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8.41 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to speak in this important debate. I have no idea whether the Bill will be a success or a failure. It would be churlish to hope that it will fail and I sincerely hope that it is a success. Whatever the outcome, it provides us with a fantastic opportunity to debate the important issue of education and skills. One of my regrets is that there are not more Members here today to listen to the debate, because I have listened to many colleagues, on both sides of the House, make some fabulous contributions. Another regret is that there are so few members of the press here to report on the debate, but their minds are probably on other things.

When I was at school I was no academic hero. I am pretty sure that my parents cried themselves to sleep night after night, worrying what they would do with me. It was only because they were extremely generous, very patient and had some financial means that I managed to become a Conservative Member of Parliament and not a drop-out—although sometimes I wonder whether they would have preferred me to be a drop-out.

When the press talk about education, they talk about bright and gifted children. That is fantastic, but they also talk about dull and thick children, and that is very sad. All children have aptitudes and strengths, but they come to learning at a different time in their life. We are not all the same, and that goes for children, too. I was only comfortable around a textbook at the age of 18 or 19, but many of my peer group were comfortable around textbooks from the ages of five or six. It is dangerous to pigeonhole children at a young age.

I managed to go to a very good university in America, but I was amazed by the approach to education of many of the young men and women I met from India and China. While I was off drinking beer, fishing and chasing beautiful American girls, those people were often in the library when it opened at 7 o’clock in the morning, working studiously, and were the last to leave when it closed at 11 pm. They really valued education and the opportunities that it would give them, often to escape from their very poor backgrounds.

I am concerned that in this country some sections of society are complacent about education. The world does not owe this country a living. The world is becoming an increasingly competitive place and only those with the most up-to-date skills and the best knowledge of the workplace will be able to compete in the future and get the best jobs. It is incumbent on politicians, decision makers and opinion formers to make it clear to parents that if their children do not go to school and are not supported through school they will simply not be in a position to compete in the
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future. Tonight we are talking about legislative changes, but we also need to talk about cultural changes in how we approach education.

I represent a constituency just north of London, which is served by some fabulous schools, but, again, sections of the community have traditionally undervalued education. Far too many young people in my constituency decide to leave school at 16. They are able and bright, but school has not worked for them and they want to get a job to earn some money. They end up in low-skilled jobs, such as working at a till in a supermarket. I shall not name any particular supermarkets, but a number of those young people go to work in the retail sector. For a short time in their life, they do better than their peer group. They earn £200 to £300 a week and have all the luxuries that those left behind at school do not have. They have a car, status, a job and money to go out with, but they have no long-term skills and no future. By the time they reach the age of 19 or 20, they begin to be left behind.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is making a strong point about those who have no skills. However, there was a time not so long ago when people could have almost no literacy or numeracy skills, work in a factory or the mines all their lives, earn good money in that time and then retire. Those jobs have gone; is that the point that the hon. Gentleman is making?

Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point: 20, 30 or 40 years ago, people could leave school unable to read and write or add up and could hold down a job that would provide for them and their family. I do not believe that that is the case any more. I do not believe that working on the checkout of a supermarket, in the long term, will allow people to provide for themselves and their families. That is why skills are so important and why it is incumbent on us to ensure through counselling and education that young people are aware that the life choices that they make at 14, 15 or 16 will have a long-term impact on their future.

I want to use the second half of my speech to talk about the troublemakers in our classrooms. One or two troublemakers can make learning for the majority almost impossible or at least very difficult. Those who want to learn find it hard to get the quiet time that they need, as well as the focus and attention that they need from teachers, while those who are on the periphery of learning are drawn away to those who cause problems. I do not want to stand here and attack people who are struggling in school. Often, the brightest young people are failed by the education system.

Like all my colleagues in this House, I spend time talking to young people—often those who have left formal education young. They struggle to make their way in their community, and have often spent time in trouble with the police or even in detention. Almost overwhelmingly I find them to be bright, switched-on youngsters, but somewhere along the line they lost touch with education. They might have a learning difficulty that was undiagnosed, dyslexia or problems with their attention span. Unfortunately, even now, the education system is not yet geared to meeting their needs. We lose them too young.

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I hope that as part of the Bill we can consider how we approach young people in school. This country has traditionally placed academic success over vocational and industrial success. We need to start redressing that imbalance. There is an urge to send hundreds of thousands of people to university, almost to the exclusion of vocational careers. I stress to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) that a vocational career with a skill can be rewarding and allow people to earn the money to have what we would call a middle-class lifestyle and provide for their families.

I hope that we can identify children who are struggling at the age of 11, 12 or 13, and put the infrastructure in place to take the time to work with them, manage their expectations and show them how learning can help achieve their aspiration, whether it is to be a qualified bricklayer or a mechanic—something that engages them. We could present the argument to young people that those who want to be mechanics or around engineering projects need to have a good understanding of English to read the manuals and of science and maths to do the equations. If we can persuade them that they can apply what they learn in school to a career that enables them to achieve their potential afterwards, perhaps we can engage them in the learning process for that much longer. We should be in a position when young people are 13 or 14 to identify those youngsters who are better off in a vocational framework and help them get the education and experience that will allow them to be productive members of society.

When talking to bright and able children in my constituency, I have often noticed a lack of self-awareness and confidence, which acts as a barrier to their ability to communicate with adults and sell themselves. Too often, I have talked to youngsters who are telling me about some fabulous work or project that they have done at school, and they are talking to their feet, not to me. That will place them at a huge disadvantage when they are interviewed for jobs and universities. We need to develop those soft skills in all our youngsters. One method of achieving that is through drama. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that drama was a fabulous way in which to allow people to come out of their shells, express themselves and develop the self-confidence that would enable them to prosper at the interview stage.

The Bill is important. If I have the pleasure of serving in Committee, I look forward to bringing my moderate intellect to bear on proceedings.

8.52 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I apologise for not being in the House earlier; constituency matters kept me away. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and strongly welcome the Bill.

I want to begin by outlining the context that informs the measure. It is vital to continue to upskill our population so that we can compete in a global economy. We want to do that not at the bottom end but at the top. That means concentrating on developing higher level skills and improving skills overall. As the
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Prime Minister has pointed out, we have 6 million unskilled workers today but, by 2020, we will need only approximately 500,000. There should be increasing demand for skilled employees as well as improvement in the skills and qualifications of those leaving school to equip them for the future work force.

I applaud the Government for taking the bold step of guaranteeing training or education for every young person up to the age of 18. Much has been said about the great sadness of the fact that so many of our young people leave education and training without qualifications. That undoubtedly reduces their life chances. Labour Members hold the view, which should be welcomed, that if we want young people to leave school with qualifications, we must will the means as well as the end. It is simply not enough to stand up in the Chamber and wish that more of our young people stayed on at school. We must not only encourage them to do so; I feel strongly that we must insist.

The policy is not simply to ensure that young people stay on in education until the age of 18; it is to ensure a whole range of measures and opportunities for young people and to encourage them to stay on in education or training as well as insisting that they do so. They will be given a range of ways to acquire skills, from work-based learning to apprenticeships. They will be able to combine training and volunteering and participate in part-time education as well as being employed.

Having that range of measures is a critical part of the Bill. They reflect what already takes place in a great many communities throughout this country. As a result of previous legislation by this Government, 14-to-19 partnerships exist in lots of areas. They are critical to skills development, because they bring together people at the local level who understand education, particularly the educational requirements of that age group, and marry those requirements with employers’ needs in the new diplomas.

We want to encourage as many young people as possible to take up the new vocational diplomas. It is clearly important for us to do so, for a number of reasons. I shall start with the young people themselves. Although I must stress that the number of those leaving school without any qualifications has decreased drastically under this Government, we all recognise that there is a group of young people who are disengaged from education—it usually happens between the ages of 12 and 14. That suggests that we do not have enough measures in place to engage them.

The Bill’s measures to strengthen local partnerships for 14-to-19 diplomas should encourage a great many more young people to take a vocational route through education—a route that will meet their needs. I encourage the Government, when putting in place the element of compulsion, to consider the quality of the 14-to-19 diplomas and work-based training available, so that young people get support and encouragement to stay on in education. We must ensure a degree of personalised support so that they can map out at the age of 11 or 12 what they would like to achieve and receive support to attain it, as well as a degree of flexibility and choice at the local level so that they can start to participate in a diploma and, if they like it, enhance their learning by progressing from apprenticeship to advanced apprenticeship. Progress
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should be led by the young person depending on how they want their skills to develop, but they should also get the support that they need from local professionals. Where it is essential, they should also be given support through their families, or their families should be encouraged to support them.

I support the Bill. The measures in it will help us to engage that group of young people who are leaving without qualifications.

I want to give a few examples from my constituency, which is in a former coalfield, to show how the proposals in the Bill may develop. In the 1980s, the mines closed and there was very little investment in the community or its schools. We must therefore do what we can to change the culture of such communities so that young people can improve their aspirations. Such initiatives have been under way for a number of years, and staying-on rates in County Durham have increased drastically in recent years. I pay tribute to local head teachers and teachers who have embraced the need to raise standards, and do a great deal of excellent work with young people to encourage as many of them as possible to stay on.

Today, however, we are concentrating on that group who have not grasped the many opportunities provided by the Government. We need to engage with those young people who have not yet seen a way forward in the education system. From talking to them, particularly the young men, I know that they think that in the past their communities were forgotten. They have begun to see that a range of opportunities are available to them, and apprenticeships are the way forward. Many of their fathers and grandfathers undertook apprenticeships, so they know that they were a route to employment in the past. They recognise the language, and they are keen to take them up.

I am pleased that the Bill sets out the way forward to provide an increased number of apprenticeships. It pays attention, too, to the quality of apprenticeships on offer, so that young people who take them up gain experience of employment and receive support from employers and local colleges. We must ensure that apprenticeships are a positive experience. Young people should be encouraged to stick with them, and they should lead to employment. That is very much the Leitch agenda, and that is why I support the Bill.

While it is important to upskill young people and ensure that they leave education and training with the right qualifications to equip them for the labour market of the future, we must recognise that a great many people in employment do not have the necessary skills for an improving economy. It is right that the Government have encouraged people without level 2 or level 3 qualifications to take up the opportunity to gain them, and have given them the support to do so while they are in employment. I applaud the Government for providing adults with opportunities to take level 3 qualifications that do not require payment. A great many of my constituents did not have the opportunity to gain qualifications early in their lives, and they very much welcome the opportunity to upskill offered by the Bill.

In many workplaces across my constituency and elsewhere, many of our trade union partners have put in place training schemes to encourage workers to upskill, to improve their skills, and to think through
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their career development. Those opportunities were not available to those workers in the past, and I am sure that they all welcome the excellent measures in the Bill that encourage them to develop their skills, enhance their employment level and move into new careers, if that is what they wish to do.

Therefore, I applaud the Government for setting their sights high. It is not good enough that we are currently not one of the top 10 OECD countries for skills development. The measures in the Bill and the targets that the Government have set should enable us to get into that top 10 by 2020. We absolutely have to support that ambition. We absolutely want to be a country that invests not only in the skills development of our young people, but in the skills development of adults who are in work, so that, as I said, we can compete effectively in the global economy.

I am at a loss to understand why the Opposition parties are not supporting these measures. Much of the Bill is about changing the culture that exists in some of our communities and giving opportunities for young people. There is much more about that than there is about compulsion. The Government want compulsion as a measure of last resort. The Bill is about providing more opportunities not only for young people but for all adults who are in employment. There is a set of goals and ambitions here that all parties in the Chamber should get behind. I will be interested to hear what Opposition Front Benchers say in response to the debate.

9.6 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), who is passionate about getting us back into the OECD top 10. It is a disgrace that we are out of that bracket. Across the House, it is a target that we can all head towards. She also spoke with passion about diplomas. That allows me to declare an interest in the sense that I am the product of the international baccalaureate. I did not do A-levels. If there is any form of education that arms individuals, no matter what their background and what they want to do with their lives, the international baccalaureate and its diploma is it. We should allow more of that. It does not demand that individual pupils limit themselves to three subjects. They learn a wide variety of skills, which they need for the life that they must pursue.

It has been said that music is the food of love. I would say that education is the fuel of life and, if it is properly administered, it can not only power social mobility but ignite appetites to learn. It can give children the skills that they need not only to survive but to succeed.

The greater competition that we now face is part of the background that we are discussing today. It has been mentioned a number of times by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We have heard about the growth in skill sets that we are seeing across Europe, whether it be Poland or elsewhere, the influx of graduates, non-graduates and those armed with the skills in places such as China, India and South Korea.
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We are no longer simply the United Kingdom. We are competing with our colleagues from across the globe. That leads us on to the economic case. Unless we arm the next generation with the relevant skills, as the Leitch report said in December 2005, we will miss out on the importance of investment in education, which leads to a more prosperous labour market. The report said that an increased pool of highly skilled school leavers leads to an increase in economic productivity.

It is worth taking stock of where things stand after 10 years of this Labour Government. Unfortunately, we are lagging behind several European countries; only 27 per cent. of Britons are qualified to apprenticeship, skilled craft or technical level, compared with 51 per cent. in France or 65 per cent. in Germany. The Government claim that the number of apprenticeships is up from 75,000 in 1997 to an astonishing 250,000 at present, but as the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee noted in June 2007, the increase was due to

which means that the number has jumped dramatically.

Mr. Denham: The figure we give for apprenticeships is entirely people who are working for employers while they follow their apprenticeship, which is a requirement of that part of the apprenticeship programme. Other apprenticeships are programme apprenticeships, but the figure we usually use is people who must have an employer to complete their apprenticeship.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, but it does not explain the concern of the House of Lords Committee. This is smoke and mirrors: numbers are being included to up the statistics.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend makes an entirely accurate and well-argued point. The only reason why the Secretary of State appeared to be able to disagree was because in his statistics he included training providers as employers. It is only because they are counted as employers that the Secretary of State appears to achieve the effect he was claiming, but it is my hon. Friend who is right.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose intervention shows that we must have honesty in the statistics we consider. I am sure those details will be probed in Committee, although I make it clear that I have no desire to serve on the Committee—should I actually be asked.

The Secretary of State may also want to challenge the statistics showing that we are enduring the highest level of truancy of the last 10 years. So bad are the figures that I understand that the Government have dropped their truancy target, because they are so worried about what the real figures would show. That suggests that things are not going well and that after 10 years more must be done.

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