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Orders of the Day — Further and Higher Education Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:44 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science 4:44 pm, 11th February 1992

The traditional sixth forms will play a valuable part in those schools that have them or acquire them. They will also be a part of the range of institutions from which a person at the age of 16 can choose, with the advice of parents and friends, when deciding what course suits his or her temperament. I expect sixth forms to thrive and to add to the diversity of provision that I have just described.

Of course, we have been moving rapidly in that direction in recent years. We all need to come to terms with the pace of events and with the demands of the next decade or two. I frequently speak of our need to prepare for mass higher education for future generations. We must prepare also for near universal further education, with, I hope, more than 90 per cent. of our young people staying on in the very near future for proper education and training. In addition, as I said, we must make an approach towards a lifetime career that anticipates the need for continuous education and upgrading of training throughout a working life. The Bill will give form to those objectives and help us to expand and develop the right sorts of institutions to meet our needs.

The great challenge of the 1990s in doing all that and in moving into mass participation in higher and further education is that we must move in that direction without lowering academic and professional standards. Wider access must not mean that we lower the standard that is set for our qualifications so that it is easier for everybody to obtain them without having to improve the preparation for them.

More must not mean worse. That is familiar to many of us who remember the argument about the university expansion that was proposed by Lord Robbins and was first planned many years ago. I recall that at first I was sceptical about it. History has shown, however, that expansion—certainly on what now seems the modest scale then anticipated—did not threaten or damage academic standards. We must ensure that the same applies as we expand our universities, what were our polytechnics, our further education colleges and our sixth forms. We must add to the range of courses and the diversity of provision but ensure that standards are not lowered. For example, in my opinion, greater participation in post-16 education should not mean the abolition of A-levels on the basis that not everybody can pass A-levels. Instead it should mean a wider range of choice after 16.

Our degree standard must not be lowered. An honours degree in this country is one of the best regarded academic qualifications in the developed world. Equal status will be given to vocational and academic qualifications, but only where the vocational courses are as demanding and as worthy of esteem as good-quality academic qualifications.