Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hopkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems of learning foreign languages is that so many young people have not mastered our own language very well? Improving young people's literacy in our own language would be of tremendous assistance when they learn a foreign language.

Ann Taylor: I am sure that is the case. I am also sure that the money that we are investing in pre-school education—helping young children to articulate their feelings, getting them interested in more than watching television by encouraging them to play with other children and become aware of books through reading or having stories read to them—will better prepare children for primary education. The literacy hour is already having an impact. The benefits are cumulative and will give us the scope—if we can find the teachers—to teach foreign languages at an earlier stage.

My main concern about the suggested subjects relates to a point made on page 5 of the guide where young people are advised that they would be able to follow

That is fine, but we need to consider the status of the "other courses" or we shall be in danger of creating yet another divide of the type that has dogged British education for far too long.

I have two questions for my ministerial colleagues on vocational GCSEs, which we have already discussed. The guide includes quite a lot of material about them and is encouraging as to their introduction and success. It lists a range of vocational subjects that will be available from September 2002: applied art and design, applied business,

21 Mar 2002 : Column 495

engineering, health and social care and so on. Some other relevant subjects could and should have been included. I do not understand why subjects such as plumbing, electrical work or car maintenance were excluded. Many of the young people whom we are trying to target already have an interest in those subjects, so studying them would be extremely relevant and might actually switch those young people back on to education and motivate them in future.

Ministers may reply that individual schools cannot cover all those subjects. However, schools cover all the conventional subjects so perhaps they should consider including other subjects. If they cannot, we could and should—and will soon have to—encourage greater co-operation between groups of local secondary schools. That is something of a hobby horse of mine. Co-operation could be undertaken through a consortium or a looser co-operative. There is great scope for that, especially given the specialist schools status that many schools are achieving. Such a partnership approach could offer a wider range of subjects. That is one way of making sure that specialist schools do not have a divisive impact on their locality. If they are knitted into working with other schools in the area, they can offer more collectively than they could individually.

Charlotte Atkins: My right hon. Friend spoke about co-operation between schools. Does she think that such co-operation should extend to further education and sixth form colleges?

Ann Taylor: Absolutely. I make no distinction there. Fourteen-year-olds who want to study certain courses, such as car maintenance, need to be able to go wherever those courses are on offer. Networking and collaboration is bound to strengthen the totality of the education provision in any one area.

My second question for the Minister about vocational GCSEs is very simple. Why are we so intent on giving them a different label? Why are we so intent on calling them vocational GCSEs? Why cannot we simply call them GCSEs? That point may seem very trivial.

Mr. Ivan Lewis: I reassure my right hon. Friend that what were known as vocational GCSEs have become GCSEs in vocational subjects. Ministers have insisted that we will be introducing new GCSEs from September. They will not be labelled "vocational", as we regard that as unnecessary.

Ann Taylor: I hope that that is the case. We should not say that we are offering GCSEs in vocational subjects because we do not say that we are offering GCSEs in academic subjects. We should just say that we are offering GCSEs in various subjects which are all of equal worth. It is critical that they are all of equal worth.

Will the Minister consider reinforcing the point about equal worth by introducing a credit accumulation system, so that the matriculation diploma to which he referred can be given, at its different levels, for whatever combination of points, subjects and experiences is deemed necessary? If we ensured that every subject at GCSE—whether it was history, health and social care, geography or car maintenance—was worth the same number of points in a credit accumulation system that formed part of

21 Mar 2002 : Column 496

matriculation, we would reinforce parity of esteem, which has so often been lacking in the past. That is important if we are to motivate young people.

In the FE sector, and in education more generally, there are problems concerning who will teach all the extra subjects. The Minister and the hon. Member for North–East Bedfordshire touched on that problem when they mentioned pay and conditions in the FE sector. A more important problem is the fact that when the FE sector was incorporated and it underwent the changes introduced by the previous Conservative Government, many valuable courses were dropped because they were expensive to run. Many colleges dropped the same courses, so we lost the talents of certain categories of lecturers and teachers. We may have to make an effort to bring some of them back and to ensure that they can make a contribution. If we are to have new courses, it is important that the curriculum and the quality of teaching are right from the start. If we do not get that right, the new GCSEs will be off to a poor start, and it may be difficult to recover from that.

I support the concept of a matriculation diploma, although I suggest that we offer a prize for whoever comes up with the best name for it because none of us wants to call it that. I am not sure, however, whether a matriculation diploma is the entire answer. The document says that Ministers are considering an alternative to it, presumably for the youngsters who do not reach the threshold. At the moment, many people would be excluded from having a matriculation diploma because they do not get five A to C grades. We can expect more youngsters to hit that target in future, but some will not. The existing record of achievement could be developed so that we do not need to invent yet another diploma.

I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind that, at the moment, some of the youngsters who do not meet the threshold of five A to C grades never get the opportunity to catch up: once they are a failure, they are always a failure. Some are able to pick up another grade when they go on to other types of education, but some are not. If we are to have partnership arrangements, I hope that the Minister will consider making provision for those youngsters who might repeat year 11 successfully with a tailored course.

In a town such as Dewsbury, young people could, without suffering any stigma, take their GCSEs in the same school, a neighbouring institution or an FE college, where they would be supported and brought up to the threshold. There is scope for action there. The document concentrates on fast tracking, but we must consider those who need a bit of help, not least because of the variation in the maturity of people at that age.

On fast tracking to stretch the brightest pupils, I do not think that this is the major problem for this age group, although it is bad if children get bored at school at any level. I have no objections to giving an A* grade for a mark of 90 or higher at A-level, when an A is given for 80 or above, but I do not think that it is a big deal. I ask the Minister whether it is right to put even more pressure on young people. I am not sure why fast tracking is being proposed. I have read that it is because universities want more help in sorting out the highest of the high-fliers. I think that universities should be happy with people who achieve A grades, rather than trying to tweak every point out of them. University interviews and attitudes towards students also come into it. However, I could talk about that at length, so I had better not start.

21 Mar 2002 : Column 497

I know that some schools encourage youngsters not to take GCSEs. I am not sure that that is always a good idea. It is good that youngsters know what level they have reached, and very often they do not want to be excluded from what their peer group is doing. There are other ways of ensuring that we stretch them without the risk of isolating them from the majority of their year group.

Mr. Brady: The right hon. Lady is making a very good speech and I am listening with great interest. Is she concerned, as I am, that if we take the brightest, most able children out of GCSEs, we may not achieve the parity of esteem for the vocational subjects that we would all like to see?

Ann Taylor: Yes, that is part of the problem, but not the primary part. Whether or not a child takes a GCSE early very much depends on the maturity of the child and the subject. It is much easier for 14-year-olds to take GCSE maths than it is for them to take GCSE English. They can accelerate more easily in a narrow subject such as maths; they need a degree of maturity to do themselves justice in an English course.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about getting brighter children to do GCSEs. I was not going to make this point, but most of the schools that miss out GCSEs are private schools. Their pupils have the confidence to see them through, but most young people want to work with their peer group. Some want to be stretched, and some will not be able to stand the pace, so flexibility is required. Time pressures might not be so severe under a system of credit accumulation in which credits are picked up as a student goes along, and credits achieved early are just as valuable as those achieved late.

I have been speaking for a long time, but I want to make a couple more points, the first of which relates to support networks. It is important that every institution, be it school, sixth form or further education college, has in place the right network to support and advise young people. The Green Paper mentions the presence of the careers service and Connexions in schools and colleges, but although that is important, it is not enough. The document appears to expect too much from the Connexions service; perhaps more attention should be given to helping schools and colleges to advise and mentor young people and help them to make decisions about their future.

Finally, let me say a few words about the institutions in which young people are taught and how we measure their success. The way in which exams are used to measure success should be revisited. Many youngsters from my constituency go to a sixth form college in Huddersfield, Greenhead college, which I know well. Its former head, Dr. Kevin Conway, and his colleagues devised a system of assessment of the college and of individual courses that I believe points the way forward for the assessment of educational institutions. Many sixth form colleges evidently agree, because most now use the system of value-added assessment for internal purposes and when considering how to improve what they offer young people.

The system does not merely take into account raw scores, but considers the ability of the intake based on GCSE grades at 16 then assesses the value added by the

21 Mar 2002 : Column 498

time that final results are in. That is done college by college and subject by subject, but it can be done pupil by pupil to determine whether a pupil is being well served or is missing out, whether it is worth taking an additional exam after AS-level, and whether it is worth resitting an exam if the pupil does not do well at 18.

I commend that work, which is supported by the local learning and skills council, to Ministers. I am sure that they are aware of that more sophisticated technique, which I believe is far better than comparing colleges and schools using simple league tables based on raw examination results. I hope that it will become the way forward for all education institutions.

The Green Paper gives a good start to the debate that must now take place on the future of 14 to 19 education. I am sorry that the Conservative spokesman got sidetracked into political points, because we should discuss the issue constructively. There is much meat in the Green Paper, which points the way forward; we can discuss the details later. I believe that the document offers more opportunities to our young people—opportunities for which they are ready and which they deserve—and I commend it to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page