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16 Oct 2002 : Column 369continued
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for whom I have had respect for many years. My respect has been greatly enhanced in the past few minutes. The hon. Gentleman told us that the Opposition care about education. This is an Opposition day debate, but most Opposition Members have been playing truant: for most of the time, hardly one sixth of a primary school class has been sitting on the Opposition Benchesand this is their own debate.
The debate has, of course, nothing to do with education: it is all about trying to exploit the discomfort of A-level students. That strategy was revealed and undermined this afternoon when the Leader of the Opposition told all A-level students that, despite their hard work, their A-levels were not worth the paper on which they were written. That is shameful. I hope that in the last few minutes of the debate an Opposition Front Bencher will apologise to A-level students in my constituency and elsewhere for what the right hon. Gentleman said, and will say that he did not mean it and that he withdraws his statement. I do not expect that we will hear that apology.
There is still much more to do, but when I became a Member about five years ago primary schools in my constituency were operating with broken windows, leaking roofs, very few books and no IT equipmentrotten conditions in which children were supposed to learn and in which teachers were supposed to teach. I am proud that we have been able to do something about that.
An important part of the improvement that we have achieved is reform, but we have also been able to put more resources into education. As has been said, the resources that have been made available have lubricated the necessary changes. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the announcement this week that Gravesham will be included as one of 13 excellence clusters, which will mean extra resources and extra investment for schools in some of the most deprived parts of my constituency.
Kent county council recently announced that it has been able to make use of the extra education resources to open nine new nurseries, which is eight more than we had before. That should be a cause for celebration, so I was a little surprised to find primary head teachers in my constituency slightly down in the mouth when I met them a few days ago. They had recently had a presentation from Kent county council, which is Conservative controlled, although I am sure that that has nothing to do with what I am about to say. The presentation informed them that, despite the 6 per cent. increase in education spending to 200506, there will be a loss to schools in Kent of 8 per cent.#40 million over the medium term. That is equivalent of the closure of every school in my constituency, and an inability to meet basic standards.
I have the presentation that was made by an officer of Kent county council. I shall circulate it to every head teacher in my constituency. I hope that the Department will ensure that it goes to every head teacher in Kent. The letter that I and other Members received from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 8 July underlines the fact that the Government have given a guarantee that no authority schools
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to contribute to the debate, which has been interesting, not least because of Labour Members' desire to steer well away from any justification of the Government's activities and of the conduct of the Department, which is the subject of the debate and on which I shall focus. Happily, there will be other opportunities to discuss how Conservative policy will be able to contribute to an increase in standards in schools.
As for the conduct of the Department, I shall refer briefly to three issues, each of which has the same characteristicsnamely, that Ministers are responsible for their decisions. They should have known that problems were occurring: indeed, they were warned that problems would occur. Over the summerthis is the second day after the conclusion of the summer recessthe chickens came home to roost, yet Ministers will not take responsibility for what occurred.
During the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) I had the opportunity to refer to the difficulties associated with the Criminal Records Bureau. Ministers knew that there had been problems virtually since the beginning of the programme in February. They had been warned. In July, Home Office Ministers said that teachers would have access to list 1999 and that there would not be a problem. They said that if timetables were met, there would not be a backlog by the end of the summer, but they failed. It was their responsibility, having introduced the system. I declare an interest because I was a member of the Committee that considered the Protection of Children Bill. Ministers knew that they had to get right an important issue. They delayed the introduction of the system so as to get it right, but they failed to do so.
My right hon. and hon. Friends have been saying clearly for more than three years that schools should make decisions on the merits of a pupil's exclusion, and that the final decision should rest with the school. Action should then be taken outside the school through the improvement of pupil referral units, or progress centres. That would ensure that discipline and decisions made in schools were defended. It would restore an ethos within schools and remove one of the reasons why teachers find it increasingly difficult to teach and to maintain discipline.
As the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made clear, Ministers decided to proceed with A2 without piloting and with limited piloting for AS- levels, and Mr. Tomlinson could find no justification for proceeding without proper piloting of the A2-levels. Nevertheless, those decisions were made. It is clear that the exam boards were unable to find any common standard or any mechanism by which to aggregate the results from different years, with different demands placed upon students, in order to produce one result. They were told that they should try to make that statistically more consistent with the previous year's A-level results, with no mechanism for doing that. The QCA did not give them one.
More than a year ago, as I said in the course of the speech from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, given the problems that had emerged in relation to the AS-level, the Secretary of State, whom I am pleased to see in her place to hear the debate, said that she would take responsibility for seeing that the reforms would go through in a way that would secure the A-levels as a crucial benchmark of quality. More than a year later, we find that that did not happen. The examination boards had no mechanism established through the QCA to aggregate results in a form that would relate directly the standards from the legacy A-level to the standard set in the new A-level.
It was to have been a new base year, but by some mechanismas yet we do not know precisely how it happenedthe QCA was encouraging the examination boards to treat the two as though they were precisely the same, when in practice they were different examinations, with different structures, imposing different demands at different stages of the sixth form period. It should have been acknowledged as a new base year, but it was not. The Secretary of State took responsibility more than a year ago for delivering those reforms and making sure that the Department would get them right. They went wrong, as other things went wrong, and the Secretary of State has failed to take responsibility for them today.