At the heart of the Government's policies for education and training is the need to secure increased levels of attainment and, where appropriate, participation. At each age and stage of education and training, our efforts are aimed at improving quality, and I hope that we can share that across the Floor of the House.
The national targets for education and training provide an important focus for the actions required of all those involved in education and training; I am therefore delighted to have the opportunity to draw the targets to the attention of the House. The targets have the absolute commitment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Employment, and, of course, they have the absolute commitment of everyone who works in my Department, including the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).
It may seem unusual for a Secretary of State to be present on Friday morning. I recall from my early days in the House that the sight of a Secretary of State in the House on a Friday morning was a sign of bad news—that he was about to offer his resignation—or a sign of something important. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Members for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) and for Bath (Mr. Foster), but I am present this morning because the national targets are important, and I am strongly committed to securing their achievement.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, who will be winding up the debate, will make it clear that reaching the goals set by the targets is essential if we are to succeed in the international marketplace. Our competitive position depends crucially on the skills of the work force and, at the same time, there are immense benefits for individuals in developing their ability to the full.
Perhaps we should first consider international comparisons. They are always dangerous indicators to use, and they can be used too easily, but on education and training targets, they show that we have no room for complacency, because our competitors have equally ambitious plans. In today's world, competition comes from all quarters. We are naturally most familiar with the position in Europe and in the United States. However, we need to look far wider —to the burgeoning economies of the Pacific rim, where our competitors not only have ambitious plans, but start from a higher base of current achievement.
In making international comparisons, we can also take credit for our current position. We have always catered well for our highest fliers, and I am pleased to be able to tell the House that overall participation in education and training at age 16 now stands at 93 per cent.—an all-time high. One unusual international comparison shows that we spend more on education than many countries. It is unusual because figures are rarely quoted in the House that show that we spend more in any area.
We spend more than many other countries on social security and on education. We have a higher investment in education, standing today at 4·6 per cent. of gross domestic product, than, for example, Japan or Germany. Those who enter the education and training debate should constantly remember that that is the case. However, against that background, overall performance has been disappointing.
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend, who has given way so early in his speech. I am particularly interested in his point about spending in schools. It would be helpful if he could say a word about per capita spending and pupil-teacher ratios, and the reforms that the Government have introduced over a considerable period.
Pupil-teacher ratios have improved substantially since 1979, as has per capita expenditure. As my hon. Friend knows all too well, because he has often told the House so, what is important is not just the quantity of money spent, but the way in which the money is used. I am proud of the fact that we spend more of our GDP on education and training than do Japan and Germany. We have to make absolutely certain that we spend that money to the best effect.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the staff-pupil ratio has got worse over the past couple of years, as the Audit Commission's report on local management of schools has made clear? While he is on that point, will he clarify the Government's position on class sizes? His junior Minister has said that class size does not matter. What does he think?
These days, the budgets for schools, which stand at an all-time high, are placed substantially in the hands of individual schools—up to 90 per cent. under LMS— and, in the case of the more than 1,000 grant-maintained schools, the money is wholly in the hands of schools. That means that there is considerable opportunity for local decision-making on expenditure. It is rather like the argument over beds in the NHS: what is important is not how many beds there are, or how many teachers there are, but the use to which they are put.
Nevertheless, I am proud of the overall pupil-teacher ratio and of the fact that we spend a substantially greater proportion of our GDP on education and training than do Germany or Japan, but what is important is not the overall sum of money but the way that it is spent. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) to whom the hon. Member for Dewsbury was presumably referring, makes a notable contribution to our debates, as he does, with his ties, to our sartorial standards. He is right. I pick my words carefully. None of the research available to me in the Department shows that a particular class size makes a difference to the standard of education. We have some spectacularly good results from large classes, in both primary and secondary schools, and some spectacularly bad results from schools with small classes. We should be wary about drawing implications from raw statistics.
I hope that the targets will be a matter of cross-party agreement, because those involved with the targets, and the council that will be running them, represent all strands of British life, including distinguished trade unionists such as Bill Jordan. The TUC is as much a supporter of national targets as are the CBI and the Government. I welcome that, as I am sure will the House. The national targets provide a clear and valuable challenge to all users of education and training to get better results, with particular emphasis on the all-important middle range of ability, which is where we need to concentrate more.
Before going further, I shall comment on targets and achievements to date. The first four targets deal with the foundation learning of young people. Foundation target 1 is aimed at achieving substantially higher levels of basic attainment. By 1997, 80 per cent. of young people should have a national vocational qualification at level 2, a general national vocational qualification at intermediate level, or four or five higher grade passes at GCSE. The latest figures—I have only those for 1992, although I shall soon have those for 1993—show about 55 per cent. of young people at that level.
We are aiming at the ambitious target—ambitious targets are the best ones—of an increase of 25 percentage points over the next five years in attainment by our young people, particularly those in the middle range of aptitude. That is important, and I am sure that we shall achieve it. Whenever the Government set targets, we tend not only to reach them early but to out-perform them. I shall show that later, when I make an announcement about participation rates in higher education.
My right hon. Friend spoke of the need to raise the attainments of those in the middle ability levels. I am sure that he will agree that we need to look again at how we teach that range. Over my long experience, little change was made in the way in which children were taught, and if we are to get those children achieving better, we need to teach them differently. Is there any research on that?
Yes. Much independent research is being done, by universities, by the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, and by others, into different teaching methods.
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience as a distinguished ex-deputy headmaster. We listen to his clear and authoritative voice on those matters with great interest. In the numerous school visits that I have made —my ministerial team has also made such visits—I have been impressed with the different styles of teaching being introduced. Without over stressing the point, I am aware that many are looking back to the fundamentals, the basics, in what is taught in the classroom. People of all political views—it is not a party political matter—
I do not normally eat Weetabix. Cornflakes are my preferred breakfast dish.
Could I persuade my right hon. Friend to say a brief word about performance tables? I ask him to do so because I believe that the tables put into the hands of parents a valuable tool that enables them to assess the quality of teaching and the standards in individual schools. It takes away some of the guesswork and the problems associated with school-gate gossip. I hope that, at some point in his speech, my right hon. Friend will be able to draw attention to the excellent tables being produced, and the additional information contained within them.
I am extremely grateful for that point. I have just said that we are aiming to reach advanced targets in the next five years, and they will be demanding and challenging targets. That means that our performance will be measured. Because the Government are responsible for almost everything except the weather, if we fail to meet those targets by 1997, I and my ministerial colleagues, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment—I had better bring him in to share the blame —will be rightly blamed for that failure. That means that we shall be exposing our performance.
Equally, what we did with the performance tables of schools last year, and this year with the important additional performance tables for further education colleges is to expose—
Let me just finish my point.
Taken together, the tables are of great significance. Last year, before I published them for the first time, I was subject to a lot of advice from many different people. I was told that it was a dangerous thing to do, and that the material should not be published. The argument was, "Not in front of the parents; not in front of the pupils. Keep it all secret."
The publication last year was right, because it gave parents information which enabled them and their children to make informed choices. That is exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) said. Further education college tables are important, because they are aimed at adults of all ages to give them the information on which they can make informed choices.
It was right to make the information available last year to give the consumer of education the opportunity to make well-informed choices. That is entirely consistent with the innovation of the citizens charter by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The charter sets public standards and states whether those standards have been reached.
I have not quite finished my answer to my hon. Friend, but I shall give way to the hon. Lady as soon as I have finished.
The Prime Minister was right in saying that we should have publicly set targets for publicly provided services, and that we should make that information publicly known. I think that the citizens charter is a great constitutional innovation, and by the end of the decade it will be widely recognised as such.
I did not spot last year—Honest John Patten reveals his shortcomings to the House, unusually—that the tables have been one of the most powerful post-war innovations in education. By their very nature, they lever up standards. There is evidence that a number of schools were so dissatisfied with their published performance, that they set up action teams of groups of teachers to move around and improve their performance. That was not in the interests of the school, but in the interests of the pupils.
The Secretary of State said that the publication of further education tables would help adults make informed choices. Why, then, are the exam results that are published in those league tables only the result; of those aged up to 19? They do not include the considerable achievements of adults, who happen to be the vast majority of the pupils in FE colleges.
The Secretary of State said a few moments ago that we have to be careful about using raw statistics when it comes to class sizes. Is not that the case when it comes to examination results?
I will deal with the hon. Lady's points in reverse order. It is too easy to point a finger and say glibly of examination statistics that they are raw results. If they are raw results, young people carry those results with pride in their pockets as their educational currency throughout their adult working lives. They are the things which employers wish to see.
I am prepared to consider seriously what the hon. Lady said about further education tables. We want to improve the tables year on year. We took the decision to publish further education tables in the form that we did, along with the results from sixth form colleges and from sixth forms, to ensure comparability for everyone within the age range of 16 to 19. These days, I think of people of those ages as adults.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the marvellous achievements of so many people who go to FE colleges as adults. We will see in future whether there are ways of building on that information, and I shall be happy to think about the hon. Lady's suggestion.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have become obsessed with class sizes? Might we not draw lessons from Japan, where, I understand, it is quite normal for class sizes to go up to as many as 50 children, yet they perform extremely well? Does my right hon. Friend agree that management of a class is more important than its size?
My right hon. Friend touched briefly on the benefits of league tables and schools that have performed less well, and the efforts that are being made to help those schools. Will he spell out what his Department is doing to help those weak schools?
My hon. Friend is quite right on the first point. My hon. Friend the Minister for Further and Higher Education has reminded me that sometimes not 50 but as many as 55 children can be taught in Japanese secondary schools. Those schools have no computers of any kind. That is the Japanese way, and they get high results from it. I am proud that our class sizes are much smaller, and I am also proud that we have more computers and associated software in primary and secondary schools than any western European country, and certainly within the EC.
My hon. Friend raised the important issue of what we are doing about the poorest schools. It does not do any good at all to sweep under the carpet the fact that there are poorer schools. When the evidence is in front of us, we will be prepared to use the powers in the Education Act to take over the running of those poor schools. We will send an education association to take over the running of the individual school or the group of schools. That will be done in the interests of the pupils, to make sure that they get the education that they deserve. A child has only one chance in life, and will not get chances again and again.
I think that the number of such schools will be relatively small—a few hundred at most. They will be highlighted and picked out not by me as Secretary of State, but by the entirely independent chief inspector of schools. The Office for Standards in Education—Ofsted —is an independent department, which acts entirely independently of Ministers, and it will make judgments on whether to use education associations.
It is apposite that my hon. Friend picked up that point, because I can report to the House that we may have the first report from the inspectorate before Christmas. That report will pinpoint the first schools which the inspectorate thinks are failing. One may imagine the substantial effect that that will have locally, and I hope that it will be a beneficial effect.
The reports will begin to land on my desk from 1 January, when the powers become operative. It might be of interest to the House if I explain what will happen then. At that stage, the school will have 40 days within which to bring out an action plan to put right those things which the inspector has highlighted as an indicator that the school is failing—not just failing as an institution, but failing its pupils. The action plan will then be published and put in the hands of the local authority. The authority will have 10 days in which to respond to that action plan from the school.
At that stage, I will decide whether I accept the action report, which may say that a list of things must happen within six, nine or 12 months. The report will involve some tough decisions by local schools and by local education authorities. I pay tribute to LEAs of all political colours which, in recent months, have taken such tough decisions without the legislation.
The action plan may involve getting rid of the school governors, and will almost certainly involve getting rid of the head teacher, because a failing school is normally led by a failing head teacher. Some other members of staff at the school may also have to go. In the case of LEA schools, those actions should be taken by LEAs, as many have donei—including a good number of Labour authorities. More power to them in the action that they have taken in the interests of children.
If I judge that the action plan is not adequate, and the LEA and the school are unable to take the necessary action in the interests of the children, I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam that I will immediately institute an education association to take over the running of the school from the earliest possible date. I hope that that will happen rarely, but that it will get general support. Those young people are the sorts of people who will have to meet the targets to which I will now return.
I hope that my point will be in fact helpful. The Secretary of State has described what will happen when Ofsted reports on a school that is possibly failing.
What thought has the right hon. Gentleman given to what will happen to other Ofsted reports on schools which are not so categorised? Has the Secretary of State given any thought to suggestions which have been made that, between the four-yearly inspections, there should be some annual reflection on the report that is given and the action plan which has been developed?
The hon. Member makes a positive point. Most schools in Britain are good and I pay tribute to them, but a small number are failing. A larger number are in a middle tier. They are not recognised as failing; they are open to doubt. That is perhaps the category to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I shall draw his positive suggestion to the attention of Professor Stewart Sutherland, the chief inspector of schools. If any risk is picked up in the four-year cycle of inspections, something should be done to make sure that the school does not drift down to the failing level in those four years.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) referred to colleges of further education. I invite my right hon. Friend to cast his mind a little further. Does he agree that one of the best performance indicators is the number of young people who enter advanced education? I hope that my right hon. Friend will develop that theme as his speech progresses.
My right hon. Friend referred to the period of 40 days which will provide an appropriate interval for consideration to take place. The period of 40 days struck me, as it did my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). We wondered whether there was any biblical significance in 40 days and whether that was the reason why it sprang so readily to my right hon. Friend's mind.
I shall report later in my speech some important information about the increased levels of participation in higher education, exactly as my hon. Friend wishes. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not answer his first point immediately. As for my hon. Friend's second point, I had never thought of it. It is a jolly interesting justification.
I said that foundation target 1 sought substantially higher levels of basic attainment. By 1997, 80 per cent. of young people should have either a national vocational qualification at level 2, a general national vocational qualification at intermediate level, or four or five higher grade passes in GCSEs.
Before we had an important discussion about failing schools, following interventions from my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I was saying that the latest figures showed that about 55 per cent. of young people were at the foundation target 1 level. An increase of 25 percentage points is needed in the next five years. Those are the targets which I lay before the House now. If we fail in those targets, it will be our responsibility in Government.
The next two targets deal with higher level skills. Foundation target 2 is for training and education to the level of NVQ level 3, or advanced level in either GNVQ or GCE, to be available to all young people who can benefit from it. Entitlement to post-compulsory education is already available to those who stay in education. The youth training arrangements guarantee training to at least NVQ level 2.
Foundation target 3 provides that, by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of young people should reach NVQ3 or advanced level in GCE or GNVQ. A third of young people did so in 1992. An improvement of some 17 percentage points is needed in the next eight years. So we shall have to work hard to meet that target, too.
Both the basic and higher skills need to have appropriate breadth. Accordingly, foundation target 4 is that education and training provision should develop breadth, self-reliance and flexibility—important skills in the modern work force for women and men. The thrust of developments in both curriculum and qualification frameworks is all in that direction.
One thing of which we can be certain is that the pace of technological and other change will not slacken, either within our country or in our competitor countries. Better attainment by young people needs to be accompanied by better agreements for keeping the skills of the work force up to date. Therefore, the second four national targets deal with lifetime learning —something in which I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) is extremely interested. That interest has brought him here this morning. I am sure that we can look forward to a speech which, because of his knowledge of lifetime learning targets, will be longer than his usual brief interventions.
Lifetime target 1 sets the general scene in providing that, by 1996, all employees should take part in training or development activities as the norm. The last full survey, as long ago as 1986-87, showed that about 48 per cent. received some training.
Lifetime target 2 turns a particular focus on the key national vocational qualifications. By 1996, 50 per cent. of the employed work force should aim for NVQs or units towards them. NVQs are only now becoming widely available. That is reflected in the available figures. However, we shall see an explosion in the use of NVQs in the next two or three years.
The work force in general needs to be better qualified. Accordingly, lifetime target 3 provides that, by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of the work force should be qualified to at least NVQ level 3 or advanced level in either GCEs or GNVQ. The 1992 figure was about a third. So hitting that target will require an increase of 17 percentage points in the next eight years. So, again, we are setting ourselves tough targets. If we do not set ourselves tough targets, we shall not successfully drive towards meeting them.
The last target deals with the key role of employers in the education and training process. Lifetime target 4 is that, by 1996, 50 per cent. of medium and larger organisations— defined as those with more than 200 employees—should be accredited as "investors in people". More than 400 recognitions have been made so far. More than 4,000 organisations are working to achieve "investors in people" status. They include my Department. We are working hard at it. I expect us to be successful. There will be trouble in my Department if we are not shortly successful. Many schools and colleges are also working towards meeting the high standards of "investors in people", of which I am a strong admirer.
How do all those targets come to be? I have given a brief description of the targets. The national targets were developed under the leadership of the Confederation of British Industry. I congratulate it on its initiative. I also welcome the care that it took to involve other influential bodies, other representatives of employers, representatives of staff, the Trades Union Congress and a wide variety of education and training interests.
The targets are entirely consistent with the thrust of Government policy. The Government were glad to lend their support. I made that clear when I spoke recently to the council of the CBI. I spoke mid-morning and I had the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) as a warm-up act. He gave not a bad performance. We all need warm-up men before we speak.
The overall aims of the targets should commend themselves to all interests, including all parties represented in the House. I note that the recent Hamlyn National Commission spoke non-controversially in favour of the targets. So there seems to be considerable consensus. Of course, there is room for debate about the best means of progress, but I hope that the targets are common ground.
General agreement about the ends does not make their achievement easy. As I have said, there is much hard work to be done. That work is being spearheaded by the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets. It is an important body, chaired by Mr. Peter Davis, the co-chairman and chief executive of Reed Elsevier. A wide range of interests is represented on it.
I chaired the council's first formal meeting with Ministers last month. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I will take it in turns to chair the council. All Ministers and Secretaries of State will be there on every possible occasion.
It is very important that we work collectively on this matter. My fellow Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who was present on that day, and I were greatly impressed by the way that the council was tackling its task. Progress towards the targets will be better co-ordinated and stimulated. The council also has in its sights the possibility of developing the targets over time so that their relevance and challenge is maintained.
How are we responding in the Department for Education? Delivering the targets must obviously be in the hands of the providers. However, my Department necessarily acts at arm's-length from day-to-day provision, so what is its role? To try to answer that question, I will quote from my Department's action plan in response to the targets. Just as potentially failing schools have to develop action plans to improve themselves, we in my Department had to develop an action plan; otherwise, how on earth could we meet the targets when we signed up to them?
Any who doubt the close and effective working between the Departments should know that this was set alongside the Employment Department's complementary plan in an excellent single leaflet published in March. The document states:
The Department for Education is committed to securing higher participation and attainment in education and training at all levels. It welcomes the National Targets for Education and Training as a means for increasing demand for, and achieving improved levels of attainment in, high quality education and training. Through its policies, the Department aims to give individual institutions maximum freedom to meet the needs of students, employees and employers in response to such demand.
That is a pretty good statement of how we are trying to set about these things.
To give effect to that, we are pursuing a fourfold strategy: promotion, monitoring progress, reviewing policy and developing human resources. I shall comment briefly on each strategy in turn, beginning with promotion and publicity.
When we are trying to get something new going, publicity is obviously the first and most obvious lever. Among other things, fact packs and action packs have been sent to all further education colleges, and copies have been made available to schools.
The new national council is also an important player. Its annual report on progress towards the targets will form an important peg for publicity, as will the accompanying major national conference. I understand that the first report back from conference is being planned for the spring of 1994. I was interested to see in mail sent to me in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, that the council has briefed all Members of the House of Commons in a useful document which sets out the background to the council's work.
It is vital that we monitor progress towards the targets. Together with the national council and others, we are developing the necessary data sources. The messages that those yield may not always be comfortable. However, as now established in my Department's major exercise in publishing comparative performance tables for schools and colleges—as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth pointed out—the point is not to comfort but to provoke debate and action as necessary to improve standards. That is why we are publishing.
There has been a particular difficulty over the measure of attainment for foundation target 1. The standard measure of education performance at age 16 is five or more higher grade GCSE passes. For the purposes of foundation target 1, however, the "academic" equivalent to NVQ 2 has been four GCSE passes. I am pleased that the national council has recently advised that things can be simplified by adopting a single bench mark of five higher grade GCSE passes. That serves to raise already ambitious objectives, and the Government are happy to accept the advice of the council.
On the monitoring front, it is useful that Ofsted and the Further Education Funding Council's inspectorate will consider progress towards the targets as one of the key inspection indicators in its visits to schools and colleges.
The Department's main role comes in the development of policies. In everything we do, we have the targets clearly in focus. Earlier this year, I issued an instruction to my Department that every policy proposal put to me should set out how the policy would, if implemented, contribute to the achievement of the targets.
Every time that a policy paper comes to myself, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Higher and Further Education, my hon. Friends the schools Ministers and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State for Education in the other place, it has a paragraph to show how, if implemented, that policy would help us to meet the targets. In other words, it is going down into the warp and weft of the Department for Education and the way in which our excellent civil servants work within it.
Many existing policies already bear directly on the targets' achievements. In schools, where foundation target 1 will be largely achieved, there is pre-eminently the national curriculum, together with the associated testing and the GCSE examinations.
This is a very important area. Will my right hon. Friend add to what he has said about publishing school examination results in league table form? I welcome that, but will he note and respond to the concerns of many schools that results should be published on a year basis—on the chronological age of the child, and not necessarily the school year in which the child finds himself? The present rifts between all independent schools, some maintained schools and the Department on this matter are serious, and by next year separate results will be published unless something is done, and that would be a pity.
That is an interesting and very important point. What we are trying to do with the performance tables—we do not put them in rank order as league tables; they are simply alphabetical performance tables of schools—is to try to get the best possible approximation of the results.
It is important that we try to accommodate all interests, and that is why, before we published the performance tables for the first time, and again before we published them for the second time this year, we consulted very widely. Sometimes, Secretaries of State and Ministers are accused of not listening to consultation. We listened to consultation, and the overwhelming majority of those who responded were in favour of publication of results—GCSE results in particular—by age groups and not year groups.
There seems to be a particular problem affecting the independent schools. Independent schools educate about 7 per cent. of England's children, and do an invaluable job in representing the interests of those children and educating them. They often stand as beacons of excellence around the country, and I welcome that.
I attended a debate yesterday of the Girls School Association annual conference at Stratford-on-Avon on exactly this issue. There are a number of changes that we can introduce that might accommodate the independent schools' understandable points that have been raised in correspondence by a number of distinguished Members of the House—and not only by the Girls Schools Association but by the Headmasters Conference and others—for example, to make it quite clear that we take into account the performance of children who move from one school to another. Under the present system, they carry their results with them, rather than leaving them in the school from which they came.
There are a number of things that we could do that would have a substantial effect, but only at the margins. The core is that the independent schools, for reasons that I will not trouble the House with now, have slightly different needs in that respect from the great majority of maintained schools. The great majority of maintained schools, as the overwhelming responses to the consultation exercises of this year and last year show, are very happy, and are strong advocates of the present system.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have taken his advice on this and a number of other matters, and if he can suggest bright ideas as to how we can accommodate independent schools in the third round next year, I shall be happy to take any ideas from him—and from any other hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Bath.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is right to inform the House that if there are concerns about the accuracy of league tables—and if, sadly, we are to go ahead with them—it is vital that those issues are resolved. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is even more important, if that procedure is to be adopted, that he ensures that there is full support for the recommendations of Sir Ron Dearing, and many other people, that we urgently continue with research to find ways of indicating added value? That is one of the most crucial issues on which we should be reporting about the work of schools.
The hon. Gentleman has raised two points. One is partisan, to which I shall respond in a partisan vein, and the other non-partisan, to which I shall respond in kind.
It is outrageous—the House can tell by the tone of my voice that this is my partisan response—that the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Liberal party, which is devoted to freedom of information, should seek to suppress information and to lock the door to the hitherto secret garden of education. The Conservative party is devoted to freedom of information, but we all know that the hon. Gentleman does not share that devotion.
On the hon. Gentleman's second point, it is absolutely right that we should do all that we possibly can to improve the contents of the further education and school performance tables. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), I shall take into account what she said about adults and their performance at further education colleges.
I am equally happy to respond to the second request of the hon. Member for Bath. Sir Ron Dearing, the chairman of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is my main curriculum adviser along with the authority, and I have specifically asked him to address exactly this issue. I do not believe that any of us should delude ourselves. We would all like to see more value-added measures in the performance tables, but it will not be an easy task to get agreement on what those measures should be. A lot of work must be done.
My hon. Friend is correct. It is extremely important that the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, under the chairmanship of Sir Ron Dearing, should continue to address this important issue. I have specifically asked him to advise me further about what we can do in future years. I know that, whatever he recommends, however, the hon. Member for Bath will not like it, because he does not want any information about schools to be published.
It is important to put on record that I disagree with what the Secretary of State has said. I am in favour 'of information being made available, but it must be accurate, comprehensive and informative. On all three
counts, the current league tables fail miserably. The Secretary of State is a well-read man, and I am sure he is aware of the quotation from Alexander Pope:
A little learning is a dang'rous thing".
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and that, unfortunately, is what is offered by the current league tables.
In sight of my little house in Oxfordshire is Pope's tower. Many locals think that in some previous century a pope sat there. It is found in the grounds of the manor house at Stanton Harcourt. Unfortunately, part of the great manor house has gone, and some of the grounds are derelict, but the rest are in splendid condition. Pope's tower is next to the church.
In the middle of that splendid scene Alexander Pope recorded how he saw two young lovers sitting, in a perfectly modest way, under a hayrick who were struck by lightning at the same time. What a way to go. The hon. Member for Bath is a well-read man, and I am sure that he is aware of the poem that Pope wrote about that. II: is recorded on a gravestone in Stanton Harcourt church. Should the hon. Gentleman ever wish to visit the area, I will show him the tower and the gravestone.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the assertion of the hon. Member for Bath that the league tables have failed miserably, they are warmly welcomed by parents, who scour the lists?
In future years, I shall campaign vigorously in my constituency to point out that the Liberal party wishes to suppress that information and to take away from parents the right to know about school performance. The campaigning techniques of the Liberals in my constituency are quite disgusting, but I know that you would not wish me to go down that track, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Foundation target 1 will be largely achieved in schools, and that will be done pre-eminently through the national curriculum, associated testing and the GCSE examinations. There will be an inevitable time lag before the full benefits of it come on stream. Try as we may, children still take 11 highly important years to get from the age of five to 16 in educational terms. We must not rest on our laurels. We are also aiming to develop vocational education, pre-16, and we will encourage breadth through progressive implementation of the national records of achievement.
More generally, we are pursuing measures to encourage choice and diversity still further. The targets, for example, are integral to my recent technology colleges initiative, which has been widely welcomed by many, including the Confederation of British Industry.
The new Further Education Funding Council arrangements mean that, for the first time, we can adopt a coherent approach to what was once thought to be a Cinderella sector. I gave the targets a central place in my letter of guidance to the new funding council on its launch last year.
Moves towards achieving the targets are also appropriately reflected in the funding council's powerful funding method, which is now being put in place. We put money where our mouths are. Expenditure plans for this year and the next two years provide for a 25 per cent. expansion of further education numbers. That represents an extraordinary revolution, and it will be a substantial step towards achieving the targets.
It should be the lasting credit of the Government that, at a time of considerable economic difficulty, we have found the priority to expand the further education sector by a quarter. To make the most of the structural changes, we have developed new comprehensive post-16 curriculum and examination policies. In place of what was often described as an alphabet soup there is now a coherent framework of qualifications.
The best-known qualifications are probably the GCSE and the tried and tested GCE A-level and AS-level examinations. They make up the so-called academic route. I have asked the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority to ensure that standards are maintained through strengthened quality assurance arrangements.
The previous jungle of essentially work-based and job-specific vocational qualifications is being simplified by the now widely available NVQs. The close involvement of employers in the specification of those qualifications—I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment is keen to promote that involvement—is a guarantee of their quality and their fitness for purpose.
Bridging the gap between the two types of qualification to which I have referred is the new family of general national vocational qualifications, including the new vocational A-level. They are designed to enable people to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding in a broadly occupational context.
When I visited the annual conference of the Girls Schools Association yesterday, I was pleased to note that Miss Joan Jefferson, the head of St. Swithin's school in Winchester, issued a press notice specifically to welcome the Government's action on vocational A-level qualifications.
The GNVQs prepare for a progression to both further study and worthwhile jobs. The first GNVQs started in September 1992, but the response is already very encouraging. In the light of experience in the pilot phase, I have asked the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, under its new chairman, Mr. Michael Heron, to strengthen the quality mechanisms.
More centres and courses are coming on stream. By 1996, I want one in four of 16-year-olds to be following GNVQs. That is the target that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment have set ourselves.
May I give a warm welcome to the progress of the GNVQs? Although it is important to develop vocational studies, will my right hon. Friend confirm that considerable emphasis is placed on numeracy and literacy within that qualification?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Whether one is studying NVQs, GNVQs or A-levels, that study is conducted in the medium of English. English is the 'most important cross-curricular theme that anyone can .study. It is important that throughout the study of those different qualifications, they are imbued with strong attention to the correct use of English, both written and spoken, and that matters relating to numeracy are equally attended to.
That I have to say that, sometimes to hoots of derision in this House and elsewhere— although, happily, not today—would amaze people in Korea, shock people in Taiwan, and reduce people to helpless laughter in Singapore or Hong Kong, and would cause Education Ministers, Industry Ministers and Employment Ministers to dance in the streets of our competitor countries in western Europe. In western Europe, it is an extraordinary reflection that the teaching of the basics should still be attacked by some—although, happily, by a declining number of people in this country.
I notice the emphasis that the Secretary of State placed on the need for good English. Can he explain why the Government are severely cutting section 11 grants, which would help those people for whom English is a second language and whose access to the curriculum will be harmed because they lack basic language skills?
I spent some happy years at the Home Office as a junior Minister, when one of my responsibilities was section 11 grants. One of the first things that I did was to ask how those grants were spent. I found that, disgracefully, in a number of education authorities throughout the country—such as Labour-controlled Avon— many hundreds of teaching posts that were meant to be funded for the teaching of English to ethnic minority groups had been kidnapped and that the money was spent instead on general education. A substantial amount of section 11 money was wasted.
It is critical now that that money, which is already running at about £100 million a year, is targeted at the teaching of English. I stress the teaching of English although I respect minority cultures and fully understand that some people may need help in the language of their mother tongue if they come from households in which only the mother tongue is spoken or is largely spoken. I think, for example, of Somali communities in Tower Hamlets in east London.
None the less, English is the national language and unless a member of a minority community is able clearly and effectively to speak and write that majority language, which has a world currency, he or she will remain socially disadvantaged in this country. I do not want to see any social disadavantage among members of our minority groups.
Possibly the most pernicious effect of section 11 funding that is incorrectly targeted is that it does not go into mainstream education—where, one hopes, it would improve standards—but often into nonsensical multiculturism that divides communities and reminds them of their differences rather than of what they have in common.
A recent classic example was the advice given by the Pre-School Playgroups Association to a Lambeth playgroup, which decided as a result to forgo all Christmas festivities and any mention of the nativity. Fortunately, that playgroup saw sense and changed its mind. That was done in the guise of the kind of multiculturalism that has too often been the result of section 11 funding.
I greatly value the PPA's work nationally, and was glad that Margaret Lochrie, who runs the PPA nationally and whom I have known for years, quickly came forward to make it clear that there was some confusion between the association's central office and that Lewisham playgroup. All is now well, and I pay considerable tribute to the PPA.
As to my hon. Friend's first point on the question of where multiculturalism becomes political correctness and begins to harm people, I will give a specific example to show where the line should be drawn. Again, I call on my experience as a junior Minister at the Home Office.
I continued to approve section 11 funding in the form of grants to clubs for Asians and Afro-Caribbeans over retirement age. Many Asian women in particular speak no English and it struck me as absolutely right that, as they would never change, special accommodation should be made for their culture. Equally, many people having an Afro-Caribbean background had been left to live alone without their families. It was entirely right to make special provision for them also.
However, I immediately stopped the provision of money for Afro-Caribbean-only day nurseries. Such funding struck me as totally wrong. How could anyone think it right? Pensioners' clubs for Bangladeshis and others who cannot speak English are right, but nothing could help to split this nation more than nursery or other accommodation for people from different ethnic groups. We must be absolutely straightforward about that. What is politically correct is nonsense. What is effective is good. I give way to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), who is always politically correct and always good.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I had intended to pay him a compliment anyway, because my own constituency—under a Conservative-controlled authority—benefited from his actions when he was at the Home Office, in preventing Conservative authorities such as Trafford from using section 11 money to support general educational spending. His action at that time was most important.
The Secretary of State made a strong and profound case for section 11 funding, emphasising the need to acknowledge the language problems among different minority groups. I do not know whether that was a coded attack on his colleagues in the Home Office and an appeal to them to rethink section 11 grants.
The right hon. Gentleman answered the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) when he said that as a Home Office Minister, he was able to be selective in the use of section 11 funding. Would not that have been the right way forward—recognising the usefulness of and need for section 11 funding and maintaining it at present levels, but being selective and ensuring that it was targeted where it would do most good?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about Trafford council— which, under Conservative control, is an excellent metropolitan authority which has done exceptionally well educationally in recent years. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I, of all people, might make a coded attack. I have never been accused of doing that—writs fly around my head every time I open my mouth.
It was not a coded attack, because I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on the section 11 policy that he is promoting. We are spending more than £100 million a year, which is a huge amount of taxpayer's money. I want to see it targeted at people who really need help, in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere, and not spread too thinly throughout the country.
People in Tower Hamlets suffer terribly from being disadvantaged—most notably, from the disadvantage of having a Liberal-run council. We need to help them all that we possibly can. And, for the avoidance of doubt, it is a racist Liberal council as well.
Surely the hon. Gentleman has seen the leaflets published by the Liberal party in Tower Hamlets—but, judging by your stern look, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I should return to GNVQs, which prepare for progression to both further study and worthwhile jobs.
The first GNVQs started in September 1992. The response is already most encouraging. In the light of experience gained in the pilot phase, I asked the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to strengthen quality mechanisms. More centres and courses are coming on stream. By 1996, I want one in four 16-year-olds to be following GNVQs. That is another target —and if I do not meet it, I shall be in trouble with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, because we will not have delivered the goods.
The signs are not bad. By September, 1,000 institutions in England alone—about 500 schools and about 500 further education and sixth form colleges—had begun to teach GNVQs. The signs are pretty good, and I wish that GNVQs were spread more throughout our schools and colleges.
That is excellent news, and I congratulate the principal and staff of Kidderminster college. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education has just reminded me that, in addition to mentioning the statistic of 1,000 schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges, it might be more telling to state that 80,000 young people are undertaking GNVQs this autumn. That is from nothing—from a standing start—and we shall see it taking off.
The framework provides options to suit the wide range of talents found among young people. I very much want to see parity of esteem between different outcomes at the same general level. The skill levels represented by those outcomes are far more significant than the specific means by which they have been achieved.
The fact that there are various ways through the qualifications framework underlines the importance of early, informed and impartial careers education and guidance. That is an important function of schools and colleges, and sits squarely with other steps to increase their responsiveness to those they seek to serve. In turn, that is part and parcel of the citizens charter philosophy of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. With the parents charter and the recently published charters for further and higher education, that policy is now applied throughout education.
The focus of the targets on the vital craft and technician levels means that higher education is mainly outside the targets. Higher education institutions run an increasing number of two-year diploma courses and similar courses suitable for the high-powered and high-level technical skills that we increasingly need in this country. I should like to see more such courses in universities.
Higher education certainly has a role in some of the lifetime targets. More generally, it has an important effect on school and further education. The Government have a clear target for young people in higher education, and we have made record progress towards achieving those ends.
The progress that we have made so far has been unparalleled. In the May 1991 higher education White Paper, the Government said that they expected that approaching one in three of all 18 to 19-year-olds would enter higher education by the year 2000—that was our spring 1991 target. We confirmed that as our target for the year 2000 in our manifesto for the general election last year—just 18 or 20 months ago. I am glad to be able to tell the House today, for the first time, that this autumn, in only two years rather than eight, we have achieved that target.
Early information about enrolments shows that, for the first time, about 31 per cent. of all young people have entered higher education this October. That is a staggering success story for the universities and colleges involved. It is also a staggering success story on the part of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the leadership that he has given in that sector. He launched the White Paper on higher education in 1991. It is not a bad achievement for the Conservative party. Never in the history of manifestos has such a target been met so far—six clear years—in advance of the target laid down.
We have witnessed an expansion of participation rates on a scale much greater than anything ever seen in the post-Robbins era of the 1960s. Let us consider the figures. In the 25 years—the quarter of a century—from 1963 to 1988, the participation doubled to about 15 per cent.
Now, for the first time, I can report that, during the past five years, the participation rate has more than doubled again, to approximately 31 per cent. I am pleased to say that the number of mature entrants—those over the age of 24—has doubled. Therefore, the absolute numbers of students in higher education today is very much greater than at any time before.
On the evidence of the figures that I have been collecting this week—they are up-to-date figures—for the first time in the history of this country there are now 1 million students on full-time courses in higher education in England. In the past year alone, the number of students on full-time courses has increased by 100,000.
I shall set those figures in context, and also repeat them for emphasis. In the last year alone, the number of students on full-time courses has increased by 100,000—that represents about half the number of students in all our universities in 1963 at the time of the Robbins report, which is an outstanding achievement.
That increase of 100,000 students over the last year is the equivalent of creating a dozen new universities in England—an extraordinary achievement. In just one university term, this October 1993, there has been a much greater expansion in the equivalent number of universities represented by the 100,000 students than we ever saw in the immediate post-Robbins era, with the setting up of new universities in places such as Sussex and Essex.
My right hon. Friend rightly places emphasis on the expansion. I was delighted to hear him apportioning credit to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. However, he is being unduly modest, as I believe that a considerable amount of credit should also go to him for what he has done in the way in which he has promoted advanced education.
As to the main thrust of my question, although my right hon. Friend properly draws attention to what has taken place in advanced education, does he not agree that some remarkable conclusions must be drawn about the quality of education in our schools? The substantial expansion could have taken place only if large numbers of young people were properly qualified and able to take advantage of advanced education.
My hon. Friend is right, and I take the opportunity of answering his question to pay tribute to all the hard-working teachers in our schools in England who have made the rapid expansion possible. That work has been mirrored by the hard work of vice-chancellors and university lecturers in all our universities. Their efforts have made possible the extraordinary advance.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) in warmly welcoming the excellent news that there are 100,000 extra students in our universities. That is an enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but does it not tell us something else? The great debate about student grants and student loans has clearly had no effect on students, who wish to go to university because they value the importance of university and realise that they should make a contribution.
My hon. Friend is right, and I thank her for her kind words on the rate of expansion promoted by the Government. I agree with her entirely. I am proud to represent the university constituency of Oxford, West and Abingdon, which contains one of Oxford's two universities. My constituency houses several thousand students and several thousand dons.
A few years ago, when my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State introduced student loans, my advice centres were full of students and dons in Oxford saying that the loan scheme would be an unmitigated disaster and would choke off participation. There has been no evidence of that—I have given evidence to the contrary this morning to show that, far from choking off participation, a regime under which students have to contribute to their living costs through loans has produced a record participation rate. Far from choking off participation, the equivalent of a dozen universities have been created this autumn.
I was also told that the loan scheme would have an adverse effect on minority groups and those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but that has not happened either. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam is right. A bit of motivation among the student population is a good thing. They must be motivated to develop themselves and stretch themselves intellectually; a bit of financial motivation is good.
It is perhaps because of that motivation that we have the most efficient and effective university system in Europe. Most of our university degrees are studied over just three years and, in international terms, our universities enjoy the lowest drop-out rates, which has much to do with the motivation of our splendid university students. In other parts of Europe —I had better tread carefully for fear of causing an international incident—it can take students seven or eight years to get through university, so it is a form of outdoor relief for those in their early 30s.
Indeed. But our young people get outdoors after university aged 21 or 22.
I should not concentrate purely on young people, however, because a bare majority of those entering our universities this autumn were in fact mature students aged more than 24, and that is excellent. I also welcome the fact that so many of them are women: 48 per cent. of all undergraduates this autumn were women, which is exceptionally good, and the Government should be proud of it.
The Secretary of State is dishing out accolades to the Conservative party for having expanded higher education. Will he take this opportunity generously to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the Labour Government to creating the Open university, from which millions of people have benefited and which is a milestone in educational achievement? Gratitude should be expressed by those millions of people to the Labour Government for setting up the university some years ago.
Of course I recognise that it was a great idea of Lord Wilson's—assisted also, during her four-year reign as Education Secretary, by my noble Friend Lady Thatcher, who presided over the expansion of the Open university and who got from a succession of bemused Tory Chancellors the additional sums of money that made that possible. The House is delighted to know that, from next year, Madam Speaker will be chancellor of the Open university.
I am in my 14th year on the council of the Open university, and proud to serve there. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the wonderful and imaginative changes that there have been in the Open university, which, as he rightly said, was saved by Baroness Thatcher? There are courses for the unemployed, all sorts of vocational courses and exported courses. The institution is given to all sorts of innovation, and it has all been inspired by the lead of Conservative Governments. That, too, must be acknowledged.
I am delighted to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work over the past 14 years on the Open university's council. I visited the university in September and was much impressed by the work that Vice-Chancellor Dr. John Daniel and others do there.
I was also impressed earlier this month when I went to Bratislava—for the benefit of the geographically challenged, it is the capital of Slovakia—and saw at the city university the excellent work that the Open university is doing to promote the learning of English and other subjects. There is an excellent and close working link between the Open university and the city university of Bratislava, and the rector is very proud of it. It is doing an enormous amount of good to shore up democracy in the emerging countries of central Europe. It is also excellent that the Open university sells and exports the English language.
Incidentally, I am somewhat shocked to learn that about half the £6 billion worldwide market for the teaching of English is taken up by colleges teaching English in Australia and Ireland. I intend to put that right as far as possible.
I was also struck by the excellent work done by the British Council in Bratislava. Under its director, and with the use of know-how fund money, it does an enormous amount to export British education services to central Europe. That was stressed to me by the rectors of a number of universities during my enjoyable stay in Bratislava.
I found out, too, that rectors in central European universities are called to their face, "Your Magnificence". That is rather interesting; those who wish to gain preferment in the Department for Education now have a clear route to it when addressing their Secretary of State.
When talking of education and training, there is a temptation to focus on the needs of young people, but, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury and I have agreed, adults are just as important. The lifetime targets rightly direct attention to the need also to maintain and develop provision for adults. The base here is higher than generally appreciated. I did not realise how high it was until I first entered the Department for Education. Mature students already make up the significant majority of enrolments.
We also need to guard against letting all the focus fall on the particular levels highlighted in the targets. Improved performance in that area needs to be underpinned by better performance in basic skills by both young people and adults.
The last of the four limbs of my Department's action plan relates to the development of human resources. A much greater recognition of the need to devlop the potential of the work force—the very principle at the heart of "investors in people"—is needed to stimulate the right kind of demand from the supply coming on stream.
I cannot emphasise too much the key importance of the point at which employers meet education, and vice versa. The targets are therefore about higher overall levels of attainment. That will be wasted unless the attainment is in useful areas. If education and training are to supply what employers need, it is crucial that employers make their needs known to students, parents, providers and examining bodies.
Those signals need to be both clear and sent in good time. That is why I welcome all attempts to foster better links between schools and industry. The CBI is doing this with the close co-operation of the TUC. The Institute of Directors has a vital role too, and other important bodies such as Business in the Community and Industry in Education are making an impact in this area as well.
As I told the CBI at its recent conference, the opportunities for links between business —at all levels—and our increasingly responsive schools, colleges and universities have never been better. As illustrated by the case studies in my Department's recent business fact pack about further education, the best thing about these links is that they are mutually beneficial: they are not a one-way street; no one is a client here. The benefits flow almost directly to the immediate participants. More generally, this will help to secure the necessary and irreversible shift of culture, so that higher skill levels are both the normal expectation and highly valued.
Inevitably, I have concentrated on the national position, but achieving the targets will be the result of improvements institution by institution, especially in institutions where achievement is already near or above the targets. It is in local institutions such as the Kidderminster college, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest referred, that the real effort is being made.
The answer is provided by the local yardsticks being developed through the TECs, and I am grateful for their invaluable work in establishing local baselines and the progress needed to contribute to the targets at national level. The Department of Employment has done excellent work here, and the TECs are to be commended. That work has always been accompanied by important promotional activities which, through the TECs' local education and training networks, are also helping to change the culture to one of expecting success.
There are many more things that I want to say today. I came here this morning with a great deal to lay before the House, but, in the interests of fairness, I want to give everyone in the Chamber a chance to speak. We all look forward to the remainder of the debate.
The Government have radically improved the structure and content of education and training, and there is now a unique opportunity to secure a step change in the attainments of young people and adults. The national targets provide a clear context for the widespread effort that is now required. Those targets are demanding, but achievable, and we cannot afford to fail in this vital national endeavour.
The hon. Member for Bath was kind enough to say that I occasionally read books, a daring fact for Ministers to reveal. Flicking through Shakespeare, I found that, as always, he has a phrase for us. In the prologue to "Henry VIII", Shakespeare refers to "a noise of targets". May the modern-day noise of targets represented by the national education and training targets be loud, cheerful and successful.
We must thank the Secretary of State for Education for his contribution. I do not know whether his target for finishing was 11 o'clock precisely, but if it was, it is one target which the Government can claim to have reached. The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the CBI conference and warm-up speeches. He read his warm-up speech well, and it was only when he started to improvise that he got into difficulties. A significant number of issues need to be addressed and the Secretary of State has set the scene for some of them.
If everything is so good, why is there so much that is so bad? I share the Secretary of State's welcome for the fact that more young people and adults are spending time in higher education. Therefore, it is all the more of a pity that many graduates cannot get employment of the kind for which 'they are qualified. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that graduate unemployment stands at 14 per cent. and that many of those who graduated recently are in jobs requiring qualifications well below the level of the degrees for which they have worked.
We welcome the expansion of higher education, but the Secretary of State must recognise that that is leading to a great deal of overcrowding in our universities and that much of the expansion has been underfunded. Such significant problems will have to be addressed on another occasion.
The CBI initiative which led to the national education and training targets and to the debate was a positive move. Some will argue that such a move should have come from Government rather than from the CBI. However, we welcome the fact that the Government support the targets and that there is some co-operation between the CBI and the TUC and other bodies. I am pleased that we are debating these issues, but we should not stake too much on the initiative alone. The Minister's rosy picture and his talk of action plans and targets are not as genuine as he would have us believe.
I should like to deal with some of the specific targets. The Minister spoke about some of the difficulties with target 1. The information that all hon. Members received this week while preparing for the debate shows that between 1991 and 1992 there was a 3·7 per cent. increase in the number of people reaching that target. However, the same briefing said that to be on target overall the increase should have been 5 per cent. and will need to be 5 per cent. in future. There is plainly no room for complacency, because much more needs to be done.
I share the concern of those who think that the picture that has been presented and some of the targets and their attainment are not necessarily an indication of progress but more a profile of where we are at the moment. There is still a long way to go. The Secretary of State did not address any of the difficulties with NVQs and GNVQs, which were raised in the recent Ofsted report. Does the Secretary of State share the concern expressed in that report that those new qualifications may do rather little to increase skills and could give students false hopes? The Secretary of State often quotes Ofsted reports and tells us about their importance and I was disapointed that he did not deal with criticisms in that report.
The Secretary of State did not mention the research conducted by Alan Smithers of Manchester university which was recently reported in the press. That research analysed the impact of NVQs and GNVQs and showed that they are moving people forward but measuring what they can currently do. The Minister should deal with those criticisms rather than brushing them to one side. If we are to make progress, we must take problems on board rather than just hearing the Minister boast about progress.
The hon. Lady is in a rejoicing mood, but rejoicing can lead to too much complacancy and it would be dangerous to be complacent about the problems that still exist.
The targets were launched with the laudable aim of creating a world-class work force. The CBI and the TUC and many other bodies involved in education and training agree that our work force needs a proper basis for education and training. That is essential if we are to be internationally competitive and have a flexible work force, which will be necessary in future. Such a proper basis is also essential to avoid the skills shortages that could undoubtedly arise if—or when, as we hope—the economic upturn finally comes.
The Minister should recognise the urgency of the problem. In its briefing to hon. Members for the debate, the CBI states:
We have to sprint rather than run to catch up with our competitors' progress.
For that reason, it is right to stress future challenges. We have to look forward in considering the needs of our young people, rather than simply considering where we are at present.
We will not transform qualifications or the basis of education and training or attack future problems simply by concentrating on what happens to post-16s and adults. We must look at the fundamentals of our education system so as to enable young people over 16 and adults to take advantage of new education and training opportunities. That is the main reason why we must move away from the Government's view of education. The Secretary of State moved away from the debate, but perhaps other hon. Members will take on board the necessity to move away from the Government's narrow view of what education is all about.
We have had several recent debates on education, but the Secretary of State has kept rather quiet about the report from the National Commission on Education, which clearly shows that how well people are educated depends on where they live, their social class, their gender and their ethnic origin. All too often, it is difficult to break through those barriers. All too often, children and young people do not get the opportunities that ey need. Their horizons are limited and their opportunities restricted. It is the Government's responsibility to counter the disadvantages that block the way for so many young people.
The CBI—which, as the. Secretary of State said, has a clear interest in this matter — says that a quantum leap is needed in Britain's education and training performance if we are to become a super-skills economy. That is the basis of the whole problem. What sort of economy do the Government envisage our being a part of in the future? It appears that they are quite happy with an education system that will equip too many people to participate only in a low-skill, low-tech, low-paid society.
The Government's 14 years in office—and the Secretary of State does not always mention this—have not resulted in even basic literacy for all and certainly not in high-skill training for the majority. We are now fewer than seven years away from the year 2000, yet Ministers hark back to the Victorian era when they should be preparing children and young people for the 21st century. The right hon. Gentleman speaks as though he still believes that the country needs an academic elite supplemented by a technological elite, which is why he concentrates on such items as super A-levels, elective schools, exorbitant amounts of money for city technology colleges and, more recently, bribes—small though they may be—to a few schools to become CTCs.
If the right hon. Gentleman is genuinely interested in preparing all our young people for the future, why have 15 CTCs received £150 million, while 24,000 schools throughout the country have struggled with neglect over many years? Ministers are happy to accept a position in which the majority of children receive a different and less well-resourced education. That is one of the fundamental difficulties that we are struggling to overcome.
We cannot continue with the outdated belief that there are children whose future employment and lives will not demand a great deal of them in terms of technological skills and enhanced levels of knowledge. The range of understanding and skills needed by young people is now very broad. Sound achievement in literacy and numeracy is fundamental and every child needs that before he can progress. However, today every child also needs familiarity with information technology, the ability to communicate and the ability to work in teams, as so many schools are encouraging them to do.
The Secretary of State must realise that currently there are unnecessarily wide differences in the basic educational attainments of our young people. That is a great cost both to the individuals concerned, who lose out, and to the country as a whole. Whether in the short or the long term, our youngsters need a higher level of basic education if they are to succeed and if the country is to make the progress that we all want.
The Government are not dealing with specific problems. In particular, they are not dealing with the cycle of under-achievement that occurs where parents did not receive very much from the education system and so are not able to motivate their children or join in the partnership at school that would be in the best interests of their children. The recent Ofsted report —which I hope we shall have time to debate on another occasion—deals with some of the problems. If there is to be progress in the schools that fact those difficulties, we need an approach other than the threat of hit squads being sent in. Instead, local authorities should be allowed to offer the support and the guidance that has proved to be so successful in many areas.
The hon. Lady has raised an important point about what, in the old days, we might have called a cycle of educational deprivation whereby parents have had learning difficulties and great problems with literacy and numeracy and passed that on from generation to generation. I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the fact that the Government are supporting the invaluable work done by the adult literacy and basic skills unit—also chaired, as it happens, by Mr. Peter Davis who chairs NACETT. He is a much-valued pluralist in these matters.
We are now making available substantial sums of money in an attempt to break into the cycle. We are concentrating on parents, through experimental schemes, in the hope that if they can be helped educationally they, in turn, can help their children.
I shall shortly deal with the problems cif adult literacy, when I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise the other main priority in tackling the problem. If we are to break the cycle of underachievement, the single most important factor must be the extension of the provision of nursery education. Without that, all other efforts might fail. I hope that he will respond positively to that approach.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the national curriculum and the need for it to provide the right basis. During the past year, Ministers have changed tack. They have recognised that throughout the country there has been total agreement that the Government have got it wrong. However, I and other people throughout the country still have serious reservations about the Government's intentions for the national curriculum. The most recent journal of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations contains an article by Baroness Blatch on the national curriculum—she writes such articles in such magazines from time to time. Although she says that Sir Ron Dearing is carrying out his review, she refers to the national curriculum not as a framework, not as a curriculum in the way that most people would understand it, but as a programme of study. That will cause concern to many people who are involved in education, as would the letter that the Secretary of State wrote to me at the end of September, when he asked me whether I supported a national curriculum, but asked whether I supported a national curriculum consisting of a syllabus to be taught in every maintained school. While there is such difficulty in the minds of Ministers about the difference between a national curriculum and a national syllabus, we obviously shall not make the kind of progress that we want on the reform of the national curriculum generally.
I shall now mention an area where I think that a former Conservative Government got something right—GCSE.
That was, as I am glad to see the hon. Member agrees, a change for the better—a change which, along with the comprehensive movement, is probably responsible in part for the increased entry into higher education. The change to GCSE has been an important breakthrough for motivating many young people. One of the reasons why the GCSE has worked in that it has had a large element of course work and continuous assessment. That has helped young people to see the reason for concentrating on their studies on an on-going basis and I am sure that problems such as truancy would have been much worse had we not had that change of examination.
I will not go over old ground, with the Minister criticising the quality of GCSE, but I ask him to be careful when he is considering what should happen at key stage 4, so as not to destroy the beneficial impact of GCSE on our 14 to 16-year-olds. We should not be destroying or undermining GCSE but building on the success that it has brought. By that I mean changing our post-16 qualification system, and that involves changing our post-16 qualification system, and that involves changing A-levels.
The Secretary of State has mentioned A-levels only in passing today, but he ought to understand just how isolated he is when it comes to reform of A-levels. There is no body of education opinion behind him in his determination to preserve A-levels at the present time. [HON. MEMBERS: "We are right behind him."] Yet again the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) is right behind the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that one day that loyalty must be rewarded. We keep having Government reshuffles and I am sure that one day that loyalty will be rewarded, but I know that the hon. Gentleman has waited very patiently.
For once I can agree with the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. I am almost speechless at his degree of loyalty, but I am also reminded of what the Secretary of State said about his European travels and the name given to the rectors. I cannot quite recall what it was.
I know the word that the hon. Lady is seeking. The Secretary of State said that the rectors of universities there were addressed to their face as "your magnificence". We would not dream of addressing the Secretary of State in quite such fulsome words, but we would be delighted to refer to his speech as magnificent.
As we near the season of goodwill, perhaps I should not say too much about the loyalty of the hon. Gentleman except to say that I am sure that the Secretary of State will be working on that title and that I am sure that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth will probably be the first to call the Secretary of State "your magnificence". He has called him many other things of almost such devotion and praise. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has another suggestion, but perhaps he can leave that one for his own speech and come back with it later.
I hope that we can get to A-levels and the reasons behind the Government's intransigence. It is rather strange that Ministers should isolate themselves quite so completely on that point. After all, the CBI, which the Secretary of State has quoted today, the Institute of Directors, the Girls Schools Association which the Secretary of State visited yesterday, the vice-chancellors, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society are all united against the Secretary of State, and yet he alone stands out, believing that he is right.
The Secretary of State has in the past accused me of wanting to lower standards because I want a reform of A-levels. I think that that is rather a strange accusation against someone who has two children in the school system, as if I do not care about their future. I have to tell the Secretary of State that it is precisely because I want something better for my children than A-levels that I want change.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, but none the less her remarks about A-levels do give rise to the thought that she wants to water them down. The great advantage of A-levels today is that they are a benchmark of excellence which is recognised worldwide. That is why Conservative Members totally support and endorse the Secretary of State in his endeavours to back the A-levels.
I am interested in what the hon. Lady says. If she will not take my word for it, is she saying that the Royal Society—those Nobel prize winners and great scientists —do not believe in high standards? What does the hon. Lady think that they are about when they say that A-levels should go? There are real problems in the way in which A-levels are structured in this country. They are not delivering the breadth of education that universities want university entrants to have. Also, the narrowness of the post-16 academic curriculum is such that it leads to all sorts of problems even for those who are considered to be high flyers.
I have the figures of A-level entrants for sciences and mathematics for the past few years. Since 1990, there has been a 7·3 per cent. reduction in the number of young people taking mathematics and science A-levels. The Secretary of State, about this time last year, said that he wanted universities to offer more science places, yet we have that trend in A-levels. Many young people with very good A-levels results in arts subjects could not get into university because their post-16 education had been so narrow that they had no flexibility; they could not transfer to science courses. That is why many departments of science in many universities lowered their entrance requirements and had vacant places. If we are really interested in quality, if we are really interested in being competitive on an international basis, we have to embrace changes in post-16 qualifications.
The Secretary of State was speaking yesterday at the Girls Schools Association about school sixth forms. His statement—let schools do A-levels and let further education colleges do job-related vocational qualifications—shows that he has not learned anything about the problems that this narrow and strict divide creates in our society and for our economic competitiveness.
The Secretary of State is clearly wrong, but he also seems to be ignorant about what is going on in our schools. He has admitted that the further education league tables are pretty nonsensical, because they give us only a tiny piece of the FE picture of achievements. He has not mentioned the very significant developments that have been going on apace in many schools, which are offering not merely A-levels post-16 or resits of GCSE examinations but BTEC and a whole range of qualifications. The Secretary of State has been left behind in understanding the changes.
If, as the Secretary of State says, the Government want a skills revolution and a breakthrough in educational achievements for all our children, and if he wants to break the cycle of under-achievement that he has acknowledged exists, I suggest that he thinks about nursery education and that he follows the apparent lead of the Prime Minister.
For Labour Members, nursery education has always been a priority. We are desperately worried that all our European neighbours and economic competitors provide much better nursery education. We are proud of the fact that so many Labour councils deliver good nursery provision for so many children.
On the subject of comparisons with nursery education in other European countries, there is no parallel, because we start main school education at five whereas in other countries in Europe it starts at six or even seven.
In other countries, even when children start school at six, a higher proportion of children aged three and four are getting that best start. The hon. Lady cannot get away from the fact that 50 per cent. of a child's development takes place before the age of five. If other countries have the sense to give their three and four-year-olds the best start, we have a lot of catching up to do.
The evidence is so overwhelming that I do not understand why the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues always want to keep quiet. Children who have had the benefit of nursery education settle into school more quickly and successfully. They achieve more during, and are more likely to obtain jobs at the end of, their school lives. The girls are far less likely to have teenage pregnancies. Children who have had the benefit of nursery education are less likely to be involved in criminal activities.
I am sure that when the Secretary of State was at the Home Office he saw the evidence that was presented by the House of Commons Select Committee on Education and from this country and abroad showing that Governments are making a significant investment in the future through spending on nursery education.
We still await answers from the Secretary of State. We have still not heard whether the Prime Minister's so-called plan for a million places is a reality. His office has riot denied the story in the Daily Express, but it has riot confirmed it either. I hope that the hon. Member who speaks for the Liberal party will tell us whether he has received a reply to the letter that he sent to the Prime Minister, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to the Secretary of State.
We live in hope of a positive response and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will report to the House as soon as he gets any response from the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman was also present at a reception in the House last week, hosted by the Association for Science Education, when the Secretary of State actually spoke.
I am not sure that that is always the case, but we will give the right hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt this morning. One thing that he said on that occasion which might surprise some people, given the Government's record during the past 14 years, was that
Successful change in education can only come about slowly.
That was something of a surprise, given the pace of change and the panic response that the Government often exhibit.
If that is the case, there is all the more need for urgency in tackling the under-provision of nursery places. It cannot be done overnight. If we do not invest in education for the under-fives, we will have more problems and we will riot be able to get on top of some of the problems—for example, illiteracy and problems with numeracy among adults—to which the Secretary of State referred in an intervention. He is clearly aware of the research that has been done during the past few years by the adult literacy and basic skills unit. Its recent evidence is chilling and frightening and shows that 25 per cent. of young people between the ages of 16 and 20 find it difficult to understand and to fill in a job application form. That is a frightening statistic and state of affairs. Far too many adults have real literacy and numeracy problems.
The most significant thing that we can do to improve literacy and numeracy is to get young children into nursery school so that they receive the right preparation and can be taught properly and will be more responsive when they enter infant school. Every piece of educational research shows that to be the case. The Government have accepted, in the targets that we have been discussing, that by 1997, only 20 per cent. of adults in this country will be at less than NVQ 2, which means that there will have to be some effort made to tackle those literacy and numeracy problems. We will do so only if we improve literacy in those leaving school, which means not merely concentrating on language within the national curriculum but ensuring that young people get the best start.
We must also tackle the backlog of illiteracy. The Secretary of State boasted about investing and about making some money available. I was at the launch of the National Literacy Association's "99 by 99" campaign. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was also there and he signed up to that aim. I am afraid that he went on to say that no extra Government action would be needed, because everything would come right now that we have a national curriculum. That was a staggering display of complacency. Even the resources to which the Secretary of State referred are not adequate to deal with the existing problems. For example, the Government have allocated £3 million to the reading recovery programme, which is welcome expenditure. It is right that the Government put money into programmes of that kind. However, I return to a point that I raised in an intervention during the Secretary of State's speech. If the Government insist on cutting section 11 money, the job of reading recovery will be a bigger job at a later stage. If we delay the learning of the English language of children for whom English is a second language, those children will need more help later. It is a false economy to cut section 11 money, because the Government will have to pay more later to tackle the problem of illiteracy.
I do not want to delay the House much longer, as other hon. Members wish to speak. The Secretary of State needs to shift from such a complacent approach. There are some serious problems and whether there is agreement on the targets—as there is now—or not, we will not achieve those targets, let alone meet all the desired international comparisons, unless there is an overall improvement in opportunities for every child.
Earlier, the Secretary of State said that, despite some of the changes, overall performance had been disappointing. In October, at the Conservative party conference, for which
the Secretary of State must have mixed memories in the light of some of his comments at the fringe meeting, he said:
For too long, too many children left our schools without the basic skills they need.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification, and I am happy to repeat the apology to the chief education officer of Birmingham, Tim Brighouse, for anything I said that may have offended him. There is no more public a place to apologise than the House of Commons.
In that case, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to report his apology to them.
I was concentrating on the Secretary of State's comments at the party conference when he said that too many children left school without basic skills, unable to read fluently, unable to express themselves clearly and grammatically, unable to do basic arithmetic and unable to read our great classics. That is a catalogue of failure, yet the Government have been in office for 14 years. If we are to set targets, they should improve the education of every child in the country. The Government have still not found themselves able to take that on board as a target and they do not accept that the education of every child matters. The Government are developing a two-tier system and for that reason their approach and policies are inadequate.
The speech of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was rather like her hair style—modest, elegant and extremely revealing. It revealed a lack of constructive thought from the Labour party after 14 years in opposition. Labour Members have-not a single constructive thought. I found it remarkable and disappointing that the hon. lady did not attempt to answer the debate in any way. My hon. Friends may also note the empty Benches opposite. There is not one Labour Back Bencher present—only the hon. Lady, sitting in splendid isolation, lonely in her place on the Front Bench.
The national targets produced for education and training are one of the Government's best kept secrets. At a time when leaks are sadly commonplace, this document has remained under wraps. It may serve as a good example of how to maintain Government security.
I shall now quote from a letter that I received from the chairman of the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets because one of the paragraphs in the letter summarises today's admirable debate. It says:
The National Targets are rooted in the need to maintain and, where possible, improve our competitiveness in the international economy. It is now widely recognised that competitiveness both for the individual business and the economy as a whole, depends crucially on the capacity of the workforce at all levels.
That is absolutely right, and I am delighted to have the assent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), who, as a business man, is well aware of those matters. We shall listen with great interest to what my hon. Friend has to say. The targets present a genuinely challenging and ambitious attempt to lift the standard of training and education for a substantial part of the nation's work force. It is an entirely laudable objective. British industry, employers and trade unions have long been calling for a real improvement in the quality of education and skills of British people.
The excellent document, "National Targets for Education and Training", goes a substantial way to meeting those demands. The targets are detailed and cover two distinct areas: foundation learning and lifetime learning. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has a memory aid in his possession. I have a similar one, but the difference between us is that I do not need mine.
I return to the two distinct subjects—foundation learning and lifetime learning. By 1997, the target is that 80 per cent. of young people should reach national vocational qualification level 2. That is a fairly bald statement, but it represents a great leap forward, for it starts from a 51 per cent. level in 1991. To achieve the 80 per cent. target by 1997, it will be necessary to produce an increase of 5 per cent. per annum. That is a massive undertaking.
My right hon. and hon. Friends will try to ensure that training and education to NVQ level 3 will be made available to all those young people who might benefit from that specific and important qualification. It is intended that, by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of all young people should be at NVQ level 3. That is another ambitious challenge, for the starting point in 1991 was only 30 per cent. arid the progress required is therefore an increase of 2 per cent. per year.
Substantial added resources have been made available to education over the whole period that the Government have been in office. I have no doubt that what we have seen in the past we shall continue to see in the future.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the increase in the numbers of students. I draw comfort from that. We have been able to exceed the original targets set for admissions to universities, and that augurs well for the targets that we are discussing today.
I should like to draw the attention of the House to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe). I am delighted to see her sitting in her accustomed place on the Front Bench. I am aware that she has launched an important programme entitled "Getting On". It is designed to encourage employers to train those who are aged 55 or over and it sets out a five-point plan for employers in recruiting, training and retraining programmes. I hope that guidelines will shortly be issued. I am also happy to acknowledge the fact that this is my hon. Friend's initiative. I am not surprised, as she has a well-deserved reputation for having an original mind—something that Labour Members clearly know nothing about.
I shall deal now with lifetime learning. By 1996, all employees should have taken part in their training or development activities. That is a harder target to measure because there are no current figures which, in itself, may be something of a comment on the situation. Surveys suggest that 60 per cent. of employers have some form of training activity, albeit of somewhat variable quality. The target is that, by 1996, 50 per cent. of the nation's work force should be aiming at NVQs. The figure in 1991—I give it merely for comparison purposes— was under 10 per cent., so the progress required to reach that target is a fivefold increase in 10 years. When that happens, that will be both a memorable and a notable achievement.
The Government are probably determined to increase levels of attainment and participation in education. To do so, they are building on substantial achievements. They have introduced a wide range of innovations, including the national curriculum and testing, city technology colleges, grant-maintained schools, local management of schools, Ofsted and league tables. They have given the nation's parents and employers a far greater say in children's education than ever before.
My hon. Friend mentioned local management of schools and the grant-maintained movement, which give schools greater flexibility and allow them to achieve the closer links with industry on which high-quality training depends. However, is not the most important measure, particularly in further education, allowing further education colleges to be independent of local authorities so that they can act as self-justifying and activating businesses, thereby improving links with the community? I know from my local college that that is happening apace.
My hon. Friend has referred, most eloquently, to a point that I was going to bring to the attention of the House. He has done it so well that I probably need not refer to it myself, or perhaps I shall do so only in passing.
My hon. Friend need not be sorry; he was right to draw attention to it. I believe that the freeing up of further education colleges will become one of the great educational achievements of the Government. As a direct result of the initiatives that I have detailed, the Government have presided over the greatest expansion in advanced education ever. When we came into office, only one in eight of our young people were in advanced education. Today, the proportion is one in three, and last year the total number of young people in education was almost 100,000. That is equivalent to about 10 new universities, a point which was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his admirable speech.
There is a continuing and vital role for schools to play. Foundation target 1 seeks to stretch young people, particularly those at GCSE level. I acknowledge freely that the point was made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury. The national curriculum is already helping to set higher standards in schools and is seeking to raise the expectations of the pupils and the teachers.
Teachers have a major part to play in the attainment of national education and training targets. I have long argued in the House that the overwhelming majority of teachers are dedicated both to the profession and to the children in their charge. I have no doubt that they will rise to the challenge of targets.
I wish to refer to another admirable document that I have received. It is produced by Industry in Education—a partnership for the achievement of excellence in education—and some of the comments are well worth quoting in the House. I was particularly impressed by the statement welcoming the implementation of the general national vocational qualifications to provide a wide range of skills in vocational subjects to suit a broad cross-section of students:
Industry in Education applauds the Government's initiative in recognising the GNVQ as a Vocational A level thereby making the A level qualification available to a significant number of students.
I mention that particularly because the point was made by the hon. Lady and was enhanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). My hon. Friend raised the specific question of A-levels and made a considerable point about their importance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest made the point that further education colleges have a major part to play, especially as they are now free of local authority control. The colleges are able to pursue their own aims, ambitions and programmes.
Colleges hold a significant share of the market, in both training and education. I believe that that share will continue to grow as more young people require—and, more importantly, receive—further education courses. I also believe that more adults will be engaged in lifetime learning, to their own and the nation's benefit. The targets properly enjoy the support of a wide range of major organisations—for example, the Confederation of British Industry, the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the Government, training and enterprise councils, and even the trade unions. All those bodies properly understand the importance of a value-added work force.
My final quote comes from the CBI, which should be congratulated on its initiative:
The CBI was the instigator for the establishment of National Education and Training Targets (NETTs). It first lobbied for challenging world-class targets to be set in the CBI Task Force Report 'Towards a Skills Revolution' (1989). Then, after extensive consultation with all the key players in the education and training field, the national targets were launched in July 1991. The NETTs were launched with the support of the Government, the TUC, most of the TECs and LECs, educationalists, public authorities and other bodies involved in education or training.
The only name missing from that catalogue seems to be the Opposition. I am not sure what they were doing or whether they were thought worthy of consultation by the CBI, but it seems that, sadly, no reference was made to the Opposition.
It is, indeed, a truism that a nation's people are its most important asset. If that asset can be improved, sharpened and enhanced, the nation's prosperity will increase. No one out there owes Great Britain a living. If our industries and our businesses are to succeed, they will require a better trained and better educated work force in the future—a work force able to take on our competitors and produce better products more competitively.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the Pacific rim countries—the Tigers. There is no doubt that those countries have expanded their programmes and training schemes at a phenomenal rate. We in Britain must at least match those countries in skills and education if we are to hold and improve our position in an increasingly competive world.
I referred earlier to the enormous expansion that has taken place in advanced education. That expansion has been funded and fuelled principally by the taxpayer. I believe that we shall soon have to reconsider the way in which that funding continues, as there must be a limit to the amount of cash that we can extract from the British taxpayer for the support of our university students. It may be necessary to expand the interest-free loan more quickly than was originally envisaged, with a corresponding reduction in the value of the grant. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam made the point that the number of students was increasing, despite what people said when the interest-free student loan was introduced.
The national targets for education and training represent a substantial initiative in a particularly important area of our national life. Here I become, I freely admit, somewhat controversial. I may not have the entire and whole-hearted support of at least one of my hon. Friends currently sitting on the Front Bench.
I hold the view that education and training should be under one head and that the current division of responsibility between the Department for Education and the Department of Employment is no longer appropriate.
There is no question of my hon. Friend being made redundant in any Administration who attach importance to a bright, lively, intelligent mind. I have not the slightest doubt that in the fullness of time my hon. Friend will move from Under-Secretary of State to Secretary of State. I look forward to addressing her in the House as my right hon. Friend. I hope that that puts her fears at rest.
The hon. Gentleman might like to comment on the impending departure of the permanent secretary, who I understand is quite keen on the idea that the hon. Gentleman advocates. The hon. Gentleman has given assurances to the Minister about the rosy career ahead of her in government, saying that anyone bright and lively with an intelligent mind would make such progress—so how come he has not made such progress himself?
The answer to the first part of the hon. Lady's question is no. The answer to the second part is that I am perhaps a rarity in the House—a contented Member of Parliament. Unlike the hon. Lady, I derive enormous satisfaction from what I do, and I believe that I can make a reasonably positive contribution. The hon. Lady clearly feels frustrated, and I understand why. After 14 years in the desert of opposition, with the prospect of a further 14 years in the desert before the promised land heaves into sight, of course she is frustrated. It is well-known that I like the hon. Lady, and I have the utmost respect for her. I only wish that her talents were more usefully employed—on the Government Benches —as I fear that on the Opposition Benches she is in for a long, long wait before she gets her hands on the seals of office. I regret it, but it is true.
The two subjects should be brought together and one Department should be responsible for both. That Department should be the Department for Education. That would ensure a much better interface between school, college and business, a better interface between education and training, and an improved relationship that would bridge the gap which sometimes exists between what schools think employers want and what employers actually need.
The targets represent a major step forward both in education and in training, and I look forward to their successful implementation.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State is unable to be with us for this part of the lengthy debate, but I understand that he has to attend to important legal matters. Were he here, I would have said to him that I think his speech today was rather less controversial than many of the other speeches that he has made in the House. As the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) pointed out, it is the second time in eight days that the Secretary of State for Education has made what, for him, was a relatively uncontroversial speech. That is to be welcomed.
I was saddened by the Secretary of State's remarks about Tower Hamlets. That is an issue about which we can have further debate outside the Chamber.
The only detailed criticism I would make of the Secretary of State is about the way that he began his speech. It was very unfair that, at 9.30 on a Friday morning, he should tease us about the possibility of his resignation.
A further point about the increasing emollience of the Secretary of State is the way that he recently agreed to the dropping of his "mums' army" proposals—although he did not do it personally, but arranged for one of his colleagues to do so.
Even though the Secretary of State is less controversial and more emollient, I know that he still upsets some people. I felt very sorry for the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on the day that the Secretary of State's "mums' army" proposals were dropped. I was appearing on a television programme with the hon. Lady and she was extolling at great length the virtues of the measure that was to be dropped later in the day.
The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) was also more emollient than he has been in the past, notwithstanding his strange comments about the hair of the hon. Member for Dewsbury.
One of the reasons for the lack of controversy so far is that, at long last, there is agreement among all political parties—and, I suspect, across the nation—about the vital importance of education and training to the future of this nation. The House is aware that 100 years ago—maybe even 50 years ago—the economic prosperity of the nation did not depend on a highly skilled, highly trained and highly educated work force. We all now acknowledge that it very definitely does.
We all acknowledge that investment in education and training not only benefits the individual but represents an investment in the future of this nation. I would go further and say that it is the crucial investment. I suspect, therefore, that today's debate is not so much about ends as about means to ends. One thing is clear: many of our current economic problems stem from a failure in the past to reach decisions based on the consensus which now exists.
The Secretary of State said that he recognises the difficulty of using international comparisons. It is also dangerous, however, to make selective use of them. I agree with the Secretary of State that this country spends a greater percentage of its gross domestic product on education than Germany or Japan, but he failed to refer to the United States, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, all of which have spent more on education than the United Kingdom in recent years.
The recent report of the National Commission on Education referred to a number of interesting statistics comparing our economic performance with that of a number of our competitors. It also compared our poor education and training standards with those of our competitors. The connection between the two is stark.
If we are to compete more successfully in world markets, urgent but carefully planned action is necessary. Reference has already been made to the excellent and helpful brief that we all received from the CBI. It reported on our competitors' progress and said:
We have to sprint rather than run to catch up with them.
That phrase struck a chord with me.
Today, we are discussing the first annual report of the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets, and it has acknowledged that the progress made in achieving those targets must be quickened. The Secretary of State also acknowledged that when he said that there is no room for complacency.
The Secretary of State also rightly referred to a number of achievements—for example, the greater participation in further and higher education that has been secured. Sadly, there is always a downside to any such comment. Although the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Front Bench may praise themselves for that increased expansion in student numbers, will they also take time to investigate and try to find a solution to the problem of the growing number of people who drop out of further and higher education?
It is worth reflecting that the drop-out rate in higher education is now higher than it has ever been, at one in eight students. There is also significant concern about the increasing drop-out rate of students from further education colleges.
The other downside is the way in which much of the expansion of higher and further education has been inadequately funded4t is expansion on the cheap. All too often, we now hear about problems of overcrowding in lecture theatres, inadequate stocks of equipment and of books in libraries to cater for students in colleges and universities.
The Secretary of State has proudly boasted that, after a short time, an additional 100,000 students are now in further and higher education. He went on to say that that number was equivalent to founding a dozen new universities. Is there any evidence, however, that the necessary capital expenditure required for a dozen new universities has been made available for those extra students? It has not.
There is growing concern about the increased backlog of repair and maintenance at existing higher and further education institutions. When the Under-Secretary of State for Employment winds up, perhaps she will confirm my estimate that the backlog at higher education institutions alone stands in the region of £1 billion. While there has been welcome progress, the downside must be addressed if the targets are to be achieved.
I welcome the Secretary of State's comment that his key aim is expansion with high quality. The targets that we are debating are, in the words of the advisory council's chairman, not world-class standard but the minimum required to be competitive. Much reference has been made to the foundation learning target 1. While we are struggling to meet that target of 80 per cent. at NVQ level 2 by 1997, it has already been surpassed in some of our competitor countries—most notably, in Germany.
What has been done and what could be done? Reference was made also to the importance of business-education partnerships. I welcome their development in all sorts of guises, which has played a crucial role in developing the vocational work that is increasingly being seen in schools. I place on record my party's thanks to the many businesses that have increasingly become involved.
The problem is that, sometimes, things are taken too far. It is occasionally assumed that the education service can be turned into a business. There is a crucial difference between the key functions of business and those of a service. I was disturbed by the intervention of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), when he said that further education colleges, having been freed from local education authorities, could run as businesses. I do not accept that FE colleges should treat themselves as businesses. They should certainly be efficient and economic and provide value for money, but they ought not to operate on the same fundamental principles that underpin businesses.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, has visited further education colleges since they gained their independence, and has spoken to principals and others involved in them. Does he acknowledge that they welcome the greater flexibility that independence has provided, and that a number of their areas of operation can be very businesslike?
The Minister's question gives me an opportunity to say that certain aspects of an FE college's day-to-day operation, as of a school or any other educational institution, can benefit considerably from learning from the world of business and commerce in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. However, taking that to the extreme and treating the institution and its activities as a business means choosing between courses that will generate money and those that may not generate so much money but are more desperately needed in the local community.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. From his discussions with people working in further education, can he confirm that one of their major concerns is that the Further Education Funding Council is playing a critical role in planning, but it has not yet become very refined? Many colleges feel that it prevents them from operating in the educational interests of their students, because the funding formulas used dictate that colleges move in a direction that may be against the direct interests of their students.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I shall give an example: current funding arrangements make it increasingly difficult for further education colleges to run courses for part-time students. We want to increase the number of part-time students and widen the access for various different groups in society.
The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point, which I hope that the Education Ministers present will take on board. Part-time students are not funded in a way that benefits colleges, as full-time students are. A significant number of colleges want to expand part-time provision, but find that they are financially penalised if they do so, which is unfair.
There is a lot of prop and copping going on here.
There is at least one other Minister with direct further education responsibility. In my experience, far from the implications inherent in the comments of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), there has been significant growth, even since April, in interest in both full-time and part-time courses, notwithstanding the different financing structures for those courses. On my visits to and contacts with further education institutions, I have not encountered the disadvantages for part-time students implied by earlier comments.
I am grateful to the Minister, but I hope that he will take my word for it— on my visits I have encountered such problems. It appears that other hon. Members share my experience.
I was referring to the importance of education-business partnerships. I have acknowledged that they are important and can be helpful in a number of sectors, provided that they are not to be taken to the extreme lengths that I have described. One such partnership led to the original proposal by the Confederation of British Industry for the targets.
I accept that the targets can, as part of an effective framework for improvement, provide a useful tool, particularly if they are not used in the way that it was being suggested that the Department wanted to use them. We have seen some school examination results and information about truancy used to form the basis of crude league tables. The targets must be part of a co-ordinated package aimed at improving standards.
The Secretary of State said that he hoped that the targets were common ground between the political parties. I must disappoint him by saying that there is growing concern that the targets being debated today are, in some respects, arbitrary and unrealistic, and deal only with the short term. That view can be illustrated in a number of ways.
The first lifetime learning target states that, by 1996, all employees should participate in training or development activities. Yesterday, I talked to CENTEC, one of the London training and enterprise councils. It was made clear to me that 27 per cent. of London businesses have no staff training, and, as far as CENTEC can see, there is no prospect of their doing so. The target is not always realistic.
The second lifetime learning target states that, by 1996, 50 per cent. of the work force should be aiming towards NVQs or units towards them. My training and enterprise council in Avon states that its figure is between 2 and 3 per cent.—nowhere near the 50 per cent. target.
A further 7 or 8 per cent. are doing other vocational qualifications which, in turn, will be taken on to the NVQ system. But the combined figure will still be only about 10 per cent. So there is evidence that some of the targets are unrealistic.
The Secretary of State admitted as much today, and said that it was important to develop the targets. He clearly shared my view when he spoke of the need to ensure the continued relevance and challenging nature of the targets. He also admitted that one change had already been made in respect of the four-or-five-GCSEs problem. So there is general agreement that the targets need modification and development to ensure that the challenge extends into the longer term.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was challenged by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) because she made no specific proposals. It is for her to defend herself, but I should like to make six proposals for a way forward that might help to develop our standards in training and education.
First, we must have a much more co-ordinated framework for education and training. I am glad that the Government are already committed to the rapid completion of the national framework for vocational standards and qualifications. They rightly add to that the need to ensure that those qualifications are more widely recognised and used. But that in itself is not enough to develop the framework that I want.
It was a Conservative Government in 1962 who said in one of their White Papers:
a serious weakness in our present arrangements is that the amount and quality of industrial training are left to unco-ordinated decisions of a large number of individual firms.
Thirty years later, one year ago almost to the very day, the then Secretary of State for Employment admitted in an article in The Times that the training system in this country is a muddle. She also referred to the "alphabet soup" of acronyms for the Department's many initiatives, which, she added, are largely unknown.
Even more recently, the Institute of Manpower Studies criticised the training targets because they do not form part of a coherent national strategy. I suggest that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth hit the nail on the head when he advocated one approach to this problem.
Liberal Democrats have long argued, and the National Commission on Education argued only three weeks ago, that, as the hon. Gentleman proposed, there should be an integration of training with education. Liberal Democrats and the commission would argue that that be done by establishing a Department for education and training.
I hope for a positive ministerial response to that idea, although I am slightly wary of it, because it may give more powers to the current Secretary of State for Education, and that worries some of us. I do not suppose that it worries the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) much, however, because she knows that, in the right hon. Gentleman, she is assured of a good retraining programme.
I should particularly like the Minister to respond to my second proposal, which is that we devote more energy and attention to small businesses, which are the engine room of recovery. They will provide the future prosperity of this country, and their importance cannot be overstated. I hope today to hear that many of the measures we have been discussing will increasingly be targeted on small businesses and on ways of helping them.
I think that the Minister would agree that far more needs to be done to target, for instance, the "investors in people" programme on small businesses.
Thirdly, we must go still further in establishing parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications.
The hon. Lady says, "Hear, hear." Conservative Members have been saying that for the past three months on this issue. Some have suggested that the establishment of NVQs and GNVQs has solved the problem. It has not. There is no parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications, and there will not be such parity while the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and others continue to talk up the so-called "gold standard" of the A-level. Our schools should have a co-ordinated curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds.
It is relevant to the hon. Gentleman's eloquent argument that we have tried to talk up vocational A-levels. Instead of saying that we should have gold standard A-levels or training, we are mixing vocational training and A-levels, and thereby share the hon. Gentleman's aim.
There is a gradual coming together in the House on the issue, but the current arrangements do not achieve what the hon. Lady suggests. A pupil may speak about following a mixture of academic and vocational studies, but we need to find ways in which that can be done. Sadly, there have been far too many fine words in the debate. There have been some developments, but we must move forward.
My fourth suggestion relates to the voluntary nature of much that is taking place. There is growing concern that the voluntary requirements on firms are not leading them to do very much. I welcome the targets that have been set, but what incentives are being offered to push individuals and companies towards them? We should require that every 16, 17 and 18-year-old in employment should be guaranteed a minimum of one day, a week off-the-job training. We shall, of course, have to consider ways to fund that and other matters. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider a training levy scheme different from those in the past.
My fifth suggestion relates to more general funding. I acknowledge that, to be successful, funding must come not only from Government but from individuals and companies. There is complete agreement on that.
Let us look at the Government side of the arrangements. Direct public spending on off-the-job vocational training has been cut in real terms over the past five years. That is disturbing. It is disgraceful that Government expenditure on training fell dramatically at the height of the current recession. According to Government figures, there was a fall of 15 per cent. in cash terms and 26 per cent. in real terms between 1989–90 and 1991–92.
I have recently spoken to many people in TECs and have discovered that they find funding, especially for youth training, difficult. People in my TEC told me that funding for youth training is "extremely near the knuckle." The squeeze on local government has also created difficulties. One example, although I could cite many, relates to the discretionary awards that are so desperately needed to ensure expansion across the community.
I am delighted that the National Commission on Education recognised the need for increased expenditure on education and training. As hon. Members are aware, my party is committed to such expenditure. We have said that, if necessary, we are prepared to raise income tax by 1p to pay for that vital increase in expenditure.
Sixthly, one of the most crucial actions we could take is to ensure that everyone in this country has the best and earliest possible start. Like the hon. Member for Dewsbury, I urge Ministers and all Conservative Members to think again about the crucial importance of nursery education.
When the Secretary of State heard what the National Commission on Education report recommended, he pushed it to one side, saying, "We simply do not have the money." Sadly, he still sees money spent on education as a cost. In fact, money spent on education is an investment in the future of the nation—and money spent on and invested in nursery education is, without doubt, the best form of investment in our future.
Progress is being made, although I regret that it is often fragmented. Nevertheless, it is welcome. I hope that I have made some positive suggestions for the way forward. There is no doubt that urgent action is needed; otherwise, in the words of the advisory council whose report we are considering, we shall be left with a work force that is under-educated and under-trained.
I express the warmest admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government in achieving the dramatic expansion in the numbers in higher education which my right hon. Friend announced today. It is a brilliant achievement that there are now 1 million students in higher education, with no fewer than 100,000 having been added this year. The universities have made the most enormous effort to accommodate that expansion and they are to be warmly congratulated.
The expansion has not come without a great battle by the Government. I always opposed the binary line, which was first introduced by a Labour Government and has never been repudiated by the Labour party. I debated the matter with Anthony Crosland, no less, and I could never understand how anyone with his views and the views that we hear so often from the Labour party could successively support the separation of private higher education from public higher education, with its two-tier effect, and the lack of parity of esteem for people who are often of equal achievement in higher education. It is very much to the Government's credit—and to the credit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, among others—that the binary line was abolished and that there is proper parity of esteem between those who achieve university degrees and those who achieve other higher education qualifications.
I have a real concern about discretionary awards. Most, if not almost all, of them go to students undertaking vocational courses, which are very germane to the matter before us today. Some local authorities have decided to give no discretionary awards. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has wide sympathy in this area, to investigate the matter. Some excellent institutions are on the verge of collapse because they cannot attract students as those students cannot obtain the discretionary awards needed to follow courses that would unquestionably lead to valuable qualifications and to work both in this country and abroad.
I have bolstered many students in my own constituency by seeking to obtain money from charitable institutions and so on, but there is a limit to what one can do in that respect. So, at the same time as saying how marvellous it is that in this very year no fewer than 100,000 additional students will receive mandatory awards, with all the high value of that and the eternal value to those people and to our nation and to the prospects of work for all concerned, it is a real worry that no doubt several thousand other students will not get into a form of advanced or higher education because a discretionary award will not be available to them. Something must be done.
In the middle of September, I called together all the schools in my constituency—every primary school and every secondary school, including independent schools and independent primary schools—and invited my old friend Sir Ron Dearing to come and discuss the work that he was undertaking. It was a conference of the highest value. I invited to that conference, because I thought that it was the right thing to do, the heads of schools, chairmen of governors, an elected parent and an elected assistant teacher, and I invited a student to come as an observer but to be free to speak. It was an extremely well-attended conference.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their support for that idea. It was a valuable and long afternoon.
We debated with Sir Ron Dearing what we were seeking to do about the curriculum and about idealism in education. I am one of those people who used to applaud the noble Lord Hailsham and others before him, and the great figures in the history of education such as Thomas Arnold, when I read that they said or heard them say that education is a pure science in itself. I want people to be educated for its own sake. That means that they do not have to be applied to any particular discipline to achieve the roundness and full education that everyone ought to achieve. I thought that through many times, and we thought it through at my conference.
I have come to the conclusion, and my conference came to the conclusion, that there is no reason why that type of idealism should not be combined into an education which also takes children and young adults, and not-so-young adults if they are in higher education, through disciplines that are relevant to career opportunities. The educational establishment and its leaders have called for idealism in education because idealism brings out the best in people.
We led into discussions about the national curriculum, which was warmly welcomed and supported by the conference, as was the national syllabus, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). There is no reason why the subjects in which children are educated should not lead them forward, ideally and practically, into further and higher education courses and then into jobs of value to our nation.
I had the fortune to serve on the Select Committee on Education and Science for three Parliaments until I was removed by an odd device last year. Since then, I have had the honour to serve on the Select Committee on Education and so I have had the unique opportunity of a combined view of the various matters before the House. I visited the Pacific rim countries of Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan with that Select Committee. During the visit I investigated education there and tried to find out what links were made with training and how their people and economies benefited.
First, one must ensure that one has a policy for literacy. Japan claims to be 99·9 per cent. literate. I think that the accuracy of that statement would probably depend on one's definition of "literate". In this country, we define 90 per cent. of our population as literate.
An ability to understand form filling is fundamental. One needs to be able to fill in forms to get a job and to live within society—for example, when dealing with income tax and other demands on the individual. Also, at the lowest level, people need to be able to read and write to comprehend the basic numeracy problems that may be put before any adult in work. It is not enough—as some firms have claimed—to say that a machine operator does not need to be literate because he is pulling a handle and if he pulls it too hard a red light is set off which warns him that he is applying a dangerous level of force. Operators must be able to read the manual for a machine and few of our workers at the lowest, or even the highest, levels can operate machinery—including computers—without being able to read the manual that goes with them.
The same applies in the home. If one purchases a Hoover, one often has to assemble it according to a picture and some basic instructions. A person who cannot follow the instructions cannot live normally in the home.
I have made those basic points because I think that countries such as Japan have realised that that is what fundamental education is about and what literacy is. If one can put one's least intelligent children through an education which achieves that result, one will do them and the nation a service.
I welcome the diversity of schools, educational institutions and qualifications that the Government have been able to establish. They have had to fight hard against uniformity in education and the pressure, from both the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, for a single form of secondary education, for example, has been enormous. The Government have been right to resist the pressure to have comprehensive schools alone, and mixed comprehensives at that. Those parties would also have stopped independent schools—and I think that that is still their aim—from achieving that goal, which would result in uniformity in the system and would make the children of this nation lack individuality. The only way that one can cater for the individuality of every child is to have various kinds of schools such as single sex schools, mixed schools, church schools, comprehensive schools, grammar schools, city technology colleges and now grant-maintained schools, the principle of which has been so well established by the Government. Surely the principle must now extend to the right of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others to have their own schools.
I shall put a quick question and perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be equally brief in his response. Does he agree that the vast majority of children in Britain have no choice whatever about which school they attend, which is why it is crucial to ensure that all schools are capable of providing excellence for all?
It is a frightfully false and dangerous argument to say that because some children have no choice—presumably the hon. Gentleman means geographically—choice should be taken from everybody. That monstrous and false argument has been peddled by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party for too long. It is intellectual and practical rubbish and worng.
Three requirements must be met to achieve a good education for all children—including the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who is about to leave—and adults, too. Schools must ensure good attendance, hard work and good behaviour. I could talk about those requirements for many hours.
Those were my priorities for 23 years in the teaching profession. Children cannot achieve anything if they are not at school, so there must be pressure on attendance and action taken against truancy. While children are at school, it is up to the staff to ensure that they work hard and relevantly. Under the Government's relevant and valuable curriculum, hard work may be inspired. Thirdly, good behaviour is essential. If a child is not behaving, not working and not attending, there will be no achievement.
First I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate on national education and training targets. If it does not appear condescending, may I say that I have been struck by the quality and thoughtfulness of the speeches from both sides of the House. There seems to be an emerging consensus of opinion on the importance of the targets as a means of upgrading the skills and aspirations of people in the country. I cannot think of a more important subject for the House to discuss because on it will depend our country's economic and social future, through which we can fulfil the potential of the people. After all, that is what Parliament and democracy are all about. In view of that importance, it is a little disappointing that there is not one Opposition Back Bencher prepared to come along and speak.
National education training targets always seem to be put in an economic context. That is perhaps understandable, as they were suggested by the CBI as a result of its consultation paper, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) referred. In one sense, the economic target is important. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was right to say that, although enormous progress has and is being made on those targets, an enormous amount of work is still to be done. That is why the targets were set up by the CBI. In its document—produced by the national manufacturing council of the CBI—called "Making It In Britain", it identified the productivity gap between Britain and our competitor nations as between 20 and 40 per cent. The CBI said that we must make up that gap within a period of 10 years. To do that, over the next 10 years we shall have to have consistent improvement in productivity of the kind that we have seen over the past two or three years, despite the recession. We would be blind beyond belief not to realise that it is a question of sprinting, not running, to catch up. There is every evidence that we are doing that.
We have spoken of investment. The OECD has said that, in terms of both hard investment in manufacturing and soft investment in innovation and training, our investment figures have held up well throughout the recession, in comparison with our competitors. The important point is that how well that investment produces an increase in productivity depends on the skills base of the people using the equipment. It is all about growing people, about people being made more aware of their own potential and, as a result, improving their performance.
Professor Charles Handy told us some time ago, very percipiently, that where 20 years ago two thirds of jobs were unskilled, by now the proportion would be reversed and two thirds would require a significant amount of skill to be performed properly. That has been reflected in the fact that it is estimated that in the course of one's career one is likely to change jobs or professions at least twice and perhaps even three times. Those perceptions have been made evident in the document "The Case for Targets" issued to all of us by the National Advisory Council for Targets in Education and Training. It spoke about the highest qualification of school leavers and compared this country with France and Germany. Although there has been an enormous amount of catching up, there is still a significant gap.
Even more significant for our economic performance, in its "Making it in Britain" document the CBI points out that although we have on occasions reached levels of productivity growth and output growth that match and sometimes exceed some of those in the rest of the world, we have not been consistent enough in doing so. We have not consistently, every year, made a percentage increase in productivity and output. That has as much to do with how we use our investment, and therefore the skills base of the people using it, as with investment itself. In a recent publication in Education, it was interesting to see the chief education officer of Darlington writing about the enterprise skills that he is trying to encourage in the north-east.
That is the economic side, but nobody should suggest that the targets are purely economic and about improving human capital, to use that rather ugly phrase. They are about stretching people, about giving them investment, through qualification, in the community and thus making them more contented and, one hopes, more law-abiding citizens. There is no doubt that the most persistent offenders in our society are those who feel most alienated from it. One is more likely to feel alienated if one has no investment in terms of educational qualification and one therefore does not feel that one can reach the levels to which one aspires.
To put all that in context, we have heard that there have been enormous achievements over the past few years. Staying-on rates in schools have risen from 46 per cent. in 1985 to 71 per cent. this year. We have heard about the massive increase in numbers going on to higher education and the numbers doing the general national vocational qualification certificate—80,000 youngsters this year. As I said in an intervention, in my local college in Kidderminster no fewer than half the full-time students are doing GNVQs.
We have heard about yet another initiative—investors in people. Some 4,000 firms are now engaged in that, and it will have some effect on improving the statistic that although three quarters of the work force have some form of qualification, those qualifications are perhaps not of the kind or the rigour that we should like them to be. The Government have put an enormous amount of resources into technical education, both through the national curriculum and through the technical and vocational education initiative, on which I will say more later. The Government have spent £900 million in the past 10 years, with the intention not only of broadening the curriculum but, more important, of improving the links between schools and businesses in local communities. That is significant for improving the skills base and for reaching targets, particularly the foundation targets. At present, 90 per cent. of secondary schools have some permanent link with local businesses.
We are making progress on the targets themselves. Those figures are outlined in the document from the National Advisory Council on Education and Training Targets, and I will not repeat them. There are two areas about which we must talk on national targets—the first is foundation learning and the second is lifetime learning. I was glad that the Secretary of State said that we have redefined what is meant by NVQ level 2. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made the point as to whether the level should mean four or five A to C GCSE passes, and consistency is important.
There is a problem in terms of the national consciousness as to what we mean by NVQ level 2. As the numbers who achieve that level increase, it is particularly important that we convince the public that it is a rigorous assessment. The hon. Members for Bath and for Dewsbury have both said that the GCSE has been a tremendous boon for commitment and achievement in our schools.
Nevertheless, the Ofsted report suggested that there was limited confidence in GCSE results and that eyebrows had been raised by the fact that the number of people getting five A to C passes had increased by 6 per cent. when in the previous two years the number had not changed by a great deal.
Reference was made by the hon. Lady to the recent Ofsted reports on GNVQs and their variable standards. The type of problems that were looked at included the level of teaching time, low entry qualifications, and assessment processes which were hard to understand. Those subjects ought to be addressed if we are to maintain the credibility of the targets.
The fact that the targets are to be achieved on foundation learning initially by 16-year-olds means that one must address the kind of curriculum that people from level 3 of the national curriculum will face from the age of 14 upwards. We have been bedevilled by a plethora of validating bodies through the GCSE. We did have 12, and there are now six. We have also been bedevilled, as has been said before, by the 4,000 qualifications that the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is now trying to rationalise. It is important to remember that, although we must rationalise, we must hold on to that which is good.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) that it would be lunacy to throw away A-levels, which are used as a benchmark of excellence by employers, just because we wish to make the progress in education of people from the ages of 14 to 18 more consistent. If we set great store by pupils reaching targets at 16, it is crucial that we have rigorous testing at key stage 3 at the age of 14. We need to know the point where people start so that an appropriate curriculum can be devised for when they will be achieving the two foundation learning targets. There comes the rub. Should we have a 14-to-18 curriculum which glories in diversity and includes not only academic qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels but GNVQs, BTEC and so on, or should we, as the National Commission on Education appears to argue, settle for a general education diploma which, with a certain amount of flexibility, would be taken by everyone?
We are too narrow in A-level choices now. If we are to tempt students into doing a broad variety of subjects up to 18 we must, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment mentioned, make available a menu at different levels, some at A-level and some at GNVQ and so on, so that we provide the rigour of A-levels but, at the same time, the breadth of GNVQs. It may cause a few heart attacks for university entrance examiners, but that is too bad: they will have to face it. They have to face it now because 15 per cent. of new entrants to universities are mature students, and they will have to get used to it for the sake of breadth and rigour in the school curriculum.
The technology colleges are an excellent idea, as are city technology colleges, which are three times oversubscribed. I am delighted that the funding that the Secretary of State suggests for them will be results-oriented. It is right that one of the results that will be borne in mind is longer hours for children in the classroom. I understand that some of the technology colleges are aiming for 1,200 hours a year, as opposed to an average in England of about 850 at present. I should like to see results-oriented funding extended to all maintained schools, not only to voluntary and grant-maintained schools. I understand that the CTC chairmen argued for that. I should also like to see more assistance given in technology colleges by local businesses, possibly with the assistance of tax grants.
The targets for lifetime learning represent enormous strides forward. I mentioned that about 75 per cent. of people in companies in Britain now receive some training. The total amount spent on training by firms is about £20 billion to £21 billion—an all-time record. Too often, the training does not result in any vocational qualification. It is more looking over Sally's shoulder and learning how to do a job which is directly relevant to that firm but not relevant elsewhere. It is important that the targets will encourage transferability of qualifications and therefore mobility within the work force.
I congratulate the Government on the large number of schemes for the unemployed. I hope that they will be gradually dovetailed into the lifetime learning targets and that they will encourage people, as they do now, to retrain, re-equip, reskill and find a job again. One thing that worries me slightly is that when one goes through the Department of Employment's job schemes, the one word that continually comes up is "innovative". There is a certain need for rationalisation, as the previous Secretary of State for Employment said last year. It is not just the acronyms. It is a question of people being confused by the menu of different schemes available.
In my constituency, certain schemes were not adequately taken up when they were introduced. The interface between the training and enterprise council and the employment office in the constituency was not adequate. I had people coming to me and saying, "What about the learning for work scheme, Mr. Coombs? I went down to the employment office and they did not know the first thing about it." It is important that we rationalise schemes and make them more accessible to the public.
Equally, it is important that when we consider these targets they should be not only expressions of good intent, but rigorous and achievable. That does not mean that they should be rigid, and I disagree with the hon. Member for Bath about statutory levies. If training is to mean anything to the people who receive it and the people who give it, it must be a matter of enlightened self-interest.
We cannot force somebody to be good; we cannot force somebody to want training when they do not think that it is in their own interest. That is why the idea of a levy would be wrong and totally counterproductive and would unnecessarily push up costs for companies, in a situation where companies, particularly the large and medium-sized companies, are already increasingly aware of the benefits that training can provide.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education partly raised the point that employers tend to provide training, in a self-enlightened way, more for the people from whom they are likely to get a better return on their investment. This sometimes militates against older workers. The figures of the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets, which are issued annually for each group of workers, show that 15 per cent. of workers overall are trained each year—and that needs to be increased—but the level of training for workers between the ages of 50 and 59 is only 8·1 per cent. There may be a case for specific schemes, such as "Getting On", possibly through the tax system, to encourage employers more adequately to reskill their older workers.
As to employer responsibilities, ultimately it is a matter of self-interest: they cannot force training on anybody. An example is the opportunities provided by the Kidderminster college to my local carpet community for the training of loom tuners. Without fail, I meet my local chamber of commerce once every quarter, and it always told me, particularly during the period 1988-1990, when unemployment in my area was down to 4 per cent., that it could not get skilled people for the carpet industry and that they were leaving for elsewhere. At the same time as it was telling me that, the figures for entry to the loom tuning courses at the further education college in my constituency, which are heavily subsidised, show that in 1990-91 there were only seven entrants when 15 were needed to make it viable; in 1991–92, there were six entrants; in 1992–93 there were none at all. Employers must be prepared to put their money where their mouths are and ensure that they take advantage of the training opportunities available.
The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) has rejected the view of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), and my own view, that we need to move towards some kind of levy system because the principle of voluntarism does not work. He has just made a very profound case as to why voluntarism does not work, even when there are heavy subsidies involved. How does the hon. Gentleman seriously expect to persuade those employers who have failed to invest in training if we continue down the lane of voluntarism? In the end we must say, "You must train—it is for your own good and the nation's good."
I gave that as an example of why employers must put their money where their mouths are. I did not say that it was typical. The in-house training going on not only in the college but in companies in my area has significantly improved recently. It will not be improved by an increase in unit costs—and therefore a decrease in the competitiveness of everybody—by imposing a training levy and forcing people into the training that they are actually doing.
It has been brought to my attention that the construction industry has been imposing its levies in a perfectly proper fashion in accordance with the statutory instruments passed by Parliament. That levy is based on the number of people that the building company employs, irrespective of whether it is running at a profit or a loss. A building company in my constituency is under great strain because it has been trying to pay a bill of nearly £6,000 over two years. It can ill afford to do that and is now in danger of going under. That is one reason why we should re-examine how the levies are imposed.
The Construction Industry Training Board is an example of how compulsory levies do not work and do not increase training opportunities. I therefore support the voluntary principle.
Great progress has been made on NVQs, but the pace of it must be quickened. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment is present because I have written to her about a delay in producing a NVQ for housing wardens. About six years ago, the excellent organisation, the Centre for Sheltered Housing Studies, was established in my constituency. It is a national centre of excellence for the training of housing wardens. It is worth noting that wardens represent the largest group of professionals who deal with the resident elderly.
We have been waiting for the lead body to produce the appropriate performance standards and competences for the NVQ for housing wardens for about 18 months. The Sheltered Housing Association is the lead body and it has the ability to produce the necessary competences. Will my hon. Friend speed up process so that we can obtain the necessary NVQ for housing wardens?
The NVQs must be flexible and appropriate to specific industries. In my area, we are anxious for an NVQ on carpet fitting. We started off with a construction sector NVQ, which included training on the laying of floor tiles, but that was completely alien to the needs of those who wanted to be carpet fitters. We now have an NVQ relating to the retail sector, but the skills required are not suitable for carpet fitters. I know that this is a parochial point, but will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary ensure that the lead body comes up with an appropriate NVQ for carpet fitting?
I agree with my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth about the need to integrate training and education within one Government Department. I do not wish to make my excellent friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State redundant and I am sure that she is doing a wonderful job. In relation to education and training, however, it seems nonsense that this important debate should be opened by a Minister from one Department and concluded by one from another.
This is an important debate. I was sorry to note that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was rather sour about the welcome news that 1 million full-time students are now at our universities. That is equivalent to the establishment of 12 new universities.
It was rather unfortunate that the hon. Lady immediately started to carp about the fact that 14 per cent. of new graduates are unemployed and ignored the fact that 86 per cent. of them find jobs. It is important to stress that just because a young man or woman graduates from university, that does not give them the automatic right to a job. It merely gives them a better chance of a job.
I was also interested to note that the hon. Lady referred a number of times to the Hamlyn-sponsored report of the National Commission on Education. I read that report carefully, and I found it strange that it seemed to secure only the support of all the left-wing teachers' unions and Opposition parties.
The report does not appear to take a balanced approach to the education problems that it sought to resolve. I note that its panel sought advice from a leading barrister, Helena Kennedy, who is better known for her work in the criminal courts and for supporting left-wing causes than for her contribution to education. One must be rather circumspect about the report, which is not sufficiently independent to merit the backing that the hon. Member for Dewsbury gave. Perhaps the hon. Lady had to depend on that report because there was precious little in her speech about education and training. She preferred to concentrate on nursery education, which is a different topic altogether. I could not find the link between that and the subject that we are debating today.
It is significant that, although my right hon. Friend the Secrtary of State for Education gave up his morning to introduce this important debate, the Opposition Benches are not crowded. I am sorry also that not one Opposition Member of the Select Committee on Education, on which I serve, has been present. That indicates the degree of attention that the Opposition pay to education and training.
For years, we have heard a great chorus of concern and anguish about education and training, but when the chips are down the Opposition's birds fly away, are absent from the Chamber, and do, not produce constructive ideas.
That makes just one Opposition Member who is present. Where is everyone else?
I congratulate the Government not just on talking, as the Opposition do, but on acting. It is depressing that the Opposition have consistently opposed all Government youth training programmes since 1979, which reflects their sincerity. Today's debate focuses on the way forward, and it is encouraging that the Government will further develop a programme that is well under way. They have spent about £2·8 billion on training, enterprise and education, and rightly take the view that we should never rest. We ought to aim at higher targets, and should seize every opportunity that comes our way. We realise that we must create a work force that will take us into the next century and beyond.
The drive for relevant skills needs careful handling. By the year 2000, it is likely that there will be 800,000 fewer manual workers, but many more people will have managerial and technical skills—800,000 and 425,000 respectively. Workplace training must be seen as an investment, not as a burdensome cost. I welcome the target of 80 per cent. of young people to reach NVQ 2 or the equivalent by 1997.
The vehicle for facilitating that is the unglamourous-sounding but necessary National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets. It has been developed by successful business men who have a sharp eye for what is needed in the workplace in terms of capability and utility. I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment not just to establishing NACETT but to participating in its deliberations.
The council's chairman, Peter Davis, is chairman of Reed International, so he is already at the sharp end in understanding the demands of industry. That is true of other council members. They include deputy chairman Michael Heron, chairman of the Post Office; Malcolm Walker, chairman of Iceland Frozen Foods; Dominic Cadbury of Cadbury Schweppes; and Tony Cann, chairman of Terminal Display Systems. They all have a fundamental understanding of the importance of a properly skilled work force that is able to keep Britain ahead of world-class competition. They are a vital and useful spur to advising, guiding and practising vocational and educational training.
However, as in all things, we must aim high and set realistic but demanding targets; otherwise, Great Britain will cease to be the landing platform for so many overseas companies that come to this country to take advantage of the attractive atmosphere created by economic incentives and the highly skilled, motivated work force. I should pay proper attention to the standards of education in Northern Ireland, which has been attracting a considerable number of overseas companies. In Dungannon, I came across a Korean company that felt that it had confidence in the skills that Ulster could provide.
Training for work begins years before, in school. The early years are spent teaching the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. Poor standards in those subjects have cost British industry about £5 billion a year in mistakes. It is appropriate that we pay close attention to how to rectify such mistakes. A miscalculation, a typing error, sloppy work on the design board can cost industry dear.
Therefore, I am dismayed by the Opposition's attitude to basic skills. There is every reason to accept their 1992 election manifesto which said that the party would
modernise the national curriculum.
It is clear that "modernisation" would mean dilution or politicisation, and political correctness would simply blur real education.
In a revealing article in The Times Educational Supplement in March 1993, the hon. Member for Dewsbury said that the national curriculum had
fallen victim to doctrinaire, reactionary influences
and that it should be revised to
encourage a critical understanding of social, political and economic arrangements".
It strikes me that she wants to turn the clock back on raising standards. There is no emphasis on or concern for real skills and excellence.
Alarmingly, the Labour party's most recent consultation paper published on 14 September this year revealed the extent to which Labour would water down the national curriculum, replacing the emphasis on the basic skills and the learning of facts with "progressive" ideology and doctrine. The Labour party prefers a child to "experience"
education, whatever that means. Phrases focusing on class, race and gender have little to do with basic skills, yet they persist in encouraging
a critical understanding in social, political and economic arrangements
and avoiding instruments of indoctrination. What has all that mumbo jumbo got to do with real learning? All that must be imposed also on schools in the independent sector. What does it mean for employers? They are looking for children who are properly prepared for the world of work. It strikes me that they must be alarmed when they hear that the Opposition do not accept testing but dismiss it as "dangerous nonsense"
It is not only the Labour party that takes a worrying attitude towards basic skills. I must turn my attention to the Liberals.
They do not get much attention—in fact, they struggle for it. Perhaps I should ignore them altogether. However, as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has taken the trouble to come into the Chamber, it would be invidious to pass him over.
The Liberal party has already committed itself to abandoning the national curriculum and putting in its place another curious animal called the "minimum curriculum entitlement," which will be required of children in all schools. The Liberals also say that this will take up little more than 50 per cent. of pupils' timetables. I hate to think what they will do for the rest of the time—surely they should be getting on with learning basic skills.
Is one to infer from what the hon. Lady has said that she disagrees with Sir Ron Dearing's interim report, which has been largely accepted by the Secretary of State and other Ministers and which says that there needs to be a reduction in the content of the national curriculum?
Ron Dearing is merely making sure that the curriculum is properly focused.
The Liberal party has made a commitment on testing—a commitment to the abolition of tests in the national curriculum. That will hardly be encouraging to employers, and goodness knows what sort of school leavers that will produce. The Liberals propose the move on the ground that the tests are "restrictive" and contain little information of use to parents. It hardly increases my confidence to learn that the Liberals would prefer "individual diagnostic tests". That is just more mumbo jumbo.
Employers will be further alarmed by the fact that the Liberal party would like to abolish A-levels and replace them with a watered-down version which they would call the English baccalauréat. For heavens sake, why knock out a highly successful and world-respected examination system just for the sake of change?
The Government are to be congratulated on having the steadiness of nerve to sustain our national curriculum programme. When we first launched it in 1988, the whole idea seemed a distant prospect. Today, it is universally accepted, even by the teaching unions. There is still some way to go, however, before the principle of rigorous testing is accepted by all.
Now we must expand the menu by providing high-quality vocational education in addition to academic studies. Alongside the national vocational qualifications, we have introduced the general NVQs, which are ideal for full-time education and which offer a bright new dawn for the thousands of young people, Master and Miss Average, who know that they can never be academically inclined. They have surrendered themselves to a listless life of drifting from one dead-end job to another, interspersed with periods on social security during which they may even have been drawn into crime. These people accept life on the dust heap before they even leave school. I ask the House to imagine what it means to them to know that they are wanted and valued members of society. They have talents and skills that can be brought out in courses tailored especially to their needs and abilities. Hence the real enthusiasm that I feel for the 70,000 students in 1,400 schools who are already pursuing the GNVQs—and the number of increases each month.
It is natural to expect that, in the long run, half of all 16 and 17-year-olds will take GNVQs, which are the key building blocks to the future.
This is not the time to be sour, to take part in the popular British sport of self-deprecation. The training programme needs support all the way. The wider public must be educated to accept and understand this exciting new programme, too.
We must emphasise the quality of the GNVQ system and educate employers to appreciate the fact that a GNVQ is the equivalent of an A-level and should enjoy equal status with it in terms of university entrance. The foundation GNVQ is the equal of a good GCSE. Let us examine the progress so far. When I made my maiden speech just over a year ago, I highlighted the importance that I attach to valuable vocational education. In my constituency, which is in south-west London, we have always recognised the importance of high standards in schools. Our schools are rated at least second in the latest league tables on average performance, and our two grant-maintained grammar schools, Nonsuch and Sutton Manor, glow with excellence in GCSE and A-level results.
I should like to outline the approach to vocational education of another grant-maintained school. Although education is treated seriously by all my schools, it is particularly exciting that Cheam high school has a host of people who are deeply committed to it—children, teachers, parents and employers. That school started from almost minus zero. A few years ago it could have been described as a bin school. Nobody wanted to send children there. A boy once rode a motor-bike along the school corridors.
The school was given up for dead, but under new leadership and a new headmaster and grant-maintained status the school is oversubscribed. Its secret of success is its understanding of the role that vocational education can play for children who believed that they did not have a future. The school places such great emphasis on vocational studies that, by September 1994, the staff in the vocational studies department will be doubled to 30.
Cheam high school concentrates on emphasising a child's abilities and instills a sense of position and discipline. Because the school is grant maintained it has the flexibility to take advantage of the grants that are available.
As a result, 60 children are following vocational courses and the number is growing fast. The children started by taking the BTEC first diploma and are going on to GNVQs.
We must dispel the myth about these courses. They cover a wide range of subjects which can be suited to the child's interests, and they include business studies, sports management, leisure and tourism, art and design, and information technology. Next year, children will be able to study hospitality and catering. In the pilot programme that is planned for the country as a whole, children will also be able to study the environment and science subjects. In 1994–95, there will be pilot programmes on distribution, engineering, more information technology, land-based industries, advanced level management, and media and communications. Such courses open a field of opportunity for children.
It is hardly surprising that vocational courses are growing in popularity and that children are encouraging each other to follow them. They see the way forward. The key factor is not only the relevance of the courses but children's understanding of how they will open job opportunities and work experience. Three years ago, Cheam high school set up the Cheam education-business partnership. The headmaster has forged links with local business men by which he can introduce them to what the school is doing.
Only last night, the headmaster and his deputy attended a meeting of Sutton chamber of commerce. Their aim was to develop networking, meet new business men and help forge more links for the children. The school takes the view that, rather than complaining, it should push out the boat and get on with it. As a result, it is able to give every child the experience that is needed for moving forward. I shall give some examples of the effect on these young people. One young girl could not be shaken into taking an interest in her work. She was falling behind, was inattentive and could not see the point in studying for GCSEs. Basically, she had given up. Now she is on a GNVQ art and design course. She is motivated and is working late at school. She has a positive approach to life. She will not become one of the tragic statistics for single mothers with babies on their laps.
Another example is a young man who was on the point of drifting out of school at 16, unskilled, unqualified and with poor GCSE results. He is now fired with enthusiasm for his business studies course. He is working late into the evening to complete his studies.
Those examples show how we can shape our young people and give them a sense of involvement. That is how we can keep them on course.
Work experience outside the school also plays a key role. However, all the employers and children to whom I have spoken feel that one week is not enough; two would have much more meaning. The lessons business men teach the children are invaluable. They learn about punctuality, courtesy, social graces, how to talk to other people, how to handle the telephone and how to dress properly. They cannot go to work wearing jeans and trainers; they must be tidy. They learn about flexibility and how to produce clear, accurate written work, but it a simple telephone message or a short report. All those disciplines are vital for the children's development.
I want to refer to some of the views of those local employers who have developed these links, not just with that one school, but with others in my constituency. Their experience is invaluable. One employer, Orbcram, told me that the students may have the skills, but they do not always know how to apply them, so work experience is an opportunity to see how they fit into a work environment. Its spokesman advocates children practising at school on a phantom company before going to outside companies. However, he felt that the children learned rapidly. If he had another criticism, it was that they should learn to ask more questions. For him, the proof of the success of that programme is that he has taken on a number of former work experience students.
Another company, the Sutton Trustee Savings bank is very pleased with the programme. It says that eight out of 10 young people have done well and responded positively. The TSB says it would be helpful if there were guidelines on precisely what was expected of companies. Perhaps we should consider that.
British Gas in south London runds a two-hour training course at schools before the young people arrive at its offices. It is very strict on punctuality and presentation. It is interesting that the company is prepared to invest so much time in those young people. It realises that they are our hope for the future. Sometimes, the programme can be of mutual benefit. When the young people go to British Gas, it gets its young trainee managers to interview them as though for a job. In that way they both benefit from the experience.
GNVQs are a turning point in education. Not only is there enormous benefit in providing relevant and educated people for the world of work, but GNVQs give young people a chance in life that they never thought they would have. A headline in The Daily Telegraph recently said:
HMI school inspectors find little hope for working-class pupils.
It was not because of lack of money but, as the newspaper said:
Working-class children in urban schools have only a slim chance of receiving a decent education … the inspectors blamed their poor performance on teachers who over-estimated the effects of poverty and social disadvantage and under-estimated the potential ability of the children.
That is the crux of the matter. We must save those children from the streets of crime and give them a sense of future. Let us halt the advance in the number of juvenile offenders. I believe passionately that it can only be to the advantage of the entire country and our employers to give those children a sense of worth, a sense of self-esteem and a sense of confidence.
Let me say first, following on from the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), that I was intrigued by her example of the young woman who, now remotivated by access to GNVQs, is saved from pregnancy and from nursing a child in her arms. I had not recognised that the Secretary of State's powers extended to contraception through vocational qualification, but it is an interesting concept and one that we shall watch with some degree of interest.
Yes, let us turn to the subject—why not? Let us turn to the speech of the Secretary of State, who spoke for an hour and a half. Like most speeches, rather like the curate's egg, it was good in parts. The bits that were good were few and far between. It was a speech that was remarkable for its blandness, but also for its ignorance of what is happening in the country.
Let us begin to talk about the extent to which we are achieving national training targets. Let us talk about a Britain which, even in the middle of the longest recession that the economy has known, still has a significant number of firms who report that skills shortages are a constraint on the levels of output than they can achieve. Those are not signs of a skills revolution; those are signs of an abysmal failure in building the skills stock of the nation.
Not so long ago, about five years ago in October 1988, at the peak of the Lawson boom, which is now widely discredited by his successors and by the present Cabinet—at the height of that Lawson boom which was supported by the present Secretary of State for Education—skills shortages were experienced by 28 per cent. of British manufacturing firms. Since then, in many of those areas, we have failed to train and we have failed to maintain the skills stock. Anyone who has half an idea of what is happening in British industry knows that if there is to be any kind of recovery it will immediately run up against the severe skills shortages that will exist in our economy. Nothing that we have heard today gives any impression that either the Secretary of State for Education or his colleagues on the Conservative Benches understand the reality of the British economy.
At the moment, although we know that the majority of employers recognise that they need to improve the skills of their employees, we also know that the amount of training taking place in Britain has decreased during the recession and not increased. We know that although about three quarters of firms claim that they are engaging in some kind of training process, that only involves one third of their employees. At the very best, therefore, in any year only one quarter of employees are being exposed to any kind of training. We also know that although the numbers may have dipped only slightly during that period of recession, the amount of training offered to each person has decreased. Again, I must tell the Secretary of State that there are no signs of a major turnaround in the skills revolution.
Let us now consider the targets. Let me make it clear that Labour Members support those targets. We wish that there was a Government who had a real commitment to those targets and did not just pay the lip-service to them that we heard this morning.
Let us go back to when the previous Secretary of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), introduced the TECs. In the House he set out in detail a number of targets which, he said, had to be achieved. I quote from his statement to Parliament. He said that by "the end of 1992"—last year—
no young person should be employed in a job without training.
The reality is that about two out of five of young people in jobs go without training. He said that by the same date two thirds of young people should have achieved NVQ level 2
or its academic equivalent; that is, two thirds of all young people should get the equivalent of five old-fashioned O-levels. The then Secretary of State said that.
The Secretary of State this morning told us that we have not even got anywhere near that two thirds. That figure was achieved by 55 per cent. only of young people.
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield went on to tell the House that by the end of 1995, two years from now, we should take it further and
secure that all young people should by the age of 18 have a recognised qualification at Level Two".
We know that the Government dropped that target, which is now 1997 and 80 per cent. of our young people. We know that he also said that by 1992 all employees should be taking part in company-driven or developmental activities, but only about 25 per cent. of the work force are doing so. I could continue, but the reality is that the Government abandoned the targets of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield because they did not have the will or the commitment to achieve them.
The sad reality is that there are problems even with the achievement of the reduced targets that the Government are now adopting as their own. For example, let me quote from research carried out by the Industrial Society, which questioned personnel managers about their views on the targets. The report contains a staggering figure; the target that all employees should take part in training or development activities received an optimistic response, as nearly 50 per cent. of personnel managers believed that it was achievable. However, 50 per cent. did not think that they could give training to all their employees.
The report continues that the survey was very pessimistic over every other target. It is not difficult for us to determine the reason for that pessimism. Basically, it comes down to a Government who have no clear strategy for employment or training and the fact that there is an absolute division between the role of the Departments for Education and of Employment. Recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education made a serious bid to take over the youth training budget from the Department of Employment.
I am all in favour of banter across the Dispatch Box, but the Under-Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell)—I should say my hon. Friend, although I hope that he soon will be right hon., but it is not a matter for me—has at no stage been involved in any attempt to take over anyone's activities. I am afraid that the stuff in the newspapers is the kind of baseless tittle-tattle that sometimes appears in newsapers. I will not have the good name and conduct of my hon. Friend, who is not in the Chamber, criticised so outrageously. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw that part of his remarks.
I accept what the Secretary of State has said. If he insists to the House that there was no youth training plan and no rift, I must simply say that the rift was such that it caused John Troth, the chairman of the TEC chief executive network, to write to the Secretary of State for Employment to say that he viewed with the greatest possible concern the reports that there could be cuts in funding of the youth training budget. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary of State for Employment replies to the debate she will say whether there will be the same sort of cuts in that funding that have taken place fairly consistently over the years.
As has been pointed out, one of the problems with training in this country is that the Government have no commitment to it.
I will read the hon. Lady the figures. In 1989–90, Department of Employment spending, in real terms, was £2,696 million. By 1991–92, it had dropped to £1,987 million. The expected outturn for this year will be down to £1,771 million. There might be a small increase for the following year, depending on the Chancellor's Budget next week—who knows? The reality is that there has been cut after cut and we have shoddily funded public sector training.
When the former Secretary of State for Employment launched the much-vaunted TEC movement, he described the TECs as part of "a Second Industrial Revolution" and
a truly radical step. It will give leadership of the training system to employers, where it belongs.
That, of itself, has been part of the system's failure. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will be able to tell us in clear terms whether the budgets of the TECs will be reduced next year, because we know that they underspent them this year. We know that from the £1·7 billion funding, the training and enterprise councils underspent to the tune of £232 million—an astonishing 14 per cent. underspend. That money could and should have been used, not to build on the reserves and balances, but to improve the appalling rates of success of youth training and in the training for work scheme and its predecessors. We know that those schemes produced poor results.
Youth training leaves a quarter of those trainees in unemployment at the end of the scheme. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State wishes to deny those figures. The Secretary of State said earlier, perhaps in a slip of the tongue, that the scheme guarantees a vocational qualification. It does not. Only a third of trainees receive a vocational qualification. It is a failure of the system, because in the hierarchical system run by the two Departments, vocational training is at the bottom end, neglected and far from the rosy descriptions of Conservative Members. It has been badly abused under the Government. Only a third of those adults engaged on employment training schemes obtain a vocational qualification, when we are supposed to be trying to get them back to work to build the stock of skills in the country.
The biggest scandal in training this year was the collapse of Astra Training Services Ltd. The Government conspired in that scandal because, even when they were given notice that the firm was about to go out of business, they sat on their hands and did nothing. Since the true measure of the scandal has come to light, we know that Astra fiddled the output funding system. It approached TECs on the basis of how it intended to fiddle that system and neither TECs nor Astra stopped an indulgent and outrageous activity that robbed the taxpayer. The Secretary of State said earlier, "not in front of the parents". Will the Under-Secretary of State say whether that scandal is a case of "not in front of the taxpayer", because she and her Department are prepared to see taxpayers' money wasted at the expense of people in the country who desperately need that kind of skills training? The surpluses that the TECs built up should not have been spent on the bonuses and salary increases for the chief executives which have taken place almost all over the country. Those bonuses should have been devoted to skill training for those who, sadly, are not receiving it at the moment. The Under-Secretary of State must answer that charge.
We know that the pressure on the TECs has been to bear down on the trainers. Trainers complain that they are receiving less and less money and that the pressure on them to award qualifications in a shorter time scale is acute. Yet the TECs have been seeing their budgets and reserves grow at the expense of the trainers and trainees.
In developing a system where there is parity of esteem, what do we make of a system where the NVQ system, which the Labour party supports in the absence of a comprehensive qualification base that includes everybody, itself comes under pressure because there are doubts about its quality? People in training express increasing concern that the downward pressure on costs and time means that they feel that they are being asked to undermine the whole NVQ system. The concept of self-assessment, for example, is already intrinsic and implicit in the NVQ system, and that raises many important questions.
A company such as Astra was prepared to abuse output funding systems by creating artificial jobs for people to qualify for bonus payments from the Department of Employment and through the TECs. If such a company is asked to assess its students to devise a qualification base, I have little confidence that the Department of Employment has any interest in stopping them. We know that the Department of Employment is concerned with ensuring that the numbers are balanced so as to massage unemployment figures.
Lest that criticism seem to be just normal malice across the Chamber, I will quote Martin Pollard, the chief executive of the employers and unions joint council in the electrical contracting industry. He has warned in clear terms that some TECs were funding two-year courses and releasing trainees to find jobs as electricians although they had not reached the required standard. He said:
the only position in which they could be employed is that of a labourer—surely a waste of two years' training.
He is right. He spoke of their being "let loose" in the work place. Implicit in that is that such people are potentially dangerous.
What can we make of a report sent to me by Janet Salmon, who looked at the progress towards the NVQ training targets in the leisure industry? She pointed out that only 41 per cent. of the firms that she sampled in that sector were involved in NVQs and that one of the reasons for that was that a number of firms found that NVQs were not up to the standards to which they already trained their employees. They felt that NVQs did not offer what they wanted. Among the other reasons were the cost of registration for certification, the duplication of training, the inappropriate nature of the training and the bureaucracy and paperwork involved, but quality was at the centre of their complaints.
The recent Ofsted report into GNVQs referred to standards at intermediate level being much more variable and, in some instances, unsatisfactory. It said that at intermediate level some completed portfolios of students' work assessed at merit level by teachers were later marked down by external verifiers to a pass level, either because action planning was weak or because teachers had intervened too prominently to improve students' work. Again, if the pressure is on an institution to perform on an output basis as a business, it will try to achieve those standards irrespective of the quality involved.
What are we to make of the Under-Secretary's TEC comparison tables? She should have a quiet word with the Secretary of State for Education. He is keen on league tables. He is all for publishing information, on whatever basis. However, for TECs we do not get league tables such as those that he produces. Instead, we have a selective list of comparisons, so we cannot properly compare TEC with TEC. Nevertheless, we can see that the variation in levels of performance by TECs is enormous.
I take as an example the cost per output involved in providing employment training courses. That varies from £3,100 to nearly twice that—£5,800. We know that the number of NVQs per youth training leaver varies from 43 per cent. to as low as 25 per cent. Why can we not have a proper league table? Why can we not make the kind of comparisons that the Secretary of State goes in for? Is it again because of the "not in front of the taxpayers" theory? Are not we, as taxpayers, entitled to know? All we know is that they are not full league tables.
Sadly, we know that the Government's commitment to the real issue behind the targets is more in the breach than in the observance. We have had fine words from the Secretary of State, but heard little about practical action. For example, we have heard nothing that addresses the fundamental issues that beset training. With a TEC system that is not accountable, we have no way to bring pressure on it to deliver the goods that we expect.
In that case, TECs are accountable to the hon. Lady, and she is accountable to Parliament, so she had better begin to account for the poor qualification rates that bedevil both training for work and youth training, because they are a disgrace. We are not giving either young people or older people a fair crack of the whip.
The real difficulty in achieving national targets will be the Government, who have failed to get across to the bulk of the private sector, or even the public sector, any belief that training targets are important. Those industries and enterprises will be passed by the target mechanism. The fault for that will lie on the shoulders of the Under-Secretary of State and her colleagues. We will support them if they take practical steps to achieve targets, but we will not support them when that is not the case.
I will take the example of one industry—the construction industry—where we can see the simple failure of the Government's training strategy. We knew a few years ago that the industry was shedding jobs at an alarming rate. Anyone with the briefest knowledge of the industry knows well that if two people leave the construction industry, only one will come back when things pick up. The stock of skilled labour is being shed.
The Construction Industry Training Board is one of the bureaucratic boards about which the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam is concerned, but it is supported by the Government. The board has obviously tried to keep up the level of skills in the industry, but it has failed because it has not had the resources. In a couple of weeks, when the matter comes before the House, we shall see clearly that the Government are planning to cut the budget of the CITB by 15 per cent., from £54 million to £45·8 million. Perhaps the Minister will say whether that is inaccurate. If the budget is not increased, it will be a betrayal not just of the industry but of the country. When the economy finally begins to move up, construction will become vitally important. Without a healthy and skilled construction industry, bottlenecks will develop in the economy.
The Secretary of State said that he has presided over what he describes as the great advance of further education. Let us talk about construction in terms of further education. There is no planning mechanism within further education, other than the fairly crude things that we have seen from the Further Education Funding Council. I am told that 40 colleges, or one in 10 further education colleges, are cutting construction trades training altogether. The reason is that young people are not coming forward in the middle of a recession because the industry is not putting them forward.
The Government refuse to take responsibility for planning in the labour market. They have no national targets, no national strategy, and they no longer have adequate national information on which to plan. They have delegated the provision of training to a number of notional targets without putting any flesh on those targets. They have abrogated their responsibilities, and have put the responsibility on TECs and training schemes through the Department for Education, and also on the colleges. They are doing that without giving any of them the proper funding or the opportunity to provide the training that we want.
We are seeing the dismantling of the infrastructure for training in the construction industry, and what applies in construction will apply to many other industries. The talk of the Government's success and their commitment to training targets is, I am afraid, bogus. I pay tribute to these outside the House who are concerned with making progress in training, including many people in industry and some of the leading industrialists to whom the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam referred. Those people are committed to training and to reinvigorating the way in which we do things in this country, but they are being betrayed by the Government.
Finally, we believe that we can begin to turn the nation around in terms of training provision. We need a different approach from that taken by the Government. We need co-ordination and planning at a national level which makes sense of the skills shortages in our economy. We need more than pious words from the Government, and we need commitments by way of resources. It is also important that the voluntary principle on which the Government's training programme depends is abandoned.
We need look no further than the Secretary of State for Employment who, we are told, is considering a plan to abandon the reliance of voluntarism with a scheme to give all 16 to 18-year-old school leavers the right to vocational training. That may give heart attacks to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, but it shows that a little progress is being made within the Department of Employment. An article in The Independent states:
The Cabinet might have some difficulty in backing the policy because it marks a critical break with the principle of `voluntarism'''.
If the Secretary of State for Employment is sincere in wanting to provide such compulsory training for young people, he is clearly moving in the right direction. We might criticise the detail, but we shall support him in the broad context. However, it will depend on him and his colleagues having the guts to say, "We have got it wrong in the past: if we want to achieve the targets, we have to do more than simply blame everyone else and take no responsibility when things go wrong." The Government are central to that approach.
It is up to the Government not only to adopt the targets as their own, but to make those targets work in practice. That means the commitment of resources and of ministerial energy, which has been sadly lacking. It means the abandonment of voluntarism. It means beginning to work in real partnership across industry in a way that the Government have not done in the past. With such a recipe, we can begin to move forward. Without it, in a couple of years—when the Secretary of State invited us to criticise him if he failed—I shall be here to criticise him, just as I criticised his predecessor the then Secretary of State for Employment, whose targets were abandoned even though they were introduced only four years ago. We can make the targets work, but I am not sure that the Government have the will to do so.
If, as the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) says, the Labour party has the answer to training, if it believes that it can effect the skills revolution which it denies that we are achieving, and if it believes that it has the policies that will bring about all the results that it says that we are not achieving, I am left wondering why it never raised the matter in a debate of its choice and in its time in the previous Parliament or, indeed, in my memory.
Why is it that the debate on training and targets has been initiated by the Government today? It is not only because we are proud of our record but because the Opposition have nothing to say. As has been demonstrated by the acres of empty Opposition Benches today, there is precious little interest in training among Opposition Members. It is worth repeating, although it is already on the record, that for the vast majority of the debate today no Opposition Back Benchers have been present. The only contributions from the Opposition Benches have been made by the Labour Front Bench and Liberal spokesmen. Opposition Back-Bench Members have made no contributions to the debate and have given no evidence of commitment on the part of the main Opposition party, or any other Opposition party, that entitled the Opposition spokesmen to criticise a Government who have brought about a skills revolution, instituted a completely new policy on skills and demonstrated their commitment.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) sat in splendid isolation for most of the debate. Her speech was pretty isolated, too. It was isolated from the main, indeed the only, topic of the debate. I suppose that in the usual way we are discussing what is on the Order Paper. The Order Paper simply says:
Progress towards the National Education and Training Targets.
Yet we had from the hon. Lady a rant on nursery education. According to her, nursery education prevents everything. It prevents crime. It prevents teenage pregnancies. I was waiting for her to say that it would prevent the 'flu. She did not go that far. But when she drew a comparison between our country and other countries that provide nursery education, I was tempted to ask why those countries have as high, if not higher, levels of crime and teenage pregnancies. Why is nursery education a pancea for all ills in Britain?
Not only did the hon. Lady not produce the essay for the title that we required while all her friends played truant but she got her homework wrong. She said that graduate unemployment was running at 14 per cent. She was wrong. It is running at 5 per cent. For the economy as a whole, unemployment is a little more than 10 per cent.
If the hon. Gentleman had contained his impatience and not interrupted—if he had sat in class and watched the blackboard—he would have heard me say that that 14 per cent. is a snapshot in time. It does not mean that they stay unemployed. It was taken at a time that corresponded to the height of the school and college leaving period, when we would expect graduate unemployment to be higher.
The hon. Gentleman asked me if it was a problem. If it was a genuine figure and graduate unemployment was running at 14 per cent., it would be a problem.
We are making a little progress. Will the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Employment give a precise estimate—or even an imprecise estimate—of what the Government expect graduate unemployment to be among this year's leavers by next spring, when the economy is in its upward phase? If that figure shows high levels of graduate unemployment, will the Government think that it is acceptable? I do not.
The hon. Gentleman needs some remedial lessons in unemployment figures. He will have noticed that the rise in graduate and school leaver unemployment this year was lower than last year on a seasonally adjusted basis. He will have noticed in the course of his new responsibilities that unemployment is coming down. I am sure that he will have managed to work out that, just as graduates have had to share in the pain of the recession, so they will share in the joy and economic benefits of the recovery. My prediction is that the position will improve for graduates, as it will for everyone else.
I will turn from answering the nonsense questions of the Opposition and address some of the other points raised in the debate. Among a number of distinguished contributions—all from the Government Benches—there was a very pertinent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey). I was particularly grateful to him for drawing attention to the Getting On campaign. I was less grateful to him for proposing my early redundancy.
In addition to education, the debate has been about training targets. I have listened to the huge emphasis that has been placed on A-levels, nursery schools and other aspects of education, but it is important for us to put a separate emphasis on training and to give it the attention that it deserves.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made a very supportive speech, and I was heartened by the fact that half of the Opposition in the Chamber have come round to supporting what the Government are doing, but I refute his suggestion that we have turned the education service into businesses. What we have done is to make it more business-like.
I am delighted that more educational institutions are aspiring to and achieving the Investors in People standard. They are developing the skills of their work force to achieve their aims and objectives—which is better, relevant and targeted education. We would ask business men to adopt the same approach, which would be most welcome.
Similarly, we are targeting small businesses in respect of the Investors in People programme. We have urged small businesses, if they are sub-contractors, to join as a cluster with a main contractor and get in on Investors in People, or for individual companies to get together as clusters.
That is being greatly encouraged by the local training and enterprise councils. I was delighted the other day, when I was making a presentation, to be able to include an employer who had only 22 employees. On the scheme are employers with as few as six or eight employees, who are also looking at the possibility of achieving the award. Great progress has been made, but I take the point that it is important, and we will continue to monitor it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) spoke about improving the skills base of the economy. That is at the heart of the Government's programme. We believe in training because it is a vital tool in economic prosperity and education alike.
The Opposition did not raise that important topic today. One of the most disturbing pieces of evidence of their attitude was given during Question Time a few weeks ago when they greeted with jeers the fact that a record number of people are staying on in education. They cried out that that was happening only because they could not get a job. If the Labour party sees jobs as being in opposition to education and training, rather than natural developments thereof, it is still in the dark ages.
It is essential that we see the development of Britain's skill base as a recipe for our prosperity in world-class markets towards the end of this century and the beginning of the next. Training is not merely nice for individuals; and although it brings benefits to individual employers, that is not its main aim either. The main aim is to have a flexibly skilled, multi-skilled, adaptable, world-class work force that will enable us to build on the recovery with which the rest of Britain seems to have caught up. It is obvious, however, that the hon. Member for Stretford has not done so since he spoke just now about "when the recovery comes". It is here and we are building on it, but his party is still lagging desperately behind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, called for more training for older workers. He said, with some justification, that employers often perceive older workers as not worth while for training because they offer fewer returns than a younger worker. That is a total misconception, because the very fact that it is harder for older workers to find jobs means that they are extremely committed when they get them. They are less likely to think about changing their job between then and retirement. Investing in the training of older workers is likely to pay as much or more in terms of commitment and motivation as investing in the training of younger workers. In this connection, the Government have set the best example of what they preach because our training for work is available for people right up to their fifty-ninth year and eleventh month. We do not turn round and say, "Ah, you are going to retire in five minutes, so it is not worth training you."
I should like to refer to some specific points that were raised in the debate, wisely in the case of my hon. Friends and less wisely in the case of the Opposition. The hon. Member for Stretford suggested that skill shortages are at such a high level that employers are having difficulty in recruiting. The Skill Needs in Britain survey 1993 covers 4,000 establishments with more than 25 employees. The survey found that only 6 per cent. of establishments were experiencing recruiting difficulties attributable to skill shortages. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may dispute my interpretation and I will give way to him if I have misrepresented him, but only if that is the case.
I am grateful to the Minister because she has misrepresented me. I referred to one in 20 firms, but 6 per cent. is a more accurate figure. Those firms are experiencing skill shortages that lead to a curtailment in output. It is worrying that the figure of 6 per cent. has been recorded in the middle or even at the end of a recession. That does not give any cause to believe that the scene will be any different at the height of the recovery than it was in the late 1980s when nearly one third of firms cited skill shortages as the reason for curtailing their output.
The hon. Gentleman has failed to take into account the positive pointers towards rectifying the skill shortages as Britain moves into and builds on the recovery that doubtless exists.
The hon. Gentleman may speak about what goes on in a recession, but that is not always as indicative of what the situation will be like when our training programmes have had time to take effect as he seems to think. Things will be different when employers have been convinced by our Make it Your Business and Investors in People campaigns, and when we have developed NVQs in new disciplines. We are working towards that end and making good progress.
Unlike the incredible waffle that we heard from the hon. Member for Dewsbury, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State went through every single target and announced the progress made towards achieving each of them. The hon. Member for Stretford asked, "When?" He could not have been listening to my right hon. Friend, who stated not only the level but when it would be achieved and how much progress had been made. My right hon. Friend's speech answered the hon. Gentleman's question.
Much as the hon. Member for Dewsbury—who has apologised for not being present—lauded the Open university, we have taken the process of open learning much further with our learning credits, youth credits and open learning pilots, which we are developing to ensure that they are easily available locally.
I must spring to the defence of the much-maligned training and enterprise councils. The only people who malign them are the Opposition, because TECs are much welcomed by everbody else. The hon. Member for Stretford criticised TECs' reserves. He is completely wrong if he thinks that all that TECs do is to take the money for the programmes that we insist being delivered, which we closely monitor, make savings, and redistribute those savings as bonuses to chief executives.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my other colleagues in the Department and I have a programme of visiting every TEC in the country. I have never yet but been shown in the most encouraging detail the various initiatives that TECs have introduced from their own funding and reserves to supplement our programmes. That is what TECs are supposed to be—local bodies delivering according to local need, in accordance with the requirements of the local economy and local employers, and working in conjunction with local education. That is why TECs enjoy a large degree of autonomy in their activities over and above our set programmes.
It is precisely because TECs enjoy that autonomy that we have seen initiatives for not only older workers but those with special needs, geared to an area's particular economic requirements. For example, there has been retraining where companies have gone out of business, and particular shortages in an area have been addressed. That is what TECs do with their spare money.
When did the hon. Gentleman last visit his local TEC? He will not answer. When did any of his colleagues last visit their local TECs? If the hon. Gentleman would visit his local TEC and ask what it is doing with its money over and above the Government programme, I would take a fair wager that he would learn of a large number of initiatives that specifically address local needs. I should be surprised if the hon. Gentleman did not also discover initiatives that specifically address local special needs.
I should use the last two minutes of the debate to reiterate what the Government are doing. They have endorsed the highly ambitious targets for training and education. They have specified and published the dates by which those targets will be achieved, and they are already able to report extremely encouraging progress.
We have addressed, and are seêking to address, the problem of parity of esteem between vocational and academic education, a matter raised by the hon. Member for Bath. In doing so, we have devised a comprehensive system of national vocational qualifications, the like of which the Opposition never produced. We have devised a system that converges and diverges alongside the academic system so that one can reach university through the ordinary academic level or through NVQs and workplace competence. That is our aim. That is what parity is about. We have devised the policy and implemented it. There are now more people than ever before with a qualification and working towards a qualification. The Opposition have proposed nothing.