We cannot afford to educate only a small elite

We are concerned that nearly 50,000 young people leave compulsory schooling unqualified
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The Independent Culture
SITTING PUBLIC examinations is a stressful time for any young person. As a parent myself I know only too well the emotional highs and lows young people go through as they receive their results.

Our future depends on having well educated young people who can grasp the challenges of a rapidly changing world where more and more employees are expected to be highly skilled, creative and flexible. I passionately believe that everyone has the right to the good all-round education they need to achieve this.

Raising attainment at GCSE and for children at the end of primary school is part of our programme to raise standards across the board. We are setting a range of tough targets to do this. We cannot afford to educate only a small elite while the rest achieve mediocrity or worse.

By concentrating on the basics early on and pushing schools to raise standards, we are opening up new opportunities to far more people. This can mean getting a better job or being able to widen youngsters' horizons. It is wrong to see these two aspects of education as being mutually exclusive. Good schools combine teaching practical skills with a broad education.

Without a good grasp of the basics youngsters are unable to develop their own education and are left isolated from the rest of society. Today's results continue that trend. But we are concerned about evidence over recent years that nearly 50,000 young people a-year leave compulsory schooling with no qualifications at all. We raised the school leaving age this year so that youngsters stayed on to do their exams; this may have affected the small rise in the failure rate. But we intend to go further, with a more work-related curriculum for those who can benefit from it, new targets to reduce the number without qualifications, extra information in performance tables, and more money to tackle social exclusion.

I know from my own experience how badly children can be affected if they lose out. Many youngsters in my constituency face disadvantage that is passed from one generation to another. For example those children in families where parents are long-term unemployed can find it hard to feel motivated because of their feelings of alienation. Some can lose out on the chance of work and too often turn to crime.

I welcome growing success at GCSE. Young people are working harder and achieving more than ever before. In all this we must continue to ensure that we maintain the high standards the GCSE exam has set during the 10 years since it was introduced, and ensure the same rigour for the complementary vocational qualifications now on offer. An exhaustive study in 1996 by the Government's qualifications watchdog and Ofsted found no evidence that standards had fallen over time. I announced last week that a group of independent experts will continue to monitor standards to maintain public confidence.

To transform the education system we have focused on improving basic literacy and numeracy. Measures such as the introduction of a daily literacy and numeracy hour are helping to give children the skills to access other subjects.

But subjects like music and PE remain compulsory in primary schools. In music, for example, we will invest in the subject to help more children to benefit, by setting aside a dedicated pot of money to promote the subject.

Reducing class size remains one of our central commitments, and it will help us to improve standards in the basics. Our pledge that no five- six- or seven-year-old will be in a class of more than 30 will be met ahead of schedule in September 2001. We have made additional resources available to enable those LEAs that want to do so to fulfil that aim by September 2000. The number of five-to-seven-year-olds in classes over 30 will fall for the first time in a decade and 1,500 new primary teachers will be joining schools from the start of the new term.

This autumn we will be announcing our targets for attainment at GCSE. Raising standards is more important than ever before given the ever-increasing economic competition. We need to help provide industry with the skilled, flexible and well educated workforce it needs to compete internationally.

By introducing a culture of target-setting across the education system we are providing a powerful lever with which to raise standards. Setting clear literacy and numeracy targets in primary schools offers practical help to teachers to help raise standards in the classroom. I expect 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach the standard level for their age in literacy by 2002, and for 75 per cent of that age group to reach that standard in maths by 2002.

Attainment can be improved, given a realistic target to work to and the necessary resources. We announced in last month's comprehensive spending review that annual spending on education will be almost pounds 10bn more by 2001-02, an average increase of 5.1 per cent in real terms in each of the next three years. We want improvements to be based on offering teachers "something for something", to support them as they drive up standards.

Target-setting will clearly define what needs to be achieved at GCSE level and in other parts of the education system. We are giving schools the resources to achieve these higher standards. Our package of reform will provide the education which young people need and our country requires in the global economy of the new millennium.