lords should read the report because it contains good material. It goes so far as to ask whether we should be thinking about some objectives. Compared with the high figures for mainland Europe, as regards people between the ages of 25 and 28, 22 per cent have apprenticeship training. The Cassels committee is suggesting that we should aim for 28 per cent by 2004 and 35 per cent by 2010. Those are ambitious targets.

As I well know, as someone who has written the odd report or two, it is one thing to do that and another for anything to happen. The people to whom the Cassels committee is looking to make things happen are the Government, of course, and the learning and skills councils which they see as funding the out of work training, which is the formal learning. But perhaps only the Government can rouse the enthusiasm of the CBI, the chambers of commerce and the trades unions because it is from there that the great pull has to come. I am hoping that the Government will have as much passion for this form of learning as they have for the formal learning which takes place in our schools, colleges and universities. I know that they welcome

14 Nov 2001 : Column 628

this report. I hope that they will wish to say more in due course and to state specifically what they intend to do.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I, too, would like to thank my noble friend Lord Pilkington for securing this very important debate. Before making my contribution I ought to declare an interest as chairman of the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, which is the national training organisation for engineering manufacture.

Since being elected in 1997 this Government have sought to reform many aspects of the post-16 education structure and I welcome much of the work that has been done during that time in this area. The most significant has been the creation of the learning and skills councils replacing the TECs and the FEFC. The Careers Service has been replaced by what is called the Connexions Service and we have seen the introduction and then the suspension of individual learning accounts, the introduction and review of AS-levels and most recently an announcement that NTOs such as the EMTA are to be abolished and replaced by sector skills councils. I should perhaps refrain from commenting any more on the Government's plans for appointing sector skills councils since my own organisation is likely to be directly involved in that process.

It is the relatively new learning and skills councils on which I should like to concentrate my remarks. I hope that your Lordships will understand if my comments are geared towards the engineering sector. I do that for two reasons. First, it is an issue about which I feel very strongly and, secondly, I suggest that some of the reasons for the skills shortages that the sector faces and which the Government are so keen to address and rightly so.

At the outset I want to emphasise the importance of vocational education and the need for the learning and skills councils to ensure parity between the academic and college-based route on the one hand and the vocational route on the other. In the engineering sector the number of employees within engineering holding vocational qualifications is increasing. The number of those who hold vocational qualifications at higher or intermediate levels, degree level or above, has risen by 10 per cent in recent years. The number is now around 53 per cent.

That change mainly reflects the supply side of the labour market. There has been a rising level of educational attainment in the population. In particular there is an increasing number staying on in post compulsory education. But it also reflects the shift in the sector to higher level occupations. Despite the increase in the numbers taking the vocational route, the number of young people taking the apprenticeship route to which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, referred, in the engineering manufacture sector is not as high as we would wish and the completion rates are also considerably lower than we would wish.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 629

There are many reasons for the low take-up, but the main one is likely to be higher staying on rates at 16 combined with the poor image of engineering and work-based learning.

The problem we face is straightforward. The higher calibre potential apprentices opt to take further qualifications and are no doubt rightly encouraged to do so by their schools and colleges. But that is not helped by the relatively poor and, from my own perspective, occasionally somewhat biased careers advice and guidance on engineering and work-based training which is given to young people.

Young people following vocational studies in schools must be encouraged to consider the work-based route to qualifications as a worthwhile option. An apprenticeship in industry, with relevant part-time vocational educational support, is for many people a wholly desirable and preferable alternative to continuing in full-time education.

I should like to mention the reference in today's Financial Times to a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the value of vocational studies. Far from arguing that academic qualifications, particularly school-based qualifications, are much more valuable than vocational ones, the report suggests that those who achieve higher marks from the classroom experience actually perform better when taking vocational qualifications.

However, the cost of vocational training, especially in the engineering sector, is very much higher than in other sectors. For example, the average cost for someone going through a modern apprenticeship is between £28,000 and £40,000 compared with business administration where the cost is only about £8,000. These high levels of costs associated with these qualifications become more of a problem with the disproportionate funding arrangements of the various TECs throughout the country. The level of funding made available was a matter for the local TEC provider. Now the learning and skills councils have a more national approach.

It is my hope that the creation of the learning and skills councils will result in a more equitable funding regime. A national framework with no flexibility at local level and minimal autonomy is probably a move in the right direction.

But, as with all new beasts, the transitional period from one regime to a new one is proving costly for many training organisations, not least the group training associations, and some are facing the prospect of closure. The problem arises from the contracts negotiated with the TECs and the funding of these by the learning and skills councils.

Looking to the future, the engineering manufacture sector requires significantly more funding for 19 to 24 year-olds. Perhaps I may refer to some of the factors. As an NTO, EMTA is investing time, money and resources in promoting the vocational GCSE in engineering to ensure that sufficient young people are

14 Nov 2001 : Column 630

inspired to think about a career in engineering. The significance of our efforts lies in the ability to fund sufficient places in the 19 to 24 age group.

Secondly, the recent report by Sir John Cassels, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing—I pay tribute to Sir John, not only in regard to his report but in regard to his previous work as chairman of UK Skills, of which I have the honour to be a director—identified engineering as a leading sector in modern apprenticeships and cited it as a high-quality model, but one which is expensive to deliver.

Thirdly, Sir John Cassels set a figure of 35 per cent as the completion rate for modern apprenticeships. I suggest that that will be a difficult target to achieve given the attraction of the higher education and further education routes to many young people. The Government's target of a 50 per cent participation rate for 18 to 30 year-olds is an added problem. As Sir John also identified, there is a significant lack of funding for 19 to 24 year-olds looking to complete vocational qualifications, having failed in terms of the higher education or further education routes.

The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, referred at some length to the modern apprenticeship. I very much share his enthusiasm for that qualification. The modern apprenticeship is a raft of NVQs, brought together in a flexible way to meet the needs of the individual applicant, but above all to meet the needs of industry. In the first two or three years after the introduction of the modern apprenticeship, from 1995, the take-up rate increased acceptably. But in the past year or so it has levelled off to a considerable extent. I hope that, before long, once the economy lifts off again, the increase in the take-up rate of the modern apprenticeship will be resumed.

We may need to give the learning and skills councils the benefit of the doubt in the next few years as they get to grips with the tasks that face them. We shall need watch carefully to see how the LSCs respond to these issues.

I want to raise one final point; namely, the announcement by the Secretary of State that, by 2002, all training needs will be so-called framework training. This means that young people will no longer be able to undertake NVQs on their own. This detracts from the kind of flexibility that we are looking for in this area. I hope that the matter will be reviewed.

7.3 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for introducing this important subject.

Good teaching is not enough. I shall attempt to persuade your Lordships on three matters: first, that family support is of fundamental importance to successful education outcomes; secondly, flowing from that, that there is a strong case for more support for parents to encourage and sustain them in that task; finally, I want to address briefly the problems of those who do not have family support.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 631

To establish my first point, perhaps I may quote extensively from recent research. For example, a group of workers at Cambridge analysed data from the British Household Panel Survey based on the lives of 1,000 young people. Their findings include the following:

    "Contrary to the assumption that Britain is becoming less family centred and more individualistic, family matters are by far and away regarded by our young adolescents as the most important aspect of their lives. Family communication and support matter enormously for whether young people are making a success of their lives".

The study found that not only family background but also family interaction matters in tilting the odds in relation to the risky behaviour of young people and their success in education.

A study at the City University found that:

    "the influence of socio-economic adversity is largely mediated through the material resources available to the family. Teenagers growing up in households where they had no room of their own, or possibly even a desk or table to do their homework, were less likely to do well in school. Over-crowded accommodation, frequent house moves, and shared use of facilities represent the sort of disadvantage that increases the risk of poor academic achievement, behavioural problems, poor health and ultimately adjustment problems in adulthood".

A study by the School of Social Sciences at the University of Teesside found the following:

    "Despite the current rhetoric about a parenting deficit, most parents, whatever their circumstances, want to do their best for their children. With regard to education, numerous state initiatives recognise and attempt to harness this familial value. More significantly, the individualisation and commodification of learning is rendering family support increasingly critical. In consequence, differences in family supports raise issues of social policy, not just of social inequality but also in equality of opportunity".

Finally, a Leeds university study concluded, in relation to the type of support that young people receive:

    "Financial support from parents is irregular, discretionary and negotiated.

    "Only about 10% of parents made regular monthly payments to their children aged 16-25".

It goes on to state:

    "Families play a pivotal role in many unemployed young people's lives. Sudden drops in income due to unemployment enforced reliance on parental assistance. Parents lend money and provide free board and lodging. They and the wider family endeavour to keep young people involved in social and family networks, often providing them with the financial means to do this. However, reliance on parents was seen as a forced choice. Many unemployed young people were concerned about being dependent because their parents were themselves on low incomes. Although most parents appeared willing to give financial and material help to their young adult offspring, they were not always able to do so".

All those statistics and studies, and many others, point to the conclusion that parents and the state must work together if we want to achieve, in the national interest, good educational outcomes for 16 to 25 year-olds. It goes without saying that, without such education, young people will have little hope in life and society will be the poorer.

Families are the guardians of the social capital. As I have shown, they can make an enormous difference to the educational attainment of children. So surely the

14 Nov 2001 : Column 632

state ought to do more to support parents with post-16 children in education or training. Will the Minister draw the attention of her right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the advantages of this excellent investment?

I now turn briefly my third and final point. What about those 16 to 25 year-olds who do not have a functional, supportive family? What are their chances of getting further education and training? Unless they get help, I fear that their chances are slim indeed.

Some succeed against all the odds simply through their personality and determination, but many more could succeed if they had more help. What kind of help do they need? They need, in essence, someone to replace the support they would have had from their family. It has to be said that it is a waste of time offering the best education and the best teaching in the world unless young people have that support. They need some way to acquire the means they need to live on and the money they need to live on. They need somewhere to belong. Housing is all very well but what they need is a surrogate home. They need motivation, hope, self-confidence and courage to believe that they can win through.

My wife is chairman of a charity, one of the departments of which is called "Moving Forward". It operates in Kent from Margate through to Dartford. In each centre there is a key worker who goes out on the streets, is known in the area and has a small room or office somewhere near the centre. That person seeks out young people who are lost, excluded and disadvantaged and are not "connecting". In most of the places where the charity operates it also has a drop-in centre. The key worker invites the young person back for a cup of coffee and asks him or her whether they want somewhere to live. The young person replies, "That would be marvellous". The key worker says, "All right, you can have somewhere to live. We shall help you but you must also help us". They negotiate a contract by which the young person agrees to undertake training and to try to be a responsible tenant of the accommodation which is provided. The key worker works with that young person. Sometimes in the first few weeks he or she may have to visit that young person every day. But gradually the young person learns to be a householder and a responsible tenant. They probably fall down on their training and need to be picked up again in a way that parents would do if they had parents. They have the drop-in centre as a centre of belonging. The process works.

That may not be the only formula. An enormous amount of resources, effort and dedication would be needed to extend that service across the country, but it might be a good investment. The kind of education or training which is offered also matters. It must seem relevant to the young person and attainable. It must also be delivered by people the young person respects. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, referred to apprenticeships. I believe that is one route by which young people can work alongside adults they respect. Let us face it, the kind of young people I am talking about do not necessarily respect academics.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 633

Backed by educational support of that kind and given hope, many young men and women will try hard to make up lost ground. Frankly, I cannot see how the right kind of help can be given to all those young people who need it without substantial support from the taxpayer. Can the Government give any hope that this important gateway to education will be open to young people, especially those who do not have family support?

7.14 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Pilkington for giving us the opportunity of this debate. I hope indeed that we are in for a few years of debate. We have had some fairly radical changes in post-16 education and I think a period now of gradual change but, above all, a great deal of discussion and analysis would be a good precedent to set for the way we move on education in this country.

My noble friend Lord Pilkington is quite right to say that we really ought to take a close look at what is happening overseas, or even overland. The Scots are tackling this same problem. However, we do not seem to be paying much attention to what they are doing. There are some interesting things going on in Europe, as opposed to just the systems that exist there. The ways the Europeans are looking at changing their systems are also extremely interesting. I hope that we shall have the benefit of other occasions when people who know about them—I do not claim to know about them in sufficient detail—will be able to tell us what the current thinking is in the likes of France, Germany and Italy. That might inform the way we look to make the next major change in this area which may be five or 10 years ahead of us.

In that context I am terribly disappointed that there are no contributions in this debate from Back-Bench Labour or Back-Bench Liberals. I have benefited a great deal in the past from listening to my colleagues on those Benches. It is sad that they are not here today. I hope that that will not be the case on future education debates. We are all the poorer for it and it does not show those parties off in a good light.

I shall tackle a couple of fairly minor points first. This debate is about post-16 education. I should like to get away from the "16" in that. The more I see schools, the way results come through and the pressures put on schools, the more I think it is better to think in terms of a year group. There are many reasons why a kid might in the course of 12 years of education slip a year behind. It may just be some hiatus in their life or they may have some degree of special educational need which requires some intensive attention at some point in their career. But one of the most enduring educational statistics is that those who come to school younger—those who are the young starters rather than those who start school almost a year older—just because of their birthdays do about half a grade worse at A-level.

That has been the case in every single year's statistics I have looked at and I am sure that it is the case now. We must look at a more flexible system

14 Nov 2001 : Column 634

where we do not just disadvantage kids because they are born in August. We should allow them, if it is right, to drop back a year. The main disincentive to that at the moment and to schools being allowed to look at the kid rather than look at the system is the fact that we report the GCSE results as age 16 rather than as a year group. We need to look at that point. It is starting to have a larger and larger effect on the way schools treat kids as there are fewer and fewer other things to do to improve one's league table position which is something that schools and parents still care about.

I should like to hear the Minister comment on the way the LSC is developing its thinking on school sixth forms. I am starting to hear some things that concern me. I do not know the truth of the matter so perhaps the Minister will be able to inform me. I hear that there is a proposal to reserve 15 per cent of A-level funding and pay it only if the child passes the examination. That would be a very bad precedent to set and I hope that that is wrong. I am also told that the LSC is considering taking powers or using powers to forbid a school to offer a subject at A-level if only one or two kids wish to study it. The LSC considers that that is uneconomic and that schools should not do it. I hope that schools will be allowed to take those decisions. I am also told that there are worries that the LSC will compel schools to combine sixth forms with those of neighbouring schools and will not allow that to be a free decision on the part of schools. I hope that I am wrong and I should very much like to be given some comfort from the Minister on that matter.

I turn to two subjects which I hope we shall allow ourselves to think about over the years. The first subject involves breadth. The changes that have been made and the principles that lie behind AS-levels were right. My daughter, who is now 17, benefited enormously from being able to continue two extra subjects at AS-level. There was a chaotic start, and it was a hard year for her but a good principle is involved and it is a good route to have gone down. I regret the loss of what would otherwise have been done during her first-year sixth—all the external broadening has been much compressed. We should not lose that; part of what makes people interesting human beings is that they are not just educated but grow in understanding and enjoyment of the world outside education.

We should look closely at the IB—the international baccalaureate—not least because Nick Tate appears to be taking it up. Having devised AS-levels, he is now said to be putting the IB into Winchester. It is a respected examination—it provides more breadth, albeit perhaps only for the more academic portion of a school. We should not reject it or turn our backs on it just because we did not invent it here. We should also examine the way in which SATs have evolved in the United States. American parents who work in London for a period and who then go backwards and forwards between the United States and this country say to me that the main difference between an 18 year-old English kid and an 18 year-old American is that the English kid knows more but that the American kid understands more. We should not forget that although

14 Nov 2001 : Column 635

it is important to get the answer it is also important to understand the answer. Other systems secure that better than ours does.

I turn to the last but perhaps most important area; namely, vocational education. I very much enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, who is going down entirely the right route. It is important that vocational education should enjoy parity of esteem with academic education. The roots of that approach have to begin in secondary school. Kids have to see vocational education as an equally valuable option. As the noble Lord said, there should not be a one-way division; one has to be able to find one's way back to the academic approach if that is right.

We have to do what has been done so successfully in Singapore, where many of those who take the vocational route will end up founding and running big companies. People who take the vocational route should have access to the basic academic skills and some of the academic breadth that make it possible for them to hold their own in the company of those who took the academic route. The fact that kids are doing carpentry, for example, is no reason why they should be cut off from culture, history or whatever else interests them about the world.

We must recognise that if we do not seriously give children a choice between the academic and vocational routes, many of the kids who end up in university will end up doing the wrong courses for the wrong reasons; they will accumulate very large debts obtaining a skill that is of no use to them. They would have been much better served if they had gone down a different route.

7.23 p.m.

The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, we are again indebted to my noble friend Lord Pilkington for pointing out the importance of education. This is a very timely debate, in which I must declare two interests: first, I am the president of the Institute for Supervision and Management; and secondly—and more crucially—I am the father of an 18 year-old son, who has just endured AS-levels and who is now studying for his A-levels.

I want to make the shortest of interventions—I shall make three very brief points. I start with the quite sad AS-levels. I do so with the bitter experience of having seen my son and his friends battle with them. The introduction of the AS-level has placed an unrecognisable burden on pupils in year 12. That should be a year of learning that should be for trained thought rather than for facing the quite unrealistic demands of AS-level exams. That was particularly true in the case of people such as my son, who suffers from dyslexia.

My second point relates to the rubric on examination papers. I was horrified to see a mock examination paper that was prepared by one of the awarding bodies for art A-level. So unclear were the instructions that they should have been submitted to the Plain English Campaign for scrutiny. For a boy suffering from dyslexia, understanding the instructions has affected in

14 Nov 2001 : Column 636

a major way his chances of achieving the innovative section of the practical in that exam. That consideration must also apply to others.

My third point relates to vocational education and training. It is not enough for us to say that there should be parity of esteem between the academic and vocational routes. The vocational route should not be considered a second-class option. If we are serious about addressing the skills shortage, particularly in disciplines such as engineering and IT, we need to make those subjects attractive to a much wider range of people.

I listened with great interest to the speech of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, who is not currently in his place. I have known of his organisation, the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, for several years and I appreciate his reluctance to address the issue of sector skills councils. However, having read the recent policy guidance, I trust that in replacing NTOs—I accept the Government's wish not to simply re-brand NTOs—the Government will not fall into the trap of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I also hope that organisations such as the Engineering and Marine Training Authority will be licensed as one of the sector skills councils.

7.27 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, I add my thanks to those that noble Lords have already extended to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for initiating this debate. I take it that "post-16 education" includes higher education. I shall concentrate on that, although other noble Lords have not attended this debate with the intention of discussing that sector.

I start by quoting from a speech that was made by Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, on 22nd October. She said:

    "Over the last ten to twenty years, the higher education system has seen a huge shift from being an elite to a mass system, but without anyone necessarily thinking strategically about what we want universities to be achieving. As we expand further we need to give this more thought".

What an astonishing admission; but one which, I fear, is all too true. We saw another example of it in the latest U-turn over funding. It was tuition fees yesterday and graduate tax today; what tomorrow? How wonderful the response of the Secretary of State to this anarchic process of policy-making has been. I repeat that she said:

    "As we expand further we need to give this more thought".

I am the last person to object to more thinking, but would it not have been better to have done the thinking before the expansion? Even now, would it not be better to say, "Well, let us halt the expansion while we do some more thinking; then we will decide how much further we want to carry the expansion"? But no; the Government were already committed to the target of getting 50 per cent of the population who are under 30 into higher education by 2010. This year's expansion of 5.5 per cent has been welcomed by the Secretary of State. She said,

    "we are well on our way".

Well on our way to what?

14 Nov 2001 : Column 637

I fear that the Government have only one purpose: to increase access to higher education by young people from unskilled and manual working class backgrounds. The Secretary of State has said that,

    "none of us can defend the position"

whereby only 14 per cent of such young people go into higher education compared with 74 per cent from professional grounds. She adds that,

    "that gap has not narrowed in recent times".

I leave aside the fact that the figures do not add up; 74 per cent and 14 per cent make 98 per cent. I do not know what has happened to the remaining 2 per cent.

I agree that there is a waste of talent at the lower end, but that is subject to two qualifications. First, we must remember that the proportion of the manual working class in the population as a whole has been constantly shrinking so that there is much less waste in quantitative terms than 20 or 30 years ago. Access has been continually widening. Secondly, it is far from clear that universities are the best places for all young people to acquire the skills needed in a modern economy. That point has been made by the noble Lords, Lord Pilkington and Lord Dearing, and other contributors. Germany has a lower participation ratio in higher education but a more skilled labour force than the UK.

We have not started to think about what we are doing to the distinctive function of universities by making them the top tier of the school system rather than places which offer specifically academic education for those with the aptitude to benefit from it. Of course the Secretary of State makes the right noises. The universities are to have a

    "rich complexity of differing missions"


    "expansion must be achieved without any compromise on excellence and quality".

I fear that they are noises. A diversity of missions cannot be achieved without unequal funding. As the late Lord Beloff used to say, it costs more to produce a Rolls-Royce than a Mini.

The pass on excellence and quality has already been sold. Pace Kingsley Amis, more need not have meant worse, but it has meant worse because ever since the 1980s governments have underfunded university expansion and failed to protect the international status of our best universities. I give just two figures which are well known to anyone who has taken part in these debates. First, the level of public funding per student fell by 50 per cent between 1980 and 1999, resulting in a rise in the student:staff ratio from 9.1 per cent to 17.1 per cent. Secondly, since 1980 the average pay of academic staff has increased by only 70 per cent of average non-manual pay in the economy and 80 per cent of public sector pay. This makes it more difficult to recruit and retain academic staff in competition with other academic jobs not only in this country but abroad, particularly in the United States. The attempt to keep up quality in face of declining relative pay and conditions has led to increasingly intrusive regulation of both research and teaching.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 638

Despite all the fine words of the Secretary of State, the Government have not begun to address the problem of the underfunding of higher education. All government funding initiatives going back to the 1990s have been designed to save the Government money without increasing the total amount of money flowing into the university system. For example, a couple of years ago the Government graciously allowed universities to charge students £1,000 tuition fees, and promptly clawed back most of it by economising on the block grant. Now the talk is of replacing tuition fees and reintroducing maintenance grants by means of a graduate tax. What do we think about that?

Mr Martin Wolf writing in the Financial Times on 29th October made four devastating criticisms of the graduate tax proposal, which I hope the Government will take into account in their review. First, it would bring no new money into the universities; secondly, it would reinforce the crippling dependence of the universities on the whims of government; thirdly, unlike market-led user charges it would create no cross-related incentives for either students or universities; and, fourthly, university graduates already pay for the benefits of their education through taxes. Therefore, one is simply introducing an extra tax.

The purpose of the rethink on tuition fees appears to be confined to only one matter: the removal of the deterrent effect on poor students of embarking on higher education. But, as Mr Wolf points out, this could best be done by targeted schemes of maintenance grants and tuition scholarships.

There are only two ways to get more money into the university system: either the taxpayer must pay a lot more to restore "excellence and quality" and then maintain them as expansion continues, or universities themselves must be allowed to charge market prices for their courses without being under constant threat of having their existing level of grants reduced pro rata. My instinct is to support the second of these two alternatives because I do not believe that predominant reliance on public funding, even on a more generous scale, will protect the best universities from an inexorable process of dumming down. In others words, I do not believe that public funding can be differentiated enough—the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, was very keen on that differentiation—to protect the best.

All the forces of egalitarianism will push towards uniform provision, just as they do in the school system. It will be called levelling up, but I fear that it will be levelling down. There is a trade-off between equality and the distinctive things that universities stand for: excellence, freedom and truth. The existence of that trade-off is best recognised by a system of mixed public/private funding. I hope that we move in that direction. I fear that unless the Secretary of State grasps this nettle she will bring no more comfort to higher education than her predecessors have done.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I too compliment my noble friend on securing this debate. As we are all aware, he has devoted his life to the cause

14 Nov 2001 : Column 639

of education. I hope that the Government will heed his words and those of other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, for introducing the subject of university education. I must declare a very honourable interest as president of the University of Wales College of Medicine. That is an excellent college which enjoys a high reputation for medical research and teaching. It is a national institution in Wales. Although the college is centred on the University of Wales Hospital at Cardiff, it is connected with the rest of the university sector through training placements with hospitals and GPs throughout the Principality.

My remarks will be largely about the difficulties being encountered in providing higher education in that all-important area of health and medicine. The University of Wales, including our college, is now the responsibility of the National Assembly which is conducting its own review of higher education, but the problems that I shall describe are not confined to Wales and are prevalent in other medical schools in England. We should not forget that health and medical students numerically represent some 12½ per cent of the higher education sector in the United Kingdom.

It is hardly necessary for me to stress the importance to the NHS of all kinds of medical education. The NHS is dependent on our medical schools for the majority of its front line health care professionals. It goes without saying that we cannot hope to have a first-class health service without a steady inflow of first-class graduates from our medical schools.

The Government recognise the basic needs of the NHS in human resource terms. They have increased substantially the number of student places available in recent years. But, quite frankly, that is not enough. There are currently grave concerns about whether the places available can be filled. The number of applicants for medicine and dentistry has fallen sharply by some 16 per cent in the five years between 1995 and 2000, and there have been even greater falls in some subsidiary areas. I understand that several medical schools had to go through clearing at UCAS to fill places for this academic year. Other professions—physiotherapy, radiography and occupational therapy—are also threatened by a dearth of applicants for entry to them. We are losing rather than gaining ground. The question is: why? Universities UK sums up the matter by stating:

    "It, therefore, seems medicine might have become a less attractive career to prospective students. This might be because it is perceived to be only for high academic achievers or because the longer term career prospects and working conditions are not attractive to young people".

Let me consider that in the context of the microcosm of my own college. That college has been asked to take another 100 students on top of the 350 that we already have. Of course we shall respond positively to that. But our capacity, along with that of the other higher education institutions in Wales with which we collaborate closely, has reached saturation point. We badly need more investment in student accommodation and ancillary facilities of the quality that will attract students in this day and age.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 640

Medical courses are of longer duration than other academic courses and require a strong sense of vocation as well as dedication to complete. That may be a factor which accounts for the fall in the number of applicants for places at medical schools along with lack of financial support, the prospect of debt and the prospect of more lucrative rewards offered by other careers.

I am told that the National Assembly for Wales may try to follow the Scottish proposal which provides that tuition fees are paid at the end of higher education courses rather than as they proceed. Again I refer to the views of Universities UK. It quite rightly states:

    "There's also a lot of confusion about tuition fees. Too many people from lower socio-economic groups believe they have to pay these fees when most will be completely exempt from them. [It is a fact that] 50 per cent of all students will pay nothing at all towards the costs of their higher education".

Its statement goes on:

    "Universities UK is opposed to scrapping tuition fees. We believe that those who can afford to make an upfront contribution to the costs of their higher education should do so. Universities rely on this substantial income stream and any radical change in this system would jeopardise their financial stability, unless the government was prepared to fill this gap in income completely".

It is not just the fall in student applications that is causing concern. There is also a shortage of high-quality teaching and research staff. There were no fewer than 79 vacant professorial chairs in medical schools according to a recent survey by the Council of Heads of Medical Schools.

I regard that as a dismal situation under a Government that promised to give a high priority to education and to increase education spending as a proportion of national income. Their failure to fulfil their promises and the deteriorating position we are faced with will have devastating consequences. I have concentrated on the health field, but of course there are other areas of our national life which will be similarly adversely affected by a lack of investment in higher education.

I strongly advise the Government, in their own interests and those of the NHS, to consider the situation very carefully if they want to ensure for the future that we have an adequate supply of frontline staff in the NHS. A holistic approach is certainly required which takes account not only of the maintenance of student numbers but the overall quality of the institutions where we educate them.

Finally, I agree with a substantial amount of the statement by Universities UK that:

    "It is crucial that [in] any shake-up in student support funding is not achieved at the expense of universities. Universities UK will be making it very clear in our submission to the forthcoming spending review that we need significant additional investment in our universities to ensure that the students we want to attract are being well served. We have world class provision that will be in jeopardy if we don't get new money for teaching infrastructure, and student support services".

That very adequately sums up the case that I have sought to make.

I should have liked to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, into the area of apprenticeship schemes and vocational education generally. That is an area which

14 Nov 2001 : Column 641

has lacked attention over a number of years. I have profound sympathy with those young people who are not academically qualified and cannot have the kind of university higher education that we have been talking about, but who certainly deserve the very best by way of vocational education according to their abilities and the country's needs.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I first must apologise for not having had my name down in time to appear on the main list. That is my fault. I shall in future always check more carefully.

I want to refer to an area which has not so far been touched on in the debate; that is, post-16 education for a group of disabled people where education means education in life skills. We have heard much talk about examinations and so on, and about preparing people for work and for going on to university. There are two groups which have inspired me to make this intervention. The first group is those with learning disabilities. I have received briefing information from Mencap. The second group are those with autism and autism spectrum. These groups actually need support and help from colleges—an ongoing process from their schooling days—in such things as life skills.

I shall not bore noble Lords with a second-hand badly regurgitated definition of autism, but basically autistics are people who have problems relating to the outside world. They have terrible trouble socialising. One must teach those with autism about those little white lies that one must use in society. For example, if someone asks whether they look nice, one does not tell them the truth every time. Another example is that if a person has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, he must be told that he should not talk about his obsession with maps or timetables for several hours.

Training for people with autistic conditions is valuable since it could well be directed at those with considerable academic achievement. What they need, provided within their colleges, is help and training to cope with day to day life processes. If such students do not receive any training, they may well be incapable of leaving home, becoming increasing burdens on ageing parents and, once those parents are no longer there, becoming terribly isolated and in need of institutionalisation.

For very different reasons, Mencap has drawn attention to a similar situation in its field. The charity has commented that considerable improvements have been made in this area, but also highlighted the following problem:

    "There is some evidence to suggest that despite the changes brought about by the Learning and Skills Act . . . some providers are still fixated by the belief that all learning has to lead to some form of accreditation in order for it to be funded. This is not the case and it is unhelpful for this myth to be still current".

We need to take into account that that opinion is supported in the Government White Paper, Valuing People, published by the Department of Health.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 642

Whenever I contribute to a debate, I seem always to return to the promise of joined-up government. This problem has been brought forward again and again. We need to reach a point where colleges are encouraged to take on life skills training roles, even though the results will not appear on any league tables or earn a qualification or form of accreditation. Unless the Government can take the lead and offer guidance in this area, then we may well be letting down a sizeable percentage of the population, affecting not only the people directly involved, but also their parents and wider families.

7.51 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, for introducing the debate. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford, who is in Bosnia this week, will be sorry to have missed it. I am also quite sure that she would have heartily endorsed the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, as regards the salary levels of university teachers. Although the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, is broad, as has been demonstrated by the wide range of points that have been made, in the main I intend to confine my remarks to provision for the 16 to 19 year-old age range.

It has to be said that the changes that have taken place in the post-16 curriculum over the past couple of years have not met with universal acclaim. In fact, I think that I can safely say that they have attracted major criticism from every interested group.

Liberal Democrats want to see a structure where access, inclusion, participation, breadth and quality are the standards by which the system is judged. Students in schools, sixth-form and FE colleges, as well as the modern apprenticeships advocated by the noble Lords, Lord Dearing and Lord Trefgarne, all need a flexible, credit-based system which recognises that not everyone will go on to university and in which credits can be accumulated and transferred between courses. We applaud the Government's attempt to bridge the gap between the academic and vocational strands of post-16 education, but recently I heard one head teacher describe what has been done to the curriculum for 16 to 19 year-olds as nothing less than a tragedy.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, that the effect of the introduction of AS-levels has not been to broaden the sixth-form curriculum but, in many cases, has had the opposite effect. I have been approached by the parents of sixth-formers in great distress about the state of their children. The parents report that their children are not having any fun because they do not have the time to participate in any of the enriching activities which are so important at that age. When a student is taking four AS-levels, plus PSE, RE and careers advice, that takes up 40 out of 50 periods. They then have to undertake private study, research and homework. When do they take up music? Where is the time for drama? How can they find time

14 Nov 2001 : Column 643

for sport or the Young Enterprise Scheme? The uptake of general studies, a genuinely broad exam subject, has already fallen.

The present generation of sixth-formers are the guinea pigs for a policy that has not been thought through. I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House whether her department has looked seriously at the possibility of evolving the current system into a baccalaureate-style scheme, based on the widely recognised, well-established and broad-based qualification. The National Assembly for Wales is leading the way. It is piloting a Welsh baccalaureate quite different from the French version which will be interesting to watch. Students will be able to choose either an academic or a vocational route, each providing core subjects and an element of choice that allows for the beginnings of a specialisation. The idea was a key pledge of the Liberal Democrat 1999 manifesto for the Welsh Assembly with a view to providing equal recognition of academic and vocational qualifications in post-16 examinations. I look forward to the evaluation with great interest.

I turn now to the matter of planning and funding post-16 education. While it makes sense for the Learning and Skills Council to plan for provision across regions, the level of funding of students in the different establishments providing for them is a matter of great concern. One might have hoped that the discrepancy between FE colleges and schools could have been levelled up rather than down. In fact, funding appears to have reduced across the board for new students in both sectors. Until now, school places have averaged an annual £3,500 per place, while FE places have averaged £3,050. In future, both will receive only £2,600 for each new student, which represents a serious real-terms decrease, despite all the reassurances given by the Government when the Learning and Skills Act 2000 was going through Parliament.

Although funding has been guaranteed for the first 16 months, growing sixth forms and FE colleges will lose out. The 3 per cent built-in inflation figure is likely to prove inadequate. I shall give an example: in one sixth form that I know of, last year the LEA built in a 3.6 per cent inflation figure. If, next year, the teachers' pay settlement is greater than 3 per cent, say 3.6 per cent, it would cost that school £50,000, or two teachers. Where is the incentive to expand the sixth form in that kind of system?

If the Government want schools to increase the magic figure of pupils gaining five A to C grade GCSEs and thereby gain access to the sixth form—as a precursor to their objective of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education—then I respectfully suggest that they are going about it the wrong way and are in great danger of shooting themselves in the foot.

It is disingenuous to assume that post-16 school funding can be disaggregated from that for 11 to 16 years. The Government have redirected funding to key stage 3, which all would agree demanded attention. However, if sixth-form funding is cut, schools will

14 Nov 2001 : Column 644

support their sixth forms from the rest of the budget. That will threaten the Government's own targets for the remainder of the school.

No one pretends that the funding formula matches the reality on the ground. It is only a means of allocating a global figure. For example, my local comprehensive school spends double its allocation on support staff, as do many schools. However, the Government cannot give schools the power to deploy budgets as they see fit and then complain about how that is done. Government-imposed targets in one area will always have an impact on another area unless both are adequately funded, since naturally all schools will try to reach the targets.

The bottom line is this: is the global figure big enough to provide the right quality of education for children? In opposition, the Labour Party committed itself to wholesale reform of local government funding, but that has not happened. The system presents particular problems for those at the bottom of the league table for LEA funding. While a small cut in the per capita allowance for sixth formers may not present quite such a problem for those at the top of the list, it is certainly more than a challenge for those counties at the bottom, such as my own home county of Cheshire, where schools have no slack in their budgets. Where the global figure is so inadequate, a cut of the order that I have described can be enough to put a school's budget into deficit.

No doubt the Minister will tell noble Lords about the millions of pounds of extra funding that the Government are putting into schools, but much of that is not available to moderately successful schools in areas where the percentage of free school meals is low. Many examples can be cited of where the effects of ring-fenced funding have not been thought through. One school I encountered was delighted to receive funding for a great many new computers. However, that school has had to put aside £70,000 per year in order to cover the cost of technical assistance, maintenance and replacement of the equipment every four years. Where is that money coming from? I mention that case as an example of why schools cannot be expected to find extra moneys to make up the anticipated shortfall in sixth-form funding because of other pressures.

The chronic shortage of specialist teachers in certain national curriculum subjects has a disproportionate effect on students in the 16 to 19 age range. It is at the advanced levels in any subject that the lack of a degree in that subject matters most. Although this Government were highly critical of the previous government's failure to plan for an adequate supply of specialist teachers, they have failed to solve the problem themselves.

Secondary vacancies have trebled under this Government according to their own figures. There is now an army of supply teachers keeping our schools going. Wastage is high, teacher absence through illness is worryingly high, and the Government have seen fit to reduce their targets for the number of

14 Nov 2001 : Column 645

postgraduate teacher training places. Demographic changes notwithstanding, this is a staggering and unjustifiable strategy.

I now turn to the Cinderella of the education service, the further education sector. Further education colleges face enormous difficulties under this Government, and the Conservatives seem to have no policies to support them as only five months ago in the general election their manifesto did not mention further education at all.

I have mentioned already the cut in funding for places for 16 to 19 year-olds, but the suspension of individual learning accounts for adult learners, and the uncertainties about what will replace them, present a major problem for planners and managers in FE. The Government say that they want to cut red tape, and yet they allow 73 different funding streams and overcomplicate access to the standards fund, and there are major concerns about the way in which performance tables are compiled.

The level of service from the DfES is also of concern. There are currently 500,000 full-time equivalent 16 to 19 year-olds in FE colleges compared to 400,000 in schools, and yet the number of senior officials looking after policy in FE colleges does not appear to be proportionate. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how the numbers in the two sectors compare.

I end by urging the Government to pay particular attention to the 16 to 19 age range. It is the gateway to one of the Government's most ambitious objectives of increasing access to higher education. We must get it right. But I make a plea for no further changes or initiatives until there is widespread consultation and the whole scheme is fully thought through.

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Pilkington for the opportunity to debate this issue. He made some cogent criticisms of AS-levels, to which I shall return. It has been an excellent, if short, debate, which has touched on many aspects of 16-plus education.

It is not possible to discuss this subject without reference to one of the most serious teacher shortages in years—not only because of the number of vacancies, which is serious enough, but because of the unprecedented number of supply teachers who are being used to cover for the lack of full-time teachers. There is also a problem with the number of teachers who are teaching subjects for which they are not trained.

In so many answers by Ministers—here, in another place and, indeed, before Select Committees—on the issue of teacher shortages, there has been an air of complacency. So often one hears Ministers say that while there is more to do, and while we should not be complacent, there are nevertheless more teachers in post than ever before and the shortage represents only a small percentage of all posts.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 646

Any visit to schools will show that there is a real problem of teacher recruitment and retention. Even where vacancies are filled, it is frequently the case that schools have very little choice but to take the only applicant, or appoint one from a very small number of applicants. Over time, whether we like it or not, that is bound to affect standards.

For school-based 16-plus education, there is much anxiety. Let me say for the record that expressing concerns about school-based 16-plus education does not imply criticism of sixth-form colleges or further education, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I believe firmly in choice and diversity at 16-plus.

As to funding—to which reference has been made—since the setting up of the wholly unaccountable learning and skills councils there has been considerable anxiety about the future funding of sixth forms. There is little confidence in the Government's promise that sixth form funding would not suffer as a result of the introduction of learning and skills councils. The Government have introduced an incredibly bureaucratic system where the learning and skills councils pass money down to the local education authorities, and the local education authorities have then to struggle to pass it on to the sixth forms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, referred to the learning and skills councils concentrating solely on skills-based learning, perhaps at the expense of pure academic learning. I agree that there have to be pathways going in distinct directions, but one should be able to travel from one kind of education to another.

The future of sixth forms is at risk. There is a crisis of confidence in our schools about their future. Again it is believed that over time the learning and skills councils will favour the closure of school-based sixth forms, and the most vulnerable will be those in our rural communities.

In a Written Answer to my honourable friend Damian Green in another place, the Minister admitted that pupils who attend schools with sixth forms achieve better results than those who attend schools without them. Mr Ivan Lewis said:

    "The proportion of 15-year-olds that achieved five or more GCSEs at A* to C was (a) 52.2 per cent. in schools with sixth forms and (b) 42.2 per cent. in schools without sixth forms".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/11/01; col. 539W.]

Further pressures on school-based sixth forms have arisen through the far from trouble free introduction of AS-levels. The combination of GCSEs, GNVQs, AS and A-levels has presented problems of timetabling, overlapping of examinations and bunching of examinations at the end of the school year, and has created huge pressures on teachers and students. Whether or not they are right in principle, the advocation and the introduction of AS-levels has caused great stress.

The Government have created the worst of all worlds for students taking AS-levels. As my noble friend said, they do not necessarily broaden the

14 Nov 2001 : Column 647

experience of sixth formers and there is confusion about their value. Are students who fail AS-levels supposed to resit them in their final year?

What comfort is there for current year students who have heard Ministers admit that there are problems with AS-levels and who understand that they are being reviewed—and yet they continue to have to take them in this current year?

The former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Dr Nick Tate, admitted:

    "I don't think we fully thought out all the available options before we added a new tier of exams".

The National Association of Headteachers criticised the new A-level system in May. It complained that Curriculum 2000 is damaging students and schools. It conducted a straw poll among its members and found that 60 per cent believed that post-16 reforms were not working and that 40 per cent thought they were working only partially. The National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers warned that confusion over the new system is discouraging young people from entering the sixth form.

There has also been much criticism of the vocational qualification. The failure rate for the new vocational A-level is as high as 90 per cent in some subjects. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, said:

    "Vocational A levels have been ill-thought out. They have recast GNVQs in the same shape as A levels, adding another academic route rather than a good form of practical education for employment".

The Government have made much of life-long learning, and none of us can argue with that. But the individual learning accounts were introduced with a great flourish and, I am afraid, they have ended in tears. Only today, I received a press release from the Department for Education and Skills, in which the Minister, Mr Healey, took business leaders to task for not doing enough to tackle the problem of skill shortages. The press release stated:

    "The Adult Skills Minister John Healey...told business leaders that they needed to do much more to tackle the problem of skills shortages facing the economy. This follows"—

so the DfES states,

    "the publication of the 'Skills in England 2001' report, which showed that 1 in 10 employers had experienced the problem of skill shortages".

This is the very document that pledged to continue and expand the individual learning accounts, which was published only two days before the same department announced their suspension. That story beggars belief.

From the introduction of individual learning accounts, the department was warned of problems with the administration of the scheme. Hundreds of complaints were received every month. It is not good enough for the Government to claim both that the number of complaints was relatively small compared with the overall number of accounts awarded and that the problem was so severe that, with no warning or consultation, the scheme had to be abandoned.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 648

The tragedy of this sorry saga is that the genuine providers and students have been badly let down. Providers are going out of business and some are left with considerable debts. Students are being abandoned and jobs will be lost. Real training opportunities for those on low incomes, who would most have benefited from the scheme, will be lost to education and training. What scheme will replace the ILA and when will it be in place? Is there any chance that the bona fide providers, who are the great majority, can be thrown a lifeline?

What progress is being made on the student finance review? What is the timescale for the review? When is it envisaged that the new scheme will be in place? Who is to be consulted and how? If the proposals that were leaked recently in the press are to believed, students will continue to be equally disadvantaged. Because the review is to be carried out by officials, it is unlikely that there will be wide participation by external interested bodies. I hope that the Minister will be able to disabuse me of that view.

I have sympathy with the view expressed in a recent publication by the Institute of Directors, which touched on expansion in higher education. It stated:

    "The expansion of student numbers may have had beneficial consequences. For example, it has resulted in an increase in the proportion of well-educated people for business to employ and so has helped to ease skill shortages in some areas. On the other hand, the increase in student numbers may have adversely affected standards. Fears persist that some new degree programmes are not as demanding as the more traditional subjects. This is not a matter of arcane debate, for the present Government is committed to a further expansion of higher education. Following the Dearing Report, the Government announced that it wanted to see 50 per cent of those aged up to 30 receive higher education by 2010".

As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, the expansion of higher education does not necessarily address some of the key issues.

The institute also stated:

    "Clearly, British business needs a well-educated workforce in order to enhance its ability to compete. However, it does not follow from this that the UK needs more graduates, regardless of their academic discipline. Britain already has the highest proportion of 21 year olds graduating amongst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. According to the OECD, 35.6 per cent of people aged 21 graduated in 1999. By way of contrast, only 14 per cent of British employees have intermediate level vocational qualifications compared to 46 per cent of German employees".

The Government have pledged to expand access. Can we be certain that the funding will keep pace with the expansion? Are the Government convinced that the quality of higher education will not suffer? Are the Government not concerned about the number of young people drifting into higher education who would benefit much more from higher quality vocational training in further education or in the workplace? Are the Government satisfied with the quality of all degree courses? Do the Government accept that further education has much to offer young people, both in terms of high quality, sub-degree vocational education and in terms of providing education and training nearer to where students live, thereby avoiding mounting debt?

14 Nov 2001 : Column 649

The world beyond school is a tough and competitive place. For our country to compete successfully, the potential of all young people should be developed. The determination to expand higher education must not be at the expense of standards or of high quality vocational education and sub-degree courses in further education, which would be more appropriate for many students. Parity of esteem for all forms of education and training—academic and vocational—is also important. The important issues are the same for post-16 as for pre-16 education: provision should be appropriate to the educational needs, aptitudes and potential of every student. For the Government simply to say that they are spending more money misses the point of the debate. Greater professional freedom, academic freedom for our universities, flexibility, choice, quality and standards are the real issues.

8.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, this has been a most informative and constructive debate. I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for raising the issue of post-16 education. Our debate has ranged widely, from sixth form provision to apprenticeships, from further education colleges to adult learning provision. Along the way, noble Lords have been eloquent in their passion for education for all and their commitment to vibrant and high quality provision. I shall endeavour in the time allotted to me to demonstrate the Government's passion and commitment, as well, dare I say, as my own.

Noble Lords have asked many questions and I fear that I may not answer them all to your Lordships' satisfaction in the time available. To save your Lordships' time, I say at the outset that, in reviewing the debate tomorrow, I shall ensure that I write to any whose questions I have failed to answer. I am sure that noble Lords will not hesitate to notify me if they believe that I have answered inadequately.

Our objectives for learning from the age of 14—and for all children—are clear: to enable all young people to develop and to equip themselves with the skills, knowledge and personal qualities needed for life and work and to encourage and enable adults to learn, improve their skills and enrich their lives, especially those adults who lack basic skills.

We have made significant progress. Our strategy started with the early years of education, when children lay the foundations for learning throughout life. The results speak for themselves. Over the past three years, key stage 2 English results have improved by 10 percentage points and maths results by 12 percentage points.

That has helped to transform secondary education, where our key stage 3 strategy has resulted in a 3 per cent increase in maths and a 4 per cent increase in science scores. That translates to better GCSE results: more than 90 per cent of those at Level 6 and more than half of those at Level 5 go on to achieve five or

14 Nov 2001 : Column 650

more good GCSEs. The percentage of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs has risen by more than five percentage points since 1996.

We are developing a flexible and challenging 14 to 19 phase of education to deliver a solid foundation for skills training and development. We have almost trebled the number of modern apprentices in training since 1997. From April to August this year, the first 12 Connexions partnerships went live, assisting more than 400,000 young people. In September, 16 FE colleges launched pathfinder centres for vocational excellence, leading the way for another 150 colleges to follow from next April. As with specialist schools, that will benefit the learner and the locality by sharing good practice.

Increasing and broadening participation in higher education is fundamental to our vision for education. In September, we launched Excellence Challenge in schools and colleges, committing more than £190 million to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. Our e-universities project, which is taking forward higher education excellence in online form, took another step forward on 19th October with the establishment of an operating company, UK eUniversities Worldwide Ltd.

We are developing workforce skills, particularly the basic skills of the estimated 7 million adults with literacy and numeracy weaknesses, of whom up to half are in employment. From April to August this year, at least 70,000 learners achieved 105,000 literacy and numeracy qualifications. New national standards, national tests, core curriculums in literacy and numeracy and intensive teacher training are now available nationally after successful pilots in nine pathfinder areas. The Secretary of State launched the "Get On" promotion campaign on 30th August, encouraging all who need help with reading and writing to find it.

That describes the progress that we have made. I shall now deal specifically with the comments that have been made in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, talked about teacher shortages. I hope that I have made it clear in debates and in answering Questions in your Lordships' House that we are not complacent. We recognise that we have things to do, but we also recognise that we have increased the number of teachers coming into the profession and that we have put in place other measures that I have mentioned before in your Lordships' House. I shall not take time now to go over them again, but I would not wish any noble Lord to believe that we are in any way complacent.

A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, asked about AS-levels. Noble Lords will know that there were concerns, which I recognise, about the introduction of the examination. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to review the current working of the reformed programme. A full report is expected in December.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 651

The review shows that schools and colleges supported the principles underlying the reforms to AS-levels, but, as noble Lords said, concerns were expressed about assessment and the timetable. As a result of those concerns, action has been taken in relation to the way in which AS-levels will be administered. But I was pleased to hear that the daughter of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, felt that they were of benefit to her. As the right reverend Prelate said, there has been a difficult birth; we now need to make the system work.

It is important to understand that approximately 60 per cent of first-year sixth-form students have been studying at least four subjects this year. That compares with 10 per cent last year. Therefore, it is clear to me that we have done something to respond to the issues raised.

The point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, about the length of courses is also important. Our three-year HE courses are admired by other European countries. There is no strong pressure to increase the length of those courses and no government intention to do so. Indeed, we want to expand the number of new two-year foundation degrees. I shall refer to those again in a moment.

Accusations have been made of falling A-level standards. We must make very clear that the Government do not accept that A-level standards have fallen. We believe that our A-level students are successful and should be congratulated on the work that they do. However, we recognise that the way in which examinations are carried out changes. That is inevitable. There are different A-levels and different ways of assessing them. However, I do not accept that somehow the advances that have been made in relation to A-levels are a reflection on the standards. We have great students. They do great work and they work very hard. Their parents support them where they can. On that, we should congratulate them.

It is also worth reminding noble Lords that the first cohort of students taking AS-levels has not yet gone through university. However, we have involved university bodies fully in discussions about the development of new AS-levels and A-level reforms. In broadening the curriculum, our proposals have been generally welcomed.

I want to look carefully at the Learning and Skills Council. A number of noble Lords raised questions in this area. It is important to understand that the purpose of the new Learning and Skills Council is to ensure that reform in learning and skills development for young people and adults is both radical and enduring. It brings the promise of universal learning beyond compulsory schooling, with an integrated system of planning and funding for post-16 learning below higher education.

Setting up the Learning and Skills Council from 2nd April has been a massive task. The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, raised the issue of the transition and the difficulties involved. We have been trying to merge all post-16 planning and funding into a single organisation. We are confident that we have the right

14 Nov 2001 : Column 652

framework in place to ensure that the considerable sums invested in learning deliver real and demonstrable improvements in participation and achievement levels and in the quality of learning.

The right reverend Prelate raised the question of the links with partnerships. The LSC clearly recognises the need to develop and maintain effective collaboration with schools and churches in planning local 16 to 19 education provision. It is considering how to strengthen collaboration with, and representation of, schools and churches at national and local levels to ensure that they have a clear voice in the development of 16 to 19 reorganisation proposals. Our proposed legislation will ensure that the LSC consults fully with all local interests in developing proposals for 16 to 19 education.

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, referred to engineering courses. I pay tribute to the work that he does. As the Minister in the department who is responsible for Science and Engineering Year, I am particularly keen on the role that sector schools organisations may play in this matter.

The training and enterprise councils, whose birth I remember, were based on the private industry councils in the US, which I had the fortune to visit in the early 1980s. There were wide variations in funding levels and funding arrangements for the TECs, and that is something that we have tried to examine and deal with in setting up the Learning and Skills Council. There is a new national transparent funding system for work-based learning for young people aged 16 to 25. Funding levels have been adjusted to ensure that the costs are properly recognised in relation to higher cost areas, such as engineering.

It has always been our policy intention that 16 to 18 year-olds, who are relatively inexperienced and less mature, should be expected to take longer to learn—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in relation to schools—and that they will attract less support from employer contributions to training costs than the 19 to 25 age group. That is why there is a differential in public funding.

A number of noble Lords have talked about the relationship of the LSC with sixth forms. I begin by saying to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that no top-slicing of the sixth-form budget is allowed at LSC or LEA levels. Good sixth forms, whatever their size or location, will continue to play a vital role in post-16 learning. New funding arrangements will reinforce that. It is important that sixth forms provide a high quality experience for their pupils, including an adequate range of subject choices.

Our proposals for the Learning and Skills Council are not a threat to small sixth forms, which can collaborate effectively with other local providers. Noble Lords will have great experience of that collaboration in their localities. They will have seen the consortia that have enabled pupils, by working across schools, to gain a greater breadth of experience and opportunity. In answer to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, who, unfortunately, is not in her seat at present, we want to make it easier for 11

14 Nov 2001 : Column 653

to 16 schools with a good track record to extend their contribution by opening sixth forms. The criteria that we propose will ensure that new sixth forms will be viable and will build on existing strength in 11 to 16 learning.

We talked a little about the real terms guarantee and referred to the letter sent to Mr Harwood. The Government's real terms guarantee is designed to give schools with sixth forms an unprecedented guarantee that the funding for their sixth forms will be maintained in real terms so long as they maintain their pupil numbers. Once the guarantee has been met, the resources available will be used to raise the funding of sixth forms which are currently poorly funded. Well funded sixth forms will have their funding protected under the terms of the guarantee. In effect, schools will lose funding only if they lose pupil numbers. That has been the case within other parts of education for some time. We hope that that will provide some reassurance to those who are concerned about this matter.

Some concern has been expressed as to whether the Learning and Skills Council provides the most appropriate forum in which to look at students studying A-levels. The implication—in particular as suggested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke—was that A-levels were studied in schools. I want to bring to the attention of your Lordships that more students study A-levels in further education colleges than they do in sixth-form colleges. I believe that it is important to make that point. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, will accept that LSC funding for sixth forms has not decreased. Many sixth forms will gain from the new funding arrangements. I hope that she will accept that the real terms guarantee is worth something.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of bureaucracy in relation to the Learning and Skills Council. I hope that she will not mind if I refer her to the bureaucracy that existed with regard to the training and enterprise councils. We are trying to find a system that is less bureaucratic and easier to understand. That is part of the purpose behind the Learning and Skills Council.

I move on to the subject of vocational training. Again, I want to recognise the contribution made by the noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, in relation to EMTA. We are not yet in a position to determine what will be a sector skills council. However, I am sure that we shall be in touch with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who is the president of an organisation in this field.

Sector skills councils are important. They were announced on 16th October by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. They will build considerably on the successful aspects of current sector skills arrangements delivered by the national training organisations. As noble Lords may be aware, their focus will be on industry and business sectors. We want to see a new relationship develop between different sectors—business employers, government and public agencies.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 654

The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, referred to the future of training and to a framework for training. We are determined to raise the standards and improve the breadth of experience for young people who choose vocational training options. That must mean more emphasis on key skills, such as communication, the use of numbers and the better underpinning of knowledge and understanding. That is the intention behind our reforms of work-based learning.

The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, referred to specialist vocational colleges in the United States. He will no doubt be aware that those colleges combine vocational and general education in a single institution. Further education colleges in this country have a long tradition of providing technical and vocational training of young people and adults relevant to local and national employer needs. We are determined to strengthen that provision, and the additional resources that we have given to further education will, as I said, establish centres of vocational excellence in half of all general FE colleges by 2004.

I turn to higher education. Your Lordships will be fully aware of the review that is underway, which means that at present I cannot answer the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The department is in charge of the review; it will consult; a great deal of work is under way. I shall return to your Lordships' House as soon as I have more to say, and will endeavour to keep the noble Baroness and others informed of progress. I hope that that answer will be satisfactory. I am sorry that I cannot give her more information, but that is the nature of such reviews.

I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that we take seriously his comments about ensuring that expansion—which is important—is done with understanding and in discussion with universities to appraise what it necessary. I agree that universities are not the best place for all people, but I would not want anyone to assume that therefore children from lower socio-economic groupings do not belong there.

As noble Lords will be aware, 70 per cent of children from higher socio-economic groups go on to higher education, compared with between 13 per cent and 14 per cent from lower socio-economic groups. I am well aware that university is simply not on the horizon for some children who are perfectly capable, could do well and enrich their lives and our society. They simply lack the opportunities. It is incredibly important to ensure that all those who would benefit from university education have that opportunity.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, referred to medical and related courses. In general, such courses remain over-subscribed with good-quality candidates. Medical students receive more favourable student support arrangements, as the noble Lord will know. Students in professions allied to medicine retain a system of grants as well as loans, and have their tuition fees paid. Medical students receive the same arrangements after year four of their course. I accept what the noble Lord has said from his experience and from his experience in Wales. It is not the general

14 Nov 2001 : Column 655

experience, but I am sure that Universities UK, which he mentioned several times, will raise those points with us.

I turn briefly to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. I am pleased that he welcomes Sir John Cassels' report on modern apprenticeships; we also welcome its broad thrust. It builds on the Government's reforms to strengthen and expand modern apprenticeships and sets out practical steps to help to achieve our ambition of a world-class apprenticeship system. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Learning and Skills Council will respond to the report shortly. I fully endorse the concept that that forms part of the vocational ladder to higher education.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to individual learning accounts. Under that programme, 8,500 providers and 2.5 million people have taken part. That is concrete proof of how much people wanted that opportunity. We acted quickly. The number of complaints was low in terms of the overall number of people involved. Most complaints did not concern the issues about which we had to act. We acted in July: we advised learners to guard against pressure selling. In September, we withdrew all non-personalised application forms. In October, the number of complaints was 8,000—0.35 per cent of the 2.5 million account holders.

We have announced the withdrawal of the scheme from 7th December. All those who hold accounts can book courses until that time for some months beyond it. We recognise the issues for providers but this was a relationship between government and the learner, so we must be clear that that is our prime focus. However, my right honourable friend has said that we will endeavour to introduce a new system; and we will. As soon as I have more information on what and when that will be, I will be pleased to report it to your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised, as always with passion, the issue of disabled children. I was discussing them with some headteachers of special schools, who are concerned to ensure that life skills are part and parcel of our work. I should enjoy another conversation with the noble Lord on those issues, which are high on my agenda. I believe in joined-up government and inclusion for all children and young children to the enrichment of all young people.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke movingly about teenagers and issues for families. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is highly aware of those issues. We provide education maintenance allowances for 70,000 young people aged 16 to 19. We are, through after-school homework clubs, providing opportunities for young people.

I shall make two final points. On the curriculum, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn asked about religious education. We are committed to it; it lies within my portfolio. There is no question but that we are concerned with the spiritual welfare of children, which is important.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 656

For noble Lords who are worried about the breadth of the curriculum, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, said, children are candles to be lit. I am a passionate supporter of broad opportunities—not simply within the curriculum; we offer children much that goes beyond it. To answer the noble Baroness, Baroness Walmsley, UK education funding will rise from 5 per cent of gross domestic product this year to a forecast 5.3 per cent by 2003-04. Finally, I must tell her that it is not the number but the quality of officials that matters.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page