Previous SectionIndexHome Page

16 Oct 2002 : Column 362—continued

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): It is a little odd that on this Conservative Opposition day so few Conservative Members have been here.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is the only Liberal here.

Mr. Rendel: Indeed I am, but this is not a Liberal Democrat Opposition day. It is perhaps significant that the Leader of the Opposition today made a remark that some Conservative Members may be embarrassed about.

Earlier, a Conservative Member criticised comprehensives. I should like to start on a note of personal gratitude to the state school system. The last of my three children has just left school. All my children were educated entirely in the state system, and they got a great deal out of it. I know that many of their colleagues and friends also had a very good education in the state system. As people tell me is unmistakeable from my accent, and as you can probably tell, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am not a product of the state system. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) never ceases to remind me of that fact whenever I speak in the House. Nevertheless, I feel, for a number of reasons, that my children have had a much better education than most children who go through the independent system now. They have emerged with a lot more knowledge of the world and a better understanding of how normal people live. They have certainly had excellent teaching throughout their school careers.

I realise that that is not true of the state system in every part of the country. It happens that in my part of the world, west Berkshire, we have an excellent state system. I would have been happy to send my children to any of the schools in west Berkshire, and I am delighted that our system is so good.

Chris Grayling: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rendel: I apologise to hon. Members but I have been asked to keep my speech short, so I have said that I will take no interventions. I am not trying to be rude; I know that a number of other Members want to speak, so I must do without interventions today.

There are undoubtedly problems in the state system, some of which have been highlighted today. I turn first to the A-levels fiasco. I certainly do not agree with the phrase used by the Leader of the Opposition earlier today when he said that this year's A-levels are not worth the paper that they were written on. I regard that as an appalling slur on the students who have taken A-levels and, in many cases, gained grades that are fully justified and of which they can be proud. They will feel that those grades have been maligned by the right hon. Gentleman's remark. It is interesting that when the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was challenged to confirm that he agreed with his leader, he failed to do so. Indeed, he refused to do so and seemed rather embarrassed by the remark. Perhaps he wishes that the quiet man of politics had been a bit quieter or shut up altogether.

16 Oct 2002 : Column 363

The remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) were very interesting, and I am pleased to see that he is still here. His remarks were to the point, and he asked a series of questions to which I hope the Minister will properly respond. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is not the only one who has come across cases of the sort that he mentioned. Obviously, because I have children who have friends in different schools around the country, I have heard of various cases in which young people have had A-level papers marked with very different grades, in spite of the fact they have the same level of intelligence and received the same teaching.

That is inexplicable, particularly when, as happened in at least one case that I know of but not in the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the papers were returned and the teachers confirmed that it was extraordinary that one paper should have been marked with a U when the others received a much higher grade. There seemed to be no difference in the standard of the papers. Either the paper had been completely mis-marked or there had been a misunderstanding about what was required. I suspect that the Government will tell us that the teachers and pupils in such cases simply did not understand what was required in particular A2 papers this year. If so, surely the Government should be criticised for utterly failing to pilot the A2 stage and make sure that it was understood in good time.

The whole fiasco has had a further effect on the universities. We know that not many papers were re-graded and not many students will have to move university, finding that they had the right to go to their first choice after having decided that they must go to their second choice. However, there is a large number of young people who were left wondering which university they would be able to attend. When it became clear that a number of papers would be re-graded, they were left hanging, trying to decide whether they should take up their place at their second choice of university or wait in case they could go to their first choice.

As we know, a number decided at the last minute not to go up to university at all this year but to put off their course and take a gap year. I hope that the Minister will tell the House whether he is researching how many unfilled university places there are as a result of students having decided at the last minute not to take them up. Sadly, many will not have got the re-grading that they needed, but even so they may have decided to give up for this year and left places unfilled. I understand that the Government have guaranteed that they will pay the extra costs caused by those students who decide to move university, but will they pay the universities for the cost of any unfilled places resulting from the fiasco that they caused? How many such places will there be? Will that cause a bulge next year when those pupils will want to find a place?

I want to make a further quick criticism of the Government that concerns the intolerable delay in making decisions about the new system of student finance, and I am delighted to see the relevant Minister, the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, in her place. That delay is making life very difficult for those who are trying to decide when and where to go to university next year, and I hope that the

16 Oct 2002 : Column 364

Minister who winds up the debate will give an absolute guarantee that the new system will be in place not just before the new university year starts but before students have to make those decisions. Knowledge of what the financial package will be is a critical part of that decision.

There is much excellence in our schools, colleges and universities at present. There are some excellent teachers, head teachers, governors and LEAs, but sadly they are too often let down by too much testing and too little teaching. When the testing proves flawed, as has happened this year, we get the worst of both worlds. For that at least the Government ought to be held responsible, and they ought to take responsibility tonight.

6.28 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): My constituency is much like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann): a collection of satellite communities, including mining villages and rural areas, in this case around Doncaster. He was right to say that young men would come out of school at 15 and be sent down the pit. Young women had nowhere else to go, and like men they suffered from the lack of aspiration. There were generations about whom Governments could say, XThey don't need an education. They can work in steel, in mining, on the roads or in other manual jobs." They rejected those people, and that is why today significant numbers of older people cannot read or write.

What we know today is that children's expectations are not those of their grandparents, and that those jobs have enormously declined. Even to do manual work for local authorities, such as that done by carpenters, electricians, plumbers and plasterers, one needs to know how to read and write so that one can organise the work. It is no longer enough to have the manual skills to do the job; one needs to be able to use a computer.

Future generations—and the kids going through school at the moment—face a major and difficult challenge. In mining areas, like many others that depended on heavy industries and manual labour, we are having to challenge some of the ideas of grandparents and parents and, to be honest, of some of those who work in education and support it in our local authorities. I say that as a Labour Member of Parliament from a Labour area.

I remember only a few years ago being in one of the primary schools in my constituency where this Government had provided funds to create a computer learning centre. A new classroom was developed, software and hardware was installed and the kids were there; it was a great day. The head teacher whispered in my ear, XOf course, these kids won't need this." I am pleased that everything that this Government have done has challenged inequality and the idea that a child born in poverty will never have the chance to take GCSEs and A-levels and go to university. That idea was accepted for too long. During 18 years in government, the Conservative party did nothing to tackle such discrimination and inequality.

Several attacks have been made today on this Government's policies, but the Opposition Front-Bench teams have not suggested how they would turn round the situation or where they would find the money to

16 Oct 2002 : Column 365

improve things. We know from the Conservative party conference that the Tories would like to introduce legal home-school contracts. This Government introduced such agreements. Incidentally, before they did so, my children's primary school already had them. Good head teachers saw contracts as a carrot not a stick with which to develop a dialogue with parents on their children entering school. Not only did I and the head teacher sign a home-school contract, my child did as well. That was part of creating a dialogue early on, which is right. The Conservatives opposed home-school agreements when this Government suggested them and accused the Government of being too bureaucratic. Now they want to turn what is a very good way to start communication with parents and families into a legal minefield.

The Conservatives are also interested in vouchers. We all remember the nursery vouchers. They did nothing to improve early-years education or standards in the sector, yet the Conservatives now want to introduce such a system for schools too. They want to give a parent a voucher who would then on their tod find a school for their child. It would be a little like XSupermarket Sweep". The system is flawed, as shown by the introduction of nursery vouchers. Not even Margaret Thatcher or Keith Joseph suggested introducing vouchers for schools, but the new Thatcherites of today want to do so.

Such a system does not in any way recognise the different needs and challenges of each community. It has nothing to do with education for the many. It would promote education for the few who feel able to articulate their children's needs and find a school suitable. It has nothing to do with people wanting to go to a school in their community that meets the standards that they require for their children. It has nothing to do with dealing with truancy or disaffection.

As many of my hon. Friends have said this afternoon, some of the problems in our communities require that schools are integral to the communities and projects on the ground. As someone who sits on the board of a sure start scheme, I know that such schemes are a good example of trying to work with families and schools before children attend school. In order to help schools, my sure start board has funded staff to conduct home-school liaison before children start nursery school.

Such partnership is about creating a community and recognising that most kids spend most of their time outside school. It is about what affects them on their walk to school or in the home. It is about addressing their aspirations and poverty in the community around them. That is why Connexions, sure start and multi-agency work is so important. That is why I am pleased that the most recent education legislation considers giving schools more of a role in developing more on-site wrap-around services—child care, adult learning clubs or whatever—and allowing them the freedom to develop the services with the community that are so desperately needed.

A-levels have been the subject of much of the debate. I do not want to repeat what others have said, but I would like to say this: there was never a golden era when A-levels were not criticised. When I took my O-levels and A-levels, the criticism was that students had just one shot. If they did not perform on that day at that time in that examination, that was it. It did not matter if someone had terrible hay fever that affected their

16 Oct 2002 : Column 366

performance or what issues they had brought from home. I remember fellow students feeling that they had done so much work over two years yet none of it had been recorded or appreciated.

There was a debate over why girls were not doing as well as boys, and the old argument that boys could cram things in on the day. There were accusations about cramming and students not getting a learning experience. That is partly why we moved to a system that offered some continual assessment as well as some measure of performance under examination conditions. That is right. That does not mean that there are not issues over striking the right balance, but let us not try to return to what I do not think were the good old days. Is it a bad thing to record as a result of continual assessment young people's progress over the two-year course—GCSEs or A-levels—and their consistent attainment? If the system means that more people get their GCSEs and A-levels, what is wrong with that? Such a system is a truer record of a young person's performance.

We have a real challenge ahead of us. The comprehensive system must be looked at. We must consider how specialist schools should work. I have been a very strong advocate in this House of 14-plus education and the vocational element to it. We must ensure that that works. We must have an education system that tackles the things that do not work but at the same time recognises that, unless we put resources in, we will not be able to change anything.

Next Section

IndexHome Page