Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:53 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford 12:53 pm, 29th November 2018

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning that. I also give credit to the Minister, because I know how much she engaged with me and other colleagues on Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group earlier this year when we had a particular problem with apprenticeships, which has been largely solved thanks to the work of the colleges and the Department. I thank her for her support.

There was a survey of sixth-form colleges in October 2017. Emails from the Government to us Back Benchers say that surveys are rarely designed to be helpful. However, in this case, even if the survey is not entirely accurate it makes some extremely important points. For instance, 50% of colleges that responded said they had dropped courses in modern foreign languages. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards for what he said about foreign languages, which are vital. I was not aware of the Mandarin programme, and I will have to see how many of my local schools, if any, have taken it up. I am a passionate supporter of the teaching of modern foreign languages, especially as we move into an interesting time in the coming years.

Thirty-four per cent. of respondents had dropped courses in STEM subjects, and 67% had reduced student support services, which are incredibly important, particularly for the 16 to 19 age group, in which people are under quite a lot of pressure, not least from social media. Seventy-seven per cent. were teaching students in larger classes, and I could go on. There were clearly pressures, and I know my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who has responsibility for further education, will be looking hard at that survey and no doubt engaging with the sixth-form colleges and further education colleges to see how these matters can be addressed.

I feel passionately about readiness for work and soft skills, which are vital for our country’s future and our young people’s future. I have the honour of chairing the international Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and I met Liam Byrne a few months ago to ask him whether he would mind editing a book on the future of work, an area in which he has a lot of expertise. He did so, and we launched the book at the World Bank meetings in Indonesia at the beginning of last month and here in Parliament a couple of weeks ago.

The book’s examples from around the world, whether from Singapore, South Korea or Argentina, clearly show that everybody is facing this issue of the future of work. There are huge changes coming up, whether through artificial intelligence or the next generation of technology, and we have to prepare our young people not necessarily for those individual skills—skills and techniques move on—but for the ability to change and to accept the need to retrain. They need flexibility in the way they think about the future. That has to start not when people have left school, college or university, but at primary school. It does not have to start too early, but perhaps in year 6 and moving on into year 7. Many schools and colleges are trying to do that work, but they need support; they need recognition for that in the curriculum. Readiness for work is vital.

Let me mention one small step we have taken in Stafford. With some friends and colleagues, I started a schools debating competition a couple of years ago, whereby schools and colleges can come to the House of Commons to compete against each other in a friendly, competitive manner. We are very pleased with the results. One thing young people have said to me is that it gives them much greater confidence to speak in public.