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The second issue for Ministers is why the Government have rejected the idea of adopting a similar course in terms of aspiration, while building in more freedom and flexibility by making this an entitlement rather than an obligation at 16 to 18. It is absolutely right to see it as unacceptable that the most affluent youngsters in our society should have free
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education right from the age of three or four up to 18—with potentially further subsidies beyond that in higher education—when many of the most disadvantaged leave the education system at 16 without having the ability to draw down on that funding.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): This may help me to get my thoughts together for my concluding response. The hon. Gentleman talks about extending a flexible entitlement, but has he not noticed that the Bill establishes a statutory right for funding for a first level 2 qualification throughout working life, and, indeed, a statutory right to funding for a level 3 qualification for those who are not in work up to the age of 25? The Bill thus goes considerably beyond a focus on 16 to 18-year-olds by establishing the very type of lifelong entitlement that the hon. Gentleman is asking for.

Mr. Laws: We will come back to that in Committee. I welcome those very sensible aspects of the Bill, but it is clear from Alison Wolf’s report and from talking to people in the further education sector that there are some flexibilities and freedoms in respect of these entitlements that could be dealt with far more fully in the Bill, so we will seek to amend it to deal with that problem.

I put to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills a point put to me by many head teachers in my constituency. In expressing their views of the Bill, many of them told me that many among this small core of young people with multiple disadvantages are very difficult to engage in education beyond 16; indeed, they may have left school or disengaged completely by that age. They are the type of people we can easily end up chasing through the courts for ever and getting nowhere. However, I have been struck by how many of the same head teachers have told me that they often see the same youngsters later on in their lives—at 18, 19 and 20—much readier to engage with education and much readier to benefit from it. We will want to ensure—I believe that this is the Secretary of State’s point—that those individuals have every freedom and opportunity to take up their chances then, when they are ready for it, rather than being forced down a course at 16 in order to allow the Government to publish a set of tables with a zero figure.

My former noble Friend Earl Russell, now sadly deceased, often commented in the other place on the extent to which Government legislation, particularly top-down legislation, does not deal with the world as it is in its full complexity and richness, as we try to legislate for large categories of people without thinking about the reality on the ground. When we return in Committee to the list of people likely to fall into this category, I hope that we can deal with their real circumstances, acknowledge the extent to which they may find it genuinely difficult to engage at 16 or 17 and provide them with some real choices.

I have other practical concerns, some of which are similar to those expressed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I hope that we can discuss this issue seriously in Committee. I noticed the Minister for Schools and Learners nodding in recognition of the point earlier, although he was doubtless not conceding
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anything by doing so. Although the bigger employers organisations can already easily supply accredited education and training for youngsters in their employment—often to a very high standard indeed—there may well be youngsters of 16 or 17 who find education a totally unrewarding experience and have no interest in engaging with it.

We saw earlier that in respect of accessing education, there are also huge transport gaps in some parts of the country. Youngsters there might be in employment that we would consider to be low-skill, and they might not be getting accreditation for it, but it might be teaching them valuable disciplines and it might lead to accreditation later. In trying, for the best of reasons, to ensure that those people have accredited qualifications, we need to be careful that we do not drive them out of the labour market and discover, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) indicated earlier, that their jobs are taken by many of the extremely energetic and effective economic migrants who are increasingly coming here from other parts of the European Union.

In relation to the exchange between the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, it is useful to note the suggestion in Alison Wolf’s report that the figures that the Government often cite about the small demand for people with no or low qualifications in the future are not based, as I understand it, on an estimate of what the demands will be, but on estimates of how many people in the labour force will have no qualifications, which is a totally different thing.

My final point is on the assessment of costs and benefits contained in the documents published with the Bill. The paper that Alison Wolf has produced challenges the Government’s cost-benefit analysis, which has alleged benefits for each cohort of about £2.4 billion. She suggests that the figures are grossly optimistic and that the range of possibilities is centred around the measures not having a net benefit but potentially a cost. As we consider the Bill in Committee, I hope that we will scrutinise the Government’s assumptions closely, because if Alison Wolf is correct to say that the cost-benefit analysis of the proposals is unduly optimistic, some of the other educational proposals that I mentioned earlier might have a far greater effect.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): On that cost-benefit issue, does my hon. Friend accept that a likely effect of the compulsion will be that youngsters are put on courses that, though vocational, might be wholly inappropriate in terms of economic benefit or fitting them for the wider world?

Mr. Laws: My hon. Friend is exactly right. We must make sure that the qualifications and accreditation are relevant to the needs of young people, and that they have a real economic value. We do not want to end up with a system that simply creates paper qualifications for the sake of the Government being able to meet particular targets.

We support the aspirations in the Bill, and will give the Government the benefit of the doubt by not dividing the House on it today. We will, however, bring forward many amendments in the course of the
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scrutiny of the Bill. In particular, those will deal with the problems of compulsion and criminalisation, and will be based on some of our concerns about the Government’s draconian and top-down approach to implementing the legislation. We hope that they will heed some of the warnings raised today in order to get a Bill that can command support and consent from both sides of the House.

5.48 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I am very pleased to take part in this debate on a Bill that I am sure will be seen as historic and in a direct line from the Fisher Bill of 1918 and the Butler Bill of 1944. It is interesting to note that both those Bills commanded support throughout the House on Second Reading and were subject to a non-contested vote as they proceeded to become Acts. As a Bill of this kind obviously requires cross-party approval if it is to achieve its ambitions, I am very pleased that neither of the main Opposition parties will oppose its Second Reading. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) seems to be nodding—perhaps I misunderstood what he said, but he hoped that that would be the case.

Michael Gove indicated assent.

Mr. Robinson: Yes, indeed. Excellent. Then we will have unimpeded progress to the Second Reading. There are many issues to be discussed, not least those on which—rightly, in some respects—the Front-Bench spokesmen have concentrated. The possibility of the criminalisation of 16-year-olds has been raised, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—the Select Committee Chair—and others have given their views on votes for 16-year-olds. No doubt those issues will be hotly debated in Committee, and will be the subject of amendments and new clauses.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on what I consider a courageous measure, but my worry is that it poses an historic challenge to us to achieve something far beyond anything that we have achieved in the past 20 or 30 years in seeking to depoliticise this period of people’s education and concentrate on the cultural aspects. We all agree that skills are vital, and Lord Leitch’s report crystallised that national consensus, but I am less preoccupied with his target of the attainment of graduate status by 40 per cent. of the population than with those at the bottom end of the scale. All who have spoken so far have stressed that our real problem is the 20 per cent. who still leave school at 16 with no skills, although we have considerably increased the percentage of people who gain GCSEs. I cannot remember what the figure was before, but it is now about 71 per cent. If we are to make sense of this opportunity we must refocus our attentions as a nation through social policy, taxation policy and, not least, the education system itself.

The one disappointing aspect of the present position, around which we must somehow find a way, is the division of responsibility between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I happen to consider them both very sensible and
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co-operative Ministers, and I think that if they give a lead the civil servants will choose not to indulge in a turf war, but the danger exists none the less. I mean no disrespect to the civil servants concerned when I say that given the huge amounts that we spend on skills—some £11 billion a year, £7 billion being spent by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and £4 billion by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—we are not receiving anything like the return that we should receive.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I entirely agree with the caution expressed by my hon. Friend, but would he care to comment on an exchange that I had with the previous permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills in the Select Committee when the splitting of the Department was announced? When he said that there was good co-operation at the top, I pointed out that it was what happened lower down in the structure that was crucial, and the way in which middle-ranking civil servants in the two new Departments co-operated with each other.

Mr. Robinson: I will follow my hon. Friend down that interesting route to some extent, but not too far. I merely say that it is not enough for Ministers to agree, and that forcing that agreement down the line will be a great deal more difficult. However, it goes deeper even than that. We simply do not have the experience of successful policies to solve the terrible problem of under-achievement and the absence of skills among 20 per cent. of youngsters leaving school. That is a scar on the national conscience, and on our competence to spend money. The money is there. It is not a question of piling in more money, which I think would be the worst thing we could do. What we need is a hard look at the issue, and I feel that the Government are bound to take a hard look at it.

The fact that the Government have made continuing education a statutory requirement for the children concerned, with all the problems to which that may lead, is not my preoccupation today. I want to focus on how we can make the Bill a success in the next five years, not on how we can get it through the House. The Government have entered into a statutory obligation to make apprenticeships available to all those going through the school system—particularly those aged between 16 and 18—who have met the minimum requirements. At this point, I see no real prospect of the Government’s making that legal engagement a reality.

We should look back at what has been achieved so far, and look forward to the numbers that will be involved in the process that the Government propose. I do not know the precise numbers—I do not think they have been published—but I know that in 2005-06 there were 155,000 apprenticeships, an increase of about 1 per cent. on the previous year. As was observed in the other place, we are now seeking to increase the proportion of 16 to18-year-olds in apprenticeships from 7 or 8 per cent. to 20 per cent. in five years. That is a threefold increase.

The task is huge, and it is one that the Government have imposed on themselves a legal obligation to fulfil.
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That is a serious commitment. We have two Ministers responsible for fulfilling it, and we have a record that, in itself, holds out little prospect of its being achieved. It is important for us to understand the position from which we start, and recognise the size of the problem that we must overcome. I believe that we can do it—certainly it can be done—but if all we do is come up with more schemes, more money and more new initiatives, we will not succeed.

I have a suggestion, which may or may not be appropriate for inclusion in amendments or new clauses in Committee. I propose, merely for consideration, that we remove the task from the Departments, although of course progress would be reported to them. What we need is a national apprenticeships service headed by someone with real fire in his or her belly, whose life would be dedicated to delivering this obligation. The service could be carved out of the Learning and Skills Council—I do not care where it comes from—but it should have its own budget and report very clearly to both Secretaries of State, as well as reporting annually to the House. It should state its progress towards achieving the Government’s five-year objective. No doubt many objections will be raised to my proposal, but I think that the Government should give it fair consideration. If we can find the right people to be members of the organisation, give it a budget and allow it freedom to go out and do the things that are necessary, there may be some hope of our achieving the target.

Two fundamental things are necessary. First, we must re-establish a decent counselling and advisory service for schools. I do not want to go into the history of what happened to the old service, and I have not followed it in great detail, but those who have done so will confirm that it collapsed, and under this and earlier Governments has not been restored to anything like the required level. Secondly, we shall need a proselytising effort by businesses. I do not mean just the large companies, although the hon. Member for Surrey Heath mentioned BT, which has a fantastic apprenticeship scheme. The big companies can certainly do more, but we need action through the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses—serious action throughout the country.

We must end the vicious circle, the Catch 22, whereby employers say they will not play as big a role as they should because the kids are not ready, as they cannot read or write—which, unfortunately, is largely true—while the schools say they cannot find local companies, or even big companies, offering anywhere near the number of places that they need for the children who want apprenticeships, which is also true. Our starting point should be the establishment of the counselling and advisory service, but there should also be work among industries, small and big, and in schools.

I also recommend that several other things be done more widely throughout the country; they should be considered in Committee. If we are serious about getting employers to act in this area, some subsidy should be available to them to engage youngsters in proper apprenticeships. I am not going to put a figure on it. This does not need more money; it needs a redirection of the huge skills budget. Radical though
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that may appear, it would take us a big step forward. It would engage the attention and the sympathies of employers, who would believe, for once, that we were serious about what we intended to do. Our approach must also include an element—one day a week, 350 hours a year or whatever figure one wants to put on it—of training off the job.

We should start to put together a package that addresses the problems involved in turning the Bill into reality. Apprenticeships play a central role; I cannot see how else we will get these youngsters into work I am told that a huge figure of some 10 per cent. of the population between 18 and 22 are simply doing nothing in the economy, so we face a massive problem. As I have said, we can overcome it, but that will happen only if we take a clear look at the problems that we face.

I noted in particular the remarks made by Alison Wolf in her article for Policy Exchange, to which other hon. Members have referred. She obviously has her view, and there is potentially much truth in what she says. Things could well turn out as she says, but it is our job and the Government’s job to make sure that they do not. It is as well that the Government understand that there is widespread scepticism throughout the country—in industry and in schools—about whether we can make this a success. I think that everyone in this House would agree that we are talking about a good aspiration, and nobody could say that we should not attempt to achieve it. The danger that we face is going down the same old routes and trying the same old things that have failed in the past. We must take a new look at this issue.

The Government should look at the idea of a group—not a quango; nothing like that—charged with the job not of supervising, co-ordinating or advising, but of having a statutory responsibility to deliver the apprenticeships at the level we need. That will not be easy. If we were to go down that route, both Secretaries of State involved would have to accept their differences.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible for those up to 24, and the great success of the Train to Gain scheme is testimony that we have done better in that area. However, we will never cope with the major problem of children leaving school with no qualifications by Train to Gain. We must tackle the problem, as we did when we first came into government, with the primary schools. If we want to improve secondary education on an ongoing basis, we must start with the primary schools. If we want to get this unemployment thing right, we must get it right in the secondary schools. I have mentioned counselling, but it is no good people having it at 16—it must start at 14. The children must see a meaningful link between what they do in school and a job that they will get. They must say, “That is a clear link. If I pursue it, I will succeed.”

I do not have much time to add to my comments. I shall merely say to the Government that the Bill is tremendously courageous, far-sighted, brave and bold, but if it is to be a success, it needs a radical change in how we set up apprenticeships and how we deliver them to children in schools. I hate to say it, but unless we change what we have been doing in the past, we shall continue to spend an awful lot of money and not get a good return.

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6.4 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased to be able to participate in this important debate on education and skills, and to follow the interesting analysis of apprenticeships and the way forward described by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). I congratulate the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families on making a constructive speech—Conservative Members would agree with a lot of it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) on his excellent speech, which got to the heart of the problems that we face.

I appreciate what the Government are endeavouring to do, and I understand and share their grave concerns about the skills shortage in our society. I am also concerned about the number of young people who are leaving school without the basic skills necessary to equip them for a career and for a fulfilling and long life. Of course we all want more people gaining more skills and qualifications, and we want to extend educational opportunities. The aims of the Bill are commendable, however I question the compulsion approach. Participation should be increased by encouragement, incentives and enthusiasm, not by compulsion.

As a former teacher and lecturer, the issues raised in the Bill and in today’s constructive debate resonate with me, but the fact that some aspects of the Bill are needed after 10 and a half years of this Labour Government suggests an admission of failure. After all the taxpayers’ money that has been invested and all the changes that have been made, we still have not reached the expected standards. Many of our children are failing to reach the standards of achievement that they need when they leave school, and some lack basic skills in maths and English.

The Secretary of State described the Bill as

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