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5.16 pm

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): I welcome the opportunity to talk about the Green Paper on "extending opportunities, raising standards". Let me say straight away that the title should include an additional element about "developing aspirations". I refer not just to the aspirations of young people, but to those of their families, who have a crucial role in developing potential.

Those involved in education in my constituency generally welcome the Green Paper, particularly its tone, intention and direction. Any criticisms have been constructive and should help to inform the Government in their efforts to help 14 to 19-year-olds to reach their potential. The Government's long-term commitment to education, particularly the concept of education for life, is especially welcome. Any age is the right age to develop one's education.

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The Green Paper is all about seeing young people as whole people who have individual differences, strengths, weaknesses and talents. The reference to ensuring high-quality advice and guidance, to which several hon. Members have referred, is also important. If young people are to make the right choices at 14 and then get to wherever they want to go, we have to help them. That applies particularly to young people with special needs, who have an untapped wealth of potential that we should help them to fulfil. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) mentioned that we need expertise, time and the right people in place to support 14 to 19-year-olds and help them decide where they want to go.

I want to make three main points relating to collaboration or partnership, vocational development and encouraging a wider range of young people to set their sights on getting to university.

Last week, at Yarborough school in Lincoln, I saw in action a good example of the intent of the main proposals in the Green Paper—an enterprise activity. A number of 15-year-old students who had been specially selected and had agreed to participate were looking for a niche for their talents; they found it in work that took place over two days, sponsored and supported by Stamford Homes. Teams of young people worked together to seek planning permission for, build, market and sell homes in Lincoln. They were even required to fill in planning application forms, for which they have my greatest admiration. They also earned the admiration of the planning officer at Lincoln City council, who was impressed by their work.

The activity involved team building, communication, self-confidence, conflict resolution, presentation and marketing skills, development of business acumen and the ability to use maths and English, to name just a few skills. That is the sort of activity to which the Green Paper refers. I asked the young people involved whether it had made a difference and whether they might consider staying on at school. As we all know, unless young people stay on beyond 16, they might never consider university. Their answer was yes, because they could see a niche in their school for their talents and skills. I commend Yarborough school and Mr. Legg, the head teacher, and his team, for seeing the possibility of working with a company such as Stamford Homes to offer young people such an opportunity.

The school is also developing incubator units for young people who want to start a business. We have nothing similar in the locality, and we need to be able to provide support and facilities if we are to encourage young people to consider going into business.

As we head towards April's Budget, it is interesting to note that an independent review by the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Howard Davies, which was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, recommends that business people should go into the classroom and discuss careers and enterprise with pupils. Mr. Davies urges the Government to allocate many millions of pounds to the programme, which, as he rightly points out, would offer pupils a grounding in finance and the economy. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will consider that in his budgetary considerations.

Let me give an example of collaboration and partnership with industry that is taking place in my constituency. As several hon. Members have said,

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industry and business are vital to the Green Paper's success. Alstom Power, a company that makes gas turbines in my constituency, has taken up the challenge. At its conference centre in Lincoln, it hosted the national launch of the science and engineering ambassadors scheme. The idea is to send ambassadors to schools to spread the word that engineering and science-based careers are exciting, worth while and should be considered. Fifteen young Alstom engineers have agreed to tell young people about the opportunities available if they work hard at subjects such as science, engineering, technology and maths. As Alstom currently has 30 science and technology vacancies, it obviously benefits that company and others to encourage would-be engineers to train and appreciate the advantages of that. Mark Papworth, the managing director, said that he would like to see young people

There is a place for them, and the Green Paper has to make that happen.

The science and engineering ambassadors scheme is a model for good practice, and I hope that Ministers will promote it. The City of Lincoln community college, a school that is bidding to become a specialist engineering college with the support of Alstom Power, believes that we must quash the myth that engineering is a dirty and undesirable industry in which to work. Barbara Peck, the head teacher, has said that students have limited pictures of engineering and science, fixing on stereotypes and a history of redundancies. That sets the wrong tone when it comes to persuading more people into engineering. I hope that the science and engineering ambassadors scheme, in which role models say "I've done it, it's worth doing", will bring more young people into engineering.

To widen participation it is important not only to meet the Government's target of having 50 per cent. of young people go into higher education, but to consider who those people are. The Green Paper offers us a way to do that. The figure for those who apply to university from Lincoln is barely half the national average. In certain wards—Abbey, Boultham and Park—participation in higher education is less than a third of the national average. Clearly, a problem exists to be addressed in my constituency, and elsewhere.

The key to widening participation is early intervention. Many people would say that 14 is too late, and I hope that Ministers will consider that. Connexions, further education colleges and universities must be able to engage young people at 14. Not all schools allow access, but I was pleased to accompany my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning to the university of Lincoln to see a widening participation scheme in action. As part of a scheme involving local schools, young people were invited to the university to experience what it might be like.

The university should be congratulated for working with 11 associate schools, including the City of Lincoln community college and Ancaster high school. The Green Paper should encourage such good practice. Associate schools sign up with the university so that it can offer them academic advice, technical and other resource advice, opportunities for staff development and focused open days. Ex-pupils who are now university of Lincoln students can go back to their schools to promote the idea of going into higher education.

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Key to the process is the making of early conditional offers to individual students who, for a variety of reasons, need to be encouraged to think about going to university. I asked some of the young people whether anyone from their villages had ever been to university. The answer was no, and that they had never thought about it. Having visited the university, however, they could see that it was possible. That is the kind of work that the Green Paper needs to encourage.

On vocational development, the Green Paper proposes that all young people should undertake some work-related learning. We could all learn something from that. Recently, I was shadowed by Caroline Bray, a student from Lincoln Christ's Hospital school, who wanted to find out what it is like to be a Member of Parliament—if anyone wants to know, they had better ask her. I learned a lot from her work placement, not least because she asked the questions that we rarely have time to ask ourselves. If business and industry encourage and support work placements, it is not only the young people who will benefit—the firms will benefit too—and those young people may be able to see their future role, whether as Members of Parliament, entrepreneurs, managers or whatever.

As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, the vocational option should not be seen as a second option; it should be seen as a positive choice which can feed much into specialist schools. There are some exciting possibilities and I am not sure that they have been fully considered. Perhaps the Green Paper could encourage the combination of subjects, as is done in universities. Science and engineering could be put together, as could history and the heritage industry and foreign languages and tourism. That policy could contribute to a move away from vocational work being seen as second class which it is far from being.

I am interested in the new award at 19, possibly to be called a matriculation diploma, as it would raise aspirations and would better prepare young people for working life. They would participate in activities related to active citizenship, work-based learning and wider interests. That part of the Green Paper interests me because I believe that to succeed in the world these days one needs to be more than merely academic; one needs to be a grounded person who has a real understanding of what life is about. I hope that the new award at 19 will focus on that.

To gain success and the achievements set out in the Green Paper, we need to challenge certain perceptions. We talked about the need to challenge the notion that vocational courses are inferior to academic courses; they are not. It is important to promote the schemes that I described, which are supported by companies such as Alstom, as well as the associate schools programme at the university of Lincoln and to support new specialist schools.

Finance is another area that concerns me, and those concerns were endorsed when I met a group of students at the university of Lincoln to discuss positive ideas for student financial support. I realised that their perception of the level of repayments on loans was far in excess of the reality. That is important because if we want to encourage young people to stay on at school so that they

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can go to university, they must know what the reality is. Those students were not aware that six out of 10 students in Lincoln pay no fees or that a graduate has to earn more than £10,000 before any repayment on their loan is required. Indeed, a graduate earning £11,000 a year would be repaying £90 a year.

As was endorsed in my discussions at the Bishop Grosseteste teacher training college in Lincoln, a number of potential students and their families are put off staying on at school in order to go into higher education because they are frightened of debt. If the fear of debt is preventing people from fulfilling their potential, we have two problems—the problem of actual debt and the even bigger problem of not understanding the true picture. We have a job of work to get the true information across so that people are not unnecessarily worried.

On education maintenance allowances, North Lincolnshire college and the Lincolnshire LEA certainly consider that there is a need for them nationally, and they would like their scope to be extended.

I very much welcome the Green Paper; it gives us a very strong basis on which to work. Education, as we all know, is the key that unlocks the door. It gives choices that people may be denied, possibly because of their backgrounds, and it opens minds. I believe that education is a great leveller upwards. We should raise expectations, not lower them.

The Green Paper allows us to envisage a plan not only for individuals and their families, but for industry, the education system and the country. It is time that we removed artificial ceilings on aspirations, and we, as a Government, have a responsibility to do so. I commend the Green Paper to the House because I believe that, by extending opportunity and raising standards and aspirations, it will take us along the right road.

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