May 12, 2011
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I congratulate my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss on securing this extremely important debate. I shall try to make my comments even briefer than you have asked us to, Mr Rosindell.
The debate has been very interesting and we have touched on a lot of issues to do with aspiration, but I just want to say a little about education for excellent pupils, a matter about which the Minister and I had a brief exchange on the Floor of the House only yesterday.
It is, I think, in a bid to dampen some of the political furore over tuition fees that fresh debate has recently emerged over access to our best universities. As everyone has been admitting which university they went to, I should say that I, too, was at Oxford but, as I had the misfortune—at least in the eyes of Kevin Brennan—of coming from a grammar school, I did not do a Mickey Mouse subject such as PPE, but read law—[ Interruption. ]
Yes, I know, it has been downhill all the way from there.
It has been suggested that the Government would grant permission to charge more than £6,000 a year in fees only to universities willing to widen their intake, and suggestions of measures to avoid penalties have included lowering grade offers and taking background into account when handing out places. We all know that, in practice, that could mean preferring a less-qualified pupil from an inner-city comprehensive over a student with top grades from an independent school. It is not clear how that might objectively be regarded as fair or evidence-based, but I suspect that it was hoped that the airing of such plans might take the sting out of any accusations that the new fees system was making our higher education system too elitist.
I have long contended, and will continue to, that our education system cannot be elitist enough. For far too long, the British attitude has been one of slight embarrassment and discomfort at the notion of high performance, excellence and the pursuit of academic rigour. I am not sure that the rest of the world feels the same, at a time when the likes of India and China are relentlessly pushing forward in global league tables. The two economic superpowers of this century have the pursuit of excellence and academic rigour at the heart of their thinking.
The domestic access-regulation plans have also betrayed an expectation that politicians seem to have had in recent years that our higher education system should somehow miraculously make up for the lack of genuine attainment by children in their primary and secondary-school years, particularly in the state sector. If universities fail to take in students who are not up to the mark, we blame not a child’s upbringing or education but the university itself for being too exclusive.
Stephen Twigg and I were almost contemporaries at Oxford, and he will remember the outreach efforts that our colleges made almost three decades ago, which have continued—
[ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman went up in 1985 and I went up in 1984, so it was almost three decades ago. Even at that time, tremendous efforts were made by the student union and, more importantly, by colleges via their tutors, to open up access. It is worth putting that on the record. I do not believe that universities have an innate bias towards students from independent schools, but our top institutions are international leaders with worldwide reputations for excellence, which they aspire to maintain. In their admissions policies, most pride themselves on recruiting the brightest and best globally. If the brightest and best have a tendency to come from a particular sort of school, we might be wise first to examine the deep shortcomings of the state sector.
That the private education sector has so flourished in recent years is a mark of how many parents have lost faith in the state’s ability to deliver their child a rigorous, thorough and excellent education. When articulate, active parents turn away, local state schools lose the key stakeholders that have traditionally helped to drive improvement. As a result, the poorest and most vulnerable children suffer, and they will not be helped by the state’s facilitating places for them at the best universities if they do not have the tools to make use of such places.
Margot James (Stourbridge, Conservative) I cannot make a lengthy intervention, but my mind has been shifted somewhat, on the topic that my hon. Friend is addressing, by a visit to King’s college London, one of the universities in his constituency. I urge him to visit the medical department there and see for himself the fantastic work being done with state school students with lower grades who are enrolled on the extended medical degree. They struggle not with the science but with some lifestyle factors which, with additional support, they are able to overcome.
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I very much accept that. I have visited King’s college on a number of occasions and get on very well with the authorities there. Funnily enough, a lot of the evidence suggests that medicine is one of the very few subjects in which a lot of the comparators about school performance and expected academic performance at degree level break down to a certain extent. I suspect that King’s had that very much in mind when it set up its very innovative and important programme.
It seems to me, however, that the relentless focus of the Minister, who I know has a passion for driving up standards, should be on giving state sector students the tools they need to compete on a level playing field with their peers in the independent sector, and I admire a lot of the work that he is doing in that regard. He instinctively understands the damage that has been done in recent years by the levelling down of standards and opportunities to the lowest common denominator that has so entrenched underachievement. I particularly praise him for his emphasis on phonics, which is an essential learning tool. Given my experience of day-to-day life with a three-and-a-half-year-old son, I can entirely vouch for what the Minister has said on that matter.
In some respects, however, the Government could be more radical in promoting choice and competition in the state sector. Yesterday, I spoke briefly in the House about the importance of looking after the special educational needs of the most gifted children in the state sector, in the same way as we strive to help children who are less gifted, because all too often their needs are ignored.
My words provoked an e-mail later that afternoon from a teacher in Norfolk: “What a breath of fresh air it was for me, as a retired educator, to hear your intervention. My wife and I are both graduate teachers who have experienced at first hand the consequences of an absence of special provision for the brightest of our pupils, to the serious detriment of their educational development and realisation of their full potential, not to mention that of wider society. The needs of the talented must be formally brought under the SEN purview and schools and Ofsted should be expressly required to give as much attention to these needs as to those of lower achievers.”
I ask the Minister to give greater consideration to that issue. We want to retain the most gifted students in our state schools, bring them to their full potential and use them as exemplars for other students, so that a golden thread of aspiration is sewn through each and every school, as has been suggested by a number of other Members.
I am the product of a grammar school, and I remember various episodes when I was there that allowed me to aspire to the university place to which my parents could never aspire, and also to running my own business, becoming professionally qualified and eventually becoming a Member of this House. We must push pupils upwards and not hold back their talents.
I finish this brief contribution by returning to a theme that runs through so many of my speeches, but which nevertheless is important to drive home once again. Our wont in recent years has been to tinker with our educational system to engineer particular social outcomes, but the attitudes of our competing nations could not be more different; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk covered that matter skilfully and in great detail. It is that sense of being in a highly competitive globalised world that will, and should, remain an important element of all our thinking. One need look only at the high number of highly skilled school leavers and graduates, not just in India and China but in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, to understand that the world is not waiting for Britain to churn out the brightest and best any more. In my 10 years as a local MP, I have regularly visited primary and secondary schools and higher education establishments to talk to students.
Contrary to the negative image of young people sometimes portrayed in the media, I am always impressed by students’ sharp and inquisitive minds. Our country is brimming with talent, including here in our inner cities. That talent exists to be developed and can compete with the likes of India and China in the decades ahead, but that will happen only if we pursue excellence relentlessly and equip our young people with the tools to take on their peers. We do everyone a disservice by suggesting that there are shortcuts in this world.