This is a genuinely important subject and we are pleased that the Government decided to produce a White Paper.
In January, the director general of the Institute of Directors said that the Government were failing to remedy the UK's shortage of skilled workers. He pointed out that some 25,000 16-year-olds were leaving school each year with no GCSEs, and that last year the skills shortage left 135,000 vacancies unfilled. That is not just the view of the Institute of Directors: only last month, in a survey of 6,000 businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce found that the number of firms finding it hard to recruit skilled workers had risen by 50 per cent. in the last 10 years. Yet the number of young people in the NEET group—those not in education, employment or training—has increased, not fallen, since 1997.
As for basic skills, literacy and numeracy were supposed to be independently assessed for each school leaver as a central part of the Tomlinson recommendations—regrettably abandoned by this Secretary of State. In the House yesterday, she claimed that the national literacy strategy was
"now almost entirely based on synthetic phonics."—[Hansard, 21 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 607.]
I hope that that was off the cuff—it did not seem to be in her text—and I hope that the Secretary of State will feel able to correct it today. Basic skills—literacy and numeracy—are not moving in the right direction, and they will not do so if the Government continue their present strategy.
Then there are higher-level skills. The number of entrants for some of the most challenging yet most important A-level subjects has gone down, not up, since 1997. The number of entrants for French A-level is down by nearly 50 per cent., the number for German A-level down by more than a third, the number for chemistry—