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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 January 2004

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Vocational Provision at School

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

9.30 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): It is traditional for Ministers to congratulate the Member who initiates the debate, but I feel that I should commiserate with this Minister. Not only does he have to reply to this debate first thing in the morning; I understand that he is opening a debate later in the day—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis) : I shall also be replying.

Mr. Allen : He will be replying to a debate on behaviour in schools, so I have even more reason to commiserate with him. He will have the pleasure of my company then.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman also commiserate with the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, who has a similar task ahead of him?

Mr. Allen : Ours is indeed a hard life. Nevertheless, I welcome the Minister to the debate. We share a deep personal commitment to try to ensure that more youngsters stay on at school, and I am sure that that also applies to those who speak for the Opposition parties on the subject. I know that he feels passionately about it, and I am genuinely pleased that he will be winding up the debate.

I initiated this debate so that I could ask the Minister to keep his eye on, and where appropriate, support, our local efforts in trying to solve a particularly chronic problem in Nottingham, North. He will be delighted to hear that I do not want any money. I want something far more valuable—his personal commitment to overseeing the development of the project that I shall outline. It is probably easier for those who live busy ministerial lives to give money than to give time, so that is not a let-out, but a tough request.

First, I shall explain the problem. In Nottingham, North, seven secondary schools are compelled to turn their youngsters out of school at the age of 16. There is one sixth-form college to which a few of those youngsters can go and one school with its own sixth form, but we insist that the other schools force their pupils to leave school at 16. The fact that the local education system is structured in that way sends to youngsters in my constituency the message that their education ends at 16, unless they are prepared to make the journey to the two superb local further education colleges.

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The problems in Nottingham, North are well known to the Minister. As he knows, the number of youngsters from my constituency who go to university is the lowest among all constituencies in the United Kingdom. We have the lowest educationally attaining ward out of the 8,500 in the UK. Four Nottingham, North secondary schools are in the bottom 200 in the UK. That figure represents an improvement on past performance; we used to have six schools in the bottom 25. I pay tribute to the achievements of all involved in that improvement—the teachers, heads, parents and pupils who have climbed by their fingertips and crawled their way up the ladder. They may not be as high up as we want, but it is a monumental achievement and I am pleased to put it on record.

Far from resting our laurels, however, we should be redoubling our efforts to keep the statistics moving in the right direction. If Nottingham, North, with all its problems, can crack the culture of under-achievement and the waste of human potential, the Minister will know that it can be done anywhere in the United Kingdom. Everyone in our local and educational communities knows what we must do—enable our 16-year-olds to stay on at school—but we need him to help us bring that about. To be blunt, most youngsters will not stay on to seek academic qualifications, but a large majority of those who might otherwise be lost would seek vocational qualifications not by going elsewhere in town or to some multi-million-pound campus that has been scientifically located by some bureaucrat, but by staying on at their existing school.

There are several advantages to pupils staying on at their school. First, they would not have to make the physical and, more importantly, cultural leap from their localities to the city centre further education site, although that would, of course, be vastly more appealing once they had had a taste of FE at school, as the vista of going elsewhere and taking their qualification further would open up to them.

Secondly, although the two local FE colleges offer superb courses and pastoral care, youngsters who stayed on at their existing schools would remain part of a smaller group of students who were known personally to their teachers. They would benefit from their teachers' helping hand and personal knowledge, which could move them from the mindset of not giving a damn or being demotivated to one of saying, "Yes, I will attain." Just one little word from someone who knows them would inspire them to carry on and do vocational courses at school.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, pupils who stay on would act as role models. They would be among the first kids in my constituency to be seen to stay on at school, which would directly refute the prevailing assumption that kids in Nottingham, North do not or cannot do so. The impact on younger brothers and sisters would be tremendous. Currently, those who stay on at school in my constituency are seen as not only unusual but almost weird, because the prevailing culture is for kids to leave school at 16 and then perhaps to get a job. If pupils acted as role models, the proposals would have achieved a big breakthrough.

I did not dream up the proposed solution to one of the educational problems in Nottingham, North to get an Adjournment debate. It is the product of many months and years of careful thinking by all the local players.

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They all support it, and I am simply acting as the mouthpiece for many of them this morning. I have received responses to the draft of my speech from across the board locally. I have received very supportive comments from local head teachers, the chairman and officers of the City of Nottingham education authority, the learning and skills councils, both the FE colleges and both the universities, the Nottingham, North education champion, Connexions and many others who care about our youngsters. There is a brilliant local partnership, which I would love the Minister to see in action. We are all keen to get on with the job—we simply need a smile from him, and we will deliver.

How might the proposals work? Each school could offer a small number of vocational courses—perhaps as few as two—on a small site on its existing campus. The LEA and the Learning and Skills Council tell me that courses could include information technology, nursery nursing, painting and decorating, plumbing and electrical skills, hair and beauty, catering and hospitality, engineering, automotive skills, business studies, travel and tourism, and some practical skills development. I am told that there is a ready local jobs market with vacancies in each of those categories, so we would be creating round pegs for round holes in the jobs market. The British Chambers of Commerce e-mailed me to say that one of the things that most attracted it to the proposals was that they would produce the right qualifications for the jobs market and get youngsters into productive work.

I leave aside the negative possibility of what will happen to youngsters if we do not keep them in further education. That is a debate for another day, concerning antisocial behaviour and the immense public expenditure needed to fund a youngster who goes wrong, whether it is spent on the police, the Prison Service, drug rehabilitation or other such things. I am concentrating entirely on the positive and on the tiny bit of effort and even smaller amount of money that would be a stitch in time and give such youngsters the future that they thoroughly deserve.

The proposals also fit neatly into the 14 to 19 perspective. I have used 16-to-18 as shorthand, because that is when youngsters in Nottingham, North are forced to leave school, but the proposals fit into the perspective of the wider age group, in which I know the Minister takes a close interest. The two FE colleges and the two universities have already made a commitment to help. The colleges already make great contributions in the constituency, and I would not want anyone to feel that that was not the case.

The People's college has worked in partnership with schools, pupils and parents to raise the profile of learning post 16. I am told that the total of 16 to18-year-olds in further education has increased by 25 per cent. in 2003–04. There has been an expansion in foundation courses and entry into employment programmes for previously under-achieving youngsters. The college has worked closely with local schools such as Bigwood and Hadden Park high school in particular to raise young people's ambition to continue learning. Bigwood school already has a popular health and social care programme. Staff from the People's college joined the school team at Hadden high three years ago and now

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deliver a whole GNVQ over two years. That contributed to a 20 per cent. rise in the GCSE A-to-C score in a school that was restarted just a couple of years ago. That 20 per cent. improvement in 2003 is directly traceable to a vocational element. I want every school in Nottingham, North to achieve such a result, and they want the same thing. However, the People's college tells me that opportunities to deliver vocational training for young people remain limited. The young people want to do it, they need it and the schools know that they need it, and it is up to us to provide a route forward.

Our other further education college, New college, Nottingham, is also offering shared delivery programmes to Nottingham, North. It is working with schools including Henry Mellish, River Leen, Hadden Park and Bigwood. It would do more with the schools if it could get capital and revenue support. The college spends more than £300,000 of its own resources on sustaining the schools development team for planning and liaison with the schools. It does not have to do that; it chooses to do so because it sees the size of the problem. It gets only limited payments from the schools to cover the basic part-time hourly teacher cost and some short-term project funding through the LSC from the Department for Education and Skills.

The college could and would deliver programmes in construction trades, child care, basic catering and hospitality, bakery and customer care if it could get support. The Minister needs to address the rigidity of the line between DFES funding through local education authorities for schools and funding through the Learning and Skills Council for colleges. We need a little more flexibility, overlap and co-operation. If he agrees to take this matter on, his oversight will help tremendously.

The two universities in Nottingham are also involved. That may surprise some people, but they are enthusiastic about helping out on the ground. Branding our schools as Top Valley school and Nottingham university vocational centre or as River Leen and New college, Nottingham, vocational centre, for example, would have a fantastic impact on the local prestige and status of education and on youngsters' self-perception.

I spoke yesterday to the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent university, Neil Gorman. He said:

He has also said:

That was a tremendous, generous and unnecessary offer; he was not obliged to make it. However, he wants to help us, and the offer stands. Nottingham university, our second university, is equally on board. Sir Colin Campbell has told me:

Just imagine a Nottingham, North kid written off as a failure puffing out his or her chest and saying, "I'm going to a Russell group university", and taking

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vocational qualifications to improve his or her lot. That puts into perspective some of our recent esoteric debates on university fees. Nottingham's Connexions service has achieved the greatest reduction in unemployment among 16 to 18-year-olds in the UK. It can also see that it could go even further. If I could bottle the good will that local partners and players are putting into the project, we would not have a problem.

Relatively small amounts of capital are needed to build a small additional facility on each site. Regardless of whether we are successful in the bid that we have put to the Department for Education and Skills for the "Building schools for the future" programme, the LEA and LSC, with whatever help the Minister can offer, should be able to fund such small-scale developments. We are limited by the existence of separate capital arrangements for schools and further education, and we need to cross that divide in the interests of creating a new kind of learning to keep youngsters interested enough to stay on at school at 16. We can begin modestly; a lot could be achieved with a spend of about £250,000—a drop in the ocean of educational spending at local and national level.

We should prioritise schools in areas with the lowest achievement at 16 and the poorest progression to further education and training, and then work through the list, providing facilities as and when we can. Some schools already have spare classrooms and others are straining to get cracking if they can have temporary or prefabricated classes. For a more knobs-on but still modest facility, Brett Kerton of the LEA tells me that a flexible space of some 450 sq m with a good information technology facility and a small seminar space would support the delivery of a range of basic vocational courses, such as motor vehicle skills, construction and catering. That model is based on the people first centre, which the People's college now uses for its entry into employment programme. That is a Government scheme, funded through the LSC, to provide flexible vocationally orientated provision for disaffected 16 to 18-year-olds. It is a brilliant scheme that encourages innovative ways of motivating young people. People's college, like New college, Nottingham, would love to be able to do something similar for 14-year-olds in mainstream schools in Nottingham, North.

The city council believes that, ideally, over the next five years, most or all schools in the area should be equipped with a 16-to-18 or 14-to-19 centre of some description. The establishment of small purpose-built vocational centres on school sites would give schools, colleges and training providers the opportunity to offer basic vocational training programmes to many more young people and to provide those young people with the necessary skills to progress to the higher-level specialist provision offered by colleges. There is no reason why 14-year-olds could not use those facilities. Such centres would also give post-16 education and training providers the opportunity to offer more responsive and flexible provision to post-16 learners. They would be like a missing piece of the jigsaw—the link between kids who stay at school until 16 and another, often different, bunch of kids who enter FE and HE. That link is essential for independent learning.

Such centres would provide young people with the opportunity to experience new areas of learning, which would enable them to make more informed choices and

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consequently improve their chances of completing their post-16 studies. The idea is that if youngsters are given the chance to achieve at any level, they will get a taste for it and see a benefit. Often, they see a financial benefit in working. Then comes the motivation to study further, perhaps not at school but at the local FE college or university, or with one of a range of other providers. Giving people the desire to learn and reasons to do so is the crux of what we are trying to achieve. If we could get such centres on the road, they would change lives and break us out of the non-achieving culture. We are making good progress in that area, but we need the breakthrough of vocational provision on school sites.

I have several points to put to the Minister that I hope he will address. First, is he prepared to visit Nottingham, North in the near future to look at our progress on 16 to 18-year-old vocational provision at schools and, above all—this may stop him smiling—to take the personal interest that I spoke about earlier? Last year, I became the education champion for Nottingham, North—the first ever constituency-based education champion. As such, it was immensely valuable to me to have the help of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, who, without even visiting our city, made a strong impact on the progress of the local project merely by taking a personal interest and asking to be kept informed about any blockages. That is all that I ask the Minister to do. If he would care to visit Nottingham, North at an appropriate time, he would be very welcome.

Secondly, will the Minister consider helping with the project plan and perhaps with a pilot to help speed up local work already under way? Will he assign a named DFES official to the project? I am very grateful for the great and open assistance that I have so far received not only from him, but from officials in his Department.

Thirdly, will the Minister consider the rigidity of the line between DFES funding through LEAs for schools and the problem of colleges being funded through the LSC? Again, this is not a matter of personality. There is tremendous drive and a sense of purpose, vision and direction among all the local players, but people on the ground become worried if they feel that they might be transgressing some sort of line that has been drawn in the sand at a higher level. They need to be encouraged to be innovative in this area. There is a need for joined-up thinking from his Department and the Treasury. We in Nottingham, North would happily be guinea pigs for such joined-up thinking.

Fourthly, will the Minister examine the internal ordering of educational spending on this lost group of people, who sometimes fall through the cracks? In the past few weeks, there has been great interest in universities and graduates. We hear, quite rightly, about the importance of pre-school activity, which I hope to raise on the Floor of the House this afternoon. I do not seek to make any partisan points, but I am proud of the Government's literacy and numeracy strategy for primary schools and the effort put into secondary schools thereafter. However, the 16-year-olds who leave school are the lost group in education and do not have the same public profile. I am sure that he is as annoyed about that as anyone else. We need to reintegrate those young people not only into our educational experience, but into society itself. He has our good wishes in any efforts to re-order internal spending priorities towards that group, as I am sure he is already undertaking to do.

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Fifthly, I would most be grateful if the Minister could see whether the innovations provisions in section 2 of the Education Act 2002 could be imaginatively applied to the problem affecting both the 16-to-18 and 14-to-19 groups in Nottingham, North and elsewhere.

Every year that goes by in which we fail to address the problem, another 1,000 young people in my constituency leave school at 16. Many of them disappear from the educational experience. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal that we can do this year. Despite all the great efforts being undertaken locally, many young people will repeat that experience this summer. I do not wish it to be repeated any more summers after that, because those youngsters are just as capable and have just as much right to a decent future as anyone else. All those youngsters have a right to expect us, regardless of party, to deal with the problem.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. The Minister has listened carefully and I hope that he can give some positive encouragement in his reply.

9.57 am

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) not only on securing this debate, but, more importantly, on the hard work and research that he has done on behalf of his constituents. I also thank him for giving me precise information on the debate, which will make it more focused.

I have some knowledge of Nottingham, as my parents lived there. I also know something about the problems of areas where horizons are perforce limited by cultural factors. I started my teaching career in Bootle, where many young people's fundamental expectation was to be secured a job in the docks, regardless of whether they had any education. I am aware of the cultural pressures that exist in Nottingham, North. Anyone who has read D. H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" must be aware of the difficulties that face young people who wish to advance themselves educationally in areas where education is not a constant theme.

There is a fundamental lack of educational confidence in areas of Nottingham, North and elsewhere. That is a feature of individuals, their families and, in the present case, the community. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North is entirely right to draw that problem to our attention and to ask for an imaginative solution. People's fears—fear of failure and fear that the course might not be right—must be confronted. Many people also fear peer pressure, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, pursuing education in his area can make a person the odd one out. That problem is well documented, but it is particularly severe in Nottingham, North and is perhaps complicated by the existence of the 11-to-16 school system. Such systems can work, but I suppose that in some cultures they can set a limit on people's educational experience. We are all familiar with monocultural environments, in dockland areas and mining areas, or wherever they may be. Perhaps the absence of 11-to-18 provision or significant diversity restrains pupils' expectations.

I am familiar with the working of low expectations, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is entirely right to draw the point to our attention. However, the

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Nottingham with which I am familiar increasingly has further and higher education establishments that offer slightly different ways out. Obviously, further education resonates with people who believe that their gifts are practical and who want to pursue a vocational route, or with people who have modest aspirations or modest experiences of the educational process. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said, even the obvious route may be beset by what are popularly called gremlins in an area such as Nottingham, North. Students do not want to take the step, which is difficult in some areas, even if it might seem effortless in others.

It is increasingly accepted that, in that sort of environment, further education must go to schools and schools must go to further education. That good practice is now widespread. In my area, students from 11-to-16 schools routinely go to further education colleges, and further education lecturers routinely come to schools. Good practice is springing up all over the place. Without paying the Government an undue compliment in advance, I may say that that process will be assisted by revisions to the 14 to 16 curriculum. Quite obviously, some of that good practice, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North outlined, is already in place in his constituency. The FE colleges in his area are models of good practice—practice that the Department for Education and Skills would be happy to commend and to recommend. Higher education establishments in that area also have a very good track record of pitching in with schools. In particular, I commend Trent, which has done enormously important work in widening access to universities and in encouraging students to go to university who otherwise would not think of doing so. It is a trail-blazer in that respect, and is ahead of many other universities. It should be praised.

How innovative higher and further education establishments can be is conditioned not only by their ambition, which I am sure is considerable, but by their resources. All ventures, positive though they are, are a partnership between school and college. The hon. Gentleman drew our attention to the streams of funding available to them, which are different and not always easy to co-ordinate. Schools are funded by the local council or from the Standards Fund. Further education funding comes from the learning and skills councils and may be gauged using a different set of priorities. Capital funding is equally, if not more, complex.

We have a problem with certain structural difficulties. Many of the most attractive and ambitious schemes, such as those for information technology, automotive engineering and catering, are capital-intensive. Pupils need a seamless curriculum, but they are serviced to some extent by a fractured educational structure. It might be easier to return to the time when FE colleges were under local education authority control, which was not a bad state of affairs. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, North illustrated, however, problems between FE colleges and 11-to-16 schools can be replicated in part under the current system in an 11-to-18 school, whereas vocational education in 11-to-16 schools can be funded by the local authority and vocational education post 16 can be funded by an LSC.

None the less, despite the structural difficulties that we have identified, the problems are not insuperable; they are simply harder to surmount than they perhaps

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should be. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North recognises that, but I sense that he wants more. He seems to be arguing for 11-to-16 schools with some sort of mini-tech attached. I appreciate his reasons, and I am not against experimentation. A priori, however, I find it difficult to see precisely how that will work, because quality education is costly, especially in those branches of education that the hon. Gentleman outlined. A mini-tech attached to a school must be limited in scope, which is a problem because some pupils will not find a course that is relevant or interesting to them. Alternatively, it could offer a full range of courses, in which case it could offer only taster courses without being prohibitively expensive. Perhaps that is the hon. Gentleman's concept of what should be put in place, but there is a reason why FE colleges exist, and it relates partly to the sheer cost of putting on credible, quality courses.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is arguing for a halfway course between what the schools offer and what FE offers, because there is a problem in getting pupils from school to FE. I am not sure that that problem cannot be addressed in other ways. One advantage that FE has for pupils who have been in an 11-to-16 environment is that it is not school. They feel that they will be treated differently when they go to an FE college. Although, as he put it, pupils can feel that they are thrown out or rejected by their school, some pupils leave 11-to-16 schools with a sense of relief, if only because they can make a fresh start.

There are many examples of 11-to-18 schools that hang on to pupils to boost their numbers but essentially provide slightly substandard vocational education. In some cases, that education is available in a better form at the local FE college.

Mr. Allen : I am following the hon. Gentleman's discourse closely, and agree with virtually all of it. I might be able to assist him with the queries that he raised. First, we have given careful thought locally to the problem of the size of offer. Of course, it would be wonderful to be able to offer all the courses that I mentioned—there must have been a dozen—but we are rather modest, and we appreciate that if we are talking about a small number of schools, the offer will be very small. It may be two or three. The provision available would need to be discussed between the FE college and the school. We are conscious of that and of the problem of timetabling people in.

With your forbearance, Sir Nicholas, I will also respond to the second point.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): As we are not pressed for time this morning, I shall use my discretion in allowing a lengthy intervention.

Mr. Allen : You are very generous, as always, Sir Nicholas.

A large number of youngsters cannot wait to get away from school and get to an FE college, and that option will still exist for those youngsters. We seek to address the youngsters who will not go elsewhere if they leave the school environment. Sadly, in my constituency, as I have outlined, there is a large percentage of such youngsters. They are lost to us without school. At

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school, they will get intimate pastoral care. The teachers will know them and their history and will know which motivational buttons to press. That is the group of youngsters that I am considering—those who need that relatively small offering at school to be inspired to go on further, hopefully to FE or HE.

Dr. Pugh : I am not at all dogmatic in my views. I carefully used the words "a priori", and, a priori, I do not warm to the idea. In all its ramifications, I can see some problems. The thing about a priori thinking is empirical evidence. If pilots in Nottingham—I see no reason why pilots should not be used in Nottingham—show that the idea works, my a priori views will have to be revised.

The fundamental solution for the hon. Gentleman's constituency lies in getting the offer right at FE level so that pupils are attracted to it. I am sure that the FE colleges are working hard on that. May I give him what I hope is a helpful analogy? A technical college in my constituency offers a catering course that provides a restaurant where people can dine. It is in every respect a commercial establishment for part of the time. It is expensive in the sense that it costs the tech college a lot to put on, but it is an extraordinary popular course. It is so popular, and the employment prospects are so good, that pupils travel from Liverpool, Bootle and constituencies such as Nottingham, North to go to that college to acquire the kind of training that they know will support their needs and give them a career. I wonder whether, in the case of Nottingham, North, we need to look in the round at further and higher education in the Nottingham area.

10.9 am

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): It is a great delight for me to participate in this debate. I offer the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) my congratulations on securing the debate, and like the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), I also congratulate him on all the hard work and detail that has gone into reaching the point that he has reached today.

Like the hon. Member for Southport, I know Nottingham extremely well. I spent my formative years in a town called Worksop just to the north and I was a student in Nottingham for three years. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that Nottingham Trent university was heavily involved in the proposals and was playing a positive role in what he is attempting to do.

I was also delighted that the hon. Gentleman spoke with such passion and knowledge about his concerns for the pupils or students who are having to leave the various schools to which he referred at the age of 16, with limited facilities, despite the good FE colleges in his area. I am interested in exploring the ideas that he has detailed today about creating specific vocational training on school sites and, ultimately, greater collaboration between schools and FE colleges.

I have some specific questions about the hon. Gentleman's proposals. First, is he suggesting that such training should be pre-16 or post-16 or both? I shall ask the Minister later about how that might affect funding arrangements. Secondly, how do his proposals differ

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from the Government's drive for specialisms in secondary schools and the enterprise culture that they are trying to create in certain schools, and how would the two fit together?

The problem that has been described is not peculiar to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. In Boston and Skegness, we have many similar problems regarding the lack of aspiration among pupils from certain socio-economic backgrounds who do not aspire to good jobs and do not necessarily aspire to qualifications. Therefore, it is a national problem rather than a local one, although I understand why he has raised it this morning.

Mr. Allen : It may help the hon. Gentleman and the debate if I quickly pick up those points.

I do not have a rigid view about deciding between 14 and 16. I come to 16-to-18 provision as a result of my personal learning journey in respect of my constituents and what they need, but it may be sensible to start the vocational element at school at 14. One of the schools that I mentioned, Hadden high, in its previous incarnation as Glaisdale school, pioneered nationally the concept of younger pupils doing work much earlier than 16 and indeed doing vocational training at 16. Therefore, this is an issue of horses for courses. It is also one of horses for money; if the money is available only from 14 to 19, I would gladly say that we should take that route; if it is available only from 16 to 18, I shall move as rapidly as I can to that position.

I hope that being a specialist school would not get in the way of under-achieving schools and schools that do not have such good results. Rather than forcing schools into a matrix that looks good in Whitehall, we must ensure local flexibility to go with or without specialist schools to some degree, if that helps the kids to stay in education.

As to whether the problem relates to Nottingham, North or is national, as I said, if we can crack this problem in Nottingham, North, the most chronically under-attaining educational area in the UK, the Minister and his colleagues will be able to take from what has happened massive implications for elsewhere. That is why the concept of piloting in the most difficult area is useful.

Mr. Simmonds : I am grateful for that intervention, which clarifies some of the issues that I was raising. I am also grateful for your tolerance, Sir Nicholas, in saying that we are not short of time this morning.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North made a point about 14-to-19 provision. The current funding arrangements and the disparity between LEA funding per capita and LSC funding per capita will create enormous problems if both pre-16 and post-16 education are to be addressed. He dealt with that issue and I hope that the Minister will respond because there must be greater flexibility than seems to exist at the moment.

The problem exists not just in Nottingham, North, but throughout the whole country. The recent debate on the funding of higher education—I hope that the issue will be resolved one way or another, at least initially,

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next week—has overshadowed the important aspect of education under discussion, which has not been given the focus that it deserves. I hope that today is the start of a constructive, cross-party debate to help and facilitate better educational achievement by future generations and to increase the productivity and competitiveness of the UK in an ever-increasing global marketplace.

The Government have created some of their problems, primarily by setting an arbitrary 50 per cent. target to push youngsters into higher education. As many of those youngsters will come from the FE sector, that sector will thereby be denuded of many of its more capable participants. Tuition fees represent only a very small proportion of the cost of the 4 million adults in further education. To my mind, the vocational route has been undervalued and too often sidelined. Together, we must find a way of addressing that issue.

There is consensus on both sides of the House about the seriousness of the problem and we will no doubt hear from the Minister about the measures that the Government are taking to improve the provision of vocational education. However, the record of achievement to date is not good. The number of 16 to 18-year-olds in Government-supported training and employer-funded training schemes has decreased by 1.5 per cent. and 0.2 per cent. respectively since 1997. Britain ranks 12th out of 15 countries in the EU in relation to basic skills, and productivity in the United States is 40 per cent. higher than in the UK. There is a direct causal link between skills, learning and productivity.

I had great fun reading the Government's White Paper, "21st Century Skills: Realising our Potential", which correctly placed enormous importance on vocational skills and training. It argued that achieving better skills and higher productivity would require both the reform of secondary education—the point that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is making—and the establishment of a world-class work-related education and training system. The skills White Paper, allied with the Green Paper on 14-to-19 education, which outlines the Government's vision and was purported to rectify the traditional neglect of vocational education, is absolutely right. However, those involved in vocational and skills training under Governments of all colours have worked extremely hard to change the lives of thousands of people to date to give them qualifications and skills and to prepare them for the wider economy.

The impact and improvements made in the provision of vocational education have been piecemeal, and there is little current improvement. The measures that are being taken are simply not enough and it is widely acknowledged that the provision of skills and education in the UK is too low, too complex and still does not excite and engage those in the 16-to-18 age group, as is evidenced by the comments made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and in my constituency and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The lack of aspiration and role models drives the issue.

We must ensure that our education system delivers employability at all levels; it currently does not do so. We must address the skills gap and ensure that the measures being undertaken in that regard are correct and fully comply with the demands and needs of employers both locally and nationally. Again, they

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currently do not do so. Employers are deeply concerned that many employees lack basic skills of literacy, numeracy and communication and that many vocational routes do not meet their requirements. That is evidenced by FE colleges collecting only £44 million from employers towards costs of some £4 billion. Employers in the United Kingdom spend £23 billion per annum on training, but they are not spending that money in FE colleges or schools. There is a serious dislocation between employers and vocational training facilities.

I am sorry to say that the UK is still in a poor position compared with our competitors. I apologise to hon. Members, but I have a barrage of statistics that illustrate our problem; I hope that they will not bore people. Only 28 per cent. of Britons are qualified to apprentice, skilled, craft and technical levels, compared with 51 per cent. in France and 65 per cent. in Germany. Some 36 per cent. of adults of working age, or more than 13 million people, some of whom are in Nottingham, North or in Boston and Skegness, leave school with few basic qualifications. That compares with 28 per cent. in France and 17 per cent. in Germany. The number enrolled in apprenticeships, already lower than in most European countries, fell by 20 per cent. from 2000–01 to 2001–02.

A serious issue is that 63 per cent. of all construction employers in the east midlands area, in which the constituencies that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and I represent are situated, face difficulty in recruiting the relevant skilled staff. As construction activity in the east midlands is expected to grow by 15 per cent. in forthcoming years, there is a real problem.

Those statistics have enormous consequences. A recent Ofsted report showed than 80,000 pupils are being left behind by a curriculum that fails to engage them. Half of 16-year-olds do not achieve five GCSE grades. Indeed, the situation has recently deteriorated: 67,000 pupils left school at 16 without reaching that criterion in 2002 and 69,800 did so in 2003. The current curriculum is not working. The Government are leaving behind many people from the most challenging socio-economic backgrounds.

I agree with the Government that they should be looking into ways of altering the curriculum from the age of 14 at the very least. I await the results of the Tomlinson report with great interest. Skills and vocational training must not be put in an academic straitjacket, deterring applicants who cannot respond to the—if I may use the word—academicisation of skills and vocational training that the Government seem so set upon to meet their HE target numbers.

According to the latest quango established by the Government, the Learning and Skills Council, almost a quarter of companies reported a skills gap in 2002. That is a significant increase on the number in 2001. The CBI and the TUC have expressed their concerns. The vocational education route is flawed and the Government's solution to the provision of such education has been badly focused. The measures that are being taken are a start, but they are not enough. Fundamental problems still exist.

Those who choose to embark on a vocational route often find that the schemes and courses that are available lack coherence and relevance to employers. I

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am interested to know whether the hon. Member for Nottingham, North has views on how we can address that particular problem in schools, FE colleges or other educational establishments. Schemes that lead to limited job prospects discourage participation and progression. There are myriad vocational occupational qualifications on offer. The chief executive of the adult learning inspectorate said that there were

The latest guide to British vocational qualification—the fourth edition—details more than 3,500 vocational qualifications. We need to consider streamlining.

Mr. Allen : Let me answer the question directly. One way in which we can mesh local employers with the people who are not yet being trained properly for the jobs that local employers view as important is by using the partnership that operates in Nottingham, North, which gave rise to the proposal. It involves the Learning and Skills Council, the local education authorities, and all the other partners and players working together. They see that there is a need and a resource and that all we need to do is to put things together into the right format so that employers can use that resource—the young people in Nottingham, North. They will benefit immensely from training, getting a foot on the ladder at the lowest level—their level of attainment—and working their way up from school to further education or even university.

The partnership is there and I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider its introduction nationwide. I know of areas in his constituency that are almost as tough as some in my constituency. If we can get the partnership working, the proposal may be applicable in constituencies such as his.

Mr. Simmonds : I am grateful for that intervention. All of us would agree with the sentiment that we must encourage all pupils to aspire and get on the education and skills ladder. I support the hon. Gentleman, but the detail of his proposal must be considered more closely. With regard to his other proposals for improving vocational and skills training, one major issue that must be addressed is the rigidity and division of current funding streams. They are under different areas of responsibility and per capita funding is significantly different between the pre-16 and post-16 age groups.

I would like the Minister to explain how the streams could be clarified if we were to take the route suggested by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North and if the Government were to introduce vocational training on school campuses from the age of 14. If a school allowed vocational training to take place from 14 to 18, would funding be significantly different and greater for those doing part 1 of the course compared with those staying on from 16 to 18 and 16 to 19? Under current arrangements, it would be different, which would cause absolute chaos. Part 2 of my hypothetical course would clearly be considered of less value and fewer funds and resources would be allocated to it.

Mr. Allen : The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way again. Since we have the time, I will again put on record that the educational maintenance allowance is an issue in which I am sure that he will be interested. We

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must consider the funding of post-16 education. My constituency has piloted educational maintenance allowances and they have been very successful. The rate of youngsters staying on at school for academic qualifications has improved dramatically through the use of the EMA. Some of us would like to see a FEMA or further educational maintenance allowance. Now that we have, or hope to have, the grant restored, we could even go as far as a HEMA or higher educational maintenance allowance, ensuring a seamless transition of financial assistance paying people to learn at whatever level they want.

That reflects the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the plethora of qualifications. Youngsters often face a jungle of options. If you have considered that area, Sir Nicholas, you must have wondered, as I have, what on earth all the initials mean. How on earth can a youngster who may not be highly literate or numerate make headway or—to use the technical term—navigate the different possibilities? If we can sort out my proposal by looking at the seamless transition of funding to pay young people to learn and at clarifying the navigation of qualifications, we will be in the business of making matters much more simple and opening up education to many people who are lost to us.

Mr. Simmonds : The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting observations. The EMA scheme will be introduced nationally after having now been piloted. Some pilots were more successful than others. There are some issues with EMAs, as there has been a disparity of take-up and not everyone is aware of the possibilities. How is the different way in which local authorities have handled EMAs to be translated to a national basis?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the plethora of qualifications, and I am pleased that he agrees with me about that issue. I do not know whether he has a view on this point—perhaps he will not intervene on me again because I wish to draw my remarks to a conclusion—but it seems slightly strange that just as society, students and employers have been getting to grips with NVQs, the Government have chosen to abolish them in 2007, with no significant replacement in place. That situation needs to be dealt with and considered very carefully. It would have been more sensible to await the full report from Tomlinson and to see what he suggests and debate it, rather than to abolish NVQs before knowing what will replace them.

I want to give the Minister time to respond to the excellent points made by the hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for Southport. In conclusion, it is important to state that our young people need a decent, basic education and well-thought-out vocational courses that are designed in close collaboration with industry and business. Vocational qualifications will only work if industry is closely involved with the design of the curriculum of courses, as is significantly the case on the continent. There is currently a lack of incentives for students and companies to take up vocational and occupational training. We have yet to see a replacement for the disastrous individual learning accounts. I notice that in "21st Century Skills: Realising our Potential", the ILAs were swept aside, and they are supposed to be dealt with by other initiatives included in that document.

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It is essential that provision of vocational education is at the core of any Government's education strategy. I hope that, once the HE funding debate is put to bed one way or another, we can turn our attention to this critical and important area. It is essential that we find ways to encourage 16 to 18-year-olds in Nottingham, North and across the country to aspire to remain in education and not to get out as fast as possible, as they currently do. That will benefit those young people and their families, communities, companies, employers, productivity and earning potential, and the economy and the UK's competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace.

10.32 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate. More importantly, I congratulate him on focusing in his constituency on the most important issue facing any Member of Parliament—the aspirations of young people and the learning aspirations of the entire community. We know that that matter concerns not only the success of our country in the long term, but the life chances of individuals who have been denied for far too long opportunities that many in our society take for granted. The community leadership role that he is fulfilling in his area is an example of what the modern Member of Parliament often does. It is not spoken about outside this House, but in considering the major challenges facing our constituencies, we ought to be central to the process of bringing together organisations and challenging them to meet the needs of our constituents. There is no more important area in which that is the case than education and aspirations.

I agree with almost everything that the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, which slightly worries me. I hope that that will continue in the months ahead; I almost said years ahead, but in this business, talking about years is sometimes a little optimistic. To respond to the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds), I would say that we agree on much of the agenda. We all agree on the importance and centrality of vocational education. We agree that we have failed to address that issue successfully in this country through the generations, and we believe that it deserves as much attention and focus in public comment and debate as schools and universities tend to get.

We define our education system as schools and universities. We do not talk about vocational or further education, and it is important that we seek to change that situation. It is a source of regret that, despite so much consensus, a great deal of misinformation has been promoted in the higher education debate that seeks to present the choice as between higher education or vocational education. I believe not only that that is a false choice, but that it is deliberately misleading in the context of the present public debate.

Vocational education is vital because it is central to our success in two ways. First, from a social justice point of view, it is a key vehicle for ensuring that every individual has an opportunity to fulfil their potential. Secondly, from an economic success perspective, we continue to lag behind our competitors in productivity. Skills are a key driver of productivity, but far too many

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young people and adults in or close to the labour market still lack the skills that will be necessary if we are to achieve maximum productivity.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North and other hon. Members have said, the great challenge facing the English education system is the non-participation rate at 17. We continue to do well with primary education and reasonably well with graduate-level education, but the real challenge facing us is the fact that, compared with other countries, our drop-out rate at 16 is far too high, with all the damaging social and economic consequences that that brings. That was the central thrust of his argument.

We must also address a cultural problem. There is snobbery in this country towards vocational education. It is looked down on and seen as second class or second rate. Those who continue to talk about vocational education on the one hand and higher education on the other perpetuate the view that vocational education is in some way of secondary importance.

We must debunk some of the myths. Let us consider the relationship between vocational education and skills. More than 50 per cent. of existing higher education degrees are vocational. Foundation degrees will be a major part of the expansion from the current 43 per cent. participation in higher education courses to the 50 per cent. participation that we aspire to achieve by 2010. In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness on further education, I can say that approximately 15 to 20 per cent. of higher education is provided via further education colleges. We should remember that a major part of the modern apprenticeship offer, particularly for the advanced modern apprenticeship, is the opportunity for young people to progress from apprenticeship into foundation degrees. Therefore, the suggestion that the choice is between more university graduates or more people with vocational skills is a dangerous misrepresentation of the challenges that the country faces. It is also a false analysis of what is actually happening in the expansion of higher education.

The concerns about 14-to-19 provision to which all hon. Members have referred reflect exactly why we asked Mike Tomlinson to look at an appropriate long-term phase of education that would really work and make a difference. We do not want rushed revolution, but gradual evolutionary change, so that we can put in place a sensible approach to such provision and get it right. We will ensure that the Tomlinson recommendations, to which we will respond in due course, lead to the coherence that hon. Members have spoken about.

In the meantime, we have already started to put in place many of the building blocks that are integral to a sensible 14-to-19 phase. The Connexions service focuses on helping 13 to 19-year-olds to overcome barriers that prevent them from progressing in education, but places particular emphasis on reducing the number of young people who are not in any form of employment education or training at all.

We introduced eight GCSEs in vocational subjects in September 2002. The first cohort of young people will take those GCSEs this summer. Although we will not know the details until we see the examination entry statistics, all the evidence on take-up of GCSEs in vocational subjects has been very encouraging.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said, educational maintenance allowances will be extended to all 16-year-olds from September. They are an important vehicle for supporting young people in making the choice to stay on at 16 and progress, rather than drop out. I say to the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness that, if we tell young people that we will have a big conversation with them about education being essential and about wanting them to stay on at 16, and also pay them an educational maintenance allowance, but simultaneously tell them that higher education will not be an option for them because we shall cap the number of places since there are not enough higher education resources for the young people whom we need to go through the system, we know what will happen. Young people are smart and sophisticated. They will reject the idea of staying on at 16 and 17 if they know that the realistic prospect for many of them will not be the opportunity of a higher education place.

We are reducing the core curriculum from September. The purpose of that reduction is to enable us to build a curriculum that can increasingly meet the needs of each young person. In the past, we have had a curriculum straitjacket. We would tell young people that there was a very narrow way on which they could stay and progress. They could be motivated and enthusiastic about it, but we know what happened if it was not right for them. It led to disengagement and to young people dropping out long before 16 and sometimes long before 14. The capacity to create a more flexible curriculum is exceptionally important. The opportunity to pick and mix academic and vocational courses is another way of building a more personalised learning experience.

One of the great challenges facing the education system in all its stages at the beginning of the 21st century was the concept of personalised learning or being able to build a learning journey around the needs of each citizen and make a reality of learning for life. We have not always been as good as we need to be at making the links between, for example, young people and adult skills, not only in the sense that to meet our skills needs we must improve the education of 14 to 19-year-olds, but because we must focus on adults such as the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North who missed out on opportunities that they should have had during their compulsory education.

We also need to make the link between adult skills and the raising of school standards. If adults are brought back into learning—mums and dads, grandmas and granddads—it is far more likely that they will see the benefit and relevance of education and have the skills and desire to support their children and grandchildren in their learning. That is important in relation to raising aspirations. Low aspirations permeate far too many families and communities.

We have also begun a process of flexibility for the 14-to-16 age group. Some 80,000 pupils from 1,800 schools, some of them in my hon. Friend's constituency, are spending part of the week in school and part of it at the local college of further education. In some cases, they are spending a day a week with a local employer. That is a very important start, as it is beginning to build a learning experience that turns young people on to learning, instead of turning them off. That is one of the major challenges. We hope to build on the 14-to-16 flexibility programme.

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Work-related learning will become statutory in the curriculum from next year. That means that all young people will, it is hoped, have the opportunity of access to high quality work-related experiences as part of the 14-to-16 curriculum. As hon. Members know, we intend to introduce enterprise education into the key stage 4 strategy.

My hon. Friend referred to the entry into employment programme. Very few people outside this House would know about that programme, and it is not generally known about even here. It is for a group of young people for whom modern apprenticeship, even at foundation level, is too difficult or challenging at their stage in their education, and it is intended to ensure that an offer suitable to every young person is available. Entry into employment is an attempt to provide opportunities for young people and to give them a chance at 16 to move from being unable to enter foundation modern apprenticeships to being able either to do that or to enter directly into a skilled job.

I get extremely frustrated when I read in the newspapers or hear politicians who should know better repeat that it is a shame that we do not have apprenticeships in this country. I hear that suggestion when I speak to business audiences or to educationalists and when I listen to public debates. I can understand why such comments are made, because a lot of people genuinely do not know about our apprenticeship system, but it is galling when Members of this House who do know about the system choose deliberately to say that we need an apprenticeship system in this country when 230,000 young people are currently undertaking modern apprenticeships. That is a major step forward in the number of young people choosing this option over the past two or three years. It does not mean that we do not have major problems, however, as our non-completion rate is too high, and we need modern apprenticeships that are more fit for their purpose in terms of the needs of employers.

None the less, it should be a cause of celebration for us that so many young people are choosing to do modern apprenticeships. In addition, the non-completion rate relates not only to drop-out in the traditional sense. Many young people and employers are choosing to regularise their relationship without finishing the apprenticeship course. That is not something I welcome, and we need to challenge it. However, I think we have a good start regarding modern apprenticeships on which we can build.

We have also asked Tomlinson to come up with coherent proposals about a long-term 14-to-19 phase of education. In direct response to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, when we respond to Tomlinson's recommendations we must, in addition to deciding on the appropriate curriculum, assessments and pathway from 14 to 19, examine any of the policy barriers which may prevent that 14-to-19 education from working. One of those barriers is the financial arrangements, the funding streams and the relationship between LEAs and learning and skills councils.

Mr. Allen : I know that my hon. Friend is keen to respond to the points that I made in the debate and I am

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keen to hear his reply. I underline to him that reviews—whether they be Tomlinson, a strategic review of the learning and skills councils or whatever else—can sometimes be seen by those lower down the food chain as a reason for delay, as when they are told that they must wait for Tomlinson's report and for the Government's response. People need action. Some 1,000 young people in my constituency are about to leave school this coming June. I hope that he will ensure that there is a sense of urgency in moving these proposals forward, particularly where they are local and specific and need only promotion from the Minister's level, and that the issue will not depend on reviews and other excuses for postponement of action.

Mr. Lewis : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's concerns. However, if national policy is to be sensible and coherent in 14-to-19 education, which we have never been able to make work properly even though successive Governments have attempted to address it, it is right and progressive to have established an external group of credible people who can look at the issue objectively. It was both a brave thing to do, because the Government lose control of the process, and the right thing to do. We have also empowered the more positive LEAs and local learning and skills councils to overcome the barriers at a local level, to be imaginative and innovative and to look at local needs.

I shall deal in a moment with the points that my hon. Friend raised in relation to his constituency. First, I wish to refer to some of the work we have done in relation to vocational education more generally. It is important that we also mention the centres of vocational excellence, of which we now have a network of about 400, based in further education colleges and among post-16 providers generally. We are rebuilding both the capital infrastructure and the skilled personnel to deliver vocational education. We must not forget that we have, over many years, dismantled the capacity to provide high-quality vocational education, both in terms of capital infrastructure and having the necessary expertise—the skilled teachers and tutors who can deliver such education. It is exceptionally important that we are in a position to rebuild that.

As the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness said, the agenda will also depend on a much better and closer relationship between employers in the labour market and the education system. We said in the skills strategy that we needed a far more demand-led system. That is why the creation of the sector skills council network is so important. I hope that we will have most of those sector skills councils up and running by the middle of this year, and their job will be to inform the education system about what the needs of the key sectors in our economy actually are.

On the qualification system, in terms not only of Tomlinson and 14-to-19 provision, but of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority shake-up of adult vocational qualifications, unitisation, credit transfer and all the things for which employers have been asking for generations, we are making rapid progress in creating a more demand-led system. I agree, however, that we have to do a lot better in terms of the relationship between the labour market and the education system.

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Turning specifically to Nottingham, North, the first thing I want to do is to pay tribute to the secondary schools in my hon. Friend's constituency for the progress that they have made. He says that the system is not good enough, that it is slow and that we need to do better. He is absolutely right. Every educationalist working in Nottingham, North would accept that view, but when people begin to make in-roads after years of depression, misery and feelings of helplessness, we should pay tribute to the professionals and people on the ground who have made that happen. I echo his tributes.

In the context of the debate about barriers, the schools, FE colleges and universities in my hon. Friend's constituency have come together in a very imaginative and innovative way to look at how they can work together within the existing framework to tackle the problem of low aspiration and break down some of those barriers. I agree that there are national policy issues, whether they relate to funding streams and financial arrangements or to performance measurement of individual institutions. It is still very important that there is transparency about the performance of institutions. I think that such transparency is one of the reasons why standards in our education system have improved.

If we are asking organisations to move from a culture of competition, which is what existed in our education system for decades, to a culture of collaboration and partnership, we are asking them not only to overcome some of the policy barriers, but to make a cultural change in the way in which they work together. "Partnership" is a much used and abused word. What we need is authentic partnership in which people are sometimes willing to put to one side the immediate vested interest of their individual institution and to look at the collective needs of young people in their community and at how the institutions can together ensure that those young people can have access to a high-quality, high-status offer that, more importantly than anything else, supports their progress.

I say to my hon. Friend that we have made progress in the secondary sector. We have tremendous collaboration and we have a university that clearly takes very seriously its responsibility to widen participation while contributing towards tackling the culture of low aspirations in his constituency that is getting in the way of so much of the progress that could be made.

My hon. Friend asked me some very specific questions, which I hope to answer reasonably satisfactorily. First, I shall be delighted to visit Nottingham, North in the near future. Secondly, if local organisations and professionals and the Member of Parliament representing the area believe that it is worth testing a model to see whether it can make a difference in raising aspirations and supporting progress, we should support that. We should not pretend that we know whether it is the answer across the country or even the answer to Nottingham, North's problems.

The hon. Member for Southport was absolutely right to make his point about further education colleges, but we have also made it clear that we do not believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, and it is wrong for us to seek to impose such solutions on communities that, frankly, Westminster and Whitehall do not know. It is the people who represent those communities and work and live in

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them who are in the best position to consider solutions that will, within a sensible policy framework, really address some of their problems.

I accept that there is an urgency about the situation in Nottingham, North, so as well as visiting the constituency, I shall certainly take a personal interest in developments in that community. If there is a significant consensus about testing out the provision of vocational education on a couple of school sites, why not give it a go and see whether it really does achieve a transformation in terms of young people's desire to stay on and progress? I agree with the view expressed by the hon. Member for Southport, who said that some young people's desire to stay on is increased because they prefer the setting of a college of further education, even though they may attend a stand-alone sixth-form centre in that setting, to staying on at school. However, we should not assume that that is the case for all young people. Frankly, we know less about this group of young people, why they are turned off education and how we can be more imaginative and innovative at turning them back on than we know about almost any other group of young people. Testing out ideas such as the one promoted by my hon. Friend and many of the stakeholders in his constituency is therefore perfectly reasonable and legitimate.

While I believe that that testing could be introduced because of the will at a local level, which is supported by us nationally and in terms of removing any unnecessary barriers and obstacles, I recognise that my hon. Friend also referred to the possible use of the power to innovate by either the schools or the LEA. That could be a vehicle for removing any unnecessary legislative obstacles or barriers that would get in the way of the development of these pilot or test-bed projects. I would be more than happy to work with him to see whether the legislative empowering opportunity created by this Government is an appropriate way of removing any other barriers that are perceived to exist.

We will have the kind of country that people of all political colours want only if far more young people achieve their potential in future. That will mean different things for different young people.

Mr. Allen : I thank my hon. Friend very much for the commitments he has just made. I wish to press him on the problem of Treasury and departmental funding and the interface between the LEA and the LSC. Will he also remove that particular problem, or consider doing so? I am being very greedy, but I appreciate his comments so far.

Mr. Lewis : My hon. Friend is a very demanding man, but the answer is yes. We have the power to innovate and strategic area reviews, and we have the "Building schools for the future" programme. When looking at the needs of a particular locality, there is no reason why we cannot make sense of opportunities and significant resources that have not been available in the past in order to deliver the objective that that local community wants. Providing that there is a clear consensus that the people of Nottingham, North want to test out the proposal to see whether it can support progression post 16, I will do everything in my power and the Government will do all they can to get rid of any of the artificial boundaries and barriers that are preventing that from happening.

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Finally, I congratulate my hon. Friend once again on securing this debate, which is significant not only for the people of Nottingham, North, but for the future of this country and the kind of education system that we need to create if we are going to be able to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. I hope that we will battle collectively to ensure that vocational education is discussed far more seriously and in a far more high-profile way than hitherto. We all know that such education will be central to creating the educational opportunities to ensure that every individual young person has the chance to fulfil their potential.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): The Minister sat down in the nick of time. I thank him for his reply.

The next debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), is about married quarters in Osnabrück. For those who do not know, I can tell them that Osnabrück is in Germany, as I served in the Army there.

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