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Many children who hang about on the streets claim that there is nothing to do. Well, in my borough there is lots for children to do, and I am sure that there is nothing unusual about that. There are the Churches, uniformed organisations, school clubs, sport, drama, art and music. However, some children are what we could call “unclubbable”. It is not that there is nothing
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for them to join, but that they do not want to join. We have to make an enormous effort to turn those children round. Happily, they are not representative of young people as a whole.

The good news is—I can speak for the young people in Upminster, but I suspect that there is nothing unusual in that, and that hon. Members throughout the House will be able to provide similar examples from their own constituencies—that there is so much going on for so many young people who are doing the right thing. Many young people are doing their best at school and behave acceptably, thinking of others and enjoying very happy lives, fulfilled with a whole range of activities, many of which are associated with our schools. Schools in the London borough of Havering are particularly good. We have a flagship service, which is one of the reasons why property prices are so high, with people moving in so that their children can attend Upminster schools—and it is such a good place to live that they do not move away again afterwards.

Early years education is particularly important; we have a very good Sure Start children’s centre in Harold Hill. If we can get very young children involved in that sort of thing before they enter formal education, they can learn social and interpersonal skills, how to accept one another, how to accept authority and how to conform. They can learn through play how to get on with one another so that by the time they go to school, they are self-confident, well adjusted and ready for teaching and learning. Half the battle is already won.

Most of my local schools have school councils, and I have been impressed when visiting my schools—even including primary schools—at the standard of debate and questioning. I get some very probing questions from very young children, who often want to know first how much I earn, and then all sorts of other questions follow about what Parliament does, how to become an MP and so forth. They probably know more than many adults in the community about what the council does, what Parliament does and how laws are made. I was very impressed. They also have their own anti-bullying policy, and debate problems in school. I have observed school councils in operation: the meeting skills are excellent, with one person speaking and everyone else listening. It helps to build up the next generation in a positive way.

I happen to be a governor of two local schools, which have excellent standards of behaviour. Pupils move about the school unsupervised and in a sensible way. We can see that they are well adjusted, that they are enjoying their education and that they behave perfectly. One of the schools is a Roman Catholic girls secondary school, where the pupils gain the benefit of having an ethos in school that is the same as the ethos that they experience at home. That is an amazing advantage and there is a high level of parental interest in what goes on in the school. That support, and the link between what goes on at school and what goes on at home, enables those pupils to fulfil their full potential academically, not to mention all the other skills that schools have to offer. I am very pleased that the Government will, because of the overwhelming wish of the public and hon. Members on both sides of the House, support faith schools, which are hugely successful.


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I have been particularly impressed by the drama, sport and music going on in our schools. Hill Mead school, for example, puts on a musical every year and the standard is absolutely amazing. There is standing room only because every year the annual musical is so good that the news goes all around. We think that it will not be possible to better the performance next year, because this year’s must be the peak. Yet every year somehow it gets even better. As well as acting, singing and dancing, students are learning choreography, stage management, lighting, prop making and so forth. Many students in the school are involved in the production and it is enormously successful, providing those involved with huge self-confidence in their achievements.

The head teacher told me about one occasion on which he took a coach load of pupils up to see a west end production of a show that they were going to put on. He said to the pupils afterwards, “I hope that you’ll be able to do it almost as well as that,” to which they all replied, “No sir, we’re going to do it better.” Those are children who are becoming confident about what they can achieve in life.

A group of children from the same school have just been to Kenya under the Kids Alive scheme, where they mixed with children who live in deprived and modest circumstances. The exchange between those two groups of children was enormously beneficial, with each group learning a lot from the other.

There are lots of wonderful things going on in our schools. It is the majority of our young people who are achieving and who think of others as well as themselves; it is the few who give all young people a bad reputation. Those are the ones who get things wrong and catch the attention of the press and the media.

We also have the wonderful Saturday music school in Havering. The musical achievements of the students who go there and the virtuoso performances that we hear at their concerts are very impressive. I wish that every child could have the opportunity to learn an instrument, because once they learn one, they often learn several others. The skill helps them in maths and other lessons, and is hugely beneficial to them throughout their entire lives. The ability to entertain and please others while doing something that one enjoys oneself is a wonderful skill to have.

I should like to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to a wonderful project at Havering college of further and higher education, which was started by two lecturers who have children with learning difficulties. Those lecturers run a life skills course for children with learning difficulties called ROSE, which stands for realistic opportunities for supported employment. Those students are assigned a job tutor who finds local jobs for them, with huge support from local employers, through their corporate responsibility. The job tutor will take the student to work from their home, stay all day to settle them in and ensure that the other employees are happy and understand them, and then take them home again. The support that the job tutors give is gradually withdrawn inch by inch, so that at the end of, say, a six-month period, the student with learning difficulties is independent and working. That spares those people from a lifetime of benefit
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dependency and inactivity. I should like that example of good practice to be copied throughout the country.

I am an ambassador for guiding, and on Remembrance day I always give the local scout troops the beaver, cub and scout awards for the year. All those youth organisations depend heavily on volunteers, and last Sunday there were three new volunteers. I asked the troop leader, “How on earth did you find three new volunteers?” because we all know how difficult it is to persuade people to give their time to youth organisations, as their own lives are so busy. The answer was, “These were three parents who wanted their own boys to join.” They were told that unless they became volunteers, their boys would not be able to join, because the troop would not be able to run. We need to find ways to encourage more people to help in youth organisations. Our local boys brigade band led the Royal British Legion to the church for the Remembrance day service last Sunday. That is the sort of good thing that young people are doing up and down the country; it is an example from Upminster, but I am sure that all hon. Members can give similar examples.

There is a wonderful youth parliament in the Robert Beard youth club, which takes a particular interest in how Parliament is working and gives me a thorough grilling about what is happening. The young people there are the MPs for the future. They have concerns for the environment and the community, and are responsible and positive-thinking young people. They could not be more different from the young people we keep hearing about who get in trouble and grab all the publicity.

I finish with a brief anecdote. My grandchildren do a range of activities. The youngest one is a competent skier, he can swim, he plays football, he does judo and he does bell ringing. He is now able to ring bells at weddings, so he has reached a certain level of competence. However, his PE teacher wrote in his end-of-term report that he was unco-ordinated. My daughter was in high dudgeon about that. She said, “How can he possibly be unco-ordinated if he can do all those things?” On reflection, however, we thought that the lack of co-ordination probably came between the teacher’s mouth and Billy's ear. He obviously was not paying attention to what he had been told to do. They cannot be perfect all the time, can they? Let us remember that the vast majority of young people are really good, and not let our opinions be swayed by the few who get it wrong.

5.25 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): We have had a wide-ranging debate with some interesting and distinguished speakers. Thinking back to old times, it was a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), whom I think of as an expert on the finer details of the benefits system. I did not know that he was such an expert on sperm donation as well. I realise now how wide ranging his experience is.

There was a passionate speech from my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on mental health, although I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), who is well known for his support for complementary and
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alternative medicine, perhaps went a bit far when he said that it was possible to remove someone’s head under acupuncture. However, we understand the broad point that he was making.

We had a range of distinguished speakers on the Conservative Benches: my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), for West Chelmsford, for Bosworth, for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). That list shows that we had both the quality and the quantity on this side of the House.

There were nine speeches from Conservative Back Benchers in this debate on health and education—nine of, sadly, still only around 200 Conservative Members—so 5 per cent. of Conservative Members contributed. We had speeches from four of the 350 Government Back Benchers, so just over 1 per cent. of their Back-Bench Members spoke. We do not yet have the independent statistics commission, but I take that as meaning that five times more Conservative Back Benchers spoke. We can conclude from that that Conservative Members are five times more committed to health and education than Labour Members.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), who is not in her seat, spoke about the Congolese rain forest, but we rightly focused on health and education. The Secretary of State for Health is back in her seat. We found it extraordinary that she maintained that there was no connection between the financial crisis clearly facing the NHS at the moment and the way in which payment by results has been implemented. She maintained that that was an extraordinary coincidence, but Conservative Members understand that those two events are directly connected, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) powerfully argued. It is the way in which payment by results has been implemented—not the principle—that is such an important reason for the financial crisis that has been described by so many of my hon. Friends today.

I see that in my part of the country on the south coast. In Havant and Portsmouth, threats of closure face Haslar hospital, Havant war memorial hospital, Victoria cottage hospital in Emsworth, and St. Richard’s hospital in Chichester. The Government say, “Do not worry, all the money is going into the rebuilding of the Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth.” The trouble is that the patients, GPs and other doctors prefer the smaller, local hospitals, over which the threats are hanging—some of them have already had to close. It is no good Ministers deploying the rhetoric of how much they value community hospitals when, as we have heard today by mention of so many real-life examples, local community hospitals are most under threat from the financial crisis facing the health service.

As we have the good fortune of having both the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills present on the Front Bench at the same time, I should like to ask them about something that combines health and education, but which has not been referred to in the debate: the
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financial crisis facing some universities as a result of the failure by the NHS to meet its commitments on budgets for training the NHS workers of the future.

The CMU—Coalition of Modern Universities—group says that the question marks over NHS contracts represent one of the biggest present causes of instability for modern universities, which have had their own strategies to meet demand based on previous assurances about contract requirements and prices. The group goes on to say that those universities obviously have staff and training facilities in place to meet staff-student ratios and the other requirements as required by the professional bodies which accredit the courses.

Therefore, I wish to ask the following questions of the two Secretaries of State. Will the Secretary of State for Education and Skills confirm that he recognises the financial pressures that are on some universities as a result of NHS cuts in the training of nurses, doctors and NHS workers for the future? Will the Secretary of State for Health recognise that taking NHS training through a boom-bust cycle, and driving universities into deficit and causing them to close some of those training facilities, is no way to ensure that we have the trained doctors and nurses whom we need in future? In fact, it would be a source of great comfort to us if we knew that the two of them have even communicated about that important issue which is shared between health and education.

In the Blairite spirit that makes initiatives sound like something from the Chinese calendar, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that this year is to be the year of skills. We welcome a debate on the importance of skills and training, but before turning to skills, I wish to ask the Secretary of State about some of the loose ends from the Government’s education legislation, because it is important that they live up to some of the commitments that they have made.

An undertaking was made in the other place that there will be an investigation into making it possible for kids in state schools to sit exams such as the IGCSE—the international general certificate of secondary education. The Government have talked a lot about raising standards in state schools so that they match independent schools. One basic way in which we could show that we are committed to that principle would be by making it possible for students in state schools to sit the same exams as are now available to students in independent schools. It is wrong that we have two nations in education, with exams for which pupils at independent schools can study but for which those attending state schools are not permitted to do so. I hope that we will hear from the Secretary of State what the time scale is for the consultation that was promised on that subject in another place.

I also hope that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will tell us a little about the Government’s commitments on academies. I was struck by the following recent newspaper headline—from The Daily Telegraph, I think: “Blair pushes for more city academies to seal legacy”. Apparently, the Prime Minister was a bit worried about his legacy and was very keen to get as many academies as possible in place before he left office. Let me assure the Secretary of State that the Prime Minister need have no worries about his academy legacy. Conservative Members
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believe in academies, and we will support them; there is no danger to academies, or the expansion of them, from us.

I wonder whether No. 10’s anxiety about the legacy was because of someone rather closer to home, whom they thought might be the real threat when the Prime Minister leaves office. I am sure that the Secretary of State will welcome our suggestion that the best way of guaranteeing the future expansion of academies is to have a smooth and orderly transition from the Prime Minister to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who will ensure that the academy movement carries on and extends.

We have also had statements recently from the Secretary of State about 16 to 18-year-olds. He is reported to have said that he expects them to stay on in education or to go into training. It will be very interesting to hear from him exactly what he meant by that. Within 48 hours of his making that statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear that in his view nobody is suggesting that children who do not want to do so should stay on at school full-time until 18. So exactly what kite was the Secretary of State flying? Will he explain what his commitment was? [Interruption.] Labour Members say, “It’s not about schools”, but if it is about training, what form will it take?

Will the Secretary of State also confirm one of the most scandalous statistics of this Government’s time in office? When we left office in 1997, there were 157,000 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs: the people whom the education and training system has let down. That figure was already far too high. Will the Secretary of State confirm that according to the latest figures there are now 220,000 such people? Despite all the Government’s efforts, there has been a 40 per cent. increase in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds who are not getting started in the basics of further education or training. So of course we need some initiatives on that. What do the Government propose to do about it?

We Conservatives know what needs to be done. We understand that those young people have become detached from education. They have lost contact with, and faith in, training because, sadly, many of them have been let down by an education system that has not provided them with the basics. Almost half of all 11-year-olds still leave primary school unable to read, write and add up. What they need is synthetic phonics—an issue so powerfully pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb)—as the basis of reading, so that they can remain engaged with and attached to what is happening in the classroom. Far too many classes are still not put into sets, yet setting often enables teenagers to learn and to participate in lessons that are conducted at a speed that is right for them.

We are told in the Queen’s Speech that we will have a Bill on further education. I hope that the Secretary of State will take us through it and explain today some of what he is doing. This is of course very odd. Although we have been told about that Bill, we have yet to receive the Leitch report that was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—it is due to be published around the time of the autumn statement—which is supposed to set out the Government’s skills and
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training agenda. The Department for Education and Skills has announced a Bill, which is presumably in the process of being drafted, before we have had the Treasury’s proposals, which will be introduced next month. That seems an extremely odd way to run a Government. [Interruption.] We are indeed waiting for Gordon.

I must tell the Secretary of State that if I were to describe the slow process whereby a Government decay and lose momentum, it would be when the best that they come up with on a subject as important as education is a set of proposals to reorganise their previous reorganisation. We have now reached the stage where the “radical” new measures in the further education Bill will involve changing a structure that the Government themselves introduced within only the past few years. It is at the point when one is reorganising one’s own reorganisation that people lose confidence.

In fact, the Secretary of State should take some advice from the Secretary of State for Health. If there is one reason why the NHS has got into such a mess, it is the nine reorganisations to which it has been subject. Yet what does the right hon. Gentleman propose for education? He proposes a further reorganisation. He is apparently going to get rid of local learning and skills councils—and replace them with regional learning and skills councils. However, it was only in 2000 that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), introduced the legislation that created the local structure. He told the House on Second Reading of that Bill:

Why have the Government changed their mind?

We in the Opposition have our disagreements with the learning and skills councils. They cost a lot of money, not enough of which gets through to FE colleges and trainers. However, we know that this country is localist rather than regionalist. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich is an eloquent exponent of that belief. Given a choice as to where decisions on such matters should be taken, I should have more confidence in those taken at local level.

In his report of only a year ago, Sir Andrew Foster proposed a strengthening of the role of local learning and skills councils. He said:


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