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We would all agree with that—that commendable aim is supported across the House—yet we know that major problems remain in our education system, in apprenticeships, and in the number of people leaving school or college without the basic skills necessary to equip them for their future.

My borough of Bexley contains some tremendous schools, and I am pleased to praise the dedication of teachers, governors, parents and pupils. I would like to highlight St. Paulinus Church of England primary school, of which I am a governor, and its fantastic success; I particularly congratulate its head teacher, Mrs. Marilyn Davey. That school is in the top 20 London schools for key stage 2 results. The traditional approach, the determination to ensure that everyone achieves and the pupils’ diverse backgrounds have given an added impetus to the determination to make the children achieve, and we should congratulate the people whom I mentioned.

There is a need to push forward adult skills, so I particularly welcome part 3 of the Bill, which places a duty on the Learning and Skills Council to secure the proper provision of courses to allow learners over 19 years of age to attain

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While I was out of this House between 1997 and 2005, I taught on a lot of courses for women returners, unemployed people and people who wanted to improve their career opportunities. There is a definite need for more courses to enable people to obtain level 2 qualifications, thus giving them the basis to achieve, so I welcome part 3.

The Government know that we are all failing too many of our young people. Despite the increased money available to them, schools are unable to achieve what we want them to achieve for the pupils. Far too many pupils still leave school at 16 without A* to C grades in English and maths, and it is worrying that we camouflage some of our figures by boasting about GCSE improvements that include attainment in other subjects, but exclude maths and English. I have already highlighted the fact that my borough has a mixed provision of excellent secondary schools, which includes grammar, Church, comprehensive and technical schools, as well as academies, but even there some issues of concern remain.

I must also point out that the Government discriminate against my borough, in comparison with other London boroughs, in terms of dedicated schools grant—only Bromley and Havering received less money per pupil this year. That discrimination is regrettable and acts as a local disincentive. I wish to put on record the tremendous work done by the Bexley council cabinet members, Simon Windle and Teresa O’Neill, and congratulate them on the tremendous job that they are doing in our borough. Although it is a good borough that aims to help everyone to achieve, the statistics show that 5.2 per cent. of 16-year-olds in Bexley left school in 2005 and entered full-time employment, but 8.2 per cent. who left in that year were not in education, employment or training. The Bexley Business Academy was among the 200 worst schools for children staying on for post-16 education. That is most worrying and a betrayal of our young people. Therefore we have to do more in the future to ensure that our children get a better education.

The Bill proposes to force all pupils to stay in education or training until they reach 18. I do not like the word “force”. We should not aim for compulsion, but to encourage and enthuse people. When we look back to the 1970s and the raising of the school leaving age, many children were forced to stay on an extra year. The Secretary of State pointed out that the Bill would not force them to stay at school, but it will force them to stay in education or training. There were problems in the 1970s with attendance and discipline among those who did not want to stay on at school and who were angry and disaffected, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. I was teaching at the time in a grammar school, and even there some boys wanted to leave school as soon as possible and made it harder for others in the class to learn and made life difficult for teachers. Those boys did not want to be there and they were already disengaged from the system.

Forcing young people to stay in education and training until 18 will not and cannot of itself improve their potential, or their education and skills. Nor will it increase their chances of getting a job. Those people
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have already been failed by the education system. Intervention is needed much earlier, and we should be encouraging and developing children at primary school and as they pass to secondary school. When they are 16 it is too late, and they should have counselling and other involvement at 14 to encourage them to realise that if they do not get the qualifications their lives will not be as fulfilled as they could be.

I am very concerned about indiscipline and truancy increasing if pupils are forced to stay on at school. If they are forced to stay on, it may lead to the same problems as we saw in the 1970s with the raising of the school leaving age. I therefore have severe doubts about this approach. The very people whom the Bill will target are already troubled, under performing, disengaged, vulnerable or damaged. Surely the best way to get children to remain in school is to be inspirational and encouraging, and to start much earlier.

We are all looking to the future, and I wish to ask the Minister about those people who are parents at age 17, or who are disabled or who play sports—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). Will people who have other commitments be exempt from the provision? For example, some people would want to leave school early to pursue a sporting career. Will they be excluded from being forced into training?

It is all very well to be dismissive, but we should be constructive. There is much in the Bill that we support. It is fundamental that everybody has the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. If there are failings, we should intervene much earlier in the school system. We need to reform the testing regime in primary schools, so that we reduce bureaucracy and focus on the pupils’ real needs to deal with them constructively much earlier.

We should also champion excellence, and there are some tremendous comprehensive schools that evangelise the best professional practice in the state system. We should more generously reward those who deliver for the poorest. It is essential that the most disadvantaged should be assisted even more, and we will need to debate how that can be done in Committee. We need change, but we do not need compulsion. We need to improve discipline and behaviour in schools and shift the balance of power in every classroom back in favour of the teacher. We should deliver more teaching by ability, which strengthens the strongest and nurtures the weakest.

There are tremendous opportunities to work together constructively, as we have seen in today’s debate. Many good points have been made, but I have many questions still to ask. I am especially concerned about the quality and relevance of education, rather than the quantity. The belief that the longer someone stays in education the better they will be equipped for life is questionable. It is quality that we seek.

The Bill provides some tremendous opportunities. It is very constructive, and it should have support on both sides of the House. I am encouraged by what I have heard, but I repeat that I do not think that compulsion is right. We should encourage and intervene much earlier, before 16, to ensure that youngsters who leave school without qualifications and the equipment that they will need for life are dealt with much earlier. That approach would be more successful.

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6.16 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I hope that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) will forgive me if I do not directly follow his speech, because I wish to pick up some of the themes in the stunning speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). It brought us to the heart of the debate, where we need to focus now and in the immediate future.

I wish to concentrate on what is happening to the poorest in our society. We are immensely proud that the Government are the first ever to undertake to abolish child poverty over a 20-year period. Progress has been made, and although it has stalled somewhat recently, the record is second to none. However, the number of the very poorest has increased. If we consider various health indices, the Government have generally made good progress, but the very poorest in our community are not benefiting equally with other groups. The gap between the very poorest and the rest of us—let alone the rich—is widening. My hon. Friend concentrated in his speech on what was happening to the very poorest in our education system, and I wish to put two pieces of information before the House that should caution us against concentrating solely on 16-year-olds.

We know from the Government’s own data that four in 10 children leaving junior school for secondary school do not have the qualifications expected of them for that age group. However, they go on to secondary school, where many of them fail. We also know that more than five out of 10 of our constituents who leave school at 16 do not get the minimum educational qualifications that the Government want everybody in that age group to get. The position has improved in the past 10 years, and although we should not make absurd claims about that, the numbers are truly great.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who was talking about a group of 16-year-olds who were damaged, I said that I spent time in the summer talking to people of 16 or over who were not in employment, education or training, or who were on the new deal and I did not think that they were damaged at all. I thought that they were highly intelligent. My point was that they posed a challenge not only because they were intelligent but because many of them had not been at school since they were 14; some had not been at school since they were 12.

In the Bill, we are talking about what we do with young people—whether we call them children or adults—at the age of 16. Although we do well by the majority of children who go through our schools, what makes a mockery of that is our failure to engage with a significant group. That lack of engagement does not arise because they are thick or damaged, but because we are serving a diet of education by which they are deeply bored and quickly failed.

Angela Watkinson: Would the right hon. Gentlemen include in that group the very young children—those of primary school age—who care for their parents and miss out on a lot of the time that they spend at school, not because of a lack of ability but because of social circumstances?

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Mr. Field: That is a second group. We have a supporters group in Wirral and it is chilling and humbling to meet those very young people, who are often nursing parents who are dying. Their parents, because they are not as involved—naturally, given their state—in what is really going on, dress their children differently, and so those children are picked on at school because of their clothes. They get it in the neck when they are at school and come home to the full-time job of caring for one parent or, sometimes, both. However, I was talking not about that group of children—in no way do I want to detract from what they do—but about those who are so peeved off by education that the last thing in the world that they will do is turn up to school. The prospect of doing anything educational at the age of 16 prompts expressions of derision from them.

Although I do not want to detract at all from the noble aims of the Bill and what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West rightly described as the exciting aspiration that we are launching to put on the statute book, I want to make a desperately serious plea about the number of young people who will have no proper future in our country if we allow the status quo to continue. We have to think outside the box when considering what we can do for them.

One of my suggestions is to introduce a leaving certificate, because those young people might well knuckle down and do some work. It could cover the basic skills in maths, education and IT and, as soon as young people gained the certificate at 14, they would be allowed to leave school provided that they could get a job. At the moment, any moneys that we taxpayers put towards them are wasted. That group should have the £20,000 that we would spend on them between the ages of 14 and 16 if they turned up to school—although they do not—held as a dowry, which they would control. When they realised that it is quite tough out there in the world of work, even if they had a job, they might change their views about wanting to acquire skills. They would become buyers of skills, rather than the consumers of the training skills that Jobcentre Plus buys in job lots.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson: The House is aware of my right hon. Friend’s capacity to think outside the box; perhaps it is not sufficiently appreciated. I would not be dead against his proposals, but if the age is to be as young as 14, as he proposes, does he not think that there would have to be some element of training attached? Otherwise, the strategy would be out of all control.

Mr. Field: During my hon. Friend’s speech, it was chilling to hear him give the time scale according to which the Government’s objectives on apprentices must be achieved, as well as the numbers that he gave. If my hon. Friend’s scheme gets off the ground, under the responsibility of someone whose only job it is to drive it through—rather than the 10 jobs that a Secretary of State has to do at any one time—we could perhaps start the scheme at 14 for some of those tough young people. That is my plea.

I want to finish with an observation made by Paul Sykes, who gave me permission to cite it. He is one of the richest people in the country, and began his route to
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riches by doing an unskilled job—breaking up Birkenhead municipal buses. He noticed that while his boss was interested in the metal coming off the buses, he was totally uninterested in the engines. Paul Sykes thought, “Maybe there’s some money there.” From that one thought, he built up an incredibly successful series of businesses and is now one of the most successful and richest businessmen in the country. He was interviewed recently on the television—I shall not say on which channel—by an Oxbridge graduate, who said, “Mr. Sykes, did you find that leaving school at 16 held you back?” In his wonderful Yorkshire accent, he said, “Yes, love, I had a job at 12 and I had to wait four more years ’fore I could start.”

Of course, lots of our constituents will not be Paul Sykeses. However, his example is a way of lighting up the landscape. We will not solve our constituents’ problems by pretending that we have it all right in our junior and secondary schools. We will not make things better with a system that engages them on the current terms after the age of 16. A small but significant number of constituents, represented by those on both sides of the House, are failed by our education system. We have to think of something different to offer them.

Mr. Flello: I am listening with great interest to my right hon. Friend’s speech. To what extent do you feel that the national curriculum in some ways stifles that innovative way of looking at what should happen? Do you think that the time is now right for a review of whether to introduce the flexibilities to allow for your suggestions to come through in the classroom?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should talk in the third person if he is addressing his right hon. Friend.

Mr. Field: In Birkenhead this year, 38 young people left school with no qualifications whatsoever. The cost to taxpayers of their education was a little over £1 million. I asked whether we could not do something different with that £1 million—as we know that there will probably be 38 such young people next year, I asked whether we could have an experiment with a small technical school that might engage their interest. The reply was, “No, we could not possibly do that. We could not teach the national curriculum in a school that size.” I reminded the person who said that that we are not teaching those young people the national curriculum now—so what is the point of pretending? I agree that the aims of the national curriculum were totally proper and have benefited most young people in this country, but they do not benefit most of the young people who do not fit into the box.

My plea is for the group whom we are failing most. There was, I think, an occasion when Aneurin Bevan challenged the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, saying, “Listening to the Prime Minister is like a walk round Woolworths. Everything is in place and nothing is priced over sixpence.” Sometimes, we need to think outside the little Woolworths box for those young people and give them something that will excite and engage them. As I said to the hon. Member for Yeovil, they are in no way damaged—

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Mr. Laws: Some are.

Mr. Field: Yes, some are, but the ones about whom I am talking are not. They are very bright. The question is: why, when they are so bright, do we fail them so dismally?

6.29 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): It is right that there should be no ceiling on young people’s educational ambitions, but there needs to be a floor below which their educational attainment does not fall. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) said, there is a group of people who do not get the basic skills that they need to thrive in our society.

I welcome the Bill and the intention behind it to try to widen post-16 education and improve its quality. That is obviously a good thing to attempt. However, I am worried about compulsion and I share the concern of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West about apprenticeships and tackling the challenge for this country, which is that approximately 28 per cent. of our people are qualified through apprenticeships or educationally in the crafts and technically, whereas, in our competitor countries, such as France and Germany, the figure is more than 50 per cent. That is a huge challenge.

Let me start with the group that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead identified: the poorest in our society, who are not getting the skills that they need. Last year, I visited a range of projects that deal with social exclusion and also some prisons. The average reading age of prisoners is 11. There is a link between those in our society who fail in education and the consequences for them—the fact that they may end up committing crime, unable to work and socially excluded. Some of them also have social problems, which have contributed, and I shall say more about that later.

One of the projects that I visited was Rainer, which does much work with people who have been in prison or lack basic skills. A group there was preparing to learn to read and write so that they could pass their health and safety certificate to work in the building trade. Those people had had more than 12 years of education in which they had not been able to learn to read and write, yet in the group, they were picking it up quickly, as the right hon. Gentleman described. They were not unintelligent; they simply suddenly had a motivation for learning to read and write, and they were going for it and succeeding. What a sad reflection on their 12 years of statutory education that it could not get them to the point of having the basic reading and writing skills to do a manual job for which one needs some education.

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