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14 Jan 2008 : Column 753

Mr. Willetts: I shall, but we are up against time constraints.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: In the interest of making common cause, will the hon. Gentleman accept that the measures in the Bill to encourage more young people of 16, 17 and 18 to stay on in education and training will not only raise their aspirations but help them to find employment and reduce deprivation?

Mr. Willetts: I understand the hon. Lady’s genuine commitment to that, but after 10 years of a Labour Government and all the promises that were made about the new deal, it would be helpful if we could have a rather more honest assessment of why the new deal has completely failed to deliver any of the things that were promised.

I was making my way through the statistics, but I realise that what we really need is a learned article in the Financial Times by an economic expert analysing these data in the way that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families used to do so skilfully in his previous employment. I am trying to make sense of what has been happening. There has been virtually no change in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds having some education in employment and, within that, there has been a modest increase in the number staying on at school and a decline in the number having training. If anything, there has been an increase in the number of young people not in education, employment or training—NEETs. The number of 16 to 18-year-old NEETs has gone up since 1997 from 173,000 to 197,000, and there has been a decline in the number of young people in work.

The pattern shows a decline in the number of young people working, a slight increase in the number of young people staying on at school, a decline in the number of young people in training in employment, and an increase in the number of young NEETs. We need the Government to explain why the proposals in the Bill will not simply reinforce those trends, but they have not done so today. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the way in which the measures take effect will lead to a further decline in the number of young people in employment, perhaps a further decline in the number in employment who are getting a contribution towards training from their employer, and an increase in the number staying on at school? He kept saying, “Don’t worry, this is not really an increase in the school leaving age. This is something much more mature and sophisticated than that. It’s an increase in the number of young people who will have an entitlement to education or training in some form.”

I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate will be able to tell us why, given the trends that have been established over the past 10 years under this Government, these measures will not result in a further decline in job opportunities for under-18s, a further decline in work-based training and an increase in the number of young people who have to stay on at school. That is what the trends established under this Government suggest will happen. Why should it be any different in the future? We have not yet heard any explanation from the Secretary of State as to why that will not happen. The Secretary of State’s own advisers have issued a warning about this in their excellent and
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useful report on raising the participation age in education and training. They specifically warn about these dangers.

The Secretary of State says, “It’s all right, there are going to be more apprenticeships,” but what does he mean by “apprenticeships”? We are worried that some of the things that the Government call apprenticeships look awfully like the job training schemes of our day that they used to denounce. The more the Secretary of State or the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills guarantees an increase in the number of apprenticeships—and the more they both say that they can deliver such an increase—the greater the risk that the only apprenticeships they deliver will involve people sitting behind desks in FE colleges. The more real an apprenticeship is, and the more genuinely it involves real employers, and not just training providers, the less likely it is that the Government will stand here and announce some notional target for them. The whole point about real apprenticeships is that their numbers are not determined by Ministers. So every time Ministers come here to announce some ambitious target for apprenticeships, the more sceptical we become about whether they will be real apprenticeships, or whether the Government will have to deliver their target through schemes that are not apprenticeships in the commonly accepted sense of the word at all.

If young people stay on at school, we want them to get valuable qualifications. That is an objective shared by all of us on both sides of the House. However, as we know from the evaluations by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, another real source of concern is that some national vocational qualifications are of negligible value. It would be a cruel trick to play on our young people to require them to stay on at school to get vocational qualifications, some of which even—shockingly—have a negative value. We have not heard anything from Ministers about why national vocational qualifications are going to be better.

Of course it is good if people stay on at school, but they must not simply be warehoused in education, becoming, in reality, even more disengaged from it. Will the Secretary of State confirm, for example, that when areas in which education maintenance allowances were piloted were compared with those where there were no such allowances, there was a higher number of 19-year-old NEETs in the former? People stayed on at school for an extra two years on account of the incentive, but it left them even more disenchanted than they were before.

Let me come on to some other questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) eloquently raised the issue of coercion and how the proposals would work out. In some extremely valuable exchanges, we tried to pin Ministers down as to exactly what coercion would mean. By the end of it, it seemed to mean a fine, but I have to say to the Secretary of State, who I know is wrestling with the problems of the quality of childhood and the opportunities facing our children in Britain today, that youngsters whose lives are going off the rails gradually discover that everything the authorities tell them is a bluff and can be ignored. They find that no threat from the authorities needs to be taken seriously, so ultimately they can carry on playing truant and carry on skiving.
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As a result of my hon. Friend’s extremely valuable questioning, it became increasingly clear that 16 to 18-year-olds were going to have something else from the authorities to cock a snook at and ignore.

We also need to know more about the effects on other learners. There could be losers from the policy, especially if it involves greater disruption to the education of other children. What are the arrangements for enforcing it? Are the Government going to track every 16 to 18-year-old to ensure that they are indeed complying with the legislation?

As I said, Conservative Members share the aspiration of having more young people stay on to gain worthwhile education and training. For us, the key elements of that are common sense. First, it means getting the educational basics right and ensuring that young people master the basics. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has always been eloquent in the cause of synthetic phonics, and it was good to hear Members on all sides of the House speaking up in favour of them. We know that reaching level 4 at the age of 11 is crucial to avoid being a NEET later on, and crucial to ensuring that people stay on in secondary school. Sadly, if young people do not reach level 4 by 11, the educational opportunities later in their youth will be much reduced.

I believe that managing the transitions for young people—from primary to secondary school and from secondary out into college or training—is also very important, but we heard very little about how this new legislation would change that. Providing proper advice for young people is also crucial so that they know what is going to be worth while for them. We welcome that and look forward to debating it further in Committee. It can be frustrating to attend, as I did, one of the excellent summer schools run by Sir Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust. One sees youngsters suddenly excited by the prospect of going to university and realising that it could indeed be for them, but when one starts talking about the GCSEs or A-levels they have studied, one has to wonder who on earth in their schools ever thought that such a mix of GCSEs or A-levels could remotely help them to meet the aspirations that they obviously have. Someone failed to give them the careers advice that they were entitled to expect. We therefore very much hope that the Bill will help to tackle that shocking problem. We also hope that it will lead to more real apprenticeships with proper employer involvement—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) cares passionately about. They must be real apprenticeships, but the more real they are, as I said, the less likely it is that Ministers will be able to deliver their glib targets.

Finally, we have heard no mention by Ministers of the extraordinary vitality and success of voluntary initiatives that do not need to use the compulsory power of legislation. This morning I visited a charity, Into University, based in north Kensington and elsewhere in London. It tries to learn some of the lessons from the rather disappointing record of Aimhigher, which has not yet succeeded in spreading university opportunities on the scale that we might have hoped for. It said that of course it is necessary to excite youngsters with the prospect of going to university by introducing them to the university
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experience, but it is necessary to do other things as well: offer practical assistance with homework, enabling them to get work done, perhaps away from a disruptive home environment; provide them with mentoring; and provide them with extra courses to ensure that they can get the A-levels and GCSEs that they need. That was a voluntary initiative and a genuine attempt to improve opportunities for young people in danger of becoming NEETs. There is a lot that the voluntary sector can do—so it is good to see the Secretary of State who has responsibility for the voluntary sector on the Front Bench. I very much hope that the Bill is not a case of lazy policy making turning to compulsion when, in reality, smarter policies could achieve the aspirations shared on both sides of the House.

9.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): This has been a good debate, although in the past quarter of an hour or more the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) was so overwhelmingly negative and had so little that was positive to say about the future of our young people that it is not surprising that it is the Government who have led with confidence about what we can deliver for young people in our society.

Inevitably, there is insufficient time available to do real justice to all the excellent and thoughtful contributions made on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said rightly that there would surely be something wrong if we had a society in which an employer could object to a young person being in training.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked me to deal seriously with the issues in the debate, but he is the one who should deal seriously with the issue. Willing the ends without willing the means—as we heard so often tonight—will result in us failing the young people in our society.

Mr. Laws: The Secretary of State says that the Liberal Democrats are not willing the means. Does he agree that we raised a number of proposals today that would tackle disadvantage further down the system, including a pupil premium to target disadvantage when it matters most—in the earlier years and in primary education?

Mr. Denham: I apologise if replying to this point means that I cannot refer to all Members’ speeches, but the reality is that we do not have an either/or policy: this Government are already concentrating resources in those areas of greatest disadvantage: intervening early through Sure Start to give young people the best start in life; introducing extra resources for one-to-one support for pupils; and making sure that there is extra provision for those who fall behind so that they are brought up to standard. Right through the education system, the Government are investing the resources necessary to do what Members on both sides of the House have said that we need to do. No one has come here tonight to suggest that we need to concentrate only on raising the participation age. The Government have said that even with all the measures in the system to raise standards, tackle disadvantage and undercut
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educational disadvantage, we still need to raise the participation age if we are to ensure that all our young people get the best chances in life. I will come back to those arguments in just a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) spoke about apprenticeships. I agree with his call for a stronger lead for the apprenticeship system, and I believe that when the apprenticeship review is published in the not-too-distant future, he will be pleased with some of its proposals. We can be more optimistic about what we have achieved on apprenticeships than he perhaps suggested. There has been an increase not only in the overall number of young people taking part in apprenticeships, but in the number of starts, and particularly, as I said during the debate, in the number of completions successfully undertaken.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) made a number of points about the quality and relevance of education. If I understood him rightly, he said that his area received lower-than-average funding per pupil; in fact, according to the figures that I have, his constituents receive higher-than-average funding per pupil, and are looking forward to a higher-than-average per pupil increase in funding.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) talked about the poorest young people, and he was right to do so. As I said, however, the Government already recognise the need to concentrate resources and activity on those young people. I do not think that that detracts from the argument that we should do all we can to ensure that those young people stay in education or training until the age of 18.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) spoke of support needed by those who lack the necessary literacy and numeracy skills. One reason for raising the participation age, and indeed for allowing an element of compulsion, is to enable us to support those who might otherwise drop out of the system altogether. There is a whole set of young people who will need additional support in relation to literacy or numeracy, the problems with caring that have been raised today, or abuse of drugs or other substances. The Bill makes it much more likely that those who currently disappear from the system will receive the help that they need to remain in it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) spoke of his personal history, and his ambitions for his family and his community. He was right to stress the importance of our raising aspirations throughout society. That was in marked contrast to what was said in last week’s debate about higher education, when the Conservatives showed so little interest in opening up opportunities for those who have never had the chance to receive such education.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) was in favour of increased participation, but against compulsion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) spoke of the achievements of the modern apprenticeship system. Let me say something about tackling the needs of those under 16, and about reforms that are already taking place in the education system. Only last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hosted a reception at No. 10
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Downing street for the British team in the WorldSkills “olympics” which took place recently in Japan. A number of people were there, including the gold medal winner Gary Tuddenham. The food provided was cooked by chefs from Westminster Kingsway college, all of whom were in pre-16 apprenticeships. They were spending three days a week at school, one day undergoing work experience, and one day receiving college-based training. That type of redesign of the curriculum is already happening throughout the education system to give relevant, interesting and exciting education opportunities to young people who might have found traditional education uninteresting. Too much of today’s debate seemed to assume that no such curriculum changes were being made, but they are being made, and the Bill’s proposals build on a system that is already much more relevant to the young people about whom we are all concerned.

The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made some comments about the way in which her constituents speak English. I think that those comments deserve a wider circulation, not least among her constituents. She also quoted the views of the Professional Association of Teachers. I mention that to clarify an issue that has caused some confusion in the debate. We are not expecting the Bill to lead to young people studying full-time in schools and colleges; the emphasis is on work-based or day-release training, which I do not expect to lead to the disruption in colleges to which Members have referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) rightly said that it was not a realistic option for young people to enter the world of work without skills or qualifications of some sort, and talked of the Bill’s social inclusion aims. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), like many others, spoke of pre-16 experience. I hope that I have acknowledged the strength of his point, and also made clear what the Government are doing about it.

The hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) argued—surprisingly, and in contradiction of the stance of those on his Front Bench—that central Government had no role in raising standards or in participation. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said that colleges in his area were already considering innovative solutions and new approaches to keeping young people in education.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) spoke of the importance of raising skills among young people, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) was another who wanted us to engage, as we are doing, with those pre-16 as well as post-16 to increase participation.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) spoke of the importance of diplomas in meeting the needs of young people. It will not have passed the House by that although the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who speaks for the Conservatives and who opened the debate for them, talked about what needs to be done to increase young people’s participation, he is perhaps the leading opponent of diplomas. They are one of the key educational reforms that make it much more likely that a relevant education will be on offer for young people.

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Michael Gove: Can the Secretary of State refer to any occasion on which I have been in any way critical of the existing diploma line, other than in respect of the three new diplomas introduced by him? Every word that I have said about the existing diploma line has been favourable, has it not?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman has stated:

He has also said that the new diplomas that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The hon. Gentleman’s mood music on this matter is fairly clear, and I was pleased that I was able to lay my hands on those quotes. [Interruption.] I have missed one. He has also accused us of wanting

Michael Gove: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Denham: No, I have given way to the hon. Gentleman, I have quoted him enough and I should make some progress.

The reality is that this debate has highlighted a stark difference between the parties. It is extraordinary, given everything that has been said, that the Conservatives neither moved a reasoned amendment nor are apparently prepared to vote against this legislation. What they have shown tonight is that they are simply not willing to face up to the reality of the challenge that we face as a country. The group of young people about whom we all are most concerned—those who, despite the efforts we are making, are most likely to reach 16 without the qualifications they need for the rest of their lives—are those who are most likely to end up in crime or doing low-income jobs. Such people may end up thinking that trying to work the benefits system is better than trying to get a job, and they are more likely to have low aspirations for their own children.

What we seek to do through the Bill, which comes on top of all the changes already being made in pre-school education, and in schools and to the schools curriculum, is to ensure that we take the right measures in order not to waste the opportunities and lives of those young people. I find a stark contrast tonight between the positive enthusiasm with which the Conservatives last week talked of how harsh they wish to be to those who find themselves on benefit for a long period of time—they positively throbbed with enthusiasm at the thought of what they would do to such people, without recognising that the young people who they are talking about are the same young people who we want to keep in education and training—and the Bill’s modest, mild bit of compulsion, which is necessary to bring about a change in participation, and is what we need.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second Time.

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