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4.24 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), whose comments were thoughtful and careful. I wish I had a Bury connection—I have been desperately trying to think of a way to draw together with the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis). Alas, I can think of no connection other than the fact that as a youngster I played at Gigg lane against Bury schoolboys and against the Bury team that played against Burnley in one of the junior leagues. I hope that that connection is sufficient to enable me to join the Bury club. I thought that the first diploma to be offered might be the Bury diploma, which would receive a lot of support—albeit not among those who live in Manchester.

I apologise for slightly misleading the House earlier. A question was asked about the definition of higher education—here I apologise to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire. It was originally asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on behalf of the Liberal Democrat education team, and the answer was published this week. I shall read it out for the benefit of those hon. Members who are interested. It says:

So there we have it.

Alistair Burt: Does the hon. Gentleman share my bemusement at the fact that after six months the question, "What is the definition of higher education for the purposes of the Government's target of 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds being in higher education or having had the higher education experience by 2010?" has still not been answered?

Mr. Willis: I recognise—[Interruption.] That is a new definition coming in, which is somewhat confusing.

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The fact that it took six months for the combined talents in the Department to come up with it is slightly worrying, but we have it now and the House can rest easy in the knowledge.

I applaud the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State for allowing this debate on the Green Paper "14-19: extending opportunities, raising standards" to go ahead. It is the first time since I became a Member of Parliament in 1997 that an education Green Paper has been debated. If this is a new way of working, it is to be commended, and I congratulate Ministers on it.

Like the right hon. Member for Dewsbury, I support the idea of engaging young people in the debate. Although we could all criticise the publication that is to be distributed among young people, it is a commendable effort by the Department and reveals an approach that I urge all Departments to adopt. The more we engage young people in broader social policy, the more chance we have of engaging them in the major political debates and in the community.

The Minister might well correct me on this point, but it strikes me as sad that the document does not fully address one of the greatest problems of exclusion among young people—the fact that black, Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani youngsters are far more likely not to continue their education, far more likely to be excluded, and far more likely not to engage in the education process. It is interesting that many members of those communities make a real effort to return to education later in life. When considering the responses to the Green Paper, I urge the Under-Secretary to think about those communities in particular and to engage them in the debate.

My party will respond positively to the Secretary of State's challenge. We urge all those with influence in the education world, be it political or otherwise, to engage appropriately. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made it clear that we have failed in this area in the past, and this is a good opportunity for us to succeed.

I assure the Minister that, although some of my comments may be critical, they are meant to be helpful. I am sure that he and the Minister for School Standards will take them as such.

There can be little dissent in the House about supporting the challenges laid down by the Secretary of State in her introduction to the Green Paper or the aims set out in chapter 1.4. The outcomes in chapter 1.29—higher levels of participation; a commitment by all to lifelong learning; increased employability; more rounded students; a reduction in truancy; and a greatly improved system of 14 to 19 education and training—are all worthy. Indeed, they are so worthy that I expected motherhood and apple pie and an acceptance of creationism to complete the list. However, I shall not go into that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because that is for another day.

I can say in all sincerity that I applaud the vision of a coherent 14 to 19 key stage, but it is sad that, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire rightly said, the report has missed some of the hard issues that were so courageously identified in "Bridging the Gap", in the Moser report, in the national skills taskforce reports and in successive annual reports from the Office for Standards in Education and the Further Education Funding Council about our schools and colleges.

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The Green Paper is ultra cautious and the proposals it contains are far from coherent. To be blunt, I believe that since 1944 our education system has served the majority of young people aged 14 to 19 pretty well under Governments of any political persuasion. The raising of the school leaving age, the post-Robbins expansion in higher education, the advent of comprehensive education and the reforms of the late 1980s, including the introduction of the national curriculum and local management of schools, have considerably enhanced the life chances of many of our young people.

However, that is not what the Green Paper is principally trying to address. It is supposed to be addressing the life chances of the 5 per cent. of our young people who gain no GCSEs, the 50 per cent. who do not achieve five good GCSEs and the 15 per cent. who are not in any form of education or training by the age of 18. I want to concentrate on those areas.

Throughout the Green Paper, mention is made of the fact that it is supposed to address the chronic skills shortage that threatens to leave the United Kingdom floundering in an ever more competitive global marketplace. Some 20 per cent. of adults lack functional literacy and numeracy, 36 per cent. have lower than level 2 skills compared with 27 per cent. in France and 17 per cent. in Germany. The estimated cost to employers of low skills in our economy is £10 billion a year, and social exclusion through low wages, lack of satisfaction and lack of opportunity creates a vicious circle of social and economic deprivation for individual workers. The Green Paper does not fully address those problems.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): I have listened to my hon. Friend. Does he agree that there is a lack of research in certain areas to quantify the broad statements that he is making, especially in relation to the coalfields? In coalfield areas between 1944 and the present time, young people in many schools have been described as pit fodder. There is a lack of information on the section of the community who have been badly represented and are lumped into the grand category of underperformers.

Mr. Willis: With respect, I do not quite know what point the hon. Gentleman is making, other than to support my comments. The reality is that most of the indices of educational and training performance or access to training show that, up to level 3, we significantly underperform compared with our European competitors and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development averages. That is the point I was making. It does not matter whether these young people are in the coalfields of Yorkshire, the former steel areas of the north-east or the rural areas of Cornwall, if they are underachieving and not fulfilling their potential, that is an issue for the House and for the Green Paper.

John Mann: Will my hon. Friend give way again?

Mr. Willis: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman calls me his hon. Friend, and I shall give way.

John Mann: I am agreeing with his points about underperformance. Does he agree that it is precisely that breakdown by specific areas that is lacking? In the coalfields in particular, the tremendous underachievement and lack of aspiration has not been recognised. I have

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tabled 30 parliamentary questions on this issue in the past two weeks, but all the answers give the same broadbrush categorisation and cannot give specific figures for the coalfields. A breakdown of key areas of the community is essential in tackling underachievement and lack of aspiration.

Mr. Willis: I did not want to belittle the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. I thought that he was supporting my comments. I totally agree with him. When the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and I sat for many happy hours considering the Learning and Skills Bill, we knew that that would be one of the objectives of the Learning and Skills Council, especially the regional councils. They would do the research that the hon. Gentleman wants. [Interruption.] The Minister, who is noted for his courtesy, says from a sedentary position that it is a bit early. I would like to know when the Learning and Skills Council will deliver on anything, let alone on this key area. Frankly, I am fed up with constantly hearing the excuse that it is too early. This is a vital issue, and we cannot plan for skills shortages unless we have the data that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) rightly referred to, and I thank him for that.

It is precisely because of the skills shortages, which have been identified by hon. Members on both sides of the House, that I am surprised that in her introduction to the Green Paper the Secretary of State does not mention training. Not once in the introduction is that word mentioned, yet the person who wrote chapter 1—it may well have been the Minister—obviously recognised the importance of training, because it is included as a key aim and a key outcome. It says that the Government aim to achieve

My criticism is that the Green Paper does not reflect training needs.

I understand the Secretary of State's caution about vocational education and training. She is right when she says that she wants to wage a war on vocational snobbery. However, that requires more than indignant words: it needs an understanding of the problem, courage and huge commitment, especially in resources. Skoda did not turn round the image of its cars by indignant outpouring. It did so by making its product affordable, desirable and of high quality. There is nothing wrong with espousing the concept of vocational training provided that the product we deliver to our young people is desirable, affordable and of high quality.

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