Post-16 Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:02 pm on 14th November 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:02 pm, 14th November 2001

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Pilkington for the opportunity to debate this issue. He made some cogent criticisms of AS-levels, to which I shall return. It has been an excellent, if short, debate, which has touched on many aspects of 16-plus education.

It is not possible to discuss this subject without reference to one of the most serious teacher shortages in years—not only because of the number of vacancies, which is serious enough, but because of the unprecedented number of supply teachers who are being used to cover for the lack of full-time teachers. There is also a problem with the number of teachers who are teaching subjects for which they are not trained.

In so many answers by Ministers—here, in another place and, indeed, before Select Committees—on the issue of teacher shortages, there has been an air of complacency. So often one hears Ministers say that while there is more to do, and while we should not be complacent, there are nevertheless more teachers in post than ever before and the shortage represents only a small percentage of all posts.

Any visit to schools will show that there is a real problem of teacher recruitment and retention. Even where vacancies are filled, it is frequently the case that schools have very little choice but to take the only applicant, or appoint one from a very small number of applicants. Over time, whether we like it or not, that is bound to affect standards.

For school-based 16-plus education, there is much anxiety. Let me say for the record that expressing concerns about school-based 16-plus education does not imply criticism of sixth-form colleges or further education, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I believe firmly in choice and diversity at 16-plus.

As to funding—to which reference has been made—since the setting up of the wholly unaccountable learning and skills councils there has been considerable anxiety about the future funding of sixth forms. There is little confidence in the Government's promise that sixth form funding would not suffer as a result of the introduction of learning and skills councils. The Government have introduced an incredibly bureaucratic system where the learning and skills councils pass money down to the local education authorities, and the local education authorities have then to struggle to pass it on to the sixth forms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brigstocke, referred to the learning and skills councils concentrating solely on skills-based learning, perhaps at the expense of pure academic learning. I agree that there have to be pathways going in distinct directions, but one should be able to travel from one kind of education to another.

The future of sixth forms is at risk. There is a crisis of confidence in our schools about their future. Again it is believed that over time the learning and skills councils will favour the closure of school-based sixth forms, and the most vulnerable will be those in our rural communities.

In a Written Answer to my honourable friend Damian Green in another place, the Minister admitted that pupils who attend schools with sixth forms achieve better results than those who attend schools without them. Mr Ivan Lewis said:

"The proportion of 15-year-olds that achieved five or more GCSEs at A* to C was (a) 52.2 per cent. in schools with sixth forms and (b) 42.2 per cent. in schools without sixth forms".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/11/01; col. 539W.]

Further pressures on school-based sixth forms have arisen through the far from trouble free introduction of AS-levels. The combination of GCSEs, GNVQs, AS and A-levels has presented problems of timetabling, overlapping of examinations and bunching of examinations at the end of the school year, and has created huge pressures on teachers and students. Whether or not they are right in principle, the advocation and the introduction of AS-levels has caused great stress.

The Government have created the worst of all worlds for students taking AS-levels. As my noble friend said, they do not necessarily broaden the experience of sixth formers and there is confusion about their value. Are students who fail AS-levels supposed to resit them in their final year?

What comfort is there for current year students who have heard Ministers admit that there are problems with AS-levels and who understand that they are being reviewed—and yet they continue to have to take them in this current year?

The former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Dr Nick Tate, admitted:

"I don't think we fully thought out all the available options before we added a new tier of exams".

The National Association of Headteachers criticised the new A-level system in May. It complained that Curriculum 2000 is damaging students and schools. It conducted a straw poll among its members and found that 60 per cent believed that post-16 reforms were not working and that 40 per cent thought they were working only partially. The National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers warned that confusion over the new system is discouraging young people from entering the sixth form.

There has also been much criticism of the vocational qualification. The failure rate for the new vocational A-level is as high as 90 per cent in some subjects. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, said:

"Vocational A levels have been ill-thought out. They have recast GNVQs in the same shape as A levels, adding another academic route rather than a good form of practical education for employment".

The Government have made much of life-long learning, and none of us can argue with that. But the individual learning accounts were introduced with a great flourish and, I am afraid, they have ended in tears. Only today, I received a press release from the Department for Education and Skills, in which the Minister, Mr Healey, took business leaders to task for not doing enough to tackle the problem of skill shortages. The press release stated:

"The Adult Skills Minister John Healey...told business leaders that they needed to do much more to tackle the problem of skills shortages facing the economy. This follows"— so the DfES states,

"the publication of the 'Skills in England 2001' report, which showed that 1 in 10 employers had experienced the problem of skill shortages".

This is the very document that pledged to continue and expand the individual learning accounts, which was published only two days before the same department announced their suspension. That story beggars belief.

From the introduction of individual learning accounts, the department was warned of problems with the administration of the scheme. Hundreds of complaints were received every month. It is not good enough for the Government to claim both that the number of complaints was relatively small compared with the overall number of accounts awarded and that the problem was so severe that, with no warning or consultation, the scheme had to be abandoned.

The tragedy of this sorry saga is that the genuine providers and students have been badly let down. Providers are going out of business and some are left with considerable debts. Students are being abandoned and jobs will be lost. Real training opportunities for those on low incomes, who would most have benefited from the scheme, will be lost to education and training. What scheme will replace the ILA and when will it be in place? Is there any chance that the bona fide providers, who are the great majority, can be thrown a lifeline?

What progress is being made on the student finance review? What is the timescale for the review? When is it envisaged that the new scheme will be in place? Who is to be consulted and how? If the proposals that were leaked recently in the press are to believed, students will continue to be equally disadvantaged. Because the review is to be carried out by officials, it is unlikely that there will be wide participation by external interested bodies. I hope that the Minister will be able to disabuse me of that view.

I have sympathy with the view expressed in a recent publication by the Institute of Directors, which touched on expansion in higher education. It stated:

"The expansion of student numbers may have had beneficial consequences. For example, it has resulted in an increase in the proportion of well-educated people for business to employ and so has helped to ease skill shortages in some areas. On the other hand, the increase in student numbers may have adversely affected standards. Fears persist that some new degree programmes are not as demanding as the more traditional subjects. This is not a matter of arcane debate, for the present Government is committed to a further expansion of higher education. Following the Dearing Report, the Government announced that it wanted to see 50 per cent of those aged up to 30 receive higher education by 2010".

As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, the expansion of higher education does not necessarily address some of the key issues.

The institute also stated:

"Clearly, British business needs a well-educated workforce in order to enhance its ability to compete. However, it does not follow from this that the UK needs more graduates, regardless of their academic discipline. Britain already has the highest proportion of 21 year olds graduating amongst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. According to the OECD, 35.6 per cent of people aged 21 graduated in 1999. By way of contrast, only 14 per cent of British employees have intermediate level vocational qualifications compared to 46 per cent of German employees".

The Government have pledged to expand access. Can we be certain that the funding will keep pace with the expansion? Are the Government convinced that the quality of higher education will not suffer? Are the Government not concerned about the number of young people drifting into higher education who would benefit much more from higher quality vocational training in further education or in the workplace? Are the Government satisfied with the quality of all degree courses? Do the Government accept that further education has much to offer young people, both in terms of high quality, sub-degree vocational education and in terms of providing education and training nearer to where students live, thereby avoiding mounting debt?

The world beyond school is a tough and competitive place. For our country to compete successfully, the potential of all young people should be developed. The determination to expand higher education must not be at the expense of standards or of high quality vocational education and sub-degree courses in further education, which would be more appropriate for many students. Parity of esteem for all forms of education and training—academic and vocational—is also important. The important issues are the same for post-16 as for pre-16 education: provision should be appropriate to the educational needs, aptitudes and potential of every student. For the Government simply to say that they are spending more money misses the point of the debate. Greater professional freedom, academic freedom for our universities, flexibility, choice, quality and standards are the real issues.