My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to speak from these Benches in this important and significant debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for initiating it and I greatly enjoyed the contributions of all noble Lords. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I found them imaginative and thought-provoking.
As many noble Lords have mentioned, encouraging greater participation and involvement in education is a challenge that none of us can ignore. We owe it to society and to our young people to do all that we can to address the very real problems that are acting as constraints in the present system.
To that end, the Tomlinson report is an important marker, and we must thank Sir Mike Tomlinson and his team for their enthusiasm and tenacity in drawing together an imaginative and creative report in a genuine and honest attempt to address the more entrenched weaknesses in the existing structure.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the report was the broad consensus that it achieved. All of us, it seemed, were in agreement that raising core literacy, numeracy and computer skills was vital, along with the need to encourage greater participation beyond the age of 16. We, for our part, stated clearly and unequivocally—this has been reinforced today by my noble friend Lord Lucas—that, while the Tomlinson report provided many invaluable suggestions for reforming 14 to 19 education, we did not agree with the proposal to abolish GCSEs and A-levels.
The Secretary of State, in her White Paper response to the Tomlinson report, now seems to agree with us, but she failed to offer any proposals for making A-levels more rigorous. In fact, she indicated that no changes would be made to the content of the exam at all. The White Paper stated the Government's plans to work with employers and universities to identify what, if anything, would add value to existing courses. But the Secretary of State does not plan even to consider making reforms until 2008. Our children deserve a quality education and should not have to wait until 2008 to get one.
"Only by giving head teachers and their professional colleagues the freedom to set their own academic agendas in line with their admissions policies will classrooms once more become the orderly and happy places in which children can learn and excel".
It is disappointing that, after eight years and four Secretaries of State, Labour has just woken up to the crisis of confidence in our examination system. Far from the transparency that the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, spoke of, it has created an opaque and devalued system that few would now seek to copy. I think that the noble Baroness called it a "dog's breakfast".
We share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, with regard to numeracy and literacy. So, in addition to our proposal to improve A-levels and GCSEs, we think that it is of crucial importance that receipt of a diploma will depend on passing externally examined literacy and numeracy tests. This measure will ensure that those who leave school possess the basic reading and maths skills that they will need to function in the wider world.
The CBI has stated that employers wish to see the standards of functional literacy and numeracy among school leavers raised—a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp—because they have been unacceptably poor under successive governments. It also reported that one in three companies has to provide remedial training for those who leave school without having mastered reading, writing and arithmetic. Its 2004 survey of 500 companies showed that 37 per cent were not satisfied with the numeracy and literacy standards of 16 year-olds, and a survey of vice-chancellors showed that 48 per cent have been forced to provide special lessons in literacy and numeracy for first-year students. Two-thirds stated that extra numeracy classes were now the norm. These facts and figures paint an unacceptable picture of the current education system and highlight the need for immediate reform.
In Ruth Kelly's White Paper she proposes to restructure English and maths GCSEs to ensure that it is impossible to get a grade C or above without the ability to use functional English and maths. The fact that there is even a question of whether those who achieve a C at GCSE have those basic skills is appalling.
Along with the reform of the current exam system, we believe that the gap between pupils who concentrate on academic subjects and pupils who focus on vocational subjects should be breached. As my noble friend Lord Lucas said, too often we seem to be concerned only with academic studies.
Every child needs the encouragement and incentive to do well in both areas. A premium must be placed on educating all students, not only those with an interest in pure academia. We should value youngsters with technical or practical qualifications just as much as students with a degree and not regard them, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said, as second class. Indeed, sometimes I think that this country is obsessed with which university you went to. Pupils who choose not to continue on to university need skills to secure jobs in today's world. We must provide our children with the skills and the knowledge they need to be successful and productive members of society.
Despite the Government's emphasis on raising the status of vocational skills training, the White Paper published by the Government fails to offer an effective solution. The Secretary of State on the day of publication of the White Paper stated:
"We must also transform vocational opportunities".—[Hansard, Commons, 23/2/05; col. 312.]
However, her proposals as they are outlined in the White Paper merely offer a pilot programme for 14 to 16 year-olds, which it is expected will be available for up to 10,000 young people from 2007–08.
This contrasts with our plan for immediate vocational grants to allow 300,000 young people from age 14 to take vocational courses in local further education colleges. We would provide £1,000 per year to pupils aged between 14 and 16 so they can receive vocational training. Those grants would allow 20 per cent of the age group to learn a trade. Currently, 22 per cent of British employers suffer from a skills gap. It is estimated that one-fifth of vacancies, approximately 135,000 jobs, remain unfilled because of a shortage of people with the right skills.
Today a million young people are not in school, do not have jobs, and are not enrolled in training courses. We plan to establish a network of skills super colleges, provided by extra funding from the abolition of the learning and skills councils. We are seeking to enable 14 and 15 year-olds to start on a vocational path from school, while allowing further education colleges to provide specialist courses for them.
To build esteem for trade professions, the quality of the vocational education system must be improved. As a result, a young person who chooses a vocational route, and successfully completes that route, will not be viewed as someone who opted for a standard class education; instead, he or she will be seen as an individual with first-class skills. As our hard-working and dedicated teachers know, education is about developing each child or young person to his or her full potential; it is about fostering self belief and unlocking the curiosity inherent in all of us and developing that passion of which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton, spoke. All of us are good at something and the best education finds that something and builds on it.
After eight years, two manifestos, five Green Papers, three White Papers, eight Acts of Parliament, two strategy documents and four Education Secretaries, the Government claim to have the answers to the crisis in education. But I am afraid it is all talk. There are no effective measures to raise standards and the Government have missed a golden opportunity to reform the life chances of a generation of pupils.