Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    The millennium is a time to think positively about the future.

    That takes my mind to our schools.

    Nothing is more important for the future than giving the new generation a sound vocational, cultural and spiritual education.

    And it is very easy to be positive about the schools in our area.

    Indeed, the quality of schools in Hertfordshire, and especially in this district, is one of the main attractions drawing young parents to this area. When I visit our schools, I am invariably impressed by the sheer dedication and commitment of the teaching staff and, particularly, the calibre of our head teachers

    Teachers, nonetheless, invariably complain that they are not appreciated ? not least by the media. If the proportion of pupils nationally attaining a certain standard rises some commentators claim that this shows the standard is depreciating.

    My own rather subjective assessment is that standards here and across the UK have been rising over the last decade.

    But how do our achievements compare with other countries?

    By most assessments, we have three distinct strengths. First, the performance of the third or so of pupils who take A-levels seems at least as good as any country in the world. We should be extremely wary about diluting those standards in the name of broadening the curriculum.

    Second, we are way ahead of most countries in the use of Information Technology. As a result our school leavers are more computer literate than in most other countries. Our schools have far more and better equipment than in most of our European rivals. A French friend recently bemoaned the fact that none of his four children ? who had attended the best lycees in Paris – had left school computer literate. By contrast, I recently opened a lavish new computer suite in a local primary school.

    Third, our schools seem somehow to foster more creativity ? be it in design, software or entrepreneurship. Inevitably, the creative elite is a minority but an immensely valuable one economically and culturally.

    On the downside, we do seem to be less successful than many of our international competitors at equipping the less academic two thirds of our pupils for their working lives. Changes to the curriculum and development of vocational qualifications may be helping to overcome this. But alongside that, we need higher expectations from both parents and teachers. There is no genetic reason why less academic British pupils cannot match the skills and learning of their counterparts in France, Germany or Japan. This should be our national priority.

    Finally, by international standards we are poor at teaching foreign languages. Obviously, the universality of English reduces the incentive for British pupils to learn. But if we accept that languages are useful and a valuable discipline, we must do better. Surely the obvious way is to start earlier. The least bright five year old placed in an international school will pick up a foreign language that they would struggle to acquire in their teens.

    Why can?t Hertfordshire lead the way?