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14 Jan 2008 : Column 720

There are three extremely good special schools in my constituency. Corbets Tey and Dycorts have pupils with learning difficulties and make enormous efforts to prepare their students for adult life. If the Bill is to encompass children with special needs and statements, we need to ensure that proper provision is made, in colleges and with local employers, so that such children can move into adult life and play their role to the best of their potential.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): My hon. Friend introduced me to the excellent work done in her constituency in support of employment and training, and she will want it mentioned. If the Bill is to apply to young people with special needs, that work will need to be extended to take account of the special challenges involved in getting people with learning difficulties and others into the right training opportunities.

Angela Watkinson: My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): He does that to me all the time.

Angela Watkinson: Indeed.

The third special school in my constituency is called Ravensbourne. It has quite a number of children on the autistic spectrum who are particularly difficult to place. TreeHouse, the national charity for autism education, has given all of us briefing material, which states:

Although 2.3 per cent. of 15-year-olds at school have special educational needs, only 1.1 per cent. of 16-year-olds at school do, which reflects the number who do not stay on. We have particular efforts to make on that issue.

I never miss an opportunity to plug the ROSE—realistic opportunities for supported employment—project at Havering college of further and higher education, my local FE college; nor do my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). The project is a wonderful example of good practice in getting students with special needs into employment, with special support that is gradually withdrawn until they are able to attend independently. That means outreach to local employers and liaison with parents. Everybody is involved. Those students achieve far more than anyone ever thought possible. I intend to raise that in Committee as well.

This is a consensual debate. When the Bill goes into Committee, we will be thrashing out items of detail, mainly on whether there should be an element of compulsion, how these plans are going to be delivered and whether there is enough capacity in the system. I welcome the Bill, with the caveat that I shall not support compulsion.

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7.30 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who always speaks with good sense, based on good experience, on these matters. I want to associate myself with those who have said that this is an historic opportunity. The Government are legislating to change the education leaving age to 18, with clear benefits, both social and economic, for individuals and for the country. That is an important aspect of the Bill, but not by any means the whole of it. As the Leitch review highlighted, the need for skilled people is growing, and the Bill’s provisions, which also focus on improving opportunities for young people and adults alike, will help to meet the needs of a high skill economy.

I should like to address three themes from the Bill: how we include the excluded; how we bridge the gap between the value that we place on vocational study and on academic study; and, perhaps most interestingly, how we create new architecture to promote dialogue and a greater sense of responsibility on the part of the private and public sectors of our schools and begin to bridge the historical gap between them.

As chair of the all-party group on skills and a member of two successive Education Committees, I have witnessed the development of Government policy on education and skills. It has been a long and significant journey over the past 10 years. Highlights included the Tomlinson review, which brought about the revolution in vocational learning that we are now extending. That revolution has progressed particularly under this new Government under two new Secretaries of State and a Prime Minister whose commitment to skills while in Government, for 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and now as Prime Minister, has been unrelenting. The Bill enshrines in legislation much of what Governments have been working towards for some time. It sends a strong and positive message to young people as well as to adults and promotes excellence and educational progression in a supported and well-resourced environment.

Raising the age at which teenagers remain in education to 18 should not be about dragooning them to stay on in education regardless, or straitjacketing them, but it should embody a recognition that it is not a realistic, life-changing option to enter the world of work without skills of some kind or another. That is why the Bill’s central commitment to 18 is book-ended by provisions that value vocational skills and promote social inclusion. I hope that it will prompt us to look at new structures in pre-16 and post-16 education—for example, the studio schools that are being suggested in my local authority in the context of the Building Schools for the Future project. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, we must crack the problem of bright young people who feel isolated from the education process. There must be much more on-site learning, and we must raise those people’s aspirations. A few years ago, I went on a visit with the Education Committee to North Carolina, where we saw how children as young as 13 or 14 who were traditionally isolated and alienated from academic learning did powerfully well in skills academies within schools. We should consider that option in future.

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The Bill transfers responsibility for the Connexions service to local authorities. I hope that that will give us an opportunity to develop a step change in information, advice and guidance provision, and that the local link interacting between local authorities and mainstream educational services and children’s trusts will enable Connexions to provide a better service that responds more flexibly to the local economy, career opportunities and the skills base.

Mr. Hayes: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a student of these matters. Does he agree that it is worth considering introducing an all-age careers service that sits alongside Connexions to give the sort of dedicated advice that will be necessary to bring the Bill to life?

Mr. Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, with which I have an enormous amount of sympathy. The Skills Commission—of which I am a member, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—is conducting an inquiry into that matter and considering precisely that point. It would fit well with the renewed and welcome emphasis that the Government have placed on adult education.

Historically, Blackpool has not had a good record in terms of skills and people staying on in education beyond 16. Because of the nature of the local economy, with the emphasis on leisure, tourism and the related strength of small and medium-sized enterprises, vocational courses are very important. They range from traditional tourism and leisure courses, which are delivered to an excellent standard by my local further education college, Blackpool and the Fylde, to innovative ones. I do not want to tempt providence, but Blackpool and the Fylde college, along with other colleges, now offers courses as a member of the national Gaming Academy, whereby trainees have been able to hone their skills in mock casinos—in future, I hope, in real ones.

Connexions services should now be more likely to collaborate with local employers and businesses, but the Bill puts a key responsibility on local authorities to develop those links. While localising services, national standards must be maintained. Defining how local authorities use the financial resources that they will be given will be crucial to their success. Even at the time of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which set up the Connexions service and on whose Standing Committee I served, concerns were raised about inherent weaknesses in a system that was not mainstream enough and was focused semi-exclusively on NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. I hope that we will be able to move on from that under the new arrangements. In Blackpool, the Connexions service has had a striking impact on providing services for NEETs—I pay tribute to Mike Taplin and his colleagues—but there are other groups to consider. In the course of the Bill’s passage, Ministers should explore mechanisms to ensure that local authorities ring-fence the money that is given to them for information, advice and guidance, because it is crucial that those authorities use those resources effectively. That was among the issues that the Skills Commission touched on in its interim report.

Apprenticeships have been mentioned a lot during the debate. The Government have championed work-based learning, especially apprenticeships, and the new
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Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is prioritising funding and resources to develop and strengthen those apprenticeships. Completion rates have significantly improved—in Blackpool, by some 50 per cent. in a recent 12-month period. However, we need carefully to consider the structure of apprenticeships, particularly for those who are reskilling. The target of 500,000 apprenticeships by 2010 is ambitious and we should be proud of it, but in that process it is important that adult apprenticeships are not ignored. That is why I welcome the explicit duty in the Bill to ensure that the Learning and Skills Council makes reasonable provision in that regard; it should make that a major feature of its work. This is an opportunity for the LSC to deliver a strategic target rather than just to micro-manage part of the process.

Reskilling older workers is a growing challenge. In some cases, a greater combination of in-work activity and a modular approach will increase completion rates. Apprenticeships must be flexible and modular, particularly in the context of small and medium-sized businesses, of which we have many in Blackpool. It is particularly important that adult apprenticeships work for women who are reskilling and who may need time out for caring and other duties. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the £90 million announced by the Secretary of State recently to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to take up apprenticeships and expand training.

Social mobility and social inclusion are key elements of the Bill because improving the prospects of, and career options for, young people has consequences for their health and well-being as well as for their financial stability. Other hon. Members have already referred to part 2, which has a strong focus on the needs of children with learning difficulties. One of the most at- risk groups, members of which often leave education at 16, is that of disabled children and those with special educational needs. The issue of carry-over between the pre and post-16 stage for special educational needs is also highly important. The Select Committee on Education and Skills, which I served on, produced a report on SEN in July 2006 that made particular reference to that issue, and to the fact that it has not been dealt with well in the past. The work that children’s and adults’ services do is vital to the improvement of information exchange, continuity, support and advice for young people with SEN.

In that context, it is right to praise the work done for children, schools and families by the Secretary of State—in his previous capacity—and his noble Friend Lord Adonis. The most recent fruit of their activity was the report “Aiming high for disabled children”, which contained a funding package of £340 million, including a transition fund for young disabled people moving into adulthood. The Government need to consider whether there should be further advocacy and support for disabled young people.

The provisions in the Bill for 19 to 25-year-olds are welcome, but it will be useful to explore in Committee how we might increase that threshold. Although the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises have been addressed by the £90 million that the Secretary of State promised, we perhaps also need to look at how things will work in practice.

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Finally, I turn to the issue of co-operation between the private and public sectors. The Bill, by rationalising the regulation and monitoring of independent schools, makes large strides towards increased co-operation between the independent and public school sectors. Appointing Ofsted as a regulator of independent schools will streamline the process, which shows the Government’s resolve to share understanding and knowledge between the public and independent spheres of education. The proposals come at a time when we have an historic opportunity to bridge the divide that has stultified educational progress in our country during the past 30 years. I believe that the Government, in their funding, intentions and structures, are committed to bridging that divide. However, it is key that we do so at a time when social mobility is a real issue, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made clear in his recent excellent pamphlet on social mobility.

The private sector must reach out to the communities it is embedded in. It must use its facilities to facilitate that contact and reach out with its techniques. But the public sector, too, must accept that it can learn things from the private sector. I would like to refer to two recent reports that illustrate some of the problems. The Sutton Trust produced a report that shows that a significant percentage of state school teachers would still not encourage their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge or other leading universities. Sir Peter Lampl, the chair of the Sutton Trust, said:

Equally, the Charity Commission is about to publish guidance on what private schools must do to satisfy new laws requiring them to prove their public benefit. In today’s edition of The Times there is a depressing litany of complacency and smugness on the part of the bursars of some of the leading private schools, who seem to be unaware of the need to build such a bridge.

We should build that bridge, not least because the general public want us to do so. A recent survey of public attitudes on the issue showed that half the respondents said that greater collaboration between private and maintained schools would improve state education. Nearly a fifth said that opening up those school facilities to the community was the key. I want to see such co-operation extended, and I believe that that will be to the benefit of all students in schools.

In conclusion, the narrative that the Government are taking forward for the 21st century through the Bill is that we are not here to fight the battles of the past. Although I welcome some of the things said by the Opposition, it is genuinely disappointing that some Opposition Members have been too slow to recognise that vocational qualifications are not an alternative to excellence, but part of it. In the fast moving 21st century, lifelong learning must combine skills and traditional methods of learning as seamlessly as possible—vocational and academic together. By 2020, we cannot afford to turn anyone down because they are stuck in one compartment.

For my constituents in Blackpool and its specialist schools, such as Highfurlong Park and Woodlands, which are beacons of excellence in the SEN field, for its
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secondary sector, which has just produced some excellent GCSE results, and most of all, for all the young people still not getting all the benefits and who are leaving without some skills, the Bill has a great chance of doing good.

7.46 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Like many who have spoken, I begin by saying that I agree very much with most of the principles and the intent of the Bill. There are far too many young people in the NEET group—not in education, employment or training—and there are far too many pre-16 students truanting from mainstream education. A figure of 10 per cent. was suggested earlier. In comparison with just 20 years ago, jobs for unskilled, unqualified people of any age, let alone 16 to 19-year-olds or those in their 20s, barely exist. When Margaret Thatcher was presiding over the destruction of the British manufacturing industry, it was suggested, not least by her, that while basic mass manufacturing could be done in the developing world, which had cheaper wages and so on and could therefore compete far more effectively at that level, countries such as Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, could survive through internal service industries and high-skills industries that would sell to the rest of the world.

However, we cannot be complacent about those jobs either. Last year, the Select Committee on Education and Skills, as it then was, visited China; we went to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. We saw the phenomenal change and growth in that country—the massive expansion of university provision and the educational changes going through. As part of our investigation, we read about what was happening in countries such as India, which is competing with the west at every level, from universities to massive graphic design companies to massive call centres. No one in Britain or other western European countries can today assume that the sort of jobs that people could once get with no qualifications or low qualifications exist any more. They certainly will not exist in a few years’ time. The intent of the Bill is welcome, therefore.

I speak as someone who spent 22 years working in education and six years on the Education and Skills Committee looking at education throughout this country and in many others. While I was a teacher, I spent three to four years as an assistant head of year 10 and year 11, and 12 years as a head of sixth form. During those 16 years, I spent an awful lot of time every year working to persuade pupils to stay on in post-16 education. I tried to encourage them to take A-levels and to go on to university, or to stay on and take a qualification known as the certificate of pre-vocational education, which was designed for those who had not achieved their five A to Cs and who wanted to up their basic skills. There was a year-long course in which they sampled different vocational outlets to see whether that would give them an idea of where they wanted to go once they had upped themselves to a level 2 qualification.

That course was scrapped and replaced by GNVQs. My school had one of the first sixth forms to introduce that in the whole country; it was one of the first 30
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institutions, most of which were colleges, to introduce the courses. I worked hard to persuade pupils of a range of abilities—from intermediate GNVQ to advanced—to stay on. I also worked to encourage pupils to stay on and take part in a college-school partnership that existed for a number of years between one of the schools at which I worked—I was the head of the sixth form there—and the local further education college, so I have a long and wide experience of working with the client group referred to in the Bill about whom we are in part talking today.

I support a huge amount of the intention behind the Bill, but like so many others I query the compulsion element, as have a vast range of organisations of every kind, including the Institute of Directors, various teachers unions, the TUC, the British Youth Council, Barnardo’s, the Local Government Association, and the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, as well as the children’s commissioner—the list just goes on and on. The Government should consider the weight of that evidence and what has been said today, and think again about the compulsion element.

The Government need to consider carefully why the problem that they are trying to deal with through compulsion exists. In part, the problem is to do with the situation in post-16 education traditionally, in particular the poor funding for post-16 students in further education compared with that for students in school-based sixth forms, and the poor funding for FE from 19 onwards compared with that for people in higher education, as well as the lack of flexibility in FE provision. For example, a huge problem is that people either complete an apprenticeship or they get nothing out of it—they cannot build up work in a credits-based system.

The situation is very much the same with college courses. Lots of college principals and teachers with whom I have talked over the years bemoan the fact that we do not have a system such as that which some years ago the Education and Skills Committee saw working incredibly well in California, the fifth largest economy in the world in its own right. Some 60 per cent. of the population in the relevant age group in California have university degrees, but the average age at which people complete them is 35, because a lot of students build up part-time accreditation over 15 to 18 years. Those students take a course, take a year off to work or take part-time courses, building up credits over a long period of time. We do not have that in this country, which affects the whole of FE and has an effect on those in the age group who might want to work and might also want to improve their skills, but who cannot take the mix-and-match approach that works so well in other countries.

We also have a lack of apprenticeship places, which the Government have been attempting to redress, albeit certainly not on the scale that the Education and Skills Committee saw some years ago in Denmark, where there is an incredibly wide network of apprenticeship places. Denmark also has an employers’ levy, which all employers pay. All the employers there chip into the apprenticeship system, and since they have already paid the money they might as well get a free apprentice out of it, instead of regarding taking on an apprentice as a problem, which is how many employers in Britain unfortunately regard it.

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