My Lords, by happenstance, it is Budget day which, in many ways, is quite fitting. The Chancellor said in his speech that because education is the 21st-century road to prosperity, Britain must become the best educated, the best trained and the best skilled country in the world. The noble Lord, Lord Walton, said something very similar in his interesting and important speech.
The Chancellor also drew attention to the fact that we are moving rapidly from a world in which compulsory education was for everyone from five to 16 to one in which universal education and training will be available to everyone from the age of three to 18. I preface my response with those remarks because they set the wider context for our important discussion about education and training for 14 to 19 year-olds.
I do not need to spend time on why we need reform, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, spoke well on that and most Members have read both the Tomlinson report and the White Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said something that the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, said, when we debated the Dearing report: if we can achieve a consensus on these issues, it is desirable to do so for many good reasons. I am not sure that we have a perfect consensus. My measure of the views across the House is that the consensus varies between a half and seven-eighths. I will not put marks, at this point, on who is where. At least there is a consensus on some of the elements.
Essentially, the difference is that we have not done everything that the excellent Tomlinson report recommended. Show me a government who ever did so behave. Advisory groups give advice and governments make decisions, as they should.
The key decision that we have made is that it is possible to tackle the key problems that Mike Tomlinson and his working group identified, quite correctly, while also retaining the clarity, stability and quality of the best parts of our system. In other words, one does not need to throw everything up in the air all at once to focus on what most needs to be changed and there is a benefit in having some stability in a system that is undergoing rapid change.
Does that mean that we are addressing these problems in a piecemeal fashion, as the noble Lord, Lord Moser, asked? I do not believe so. We have focused on the specific measures needed to produce a coherent structure for 14 to 19 year-olds. Above all, we have secured the basics, we have better vocational opportunities, we have more stretch for all pupils and we are re-engaging disengaged learners. Those are the four key elements—if we pressed Mike Tomlinson I am sure he would agree that those are the fundamentals—and we are focusing on how to deliver them. Employers and many parents also tell us that those are the fundamentals. Many in the world out there want change most focused on those matters.
The first element of the debate was about getting the basics right. That was perhaps, surprisingly, one of the less richly developed areas of our discussion. The noble Baronesses, Lady Massey, Lady Walmsley and Lady Morris, all referred to it. There has been strong pressure and support from the CBI for what we have proposed in this area. In the debate, no one recognised that in the White Paper we have gone substantially further than the Tomlinson report on how we address getting the basics right. No one mentioned the fundamental importance of the changes that we are making to key stage 3 and to trying to achieve the correct remediation if children arrive from primary schools—we hope they will not—without the basics. If that is not done, the rest of the educational offer, as we know, is completely wasted for obvious reasons.
We are getting the basics right in other ways. I shall not go into detail. Clearly, the focus on functionality is very important. There is something wrong if people can do differential equations, but cannot add up their change in the pub. Without being trivial, part of our reforms address that.
I turn to the central theme of improving vocational education and vocational qualifications and, through that, securing more engagement. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, put his finger on the point. It does not matter what it is called, but what one can deliver. We are putting forward strong reforms to strengthen vocational education. Such education will have a diploma status. The diploma will not only be in vocational training, there will also be an academic element to it.
The fact that we have not taken every bit of what Mike Tomlinson said into the overarching, almost classical, structure of a uniformed diploma has caused unhappiness. That has been echoed in our debate today. Part of that unhappiness is the belief by many that if everything does not have the label of diploma, in some way people will feel that having a vocational diploma is not to be valued. It would be wonderful if, by simply giving everything the same label, we could shift some of the prejudice against vocational training education. But we do not believe that to be the case. Therefore, we have not been persuaded that it now is a priority for change.
That repositions the question of how we make vocational training and a diploma which are rich in vocational content, valued, recognised and have status. That was one of the central themes in our discussion today. A large part of the answer was touched on by my noble friend Lord Pendry when he signalled that some of this must be demand-led. You have to listen to those in higher education institutions and in the world of work on what they think should be the content of vocational training and vocational diplomas. If you get that right, you make an acceptance that this has value and status very likely.
My first meeting of the morning was with Sir Digby Jones. We were discussing a joint passion for sorting out offender education and getting more people into jobs. He was articulating—and I strongly agreed with him—that you had to start with what employers wanted and valued and build on that. It is exactly the same on this agenda. Fundamental to that question is how employers from sector skills councils and HE institutions work with the QCA to design the content to give these diplomas real credibility.
In other words, if young people know that getting a diploma with a high vocational content will virtually guarantee them recognition and status in the world of work, there will be a rush to get them and perhaps less of a rush to gain qualifications which give very unclear paths into the world of work and employment. There will be more to it than that.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Griffiths that the provision also partly rebuts the argument—the secondary modern legacy which has infected this debate—that vocational means less able. That legacy infects part of British society.
I welcome the applause of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, for the simplification from 3,500 qualifications to 14 diplomas. I agree also with the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock—and I shall return to the issue later—about resources.
In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, you cannot simply legislate to give vocational qualifications parity of esteem. You cannot achieve that by giving every higher educational 14 to 19 qualification the same label.
I also mark that the diplomas are not only vocational. "Specialise" is not the same as "vocational". The lines of learning can and will include GCSEs and A-levels within vocational courses. In other words, a diploma which is essentially vocational will have a mix of academic and vocational elements to it. That is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked how the White Paper will contribute to life-long learning. The answer is that it will do so directly through three areas—providing access to higher education; forming the foundation on which individuals can build; and employment in later life. The courses which make up specialised diplomas will often be exactly the same as those available to adults through the Framework for Achievement.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, also raised the issue of high status and whether it will be achieved. I touched on that with the involvement of employers and universities in designing the courses—in other words, ensuring that you are listening to those for whom they are meant.
We touched a little, but not massively, on stretch and challenge. That is the third key element in the Government's White Paper proposals. Part of that is about the retention of A-levels and GCSEs. It is not true, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, alleged, that there is no change and that we are carrying on with exactly the same system. We will be piloting the introduction of optional harder questions into A-levels to make them more rigorous and stretching. As the noble Baroness will recollect, because she was there at the time, in the Education Bill we are putting in the option of starting HE courses in schools. So there is a richer higher-stretch option. There is much more to the matter than that, but I do not have time to deal with it now.
My noble friend Lord McKenzie asked on stretch and challenge whether the International Baccalaureate was an option. The short answer is that it suits some—it is a well established qualification—but it is not the answer for all. Therefore, we are not going to roll that in as a universal offer.
There was some debate—and my noble friend Lord McKenzie touched on it—about the difference between what Mike Tomlinson recommended and what the Government White Paper says about A-levels. It does not seem to some to be the biggest issue. Essentially, Tomlinson said that we should retain what A-levels and GCSE were but get rid of the label. We are retaining the label as well as the contents. If that is the only issue that divides us, I do not think we should faint about it.
A further question was about whether the A-level offer is too narrow. The Curriculum 2000 reforms, which are still being implemented and bedded-in, have broadened substantially the offer that many young people undertake. Many now take four AS subjects—and all the better for it.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked whether we need stepping stones on the way to whole qualifications. A-levels and, increasingly, GCSEs are modular. An AS equals the first half, as the noble Lord knows, of a whole A-level. We agree that students should be able to move to AS level without doing a GCSE first if they are able to do so. So you can go faster if it suits you.
The critical issue which both Tomlinson and the White Paper address is on raising participation and achievement. In crude numbers we must aim for 70 per cent now and 90 per cent at least in 10 years' time. The Budget had a specific offer on that. It signalled that we will now offer those in full-time education or unwaged training up to £75 per week in education maintenance allowance and children's benefits; and for teenagers who are both out of work and out of education, we will pilot special transitional help if they agree to return to training.
Also in the Budget there is the strengthened offer for apprentices and college-based training and the offer to increase funding into FE colleges. As the House knows, we have already raised the number of apprentices to more than a quarter of a million.
A lot more needs to be done on raising participation and achievement. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, my noble friend Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, were right—to get participation at the higher level right, you have to get engagement and learning going well in the early years. I refer to pre-school, addressing the contribution that parents do or do not make and getting the foundations right. If you do not have full participation of children in primary school—in other words if 10 per cent are disaffected—you can guarantee that they will be opting out at the age of 16 and onwards.
So, if you are trying to ensure that you are raising participation, you must have a total system perspective. You cannot achieve it merely from the ages of 14 and 15. I repeat that our proposals on strengthening the attention in key stage 3 as a crucial part of this agenda are directly relevant to raising participation later on. In other words, if a child of 12 or 13 is not able to participate because he or she does not have a good foundation for key stage 3, you must put more effort into that. We are directly focused on that.
Part of raising vocational attainment is avoiding the feeling that some young people currently have that they are locked in school, sitting learning things for which they cannot see a direct relevance, with a syllabus that feels as though it is still essentially geared towards getting A-levels and going into academic higher education; and that the offer does not seem to address the needs of those who may be perfectly bright but who are much more interested in going down a practical and work-based route.