My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for bringing forward this debate on a subject that is of major significance to the future of our country. I particularly congratulate the noble Baroness on her exquisite timing in having this debate follow today's magnificent Budget announcements, with extra funding for education that impacts directly on the subject matter we are discussing.
The analysis of the Tomlinson report is compelling, and its essence is encapsulated in one of its earlier paragraphs:
"We want to bring back a passion for learning, and enable all learners to achieve as highly as possible and for their achievements to be recognised. We must ensure rigour and that all young people are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for HE, employment and adult life".
I place particular emphasis on the word "all", and illustrate with a couple of local experiences why I believe this must be so.
About four years ago, we launched an event in Luton called "Celebrating Education". It was a public recognition across the town for young people who had achieved. Schools had their own awards day, and nominated a particular pupil for the town-wide event. This not only focused on those with the highest academic attainment, but included those, some with special educational needs, who, in their terms, had made real progress. The joy of their having succeeded, and the support and engagement of parents, were of special significance to me. "Celebrating Education" was part of the process of value in education, and I am pleased to say it is now an annual event.
Although at the other end of the spectrum from the 14 to 19 age group, I would also cite an event at a local nursery school where I had the privilege of presenting some certificates. In one case, I am not sure who was most excited and proud, the little girl or her mother. I heard the latter remark that it was the first time anyone in the family had received any award like this. It was as though she considered that it was not supposed to happen to families like theirs. We have to ensure that no individual or family feels excluded from the education system, and that every individual has the opportunity to reach their potential.
We have made huge progress in this country since the imperative of "Education, education, education" was first espoused by the Prime Minister. As acknowledged by the noble Baroness, primary results are at their highest ever level, and compare favourably internationally. Key stage 3, GCSE and A-level results are at their best-ever level. Record levels of investment have flowed into our schools, with more to come for building schools for the future, and yet more following today's announcement in that splendid Budget. Post-16 participation rates have increased, but we know that these do not compare well internationally, and that too many youngsters leave school without a basic grounding in English and maths.
If we changed nothing from the investment and strategies already in place, I have no doubt that most young people in our schools would continue to make further progress. But it is not good enough that only most young people make the best of their education. We want all young people to do so. We know that the current education offer to students means that some are precluded from succeeding, because the type of curriculum that would engage and excite them is absent. Switching off from education not only diminishes the life chances of the individual, but can percolate through the generations. Too often we see the malignant cycle of disaffection with the curriculum, bad behaviour, low attainment, lack of parental engagement with the school, and a rush from education at the earliest opportunity. We are already having to deal with the consequences of parents whom the system has failed in the past.
The Tomlinson report and the Government's response give us a genuine opportunity to change this. Neither should we accept that there is an inevitability about differential educational outcomes for students from different ethnic backgrounds. The situation we have locally mirrors the national position, with the relative position of some ethnic groups improving through the key stages, while for others it declines. The proposals in the White Paper will help because they focus more on the individual needs of the student and they build in flexibility on the timing of progression.
As the White Paper asserts, tackling these matters is both a moral and an economic issue. It is a moral issue because we have a duty to ensure that every individual is equipped to enjoy a full life, including access to higher education and employment. It is an economic issue because if we are to compete successfully in the global economy, we need to improve skills and to encourage the capacity and enthusiasm to learn throughout life. We should also recognise that we need to seek an enduring consensus on these matters if we are to deliver the change required for our young people. The Government's White Paper recognises that in building on the changes already taking place, it would still be 2015 before all the diplomas became a nationwide entitlement.
It has been said again today that the Government's response to the Tomlinson report was a missed opportunity, but I reject that assertion. Even though they have not adopted all the recommendations made, they have adopted its fundamental analysis of the issues that need to be tackled: getting the basics right, strengthening vocational routes, focusing on the needs of individual pupils, seeking ways to stretch and challenge, engaging employers in the design of diplomas and widening routes to higher education. They have also gone some way to responding to recommendations made about the burden of assessment.
However, there is divergence on the matter of the continuing role of GCSEs and A-levels. Tomlinson envisages these as ceasing to be freestanding qualifications and evolving to become components of the new diplomas. The Government's White Paper puts GCSEs and A-levels at the heart of the 14-to-19 agenda, but with some key changes. I wonder whether in practice and over time the difference in these two approaches is as wide as has been suggested. Tomlinson's diplomas include "open" lines of learning and retained opportunities for a combination of academic subjects similar to existing GCSEs and A-levels. What these are called is less important than ensuring that the programme can meet the needs of the individual student, encouraging progression and facilitating movement across the offering so that young people do not unduly narrow their options.
It is hugely important to ensure that the diplomas enjoy the same value and recognition as GCSEs and A-levels and that they offer the same opportunities to access higher education and employment. There is no inherent reason why they should not do so if the components of the diplomas are of high quality and relevance. In any case, an interesting debate for another day is to ask what in the modern world is vocational and what is academic.
I should like to make two further brief points. I note that the White Paper recognises the need for further work on how best to stretch the most able students. There is a hint that the international baccalaureate might offer one way of doing this. Noble Lords will be aware that the IB aims for breadth, depth and stretch, and there is a particular and welcome emphasis on international awareness, cross-cultural perspectives and caring about the world. I would be interested to learn where this approach sits in the current vision of the 14-to-19 agenda.
Secondly, we know that the prospects presented in the White Paper mean that not all schools and institutions will be able to offer the full entitlement to diplomas, GCSEs and A-levels and that the agenda will require increased co-operation and partnership arrangements between schools, colleges, universities and employers.
But these are genuinely exciting times for education, with a chance to build on the progress made to date and to tackle further the fundamental issues which have daunted us for too long.