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In the past, education was predominantly a matter of social progress with an economic dimension; now, it is primarily a matter of economic stability with an important social dimension. I have today published a
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Green Paper setting out our proposals that every child remain in education or training, full or part-time, in school, college or the workplace, until the age of 18. That is an historic proposal in more ways than one. It is a crucial step forward in meeting the challenges of the 21st century, as Lord Leitch so ably identified in his recent report, but the measure has been incorporated into legislation for most of the past 80 years, without being invoked. It was originally included in Foster’s Education Act 1918—Foster was a Liberal in the days when Liberals won elections. It was then carried into the great Butler reforms of 1944, before finally being revoked by the Tories in 1988.

Today, the question of staying in education is more pertinent than ever before. In the past, it was possible for millions of school leavers with no qualifications to find work. In the face of increased globalisation, with economic expansion in the east and technological advance in the west, those days are drawing to an end. As Lord Leitch pointed out, there will be only approximately 600,000 unskilled jobs in Britain by 2020 compared with 3.6 million today, and 40 per cent. of jobs in 2020 will require graduate qualifications. Of course, we must ensure that there is an exciting and inspiring offer for each child to pursue in key stage 4.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I welcome what the Secretary of State is saying. What additional investment will be put into the 16-to-18 sector to accommodate the extra students who will stay on?

Alan Johnson: For that aspect, there will be £200 million in capital spend in the run-up to 2015, when we intend to have every child staying on until 18; and there will be £700 million a year in revenue spend to ensure that we have available the capacity and the facilities we need.

Meg Hillier: On a recent visit to Hackney’s air cadets, I found that the proposal was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by the young men and women in the air cadets. Will my right hon. Friend reassure them that training in the workplace is a real option, and will he explain that further?

Alan Johnson: I must pay a flying visit to Hackney air cadets. It is important that we engage young people in the discussion—that is why a Green Paper has been published. We are saying that exciting options will be available—I shall describe them later in my speech—and that there will be a personal relationship with trained people to advise and guide young people on which route to take. We must get rid of the mixed message that we send to young people that, on the one hand, it is crucial that they stay in education, but, on the other, that it is okay if they just slip off the radar screens at 16. We have plenty of time to win over Hackney air cadets before the proposals are implemented.

Mr. Jack: Given the importance of the message that the right hon. Gentleman has just articulated, what sort of a message regarding the importance of staying on does he think is sent by the position of those young people who have trained to be doctors? Thirty thousand were persuaded to be trained, but only 22,000 can find work.

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Alan Johnson: I shall resist the temptation to deal with that point—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will raise it in another debate. However, it is important to say that the number of fully trained doctors and nurses, like the number of teachers, teaching assistants and head teachers, has increased enormously since he was in government.

Apprenticeships provide a valuable route for youngsters to take to stay in education or training. In 1966, there were 750,000 apprenticeships available for 16 and 17-year-olds, but by the time we came into power, that number had tumbled to 53,000. We rescued that valuable vocational opportunity from near oblivion. The number of apprenticeships has trebled since 1997 and the Budget settlement will ensure that every young qualified person will have a guaranteed place. For those who do not qualify, we will provide pre-apprenticeship places to bring them up to standard and to ensure that they can take up an apprenticeship place.

Greg Clark: Will the Secretary of State explain whether that settlement has Gershon savings factored into it? How does he take account of the National Audit Office’s conclusion that only a quarter of those savings reliably reflect efficiencies made?

Alan Johnson: I shall leave it to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to deal with that at the end of the debate. I shall concentrate on our priority of education.

In the past five years, we have also successfully increased the completion rate of apprenticeships. I think that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) mixed up the figures recently announced by the Learning and Skills Council. I saw somewhere that he said that there was a 59 per cent. failure rate in apprenticeships. In fact, we inherited a dire 24 per cent. completion rate and the LSC has recently reported that that rate has increased since 2002 to almost 60 per cent.

Mr. Sheerman: Did my right hon. Friend notice that as soon as he started to talk about apprenticeships, Opposition Members totally lost interest and started to talk among themselves? They have no interest in further education, no interest in vocational education, and no interest in anyone in our state sector.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right. That is why the Opposition will be serving their apprenticeship for the next 10 years.

Diplomas provide a further important choice by introducing the mix of vocational and academic education that we in this country have lacked for so long. Having the first five diplomas ready for 2008 is an ambitious undertaking, but we are determined to succeed, working closely with the industries that are designing the diplomas and the schools and colleges that will deliver them. The greater availability of the international baccalaureate will provide a further important educational route. All those qualifications will include functional skills in English, maths and ICT.

However, we cannot meet the education and skills challenges of the 21st century by concentrating on schools alone. As Lord Leitch noted in his interim report, 70 per cent. of the 2020 work force have
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finished their formal education—they are out there in the workplace now. As I mentioned earlier, since 2001, 1.5 million adults have secured essential literacy and numeracy skills through Skills for Life. More than 1 million more adults in the work force have obtained level 2 qualifications since 2002. With this year’s settlement, we will ensure that learning and upskilling are at the heart of every workplace as we respond to the Leitch report.

Our solution to tomorrow’s challenges is record investment as well as systematic reform. The $64.9 billion question for the Conservatives is whether they would match our investment. Would they break the habits of a lifetime and invest in education? Given that their famous third fiscal rule would take £21 billion from public spending in this year alone, how could they possibly deal with the amount of expenditure that we need in our education service?

David Howarth: On the topic of using expenditure to deal with problems, may I bring the Secretary of State to the figures that he announced for dealing with the staying-on problem? I think that he said that there would be £700 million-worth of revenue to deal with the problem. If we assume that there are something like 350,000 young people a year not staying on and we have to cover two years of education or training, does that not mean that he is proposing only £1,000 per young person per year? Is that not too little?

Alan Johnson: No, what the hon. Gentleman has to bear in mind is that we will move from 16 to 17 in 2013 and then from 17 to 18 in 2015. We have already factored in a public service agreement target of a 90 per cent. participation rate by 2015, which means that there is another 10 per cent. to cater for—around 80,000 students.

I want to talk about higher education and to do so in the context of the Conservative party.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Alan Johnson: We know the stance that the Conservatives took— [ Interruption. ] Just a second. Conservative Members should show some manners. I will give way in due course. They should not be so forward and impatient—[Hon. Members: “And pushy!”]—and even pushy. We know the stance the Conservatives took on higher education. One of the greatest economic, let alone educational challenges that we face, is the need to invest in and expand our higher education sector.

Mr. Willetts: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for eventually giving way. I wanted to ask him about the skills section of his speech. Will he explain to the House why, if things are going as well as he claims, the number of young people not in education, employment or training has risen since 1997 from 1.08 million to nearly 1.25 million? What lessons does he learn from the complete failure of the Government to bring down the number of young people who are NEET?

Alan Johnson: The thrust of my argument is not that everything is perfect. Part of the— [ Interruption. ] I will
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come back to the point about NEETs in a second. Part of the argument that we are using is that, having come so far and laid the foundations—they were very expensive foundations to lay and they were never even remotely matched by the Conservative party—we can now move on to ensure that we close the attainment gap between children from more deprived backgrounds and children from more prosperous backgrounds.

The number of NEETs has been around a stubborn 10 per cent. for the past 10 years. The number of youngsters in education and training has increased. That is clear. A combination of the introduction of the education maintenance allowance and higher attainment, which encourages youngsters to stay on in school, has led to something like a 5 per cent. increase in participation rates. It is also fair to say and worth pointing out that only 1 per cent. of youngsters who are NEET are not in education, employment or training in each of those years—16, 17 and 18. There is a hard core that we need to address and a lot is going into addressing that.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced yesterday another measure, costing £500,000, to offer youngsters who have dropped out of in-work training to bring them back into education. We have another, similar project going on in 10 local authority areas, to see what we can do to help those youngsters. Some of it is about gap years. Some of it is about the fact that they just want to take time out. A lot of it is about disenchantment with education and being able to bring those young people back into the fold. It is an important problem. We are not saying that we have solved it, but our investment and our measures are capable of resolving it eventually.

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that lifting people out of poverty is the best route in terms of education and skills, but, unfortunately, when it comes to the whole question of apprenticeships we still have a male bastion. Will he do all that he can to encourage women to get involved in some of the education and skills schemes, not just to develop their own skills and lift themselves out of poverty, but to address the needs of the country?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend raises an important point, but I have good news. There is much more that we need to do, but 48 per cent. of apprentices are now women; 52 per cent. are men. We are getting close to parity. That is a long way from where we were before we undertook several initiatives, in which he has been active, to encourage more young women to come into apprenticeships.

Let us talk about higher education. Variable tuition fees were one of the major policy reforms of recent years—an act of political courage by a Government who could so easily have ducked the issue. It taught us— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask Conservative Front-Bench Members to come to order.

Alan Johnson: It taught us all that we need to know about the Conservatives. We saw how they reacted when they had to grapple with a genuinely difficult
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policy issue that affects the future of our country. We rightly gauge the challenge from India and China in terms of the investment that they are making in higher education and the number of graduates that they produce every year. The Conservatives, having presided over a 40 per cent. cut in per capita funding in our universities, were preparing to make a further 6.5 per cent. cut in funding before the British people removed them from office in 1997. Let us never forget that their response to our proposals was to contract higher education down to a 36 per cent. participation rate.

Michael Gove: The Secretary of State referred to the act of courage in introducing variable tuition fees. How does he feel about the fact that the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), the namesake and protégé of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown), led the revolt against precisely that act of political courage? How does he feel about that infamous treachery from the lackey of his Cabinet colleague?

Alan Johnson: My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) voted for the reform. Opposition Members voted against it in droves. It was one of the most crucial staging posts in how we tackle the economic challenges of the 21st century. Their response was to remove almost £1 billion of higher education funding by removing the existing £1,000 fee, as well as contracting the participation rate to 36 per cent.

Mr. Willetts: Following on from the previous intervention, what is the Secretary of State’s view of the account of events that day from Sir Stephen Wall, who says that on the day of the vote the people inside No. 10 Downing street did not know whether the Chancellor and his supporters would be voting for or against the Government’s own proposals? Was that not extraordinary?

Alan Johnson: That is absolute, undiluted nonsense. Let us consider what the hon. Gentleman had to say about the issue. He said that the Conservatives did not support the Government’s target for expansion, which was crucial to expand our higher education, and that, as fees are necessary to finance the expansion, if we did not have the expansion, we did not need the fees. I know that the Conservatives flip-flopped on this issue. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that fees should be scrapped—that is clear and precise. They flip-flop on the issue, but we cannot allow them to escape. When they had to make a difficult judgment on a difficult policy issue, they chose the route that would have damaged our economy and our country.

We should heed the wise words of a distinguished Conservative former higher education Minister—Robert Jackson, the then Member for Wantage—who said on Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill:

Certainly, as long as we have breath to breathe, that will be our approach.

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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Alan Johnson: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who was on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill.

Mr. Clappison: While we are on the subject of who said what when, will the Secretary of State just remind us what the 2001 Labour manifesto said about this issue?

Alan Johnson: That is why it was a difficult act of political courage. [ Laughter. ] Absolutely; of course. It would not have been very courageous to do it if it had been in the manifesto. The point is that having introduced the fees at £1,000, we faced a situation in which it was obvious, given globalisation and expansion in China and India, that we needed to go further quickly. That was what we did, and that was why the act was courageous.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Is the Secretary of State saying that anyone can keep a promise, but that it requires courage to break it?

Alan Johnson: The right hon. Gentleman is an expert among Conservative Members at breaking manifesto promises. There is a difference between top-up fees and variable tuition fees. However, as Beatrice Webb said about socialism, explaining it would take too many evenings.

Let me point out what happened to the Conservative party’s prediction that fees would lead to a collapse in university applications. Indeed, that allegation was also made by the Liberal Democrats. Last month’s figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that 291,000 students have applied to enter university this year, which is a 7.1 per cent. increase. The social class gap, which widened during the 30 years of post-Robbins free higher education, with generous grants, actually narrowed by almost 0.5 per cent. in the first year of variable deferred fees.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): To be fair, the largest group in those statistics is made up of people whose parents’ backgrounds are unknown. It is a leap of faith for the Secretary of State to say that the policy has made that much difference.

Alan Johnson: If that is the best that the hon. Lady can do to defend her policy of not introducing fees, I do not think that it adds up to very much. I am absolutely convinced that when we come to the review in 2009, we will have a wealth of evidence that might even convince the hon. Lady, who is a fair and open-minded person, to support the policy.

Incidentally, I might as well add to the good news by saying that applications to study physics are up by 12 per cent. Applications to study chemistry are up by 11 per cent. and applications to study maths are up by 10 per cent. The policy was the right thing to do for our country and our education system.

Meg Hillier: We know that there are more young black men in prison than at university. Sadly, the
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chances of Hackney children going to university in droves are still limited. Is this not a question of priorities? Surely it is right that we have been investing in Sure Start and primary and secondary education. If we have to make a choice, it is best to put the money there than to subsidise perhaps wealthier people to go to university, given that we never subsidise cooks, chefs and people in other trades.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right. This is not only about the stage of applying to university. The process starts in the earliest years, which is why from Sure Start to adult skills, from improved literacy and numeracy to a thriving HE sector, and from city academies to rejuvenated further education colleges, Britain’s education system is attracting the attention of the world.

We have moved from overcrowded classes in crumbling schools with tatty equipment to more teachers who are better trained and achieving better results than ever before. As the Budget demonstrates, from 18 years of the Tories to 10 years of Labour, it is a different class.

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