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Alistair Burt: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but again my response is that if collaboration is to be the order of the day and he is looking for collaboration with the further education sector, he had better make sure that things are levelled up in that sector. Otherwise, he will not find the collaboration that he is looking for.

The proposals for dropping GCSEs are vague. It is not clear which topics students could drop and which they could take early. It is clear that the proposals will downgrade the GCSE. If the brightest pupils are no longer taking the same exams as their less bright contemporaries, the latter will not feel that their qualifications are as valuable as when all students took GCSEs as their main key stage 4 examination. It removes the gold standard status from the GCSE and is an admission that GCSEs are now too easy. If that is the case, let us reform the GCSE.

Consequently these proposals are likely to create a form of exam apartheid, especially as in practice it is likely to be difficult to move between the two streams. The decision, therefore, to take all GCSEs or some GCSEs and AS-levels at the age of 14 will have a huge effect on future life chances. This may encourage some pupils to take AS-levels when it is inappropriate to do so and may encourage some schools to push their pupils to do AS-levels so that they move higher up the league table.

There is also a question mark over the overall appropriateness of the AS-level for GCSE students. Contrary to common belief, AS-levels are not a lower standard than A-levels; they are intended to be half an A-level course at A-level standard. Therefore, it is important to ask whether even a very bright 14-year-old would be able to take a course and an exam designed to be taken by a 17-year-old. It seems that the AS-level is being used by the Government to plug a gap in their policy, but it is not an appropriate plug.

I now come to modern apprenticeships and vocational training. The debate on vocational training is an important one for the country now, as it has been for almost 100 years. We perpetually seem to get this wrong in terms of attitude and the like. When we visit those involved in teaching a vocational subject, we do not get any sense from them that their pupils have less self-esteem or that there is less esteem attached to the course. This is something that we struggle with. I sometimes feel that those with an academic background fall over themselves to create or perpetuate the gap for some reason. The way they go on talking about the divide and the problems of esteem in vocational education sometimes adds to the difficulties.

There is no difference in the worth of an individual, no matter what course they take. The demand that is made of us is to do the very best with all our talents to the best of our ability. Those talents may best be fulfilled in academic or vocational courses, and now increasingly in hybrids between the two—that is what it is all about. We will do all we can to assist the Under-Secretary in this. I remember coming to the House many years ago and talking to employers who said that they were sick of the

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fact that they could not get enough young people with basic skills and craft skills. They felt then that there was a problem in Britain in relation to that issue. It has been clouded by class and terminology for far too long. We will give every assistance we can to help deal with that, but whether these proposals are necessarily the right ones is another matter. On the general issue, we want to be very supportive.

I am pleased that the Under-Secretary paid tribute to the scheme for modern apprenticeships which we introduced. Although the Green Paper does not give a great deal of detail on this, the idea is that pupils who intend to pursue a modern apprenticeship will be able to study predominantly vocational courses until they are 16. The Green Paper says that the Department for Education and Skills will be working with the Learning and Skills Council to ensure that modern apprenticeships are of a high enough standard and will provide students with employable skills.

There is already in the proposals a compulsory work-related learning component, and the Green Paper reaffirms its existence for all pupils in the future. I draw the Under-Secretary's attention to the Association of Learning Providers, which wrote to me shortly after the Green Paper was published, and wished to participate. It says that the key to making sure that modern apprenticeships and relationships with the workplace go well is to give sufficient choice to employers and learners to make sure that the schemes are the right ones. It goes on:

I will send the letter to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that he will find it helpful.

The problems are as follows. There is a danger that businesses will not be adequately consulted either on the content of the vocational qualifications or during the creation of modern apprenticeships. The Under-Secretary must make sure that this does not happen. It is not clear how the Learning and Skills Council will interact with the vocational training that is available for the under-16s. That is a real problem if under-16s go to further education colleges in order to take some of their vocational GCSE courses.

The general idea on work-related learning is fine, but there is no structural or compulsory element to the proposals. The Under-Secretary has said that this would happen and would be a must. That must be firmed up in the Paper because unless there is structural change, it is unlikely that this will work.

I share with the Under-Secretary a sense that perhaps the matriculation diploma will not necessarily go into the Oxford English Dictionary with as much ease as a "Delia" did. It will not trip off all our tongues, so we should find some other name, perhaps one relating to graduation. The whole concept of graduating from high school has become popular with youngsters who see it portrayed in films from the United States where it is part of the culture. Perhaps some sort of graduation diploma, providing that it is not confused with anything further up the education scale, might be right. Let us have a think about it.

There is a problem, however. The proposals for the diploma are vague. For example, they do not state whether other activities, such as citizenship education and sport,

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will definitely be included in the assessment. The diploma will over-simplify the current examinations system. The suggestion is that employers, further education colleges and universities cannot tell the difference between pupils' achievements. For example, students with five A* grades at GCSE will get the same intermediate grade as those with five C grades, yet employers and further education colleges will not view them in the same way. John Bangs, the head of the National Union of Teachers education department, summed it up best when he said:

The diploma also attempts falsely to compare different skills, such as an achievement in English with an aptitude for woodwork with being a good football player. Including other non-academic/vocational subjects in the assessment creates problems. How will we assess non-academic and vocational achievements? How will we deal with the fact that a student who has one A and two B grades at A-level, an AS-level at any grade and a qualification in citizenship will be awarded the top higher diploma, while a student with just four A grades at A-level will get only the lower advanced diploma? That does not make sense.

The Green Paper sets out many good intentions. However, the main aspects on which the Minister will concentrate to deliver the aims are seriously flawed. Unless those are dealt with, the aims will not be achieved. We draw the Government's attention to those difficulties. There is much devil in the detail, but we, too, want the central aims delivered. The fundamentals are in place. However, unless the difficulties in teaching and schools, the disparity in further education and the budgetary problems are properly dealt with by the Secretary of State and her team, none of those aspirations will be delivered. We give full notice that as much as we support some of the principles behind the aims, we will also examine the flaws carefully in order to ensure that the delivery matches some of the words that the Government use, at least at some stage in their term in office.

3.52 pm

Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I know him best from his days as MP for Bury, North and, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, that is how we still think of him. On that basis, I am sure that we all join him in wishing Bury football club well in its current difficulties. I am not sure whether it does either of us any good when I say that the last football match I saw him at was a Bolton Wanderers game. The match was good, so it was obviously not last week.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Conservatives want the central aims of the Green Paper delivered. However, I doubted that when I listened to him. It will always be the case that the devil is in the detail, but we are debating a Green Paper, not the details of legislation. It is important to concentrate on the general direction in which we want education to go for this age group. I welcome the debate and the fact that we are concentrating more attention on 14 to 19-year-olds.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the Government have delivered a great deal in terms of educational improvement in the past few years. Much of that is

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reflected in the improved performances in many schools. The schools achievement awards are out tomorrow, and I look forward to writing to the successful schools in my constituency. There have been many successful initiatives, and many of them are interrelated. We should not forget that.

At the beginning of the week, I read some comments by right-wing so-called researchers who said that we should dump pre-school education because it does not do children any good. The Government's work on pre-school education has laid the foundation for the teenagers of the future so that they get far more out of education and achieve even more than they do now. It is important to realise that those facts are related so that we have an overall approach to education.

It is right to focus on this group of teenagers, partly because the Government have done much to move in the right direction in so many other aspects of education, and partly because there are difficulties with the education of those young people. In addition to issues covered by the Green Paper, the Minister should bear it in mind that those parts of the country with a middle-school system still experience some difficulties. In that system, young people of 14 take key stage 3 exams when they have only been in the school for a short time. That problem has not been mentioned so far, and it complicates an already complicated situation. It will have to be taken on board when further details of our approach for the age group are worked out.

The Green Paper says:

No one could disagree with that. However, it is important that that aspiration on the part of the Government is put in the right context. We need a flexible system, but we do not want a fragmented system. We have to get away from the categorisation that has given sound opportunities to some in the age group, but not to others. There have been so many tiers and layers that it has often been difficult for those advising young people, as well as the young people themselves, to know which route to take. Should they go for intermediate GNVQs, GCSEs, AS-levels or modern apprenticeships? Should they go to a sixth form college, an FE college or stay in their own college? The choices are almost bewildering. In some geographical areas, that makes it difficult for everyone involved.

We are lacking the framework to encompass all that we offer. Although I absolutely believe that we need flexibility, it needs to be within a coherent structure. It must offer all young people—not just the academic few or those who are deemed suitable for vocational education—more choice than they have at present. However, it must also give value to those opportunities that are not properly valued now.

The Green Paper refers to meeting the needs of young people, but who decides what those needs are? How do we inform young people and ensure that they get advice and support? The situation on the ground is patchy. In some areas, it is very good; in others, it is not. The same is true of aspirations. We have to improve young people's aspirations and stretch all pupils, but are we sure that we have the right mechanisms in place?

I do not want to go through the whole Green Paper, but not enough has been made of one critical consideration. The document refers to girls' achievements and records.

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It also mentions motivation. However, the lack of motivation on the part of young people is one of the key problems in education. We need to place an even greater emphasis on that and probably carry out more research. More people need to be interested in motivation, especially what makes it tail off.

There is academic work on that. A few years ago, the department of education at Keele university charted the dips in performance, in interest and in attendance—the critical points in the education of girls and boys. The dips were not parallel, but the elementary work of examining what is happening and then considering why, can help to improve our knowledge of how to motivate young people and how to keep them interested in education. There are some very good teachers around, many of whom are good individual motivators, but we still have to do more to understand what triggers motivation and what keeps people in the system and interested. Flexibility in the system will help, but there are other steps that we must take.

I want to discuss another matter that the Green Paper touched on, but not sufficiently—ensuring that young people, especially this age group, learn how to learn. They need to become individual learners, as opposed to being taught a skill or how to pass an exam, which, although critically important, is not the be all and end all for this age group. All young people need to develop that skill because they will have to change direction throughout their lives, and if they can crack learning as a process at that age it will stay with them for ever.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, wondered what young people might think about the Green Paper. I commend the Minister for producing a separate document, including a questionnaire, that is aimed at young people. It is a simple guide, but none the worse for that. There is always the danger that such documents may sound patronising, and we can always find examples of the odd phrase that is not quite right. As the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said, young people will not be queueing up to discuss the matriculation diploma—although some might come up with other names that would be unmentionable in the House—but they may have ideas about it.

It is worth the Minister giving some time, thought and effort to ensuring that young people respond to the guide. He should particularly target this year's A-level takers, because they are the cohort that first had to do key stage 1 exams and tests, key stage 2, AS-level, and so on. Those young people have had experience of just about every change that has been introduced in education, so it is important to seek their views. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows one 18-year-old from whom he can expect to hear about the matter.

I want to say a word about AS-levels, partly as the parent of someone who took them. There was much criticism of AS-levels, including talk about overload. In fact, if young people are interested in the subjects that they are taking, they do not necessarily regard the work as overload. It is important to motivate young people and to ensure that courses are tailored to those who take them. We should aim for the broader-based education that many people have talked about for a long time, but has not often been delivered.

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The Green Paper makes proposals on GCSEs and the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds. It suggests that the curriculum should include core subjects—English, maths, science and information and communications technology—and, within those, citizenship, religious education, sex and health education, physical education and work-related learning. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire questioned whether the proposals were right and were what employers wanted. It would be hard to think of dropping subjects such as physical education or work-related learning from the list, because they are key ingredients in the education that all young people need.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's concern about foreign languages being no longer compulsory post-14, however—although that may be wishful thinking on my part. I can easily imagine the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins)—the difficulty of teaching youngsters who are not wholly motivated towards education. If such youngsters have to study yet another subject that they find tedious, boring and not especially relevant, that could turn some of them off education.

Perhaps the answer is that there should be a presumption that people will study foreign languages without making it compulsory although that, too, could give rise to difficulties. If we introduced foreign languages at an earlier stage, young people might be less inclined to be turned off in the way that has been suggested.

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