House of Commons - Queen's Speech Education Debate
I was interested that in his opening speech the Secretary of State clearly preferred talking about the plans and policies of the Opposition, and even the Liberal Democrats. Those were certainly the parts of his speech where he showed the greatest enthusiasm. He is understandably embarrassed about the policies that he has inherited and has had to take over. Even in a debate on the Queen's Speech where the Government are setting out their programme for the year, he preferred to talk about anything but those things.
The embarrassment that the right hon. Gentleman feels has been revealed in the large number of interviews that he has been giving, which show with commendable honesty that the new Secretary of State is prepared to confront, at least in words, the legacy of failure that he has been left by his predecessors. As he told The Daily Telegraph—I am glad that we read the same newspapers— 'the central prescription of Labour's first years of office would give way to a new approach'.
It is rather refreshing if he is to continue in that vein. If those words mean anything in practice, we on the Opposition Benches will welcome that long overdue conversion. I can assure the Secretary of State that he will receive support from me if and when he genuinely takes powers away from himself and gives them to parents, heads, teachers and governors.
The central proposition that informs the policies that the Opposition have laid out so far and which will be the bedrock of the many other policies that will develop in the years ahead is trust—trust in schools to manage their own budgets, trust in heads and governors to set high standards of discipline, and trust in parents to choose the best education for their children. That is in stark contrast to the Government's approach so far, which has been characterised by central control, micro-management, daily, sometimes hourly, interference in the working lives of teachers, and a desire to dictate to parents what type of education their children should receive.
The Government's idea of choice is to allow parents to choose between a small range of options which Ministers allow them. It is unfortunate that, despite the Secretary of State's words in newspaper interviews, nothing that he has said this morning convinced the House that he is prepared to give up that degree of control, but I am sure that we can live in hope.
The hon. Member for Brent, North will know that 79 different funding streams can currently be accessed by schools. That is nonsense and I suspect that the Secretary of State knows that. He says that he wants to reduce that number and, inasmuch as he can do so, I will welcome any steps that he takes. However, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that schools feel that they have more control over the money that comes from the Government than 10 years ago, he is simply mistaken. That is not the day-to-day experience of head teachers in this country.
The Gracious Speech made relatively few mentions of education. The Government promised to 'bring forward proposals to tackle problems of truancy'. The Secretary of State referred to some of those proposals, and the Opposition would heartily support any effective moves to reduce truancy. I am sure that nobody in the House disagrees with the view that truancy not only blights the opportunities of the children who are truanting, but far too often leads to the antisocial behaviour that affects many of our communities. I am also sure that he is aware of the promise made by his Government in 1998 to reduce school truancies by one third. However, he will know that his Department released in September figures showing that the Government had completely failed to make any headway on reducing truancy, despite, according to the Department's website, the issuing of 75 press releases since 1997 announcing measures to tackle truancy. The fact that there have been 75 press releases and no progress is a snapshot of new Labour's attitude to government.
That is what the Government have achieved despite forcing LEAs to write behaviour support plans and establishing a ministerial task force to tackle truancy, and despite everything else that they have been saying for the past six months. They have announced more money and proposed taking child benefit away from parents of persistent truants—a policy that I understand was launched and then dropped, in characteristic fashion. They have called for police in schools, carried out truancy sweeps and announced fast-track prosecution for parents of truants, leading to fines or even imprisonment. Some of those proposals have been announced and implemented, some announced and forgotten and some announced and withdrawn.
I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will forgive those of us who are mildly sceptical about the Government's performance in that regard for saying that we have heard a lot of what he said before. Any proposals that he makes must be seen in the context of his Government's failure to do anything effective about the problem, which is clear on the basis of their own figures, and despite their suffering from a severe case of "initiative-itis", to quote the Secretary of State himself.
Despite all the tough-sounding policies, truancy is as high as ever. The Secretary of State quoted Stephen Clarke of Truancy Call, who estimates that 50,000 children play truant from school every day. When Mike Tomlinson was running Ofsted, he estimated that the system had lost about 10,000 all together. Those 10,000 children are being denied their opportunity in life, and another series of tough-sounding but ultimately hollow gimmicks will do nothing to provide them with the chance in life that they deserve.
The Secretary of State will know that the problem is not only one of education, but of affecting everyone in society. Forty per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and a third of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds at times when they should be in school. Those are genuinely terrible figures. If the Government want to get tough on antisocial behaviour, they must crack down on truancy and not merely dig up new schemes to announce or re-announce.
The final resort of this Government is to attempt to blame the Opposition. Indeed, there has been an interesting development in the past few days in their attempts to blame the Opposition for their own failures. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that we proposed to close down sure start all together. The Secretary of State is already retreating hard from that position, however, and was talking about closing down some sure start schemes. I thought that I would elevate the tone of the debate, which the Government have tried to drag down, by quoting from the section on sure start in our document "The Conveyor Belt to Crime". I looked it up after the Prime Minister made that extraordinary—and indeed false—claim on Wednesday. It states: 'In adopting this approach, we have carefully considered the extent to which any of this programme is being offered through the Government's Sure Start programme'.
There is no argument between us about the possibilities of sure start. The document continues: 'It is at present difficult to make an assessment of Sure Start's effectiveness, as no independent evaluation has yet taken place'.
I hope that the Secretary of State would not disagree that it would be good to have an independent evaluation; if the scheme works, one would want it continue, like all effective policies. The document goes on to state: 'But it is clear that the programmes offered are not focused on the reduction of disruptive and delinquent behaviour. There have also been difficulties in Sure Start in the relationship between the programme and existing local schemes; moreover, there has been a perception that programme managers are intruding in an unwelcome way into the work of voluntary organisations'.
I hope that the Government will see from that excerpt that we seek to improve and build on sure start. That was the point made in "The Conveyor Belt to Crime". We will happily carry on with the parts that work, but we will not carry on with those that do not. That is an entirely adult and intelligent approach for an Opposition to take to policy making, and we will continue to take it. I hope that the Government can approach the vital social problem of truancy in the same mature way.
We need such programmes to cope with the problem of truancy in the short term, but I hope that the Secretary of State would admit that the long-term solution that needs to be added to the mix is the establishment of a much better vocational system. For too long in the UK—this is not a criticism of the current Government, as the situation has continued for decades and possibly since the second world war—less academic children have not been given the chances that they deserve in our system. Many of them have become disillusioned with education, started to play truant and turned to crime.
We know that many less academic children become disillusioned with education, start to play truant and turn to crime. Until we begin to reverse the chronic deficit in skills training that leaves too many children disengaged, truancy will continue to blight our children and their communities.
On secondary school reform, this promise was made in the Gracious Speech: 'Secondary school reform will continue to promote opportunity and choice through greater diversity for parents and pupils'.
The Secretary of State made much play of his desire for greater autonomy and freedom to innovate for schools. I am sure that he means it, but in that case, it is a shame for him that the Government's legislative agenda does not contain an education Bill through which he could bring about the necessary reforms that our schools desperately need. Instead, he is forced to work within the boundaries of the restricted and centralising powers that the Education Act 2002 grants him.
The Secretary of State claims that the powers of earned autonomy to which he referred mean that the Department: 'is trusting some of our best head teachers to take decisions in relation to their own schools without our having to sanction them'.
That is interesting because it highlights the inconsistency at the heart of the idea. It is simply untrue that the Secretary of State will not have to sanction decisions, because to earn autonomy, a school will have to persuade him that it is worthy of it. Freedom sanctioned from the centre for a fixed time with Government ability to remove it is not freedom. That is not the only contradiction, however.
Earned autonomy presumably rests on the assumption that autonomy is a good thing. If autonomy benefits schools, surely those that are failing in the current system need it most, not those that live and thrive despite the restrictions. Earned autonomy is an oxymoron; it is classic new Labour double-speak.
Another phrase that the Government like runs it close: "the power to innovate." The Secretary of State said: 'The 'Power to Innovate' is one of the most radical and far reaching powers available to Government—it enables me as Secretary of State to exempt education legislation that is standing in the way of common sense and in the way of schools wanting to innovate and to achieve the very best for their children in care'.
That is an extraordinary admission from a Secretary of State. He admits that the initiatives and controls that the Government have introduced stand in the way of common sense and prevent schools from innovating. All he can do to help schools to innovate is to suspend the Government's legislation.
Sadly, the former Secretary of State is not present to join the debate. I should love to hear her defend the legislation that she introduced and which, according to the Secretary of State, requires suspension in order to help schools. There is severe confusion at the heart of Government about whether their legislation is helpful or harmful. I want to help the Secretary of State: it is generally harmful. If he intends to argue through Cabinet Committees for another Bill to remove many provisions of last year's Act, we would welcome that. The solution is simple: get rid of the controls, not only for some but for all schools.
Whatever the Government say, they simply cannot let go. Why else would they issue a document to schools entitled "Power to Innovate: Guidance for applicants"? It consists of eight pages that tell schools how to have good ideas. Producing documents from Whitehall Departments is not the way in which to promote innovation; allowing schools freedom to innovate sensitively to suit their local conditions is the best method.
I would abolish the compulsory nature of citizenship classes. Those who chatter on the Government Front Bench do not realise that when another subject is added to the curriculum, something has to be dropped. I have been to schools where they have discussed what to take out. It could, for example, be a careers lesson. In some cases, it was an information and communications technology lesson. Schools and pupils find such lessons useful and valuable. The Government do not acknowledge that, when they decide to include new compulsory subjects in the curriculum, useful subjects have to be removed.
Schools, not Ministers and officials, know how best to teach citizenship. That is at the heart of the difference between us. We are having an interesting passage of parliamentary exchange, which shows that the Government and the new Secretary of State have not got the point. They continue to believe that they know better than heads, teachers, parents and governors the way in which to run our schools. It appears that there will be no change in our school system.
The micro-management that I have described is symptomatic of the Government's approach. In the past year, the Department for Education and Skills issued 275 documents to schools. That is 17 pages of paperwork for each working day. The Secretary of State recently said: 'Bureaucracy and the seemingly endless flow of documentation from Government agencies . . . can be a serious barrier to high quality teacher professionalism and I acknowledge that it is my job to put a stop to it and allow you,— that is, teachers—'to do your job'. That is another honest admission of the Government's failure, and we welcome it. I regret to tell the right hon. Gentleman that nothing much appears to be improving.
In September, the first month of the school term, the Department issued 27 documents to schools. That is more than one a working day. There is therefore no let-up in the flow of unnecessary paperwork from the Department. I hope that the Secretary of State listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on Wednesday. He went through the Department's solution to paperwork: more paperwork, including "Good Practice in Cutting Bureaucracy Volume One"; "Good Practice in Cutting Bureaucracy Volume Two", and the wonderful "Bureaucracy Cutting Toolkit".
If the Secretary of State wants ideas about cutting Whitehall paperwork that ties up 20 per cent. of teachers' time, driving them from the profession, he should begin by reading the "Bureaucracy Cutting Toolkit". Along with thousands of teachers, I have read it. Among the helpful advice in section 4 about the way in which teachers can cut bureaucracy is, "Stop doing things". I am sure that that is tremendously helpful to teachers. Perhaps the Secretary of State could take his own advice. He could also benefit from reading section 2, which suggests, "Get started". I am sure that schools find that helpful, too. They should stop doing unnecessary things and start stopping doing them. I suspect that many teachers had worked that out for themselves, but the Department clearly has not.
One of the things on which I ought to congratulate the Secretary of State is making a commitment on the Floor of the House that the White Paper will be published in January—although, like the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), I seem to remember that the last time the House discussed education we were promised that it would be published in November. I hope that the Secretary of State improves on his predecessor's performance in that regard. We welcome the fact that the proposals will be introduced, not least because families as well as universities have been waiting far too long to find out when to start their financial planning for the top-up fees—it seems that the Government certainly have planned for them. It is worth reminding ourselves of how they got into this mess, and their manifesto pledge is unambiguous: 'We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them'. Members of the House, and the public outside, have witnessed the Prime Minister failing to rule out top-up fees on two separate occasions.
The Government appear unwilling to accept that the problem is as least partly of their own making. The Secretary of State said how proud he was of the target of 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds going into higher education, but he knows perfectly well that that is one of the targets that is imposing greater financial pressures on universities, and also that the Government's apparent ruling out of top-up fees has left them with nowhere else to go to raise the money. So, if the Government are to find a solution to the problem, they must sacrifice one of the manifesto pledges that the Secretary of State proudly read out.
Given that the Government misled the public over the original introduction of tuition fees, which they ruled out before the 1997 election and then introduced three months after it, I can understand why the Secretary of State is sensitive about breaking another higher education promise. I suggest to him that one way out of the problem would be to admit that it is wrong to fix an arbitrary target for higher education participation.
I commend two stark figures to the Secretary of State. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rankings for the proportion of people who complete a first degree, Britain is second. By any objective standard, there is no crisis in the number of people who go through first degrees. Indeed, I recently received an answer from the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education to written question 78381 that convinced me even more that the point is entirely valid. I managed to tease out from her what the Department's target on increasing participation in higher education means. It is 'measured by the number of first time entrants to higher education . . . as a proportion of the relevant population'. The measure is not the number of people who get degrees and benefit from them, but simply the number of people who start degrees.
The Secretary of State knows that the drop-out rate in some universities is getting as high as 40 per cent. Some of his speech at least was serious and reasonable, so, in his serious and reasonable mode, he will surely acknowledge that the measure of higher education's effectiveness is those who complete courses, not simply those who sign up to them. For instance, he will be aware that in continental European countries the entry rate is about 50 per cent., and a huge proportion drop out after the first year. If the Government are to measure their own success by promoting such a system, I suggest that they will not benefit young people. In particular, they will not benefit the young people whom they say they want to benefit—those who come from backgrounds where it is not traditional to go to university.
I have referred to one international comparison, and I want to refer to another, which should be at the heart of the Government's education policy: Britain is bottom of the OECD league for the participation of 16 to 18-year-olds in further education and training. There is a genuine numbers crisis there, yet the Government are chasing the wrong figure. Of course we all want to widen participation and access to education. That is yet another issue on which there is no division between the two sides of the House. I have already acknowledged that the problem is not peculiar to the Government—it did not start in 1997, but goes back many decades—but their solution of shoehorning into university young people who may not benefit from it is not the right one.
We have debated the benefits to young people of becoming graduates in terms of employability, and I commend to the Secretary of State the most recent edition of "Graduate Review", which is produced by VT Careers Management and published jointly with The Guardian—I should be on a retainer from The Guardian this morning. The point, which is counter-intuitive, at least according to the Government's thinking, is this: 'Recent history has revealed a labour market where many employers have tended to recruit graduates on the level of their degree and their university . . . this is not what employers are currently saying. In a survey . . . 40 per cent. of graduate recruiters felt that degrees had become devalued as a means of measuring employability. 44 per cent. thought that graduates did not necessarily make better employees than non-graduates. Only 17 per cent. thought graduates better equipped for the workplace than non-graduates. 70 per cent. claimed that degree results were not the best measure of employability'.
I acknowledge that that is just one survey, but quite a lot of anecdotal evidence appears to confirm that what the Government seek to do will con young people into thinking that the historic figures for graduates' increased employability and earning power will continue, whatever the percentage of graduates. The survey shows the first signs of that relationship breaking down, and I urge the Government to think seriously about this issue.
There is a real crisis, which the Government have not yet addressed. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State mentioned the 14-19 Green Paper—I apologise if he did. If he did mention it, he certainly glossed over it quickly, whereas it requires a huge amount of attention and a genuine national debate. Last year the number of level 2 and level 3 qualifications—the sub-degree qualifications—that were awarded in vocational topics dropped by more than 40 per cent., and the Learning and Skills Development Agency estimates that the proportion of poor or unsatisfactory grades in work-based learning has nearly tripled since 1998. Those are genuine crisis figures, which the Government should address.
Although the Queen's Speech touched on some of the problems that the Government face, it missed an opportunity to deal with many other problems faced by our schools and colleges today. We look forward to the publication of Mike Tomlinson's final report on the A-level crisis, but everyone is entitled to ask why the situation was allowed to arise. We have had another flurry today from Mr. Porkess and it is clear that the aftershocks of this summer's A-level crisis will be with us for some time to come. I hope that we do not hear again from the Government that the crisis surrounding A-levels, which threw the futures of hundreds of thousands of young people into doubt and wrecked confidence in the exam system, would never have happened had we stopped criticising the system. If the Secretary of State goes down that line, he will cheapen the debate on this vital area. Scrutiny is our job in opposition, and we make no apologies for exposing the incompetence perpetrated by the Government.
The Secretary of State is right when he says that he has to ensure that public confidence in the integrity and quality of our public examinations is maintained and strengthened, and we trust that he will keep to his promise to implement the Tomlinson recommendations.
I also hope that the Secretary of State will deal effectively with another crisis that was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech: the discipline crisis. A recent survey by the NASUWT showed that in one school in Wales, a year 10 pupil who had been excluded on five different occasions for violence and vandalism set fire to the school toilets and was permanently excluded by the school. His exclusion was overturned by an independent appeals panel, which held that the arson was not deliberate, despite a police caution given to the pupil. It also showed that a year 8 pupil in a school in the north-east, who had a lengthy record of disruptive behaviour, including bullying and assaulting other pupils, was understandably permanently excluded after hitting a teacher on the head. An independent appeals panel has overturned that exclusion as well. As the Secretary of State knows, there are many such cases.
It is not surprising that those disciplinary problems help to drive teachers out of the profession. The Secretary of State will acknowledge in his honest moments that teacher morale is at an all-time low. Perhaps surprisingly, according to the National Union of Teachers—I shall spread my favours around the teaching unions this morning—pay is not even one of the top three reasons for teachers leaving the profession. The three top reasons are workload, pupil behaviour and Government initiatives—all problems of the Government's own making. The Secretary of State has told teachers, 'It's our job in government to support you and your profession. It is not for us to tell you how to teach'. Having said that, he owes it to teachers and their pupils to heed his words, because without teachers there can be no teaching and learning.
The Secretary of State asked about our policy, and I am always pleased to use the opportunity of debates such as this to advance Conservative policy. As he said, at our party conference we announced a series of education proposals with the common theme of trust. The theme of trust informs all of our proposals. That is what distinguishes us from the Government, for whom the language of trust comes easily but who, in reality, are incapable of trusting heads, teachers and parents.
We believe that our proposals for education reform are a radical and much-needed step towards realising our goal that no child be left behind. Unlike the Government, we believe in trusting schools by devolving budgets to them wherever possible and reducing the paperwork that heads and teachers must submit. School funding has become ever more complicated; it needs to become ever more simple. We will give real autonomy to schools. We will reduce the number of unnecessary documents that heads and teachers have to wade through, because we know that when teachers are trusted to teach, free from the dead hand of central interference, schools flourish. Our experience of city technology colleges proved that. While I am in a generous mood, let me say that I am glad that the Government have continued that raft of Conservative policy.
We want to trust not only schools but parents. Let me discuss our state scholarship scheme, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The scheme will entitle pupils to be educated at a wider range of schools. It is not simply a reinvention of the assisted places scheme; it will create a new sector of schools, as exists in many other countries. In Holland, the USA and Denmark, parents have a right to found and run new schools if they are not happy with what is on offer. Our scheme will mean that parents will no longer be forced to accept places at schools to which they do not want to send their children. Thus we shall break the cycle of under-achievement into which too many young people still fall.
The state scholarship scheme will break the monopoly link between state funding and state provision, allowing charities, parents and other groups to establish new schools, which would then receive the money from the state—the state scholarship. Virtually every other developed country in the world knows that Governments do not have a monopoly of wisdom on good practice and that real innovation comes through genuine diversity—not in eight-page documents sent from Whitehall.
The Government have argued that the non-state sector is somehow not capable or willing to provide high-quality education. Let me point out to Government Members that LEAs already spend £250 million a year on special educational needs contracts with non-state providers. Those offer the best care and education to some of our most vulnerable children, and we should not deny all children the opportunity of benefiting from such expertise.
We would also build trust in an independent exam system by making the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority independent of Government, along the lines of the Bank of England. I hope that the Government will adopt a similar proposal. I take this opportunity again to urge them strongly to do so, and to do so quickly. Of all the crises that the Government could face, the prospect of another A-level crisis next year would be the worst, so measures that can be taken quickly to restore confidence in the examination system are absolutely vital. I hope that if they need to introduce legislation to do that, they will do so, because it is absolutely vital to remove all traces of politics from the exam system. Unless the suspicion that Ministers measure their virtue by the grades is removed, the exam boards, or the QCA, will always be looking over their shoulder at the Secretary of State to see what effect the results will have on the political standing of the Government of the day. Secretaries of State for Education used not to behave in that way, and we need to get back to that position.
We also think that there should be a radical change to the A-level system, which has done more harm than good. The amount of exam time, as opposed to teaching time, has been increased. The Tomlinson inquiry concluded that the Curriculum 2000 A-level reforms, which introduced AS-levels, were an "accident waiting to happen". We all want to broaden the post-16 curriculum, but the current AS-level system is demonstrably not the way to do it.
Finally, and most importantly, we would trust heads to make the right decisions about how to run their schools. We support the Secretary of State's aim of raising standards of leadership in our schools, and he is right to argue that without strong leadership our children will not get the education that they deserve. If he really means what he says about trusting heads, he must allow them to set standards of discipline in their schools. That is why the independent appeals panels should go.
We believe that home-school behaviour contracts are a good idea. The right hon. Gentleman had the honesty to point out that these will be an option for heads. Once again, he asked me to determine what heads should do, and once again I say to him that I would let heads decide. A head knows how best to run discipline in his school, not the Secretary of State—whether that be the right hon. Gentleman, me or anyone else. The fundamental difference between us is that I trust heads, whereas he does not.
Experience shows us that these practical measures will deliver higher standards in our schools. Some schools already operate home-school contracts. I urge the Secretary of State to act on his words, and to grasp the agenda of real reform that we offer. He faces an enormous challenge. Improving our schools, colleges and universities is a central task for any Government. His task has been made more difficult because for five years, under his two predecessors, the doctrine of centralisation has reigned supreme. He says that he wants to do a U-turn and adopt the more decentralised and diverse system that we advocate. I wish him well in attempting to turn his back on five years of new Labour dogma on education. We will judge him on the results. Even more importantly, students, parents, teachers and governors will know whether they have been given the freedoms that will promote excellence and opportunity for all. Our policies would ensure that no child was left behind in our education system. If the Government's policies fail in that regard, they will be judged harshly, and they will deserve it.