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There is much work still to be done to help ease the essential involvement of business. As the CBI says, there must not be a system of one-size-fits-all. This is a common concern raised by businesses and business organisations. It is difficult because while we need, through the Bill, to encourage high standards—consistency, if you like—businesses are different in their whole mode of operation, what they are all about and how they perform. They know about their business. That has to be understood and respected, which means that we cannot have prescription, come what may. For example, the London Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses have spoken about businesses with fewer than 20 employees having exemptions—I am putting that forward only as a point that has been made—with regard to certain aspects of regulation. You could then mention the fact that there are 4.7 million small businesses in the UK but 95 per cent employ fewer than five people, and they will need special help.

That brings me back to the point about small shops. As I have mentioned, they have concerns about some of the proposals. It is welcome, though, that through Skillsmart Retail they could get much-needed training; it has always been my observation that small shops require a wide range of skills, more than people appreciate. You are competing with supermarkets and other organisations that have many people backing them up and the staff necessary to do many different jobs. It is welcome that Skillsmart Retail is going to be engaging on the retail sector’s behalf. There is much that can be done in that sector, which, again, has special needs.

Another organisation that I have not yet alluded to makes some key points about apprenticeships. The British Chambers of Commerce also expresses reservations about the abolition of the learning and skills councils:

“The government’s planned abolition of the LSC and replacement with a number of new agencies for the sake of organisational efficiency is bizarre”.

The BCC represents many people in business, but people generally see the sense of what it is saying. It also says:

“We believe that apprenticeships should be a mainstream educational option for young people, and that a greater number of apprenticeship places should be created”.

That is the call from business. The BCC goes on:

“Apprenticeships should be employer led, offer real progression routes for apprentices, whether that be on to development in the workplace or further and higher education, and be rigorous enough to enjoy parity of esteem with other learning routes”.

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I turn to careers advice. I have heard many people at different times express concern about careers advice, saying that it should be effective and help young people into the workplace—it should stick with them, if you like. With regard to the Bill, it is important that advisers provide comprehensive information about apprenticeships. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, in that respect—although not the other comments that she made—when she says that Clause 35 seems in effect to leave it up to schools to decide whether or not to advise. Surely that is wrong. Apprenticeships should be a positive point that is raised.

It is more important than ever that we address skills in this country. Although we are in stormy waters, which is why assistance is needed for business to engage in apprenticeship specifically, when we come out of recession we have to be ready with a fully trained workforce. We on these Benches will do all that we can to encourage the right initiatives to that effect.

4.55 pm

Lord Moser: My Lords, I have long been involved with issues of basic skills, and I was very disappointed, and rather surprised, that the Bill pays so little attention to this area. Basic skills are absolutely basic to all aspects of education, for all skills and for apprenticeships. I am referring, of course, to literacy and numeracy. I have a personal interest in focusing on this since the Government’s strategy on Skills for Life goes back explicitly to my committee’s report, A Fresh Start, which was published 10 years ago. It is worth recalling why that report, which dealt with adults, produced such public shock. We concluded that roughly 20 per cent of adults had more or less severe problems with what is generally called functional literacy and numeracy. Many adults, millions of them, could not look up items in the Yellow Pages or calculate how much change they would get after spending a couple of quid in a shop. There are many other examples from survey data. Obviously, there were arguments about definitions, but the seriousness of the situation was beyond doubt. At that time, 10 years ago, this country came lowest in Europe, apart from Poland. That kind of league table was not discussed a great deal.

The Government had, at the beginning of their term, embarked on a major literacy strategy in schools, and our report showed how bad the situation was for millions of adults, so stringent action was promised by the Government. I want to leave no doubt that considerable progress has been made since the launch of the Skills for Life strategy in 2001. Vast sums have been spent, and it is estimated that the basic skills of some 2.25 million adults have been improved, a considerable improvement. That was the target set for 2010, and the claim is that it has been achieved two years early. The achievement belongs above all to the Learning and Skills Council as a centrepiece in the partnerships with the FE sector, so on basic skills alone I agree with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker.

However, in spite of this progress, which has to be acknowledged and admired, this is not the time for complacency, as the latest government report acknowledges, so let me give some of my reasons for

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not being complacent as far as basic skills are concerned. In the first place, it is not acceptable that in this rich country tens of thousands of children still leave school unable to read or write to any acceptable level or, above all, to cope with numbers. Inevitably, they embark on a spiral of disadvantage in adulthood. It is a shame that we have not solved this problem and that we are still mediocre at the school level, in spite of all that has been done.

I turn to adults. In his introduction to the latest government report, John Denham, the Secretary of State, said that basic,

That puts the matter clearly. The Government’s targets are ambitious. My worry is not that they are not ambitious enough, but whether they are realistic. To be specific, the aim is now—these targets really stem from the Leitch report in 2006—that, by 2020, 95 per cent of adults should achieve fundamental literacy and fundamental numeracy. Those are considerable climbs from where we are now. There are no up-to-date figures, but the latest ones I can get hold are that for literacy there is a climb from 85 per cent to 95 per cent of the adult population, which may be achievable, and for numeracy it is up from 79 per cent or thereabouts to 95 per cent. Incidentally, the Government regard that 95 per cent as making this country a world leader. That is a little beyond reality because all it does is group us with the top 25 per cent of other countries.

These targets include priorities for people not in employment or on benefit; those in low-skilled jobs; people in prison, crucially, of whom perhaps 50 to 60 per cent lack basic skills; and those known to be in areas or groups of social exclusion. Though I regard these targets as desirable, one has to accept that they need exceptional resources and more partnerships than I sense are in the plans so far. For example, I wonder—going back to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Baker—whether the further education sector, which in our report of 10 years ago was basic to these improvements, is still expected to play such a major part as we then proposed. If not, which bit of the education sector is going to fill in the gaps?

What can be done to make employers more engaged in helping people with poor basic skills? Could the voluntary sector do more to help such people, especially those who are hard to reach? All these aims are part of government plans. My worry is simply whether the challenges are reachable, especially for numeracy, where far less progress has been made. There are still far too few numeracy teachers. People are frightened of numbers, as we all know, and they do not take up available courses, even in the business and employment sector. This has been extremely disappointing. In schools, where we all know the problems with mathematics teaching, it is not only in maths that numbers should be made more comfortable for pupils—it is in the whole range of subjects. That also is not happening.

At one time we were promised—I think from the former Chancellor, Gordon Brown—a major government report and impetus on numeracy, because he certainly understood the priority. That report has not appeared. The recent report Skills for Life explicitly acknowledges

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that the country faces particular challenges with numeracy. Given our current crisis around finance, mortgages, borrowing and so forth, there has never been a more important time for every citizen to be comfortable with numbers, so it is an appropriate time for this to become a government priority.

All I hope to do is to restore basic skills to a proper place in the Bill and in its vision, and I ask the Minister whether this is a realistic hope on my part.

5.05 pm

Baroness Morgan of Huyton: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest: I advise the board of a charity, ARK, which runs city academies in inner London.

Nothing is more important to the individuals concerned, their families and the country as a whole than improving the education and skills of our young people. We all want young people to be given the chance of fulfilling their potential; for many, this means opening their eyes to what might be and stretching their ambition to the future by offering them better chances at school and beyond. None of this is easy.

In this wide-ranging Bill, I particularly welcome the proposals for apprenticeships. Vocational education has too often been the poor relation in our education system and, frankly, too often it has not been good enough. The introduction of a proper statutory framework for apprenticeships is a great step forward. It promises proper attention and funding to a crucial sector for the UK economy and new opportunities for many young people. I was fascinated to hear the noble Lord, Lord Baker, talk about the new technical schools, and look forward to hearing more in Committee.

I also welcome the proposed establishment of an independent Ofqual. There doubtless will be questions on the details of this as we scrutinise the Bill, but any of us involved in the education system knows the debilitating effect of arguments over the veracity of results and standards. I am always really depressed by the instant response to GCSE and A-level results and the talk of falling standards, which immediately punctures the feeling of elation felt by many pupils on receiving their results. So let us hope that this new body can operate in an effective and transparent way to strengthen confidence in results and develop the support of schools, employers, pupils and parents alike.

I am also strongly supportive of the proposals on young offenders and pupil referral units. Some PRUs do excellent work, transforming the chances of the young people they work with. Far too many, however, do not. They contain rather than educate; they manage behaviour rather than reform it. They are receptacles for youngsters who have been repeatedly excluded, disruptive to other pupils or worse, and sent there for the sake of others—understandably—rather than for their own benefit. I know that as a governor, I have sat on exclusion panels and taken decisions to safeguard the education of the rest of the pupils in a group rather than truly believing the excluded pupil was going to get a good deal at the local PRU. The proposal for earlier intervention in poor PRUs builds on the previous excellent announcement to widen the provider base of these units, and I welcome it.

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Of course, the pupils who end up in PRUs usually have attainment well below expected levels, many dramatically so. Their behavioural problems often stem from this. They have spent perhaps 10 years in schooling and have been failed by it. Their reading is substandard, their basic literacy and numeracy skills are well below average, they left primary schools in trouble, and it just got worse.

That brings me to an area of concern I have about the Bill. We have discussed city academies in this House many times. We now know that the majority of the 133 now open are performing well. Indeed, in its recent independent evaluation, PWC commented:

“Ofsted reinforces our conclusion that, overall, sponsorship contributes significantly to school improvement”.

The 2008 GCSE results for academies show that performance is improving faster than the national average and that the performance of pupils on free school meals gaining five GCSEs, including English and maths, has risen at more than double the national improvement rate. NFER research shows that most academies are in areas of relatively high deprivation—many in areas of very high deprivation. They admit higher proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals than the proportion living in the local postcode districts, higher proportions of pupils with special educational needs and a lower proportion of pupils with higher key stage 2 ability compared with the proportion living locally.

Setting up and developing a successful new city academy in a deprived community is tough, but of course the majority are morphed from existing schools or amalgamations of existing schools, which have usually been the subject of repeated interventions and large resources over a period of years. The academy is often the last throw of the dice and, in my experience, has been an LEA’s sink school—with all that that entails—for several years previously. Results are way below national average; attendance is bad; punctuality is chronic; aspirations are at rock bottom; behaviour is poor; finances and systems are at best chaotic; in mixed schools, boys usually outnumber girls; leadership at senior and middle levels is poor; the staffroom includes the cynics group, the lazy and the hopeless; and the majority, who want to do a good job for the kids, could do so but have forgotten how to or feel isolated in their endeavours. The physical fabric of the place is usually rotten and depressing, too.

The first 18 months after opening are especially tough. For a start, the place is usually a building site, as the work on the new building starts—although it will be fantastic and uplifting eventually, of course. The new governing body invariably has to replace much of the senior leadership. Often, too, there is a chronic weakness in the middle leadership, especially in core subjects. The basics are not there: schemes of work, lesson plans, systems of assessment and marking, and pupil tracking. There are no clear behaviour norms and understandable merits or punishment systems; there are no clear expectations of staff and certainly none of pupils; uniforms are patchy; the place is unloved.

As a governor in several of these schools in the past few years, I have experienced at first hand the heavy lifting of turning the situation around. I have seen a

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majority of teachers raising their sights with new leadership and pupils responding fantastically. It is almost humbling to see the determination of year 11 pupils who are finally and belatedly given a fair chance. They grab at it and work ferociously—after school, in Saturday classes or through Easter revision.

The problem is that it is last-minute catch-up. Two of the schools in which I am involved will be for those aged three to 18, meaning a real chance of improving the transition at 11 that causes many children to slip back and offering the opportunity of a more streamlined education. After all, some of the most privileged pupils in the UK move seamlessly through their schooling, so why not extend it to the most disadvantaged? Experience also suggests that the tighter the links between primary, feeder and secondary schools, the better the educational experience and outcome. So will my noble friend reassure me that the Government are open to the expansion of all-through academies and feeder academies?

I am also acutely aware of the need to allow a new academy to focus on itself and its own pupils, especially in the first couple of years. Heads whom I speak to say that the last thing that they want is to be outside their school at meetings; they want to be in the corridors and in the classrooms—the last period at a failing school often sees senior staff outside the school at any opportunity. Such a desire is not because the heads of the new city academies are being isolationist, but simply because the challenges that they face every hour of the day are so huge. I am therefore wary of instructing academies to join local partnerships and structures, and want assurance from the Minister that there will not be encroachment on existing freedoms. Most city academies happily accept and work with peers and school improvement partners, but is making it mandatory truly necessary? One head I spoke to was clear: her pupils had adults endlessly involved in their lives. What she felt she could do for them was not to replicate all those others, but concentrate single-mindedly on their education alone.

I know, too, that the freedom to run a longer school day and an extra week for staff planning can be crucial to improving the educational offer. So, too, is the chance to concentrate longer on literacy and numeracy, rather than spreading everything too thinly. Literacy, after all, is the passport to a wider education and, quite simply, has to be sorted first.

I am not advocating a sort of laissez-faire for academies: I am as critical as anyone of those schools that continue to fail the same pupils as failed before. I want proper accountability and transparency of results, but also real insight into and support for those schools working in the toughest conditions. I am keen to see earned autonomy: let us reward those who are delivering well with a lighter touch.

However, I do not want to see a new bureaucracy, which I fear we will get in the YPLA in so far as it affects academies. The core business of the new agency is 16-to-19 education and under-25s with learning needs. One departmental brief, for example, states that the Bill will establish the YPLA to,

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There is no mention of city academies.

I therefore ask the Minister where the rather strange provision on city academies fits in. Why put a small group of schools into that mix? What possible expertise will a 16-to-19 agency bring to the running of city academies? How will it assist in raising standards for disadvantaged children? I urge the Minister to think a little more about that specific proposal and listen to all those involved in running these schools now who have respected the support and challenge of the academies division in her department in recent years.

Last year, 65 boys in the whole country on free school meals got three As at A-level, while 175 at Eton got the same. Massive progress has been made, but we still have a heck of a long way to go. The schools working in the most challenging of circumstances need real support and expertise, not to be only the other business of an agency with a different, though important, focus.

5.15 pm

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, as we grope our way into this mammoth Bill, I am increasingly of the persuasion of the noble Lord, Lord Baker. It is a very difficult Bill to get one’s mind around the whole and, inevitably, I shall concentrate on some of the parts. Our situation is like that of the blind men in the fairy story who encountered an elephant, which they carefully inspected before coming to rather different conclusions about what the beast was like. As we look at apprenticeships and the various new agencies, I feel that we are in that position. We have an alphabet soup of quangos and agencies, and, very helpfully, the Explanatory Notes give us a glossary, including 46 acronyms, several of which will be unmemorable.

My fear is that this Bill, if passed, will create a cobweb of lines of supposed accountability, which the many institutions affected, not least the schools, will find it very difficult to deal with. The levers are invisible. My most fundamental test for adequate—and I do not mean good—legislation is that it be comprehensible and compliable for those who have to comply. I fear that this legislation may not meet that test, although we need to do our best by it.

I should declare some interests. I have—more behind me than ahead of me because it was rather long—a university career in this country and overseas and in a number of other academic institutions. I also chair the Nuffield Foundation, which runs a curriculum centre that has produced many curricular innovations over the years, and continues to do so. It is rather curious, by the way, that, with all the responsibility that the Government take, curriculum development has hitherto not been handled entirely by government.

From these activities, I have been able to see the effects of a changing school and examination system on what young people can and cannot do when they leave school with a variety of qualifications, and in particular regulated qualifications. I have also been able to form a rather wider judgment of the quality of their educational experience. What recent pupils tell

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one is often the biggest and best guide to what is really happening at school level, and it is not a happy situation. At present, we have many different qualifications and, above all, many different regulated qualifications, each with their own subjects and examinations and so on, particularly for older pupils. There are more in prospect with the proposed diplomas, although we shall have to wait and see what happens on that front. Pupils and schools consequently have to make intricate choices between qualifications, in the knowledge that the marks awarded them will be used by future employers or by university admissions officers, and will also help to determine the reputations and futures of their teachers and schools. When a measure is used for too many different purposes, perhaps it ceases to be a good measure—and when it is used as a target, doubly so. All this has been very well documented, as noble Lords will know, in the galaxy of perverse incentives introduced by the assessment system for schools by Mr Warwick Mansell in his book, Education by Numbers.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has already mentioned a number of criticisms of the present system. He is right, but there are more. Many think that standards have fallen, at least in some areas, noting subjects in which pupils are now less well prepared for further study or work than they used to be. That applies both in apprenticeships and in sixth-form work leading to university. In another place, some robust—and some less robust—evidence of decline was cited. Some comment that examinations are simply now more boring than they used to be—I think that matters—and too numerous. Some worry excess teaching time is lost to examinations and mock examinations, and fear that the assessment tail is wagging the education dog. Some worry about excess reliance on course assessment in some qualifications, which may cover parental and teacher assistance and plagiarism, electronic and traditional.

Others note that serial retaking of modules may disguise lack of consolidated grasp of the material. Many point out that, if qualifications and assessment are changed without sufficient care and lead time, employers and universities will be unsure of their merits and public confidence in them will be damaged. So it matters greatly that the Bill provides appropriate governance both for curriculum and, particularly, for regulated qualifications and their assessment.

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