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To the first question—does the Bill serve a desirable end?—we say yes. We believe that getting more young people to participate fruitfully in education for longer—and not just to age 18—is an unalloyed good. Our ambition is to see more and more people over time progressively broadening their horizons and participating in education.
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We believe in the democratisation of knowledge and in making opportunity more equal. We want to see more people going to university—and, indeed, more people acquiring level 4 qualifications in every way possible.

We also want to see what has become known as lifelong learning become second nature for many. The acquisition of new qualifications after people have left school, whether as a means of improving employability or simply of enriching their mental lives, is a good that is worth pursuing. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has been so eloquent in expressing his concern at what the Government might be doing through their policy on equivalent and lower qualifications. We want to ensure that people who want to acquire new skills that complement their existing qualifications are given every possible encouragement to do so. That was part of the noble impulse behind the creation of the Open university, and it is a pity that the party that set up that institution appears now to be in the process of limiting access to it.

Philip Davies: I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend says. Is not the crux of the matter the fact that the Government do not understand that people can learn an awful lot in the workplace? I probably learned more in my time working for Asda than I learned on my degree course at university. Should not people have the opportunity to learn at work, rather than being forced to get some bogus educational qualification that they do not want?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all benefit from the experience that he secured in the workplace as well as from his academic arguments. He is right to say that individuals should have the freedom to choose the course that is best for them.

Ms Butler: Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of the education maintenance allowance?

Michael Gove: Yes, absolutely— [ Interruption . ] Well, the Secretary of State is the one who is paying for it. We are entirely in favour not only of the existence of the EMA but of the provisions in the Bill to secure an extension to it. We want to extend opportunity at every stage. We do not want to compel or coerce where we do not need to; we want to provide opportunity where it is required. That is at the heart of our approach.

Some people argue that the goal of ever-higher participation in education is wrong, and object to extending educational opportunity. I accept that the Secretary of State is legitimately concerned about those views, and I, too, want to explain why I think that they are wrong. The first argument that I would deploy is unashamedly personal. No one in my family had gone to university, and both my parents left school early. I know how education can transform opportunities. I would never want any child to lose out on opportunity through a lack of parental resources—that is where the EMA comes in—through a failure of schools to raise aspiration, which is where Connexions can come in, or through a cultural resistance to learning among a child’s peers or within his or her community. I am sure that we all know of circumstances in which such resistance exists.

My second argument involves social justice. We know that access to educational opportunity is a
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critical determinant of future earnings and of well-being. At the moment, educational opportunity is unequally distributed. Contrary to the impression given by the Secretary of State in his speech, figures that we excavated over the Christmas period show that the gap between the academic performance in the most advantaged 10 per cent. of schools and that in the least advantaged 10 per cent. has grown and is growing. It is a source of deep concern to us that that should be so. Work by the Sutton Trust and others has confirmed the melancholy correlation between deprivation and academic achievement. We believe that there needs to be a concerted drive to tackle that unfairness and to extend opportunity. We can do that by tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in the earliest years. That, once again, will open up the prospect of academic excellence to many, many more.

If the drive succeeds and the number of individuals from poorer backgrounds staying on to 18 in education increases, and if the number going on to university or equivalent institutions begins to catch up with the equivalent number for those from more fortunate backgrounds who are already enjoying such opportunity, the university population will clearly increase. That is our aim. To those who say that that is idealistic, I plead guilty, and I ask those who say that it is impossible to spend a little time looking at geography and then history.

First, let us consider geography. Across the globe, the participation rate in further and higher education is rising. In Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, the United States and even Poland, the number of young people going to university is higher than the proportion who currently do so here. In South Korea and Taiwan, the numbers participating in equivalent institutions is also rising fast. In China and India, of course, the participation rate is rocketing.

As to history, I would like the House to recall the experience of one minority community in Britain. Its members came here, often fleeing persecution, with few resources and little in the way of marketable qualifications more than 100 years ago. They found jobs in sweatshops, retail, low-level commerce and other unskilled or low-skilled environments. Yet within 100 years or so—the space of two or three generations—that community has reached a point where it sends 80 per cent. of its young people to university. That community, the Jewish community, is—in education, as in so many other areas—an example to us all. I see no reason why other minority communities might not aspire to similar levels of participation or why we as a nation should not be inspired by that community’s example.

Mr. Willis: Let me refer the hon. Gentleman to another community—that of young people with disabilities. Roughly 27 per cent. of young people with registered disabilities are not in work, training or education at the age of 19. The reality behind that is that organisations—employers, colleges and schools—do not have the relevant provision to attract those students. Is not the Secretary of State putting forward a decent argument when he says that, without compulsion, they never will?

Michael Gove: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I believe that there are ways other than compulsion by which we can ensure that colleges are oriented towards the needs of people with disabilities and employers take
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account of the many ways in which individuals with disabilities can contribute to the work force. Members of my own family who are living with disabilities have, partly owing to the effects of good educational backgrounds and the influence of sensitive employers, succeeded in securing employment. I believe that it is important to have an unrelenting drive to value what people living with disabilities can offer us, not just in economic terms, but in others. I take the point that many who believe in this Bill also believe that compulsion is the only way to secure that desirable end. At the moment, however, I am not convinced that the method of compulsion in the Bill is the most desirable way of achieving the ends of which the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly reminded us.

I have mentioned history and geography in respect of increasing participation in education, but it is also important, in deference to the Secretary of State, to mention economics. As well as personal conviction and social justice, economic imperatives, too, drive the case for greater participation in education. The Leitch report, to which the Secretary of State referred, is the latest in a long line of analyses of Britain’s educational underperformance. With specific reference to vocational skills, we have had reports on educational underperformance going right back to 1868.

Lord Leitch is very specific about the number of jobs that he believes will be available to those without skills in 2020—just 600,000, he argues. I myself am wary about predicting with such uncanny precision the specific demand for particular types of labour in an open marketplace in 14 years’ time. Some economists argue that the labour market of the future will be much more fluid than Lord Leitch envisages. However, I very much agree with the broader point that the more highly skilled and the better educated our work force—all other things being equal, as I was taught to say in my higher economics—the higher our overall productivity will be.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Ceteris paribus.

Michael Gove: Yes, ceteris paribus, as the Under-Secretary reminds me from a sedentary position. Perhaps with his knowledge of Latin he is, unlike me, a grammar school boy. Anyway, as well as increasing our productivity as a nation, a higher level of educational participation will help us meet and master globalisation. The process of globalisation is leading to increased specialisation within markets and between countries, so those economies with highly skilled work forces can adapt and benefit more.

Ms Butler: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a great speech. He is building up to a conclusion that the Opposition must support the Bill. Am I correct?

Michael Gove: I am grateful that the hon. Lady is enjoying the speech. I am seeking to make it clear that we believe the goal of increasing educational participation to be a good one. As I mentioned at the beginning, however, there is a difference between recognising that something is desirable and being concerned about the means that are used along the way to achieve that. With
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deference to the Labour party, I might call it the “Iraq test”. We all recognise the desirability of removing Saddam Hussein, but how something like that is done can be crucial. [Interruption.] I fear that the Secretary of State was once again quoting the right hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), but, I suspect, very much sotto voce—that is Latin too, is it not?

If we can get back to English, the pace of economic change and globalisation places an increasing premium not just on a more skilled work force overall but on ensuring that skills are distributed as widely as possible across the work force. As the pace of economic change is being driven by innovation and by the human brain achieving amazing things technologically and scientifically, brain power increasingly dictates destiny. Therefore, we should do everything that we can to harness every individual’s intellectual potential.

I should add one other rider to the economic arguments in favour of increasing educational participation. There are those who argue that educational achievement is primarily a positional good—a way of demarcating people’s position in a hierarchy so as to secure a better reward proportionate to that of those below them. Those who make that argument contend that qualifications are basically a way of separating sheep from goats. I reject that case. I believe that the more people who have acquired meaningful qualifications, the better. There should be no arbitrary cap on the number who might acquire any qualification, and the creation of communities and a society in which learning is highly valued and knowledge widely dispersed is enriching for everyone.

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend is making a distinguished and very interesting speech. Does he agree that one of the worst aspects of a drift in the standards of attainment in qualifications is that it lets down the people who think that they have done really well, when in fact they have not, and they think that opportunities will be open to them when, in reality, they will remain closed to them?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend, who has a distinguished record in higher education, makes a very good point about the importance of ensuring that the standards of qualifications remain up to scratch. To be fair to the Secretary of State, which is always my aim, some of his announcements about the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are intended to achieve that goal. Whether or not they live up to the advance billing remains to be seen, but as with that change and this Bill, I am sure that his heart is in the right place.

Ms Butler: Is your heart in the right place?

Michael Gove: It is up to the hon. Lady to decide.

As I was arguing, the more people who secure high- level qualifications, the more room there is for collaboration intellectually, the stronger the networks that generate innovation, and the more opportunities are open to every individual. Therefore, generating higher participation in education and making opportunity more equal threaten no one and enrich our whole society. In that respect, and in so far as this Bill is intended to express a national aspiration to increase participation, that is a noble aim.

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That brings me to my second test: does the Bill do violence to any valuable principle? That takes us to the heart of the whole question of compulsion. At the weekend, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the current Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), made a very good speech—

Mr. Laws: Excellent.

Michael Gove: Excellent, some would say—I think that it was very good; I would give it a B-plus. In it, he defined two axes of politics—progressive and non-progressive, liberal and anti-liberal. I would argue, and have argued, that working for higher levels of participation in education is progressive, but making anything compulsory is, almost by definition, unlikely to be liberal. Before discussing the practicalities of what the Bill proposes in terms of compulsion, and since this is the Second Reading, I want to explore the question of the principle.

The Bill places a new duty specifically on 16 and 17-year-olds to participate in education or training. In that respect, as I am sure that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) understands, it is qualitatively different from previous historic changes to the school leaving age. When previous changes were made—all, it must be said, by majority Conservative Administrations—the duty rested on parents to ensure that their children were being educated, and for very good reasons. Governments were legislating to protect children from the pressures—economic, social, cultural or whatever—which might have drawn them out of school prematurely. Those Conservative Governments, and their Liberal allies and supporters—I should say, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that we are talking about history: I refer to Conservative Governments and their then Liberal allies and supporters—they recognised that children were not yet in a position to decide on their own future. They had not yet reached an age at which they could freely consent to a particular course of action, so they needed to be shielded. The law ensured that no child could be pressurised out of education before being ready to make the decision for himself. That was a protective measure.

Today, we increasingly recognise that 16 is the age at which young people can take control of their destiny. It is an age at which an individual can marry, pay taxes, volunteer for military service, consent to sexual relations and so on. Indeed, I learned at the weekend that it is now the age at which the Leader of the House would like young people to vote for the first time. It is therefore ironic—I put it no more strongly—that just as social trends are moving towards giving individuals more freedom, autonomy and respect at 16, the Government propose to deny freedom and autonomy in respect of education or employment, and the Government recognise that.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that age group could include parents? People aged 16, and sometimes younger, have produced children of their own, but they will be put in the same category for the purposes of the legislation.

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Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are all concerned about the rate of teenage pregnancy, and I noted over Christmas that Government efforts to reduce it had not been as successful as they might have been. I think proposals in the Bill attempt to deal with that concern—we will test their robustness in Committee, but, as I have maintained throughout, I do not doubt that the Government’s heart is in the right place—but the Government, or rather the draftsmen, recognise that the legislation is qualitatively different from what has been done before. The state is now taking on itself more power to direct and regulate the lives of young adults.

The Secretary of State’s view seems to be that this curtailment of liberty serves the greater good, but he did not give an answer to the hon. Member for Yeovil when he asked about that. He responded by saying that he disagreed, but did not produce an argument.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab) rose—

Michael Gove: We may now hear an argument from the hon. Member for Luton, North.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is making rather glib use of the term “liberty”. I am sure he will recall the works of Sir Isaiah Berlin, who spoke of the double concept of liberty as something that must be promoted by society as well as something that is provided by the absence of control. If young people are allowed to fester at 16 with no qualifications and no skills, they may be free in one sense but they will be imprisoned in another.

Michael Gove: That is a very noble point, but I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands Sir Isaiah Berlin. It is reassuring to hear a Fellow of All Souls quoted in the debate, but one of the characteristics of Isaiah Berlin was that he made a key distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. We absolutely believe in freedom to participate in all forms of education for everyone aged 16 and beyond, but another thing in which Opposition Members—both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives—believe is freedom from unnecessary state constraint and coercion. One of the key arguments is that the burden of responsibility rests on the Government whenever there is any curtailment of liberty.

As I have said, we increasingly recognise that at the age of 16 an individual has the maturity to exercise appropriate autonomy over his or her destiny. We must therefore have compelling reasons for restricting that individual autonomy. We must extend opportunity absolutely, restricting freedom only when there is a powerful argument for doing so—

Ed Balls rose—

Michael Gove: —and I know that the Secretary of State will produce a powerful argument now.

Ed Balls: The CBI says that it is necessary to extend compulsory education to those aged 18. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the CBI is wrong?

Michael Gove: I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is incapable of making his own arguments and once again uses the CBI as a prop, and that he regards the CBI as an authority on all things, given that he and
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I argued against membership of the exchange rate mechanism and the single currency when the CBI were on the other side.

Let me tell the Secretary of State what the CBI also says about this legislation. Like us, it is in favour of increasing participation, but it says:

by this legislation. It states that they will be discouraged by the duty

It also states:

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