I beg to move,
That this House
expresses its sympathy to the pupils, parents and teachers affected by the fiasco of grading this year's 'A' level exams;
condemns Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills for proceeding with the new system of 'A' levels in the face of expert advice;
regrets the confusion this has caused in university entrance both this year and next;
calls for the Qualification and Curriculum Authority to be made independent of Government;
further regrets the confusion caused by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills over her powers on exclusion appeal panels;
expresses its sympathy to the teachers at the Glyn Technology School in Ewell for the problems this has caused;
calls for the end of the current system of appeals panels and the introduction of the option of enforceable contracts between schools and parents;
notes that the problems for schools caused by the backlog at the Criminal Records Bureau are continuing;
regrets that there is no sign of a reduction in truancy numbers;
and further notes that the Government has failed to hit its targets on primary school attainment and that the Secretary of State has failed to repeat the pledge of her predecessor to resign if these targets were not reached.
It is right and proper that this House should, for the second day in a row, be dealing with the failures of the Department for Education and Skills, because those failures spread far beyond the A-level fiasco that we discussed yesterday. Wherever we look in our education system, from primary schools to universities, we find missed targets, demoralised teachers and angry students. Ministers' complacent performance over A-levels shows how far they are out of touch with the reality of the world of education. They should know that there is a rising tide of discontent among those who work hard to keep our schools, colleges and universities going. Heads and teachers are doing their best to help children. Ministers delude themselves that they can provide the solution. Mostly, Ministers are the problem. Non-stop intervention, meddling, pointless initiatives and meaningless targets have left teachers crying out to be allowed to get on with their job of teaching.
The underlying problem with this culture of non-stop intervention is that, too often, there is no substance behind it. The most telling phrase to describe the Secretary of State's approach is the description of her secondary school policy as being like a doughnut, in that
XIt has icing on the top and nothing in the centre."
It is a telling criticism, because it comes from her deputy, the Minister for School Standards, talking privately—or so he thought—to Sir William Stubbs. Hell hath no fury like a senior official sacked as a scapegoat. I look forward to hearing more of the views of the Minister for School Standards on his Secretary of State's policies.
Let us look in detail at some of the Secretary of State's recent interventions. There are five areas that need to be covered in this debate. Those involve the serious problems that have hit the Department since the House rose for the summer at the end of July, so this is just two and a half months' worth of disasters. There are many more, and I know that many colleagues on both sides of the House will want to add to the list during this short debate.
Let us start with the most extraordinary failure of the Secretary of State: the mess that she has helped to create at the Glyn technology school in Ewell, where an appeals panel has insisted that two boys excluded for issuing death threats to a teacher should be let back into the school. This is an extraordinary failure because she has managed to make a bad situation worse, even though almost no one disagrees with her. Of course the two boys should not be let back into the school. What they did to the teacher concerned was a disgrace, and I am not surprised that the head and the other staff feel as strongly as they do. But if ever there was a time for quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, it was last week at the Glyn technology school.
The parents have legal rights—because of the appeals panel system that we have just heard the Prime Minister defending—and they are insisting on exercising them. Instead of quietly helping the school and the local education authority, however, the Secretary of State saw the chance for some easy headlines about how tough she is. She must have known that she had no power to back up her tough talk. All that she succeeded in doing was to raise the temperature, so that there is still no solution.
Councillor Kay Hammond, who is now responsible for sorting out this mess, summed up the effect of the Secretary of State's intervention. [Hon. Members: XShe is a Tory."] Labour Members are complaining that Kay Hammond is a Tory, as if that makes a difference. It is a great shame that Government Members are playing politics when a councillor is trying to solve a difficult problem in a good local school that is threatened by a national crisis.
Kay Hammond wrote to the Secretary of State saying that her intervention
Xwas not helpful because we were trying as a matter of urgency to find a way forward in a very difficult situation."
She went on to say:
XUnfortunately, all the attention, exacerbated by" the Secretary of State
Xacting beyond her powers, has made Surrey's job almost impossible at present."
That is a damning indictment of the right hon. Lady, even though she has acted in a way that all of us would support. No one in the House thinks that those boys should be back in that school, but Surrey county council has been trying to act effectively, and not jump on a bandwagon, as the Secretary of State did.
In the spirit of inclusiveness that pervades the Conservative party these days, I offer the Secretary of State some suggestions of positive action that she could take to avoid this mess in the future. First, she should get rid of appeals panels. Even without the bad decisions that they reach, they are expensive, legalistic and take too long to come to a decision. I agree with the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers that these panels should go. Heads and governors should have the power over discipline in a school. If the heads and governors get an exclusion process seriously wrong, the local education authority should be the appeal point. [Interruption.]
Secondly, I offer the Government another of the policies that we unveiled last week. [Interruption.]
That is an interesting new policy. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that Conservative policy is not, as I had thought until a minute ago, to abolish appeals panels, but to make the LEA the appeals panel instead of the present independent panel?
The hon. Lady should listen. Of course, we want to abolish appeal panels, but a due process must be operated. [Interruption.] There could be a simple appeal to the LEA. The right hon. Lady seems to be particularly ignorant of her own policies, as she misbriefed the Prime Minister, who looked extremely foolish when he claimed that the appeals panels that were established under a Conservative Government had the power to do what they have done, which was not true. That was done under an Act that the right hon. Lady introduced.
The right hon. Lady has had her chance. What the Government have been saying all along as an argument against the abolition of appeals panels, which we support, is that that would bring the courts into the equation.
The right hon. Lady should contain herself for a second. As I understand it, the Government's objection to the abolition of appeals panels is that that would bring in the courts. That is a ludicrous objection, because it is impossible for the courts to be much more legalistic than the appeals panels already are. She must know, as I do, of head teachers who have had to spend in excess of #20,000 on individual appeals. We believe that that #20,000 would be better spent on books, teachers and equipment in our schools.
The right hon. Lady knows as well as I do, that if we are to avoid a legal process, which is expensive, bureaucratic and takes a long time, in law there needs to be an appeal in case the process is wrong. The simplest and cheapest way is for the LEA to carry out the appeal. I do not know why she objects to that.
Can we be clear about this new policy, which is being developed on the hoof? Having given LEAs the power to carry out the exclusion appeal hearing, will the hon. Gentleman also give them the right to overrule decisions of the head teacher and the governing body?
Only if the process is wrong. The right hon. Lady should have listened to me. [Interruption.] I can tell that the amount of legal knowledge among Government Members is less than it should be. Like every MP, she should be aware of the powers of people such as ombudsmen, who cannot take hearings of fact but can take hearings on legal processes. The difference should be clear to every Member of Parliament, but it appears not to be clear to Labour Members. I can only assume that none of them has ever —[Interruption.]
I can only assume that no Labour Member has ever taken up a constituent's case with an ombudsman, and that the simple difference between problems with process and problems with fact has therefore never occurred to any Labour Member.
I want to make some progress.
Let me offer the Government another of the policies that we unveiled last week. Why does the Secretary of State not allow heads, if they wish, to insist on binding contracts with parents setting out their schools' disciplinary codes? Parents would then know that they had some responsibility for their children's behaviour even when they were inside the school gates.
Both those policies would have a beneficial effect on situations such as the one affecting Glyn school, and either would be more effective in the long run than the Secretary of State's talking tough when she cannot act tough.
That was just one of the October crises, but let us move on to one of last month's horrors—the failure of some schools to open for the start of term because of a backlog at the Criminal Records Bureau. I am aware that that is partly a Home Office problem. If the Secretary of State is feeling sore about her predecessor and what he has done for her reputation, let me assure her that I shall come to the primary school targets in a moment. The real scandal of the Criminal Records Bureau, however, is that things are getting worse. The backlog is now at a record high. Errors have led to 100 people being wrongly accused of having a criminal past. Thousands of applications have been stuck in the CRB system for up to seven months, and nearly 4,000 completed checks have been disputed by applicants.
The problems that that is causing are particularly acute in education. One of the teacher supply agencies, Time Plan, has said that it still awaits the results of dozens of CRB checks. Local education authorities have experienced delays as well. Essex county council has 400 outstanding applications, 50 of which were submitted during last April and May. Even by the standards of this Government and this Department, that is spectacular incompetence.
The Secretary of State is getting used to apologising. Another person to whom she should apologise is Donna Naseby of Whitley Bay, who has been unable to open her day nursery on time because her CRB disclosure took 15 weeks to arrive. We have all sat here for some years listening to the Government explaining how important early-years education is, but that same Government, through their own inadequacy and bureaucracy, are preventing nurseries from opening.
The Secretary of State might also like to apologise to a teacher who has written to us from Daventry. I hope Ministers will listen, as they say that they are in favour of teachers. This teacher writes that he has done
X20 years unblemished service as a teacher and . . . passed the threshold for enhanced pay."
XIn August my name was removed in error from the Northants supply teachers list, the LEA informed me that to be restored to the list I must be checked by the CRB, and to add to the insult, pay the fee. On August 30th I took the completed Form and various credentials to" the relevant building
Xwhere they were checked by a clerk and the Form taken in . . . On or about the 26th September I received a letter . . . asking for more proof of identity. I returned the necessary documents on the 30th September . . .
I telephoned the CRB this morning"— the letter is dated
Xand was told I would have to wait a further 6 weeks! Without the Certificate Northants Schools will not want to employ me as a Supply Teacher. I have therefore had no opportunity of working for Northants since the commencement of the new school year, and for at least the next 6 weeks, making 3 months in all. I am apparently not entitled to unemployment benefit and cannot improve my Teachers pension."
If the Government are presiding over crises like that, they should be apologising to more people than A-level students.
Whether we are talking about appeals panels, AS-levels or extra resources for literacy and numeracy, does not the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party—as we heard from its leader a few moments ago—amount to little more than XScrap it, scrap it, scrap it"? As his party's education spokesman, has the hon. Gentleman anything positive to say about raising education standards? If he has, when will he get on with saying it?
This party has many things to say about raising standards, the first of which is that we need better standards of discipline in our schools. We will provide that by supporting heads and teachers with home-school contracts—which, had the hon. Gentleman been listening, he would have just heard me recommend to the Government—by scrapping appeals panels and by allowing students in class to learn and not be disrupted by a small minority of disruptive pupils.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of the Criminal Records Bureau, he should recall that the public may have appreciated this matter over the summer to a much greater extent than beforehand, not least because of events in Cambridgeshire. However, it should have been amply evident to the Government that things were going wrong and that action was not being taken. Cambridgeshire county council wrote to the chief executive of the Criminal Records Bureau in March. I had correspondence with Ministers in July. My hon. Friend Mr. Swayne had a debate in July. Ministers blithely worked their way towards disaster in August and September without taking a grip, just as they have done on so many other issues.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. I suspect that Members of this House on both sides have heard tales about the problems with the CRB. I know that the teaching unions alerted the Department as long ago as last April that a crisis was coming. Extraordinarily, no one in the Department appeared to grasp the basic fact that the school year starts in September and that more teachers need to be processed in August than in any other month of the year. It was only in August that the Department panicked and took one decision, followed by a flatly contradictory one when the Secretary of State got back from holiday in September and realised that many schools had not opened. It was a classic case of how not to do it.
I have just been on the phone to a number of teenagers in my constituency who recently passed their A-levels. They were watching Prime Minister's Question Time. They were absolutely shocked and furious to hear the grades that they achieved described as not being worth the paper they were written on. One of them received four grade As at AS-level and three grade As at A2-level. Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity, on behalf of the Conservative party, to dissociate himself from those remarks and apologise to the thousands of teenagers slandered by the Leader of the Opposition?
The people who should be apologising are the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for what they have done to the A-level system. For 50 years, A-levels were the gold standard in education in this country. In five years, the Government have managed to destroy that gold standard.
The Criminal Records Bureau was the second disaster. The third disaster that the Government have had in the last two and a half months is in their truancy policy. On
According to the Government's own figures, exactly the same number of half-days are lost through unauthorised absence as in 1997–98. The Government have made no progress, despite the fact that one of their first promises was a drastic cut in truancy. In December 1998, in the comprehensive spending review public service agreements—on which the Prime Minister was so keen a few moments ago—the Government promised a reduction by one third in school truancy by 2002.
As 2002 approached, the Government realised that they were going to miss the target. A sensible Government would have taken some measures to ensure that they hit the target. Not this Government; when they see that they are going to miss a target, they change the target, which is what they did. They dropped the 1998 target, hoping that no one would notice; sadly for them, we did. They replaced it with a target to reduce truancy by 10 per cent. from the 2002 level; the House will recall that that there has been no reduction in that level since 1997, which was the previous target. The Government's policy on truancy would be laughable were it not so serious.
The director of Truancy Call, a charity dealing with truants, revealed that, on a typical school day, some 50,000 children are playing truant in this country. That is a genuinely terrifying statistic. If the Government took some effective measures against truancy, they would probably do more than anything else to stop too many vulnerable young people getting on the conveyor belt to crime. Sadly, they have failed to take any effective measures, and their response to that failure is not to try to find effective measures, but to fiddle the figures.
The most important long-term measure that we learned about from other countries—[Interruption.] The Government are addicted to short-term measures—a fact never better displayed than by that reaction. The best thing to do for most of those 50,000 children is to make school relevant to them. The biggest historic failure in our education system, going back some 100 years, is that of vocational education. We need to provide excellent, world-class education for the less academic children, as well as the more academic. Frankly, under successive Governments we have failed to do that. This is one of the most important long-term changes that we need. One hugely beneficial side-effect would be that the school day would be relevant to all pupils at all levels of academic attainment. That is the long-term way to treat truancy.
I have given way enough in the past few minutes.
The fourth recent disaster to hit the Secretary of State was the primary school attainment figures, which were published last month. They showed that the Government missed their key targets for English and for mathematics among 11-year-olds. On this, I have some sympathy with her personal plight. When the Home Secretary was doing her job, and he made his now notorious pledge that he would resign if the targets were not hit this year, we all knew that, by 2002, somebody else would be carrying the can. Sadly for the Secretary of State, it is her.
There are three key issues that the Secretary of State could, and needs to, address. First, in her tough-talking moments she has been prone to saying that heads and teachers in failing schools will have to go. So if schools do not hit their targets, someone takes responsibility and goes, but if Ministers do not hit their targets, no one takes responsibility and no one goes. The next time the Prime Minister complains about cynicism in modern Britain, he might like to look close to home to find some of the causes. Secondly, since the Secretary of State is not hitting the existing targets, what on earth is the point in setting new and more difficult ones for future years? Can she tell the House what she proposes to do if those targets are missed as well?
Thirdly, the right hon. Lady will see that improvements in both English and mathematics have completely stalled in the past three years. The figures have barely moved, and about a quarter of our children leave primary schools unable to read, write or count at an acceptable level. I dare say that she and I would agree that that is completely unacceptable. If we look at the figures for 2000, 2001 and 2002, we see that they have not moved. Literacy and numeracy hours have done some good, but it looks as though radical change will be needed to move the attainment figures from the plateau on which they are stuck. So far, her Department has shown no sign of recognising that the figures are stuck, and that radical change is needed to achieve anything better. This debate provides a chance for the Secretary of State to make it clear that she sees the scale of the challenge. So far, all that we have had from the Government is bluster, but when a quarter of our young people are leaving primary school unable to read, write or count properly, that is a national disgrace.
The fifth and most serious of the current crises is, of course, the A-level fiasco.
Rather than bobbing up and down with Whips' questions, the hon. Gentleman should listen to what I just said. I said that the literacy and numeracy hours have done some good. The figures went up from the mid-1990s to 2000. Since 2000, the English figures have stuck at 75 per cent., and the mathematics figures have fluctuated between 71 and 73 per cent. [Interruption.] Government Back Benchers can chunter as much as they like, but the fact is that we are stuck with a quarter of our primary school pupils being inadequately educated. If they are happy with that, fine, but I am not, and Britain's parents will not be happy with it either.
The fifth and most serious of the current crises is, of course, the A-level fiasco. Yesterday, the Secretary of State tried the old trick of defending herself against a charge that no one in the House was making—that she interfered personally to fiddle the grades—while trying to ignore the charges made in this House and by many teachers, parents and pupils. Those charges are that she presided over a system that was bound to fail, and that she had been warned that it would fail.
The Secretary of State said yesterday that no one had warned her. I remember Nick Tate, the QCA's former chief executive, saying that the QCA had warned her that the system was about to fail. She rejects the charge that she ignored the warnings, because she has no defence against it, and she has no defence against it because it is true.
Today's reports on the latest Tomlinson findings must make fairly grim reading for the Secretary of State. The editorial in today's edition of The Independent stated:
XThis episode has shredded confidence in the integrity of England's exam system", and I am delighted to read that newspaper saying what I said yesterday.
Most serious of all, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition noted in Prime Minister's questions, is that Mike Tomlinson said yesterday that schools are left with no idea of what an A-level is. The Secretary of State is fond of quoting the parts of Mike Tomlinson's report of which she approves. I hope that she has analysed carefully what he said yesterday. He challenged the Government over A-level reforms by warning that the qualification was clouded in confusion. He said that it was Xamazing" that schools were in the third year of the changes brought in under Curriculum 2000, yet still did not know what examiners expected of students. I think that he is being especially polite.
That is not what my right hon. Friend said. Mike Tomlinson has said that schools are left with no idea of what an A-level is. If this Government believe that they have not damaged the reputation of that exam—[Interruption.]
If Labour Members seriously believe that the Government have not damaged the reputation of A-levels, I can only suggest that they visit secondary schools when they return to their constituencies. They will find a lot of angry students and teachers, who feel that they have been working very hard for a long time but that they have had their efforts undermined by an incompetent Government.
The point that Mike Tomlinson makes is that the QCA had direct responsibility for the problems, and I think that that point commends itself to the Secretary of State. Where the Secretary of State is at her most evasive is in denying that she is responsible for the QCA. It is perfectly simple. If she can sack the chairman of the QCA, then she is responsible for the QCA. If the QCA is responsible for the A-level scandal, she is responsible for that scandal. That is the inescapable conclusion of all the facts that have come out so far.
I hope that the Secretary of State is suitably embarrassed by what she said about the QCA as recently as
XI am sure that the talented staff at the QCA can meet these tough challenges for the benefit of pupils, teachers and parents. I would also like to pay tribute to the work of its Chairman, Sir William Stubbs. Sir William has played a key role in putting the QCA in the position where it can reform for the future."
That is what the Secretary of State thought in June. By September, when she needed to save her own skin, she sacked the very official to whom she had paid tribute.
What brings all those disasters together is the characteristic new Labour cocktail of centralisation, meddling from Whitehall, and lack of trust in the professionals on the ground. The Government fiddle the figures when they can, and ignore them when they cannot. They show a touching faith that a press release equals ministerial action. Our schools deserve much more than the Government offer. Heads deserve real power to run their schools. Teachers deserve to be trusted to know how to teach. Pupils deserve an exam system that they can trust, and parents deserve to know that their children will be safe from disruption in the classroom. The present Government are failing on all those counts, and their failures are a betrayal of young people across the country.
I commend the motion to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
Xapplauds the priority the Government attaches to education and congratulates the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on her excellent leadership of the education system;
notes the current record levels of sustained investment in education with an increase from #41.6 billion in 2001–02 to #57.8 billion in 2005–06;
welcomes rising standards and progress being made in schools up and down the country, congratulating in particular all those who played a part in achieving the best ever results in literacy and numeracy for 11 year olds, with 75 per cent. making the grade in English and 73 per cent. in mathematics compared with less than a half in 1997;
welcomes the importance the Government attaches to tackling indiscipline and non-attendance at schools;
notes that while the Criminal Records Bureau continues to improve its performance, the Department's interim XList 99" measures are allowing schools to operate with a full complement of staff;
expresses its sympathy for the pupils, parents and teachers who have been affected by the recent 'A' level grading problems;
but congratulates the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for her decisive action in setting up an independent inquiry under Mike Tomlinson to restore confidence in the exam system."
I was not impressed by the words—many of them—of Mr. Green. Many people who work in our schools and many parents whose children are educated in our schools will not recognise the picture that he painted.
I always say that because it is always the case.
Before we go on to the specific allegations, let us clarify what progress has been made during the past five to six years and what we have achieved in partnership with our teachers, governors and all who work in our schools. That achievement was made against the background of massively increased investment in our schools. By 2005–06, we shall have invested more than #1,100 extra in every school pupil, and every Member of Parliament will be able to see evidence in their constituency of the huge capital investment that we have made—not only in primary and secondary schools, colleges of further education and universities but in nurseries, where previously they did not exist, and in sure start. Almost all three and four-year-olds now have a nursery place.
All that investment and leadership from the centre has brought real results. Nearly 500,000 five to seven-year-olds are no longer in classes of 30. We made that pledge in 1997 and we have met our target. Ofsted notes that almost seven classes in 10 are good, compared with four in 10 only five years ago. People with children in classes where Ofsted judges that the quality of teaching is better are glad that a Labour Government are in power and are showing leadership.
More than nine in 10 schools have made satisfactory or better progress since their last inspection. Fewer schools are going into special measures: last year, there were 137, compared with 230 in the previous year. Ofsted rates the current generation of teachers as the best ever.
I am not complacent about that, but I take pride in the contribution that the Government have made, as a partner in the education service, in ensuring that none of our infants is in classes of more than 30 and that all our four-year-olds and 70 per cent. of our three-year-olds have the chance of early years provision. Yes, a quarter of our 11-year-olds have still not reached the standards in reading and writing that we expect of them, but only six years ago half of them had not done so.
That is a massive improvement. Not only the Government but the whole nation should be proud of the literacy and numeracy strategies. They are world class and world leading. They are admired throughout the world. I do not think we could find anyone in the education system—head teacher, teacher or parent—or in the wider community who would not give thanks for the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies.
Yes, the strategies have stalled, but they did so after increases of 12 percentage points for maths and 11 percentage points for English over five years. The question is: what do we do now? If the hon. Member for Ashford had chosen to examine the figures in a little more depth, he would have found that each year we assessed the results not only for literacy and numeracy in general for each of their component parts; that in the next year we invested more money, training and support; and that we often saw progress.
It is interesting that two or three years ago, writing standards were falling behind, whereas those for reading were increasing. What did we do? We made extra investment, adjusted the strategies and provided extra training. What happened? Writing improved. However, reading has stalled. What that reveals is not a political point but an educational one: the capacity of the system to concentrate on writing, which we required, while maintaining the necessary focus on reading.
As a politician, I do not have an answer to that problem, but we are looking into it. We know that we attained higher levels for writing. We know that previously we reached higher levels for reading. The task is to build capacity into the system and to ensure that heads, teachers and all those who work with them can maintain their focus on both reading and writing. That is how we shall move closer to our target.
I shall finish dealing with this issue before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
The literacy and numeracy issue is really difficult. No generation of educationists, nor any previous Government, have ever even tried to crack the problem of people leaving our education system without the basic skills. That is why 7 million adults do not have the reading and number skills that we would expect of 11-year-olds. We are making a good attempt. We are investing the money and our approach is evidence based. We are working with those in the profession, whom I thank. We have made immeasurable and massive progress. No, we are not there, but I would tell the hon. Member for Ashford one thing: we will not give up, and we will continue to invest and to try until we have moved even further towards our target.
The most recent research into why teachers are leaving the profession says:
XThe resignation rate from schools is rising sharply"— it has risen by 4 per cent. since 1999. It also says that nearly 40 per cent. of those leaving the profession cite Government initiatives as one of the reasons that they are going. Does the right hon. Lady think that our education system may have stalled because so many experienced teachers are leaving the profession?
The hon. Gentleman will also know, if he is into reading research, that even more people are now joining the profession, and they do so knowing what it is about. They see the investment that the Government are making, the literacy and numeracy strategies raising standards and the excellence in cities scheme, which is beginning to close the gap in achievement levels between children in inner cities and elsewhere. That is why we have more teachers in the profession than at any time since the early 1980s. I am proud of that, but, equally, I take the challenge of keeping people in the profession.
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong about this, but if my memory serves me right—I do not have the figure in front of me—it is true to say that five years after teaching 80 per cent. of those who have completed their training have taught for some time in the maintained sector. Many teachers who leave school will return after having had time out to raise a family or because they have moved to another part of the country.
I do not underestimate the nature of the challenge in retaining teachers in our classrooms, but I hope that, in return, the hon. Gentleman will give credit for the fact that we have the best recruitment levels for two decades and that, today, more teachers are serving in our classrooms, teaching our children, than since the start of the 1980s.
Not at the moment; I want to move on, because I am sure that the House will want to know of other targets that have been met as well. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to know that our target for the number of 16-year-olds who get five good GCSEs at grades A to C was met a year early. I am sure that, like me, they look forward to the publication of the next set of results tomorrow. I am sure that they will be as pleased as I am that, for the first time, the Government's initiatives—yes, initiatives, but they were funded and training for them was provided, about which I am proud—are the first ones to close the attainment gap in standards in this country.
More than in any of our competitors in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, this country's under-achievement is linked to poverty and social class. The best thing about the literacy and numeracy and the excellence in cities initiatives is not only that standards increased across the board, but that the attainment gap closed, and they are the first education initiatives of any Government of any political party to achieve that.
If the hon. Member for Ashford wants to abolish those initiatives, he should say so now, as I believe he has done in the past. Let us make no mistake: taking away initiatives such as literacy and numeracy, key stage 3 and excellence in cities would be at the children's cost because, without those initiatives, teachers would not have the support that they need to do what we want them to do—raise standards across the board.
I commend much of what the right hon. Lady seeks to do. I particularly commend the Government's new realism in education, but does the right hon. Lady accept that the reason for the crisis that she is seeking to correct is that for many years, not just under Labour Governments, there was a blind pursuit of the comprehensive ideal, which did a great deal to destroy standards and quality in education in this country?
All I would say is that the performance of girls has increased in the past couple of decades, as has the number of youngsters who have qualifications enabling them to go on to higher education. That has happened on the back of the comprehensive system, not some rigid selective system that existed previously. I am proud of the comprehensive ideal, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I think that we need to renew it. It has not achieved all that I aspire to. It has not closed the social class gap, and some ethnic groups are achieving below the level at which they should. That is exactly why we talk about reforming the comprehensive principle, while the Prime Minister and I talk about the post-comprehensive ideal.
I shall say three things: first, my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards did not say that; secondly, I always agree with him; and, thirdly, we have no plans to introduce the direct grant system.
I want to move on to the very serious issue of exclusions. It is fascinating that a new Tory policy has been announced only minutes after the Leader of the Opposition sat down and forgot to tell us that the Conservatives believe in appeals hearings after all. I want to correct something that the Leader of the Opposition said during Prime Minister's questions. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that appeals panels were introduced in 1986, and the following justification was given in Committee proceedings on the Bill that I presume became the 1987 Act:
Xa parent may genuinely feel that an authority has taken insufficient notice of the pupil's point of view of the difficulties arising through its endorsement of a decision to expel. The parent may continue to feel that expulsion is unjustified, or the expelled pupil may be at a critical stage of preparation for school-leaving examinations. An alternative school may pose problems of accessibility, or the parent may be unhappy about the curriculum offered by that school."
That was the justification given by Chris Patten when he spoke about the introduction of appeals panels in a Standing Committee in 1986. He was right. People must have an avenue to seek redress if they feel that injustice has been done. I cannot understand, however, why the Leader of the Opposition went on to say that we took away from the head teacher the right to overrule the appeals panel, as the following was also stated in Standing Committee on
XWe therefore propose that . . . When an authority confirms an expulsion the parent would have a . . . right of appeal . . . Such appeals would be to appeal committees established under section 7 of the Education Act 1980."
Chris Patten went on to say:
XNew clause 10 provides that a committee's decision should be binding".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B,
Would the hon. Member for Ashford like to answer to the House and withdraw the accusation made by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister's questions?
I stand to be corrected when Hansard is published, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the Leader of the Opposition said that the appeals panel could not overrule the decision of the head. Chris Patten, who was the Minister at the time, said that the appeals panel decision would be binding.
Let us move on—instead of going over the quiet words of a quiet man—to consider the more vocal, louder comments of the hon. Member for Ashford, who, to tell the truth, is an equally quiet man. Today, he announced that, although the appeals panel will be abolished, the local education authority will resume the function of hearing appeals from parents. When he announced that, I had an eerie feeling that not one of his Back Benchers knew about it. Now we know what is the definition of a quiet man and a quiet party—it means not telling Back Benchers about the policy before announcing it to the House of Commons.
Let me be helpful by spelling out what that policy means. It will mean that any parent who disagrees with the judgment of the head that their child should be excluded for any reason will be able to appeal to a local education authority. That is what was said. Let us make no mistake—if we give the local education authority the right to hear the appeal, we have to give them the right to overturn the judgment. If we do not do that, we will take away its power to take a decision.
I am happy to give way on this issue, so would the hon. Gentleman like to tell us who will sit on the LEA appeal panels? Will they be made up of the teachers who we insist should sit on panels from January next year? If the panel is run by an LEA, will it be made up of local councillors and local education officials? If it is not made up of councillors and education officials, will it be made up of independent members of the public? If it is made up of independent members of the public, I am not sure how it will differ from the independent exclusion panels that we have at the moment.
The right hon. Lady appears incapable of listening. She said that I had just said that any parent would be able to appeal on any matter to the LEA. She knows perfectly well that I did not say that. She was not listening and she wants to hear what she wants to hear. I made a clear difference between process and fact, and that is an obvious point that applies to all appeals to people such as the ombudsmen. She should know that, because she is experienced enough to know the difference. She may be attempting to be malicious, but I am afraid that she will not find that I said what she said I had said.
I heard the point about process and fact, but I did not have the slightest idea what the hon. Gentleman was on about. That is why I had to intervene.
Let me explain what I think stage two of the new policy will be, because the hon. Gentleman has now mentioned guidance.
No, not at the moment.
I think that the Opposition's new policy means that not every parent will have the right to go to the LEA to seek the overruling of the head teacher's and governing body's judgment. Some parents will have that right, and others will not. Whether they have the right will depend on guidance written by the hon. Gentleman. If that is the policy, that is fine. However, we have heard all the time from the Opposition that never under any circumstances should the head teacher's judgment be second-guessed because it is absolutely sacrosanct. No matter how the hon. Gentleman tries to get out of it, he has just said that, in certain circumstances that he has not yet described to his Back Benchers, the Government or the public, the head teacher's judgment can be second-guessed by an appeal panel.
As I said, I always agree with my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards. He is absolutely right. The only difference is that, under this Government, the system will be independent whereas under the Tories it will be run by the LEAs. I leave it to people to reach a judgment on that.
May I return the Secretary of State to the reality of what has happened? Eighteen months ago, her predecessor wrote to the head teacher of Glyn school after an appeal had been overturned and a pupil had been replaced in the school after exclusion. Her predecessor set out clearly in a letter a number of cases, including those involving violence and the threat of violence, in which a governing body had every right to exclude. However, when the governing body and head teacher of Glyn school put that statement to the test, the system failed them. The system is clearly wrong. The Secretary of State is making small political points, but when will she sort the problem out?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall read the words from the guidance that was issued to the appeal panels before the last election. It said:
XWe would normally regard it as inappropriate to reinstate pupils where there has been serious or actual threatened violence to teachers or fellow pupils."
That is exactly why I made my statement last Thursday. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying—I say it again at the risk of again being accused of interfering—that I back teachers if they are threatened with violence or abuse by any pupil in their school. That should not happen. However, it should be equally clear that, in a natural system of justice in which appeal panels have power, I have no powers to overrule them. The hon. Member for Ashford is suggesting that, if the Tories were ever to return to government, they would take to Secretaries of State the right to overrule an independent appeal panel—in his case, the LEA. That is their policy, but I have described the only way to proceed.
The process is important and I want to explain my actions on the incident at the school. Whether there are appeals panels and whether they are independent or part of the local education authority, there is still a right in law to go to judicial review whether we like it or not. No hon. Member can change that—unless, of course, there is another policy announcement. In recent years, parents who have not got satisfaction at exclusion appeals hearings have gone to judicial review. No one is saying that that is not the case. If we get rid of appeals panels, which was Tory policy until today, people would seek to pursue the course of natural justice by questioning a decision in the courts. The quickest, most expedient, cheapest and most efficient way to deal with the natural right of a parent to ask for a double check to be made on a key decision is to go to an independent panel, and that is why we support them.
My right hon. Friend said in Prime Minister's questions that of all the decisions taken by heads, at the end of the day 3 per cent. are overturned. In some cases, such as last week's high-profile case, a decision comes to the public attention. Last week's decision was important. I do not detract from the need to have a national discussion about that because I welcome it. There is nothing wrong with the discussion that the nation had over the weekend. Indeed, it is about time that parents and everyone else in the community joined politicians and educationists in deciding what behaviour we accept from our children in schools. We should make that clear. I made my view clear last week and will continue to do so at every opportunity.
Surely the policy just announced by the Conservative spokesperson on education is even more incoherent when he mentions the local government ombudsman because the ombudsman's decisions have no force over local authorities. He cannot compel them to do anything.
That is absolutely right and people would probably end up in court. Perhaps I should not say this, but that process would take far longer than an exclusion panel.
Let me set out my involvement in the constituency of Chris Grayling last week. He wrote to me on
I am not criticising that—it was natural that the case should cause concern—but the media were already circling the school and trying to discover the identities of the parents and children, and people were giving interviews to the press. The idea that I would say, XNot me, guv. I have no powers and will not express an opinion," is wrong. That is not something that hon. Members will ever hear from this Secretary of State. The case deserved national attention and the nation was entitled to ask the Secretary of State's view.
I went further than that, as I would do in many circumstances, and not just those that relate to exclusions. I asked my officials to phone Surrey county council and ask whether we could help. I also wanted them to ask whether the process was as speedy as possible given the fact that the public eye was on the school and the boys. I mentioned that for two reasons: first, the school needed to get back to normal and there was a ballot for a teachers' strike the next day; secondly, and of equal importance, the boys' future needed to be settled because they had rights as well. They needed to get back to full time, good quality education.
That was the nature of my intervention, and it became very public last Thursday and over the weekend because the incident was in the spotlight, but quite honestly it is the bread and butter of my Department's work. It regularly responds to invitations, such as the one that I received from the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, in whose constituency the school is situated, to do what it can. Sometimes, in fact quite often, we are asked to give money, while other requests are for us to change legislation or use our influence. On that occasion, we sought to use our influence.
The right hon. Lady rightly says that my hon. Friend Chris Grayling wrote to her on
I shall let the House into a state secret: I have a marvellous Department, but sometimes it does not reach its targets for replying to letters. Six days exceeds every Whitehall target for replying to letters, and I am very pleased about that.
The hon. Gentleman should further consider the timing of the statements, which is an important point. One of our most important tasks is to get the standards agenda going and to achieve the desired progress in the education system. What we need to do most is back schools on discipline; collectively, we must make sure that we get that right. I made my statement at about four or five o'clock in the afternoon; I stand to be corrected about the precise time. By the time I made my statement the story had already been reported in the media, and rightly so—I make no criticism of that. It does not matter who gave the story to the media; it is a matter of natural national concern, and we acted completely appropriately.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way to me a second time. We all share the aspiration of sorting out this matter, but may I just explain to her the problem that her intervention caused? By issuing to the media a statement that she had overruled the appeals panel, the Secretary of State raised expectations in the school that the problem had been solved, and 24 hours later those expectations were dashed when the school realised that she did not have the power to overrule. That is the problem that she caused locally.
If the hon. Gentleman reads the statement and listens carefully to the comments made that evening by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Twigg, he will find that I made it quite clear that I had no powers. I knew that I had no powers and I had been through the matter that afternoon. Sometimes, however, one can just stand up and be counted, and that afternoon I stood up to be counted. I do not care two hoots that criticism followed; it was right for the Secretary of State to stand up and be counted and to use what influence I had. It was right for the Secretary of State to ring Surrey county council and say, XYou know that we have no powers, but can we do anything to help? Could you move as quickly as possible to remedy the situation?"
I shall say no more about that because I am happy to be judged on my record, on my intervention and on my words, not only by teachers but by parents who want good standards of education and well disciplined schools.
I have taken far longer than I should have done—
I will talk about A-levels. Everybody who has got a grade this year should feel proud, and it is worth the paper that it is written on. It was absolutely deplorable, indeed shameful, of the Leader of the Opposition to say that the results are not worth the paper they are written on. I say once more that I have every confidence in yesterday's report by Mike Tomlinson. In addition, I know that all the organisations that brought the complaints to his attention have confidence in the report. I acted swiftly. I made sure that the inquiry was independent. I acted on every one of the recommendations, and I will act on the recommendations that come back from the second part of the inquiry.
I have been generous in giving way.
I want others to have the opportunity to address this subject. Everybody—at least those on the Labour Benches—looks forward to even more amazing policy announcements in the couple of hours ahead.
It would be easy to use this opportunity merely to throw insults at the Government for their handling of education policy without recognising as a starting point the huge problems that they inherited in 1997. I certainly want to go on record as saying that the Liberal Democrats recognise that there have been some improvements since 1997. The catalogue of improvements that the Secretary of State read out at the beginning of her speech was not due simply to Government policy. It was very much due to the hard work of our teachers, lecturers and everyone in the education world. The Government sometimes accept too much credit for what goes right and totally ignore things when they go wrong.
Although there was much with which I could agree in the opening speech of Mr. Green, the accusations had a hollow ring when one examined the alternatives presented by the Conservatives in Bournemouth and, indeed, today. In a half-hour speech, there was not a single positive proposal to resolve the issues that have been raised.
I have been watching the hon. Gentleman discussing the issue of A-levels on various news programmes. While he is putting on record the views of Liberal Democrats, will he dissociate his party from the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, who described A-levels as not worth the paper that they were written on? Will he join us as we go to prize-giving evenings at schools to award the certificates to young people in congratulating them on their fantastic hard work?
I would like to make a little progress.
What lies behind this debate is a deep-seated jealousy over the fact that the Labour Government are delivering Conservative policies. That is the truth of it. I ask Labour Members whether even a Thatcher Government would have dared propose such right-wing policies as creating a free market for higher education, breaking up the comprehensive system, introducing performance pay, stripping the last vestiges of power from local education authorities and handing them to private companies, privatising schools, privatising the Criminal Records Bureau and micro-managing our education service from Sanctuary house through a target-led agenda? That is a Thatcherite agenda that Thatcher herself could not introduce, and that is why the Tories are jealous. Labour Members are delivering the Tories' policies.
While the hon. Gentleman is in the business of accusing the Government of being Thatcherite, perhaps he might explain why the Liberal Democrats seem to have gone rather socialist. Is it not a fact that the Liberal Democrats were reported in The Times Educational Supplement of
It is worth coming into the Chamber just to hear the hon. Gentleman's intelligent and articulate interventions. I will send him the whole document, because it is crucial reading material on a serious issue. I strongly believe that we are moving away from quality early-years education by putting youngsters into formal education settings far too early. I make no apology for that view—it is something that I fervently believe. The hon. Gentleman should look at the experience in countries such as Denmark, Sweden or Holland, which have highly advanced early education services. He made a derisory comment about learning through play, but the fact is that all children learn though play. Had he spent a little more time playing as a child, he might have learned a little more.
The key accusation that the Liberal Democrats would lay at the Government's door is not one of inactivity, but one of paranoia. The Government need to control everything, to manage everything, to trust no one, to seek blind affirmation and to treat criticism with contempt—and, as we have seen today, above all never to accept responsibility when things go wrong. Imagine the outcry if local education authorities, not Capita, had failed to vet 7,000 teachers in time for the start of term. What would have happened—would the LEAs have got a #400 million contract extended? What if the further education sector, not Capita, had made a hash of individual learning accounts resulting in a multi-million pound fraud? Would the sector have received yet more lucrative contracts from the Government? Of course not; yet, in effect, that is what has happened with Capita. Both disasters could have been avoided if the Department for Education and Skills had prepared the contracts' specifications correctly and the Secretary of State had effectively monitored their delivery, but they did not, and that is a significant failure.
The current fiasco surrounding A-levels is yet another example of the Secretary of State behaving like Pontius Pilate when things go disastrously wrong. There were warnings as early as October 1998 that the new system of post-16 exams was deeply flawed. A 1998 internal report to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that was sent to Ministers warned that unless the problems were sorted out, they would lead to massive grade inflation or grade fixing. Undeterred, the Government went ahead against all advice. There was chaos in the first year, with modules failing to appear, course materials failing to arrive in schools, and no markers to mark the modules. Our students were treated as little more than guinea pigs in a glorified experiment.
True to form, the Secretary of State stepped in in 2001—not to apologise or to accept that the situation was the result of her policy, but to take action to cut the number of modules. She said,
Xthe . . . reforms . . . did not do credit to anybody".—[Hansard, 12 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 954.]
But they were the Secretary of State's reforms. What was left when the right hon. Lady had cut the number of modules students could take was a system simply for stacking up A-level points. That was the net result. It has thrown the lives of thousands of our students and their teachers and lecturers into confusion, and undermined confidence in the A-level system.
Let me make it clear to the Secretary of State and the House that the Liberal Democrats fully supported the introduction of AS-levels and A2s. We believed that it was right to broaden the curriculum at that time. Furthermore, we have not accused and will not accuse the Secretary of State or her Ministers of direct interference in the marking or grading process. Rather, we accuse her and her Department of creating a climate in which it was perceived that what was required was the avoidance of any accusation of grade inflation.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the events of summer 2001, may I put it to him that he does the Secretary of State a slight injustice? The right hon. Lady is quoted on the BBC website as saying at the time
XAll new exams take time to bed in, but the new AS has had more than its fair share of problems. I regret the extra stresses that have been put on students and their teachers."
There was at least an expression of regret. However, is it not more significant that the right hon. Lady said at that time—I quote the BBC's report of her remarks—that she was
Xnow determined to get the reforms right so that A levels could continue as 'a crucial benchmark of quality.'"
Having said that in July 2001, and considering it from the perspective of October 2002, it seems that the right hon. Lady took responsibility and is now trying to discharge it.
I apologise to the Secretary of State for not recognising that she did offer a mild apology at the end of 2001. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I believe that from the summer of 2001, when AS-levels went so badly wrong, there was paranoia—I use the word again—within the Department to ensure that grade inflation did not occur at the end of the year.
It was obvious that when students took a clutch of AS modules, they had the opportunity to resit them if they did not get good enough marks, and therefore get higher marks. They also had the opportunity to drop the modules at which they were not successful. It was obvious also that if 50 per cent. of the marks were to go on AS-levels, we would then have massive grade inflation. That was not because standards were dropped but because the kids followed the system and did better. That was the crux of the issue, and that was the system. It was nothing to do with the QCA or the examination boards. It was entirely the Secretary of State's responsibility. What has happened is the result of her refusing to accept any responsibility and simply passing the blame to the QCA. I think that it is shameful to use Mike Tomlinson's report as the basis for doing that and fundamentally wrong.
No. I want to finish the point.
This year, there was a quinquennial review of the QCA's work. In June, the report highlighted the confusion of the relationship between Ministers and the authority. That was a central element of the report. In spite of that—this is an example of the incestuous nature of the relationship between the Secretary of State's Department and the authority—it argued for the status quo as it combines the Xappearance" of independence while Xretaining the ear" of Ministers. We cannot have that sort of contradiction and expect to have transparency. Equally, we cannot have a Secretary of State who then distances herself from an organisation that said, following a quinquennial review that reported to her, that it should have an Xappearance" of independence while Xretaining the ear" of Ministers.
The review went further. It dismissed any possibility of clarifying the relationship. Instead we are promised Xa memorandum of understanding." If there is such a memorandum, we now know that it resulted in complete confusion. However, that is the proposal of the QCA in putting its house in order, together with the Secretary of State.
We know too that at the heart of the QCA since November 2000, the deputy chief executive and then the chief officer has been a serving senior civil servant seconded from the Department. She may not have been taking orders directly from the Secretary of State but surely she would have been able to convey the appropriate perceptions either to or from the right hon. Lady. I do not believe that a senior civil servant in the Department would be seconded elsewhere and would go to that new venue not knowing the policy of the Department and what it expected.
The hon. Gentleman wrote to me about that last week, and I regret the fact that he has raised it in the House. It is totally inappropriate that civil servants should be attacked in that way, and one has just been attacked. I make it clear that it is a policy not only of my Department, but of the whole of Government, that senior civils are seconded both in and out of Government Departments. Officials in our Department are seconded not only to the QCA, but to Ofsted, the Teacher Training Agency, local authorities and many of our agencies. In that way they gain a better understanding of the needs of the education system. Equally, I have serving civil servants who are seconded from headship, from school advisership and from other Government agencies. I believe that every one of those civil servants carries loyalty to the organisation to which they are seconded and abides by the rules of that organisation. To imply that one of my senior civil servants was not able to do that, or may not have been able to do that, was shameful, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his remarks.
Methinks the Secretary of State protests too much. That is not what I said, and I do not think that hon. Members understood me to say that. What I am saying to the hon. Lady is that I do not believe that if I went from my headship, which I did on one occasion, and was seconded to another organisation—[Interruption.]—that is wishful thinking—I would not take with me the culture of that organisation. One naturally does that. That is not a slur on civil servants. It is an inevitable outcome of moving from one Department to another. While the Secretary of State is speaking of secondments, perhaps she would explain to the House why, when we cannot have the curriculum and staffing survey done, and when there are not enough senior civil servants to oversee contracts, 22 per cent. of the senior civil servants in the Department are seconded out of the Department. It is an amazing situation.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his comments about stacking up points? I remind him that the Secretary of State told me yesterday, when asked
XIs an AS-level half an A-level or not?"—[Hansard, 15 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 218.]
that in some subjects the AS-level would be marginally easier than the A-level standard. That means that one can take six AS-levels, never taking a full A-level, and get the same number of UCAS points as if one had taken three A-levels and passed them at equivalent grades. If that is not devaluation, I do not know what is.
With due respect, that is an issue for the Secretary of State to answer. I know of no case where a student has stacked up six AS-levels in order to gain the qualification, but that is the logic of what the right hon. Lady said in reply to the hon. Gentleman's intervention yesterday, and it is up to her to respond.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, he spoke about the nature of the QCA and the fact that in the quinquennial review it was decided to leave it as it was, in order to retain the ear of the Secretary of State. If that is the case, does he not think it extremely odd that it did not come to the ears of the Secretary of State that all that pressure was being put on the exam boards?
The hon. Gentleman could say that; I could not possibly do so, but that is the obvious conclusion. That is where, in this whole episode, we are left hanging in the air. The Secretary of State may feel that she is off the hook, but most people will have concluded otherwise.
The issue of standards was raised yesterday and the Secretary of State, who usually responds honestly and openly, did not do so on that occasion. It is important that she makes clear her policy on standards before Mike Tomlinson goes through the next part of his inquiry. He has to make recommendations for
Xsetting, maintaining and judging A-level standards".
Therefore it must be clear that where students achieve the standard set, they should be awarded the grade. The Secretary of State needs to make it clear in the House that it is the Government's policy that if a student achieves the necessary standard, they get the grade.
That clearly was not what happened this year. If that was the case, we would not have looked at the work of 90,000 students and we would not have regraded nearly 2,000 students. If that is the case—I am glad that she said that it was—the Department for Education and Skills should not be put off by the annual wailings of Ruth Lea or successive Conservative Front Benchers, including the hon. Member for Ashford. On
Xindependent audit of exam quality".
He made that call before the results were even published, which is hardly a ringing endorsement for the 250,000 students who had taken their exams. Of course, we saw today the most deplorable example of the quiet man saying after all the anguish of the past two months that students now had certificates that were not worth the paper that they were written on.
I do not know whether I am grateful for that intervention. I do not speak for Cumbria county council and it would be wrong of me to seek to do so.
Of course, the Government were right to broaden the post-16 curriculum. Indeed, it should be broadened even further, but if that is to be managed, far greater emphasis must be placed on internal assessment. To achieve that, as John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said yesterday in The Guardian, we need to establish credited chartered examiners. I hope that the Secretary of State will seriously consider that idea, which is not new. Teachers have already been doing similar work in music, drama, art and modern languages, but the proposal is one way of ensuring quality without making teaching the servant of an endless examination system. Alongside the abolition of league tables, the establishment of an independent QCA and the streamlining of the current examination boards into a single awarding body, such a proposal would do much to re-balance the emphasis in our schools towards teaching and learning, rather than testing and audit.
What would not help, however, is a sudden abandonment of the AS-level and A-level system after two years, as the Conservatives propose. Neither do we want the sudden lurch towards the international baccalaureate at which both the Secretary of State and her Minister for School Standards have hinted. Many schools, but especially FE and sixth form colleges, have invested very heavily in the new AS-level programme. Many colleges are already reporting a downturn in the number of applicants for AS-level courses. A sudden abandonment would create huge problems for the sector.
The Liberal Democrats hope that, in addition to the Tomlinson report, the Secretary of State will take a much more long-term view of the whole of the 14-to-19 curriculum and examination framework. Simply considering A-levels in isolation from the rest of the 14-to-19 framework would be a huge mistake. We have applauded many of the ideas in the Green Paper on 14 to 19-year-olds, but the sector needs a comprehensive framework of qualifications to underpin its success. It is increasingly clear that a one-size-fits-all examination system is inappropriate, especially when the vast majority of young people stay in full-time education or training until they are 19. Further tinkering as a response to political pressure is simply not acceptable. Now is the time to establish a royal commission to consider this whole vital area, take on board the views of industry, universities, colleges and the rest of the education world and produce a qualifications structure in which all sections of society can have confidence.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be contradicting himself. He said that we should not touch the AS-level and A-level system because our sixth formers need stability, but went on to say that we need to appoint a royal commission with a view to completely overhauling the examination system. What sort of message will that send to the sixth formers who are currently starting their courses?
Chris Grayling, who usually makes intelligent interventions, may regret those comments. If he does not believe that there is a crisis of confidence in our examination system, he must have been elsewhere for the past two months. We are all united about the need for a new curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds. [Interruption]. The Liberal Democrats and the principal Opposition are certainly united.
If we are to introduce much more realistic vocational options, we must have an examination system that meets that aim. The Association of Colleges produced an interesting proposal for an overarching certificate. The Government have introduced the idea of a graduate certificate. We should examine the whole process to ensure the confidence of employers and the education world.
The debate has been interesting. Doubtless Members of all parties will ask questions about the competence of the Department for Education and Skills. However, what matters is what works for young people, adult learners, the community, and industry and commerce. A discredited system and a Department in which people have no confidence do none of us credit.
Let us consider higher education policy. Even before the review is published in November, the Minister is going around saying that we should have a market-led higher education system, that universities can go to the wall and merge without any discussion in the House. That discredits the Department and gives us the impression that the Secretary of State is not mistress in her house. The Minister for School Standards is looking for her job and the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education reports to the No. 10 policy unit. Unless we ask Mystic Meg for advice, we are clearly in a mess.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr. Willis, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on education. He cares and is deeply knowledgeable about the system, unlike Mr. Green, the Tory spokesman. The latter epitomises the problems that the Conservative party is experiencing. He seemed to want to crawl around the minutiae of political debate with a loud hailer. One cannot communicate with the wider public in such a way.
I do not believe that he is a quiet man. It is right to have the debate, and it is right that the Tories tabled the motion and are attempting to hold the Government to account on education. However, they should recognise that they must have a little more vision and breadth of perspective to communicate with the voters, with whom they have failed to communicate.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest problems for the Tories on education is that they do not believe that an A-level or any exam is worth passing unless many others have failed it? As the Leader of the Opposition and Mr. Green showed today, their message is that competition is the only way to achieve success and improve standards.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Innate elitism pervades much of the education system, not only the Conservative party. I entered politics to try to get rid of that, and many people from different parties are dedicated to such an objective.
One advantage of a long political memory is that, although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I remember reading about Tony Crosland and Edward Boyle, who were enormously respected by the education establishment. It was said of both of them, however, that their only function at that time was to hassle within the Cabinet and get a good Budget settlement, and that that was the end of their job.
The culture change that has occurred since those days is quite bewildering, not surprisingly, to many people, and not entirely welcome to everyone. It is welcome to me, except for the fact that the debate about centralism and localism is a perpetual one that will continue throughout the history of debates. From time to time, central Government become too centralist, and from time to time they devolve power to other bodies—local authorities, for example—only to discover that that is inadequate and that they have to claw back some power.
No one can doubt that education is the Government's top priority, not least because the Prime Minister has said as much so often, but it is so easy to say things. Why has he argued that it ought to be the top priority? He has done so partly because education is at the root of a strong economy. That is particularly relevant to my constituency, because we have always under-achieved according to all the measures of educational attainment. Far too few of our pupils have stayed on at school and gone to university; if we are to be a match for the fierce competitive world that is upon us—almost sweeping over us—we must attain far better levels of education and training.
Education is important not only because of the needs of a strong economy, but for reasons of social justice. That is one of the reasons that I came into politics almost 30 years ago. I had the advantage of a good education through the grammar school system, oddly enough, but the vast majority of my contemporaries—many of whom were just as bright as me—did not have that advantage, and were condemned for many years. Some of them never recovered, because of that system. I was determined that every child should have the same rights and opportunities as I had. That is what motivates the Prime Minister and everyone on the Labour Benches. I also concede that it has motivated many Conservatives over the years—for many of whom I have had enormous respect—and many Liberal Democrats. It is quite right that we should differ over how we should achieve that end, but that is our motivation, and a huge investment in education is absolutely crucial to achieving the objective of social justice.
I do not think that there can be any doubt about the huge investment that has been made by this Government since they took office in 1997, although some people may quibble about the statistics. I know that, for the first two years, we kept to the previous Tory Budget targets, but I was part of that decision so I have never complained about it, uncomfortable though it was during those two years. Since then, however, the investment in education has been enormous—I think that it has been unprecedented—and sustained. That is important in itself, but it is also important to understand that it has been possible only because of the economic competence of the Government.
I have been critical of the Government from time to time, as many right hon. and hon. Members know, but the economic achievement of getting low inflation, high employment and low unemployment at the same time, together with economic growth and the huge injection into all public services, is unprecedented in the Labour party's long history. It is also unprecedented in British politics. Until 1992, the Tories were thought to be the only party of economic competence, but Tory Governments never believed in or had the political will to make huge investments in public services. I can say with great confidence that such a configuration of achievements—low inflation, high employment, low unemployment and huge investment in public services—is pretty well unprecedented in the past 50, 60, or 75 years, or perhaps even longer than that.
We should celebrate the Labour Government's economic competence and the political will that enabled them to make this huge investment in education, without which most of the exchanges across the Chamber would be highly irrelevant. Without more money going into schools for revenue and for capital, many of the points of detail would be completely irrelevant. When I have visited schools, especially in the past 12 months, head teachers, members of boards of governors and teachers have told me—I do not have to ask them—that the money is making a difference. Everyone who believes in public services, as I do, knows that we cannot achieve change without money as a lubricant.
We have made the investment, but we must make it work. In the days of Tony Crosland and Edward Boyle, Governments did not accept that as an objective: it was sufficient that they provided the resources, and the system had to deliver what it could within those resources. The Government have had the courage to intervene to try to make the money work effectively. In so doing, they have come up against many vested interests, and have often made themselves deeply unpopular with teachers, head teachers, teachers' associations and members of the Labour party. That has also been unprecedented. The Tories would have loved to intervene to make schools more effective, but they did not know how to do so and they did not have the political courage to tackle that problem.
I am grateful for that intervention, because I have a long political memory of the 18 years when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power. Year after year, successive Tory Secretaries of State denigrated teachers and schools, and I longed for the time when we would have a Labour Government who would do what he says and trust the teachers.
I was not going to intervene until I heard that comment from Mr. Turner. I taught for 17 years, including during the period of Conservative government between 1984 and 1994, and there is a stark contrast between then and now. Then, we had raffles to get money to buy exercise books, but now huge resources have been provided. I have talked to many head teachers in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is excitement and a buzz about schools now? They want to do things and to change things. The situation has turned round completely.
I entirely agree.During all those Tory years, it was quite painful to listen to Members all the way down from Keith Joseph, for whom I had enormous respect in other contexts. From the Opposition Back Benches, I tried to convey to him that continually denigrating schools and teachers was not the way forward. That, however, was a lesson that the Conservatives could not learn. I do not recognise the picture painted by Mr. Turner.
Tough decisions have been taken in an attempt to improve school performance. Many of us who had been involved in education knew that the head teacher was crucial—that without heads who inspired the confidence of staff, drove up standards and made everyone feel concerned about standards, schools were wasting their time. We all knew of heads who did not measure up to that; we all knew of teachers who should not be in the profession, and who were letting their colleagues down. No one before this Government, however, had the courage to deal with the problem. Carrying out that tough task and withstanding all the criticism that often came from their own side took enormous courage, and persistence and vision.
Driving up standards is not simple—there is no magic wand. Problems must be dealt from day to day in the classroom, and the teaching force must be galvanised. I accept some of the criticism of my party: I concede that our centralisation has now gone a bit too far. We must begin to trust teachers.
No, I have always believed that. I applaud what the Government have done in driving up standards and showing us the way, but now that all that courageous work has been done we have an opportunity to look to teachers to show us new and exciting ways of doing their job better. I hope—indeed, I believe—that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues will take that unique opportunity. We needed intervention to show that those whom we represent would not accept excuses for low standards in, for instance, inner-city schools. It was important to put that across, and it was not done without causing some pain and suffering to all involved. Now, however, we have a golden opportunity to allow teachers to show us what can be done—the delivery of standards in the hands of teachers, including head teachers; politicians cannot achieve it.
It is right for people to crawl over the minutiae of who said what to whom, when and with what motive, but it was regrettable that during yesterday's exchanges Mr. Green seemed to be trying to get away with alleging that there had been political interference. Today, he backed off, and I am glad that he did so, because what he said yesterday did him no credit. I was going to urge the quiet man to have a quiet word with him; perhaps that has happened in the meantime.
I think that the Conservatives have failed two important tests. First, have they the economic competence to deliver the objectives that this Government have achieved? Since 1992, no one has believed that they have. In fact, many in the Conservative party do not believe it either.
Secondly, if the Conservatives had that economic competence, would they have the political will, or even the desire, to make the investments in education that the Labour party has made, or would they prefer some other course of political action? In my book, they fail both those tests.
I had not intended to get into the wider debate but simply wanted to concentrate on the A-levels fiasco and its effect in my constituency. However, Mr. Foster was unfair to Edward Boyle and to Tony Crosland. As I recall, although it was a long time ago, Edward Boyle was the Secretary of State who introduced polytechnics, and Tony Crosland—who worked in the white heat of the technological revolution—did a great deal to improve technical education; certainly the Labour party always said so.
Looking back, some bad things were done by the Labour party, but there were some good things. The same is true of my party. During the 18 years of Conservative rule, the national curriculum and league tables were introduced, through which we discovered what needed to be done in our inner-city schools. City technology colleges brought hope to areas where there was none before. Specialist schools, on which the Government have built, are a Conservative idea. We should not be too churlish about one another.
Turning to the A-levels fiasco, the alarm bells were rung first at the Knights Templar school in my constituency. Articles in the media described the plight of students such as Laura Wheen, who obtained A grades in psychology A-level while receiving a U for her coursework, as did the whole class. That is extraordinary; that excellent class had received excellent AS results, and good grades were predicted for it. The teacher had read the coursework and was impressed by it, but the class received these extraordinary results.
The same was true in history. Louis Gearing, a gifted history student, needed a particular result to get into Oxford, but he did not get it because his coursework was marked down to U. It seems odd that a bright student, who received two As in other subjects and A grades in part of his history course in the exams, should suddenly get a U for his coursework. I am pleased that Louis Gearing has been regraded. His grade has gone up and he is now able to go to Oxford, although he has put it back until next year. I am glad that that was possible as a result of the regrading exercise, but some questions remain.
The set of Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations psychology results that was not reviewed—the grade boundaries have not been changed—seems very odd. How was it that, at the Knights Templar school, these excellent students were able to get A grades in some of the examinations in psychology, yet were all getting U, a fail, in their coursework? No one has explained that. It was not explained by Mike Tomlinson, and I would like an explanation from Ministers.How does an A-grade student suddenly become a failure when it comes to the coursework? That seems extraordinary. One might understand if it were the other way round. Someone might help a student with the coursework and the student might struggle through.
The hon. Gentleman is right. How can it happen the other way round? It does not make sense.
Labour Members might think that it was down to the teacher, who may have read the coursework and been over-optimistic. She may not have understood and it was all a terrible accident. However, I checked with other schools in my constituency, including Fearnhill in Letchworth, another good school. The head there, Lynne Monck, wrote to me to say:
XStudents who had received A or B grades for most psychology modules— this relates to the OCR again—
Xwere awarded U grades for coursework.
The coursework of some candidates awarded a U grade was judged to be A grade standard by the subject teacher who had attended the support meeting and followed the guidelines."
Now, two teachers are getting it wrong—looking at course work, seeing that it is really quite good, and being surprised when it is failed. As we have heard through the media, that is being repeated around the country.
I want to know from the Minister why OCR psychology A-level has not been subject to a review of the grading boundaries. How could this have happened? The Minister might want to consider the following point, which is also suspicious. When Fearnhill requested a re-marking of the results, they came back the same. It also asked for the scripts—the coursework papers—to be returned. [Interruption.] I should be grateful if the Minister would listen to this. Fearnhill was told that the papers could not be sent back, even though they should be available under the guidelines. The same is true of Knights Templar, which was told in August—when it originally raised the matter—that it would be sent photocopies of the scripts and coursework papers.
In a minute. Knights Templar was promised the papers, yet they never came. It filled in the forms, which stated that it could have the scripts if it wanted them. In a letter to me, Knights Templar said:
XWe asked for a re-mark of our candidates' 2543 Research Reports (Psychology) and 2549 Psychology and Crime. We also asked for the scripts. We received letters giving the outcome of the results enquiry this morning"—
Xbut without the scripts. Oddly, these letters all stated, 'Script Copy: Not Requested'. Having checked his records and finding that he had indeed ticked 'Copy of Scripts' on the form", the head of the sixth form who deals with these matters
Xrang OCR to ask why the scripts had not been returned. The initial response was that scripts in certain subjects were not being returned. After persisting, he was then told that exceptions could only be made in special circumstances. Eventually, the person from OCR decided that ours was an exceptional circumstance and agreed to send the scripts."
However, they have not arrived.
The question remains as to how A-grade students who were awarded U grades in these psychology papers were awarded A grades for other papers in the same subject. That seems extraordinary. The grade boundaries in psychology were not reviewed, although it was said that they would be. Why not? Why is OCR so reluctant to return the psychology coursework and scripts?
Andrew Wheen, father of Laura and a constituent of mine, says that the way to address the issue is
Xto select a sample of candidates with anomalous grade combinations"— in other words, the candidates who got As and Us—
Xand to review all their examination scripts and coursework" in close detail. That need not be a massive exercise; it need only be a sample.
The Minister has a duty to get to the bottom of what went on. It is not right to leave students failing to understand why they ended up with the marks that they did.
The hon. Gentleman's thoughtful contribution is in contrast to others from those on the Opposition Benches. We owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Chapman, the head teacher of Knights Templar school, for being the first to raise this issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with Peter Chapman, who said during the Radio 4 interview in which he first raised this issue publicly that he regarded the Secretary of State as a woman of great integrity, and as an exemplary Secretary of State? Does he also agree with Peter Chapman's comments at a parents' evening at Knights Templar school—my wife was a governor at the time—in 2001? He said that, before casting their vote at the general election, parents should remember the difference in funding under a Labour Government and a Labour Secretary of State between 1997 and 2001, and funding before 1997—
I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I was almost tempted to ask him to give way. He and I know Peter Chapman, and he may remember that I was giving the prizes at that prize day. In my speech, I said that life was not a dress rehearsal. If a student has a question mark over an exam result and does not understand why a particular result was obtained, that can be really devastating. Laura Wheen wanted to go to one university but is having to go to another, and that is devastating. For two months Louis Gearing thought that he was not going to Oxford, which was his life's ambition. He is going to Oxford now, but he thought that he would lose the opportunity. It is important that students be given proper respect.
I have never challenged the Secretary of State's integrity. Peter Chapman was grateful for some school buildings put up that very year, thanks to a combination of the Government and the Hertfordshire county council, which is an excellent, and Conservative-controlled, education authority.
I lobbied for the building, yet the important question is not about whether any Secretary of State is pleasant or a person of integrity but about whether pupils and students have been affected. For the individuals whom I have mentioned, these are desperate stories, and we have not yet got to the bottom of what happened.
Another case that I want to outline is not one of the OCR cases. It involves Edward Browning, another Knights Templar student who was doing Edexcel A-level music. He gave a live performance for his grade 8, which he gained with a distinction, and he gave the same performance for his A-level two weeks later. The guidance for A-level unit 4 states that a pupil who achieves grade 6 would attain a top mark in that unit.
John Mann probably also knows Simon Marlowe, the accompanist on that occasion and a professional pianist. He has told me that Edward Browning's second performance for A-level was even better than the first performance, for grade 8, for which he was awarded a distinction. However, he was awarded only 10 out of 90 for that second performance.
It is extraordinary to note that, when Edward appealed, the mark was raised to 59 out of 90. How can it happen that an original mark of 10 out of 90 can be raised on appeal to 59 out of 90? The curious thing is that he was awarded almost 100 per cent. at his grade 8 exam.
Ministers should not think that the problem with what is happening with A-levels is over. They need to audit what is happening much more carefully.
Laura Wheen and her family are unhappy about the letter that the Minister for School Standards wrote to me in response to these matters. They did not object only to the fact that the letter was the classic civil service response, that it said that the Tomlinson report would take effect and that the matter was nothing to do with the Government. They are unhappy that the letter spoke about what would happen were Laura still unhappy with Xhis" grade after the revision process. That is not good enough.
The Government often say that the problem is all to do with schools and hospitals. They did so again at the Labour party conference, but that is not the case. The problem is to do with pupils in education, and patients in health. The Government have many plans, grand schemes, projects and initiatives, but they must remember that someone like Laura Wheen is entitled to know why she was not given the grade in the OCR psychology A-level that everyone expected her to obtain.
I came into politics after spending most of my previous life in teaching. I took that road because I was so frustrated by the lack of policies and resources at the front line for the education of pupils. I looked with great interest to the Labour Government to bring in the right policies and the resources to implement them. By all accepted measures, educational achievement has been raised since 1997. I note the miserly acknowledgement of that from the Opposition education spokesman, Mr. Green. We have made dramatic improvements in achievement in all key stages since 1997. I shall return to key stage 2 later.
We also ensured that inclusion was at the forefront of early years provision and that access for adult learners was a success story. That calls for celebration. Indeed, I have joined in the celebration of those achievements in many secondary schools in my constituency. It is lamentable that the motion tabled by the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrat amendment made no mention of those achievements. Of course, if they had done so they would have had to recognise the Government's success and input.
Whenever politicians try to analyse and assess the impact of policies they should look to their own backyard—the constituencies that they represent. In Erewash, the improvements both in pupil performance and tangible resources have been extremely visible. We have a sure start programme for the early years. We have new teachers and teaching assistants and new classrooms. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, Ofsted said that the current generation of teachers was the best ever. I pay tribute to teachers in my constituency and beyond.
The improvement in the quality of head teachers has also been much more evident in my constituency. The quality of newly appointed heads is undeniable and it filters down into the performance of their school.
We have seen new classrooms, new roofs and refurbishment although, lamentably, with small security fences. There are two new schools on the block, one funded by the private finance initiative and the other via the public funding route. I welcome that.
Managing improvement is always challenging, however; there is always a job to be done. It is an evolving process. Those who are managing policy constantly need to innovate or supplement to solve the challenges. Key stage 2 is an example of that. My right hon. Friend mentioned the need constantly to re-evaluate. That is not to deny, however, that in the round key stage 2 has not been a success when we compare performance between 1997 and the present.
Since 1997, there has been a 10 per cent. improvement in English and a 14 per cent. improvement in maths. The literacy and numeracy strategies have played an enormous part in ensuring higher performances from pupils. However, that is not to say that we have not reached a plateau, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged.
The Tories ask why we have targets if we do not meet them. I argue that it is right to have targets and, when we do not quite reach them, to acknowledge it, as long as we are travelling in the right direction. We need targets to raise expectations; to set policies; to target resources; and to analyse what is happening. After that analysis, the professional course is to further the policies by setting new targets and refocusing existing policies to ensure that the missing aspects are put in place.
Given the fact that teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate—one in seven each year—and that the exam system is clearly in chaos, as well as the obvious disciplinary problems in too many of our schools, will the hon. Lady say exactly what she has in mind when she uses the word Xrefocusing"?
I was about to come on to that. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, teachers are moving into the profession at an extremely rapid rate and we have never had a better qualified and more professional group of teachers, as acknowledged by Ofsted. I will move on to discipline because the issue needs airing, but I should like to finish what I was saying about key stage 2.
One of the issues with key stage 2 is related to the differential between boys and girls, which partly relates to the way boys are socialised and partly to the way males and females develop their linguistic skills. That issue has been around for a long time, but we are at least beginning to tackle it. Support packages are now going into schools and catch-up programmes are being rolled out nationally for all year 5 pupils, which is absolutely right. So further literacy support is being given. The intention is to give further support to schools that do not perform as well as others that operate in similar catchment areas, to ensure that their pupils catch up by having access to the same quality of education as their peers in similar schools.
The Government cannot be complacent, as the Secretary of State has clearly signalled this afternoon, but progress never follows an even, upward line. There are blockages in the system. For me, the issue involves recognising those blockages and finding ways to solve them, not sweeping them under the carpet and saying that we have not got a problem.
When I was considering speaking about key stage 2 in this debate, a press release arrived on my desk, and I shall quote it to rebalance the picture slightly:
XNational test result for 11-year-olds have just been published by the Government and Derbyshire pupils have outperformed schools across the East Midlands and the rest of the country."
As I represent a Derbyshire constituency, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my local LEA.
Moving on to behaviour and exclusion, yes, there is a challenge in our schools—a challenge that a few pupils pose to teachers because of their unacceptable behaviour. I have always maintained that good teaching can eliminate poor behaviour from 90 per cent. of pupils. That quality of teaching draws pupils into a more positive attitude, works with them and moves them on to success. That is why we must continue to strive to improve the quality of teaching. I acknowledge that the quality of teaching is rising, as does the chief inspector of schools, but there is no doubt that children on the fringe of bad behaviour will not stray if they are given the right sort of high quality teaching.
That said, some children in our schools will demonstrate challenging and disturbed behaviour for whatever reason, and no matter how many strategies are tried, schools simply cannot move those children towards behaving acceptably. That damages everyone—the pupils themselves, the pupil cohort, the teachers and the reputation of the schools. That issue has to be addressed, but the question is how to do so.
There has been a lot of discussion this afternoon about the issue of the structure for permanent exclusion. In the first instance, it is the head's responsibility, and, in the second instance, it is the responsibility of the independent appeals panel. I agree with Chris Patten's justification for setting up the appeals panel in 1986, which was quoted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—parents must have an independent place to go to challenge a decision. That is an issue of natural justice, as he mentioned, and is related to the Human Rights Acts. There is also a place for the Secretary of State to comment on a decision that I, too, believe was profoundly wrong, as the guidance was not followed by the independent appeals panel. The structure and mechanisms of the system, however, have served us quite well since being set up in 1986. As has been flagged up, the guidance needs to be tougher and stronger and needs to make it extremely clear that the issue relates to the impact of such pupils on the school community. I therefore welcome the fact that one of the members of the independent appeals panel will be someone who has had direct experience in the classroom, which is essential.
I wanted to move on to the issue of the Conservative party's stance on this matter, but I must confess that I completely lost track of what Mr. Green was proposing this afternoon when he was making policy on the hoof. I had understood that the Conservatives' official policy was that there should be legal home-school contracts, which I think is a barmy idea—it is extremely bureaucratic, and there would be many legal challenges and resource implications for the school. It would be a plate of spaghetti—a complete nightmare. It is therefore far better to toughen up the present system, which has served us quite well, than to follow that route, which would be a knee-jerk reaction.
Before I finish on the issue of exclusions, we should also recognise the importance of dealing with and acknowledging the rights of children who are permanently excluded. I recall from my teaching days that there was nothing for them—it was very difficult to get them into other schools if they were very challenging, and they entered what I call the twilight zone. They never touched base with any educator whatever. They got into trouble and began to get involved in petty crime. There was nothing for them—not even a safety net. I praise the Government's commitment to and delivery of full-time education for those children, for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because their behaviour is not irreversible at that stage in their lives if we do not walk away from them, which the previous Government did and this Government have not done. I note the comment by the Office for Standards in Education that the education standards of permanently excluded pupils have sharply improved, which is absolutely right.
Truancy is part of the problem, and good teaching minimises it, but there are other reasons for truancy, not least parents condoning it. A multi-agency approach is important in that regard. It is important that parents are supported and that there are police on the streets who are part of the solution in terms of identifying truants. That is where community beat teams, which have been doing sterling work in my community, fit in. Ultimately, however, it is important to recognise that parents, too, have a responsibility. When they are not discharging their responsibility and not accepting the support for that responsibility, they should be challenged, and we should make greater use of parenting orders and fines.
I acknowledge my hon. Friend's point. The Chamber has indeed become rather sparsely populated.
I want to move on to other issues. I want to flag up another particularly good policy, which, again, relates to discipline, truancy and school performance—the idea of federations of schools and of taking good leaders who have a track record of turning schools around and making their talents available to others. We should take that forward swiftly. On the day that policy was announced, a head from Sheffield, I think, was wheeled out by Radio 4 to comment on it. He had turned around the culture in several schools that were now performing well. We need to encourage more good leaders to come into schools as heads, but at the same time, we need to use the people with the track record and the expertise who are already there.
I have concentrated on discipline, achievement and behaviour, but those are bread-and-butter issues. I am really disappointed that the Conservatives have virtually nothing positive to say about how they would move the agenda forward and raise achievement. I am equally disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have come forward with very little. We have the commitment and the track record in terms of pupil performance, but what really heartens me is that, when we have got it wrong, we have the honesty to say that we have got it wrong. It is not easy to move forward. When there are problems, we tackle them, and we say that there are problems. We consult and we try again to move the agenda forward. That is important. We are an open Government in that respect. By listening, and by recognising the issues, we have achieved a great deal in the last five years.
I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief, as I know that other Members want to speak.
The House will not be surprised to learn that my biggest concern in relation to this debate is the situation surrounding the school in my constituency; however, I also want to make several points about the predicament that many of the other head teachers in my area and around the country face in trying to maintain the improvements that have taken place under governments of both parties in the past 15 years.
It is important to remember that recent international surveys of educational performance in different countries—the most recent of which was carried out by the OECD a couple of years ago—highlighted the high quality of the education that our 15-year-olds receive. Those 15-year-olds have been educated under Conservative and Labour Governments. The reality is that, over that 15-year period, good work has been done across the political spectrum to raise standards, given that in the preceding era, teaching strategies in this country were broadly speaking not as good as they should have been.
The tragic thing today is that we risk losing many of the improvements that have taken place over that 15-year period. Ultimately, we risk losing them because the teaching profession is becoming demoralised and teachers are leaving their jobs. Good heads and good teachers are leaving, for a variety of reasons. At the heart of those reasons—this is backed up by specific research concerning those leaving the profession—is the issue of discipline. Sadly, although the vast majority of our young people are a credit to us—they work hard, achieve excellent exam results and go on to do an excellent job in our society—a minority continues to cause trouble in our schools. That minority continues to disrupt otherwise hard-working classes and to set an example to its peers that we would not wish to be set. We should have a system that backs up heads and teachers when they take difficult decisions about that troublesome minority. As we have seen in my constituency in the past few weeks, the tragedy is that such a system does not exist.
I feel very much for the predicament that the governors and teachers of Glyn school have faced. This is not the first time that they have had to face such a problem. Eighteen months ago, they decided to exclude a boy who was caught with drugs in the school. That decision was overturned by an appeal panel and it caused great distress in the school, not because of the principle of the individual case but because of the signal that it sent to every other pupil that they could get away with it. There is no ultimate sanction if pupils who are excluded can go to an appeal panel and be placed back in the same classroom with the same teachers who tried to discipline them in the first place. What message does that send to anyone tempted to cause trouble in future?
One can imagine the great distress caused to the head of the school, his governing body and the teaching staff when the same thing happened again 18 months later. The circumstances may have been different but, as outlined specifically in a letter from the Secretary of State, they were such that the decision to exclude should have had a rock-solid foundation. There should have been no doubt at all. There had been a clear indication from the Government that, this time, in taking a decision to exclude, the school and its governing body was right. One can imagine their distress when the decision was overturned and they were instructed to take the boys back into the school.
We have seen the rest of the story unfold in the media in the past few days. It is very much my hope that the media attention will die down and that the school, the LEA and the parents of the boys can sort the matter out. The school will then be able to return to normal. The boys will be able to continue their education, which they must have, in a different place, perhaps separated from each other, but in an environment in which they can be sorted out and placed on to the straight and narrow and achieve their potential without a further signal being sent to pupils in that and other schools that they can get away with such behaviour.
Fundamentally, however, we will still be left with a system that is flawed. The Prime Minister said this afternoon that only 3 per cent. of exclusions were overturned by appeals panels, but one third of appeals involve pupils being returned to schools from which they have been excluded. In one third of exclusion cases, a message is sent to the rest of the boys and girls in those schools that they can get away with bad behaviour. That is wrong. It is right and proper that every case is considered carefully, and I do not believe that any head teacher or governing body takes lightly the decision to exclude. I must correct Liz Blackman, who said that the decision is taken first by the head and then by the appeal panel. It is not. We have governing bodies that represent local authorities, teaching and non-teaching staff and other people in the community; who better to be the ultimate arbiter of whether a head teacher's decision is correct?
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the media taking a lower profile in this case, but it is one case, and most appeal panels do not overturn the decision taken by a school. Did the hon. Gentleman have anything to do with leaking the story to the press in the first place?
I did not leak anything to the press. I have been totally open in raising my concerns locally and nationally. I wrote to the Secretary of State at the very start to say that there was a concern that needed to be sorted out. The hon. Lady does my constituents discredit if she does not recognise the angst in my constituency and in the whole area about what has happened and if she does not realise the extent of the debate that has taken place locally. It does not take anyone to leak a story like that to the media: it gathered momentum from the beginning, because of the genuine frustration that exists.
We must have a system that reflects the needs of schools, head teachers and governing bodies to maintain discipline. The Government must come up with a viable alternative, and I urge them to so because the need exists today.
Having been the chair of governors of a secondary school for 12 years, I sympathise with the school governors in this case. This afternoon, the Leader of the Opposition called for the abolition of the appeal panels, but the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Government should come up with a new system. When will we hear the hon. Gentleman's or the Conservative party's solution to the problem?
There is no difference. I fundamentally believe, as does the Conservative party, including my hon. Friend Mr. Green—he set this out at our party conference—that the ultimate decision must rest with the governing body. The governing body and the community that it represents must be the final arbiter.
Let us consider the consequences of getting things wrong. [Interruption.] It is all well and good Labour Members trying to score points across the Floor of the House. They do not seem to understand the importance of this issue. [Interruption.] The Minister for School Standards may chuckle, but does he not realise the strength of feeling in the teaching profession? Does he not talk to those head teachers who strongly believe that the current system is letting them down? Does he not read the surveys of teachers leaving the profession? As I said, in the last year for which we have figures available, 15.8 per cent. of teachers resigned from the profession. Some 85.2 per cent. referred to getting out of teaching and some 45 per cent. referred to pupil behaviour as a key reason for their decision to leave. Has the Minister really not understood the importance of this issue? Can he not get to grips with it and give head teachers a framework within which they can work that is fair and just and protects the interests of their schools?
Labour Members are a little confused about the system that Mr. Green described earlier, in which LEAs would have a role in the appeals system. That is in contradistinction to the system that we have now. Will Chris Grayling therefore explain how that would have worked in the case of the two pupils at Glyn technology school?
I did not come here to engage in a prolonged discussion about Conservative policy. I want action from the Ministers who have the job today and whose responsibility it is to sort out problems such as those experienced in my constituency. They have not done and are not doing enough. I hope that they will soon do enough to ensure that such a case cannot recur.
This case is only one problem. We have also had the A-level fiasco, and Epsom college in my constituency was one of the schools caught up in that. The Government also appear actively to encourage higher education institutions to accept pupils with lower attainments than those achieved by pupils in other schools. I highlight the case of a young lady from Epsom college who achieved very good A-level results but who was turned down for a place at a university that had offered places to pupils with significantly lower attainments. That cannot be right. We will not help to achieve excellence in society if we force down the achievements of those at the top of the pile so as to promote those who need help but who should not be pushed to the top for no good reason.
If the problems are not solved and if the Government cannot deliver a fairer framework and provide better practical support to heads and teachers, they will leave the profession. The plateau that we have mentioned today will be there tomorrow, the day after, the year after and the year after that. It is all well and good Labour Members citing all the so-called achievements of the past five years, but if they talk to teachers and head teachers, they will find that there is a crisis of credibility in the current system. If the Government do not address that crisis and provide the real solutions that keep the best and most experienced teachers in the profession, the improvements that have taken place in recent years under all Governments will not be able to continue.
In the summer I spent a weekend at a game park in a faraway land. When a person visits a game park, he hopes to see the kill and have a sense of blood. As a new MP I have been waiting for the lions to devour the carcase of the downed Front Bencher. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed. The other part of the equation in a game park is the heat of the midday sun when mad dogs and Englishmen go out. That is when the jackal appears. It runs around but does not make a kill. Instead, it scavenges for berries and insects. There are a lot of jackals here today, desperately looking around for the odd—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman took us on a tour of Africa and now we are off to the coalfields. Surely the subject of the debate is education.
On coalfields and education, for the past 80 years, mining villages—now mainly former mining villages—in my constituency have not been well served by successive Governments when it comes to education. For decade on decade, the grammar school debate has had little relevance to them, other than in relation to secondary moderns, which the overwhelming majority of children from pit villages attended. During that period the children in schools in my constituency were described as pit fodder because on the Friday on which they were leaving school at the age of 15—eventually it became 16—the National Coal Board turned up and told them which pit they were working in on the Monday. Whether they liked it or not, they went into the pit.
The legacy of that is twofold. In our surgeries we see the level of illiteracy among the older population. Scores of retired miners who come to see me with compensation claims for industrial injuries caused by working down the pit cannot read or write. They bring the wife, the son or the daughter with them because, although they will not admit it, they cannot fill in the forms to get the compensation themselves. That is the norm rather than the exception.
However, the problem of lack of aspiration is even more terrifying. I spent most of September holding a public inquiry into heroin use in coalfield communities. Until the pits shut, those communities had a cohesion and a discipline that held them together. To put it crudely, problems of discipline were sorted out beneath the ground. The pits are not open now but the communities still exist and, since the decimation of the pits in the 1980s and early 1990s, they have struggled to cope. The level of heroin addiction among younger people from those villages in my constituency leaves me incredulous. Some of them started using drugs in the early 1990s at the age of nine, 10 or 11. Five of them died this year. The one permanent institution is the school. I am not prepared to tolerate for those children —from this or any other Government—anything less than I expect for my children.
My children go to and have gone to local state schools. That is my experience of education today. I can see improvements year on year, as can the majority of hon. Members, especially Labour Members. In addition to the results and the figures, we can witness the improvement. We can feel it and understand the difference today. I go to schools all the time. I take classes in secondary schools and talk to primary schools constantly, as I am sure do most of my colleagues. We find that teachers, head teachers and governors no longer have the problem of resources.
Let me give an example. Since Labour came to power, there have been 10 exclusions from Bircotes school in one of the big pit villages. The head teacher excluded pupils because he wanted to turn that failing school into one in which the community could take pride. He told me that the biggest difference was the #300,000 that was spent on the flat roof. The advantage of that was more fundamental than the saving in recurrent maintenance costs, which was substantial and detracted from other uses for the money; it also meant that his time as a head teacher could be used differently. Should his time be spent patching up 30-year-old flat roofs that should never have been built like that in the first place, or should it be spent on building standards in schools? That is the big difference.
Let me also give the example of New Manton primary school, which used to be called Manton primary school, and tell the House something about exclusions. The Government have made a bigger difference to primary schools than to anything else. The late Matthew Wilson—he died earlier this year when he was 19 years old—was in the headlines when he was five or six because the teachers went on strike when the governors would not exclude him. That school excluded someone three weeks ago.
The school is called New Manton because #1 million has been spent on it in the past six months. It has been rebuilt. That is the sort of change that we need if we are to raise aspirations among those children. For 80 years they have been told their place in society. They have been told where to go, and it did not matter whether it was a secondary modern or a comprehensive. They have been told where they would be for the rest of their lives. That does not create aspiration. When the jobs and the job security go, a time bomb ticks away that encourages a lifestyle of truancy, absenteeism and experimentation with drugs, especially heroin. I assure Ministers that when I publish our report on Monday, I will deliver a copy to the Department for Education and Skills. It makes four recommendations on the national curriculum and on how we create aspiration in schools in such communities.
The debate should be about how we further that process and extend to other schools the gains made at Knights Templar school, which my eldest daughter attended until the election. We need to translate the successes at brilliant schools to schools that are slowly beginning to be successful so that that success is replicated in every corner of the country. I congratulate Mr. Heald on a considered and relevant speech, but to people living in my constituency—and to those who went before them—it is a disgrace to hear the nonsense and rubbish that we have heard from the jackals at play. 6.19 pm
Indeed I am, but this is not a Liberal Democrat Opposition day. It is perhaps significant that the Leader of the Opposition today made a remark that some Conservative Members may be embarrassed about.
Earlier, a Conservative Member criticised comprehensives. I should like to start on a note of personal gratitude to the state school system. The last of my three children has just left school. All my children were educated entirely in the state system, and they got a great deal out of it. I know that many of their colleagues and friends also had a very good education in the state system. As people tell me is unmistakeable from my accent, and as you can probably tell, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am not a product of the state system. Mr. Skinner never ceases to remind me of that fact whenever I speak in the House. Nevertheless, I feel, for a number of reasons, that my children have had a much better education than most children who go through the independent system now. They have emerged with a lot more knowledge of the world and a better understanding of how normal people live. They have certainly had excellent teaching throughout their school careers.
I realise that that is not true of the state system in every part of the country. It happens that in my part of the world, west Berkshire, we have an excellent state system. I would have been happy to send my children to any of the schools in west Berkshire, and I am delighted that our system is so good.
I apologise to hon. Members but I have been asked to keep my speech short, so I have said that I will take no interventions. I am not trying to be rude; I know that a number of other Members want to speak, so I must do without interventions today.
There are undoubtedly problems in the state system, some of which have been highlighted today. I turn first to the A-levels fiasco. I certainly do not agree with the phrase used by the Leader of the Opposition earlier today when he said that this year's A-levels are not worth the paper that they were written on. I regard that as an appalling slur on the students who have taken A-levels and, in many cases, gained grades that are fully justified and of which they can be proud. They will feel that those grades have been maligned by the right hon. Gentleman's remark. It is interesting that when Mr. Green was challenged to confirm that he agreed with his leader, he failed to do so. Indeed, he refused to do so and seemed rather embarrassed by the remark. Perhaps he wishes that the quiet man of politics had been a bit quieter or shut up altogether.
The remarks of Mr. Heald were very interesting, and I am pleased to see that he is still here. His remarks were to the point, and he asked a series of questions to which I hope the Minister will properly respond. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is not the only one who has come across cases of the sort that he mentioned. Obviously, because I have children who have friends in different schools around the country, I have heard of various cases in which young people have had A-level papers marked with very different grades, in spite of the fact they have the same level of intelligence and received the same teaching.
That is inexplicable, particularly when, as happened in at least one case that I know of but not in the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the papers were returned and the teachers confirmed that it was extraordinary that one paper should have been marked with a U when the others received a much higher grade. There seemed to be no difference in the standard of the papers. Either the paper had been completely mis-marked or there had been a misunderstanding about what was required. I suspect that the Government will tell us that the teachers and pupils in such cases simply did not understand what was required in particular A2 papers this year. If so, surely the Government should be criticised for utterly failing to pilot the A2 stage and make sure that it was understood in good time.
The whole fiasco has had a further effect on the universities. We know that not many papers were re-graded and not many students will have to move university, finding that they had the right to go to their first choice after having decided that they must go to their second choice. However, there is a large number of young people who were left wondering which university they would be able to attend. When it became clear that a number of papers would be re-graded, they were left hanging, trying to decide whether they should take up their place at their second choice of university or wait in case they could go to their first choice.
As we know, a number decided at the last minute not to go up to university at all this year but to put off their course and take a gap year. I hope that the Minister will tell the House whether he is researching how many unfilled university places there are as a result of students having decided at the last minute not to take them up. Sadly, many will not have got the re-grading that they needed, but even so they may have decided to give up for this year and left places unfilled. I understand that the Government have guaranteed that they will pay the extra costs caused by those students who decide to move university, but will they pay the universities for the cost of any unfilled places resulting from the fiasco that they caused? How many such places will there be? Will that cause a bulge next year when those pupils will want to find a place?
I want to make a further quick criticism of the Government that concerns the intolerable delay in making decisions about the new system of student finance, and I am delighted to see the relevant Minister, the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, in her place. That delay is making life very difficult for those who are trying to decide when and where to go to university next year, and I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will give an absolute guarantee that the new system will be in place not just before the new university year starts but before students have to make those decisions. Knowledge of what the financial package will be is a critical part of that decision.
There is much excellence in our schools, colleges and universities at present. There are some excellent teachers, head teachers, governors and LEAs, but sadly they are too often let down by too much testing and too little teaching. When the testing proves flawed, as has happened this year, we get the worst of both worlds. For that at least the Government ought to be held responsible, and they ought to take responsibility tonight.
My constituency is much like that of my hon. Friend John Mann: a collection of satellite communities, including mining villages and rural areas, in this case around Doncaster. He was right to say that young men would come out of school at 15 and be sent down the pit. Young women had nowhere else to go, and like men they suffered from the lack of aspiration. There were generations about whom Governments could say, XThey don't need an education. They can work in steel, in mining, on the roads or in other manual jobs." They rejected those people, and that is why today significant numbers of older people cannot read or write.
What we know today is that children's expectations are not those of their grandparents, and that those jobs have enormously declined. Even to do manual work for local authorities, such as that done by carpenters, electricians, plumbers and plasterers, one needs to know how to read and write so that one can organise the work. It is no longer enough to have the manual skills to do the job; one needs to be able to use a computer.
Future generations—and the kids going through school at the moment—face a major and difficult challenge. In mining areas, like many others that depended on heavy industries and manual labour, we are having to challenge some of the ideas of grandparents and parents and, to be honest, of some of those who work in education and support it in our local authorities. I say that as a Labour Member of Parliament from a Labour area.
I remember only a few years ago being in one of the primary schools in my constituency where this Government had provided funds to create a computer learning centre. A new classroom was developed, software and hardware was installed and the kids were there; it was a great day. The head teacher whispered in my ear, XOf course, these kids won't need this." I am pleased that everything that this Government have done has challenged inequality and the idea that a child born in poverty will never have the chance to take GCSEs and A-levels and go to university. That idea was accepted for too long. During 18 years in government, the Conservative party did nothing to tackle such discrimination and inequality.
Several attacks have been made today on this Government's policies, but the Opposition Front-Bench teams have not suggested how they would turn round the situation or where they would find the money to improve things. We know from the Conservative party conference that the Tories would like to introduce legal home-school contracts. This Government introduced such agreements. Incidentally, before they did so, my children's primary school already had them. Good head teachers saw contracts as a carrot not a stick with which to develop a dialogue with parents on their children entering school. Not only did I and the head teacher sign a home-school contract, my child did as well. That was part of creating a dialogue early on, which is right. The Conservatives opposed home-school agreements when this Government suggested them and accused the Government of being too bureaucratic. Now they want to turn what is a very good way to start communication with parents and families into a legal minefield.
The Conservatives are also interested in vouchers. We all remember the nursery vouchers. They did nothing to improve early-years education or standards in the sector, yet the Conservatives now want to introduce such a system for schools too. They want to give a parent a voucher who would then on their tod find a school for their child. It would be a little like XSupermarket Sweep". The system is flawed, as shown by the introduction of nursery vouchers. Not even Margaret Thatcher or Keith Joseph suggested introducing vouchers for schools, but the new Thatcherites of today want to do so.
Such a system does not in any way recognise the different needs and challenges of each community. It has nothing to do with education for the many. It would promote education for the few who feel able to articulate their children's needs and find a school suitable. It has nothing to do with people wanting to go to a school in their community that meets the standards that they require for their children. It has nothing to do with dealing with truancy or disaffection.
As many of my hon. Friends have said this afternoon, some of the problems in our communities require that schools are integral to the communities and projects on the ground. As someone who sits on the board of a sure start scheme, I know that such schemes are a good example of trying to work with families and schools before children attend school. In order to help schools, my sure start board has funded staff to conduct home-school liaison before children start nursery school.
Such partnership is about creating a community and recognising that most kids spend most of their time outside school. It is about what affects them on their walk to school or in the home. It is about addressing their aspirations and poverty in the community around them. That is why Connexions, sure start and multi-agency work is so important. That is why I am pleased that the most recent education legislation considers giving schools more of a role in developing more on-site wrap-around services—child care, adult learning clubs or whatever—and allowing them the freedom to develop the services with the community that are so desperately needed.
A-levels have been the subject of much of the debate. I do not want to repeat what others have said, but I would like to say this: there was never a golden era when A-levels were not criticised. When I took my O-levels and A-levels, the criticism was that students had just one shot. If they did not perform on that day at that time in that examination, that was it. It did not matter if someone had terrible hay fever that affected their performance or what issues they had brought from home. I remember fellow students feeling that they had done so much work over two years yet none of it had been recorded or appreciated.
There was a debate over why girls were not doing as well as boys, and the old argument that boys could cram things in on the day. There were accusations about cramming and students not getting a learning experience. That is partly why we moved to a system that offered some continual assessment as well as some measure of performance under examination conditions. That is right. That does not mean that there are not issues over striking the right balance, but let us not try to return to what I do not think were the good old days. Is it a bad thing to record as a result of continual assessment young people's progress over the two-year course—GCSEs or A-levels—and their consistent attainment? If the system means that more people get their GCSEs and A-levels, what is wrong with that? Such a system is a truer record of a young person's performance.
We have a real challenge ahead of us. The comprehensive system must be looked at. We must consider how specialist schools should work. I have been a very strong advocate in this House of 14-plus education and the vocational element to it. We must ensure that that works. We must have an education system that tackles the things that do not work but at the same time recognises that, unless we put resources in, we will not be able to change anything.
What outsiders find puzzling about politics is how a debate that embraces a wide number of subjects and in which all Members are interested becomes so polarised. Those on one side make it clear that, as far as they are concerned, the starting date for everything wonderful about the education system happens to be 1997, and that nothing of any value occurred before then. Everybody in the real world understands that the process of government is continuous. All Governments do good things and less good things. The Labour Government have done some good things and less good things, and the same is true of previous Conservative Governments.
Obviously, an Opposition day debate puts into sharp focus the things that might be wrong. That is the purpose of opposition, but the point of the debate is not to denigrate everything in the education system but to focus criticism properly where it might be made. Some Labour Members have tended to take a blinkered view that there is only one starting date and that only one party cares about a particular topic. That runs counter to the intelligence of the population, who know that that is not true and that it is not the way to go about things.
As for criticising aspects of new Conservative policy, Caroline Flint and her colleagues might remember that some of the things that we had in our policy ideas box a few years ago are now the policy of the Labour party and the Labour Government. I enjoyed Prime Minister's Question Time today, at which the Prime Minister teased my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about completing the Thatcher revolution, when many members of the right hon. Gentleman's own party believe that he knows more about completing the Thatcher revolution than anyone on the Opposition Benches.
I shall concentrate my remarks on the concern about examinations expressed in the Opposition motion. Three aspects cause me particular concern. I am puzzled about why the fuss about improvement—the higher quality of students and their grades—arose in the first place. I am concerned about the Government's role in understanding that the structure of the new examination would lead to problems. Finally, I am worried about the reasons why there should be any perception of Government interference in the process.
First, I am puzzled about why, when it emerged that A-level grades would be better than in the past, there was such an extraordinary panic among the Government and the examination boards. As Mr. Willis made clear, the whole structure of the examination was designed so that hard-working pupils would achieve better grades. First, they were taking a public examination at the end of the first year of the sixth form, which had not previously taken place; secondly, the way in which the examination was structured and the modules introduced ensured that those who worked hard could count on reaching a basic standard, and that a significant improvement in grades was highly likely.
I should have thought that a Government who always castigate Opposition parties if they raise a scintilla of doubt about grade inflation would have spent the summer preparing the British public for a significant improvement in A-level grades and explaining precisely how that improvement, which I find entirely understandable, had come about. At what stage did someone suddenly think that it was a problem? I cannot understand that. The examination was set up and people worked harder, so grades should have been better—but at some stage somebody panicked. Why? We have never had a clear explanation.
The second source of my puzzlement and concern is how the Government could have known nothing about the way in which the very nature and structure of the examination would lead to higher grades and cause some of the problems on which Mike Tomlinson reported. How did they not know that that was going on? That is the most significant challenge facing the Government tonight.
The House debates many issues that affect people's lives only tangentially, but occasionally we do things that affect people on a personal level for the rest of their lives. In his eloquent and excellent speech, my hon. Friend Mr. Heald described the personal difficulties affecting some of his constituents that will mark them for life. When a great principle goes wrong, the bottom line is that people are damaged. The Government cannot and should not walk away from their responsibility for that, and they will not do so. We have had only the first major report and this is only the first Commons debate, but there will be more, because the Government are responsible for real damage on this occasion.
First, how did the original intention behind the AS-level system—to broaden the post-16 curriculum and to have five subjects going down to three—get lost, so that it became four subjects going down to three? There is not much broadening in that. Was the upheaval really necessary if we were to have only four, not five, subjects initially? How did that come about? Who took that decision?
Secondly, the recommendation was that the relative weighting of AS and A2 should be 40:60, to acknowledge the fact that the first year examination must necessarily be easier because students had had only one year of study. Who took the decision to make the weighting 50:50? Name the Minister who took that decision and explain the reasoning that led to their failure to understand that that would cause the very inflation about which the Government are now concerned. Was it a wise decision, who took it, and why was the original 40:60 recommendation turned down?
Thirdly, there is the issue of where the grade boundaries should be set and the grades defined. As Mike Tomlinson reports, the system contains no definition of what constitutes an A-grade, a C-grade or an E-grade. How did that come about? Who failed to spot the omission? Which Minister was responsible? The QCA is not an independent organisation: it is accountable, not to Parliament, but to the Department for Education and Skills. How is it that throughout the years of development, the problem was not spotted?
Is it true that at a relatively early stage, in 1998 or 1999, meetings took place between Government advisers and representatives of the QCA—meetings at which senior officials from the DFES were present—during which the deficiencies in structure were brought out? If it is true, why were the problems not communicated to Ministers? Did they not know? Why did they not take responsibility?
Can Ministers explain how a school that knows what it is doing—of which there are thousands throughout the country— can produce a pupil who works hard and gets an A-grade on an examination, but receives a U-grade on a piece of coursework? How is that possible? We have had no explanation so far. We have raised all those issues, but received no answers—certainly not from the Secretary of State, who hardly mentioned the examinations issue.
The third source of puzzlement is the perception of what the Government wanted and the suspicion of interference. Could it be that in education, as in every other sphere of public service, nothing in this country moves unless the Government know all about it; and when things go their way, they claim credit, but when something goes wrong, their hands are snatched away as though they had had a collective electric shock, and it is all somebody else's fault? I can provide examples of that. We have not gone into the individual learning accounts scandal today, although the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned it and we could have explored it. A system was set up to help people to get back into the world of education, but they were let down because of chronic Government failure, for which Ministers have never taken responsibility.
When the Government manipulate access to university as they have been doing, is it any wonder that people suspect they might be guilty of manipulating the examination system as well? I agree with Mike Tomlinson that there is no evidence of direct ministerial interference, but everyone in the Chamber and outside can understand how such a perception might arise, given the fact of an interfering, manipulative, centralising, authoritarian, bullying Government. That is what the Government are, and that is why, when something goes wrong, people outside suspect that the Government had a hand in it.
If we are to move on, we have to recognise that the Government are at fault and Ministers have to acknowledge that. They have to explain how they knew nothing until we reached the current stage. They have to answer the questions that thousands of school pupils and their teachers are asking about how the individual who should be responsible can pass on that responsibility to others.
If we want to find a way out of the uncertainty and translate the good things that happen in some schools to schools throughout the country—as we all do, without exception and regardless of party—the one thing that is needed is certainty in the system. The Government are guilty of having failed the public: they have introduced uncertainty into the examination system, which has been thoroughly damaging to the chances of hundreds of thousands of this country's students. What is needed to restore that certainty are an independent inquiry into the examination system—including GCSEs as well as A-levels—and an independent QCA. If we can achieve those things, we might rescue something from the mess.
Finally, I want the Government to answer this question: if the boards' perception was that somebody somewhere wanted grades to be lowered, how did that perception come about? How was it communicated to them, or did they just make it up? How did Bill Stubbs come to perceive that the marks that pupils had worked hard to achieve and which the examinations had been constructed to create were wrong and had to be lowered? Was it the fairies, or did somebody somewhere give the boards a real sense that that had to be done? Bearing in mind the Government's track record, most of us know the answer.
I am pleased to follow Alistair Burt, for whom I have had respect for many years. My respect has been greatly enhanced in the past few minutes. The hon. Gentleman told us that the Opposition care about education. This is an Opposition day debate, but most Opposition Members have been playing truant: for most of the time, hardly one sixth of a primary school class has been sitting on the Opposition Benches—and this is their own debate.
The debate has, of course, nothing to do with education: it is all about trying to exploit the discomfort of A-level students. That strategy was revealed and undermined this afternoon when the Leader of the Opposition told all A-level students that, despite their hard work, their A-levels were not worth the paper on which they were written. That is shameful. I hope that in the last few minutes of the debate an Opposition Front Bencher will apologise to A-level students in my constituency and elsewhere for what the right hon. Gentleman said, and will say that he did not mean it and that he withdraws his statement. I do not expect that we will hear that apology.
The opening remarks of the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, Mr. Green, were presented to us without him being able to tell us of the changed achievements of 11-year-olds between when the Government took office and now. I shall put the changes on the record. The percentage of pupils achieving the expected level 4 in English at the age of 11 rose from 63 per cent. in 1997 to 75 per cent. last year. It rose from 62 per cent. to 71 per cent. in maths and from 69 per cent. to 87 per cent. in science. I am proud of what pupils, teachers, governors and parents have achieved. I am proud also of the Government's part in that.
There is still much more to do, but when I became a Member about five years ago primary schools in my constituency were operating with broken windows, leaking roofs, very few books and no IT equipment—rotten conditions in which children were supposed to learn and in which teachers were supposed to teach. I am proud that we have been able to do something about that.
I ask my hon. Friend to forgive me. We are very short of time, so I cannot take interventions.
An important part of the improvement that we have achieved is reform, but we have also been able to put more resources into education. As has been said, the resources that have been made available have lubricated the necessary changes. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the announcement this week that Gravesham will be included as one of 13 excellence clusters, which will mean extra resources and extra investment for schools in some of the most deprived parts of my constituency.
Kent county council recently announced that it has been able to make use of the extra education resources to open nine new nurseries, which is eight more than we had before. That should be a cause for celebration, so I was a little surprised to find primary head teachers in my constituency slightly down in the mouth when I met them a few days ago. They had recently had a presentation from Kent county council, which is Conservative controlled, although I am sure that that has nothing to do with what I am about to say. The presentation informed them that, despite the 6 per cent. increase in education spending to 2005–06, there will be a loss to schools in Kent of 8 per cent.—#40 million over the medium term. That is equivalent of the closure of every school in my constituency, and an inability to meet basic standards.
I have the presentation that was made by an officer of Kent county council. I shall circulate it to every head teacher in my constituency. I hope that the Department will ensure that it goes to every head teacher in Kent. The letter that I and other Members received from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on
Xwill lose out in real terms as a result of introducing the new system."
That refers to the new local government finance system. The letter continues:
XThis protection of the funding assessment will be in addition to the protection offered by the proposed continued operation of grant floors and ceilings."
It is disappointing that, despite this being an Opposition day debate on education, we have not heard any positive proposals from the Opposition. They have attempted only to criticise what the Government have achieved, often in difficult circumstances, over five years. They have made no attempt to congratulate students on what they achieved through hard work. To tell young people that their qualifications are not worth the paper on which they are written is shameful. I hope that Opposition Members will take their last opportunity in the debate to pay tribute to those young people and perhaps to give some credit for what has been achieved in education.
I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to contribute to the debate, which has been interesting, not least because of Labour Members' desire to steer well away from any justification of the Government's activities and of the conduct of the Department, which is the subject of the debate and on which I shall focus. Happily, there will be other opportunities to discuss how Conservative policy will be able to contribute to an increase in standards in schools.
As for the conduct of the Department, I shall refer briefly to three issues, each of which has the same characteristics—namely, that Ministers are responsible for their decisions. They should have known that problems were occurring: indeed, they were warned that problems would occur. Over the summer—this is the second day after the conclusion of the summer recess—the chickens came home to roost, yet Ministers will not take responsibility for what occurred.
During the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Green I had the opportunity to refer to the difficulties associated with the Criminal Records Bureau. Ministers knew that there had been problems virtually since the beginning of the programme in February. They had been warned. In July, Home Office Ministers said that teachers would have access to list 1999 and that there would not be a problem. They said that if timetables were met, there would not be a backlog by the end of the summer, but they failed. It was their responsibility, having introduced the system. I declare an interest because I was a member of the Committee that considered the Protection of Children Bill. Ministers knew that they had to get right an important issue. They delayed the introduction of the system so as to get it right, but they failed to do so.
My right hon. and hon. Friends have been saying clearly for more than three years that schools should make decisions on the merits of a pupil's exclusion, and that the final decision should rest with the school. Action should then be taken outside the school through the improvement of pupil referral units, or progress centres. That would ensure that discipline and decisions made in schools were defended. It would restore an ethos within schools and remove one of the reasons why teachers find it increasingly difficult to teach and to maintain discipline.
Some of my constituents work at the OCR. The Secretary of State has sought to rely on the Tomlinson report but to take account only of its second half. She says that there is no documentary evidence of Ministers having any responsibility for creating a perception that grade boundaries should be redefined to secure a particular statistical outcome for the 2001 results. The front end of the report, however, is all about the policy decisions that have been taken. I shall not rehearse those decisions in detail as they were mentioned by Mr. Willis and by my hon. Friend Alistair Burt. Ministers decided that although the content of the AS course made up 40 per cent. of the demands placed upon students, 50 per cent. of the marks would be available for it. Ministers decided that it would be the subject of retakes. That meant, as Tomlinson said, that within the design of the system, it was implied that there would be higher grades than would have been the case in the legacy A-level.
As Mr. Rendel made clear, Ministers decided to proceed with A2 without piloting and with limited piloting for AS- levels, and Mr. Tomlinson could find no justification for proceeding without proper piloting of the A2-levels. Nevertheless, those decisions were made. It is clear that the exam boards were unable to find any common standard or any mechanism by which to aggregate the results from different years, with different demands placed upon students, in order to produce one result. They were told that they should try to make that statistically more consistent with the previous year's A-level results, with no mechanism for doing that. The QCA did not give them one.
More than a year ago, as I said in the course of the speech from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, given the problems that had emerged in relation to the AS-level, the Secretary of State, whom I am pleased to see in her place to hear the debate, said that she would take responsibility for seeing that the reforms would go through in a way that would secure the A-levels as a crucial benchmark of quality. More than a year later, we find that that did not happen. The examination boards had no mechanism established through the QCA to aggregate results in a form that would relate directly the standards from the legacy A-level to the standard set in the new A-level.
It was to have been a new base year, but by some mechanism—as yet we do not know precisely how it happened—the QCA was encouraging the examination boards to treat the two as though they were precisely the same, when in practice they were different examinations, with different structures, imposing different demands at different stages of the sixth form period. It should have been acknowledged as a new base year, but it was not. The Secretary of State took responsibility more than a year ago for delivering those reforms and making sure that the Department would get them right. They went wrong, as other things went wrong, and the Secretary of State has failed to take responsibility for them today.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley, who made an excellent speech, as is typical of him. He reminded the House that in all the current crises in education, Ministers were warned; Ministers had notice before they happened. They were warned that the way in which they introduced AS-levels and the new sixth form curriculum would cause problems. They proceeded regardless. They were warned that the Criminal Records Bureau could not complete the checks in time for schools to open at the beginning of the school term, and they failed to take action. On all the key issues in education, Ministers have had adequate warning, but their response has been less than adequate.
Opening the debate, my hon. Friend Mr. Green referred to the measure of the Government being intervention without substance, and he prayed in aid the Minister for School Standards, who used the wonderful metaphor of the doughnut—the education policy with a hole in the centre, even though it has a lot of icing on top. It was a brilliant metaphor, if I may say so, and the hon. Gentleman should take full credit for it. It says everything that it is necessary to say about the Government's approach to education.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford went on to speak about the fiasco of the Criminal Records Bureau checks, and the fact that 100 people had been wrongly accused by the Criminal Records Bureau and thousands are stuck in the system. Even more worryingly, perhaps, there has been no common sense and no consistency in the way in which the Government have dealt with that crisis. There was advice from the Secretary of State one day and contrary advice the next. Schools were left for an unacceptably long period not knowing which way to turn. Ultimately, they were left to make their own decisions and to risk the consequences.
The Minister for School Standards confirmed to me in a written answer today that no guidance was given to the Criminal Records Bureau about the way in which people who have an unbroken record as teachers should be treated. There was no differentiation between those who were applying new, those who had no record of good service in our schools, and those who did have such a record. That, again, was an appalling breach of common sense.
In the debate we heard about the Government's record on truancy and the fact that another target had been missed. Truancy was meant to go down, but it has gone up. We heard about the Government failing to meet their primary school targets. We heard even from the Secretary of State that she stands by the targets, but I think she said that she had no idea how she would reach them. She thought that they were worth while in themselves, but she had no practical suggestions as to how we would move away from the plateau which she accepted we had reached.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he agrees with the statement this afternoon by the leader of his party that A-levels are not worth the paper that they are written on?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has bothered to drag himself into the Chamber at this late stage of an education debate to read out a script from his Whips Office. He has done it perfectly well, but what he needs to address, what Ministers need to address, and what the Secretary of State signally failed to deal with earlier is the A-level crisis into which the Government have plunged the country. What he has failed to deal with, what the Secretary of State has failed to deal with—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that even at this late stage, Labour Members and Ministers will begin to address seriously the crisis facing tens of thousands of young people in our country. Hon. Members are trying to make silly politics out of a situation that has been created entirely by Ministers.
Mr. Tomlinson, the author of the Tomlinson report, said today:
XAfter a month of inquiries, I still don't know what the standard ought to be. It is worrying that we have an examination system where the standards have not been adequately defined for examiners, teachers and pupils."
That is what Mr. Campbell should be addressing, that is what the Secretary of State failed to address at the beginning of the debate, and that is the shameful record that Ministers ought to be defending.
We heard from the Secretary of State a shockingly complacent catalogue. She believes, apparently, that in the years since she has been a Minister in the Education Department, we have had nothing but success. At a time when we have had a catalogue of errors, crises and mistakes directly attributable to Ministers, she believes that nothing has ever gone wrong. All she is doing today is trying to throw up a smokescreen. On exclusions, she said at the beginning of the debate,XMy views are clear that schools must have the choice". I, on the other hand, have been entirely consistent, as have my right hon. and hon. Friends.
No. The hon. Lady should listen. Having served, as I did, as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, she should know something about the subject. If she, like the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister earlier today, does not understand what the Government have done in relation to exclusions, she should listen.
The Secretary of State referred to the new guidance that has been introduced for appeals panels. She said nothing about the guidance that was introduced in 1999—the guidance that stated that schools must not exclude pupils under any circumstances until a variety of prior alternative strategies have been tried. That guidance said prior alternative strategies must be tried in respect of teachers who were assaulted or threatened, and the Secretary of State was a Minister in the Department for Education and Skills when it was introduced.
The Prime Minister said earlier that independent appeals panels were introduced in 1987 by the then Conservative Government. That is true, but let us consider the facts. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State must start to get a grip and take some responsibility, as her fingerprints are on all these issues, going back to 1997. She has had a ministerial role in the Department for Education and Skills as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, a Minister of State and Secretary of State. She was a Minister in 1998 when the new Labour Government gave new powers to the appeals panels to reinstate excluded children. For the first time, those decisions were binding on all parties involved.
The relevant measures can be found in section 67 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. The Secretary of State and I both served on the Standing Committee that considered the measures, which I am sure are currently her bedtime reading; indeed, I imagine that that is one of the reasons why she has sleepless nights. Section 67(1) states:
XA local education authority shall make arrangements for enabling the relevant person to appeal against any decision of the governing body under section 66 not to reinstate a pupil".
Subsection (3) states:
XThe decision of an appeal panel on an appeal pursuant to arrangements made under subsection (1) shall be binding on the relevant person, the governing body".
The Government made appeal panel findings binding. Last week, when the Secretary of State bungled into the circumstances surrounding the exclusions at Glyn school, she did not know the law and made a huge mess as a result.
The hon. Gentleman has been present for some of the debate, for which I give him credit, but he does not appear to have gained much from the experience. [Hon. Members: XThat's not surprising."] Opposition Members can say that, but I imagine that the hon. Members for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) have different views, although they may have failed to enlighten their colleagues in their contributions.
The hon. Gentleman may recall that we served on the Select Committee on Education and Employment when it produced a report on disaffection. Does he agree with the Committee's finding—and there was consensus throughout the Committee—that unnecessary exclusions could be avoided if schools intervened earlier and used different strategies in relation to disruptive behaviour?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has made such a sensible point. Of course, nobody wants schools to resort to exclusion where it is unnecessary. On the Glyn school, however, in relation to which the Secretary of State ventured to express the view that pupils should not be excluded, we are considering a case in which it is necessary to exclude and inappropriate to require the school to readmit pupils. None the less, we agree that early intervention is right and she makes an entirely sensible point.
I have taken a lot of interventions and I should like to make a little more headway, as we do not have much time.
Mr. Foster also contributed to the debate. He is a man for whom I have enormous affection and a very high regard. In the past five years or so, he has perhaps made more contributions that have been a slight irritant to those on his Front Bench than entirely helpful and supportive ones. The fact that he came to the Chamber to make a speech that was entirely an apology for the Government's record demonstrates the depth of the hole into which he thinks that they have already dug themselves. He suggested that the whole thing was about money and that there was no need for anything else in the whole of education policy. He went on to praise the fact that the Government had intervened massively in schools and education, taking away from the rights of parents, heads and teachers to run the affairs of schools. However, he also said that that had gone far enough, that moves should now be made in the opposite direction and that far less intervention was now needed. I was delighted to hear his contribution, but I do not believe that he did justice to the depth of the crisis that is affecting our schools and young people.
In an excellent and balanced contribution, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt noted that, after trumpeting the importance of breadth with regard to the introduction of AS-levels and curriculum 2000, Ministers went on to reduce that breadth and undo precisely that which had been the intended purpose of introducing AS-levels. The decision was taken by Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills at a time when the Secretary of State was a Minister, so she was again party to that decision.
The Secretary of State cannot hide from the fact that she has been an Education Minister continuously for the past five years and a part of all the decisions and problems that are now coming home to roost. She has been party to the demoralisation of the teaching profession to which my hon. Friend Chris Grayling referred. The collapse of discipline is largely due to the new guidance to appeals panels that she and her colleagues introduced—guidance that sought to make it impossible to exclude in any circumstances. As my hon. Friend said, it is now one of the principal reasons why teachers are leaving the profession in droves. The Secretary of State was keen to take credit for the fact that new teachers are coming into the profession. Of course, that is welcome—
That is simply not true. We welcome new teachers coming into the profession, but the Secretary of State must understand that that achieves nothing if she and her colleagues are driving out teachers more rapidly than they can be recruited. The Government's record on exclusions is one of the principal reasons why that has been happening.
My hon. Friend Mr. Heald made an important contribution in which he spoke about the Government's role in the A-levels fiasco. He tellingly said that life was not a dress rehearsal and mentioned that Ministers had been warned that the fiasco was not over yet.
All that we have heard from those on the Labour Benches is complacency and self-justification. We have heard no apology for the fact that so many young people have been hurt by their actions and no hint that they understand the harm that has been done to our examinations system and the young people who have been affected. It is time for the Minister to stand up and put that right. He should come to the Dispatch Box with some real contrition and an understanding of the damage that the Government have done. Only if he does so will people have any faith that the Government will be able to restore confidence in the system.
Today's debate has been much more illuminating than any of us could have expected. I shall come to the comments of Mr. Green in a moment, as I should like first to congratulate some Back Benchers on their excellent contributions. The hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) all said that they wanted to congratulate teachers and students throughout the country on the hard work that they are doing and the improvements in their schools, which should be recognised.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Foster made a typically insightful call for more informed professionalism and devolution of power to head teachers. My hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman), for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) drew on their experience to talk about how schools were changing in their areas. My hon. Friend Mr. Pond did everyone a service by correcting some grotesque misinformation that has been circulated about the local government finance review.
I should like to pause for a moment to address what Mr. Heald said, as he made a serious speech in which he focused on the genuine hurt and anger that many young people rightly feel about the way in which they have been treated this year. In particular, he asked some very detailed questions about the psychology papers of Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations. I cannot answer for the examinations boards and it would be wrong for me to do so, as they are independent bodies. However, I assure him that we will follow independent advice—[Interruption.] This is an independent system that has been supported throughout the years. I assume that he is not calling for the nationalisation of exam boards. We will follow the reform proposals that emerge from the second stage of the Tomlinson inquiry, which will include the role and regulation of exam boards.
The Back-Bench speeches put to shame the performance of the Opposition Front Bench. Within an hour of the Xquiet man" rubbishing the efforts of hundreds and thousands of students throughout the country, the hon. Member for Ashford came to the Dispatch Box to do a somersault on a policy that he announced only last week.
It is not AS-levels that are not worth the paper on which they are written, but the titles XLeader of the Opposition" and XConservative spokesman on education". The Government are ready to build up and support our education system, while the Opposition run it down. The motion refers only to confusion and problems; it does not mention the dedication of the nation's teachers or the achievements of the nation's children. It does not refer to improved Ofsted reports or rising teacher numbers. It does not acknowledge that the revenue budget will grow by #1,100 per pupil by 2005–06 or that the capital budget will increase three times.
One would not realise from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that there are 20,400 more teachers now than in 1997. Have the Opposition not read the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study, which showed schools' improving performance? Have not they noticed the rising standards in our primary schools, which now lead international practice? Have not they read the chief inspector's report, which states that seven in 10 classes are good and that a quarter are very good, and that nine out 10 schools had improved since the previous inspection? Have not Conservative spokesmen noticed in their constituencies that, for example, #45 million extra has been spent in capital spending in Kent, and that #9 million extra has been spent on buildings in Trafford? The simple truth is that Conservative Members have noticed all those matters, but they cannot admit it. Mr. Brady said that he freely admitted that
XConservative Governments did not do enough for education." —[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 4 July 2002; c. 185WH.]
We agree. No wonder they spent the past week expressing their regret.
We have increased spending on every child by more than #500 a year in our first five years, whereas the Conservatives cut it by #120 a year. Standards in primary schools have improved dramatically in the past five years; they were stagnant for 18 years under the Conservative party. They are ashamed that although we now have the fastest improving education system in the industrialised world, they took us to 42nd in the world education league.
The Department, under the Secretary of State, supports good schools. We support good teachers and good performance. We are the first to say that there is further to go. We are not satisfied with simply being better than the Conservative party. We are ambitious for our education system, and we are raising, not lowering, expectations. We know what will make a difference.
Reform of school leadership is vital so that the 1,400 toughest schools get the extra help that they need to gain the leadership that they deserve. I encourage the hon. Member for Ashford to listen to our plans for the leadership incentive grant, because we shall first offer them to the Conservative party in case it wants to benefit from them.
We have many programmes for primary improvement. The leadership incentive grant is designed to tackle the problem that 50 per cent. of young people leave secondary schools without five good GCSEs. We are proud of achievements in primary schools and we want to go further. However, the priority is the secondary sector. We are therefore committed to improving the structures of secondary schooling, too. We have a special mission for every school and collaboration will also be open to every school. In 57 city academies and 2,000 specialist schools that will give a new start to a comprehensive—I stress the word—intake of young people in areas where the education system has failed.
The Labour party is leading the way in reforming the school work force. We are providing not simply the 10,000 more teachers that we promised in our manifesto or the 25 per cent. increase in teachers' pay since 1997 but also the extra support staff that will facilitate the contractual change to give teachers time to teach.
We are also committed to radical reform of partnerships outside the classroom, and responsibilities of parents for discipline exercised outside the courts, not inside them, where the Conservative party wants to drag us. At least, we believed that until today.We want head teachers in the lead, teachers focused on teaching and schools modernised to support high quality learning.
We have heard much today about A-levels. Three weeks ago, the Opposition called for resignations because the problem was so great. Yesterday, they called for resignations because they were disappointed that it was so small. What are the facts? There is overwhelming support in the education world for broader A-levels. The Government delayed the plans for that which we inherited in 1997. There have been serious failings by the QCA in setting subject-specific grade criteria. There was a perception of pressure by exam board chiefs, not from the Government but from the QCA, to match this year's results with last year's.
The Minister claims that the problem is small. Will he apologise for that comment to the more than 1,000 pupils who lost places at the university that they should have attended?
I did not say that the problem was small. I said that Conservative Members spent yesterday claiming that it was small. Mike Tomlinson and Bill Stubbs have made no accusations of political interference. Labour Members are happy to acknowledge rising standards; we shall not spend time attacking the young people who do better. It is time to end the English curse, invoked every year, that somehow more means worse. It does not.
As long as one third of school classes are not yet good, the Labour party will not rest.
Before the Minister leaves the A-level fiasco, will he answer the questions that were posed by Mr. Willis, my hon. Friend Mr. Green and me? If the Department knew everything about the incorrect structure and definition of the examination, why did not the Government take action? That contributed markedly to the failures of the summer. Why did the Minister do nothing?
The answer is simple: we did not know that the A-levels were going wrong. If we had known, we would have corrected the error. [Interruption.] We did not know. The Government are responsible for the structure of the exam system, not the daily assessment procedures. It would be wrong to get involved in them.
The Labour party will not rest as long as one third of school classes are not good, secondary schools wait for the best classrooms, and working class children are half as likely to get five good GCSEs as upper class children.
As long as the Conservative party preaches concern and contrition but practises hypocrisy and humbug, we shall not rest. Last week, the Leader of the Opposition said that Conservatives had to stop living in the past. Today, he must be in despair. They say that travel broadens the mind; it does not for the Conservative party. It has done a U-turn on the AS-levels that it invented; last week, it did a U-turn on appeals panels, which it also invented. At 3 pm today, abolishing appeals panels remained Conservative party policy.
No, I am winding up. At 4 pm, the hon. Member for Ashford said at the Dispatch Box not that he would abolish appeals panels but that he would reinstate LEA panels to second-guess them. Yet the Conservative party wants to abolish LEAs. It is not fit for Opposition.
Three years ago, Mrs. May, as shadow Education Secretary, promised to match Labour spending pound for pound. The hon. Member for Ashford did not say that. He talked to the quiet man from Chingford. The compassionate Conservative stated candidly in a pamphlet two years ago that
Xpublic services . . . had to be paid for and invested in."
The quiet man listened, but a nasty man from Folkestone was also present. The hon. Member for Ashford went in saying that spending had attractions in principle—that was the extent of his compassion. He came out saying that cuts were the only option. That is the reality of Conservative policy.
Last week, the difference between us became clearer. The Government are steadily advancing to spending #5,000 a year per pupil in the state sector. The Conservative party opposes that. However, last week, the hon. Member for Ashford revealed that he was willing to spend #5,000 per pupil on those who go into the private sector. Private good, public bad—they are the same old Tories. Every Conservative Member will be asked from now until polling day why #5,000 is not good enough for state sector education if it is good enough for private education. Parents will ask every Tory Member of Parliament and candidate, XWhy will you spend #5,000 on a few children when you won't spend it on mine?" The hon. Member for Ashford cannot answer that question, which will haunt him.
One can talk about concern or act on it. One has got to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. We are walking into the Lobby to vote against the motion because that is right for the nation's children. I urge all hon. Members to follow us.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House applauds the priority the Government attaches to education and congratulates the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on her excellent leadership of the education system; notes the current record levels of sustained investment in education with an increase from #41.6 billion in 2001–02 to #57.8 billion in 2005–06; welcomes rising standards and progress being made in schools up and down the country, congratulating in particular all those who played a part in achieving the best ever results in literacy and numeracy for 11 year olds, with 75 per cent. making the grade in English and 73 per cent. in mathematics compared with less than a half in 1997; welcomes the importance the Government attaches to tackling indiscipline and non-attendance at schools; notes that while the Criminal Records Bureau continues to improve its performance, the Department's interim XList 99" measures are allowing schools to operate with a full complement of staff; expresses its sympathy for the pupils, parents and teachers who have been affected by the recent 'A' level grading problems; but congratulates the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for her decisive action in setting up an independent inquiry under Mike Tomlinson to restore confidence in the exam system.