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6.32 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for squeezing me into this debate. I have only one point to make. I have a plethora of documents on education, both Government and party political, from the 1940s onwards and I am familiar with them all. But one factor is missing from every single one—the coalfields. The inner cities get a lot of attention and a lot of literature is devoted to them. There is no question that poverty in the inner cities is far greater in reality than poverty in the coalfields. However, what the coalfields have, more than any other area, is a poverty of aspiration and expectation.

That poverty of expectation was there throughout the last century and it remains to this day. In the mining villages, boys were expected to leave school at 15—a bit

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later it was 16—and work down the pit until they retired at 64 or 65, unless they had an accident and faced early retirement. Girls were expected to marry one of the boys and stay at home or, in more enlightened days, work in a textile factory to earn additional money, and then retire. The one thing that was not needed was high educational attainment.

The big difference between the 1940s, the 1950s and now is the behavioural questions. The behavioural problems in schools nowadays are not the same as those that existed then, because fathers sorted out any problems underground in the pit. The pits, by and large, are not there any more. That is a fact and that is how society now operates.

The biggest problem that I see in my surgery is literacy. Scores of retired miners cannot fill in the compensation forms for pneumoconiosis because they do not have the necessary literacy skills. Many of them have not sent the forms in yet because they are terrified of getting them wrong. There are queues at the citizens advice bureaux, which are filling in forms for people who cannot spell. That is still a major problem.

There is another big problem. Those kids all went to the secondary modern schools. In the pit areas, especially our pit area—the Dukeries—old barns on farms are being converted. Old manor houses have sold off land for middle-class housing. In those villages, primary schools are often attaining 100 per cent. in terms of Government standards. At the secondary schools, kids from existing or former pit villages have still got a low level of aspiration and low results. Those factors mesh together and disguise the problem.

We need three things. First, the Government's biggest achievement has been to start to sort out primary schools. Higher expectation and more money have made the biggest impact in my area—far more impact than any other scheme. Secondly, 14 to 16-year-olds have been lost before, but that is where it really hits homes. People talk about teaching kids French, German or Spanish; in some of the schools, we would like the kids to attend classes in the first place, learning and getting leadership and management skills, which they can use in the world of work. Therefore, I applaud the initiatives.

The final and crucial thing is that we should not run down what the Government are doing. On capital spending on schools, I will tell the House what I want. Bids are in from my area at the moment; I know that the Minister cannot comment. We have put in for every secondary school in every mining area to be rebuilt. Imagine the impact it would have on the aspirations of young people, their parents and grandparents if it was announced next week that every secondary school in the mining villages would be rebuilt as new. That is what I would call delivery.

I would welcome such an announcement next week. If we do not get it next week, we will keep pressing. That is what I mean by delivery. That coalfield perspective is crucial. That lack of aspiration and expectation is crucial. I salute this team of Ministers. I believe that they are the first in 50 years to recognise the difference of the coalfields and the importance of aspiration. More of it please.

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6.37 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): It is a pleasure to respond to what has been an excellent short debate. It is also a pleasure—I am sure that the Minister would agree—to have a debate on this important aspect of education. The difficulty has been to fit in all those on both sides of the House who wanted to speak, which has been a pleasure to see. It has been a pleasure to listen to the contributions.

There have been too many contributions to go through all of them in detail but I will mention a few. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) made an excellent speech. She referred to the importance of pre-school education, and the importance of flexibility but not fragmentation in education. She also referred to the almost bewildering choice of qualifications and groups in education, which is an important concern. She was clearly wasted in the Whips Office. We are pleased to hear what she has to say now that she is a free woman again.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) accused the Government of peddling motherhood and apple pie—and a bit of creationism as well. He talked about the lessons from Skoda and how the esteem of vocational training can be improved only through quality and not through rebadging, which is a valid point. His speech was not so much a Skoda as a stretch limousine, but we will forgive him that, since we have grown used to it.

The hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who unfortunately is not in his place at the moment, was worried about the threat to successful sixth forms, a concern that many hon. Members on both sides share. He was concerned that the Learning and Skills Council may pursue the route of levelling down funding, rather than levelling it up, a point that was raised by other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) spoke about the crisis of bureaucracy, the shortage of teachers, and the chronic skills shortage. He spoke about the problems of teaching the same children in a variety of institutions, particularly in rural areas where travel can be a difficulty. He referred to the iniquities of funding which affect hon. Members on both sides of the House and various constituencies in much the same way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) made an important contribution, referring to the importance of special needs and the teaching of reading. He paid a particular and welcome tribute to the work of the Dyslexia Institute.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) voiced concern about the possible fragmentation of the education system and the dangers of a more socially divisive form of education. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) voiced his strong concern about the future of language teaching if the Green Paper proposals were to come into being. He also spoke about the importance of real quality in vocation education and the difficulties caused by bringing in early AS-levels in 11 to 16 schools, something that may be compounded by the uncertainty about the funding arrangements and structures, about which we heard more today from the Under-Secretary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), in a brief but cogent intervention, said that teachers were already buried under initiatives from

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the Government and referred to the danger of tinkering with the exam system, as set out in the Green Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) mentioned the burden of paperwork and spoke tellingly of the Sunday evening syndrome that affects teachers in his constituency.

The Under-Secretary talked about the Bury connection, and went on to say that he hoped there would be no political knockabout in the debate. Unfortunately, I was led to fear for his short-term memory, because he immediately went on to attack the previous Government on the basis of spurious figures that he claimed about education funding, passing over the fact that the last Government spent a higher percentage of the nation's wealth on education than the Labour Administration from 1997 did. He went on to blame the recent widening of the gap between high and low achievement on the previous Government: again skating over the fact that it is happening now under this Government and is not attributable to the Government who went before.

The Under-Secretary spoke about the group of young people who have been put off education by the content of the curriculum. That is a concern that Members on both sides take seriously and recognise must be dealt with. He spoke about a cycle of failure and about social problems. He also mentioned language teaching and made it clear that schools must offer languages, even if no one takes them. What is the percentage reduction in those taking languages post-14? What in practice will be the effect of what is being set out?

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the Under-Secretary made it clear that he thought that schools might be statutorily required to offer the teaching of modern languages, but that it might be provided by another institution; schools did not need to offer it within their own institution. Rapidly, this commitment—such as it was—is becoming a meaningless pledge.

If languages are not taught in the institution where the pupil studies but are offered elsewhere, what are the implications for travel costs? How will they be met? What are the implications for disadvantaged pupils, for whom the difficulty may be greater? What are the implications in rural areas, where it may be difficult to move from one institution to another? Is it not less likely that people will take languages in the 14 to 19 period of their education if they have to go elsewhere to do so?

We heard about modern apprenticeships and the matriculation diploma. We are concerned that the future planning of 14 to 19 education appears to be something of a black hole in the Government's thinking. It is not clear whether the Government wish the area planning of education to be executed by learning and skills councils, local education authorities or some other body. Having said that they are not intending to move funding or planning to the learning and skills councils, the Government must make clear where exactly they want that funding and planning to take place and what the implications will be.

The Under-Secretary pledged that we would have not necessarily the publication of the responses to the Green Paper but "a representative summary" of responses. That gave cause for concern to all Members who have experienced the Government's tendency to publish only those pieces of information that appear favourable,

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and not always an open and honest sample of what they have received. The Government say that they want to raise the status of vocational education, an objective that we all share. However, they seem to want to do so by downgrading the GCSE still further, which gives real cause for concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire expressed several concerns on behalf of the further education sector, concerns which grow stronger daily. I know from constituency experience and conversations that I have had how angry people in that sector are, especially at the recent remarks of the Minister for Lifelong Learning. On reflection, she may want to retract those remarks and make it clear that good work is being done in that sector and great achievements are being made.

My hon. Friend also asked for a definition of a higher education experience, for which he has been waiting for six months. There seems to be no sign of such a definition.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), kindly drew attention to the recent literary work of the former chief inspector of schools and invited us to quote from it. I wish that I had more time to quote those views about the Government—the book contains some wonderful quotes. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties are already digging into it. [Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning says that she has not bothered, but perhaps she should. I offer her this quote:

We are grateful to the Under-Secretary for drawing attention to the former chief inspector's comments. They do not necessarily paint a flattering picture of the Government's achievements to date.

In the Green Paper, there is a huge shift away from the Government's mantra when they first arrived on the scene in 1997, claiming that they were about standards, not structures. The Green Paper presages massive structural change. Its objectives are common to both sides of the House, but there are real fears about the approach. Esteem for vocational education will rise with standards in vocational education. That will not happen if the Government proceed with a policy to allow vocational GCSEs for the less able while early AS-levels are provided for the brightest pupils. Pupils in such circumstances—those who are most able to cope with the exam overload—will be spared it. Those who are stretched to cope with GCSEs at 16, AS-levels at 17 and A-levels at 18 will still have to face the overload that currently damages the breadth of their experiences in the curriculum and outside it.

There is an inherent contradiction in the Government's policy on languages. To say that they want more at primary level, fewer at secondary level and more for adults is absurd. Now that we have had confirmation that languages need not be offered in all schools, the concern is even stronger.

The Green Paper risks taking us round in circles. We envisage far more bureaucracy and confusion for qualifications and the planning and funding of 14 to 19

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education. It does nothing to lift the threat to their future that sixth forms already feel. It risks devaluing vocational qualifications and accelerating the demise of GCSEs. We shall support the Government in seeking better vocational education, parity of esteem for vocational education and greater flexibility. However, I hope that the Minister for School Standards will accept that the debate has flagged up real concerns on both sides of the House about the Government's approach, and I hope that he will take them seriously.

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