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Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): I welcome the Green Paper. For too long, we expected the one size fits all structure to meet the needs of all pupils; it did not, so pupils often voted with their feet and left after 16. We have that problem in north Staffordshire, where too many young people decide not to stay on post-16. Only three of every four 16 to 18-year-olds were in education at the end of 2000. That record will not ensure that Britain closes the gap between it and its European competitors in the provision of skills.

I am pleased that the Green Paper is broad enough to tackle high-fliers as well. They often feel constrained by what is on offer in terms of the range of subjects, the ability to take exams early, and the flexibility to enable them, for example, to attend lectures at the local university. Why should they not be able to do so? However, I am not totally convinced about the new tier of achievement at A-levels if it is only so that universities can single out the best pupils. Our universities should look for more than A-level results; they should follow their American counterparts and consider a far broader range of abilities. They should seek evidence that students are doing things other than A-levels and that they have that extra spark, rather than look for more of the same, or the best of the same.

The problem for high-fliers is that timetables often do not allow them to take the range of subjects that they want to study. For instance, they are often not able to take maths and further maths. We should ensure that high-fliers and others have access to high-quality, vocational courses. That is the way to raise the status of those courses.

High-fliers who want to take a large number of exams cannot do so because there is only a short time to fit them all in—perhaps only three weeks. I hope that the practice of taking exams early will become much more common than it is at present. Some schools refuse to do that.

Some people see the proposals on language learning as downgrading language skills, because they are not included as core compulsory subjects. I disagree. Trying to motivate 14-year-olds who do not think that languages are for them is like hitting one's head against a brick wall. It is important not to cajole them, but to inspire them by starting much earlier.

I am delighted about the commitment that by 2012 all primary school children should be entitled to study languages. I would much rather it were sooner, but I realise that we have to build capacity in our primary schools to achieve that. I believe that extending and revitalising the language assistant programme will help, primarily because primary schools will not be teaching grammar, but will enthuse children to develop oral language skills. We should also look to our universities, which have overseas students and language students who could work with pupils in our primary schools. That might not only enthuse pupils, but could also encourage students to take up a teaching career. We could do with them in our primary and secondary schools.

Many primary schools, especially in the most deprived areas, have breakfast clubs. Why do we not use those to enable children to speak a foreign language once a week? Why not have a French café where children could ask for their cereal or croissant and use their language skills. We must show that language is fun and has a practical

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purpose. Kids who do not go abroad for their holidays need to know that speaking a foreign language is a practical skill. I would also welcome summer schools, when a whole day could be spent pretending to be in France using French.

Mr. Hopkins: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Charlotte Atkins: I am sorry, I shall not give way as other Members want to speak.

Children at primary school level do not have the inhibitions that older students have when experimenting with languages. Information and communications technology is a great boon to language teaching. Westwood high school in Leek has a fantastic language laboratory, which was paid for by Britannia mutual building society. Students can learn and work independently, and teachers can listen to their efforts without them being aware that their attempts at pronouncing French, German or Spanish are being overheard by the teacher. That is a great way to build students' confidence.

There is a great shortage of linguists in north Staffordshire, so I am pleased that we will be promoting specialist language colleges, and that there will be 200 by 2005. However, I am concerned because my local schools, which I have been pressing for specialist language status, say that there are hurdles to becoming specialist language schools. Perhaps the Minister will address that problem in his closing remarks.

I would like a much broader range of languages to be taught, not just the standard German and French. I am surprised that Spanish is not offered more often, given the huge markets in Spanish speaking countries in South and Latin America.

I was very concerned when I read in Overseas Trade magazine that, in February, ambassadors from Germany, France, Italy and Spain had issued a joint plea for language teaching in England to be improved. Clearly, we must do that. As the German ambassador to London said:

That demonstrates that we are missing opportunities to export and build our businesses abroad.

I was very pleased that the Green Paper drew attention to the work of my local further education college. The collaboration between Leek college and Meadows special school has greatly improved the employment opportunities of young people with learning disabilities. The Honeycomb project offers young people not only craft and vocationally-based opportunities, but social and emotional development opportunities, including hair and beauty, self-presentation, art, use of the college multi-gym and ICT activities. The heart of the project is a furniture recycling and wood manufacturing business—pupils experience a real work environment in which they make a full contribution to the business. Leek college has always had a good reputation for working with young people with special needs. I am delighted that the Green Paper has given that national recognition.

I welcome the introduction of quality vocational GCSEs and their focus on pupils of all abilities. They have the potential to excite young people, especially those who are turned off by the mainstream curriculum. A large proportion of students do not fit neatly into the route from

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GCSEs to A-levels or the route from NVQs straight into the workplace. It is important to cater for those students. The principal of Stoke-on-Trent college, Graham Moore, raised with me a valid concern: the difficulty that schools may have in making vocational GCSEs sufficiently practical and in not having equipment available. NVQ students have always had to be assessed in the workplace, which has been increasingly difficult on courses such as construction and catering, as small firms do not have the necessary range and quality of training experience. Vocational GCSEs must not suffer from the same problems.

Although I accept that the funding gap for students in further education and schools may cause difficulties, it is important that schools work closely with colleges to provide a real range and choice of courses. Students will then be able to exploit the facilities in FE colleges. That is already happening in Leek. Leek college and Leek high school are sharing their skills and facilities to provide the best possible outcome for students in the college and the school. Under the previous Conservative Government, colleges were encouraged to compete and to embrace market forces, which did not help colleges. I am therefore pleased that that approach has been rejected in north Staffordshire. We have developed a concordat whereby all four local colleges work together—and try not to compete head to head—to provide, between them, the courses that are required locally.

We must also be realistic about how quickly we can get vocational GCSEs off the ground. Of course we want to introduce them quickly, and some will be introduced by September 2002. The major influx of those courses, however, will occur towards 2005. It is important to get them absolutely right and to ensure that more schools are ready to deliver a broader curriculum. Schools and colleges must deliver real choice for their pupils.

Provision must be for boys and girls. We hear a lot about the under-achievement of boys, but let us not forget that there is still a real gender divide in science and ICT. The situation in chemistry is better, but three times more boys than girls achieved passes at physics A-level in 2000.

In the crucial ICT sector, where we have such shortages, about 24,000 girls achieved A* to C grades in GCSE computer studies in 2001, compared with 32,000 boys. In the same year, about 4,000 girls achieved an A-level in computer science, compared with 13,000 boys. It is clear that girls are not engaging in ICT in the same numbers as boys. I fear that the expectation persists in some areas that boys will take to computers, and that girls will not.

The situation in the workplace is even worse. The number of people in ICT jobs has risen by more than 50 per cent., but the proportion of women in those jobs is falling—from 25 per cent. in 1995, to 22 per cent. now. Women account for only 8 per cent. of the work force in software engineering. The success of girls in school should not blind us to the gender stereotyping that still persists.

Huge challenges lie ahead. The Green Paper will address many of them. We have made a huge and beneficial start.

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6.16 pm

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