Post-16 Education

– in the House of Commons at 1:27 pm on 12th July 2001.

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons 1:27 pm, 12th July 2001

Before I call Mrs. May to move the first motion, I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education 1:29 pm, 12th July 2001

I beg to move,

That this House
recognises the importance of post-16 education in schools and colleges, in offering new opportunities to young people and in improving the nation's skills base and international competitiveness;
regrets the hasty introduction of the new AS levels, which has resulted in organisational chaos for schools, a reduction in extra-curricular activities and had a severe effect on the lives of young people;
considers that the interim response of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Government on this issue is inadequate;
recognises the important role played by further education colleges in providing opportunities for young people and widening participation;
deplores the current low pay, status and morale of further education lecturers;
condemns the Government's failure to meet its targets for expansion of further education student numbers;
and urges the Government to retain the financing of school sixth forms in the schools sector, address urgently the problems in the further education sector and reconsider the spectrum of qualifications post-14.

No one who in the past year has had any contact with students in year 12—the lower sixth form—in any of our schools or colleges, or with their parents or teachers, can be in any doubt about the impact of the introduction of AS-levels on those young people. There are increased work loads, more stress, fewer study periods and fewer extra-curricular activities. Those pupils have been guinea pigs throughout their school careers, and will continue to be so into year 13, with the new A2s. They deserve our thanks, and I offer my best wishes and support to all who have been sitting AS-level examinations this year.

It is important that we conduct the debate on the future of the AS-level in a way that does not leave the young people involved feeling that the qualifications that they have received are in any sense to be discounted. It is also vital that the Government, working with higher education institutions, ensure that the problems surrounding those examinations do not impact on the future academic opportunities and careers of those students.

AS-levels and key skills were introduced with the best of intentions: to broaden the curriculum offered to young people post-16. However, there was too little time for their introduction. Examinations boards complained that they did not have enough time to prepare the syllabus or materials; schools did not have enough time to prepare; timetabling was a nightmare.

Most schools did not receive any extra funding for AS-levels. The Government announced more money, but schools said that local education authorities did not pass it on. LEAs said that the Government had not given them any extra money. Without the clarity of a national funding formula, who knows? All that most schools know is that they did not receive any extra funding. At a time of teacher shortages, more teaching hours were needed. In addition, of course, we still do not know how universities will view AS-level results.

Far from broadening the experience of students at such an important time of development in their lives, the extra work load of the AS-level means that the very extra-curricular activities that used to provide breadth of experience, such as sports, drama, music and voluntary work, are being written out of school life in year 12 owing to lack of time.

At last week's Education questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, quoted some head teachers as saying that they agreed with the AS-level. The quotations were from that day's edition of The Times, but he quoted somewhat selectively. He failed to quote, for example, Elspeth Insch, head teacher of King Edward VI Handsworth school in Birmingham—

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

As my hon. Friend says, she is a very good head teacher. She said:

"AS-level students have worked so hard they are shattered and have had little time for independent study, which is bad news . . . Exam papers were too variable in standards and exam time too short. It is yet another sign that the whole system is geared towards a mass dumbing-down."

Rick Moore, an English teacher at Manor Park community school in Nuneaton, said:

"AS levels put far too much pressure on a generation of schoolchildren who are already being examined to exhaustion."

It is not only teachers who complain. Kate Dyer, a 17-year-old pupil at Rosebury school in Epsom, said:

"I have taken four AS levels in design technology, art, maths and business and found the experience stressful and unnecessary. It has been a nightmare trying to cram the syllabus into four months so we could finish the course work by half time—in time to start the exams immediately afterwards."

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Half term; I am grateful to the Secretary of State.

Kate Dyer continued:

"Since last year I have felt as if I have been running flat out on a treadmill."

Those were some of the quotations that the Under-Secretary did not cite in Education questions. He did refer to the entry in The Times of that day from Chris Henstock, the head teacher at Lutterworth upper school in Leicestershire. The Under-Secretary quoted him as saying:

"Fundamentally I think the curriculum changes are a good thing—I have seen a lot more of my pupils doing a greater variety of subjects."—[Hansard, 5 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 395.]

What the Under-Secretary did not say was that that head teacher went on to comment:

"But I do believe there are less positive knock-on effects. For example, the community involvement programme we used to run has suffered as a result of the extra workload."

If the Government are to treat young people fairly, they will have to recognise and address all those problems—far from being broadened, the curriculum for those young people is being narrowed—and not just the issues about which they, the Government, want to talk.

There is no doubt that the Government's rush to get the reforms through is at the heart of all the problems. Young people, parents and teachers have suffered because the Government simply did not think things through or provide enough time for proper preparation. As John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:

"The introduction of the AS-level was a reform that we called for during the 1990s . . . Unfortunately, the implementation timetable has been rushed and this has left inadequate time for examination boards and schools to put the reforms in place".

The current problems are not an inevitable result of reforms to widen the variety of post-16 academic experience, but are the direct consequence of the over-hasty manner in which the Government rushed into reform. While we welcome the setting up of a review of the crisis, from the first interim report it appears that the Government have not learned the lessons of the past. Their response so far merely addresses one part of the problem.

We shall of course wait for the full Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report that will appear towards the end of the year, but I was concerned about the Secretary of State's attitude when she talked about the matter in her interview on the "Today" programme. Despite the fact that students interviewed before her said that the main problem facing them was the increased work load throughout the year, she insisted to John Humphrys that the key issue was the timetabling of exams.

We are used to a Government who are out of touch with what happens in schools and refuse to listen properly to what teachers and others are telling them. I had hoped for the sake of young people that this Secretary of State would be different; sadly, it seems she is not. It is vital that the Government do not regard the recommendations of the first report as a panacea for all the problems encountered in the new system; indeed, there may be further problems.

Yesterday, the Leader of the House said that he was not in a position to give a guarantee to my hon. Friend Mr. Brady that all AS-level results would be published as intended on 16 August. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, refused to answer the same question a week ago. With some estimates suggesting that exam boards are short of 1,000 exam markers, that is causing concern to parents and students. I hope that, in her response this afternoon, the Secretary of State will give the House a guarantee that all AS-level results will be published on 16 August. But we need to go further, as the question is not simply about how many exam papers the students should sit at one go, which is what the Government have addressed so far. The real question is whether the interim exam is needed or whether it is an exam too far.

For a long time, I have been a strong advocate of the gold standard of A-levels. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] So are some of my hon. Friends, from the sound of it. In a world where young people will be expected to be more flexible in their working lives, we need to look at whether further breadth is necessary. Whatever the exam structure, maintaining standards of academic excellence and rigour is important, and we should be able to point to those exams as a gold standard of such qualities. However, we must also look at how much breadth is necessary. Some may say that I have been on quite a journey in coming to that conclusion. We should nevertheless root principles of excellence and rigour in our examination system and recognise that we should not support a system simply because it has always been a certain way. We must be willing to adapt to the needs and requirements of today's world.

I hope that the Secretary of State is willing to initiate a proper national debate on our post-14 examination and qualification system, as we need to consider more than just AS-level exams. As well as AS-levels, we now have the new vocational GCSEs—GNVQs are now vocational A-levels—A2s, the new advanced extension awards or AEAs, world class tests, key skills and S-levels. A document provided by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tries to explain the AS-levels. It explains that AS and A-levels will be graded and says:

"Once sufficient units have been completed to constitute a qualification . . . candidates will be provided with a qualification result and an opportunity to decline certification at that point . . . Candidates who have accepted an AS certificate can still resit AS units and the better result counts towards the full Advanced GCE, but in such circumstances candidates will not be issued with a new AS certificate. They can, however, resit all the AS assessment units, in which case a new AS certificate will be issued based only on their resits because the earlier AS assessment units are 'used up' for AS purposes by the act of the original AS certification."

When the Secretary of State replies, I hope that she will feel free to explain that.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Opposition Whip (Commons)

I cannot enlighten my hon. Friend on the difficulties either of the alphabet soup of examinations or of the quagmire of regulations that the Government are laying before the country.

I am slightly troubled by a remark that my hon. Friend made earlier, and perhaps she will expand on it for my benefit and that of the House. If we are saying that we have something as a gold standard for excellence, and if we are saying also that we nevertheless want other examinations at a different standard for breadth, what was wrong with the system that we had before any of the new examinations were introduced? Those who were not particularly likely to shine academically were trained up vocationally in apprenticeships, rather than gaining paper academic qualifications at a lower level than the gold standard, and were more qualified.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am happy to answer my hon. Friend. That is exactly the route down which we should be going; it is the very point that I was about to make. With all the present challenges, there is the danger that we end up with a pick-and-mix system of exam qualifications. There is a mish-mash of examinations, and no one knows what any exam qualification stands for or what the standard of the qualification is. AS-levels are in danger of falling between two stools. They are not providing breadth, and will possibly not provide the necessary academic rigour either.

For those who are academically inclined, a gold standard of academic rigour is essential. It is essential also that we have proper vocational skills-based training for those for whom that is the right route through education. We need a proper review of qualifications post-14, so we can ensure that there is a structure that provides young people with qualifications that they and future employers understand, and in which they can have confidence. Merely tinkering at the edges, with AS-levels, will not do.

The problems with AS-levels are not the only issue in post-16 education. As a matter of urgency, the new Secretary of State must give some form of assurance to schools with sixth forms that their budgets and their very existence are not under threat. The Government claim to be guaranteeing funds to school sixth forms, but they have been careful with their words. In response to a question from my hon. Friend Chris Grayling, the Government made the following statement on school sixth-form funding:

"all school sixth forms have a guarantee that their funding will not fall below the funding level of 2000–01 in real terms, provided their sixth form numbers do not fall".—[Hansard, 9 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 389W.]

What happens if numbers in 2002–03 are below those in 2001–02, but above those in 2000–01? We all know that sixth form numbers do not come in neat little packages. Numbers change over the years. That is not because of the inability of schools to attract sixth formers, but simply because the cohort coming through in any one year might be smaller than previous cohorts.

What will happen to schools if they lose a significant number of their students? On what basis will they then be funded? Schools are asking the Government what number of pupils the Secretary of State thinks a sixth form needs if it is to be viable. Numbers have been bandied around by the Department. I hope that the Secretary of State will be willing to put her neck on the line and tell us the number of pupils that she believes a sixth form should have if it is to be viable. If she does so, sixth forms will know whether they are under threat from the new process of closure set out in the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

More pupils go on to further and higher education at schools with sixth forms. There is evidence that pupils attending schools with a sixth form do better in GCSEs than pupils at schools without sixth forms. We believe that the Government should be doing all that they can to support schools with sixth forms. They should recognise that school sixth forms are different institutions from further education colleges.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills said:

"I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's comparison between further education establishments and schools. In many ways, schools are different institutions with different problems."—[Hansard, 5 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 383.]

But the similarity between school sixth forms and further education colleges is the very premise that underpins the Government's new funding arrangements. The Minister's words during Education questions last week led to concern in FE colleges, which thought that the Government were working on a system of convergence of funding. The Secretary of State should clarify the position for them today. What exactly do the Government want? Are they committed to convergence of funding? If so, when will that be achieved? Sixth form colleges also want reassurance that their funding is not under threat.

Further education colleges deserve to know where they stand. They deserve support from the Government, not more uncertainty. Our FE sector is in dire straits, with a possible industrial dispute later this year arising from the real problems that lecturers have, given the low pay in FE. Indeed, a complaint that I often hear from FE college principals is that lecturers are leaving FE to achieve higher salaries in secondary schools. That speaks volumes.

One of the problems that FE colleges face is the way in which the Government choose to fund them. The Government claim that they have put more money into FE, but as the colleges point out, the bulk of that funding is not available to colleges to use as they wish. It is earmarked funding for Government-identified purposes. The real-terms index of participation funding—the core funding for FE colleges—having stood at 100 back in 1995-96 has now fallen to 91.

For earmarked funds, money is linked to meeting targets. Failure to meet any one of those targets means that none of the extra money comes through, so a college could meet a target for increasing numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds, but if it missed its target for increasing numbers in adult education, it would not get money for increased numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds either.

The colleges' problems do not stop there. Money has been allocated for the teachers' pay initiative to recognise the problems caused by the threshold payments in schools. The allocation was due to be received on 1 April. To date, no college has received any of that money. What will happen to TPI funding after year 3? Will it be consolidated? What about the support staff, who in most colleges make up 40 to 50 per cent. of the staff? Many colleges find that it is difficult not only to get lecturers, but to find support staff as well.

Colleges were concerned about the new structure of funding through the learning and skills councils, and the evidence shows how right they were. The Learning and Skills Council has still not settled the mainstream funding allocations for FE colleges for the next academic year, which starts in three weeks, so they face funding uncertainty and a real-terms cut in core student funding.

The Government make much of their target of expanding numbers in FE by 700,000 by 2002–03, but the number of students in FE has fallen by 189,000 under the Labour Government. Yet again, the Government are failing to deliver. The FE sector is an important part of our education system. It offers opportunities to young and old and it deserves to be treated better than it has been by the Government. Welcomed freedoms have been restricted; funding is more complex; training opportunities are being denied. A sector that should be a major part of any agenda to widen participation is under siege from the Government. It deserves to be treated fairly, as an integral part of our education system.

The Government have failed to deliver on post-16 education. They have plunged the exam system into chaos, failed to guarantee the future of school sixth forms, and presided over a staffing crisis, a crisis of morale and a fall in student numbers in further education. Far from widening participation and broadening opportunities post-16, Labour in government, with its utilitarian attitude to education, is reducing the opportunities for young people to benefit from a truly broad range of educational experience post-16.

We are in danger of seeing young people forced into an identikit mould of the Government's choosing. The Government will be judged in this term not just on the numbers, but on the provision of choice, the standards of qualification and the quality of education post-16. On the evidence of the past few weeks, they will be seen to have failed to deliver.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills 1:49 pm, 12th July 2001

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

'welcomes the Government's achievements in post-16 education which will drive up the nation's skills and extend opportunity for all;
applauds the substantial extra resources secured for further education and the reforms through the Learning and Skills Council and rigorous inspection arrangements, which will radically improve standards and the guarantee to all sixth forms that their funding will be maintained in real terms if their pupil numbers do not fall;
commends the broadening of the 16-19 curriculum which is widely supported and the timely and measured response of the Government to improve delivery in schools and colleges;
welcomes the early success of the Connexions Service and of Education Maintenance Allowance pilots in encouraging more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay in full-time education after the age of 16, the extra resources secured for the university system and the expansion in the numbers of students in higher education;
and endorses the strategy to reduce the number of adults lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills which will tackle a problem which has been neglected for far too long.'.

Although I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate post-16 education, I must admit to being a little disappointed by the narrowness of the approach taken by Mrs. May. I thought that she might share with us her views about the 7 million adults who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, and about plans to deal with that problem. I thought also that she might at least express concern about the fact that, although we have one of the best higher education services in the world, access to it from some sectors of our community is just not good enough. However, we heard none of that and nothing about diversity of further education.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I shall give way in a moment.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead did not mention the fact that there are twice as many students from middle class backgrounds as from working class backgrounds in higher education. We have 7 million adults with no basic skills because the education system failed them in the past, as there was no planned way of improving their skills when they left school. We heard nothing from her about work-based skills and training, and the progress that can be made in that respect.

The hon. Lady made three clear points to which I shall confine my remarks, so that I can respond properly to the debate.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I should like to make some progress on AS-levels, but if the hon. Gentleman has a point of correction, I shall give way.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Conservative, Altrincham and Sale West

The Secretary of State misheard my earlier remark. I said that the Government had made it worse, as they reduced access by taking grants away.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

The last point is not true, but I suppose that I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for at least raising some concerns about children getting into higher education—a matter that was not mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead.

Many of the hon. Lady's comments related to AS-levels. I am happy to say to the House what I said yesterday: this was not the best implemented set of curriculum reforms that has ever been introduced. She did not mention the tragedy of other major curriculum reforms that have not been well implemented. I cast my mind back to the national curriculum reforms of the 1970s and 1980s, when syllabuses were sent out to primary and secondary schools time after time. The schools bought books and trained teachers, but then had to start again. In the end, our good friend Lord Dearing was called in to try to make something out of the mess that the Conservative Government had created.

I do not make those comments with any sense of pride. If we look throughout the education service—I am prepared to reflect on this matter—there must be something wrong with the fact that each of the major curriculum changes introduced in the past quarter of a century has not got it right first time. That is a lesson to reflect upon. It is with sadness that I admit that the introduction of the AS-level reforms last year did not do credit to anybody who had responsibility for their implementation.

We must admit that fact and learn from it, but I want to go further. In arguing about implementation, it is the easiest thing in the world for the Opposition and opponents elsewhere to say, "You've got it wrong, so take responsibility; it is all no good." But, with respect, that achieves only the scoring of cheap political points. There is something fundamental that is more important. More than four years ago, in 1996, when the first look was taken at widening the post-16 curriculum, there was unanimity throughout our learning community on the view that our sixth-form curriculum was too narrow.

I stand by that view. I think that we let down our sixth-form students. I have not moved from my belief that it is important to acknowledge that a narrow curriculum of three A-levels is insufficient to prepare our students for the world that they must enter. It is not only the Government who are expressing that view; I think that general agreement remains on the need for a broader post-16 curriculum.

The saddest aspect of the hon. Lady's comments—I shall give way to her immediately if she was not saying this—was that, for the first time, she called into question the Opposition's support for a broader post-16 curriculum. Whatever the inadequacies of implementation in the past year, I would welcome her support for the view that a narrow curriculum of three A-levels is not sufficient and that we are right to keep to the drawing board. That includes, from this September, a commitment to the broader curriculum.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

It is obvious from what the Secretary of State has just said that she did not listen to a word of my speech. I specifically referred to the issue of a broader curriculum. Having presided over the implementation of AS-levels, does she understand that students, as well as teachers, parents and the Opposition, say that the impact of AS-levels has been not to broaden the curriculum but to narrow it?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

If we accept the need for a broader curriculum, we have two choices. Either we ask students to study more subjects in less depth or we accept that we are asking them to work harder. We asked them to work harder. The hon. Lady talked about the burden of work in the sixth form, and the fact that it had cut out a lot of extra-curricular activities. We want to keep the gold standard of the A-level. Everyone wants that: it is a good examination that gains credit with universities and employers and is respected throughout the world. If we are to broaden the post-16 curriculum while keeping the gold standard of the A-level, the bottom line is that we must ask students to study more, harder and across a greater breadth. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot broaden the curriculum and then turn round and say to students, "Hang on, you're working too hard."

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I want to make some progress.

Saying such things will not work. Last year, we told sixth-form students that we thought that they could cope with more studying and a broader curriculum in the first and second years of the sixth form.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I want to finish this point. Things went wrong because the assessment was organised in such a way that it disrupted the flow of learning and teaching.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned my interview on the "Today" programme yesterday. I want to make two points. I think that the burden of assessment was too great. I also think that when assessment is too frequent during the school year, with the best will in the world, students stop studying and start to prepare for revision, and once they have had their assessment, they go over the papers again. The biggest complaint that I heard was not that students did not want to do more subjects, nor that they did not want a broad curriculum, nor that they did not accept that they could spend more time studying in the first year sixth, but that the flow of teaching and learning was interrupted by too frequent assessments.

Our proposals, which will come in two stages, will show that we have addressed that problem. We want to make progress from this September because we want to ensure that students who are studying from next year have another option. Believe it or not, many students wanted to keep the end-of-module assessment and the January assessment but, for those who did not, there need be no reason to take assessments on any of their modules before the end of the first year sixth. Many schools chose that option last year, and many could have left their assessments until the end of the second year sixth—if, as I have to admit, the guidance from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and others had been clearer.

The hon. Lady also asked about the interviews. Some students and teachers have said that the problem was not only the assessment but the prescription in the syllabuses, and that there was just too much to cover in the courses. I think that they are right about that in some subjects. Having spoken to David Hargreaves, the chief executive of the QCA, I understand that his impression, following his first review, was that that was the case in two subjects; the one that was cited to me was mathematics.

It would have been foolhardy, after asking the QCA to look at the matter for three weeks, to say yesterday, "I announce that we are going to slim down all the programmes of study." The evidence from the three-week review did not suggest that that should be the case. I am happy to give the hon. Lady the acknowledgement that she asked for today. If she had read the report that was issued yesterday, and the Government's response to it, she would have seen that we have asked the QCA to look at the subjects slowly so that we do not rush things and have implementation next year as inadequate as it was this year. We have asked the authority to take its time and report in due course on whether some of the subjects were over-prescriptive. I acknowledge that some were, but it is not my instinct that every AS-level subject asks too much of students. We cannot say on the one hand that we are dumbing down and that we have lowered standards, and on the other that we have asked too much of students. Many mixed messages are being conveyed.

Let me outline several important principles. The broader curriculum is necessary. It is not too much to ask of our sixth formers that they study more than three A-levels; it is important that they do. It is also important to keep the gold standard and the rigour. We have not done that properly this year, but we will improve next year. By the year after that, we will have totally revamped the assessment system. I am happy to state in the House, as I did in writing yesterday, that some study programmes that have been announced for syllabuses need reconsidering. However, although that applies to mathematics and one or two other subjects, it is not true of all subjects.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The recognition of error is welcome but belated. What does the Secretary of State say to my young constituent at Aylesbury high school, Emma Clark, who wrote to me on 12 June to say that the Government's handling of AS-levels was "a complete mess", and that the timing of the announcement of the review was "particularly insensitive"? She strongly objected to being sacrificed on the altar of political experimentation. In response to that hard-working and intelligent student, will the right hon. Lady personally apologise?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. Again, I say that the implementation of AS-levels was not as good as it should have been. How many times must I say that? If the young lady to whom he referred is 17, she was educated mostly under a Tory Government. If 17-year-olds have been guinea pigs since the age of five, I know who carried out most experimentation. It was not us.

I do not believe that students who have just done their AS-levels have wasted their time to gain a worthless qualification that will not be respected by higher education and the outside world. I share that view with the hon. Member for Maidenhead, who began her speech well by congratulating and thanking those students. She said that the important message to them was that their studies in the past year were worth while and will be credited. I admit that I wish for Emma, as for the others, that life and the assessment had been easier in the past year. However, I always wish that policies could be implemented perfectly first time round. When we realised that the implementation was not perfect, we took action as speedily as possible.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I shall give way to my hon. Friend Diana Organ first. Then I must move on because there is a danger of the debate becoming a discussion about AS-levels.

Neither Conservative nor Labour Administrations should be satisfied with the history of curriculum implementation. I have therefore asked the QCA to consider the matter and ensure that we understand why the information was unclear, and not sent out in a timely fashion. The examination timetables were not organised to avoid clashes and schools did not have sample texts or examination papers in sufficient time. That was possible but did not happen.

We have conveyed a clear message about what will happen in schools in September and beyond. We have to consider matters slowly and calmly and ensure that our education service is better able to implement curriculum change.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

What would my right hon. Friend say to further education lecturers and teachers in my constituency whom I met two terms after the introduction of the AS-level? They said that it was excellent, created good study habits and allowed students to progress to the gold standard of A2 because, in the important first two terms, the students were busy. They claimed that it did not have a detrimental effect on the retention rates of children in year 12.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend's constituents said. When there is a problem, the people who write in or complain tend to be those with an axe to grind. The irony of this brief consultation is that I received lots of heartfelt letters from educationists, students and parents who wanted to keep the thrust of the reforms. Equally, we received lots of letters from people who were unhappy with the implementation.

The important point is that a lot of people out there think that the curriculum reforms have achieved a welcome widening of the curriculum, a greater retention rate and greater motivation; we do not want to lose that. Indeed, although I have mentioned the problems of end-of-module assessment, I also have a file of letters welcoming the ability to assess at the end of the module, because it motivates students. Some students need that recognition. They need to know how they stand at the end of the module, so that they can make an assessment and move forward. I do not want to take away from that and there is a real danger in the debate that we will lose sight of the problem that we want to address.

Perhaps I am the one to say this in the House: someone who studies for A-levels but fails at the end of two years leaves school with no piece of paper or qualification to show for it. That happened to me. I did two years' study in the sixth form, but I did not manage to pass the end of term exam. Somewhere along the line, I probably did quite well in an essay or two, but I have no qualification or bit of paper that tells me that. The challenge that we face is to recognise that cohort of students and to ensure that their needs can be met as well. That, honestly, is what we have tried to do.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I must make a last point, then I shall move on and say more about post-16 education.

We have tried to provide flexibility, but the problem involves teachers, because they are hard working and always try to do their best for students. The real difficulty with the first year was that what was set out was a series of options: exams could be set in January, but need not; end-of-module exams could be taken, but need not. Too many teachers got the message that they would let down their students if they did not do every option. That is our fault for not being clear enough and for not giving teachers the confidence to read the regulations and guidance and choose the course most appropriate for their students. I have confidence that the guidance that we shall publish by September will give teachers that confidence.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I give way to my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell, but I give notice that I shall not give way again for a good few minutes.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

I want my right hon. Friend to deal clearly with the point, which was apparently made in The Times, that the Government are about to eliminate the January examinations. Concern has been expressed to me by one of my local sixth form colleges that that would disadvantage students who might want to resit in January. What are her plans?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

We want the January examination to remain available, so there will still be the option of doing the January assessments. We want a diverse and flexible system that allows teachers and students to make decisions that suit them. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the thrust of the comments is that the January assessment came too early and that students had not settled down to sixth-form learning. Today, I have tried to send the message that the January assessment will remain an option, but to return to the point that I have just made, we would not usually expect students to have to be assessed until the end of the first year sixth. That strikes a balance of the comments that were made.

I want to give the teaching profession and those aged between 16 and 19 the confidence to study the assessment options that we have given them and to make decisions in the light of their needs, knowing that those decisions will be recognised. Nobody will say that students are doing wrong if they do not take January assessments. Nobody will fault them for taking end-of-module assessments. Nobody will criticise them for leaving the assessments to the end of the two years, as some schools did. The irony is that those options were always available this year, but we did not get it right and we did not press that message sufficiently.

From the debate so far, people might think that all post-16 learning takes place in colleges and schools and that it is all about AS-level.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

No, no. In the remaining few minutes, I want to acknowledge other learning, other places of learning and flexible routes in post-16 education.

We have talked a lot about the gold standard of A-level and the broader curriculum. Some students, including adults, do vocational work. I feel that we as a nation have never given vocational studies the esteem and recognition that they need. The Government have made a huge improvement in expanding modern apprenticeships, and giving them the status that they deserve. For the first time, students have a real opportunity to gain vocational GSCEs. That will feed into modern apprenticeships, vocational A-levels and a more flexible and all-embracing higher education sector that recognises vocational degree-level courses.

If we can get this right—if, in years to come, we can stand up in the House and be as proud of the vocational gold standard as we are, rightly, of the academic gold standard—we will have gone some way towards being able to lay claim to an education system that teaches the basics well in primary schools, gives all our young people access to a broad and rich curriculum, and has the confidence to tell 14-year-olds, "We now want to tailor what we provide so it can meet the needs of you as individuals, which will offer you the opportunity to study in academic groups, vocational groups or both. Whichever option you choose will be given status and recognition, and you should be proud of your achievements, in whatever field they are made."

We will go further. We will be able to tell those 14-year-olds that, regardless of which route they take, their learning will end not at 16 but at 19—and that, in a sense, it will continue throughout their lives. It will take place not just in schools but in high quality further education institutions, and in the best higher education universities that the world can offer. As for those who do not want to learn in any such institution, preferring to go to work or stay at home, we will give them the opportunities that they require.

Only if we can offer that commitment will we have gone some way towards ensuring that we have the learning community and learning culture that we want, and that we have put learning at the centre of all that we do.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:12 pm, 12th July 2001

We are grateful to Mrs. May and her colleagues for raising this issue. I am usually not particularly generous to the hon. Lady, but I thought her speech struck many of the right notes. We have not tabled an amendment to the motion, because we think that many of the messages it conveys need to be debated and need a response.

The hon. Lady will, however, not be surprised to learn that although many of her comments returned to familiar territory, I was surprised that her party had chosen to debate this matter. The debate may, of course, serve as a distraction from the Tory leadership contest—dubbed rather generously by yesterday's Mirror "the flight of the living dead"—or it may arise from a sense of guilt, and the acceptance of a chance to atone for past sins. If I may misquote Monty Python's "Life of Brian": after all, what did the Conservatives ever do for further education? The answer is "Very little".

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I want to make some progress first.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead said twice that she considered further education to be an integral part of our education system, yet the Conservative party manifesto, which is only a month old, made no mention of it. The lack of any policy on FE meant that the 676,000 under-19s studying in FE colleges were totally ignored. Moreover, the manifesto featured no policy on adult learners, thus effectively ignoring 1.9 million such learners in those colleges. It is, in a way, quite a tribute to the Tories that they have managed to write off the 2.6 million learners supported by FE provision, and then criticise the Government for their lack of progress.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Now that the hon. Gentleman has finished his little soundbite, may I respond to his earlier rhetorical question? Will he reflect on the fact that the Conservative contribution to the expansion of FE, historically, was to increase student numbers by 3 million to 4 million? Had he been able to attend sittings of the Standing Committee considering the Learning and Skills Bill last year as assiduously as I did, he would have heard in some detail exactly what our concerns about further education were, and exactly what we proposed.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

If any of my remarks hit home on the Conservative Benches, they were not directed at the hon. Gentleman, whose record as a speaker on behalf of further education is impeccable. It is a great pity that the Conservatives did not consult him when they were writing their manifesto.

May I finish my explanation? The manifesto does not mention the 250,000 college lecturers and the 200,000 support staff, either. [Interruption.] Mr. Boswell requires a response to my question about what the Conservatives ever did for further education, and he is right: there were an extra 1 million students between the time of incorporation and the beginning of the Labour Government.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

What really happened, surely, was that there were 1 million extra enrolments, resulting entirely from changes in the funding methodology that increased the likelihood of individual students being enrolled for multiples of different courses. We are not talking about real people; we are talking about a change in the funding methodology.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, he has stolen the next part of my speech. Enrolments rose by some 33 per cent. during those years, but that did not equate to any increase in the number of full-time equivalent students. The figures often bandied about by Conservative Front Benchers are highly misleading.

I return to my question about what the Conservatives did for further education. During the period of that 33 per cent. increase, funding for full-time equivalent students fell by 35 per cent., and 20,000 FE lecturers were effectively driven out. Today, however, we are hearing a defence that tells us that we must protect sixth-form funding in the traditional sense, but that it was perfectly all right to subject the whole FE student population to the regime introduced by the hon. Member for Daventry and now supported by the Conservative Front Bench.

In considering FE issues we should look back to 1993 and incorporation, for most of the problems result from those days. I am thinking of indebtedness, a lack of capital investment, failure to invest in staff, pay differentials, "casualisation", franchising, over-complication of funding arrangements and a lack of strategic direction. Those problems typified further and post-16 education from 1993 onwards.

A Labour Government came along in 1997 and instantly recognised the problems with post-16 learning. We saw the wonderful book "Learning Works" by Lady Kennedy, and also "The Learning Age—A Renaissance", which promised a new understanding and a new beginning. We saw the national skills taskforce reports and the Moser report, which highlighted unacceptable levels of skills, and in particular, unacceptable levels of adult numeracy and literacy. Sadly, however, there was no real response to any of those problems, only a structural reorganisation, with the creation of learning and skills councils. That was the net result after four years of the first Labour Government for some time.

The Secretary of State's predecessor acquired a £6 billion central fund enabling him and his successors to do what they wanted in the FE sector. The Government introduced unprecedented levels of bureaucracy. Any FE college today will say that the arrangements involving the new Learning and Skills Council are horrendous because of the bureaucracy. We must look into that.

We now have new inspection regimes. The first area inspections are just coming through, led by Ofsted which is clearly following the traditional Woodheadian pattern of highlighting the issues that the Government want raised. Not surprisingly, more colleges have failed those inspections since Ofsted came along. We must ask why. During the past four years, student-staff ratios have been unacceptable; they are now far higher than those to be found in the 14 to 16 sector in schools, and certainly higher than those in any sixth form. Again, that is unacceptable.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead was spot on when she described how over the past few years college funding has been disguised. The previous Secretary of State made it clear that there has been an increase in funding from £3.13 billion in 1997 to £4.29 billion this year. We accept those figures; they are on the record. But starting from the level six years ago in 1995, that is pro rata funding. Despite the hype, and four years of a Labour Government, all that has been achieved is a return to 1995 levels of funding.

If the special grants are stripped away—they are earmarked by the Secretary of State—

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Of course it is real money. I am not contradicting that. I have already admitted that to the Secretary of State, who is grumbling from a sedentary position. I am never dishonest with her, as she knows.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I suspect that it is my turn to agree with the hon. Gentleman for once. Does he accept that no responsible further education corporation can shell out pay increases on the basis of special grants that are subject to conditions that may vary from year to year, as opposed to an assured stream of core funding?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is no different from what has happened under previous Labour and Conservative regimes, certainly since 1988. I will return to that specific point because it does need to be addressed. The ministerial team must put on the record their response to the appalling accusations in last night's debate and during Education questions last week.

The real problem for colleges is that the level of core funding for addressing the issues that need to be addressed is decreasing. It is now 5 per cent. lower than when Labour came to power in 1997, and 10 per cent. below the magical 1995 figure. Although 96 colleges were facing bankruptcy in 1997, and one in three colleges has serious financial difficulties, colleges are having to bid for money. The money is targeted directly, and colleges cannot spend it as they want. Lecturers believe that a flood of money is coming into the colleges, and ask why it is not reflected in their pay scales. The colleges, the principals and the lecturers all feel let down.

We accept that there is no way to satisfy the funding demands of any sector in education. Even if we Liberal Democrats were in power, we could not do that—but we would have a better stab at it because we recognise some of the problems. Given the growth rate of the Liberal Democrat party and the support for us in the country, it will not be long before we are sitting on the Government Benches.

It is not surprising that in the first few weeks of a Labour Government there should be problems with the teacher unions over pay. Neither my party nor any political party should be involved in direct negotiations or in supporting strike action or any other action. Such matters are between employers and employees. Problems with the unions over funding in the post-16 sector were inevitable. We cannot have, on the one hand, the Government targeting funding, some of which cannot be spent on staff pay, and constantly looking for further efficiency savings, and on the other hand, college principals being allowed to negotiate openly on staff pay.

Lecturers have delivered huge increases in productivity. Despite the appalling comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, John Healey at Question Time last week about the quality of the courses and lecturers in the colleges, I believe that they are doing a substantial job in difficult circumstances. The lecturers' fight is not with the college principals; it is with the Government. The Government have created a funding system under which the colleges cannot meet the demands of their staff.

It is all very well for Ministers to talk about professionalism and increasing skills and levels of participation. Those of us who have had any involvement in FE know full well that the most difficult group of young people to bring into college are those with no qualifications. They demand far more attention and time from staff, and far more resources. Yet they are the very group that is so grossly underfunded.

How can the Secretary of State justify the 29 per cent. funding gap between a sixth form college delivering a three A-level package and a school sixth form? How can that be justified? Can she explain why a package of four AS-levels plus two A-levels in a school attracts average funding of £3,530 while exactly the same package in an FE college attracts £3,030—a difference of 14 per cent.? Is it any wonder that college lecturers are underpaid and under-resourced?

I agree with the hon. Member for Maidenhead that we must not allow the introduction of learning and skills councils to lead to the underfunding of our sixth forms, as we all worried that it would during the passage of the Bill. We were promised a levelling-up, but exactly the opposite has occurred.

My hon. Friend Sandra Gidley handed me a letter this morning from her local sixth form college, Barton Peveril, which illustrates exactly what that means on the ground. It is a relatively small college with a relatively small budget, and because of the funding arrangements, it is £1.6 million less well off than a similar sized school. That is unacceptable, and when the Minister responds later, I hope that she will address that specific issue.

Finally, I shall touch on two further issues. The Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Maidenhead had a protracted debate over the AS-level debacle. I hope that my hon. Friend Mr. Rendel will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and comment on that. The Secretary of State admitted that mistakes had been made. That is an honourable position, and we, and most schools, will thank her for that admission. However, that was not what concerned me most. Having made mistakes—having considered the 16 to 19 age group in isolation from the 14 to 19 age group—does the right hon. Lady not agree that if we are to take up the challenge issued by the hon. Member for Maidenhead we need a comprehensive overhaul of the whole of that curriculum and qualifications structure? To tinker around with the post-16 sector without considering the rest is ridiculous. Back in the 1990s, Lord Dearing made a clear commitment to movement on that front.

Surely the idea that there can be a review, but that we will retain the "gold standard" for A-levels irrespective of what comes up in it, must give the right hon. Lady cause for reflection. That would rule out the introduction of the baccalaureate as an alternative. It rules out the whole idea of considering a more appropriate way of delivering vocational education in schools and colleges.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the sad things about the Secretary of State's response was that she completely failed to listen to my point about the need for a proper national debate on post-14 qualifications? A range of qualifications is available. We need to consider what is right for young people. This is not merely about tinkering around with the number of exams taken at AS-level.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I confess that I agree with the hon. Lady—and I have made the same point. However, I hope that she agrees that we cannot say that we will reconsider the curriculum and qualifications for everyone apart from the relatively small group of students who do A-levels. The Secretary of State and I know that every year 10 per cent. of young people leave school with no qualifications—they simply drop out. Indeed, most of them have dropped out well before they get to the end of year 11. That is the reality.

How do we keep those young people in the system? How do we create a curriculum and qualifications structure that not only brings them into schools but into colleges and onwards? That is why we must have a radical overhaul. If the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Government can actually agree on that, this debate will be momentous in relation to the next four or five years.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although there is undoubtedly a case for considering a broadening of the post-16 curriculum, it is essential that we at no stage devalue the academic content of what is undertaken simply to achieve the Government's politically correct totem of 50 per cent. participation in higher education?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is an insulting intervention from such an ostensibly intelligent Member—[Hon. Members: "Ostensibly?"] I use my words advisedly. Nothing has been said during this debate from any Bench that suggests that we want to undermine academic excellence. That is not the case—[Interruption.] It is certainly not what we want. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the baccalaureate is used in some countries, in some areas or in the private sector as a route to academic excellence and broadening, I should like to explore that in this debate—[Interruption.] I should like to respond to the hon. Gentleman, if he will stop shouting at me.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is speaking rather loudly from a sedentary position.

We also need to consider that army of youngsters who achieve nothing and gain nothing from the system. We must not think in terms of an exclusive either/or decision.

One of the greatest omissions from the Learning and Skills Act 2000 was that it completely ignored higher education. If there is to be a genuine continuum of lifelong learning, higher education must be part of it. Last week the Minister for Lifelong Learning—who is deep in conversation at the moment—said that she was prepared to examine the relationship between FE and HE and between the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Our party is on record as saying that we want the Learning and Skills Council and the HEFCE to be combined, except for research fund moneys. It is important that we do not create a new 14 to 19 structure and then find that there is a barrier when people try to move between the FE and HE structures.

I hope that the Minister will agree that we are trying to make progress by holding this debate, rather than merely picking a fight with the Government.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North 2:35 pm, 12th July 2001

I welcome the Opposition's choice of this subject for debate, but it is especially surprising given that, as Mr. Willis pointed out, the Conservative manifesto made no reference to a policy on post-16 education. During their past four years in opposition, the Conservatives put little emphasis on the subject. Furthermore, their record during their last four years in office was dire.

I associate myself with some of the hon. Gentleman's critique of the period between 1993 and 1997, although given that his criticism of the Tory record was so strong I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats did not feel able to table their own amendment to the Tory amendment. Unfortunately, they seem to agree with the substance of the Tory amendment.

Between 1993 and 1997, following the incorporation of further education colleges, funding for the post-16 sector was squeezed, year on year, in a way that it never had been in any UK public service during any four-year period. The result was tremendous staff demoralisation and an enormous exodus of further education lecturers from the profession. There was a huge rundown of the staffing base, leading to the recruitment of a large number of part-time, temporary contract staff, with inevitable instability and uncertainty for the institutions.

There was a continual struggle with a funding methodology that was more arcane and complex than any that had been used for any UK public service. The management of colleges throughout the country struggled day to day as they grappled with that funding methodology in a constant effort to beat the system.

I hark back to the oft-cited fact that 1 million extra students were recruited during that period of Tory Government. In fact, the figure was entirely the result of creative accounting. The real number of students fell as the system started to fall apart. The impact of competition between colleges led to greater confusion about what was on offer. The numbers were maintained on a wholly notional basis. I speak with some feeling on that point, because before I became a Member one of my jobs was to beat the system in exactly that way.

During that period, we saw the introduction of a pseudo-enterprise culture in the post-16 sector. Sadly, as the years passed, some of the Conservatives' heroes of that enterprise culture finished up running pubs in north Wales with their girlfriends rather than the colleges they should have been running. Some of them are still fugitives from justice. Others ended up in jail—if they did not end up there, they should have done. The record of the last Conservative Government is dire. Many of the problems currently facing the sector are entirely attributable to that period.

It was depressing that Mrs. May concentrated most of her remarks on AS-levels and on schools. She made passing reference to further education colleges and sixth form colleges, but made no reference to adult training. There was no reference to young people who leave school with no qualifications. There was minimal reference to students who continue along the vocational route.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that head teachers, parents and sixth formers are greatly concerned that the Government's approach to post-16 education ignores our sixth forms and treats them as second-class citizens and that the Government are much more interested in colleges and other aspects of post-16 education? Would it not be appropriate for the Government to send a signal to our sixth forms, which deliver so much quality, that they do matter?

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I am very aware that the vast majority of 16 to 19-year-old students are taught in colleges, not in sixth forms. The overwhelming majority of post-16 students are taught neither in sixth-form colleges nor in sixth forms, but in general further education colleges or tertiary colleges, or they study outside the institutional framework. We have to set the importance of sixth forms in that context, and I shall return to them later in my remarks.

In contrast with what happened between 1993 and 1997, the Government have recognised the importance of post-16 and lifelong learning in the past four years. That recognition has been supported by remarkable new investment in the sector, by record new numbers of students—I am talking about real bodies, not the creative accounting of students entering the sector—and by the widening of participation and the extension of educational opportunity to different social groups.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am somewhat surprised by the hon. Gentleman's claims of record increases in student numbers in further education. In fact, the number of students has fallen by 189,000 under this Labour Government.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I remind the hon. Lady that we are debating post-16 education, not simply that for 16 to 19-year-olds. I include the number of students who are 19-plus, and I am talking about the increases in higher education and in the number of students who stay on beyond 16, which is higher than ever before.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am happy to inform the hon. Gentleman that there has been a net fall of 110,000 in the total number of students in further education and in higher education.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

We could spend all afternoon trading statistics. [Interruption.] I am happy to do so, but all I can say is that in the past four years more young people have remained in education than ever before, partly because we are now moving forward to a much broader definition of what constitutes post-16 education. We are no longer hung up on the sixth form or the A-level as the only significant post-16 qualification. We are continuing towards the Government's target of getting almost 50 per cent. of 18-year-olds into higher education by 2010. Such a continuous extension of educational opportunity was simply unthinkable during the Tory years.

I do not want to reinforce the obsession with AS-levels. Although it is clear that there have been difficulties with implementation and serious questions remain for the QCA and the examining boards, that is not the most serious issue in post-16 education today. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that a consensus appears to be emerging that AS-levels alone are not the issue and that the more profound issue is the importance of a coherent curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds. I look forward to the Government doing more work on that as the months pass, so that we can quickly have such a curriculum, which exists in many other European countries whose levels of achievement and participation are far higher than ours.

I cannot be the only Member in the Chamber who has a 17-year-old son who has spent the past 12 months studying the first year of curriculum 2000. I have been able to observe at first hand the differences between his experience and that of my daughter, who studied traditional A-levels two years ago. Frankly, I observe comparatively little difference in the work load, although I accept that the frequency of assessment is a problem and that the concept and implementation of the key skills programme has been almost an unmitigated disaster—a point that the hon. Member for Maidenhead did not mention at all. The QCA's interim report contained serious criticisms of the key skills programme, and there is a need for urgent reform, preferably for year 2 of curriculum 2000. I will pass on to my son the hon. Lady's generous remarks to all those students following curriculum 2000 this year, and I am sure that he will be very grateful for them.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury

The hon. Gentleman's experience is totally different from mine if he thinks that no more work has been involved, and I have a child in the age group that he mentions. Did he not notice that the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that the expectation was that the students would be involved in a lot more work? If the hon. Gentleman's son or daughter has not experienced that, they are not experiencing what the Secretary of State expected.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

We could spend all afternoon trading individual experiences. I could cite my visit to the two excellent colleges in my constituency. In the past few months, I have spent a considerable amount of time talking to students, especially those at the Holy Cross sixth form college. Without exception, their response to the first year of curriculum 2000 was, first, that they welcomed its greater breadth. Secondly, they found that it involved a large amount of work but that, by and large, they were coping and they would have the opportunity to drop a subject in the second year. Thirdly, the major problem was the teaching and the concept of key skills, which they recognised as unsatisfactory. Fourthly, they approved of the continuous assessment, but they wanted it to be perhaps less frequent. They approved of assessment throughout the year, rather than being solely dependent on one form of assessment at the end of a two-year programme. I think that that is enough trading of individual experiences.

On sixth forms and differential funding, it is completely unacceptable that we continue with such a gap. The precise gap is disputed, but it is indisputable that a gap exists between the per capita funding for students taking A-levels in sixth forms or in sixth-form colleges and those taking them in tertiary colleges or general further education colleges. That is indefensible. I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that and that they have given a commitment that the differential will be closed over time, by levelling up the college sector.

I ask the Minister to refer in her winding-up speech to the fact that uncertainty remains about the Government's response to the consultation on sixth-form funding, which, I think, closed in March. It would be helpful if she could say when the Government will respond to that consultation document. It would be helpful if the Government could give some information on the method by which the standard spending assessment will be top sliced and redistributed to the Learning and Skills Council, so that we know exactly what the funding will be.

Having said that, the Opposition have done young people and their parents no service at all by continuing their obsession with sixth forms. Their thinking is mistaken. They would establish the A-level as a gold standard, regardless of the nature, the quality, the size and the location of the sixth form, or its curriculum provision. That is a classic example of an issue in which the standards and structures dilemma needs to be pursued. The real issue about post-16 education is not that sixth forms are good and colleges are bad; nor that all college provision is good and all sixth form provision is bad: what matters are the standards and the level of achievement, not the structures.

I want to remind the House of the figures that relate to the size of sixth forms in the United Kingdom by putting on record a parliamentary answer of 24 May 2000. We were told that, of the 1,834 sixth forms in England, 115 had 50 or fewer pupils; 319 of them had between 51 and 100 pupils; and 409 of them had 101 to 150 pupils.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead asked the Government to give an indication of the minimum viable size of sixth form, but I do not think that any Government would do that. However, in the mid-1980s, Her Majesty's inspectorate issued a document that spelled out fairly specifically what the minimum viable size for a sixth form would be for it to be able to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum under the old A-level system. My recollection was that it was about 150 pupils.

The figures that I was given in the written answer show that almost 45 per cent. of sixth forms in England have 150 pupils or fewer. If we are moving towards a baccalaureate system—regardless of whether it is a full baccalaureate system or whether we stay with curriculum 2000—I wonder whether smaller sixth forms can adequately provide the breadth and balance of the curriculum and richness of experience without plundering the budgets for years 7 to 11 in those schools.

I also received an answer to a written question on 13 June 2000 and it analysed the A-level points score according to the size of sixth form. It showed that schools with 50 or fewer pupils obtained an average A-level points score of 7.4; schools with 51 to 100 pupils obtained a score of 9.4; those with 101 to 150 pupils obtained 11.9; those with 151 to 200 pupils obtained 14.6; those with 201 to 250 pupils obtained 15.7; and those with more than 250 pupils obtained 15.8.

As the average A-level points score for the whole country is 15.3, we might be able to draw two important lessons from those figures. The first is that achievement at A-level is directly proportionate to size of sixth form. Secondly, only two categories of sixth forms—those with 201 to 250 or with more than 250 pupils—actually achieve an A-level points score greater than the national average.

I do not instantly draw such conclusions, but it is important information and we need to debate it. We must get away from our hang-ups about the importance of structures and institutions and must consider levels of achievement across the country. Even though I accept that A-level point scores are not the only criterion by which we should measure achievement, we need to design our structures to maximise achievement.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he has been most generous in giving way to my interventions. He is in danger of stereotyping school sixth forms. He talks about 150 as the Ofsted-set level for viability, but what would he say to the head of the secondary school that I visited in West Bromwich and that has a sixth form with fewer than 50 pupils? The school does not offer A-level courses, but it has set up a sixth form specifically to provide a very limited range of courses that were not available to pupils in colleges in the locality. Pupils were otherwise falling through the net and were not being given the opportunity to undertake courses that might benefit them.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I would say that the head teacher is probably doing a very good job; I never take on head teachers as that is a dangerous thing to do.

I take the hon. Lady's point exactly. That is why I do not draw sweeping conclusions about the achievements of small sixth forms. I am certainly conscious of the fact that the remoteness of some parts of the country and their sparsity of population—I do not think that West Bromwich falls into this category—means that small sixth forms are the only way forward.

In many urban and suburban parts of the country, however, the legacy of the Education Reform Act 1988 coupled with the legacy of the Higher and Further Education Act 1992 mean that we have far too many schools for 11 to 18-year-olds struggling desperately to hang on to tiny unviable sixth forms for reasons that are entirely understandably to do with the preservation of the staff and their sense of identity in the school. It is a classic example of a producer-led system. In such areas, schools, head teachers and governors are doing no favours to the young people who, in many cases, would be far better-off in a sixth form college system, in a tertiary college or in a federal system in which the school for 11 to 16-year-olds is far more closely linked with the local college.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

There is much merit in my hon. Friend's arguments, but will he consider areas such as mine? It is made up of mining villages in a rural setting and a number of sixth forms keep young people in education even though they do not necessarily take A-levels. What does he think of a system in which providers work with other providers to ensure that young people have choices to continue their post-16 education and opportunities to do one part of a course at a venue that is linked to a college in the town centre?

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

That is the way forward for many parts of the country. As I said, we cannot draw sweeping conclusions from the information that I cited earlier on the relationship between the size of a sixth form and academic performance, but we must start a far more serious and mature debate, free from preconceptions about the particular types of institutions. I hope that such a debate will take place as the months go by.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman has been most generous in giving way. How would he characterise the sixth form at Furtherwick school on Canvey Island, where there was previously no post-16 education provision? Children from Canvey Island had to travel to the mainland. Since the sixth form was established—it is still quite small, but it is growing and becoming more successful year on year—the staying-on rate has increased dramatically. In addition, how would he explain why, when sixth form provision is introduced in competition with college provision to add choice, the results from the colleges as well as from those staying on at the sixth form improve? Sixth forms drive up standards by providing competition.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I am loth to characterise anything of which I have no direct experience, so I will refrain from answering the hon. Gentleman's question. However, it is important to distinguish between the impact of competition for its own sake or as a result of Government diktat and the need to provide appropriate choice. In the past, this country has been far too obsessed with the issue of choice between institutions and we have been concerned less frequently with the importance of choice within the institutions. The obsession with competition between institutions—competition that is ostensibly designed to provide choice—has led to a diminution of choice within institutions for certain groups of students. We need choice, but we do not need competition for its own sake.

Although I began by saying that I resented the way in which the Opposition introduced the debate to suggest that schools and AS-levels were the big issue in post-16 education, I am conscious of the fact that I have been sucked into considering that issue. However, I hope that when we next have a debate on post-16 education we can ignore sixth forms and AS-levels and consider the overwhelming majority of young people who do not go on to A-levels and who take the vocational route. We should also consider the growing problem of an underclass of under-achieving young people who leave school with nothing and, in many cases, well before the age of 16. They are easily sucked into a life of crime and other antisocial behaviour.

Before I conclude I wish to comment on two or three other points and invite my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to them. One of the Government's major achievements in the past four years was the introduction of education maintenance awards. There are, I think, 56 pilot areas and the scheme is working work well. I urge the Government to continue the concept and extend it nationwide. My area is surrounded by districts that are part of the scheme, and that throws up enormous anomalies. Unlike students in Bolton and Rochdale, students in Bury are not entitled to the awards. They and their parents cannot understand the distinction. I call on the Government to move quickly to make the pilots a national scheme.

Skills within the adult population are important. I pay tribute to the work of the Moser report on basic skills and the Government's national strategy, published last year, which contains, as I mentioned in the most recent Education questions, an interesting proposal. The strategy suggests that the Government will consider funding the release of employees so that they acquire basic skills. That would help people in low-income, low-status and low-skilled jobs, with poor literacy and numeracy levels. The report said that the Government should consider funding that for one day a week for 13 weeks, which is 13 days a year of paid educational leave. I want to draw the Minister's attention to that important proposal and to the Bill that I promoted last year—the Lifelong Learning (Paid Study Time) Bill—to provide paid educational leave for all employees. I shall introduce the Bill again this year and hope to attract wider support for the concept.

For many people in the adult work force, including MPs, barristers, business people and academics, paid educational leave is a given part of their life. We have no problem in taking almost as much time as we want off our regular daily work to enhance our professional skill and knowledge. However, the overwhelming majority of people are trapped in low-paid, low-skilled jobs. Their lives are a daily struggle to get by, and they have no security and little prospect of advancement. Unless they are extremely fortunate, they are never released from their employer to improve their skills. It is a classic example of where the market alone will not work.

Given a free choice, most employers will choose not to release their staff because they do not obtain an immediate benefit. In this case, it is an absolute responsibility of the Government to intervene in the operation of the market and, although there will be a short-term cost to compensate employers for releasing their staff, the long-term benefits—the life opportunities for low-paid workers and the improved quality of life for their children and families—will be well worth while.

I welcome the Government's work over the past four years and encourage them to continue so that post-16 education remains at the top of the policy agenda and lifelong learning for everyone becomes the norm, not the exception.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 3:03 pm, 12th July 2001

I have the honour to address the House for the first time this afternoon and the privilege to represent the East Sussex constituency of Bexhill and Battle, which contains the two towns of that name and a large rural area covering some 240 square miles. I was born and bred in Sussex, so to represent that seat means a great deal to me.

I follow Charles Wardle, who represented the constituency for 18 years, held ministerial office and was a diligent and assiduous constituency Member of Parliament, often taking up local causes with extraordinary and effective tenacity, as many residents of Robertsbridge, who suffered yet again this winter from terrible flooding, will readily testify. I hope that people will remember him for that rather than for his unhappy relationship with the Conservative party at the end of his parliamentary career.

I am pleased to say that Bexhill and Battle has been represented by a Conservative Member since 1874, and Charles Wardle was preceded by a distinguished and much respected parliamentarian, Bryant Godman Irvin, who gave great service to the House, not least as Deputy Speaker and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee from 1976 to 1982. He is still remembered with affection by my more senior colleagues.

Byrant Godman Irvin was preceded by another distinguished Member, a former mayor of Bexhill, Mr. W. N. Cuthbert. He was one of the few Tories to enter the House in the first election after the second world war at the time of the Labour landslide. I feel a strange affinity with Mr. Cuthbert. He, too, must have sat on these very Benches and stared in disbelief at the overwhelming number of Labour Members, but I take great encouragement from the fact that just five years after he was elected, that great majority was swept away.

It is a time-honoured tradition for new Members to make bold and flattering claims for their constituency. However, I can tell the House that Bexhill and Battle is, without a degree of doubt, one of the most beautiful parts of this kingdom. Mindful of the fact that we live in an age of performance indicators and audits, I have the statistics to prove it. Some 74 per cent. of Bexhill and Battle is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty and we have 16 sites of special scientific interest. From the High Weald to the Pevensey levels, from the Kent ditch to Brightling beacon, my constituency is blessed with an idyllic historic landscape and a majestic coastline. My constituents are guardians of a very special environment which I have pledged to defend.

We also treasure something else in Bexhill and Battle, less visible in the tourist guides but just as important—quality of life. Quality of life is a fragile and precious thing which cannot be measured by economic indicators alone. We understand that in the countryside, especially in the patchwork of close-knit rural communities that criss-cross my constituency. In the elegant Edwardian seaside town of Bexhill, I am pleased to say that standards of courtesy and decency still prevail. The De La Warr Pavilion, a modernist architectural gem, may be our most famous landmark, but the public spirit of my constituents, which finds expression in the numerous and highly successful voluntary organisations and charity fundraising committees, is perhaps the town's finest feature. They do a terrific job.

Few people realise that Bexhill was the birthplace of British motor racing and next year we look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first motor race along the seafront. However, in a constituency that is rich in historical associations, that race was relatively recent. Most famously, of course, in 1066 King Harold was defeated by William of Normandy. The town of Battle is now a charming, historic but vibrant market town. Despite the passing of 1,000 years, the deeds of that fateful day and the personalities of the individuals involved are still stamped on the local landscape. The strong vein of Euroscepticism that runs through my constituency perhaps shows that there are old scores yet to settle.

For all the charm and picturesque qualities, we are not complacent. Even amidst the rolling Sussex countryside, there are pockets of real hardship. As police numbers fall, fear of rising crime is rife across the constituency. Areas of Bexhill still wrestle with problems of social deprivation and antisocial behaviour. Our local hospital is frequently subject to bed-blocking and this afternoon's decision by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to decline to go ahead with the Bexhill bypass will be seen as a kick in the teeth for the town.

The bypass was not just a measure to ease traffic congestion; it was desperately needed to provide land for housing to attract people to the town and to provide homes for local families who are unable to get on the property ladder. It would have opened up land for a business park to provide much-needed, better-paid jobs, and it would have provided land to build a new university, which is one of the proposals of the new Conservative-controlled East Sussex county council. I, for one, shall continue the fight for the Bexhill bypass. However, I welcome any action from the Secretary of State to upgrade the A21 and improve our poor rail links to London.

Many people in the villages and the countryside in my constituency face a bleak, uncertain future, thanks to the crisis in the countryside and the secondary shockwaves from the foot and mouth epidemic. Action is undoubtedly needed, but the imposition of urban values on rural communities is certainly not the answer. However, my constituents know that to prosper they must embrace change. The area must attract investment to bring greater opportunities to young people and the less well-off members of our community. That means embracing new technology, new ways of working, a better skill base and a better transport infrastructure, and creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can prosper. There is no universal solution, but I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that if we can get education right so much else will come right too.

My constituency is fortunate in having many good schools. My son's primary school in Etchingham, with just 130 pupils, is one of several beacon schools, sharing its success with others. We are particularly proud of the fact that Bexhill high school has just won technology college status. I applaud the fact that education is one of the Government's foremost priorities, but as much as I share their ambition to make improvements, I am genuinely concerned by their propensity to over-regulate our schools and further education colleges. In their desperation to drive up results, they chronically overload teachers and students.

Childhood and adolescence are not merely a departure lounge for adulthood, but a time of life that should be enjoyed and relished for its own sake. We do our children no favours by denying them a childhood. We do young adults no favours if, at 16 or 18, they are worn down and worried by a constant work load of public examinations and tests. At the election, the Labour party told the country that "the work goes on", but for the sixth formers at Bexhill college, the work goes on and on and on. After-school sports, clubs and extra-curricular activities are all being squeezed as never before, and in driving our students ever harder, the Government risk quenching the very thing that drives our economy, the ingredient X that gives our nation an advantage over our trading competitors, which is our blend of ingenuity, creative spirit, free thinking and entrepreneurial flair.

Before entering the House I spent two fascinating years working for a large corporation in Russia, at the front line of efforts to reform and reinvigorate the post-Soviet economy. I was lucky to work with numerous highly educated people, whose excellent general management admission test scores were terrifying. The breadth of their knowledge never ceased to amaze me, but all too often, despite that, their ability to think creatively, to be radical and to take personal responsibility and initiative had been completely drilled out of them by an overbearing education system. The flicker of creativity and individualism that is the essential catalyst of wealth creation had been completely extinguished.

Clearly, we have not yet reached that point in this country, but, albeit from the kindest of motives, that is the direction in which our further education system is heading. Indeed, a Russian official making a recent fact-finding visit to a neighbouring education authority, when asked for her impressions remarked that the British education system was very impressive, but seemed to her rather over-centralised.

The current confusion and the U-turns in the new AS-level regime have only compounded that worry. It is no wonder that there is an unprecedented crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. I speak as a director of, and shareholder in, an advertising agency that specialises in that area of public service recruitment. It is time to trust the teaching profession, which has changed greatly in recent years. Those good changes were set in train by successive Conservative Governments. We rightly expect a great deal of our schools, and we must hold to account those who fail to deliver, but surely it is now time to stand back and give our teachers and lecturers some professional space.

Bexhill college in my constituency is subjected to three separate external auditors, and barely a week passes without an audit or official inspection taking place, tying up a huge amount of staff time and front-line education resources. The funding for the college comes from up to 73 separate pots, with all those amounts, including sums as small as £2,000 for governor training, having to be separately tracked. We will never unlock the potential of each and every student by crushing the professional freedom of teachers and lecturers.

I began this speech by praising my constituency, and I should like to end in the same vein. As this is a debate on education, I hope that the House will indulge me if I quote a verse by Rudyard Kipling, who made his home at Burwash in my constituency and was inspired by the wonderful countryside around him. He wrote:

"God gives all men all earth to love,

But, since man's heart is small,

Ordains for each, one spot shall prove

Belovèd over all

Each to his choice, and I rejoice

The lot has fallen to me

In a fair ground—in a fair ground—

Yea, Sussex, by the sea!"

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 3:17 pm, 12th July 2001

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I congratulate Mr. Barker on his maiden speech. For those in the Gallery who may think that we new Members have taken too much sun, or something stronger, on the Terrace, I should point out that these speeches tend to follow a traditional form. The hon. Gentleman paid handsome tributes to his predecessor and his constituency, and made a substantial contribution to the debate.

I should like also to congratulate my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State on her appointment. She is a former teacher with a lifelong commitment to education and no need of a belated voyage of discovery.

I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, because in my constituency we face a challenge in encouraging more of our children simply to remain at school after 16. Two thirds of the high schools have staying-on rates that are well below the county and national averages. That includes my old school, Wolstanton High, where, as a young father knocking on 40, I am still a governor.

That challenge has much to do with the loyal and ancient borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. For those who are straining to hear a hint of Geordie, a common mistake, may I explain that Newcastle-under-Lyme is indeed in the north—north Staffordshire? Granted our royal charter in 1173, we can rightfully claim to be the first Newcastle, or, for that matter, Oldcastle. We were overrun by the Romans and the Normans long before they reached the Tyne, although of course they reached Bexhill and Battle long before us. It seems that for our 800 years we have always been fighting somebody or other. For much of the past century we have resisted the imperialist embrace of our Victorian new arrivals next door in the pottery city of Stoke-on-Trent.

Newcastle is historically not a potteries town, but many of our folk have toiled in the bottle kilns and our terraces housed their workers. Newcastle's first Labour Member of Parliament was Josiah Wedgwood, a great-grandson of the founder of the Wedgwood company; we have been represented by Labour ever since 1919. We might have got Luton's motor factory, but the pot bank owners fought it—in our area, they did not want to pay car-makers' wages.

Newcastle has always been a market town—the trading centre of north Staffordshire, but above all it has been a pit town: the Staffordshire coalfield is the biggest in the country and the Wolstanton and Silverdale mines were Britain's deepest. In one civil war, Newcastle's roundheads, loyal to Parliament, saw off cavaliers from Cheshire and Derbyshire; sadly, in round two, we lost to the lady from Lincolnshire, so all our pits are now gone. We have lots of parks instead, mind you. Apedale mine is now a beautifully landscaped nature park, Wolstanton a retail park and Holditch a thriving business park thanks to Newcastle's wonderful council, helped now by a Labour Government.

No matter how we fought the industrial challenge, Newcastle's community bears the scars and they continue to show in our schools. I know how hard it is for poorer kids to stay on after the age of 16: my mum left school at 15 and my dad, in Ireland, at 12. I can safely say that I am the only new Labour Member of Parliament to be the grandson of a rabbit trapper from County Meath. I was urged to go to work at 16, but more than a little stubbornness, combined with wiping tables at Keele motorway service station and pouring pints for the world darts championships at Jollees nightclub in between, enabled me to survive A-levels and get the best of educations.

I was the first of my family to go to university—to Oxford. I was lucky. My English granddad—a captain's messenger hopping the trenches in the gunfire of the first world war, a staunch trade unionist all his life and one of the first members of the Labour party—knew the value of education. I am proud to serve Newcastle-under-Lyme for a Labour party that has put at the heart of its second term in government the transformation of secondary education and the expansion of further and higher education for all, not only a privileged few.

Making sure our kids achieve begins in the home, not at school. Labour's family policies are already helping poorer children to break the vicious circle of families surviving on benefit with no incentives, no jobs and no aspirations. We are also giving children a hand directly: my constituency now benefits from the sure start programme, and Stoke-on-Trent is reaping rewards from the education maintenance allowance, which helps poorer children to stay on past 16. I am sure that my hon. Friends from Stoke will understand it when, just this once, I cast my eyes enviously at their patch and urge the Government to extend the EMA to all of Newcastle, north Staffordshire and nationally, so that all our kids benefit from a level playing field. Above all, we must continue to level up education standard spending assessments in areas such as Staffordshire. The Government will, I am sure, continue to do exactly that.

Mr. Willis highlighted some of the holes in the Conservatives' manifesto. During the election I noticed that they had already stolen some of Labour's clothes, but not, it would seem, in education. I hope that during their knockabout leadership election, Mrs. May will undertake another voyage of discovery and abandon foolish and dangerous policies such as so-called free schools. They are not free: someone will pay and it will be the least advantaged of our children who face the greatest challenges to staying on beyond 16.

It is right and proper that, as is the custom, I now pay tribute to my predecessor. Children have been the lifelong passion of Llin Golding, who represented Newcastle for 15 years. Despite Llin's many other onerous commitments, such as the Commons fly fishing club, the Back-Bench horse racing committee and the foxy Middle Way, she always led the parliamentary children's group. She served as a Front-Bench spokesman on education and agriculture. Her creativity in combining her passions has been truly remarkable: for example, she remains a patron of Second Chance, a charity for less advantaged children who need special help—to spend weekends fishing, of course.

The new Baroness Golding's sweet songbird name—Llinos is Welsh for linnet—truly understates her steely determination. To quote another parliamentary incomparable, Andrew Roth:

"She was a tough Whip and organiser with a warm heart for the underprivileged, especially children in trouble."

My hon. Friend Mr. David has already paid generous tribute to Llin's father, Ness Edwards, former Member of Parliament for Llin's birthplace and a member of Clement Attlee's Cabinet. I am sure that the House agrees that Llin's elevation to the peerage—without inducement, I am ecstatic to say—is just reward for the 60 years of service that she, her father and her late husband John gave the House.

No mention of Newcastle-under-Lyme would be complete without praising the late, great John Golding. Many of my older colleagues will have mixed feelings about my old friend, Labour's witchfinder general and the well named "hammer of the left", but I am sure that everyone recognises John's outstanding contribution to Labour's historic electoral success under my right hon. Friend Mr. Blair. John was a tireless champion of the underprivileged and one of the earliest campaigners for the minimum wage. Locally, he was a passionate advocate for Newcastle further education college, which now offers our over-16s a wonderful array of academic and vocational qualifications. He, and we, will not tolerate an education system that acts merely as a sieve of failure at different stages for our children.

In remembering John, I commend the especially dear obituary written by my hon. Friend Mr. Dalyell, the Father of the House, whom I wish a speedy recovery. John holds the record for the longest ever parliamentary speech: 11 hours and 15 minutes speaking to a single amendment to delay the privatisation of British Telecom in 1983. With his much missed twinkle in the eye, John once told me that eight minutes was the ideal length for a speech. The House will be glad that, on my maiden outing, I have followed John's advice and not his custom and practice. I commend the Government's record, our manifesto, and the amendment to the House.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr 3:26 pm, 12th July 2001

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today, a little later and a little hoarser—thanks to a bout of tonsillitis—than I had intended.

The hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) have set an exacting standard with their excellent speeches. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme for a thought-provoking and well informed contribution. He spoke from the heart and I have no doubt that he will be a credit to his party, his constituency and the House.

I, too, pay tribute to my predecessor. Dr. Alan Williams was a most assiduous advocate on behalf of his constituents. A chemist, he brought to the House valuable expertise, a keen interest in scientific and environmental policy and a reasoned and logical approach to every issue that came to his attention. I wish him every success in future. Dr. Williams had the honour to be the longest serving Member of Parliament for a constituency renowned for febrile campaigning and unpredictability. Among my more colourful predecessors was William Paxton, who in his first attempt to capture the seat in 1802 kept the polls open for 15 days and bribed the electorate with 11,000 breakfasts, 36,000 dinners, 25,000 gallons of ale, 11,000 bottles of spirits—the list goes on—spending £18.18 for milk punch, whatever that is, and £786 for ribbons. He might have had a little difficulty explaining his actions to today's Electoral Commission.

The last Member of Parliament for the Carmarthen Boroughs seat was the nationalist and anti-Lloyd George Liberal Llewelyn Williams, who said of the House:

"You get in to get on, you stay in to get honours, you get out to get honest".

Perhaps his cynical view of politics can be explained by the rather curious Carmarthenshire tradition, which survived well into the 20th century, whereby Tories wore red rosettes and their opponents blue—a tradition that in these days of ideological confusion seems strangely apt.

The political history of the Carmarthen constituency was especially interesting in the 20th century. Carmarthen was the only Labour-held seat—apart from Mile End in London, which went communist—that the party lost in the 1945 election. It was the only Labour-held seat that the party lost in the second 1974 election. I am pleased to say that on 7 June this year it became the only Labour-held seat lost by Labour in Wales.

Above all, Carmarthen was the first seat won by Plaid Cymru—the party of Wales—in 1966. I pay special tribute to my predecessor Gwynfor Evans, the founder of modern Welsh nationalism. His integrity, eloquence and commitment to the cause of Wales set an example to which I can but hope to aspire. He continues to be an inspiration to everyone in my party.

It is no exaggeration to say that the communities of East Carmarthen and Dinefwr have a unique, historic character. They stand on the cusp of rural and industrial Wales, and are the gateway to both. Four main valleys make up the constituency: the post-industrial Amman and Gwendraeth valleys of the anthracite coalfield and the agricultural heartlands of the Teifi and Tywi valleys. The constituency has the only anthracite coalfield in Britain and produces more milk than any other county in the UK.

The interplay and interconnection of the two communities—the coalfield and the milkfield—lie at the heart of the special character of my constituency. The markets of the south Wales coalfield helped to build up the dairy sector. Welsh-speaking peasants and farmers, including my grandfather, huddled into the terraced cottages of the pit villages of Amman and Gwendraeth. Where others try to drive a wedge between town and country, we in Carmarthenshire have a bond of solidarity between village and valley, miner and farmer—from the free milk supplied by the farmers of Carmarthenshire to miners' families during the great strike of 1984, to the enormous concern shared by everyone in my constituency at the human cost of the deepening rural depression.

I was born and brought up in the industrial half of the constituency. My forefathers lived and worked in grim conditions, but they succeeded in sustaining a remarkably vibrant culture, which was characterised by a love of two languages, of religion and of all aspects of popular culture. That is certainly true of sport; the two valleys of Amman and Gwendraeth can boast the likes of Carwyn James, Barry John, Gareth Davies and Jonathan Davies—to name but a few of the greats of the Welsh game—as well as the emerging present-day talents of Shane Williams and Dwayne Peel. In snooker, we have in my constituency Matthew Stevens and Dominic Dale. In soccer, we have the former Welsh international goalkeeper, Dai Davies. Last but not least, my father was a former Welsh middleweight champion and, if I may say so, a formidable canvasser on the election trail.

Other great defining characteristics of the people of Carmarthenshire are their patriotism and democratic socialism. There was no finer an exponent of that than the late Jim Griffiths. Along with Aneurin Bevan, of course, he was one of the two great founders of the welfare state, having introduced the National Insurance Act 1948 under the Attlee Government. He was also a firm believer in the Welsh dimension of politics. So it was fitting that he should have succeeded in being made the Charter Secretary of State for Wales—a fulfilment of his lifelong ambition for his country. He passionately believed—as I do today—that the villages and valleys had something distinctive to contribute to our shared humanity.

The essence of these values was captured in, of all places, last Friday's edition of The Times, in an obituary of the theologian W. D. Davies, who was originally from Glanaman.

"Davies"— it said—

"had the quiet dignity of the miners he knew as a child, people who knew the depth of economic depression but retained the self-respect that they found in the Christian faith. The social concern of the Nonconformist chapels of the Amman Valley gave him a concern for those he perceived as victims, and this developed into a natural affinity with the Jewish people".

Jim Griffiths was a product of that same tradition, but in the 1960s the vision and the values on which such great communities had been built were threatened—ironically as a result of his own Government's policies.

In an archive in Ammanford, there is a letter written by Jim Griffiths to a Labour party colleague shortly after a Carmarthen by-election, stating baldly that all Labour seats in Wales were vulnerable. Jim Griffiths' particular concern was that the Labour party had lost the support of young people. The cause was clear then as it is now. As Gwynfor Evans declared in his maiden speech 35 years ago, the Labour party boasts of prosperity but the people of Carmarthen

"see no evidence of this prosperity. What they see is mines closing, railways closing, steel workers being made redundant and a decline in agriculture."—[Hansard, 26 July 1966; Vol. 732, c. 1498.]

The parallel between those words, spoken 35 years ago, with the Wales of today is chilling in its accuracy.

The Labour party has never really recaptured the energies of young people in Wales. That is why I stand here a Plaid Member, a miner's son and the youngest Member representing a Wales constituency. When hubris threatens to overwhelm some of my fellow Welshmen on the Government Benches, whom I am glad to see present, perhaps they should ask themselves why people of my generation and background have turned their backs on Labour.

The issue of post-16 education possibly offers some clues. There are few issues that for me define more precisely the essence of social justice in an advanced society than access to education. Further and higher education were to me, as to so many hon. Members, the key that unlocked the door to the favoured position that we now enjoy.

Education involves not only individual benefit but social and economic gain for society as a whole. Indeed, according to the recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, almost half a percentage point of the annual average growth rate in the UK in the 1990s was due to educational attainment. More sobering was the finding in the report that, in 1998, the UK spent only 4.9 per cent. of gross domestic product on education compared with an OECD average of 5.3 per cent—still far below the Scandinavian countries and New Zealand, which invest more than 7 per cent. of their annual income in education.

Alongside questions of funding lies the issue of student financial support, on which the Opposition motion is curiously silent. Like many an hon. Member, my training ground for political engagement was the National Union of Students. I particularly remember the presidential term of Mr. Twigg and the great lobby of Westminster against student loans, which ended in deadlock—unfortunately—on Westminster bridge.

Our policy in the NUS was to defend and extend the principle of the maintenance grant to embrace all those in full-time post-16 education. Our fears then about the effects of the abolition of the maintenance grant have been borne out by a string of recent reports. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales last year published research showing that, following the introduction of student fees, prospective students from the deprived communities of south Wales were up to three times less likely to attend university.

Earlier this year, the Rees report on student hardship, commissioned by the Lib-Lab coalition in the National Assembly, echoed the Cubie report in calling for the abolition of tuition fees and went further in calling for a statutory entitlement to maintenance support for all those in HE and FE. That was the very same policy that many of us were advocating back in the 1980s while in the NUS.

As the youngest of three working-class children to go to university, and one of the last to receive a full maintenance grant, I am passionately committed to ensuring that the same opportunities are afforded to today's generation of young people. Passion in politics, it seems, is no bad thing—even, if the House will forgive me, in a maiden speech.

It is often said that the difference between a Llanelli and a Swansea supporter—those two great rivals of west Wales rugby—is that Swansea supporters wear gloves and Llanelli supporters cannot afford them. I am a Llanelli supporter through and through and I assure the House that my gloves will be off in many of our debates—not out of any enmity for Labour Members, but because I care so deeply about a special place that I love and a special people whom I love. Their demands over the 20th century were modest, but their contribution was immense. They deserve a future that is better than the past. It is our collective duty to ensure that it is delivered.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 3:39 pm, 12th July 2001

It is entirely appropriate that in this first Opposition-day debate of the new Parliament, we should discuss post-16 education. We all know that it receives insufficient attention. That is partly because we have a strong relationship in our constituencies with schools, parents and children. At the other end of the spectrum, the university sector commands a great deal of firepower. It is often said that further education is a Cinderella squeezed between those great powers. I have a long-standing commitment to FE, especially to adult education, and acknowledge its importance. Even if our motion is contentious in some respects, I hope that both sides of the House agree on the basic premise that the post-16 sector is critical to improving the nation's skills base and its international competitiveness; by implication, it needs greater attention than perhaps it receives.

Our debate has been marked by a number of distinguished speeches. There is never enough time to debate further education, but at least the quality of speeches has made up for the lack of quantity. There was a distinguished contribution from Mr. Chaytor, who has great expertise, followed by three exceptional maiden speeches. My hon. Friend Mr. Barker produced a wonderful combination of perception, wit and elegance; he emphasised strongly the positive side of his constituency and his commitment to education. That is not to detract in any sense from the contributions of the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price). Perhaps we do not hear enough in the House about passion; we do not hear enough from Labour Members about commitment to the socially disadvantaged. Some Opposition Members have such commitment and we are delighted that passion will be brought to bear on the subject, as there ought to be a common commitment to improve the situation.

Apart from those speeches, the contributions were mainly from the Front Benches. I regret the fact that Ministers have not quite addressed concerns expressed in all quarters, not only in our debate but more generally in the national debate, about recent events. I particularly regret the fact that they have not addressed the concerns set out in our motion, which were also raised by my hon. Friend Mrs. May, who dealt with the immediate issue for almost all post-16 AS-level learners. The Secretary of State conceded that students were having to work harder and study longer; her prescription for dealing with that situation, albeit an interim one, was to offer alleviation in the timetable for assessment, not mitigation of the range of study. Frankly, she seemed to confuse a broader curriculum, with more subjects to study, with a greater breadth of educational experience. We want the latter, and we worry that producing a broader curriculum may displace rather than facilitate it.

I welcome the Minister for Lifelong Learning, whom I know from previous debates and her service in the Department, to the Dispatch Box and invite her to nail a worry about a specific issue. On 16 August, the first national AS-level results are due to be published. Before our debate ends, can she tell us unequivocally whether those results will be published on time, in full and accurately? We have asked the Government to tell us a number of times, and it is essential that parents and students know where they stand. There can be no ducking the issue and no repetition of the fiasco north of the border last year. Our students have suffered enough problems and cannot go through that as well.

A range of issues have been raised today, including the differential in funding that has already been discussed at some length. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead remarked, schools are different; in saying so, she echoed remarks made only last week by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, John Healey. When the word "convergence" is in the air, we must ensure that schools retain their funding for pre and post-16 education and that any convergence involves levelling up, not levelling down. The Government cannot be permitted to use arguments about schools' funding as a cop-out for inadequacies in FE funding.

I want to touch on some issues that have not received enough attention today. One is inspection; we now have the first Ofsted reports and, it is fair to say, further work in that area is required. The reports should be considered carefully and dispassionately. Some of us remain uneasy about the interface between Ofsted, the adult learning inspectorate and the colleges and providers themselves. FE is not the same as school education; it does not have the same skills and motivation base as various types of schools. We need to watch that carefully.

Special educational needs is another important issue which, as the Minister will know, impacts on the difficult transition from school to college. Wisely, the Government responded to representations made by my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes, whose concerns were shared across the House, about deficiencies in the SEN code of practice and withdrew it in another place yesterday. I hope that they have learned from that experience; any more information that they can give about their plans would be appreciated.

Finally, there is the overarching issue of qualifications and public examinations, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead made clear, must be taken very widely indeed, not just seen as a scissors-and-paste job on a present difficulty. What has made it worse for schools is that GCSE changes and other changes took place in parallel. We must all learn that we have to look at the changes ensemble; we should not consider one change without regard for others taking place at the same time.

I mention two other important issues, the Connexions service and the structure and operation of the Learning and Skills Council, only to say that we cannot debate them now. We shall need to return to them later, but I submit to the House some wide general considerations and tests that need to be set out. We must consider whether a post-16 system contributes to education in its widest sense, including providing interpersonal and the so-called soft key skills as well as those that are more easily examinable. Does it build up the appropriate skills base for future employment and in an appropriate setting for the particular elements of that base? Does it capture those who would otherwise miss out on further education, by widening access and participation? Does it contribute to widening the base of pre-university general education, which provides the only realistic prospect of meeting Government targets for participation in higher education, unless the standards for entry are diluted?

Those goals are not being achieved and their achievement seems unlikely under present funding and organisational arrangements for the post-16 sector. The Government set a target increase of 700,000 FE students over two years, but the reality is that in each year of their stewardship student numbers have dropped, albeit by a small amount. They cannot claim even one extra student, yet in our time in government, however much the hon. Member for Bury, North tried to explain it away, we provided for the enrolment of an extra 1 million students. That comparative record bears examination. I do not puff our achievements, which were not without their faults, but the Government's achievements so far have been minimal, if not negative. It is perhaps no accident that they are set against a background of colleges under pressure, with staff under particularly great pressure. Unit funding per student is falling; the flexibility of colleges and their ability to use their resources are being impaired as they find an ever higher proportion of their remaining funds are subject to conditions. Lecturers are falling behind their school equivalents, and even more so behind their counterparts in outside employment, especially when the skills are transferable.

Further education colleges and the wider delivery of post-16 education—the critical area that we are considering—do great things with diminishing resources. However, somewhere there is a point of failure. The purpose of the motion is to bring that to the attention of the nation before it is too late.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) 3:40 pm, 12th July 2001

This has been a good if limited debate. It has been constructive and well-informed. I suppose that some of the less well informed interventions from the Opposition Benches can be blamed on distraction. Perhaps Conservative Members have their minds elsewhere. I can assure them that under Labour's commitment to lifelong learning for all they will get the second chance that they denied to so many when they were in government.

I was pleased to hear three excellent contributions from new Members. First, I congratulate Mr. Barker on an eloquent maiden speech. He told us of all the qualities and opportunities that exist in his constituency and of the threats that he saw facing his constituents. I must tell him that I do not apologise for an obsession with driving up standards. I do not accept that in pursuing high standards we are not developing the important skills and enjoyments that make for the whole person.

My hon. Friend Paul Farrelly made a well constructed and passionate maiden speech that ranged across many issues, which he linked to his own experience. He spoke with fondness of his constituency. I look forward to his contributions in future.

Adam Price told us some good history about his constituency. By his account, his predecessors made a colourful contribution to what happened in the House. I am sure from his contribution that he will maintain that good record.

Mr. Willis talked about concern about allocations this year from the additional moneys that are going to colleges and further education colleges. I wish to reassure him that the allocations for 2002–03 and 2003–04 have already been given to colleges. Any money that is still outstanding will be paid retrospectively. The Learning and Skills Council is waiting for the forms to come in so that it can meet the bill.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the radical overhaul that we want from 14 to 19. We are committed to that. In the meantime, I hope that he will welcome, as we do, the introduction of a range of qualifications from vocational GCSEs through to AS-levels, vocational A-levels, the modern apprenticeships and foundation degrees, as a way of extending, deepening and opening opportunities for people in education.

I acknowledge the considerable contribution of my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor to the FE sector. He mentioned educational maintenance allowances, which we consider to have been an effective experiment. We are considering their future in depth. I look forward to him pursuing his arguments about paid educational leave for employees.

I shall talk briefly about school sixth forms, which were raised by several Opposition Members. We gave an unprecedented guarantee to maintain funding for school sixth forms. We have given a clear instruction to the Learning and Skills Council that it must pass the money that it receives to the sixth forms in full.

Funding for sixth forms varies considerably throughout the country, from £2,600 per student in some areas to £4,100 in others. Making sense of that will take time, but we have a commitment to do so by funding upwards. The Learning and Skills Council will publish information on funding to schools in July. The provisional allocation will be made in December. I hope that that will reassure school sixth forms.

I can assure Mr. Boswell that we shall publish the A-levels on 16 August. The awarding bodies have confirmed that the results will be issued on that day.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I appreciate the extreme shortage of time. Will the hon. Lady confirm that the term "A-levels" includes for this purpose AS-levels? There may be a critical distinction.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

I understand that, and can confirm that.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the inspection reports. Schools and FE colleges may be different but quality must be high in both.

I am delighted that we have had an opportunity of a Supply day debate to reflect on the post-16 world in education. The challenges that we face in post-16 education are huge, but crucial and exciting. We must raise aspirations, extend participation and boost attainment for many more people so that British people can equal the peoples of other industrialised nations in their skills and achievements.

On an individual level, we want men and women to enjoy a better life and a better job. At a national level, we want the skills that are necessary to enhance our productivity and competitiveness, and to facilitate the growth that we need to deliver inclusion. To do this, we need to extend participation in all post-16 education, in colleges, at universities and in the workplace. We need to tackle inequality of access, which still bedevils us with our history of class divisions. We need also to raise attainment levels at 16, 18 and 19, and in the universities and beyond.

We must tackle the silent scandal that one in five adults still do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills. We must ensure that individuals attain the key skills that are vital in the new economy. We must work with businesses and trade unions to instil a culture of continuous learning and development in the workplace. We need to improve the quality of all our education and training provision. We still need to maintain our world-class status in innovation and research.

That is a tough and long agenda, but I believe that we have made a good and impressive start. There has been a real-terms growth in spending. In FE, there has been an increase of 12 per cent. compared with the 12 per cent. cut in real-terms spending by the Tories in the last three years of their Government. This year sees the first ever real-terms increase in funding for students in higher education. We are developing the new and important phase for 14 to 19-year-olds, which will be better tailored to meet the needs of each individual student. Vocational qualifications will sit alongside other qualifications. There will be new qualifications such as AS-levels, which give breadth and flexibility. There will be closer co-operation between institutions, which will make it easier for individuals to progress and achieve.

We are providing additional and targeted support for individuals to encourage learning and to equalise opportunity. That is why we have educational maintenance allowances and individual learning accounts and why we are piloting opportunity bursaries. We are tackling inequalities in other ways with our excellence challenge, Connexions service and adult basic skills programme. They are all parts of a concerted and logical effort to widen participation. We are making learning more accessible with learning direct, new online centres, support for Investors in People and the union for learning fund. We are making life easier for students, especially for the less confident students, by establishing better links between institutions.

We recognise that central to our efforts are the teachers in our schools, colleges and universities. That is why this year sees not only a generous settlement of pay in FE—one that is 50 per cent. higher than that which the Tories funded in their last year in office—but the introduction of the £300 million teachers' pay initiative which will reward teachers in FE with up to £2,000 each for their performance.

The House will see from what I have been able to cover that there is an ambitious and comprehensive agenda. Our task is to deliver it. With so much to do and much that is new, we will of course aim to get everything right first time, but where we recognise that change is necessary and that our plans and policies need to be amended, we will not hesitate to do so promptly and openly.

That is what we have done with the AS-levels. We got the concept right in principle but we must make changes in how they work to ensure that the qualification is sustainable, rigorous and lasting. Of course, we wish that we had got it right first time, but we are right to respond quickly to people's legitimate concerns. A serious Opposition would recognise that AS-levels are only one part of a wider picture, and would address the myriad policies and programmes that we are pursuing to raise standards, aspirations and achievements. However, the Opposition prefer not to have regard to that serious agenda. For that reason, we tabled our amendment to the motion.

We have a huge task before us. We are confident that we are putting in place both the resources and the policies to meet the challenges. We are proud of what we have done. We know that we have a great deal more to do, and we look forward to reporting regularly to the House and to our colleagues on the progress that we have made in providing greater opportunity for all in the education and training that we are determined to deliver.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 187, Noes 302.

Division number 23 Post-16 Education

Aye: 187 MPs

No: 302 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House welcomes the Government's achievements in post-16 education which will drive up the nation's skills and extend opportunity for all; applauds the substantial extra resources secured for further education and the reforms through the Learning and Skills Council and rigorous inspection arrangements, which will radically improve standards and the guarantee to all sixth forms that their funding will be maintained in real terms if their pupil numbers do not fall; commends the broadening of the 16-19 curriculum which is widely supported and the timely and measured response of the Government to improve delivery in schools and colleges; welcomes the early success of the Connexions Service and of Education Maintenance Allowance pilots in encouraging more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay in full-time education after the age of 16, the extra resources secured for the university system and the expansion in the numbers of students in higher education; and endorses the strategy to reduce the number of adults lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills which will tackle a problem which has been neglected for far too long.