Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Sharp for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important matter today. There have been so many excellent and impassioned speeches in this debate that it is a great challenge for those of us winding to do it justice. I shall do my best.

My noble friend Lady Sharp referred to the Tomlinson report as the opportunity of a lifetime. It is therefore rather sad that so many concerns have been expressed very legitimately around the House today.

The world is becoming a much more competitive place for us. During the Industrial Revolution, the UK led the world in many respects. Nowadays we do not. The UK workplace is also becoming more competitive, even though we have a very high level of employment. That is why this subject is so vitally important to our future.

We face many problems, which the Tomlinson report sought to address. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, reminded us of the lack of engagement of so many young people in their education. The further education sector often needs to correct the failings of the school system in later life—that is, if the person concerned has enough energy and motivation to undertake it.

The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, reminded us of our skills shortage. We must remember that those who train for practical skills also need good English and maths abilities, in order to run a successful business. Any of your Lordships who have ever received an almost unintelligible estimate from a plumber or builder will realise that that is the case.
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1364
 

We have also been reminded that we have 20 per cent functional illiteracy in this country; 47 per cent of our children leave school without the target five A to C GCSEs. We do not really know how many leave without maths and English. Of course, 5 per cent leave without any qualifications at all.

We have been reminded about the lack of participation in post-16 education. Two noble Lords mentioned that we are in fact 24th out of 28 OECD countries for participation at sixth-form level in our schools. Perhaps today's Budget announcement will help to encourage more young people to stay on. I really hope so.

I was most interested in the description by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, of the increased flexibility programme, and the global citizenship initiative. These strike me as the sort of things that will give young people the sort of interest that might encourage them to stay on.

One of our problems is that our exam system is geared more to select for university than to prepare young people for the world of work. Businesses are constantly complaining about the shortcomings of the current system. We also, as my noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned, have a rather narrow sixth-form curriculum—one of the narrowest in the world. Some noble Lords have emphasised the benefits of the international baccalaureate, including the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who, with the noble Lord, Lord Moser, in his commission of 1993, has clearly been extremely visionary. It shows us, perhaps, that some of the things that Mike Tomlinson is proposing are not the result of new needs. Twelve years ago, that commission was talking about the need for breadth, saying that it is quite fundamental.

A-levels are not suitable for many young people. Even when they are, they do not sufficiently challenge many of those who take them. The response to this seems only to be the giving of a project, or an essay that enables the best students to show their ability. As we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, most able students also include many young people who have a vocational bent. We need in our society clever electricians, plumbers and builders and other people of that nature.

We were reminded by my noble friend Lady Sharp of the cost of external assessment, which is £610 million. But I suggest that the cost is also in the loss of creativity and innovation, when we find teachers teaching to the test.

Despite all those problems, many schools do absolutely excellent work. I enjoyed the account from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, of the single-sex schools in Islington, but I wonder what happens to girls who want to go into business and boys who want to go on the stage.

I believe that the Government have missed opportunities in responding to the Tomlinson report. After 25 years' experience—some of it, I understand, under the guidance of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland—Mike Tomlinson has offered a sensible and appropriate
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1365
 
set of proposals to address the problems that we face over a sensible timescale. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, commented that the report,

and warns against a piecemeal approach. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, agreed with Tomlinson in that, as do I.

First, I welcome the fact that the Government have now said that the five A to C grade targets will in future have to include English and maths. I welcome the fact that the general GCSE diploma will include those subjects and that the GCSE achievement and attainment tables will also include them. I mention the comments in today's media from Ivan Lewis MP, who talked about the need to "raise the bar" and the fact that the Government are being quite courageous in saying that they will do that because initially it might seem that the achievement levels are going down a little. Well, it just shows that there was very much a need to do that.

I also welcome the fact that in future pupils will be able to take exams when they are ready. Of course, a credit system would work very much better if children were allowed to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, was very enthusiastic about that aspect of the report. I also welcome the simplification of vocational qualifications.

But the proposed unified framework of achievement has been dismissed. According to the Government, the diploma framework will be retained only for vocational and work-based areas, and GCSEs have only been tinkered with. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, wants to keep the brand of GCSEs and A-levels. I think that, so long as we keep the content, there is no reason why we should not have the broader vision.

Tomlinson tried to address a fundamental cultural attitude towards vocational training and skills. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth talked about vocational training being seen as second class. He also talked about the need for continuation of religious education. I have to admit to having some sympathy with the right reverend Prelate. In our multicultural and multi-religious society, religious fundamentalism and the misunderstanding by advocates of one religion of the tenets of another religion cause us enormous problems.

I also welcome the fact that young people will be able to include community involvement in their achievement record in future. I remember how much I learnt from the community involvement that I had when I was in the sixth-form at school. I went to work for a lady who was bedridden with arthritis and who lived in a very deprived community. Apart from learning how to put a bet on at Aintree, which I certainly had not known how to do previously, I learnt a great deal about a society of which I knew absolutely nothing before.

But the problem is that the Government's response does nothing to bridge the divide between vocational and academic training and nor does it allow the kind of flexibility that we need. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, talked about the need for firm
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1366
 
foundations—I absolutely agree with her about early years education—but she suggested that it needs a certain solution. Perhaps another solution is flexibility. Wooden houses bend and give a little and they do not crack, and the same is true of trees. They bend with the wind rather than break. As a botanist, I am always quoting these analogies, but I think that that is what we need. We need flexibility. Tomlinson offered us that, and it is a pity that the Government have dismissed some of his major recommendations.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to speak from these Benches in this important and significant debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for initiating it and I greatly enjoyed the contributions of all noble Lords. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I found them imaginative and thought-provoking.

As many noble Lords have mentioned, encouraging greater participation and involvement in education is a challenge that none of us can ignore. We owe it to society and to our young people to do all that we can to address the very real problems that are acting as constraints in the present system.

To that end, the Tomlinson report is an important marker, and we must thank Sir Mike Tomlinson and his team for their enthusiasm and tenacity in drawing together an imaginative and creative report in a genuine and honest attempt to address the more entrenched weaknesses in the existing structure.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the report was the broad consensus that it achieved. All of us, it seemed, were in agreement that raising core literacy, numeracy and computer skills was vital, along with the need to encourage greater participation beyond the age of 16. We, for our part, stated clearly and unequivocally—this has been reinforced today by my noble friend Lord Lucas—that, while the Tomlinson report provided many invaluable suggestions for reforming 14 to 19 education, we did not agree with the proposal to abolish GCSEs and A-levels.

The Secretary of State, in her White Paper response to the Tomlinson report, now seems to agree with us, but she failed to offer any proposals for making A-levels more rigorous. In fact, she indicated that no changes would be made to the content of the exam at all. The White Paper stated the Government's plans to work with employers and universities to identify what, if anything, would add value to existing courses. But the Secretary of State does not plan even to consider making reforms until 2008. Our children deserve a quality education and should not have to wait until 2008 to get one.

We would also allow schools to offer other robust curricula, such as O-levels and the International Baccalaureate, as well as vocational qualifications. As my honourable friend Tim Collins said:


 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1367
 

It is disappointing that, after eight years and four Secretaries of State, Labour has just woken up to the crisis of confidence in our examination system. Far from the transparency that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, spoke of, it has created an opaque and devalued system that few would now seek to copy. I think that the noble Baroness called it a "dog's breakfast".

We share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, with regard to numeracy and literacy. So, in addition to our proposal to improve A-levels and GCSEs, we think that it is of crucial importance that receipt of a diploma will depend on passing externally examined literacy and numeracy tests. This measure will ensure that those who leave school possess the basic reading and maths skills that they will need to function in the wider world.

The CBI has stated that employers wish to see the standards of functional literacy and numeracy among school leavers raised—a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp—because they have been unacceptably poor under successive governments. It also reported that one in three companies has to provide remedial training for those who leave school without having mastered reading, writing and arithmetic. Its 2004 survey of 500 companies showed that 37 per cent were not satisfied with the numeracy and literacy standards of 16 year-olds, and a survey of vice-chancellors showed that 48 per cent have been forced to provide special lessons in literacy and numeracy for first-year students. Two-thirds stated that extra numeracy classes were now the norm. These facts and figures paint an unacceptable picture of the current education system and highlight the need for immediate reform.

In Ruth Kelly's White Paper she proposes to restructure English and maths GCSEs to ensure that it is impossible to get a grade C or above without the ability to use functional English and maths. The fact that there is even a question of whether those who achieve a C at GCSE have those basic skills is appalling.

Along with the reform of the current exam system, we believe that the gap between pupils who concentrate on academic subjects and pupils who focus on vocational subjects should be breached. As my noble friend Lord Lucas said, too often we seem to be concerned only with academic studies.

Every child needs the encouragement and incentive to do well in both areas. A premium must be placed on educating all students, not only those with an interest in pure academia. We should value youngsters with technical or practical qualifications just as much as students with a degree and not regard them, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, as second class. Indeed, sometimes I think that this country is obsessed with which university you went to. Pupils who choose not to continue on to university need skills to secure jobs in today's world. We must provide our children with the skills and the knowledge they need to be successful and productive members of society.
 
16 Mar 2005 : Column 1368
 

Despite the Government's emphasis on raising the status of vocational skills training, the White Paper published by the Government fails to offer an effective solution. The Secretary of State on the day of publication of the White Paper stated:

However, her proposals as they are outlined in the White Paper merely offer a pilot programme for 14 to 16 year-olds, which it is expected will be available for up to 10,000 young people from 2007–08.

This contrasts with our plan for immediate vocational grants to allow 300,000 young people from age 14 to take vocational courses in local further education colleges. We would provide £1,000 per year to pupils aged between 14 and 16 so they can receive vocational training. Those grants would allow 20 per cent of the age group to learn a trade. Currently, 22 per cent of British employers suffer from a skills gap. It is estimated that one-fifth of vacancies, approximately 135,000 jobs, remain unfilled because of a shortage of people with the right skills.

Today a million young people are not in school, do not have jobs, and are not enrolled in training courses. We plan to establish a network of skills super colleges, provided by extra funding from the abolition of the learning and skills councils. We are seeking to enable 14 and 15 year-olds to start on a vocational path from school, while allowing further education colleges to provide specialist courses for them.

To build esteem for trade professions, the quality of the vocational education system must be improved. As a result, a young person who chooses a vocational route, and successfully completes that route, will not be viewed as someone who opted for a standard class education; instead, he or she will be seen as an individual with first-class skills. As our hard-working and dedicated teachers know, education is about developing each child or young person to his or her full potential; it is about fostering self belief and unlocking the curiosity inherent in all of us and developing that passion of which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, spoke. All of us are good at something and the best education finds that something and builds on it.

After eight years, two manifestos, five Green Papers, three White Papers, eight Acts of Parliament, two strategy documents and four Education Secretaries, the Government claim to have the answers to the crisis in education. But I am afraid it is all talk. There are no effective measures to raise standards and the Government have missed a golden opportunity to reform the life chances of a generation of pupils.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page