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Sadly, however, the Secretary of State opposes all those guarantees, which is why he cannot guarantee what parents, children and schools need most of all: a Government relentlessly committed to raising standards,
with the poorest helped most of all; a Government determinedly focused on supporting teachers, with the powers that they need delivered without delay; and a Government unreservedly on the side of parents and children against bureaucracy. The only way that we can get such a Government is through a general election-it cannot come soon enough.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It is sometimes difficult for the Chair of a Select Committee to make a speech in a Queen's Speech debate, particularly if it is a very busy Committee that is about to produce major reports on a number of issues that are touched on in the Queen's Speech. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that inhibits some of things that one can say. Let me allude to the fact that we are about to produce major reports on school accountability, on the training of teachers and on home educators, as well as much else.
There is another difficulty with being the Chairman of a Select Committee. Everybody knows that I am a Labour/Co-op Member of Parliament, but I have a job as Chairman of the Committee on Children, Schools and Families to call the Secretary of State and the Government to account on a range of issues. Often, people may think that I criticise the Government too much when I appear on radio and television and in newspapers, but that is part of my job. However, to set my remarks in this debate in context, I believe that the Government, in many areas, have profoundly improved the educational situation in our country and made a very real difference to our children.
I shall give four examples of that, the first of which is an undersung part of the Children Act 2004, which introduced Every Child Matters and the five outcomes, which I asked about in an intervention and which I believe should apply to every child in our country. The Act was a triumph and it has made so much difference because every time we discuss children and education, we can refer back to it as a benchmark. I shall go into the five outcomes in detail in a moment, but are they being delivered for every child in this country?
The 2004 Act is good, landmark legislation of which we should be proud. It is set in the context-this is indisputable-of more money spent on education per child than ever in the history of our country. That is something to be proud of. That does not mean that I am always persuaded that just money delivers real change. Money delivers the possibility of change, and we have seen many advances from using the enormous amount of money that is now spent on our children and state schools.
I also put on record my great approval for evidence-based policy-my Committee has come across it in a number of inquiries. The fundamental of evidence-based policy, across the nearly 10 years that I have chaired various education, children and schools Committees, is that, as we know, the earlier we intervene in a child's life, the better. The more money spent, and the earlier it is spent, the greater the difference to the child's life and the educational outcomes in our country, so I approve of it.
The Committee very often agrees across the parties on many of those evaluations and judgments. We disagree profoundly with each other at other times, but there is a great measure of agreement. I can bore the House again
by saying that if we look at education policies and change-perhaps from as far back as Butler to Balls, or from Baker to Balls-we see far more cross-party agreement on educational matters in our country than the earlier exchange between the two Front Benchers might suggest.
Of course there are disagreements on how much money we spend and, at particular times, on fundamentals, but very often some of the greatest advances in education policy have been made on a relatively bipartisan basis. The Education Act 1944 was the subject of cross-party agreement, although the Committee on it was led by Rab Butler. I remind the House that the Dearing report from 1997 is another example of real progress being made through agreement across the House.
I am giving an overview before we evaluate particular aspects of the Queen's Speech. This is the first time in my time in the House and my experience of education that I can see an end to the silo in 14-to-19 education that marked off the academic route-the route from GCSE to A-levels and university-as the only prized route. The reforms might have gone further, and I have always been a supporter of all the Tomlinson recommendations.
However, we now have, from 14 to 19, real alternatives for young people in our country-the academic, diploma and apprenticeship routes. They are not in silos. Those young people can not only choose between those routes, but cross from one to the other.
I must tell the House about the inspirational apprentice who gave evidence to the Skills Commission. This bright young fellow from the north-west, pushed on why he chose an apprenticeship, said, "Well, I've joined BAE Systems. It's a very good company and they're paying me to do my apprenticeship. I'm getting paid and incurring no debt. When I get to a certain stage, I'm going to go and do a degree as well." That was refreshing, and we hear similar things all the time-we have transformed for many children how they see their 14-to-19 possibilities.
Mr. Graham Stuart: The Chairman of the Select Committee makes a powerful point. One would like a joined-up system with the ability to move between the different routes, but does he share my concern that the Secretary of State, in introducing diplomas, has failed to deliver that programme in the way that the hon. Gentleman and I would like; that the numbers taking diplomas so far have been alarmingly low, at enormously high cost; and that there are real risks attached to that very important initiative?
Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is a very good member of my Select Committee. I am going to desist from responding to that question. People watching this debate might think that there has been enough hurling of alternative policies and criticism one to the other. I am a great believer in diplomas as, I think, is he. There will be teething problems if a totally new qualification is introduced. I would not underestimate those problems, but I wish diplomas well and hope we get through that stage. Everyone recognised that there would be a transition time.
Kevin Brennan: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would give more credence to the diplomas that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) says he supports if the Opposition said that they would not pull them out of their league tables and if they included them as an achievement by the school?
Before I am interrupted again by a Front Bencher, I must point out one last great achievement for which there should be greater all-party support-raising the participation age. I have always championed that and believed in it. I shall return to the Every Child Matters theme in a moment, but in this country, we consider people children until they are 18. That gives enormous protection to children, but it also means, when we are talking about raising the participation rate, that no child, until they are 18, should be allowed to go out into the big, wide world and work with no training or to be unemployed-that is absolutely right.
I celebrate the fact that we are going to move the participation age to 17 and then to 18. That means not raising the school leaving age, but that every child must be in education, further education, an apprenticeship, in work with training, or in experience with training. That is a great step forward and I urge all parties to support it. It not only takes us deeply into the 21st century, but makes us competitive with nations that have similar commitments.
Bob Russell: The Chairman of the Committee rightly praises the development of the 14-to-19 non-academic qualification. Does he agree, however, that that programme would be even more successful if there were not more than 100 colleges around the country whose promised building programmes have been halted? If the Government delivered what they promised, would that policy be more successful?
Mr. Sheerman: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and many of us wanted money for our further education colleges. I am in the happy position that Kirklees college in Huddersfield got its money-I put my cards on the table-but I must also tell him that, as Chairman of the Committee, I know that in this past 12 years, 50 per cent. of the FE estate has been totally renewed. Since the time when the FE estate was crumbling around everyone's ears up to 1997, we have seen it transformed.
Sitting where I sit, I have seen standards of education in our country progressively improve over the past 10 years. We can have argy-bargy about it, but that is the truth of the matter. There has been substantial improvement. I know that hon. Members like to jump up and say, "But we haven't done as well as Finland or Sweden," or wherever, but if we compare this country with similar ones such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy or the United States-big industrial countries with high turnover, migration and all the rest-we see that we have done pretty well. We in this Chamber sometimes ought to congratulate ourselves on what we have done
rather than always say, "We could have done better than Finland." Perhaps we could, but Finland is a funny, quirky little country.
Mr. Graham Stuart: It would be easier for Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to be kind and give that congratulation if we did not have, as I do in Beverley, bomb sites where FE colleges were supposed to be. All 16 colleges that were funded are in Labour constituencies, and the hon. Gentleman must surely be uncomfortable about that.
I have given the context, and I now want to be critical of the Government. I do not want to get too much into school accountability, but the Queen's Speech addressed it directly in a number of ways and I suggest to my party's Front Benchers that there are some concerns. I am not saying that what was in the Queen's Speech was all bad, but when we consider what school accountability is about, people say, "Well, that means Ofsted, doesn't it?" It does not. It means all the people involved in the school improvement process, such as the governing body-we underrate governing bodies and all the wonderful people who give their time and effort to be school governors-school improvement partnerships, local authorities and the whole range of bodies that call schools to account. Of course it covers Ofsted, and it also covers how testing and assessment are turned into school tables and published. Schools are accountable in a whole range of ways.
Sitting where I do, I sometimes think that we make schools so accountable that we paralyse them from action-not entirely, but it is a question of balance. Those of us in the House who take an interest in education will know that when the Department for Children, Schools and Families was set up, the remit of our Committee changed. It is a difficult remit, because it is not a tidy departmental responsibility. Matters to do with children, schools and families stretch across at least 10 Departments.
The Committee wanted to consider three things about school accountability, which are what most people think of as the three great educational reforms in the past 20 years. They date from about Lord Baker's time, although they are not all associated with him. We all know them. The first is testing and assessment, and I remember that people always used to say that Ken Baker, as he then was, had read "The One Minute Manager", which said that if something cannot be measured, it cannot be managed. They said that that was behind the great fashion for testing and assessment that has run through this country's education for the past 20 years.
The second matter that we wanted to consider was the national curriculum. Everyone in the Chamber will know that we believed that although the inspiration behind it was right-testing and assessment had gone too far-it was too crowded and needed greater flexibility. We said that the pendulum should swing back in the other direction.
The third matter was school accountability. I cannot go into too much detail about what we are going to say about it, but I shall give a tiny bit of the flavour of our analysis. School accountability should lead to improvement
both in schools and in children's well-being and outcomes. Too often, schools focus on the former rather than the latter. They focus just on examination results rather than on the other things that we do for children in schools, which are broader than just the number who get good GCSEs.
Any Government have to get their message clear, because it is not school buildings or testing and assessment that improve the quality of education that children get. The quintessential element that improves their education is the quality of the teaching that they get. It is not rocket science, is it? It is about the quality of the teachers and of the leadership and support of the teaching team. In everything that we do, the priority should be investment in high-quality teachers. We have seen more investment in teachers and some really good change in the quality of people coming into teaching and being retained. It has not gone far enough, but it has gone pretty darn far.
Teaching staff want some stability in their lives. It looked as though the new relationship with schools would bring about a real change in what schools faced, such as a simplification of red tape, rules, regulations and so on. I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that although some simplification has flowed from it, there is still a bewildering array of new initiatives. That has partly negated all the good stuff in the new relationship.
We have also had the Government's "21st century schools" White Paper, which signalled even greater complexity in many ways. Additional statutory duties on governors are coming through, and there was the national challenge, which was mishandled in some ways. There were good intentions, but initially the wrong view was given to many schools about the value that they were adding to the educational process.
We have not yet written up the final report on school accountability, but my own view is that the strong thing about evaluation in schools is their self-evaluation. That is important both in how Ofsted approaches the running of a school and in a school's quality. However, we have yet again seen the role that Ofsted plays. Self-evaluation started and it told our Committee, "We want self-evaluation to be innovative and imaginative. We actually have schools that make videos of what they do." However, I think I visit more schools than anyone in the Chamber-the Secretary of State has probably overtaken me, but if he ever moves on to a new job I might still be here and going to schools, as I have been for 10 years-and I find that everyone says of the self-evaluation form, "They say you don't have to fill this in, but I'm not going to be the one who puts their head above the parapet and does not fill in the form in the way that Ofsted says".
The Committee and I will look very carefully at the Queen's Speech and the guarantees that have been announced. There are some very good ones, and I hope that we will find a system that is less onerous on schools, gives them more power of self-regulation and takes some of the load off them in areas where they have been getting too many complex messages.
We have the right to point out in this debate something that was missing from the Queen's Speech. As Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I have learned a great deal about child protection. There have been tragic cases up and down the country, including the murder of children and dreadful things happening to them in extreme cases. A worrying number of vulnerable
children have come to dreadful ends and been dreadfully treated in our country. It is a small percentage, but it much concerns everyone in the field.
Child protection is a vital element of the work of the Department and the Select Committee, but I would have liked today's debate to have touched on the protection of childhood. We have an interesting and laudable ambition for the eradication of child poverty by 2020, and I celebrate that, although it will be darn hard to achieve, because the goalposts will move all the time. It will be a great struggle, although some very good things have been achieved already.
I want to talk, however, about the poverty of childhood. When I started talking to, and being lobbied by, people, as Chairman of the Committee, I felt some reluctance toward those who said that we were truncating and squeezing childhood and that the pressure on children in our country was intolerable. However, having considered the matter, I think that it is true. The commercial world impacts on children. They are seen as a soft target for advertising and are pressured into growing up too young; they are pressured to adopt fashion accessories too young and to have mobile phones and accessories and so many other things too young. Often they are pressurised by advertisers.
I have said this to the Secretary of State before: to have a Cabinet colleague who believes, in an age of childhood obesity, that we should relax the rules on product placement seems damn crazy. I believe that very strongly. The pressures on children from commercial advertising alone are already great, without their getting even worse.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has touched on an interesting theme. Would he agree, however, that with so much pressure on young people, the wonder is that so many of them turn out really well? In the main, they get a bad press, but more than 99 per cent. of them do valuable work, including charitable work, and get on with their lives splendidly. A disproportionate amount of press coverage is given to the rotten apples.
Another aspect of childhood today is sexual awareness. Our country still has worryingly high rates of teenage pregnancy. The life of a girl who gets pregnant very young is more or less likely to be destroyed-she will probably always be poor-but we do not take that seriously enough in this country.
The country is also awash with a focus on early sexual activity. I talked recently with members of another Select Committee who had looked at the amount of pornography on the internet available to children. That disturbs me greatly. An inquiry has been conducted into that- [Interruption.] An hon. Gentleman is laughing, but I think that the accessibility of pornography to children in our schools is a serious matter. When I go to infant schools, teachers say to me, "Children come here, at five and six, simulating sexual behaviour that they should know nothing about." That is disgusting.
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