Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly? There is a statement.
I would like to make a statement about the reform of education for 14 to 19-year-olds.
I would like to start by putting on record my thanks to Sir Mike Tomlinson and his working group members for their time and effort. They issued us with a challenge: how to fulfil the needs and aspirations of every young person. Today, I shall set out how we will meet that challenge.
We have made much progress in raising standards in our schools. As a result of smaller class sizes and the literacy and numeracy strategy, we have the best ever primary school results. As a result of the continued record investment and reform in our secondary schools, we also have the best ever GCSE and A-level results. There are more young people in apprenticeships than ever before, but we now need to go much further.
Historically, our education system has produced a high-achieving elite while failing the majority. In today's global economy, in which our national competitiveness increasingly depends on the skills of each and every person, we cannot afford to let so much talent go to waste. We cannot afford to let intellectual snobbery leave us with a second-class, second-best vocational education system.
I agree with Sir Mike's analysis: there are historic weaknesses in our education system which we have to tackle. Too many young people are unattractive to employers, deficient in the basics of English and maths, unprepared for further study and unable to demonstrate their true potential. I want all that to change.
I want to transform the opportunities available to young people. I want the same emphasis on vocational education as we currently have on academic. I want all young people to leave school competent in the three Rs. I want every pupil stretched to their full potential. All teenagers should have the opportunity of a place in education, training or on an apprenticeship. Education maintenance allowances are already helping overcome financial barriers. I want to end the scandal of our low staying-on rate at 17, increasing it from 75 per cent. to at least 90 per cent. over the next decade—effectively making the current school-leaving age a thing of the past.
There are some who argue that to transform opportunities for our children, we should scrap the current system of GCSEs and A-levels. I do not agree. We will not transform opportunities by abolishing what is good, what works and what is recognised by employers, universities, pupils and parents. We must build on what is good in the system, and reform and replace what is not working.
In my reforms, there will be a relentless focus on the basics. It is totally unacceptable that at least 70,000 16-year-olds a year are weak in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. I want and expect much more. I want every young person to be competent in English and maths before leaving school or college—to be able, for example, to work out their family budget or write a clear description for an insurance claim.
I am therefore toughening GCSE so that, in future, no one will be able to get a higher grade in English or maths without mastering the basics. I shall free up the curriculum—starting at age 11—to make space for extra help and support in English and maths to ensure that children who fall behind can catch up. I shall introduce a new diploma to recognise the achievement of those who achieve five good GCSEs or equivalent, including English and maths.
We must also transform vocational opportunities. Our programme of apprenticeships has made an excellent start in this. We must build on that and go further. We need qualified health care professionals, software designers, plumbers, graphic designers, engineers and much more—all competent in the basics, all with specialised skills and all ready to acquire more skills as they progress. To achieve that, we need specialised qualifications that include both practical skills and academic content, with English and maths at their core as well as relevant GCSEs and A-levels. We need all universities to value those qualifications, and we need employers actively to seek out students who hold them.
The key is to give employers a real say. To do so, I shall introduce new specialised diplomas and ask employers, via their sector skills councils, to sign off their content. Specialised diplomas will be made available in 14 broad subject areas—reflecting key sectors of the economy—at levels 1, 2 and 3. They will replace the current system of around 3,500 separate qualifications. The first four employer-designed diplomas—in information and communication technology, engineering, health and social care, and the creative and media industries—will be available in every local area by 2008. I am pleased to tell the House that major employers such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, Rolls-Royce, Nissan, the national health service and the BBC have already agreed to work with us on their design. A further four specialised diplomas will follow in 2010, and an entitlement to all 14 will be in place in every local area by 2015.
Employers will have never been so involved in designing the courses studied by our young people, guaranteeing that those qualifications add real value to young people's employment prospects. We will also involve universities in the design of level-3 diplomas to ensure that the young people who take them are ready for higher education.
We must provide real opportunities for young people to be stretched to achieve their full potential. I expect all diplomas and A-levels to offer optional, more challenging questions for the brightest students. We will also pilot other measures to add stretch, including an extended project, as suggested by Sir Mike, and the use of HE modules in schools and colleges.
Our top universities have told us that they need more information to differentiate among top achievers, especially for popular courses. I shall act immediately to make A-level unit results available to universities before they make offers of places. In the longer term, moving to post-qualification application to universities will mean that final A-level results and unit grades are available for all candidates.
There are those who argue that we should challenge our A-level students further, by demanding breadth in the curriculum as well as stretch. Some schools in the state sector do that already by offering the international baccalaureate, often alongside A-levels. I understand those arguments, but there is no clear consensus among pupils, parents, employers or universities on whether or how it should be done. I also believe that so soon after the introduction of curriculum 2000, stability is important. I will therefore work with employers and universities to see whether we can identify what, if anything, would add value to A-levels, and I will review progress in 2008.
Our education system has not done enough for those most at risk of dropping out of the system, resulting in pupils and society paying a high price. I believe that the key to remotivating those teenagers is to broaden the range of places in which they can learn. I shall enable pupils to mix school with college and employer-based learning to suit their needs. I shall introduce a new programme for 14 to 16-year-olds to provide intensive support to allow learning at work, based on our existing and successful entry to employment programme, which is currently available only to those over the age of 16.
These measures are a radical package, which we will introduce with care, and schools, colleges, employers and other local partners will need to work together to deliver it, each contributing their own expertise for the benefit of all pupils in the area. In doing so, we will move from a system of comprehensive schools to a genuinely comprehensive system of education in each local area.
I believe that every child has equal worth; that every child has potential; that the job of the education system is to develop and extend that potential; and that, in doing so, education must enable all children and teenagers to achieve and prepare for life and work, equipping them with the skills that employers need.
There are many ways to achieve and many ways to prepare young people, all of which have dignity and value and all of which deserve respect. Those are my values, the values of this Government and, I believe, values that the whole country will share. This White Paper embraces those values. I commend it to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for allowing me to see a copy of her statement half an hour in advance. I would thank her for the chance to see a copy of the White Paper in advance, but sadly it did not arrive.
Let us start on the points where there is consensus between us. We are agreed that A-levels and GCSEs should remain, but that they should be much more challenging for the most able. We are agreed that vocational education must be massively expanded and dramatically raised in status. We are agreed that no child who is able to learn to read and write should ever leave school without those fundamental skills. We are agreed that participation rates among older teenagers must rise at least to the levels seen in other countries. We are agreed, in short, that despite all the hard work of teachers, schools, pupils and parents, the current education system in Britain has been letting down far too many for far too long, right across the spectrum from the most to the least academic.
We are also agreed, I am sure, that Mike Tomlinson and his team should be thanked. We would go further. We do not just thank him and his team, we congratulate him on a creative, important and imaginative report. Sadly, it seems that the Secretary of State came not to praise the Tomlinson report, but to bury it. Not one diploma for all, but at least 15 different diplomas for different categories of children; no new challenging qualification in literacy and numeracy; and no integration of academic and vocational qualifications. There is not much left of Tomlinson, is there?
The Secretary of State told the Sunday papers categorically that she would make exams harder. Why, then, today did she just say that she would see if "we can identify what, if anything, would add value to A-levels, and I will review progress in 2008"? There was no commitment; after eight years, all we get is a promise to look at it all again in another three years—all talk, yet again.
Exams have not been getting harder in the last eight years, have they? The former chief examiner Tony Whelpton said:
"Yes, it is easier to get a good result at A level and GCSE than it used to be."
Will the Secretary of State scrap the AS-level and the option to resit A-level modules over and over again? She has given the impression that she will get the present Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to make exams more challenging, but these are the very people who have allowed A-grades at GCSE to be handed out to candidates with just 45 per cent. of the marks and permitted a pass mark to be set at just 17 per cent. Will she confirm that she still has confidence in the very institutions that have debased our exam system? If she has, why should anyone believe that standards will get any higher at all?
The Secretary of State says that she wants to raise the effective school-leaving age to 18. Let us examine whether that is a stunt or a real pledge. Is she undertaking to change the formal, legal school-leaving age set down by statute—yes or no? Teenage truancy has risen by a third since 1997. If she cannot keep 14 and 15-year-olds in school, why should anyone believe that she will be able to keep 17 and 18-year-olds there?
The Secretary of State said that she wants to improve basic literacy and numeracy, but her statement on this is somewhat unclear. Is she accepting or rejecting the specific Tomlinson recommendation for a new and entirely separate assessment in literacy, numeracy and ICT that every child would have to pass before getting a diploma? Will she at last embrace the academic research from this country and around the world, which demonstrates unequivocally that by far the most effective way to spread literacy is to teach phonics?
The Secretary of State claimed that literacy and numeracy have been improving under Labour. However, the independent Statistics Commission said only last week that
"the improvement in KS2 test scores between 1995 and 2000 substantially overstates the improvement in standards in English primary schools over that period . . . Government Departments have usually failed to mention any caveats . . . in their public comments."
The Secretary of State did not mention any caveats in her public comments this afternoon.
The National Audit Office reported two months ago that the number of adults without adequate literacy and numeracy skills is growing by 100,000 a year. The CBI says that one in three companies has to provide remedial training for school leavers who have not mastered reading, writing and arithmetic. In 2003, the CBI survey of 500 companies showed that 34 per cent. were not satisfied with the numeracy and literacy standards of 16-year-olds. In 2004, that figure rose to 37 per cent. Even someone who has learned maths under this Government knows that 37 per cent. is higher than 34 per cent. It is getting worse, not better, isn't it?
The biggest disappointment today is that the Secretary of State has not accepted Tomlinson's central recommendation for an overarching diploma, embracing both academic and vocational qualifications, that every school leaver would be expected to get in at least some form.
The Secretary of State and I agree that A-levels and GCSEs should remain clear and permanent parts of the system. Last year, there were cross-party talks on this issue and it was clear that agreement could have been reached that results at A-level and GCSE would be printed loud and clear on the front of the diploma. That would have preserved the integrity of those exams while still enabling other achievements in vocational qualifications, longer-term projects and basic skills to be properly recognised. Why instead—[Interruption.]
Why instead has the Secretary of State chosen to set in stone the age-old British divide between academic and vocational qualifications that has bedevilled our society and economy for 150 years? Does she not realise that in the 21st century every child, perhaps especially the brightest, will need vocational as well as academic qualifications? How can she possibly expect to achieve parity of esteem if some young people obtain A-levels and others a diploma, and there is no overlap between the two?
Why did the Secretary of State choose to throw away the chance for a consensus on the diploma? Why did she not build on the extensive efforts that Sir Mike Tomlinson himself made to try to reach very broad agreement? Why, when her predecessors issued invitations for discussions with other parties, did she not do the same? Of course, the teaching unions would not be happy with the view that both she and I take over A-levels, but they would have been a lot happier than they are today if she had delivered an overarching diploma, would they not?
The Secretary of State chose to listen to members of the No. 10 policy unit rather than to her Department or to outside advice. She has thrown away the chance to get substantial agreement across parties and the education sector. She will not now be remembered as a great reformer. This was her first big test. She has flunked it.
I found the hon. Gentleman's reply most entertaining, and his new-found enthusiasm for vocational education and training and a diploma a little surprising. But it is hard to take the hon. Gentleman seriously when his priorities for the state education system are to use £1 billion of taxpayers' money to subsidise the private education of an elite few—a sum equivalent to cutting more than 24,000 teachers and more than 22,000 classroom assistants—and when his proposals for driving up standards in schools are to slash the number of Ofsted inspections, so that a child could go the whole way through secondary school without that school being inspected.
The hon. Gentleman's new-found conversion to a diploma just reminds me how opportunistic the Conservative party really is. Is his new proposal for a diploma also based on a return to selection at 11, or a return to selection at five, and a grammar school in every town? Far from agreeing that every child should be stretched to their full potential, he is preparing to cast us back to the past, when his party argued that standards are maintained only if a majority of children fail and a minority succeed. Far from transforming vocational education and training, he and his party would relegate vocational education to the second-class, second-best training that it was under their leadership. In 1997, there were 75,000 apprenticeships; today there are more than 250,000.
The hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of not raising standards in primary schools. Let me tell the House what we have achieved in primary education. Everyone agrees that the increase in standards since 1998 has been dramatic. Even David Bell, the chief inspector, in his recent Ofsted report said that there have been significant improvements in literacy and numeracy standards since the introduction of the national strategies. In literacy, English 10-year-olds were the third most able readers out of 35 countries in recent international assessments, and between 1995 and 2005 standards in maths have risen faster than those in any other country. We have made progress. We have world-class standards in primary schools and record results in GCSEs and A-levels, but we have to go further. We must ensure that there is no cap on aspiration, no limit to a child's potential.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether we will raise the school-leaving age to 18. The answer clearly is no. We want every child to want to stay in learning until they are 18 or 19 years old, because they have the chance, for once, to learn in a way that motivates them, in the place that motivates them, with real qualifications that have real currency with their parents, employers and our universities, including our top universities. If we manage to do that, we will really, once and for all, have bridged the vocational-academic divide.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether we have accepted the Tomlinson proposals on English and maths and on functional literacy and numeracy. Yes, we have, and we have gone much further. We have made it a condition of getting the diploma that children not only achieve functional literacy and numeracy, but continue from the age of 11 to be given real stretch, and also space for catch-up in English and maths, until they reach the required standard. Our new proposals for the GCSE diploma will have English and maths at their heart. We will also change the league tables to ensure that English and maths are a component of their five A to C grades. We are toughening English and maths to ensure that children who achieve high grades have a real grasp of literacy and numeracy.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes our proposals, because this is a once-in-a-generation chance to transform standards and increase opportunities. The proposals provide, not just at GCSE, a much greater focus on the basics, but real stretch, in vocational as well as academic subjects. We will continue to keep that under review to see how much stretch we can provide, offering additional extension papers at A-level, offering the opportunity to all children to study HE modules at school, and introducing the extended project recommended by Sir Mike Tomlinson. We will see if we need to go further by looking at breadth in the curriculum as well as stretch.
The proposals are a radical reform that should be welcomed across the political spectrum. We have done a lot, but there is a lot more to do. I want a society in which people with ambition are not thought to be getting above themselves, and in which children from all backgrounds have high aspirations. I commend the proposals to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for the courtesy of providing an advance copy of her statement today.
I always try to begin on occasions such as this by welcoming something in the statement, but to be perfectly honest that has been quite difficult today. However, Liberal Democrats welcome the move to post-qualification applications to university. When does the Secretary of State expect to introduce that, because it needs to be quick, and the universities must not stand in the way? Tomlinson was clear that we should also be raising the bar in terms of literacy, numeracy and ICT for post-16-year-olds. Will that be included?
We also welcome the emphasis on maths and English, a commitment on which all would agree. Does the Secretary of State agree that she must now abandon the league tables, which concentrate on five A to C grades, and that instead, any information on student performance at 16 from the Government should show whether students have achieved a level 2 in English, maths and ICT as a prerequisite, and we should abandon the idea of getting a GNVQ, building up four equivalent GCSEs and including that in the Government's success targets?
Will the Secretary of State explain what she means by a genuine comprehensive system of education in every area? Does that mean that there will be no comprehensive schools, but a combination of other schools that make up a comprehensive package, or does it mean abandoning grammar and other schools as well?
From the outset, we have supported the Government's fundamental desire to increase the vocational offer, to extend the time that students spend in education and training and to make demands on our brighter students. We are with the Government on that. Indeed, Mike Tomlinson recommended all those things in his report. However, it went one step further. For the first time in my professional life—indeed, in my lifetime—it brought together the academic and vocational strands. The Government appear to have abandoned that fundamental principle at the heart of Mike Tomlinson's proposals.
There has been huge consensus about the Tomlinson proposals. When the only major figure who stands against them is the former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, we know that Tomlinson must be right. However, instead of supporting the spirit of Tomlinson, the Secretary of State has cherry-picked the proposals and thus undermined their integrity. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on
"New Labour is best when it is radical."
If today's statement reflects what he meant by that, God help us, because it represents not radicalism but reaction.
Does not the Secretary of State realise that continuing to separate GCSEs and A-levels from the vocational offer perpetuates the very division that Tomlinson hoped to bridge? How does she intend to create parity of esteem between academic and vocational programmes now that the diploma in its entirety has been rejected? How will she encourage academically able young people to take up vocational options when she has effectively described the vocational diploma—
The hon. Gentleman is right. How will the Secretary of State encourage students to take up the diplomas when she effectively described them as for the disaffected and academically less able?
Given that the proposals are to cover all young people in the 14 to 19 age group, how will they affect the NEET—not in education, employment or training—group or the 15 per cent. of 16 to 18-year-olds who are in work but not in training? Where do part-time learners fit into the proposals? They were not mentioned once in the statement. What proposals does the Secretary of State have for extending a statutory right to time off to 16 to 19-year-olds? Without that, her promise of extending education to the age of 19 is an empty gesture.
Where are the funding proposals? Those are of fundamental interest to schools and colleges. I asked the Secretary of State in October—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a long question. [Interruption.] Yes, it is very interesting. Perhaps the Secretary of State can now reply to the hon. Gentleman, who can follow up with parliamentary questions.
The hon. Gentleman has asked me many questions, which I shall do my best to answer in the time available. We intend to introduce post-qualification application by 2010. We are raising the bar on literacy and numeracy, which are a condition of attaining a specialised diploma or a GCSE diploma. The diplomas will have to include English and maths, and it will not be possible to progress to level 3 without literacy and numeracy. I assure him that we shall change the league table to include English and maths. That is a key component of our proposals.
The hon. Gentleman asked what a truly comprehensive system would look like. I envisage schools working together in networks with colleges and employers to deliver what every child needs to meet their requirements so that they can learn in a way that suits their motivations, taps their aptitudes and enables them to develop to their full potential.
The hon. Gentleman said that there was consensus about abolishing GCSEs and A-levels. That is not what teachers, parents and children in school tell me. He asked how we could break down the academic/vocational divide. Vocational, specialised lines of learning will include A-levels and GCSEs when relevant, and practical subjects taught in practical ways, so that children can learn in a way that motivates them. They will provide qualifications with genuine currency that employers and universities respect, just as A-levels and GCSEs are currently respected. If qualifications are genuinely recognised and valued in their own right, because we value skilled technicians, software designers and engineers, that is the way to achieve parity of esteem.
The hon. Gentleman referred to my use of the word "disaffected". He misunderstood my proposals. There will be a new route for people who are at risk of dropping out. It goes way beyond the Tomlinson recommendations. We propose a new route for those who, at 14, are at risk of disengaging from the system. It is based on our current entry to employment route for over-16s. That will be extended to 14 to 16-year-olds so that they can spend up to two days a week learning in the workplace as well as the classroom. They can then come back to learning after doing their level 1 or level 2 diploma. That is a radical departure from the current system, and it will extend genuine benefits to all our pupils.
The thrust of my proposals is that students should learn skills on which they can build and progress in work as well as school so that the qualifications that they gain in school will lead to progression later in life. I have outlined a radical set of proposals.
The statement is much better than many of us anticipated until a short time ago. My right hon. Friend knows that many of us would have preferred Tomlinson, the whole Tomlinson and nothing but Tomlinson, but we are all realists, and there is much of Tomlinson in her proposals.
Let me clear up a minor point. Tomlinson never advocated the abolition of GCSEs and A-levels as a requirement for introducing a diploma. Page 33 of the report specifically states that GCSEs and A-levels are compatible with a radical change.
My right hon. Friend knows that most of us hold dear the prospect of sorting out the academic and vocational divide once and for all. Much in the statement deals with that. I disagree with her about one thing. There is a consensus that I have not previously experienced on the need to sort out the 14 to 19 situation, and we have a unique opportunity to do that. I therefore hope that she will listen to comments about the White Paper and ensure that we get it absolutely right and thus challenge the aspirations and future of our young people.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee. I know that he takes a great interest in these matters and that he has followed the subject closely. He is right that a consensus exists, but I do not think that it is about the abolition of A-levels or GCSEs or the way in which we meet objectives. The consensus is that we need to do more to tackle the basics and ensure that every child is literate and numerate on leaving school. There is also a consensus that we need to do more to stretch our most able students and to transform radically the nature of vocational opportunities for our students. I believe that the package that I proposed fulfils those tests.
I welcome the wider encouragement of literacy and numeracy and working with employers that the White Paper proposes. However, I am especially concerned about the decline in the number of A-level students who take individual science subjects. What does the White Paper do to encourage that? What does it propose to stimulate people beyond the age of 13 and subsequently beyond the age of GCSEs to take those subjects and go on to university? Has the Secretary of State considered, for example, increasing the weighting of individual science subjects in university applications?
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of science and of ensuring that we have enough students who are motivated and inspired by the science curriculum and want to study science, not only for GCSE but for A-level and at university. He knows that our proposals to maintain compulsory science at key stage 4 will be introduced in 2006. They will create a platform on which to make the science curriculum more inspiring, as the Roberts review proposed. I firmly expect at least 80 per cent. of students to study the equivalent of two science subjects at GCSE, and more to go on to study science at A-level.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we have a platform on which to invest for the future and deliver enough scientists both to employment and to our university system.
Great Sankey high school in my constituency, a specialist engineering college, and the employers and trade unions working with it, are keen to see a focus on engineering. Will my right hon. Friend work with universities to ensure that they recognise the importance of the subject? We need students at every level to contribute to our society and community, so that we can really succeed in engineering.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of engineering. One specialised route will indeed lead to an engineering diploma. I think that if we get the content right by working with universities and employers, we—or they—can design courses that will stretch our most able engineering students and provide them with direct routes to our top universities. It will be a test of our reforms: can we really create qualifications that combine conceptual with practical learning, and are recognised and respected by employers and the university system?
What should Bracknell and Wokingham further education college do about its great difficulty in recruiting people to teach electricians and plumbers, given the current salary and funding levels? We have people who want to train as electricians and plumbers; we have colleges that want to give them places. What are the Government going to do about the problem of recruiting the teachers?
Delivering that agenda will pose a challenge to all our institutions: schools, employers, the FE sector, local authorities and learning and skills councils. I do not deny that for a moment. It also gives the FE sector a huge opportunity to build on its current strengths and its excellent record of delivering vocational skills, but the sector must nevertheless rise to that challenge—which is one reason why we commissioned Sir Andrew Foster to undertake a thorough review to ensure that the sector is fit for the purpose of delivering such an exciting agenda.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the belief that parity of esteem can be generated by a single formal structure of formal qualifications is simply too mechanistic? Surely a better route to it is the pursuit of higher levels of individual attainment and ambition in both academic and vocational studies.
Will my right hon. Friend tell us something about the relationship between her proposals and the promotion of two-year vocational foundation degrees at universities, which is such an important step for the future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we must continue to raise standards in our schools and colleges, but also raise the ambitions and aspirations of all our young people. That is what my proposals set out to do—and yes, we should have diplomas designed by employers and leading directly to university foundation degrees.
It may become much easier for young people to go to university when they have qualifications that are recognised by employers and the university system. That is how to achieve parity of esteem between the academic and vocational.
We will obviously go on working with those in Northern Ireland to see how the arrangements might apply to them, but I can confirm that the proposals I have announced apply to England.
I welcome the attempt to raise standards, but as an inner-city Member I see inner-city teachers and pupils struggling because of such factors as background. Changes in systems are fine, but does the Secretary of State accept that it is impossible to reach the standards of which she speaks in inner cities unless inner-city schools, with all their genuine and long-lasting problems, are given the same resources as leafy-lane suburban schools? Is there anything about that in the White Paper?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the need for more investment in the inner cities. Our excellence in cities initiative has already driven up standards in participating areas. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the practical challenge of delivering that agenda, but we have seen examples of its being done. In Knowsley, for instance, schools have been working in networks with employers and the FE sector to give young people an opportunity to take up apprenticeships. We have seen their motivation increase and their standards rise. We have seen the agenda work in practice, and now we must ensure that it is delivered throughout the country.
I listened carefully to the statement. Near the beginning, the right hon. Lady said unequivocally that our education system had been failing the majority. Does she really believe that? If so, it is an appalling indictment of her predecessors and, perhaps, of those who work in the system, including my daughter. Surely the right hon. Lady should have said that the education system had been failing too many pupils, and addressed herself to that problem rather than trying to make that statement embrace the vast majority.
There are always some who argue that the best education system is one that creates and fosters an elite. I do not agree. I think we should aspire to much more. We have raised standards—more than half our young people gain five A to C grades at higher levels—but too many people are left drifting at 14, too many are defined by failure at 16, and too many drop out of the system altogether at 17. The challenge that we must address is an historic weakness in our education system, and I believe that this is the way in which to address it.
As my right hon. Friend will know, the new "higher still" structure in Scotland works extremely well in tandem with the traditional Scottish variants of A-levels and GCSEs, highers and standards. Does she agree that we can learn a good deal from that positive experience?
Yes, I do. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the Scottish experience, and Wales has also had an interesting experience in this regard. We must learn from what works, but it is just as important for us to work with employers and the higher education sector to establish whether we can add value to our existing A-level system. It is clear to me, and there is a clear consensus, that we must add opportunities for stretch—there are children who could do more than they are doing now—but there may also be opportunities for breadth, which is why we are piloting the extended project proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson. I will work with the HE sector and employers to discover whether they would like more stretch than the current system offers.
I have made it absolutely clear that HE modules and the extended project give us ways of offering A-level students more. We will also test advanced extension awards in A-levels, which will give students a real opportunity to show their potential. There is, however, no clear consensus in the higher education sector or among employers on whether pupils should do more than the current A-level system offers—whether they should study a broader range of subjects alongside their A-level subjects. I want to work with universities and employers to establish what, if anything, could add value to the studies that pupils currently pursue.
Cambridge is one of the universities that has called for greater discrimination between students getting top A-level grades. Their wish will not be completely satisfied by making A-level unit results available to universities before they make their offers. Can my right hon. Friend outline some of the measures that she will take to ensure that there is greater discrimination, particularly between students who are getting three As at A-level?
Some universities do indeed say that because 3.5 per cent. of students now achieve three A grades at A-level, they want to be able to discriminate between those students. I have responded to that in my proposals. I will act immediately to make unit grades available at AS-level, so that that information will be available to universities before they make offers. Once PQA comes in, it will be possible to provide unit results and marks at A-level as well as AS-level. However, universities are also interested in seeing whether they can use the scholarship, self-study, research and softer skills that are acquired in doing the extended project as a basis on which to differentiate between pupils. Therefore, we will test the extended project and HE modules in schools, too. I am sure that universities will be interested in those.
The Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend Mr. Taylor was a bit of a cop-out. She must be aware that there is a collapse in the number of students taking pure science at university. The principal reason is that not enough pupils take chemistry, biology and physics at GCSE. Instead they are pushed into combined sciences. What specifically will she do in the area of science to increase both stretch and breadth, which she has said so much about, because that needs to be done as a matter of urgency?
I agree that we need to motivate more students as a matter of urgency, which is why we have worked with the science community to review the science curriculum at key stage 4. Those changes will be in place by 2006, so we have recognised the urgent need to get more students to be motivated by science both at key stage 3 and at key stage 4 and to continue with it. We are taking science seriously. As a result, 80 per cent. of students will continue to take at least two science GCSEs and we will see more students continuing to pursue science as a career option after they have done their GCSEs.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and congratulate her on what she said, but will she confirm that the Government's policy towards faith-based schools has not changed, that schools such as the Islamic school in Leicester, St. Paul's Catholic school and the Swaminarayan Hindu Mission school in north London will continue to receive Government support and will be acknowledged as part of the education system of this country?
Of course I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the position has not changed and that those schools will make a valuable addition to our education system. In delivering this agenda, they will have to be able to work with other schools in their local area. I see it as a fundamental part of these reforms that we open up schools to work in partnership with one another to deliver an all-round education that meets the needs of every pupil.
I was a secondary school teacher for 22 years, mostly in comprehensive schools. The problem with vocational courses was always that they were seen as second best. Only this morning, the new vice-chancellor of Oxford university confirmed in the Education and Skills Committee that that university has no intention of and no interest in admitting students with vocational qualifications. Will the Secretary of State think again about rejecting the key part of Tomlinson, as otherwise the vocational diplomas will go the same way as the GNVQ, the BTEC, the CPVE and all the rest?
Of course, at that point the vice-chancellor did not have the opportunity to study these proposals and he did not know that the new specialised diplomas will include A-levels and GCSEs where appropriate. An engineering diploma, for example, could include A-level maths or an advanced optional paper at the end of A-level maths, where a student can show their potential. If we design these advanced level diplomas in specialised subjects together with HE, for the first time, HE will have a real say in what pupils learn. As a result, the qualifications will be taken seriously. That is what employers and HE have been telling us.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that at present a comprehensive system is in operation in my constituency. I have six comprehensive schools and one college, which work as a consortium. It is the intention from September to convert one of the comprehensive schools into a skills academy. We have almost everything on board, but we need a little extra money to ensure that there is parity of esteem as regards the equipment in the skills academy. We have a conference in March to try to get more business people on board. We have many; we are trying to attract more. Will she accept the offer of being top of the bill at that conference?
How could I ever refuse my hon. Friend? I know that he has been pursuing this matter. He has brought to my attention and to that of my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards the practical experience of his constituency. We can all learn from practical experiences such as the ones that the pupils in his constituency are lucky enough to be having. We must now ensure that all our youngsters have that opportunity.
On page seven of her statement, the Secretary of State talks about the first four employer-designed diplomas. She then mentions sectors such as engineering, health and social care, and talks about large companies, but most of the companies in those sectors are small and medium-sized, or very small. How will she engage small firms organisations to get their contribution?
I mentioned—the hon. Gentleman may be interested in this—that the NHS is very keen on taking part in these proposals. It is one of the largest employers not just in this country but in Europe. I also mentioned that IBM, Hewlett Packard and Rolls-Royce are very keen to get involved too. We want small firms to be included too. In fact, they will be essential to delivering our new route for 14 to 16-year-olds, which will, I hope, remotivate children who are at risk of dropping out of the system entirely. I am delighted to say that Digby Jones, head of the Confederation of British Industry, has said that he will work with us in trying to attract employers to get involved in the education system, so that more and more young people have the opportunity to work not just in vocational subjects but in the workplace, learning in the way that most motivates them.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly in relation to vocational education. I welcome too the investment that her Department has made in my constituency. I thank her and her predecessor for the investment of £45 million in a PFI school, which is working brilliantly. Children were working in huts before that. I welcome her commitment of £5 million for the new Kingsland school in Oscott, which is to be completed in 2007. Will she, in order to meet the commitment to increase staying-on rates by 90 per cent., allow Great Barr school, the largest in the country, to have a proper sixth form, so that such rates can be achieved?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that many successful schools want to expand to open sixth forms, which is one of the reasons why there should be a presumption that successful schools that want to open sixth forms should be allowed to have them. That is also something that will be central to achieving our proposals.
I hope that the Secretary of State sticks to her guns in rejecting the notion that by re-badging vocational qualifications as academic qualifications, one thereby raises the esteem of vocational qualifications. It is the quality of the vocational education on offer that raises the esteem. Can she clear up one ambiguity? Will the work-based route for those over the age of 14 be available only to those whom she described as disaffected, or will it be available to those who show a particular aptitude in some vocational skill, who could clearly benefit from it hugely?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. One does not achieve parity of by esteem by offering the same to all. One achieves it by offering something that is valued and worth while in its own right, and that is recognised in my proposals. For 14 to 16-year-olds who are at risk of dropping out of the system, the route will clearly involve employers, but those children who are motivated by learning in the workplace, in an FE college or in a practical way in another setting should also have the opportunity to be motivated and to learn in that different place and in that different way. We will work with employers to open up opportunities for everyone who would benefit from that experience to work in the workplace.
While I welcome much of what my right hon. Friend has said today, as a Member of the House and a parent, I am deeply disappointed that she has not taken the opportunity to implement the whole of the Tomlinson report, which is about broadening and enriching the curriculum, not just about dealing with vocational and academic divisions. What funding streams will she introduce to ensure that schools do not have a vested interest in ensuring that children go either one way or the other, and what assessment has she made of the training requirements necessary to implement the structures for vocational education and the extra teaching in English and maths as well as the major project?
My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. May I tell her that we will return to the theme of broadening and enriching the curriculum over the remaining weeks and months? I shall have a lot to say about that. On Mike Tomlinson's report, we are implementing the extended project that he recommended, which will provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate their potential in a different way from the current approaches.
My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to potential barriers in the funding system between schools and further education colleges. Learning and skills councils will have to work flexibly with local authorities to deliver in practice. I can tell her that, where it is in practice at the moment, it works. We have real practical experience of seeing delivery happen. We know it can be done: it will be a challenge not just to overcome the barriers but to train the work force to deliver the skills in an appropriate way. We must face those challenges head on, and we will overcome them to deliver this agenda.
Order. It would be unfair of me not to call the remaining Members who wish to speak, but I must appeal to them and tell them that their questions must be brief, because the rules of the House recommend that ministerial statements end after an hour.
The Secretary of State's decision to reject Tomlinson is welcome—if, indeed, that is what she is doing. It is refreshing to see a Minister who does not slavishly follow the advice of the education establishment. I hope that she will adopt the same approach to the teaching of reading and writing in primary schools, but I am concerned about her intention to introduce a diploma for those with five or more good GCSEs, as many of the most damaging proposals in Tomlinson may still be implemented. Will she give an assurance that she will rule out the Tomlinson proposal to reduce external examination at the age of 16 and replace it by more teacher assessment? Will she categorically rule—
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman does talk some common sense and it is a pleasure for me to answer him. He is right that we cannot roll back on accountability; that we cannot roll back on existing mechanisms for achieving standards; and that we must ensure that we place an emphasis on literacy and numeracy in primary schools, then continuing from the age of 11. We are going way beyond Tomlinson in considering the 11 to 14 curriculum as well as the 14 to 19 curriculum, so right from the word go there is space for catch-up on the basics of reading and writing. We will make getting that right a priority. If children are to have a real opportunity to benefit at 14, they must be educated by 14.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's analysis of the weaknesses of our current system, as I welcome much in her statement, particularly her rehabilitation of the concept of comprehensive education. Is she now placing the pupil's choice of different curricular pathways at the age of 14 at the heart of our system, and if so, is that not increasingly incompatible with our admissions system, which still allows schools to choose which pupils to admit at the age of 11? In giving further consideration to the development of proposals, will she return to consider that matter?
I certainly think that it would be disastrous if we were to introduce selection at the age of five, which is the policy of the Conservative party. It will become more and more important as we develop this agenda for schools to work together in partnership to offer not just academic options but vocational and more practical ways of learning. They will have to work together in networks to deliver, and I suspect that each area will deliver a common prospectus for all students in the area, with the various options available to them at the age of 14. We will also need an intensive system of advice and guidance before that happens, to ensure that children really take the options that best meet their needs.
The Secretary of State's statement will go down well with the smarter tabloids, as it favours comprehensive systems over comprehensive schools, it is more Woodhead than Tomlinson, and it keeps A-levels and GCSEs. However, will she respond to my hon. Friend Mr. Gibb, who asked about assessment? Will GCSEs be externally assessed or will there be a drift, as Tomlinson recommended, towards more internal assessments?
I am sorry if I did not answer the question earlier, and I can confirm that there will be no moving away from external assessment of GCSEs and A-levels. Standards are here to stay and we want more students to continue to meet them. We also want to open up opportunities across the board so that more children can achieve their potential.
Before the Secretary of State announced her policy of insisting that pupils needed A to C grades in maths and English to be counted in the league tables, she must have had some estimate of the difference that it would make. Will she remind us what proportion of pupils gained five A to C grades this year, and what the proportion would have been if the new policy had already been in place?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that this year 53.7 per cent. of pupils gained five A to C grades at GCSE, up from 45.1 per cent. in 1997. Had the new system been in place, 42.6 per cent. of pupils would have achieved a new diploma, compared with 35.6 per cent. in 1997.