Previous Section Index Home Page

I also spent a week working in a direct access homeless hostel, which concentrated on young people. We found people who were very ill through drink and drug abuse and needed a lot of help. However, after a period in the hostel, they improved. They would get to the point where they could move from the hostel into a flat. Their biggest problem at that stage was that they could not budget because they were so innumerate. A
14 Jan 2008 : Column 707
lady at the hostel, an administrator, took it upon herself to teach the young men enough maths to function in a flat. It was a male hostel, but I expect the same is true in women’s hostels. She did it in approximately a month. Again, those people had had more than 12 years of education in the state system. How can people be in education for that time, with all the money that is spent, yet unable to do basic maths or read and write? When one asks them about their experiences at school, one feels the fear that they felt when they explain that they had not learned to read and write by the time they were seven, and had spent years at the back of a classroom, where they were being taught history, geography or science, keeping their heads down, dreading the teacher turning to them, because they could not understand a word of what was happening.

Kelvin Hopkins: The problem is more widespread than the hon. Gentleman suggests, because only seven years ago Lord Moser found in his report that half the population were functionally innumerate and that 50 per cent. of the population did not understand what 50 per cent. meant.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful for that intervention, but if we take only the Leitch figures, which are that 15 per cent. of the population are functionally illiterate and 21 per cent. are functionally innumerate—his target was to reduce that to 5 per cent.—it is a huge group. Evidence that we heard recently in the Work and Pensions Committee suggested that if a person’s mother cannot read and write, they are more likely to have problems because they are not getting the back-up at home. We have generations of families without proper reading, writing and arithmetic skills, who have not worked.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Does he agree that numeracy has an enormously important role to play in enabling people to stay out of debt, which is a huge problem in society?

Mr. Heald: I could not agree more. Numeracy is a basic life skill and we need an education system that, at the very least, delivers the ability to read, write and add up. I believe that we are failing.

When considering compulsion, we should ask whether our education system has a sufficiently strong basic foundation to justify telling somebody who has already spent 10 years with his head down, unable to answer questions in the classroom, or possibly so ashamed of that that he is truanting—let us not beat about the bush, truanting is increasing—that they have another two years of it. That is a dangerous suggestion and I note that the Professional Association of Teachers said in its response that insisting on two extra years is a worrying way in which to confront young people who have had such an experience. We must be cautious about taking that route. Getting to grips with the basic problem of teaching reading, writing and mathematics at an early age should at least be our starting point.

Special schools, which deal with learning disability, have specialist courses to teach children to read and write. They are based on synthetic phonics, with course books such as “Annie Apple” and “Bouncy Ben”,
14 Jan 2008 : Column 708
through which children learn “Ah, Buh, Cuh” and so on and to put it together. It is basic stuff, but if one can teach someone with a learning disability to read and write, surely those bright people whom the right hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned can be taught to pick it up. If they cannot, we are in trouble. If synthetic phonics can do it for a child with learning disability, we should use the system for children who do not have those barriers.

Are we to criminalise our young people and set a period of two more years when they live in fear, dreading the teacher turning to them? That is not the way forward. It is odd to read in the Bill an offence of effectively doing oneself harm. Clause 46 provides that, if young people do not follow the attendance orders, they commit an offence of not improving their education. It is an odd idea in a country with liberal values. The Secretary of State says that one would not necessarily go to prison if one did not pay the fine, but the sort of people whom we are discussing have gone year after year without attending school. It is possible that they would get an attendance order, not follow it, commit the offence, be fined and not pay the fine. One of the penalties is going to a young offender institution. The Secretary of State says that the Government are trying to change that so that the young person would go only to an attendance centre. It is still odd to provide such a criminal penalty for an offence that has a civil feel to it. I notice that a lot of the bodies that responded to the consultation said that they were worried about criminalisation. I am too.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that those most likely to incur the fines are also those least likely to be able to afford to pay them?

Mr. Heald: Yes, I do. I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West and others—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) made the point, too—that we need detailed, effective, good-quality counselling from an earlier age.

Being a bit old-fashioned, I think of an apprenticeship as quite a serious undertaking. Deeds of indenture used to be taken out for them; that is how important they were. It is a worry that under the current arrangements about 59 per cent. of those between 16 and 18 do not complete what we now call apprenticeships. Quite large numbers of people do apprenticeships—250,000 at present. The Government would say—I think that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills might be saying it right now—that they have increased that number substantially, from about 75,000. That is true, but it says something about the quality of what is on offer if almost 60 per cent. of the young people in apprenticeships do not complete them.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman will find that the completion rate has risen, from 25 per cent. under his party’s Government to 63 per cent. We want it to increase further, but that is a significant improvement.

Mr. Heald: If there is an improvement, I welcome it—it is certainly overdue—but I must wonder whether they are genuine apprenticeships. [ Interruption. ]
14 Jan 2008 : Column 709
Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to listen to this point, as it is in the same territory. The House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs examined the sorts of apprenticeships offered and said that they were really the Government’s old work-based learning schemes renamed apprenticeships—in other words, a rebrand rather than something of good quality. I welcome the suggestion by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West that we should go for apprenticeships that are solid and high-quality and that have good content. That is what people in this country deserve—not a rebrand but something genuinely worth while.

I welcome the intentions behind the Bill, but we are right to question the matter of compulsion. Although the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), gave the Bill a broad welcome, he said towards the end of his remarks that he was a bit concerned about the sanctions, and I think that that is the general mood of the House. The compulsion needs to be reconsidered, and we should look for quality from beginning to end in the education that we offer our young people. That should include synthetic phonics, high-quality mathematics education from the beginning and opportunities with plenty of encouragement between 16 and 19.

I welcome the fact that the Bill contains provisions for ongoing education through life, because that is of great concern. If we are to tell the public that they must work until 70 or 68, it is just not good enough not to give training and educational opportunities to those in the middle of their career so that they can continue employment through life. I welcome the opportunities that the measures will give for continual renewal of skills through life. I give a cautious welcome to the Bill.

6.44 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate on a key piece of Government legislation. The debate is basically about aspiration and showing our young people that they have a future. On a personal note, it is also about giving our young people the opportunities that I never had. It is a generational issue, on which we need to move forward. The Bill shows that we have confidence in our young people. It provides them with a route map to adulthood and the world of work that is not prescriptive and allows them to decide on a road that does not lead to a dead end, and I shall set out why.

Some young people want the independence that might accompany paid employment, and others want a career that requires vocational training, which can be difficult and time-consuming. Others simply want out of the classroom and lecture hall, and want to enter the adult world. In years gone by, when those youngsters left formal education and schooling, their continued educational development was not always seen as a priority, either for them or for society. In recent years, it has been increasingly recognised that employment prospects are closely related to skill levels. The Bill will entirely do away with the idea of our under-18s finding themselves out of employment, education or training.

14 Jan 2008 : Column 710

We must ensure that our young people get the best start in life. The Bill will offer our young people the wide range of educational options that will be essential to our economic success in the long term. It will offer every young person relevant training or education. It is crucial to reiterate that the Bill will not force children to stay in school after the age of 16, but education should in no case come to an end when a young person walks out of the school gates for the last time. Education is a lifelong process.

As Lord Leitch demonstrated in his review of UK skills, maintaining, broadening and improving the country’s skills base are essential to our economic success. The Bill will include provisions to protect current entitlements; they are aimed at those who have already entered the work force and who, for whatever reason, do not have the appropriate training or qualifications for the increasingly skilled jobs that will soon dominate the UK economy.

Mr. Flello: To develop that point, there are communities where, traditionally, once people got to a certain age they went straight into the area’s industry, such as mining. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the underlying themes of the Bill is the need to tell young people in those communities that they have to raise their aspirations? The days of finishing school at 14 and going straight into the pits are gone; we have to make sure that such young people make the most of their educational opportunities for as long as they can, until their skills are developed enough to allow them to take other jobs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) replies, my second piece of advice to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) is that interventions must be brief—certainly briefer than his—on days when there are time limits.

Phil Wilson: I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend said. I am from a coal-mining constituency where the first thing that people did on leaving school was go down the mine. That has changed, and people have opportunities that they should feed on. Those opportunities should grow, so that people can fulfil their expectations and aspirations.

We should not forget that 70 per cent. of the work force of 2020 have already finished their school education. At present there are 3.4 million unskilled jobs available in the UK, but it is estimated that by 2020 the figure will be no more than 600,000. Many hon. Members will agree that it would be scandalous if we just wrote off those who have already left school. We must not neglect the large proportion of the work force of the future who are already in the job market, competing for jobs—increasingly, for the skilled jobs that are more frequently on offer.

About 75 per cent. of the UK’s work force possess at least level 2 skills, which are broadly equivalent to five GCSE passes. Level 2 has been identified as the basic level of skill required for a productive employee—it is a benchmark of competence. The Government have introduced extensive and unprecedented entitlements to skills training for adults, which include the right for adults to gain functional literacy and numeracy, the
14 Jan 2008 : Column 711
right for adults of all ages to get their first full level 2 skills qualification, and the right for adults under 26 to get free tuition for their first full level 3 skills qualification. Those entitlements are at the core of our efforts to improve adult skills in England, and they therefore fully deserve to be protected in law.

This is not just about maximising the economic performance of our work force. Numerous studies have shown how beneficial continuing educational and personal development can be, whatever form it takes. I have met constituents who have flourished after retraining; they have started a more rewarding career, or improved their skills to gain promotion or a pay rise. Lord Leitch merely underlined what experience has taught me and many others: additional skills help us to achieve personal goals.

The Bill will not only protect the UK’s global competitiveness in the years ahead; more importantly, it will offer children, young people and adults the chance to improve their chances in life. It is a scandal that anyone should effectively be on the employment scrapheap as soon as they leave school, and it is the Labour Government who have ensured that everyone has the right to the skills that are increasingly essential for the modern workplace and society. I said at the beginning of my speech that for me, this debate embodies aspiration. It is about harnessing potential so that aspiration can flourish. If the Government’s quest to ensure that 50 per cent. of people benefit from a university education is married to the basic tenets in the Bill, we can open the floodgates on people’s aspirations.

I want to give an example of the way in which the Government have created the environment for that to happen. It is about higher education as another avenue for our young people to pursue. If either of my sons attends university they will be the first Wilson in my family ever to do so. The results of a survey that the Government conducted as part of their “Be the first to go” campaign, which encourages young people to be the first members of their family to attend university, revealed a changing attitude not only to higher education but to training and education in general. In Newcastle for example, in my region, a third of parents and grandparents who responded to the survey decided not to go to university in a bid to get a job, and they went straight to work instead. Today, 95 per cent. of those people want the next generation of their family to go to university. Education has become a key priority for parents who are thinking about their own and their children’s future.

Some 25 per cent. of 16 and 17-year-olds in Newcastle could be the first in their family to enter higher education. That is 1,700 young people or, to extrapolate from those figures, 17,000 in the north-east and more than 325,000 in England. A Labour Government cannot let those young people down. We have the potential to open the floodgates for people’s aspirations, and we would be wrong to ignore the signs. According to the survey, seven out of 10 people polled across the generations in Newcastle believe that the biggest long-term benefit of going to university is the ability to get a better job. Some 62 per cent. agree that university education gives people a chance to earn more money, and nearly three quarters of the respondents think that studying a subject that people
14 Jan 2008 : Column 712
enjoy is a good reason to enter higher education or other training. Feelings of personal well-being and the belief that one is securing the future of one’s family should not be the preserve of a privileged few—they should be available to people from all walks of life.

As I have said, the Government’s policy on education, skills and access to university is going in the right direction. The Government want people from all walks of life and of all ages to be given the chance to achieve their full potential, and they want to ensure that people are given the best preparation for life that they can possibly receive. I remember the days when parents had to raise funds for exercise books, pens and pencils for their local school—I am pleased to say that that was not under a Labour Government. The Government’s approach to education differs from that of other Governments who thought, “You have an education, you keep it and you pull up the ladder on everybody else.” The Bill shows a Government looking to the future and being prepared to make the hard, strategic decisions necessary for the country while addressing the individual aspirations of the majority.

6.54 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): As the Secretary of State said at the beginning of our debate, this is an extremely important Bill. It is primarily based on the English regions, but given that youth inactivity and problems of gang culture are to be found across the whole country, I hope that when it becomes an Act, its measures will spread across the UK.

I had the good fortune to be an apprentice in the steel industry in the 1970s, when apprenticeships lasted for four years, not two. The quality of that training shone out, and we were the best in the world. In the last six months of those four-year apprenticeships, people completed their training and worked as craftsmen. Without such experience, they could not get a job anywhere else if they could not stay in the industry. Experience does not come off a shelf, and it cannot be found in a book—it comes from doing the job. I am worried that that is missing from the Bill, given the two-year time scale.

One of the best things about being a convenor in the steel industry was working with the apprentices and young people. The purpose of that role was inspirational. To develop the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), if work in any part of education is not inspirational we lose those individuals. We had difficult times. Although there was a huge selection process, there were still problems with individuals who lost interest in the work. It was not a bed of roses, even when a massive number of people applied for apprenticeships. The loss of manufacturing has resulted in the loss of jobs for life. We heard earlier about the coal and steel industries. In constituencies such as mine, people left school, and went into the steel industry as production or craft apprentices. With the loss of that industry, we have lost core apprentice training. The system that we seek to implement must not be onerous on the employer. If it is, it will fail, as employers will resist it. Companies such as BT have training departments that operate training facilities, but in smaller businesses, it is impossible to do so.

If young people fail to gain literacy and numeracy skills at 16, what will change to make them want to gain those skills between 16 and 18? The inspiration or
14 Jan 2008 : Column 713
desire to learn is often lost by 16, which is a serious concern. We have heard from Members on both sides of the House about the criminalisation of individuals and employers, and I would certainly vote against measures that imposed such penalties. The growing movement towards the academy system appears to favour degrees. I am not against the attainment of degrees, but some years ago, we had technical colleges that were linked to employers and businesses. They trained people to acquire practical skills, but we have lost a lot of that ability to provide practical training. We are looking at degree courses, but we have moved away from the things that industry needs.

The provision of education must be flexible. An innovation that we have looked at in some of the Welsh regions is apprenticeship sharing. Industrial estates provide training centres and more than one employer can buy in to that training. If there is a larger employer on the estate with training facilities, those facilities can be shared. An apprenticeship with a single employer can be onerous, so we should look at shared apprenticeships, and how they can be supported by local authorities and other businesses in area. I spoke earlier about equal opportunities, and we must recognise that people with disabilities face many barriers. Gender is important, too. Traditional industries were always regarded as male bastions. Today, barriers have been broken down in some steelworks, and gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

Quality as well as quantity is important. The goal of offering 250,000 apprenticeships is a numbers game, but if someone trains for two years and thinks they are an expert they will find that that is not the case. We need to look at the quality of the training that we provide. As a former school governor in both primary and secondary education, I have seen teachers identify problems with young children not at 16, 15 or 14 but at nine, eight and seven. We need to spread mentoring practice across the education system. We have mentoring in senior schools, but the building blocks are in primary schools. Unless we look at mentoring at that age, we have lost the plot.

Family support is extremely important. If a teacher identifies a problem with a child, the likelihood is that the family need help and support with an issue. Education is not just within four walls; it spreads across the whole family and into the community.

We have lost an opportunity. Citizenship was introduced as a curriculum item but the way it was introduced has not worked. In most secondary schools that I visit, the citizenship agenda has been lost. It entered like a lion but it is going out like a lamb. I would hate to see this Bill go the same route.

The managing of systems of apprenticeships and shared apprenticeships is important, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. We heard earlier about the multinationals and the bigger industries, but SMEs and smaller businesses may need help. Sharing help with them would be an advantage.

Next Section Index Home Page