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Joan Walley: I welcome the framework for apprenticeships that my right hon. Friend is introducing. However, in Stoke-on-Trent we are finding it more and more difficult to get employers to come forward with apprenticeships. Will he give me an assurance that he will look closely into how we can establish direct public funding for the apprenticeships that we need, in the
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public and private sectors, and at how we can achieve the necessary flexibility to ensure that employers can be brought on board?

Ed Balls: There is already substantial investment in apprenticeships. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I are working together to ensure that we do everything we can to keep young people in apprenticeships and to expand apprenticeships. In fact, we have announced today that the Government will ensure a further 21,000 apprenticeships in the public sector in 2009-10 alone. That will be an important step towards achieving our objective of making apprenticeships available for every young person.

It is also important to equip the whole work force with the skills that they need. The new Skills Funding Agency will offer better support to employers by bringing together all the different adult learning agencies under one roof, and there will be a new right for employees to request time for training. All these reforms are now vital to support employment and our economy. They are also vital to our mission of excellence, not just for some but for all.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that the chemical process industry on Teesside will require 24,000 high-quality apprentices over the next 10 years. Those apprentices will need to have been taught physics, chemistry and maths separately. Will he reassure the House that those subjects will be taught separately in secondary schools, and not just as general science?

Ed Balls: They are being taught separately in increasing numbers. Standards are rising in science, and we now have more young people doing separate sciences. This is all part of the renaissance of science in our country, which is being backed by a massive multi-billion pound investment in science, following 18 years of savage cuts to the investment base under the Conservatives—

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con) rose—

Ed Balls: If the hon. Gentleman would like to tell us his views on grammar schools, I shall be happy to take his intervention. It would be a great honour.

Mr. Willetts: I want to ask the Secretary of State about the announcement today of 21,000 new apprenticeships in the public sector. Can he assure the House that these will indeed be new opportunities for young people in new apprenticeships and new posts? Or will this instead involve a redefinition of existing training programmes and courses in the public sector?

Ed Balls: I am happy to give that assurance. These are new apprenticeships in the public sector, and there will be 21,000 more of them from the 35,000 that we are going to deliver with £150 million-worth of spending. That would not be delivered by the Conservative party: while we are expanding spending on apprenticeships next year, the Conservative party wants to cut it. That is the difference, so I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he sought.

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Mr. Willis: I would like to draw the Secretary of State back to his earlier comment about careers guidance in schools. One thing that has bedevilled vocational education for decades is the fact that “bright” youngsters do not get any vocational offers within their curriculum package. The Secretary of State made the point that whether or not young people are offered apprenticeships is at the schools’ discretion. I urge him to reverse that idea and make it a mandatory requirement that every child, irrespective of their educational ability, is offered an apprenticeship.

Ed Balls: With respect—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to be part of our debates in the coming weeks—clause 35 makes it clear that there is an obligation on schools to promote apprenticeships to young people. It is most important that the advice and guidance they receive are impartial and objective, but we are building directly into the Bill a requirement to promote apprenticeships because of the particular and vital role we think they will play in extending education for all young people up to the age of 18. As the hon. Gentleman says, in too many schools over past years and decades, apprenticeships have been undervalued, which is why the Bill places a clear duty on schools in that regard—and they will have to honour it; we will ensure that they do not get around it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend knows that the Children, Schools and Families Committee also stressed the importance of all children gaining access to information about apprenticeships. Will he clarify one part of the Bill for me: what does he see as the future for young apprenticeships—those for 14 to 16-year-olds?

Ed Balls: Just a few weeks ago, I met some young apprentices in Derby and saw how learning on a young apprenticeship as part of their key stage 4 curriculum was inspiring them to work hard for their maths and English exams as well. I think that young apprenticeships are brilliant and that they are a very important part of our pre-16 learning. I would like to see them expanded as part of our goal to get more young people staying in education up to the age of 18.

What, then, is the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition on all these important reforms? Far from supporting our drive to expand apprenticeships and far from bringing forward investment in school buildings to help to support our economy now, the Conservatives want to cut our school building programme and cut our investment in apprenticeships in the coming year. That is no surprise to us, because they continue to oppose all the major educational reforms in this Bill—and, indeed, in last year’s Bill. Education, training or an apprenticeship for all to 18—the Conservatives oppose these things. They oppose our new diplomas, as they oppose our policy of fair admissions for all parents. On providing a children’s centre in every community, the Conservatives want cuts. They oppose our National Challenge programme and they have undermined our academies programme.

What can we expect to hear from the shadow Education spokesman? Will he tell us where the £4.5 billion of cuts to the school building programme will fall? I doubt it. Will he tell us more about half-baked gimmicks like his plan to force 11-year-olds who do not make the grade to
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stay on for another year in primary school? Probably not. Are we likely to hear more details about his Swedish model? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is keen to be introduced to the Swedish model, but it is unfortunately not something that I can arrange for him today. Will he tell us about the billions of pounds in cuts that his Swedish model would mean? Will he tell us that there will be no intervention to raise standards in underperforming schools? Will he tell us that surplus school places will be springing up everywhere—not where they are needed, but where some have the loudest voices? Will he tell us that instead of local accountability, there will be a lottery for parents and a hugely centralised bureaucracy? No, he will not tell us any of those things.

Instead, we will hear more of the hon. Gentleman’s usual debating society rhetoric, without any substance at all. In recent debates, he has called me


It is a pity that he has not taken his own advice.

Just a few years back, the hon. Gentleman wrote in The Times:

Never has a truer word been said. He went on:

For his punch line in his article, he said:

We all know that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) likes a smoke, but to compare him to a Colombian mule seems a bit unfair, even for this shadow Cabinet.

The fact is, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has said, that the Conservatives are still playing a self-interested game, rather than setting out a coherent alternative. The truth is that parents do not want a schools lottery, cuts to the school building programme or massive centralisation. They want every school to be a good school, standards to be guaranteed, discipline in the classroom, early intervention, more apprenticeships, and opportunity and excellence—not just for a privileged few, but for all. That is what will be delivered by the Bill. It is radical. It is right. It has public support. I commend it to the House.

4.22 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I say how much I enjoyed the Secretary of State’s speech, particularly the last few moments? There were some brilliant lines in there—uncharacteristically witty, if I may say so. I do not know who his new scriptwriter is or what he is being paid, but it is clearly worth it.

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As ever, the Secretary of State laid out his case with characteristic pungency and no lack of political verve, and I note his deliberate words of dislike for debating society rhetoric, so I shall seek to ensure that in what remains of our debate on Second Reading we concentrate on the detail of the Bill. What a lot of detail there is. This is a massive piece of legislation that covers a wide variety of areas. We hope to expose it to appropriate scrutiny when makes its way into Committee.

Interestingly, the Secretary of State is already introducing the idea of amendments—on Second Reading—before we have even reached consideration in Committee. That provokes two questions in our mind. First, is the Bill, as it were, oven-ready, or is the Secretary of State running to catch up? What does that say about the competence and grip that he brings to his Department? Secondly, why is the Bill not in such condition on Second Reading that we know precisely what the Government intend to bring before us? Why do they need even now to say that they will table amendments in Committee, but cannot tell us what those amendments will be, because they are not in the Bill? We cannot have effective scrutiny and an effective debate on Second Reading if there are, as the Secretary of State himself acknowledged, aspects of the Bill that he considers imperfect and believes he needs to change, but which he will not introduce until the Bill is considered in Committee.

As I said, we already have a large Bill covering a wide variety of areas. Some of those are naturally ones where we believe it right to legislate and we sympathise with the Secretary of State’s intentions, and indeed with some of the specific provisions in the Bill. First, I want to discuss the creation of Ofqual, which is the new regulator of exam standards. I say new, but it has already been in existence for some time. However, the Bill will put it on to the correct statutory footing for the first time. We wholeheartedly welcome the creation of this regulator. That is because the idea of setting up a separate exams regulator was proposed in the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I believe that it has also received the support of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).

The idea of an independent regulator has widespread support because there is widespread concern about standards. The Secretary of State is quite right to say that teachers are better than ever, and he is quite right to acknowledge that our pupils are working harder than ever, but there is real concern about the rigour of the examinations for which this Government are responsible.

The Royal Society of Chemistry—not an Opposition claque, but a respected scientific body—has said that teenagers who, when faced with today’s examination papers, get 35 per cent. of the answers correct would have got only 15 per cent. correct if they were dealing with equivalent papers from the 1960s. British Council researchers—paid Government employees—have pointed out that candidates who would get a C when sitting an A-level examination in Hong Kong get an A here.

Peter Timms of the university of Durham, an independent academic beholden to no one, has shown that a student who achieved an E in A-level maths in 1998 would have achieved a B in 2004. Duncan Lawson from the university of Coventry, another independent academic, has shown that students entering university
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in 2001 with a B at maths A-level displayed a level of knowledge that 10 years earlier would have been displayed by a student with a grade N, or fail. Indeed, students who failed the maths A-level in 1991—failed it!—performed better overall in tests of mathematical competence than those who secured a B pass in 2001.

Two other academics, Jonathan Ramsay and John Corner, analysed maths papers from the 1960s to the present day. They found topics that used to be set for 16-year-olds in the old CSE exams cropping up in A-level papers. Their report observed that

A team of mathematicians led by Professor John Marks also studied GCSE and O-level maths papers over time, from 1951, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2006, covering periods of both Labour and Conservative rule. They found:

Their report also observed:

the decline pre-dates the arrival of Labour Secretaries of State: we are absolutely clear about that—

Indeed, we discovered that in 2004, GCSE students taking Edexcel’s version of the exam could secure an A with a score of just 45 per cent., while one of 22 per cent. secured a C. Only 0.7 per cent. of the pupils who sat the exam failed to secure a C or better. The need for Ofqual is clear if we are to restore confidence in our examinations.

Mr. Graham Stuart rose—

Michael Gove: If Members want to hear about the questions in those papers, I shall turn to them shortly. First, I shall be more than happy to take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Mr. Stuart: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of Ofqual’s first jobs as the central regulator will be to conduct research, look at standards over the decades, and provide a definitive answer so that we need not engage in the sterile debate about standards that we must now undergo every year? What we need is an agreed baseline on which all of us can base policy. That will lead to proper policy, rather than the mess created by this Government.

Michael Gove: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am not in favour of sterile debates. Indeed, I am not in favour of sterile anything. I prefer fruitful debates, and fruitfulness and fecundity all round. I am glad to note that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), agrees with me. We are back to the Swedish model. I should point out, incidentally, that the Swedish model was first introduced to the
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House by the former Prime Minister, the former Member of Parliament for Sedgefield. May I say that I hope he is enjoying—[Hon. Members: “Steady!”]—her popularity in all parts of the House even now?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that Ofqual must be engaged in this debate. All the research I quoted earlier was generated by independent academics concerned about what was happening. Of course there are other voices, from Ofqual and the Government, that take a different view, and that is why it is vital that Ofqual leads the debate in order to provide the confidence that parents, teachers and all of us have a right to expect.

In the interests of having that open debate, it is vital that we all know what our children are being asked in examinations. I am sure that, whether or not they have children going through the state education system, Members are concerned about the sorts of questions that are set in GCSE science, for example. We know that 16-year-olds sitting GCSE science are asked questions such as the following. They are told that for hundreds of years scientists have found information about the stars using one of four options—it is a multiple-choice exam. Those four options are microscopes, space probes, seismometers or telescopes. Given that this information has been around for centuries, the answer should be obvious.

It is also the case that in GCSE science papers people are told some answers in the questions. In one question, for example, they are told that it takes Jupiter 11.9 years to orbit the sun and then they are asked whether the time taken for Jupiter to orbit the sun is 1.9 years, 29.5 years, 65.4 years or 11.9 years. The answer is there in the examination paper. It seems to me that any of us— [Interruption.] I happily grant that some of us are still capable of making mistakes even when the answer is staring us in the face, but the point here is that in order to have confidence in mathematical and science standards, we must be sure that the examinations our children sit stand comparison with the most rigorous in the world. It worries me how well other countries are doing in comparison with us: the Asian countries are pulling ahead of us, as are countries such as Finland. We need to be able accurately to ensure that exam standards are kept to a high standard over time—and, ideally, that we can hold our own with the world’s best.

It is worrying in this respect that the first intervention from Ofqual has been to force examination standards downwards. Last summer, one examination board, AQA, was specifically ordered by Ofqual to make an exam easier by lowering its pass mark for a C grade. It seems to me entirely wrong that the first intervention by a body that is charged with restoring and maintaining confidence in exam standards should explicitly be to make exams easier to pass by lowering pass marks.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned Finland as a good example of an education system that succeeds, because it has a thoroughgoing, 100 per cent. state comprehensive system. Will he advocate that that should be applied in Britain?

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