My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for initiating this important debate. In 1991 my noble friend Lord Moser—then Sir Claus—in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, castigated what he saw as the major failures of the British education system and called for the establishment of a Royal Commission. That call was echoed a few months later in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan.
It was rejected by the Major Government at the time, but, happily, Sir Claus Moser—as he then was—was able to persuade his friend Paul Hamlyn, subsequently Lord Hamlyn, to fund from his foundation a national commission on education, in which I was privileged to share. We published our report in 1993—12 years ago. I want to pay tribute to those who assisted in the commission's work; notably my vice-chairman John Raisman, my noble friend Lord Moser, Sir John Cassels, our director, and many other commissioners including the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws.
We promulgated seven items in our vision—which I commend to your Lordships' House—and seven goals. We strongly recommended that the educational provision in the UK should be co-ordinated and planned as a single whole from age 14 to 18 or 19 and even, at times, beyond. We recommended a new general education diploma leading to an ordinary level qualification at about age 16 and an advanced level qualification at 18 to 19 to replace GSCEs, A-levels, BTEC, GNVQs and so on. All courses were to be provided on a modular basis.
At once your Lordships will ask how that proposal differed from GSCEs and A-levels. We of course recognised that it was important that in the national curriculum there should be five core areas within which there should be a wide choice of specific subjects. Those areas were languages; mathematics; natural science and technology; expressive arts, including physical education; and the humanities, including social science.
As for the requirements for the diploma, we recommended that at ordinary level the student must obtain at least the minimum total number of credit points prescribed, including the minimum number of credit points prescribed in subjects within the compulsory core. For the award of a diploma at advanced level, we recommended that the student must obtain at least the minimum number of credit points prescribed in a nominated major area of study; but in addition, the minimum total number of credit points—as we promoted it—prescribed in subjects from at least three core areas not within the major area of study.
Your Lordships will recognise some resemblance to the International Baccalaureate. I have to say to noble Lords who have mentioned it today that two of my grandchildren, educated at an international school in Switzerland, both passed the International Baccalaureate and had no difficulty in obtaining entrance to Durham University, where each of them achieved good degrees. The fact that they had not taken A-levels was no disadvantage to them.
In passing I would mention that, building on our report and its recommendations, my noble friend Lord Dearing in his subsequent report a few years later also strongly commended a baccalaureate. He apologises that he cannot contribute to the debate because he is undertaking a task in Berlin on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
One of the principles underlying our proposals was that there should be, as my noble friend Lady Warnock has said, a mechanism whereby there would be parity of esteem between the academic and vocational qualifications. That mechanism must allow a fast-track means for those intending to go up the academic ladder, but at the same time it must include the possibility that youngsters could take a combination of academic and vocational subjects; and the issue of breadth is fundamental.
Among the evidence that we took—we obtained 250 written submissions from many organisations, including universities, and took oral evidence at 50 hearings over a 12-month period—there was almost universal acceptance by virtually but not quite all the universities that A-levels had passed their sell-by date. There was a strong recommendation to the effect that they were so narrow that early specialisation was resulting in graduates in the arts who were scientifically illiterate and graduates in science who knew little of the arts and humanities. That was one of the reasons why we felt that breadth should be encouraged.
We did not expect, or intend, that the process of the education diploma should end at the age of 18 or 19. One of our most important recommendations was that those who entered work at 16 plus, and those who continued in work beyond 18 or 19, should have the opportunity of acquiring points towards the diploma through credit accumulation and transfer so that they would achieve additional qualifications of an academic or vocational nature through their occupational life. That is a crucial issue that is not fully covered in the White Paper.
There are many good things in the White Paper, but the attempt to cobble a new educational structure on to the existing framework of GCEs and A-levels is an error. I believe that the Government should think about it again very seriously. It is important to the future of our country. In the National Commission on Education report, one of our visions was that,
"in all countries knowledge and applied intelligence have become central to economic success and personal and social well-being."
I mention to my noble friend Lord Northbourne that he will see a lot about social skills and interpersonal relationships in the National Commission on Education report. We also made clear that in the United Kingdom much higher achievement in education and training is needed to match world standards. I believe that if the Government pursue what is in the White Paper without reconsideration they will have lost a golden opportunity to improve education in the UK.