[Relevant Documents: The Fourth Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, The Draft Apprenticeships Bill, HC 1082, and the Government’s response, HC 259, Session 2008-09; and oral evidence taken before the Committee on 9 July 2008 on the Learning and Skills Council, HC 960-i, Session 2007-08.
The Seventh Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Session 2007-08, Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill, HC 1062-I, and the Government’s response, HC 262, Session 2008-09; and the First Report from the Committee of Session 2008-09, Re-skilling for Recovery: After Leitch, Implementing Skills and Training Policies, HC 48-I.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Over the past 11 years our education system has been transformed and the lives of children and young people in our country have improved substantially. Over 100,000 more children are now leaving primary school secure in English and maths at level 4, compared to a decade ago. Almost half of young people now achieve five good GCSEs. That compares to just over a third in 1997. Results are rising fastest for pupils in schools in the most deprived areas. More than 3,000 schools have been rebuilt or completely refurbished, nearly 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres are open, and more young people than ever before are going on to higher education and university.
By investing in education and working with our many great school leaders and teachers, we have gone from well below average standard to well above average in education in the world. That view is supported by the recent trends in international mathematics and science study in respect of both maths and science.
However, there is still further to go to get to a truly world-class education system. Although the proportion of secondary schools below our basic benchmark has fallen from more than half—more than 1,600—in 1997 to less than a fifth today, we want every school to be a good school. Although the number of exclusions has fallen by 29 per cent. since 1997, some young people are still left on the wrong track after being excluded from school.
Our Sure Start children’s centres now reach more than 2.3 million children and their families, but not every family yet gets the support that it needs during the early years. Although we have legislated to raise the education leaving age to 18 and more young people are going to university than ever before, there is more to do to get all young people and adults the qualifications and skills that they need. That is why, building on the progress of the past decade and the vision of our children’s plan, the Bill introduces the next stage of radical reforms to guarantee that every school is a good school, to give teachers the support and powers that they need, to provide excellent services for all families in every area and a real culture of early intervention and prevention, and to ensure that all young people and adults get first-class qualifications and skills. All those reforms are vital to our mission to ensure that opportunity and excellence are for all—not just some—young people in our country.
I shall take both hon. Gentlemen’s interventions in a second. However, before I do, I want to pay tribute to Lord Dearing, one of our country’s great education reformers, who died last Thursday. He made a massive contribution in so many areas, and for successive Governments, on languages, the curriculum and higher education. Right up to the end of his life, he was working with my Department to create academies that specialise in technical education. He will be sorely missed by Members on both sides of the House.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and I immediately take this first opportunity to echo my party’s recognition of the tremendous work done by Lord Dearing.
The Secretary of State referred to participation in higher education, and was boastful about his—or his Government’s—record on that. Will he confirm whether the Government stick by the target of 50 per cent. participation for under-30s by 2010? If he confirms that target, how does he reconcile it with the fact that the Government are now capping student numbers?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for my words about Lord Dearing. In my speech I was paying tribute not to myself, but to all the Secretaries of State in the past 10 years who have made the programme. There is a fundamental difference on the issues. On the Labour Benches, we will continue our investment. For 2009-10, and in future years, our commitment is that 50 per cent. of young people will go to university. The Conservative party will not match our commitment, because it wants to cut public spending next year and the year after. That is the difference. There is no cap on student numbers. Our commitment is clear, and the Conservative party’s commitment to cuts is also clear.
I wonder whether this is the time for the Secretary of State to share with the House whether he believes that the university of Durham was right to say that official statistics overstate the improvement in educational performance in recent years. Does he believe that Professor Peter Williams, chair of the advisory committee on mathematics education, is right? He said:
“over 20 or 30 years, I don’t think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen”.
Is the Secretary of State trying to set up an independent Ofqual today because he accepts those points?
As I said, the international, objective TIMSS report, which came out only recently, showed that England was ahead of our European partners in maths and science. There has been no dumbing down of our science qualifications. As to the review of primary education to which the hon. Gentleman referred a moment ago, I should say that we are grateful for that contribution. Jim Rose will reflect on it, as he reflects on other contributions. In my view, it is essential that we have a slimmed down primary education curriculum that focuses on what children and parents want—to have the basics of reading and maths under control when going to secondary school. We have made substantial strides in achieving that in recent years, and we are not going to go backwards and take away the emphasis on the basics. I hope that that is not what the hon. Gentleman would propose.
Clause 47 concerns the provision of education for persons subject to youth detention. Given that, as the Secretary of State knows, upwards of 60 per cent. of the 11,000 people in our young offender institutions suffer from speech, language and communication problems of an intensity that prevents them from accessing conventional education and training courses, can he say something more than the Bill does about how the Government intend to ratchet up provision for those people?
I wanted to make some progress and look at the individual reforms in order, but I am happy to answer that particular point. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s speech later on, and I hope that, if possible, he might be permitted to serve on the Committee. The reforms that we are introducing in the Bill, which build on the work that he has done for the Government in speech, language and communication, are very clear about the fact that we must strengthen our responsibility to young people going into custody and coming out of custody—in particular, through new responsibilities for local authorities in taking forward those young people’s education and ensuring continuity of education afterwards.
It is not normal on Second Reading to look forward to amendments, which are really a matter for the Committee, but in recent weeks there has been a debate, which has included contributions from the Special Educational Consortium, on ways in which we could strengthen this part of the Bill. I am happy to say that in Committee we will table amendments to make it clear that the obligations on local authorities to deal with young people in custody will be strengthened. In particular, although it is not possible for all the content of educational statements to continue while a young person is in custody, local authorities and the youth custody estate will have an obligation as far as possible to continue that special focus on those with learning difficulties while they are in custody. That, among other changes, will be very important in ensuring that these clauses have real, detailed teeth. We will also ensure that we say so in our guidance. Those issues will be debated in Committee, but today I am giving an assurance that we will take them forward with great seriousness.
I am sure that the Secretary of State did not wish to mislead the House in his answer to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), but would he confirm that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has announced a moratorium on university places for 2009 and 2010?
As I understand it, we have funded 10,000 more student places—that is no cap. The question is this: are the aspirations of young people in this country capped? The answer is, not by this Government—we want 50 per cent. of young people in universities. Would they be capped by the Conservatives? The answer is yes, because they will not support our objective; in fact, they would cut the public spending that is needed to ensure that those numbers keep rising year on year in the future. That is the difference between the two parties, and that is the point that I was making in my answer.
I wanted to start my speech by talking about school reforms. As I said, in 1997, 1,600 secondary schools were below the basic benchmark; that figure is now down to just 440, from over half to less than a fifth of secondary schools. We are not satisfied, however, and our national challenge objective is to ensure that we get that number down to zero by 2011. That is why we have provided £400 million of funding and why there is extra support for those schools. Many of them, already high-performing schools that are doing well, will get there without the need for such extra support, but where schools are not on course, we will step in. The Bill challenges local authorities to tackle underperforming schools, but it also gives us the power, where they will not act, to step in and require them to take their responsibilities seriously. We will do so by requiring them to match new investment with new leadership through national challenge trusts and our academies programme.
Over the past 18 months, I have given the go-ahead to 96 further academy projects, of which 43 will replace national challenge schools. We have gone from six university sponsors of academies in July 2007 to 48 sponsors today, and 12 local authorities are now sponsoring academies themselves. These schools are taking a greater proportion of disadvantaged and deprived children than the catchment area would suggest and delivering faster rising results than the average. They are proof that we can break the link between deprivation and lack of achievement. That has not happened by accident, but because we are willing to act and intervene. Since January, we have agreed to 17 new academies, and I can announce today that the Schools Minister and I have given the go-ahead to six new academy projects to replace a total of seven schools, six of which are national challenge schools, in Croydon, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Bournemouth. I commend the academies programme to the House.
As someone who wishes to see more pupils from state schools get to top universities, does the Secretary of State agree with those in such universities who think that some A-levels are more serious and academically rigorous than others, and if he does, will his reforms include getting more of those subjects taught and examined in state schools?
I was coming to that very point. If we want to raise school standards to ensure that every school can be an excellent local school, it does not just take good leadership and a willingness to intervene to drive change where necessary, but strong inspection and independent auditing of standards. As the House will know, in the spring, we will publish a report card White Paper. Through the Bill, we will strengthen school inspection by allowing Ofsted to produce an annual health check for all schools and to introduce a new, risk-based approach, which will mean that more attention is focused on schools that need more support, and that there is a lighter touch for higher-performing schools. At the same time, building upon the immediate success of our new independent regulator of qualifications, tests and examinations, the Bill will provide Ofqual with the remit, powers and independence that it needs. It is the job of Ofsted, with greater flexibility, greater powers and much greater independence, as a body reporting directly to Parliament, to ensure that we maintain the quality of standards across qualifications and over time. That is what the Bill will achieve, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support it.
The Secretary of State will be aware that at a recent Qualifications and Curriculum Authority meeting in September, the chair of the Ofqual committee spoke of the need for a clearer picture of what is meant by maintaining standards when the structure of qualifications changes. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he means by maintaining standards in such circumstances?
I am not going to do that, because I will leave it to Ofqual. It is an independent regulator of standards, it is independent of Ministers and it reports directly to Parliament. It is clearly its job to ensure that standards are maintained across qualifications and over time. We have to get away from this ridiculous, damaging and draining debate about dumbing down, when, whenever standards go up and teachers and young people have worked hard, some politicians and commentators jump up and say, “This must be because standards have been dumbed down.” That is not fair, and it is not right. Rather than my making such assurances about standards, it will be much better when Ofqual, the independent regulator, makes such assurances to the public and to families. I am not going to second-guess its work. That is Ofqual’s remit and responsibility, and it should get on with that work.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his patience in giving way a second time. Given his undoubted enthusiasm for a fully independent Ofqual, will he take up the recommendations of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that it should be allowed to sample cohorts to obtain an objective assessment of what is happening to educational standards over time?
In the reforms to key stage 3, we are introducing such sampling, and Ofqual will advise us on it to ensure that standards are maintained. However, I am not going to pre-empt the work of the expert committee that is looking at key stage 2 reform. The Bill makes it clear that there is a role for Ofqual as an independent regulator and as the monitor of standards to ensure that standards are maintained in national curriculum tests. Lord Sutherland praised the work of Ofqual precisely because he recognises that its role will be crucial to getting beyond the mess of last year’s curriculum tests.
I turn to a second point that is essential to the Bill. Strong discipline is vital for effective teaching and learning. Over the past decade, we have made huge progress on improving behaviour. In 2007, Ofsted rated behaviour as poor or unsatisfactory in a third of the number of schools that it had given that rating to 10 years before. Following Sir Alan Steer’s review in 2005, we have given head teachers the powers that they need to tackle bad behaviour. In the Bill, we are extending the powers that we have given school and college staff to search a pupil for weapons so that they may search also for drugs, alcohol and stolen property. Alan Steer asked for those reforms to ensure that teachers have the powers that they need so that they can get on and teach in the classroom.
At the same time, we will legislate to build on the work that now involves pretty much all secondary schools, including all academies, working in partnerships to challenge poor behaviour and attendance. We will implement Sir Alan Steer’s recommendation that all secondary schools, including academies and pupil referral units, should be part of those partnerships. As will be discussed in Committee, I intend to ensure that those behaviour partnerships report regularly to children’s trusts on the work that they are doing together. That work will ensure that we keep exclusions down but that they happen when they are needed, that head teachers have the confidence to use their powers, and that we intervene early to keep young people on the right track and ensure that they are not permanently or temporarily excluded from school.
It is also important that schools have the support of parents. Strengthening the role of parents in schools is an important part of the children’s plan, but we also want to ensure that when parents feel that their complaints are not being properly listened to, they have a proper right of resort. In our consultation, parents made clear their view that the opportunity to complain to the local government ombudsman would be welcome, and we are taking that step in the Bill. That is the right approach, and it will be used in a very small minority of cases. I hope that the whole House will support that reform.
If I may, I shall bring the Secretary of State back to Ofqual and its independence. Has he had an opportunity to meet two of the three large examination bodies, which have serious, albeit different, concerns about its independence and its ability to ensure that standards are right? It is not good that those powerful bodies have such doubts about the independence of that important new agency.
Ofqual is a new agency that has tough powers, and it is important that the examination bodies know that it has teeth and will use its powers when it needs to. It would not surprise me if the examination bodies were concerned, but are they concerned about its independence? In my view, absolutely not. It is a non-departmental body that reports directly to Parliament, and its head is a Crown appointment. It is an independent body, but in the end its independence will be proved by how it undertakes its task and its work. We have already seen that Ofqual is independent, and it will be an extremely important addition to our education landscape.
A decade ago, there were no children’s centres. There are now almost 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres around the country. The next stage of our reforms is to ensure that every family can access the support of such centres. That is why the Bill will enshrine in law our 2020 goal of ensuring that there is a children’s centre in every community in the coming years. That is the way to ensure that the benefits of Sure Start, which millions of children and families around the country are receiving, are received by all children and families in perpetuity.
Abacus, in my constituency, was one of the first Sure Start centres. Part of its success has been the inclusion of parents in its advisory body. I welcome the establishment of children’s centres on a statutory basis, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that their governance arrangements include parents in the wider community so that services are developed in a way that meets the local community’s needs?
My hon. Friend has a great track record and expertise in those matters. If she thinks that that is the right thing to do, I am sure that it is. The details of the proposals will be discussed in Committee.
Every Sure Start will be expected to have a governing body, and we need to ensure that the voluntary sector and the private sector have a proper voice if they are involved in Sure Start, and that parents are also represented. Sure Start is founded on the premise that it starts from the community and from parents’ work, needs and interests—indeed, many of our best outreach workers are parents.
It is vital that all services that support children work together effectively to put the needs of children and families first. Sure Start is an example of that. We must build on the excellent examples of services working together across an area through a children’s trust. The Bill ensures that every local authority will have a children’s trust board, with responsibility for improving the well-being of all children in the area. It will also ensure proper accountability for the well-being of children and young people, and a culture of early intervention and prevention so that all young people, especially those with a special educational need, get the support that they need.
The Secretary of State knows that on Friday I shall have the privilege of introducing a private Member’s Bill—the Autism Bill—with tremendous support from all parties in the House. An integral part of that Bill is the requirement that local areas collate and share data on disabled children as part of children and young people’s plan assessments, and take account of autism in the statutory guidance that will accompany the regulations. Will the Secretary of State undertake today that in Committee he will table the requisite amendments, under the Government’s imprimatur, to the Bill that we are considering now so that we have legislation that allows local authorities to collate and share the information?
The hon. Lady has a passion about and an expertise in such matters. We discussed them with the parents of autistic children and adults a few months ago in the House. The Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) introduced last year—it has subsequently been enacted—provided for recording information about children with special educational needs. It is vital, as part of our Aiming High work, to listen and record the satisfaction and concerns of parents with a disabled child. That includes autistic children. My hon. Friends have written to the hon. Lady about those matters. Second Reading of her Bill is approaching, and it is not for me to say today what the Government will do. However, I have written to the hon. Lady to say that supporting transition and collecting data, and especially ensuring that the needs of families with an autistic child are taken into account, will be central to the work of children’s trusts. Indeed, it will be in the statutory guidance that accompanies the children’s trust legislation. The children and young people’s plan will ensure that the issues that she raises are acted on in every area of the country. I look forward to reading the debates on her Bill on Friday.
I will not give the details of that statutory guidance today. However, I will ensure that the guidance is drawn up in such a way that it ensures that the needs and interests of families with a child with autistic spectrum disorder are properly taken into account. The children’s trusts must be accountable for ensuring not only that services are co-ordinated and that the problems and concerns of a child with a special need are addressed, but that if that does not happen, parents and wider services have somewhere to go to ask why matters have not been tackled effectively. The children’s trust is the right place for that and the guidance is the right place to specify what the hon. Lady seeks. I am happy to have a further meeting with her and my hon. Friends to take up the matter in the coming weeks.
I was considering the importance of area-wide accountability for the work of children’s trusts. There is a specific problem for families with a special educational needs child, and when children have been or are at risk of being excluded from school. We have piloted several different ways in which to offer alternative provision for young people who are excluded from school. We have done that with the private and voluntary sectors, as well as several different organisations around the country. In this Bill we are legislating further, to improve the provision for young people educated outside the mainstream. Following consultation, we are legislating to reform what will be called short-stay schools, in order to increase local accountability for such pupils and to ensure not only that local authorities have the freedom to act to ensure the right provision in their areas, but that we have the powers to act when we do not think that the provision is good enough. That will be a substantial step forward.
The Secretary of State will recognise the extraordinary work that charities such as Action for Children and Barnardo’s do to support some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. How does he respond to those charities’ concerns that the Bill does not do enough to help young people from marginalised backgrounds to access apprenticeships—a word that he has not yet used in his speech—and appropriate learning pathways? Also, what assurance can he give about the future of work-based programme-led apprenticeships?
I am coming to apprenticeships in a second. First, however, let me praise the work being done by Action for Children, the Special Educational Consortium and others to ensure that the needs of children with a special educational need and, in particular, of those young people at risk of getting into difficulties or getting on the wrong track are properly taken into account.
As I have said, we will debate the issue in Committee. We will also propose amendments that will strengthen further what is already a substantial strengthening of the obligations on local authorities, both home and host, to ensure that young people do not fall down the crack, but are supported in their education and have their well-being ensured while they are in custody. The Bill will clarify the responsibility of local authorities to secure a good education for young people while they are in custody and to ensure continuity in their education as they leave custody and are resettled, and, in particular, the responsibility of the local authority to which they return to ensure that their education continues once they are released. We will propose amendments, but we will also back that up with revised statutory guidance for local authorities in the summer.
A moment ago the Secretary of State referred to short-stay schools, which I assume will be taking over from the pupil referral units, for young people with difficulties who are not thriving in a mainstream school. They are termed “short-stay schools”, but will he confirm that there will be no cap on a pupil’s length of stay, so that they are not reimposed on their mainstream school before they are ready or before they have made sufficient progress?
The name is being changed because of representations from the sector, which is keen that the word “school” be included, because we are talking about schools, first and foremost. In many cases stays are short, but not always. There is no artificial cap being introduced, and there is nothing in the legislation to suggest that. However, we are keen to ensure that, as part of behaviour partnerships, pupil referral units—or short-stay schools, as they will be—are engaged with other schools to ensure that young people receive the support and the challenges that they need, so that they can keep on track before they reach the point of exclusion. Spending some time in such a school during the week before reaching that point may help young people to keep on the right track and not be excluded. I hope that hon. Members will welcome that when we have a chance to debate the issue in Committee.
In the current economic circumstances, it is also vital to ensure that all young people are equipped to meet the challenges that they face, as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is no longer in his place, said. Achieving that includes staying in education or college, as well as entering an apprenticeship. Last year we legislated through the Education and Skills Act 2008 to raise the education or training leaving age to 18. We also introduced the first set of diplomas, which I believe are the best chance that this generation has to break the old two-tier divide between first-class academic qualifications and second-class vocational qualifications. I am delighted that early feedback on that from pupils and teachers has been good.
My right hon. Friend is talking about widening opportunities, so will he ensure that all schools support the children’s plan and the vision for young people in their communities? Will he also ensure that there are opportunities for all young people from a range of backgrounds to mix when taking up the new diplomas or the other schemes on offer?
That is what the diplomas do, by ensuring that schools work together with colleges to ensure that the curriculum is interesting and inspiring. We are also extending the duty to co-operate as part of children’s trusts to all schools, academies, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges, to ensure that they all work together to make opportunity available to all children and young people in their areas, not just some.
As I said, we legislated last year to raise the education leaving age to 18. This Bill will put in place the requirements, the expectation and the levers for local authorities, working with the new Young People’s Learning Agency, to ensure that all 16 to 19-year-olds have the opportunity to stay in education, training or an apprenticeship. Over the past decade, the number of apprenticeships has gone up from 65,000 to 250,000.
The Bill represents the first overhaul of apprenticeship legislation for nearly 200 years. It will put apprenticeships on a statutory basis, and establish the entitlement to an apprenticeship place for every suitably qualified young person who wants one. It will ensure that apprenticeships are of high quality, and that they will benefit young people and employers alike. It will also require schools to provide information, advice and guidance on apprenticeships, when it is in the best interest of pupils to do so. We are backing this with a £1 billion plan.
Apprenticeships obviously represent an incredibly important process, but it is important that apprentices should not be used as cheap labour. Will my right hon. Friend look into whether the exclusions from minimum wage legislation that apply to some apprenticeships are really valid?
As my hon. Friend will know, we have raised the minimum pay for apprentices from £80 to £95; that will come into effect shortly. The vast majority of apprentices already get paid above that level. The national minimum wage is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Low Pay Commission. This is something that the commission will look at, and we look forward to seeing its reports.
I welcome the framework for apprenticeships that my right hon. Friend is introducing. However, in Stoke-on-Trent we are finding it more and more difficult to get employers to come forward with apprenticeships. Will he give me an assurance that he will look closely into how we can establish direct public funding for the apprenticeships that we need, in the public and private sectors, and at how we can achieve the necessary flexibility to ensure that employers can be brought on board?
There is already substantial investment in apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I are working together to ensure that we do everything we can to keep young people in apprenticeships and to expand apprenticeships. In fact, we have announced today that the Government will ensure a further 21,000 apprenticeships in the public sector in 2009-10 alone. That will be an important step towards achieving our objective of making apprenticeships available for every young person.
It is also important to equip the whole work force with the skills that they need. The new Skills Funding Agency will offer better support to employers by bringing together all the different adult learning agencies under one roof, and there will be a new right for employees to request time for training. All these reforms are now vital to support employment and our economy. They are also vital to our mission of excellence, not just for some but for all.
My right hon. Friend will know that the chemical process industry on Teesside will require 24,000 high-quality apprentices over the next 10 years. Those apprentices will need to have been taught physics, chemistry and maths separately. Will he reassure the House that those subjects will be taught separately in secondary schools, and not just as general science?
They are being taught separately in increasing numbers. Standards are rising in science, and we now have more young people doing separate sciences. This is all part of the renaissance of science in our country, which is being backed by a massive multi-billion pound investment in science, following 18 years of savage cuts to the investment base under the Conservatives—
I want to ask the Secretary of State about the announcement today of 21,000 new apprenticeships in the public sector. Can he assure the House that these will indeed be new opportunities for young people in new apprenticeships and new posts? Or will this instead involve a redefinition of existing training programmes and courses in the public sector?
I am happy to give that assurance. These are new apprenticeships in the public sector, and there will be 21,000 more of them from the 35,000 that we are going to deliver with £150 million-worth of spending. That would not be delivered by the Conservative party: while we are expanding spending on apprenticeships next year, the Conservative party wants to cut it. That is the difference, so I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he sought.
I would like to draw the Secretary of State back to his earlier comment about careers guidance in schools. One thing that has bedevilled vocational education for decades is the fact that “bright” youngsters do not get any vocational offers within their curriculum package. The Secretary of State made the point that whether or not young people are offered apprenticeships is at the schools’ discretion. I urge him to reverse that idea and make it a mandatory requirement that every child, irrespective of their educational ability, is offered an apprenticeship.
With respect—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to be part of our debates in the coming weeks—clause 35 makes it clear that there is an obligation on schools to promote apprenticeships to young people. It is most important that the advice and guidance they receive are impartial and objective, but we are building directly into the Bill a requirement to promote apprenticeships because of the particular and vital role we think they will play in extending education for all young people up to the age of 18. As the hon. Gentleman says, in too many schools over past years and decades, apprenticeships have been undervalued, which is why the Bill places a clear duty on schools in that regard—and they will have to honour it; we will ensure that they do not get around it.
My right hon. Friend knows that the Children, Schools and Families Committee also stressed the importance of all children gaining access to information about apprenticeships. Will he clarify one part of the Bill for me: what does he see as the future for young apprenticeships—those for 14 to 16-year-olds?
Just a few weeks ago, I met some young apprentices in Derby and saw how learning on a young apprenticeship as part of their key stage 4 curriculum was inspiring them to work hard for their maths and English exams as well. I think that young apprenticeships are brilliant and that they are a very important part of our pre-16 learning. I would like to see them expanded as part of our goal to get more young people staying in education up to the age of 18.
What, then, is the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition on all these important reforms? Far from supporting our drive to expand apprenticeships and far from bringing forward investment in school buildings to help to support our economy now, the Conservatives want to cut our school building programme and cut our investment in apprenticeships in the coming year. That is no surprise to us, because they continue to oppose all the major educational reforms in this Bill—and, indeed, in last year’s Bill. Education, training or an apprenticeship for all to 18—the Conservatives oppose these things. They oppose our new diplomas, as they oppose our policy of fair admissions for all parents. On providing a children’s centre in every community, the Conservatives want cuts. They oppose our National Challenge programme and they have undermined our academies programme.
What can we expect to hear from the shadow Education spokesman? Will he tell us where the £4.5 billion of cuts to the school building programme will fall? I doubt it. Will he tell us more about half-baked gimmicks like his plan to force 11-year-olds who do not make the grade to stay on for another year in primary school? Probably not. Are we likely to hear more details about his Swedish model? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is keen to be introduced to the Swedish model, but it is unfortunately not something that I can arrange for him today. Will he tell us about the billions of pounds in cuts that his Swedish model would mean? Will he tell us that there will be no intervention to raise standards in underperforming schools? Will he tell us that surplus school places will be springing up everywhere—not where they are needed, but where some have the loudest voices? Will he tell us that instead of local accountability, there will be a lottery for parents and a hugely centralised bureaucracy? No, he will not tell us any of those things.
Instead, we will hear more of the hon. Gentleman’s usual debating society rhetoric, without any substance at all. In recent debates, he has called me
“an exam candidate who has not done his homework”—[Official Report, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 683.]
“a gang member who wields a weapon but only harms himself.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 775.]
It is a pity that he has not taken his own advice.
Just a few years back, the hon. Gentleman wrote in The Times:
“The Conservatives’ core problem is their failure to grasp that their introspective Westminster pranks, whether hyperactive plotting or hyperbolic attacks on the Government, only confirm the impression that they are playing a self-interested game rather than setting out a coherent alternative.”
Never has a truer word been said. He went on:
“For the Conservatives to return to power, the party must be seen to have learnt from its mistakes, rejected the arrogance, cynicism and pocketlining of the Major era”.
For his punch line in his article, he said:
“Ken Clarke is sadly ill-equipped to do that job. As John Major’s tax-raising Chancellor, British American Tobacco’s handsomely remunerated director, the euro’s voter-rubbishing cheerleader and the tireless hammer of nurses and teachers, Ken carries more tainted baggage than a mule on Colombia airways.”
We all know that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) likes a smoke, but to compare him to a Colombian mule seems a bit unfair, even for this shadow Cabinet.
The fact is, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has said, that the Conservatives are still playing a self-interested game, rather than setting out a coherent alternative. The truth is that parents do not want a schools lottery, cuts to the school building programme or massive centralisation. They want every school to be a good school, standards to be guaranteed, discipline in the classroom, early intervention, more apprenticeships, and opportunity and excellence—not just for a privileged few, but for all. That is what will be delivered by the Bill. It is radical. It is right. It has public support. I commend it to the House.
May I say how much I enjoyed the Secretary of State’s speech, particularly the last few moments? There were some brilliant lines in there—uncharacteristically witty, if I may say so. I do not know who his new scriptwriter is or what he is being paid, but it is clearly worth it.
As ever, the Secretary of State laid out his case with characteristic pungency and no lack of political verve, and I note his deliberate words of dislike for debating society rhetoric, so I shall seek to ensure that in what remains of our debate on Second Reading we concentrate on the detail of the Bill. What a lot of detail there is. This is a massive piece of legislation that covers a wide variety of areas. We hope to expose it to appropriate scrutiny when makes its way into Committee.
Interestingly, the Secretary of State is already introducing the idea of amendments—on Second Reading—before we have even reached consideration in Committee. That provokes two questions in our mind. First, is the Bill, as it were, oven-ready, or is the Secretary of State running to catch up? What does that say about the competence and grip that he brings to his Department? Secondly, why is the Bill not in such condition on Second Reading that we know precisely what the Government intend to bring before us? Why do they need even now to say that they will table amendments in Committee, but cannot tell us what those amendments will be, because they are not in the Bill? We cannot have effective scrutiny and an effective debate on Second Reading if there are, as the Secretary of State himself acknowledged, aspects of the Bill that he considers imperfect and believes he needs to change, but which he will not introduce until the Bill is considered in Committee.
As I said, we already have a large Bill covering a wide variety of areas. Some of those are naturally ones where we believe it right to legislate and we sympathise with the Secretary of State’s intentions, and indeed with some of the specific provisions in the Bill. First, I want to discuss the creation of Ofqual, which is the new regulator of exam standards. I say new, but it has already been in existence for some time. However, the Bill will put it on to the correct statutory footing for the first time. We wholeheartedly welcome the creation of this regulator. That is because the idea of setting up a separate exams regulator was proposed in the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I believe that it has also received the support of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).
The idea of an independent regulator has widespread support because there is widespread concern about standards. The Secretary of State is quite right to say that teachers are better than ever, and he is quite right to acknowledge that our pupils are working harder than ever, but there is real concern about the rigour of the examinations for which this Government are responsible.
The Royal Society of Chemistry—not an Opposition claque, but a respected scientific body—has said that teenagers who, when faced with today’s examination papers, get 35 per cent. of the answers correct would have got only 15 per cent. correct if they were dealing with equivalent papers from the 1960s. British Council researchers—paid Government employees—have pointed out that candidates who would get a C when sitting an A-level examination in Hong Kong get an A here.
Peter Timms of the university of Durham, an independent academic beholden to no one, has shown that a student who achieved an E in A-level maths in 1998 would have achieved a B in 2004. Duncan Lawson from the university of Coventry, another independent academic, has shown that students entering university in 2001 with a B at maths A-level displayed a level of knowledge that 10 years earlier would have been displayed by a student with a grade N, or fail. Indeed, students who failed the maths A-level in 1991—failed it!—performed better overall in tests of mathematical competence than those who secured a B pass in 2001.
Two other academics, Jonathan Ramsay and John Corner, analysed maths papers from the 1960s to the present day. They found topics that used to be set for 16-year-olds in the old CSE exams cropping up in A-level papers. Their report observed that
“finding areas and volumes using calculus, which used to be examined at ‘O’ level, are now examined in ‘A’ level pure mathematics… but it is the ‘O’ level questions which are harder.”
A team of mathematicians led by Professor John Marks also studied GCSE and O-level maths papers over time, from 1951, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2006, covering periods of both Labour and Conservative rule. They found:
“It is now possible to achieve a grade C in GCSE mathematics having almost no conceptual knowledge of mathematics. This is due in part to the simplicity of the questions and the decline of algebra, geometry and proof within the papers.”
Their report also observed:
“It has become substantially easier to achieve a grade C since…1987...In 1990 the percentage mark on the Higher Tier”—
the decline pre-dates the arrival of Labour Secretaries of State: we are absolutely clear about that—
“for a grade C was just over 50 per cent. However, in 2000 and 2006 the required percentage mark for a grade C had fallen to about 20 per cent; this mark could be attained by answering correctly the first four questions on Paper 5 and Paper 6”.
Indeed, we discovered that in 2004, GCSE students taking Edexcel’s version of the exam could secure an A with a score of just 45 per cent., while one of 22 per cent. secured a C. Only 0.7 per cent. of the pupils who sat the exam failed to secure a C or better. The need for Ofqual is clear if we are to restore confidence in our examinations.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of Ofqual’s first jobs as the central regulator will be to conduct research, look at standards over the decades, and provide a definitive answer so that we need not engage in the sterile debate about standards that we must now undergo every year? What we need is an agreed baseline on which all of us can base policy. That will lead to proper policy, rather than the mess created by this Government.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am not in favour of sterile debates. Indeed, I am not in favour of sterile anything. I prefer fruitful debates, and fruitfulness and fecundity all round. I am glad to note that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), agrees with me. We are back to the Swedish model. I should point out, incidentally, that the Swedish model was first introduced to the House by the former Prime Minister, the former Member of Parliament for Sedgefield. May I say that I hope he is enjoying—[Hon. Members: “Steady!”]—her popularity in all parts of the House even now?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that Ofqual must be engaged in this debate. All the research I quoted earlier was generated by independent academics concerned about what was happening. Of course there are other voices, from Ofqual and the Government, that take a different view, and that is why it is vital that Ofqual leads the debate in order to provide the confidence that parents, teachers and all of us have a right to expect.
In the interests of having that open debate, it is vital that we all know what our children are being asked in examinations. I am sure that, whether or not they have children going through the state education system, Members are concerned about the sorts of questions that are set in GCSE science, for example. We know that 16-year-olds sitting GCSE science are asked questions such as the following. They are told that for hundreds of years scientists have found information about the stars using one of four options—it is a multiple-choice exam. Those four options are microscopes, space probes, seismometers or telescopes. Given that this information has been around for centuries, the answer should be obvious.
It is also the case that in GCSE science papers people are told some answers in the questions. In one question, for example, they are told that it takes Jupiter 11.9 years to orbit the sun and then they are asked whether the time taken for Jupiter to orbit the sun is 1.9 years, 29.5 years, 65.4 years or 11.9 years. The answer is there in the examination paper. It seems to me that any of us—[Interruption.] I happily grant that some of us are still capable of making mistakes even when the answer is staring us in the face, but the point here is that in order to have confidence in mathematical and science standards, we must be sure that the examinations our children sit stand comparison with the most rigorous in the world. It worries me how well other countries are doing in comparison with us: the Asian countries are pulling ahead of us, as are countries such as Finland. We need to be able accurately to ensure that exam standards are kept to a high standard over time—and, ideally, that we can hold our own with the world’s best.
It is worrying in this respect that the first intervention from Ofqual has been to force examination standards downwards. Last summer, one examination board, AQA, was specifically ordered by Ofqual to make an exam easier by lowering its pass mark for a C grade. It seems to me entirely wrong that the first intervention by a body that is charged with restoring and maintaining confidence in exam standards should explicitly be to make exams easier to pass by lowering pass marks.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned Finland as a good example of an education system that succeeds, because it has a thoroughgoing, 100 per cent. state comprehensive system. Will he advocate that that should be applied in Britain?
I certainly believe that what we need is more good comprehensive schools. One of the striking features of Finland’s education system—the feature that is crucial to its success—is the quality of people entering education, and specifically the quality of people entering primary and secondary teaching. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent. of graduates. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I should add that the Government’s support for the Teach First programme, for example, and the efforts Lord Adonis made when he was at the Department to ensure that more people from top- performing universities with high-level qualifications entered teaching were right. We will do everything we can do to support such steps.
However, it is important not only that we get good people into teaching, but that we know that the exams are of a high quality, and, as the hon. Member for Yeovil pointed out, it is worrying that Kathleen Tattersall herself, the current chair of Ofqual, has said she is not clear about how standards should be maintained over time. The Secretary of State was reticent about the role that he has, but I understand that, under clause 138 of the Bill, he has the right to intervene to specify minimum standards. He can lay out in a memorandum of understanding to the chair of Ofqual exactly what he may require in any examination. Independence is important for any regulator, but it is quite right for the person properly elected and chosen as the Minister to lay out certain minimum requirements, and I hope that in the course of debate in Committee the Secretary of State or one of his ministerial colleagues will have a chance to give us further and better particulars on what exactly he intends to do to ensure that there are certain floor standards in examinations.
Can the hon. Gentleman clarify the position that his party intends to take on how independent Ofqual should be in relation to standards? He will know that the Government have said that Ofqual’s role is not to monitor education standards as a whole, but to monitor the existing qualifications and assessments. Is that his position also, or does he envisage a wider role for Ofqual?
I notice that the Secretary of State looks curious. I too find the question curious, because it lacks the acuity that I normally associate with the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to give Ofqual a broader remit than that outlined in the Bill: I just want a degree of specificity about the role that the Secretary of State can properly have to be laid out in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman feels that the Bill gives the Secretary of State too much power, that would be interesting.
I am interested that the Secretary of State is amused by the question, because I was citing the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report. As I understood it, the Government were saying that they were not willing to allow Ofqual to use its own devices—for example, sampling mechanisms—to determine what had happened to standards. Instead, the Government envisaged the much narrower role for Ofqual of simply policing the existing qualifications. Does the hon. Gentleman envisage the narrower role or the wider role?
That is genuinely helpful. I do not believe that a wider role is necessarily required, but it is important that we ascertain in Committee and in any secondary legislation that might be introduced exactly how Ofqual might operate. It is certainly the case that I believe that, if necessary, Ofqual should have the independence to commission research—indeed, it has that power under the Bill—to embarrass a Government who have fallen down in a policy area, or to show up examination boards and qualification providers that are not doing their jobs properly. I am encouraged by what some of the examination boards have been saying about Ofqual using its powers more vigorously to that end.
The hon. Gentleman has given the House some worrying examples of people who think that standards have slipped dramatically over recent years, but many people have given evidence to the Select Committee that the issue is more complicated and that standards have been maintained. I say that because of the concern that students, and their parents, are told every summer that the qualifications that have been achieved with great hard work are worth nothing. We are in danger of falling into that trap even though the evidence given to the Committee by the QCA—which is doing a responsible job, and I have not noticed it being bullied by the Minister—was that standards are being maintained.
If the hon. Gentleman really believes that the examples that he quoted give an accurate picture of school standards, does it not follow that that must feed through into the universities? How does he explain the vastly increased numbers of young people going to university, and does he believe that those graduates are less well qualified that previous generations of graduates?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions universities, because I am worried by the extent to which universities are laying on remedial teaching for students taking mathematical, science or engineering degrees. For example, Imperial, one of our best university colleges, has had to lay on remedial lessons for some of the finest students from our state and independent schools. I am all in favour of increasing participation and getting more people into university, and I also believe—as I said earlier—that students are working harder than ever. It is important that we do everything that we can to encourage and celebrate achievement wherever it exists, but it is also important that we can be sure that an examination continues to be worth what it is commonly understood to be worth.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is important to celebrate the success of students, why did he not celebrate the success of our young people aged 10 and 14 who did the best in Europe in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study? Instead, he trotted out some line about Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan did better than us, and I thought that was worrying. If the Minister is relaxed about that, it reflects curiously on him, because he is normally a tiger on standards so I would have thought that he would be worried. In addition, as he knows, many high-performing European countries, including Flemish Belgium and Finland, were not in the study, and as he also knows a, welter of other studies, including PISA—the programme for international student assessment—tell a very different story about what is happening. It is important to ensure that we have a degree of independent corroboration, which is why I support the introduction of Ofqual. It is natural that the Minister should choose statistics that flatter his Government’s record; his predecessor the Minister for School Standards—now the Foreign Secretary—always quoted from PISA when it appeared to flatter the Government, but when PISA tells a different story, it is no longer flavour of the month or year in the Department. That is entirely understandable and I can appreciate why Ministers do it, but it is why we need Ofqual.
Absolutely not. As well as welcoming the creation of Ofqual, I welcome the provisions on Ofsted and the Government’s inspection regime. I specifically welcome the relaxation of the Ofsted regime for good schools and the more risk-based approach to their regulation. It is something we advocated 18 months ago and I suspect that a similar idea was coursing through the Government’s bloodstream, so it is good to see it reflected in the legislation.
I also welcome the Secretary of State’s proposals for the reform of what we shall no longer call pupil referral units. Again, change and reform in the area was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney, who made it clear that it was important to have first-class alternative provision for children who have been excluded from school. Exclusion is a last resort but it is crucial as one of the weapons that heads need to maintain good order, and it is just as crucial that we have high-quality provisions for pupils who have been excluded.
The suggestions being made around the Bill and in the Secretary of State’s written ministerial statement last year seem to us to make good sense. It is important to go beyond local authorities and get alternative suppliers into the business of creating what will be the alternative provision of the future—the short-stay schools to which the Secretary of State referred. Furthermore, in Committee, we shall do everything possible to support the Secretary of State’s wish to improve the education of children and young people who are in custody.
On the subject of looking beyond local authorities for organisations that provide a great service, we support the direction of travel in the Bill on child care. The private and voluntary sector provides much pre-school care and education to a high standard. The early years are crucial and we welcome the broad extension of the entitlement to free care for three and four-year-olds that the Government have brought forward. We specifically welcome the provisions in the Bill to ensure equity in funding between the maintained sector and the private and voluntary sector in the provision of nursery education and child care. It seems to us that a more level playing field is the right way to proceed.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that pre-school support and nursery care are so important why are we left with the statement that
“David Cameron has pledged to cut £200 million from the Sure Start budget every year—the equivalent of closing one in five Children’s Centres across the country”?
The absolute fact is that two centres in my constituency are now under threat, so I should appreciate hearing from the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect and affection, asks “Why am I left with this statement?” The reason why she is left with that statement is that the Labour Whips office cannot find anything better to give her, which is a great pity and a disservice to her. The truth is that we will match every penny that the Government are committed to spending in the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget. We shall not cut Sure Start at all; we support provisions to ensure that Sure Start children’s centres are put on to a statutory basis. We have specific concerns that the Government have failed to ensure that access to Sure Start is spread as equitably as possible. We are concerned by the work of the National Audit Office that shows that existing Sure Start children’s centres have failed to reach some of the most excluded individuals in our society, which is why we support an extension of the health visitor programme and the restoration of universal health visiting as a way of getting children—especially those in need—into Sure Start. That is what we aim to support.
The last time we discussed these matters, the Opposition’s position was that although they would protect the schools budget in 2009-10, they would cut the non-schools budget by £200 million. Does the Conservative spokesman’s statement suggest that he has an exemption from next year’s cuts, and has the shadow Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills team been left to pick up the tab?
There is no need for the Secretary of State to ask me that when he could have rung me at any time in the past month or so to find out the truth. For quite some time now the Labour party has argued that we would cut the non-schools part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families budget, but we made it clear that the DCSF budget is ring-fenced; the Opposition will match the budget that the Government have set. [Hon. Members: “You’ve got it wrong!”] No. It is understandable why, in his partisan zeal, the Secretary of State should have misunderstood, but I hope that he will reassure his colleagues in the Labour party, and voters who may have received Labour party press releases about the future of children’s centres or anything else, that whatever else may change if the Opposition take over, funding for DCSF provision will not. His support in reassuring people and ending scaremongering would, as ever, be greatly appreciated.
It was interesting to find out that when the Leader of the Opposition said that the schools budget would be protected, he in fact meant the DCSF budget. Can the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) give the same assurance for 2010-11? Also, am I on to something in suggesting that the problem has been transferred to the Opposition’s plans for the 2009-10 DIUS budget? The Leader of the Opposition was very clear about the multi-billion-pound scale of the cuts in 2009-10; if the axe is not to fall on DCSF, it sound like bad news for DIUS.
I mentioned the Secretary of State’s partisan zeal earlier. Having found that one of his foxes has been shot, he is anxious to find another. However, if he had paid attention to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, he would not have gone down this particular route. I know that he is restless in his search for dividing lines. I remember the interview that he gave to the New Statesman when he was just a humble Back Bencher—or at least a Back Bencher: he said then that he had had enough of consensus in education policy, and wanted to get back to good old-fashioned dividing lines. As I say, he is desperate in his search for one.
There does seem to have been something of a volte-face in the Opposition’s policy, but if that is the case, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sure Start also requires other Departments to play a role, not least the Department for Work and Pensions. Is he making further commitments for other Departments to ensure that Sure Start continues to be funded in the same way? Will those Departments have to ensure that funding goes into Sure Start, too?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We are committed to ensuring that we fully support Sure Start children’s centres. That is why I said that we are glad that there is to be statutory provision for them in the Bill. That is why I mentioned, in the context of the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), that we are anxious to ensure that more people use the centres. That is why the Department of Health is extending the provision of health visitors. If we were intent on allowing Sure Start children’s centres to wither on the vine, to be underfunded, or to be undercut or undermined in any way, we would not have made those commitments.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being extremely generous, both with his time and in giving clarification. I note that he said that we could have picked up the phone; we did write to him and ask him for clarification on the issues, but he never replied. While he is clarifying matters, perhaps he could tell us whether he is still committed to the £4.5 billion cut to the Building Schools for the Future programme that he set out in his policy document last year.
I am given to understand by an hon. Friend that the Minister did write to me—[Interruption.] —as did the Secretary of State. However, my internet provider has a spam filter, which means that junk mail is automatically excised, so anything that emanates from the Labour party or DCSF’s special advisers automatically find itself in the bin. On Building Schools for the Future, as the now right hon. Minister for Schools and Learners knows, we are committed to ensuring that every penny that is spent on building schools remains there for school buildings.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the Government’s approach is that they think that it is the sum of money, rather than how one spends it, that matters? Will he promise me that when he is in office, he will make sure that we spend it an awful lot better than they do? They waste so much of it on the quangocracy.
As ever, my right hon. Friend is bang on the button. Talking of quangocracy will inevitably draw the attention of many hon. Members to the fountain of quangos created in the Bill, which I shall shortly turn to. First, I shall say a few words about apprenticeships.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing the number of apprenticeships. Again, that idea was pushed first by the Opposition, most vigorously and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), and also by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has been arguing that we should refocus the Train to Gain budget in order to generate an extra 100,000 apprenticeships.
I noticed that the Secretary of State said that the Bill was the first legislation on apprenticeships for 200 years overall, but in 1994 Lord Hunt of Wirral, who was then the Secretary of State for Employment, created the very idea of the modern apprenticeship—an idea that was derided at the time, when the Labour party was in opposition, only subsequently to be adopted by it. I am glad that the Government have seen the merits of Lord Hunt’s proposal. It is only a pity that there is a gap between the rhetorical claims that they make for their apprenticeship scheme and the achievements on the ground.
In 2003 the Prime Minister, as he then was not, said that there would be 320,000 apprenticeships by 2006. The reality was that there were only 239,000. Nothing abashed, in 2007 he said that he would double the number to 500,000, but the next year the total fell by 13,000. Figures from August to October in 2008 apparently showed an increase, but if we dig below the figures, we see that the increase is entirely due to an increase in the number of apprenticeships for people over 25. The number of apprenticeships open to those who were 16 to 18 or 19 to 24 fell.
Overall in the past year we have seen a fall in the number pursuing level 2 apprenticeships, from 56,000 to 49,000, and a fall in the number pursuing level 3 apprenticeships—those that would be understood as full apprenticeships in European countries—from 27,000 to 24,000. Overall the fall is between 7 and 12 per cent. in the number pursuing apprenticeships. In construction, one of the areas where industry has been most engaged with the apprenticeship programme, the fall has been more than 30 per cent. in the past year—more than 6,000 apprenticeships gone.
I note that the Secretary of State said that there would be a new requirement for Building Schools for the Future contractors to help fill that gap, but that provokes the question to what extent those contractors were falling down on the job beforehand. I suspect that many of those contractors were those who were shouldering their responsibilities to take on apprenticeships. It would be interesting to know the precise estimate of the additional number of new apprenticeships that will be created by the requirement that the Secretary of State is imposing.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but that still leaves us 5,000 down on the number of apprenticeships in construction. The fall in the number of apprenticeships at level 3 is particularly worrying. We are training fewer people at level 3 than we were a decade ago. As the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee—an independent Committee—pointed out, most of the increase in apprenticeship numbers
“has been as a result of converting government-supported programmes of work-based learning into apprenticeships.”
I have nothing against Government-supported programmes of work-based learning, but I have everything against a Government who attempt to massage figures and manipulate names in order to try to paint their record in rosier colours than it deserves.
We broadly support the principle of creating an entitlement to apprenticeships and the way in which the Government are going about encouraging schools to offer a wider range of options to students, but the Government are using the Bill and the declaration of an entitlement as a way of covering up their failure to deliver over time. It is a similar approach to the one that they are taking over the child poverty Bill. They are attempting to enshrine in statute a commitment to eliminate child poverty by 2020, as a way of distracting from the fact that this year we will see that progress towards the interim goal in 2012 has moved backwards. It would be better if the Government were honest about their failures, because then all of us could work with them, as we sincerely wish to do, in order to achieve the noble goals that they occasionally articulate.
Order. It would be helpful if any interventions were made in the normal way.
I was saying that the hon. Gentleman should apologise for the fact that between 1979 and 1997 we had the biggest rise in child poverty of any European country. He should praise the Government for the fact that since 1997 we have had the biggest fall in child poverty of any European country. We are very proud of that record; the shame and apologies should come from the Conservative party.
May we go back to a point touched on a little while ago? The Secretary of State was saying that there were 1,000 additional apprenticeships to be made available in the construction industry. Does my hon. Friend not agree that in normal economic circumstances the annual demand for new labour in the construction industry equates to some 80,000 people? Even if the Government’s aspiration could be achieved, could it be anything like commensurate with our need for skills?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am not against the additional provision of apprenticeship places as a result of imposing the requirement on Building Schools for the Future contractors. I do say, however, that given the drop in the number of apprenticeships in the construction sector, the numbers do not begin to match the scale of what we need. My hon. Friend made that point very effectively.
One of our other problems with apprenticeships overall is that we inevitably rely on the private sector to generate apprenticeship places. However, over the years it has become increasingly difficult for private sector concerns to supply those places. In the Green Paper on skills that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant produced just a few months ago, he helpfully listed every private sector provider’s nine barriers to hiring apprentices. They included the complexity of the inspection regime, of the quality assurance scheme, of the registration scheme, of the certification scheme, of the funding structure, of the paperwork and of the self-assessment process.
More and more people who wanted to provide apprenticeships were failing to do so, and that is one of the reasons why there has been the sad diminution of numbers that I mentioned earlier. We Conservatives do not want to add unnecessarily to that bureaucratic burden. As we scrutinise the Bill, our central aim will be to make sure that we do not add to the bureaucracy in such a way as to make it more difficult to do the right thing.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about the private sector providing apprenticeships. Is it not a fact that, if we go back 30 years, the public sector was a major provider of apprenticeships? The diminution of the public sector under successive Governments has been a major factor in minimising the number of apprenticeships.
It is an interesting issue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the fact—he may lament it—that there used to be significant industrial concerns in the public sector that are no longer there. If he was alluding to the decline in the number of apprenticeships in many of those industries, I should say that that pre-dated privatisation. If he was alluding more broadly to a decline in support for apprenticeships, we have to look to a number of areas to discover why the private sector has reduced the number of apprentices that it is taking on. One crucial factor is the bureaucratic burden that many otherwise well-intentioned private sector concerns now face.
The Select Committee took evidence on the number of apprentices, so it is important that the hon. Gentleman should put on the record where he gets the stats from. It will be important for the Committee to compare the stats that it has been given with those that the hon. Gentleman has just given the House.
I should say that one of the greatest suppliers of great apprentices over many years has been the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. We should be proud of their apprenticeship record, which stretches back a long time.
The figures come from the Government and the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. I entirely associate myself with the words that the Select Committee Chairman has just uttered about the armed forces. I completely agree with him.
I want to talk about further education; inevitably, one of the Bill’s purposes is to implement reform or change in the FE sector. Further education has been a success for many years, since FE colleges were liberated from local authority control by a previous Conservative Government. Unfortunately, in recent years this Government have piled more bureaucracy on the sector through the Learning and Skills Council. As we all know, participation in further education has diminished.
The Government’s answer to more bureaucracy is another bureaucratic reorganisation. They are going to replace the Learning and Skills Council with the Skills Funding Agency and its chief executive, and a sub-quango, the National Apprenticeship Service, as well as with another quango, the Young People’s Learning Agency. In the Bill and supporting material, the Government described the SFA as “streamlined” and the YPLA as “slim”. We all know that they will never launch a new quango saying, “This is another bloated bureaucratic behemoth”, but when they go to such trouble to say that it will be slim or streamlined they are clearly desperately worried about the new extent of bureaucratic compliance that they will be requiring of all the organisations that have to deal with these quangos. Further education principals will have more bodies to report to, more circulars to read and more meetings to attend.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been most generous with his time. Does he remember that the argument that Ministers put to this House when they set up the Learning and Skills Council, on the basis of a very dodgy prospectus and figures, was that it would result in bureaucratic streamlining and a saving in expense, and has he any evidence that that actually took place?
Absolutely none, and I fear that this reorganisation may lead only to greater bureaucratic overload. Four further education colleges will now be in an unfortunate position whereby they find that local authorities will be the strategic commissioners of education for 16 to 19-year-olds. However, those local authorities will not have a free hand but will be tied by operating together on a sub-regional level. Their spending in operating at a sub-regional level will be monitored by the YPLA, they will have to negotiate the funding for those over the age of 19 with the SFA, and if they offer training for apprenticeships they will have to liaise with the SFA’s sub-quango, the NAS. Even though the national LSC has gone, local authorities will still have to deal with nine regional learning and skills councils. That is because those nine regional councils, which replaced the 47 sub-regional LSCs, were created only five months ago, last September, and the Government cannot afford to get rid of them.
While this massive bureaucratic edifice has been constructed, we have found on the ground that the real building of improved facilities for students has stopped because the Learning and Skills Council has placed a moratorium on construction. There will not be a Member in this House who does not have constituents at a further education college that is affected by that moratorium. I am myself in the unfortunate position whereby improved provision for sixth-formers in my constituency has been affected by that moratorium.
I have resisted intervening about a number of tendentious facts and claims uttered by the hon. Gentleman in the past half hour, but will he withdraw his claim that there has been a moratorium on construction, and will he confirm that the full £2.3 billion of further education capital budget is going to be spent, as I have promised to this House? Future schemes are currently being assessed for the pipeline, but no construction has been halted. He should not come to the House and claim that it has when he knows very well that that is not true.
I have listened to what the Secretary of State says, but he should visit Thomas Tomlinscote school in my constituency to explain why they have received correspondence telling them to terminate their plans for construction. If there is absolutely nothing to worry about, why has he appointed Sir Andrew Foster to investigate the situation? Why get a Sherlock Holmes to investigate quango crimes if no crimes have been committed?
As well as being concerned about bureaucracy in the further education sector, we have similar concerns about children’s trusts. We all want better inter-agency working and recognise that when it comes to child protection, welfare and support it is important to get all the organisations with an interest working better together. However, it is clear that children’s trusts have not fulfilled the high hopes invested in them. The case of baby P proves that. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families took firm and effective action when the joint area review report was brought to him; I pay tribute to him for that. However, there was already a children’s trust in Haringey and it did not prove to be the effective preventive institution that we would all have hoped that it might be.
There is a potential for confusion in the way in which children’s trusts are being set up—for example, over who will be the principal author of the children’s and young people’s plans. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who is introducing the Autism Bill on Friday, has mentioned the crucial importance of clarity as regards the authorship of those plans. There is also some confusion, which is certainly reported by local authorities, about the division of responsibility between local safeguarding children boards and children’s trusts. It is important when we bring forward new institutions and new ways of working that we are clear about the lines of responsibility. I hope that in Committee we will have an opportunity to provide a degree of reassurance to those people on the front line who are worried.
On the subject of support for professionals, as the Secretary of State mentioned, there are provisions in the Bill on discipline, too. We welcome the extension of powers to search students but we fear that they might not go far enough. We feel that the exact requirements to ensure that there are two staff of the same sex as the individual being searched, that only outer clothing can be searched, and that searches can be carried out only for specific goods, on reasonable suspicion and with proportionate use of physical force, might include too many restrictions. We believe that it would be more appropriate to give head teachers a general power that can be exercised for all materials that might be destructive of good order in schools. In our view, it is important that we give head teachers every weapon that they need in order to improve education.
Above all, when we are considering improvement in the state education system, we need to recognise where improvement has come fastest in the past few years, and why. Improvement has come fastest in those schools that have benefited from the independence that the academies programme has brought. As the Secretary of State has acknowledged, improvements at GCSE in those academies that are at a stage where students are taking those examinations have been faster than in the rest of the state sector.
The academies programme has been a success. We should have expected that, because its predecessor programme, the city technology college programme, was also a success. The 12 original CTCs now have examination results at GCSE that are better than the average level of all independent schools in this country. They are comprehensive schools and they are doing better than independent schools.
It is because independent state schools and the academies programme have been so successful that it is so worrying that the voice of academies has been raised against the Bill. The Independent Academies Association has written to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools and Learners to say that it is
“with growing dismay that those of us within the Academies movement have witnessed government’s changing tack over the last eighteen months or so.”
The association’s members are the people on the front line of improving education. They say:
“It appears that with every consultation, each missive and even new legislation from the DCSF, there comes further erosion of the independent status of Academies. Sponsors…Governors and Principals up and down the land are seriously questioning the long-term sustainability of the programme, when their efforts to positively impact on driving up educational standards and progress are being increasingly hampered by requirements to bow to the whims of quangos and to abide by additional regulations.”
The Bill, which creates new quangos and additional regulation, is specifically attacked by the association because it underlines the independence and autonomy that the association’s members need.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is waxing lyrical about academies and I welcome his support for them, but does he have a message for Tory local authorities that have resisted the creation of academies, such as Gloucestershire—not least because it does not want to water down the four grammar schools? I am sure that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is very concerned about that, too.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a friend of educational excellence and I know that he appreciates the role that grammar schools play in his constituency. He has not been campaigning for their closure or for any change to their position—[Interruption.] If he has, I am sure that his constituents and I would like to know about it. However, on his central point about support for academies, I am entirely clear that we support the extension of the academies programme. That is why it is so worrying that those who are involved in providing some of the best state schools in the country have profound worries about the Bill. The Secretary of State and his Ministers will have the opportunity in Committee to provide the reassurance that those excellent school leaders need, and unless that reassurance is provided it will be very worrying.
At 3.20, I received a letter from the chair of the Independent Academies Association, Mr. Mike Butler, who explained that he was deeply disturbed by, in particular, the role of the Young People’s Learning Agency in performance assessments and by other ways of extending greater powers to local authorities. That was surprising to us because we consulted Ark, Harris, Oasis and the United Learning Trust and many academy sponsors, and in my briefing, I have a quote from Ros McMullen, the outgoing chair of the Independent Academies Association, saying that the IAA welcomed
“the plans to establish the YPLA and its proposed role in the administration and support of open academies…We are especially pleased that this proposition will allow Academies to continue to receive all their funding directly from a single national agency. We have been discussing these issues with ministers for some time, and fully support these proposals.”
So the IAA fully supports the proposals, or it does not—
Order. The Secretary of State had the chance to speak. I am conscious of the time that Front Benchers are taking; they have a chance to wind up at the end of the debate to deal with any points that arise from it.
If hon. Members want to find out the view of the Independent Academies Association, they can read the letter that I have, which clearly states in gripping detail precisely why those who are responsible for driving improvement are so worried. One of the reasons why they are worried is that this Bill lacks the dynamism and coherence of previous legislation introduced by this Government. One of the tragedies of this Parliament is the fact that when Tony Blair introduced a Bill in 2005 to ensure a step-change in the provision of new, alternative schools to challenge complacent local authorities, he was unfortunately incapable of seeing that radicalism through. We need a radical change to the way in which our state education system works if we are to provide all students, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the opportunities that they require. When radicalism was brought before this House in the shape of that Bill, the people who promoted it found that it was undermined by agitation on the Back Benches led by the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Secretary of State.
It is a tragedy that what will almost certainly be the last piece of education legislation introduced by this Labour Government lacks any of the radicalism, coherence and passion of that earlier Bill. One of the sad epitaphs of this Parliament is that Labour, having come to the field of education with such high hopes and such good ideas, leaves it with a Bill that does nothing to meet the huge challenges that our young people face.
I warmly welcome this Bill, which is very much a continuation of the Education and Skills Bill of 2008, not least in its expansive nature and its ambitions. I want to concentrate on the issue of apprenticeships and skills, and I do so because I have been involved with three major inquiries in my role with the all-party group on skills—one on information and guidance, a report on women and skills that we have just published with the National Skills Forum and a forthcoming inquiry on apprenticeships—and because I was a member of the Select Committee that considered the implications of the Leitch report and which scrutinised the draft apprenticeships Bill.
Skills and apprenticeships were at the heart of the policies needed before the recession, and that requirement is even more pressing now. The social imperative embodied in this legislation is as important now as at any time in the past 10 years, and it should be linked to the issue of lifelong learning. Those issues are critical to my constituency in Blackpool, where the process of regeneration in a traditional low-skill, low-stay-on at school setting needs to be transformed. Regeneration is about reskilling people as well as being a matter of buildings and structures, and the Bill needs to tackle both issues.
It is right, therefore, that we acknowledge what the Government have focused on, what they have emphasised and what they have achieved. They have maintained a constant focus on the issue—a process that has accelerated since we have had two ministries responsible for it and as a result of the increasing, vital co-operation between those Departments and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government have rescued apprenticeships— we should be in no doubt about that. In 1997, we inherited an apprenticeship figure of 75,000, but today we have a quarter of a million. We have made significant progress on completion rates. The creation of the national apprenticeship service, the £350 million that was promised for small and medium-sized enterprises under Train to Gain, which is very important in my constituency, the opportunity to study in bite-size chunks, the business improvement package, the £100 million for retraining and reskilling and the enormous success of the union learning fund and union learning representatives all show the persistent commitment of this Government, and particularly of the Secretary of State and Ministers past and present.
I emphasise the critical importance of continuity. The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), was an outstanding skills Minister and of course now has responsibility for higher education. Such continuity is absolutely right, because what we deliver in skills at level 4 will be critical to our success.
I do not say that there are not Opposition Members who have a passion for skills, apprenticeships and training. I know that many do, such as my colleague from the all-party group on skills, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who is in his place, and the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who has just left the Chamber. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) has spoken passionately and constructively on the matter for the Liberal Democrats. However, to will the ends of success in apprenticeships and skills, one must also will the means. I am afraid that the Leader of the Opposition’s ill-advised playing with words and figures and his proposed 1 per cent. block have inevitably laid his party open to the charges that the Secretary of State so eloquently made this afternoon. The Opposition’s lack of commitment to diplomas and the vocational route in the past, and the black hole that abolishing Train to Gain would open up, are not the ways forward.
We need to place increasing emphasis on skills and apprenticeships for the post-16 cohort. Just as the profile of higher education students is changing—the average higher education student is now in his or her mid-20s—demography will ensure that the profile of those taking up skills and apprenticeships will change rapidly from 2010. We must pay due recognition to that, but we must also get the pre-19 situation right. That means getting information, advice and guidance right and emphasising the critical role of schools and teachers and the pivotal role of further education and sixth-form colleges. The question that we must answer in considering the Bill is whether it will give young people the skills and adaptability to gain jobs in an economic downturn and keep them, and the flexibility to go through a series of careers. Specifically, we must consider whether there will be clear, not clashing, pathways between diplomas, apprenticeships and higher education.
Schools are not just about teachers, and clauses 212 to 227 contain welcome provision for the new school support staff negotiating body. The trade unions that represent support staff, Unison, Unite and GMB, of which I am a member, along with the TUC, are concerned that there should be national consistency in the agreements that are ratified. I ask Ministers to take that on board when they examine the details of the Bill. The role of support staff is as key to the success and ethos of a school as that of its teachers.
The role of teachers in encouraging young people to go down the route of apprenticeships and skills is crucial, as is independent advice and guidance. Frankly, Connexions has hitherto not been able to provide that advice terribly well and has reached too few people. As the Skills Commission’s report, “Inspiration and Aspiration”, stated, only 40 per cent. of young people have had one-to-one interviews under the current process. I therefore welcome clause 35, which will oblige schools to give advice on apprenticeships, but it remains the case that teachers need more guidance on both apprenticeships and diplomas. The Sutton Trust considered the matter recently and suggested that only a third of teachers felt that the 14 to 19 diplomas were useful in widening participation at higher education establishments. A recent survey by the Edge foundation showed that only 24 per cent. of teachers perceived apprenticeships as a good alternative to A-levels. That contrasted with much higher figures—percentages in the 40s and 50s—for parents, young people and employers. We therefore need a major push on apprenticeships.
It has already been said that the Bill will deliver new structures, not least the Young People’s Learning Agency. However, how will that change the quality of the advice? Allister McGowan, chair of the National Institute of Careers Education and Counselling, has consistently warned about Connexions weaknesses and already wide variations in delivery. He and his colleagues will revert to that subject. It is important that the Young People’s Learning Agency should take a firm hand in ensuring that there are national standards and that local authorities co-operate when necessary.
I have mentioned the key role of further education and sixth form colleges. In Blackpool, I have two excellent examples, which are second to none—Blackpool and the Fylde college, and Blackpool sixth form college. They promote vocational skills, especially in aeronautics, design and leisure. In the past 12 months, Blackpool and the Fylde college put 900 people through skills for life and employability programmes. It works with a local enterprise growth initiative to train local unemployed people in construction skills. All that is vital to Blackpool’s regeneration, as is the capital build programme of £100 million to relocate the college in the centre of the town. It would be remiss of me if I did not take the opportunity to remind Ministers of the importance of linking future expenditure with regeneration—not only of buildings but of people.
It is crucial that higher education institutions recognise apprenticeships and diplomas as proper qualification routes. Some areas are better at that than others. Fortunately in the north-west, the regional development agency is positive and active. We have the North West Universities Association and good links between the higher education and FE sectors. However, we need a proper framework to accredit advanced apprenticeships with the UCAS tariff. The Select Committee has already argued for that. Just as teachers need to learn swiftly about the importance of apprenticeships and diplomas, so do universities and admissions tutors, perhaps especially some of those at the older universities—sometimes, but not always, Russell group universities—which have less experience of the older, non-traditional cohort.
A false dichotomy is sometimes posed between basic level 2 and 3 and level 4 skills. We need both; we need different proportions in different parts of the country—that is why the Select Committee’s report on Leitch called for regional and sub-regional strategies. However, we know, not least from the projections that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and its energetic chief executive, Chris Humphries, has produced, that more than 50 per cent. of all job demand in the next eight to 10 years will be for high-level skills. There must therefore be a much clearer link and mapping between diplomas and apprenticeships. The main message is that we need both to be recognised and accepted rapidly.
Apprenticeships are about principles, not only the mechanics of delivery. Equality and diversity must be built in, especially for non-traditional groups—women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and younger adults. That means reconsidering flexibility in some of the guidelines for statutory rights to apprenticeships. The Open university has done that for years with its admission of students. If such flexibility is good enough for the Open university, which produces wonderful results, it should be reconsidered for apprentices.
Neither skills nor apprenticeship policy can be coherent without considering older workers, and I give the Government great credit for recognising that, and for what has been done so far. Indeed, the new adult advice and careers services are an important step forward. However, as with younger workers, the National Institute of Careers Education and Counselling has argued that an effective mature adult apprenticeships programmes is not the same as a programme that is suitable for first-time entrants. Recognition of prior learning experience, as on the OU model, and stress on the modular will be key, as will the new rights to request training and encouragement.
We need also to be clear about the rights to apprenticeship, especially in a recession. Who will pick up the slack? Public sector apprenticeships are important, but we must also consider the role of universities, which will take on and, frankly, shelter apprentices who have been let go by business because of their failings.
There is already good practice among older employers such as BT and British Gas, but the Government have to use every lever to ensure that public procurement brings with it apprenticeships, so I very much welcome what has been said about that today. We need to boost productivity, not just employability. There are long-standing skills challenges. Figures suggest that about 60 per cent. of health and social care job demand in the next 10 years will be in professional and personal services and that 60 per cent. of construction job demand will be in the skilled trades. Again, however, those are precisely the sectors from which 30 to 40 per cent. of the work force will retire in the next 10 years. We have to address that.
In particular, we have to address that problem among certain groups. I want to talk again about the importance of women. “Closing the gender skills gap”, the report that the Skills Commission has just published, is all about that. It covers everything, from challenging role models and stereotypes in schools and colleges to linking work with Department for Work and Pensions policy. That is particularly important in respect of the role of carers and making the allowance available to people on courses for more than 21 hours a week.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a measured and well-informed speech. In the light of what he has said about older learners and workers, does he support Conservative proposals to fully fund post-19 apprenticeships? Surely the disparity in funding cannot be justified, given the need for more older people to train in the way that he has described.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If we were starting from point zero, we might take a different view, just as we might with the funding of academic students, too. However, we are where we are. I support the moves that the Government have made so far. I would like them to move further, but that has to be done on the basis of balancing the needs of younger learners and the available funding.
We have talked quite a lot about statistics today, but this debate is all about the life-changing effects on individuals. When I think about women and skills, I think of the woman from the Mereside estate in my constituency whom I met at the recent opening of a children’s centre. She had taken her children through Sure Start, in which she had been a volunteer. She then returned to a further education college in her late 30s to train as a primary school teacher. She had got through, but the structures need to be made much easier, to encourage many more people to do so. That is also true for marginalised groups, such as workers displaced by recessions and those returning to the labour market. I am glad to see the commitments, which the Secretary of State has underlined this afternoon, in clause 47 on young offenders’ learning.
None of us can leave aside the recession. What are we training people for? The key task for the agencies created out of the Bill will be to refocus learning opportunities around soft skills and give people credit, in both senses of the word, for training that does not always have to lead directly to employment. That has consequences for Train to Gain. It means that more flexibility will need to be built into Train to Gain, to ensure that many more people not now employed can access training and ongoing education, and that, for the time being, the Government, not the employer, will increasingly be the co-ordinator and sponsor for ongoing education and training.
We have to be careful, in the drive for skills and reskilling during the economic downturn, that the case for lifelong learning is not lost. Even with the imperatives of skills funding, informal learning can still loom large. The sort of skills that older people require if they are moving from a low-grade job or returning to work are often clustered. They are not linear; they are gateway skills to do with developing self-confidence, time-keeping and office skills. Such skills will not always be gained from job-based qualifications. The Government, as well as employers, have to recognise that the development of skills accounts, the Government’s laudable initiative to revive the original intention of individual learning accounts, must include funding incentives for non-instrumental learning, as the City and Guilds national learning bank proposals say. As our Committee said:
“Skills Accounts that merely became an…accounting exercise, listing achievements or entitlements…would be sterile and quite inadequate to address the issues…Leitch highlighted in his Report.”
We have to think about the contribution of adult learning above and beyond the world of paid work. Being able to use the talents and commitment of people from the third age, especially in the third sector, will be an essential ingredient of voluntary and community work, and, where possible, that should be funded.
As we recover from the economic downturn, it is also going to be necessary to reskill people with green credentials, and not just through capital expenditure programmes. As Chris Humphries has recently emphasised, skilling will have a big impact on hundreds of thousands of people. The TUC’s new pamphlet on unlocking green enterprise highlights the fact that this is not just about degree levels but about the installation and maintenance of renewable energy technologies, which will require much more modest qualifications.
We should also look at what is going on in the USA. Barack Obama has produced an ambitious programme, and there have recently been proposals about how those policies will affect people there. For example, a report called “Job Opportunities for the Green Economy” makes the point that wind farm projects will create jobs for sheet metal workers, machinists and truck drivers, while increasing the energy efficiency of buildings will rely on roofers, insulators and electricians.
This is all about practical politics, and about bringing together not only skills but aspirations. The title of our Select Committee report on Leitch was “Re-skilling for recovery”. I believe that, with enough blue-sky and green-sky—if I can put it like that—thinking, we can deliver skills and educational fulfilment for people of all types and ages. The Bill, with its focus on skills and training, can be a key vehicle for delivering that.
I would like to start where the Secretary of State began, by paying tribute to Lord Dearing and the work that he did, during a long period in education, on curriculum reform, higher education and, more recently, modern languages. I would also like to thank the Minister and his team for meeting me and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to discuss the Bill and its later stages.
When we had our meeting, however, the Minister did not mention that he was already in the process of amending his own Bill. We have heard from the Secretary of State today that a number of amendments are already in the offing. I think that at least one of them might emanate from Barnardo’s, although I hope that the Minister will correct me if I have got that wrong. It would be useful to know, either now or at some stage before the debate concludes, how many amendments there are already, particularly on special needs, and when members of the Committee and Members of the House can expect to be made aware of them, so that we can avoid pursuing issues that the Government may already have addressed. Perhaps the Minister could deal with that question later in these proceedings.
I should also like to thank all those outside this place, such as Barnardo’s and others, who are already busy scrutinising the Bill and proposing a series of amendments and adjustments to it. In my view, they do not have a particularly enviable job. This is a very long Bill, with 265 clauses, and it is not a particularly exciting Bill. If it is going to be the final education Bill of this period in office for Labour, as I suspect it will be, it will mark Labour’s leaving with a whimper rather than a bang. With the exception of the proposals on apprenticeships, it seems to be a rag-bag of different proposals with no common theme other than, in many cases, that of centralising power and increasing the level of bureaucracy.
The Bill is particularly deficient in respect of tackling some of the continuing, entrenched disadvantages and inequalities in the education system that are manifested in the enormous gap between the performance of those from deprived neighbourhoods and those from more affluent areas. It is still the case, for example, that about 85 per cent. of white boys from poor families fail to reach the Government’s benchmark of five good GCSEs. We also know that a majority of schools in the poorest areas fail to get more than 30 per cent. of their pupils to reach the five good GCSEs target.
I had hoped that the Government would provide a greater sense of momentum and vision through the Bill. I had hoped that they would accept the proposals for a pupil premium developed by the Liberals and others to target disadvantage, and that they would raise funding levels and effectiveness to reach the people who have been and continue to be left behind. I wanted to see those proposals in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman dismisses much of the Bill as of little consequence, but does he not accept that the proposals for sixth-form colleges are radical and could lead—will lead, I hope—to the development of many more sixth form colleges, which might well be seen as highly significant in future?
We will see in time how radical they really are. What I am suggesting is that if we look at the real challenges this country’s education system faces and acknowledge the huge number of youngsters, particularly in lower-income groups and among those with special needs, who are being left behind in education, we find precious little in the Bill that will make much difference to them in two, five or even 10 years’ time.
What I would say—the Government have been a little reticent in acknowledging this today, despite the Secretary of State’s teasing by his opposite number on funding—is that the Government are moving into a period in which education budgets will be much more restrained. Indeed, after 2011 we will probably see an end to the Government’s pledge made a number of years ago to expand the education budget as a proportion of GDP, so it will be much more challenging to deliver the improvements that the Government have committed to and that many of us would like to see.
We will have plenty of time in later stages to scrutinise the myriad detailed and, in many cases, quite small proposals in the Bill’s 265 clauses.
Yes, 256. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his usual pithiness and focus.
I want to focus on three broad areas that we are particularly concerned about. The first is the proposals for Ofqual. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) led with them in his scrutiny of the Bill and, in my view, they are and should be regarded as the most important aspect of the Bill. Secondly, I shall deal with the provisions that introduce central control of education by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the issue of bureaucracy, which is already a matter of concern to many who work in schools, including school leaders. Relevant here are the details of the new schools complaints procedures, the practicalities of the right to request time off for training, the powers of search—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath touched on them—and other requirements connected with physical constraint. Those are all important issues, which prompt serious concerns about the practicality of some of the proposals. I shall finish on a third concern about the Government’s mechanisms for delivering improvement, the powers of intervention that the Government are assuming for themselves and the way in which the Young People’s Learning Agency will interrelate with the academies programme and the oversight of education.
The Bill’s potentially most important proposals relate to Ofqual and the attempt to restore some confidence in standards of education. We are now coming to the end of a long period in which this Government have been in office and a large number of educational proposals have been made: 17 Bills, 60 to 70 Green Papers, and more than 1,700 regulations. It is clear from our debates over the last couple of hours that there is no agreement about what has been achieved in the sense of improved outcomes over all that time and through all the additional money invested.
The Government’s own statistics suggest that many of the most important measures of performance—GCSE results and key stage tests—have improved significantly since 1997. Indeed, in parts of the country, especially inner London, the improvement in results in some communities since 1997 is almost literally unbelievable. If that educational improvement is real, the Government, the teaching profession and local authorities in those areas deserve a great deal of praise, but there is an alternative picture—that painted by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, in which there is great uncertainty about just how much of that apparent improvement in results is real and how much is a consequence of inflation of standards and distortion in relation to teaching to the test.
Those concerns about the most basic elements of understanding of what has been achieved in education are echoed widely, not only by particular political parties but across political parties. We saw them in the excellent report on testing and assessment produced by the Select Committee in May 2008. If we, as a House and as a country, cannot even reach clear agreement on where we are in education and what is improving and what is not, all the other debates that we are having about education policy are difficult to hold in a sensible context.
Paragraph 170 of the Select Committee report highlights the paradox that
“whilst test scores are improving at home, international rankings are either static or falling.”
That provides an ambiguous conclusion about what is happening. The Select Committee, in criticising the Government in clear and blunt terms, goes on to say that
“it seems clear to us from the evidence that we have received that the Government has not engaged with the complexity of the technical arguments about grade inflation and standards over time. We recommend that the Government addresses these issues head-on, starting with a mandate to the QCA or the proposed new regulator to undertake a full review of assessment standards.”
We welcome, of course, the modest attempt that the Government are making to put the assessment of educational standards on a more independent footing, but the question is whether the proposals in the Bill anything like match what will be necessary to restore confidence in standards. Our suggestion is that they do not.
A number of hon. Members have already mentioned the start that the new shadow Ofqual has made. It has not been entirely inspiring, with that organisation having persuaded one examination board to lower its standards and having already admitted in the board minutes confusion and uncertainty about how to maintain standards in an environment where the qualifications that underlie those standards are changing over time.
As has been mentioned, some major examination boards have put on the record their concerns about whether the proposals really meet a standard of independence that will give us confidence in the new Ofqual. Cambridge Assessment says in its representation to the Committee:
“We have serious concerns about the proposals as set out in the legislation—specifically in relation to the independence and accountability of the regulator, the qualification development process and ability to deliver qualifications in a timely manner.”
AQA has also made clear its concerns about the proposals:
“Ofqual needs to be given an explicit statutory power within Clause 144 to enable it, if necessary, to direct a recognised awarding body to set the standards in a specified qualification, on a specified occasion, at a specified level.”
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has just said, because it gives the lie to what the Secretary of State said to the House earlier, when he suggested that exam boards are not interested in the new regulator having teeth. That is precisely the opposite of the truth. They are committed to high standards because they have an interest in that currency. It is the Government who perhaps have an incentive to go in the opposite direction.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. The Secretary of State seemed to get the wrong end of the stick when he responded earlier. He appeared to be under the illusion that the exam boards were complaining that the new body would be too powerful and would hold them to account too effectively, but they have precisely the opposite concern—a concern that may be reinforced by the somewhat ambiguous responsibilities that the Bill gives Ofqual. Clause 125(4), for instance, gives it a duty to “promote public confidence” in qualifications. That leads us, in the context of some of what it has said recently—including the views that it expressed about the key stage testing fiasco—to question whether it will be an effective watchdog, or will see its role as that of a cheerleader.
The Select Committee has made recommendations which, in my opinion, could make a real difference to whether Ofqual discharges its responsibilities effectively. The Committee’s report makes absolutely clear its view that not only should Ofqual be a fully independent organisation, but it should have the power to carry out standardised sample testing for the purpose of monitoring particular cohorts of students so that, over time, we can see what is happening to educational standards without the results being distorted by “teaching to the test”, or by changes in the ease with which certain qualifications can be gained.
The Secretary of State chortled when I raised concerns over how Ofqual would discharge its responsibilities. In particular, he chortled at a sentence to which I referred and which, in fact, came from the Government’s response to the Select Committee report. It is worth putting on record precisely what the Government’s response was to the proposals on sample testing. They said, in July 2008:
“we do not accept that sample testing is necessary or desirable. In any case, Ofqual’s role is not to monitor education standards as a whole; it is to regulate the qualifications and assessments which are one of the means by which those standards are measured.”
That is a very interesting observation. It raises questions—the hon. Member for Surrey Heath nodded when they were mentioned earlier—about the extent to which we can rely on existing qualifications for judgments about educational standards as a whole.
I suggest that we need Ofqual to have precisely the powers that the Select Committee envisaged to carry out its own monitoring of educational standards without relying on qualifications which, particularly over recent years, have been persistently changed in a series of ways. No doubt they have often been changed with the best of intentions—to help youngsters to thrive in education, and to provide them with a testing and exam system which may in some cases be more meaningful—but in most cases the changes have had the effect of apparently improving standards; and that, alongside the Government’s targeting system for education results, has had a very strong effect in pushing schools and youngsters into qualifications that may often be considered likely to help to deliver those targets.
Although the Secretary of State indicated earlier that he would stand back from the whole debate about standards—that he would not make any grand claims, and that he would leave all this to Ofqual—we have also seen, in paragraph 50 of the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, the following very impartial assessment of the standards debate:
“Thanks to…regulatory scrutiny, we have every confidence that standards are being maintained and that tests are a true measure of learners’ attainment.”
It seems that the Government, while pretending to be in favour of some sort of impartiality on standards, have already taken a clear position in the standards debate, arguing that much of the evidence cited earlier is apparently not accurate.
In scrutinising the Bill, we shall want to spend a fair amount of time examining the Ofqual proposals. We shall want to consider whether the existing rather weak proposals can be turned into something far stronger, and can produce the sort of education standards authority that we have discussed over the last couple of years—an authority that would be more independent of Government, would be able to discharge the types of functions to which many of the exam boards have referred, and would be empowered to make its own judgments about educational standards without relying only on the existing qualifications.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think the QCA’s regulatory function has not so far succeeded in maintaining the public’s confidence in the integrity of our exam system? Is it because there has been ministerial interference since the QCA was established, or is there another problem within the QCA itself? Also, how does the hon. Gentleman feel that the new Ofqual arrangements will differ from those under the QCA, in order to prevent people from having the same problems?
I believe that the problems so far have included not only the degree of independence, or perceived independence, but the expectations that there have been on those bodies and the powers they have had to carry out their functions. Even in the proposals the Government are bringing forward today, there is not really the expectation that Ofqual will be doing a serious job and will be given the resources and discretion to assess what is happening in terms of educational standards. It is in danger of looking as though the Government simply want the slightly more independent body of Ofqual to rubber-stamp the exam results each year, so that it is somebody who is apparently independent, rather than Government Ministers, who will have to appear on television in August to explain why the results have gone up. The Minister for Schools and Learners will then be able to stay away in whatever exotic destination he is holidaying in, instead of returning to answer questions on the airwaves.
That brings me to a second area of concern, which I think would be shared by almost anybody who is familiar with Labour policy on education and public services over the last decade or so. It relates to the extent of central control and the tendency to introduce additional burdens of bureaucracy, often unnecessarily. The Association of School and College Leaders says in its representations that it is particularly concerned about the extra powers the Bill gives to the Secretary of State. It says these powers increase the centralisation policy and have the potential to undermine the capacity of school and colleague leaders and governing bodies to make decisions appropriate to their local circumstances. I agree with that; in many areas, a lot of additional central control is being given to the Secretary of State, and we will return to that later when we discuss improvement powers in relation to schools. There is also a great deal of bureaucracy in some of the new proposals. Many of them are no doubt being introduced with the best of intentions, but there is a real danger that they will become a bureaucratic nightmare of considerable proportions.
I shall start with the new complaints procedures, which remove the Secretary of State’s power to get involved in messy and difficult appeals. It is one of the few areas where the Secretary of State is actually giving something up—and it is possibly the one power he would want to give up. That power will be handed over to a new appeal mechanism, which is essentially an ombudsman function. There is a major concern that that could lead to a proliferation of complaints, not all of them well grounded, and a need for schools to increase enormously the amount of monitoring and collecting of evidence that relate to cases that could emerge through this ombudsman process. The National Union of Teachers says in its representations that there is concern among teachers and head teachers that this provision is at best unnecessary and at worst may further complicate existing complaints structures. The ASCL says in its comments on the Bill that guidance about what constitutes a good complaints policy is the best way to deal with the relatively small number of cases where school complaints systems are not working well. It suggests that the proposed complaints service has the potential to be expensive and bureaucratic and that, as it will have an interest in justifying its own existence, it may be liable to increase, rather than diminish, whatever problems there may be. We will therefore want to look very closely at these proposals during the passage of the Bill.
We notice that in clause 194, which describes some of these powers, the definition of a qualifying school includes
“a community, foundation or voluntary school…a maintained nursery school…or a short stay school”,
but that academies are apparently not included. Can the Minister clarify now or later whether academies will be exempt from this complaints process and, if so, what complaints process will relate to them, and what is the justification for leaving them out of this process?
Another Government proposal is the right to request time off for training. That, of course, either sounds wonderful or probably already exists in many businesses. However, when we look at the Bill in detail, we will have to consider how this right and the appeal routes that will be given to employees will work in practice. The Bill lists a whole series of what are essentially opt-outs for employers—circumstances in which they would find it difficult to give this right to time off for training. Most of them require an enormous amount of discretion and judgment, and it will be interesting to learn how the Government envisage some of these proposals working in practice, and what the scope may be for an increase in bureaucracy and appeals, and, perhaps, in cases being brought where there has been a breakdown previously between employer and employee.
Also on the bureaucratic and centralising burdens in the Bill, there are some important proposals on powers to search, which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has touched on, and the important issue of reporting a physical constraint. We would want to make sure that policy on the latter strikes a sensible balance between the requirement to report incidents that are sufficiently serious while avoiding being so onerous that it creates impediments to sensible behaviour within schools. In relation to the powers to search, we and a number of the teaching organisations share some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman earlier that the way in which the Bill grants these powers leaves out certain powers to search for other items, which any head teacher or governing body would probably want to be able to exercise. Therefore, the issue is whether it is right to grant a more generalised power that allows for a greater degree of discretion, or whether the Bill should allow for some of the other areas that have already been identified by bodies outside this House.
Finally, I turn to school accountability and improvement. Under this Government, there has rightly been a great deal of concern about schools across the country that have not been performing to the level that is possible—that has been demonstrated to be possible in areas where there is a similar, and often particularly challenging, catchment. I commend the Government for not having been willing simply to assume that such schools, often in deprived areas, should automatically be sentenced to achieve poor results. I can also understand why the Government have not in the past been willing to allow mechanisms of accountability that should have been exercised through local authorities, because it is clear that in large parts of the country over a very long period of time some local authorities—quite often in Labour areas and where Labour has been in power for long periods—were simply not discharging those responsibilities effectively. Indeed, in many cases those local authorities had themselves got into a mindset where they had a set of low expectations for the young people in their area because of the types of household and levels of income that they came from.
Over the past 10 or so years, we have had an increasing range of Government policies designed to intervene and deliver improvements. They are well intentioned, but they have often been counter-productive, as were some of the announcements on the National Challenge programme, which dubbed schools “failing” even when in some cases they had been converted into academies, were improving rapidly and had very good value added. In some of those cases we know that the ability of those schools to improve was weakened because of their having been designated by the Prime Minister as failing schools: they lost pupils who were previously going to attend and they lost staff who were going to apply to work in them but who, when they read in the local newspapers that the schools were at risk of closure, decided not to apply there.
Our education system needs a more coherent mechanism for holding local authorities and schools to account, and then a proper means of intervention. At the moment, we just have a complex muddle between local and central responsibility. The Government say that they want local authorities to be the commissioners for education services, but they do not really believe in the ability of local education authorities to perform that role. We also have a vast range of different mechanisms to be used in a very arbitrary way to deliver school improvements.
The Bill repeats many of the errors that we have seen over the past 10 years. The Local Government Association, for example, notes how the Secretary of State will now take additional powers on school improvements, and can force notices of improvement to be issued, even when local authorities are being proactive and have other proposals for improving education in those areas. We know that the Government’s response to the expansion of the academies programme has not been to try to find some mechanism through which the academies can become locally accountable to the local authorities, which are supposed to be the commissioners. The response has been simply to acknowledge that Ministers cannot ultimately control an academy programme of 200, 300 or 400 schools and to set up another agency—a mini local authority—to do that job for the Government and local authorities. That confirms the view that the Government still do not trust local authorities to be effective commissioners and to deliver change.
The Liberal Democrats would like to see a proper role for local authorities in holding schools to account and a proper devolution of power, not only to schools—so that they can exercise some of the powers that have been decentralised to academies but not to other maintained schools—but to local authorities in their oversight of school standards, with appropriate scrutiny of their performance by Ofsted or an education standards authority. Such an authority should hold not only schools and pupils to account, but local authorities as commissioners of services. Instead, we have from the Government another set of arbitrary measures that will no doubt be replaced in the fullness of time by other arbitrary measures or changes made by whatever Government we have in the future.
The Bill is a hotch-potch of different measures, thrown into a long piece of legislation designed to give the impression that the Government still have some sort of agenda for education. However, it is sadly lacking the fundamental changes that could make a difference in addressing the major concerns about the education system that are actually shared by all parties.
I wish to add my voice to those who have mentioned the sad death of Lord Dearing—or Ron, as I knew him. His contribution to education in this country was immense, but what stands out in my mind is his consideration of the future of higher education before the 1997 election. His report achieved all-party agreement and higher education would have been profoundly different without it. More recently, my Committee has been considering testing and assessment, is concluding an inquiry into the national curriculum and will go on to look at inspection. Ron Dearing’s name runs throughout all those issues. The education sector will be poorer for his loss.
On a lighter note, Ron’s sense of humour was amazing. It was a sight to behold him and Ken Baker—Lord Baker, I should say—going around together to promote university technical colleges. That was a lovely last campaign for Lord Dearing, and we shall miss him.
I turn now to something that would have been of great interest to Ron, and that is where we are after nearly 11 years of Labour education policy and this latest Bill. As Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I have noticed how some colleagues complain about how disgraceful it is that we have new legislation that will take our mind off the job of running schools and upset people because the quango structure will be changed. On the other side are the people asking why the Government do not provide more direction or make more high-profile, sweeping changes right through from early-years, pre-school education to higher and adult education. We have to achieve a balance, as all Governments try to do.
As I have said in previous Second Reading debates, three pillars of reform—testing and assessment, the national curriculum and inspection—are associated with the period between Baker and Balls. Those reforms have now been in existence for 20 years and it is therefore a good time to reflect on them. Some of the elements of the Bill do that, although it is something of a catch-all Bill.
I shall start with apprenticeships. In this case, the Government gave both my Committee and the Business and Enterprise Committee the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny—it was all that we had time for. It was an experiment for the two Committees, which worked for the most part blind to the other’s work but came to very similar conclusions, which is not a bad recommendation. Broadly speaking, we welcomed the proposals on apprenticeships. All of us worried about the ambitiousness of the Government’s targets, and whether they could be delivered—especially as by the time we wrote our report, we were in recession, a time when it becomes ever more difficult for the private sector, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, to think about taking on more apprentices. Those of us who have been here for a long time remember the collapse of apprenticeships under a previous Prime Minister. We had wonderful apprenticeship schemes in some of the premier companies in this country, but they fell away, and it has taken a long time to get back to that quality of training and to rebuild the apprenticeship infrastructure.
People can get carried away by the term “apprenticeships”, and the Committee considered the issue of quality control. Some of us with constituencies that still have a strong engineering base—as I do in Huddersfield—assume that an apprenticeship lasts three or four years and is intensive and of high quality. It is paramount that when a person finishes an apprenticeship, they not only have a good qualification that will more or less provide them with a career for life, but are well remunerated. That is true of some apprenticeship schemes, and those in engineering seem to set the gold standard. Many apprenticeships are short term nowadays, lasting as little as a year, so they are rather different. Some are not served with employers but are programme-led.
We drew quality control to the Government’s attention, because we need assurance that qualifications are of good quality and lead to well-remunerated employment. Both Select Committees said, “For goodness’ sake, make sure that in every school the apprenticeship option is brought to the attention of young people coming up to 16”. Absolutely. Why not? It provides a wonderful opportunity that is better suited to the talents of many young people than staying on at school until they are 18 and then going to university or seeking employment.
Apprenticeship is a good option if it is the right apprenticeship for the young person. I believe that young people should be told what the career they are entering will bring them as an income. That was one of the things I wanted to add to our report, although we did not include it. They should know how often on average they would need to change jobs as a hairdresser or in retail or distribution, where the training is much shorter but incomes are much lower. The assurance of the good life in some sectors, based on an apprenticeship, is not what it is in others, so people need better knowledge of the career steps beyond the short apprenticeships offered in some sectors.
The Minister’s response to our pre-legislative report was rather late. We reminded him that it was due when he was giving evidence to the Committee a few days beforehand and it arrived in the nick of time so that it could be attached to the documents for this debate. Our challenge to the Government is that there can never be a better time to train than during a recession. If we do not have training during a recession, we might as well give up on the commitment to train. This is when we have to train; the Government have to become more active and recognise that the private sector will be more reluctant, unless it is given inducements—unless it is made beneficial for small, medium and large companies to take on apprentices. When companies are finding it difficult to make ends meet and to obtain bank loans to continue production, there must either be generous help for the private sector or public sector apprenticeships will have to be pulled into play in a way that we have not considered seriously for a very long time—if ever.
As most of us know, the major employers in constituencies such as mine 30 years ago were household names—the big engineering and textile companies and chemical companies such as ICI—that employed many thousands of people. Today, the main employers are the university, the health authority, the hospitals, schools and colleges. The picture is totally transformed, and those are the jobs people do. If we want apprenticeships to grow, we have to embed them in the health service, local government, universities and all the public sector areas. If we do not do that, we shall not have high-quality apprenticeships and we shall not have them fast.
I made a recommendation to the Department and to the Prime Minister 10 days ago, when my right hon. Friend was giving evidence to the Liaison Committee. I asked him if he could
“give a guarantee that no young person leaving school at 16 in this interim period, in the recession, before we get the leaving learning age to 18…will be without training or an apprenticeship.”
The Prime Minister said:
“I want us for school leavers to be able to be in a position to say that every school leaver will have the chance either of a job or of an apprenticeship or of some form of training that will take them through to a job in the future.”
That is quite a commitment and I hope it will be translated into Government action.
Most people who have spoken so far—certainly the Front-Bench spokespeople—have mentioned Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency. It is interesting that nearly everyone has homed in on the replacement for the QCA. The agency has a history, and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) took some pains to talk about the evidence for deteriorating standards in young people’s GCSEs and A-levels. In an intervention, I pointed out that it was easy to find such evidence; indeed, the QCA appeared before the Education and Skills Committee, and the Children, Schools and Families Committee has visited other countries—for example, to look at the Swedish model, which I prefer to the Finnish model, as some members of my Committee know. However, countries like the UK—big urban nations such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain—share the same difficulty as us: it is difficult to track standards over time, because everyone’s system changes to some degree.
The Committee asked questions of Ken Boston, the former head of the QCA. He is a fine public servant who had the honour and integrity to resign when he thought that he had got things wrong in terms of the testing regime last summer. That should not detract from the fact that he is a fine public servant and I thought he was a very good head of the QCA. When he gave evidence to the Committee, he made a robust defence of the maintenance of standards over time. We have to find a balance, because we can easily fall into the arguments set out in The Sunday Times, The Times and the Daily Mail—that standards have gone to pot and that none of our children does any work or achieves qualifications worth the paper they are written on. We all know about that kind of populist nonsense, but under my chairmanship, when the QCA was regularly interrogated over a long period, we received pretty satisfactory answers about the maintenance of standards over time.
Could the hon. Gentleman wait for me to finish my point?
There is an argument that we should have a more robust and independent qualifications authority—a regulatory body that has teeth. I am one of those who believes that we have to wait for such things to develop over time. I shall wait to see whether the person appointed to lead Ofqual on a permanent basis has the robust character that will make the organisation what it can and should be.
The hon. Gentleman has much experience in this area. Does he agree that one of the real problems with the QCA was that it was trying to deal with two separate functions—qualifications and the curriculum? The new organisation, with a single focus, can let others develop a curriculum that is really appropriate and can then consider the appropriate qualifications that will follow.
In our long relationship, that is probably the most helpful thing that the hon. Gentleman has ever said to me. He is absolutely right, and I was just about to come to that point. We want a robust body. Ofqual is a good improvement, although that will depend on the person who runs it—on how robust they are and how determined they are to make something of the post. If someone is appointed a Supreme Court judge in the United States, but he or she is a mouse, they will not make an impression. However, if we give a person the power, they could make something of the office.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I will give way only to Back Benchers.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is absolutely right. There was a strong case for splitting the bodies, and having a separate qualification development agency. Of course, the idea has developed over time, and the development is partly the result of nudging from the Select Committees. The Children, Schools and Families Committee has not yet finalised its report on the national curriculum, but my view is that we have needed a strong, independent voice on the national curriculum and curriculum matters for a long time. Very few people have mentioned the issue today; I am surprised that the Front Benchers did not mention it at all. If we really want a robust curriculum, independence and integrity are needed, and we need the issue to be considered over the long term.
I am extremely grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee. Does he agree that something else is required: the will on the part of Ministers to resist regularly intervening and interfering? Intervening and interfering takes away a culture of independence and undermines the system’s ability to work in a thoughtful, long-term way for the benefit of learning.
My hon. Friend makes a good point— I mean the hon. Gentleman; it is hard to get that right when Opposition Members are on the same Committee as me. The fact is that in politics, we all like to deal in conspiracy theory. We all want to believe that a Minister rings people up and says, “You do this for me or there’ll be trouble,” or, “Do this or you’ll never get a renewal of your contract.” In my experience, if a Minister—they are only in post for a couple of years before they move on, anyway—had phoned up Ken Boston and said, “Ken, I want you to do this,” Ken, being an Australian, might have used pretty strong language in response. We might all talk about issues of political independence, but although there might be drift and there might be cases of people getting a little bit too chummy, I have seen no evidence of overt political interference. We need the two bodies to work properly, we need to ensure standards over time, and we need an independent curriculum watchdog if we are to get the curriculum right over time.
I want to make a couple more points, generally on issues that arise from the Select Committee’s inquiries. I cannot resist mentioning local government’s new responsibilities towards young people with a custodial sentence. I am a bit worried about that, because there has been turmoil. The Education and Skills Committee, as it was, only got a handle on education in prisons when the Home Office lost responsibility for the issue and it passed to the Department for Education and Skills. We could then get involved. We held a thorough inquiry on the state of education in our prisons—it is still not very good. Most people know that. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) knows extremely well how we feel about the fact that many people in prison or in custody have such a poor record when it comes to their start in life; they may have been in care, or may suffer from all kinds of special educational needs.
It worried me when we saw the chaos brought about by Government changes to policy on the National Offender Management Service. We all know about the NOMS fiasco and what it did to prison education and much else. The Prison Service is still recovering from that, and now there is to be yet another change. Surely we need a consistent national approach to the educational needs of people in custody; looking at the Bill as printed, I am not sure how it is to achieve that.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, but would he accept that there was similar concern when primary care trusts were given responsibility for the health of prisoners? There was some anxiety, but those fears were not borne out in practice. We know that health services for prisoners have improved. Surely that evidence suggests that when local authorities get responsibility for education for young people in custody, they should provide them with a better service?
This is one of the first times that my hon. Friend and I have disagreed about anything in public. The change with regard to health was absolutely right; it works well. I am worried, because I do not know how the education and training side of things will work, and how we will ensure consistency in a very difficult area. Like or loathe him, David Freud and I have discussed how we can change prisoners’ lives, and I think that he is absolutely right: we cannot focus on just one aspect of a prisoner’s life, such as education or skills, and leave out housing need, addictions and other issues. We have to provide the full Monty, either when the person is in prison or when he or she comes out. It is a complicated job. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners may put my mind at rest, but at the moment, the custodial side of things worries me a good deal.
It also worries me a bit that local authorities are to take over careers services. I have been around long enough to know that the last time they did so, they did not provide them very well at all. As a result, that responsibility was taken away from them. I want to make sure that the next bunch who do it, do it well. I am co-chair of the Skills Commission with Dame Ruth Silver. We looked at the information, advice and guidance. It is changing fast in a changeable and challenging area, and I am not sure whether the local authorities have the right tools to do the job. I am worried that many local authorities are ceasing to hold open competition and to use good private sector expertise in delivering information, advice and guidance. Again, under the Bill, I am not sure how that will work out. Does the Minister want me to give way? I will make an exception and give way to him, although he is on the Front Bench.
I am staggered at my hon. Friend’s generosity in allowing me to intervene from the Front Bench, without my even asking, given what he has said about Front Benchers’ interventions. The main legislation on the issue was the Education and Skills Act 2008. We said then that the information, advice and guidance standard would apply and would be rigorously enforced. The Bill before us seeks to ensure that that careers advice includes advice on apprenticeships. That is a significant and important part of the Bill, and we will continue to work with local authorities to make sure that they improve information, advice and guidance.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that; it leads nicely to my conclusion. I want to put my remarks in context. I am trying to be fair; I am Chairman of the Select Committee and I am trying to apportion blame fairly, but I must say that it is a great shame that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who speaks for the Opposition on Department for Children, Schools and Families matters, is not present. I have been Chairman of the Select Committee for some time, so I have been to more schools than most Ministers, as they have not been around for as long as me. I go to about three educational settings a week. Whatever the banter in the Chamber between the two main parties, in the past 10 years or so, I have found that progress on educational standards has improved dramatically in the schools to which I go. I go to schools up and down the country, to early years settings, to primary schools and to secondary schools. I can see a real change in our education system. I hate it when The Times, The Sunday Times, and perhaps some of the cheaper newspapers, go on and on as if there was everything wrong and nothing right with the state system of education. I think we have a fantastic state system of education. In The Sunday Times where—I shall be kind—a former chief inspector, has a regular column, there is a pernicious drip, drip, drip, to the effect that any sane, intelligent, middle-class person with the income will send their child to independent private education. That is an insidious message that says that people who send their children to state education are in some way lesser beings.
I find that state education is fantastic. I have four children. They all went to state education and they are all doing all right. I recommend to all hon. Members that they support the schools that the vast majority of their constituents send their children to. It is a very good example. I say that to many vicars as well.
In conclusion, I am a little worried that at a time of recession, we are changing an awful lot of organisation on the ground. In the Select Committee report, we warned the Government. We asked them, at this late stage, to hold off changing again the whole learning and skills structure and the way training is delivered. No sooner do people out there get used to something when some politician tries to change it. The Minister for Schools and Learning, who is having a private conversation, knows that that is the truth.
The Government want employers in small and medium-sized enterprises to endorse the system. I know the Minister spends a great deal of time in his constituency. If he goes, as I do in Huddersfield, to small and medium-sized businesses and asks why they are not taking on apprentices or skilling up their work force, it is because they find the system so darn complicated that it puts them off. I join the Opposition in highlighting the complexity of taking on an apprentice and the difficulty of understanding all the acronyms, which are all about to change, making it even more difficult for the people at the grass roots.
Having evenly shared out my bouquets and my barbs, I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your generosity in letting a Back Bencher speak for so long.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), to whose thoughtful contribution I listened with respect. I declare an interest as an adviser to the Priory Group, which owns a number of special schools around the country.
I start by offering strong support to the proposal in the Bill to give statutory recognition to children’s trusts by mandating the creation of children’s trusts boards in every part of the country. It is important in this context to underline that the children’s trust is not some abstract, esoteric philosophical construct divorced from the reality of public service delivery and children and young people’s opportunity. On the contrary, the children’s trust is or should be the embodiment of the local partnership between the commissioners of services for children, young people and their families, and the providers of those services.
As such, the children’s trust has a responsibility to spearhead the process of integrated commissioning across education, social care and health services. Necessarily in the process if it undertakes that work, it will bring together and work with local authorities, primary care trusts and social services departments, but it does not end there. Very likely, if the work is done properly, it will involve the children’s trust’s interaction with and learning from a range of other organisations—for example, the Connexions service, youth offending teams, Sure Start children’s centres, the police service, housing services, leisure services and voluntary organisations.
I am not sure that there is adequate recognition of the significance of the children’s trust. The difficulty is that five years ago, for entirely understandable reasons, the Government did not want to invest those trusts with too much formal responsibility. They were susceptible to the criticism if they did so, local discretion would be unduly fettered or constrained. The result is that on the ground there may be a children’s trust, but in many cases there are what are amorphously known as children’s trust arrangements, and they are not as specific or explicit as a children’s trust.
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said in his contribution that the track record of the children’s trusts so far had been chequered at best and subject to ferocious criticism. There is no denying that last year’s Audit Commission report is very critical of the work of the trusts so far. It says, among other things, that the trusts are guilty of a failure to distinguish between strategic, executive and operational issues.
The report laments the fact that many of the representatives on those children’s trust boards that exist lack a mandate from their sponsoring organisations to offer a view about policy or, more particularly, to commit resources. It rues the reality, too, that there is often among the members of the trusts little or no experience whatever of the process of joint commissioning, which the Government believe to be integral to the future successful delivery of services to children, young people and their families.
When I undertook a review of speech, language and communication services for children from 0 to 19 for the Government between 2007 and 2008, it was also my sense, regrettably, that in respect of health and education services, all too often there was a tendency to commission separately, based on different understandings, different priorities and different processes. The Audit Commission is justified in saying that so far, over the five years, there is little evidence that the trusts have made a substantial difference to outcomes for children, young people and their families, but the burden of my contention is that that is not of itself an indictment of the notion that there should be children’s trusts or joint commissioning arrangements. Rather, it is a reflection of the reality that all too often those trusts are themselves intangible.
Going round the country, I wanted to see the trust, to hear the trust, to smell the trust, to recognise the trust in action, and I would often ask besuited individuals of great seniority in the commissioning or delivery of local services whether there was a trust in that area, of what it consisted, and what it was doing. I have to say that I was greeted, in a multiplicity of places around the country, with answers of quite the most stupendous and unsurpassable eloquence, at the end of which I was absolutely none the wiser as to whether anything was being done on that front. That leads me to say that at least on the surface there would appear to be a good Government case for changing the arrangement and offering a degree of a lead from the top in saying that there should be statutory recognition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for making some of the points that he is making. Does he agree that those varied and nebulous organisations are difficult to scrutinise, and that it is difficult for a parent, for example, to challenge a decision that might go back to the children’s trust?
I certainly do agree with that. If there is no obvious point of accountability, it is not clear where people can get answers or services or, in the absence of answers or services, recompense for themselves, their children or their loved ones. The absence of a robust structure is something of a problem.
In the Government’s consultation on the subject, there was substantial—around two thirds—support for the idea of giving statutory recognition to the children’s trusts. If we look at organisations that are daily involved in the provision of children’s services or that are concerned with the well-being of children, we see that there is support for the proposal from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for example, and from the Children’s Society. I suppose that what I am really saying is that although day-to-day intervention in the minutiae of the local operation of a trust is entirely inappropriate, there is a world of difference between such fussy interference on the one hand and on the other the establishment of a clear structure, for which I am calling and which it seems the Government now propose to introduce. If anything, so far and with good intentions, the Government have been too permissive on the subject; there is something to be said for an element of prescription.
I say that because when we are talking about children’s services, and in particular about the commissioning and delivery of services to children and young people with special educational needs, simply leaving a complex mosaic of disparate and unrelated local organisations, each with its own important agenda, to go about the process of pulling together, is a triumph of optimism over reality. When there is such a laissez-faire approach, the interests and needs of the most vulnerable and potentially marginalised children and young people are often relegated or ignored. That is why I suggest that the process needs to be driven. The joint commissioning that we want will not just happen; there has to be leadership, teamwork and a set of processes that will translate aspiration to fact.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way during what is, as usual, an eloquent and perceptive speech.
One of the great concerns in my constituency is the number of young people who, despite all the good work so far, are still progressing through primary and secondary education without their needs being identified; sometimes quite profound underlying difficulties and problems are not picked up. Does the hon. Gentleman see a role for the children’s trust boards to be much more proactive? They could, for example, go to the GP sector or the schools themselves, say that such children are slipping through the net in large numbers and ask what is being done about it.
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. The children’s trust should have the responsibility to assess need, decide on the appropriate mix of services, secure the appropriate resources, commission the services and facilitate their delivery, and judge the quality of the services. There should then be the potential to refine or significantly alter the provision.
I say to the Government and the House that we have had a panoply of important Government statements on commissioning. We now need to move on from those statements to a framework for improvement. We have had the joint commissioning framework, the commissioning framework for health and well-being, world-class commissioning, the operating framework for the national health service and the children’s plan. Each and every one of those important documents bangs on about the need for, and potential benefits to be derived from, joint commissioning. Yet in many cases—most, I fear—such commissioning has stalled on the ground. The Government are right to take the step that they are taking. Children’s trusts can be the vehicle for the very improvement that we all want.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Five years ago, I suspect that I would not have agreed with him; I would have thought that the local authorities could do most of the work themselves. I now totally agree that there needs to be an umbrella organisation to bring the organisations together.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the drive to pass this legislation and set up the new Young People’s Learning Agency will result in a whole set of transfers of functions to local authorities, particularly in respect of 16 to 19-year-olds and of 19 to 24-year-olds with special educational needs? The need for the trust to be able to develop the young people’s plans is so crucial. In some ways, organisations should be put on hold so that we do not get flawed plans and that there is independent scrutiny to make the plans worth while.
I confess that I am uncertain about whether the overall effect of the organisational changes will be beneficial; I think that the jury is out on the subject. I accept that to some extent I am ducking the hon. Gentleman’s challenge, but I have focused my remarks and thinking very much on the younger end of the spectrum. As far as services for those people are concerned, and given the primacy of making a reality of early intervention, it seems that the statutory recognition route is the right one to follow.
I should also say something in support of the proposal to give statutory recognition to the children’s centres and to require local authorities to establish and maintain sufficient such centres in every part of the country. Although those centres are by no means perfect, it is fair to say that they have made a real, positive and lasting difference to hundreds of thousands of people—if not more than 1 million by now—right across the United Kingdom. That is not something at which we should sniff or cavil. The centres are also responsible for securing or advising on the availability of education, health, social care and employment services.
The assessment would be that, in the round, the centres have done pretty well so far, although there is scope for improvement. There are no longitudinal studies on the subject, because the children’s centres have not been in place for long enough to allow such. However, if we reflect for a moment on the reports that have been produced, we realise that they have not been insignificant by any means. There is the national evaluation of Sure Start, and there are reports by the National Audit Office, Ofsted and the Public Accounts Committee. They looked at different aspects of the services and provision of the children’s centres and drew important conclusions.
First, the reports were pretty clear that, on the whole, the centres’ services had led to an improvement in the quality of parenting and in the experiences of children—their social development and capacity for self-restraint. We should welcome that significant development. On the negative side, the thrust of the criticism has been that although the children’s centres have had some success—they have done well in providing services to ethnic minorities in areas where there are large concentrations of ethnic minorities, for example—they have done less well in other respects. In areas without large ethnic minority populations, they have struggled to reach those small, vulnerable and needy minorities. That has been a significant challenge.
There has also been the problem of centres being unable to reach out to fathers in local communities, and that also needs to be addressed. The Public Accounts Committee felt that the centres needed to be clearer about the services, or the signposts to organisations that could help, that are offered to children and families with disabilities. There is scope for improvement.
What will result from, or be the benefit of, statutory recognition? The feeling in the consultation, in which 97 per cent. of respondents supported the case for statutory recognition, was that it would confer a greater legitimacy on the centres and that there might be a greater urgency about the consolidation and extension of the services of the centres around the country. A sense of security and a degree of permanence that would otherwise be lacking would be invested in the centres, and that would be conducive to long-term planning, efficiency and effectiveness. We should look seriously at the argument for statutory recognition; having done so, I come down in support of it.
The subject of funding was touched on in an abrasive exchange between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. If memory serves me, when these centres were established there was annual funding of £721 million; this year, it is £1.573 billion; and in 2010 it will be £1.941 billion. That is a lot of money and a very concentrated resource. It was music to my ears when my hon. Friend affirmed, in terms which I fear brook no contradiction and avoid any doubt, that the Conservative party, when it comes into government next year, will continue precisely that commitment. That is of the essence, because warm words, empathetic gestures and isolated initiatives will not suffice to meet the needs of this case. If we are serious about securing early intervention, tackling social exclusion, furthering opportunity, extending life chances and facilitating social justice, this is a programme the merits of which we have to recognise and upon which we should build.
My impression was that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State had made a commitment to the centres. However, the hon. Gentleman need not doubt for a moment that I will crawl over the minutiae—every word—of what my hon. Friend said. I hope that he made a commitment. If he did, I congratulate him; if he did not, he needs to make it. These centres are doing excellent work; they need to develop that work, and they require the financial support to do so.
I want to conclude with an unrelated observation concerning clause 84 on the election for apprenticeship scheme. I can see merit in what the Government are proposing, but I have a sneaking dissatisfaction with the terms of the clause as currently drafted. The requirement that to be successful in securing such an apprenticeship applicants should have to have level 2 or level 3 qualifications seems excessively arbitrary and draconian. I ask the Minister to reconsider that, for one simple reason: there will be young people around this country, perhaps on the autistic spectrum—I know of several examples—or with other special educational needs who are not academically equipped to succeed in examinations or whose school careers have been blighted by late intervention, a denial of opportunity and poor treatment, and who therefore have not gained qualifications but would be well suited to such an apprenticeship. They often have a particular interest in a given set of things and a fascination with how they work, as well as a sense of the priorities of the project and an ability to concentrate on it and make a real success of it. I simply say to Ministers that, in the understandable quest to guarantee that certain standards are set and maintained, they should not be arbitrary and give up the opportunity for of some very vulnerable children and young people to gain access to qualifications from which they would benefit.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why I hope that his hon. Friends on the Front Bench will withdraw their continued opposition to programme-led apprenticeships that prepare young people in college so that they can make those steps towards work-based apprenticeships. There is some confusion about what we are seeking to do in this respect. He will know that many organisations, such as the Prince’s Trust, work very well with these young people.
The hon. Gentleman credits me with a level of detailed knowledge of the precise thought processes and current policy positions of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I do not possess. On that basis, I am inclined to resile from that particular challenge.
I have calculatedly focused on those aspects of the Bill that I especially welcome, and I make no apology for that. I would like to think that in certain aspects of children’s and young people’s policy we could start to develop a genuine consensus that will endure irrespective of which party happens to be in office at the time. We all talk about trying to do the right thing in the national interest irrespective of party politics, but that is the approach that I am taking. Important parts of this Bill are extremely welcome. I wish them success and hope that they achieve what I believe they can, and what I know Ministers want to see.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this Second Reading debate. You may be pleased to hear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will keep my comments short because, like many other hon. Members, I am used to having to curtail them to a set time, although I notice that today there is no such set time. It is perhaps a shame that Front Benchers did not do the same.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. In the interests of brevity, I will be unable to mention all the parts that I consider important, because there are so many. It is gratifying to see that it is being taken through by two Government Departments working together to achieve the best results for the people whom they serve. The focus on apprenticeships does much to consolidate the Government’s commitment to them for many years to come. I understand that in 1997 barely 15,000 young people completed apprenticeships in a year and that that number has now leapt to well over 100,000. I suppose that that is no surprise when we consider that in 1997, when the Conservatives were in power, the amount of public funding for apprenticeships was precisely zero.
The briefings that I have received on the Bill have had one thing in common—they all welcome it. They do so because they recognise its commitment to building the skills and potential of people, and that this commitment can only enrich the skills and potential of business. I welcome it for that reason, and for many more. I am delighted that it will place the legacy of Sure Start and children’s centres on a sounder legislative footing, meaning that they are not left at the mercy of those who may not value the ongoing contributions to the community made by centres such as those in Felling and Washington in my constituency. Having said that, it sounds as though Conservative Front Benchers may now have made a commitment to support such a secure future for children’s centres and Sure Start. I, too, will read in detail the Opposition spokesman’s comments.
It is good to see greater support for nurseries. I know from my own experience in Gateshead that local authority flexibility can be key in delivering nursery places for local children. There will always be a need for such local flexibility, and I hope that the right balance can be found between that and the Government’s laudable desire to boost support for nurseries.
As hon. Members may know, I am committed to trying to raise awareness in our schools of the extra challenges faced by pupils with special educational needs and medical conditions. The recognition provided for school support staff in the Bill will give professionals whose role is not primarily to educate pupils the chance to have a voice that should enable them to build on their skills to make pupils’ needs a priority. There are concerns among trade unions—as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who is no longer in his place—that the current wording of the Bill may not enable those thousands of staff to secure the upturn in pay and conditions that they deserve. I know that Ministers will be keen to ensure that in granting such a voice to support staff, they do not allow any loopholes in the legislation to remain, so that that voice would fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, the right to request time to train should help, in time, to create a culture of ongoing learning for professionals. I hope that that right will be exercised by all professionals, especially teachers, in order to ensure that no one is asked to do a job for which they feel inadequately prepared. This should not be seen, as it is by some, as a back door route to skiving, but as a chance for employer and employee to seize mutual benefits wherever possible.
There is much more to welcome, but time is pressing on. A barrage of plaudits and praise may sound like music to Ministers’ ears, but I want also to take the chance to provide some feedback. I want to sound a note of caution about two broad issues, based on experience; those affected by some of the proposed changes are only too right to want to see those issues flagged up.
I was contacted last week by the North East chamber of commerce. I have plenty of experience of the north-east and am aware that the North East chamber of commerce is the only chamber of commerce of the region. Its members also employ 30 per cent. of the regional work force, so it was no surprise when its briefing made it to my in-tray and caught my attention. Like me, the North East chamber of commerce is an ardent advocate of the north-east. That is why I am keen to highlight its concern that the Young People’s Learning Agency, tasked with providing education and training to young people, should not lose a clear sense of strategic direction or indeed any expertise when its work is implemented at a local authority level. We need to ensure that an effective sub-national structure reflects regional variations in the circumstances of young people and the requirements of employers. The Learning and Skills Council has done a good job of taking account of both those factors and it is vital that such an understanding is maintained.
The changes set out in the Bill are far-reaching and I have already commented on how far apprenticeships have come thanks to the Government’s ongoing endeavours. I mentioned earlier that North East chamber of commerce members employ 30 per cent. of the regional work force. Given that last year in my local authority areas more than 3,200 apprenticeships were undertaken, it is a fair bet that many of the employers leading such schemes are members of the chamber of commerce. It is therefore wise to listen to their concerns about the potential turbulence that will be experienced during any period of flux while the proposed changes are introduced. The split responsibilities of the Young People’s Learning Agency and the Skills Funding Agency, for commissioning and for funding and resourcing, will need a watchful eye to be kept on them.
I urge Ministers to recognise the way in which the north-east is responding to the current economic difficulties. We recently suffered a bitter blow with the loss of 1,200 jobs at Nissan but partners across the region have been quick to pull together and to work together. Nissan showed a willingness to invest in its workers, working with Gateshead college to secure training. That desire to develop the work force is reflected in the bid for further funding now before DIUS ministers. There are nearly 20,000 apprentices in the region and there is a willingness to gain the new skills that will unlock new opportunities. Ministers should grasp the chances across the region with both hands.
I asked Ministers at the end of last year whether they were aware of the potential for some apprenticeships, such as the employer-led programmes run by the charity Rathbone, to fall foul of the new legislation. I know that Ministers want to use the definitions of apprenticeships to avoid any unscrupulous exploitation, and that is laudable and right, but it would be good to have further assurances that such valuable charitable projects will not be impeded by the legislative changes. Rathbone places young people with poor behavioural and educational records with employers and we should do all we can to support its efforts.
Another aspect of the Bill affects children and young people with special educational needs. It is great to see that so much attention has been paid to ensuring that the changes in the Bill will benefit all children and young people. It builds on DCSF’s agenda for supporting children with special educational needs and will complement the Aiming High for Disabled Children programme, the children’s plan, the eminent Bercow review, the Lamb inquiry, the Rose review and the forthcoming Ofsted review.
May I also say how encouraged I was to hear the Secretary of State’s remarks about the steps the Government plan to take on autism following the forthcoming Autism Bill? I know that there is a great strength of feeling that we must strive to improve services for children with autism and other special educational needs. It is good to see that that aim is uppermost in Ministers’ minds. I want to reiterate the hope of the autism lobby that local authorities will seek to consider the needs of disabled children at all times when considering their plans for children and young people.
There can be no doubt about the Government’s commitment to children with special educational needs, but none the less I want to raise one or two queries that I believe might need further examination in Committee. Like many other Members, I have received a briefing from the Special Educational Consortium, which is, as ever, thorough and well considered. It states:
“The duty to carry out a robust needs analysis and audit provision is an integral part of the widely-supported sufficiency duty in the recent Childcare Act and should be mirrored here.”
We need to know whether local authorities that are taking on extra responsibility for provision will be audited to ensure that they come up to scratch. One of the purposes of my private Member’s Bill, which is now the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008, was to try to ensure a greater spotlight on local authority performance in order to highlight best practice. Identifying and supporting all needs will be integral to the success of the transition of responsibility and I hope that Ministers will find a way of ensuring some means of monitoring performance and outcomes for pupils.
It is good to see that the Government’s Every Child Matters goals continue to be reflected in the Bill, and the duty on local authorities to promote well-being is to be welcomed. Given the new obligations on local authorities with regard to post-16 education, it would be good to know if the duty to promote well-being will be carried over, as it should be if we are to ensure that the system has an inbuilt commitment to the future of young people.
My final point concerns the welcome reforms in prison education. We know that there is a far higher prevalence of special educational needs among the prison population and that greater demand is therefore placed on those who teach that population. It takes special skills to deal with special needs and that is why statements are issued for those with the most severe needs. We must not give up on those who are in prison, and I hope that Ministers will consider stating explicitly that statements will be recognised in prison education as they are in any other educational provision.
Overall, the Bill represents a Labour Government doing what they do best: working together to improve the opportunities available to all. During the transition from the school corridors to the workplace, young people can easily find themselves getting stuck or facing a few bumps along the way. In the current climate we cannot ensure that things will go smoothly for everyone, but the focus on skills in the Bill should create a lasting legacy for many millions. In a society where a job for life is becoming a thing of the past it is worth remembering that while many of the challenges we face are temporary, skills are permanent.
May I begin with a brief tribute to Lord Dearing, to whom I referred in my intervention? I had some experience of working with him and of his working for me during the 1990s, and I thought that he was an exemplary public servant: calm, rational and clear. He always had an underlying sense of values and decency that was greatly appreciated by all those from every party who came in touch with him. I think that this debate has generally been informed by those values. One or two people have sometimes fallen below that level and have resorted to political rhetoric, but I shall leave the House to draw its conclusions on which Members I have in mind.
I should say that procedurally I deprecate the portmanteau Bills that come along with everything that a Department—or in this case, two Departments—can trawl up. It means that Back Benchers, other Members of Parliament, Select Committees and even Ministers themselves cannot focus on all the powers. I doubt that there is a single person in the Chamber who has read every one of the 214 pages of the Bill and I am quite sure that nobody will have equivalent focus across the different sectors that are referred to.
Secondly, I think that it is an index of the problem of legislative indigestion—perhaps it is the last clutches of a dying Government—that the provisions have all been pushed through two Select Committees in draft and we had only just commented on them and received a Government response before we moved on to the substantive legislation. However, we will make of it the best that we can.
I have three interests to declare. First, I am a fellow of City and Guilds, which is an examining and awarding body. I am on the Skills Commission and I was— 15 years ago, now—a Higher and Further Education Minister. The amazing thing about that is that we reorganise in one direction and then we rereorganise in another. The issues do not change; it is just the way we are going at the time that seems to be different. I am proud to have shadowed—some eight years ago—the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council by this Government, and even more relieved to be playing my part in laying it to rest.
I am not going to refer to the provisions dealing with those of compulsory age except in two respects. First, I commend the remarkable presentation by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) on concerns about school standards. I absolutely agree that we should not conduct this debate at the level of the saloon bar. Proper, independent evaluation and reassurance are needed. That is important for pupils, who need to know that what they are getting is valuable, for their parents, and—perhaps that was not quite brought out—for employers too. We all need such reassurance.
Secondly, I would like to put in a word for those not in education, employment or training—the NEETs—who may be in short-stay schools, or however those are to be renamed. I had a positive experience in my constituency a few weeks ago when I met a group of NEETs who were taking part in an intensive, well-structured programme led by the voluntary sector. I was surprised by what took place. We sat them down and engaged with them intensely, listening to what they had to say—not always a strength of Members of Parliament, in my experience—and suddenly one could hear a pin drop. They wanted to communicate, and I thought, “What a waste,” and what a sad thing it was that we had to put in all that intense effort to begin to recover their interest and enthusiasm. But I think that we all want to do so.
If I am empanelled to serve on the Committee, I may want to say something about the difficult technical interactions concerning qualifications and the new Ofqual, but I shall leave that to one side today. More generally, I am concerned about the architecture and fit of the provisions for adolescents and adults, now beginning to separate out in turn, alongside those for the compulsory years. That has always been a problem for the ministry—however described—dealing with education. It is difficult to know where to draw the line between compulsory years provision and later provision, which is, in a sense, voluntary or optional, although that demarcation has changed. As far as the providers are concerned, sixth-form colleges, of which there are fewer than 100, will be stranded among a much larger number of schools, while general or specialist FE colleges will be detached because the Skills Funding Agency will be adult-based. All those below the age of 19 will be a matter, more or less, for the local authorities—a reversal of the 1992 changes—along with the young persons authority. In turn, that will tend to diminish further the local authority commitment to community education and lifelong learning, to which I am strongly committed.
I know that Ministers, particularly in these Departments, are bound to be erudite, but I am always amazed by their ability to forget the prescriptions of Occam’s razor, which translate here as, “Do not multiply the number of entities unless it is absolutely necessary.” They have performed the amazing trick of creating more agencies than they are replacing. I recommend that Ministers modestly consider the report that our Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee produced post-Leitch, particularly the wiring diagram on the front cover prepared by the National Audit Office—not drawn up by us—on how everything fits together. That shows how complex the situation is, and if it is complex for us as relative specialists, how much more difficult must it be for employers, parents and pupils to understand what is going on?
There is a separate monograph to be written, but not to be delivered tonight, on the importance of the transitional arrangements for the various parts of education provision. As those in the military know, it is at the point of transition that there is a point of weakness. If the baton is not carried on well, provision is not secured. That idea has been behind the specialist representations we have all received on special educational needs and prison education. There may be interesting juridical problems, because one could argue that it would be discriminatory if prison education, to which I am strongly committed, were not provided with the ability for people to carry on with their statements. I suspect that there may well be litigation about that.
There is also a practical problem. There are three penal establishments in my constituency, one of which is at least partially still a young offenders institution, and one a secure training centre. They are located so close to the geographical edge of my constituency that it is impossible to access them without going through another county. In fact, it took five years for me to persuade the Home Office that they were in my constituency, and now they will have to be served by Northamptonshire county council. I do not cavil about that authority; Ministers have grumbled about it recently, but I shall leave that for another occasion. Given the nature of prison education, it is difficult to get the same moral commitment to it that any county would wish to give to its schools.
I shall wrap up my comments on those elements of the Bill with a slightly more strategic view before I come to the aspect I want to focus on. First, not merely from nostalgia—because we enjoyed such a process in the 1990s—I commend the thinking of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench on the need for a light-touch funding agency. Secondly, we must ensure that further education colleges, and other education and training providers, are not subverted by excessive bureaucratic interference, as they were in recent years, or by a skewed funding model that distorts their provision. Thirdly, I do not believe that the Bill puts sufficient emphasis on the self-starting model of education. That includes the importance of skills accounts, and I entirely endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), a fellow member of our Select Committee, about the importance of such provision, and the importance of routes into adult learning. That may be a more diverse view than a purely instrumental one, but it has been my view all the time when considering such matters, and I still assert it.
My hon. Friend serves on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, while I serve on the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which gives us different perspectives. He has talked about the plethora of agencies created by the Bill, but does he have any thoughts on the position of FE in relation to the Departments? Through the agencies, FE will be responsible to the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Does he wonder whether that will have various implications that we might struggle to think through?
I strongly endorse that comment. I have never been happy about the split. I know that there are reasons for it, but it has just created another difficulty. It could be argued that the somewhat arbitrary decision to divide the Departments has driven some of the changes in the Bill—changes made in order to mirror those departmental changes.
I now come to my main comments on apprenticeship provisions. We looked at the draft provisions in our respective Select Committees, and believe they can be made reasonably fit for purpose. For the first time in recorded history, the word “apprenticeship” at least comes first, rather than as an add-on to a piece of legislation—or perhaps it is not quite the first time. We should always pause before we legislate, and in this case we should do so to reflect on the fact that the sector was historically heavily regulated. I refer of course to the Statute of Apprentices 1563, which survived in force substantially for 250 years. For most of its last century, from the reign of good Queen Anne onwards, it provided an invaluable source of revenue to the Government through stamp duty on indentures—an early form of stealth tax perhaps. The whole thing was too narrow, too bureaucratic and too inflexible. We must remember such pitfalls when codifying rules for apprenticeships, apprenticeship frameworks and the qualifications, and all the safeguards. I see that the Minister is nodding about the importance of quality and so on. We must not have a negative outcome because things are too complicated, when we could have a positive one with a simple system that is fit for purpose.
In particular, we need to take account of the industrial interests that have made representations to us—the CBI, the Association of Learning Providers and others, some of which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) mentioned. I shall summarise those representations briefly.
It is really important that the frameworks that are set up have the hand of employers on them and are designed by employers, not invented by academics as though they were in employers’ interests. I endorse the view that was often expressed in evidence to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee that the system also requires trade union involvement, because both sides should be engaged in getting the right framework.
Secondly, there need to be links to employers in real workplaces. We could get ourselves into unnecessary theological distinctions about programme-led apprenticeships, but my view is that a programme provided and delivered in further education or by a specialist charitable provider may be useful and worth while in itself or in preparation for an apprenticeship, but it is not a replacement for a work-based experience.
I notice the Minister nodding; I think that we might have reached a common understanding.
There is a need for great articulation between the diploma system, which one hopes will lead on to apprenticeships, and further progression to higher education. I have seen outstanding apprentices, and I hope that many of them will proceed to higher education, perhaps as mature undergraduate students or for continuing professional development. We must ensure that that gateway is kept open.
We need to emphasise the role of group training arrangements, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises. I participated in such arrangements myself years ago, and they are valuable for the smaller employer. We must also ensure that that national apprenticeship service actually operates as a service, rather than obstructs providers. We have heard the list of the various requirements currently set out, which are too onerous. We should also reconsider guidance services. I remain a fan of a single guidance service, from cradle to grave, as it were, because every individual has one career. We might not get that—we will need to scrutinise the Government’s new proposals both at the school end and at the adult end.
I wish to mention some specific problems. First, adequate funding for adult apprentices is needed, bearing in mind the fact that most people who will be in the work force in 2020 are already in it. Secondly, there is an interaction between the need for part-time apprenticeships to be provided and the need for provision for women. We understand that there is a problem in the case of part-time students, but we need to do something really good for those who can do a part-time apprenticeship and then develop and get a full qualification in due course. Ministers need to pick up on their responsibility and obligation to such people, particularly given the current economic conditions in which, sadly, redundancy may cut in. We cannot have people losing their undertakings and having to go back to square one.
That brings me to the elephant in the room, which is the present economic downturn. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families sometimes talks as though his aspiration were itself equivalent to achievement, which he has not yet secured. I held office as Under-Secretary in the then Department of Education when we were recovering from the last downturn. Perhaps we promised rather less in relation to participation—a subject to which I have always been committed—but perhaps we achieved a little more. All of us, on whichever side of the House we sit, can join the party and focus on real vocational skills and enhancing and developing career paths. The problem lies on the supply side. If Ministers can put into access to apprenticeships just a tithe of the effort that they have put into access to higher education in recent years, that will be critical. It will partly involve the use of the public sector, and public funds will probably be needed to support apprentices in the private sector.
We must get apprentices in and give them an attractive framework so that it is enjoyable and constructive to be an apprentice. We must give people every support to persist with their courses to the end, wherever possible at level 3. We will not be able to do that unless we can win the confidence—the buy-in, to use the jargon—of employers in all sectors and of all types and sizes. We must convince them that there is a business case for a skilled work force, both now and when the upturn eventually comes.
Of course, I am prepared to concede Ministers’ genuine desire to broaden opportunities for all our people and give them access to high-quality provision. That provision will not come through higher education alone, and should never have been seen in that way, although sadly some commentators do see a future for young people only in those terms. We have always wanted, and are building up, the potential for a high-quality vocational route through both the apprenticeship structure and appropriate qualifications. I hope that Ministers may remember that they are building on the concerns of Members of all parties, and that work to ensure that that comes about has been going on for longer than they acknowledge. We can all make an incremental contribution to that work.
There will be life after the current generation of Ministers and their Government have passed from the scene, so I ask them to exercise a bit of humility. They must avoid hype, hubris and empty bombast. It is a matter of faith, but one worth sharing in the Chamber, that we can all make progress in this area in difficult times. However, we must work hard to ensure that the details of legislation match the aspirations that we are setting out this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who managed to avoid party political attacks until right at the end of his speech.
I should like to take the House back to last November and Wakefield college’s graduation ceremony, which I attended in our city’s great cathedral. The graduands processed through the Saturday morning traffic, stopping it, and walked through the crowds of shoppers to take up their places and emerge into our city as graduates. They brought with them their parents, partners, teachers, children and friends—the people who had supported them through their years of hard work and studying, months of revision and assignments and weeks of waiting anxiously for their results. I watched them leave the cathedral and go out to eat a delicious buffet created for them by Wakefield college’s catering staff and students, who do a mean egg mayonnaise sandwich. They went out into the world with the confidence that a degree brings.
Without the hard work of their teachers and the support of the college, those people would be facing a changing job market unskilled and unprepared. Investment in higher and further education is an investment in the future of those young people and the future of Wakefield. Investing in skills in the Wakefield district is really important, because a quarter of the people who work there have no qualifications, which is the highest rate in the region. More than 39 per cent. of working-age people there have no qualifications, and just 18 per cent. of our work force have degrees. For us, the Bill is no academic debate but is vital to the future of the city and the district.
Wakefield college has to work hard to attract its students. In 2006, just 68 per cent. of school leavers in the district stayed on in full-time education, the third lowest rate in the country after Barnsley and Salford. That rate is lower than both the national average of 78 per cent. and the regional average in Yorkshire, which is 73 per cent., despite the Government’s many initiatives such as the education maintenance allowance, which they introduced to help students from lower-income families to stay on in education.
I tell Ministers that raising the school leaving age to 18 in six years’ time will transform the life chances of young people in Wakefield. Schools in Wakefield city have no sixth forms, so the college is the only route to further education for young people in the area. A-levels, apprenticeships and national diplomas are all offered, and a new campus opened this month at Whitwood in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It cost £31 million to build, with a 10 per cent. contribution from the Learning and Skills Council. That campus will focus on entry-to-employment courses and vocational education in the north-east of the district, which has the greatest difficulty in attracting young people to, and retaining them in, further and higher education.
I was concerned to learn that the funding for rebuilding the college’s city centre campus has been put on hold for three months. However, unlike the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), I will not engage in shroud waving. The council has had approval in principle for the £67 million project, with £40 million due to come from the LSC and the rest from a bank loan and capital receipts. It is imperative that learners in the city have access to first-class college facilities, and the building forms part of the regeneration of what will be the new merchant quarter, which includes a new city centre train station and a new living and working area at the gateway to our city. I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) and been reassured by that meeting. The principal of Wakefield college and I met my hon. Friend a few weeks ago to impress on him the need for the new facilities in Wakefield.
It is also vital to expand the higher education opportunities in the district. That has become critical since the university of Leeds pulled out of the Bretton Hall performing arts centre in the wonderful Yorkshire sculpture park—I encourage all hon. Members to pay it a visit in the next recess. It is a fantastic place—500 acres of country park, with the finest sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth dotted among the sheep. I impress on Ministers the necessity for a speedy final decision by the LSC.
It is instructive to look behind some of the Conservative rhetoric on investment and remember the reality of Tory Government investment in education and skills. In 1996-97, earmarked Conservative Government expenditure on FE capital expenditure on building was nil. A National Audit Office report stated that college buildings were not fit places in which to learn. The Conservatives let those buildings go to rack to ruin and the Conservative Government cut FE funding by 7 per cent. in real terms in the four years up to 1997.
Not many hon. Members will know that the hon. Lady and I share a birthday, although not the same year.
Let me take her back a little in history. When the FE sector was taken away from local authorities, for the first two or three years, the emphasis on capital investment had to be directed towards urgent health and safety. There was not much available for all the other capital investment, which we could have undertaken in due course. That is at least part of the background to the somewhat specious figures that she has produced.
As the hon. Gentleman says, we share a birthday. However, our political opinions diverge. Why was the capital budget spent on health and safety? Was it to avoid objects falling off classrooms on to young people’s heads? Were the buildings in such disrepair? If so, why did not the Conservative Government prioritise such spending more?
Let us compare the Conservative record on capital investment with that of the Government, who have so far invested £2 billion on renewing and modernising FE facilities, with another £2.3 billion promised for the next three years. It is interesting to note that the Conservative party makes political capital out of FE while we spend capital to get colleges built.
The number of people who complete an apprenticeship in Wakefield has nearly trebled in the past few years. For many young people, it is a route to a high-quality, skilled job. My friend told me about her son queuing up with many young people to get access to apprenticeships in our district. The Bill will place apprenticeships on a statutory footing. It guarantees that all suitably qualified young people will be entitled to a place by 2013. It will also ensure that young people in schools receive proper information, advice and guidance about vocational training opportunities.
I was saddened this weekend to see in my surgery a lady who told me about her daughter, who got reasonably good results at a local school, but decided not to go on to college at 16 and is now not in education, employment or training. My constituent’s family had not had much education, and she said that her daughter had now decided that she wanted to go to college, but that all the courses that she wished to take did not start till next September. Her daughter has six months to wait—a wasted year of losing out on opportunities.
I listened to my hon. Friend’s story about the woman whose daughter is NEET. Does my hon. Friend accept that we need some clarification about how to help young people, whose formal learning passage has not taken the form that it should have—there have been gaps in it for a range of reasons—to move into apprenticeships? Perhaps we can consider that in Committee.
I look forward to debating that in Committee and I thank my hon. Friend for making the point. As a trustee of Rathbone for seven years, I saw its creative and innovative methods. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) mention its great work in Gateshead. Students who go on Rathbone’s training programme cannot be placed directly with an employer. They have to do the programme-led apprenticeships to give them the communications skills, teach them punctuality and the ability simply to get there in the morning—the life skills that they need to become proper members of any work force.
However, what a change from the youth training schemes of the 1980s. We have almost forgotten those, and I would like to remind hon. Members of what they involved. Young people were herded into unsuitable roles and paid the grand sum of £30 for a 40-hour working week. For those whose maths is a little rusty, that is 75p an hour. Many were sacked at the end of their apprenticeship when the company had to pay them the going rate for the job—£7.80 an hour instead of 75p as fully qualified electricians, carpenters, fitters, welders and so on. They were set free into a newly flexible work market to find their own way, which was a difficult path for many young men in their late teens or early twenties to take. It was the path of constant casualisation, which exists to this day for many of them.
Some unscrupulous employers gave young people one YTS after another—I know that from my brothers’ experience—always with the promise that they would be kept on at some future date, which never came. I hope that the Bill will ensure that that will never happen again.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The Government of the time must have known about employers’ use of YTS trainees as cheap labour in the 1980s. It was a scandal. Not only Labour politicians say that. In 1998—10 years later—the academic Professor Sarah Vickerstaff wrote in the Journal of Vocational Education & Training:
“The legacy of youth training has for many had the combined effect of undermining the image of ‘training’ for young people and of ‘schemes’ for employers.”
We may cavil about some of the difficulties and complexities of the current architecture of FE training, but YTS was almost a dirty word in the city in which I grew up.
That is such a contrast to the apprentices whom I met recently in Wakefield. I visited TEi, a heavy engineering firm in my constituency, and met Katy Roe, who was a trainee apprentice welder. That brings us back to advice and guidance on trying to get young women into non-traditional employment. Many young women think that the only apprenticeships they can do are in child caring, other caring, teaching and so on. Hairdressing is a classic example of a job for which there are many apprenticeships. That tends to be low-paid work. Katy has now finished her apprenticeship and can look forward to a future of working to build the next generation of power stations in this country and, as a 22-year-old woman, earning herself a salary of £40,000 a year, which is way above the national average. I am delighted to congratulate her on winning Yorkshire apprentice of the year. Indeed, she is going forward to the Learning and Skills Council’s national competition, and I wish her well in that, too.
Next year, 35,000 extra apprenticeships will be created, working in both the public and the private sector. I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on training in awarding private finance initiative schools contracts. That is a great step forward.
Another thing that I would mention from the ’80s is the end of the council house building programme. Again, we have a lost generation from that period, when construction apprentices could not get good-quality public sector apprenticeships building social housing. Next year, 750,000 people will start apprenticeships, compared with just 75,000 in 1997.
I want now to deal with the skills needs of older people. Train to Gain, our flagship programme of training in the workplace, has so far helped more than 1 million people get on at work. Some 43 per cent. of those who took up training last year were promoted and a third got a pay rise. I visited Morrison’s supermarket and met the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers learning reps over the meat and fish counter. That experience brought home to me the power of peer education in the work force, where the people who work with each other and trust each other—they might have a chat or perhaps go out for a drink together—might say, “I’ve noticed that you’re not that confident at reading,” or, “How’s your maths?” or, “You’ve got a real talent for this. Why don’t you go further?” or, “Why don’t you be the health and safety rep, the fire rep or the first-aider?” Peer education is a non-threatening reintroduction for people who perhaps left school at 16 or had a poor school experience, or who might be lacking in confidence or have been out of the work force for a while. The Bill will give 22 million workers the right to ask for time to train, in the same way as workers are able to ask for flexible working.
We need to use that programme to set people’s creativity free. Firms need to use it to say, “We’re not just going to train someone to scan products on a till faster; we’re going to see what great ideas are there in our work force.” I ask the Minister to encourage firms to allow people to have time off for training that does not directly affect their jobs. The women whom I spoke to wanted to be able to go home and help their children do research on the internet, but they were not allowed access to internet-based skills training, because it was not directly relevant to their job as cashiers in a supermarket.
Wakefield college also has a centre of vocational excellence in enterprise management and will be making good use of the £350 million that the Government have announced for training in small and medium-sized enterprises and for improving productivity quickly. A global recession is the time to increase, not reduce, investment in skills and training. I am afraid that that is a lesson that the Conservative party has not learned from the recessions of the ’80s and ’90s. Companies that do not invest in training are 2.5 times more likely to fail than those that do.
The Government do not believe that top-quality education should be the privilege of the few, or the young. In contrast to the Tories, we are putting forward the funding that ensures that access to further education is available to everyone—real help now for students, businesses and workers. The Conservatives would cut £610 million from our universities, skills and science budget. I will give way now if any member of their Front-Bench team wishes to put the record straight, perhaps in the same way as we saw the record on funding for Sure Start centres being put straight—or perhaps slightly less wobbly—earlier. I will happily give way, but nobody is standing up to intervene, so I assume that they are happy with our calculations.
The Conservatives do not understand Keynes’s paradox of thrift. Keynes said that although thrift is to be encouraged in private individuals, it is a public vice. Being thrifty is not an appropriate step for Governments to take in a recession. I am afraid that the Conservative party is isolated in the world in saying that it would cut public spending now. Those cuts would mean that not a single person over the age of 19 would start an apprenticeship next year, compared with the 122,000 who will be supported by Labour.
Even after that drastic step, the Tories would still slash £427 million from the universities, skills and science budget to balance the books. That is the equivalent of 100,000 students at university or a third of a million people on college courses. In an interesting exchange with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, “Well, we’d spend it, but we’d spend it better.” The Conservatives cannot talk about cuts of half a billion pounds having no impact on front-line services. They really lack credibility.
To conclude, there are many more things to welcome in the Bill. I particularly welcome the adult advice and careers service. I have faced a particular difficulty in trying to get people who are out of work to access proper careers guidance and the career development loans that we have made available. There is a dearth of information about that. Creating that new agency will make a real difference in helping people pursue their goals of lifelong learning. Creating a single negotiating body for the school support staff, in order to ensure that pay and conditions keep up with those of equivalent workers and to ensure better career progression and training, will be really good. Indeed, we have increased the number of those new workers by 200,000 over the past 10 years.
Finally, I am particularly pleased that the Bill will encourage pupil attendance partnerships. I do not understand why certain schools take a hard line on truancy and bad behaviour and others allow it to continue. Truancy and disruption impact on the silent majority of good, willing pupils who are there to learn.
As someone who has a young offenders institution in their constituency, I welcome the steps to ensure that education in prison is as good as it can be. I am not sure that I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Daventry about judicial review concerning access to education. The civil and social rights that we enjoy are conditional upon our behaving according to the rules of society. Any judge sitting on a case brought against a young person would say that if someone has committed a violent offence, they lose the right to access, for example, their work-based training.
I would like also to mention West Yorkshire fire and rescue service’s public service programme—this relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)—which involves taking disaffected 14 and 15-year-olds out of school and working with them. They are put in red uniforms and given all sorts of training in fire safety and health safety. The scheme is fantastic. Young people who are school refusers or just not interested start to carry themselves well and to enjoy being part of a public sector programme. I encourage Ministers to come to Wakefield and see how what the fire service is doing can be applied creatively to other public sector apprenticeship schemes.
As a trustee of Rathbone for seven years, I am also passionate about the role that the voluntary sector can play. For young people who may have failed or had nothing else in their lives, an apprenticeship might be the one good thing in their lives. It is important that the Bill should put apprenticeships on an equal footing with other forms of training and education, and that it should give every young person the chance to succeed in life.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on her application for a ministerial post. I trust that one will be forthcoming.
One of the interesting points about this debate is that while Front Benchers from all three parties spent a great deal of time talking about the provisions in the Bill dealing with schools, which—[Interruption.] Shh! [Interruption.] Sorry, I thought that I was the head teacher. [Laughter.] I was just about to send my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) out, but I realise that only you can do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will speak to him later. While Front Benchers inevitably concentrated a great deal on the schools provisions, Back Benchers, virtually to a man and a woman, have spent most of their time talking about the skills elements. The Government are to be congratulated on having apprenticeships and skills not only in the Bill’s title, but in its content. I say that because I have a number of comments to make—some rather unfortunate— about the Bill as a whole.
I would also like to put on record my appreciation of Lord Dearing—Ron Dearing. He has been paid many tributes today, and rightly so. I remember, as many Members will, what a breakthrough the Education Reform Act 1988 was, in that it set up the national curriculum and all that followed from that. It was also enormously complicated, however, and it required Ron Dearing to come along and make sense of the complication, which was so intense that most schools and most teachers could not understand it. Many teachers will appreciate the work that he did.
I came into contact with Ron Dearing in the House in 1998, when his famous report was virtually ditched at the first go by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who in fact bastardised the issue of tuition fees without looking at the rest of the Bill. Ron Dearing had laid out, in his report, the foundations of what he saw as a 21st-century higher education system that would be fit for purpose, but much of what was in the report was put on a shelf. The only thing that we—myself included—concentrated on was the introduction of fees, which was rather sad. Ron Dearing will be enormously missed. He was a genuine Cross Bencher who did not pay lip service to any master.
This is a massive Bill, and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) was right to say that it was a portmanteau Bill. It is a substantial Bill that deals with skills and schools, but the reason why it is so substantial is that we now have two Departments dealing with these matters. The Bill patches up some of the problems caused by the machinery of government changes in 2007. We had to have a plethora of new organisations because the machinery of government changes did not take into account that splitting education and training at 19 would drive a coach and horses through the whole agenda. We have had all those different organisations as a result. The Bill has 256 clauses and 16 schedules, and I hope that, when the business managers compile the programme motion, they will allow sufficient time to debate all the issues. There is a will on both sides of the House for the Bill to succeed and for it to be improved in Committee, and I genuinely hope that that occurs.
The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, which I chair, together with the Children, Schools and Families Committee, had an opportunity to scrutinise the draft Apprenticeships Bill, which we appreciated, even though we were told about it, rather than being asked about it. Pre-legislative scrutiny is an essential element of good legislation, and if the Government want to take it seriously, Select Committees must be given the appropriate time to do it. We also need to be given all the available information.
In respect of the apprenticeships element of the Bill, a lot of the organisation that we have talked about today will be somewhat irrelevant. It is the quality of what happens during an apprenticeship that lies at the heart of the matter. The Select Committee asked for the specification of apprenticeship standards, and that is now to be produced as part of the legislation. However, the standards appeared in draft form only at noon today—the day we returned after a recess, and the day on which the Bill is to be given its Second Reading. That is unacceptable from a Government who want the whole House to take this issue seriously. Despite those problems, however, we welcome the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. I now want to concentrate on two elements of the apprenticeships agenda: programme-led apprenticeships, and quality.
During our Committee’s deliberations on the draft Bill, we were not overly concerned about programme-led apprenticeships, once the Minister had made it clear that there was a fundamental distinction between employer-led apprenticeships and programme-led apprenticeships that were carried out in colleges as pre-apprenticeship education and training before people moved into a full apprenticeship. However, the reality is that, if the word “apprenticeship” appears in the title, most people do not differentiate between the two. The Committee expressed a real fear—and that fear is growing—that there is a demand to grow the number of apprenticeships while, in the face of a fierce recession, employers are not taking on apprentices. The public sector must rightly take up a significant amount of the slack, but we must not simply use programme-led apprenticeships as a tool for meeting certain targets.
There are some dangers in the provisions of the Bill. An apprenticeship certificate shows that someone has completed their apprenticeship, but clause 2 contains a real cop-out, in that apprenticeship certificates may be awarded for a whole set of reasons that the Government may, at some time, determine. I hope that those right hon. and hon. Members who serve on the Public Bill Committee will ensure that clause 2 is hammered down, so that an apprenticeship certificate can have the appropriate currency and attain the gold standard, because that is the only way that apprenticeships will survive and become a flagship of the training agenda in the 21st century.
The hon. Gentleman says that he wants apprenticeship certificates to represent the gold standard. Does he accept that we need also to address the present gender pay disparity in apprenticeships—women are generally paid less than men—as part of the process?
That goes without saying. Sadly, the hon. Lady has put her finger on a problem that the Government have not fully addressed over the past 11 and a bit years—the disparity between men’s and women’s pay. Those Members who are particularly interested in further and higher education will know of graphic examples of that differential, especially in higher education. The point that she has raised is absolutely right, but that is a debate for another day.
If the Bill were not to do what it certainly should do—and what has just been advocated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck)—would not the Government fall foul of their own forthcoming Equality Bill? I am sure that they would not want to do that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, in his usual erudite way. These are the kind of issues on which the Public Bill Committee can get assurances from the Minister when it examines the Bill in detail. This is why the Committee needs sufficient time to do that, and I am sure that the Minister will be only too delighted to give such assurances.
I want to turn to the quality of apprenticeships. When the Select Committee was examining the draft Bill, we noticed that no reference had been made to the quality of apprenticeships. We concluded that
“the consequences of the substantial expansion of the numbers need to be carefully monitored”.
Clauses 80 and 92 of the finalised Bill require the chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency to have regard to the “quality of the training” in respect of the duties to secure apprenticeship places. That needs a lot of flushing out, at the end of the day. In addition, the annual report from the chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service to Ministers will have to include a report on the overall quality of apprenticeship training. That sounds great, but the Government believe that the
“main measure of success for apprenticeships is the proportion of apprentices who successfully complete their apprenticeship frameworks.”
The two things are quite different. Completing a process that fulfils the requirements of a framework does not necessarily mean that the required quality has been achieved. I hope that the question of quality will be addressed.
Who is to inspect all this? We are coming back to the issue of Ofqual, in some ways. Who is to establish the quality of apprenticeship schemes? That is a crucial question. It is fundamental to the whole issue, as I think hon. Members accept. I believe that Ofsted is not the right organisation to do that. We now know that Ofsted’s role, which has changed dramatically since the 1980s and early 1990s, has become more light touch. In many ways, it has been counting and it has been ticking the boxes in our schools and colleges, but that, frankly, is not what is wanted. How can Ofsted, without any track record of working with employers, actually go effectively into exchanges with them when we need investment in apprenticeships and quality assurance delivery? I hope that the Minister will look further into that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who pretty well makes my point for me about the irony of the Bill. The Bill recognises the need to separate curriculum development from quality, yet none the less puts a statutory and mandatory obligation on the new agency to deliver all these apprenticeships while at the same time checking for quality. Those two elements are clearly contradictory to what I believe can be seen elsewhere in the Bill about Ofqual.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It flies in the face of what the Bill is trying to achieve within schools.
The hon. Member for Daventry made a fine point about complexity—an issue that my Committee looked into in our inquiry, “Re-skilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies”. In fact, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I mean Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was a very neat change. We had Swedish models earlier and we now seem to have female-male Deputy Speakers.
When we examined the whole training scenario, we looked at all the organisations currently involved in training schemes—for 14-year-olds right through to adult training. We asked the Department to provide an organogram with everything on it. The Department said, “No, we can’t; we don’t have one.” So we asked the National Audit Office and it produced four incredibly complex diagrams for us. In fact, witnesses to our Committee talked about the whole system as
“a pig’s ear or a dog’s breakfast”,
“a very complex duplicating mess”,
“almost incomprehensible” and so forth. The landscape of this Bill, however, creates yet more complication and yet more structures.
The one structure that the Bill does not set up is that for individual skills accounts, which I thought were a brilliant way of involving adults in training—putting resources into individuals to support them. The previous incarnation of individual learning accounts were unsuccessful for a number of reasons, but the principle was right. The principle to invest in individuals must also be right.
Chris Humphries, the new UK commissioner for employment and skills, told our Committee that something like 67 organisations with skills in their remit wrote to say that it was essential that the commission work with them—and he had not heard of any of them. Chris Humphries is, of course, a real star in this area, having worked so hard to promote the skills agenda. He told us:
“Even many of my commissioners have been meeting with ministers, saying, ‘you have just made far more complex a system that you have asked the Commission to try and simplify, and that is going to pose real challenges’”.
He went on to say:
“I do not think there is an employer in the land who understands”
the current system, so how on earth are they going to understand a new system with even more complication? I hope that, as the Bill progresses, we will see a real attempt to make it more light touch and also ensure that we have a more simplified organisational structure.
I raised an issue when the children’s trusts boards were under discussion, and I want to return to it. There is a danger of casualties resulting from the new legislation—in particular the 16 to 19s and the 19 to 24-year-olds who have deep and complex special needs. They have always suffered among post-16-year-olds; it has always been difficult to meet their needs. My greatest anxiety—I hope that members of the Public Bill Committee will address it—is how we protect their interests now and hopefully enhance them in the future.
I make no apology for drawing the House’s attention to an organisation in my constituency, Henshaws, a society for blind people. I want to put on record my appreciation for what the Government and, more particularly, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, have done. The right hon. Gentleman has spent a great deal of time supporting the organisation, which works with people from age 16 onwards—mainly with 18 to 24-year-olds—who are not only blind or partially sighted, but have other complex needs. Many of them are also deaf, for example, and some have physical impairments or other special learning difficulties. They are a really complex group of young people and the Government quite rightly recognised that this organisation, as a charity, needed funding for its residential support. The Government contributed and private donations raised millions in addition to provide for what has become one of the best-performing colleges anywhere in the country. That is quite unique.
The new arrangements are coming into force in 2010 and funding will change from the Learning and Skills Council to the new Young People’s Learning Agency. Sadly, Henshaws will be a casualty. In the interim period, the local education authority takes on responsibility, but it is responsible for fulfilling its own provision first. What we really must not do in the changeover is look for what amounts to the cheapest or most convenient provision. Rather, we need to focus on the highest quality that can be offered. Those young people who have intense needs really require our support. They should receive the support of the House and the Government. My plea to the Minister—
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will just finish my plea. Ministers are acutely aware of the need for high-quality special needs provisions. I am talking to the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), about Henshaws college and the real problems it is having in accessing a level playing field to provide fairly for its people in the future.
The hon. Gentleman’s important point underlines the danger of an excessive and insistent localism that specifies that in every case it is just up to the local authority to do its best. Sometimes there are people who have complex and overlapping needs, but there is not a sufficient critical mass of them to trigger provision. It is for that reason that we need the protective coating of some elements of central regulation or, indeed, funding to ensure that those people are not overlooked, but get the help that they need.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, that was precisely the point that I was trying, rather ham-fistedly, to make earlier. Between us, we have probably got there, and I hope that the Minister will respond.
I have two final points. First, I do not think that anyone in the House would disagree with the view that scrapping the current careers organisation and starting afresh is desperately needed. We have some really good people working in Connexions; we have some good people working on careers in local authorities; and many in the private sector have good skills for dealing with careers. Putting them all together into a new service will not be easy, but it needs to be done and done effectively.
During my exchange with the Secretary of State, I was quite surprised by his response to my question about careers advice relating to apprenticeships. Unless we can get high-quality vocational guidance into schools so that young people of all abilities can get access to opportunities for apprenticeships, quite frankly, apprenticeships will be seen as something to do if people are not very bright or no good at traditional learning. That is entirely the wrong approach to take; everybody must be offered this.
The explanatory notes to clause 35 make it clear that
“any consideration of what careers advice would be in the best interests of their pupils covers consideration of whether it would be in their best interests to include apprenticeships as part of their careers education.”
What that says, and what the Bill says, is that, again, the teachers or somebody in the service will decide who gets advice on apprenticeships. That is fundamentally wrong. Every single student must be exposed to the same careers guidance. Of course it can be tailored to individual needs, but organisations simply saying—I think some schools will say this—that apprenticeships are not for them, that they do not want their students doing them and that they want students to stay on in the sixth form must be knocked on the head.
My final point, Madam Deputy Speaker, is about progression into higher education. I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise; I get excited. My Committee was absolutely clear about the fact that, to have the status to attract the brightest youngsters, advanced apprenticeships at level 3 must be seen as a progression route into higher education. We recommended that UCAS points be allocated for advanced apprenticeships and I see no reason why that should not be the case. The Minister disagreed with the Committee, but I hope that that aspect can be revisited during consideration of the Bill so that, before it leaves the House, we have a clear statement of intent that UCAS must be involved to accredit apprenticeships for points for higher education.
This is a diverse Bill and the debate has therefore been interesting because hon. Members have brought their own perspectives to it and made many interesting contributions. The Bill is self-evidently full of sensible and pragmatic proposals, and it is hard to see how anyone could object to it, although Members in all parts of the House accept that there will be some interesting amendments to debate in Committee.
I simply want to support the proposals, particularly on restructuring the Learning and Skills Council. In retrospect, it was perhaps not the right thing to do to form the LSC in the first place, although we must remember the legacy of a series of major bureaucracies with responsibility for skills training that were developed in the 1980s, all of which ultimately failed to deliver. The LSC was perhaps the last attempt to establish a mega-bureaucracy and the lesson is that it, too, did not work as intended.
I welcome the creation of Ofqual, the separation of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the statutory basis given to apprenticeships and to the Sure Start programme, which is one of the Government’s great success stories. In particular, I welcome the recognition of the unique status of sixth-form colleges. It is important to remember that about 380,000 of the young people in education are in school sixth forms, but 146,000 are in sixth-form colleges—not quite 50 per cent., but a substantial number. It is my view—I do not apologise for repeating it yet again—that if we had more sixth-form colleges in more towns up and down the country, the overall quality of education would improve and there would be far more opportunities for our young people.
Post-16, we have the three-part system of sixth-form colleges, school sixth forms and tertiary or general further education colleges, so the issue of funding must be addressed by the Bill. All Members of the House will know that for many years there has been a significant discrepancy between the college and schools sectors. The schools sector has traditionally had a 13 or 14 per cent. advantage in funding per student over the college sector. To the Government’s credit, that has been progressively reduced in recent years, but the gap is still unacceptable. The logic of the Bill and of moving responsibility for funding to local authorities, with the support of the Young People’s Learning Agency, is that, eventually, we will get convergence of funding for all post-16 students, wherever they study.
I want to mention also the question of the advice service. I welcome the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) about the importance of strengthening adult guidance. In this time of enormous economic dislocation, the number of adults seeking advice about their future and about opportunities to train or retrain, or to become involved in further education, will increase. This country has never had an adequate adult guidance service, and this is an opportunity to establish one.
I want to reiterate in particular the point about clause 35, that a number of hon. Members have made. The clause deals with the responsibility of schools in respect of information about apprenticeships. Although we are not yet considering the Bill in Committee, I want to draw the attention of the House to exactly what clause 35 refers to. The Government’s defence is that it puts a responsibility on schools to provide information about apprenticeships. Well, it does not do that. It requires schools to consider whether it would be in the pupil’s best interests to receive advice about apprenticeships. That is a fundamental distinction, because there will be a lesser responsibility on the schools.
That aspect draws attention to what remains a weakness in our structure, whereby it is clearly in the interest of schools to maximise the number of young people staying on beyond the age of 16. There is a tension here that is still unresolved. Unless we get a stronger legal obligation for the provision of advice and information about apprenticeships—preferably, responsibility for that should not lie within the individual school—young people will still not get fully objective advice on all the options available for their future.
Yes, I am, but to a large extent that is what we already have. On my visit to my local Connexions service just two weeks ago, I was hugely impressed by the work it is doing, although there are still questions to be asked and I am sure that there is still variability of performance in different parts of the country. I do not accept the argument that the return of Connexions to the local authorities will automatically mean reverting to the situation that applied 20 years ago, whereby the careers service was less than adequate, but questions remain as to exactly what are the roles and responsibilities of the Connexions service and of the individual schools. I am sure that that debate can be worked through in Committee. The key principle has to be that every young person must be entitled to objective, independent advice when they make choices about their future.
I welcome the new provision to request time off for training for adults in the workplace, which I hope will be one step forward to what in future years turns out to be a guaranteed right to time off for training. I draw the attention of my ministerial colleagues to increasing concern, which was flagged up in the business pages of some newspapers yesterday, about the rebirth of some rather dubious private training companies. Yesterday’s press carried examples of companies offering to vulnerable people qualifications that turned out to be worthless, and of companies masquerading and offering courses that did not take place or were not what they seemed to be.
Can the Government offer some response to that, given that we have seen huge growth in private training companies and that that growth is likely to continue? How do the Government intend to regulate to guarantee quality? How will they ensure that the growing number of young people and adults who take advantage of private training opportunities are not—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is dealing with an important issue. Is he aware that in respect of autism, about the causes of which relatively little is known, there has been a great opportunity for possibly unscrupulous companies to come onstream, putting forward a variety of quack therapies for which there is no evidence base but which can offer—wholly inappropriately—a lifeline of hope to very anxious parents who will dole out large sums of money that many can ill afford to spend in pursuit of courses that, in the end, prove to be hopeless?
The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. I was not aware of that, but it underlines the need for appropriate regulation of the private training sector. We all remember the fiasco of individual learning accounts some years ago, when it was easy for companies to come in and abuse the system. I am a little concerned about the possibility that the impact of the economic slowdown and the increase in the number of new training opportunities for those who have lost their jobs will once again give rise to a less than satisfactory private training sector.
I want to make a couple of points about issues that are not in the Bill, but perhaps ought to be. The first is the issue of school admissions. The last two education Bills have contained useful and important provisions that have moved the policy forward and helped to strengthen the Government’s approach to fair admissions, but perhaps more needs to be done. My clear recollection is that following the recent consultation on the new admissions code, the Government responded that they accepted that the definition of fair banding needed to be revisited so that it was based not on the total number of children who applied to a school, but on the total number and distribution of children within a given area. That is an important distinction. Improving the definition of fair banding would, without question, move us even further along the route of a fair admissions policy. The Government also said that they would seek to make the change at the next legislative opportunity. As far as I can see, this is the next legislative opportunity, and I therefore give notice that I may wish to table an amendment to that effect in Committee.
The Bill does not deal with primary schools as such. One of the big stories in the last few days has been the impact of the Cambridge primary review, and we all await with interest the outcome of the Rose review of primary education. It seems to me that at some point the Government will have to legislate for changes in our primary curriculum, and perhaps our system of assessment. In his opening speech the Secretary of State did not state, but indicated, that this would not be the final education Bill in the current Parliament. It would be very helpful if the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills would give an absolute assurance in his winding-up speech that there will be another Bill, preferably featuring a big bang and not just a whimper.
I found the criticisms of the Bill made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families—rather curious. He did not say directly that he was against the Bill: there was nothing specific in it that he opposed. He spent half his time talking about standards. Of course standards are extremely important, but I suspect that the level of concern about them and the vociferousness with which Members express that concern are related to a wider concern with destabilising the Government, and that in reality the issue of standards is more complex.
The shadow Secretary of State quoted a number of academics, but did not quote any of our examining boards, although they are clearly best equipped to make judgments about standards over time. As I have said, however, the issue is complex. We are not comparing like with like. The shadow Secretary of State did not take on board the impact of new content and new structures on examinations—the impact of modular structures, for instance—and the fact that some examinations are now designed to cover a far wider age range. An example of that is the transition from the old O-level to the GCSE. All those factors are relevant to any debate about standards.
I agree that the issue of standards is crucial, and I think it important for either Ofqual or a contractor to it to have a statutory responsibility to monitor that over time. However, we must draw a distinction between genuine concern and a rigorous analysis over time, and the use of the issue as a bit of cheap populism with which to bash the Government of the day. If Opposition parties use that opportunity time and time again, August after August, all that they will do is undermine the achievements of hundreds of thousands of young people who have worked their socks off throughout their school careers and are achieving better results than any previous generation.
The shadow Secretary of State argued that, in almost all aspects covered by the Bill and in education policy more generally, we should deregulate, leaving things more and more to the market. He gave the example of Sweden, but I am not convinced that buying a 99p ticket to fly with Ryanair to an airport 40 miles out of Stockholm and looking at a couple of schools is necessarily the best way in which to form an education policy in this country. I also found it curious that the hon. Gentleman cited Finland as one of the highest-achieving countries, but did not pursue the logic of his argument by putting the case for the structures and a