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House of Commons

Monday 4 February 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Educational Options (16 and 17-year-olds)

1. Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to provide a range of options for 16 and 17-year-olds when education and training becomes compulsory up to the age of 18 years. [183678]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The Education and Skills Bill sets out our plans both to raise the compulsory participation age in education to 18, and to provide new options for young people alongside our new diplomas and enhanced advice and guidance. We will introduce a foundation tier for those not yet at level 2 and expand the range and number of apprenticeships, so that by 2013, 90,000 more young people will do an apprenticeship each and every year, compared with today.

Barbara Keeley: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Apprenticeships are a key option for young people, but there is evidence of considerable gender bias. The male options that are taken up tend to be better paid and lead to higher qualifications. In fact, in Salford, Connexions found that 100 per cent. of young women took health and child care, but skilled construction apprenticeships were 100 per cent. male, so that bias is evident locally. What initiatives or extra steps can be taken to tackle that considerable bias in apprenticeships?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is quite right on that point. Across the country, 99 per cent. of apprenticeships in construction are taken by men, and in engineering, the figure is 97 per cent. In child care, however, the number of apprenticeships taken by women is 97 per cent., and in hair and beauty it is 91 per cent. The new national apprenticeship service must make a priority not only of expanding the number of apprenticeships but of ensuring that they are available to both men and women. Through taster courses, better advice and guidance, we must make sure that the opportunities that we are expanding are available to men and women across the widest range of careers.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I very much welcome the 90,000 additional apprenticeships, but will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what he is doing to make sure that there is proper workplace-based training for those new apprenticeships? What incentives will he give employers to ensure that those young kids get real experience on the job, as interns would if they came to work in the House?

Ed Balls: I am not sure whether interns or young employees always get on-the-job experience. On the point made by the hon. Gentleman, we will only include in the 90,000 those young people who have a contract of employment with an employer. It will not simply be people on a training scheme—they must get work with an employer, as well as structured training. If it is an apprenticeship, that will be done in a particular way, and that will be dealt with by the national apprenticeship service. If it is a full-time job, under our new legislation there will be one day of training a week for every young person doing more than 20 hours. The important thing is to make sure that there is proper structured training to a qualification and, at the same time, the kind of on-the-job experience that will help those young people to be ready to move on to a full career. I can guarantee that that is very much part of our thinking, not just on the apprenticeships programme, but on the new diplomas, which combine learning and the practical experience that the hon. Gentleman wants to see more of.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): We are very pleased indeed with the steps that my right hon. Friend has taken to raise the compulsory age of participation. To make that a success, however, we must greatly increase the number of apprenticeships throughout the system in a relatively short time. His proposals for a national apprenticeship service could play a key role, provided that we get the organisation, the relationship with local government and the financing right. Would he therefore be prepared to meet a group of us who are concerned about all those matters, so that we can discuss them with him and the key people on his side?

Ed Balls: I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. He has a great deal of experience in these matters: when he was chief executive of Jaguar, the company offered an important apprenticeship programme. He has a lot to teach us all about how to drive work-based learning in society, and he is absolutely right that only by expanding apprenticeships and providing better advice and guidance, and by making sure that barriers to learning are addressed can we achieve our objectives in raising the participation age to 18. We have been careful: we have not said that the measures will come in tomorrow; we have given ourselves five years and 10 months to prepare, and we will use that time to make sure that the legislation genuinely delivers the revolution that we need, including the revolution in learning in the workplace, which he supports.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It is proper that we should give effective vocational education to young people, whether in colleges or on work placements. However, the Secretary of State will know the shocking statistics on how many people leave
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school who cannot even read and write properly. Will he give a guarantee that he will redouble his efforts so that nobody leaving full-time education at age 18 will be illiterate?

Ed Balls: I am redoubling my efforts and those of the Government; I am also putting in place substantial funding increases year on year to deliver on that. The hon. Gentleman’s words and those of other Conservative Members would have more credibility if they had supported our investment in education rather than opposed it in the past 10 years. We will do more to make sure that every child does well at school and that at 11 and 16 they get the qualifications that they need. Our Every Child a Reader and Every Child a Writer programmes are there to give the personalised one-to-one support that is needed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the situation today is not good enough; but it is a hell of a lot better than it was 10 years ago, when we came into power.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I was very pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend said about trying to ensure that more women get into apprenticeship programmes. However, has he reviewed the programmes that he has already established for older women? On that basis, does he have any words of comfort for organisations that would like to see more such schemes to ensure that more women access higher-paid jobs?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend has great credibility, as someone who has practised lifelong learning throughout her life and who has shown that women can go in and become experts across the widest range of professions. I listen to her words very carefully. As she knows, we now have not one but two Education Secretaries in the Cabinet. The funding of apprenticeships to adult women is a matter for the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I shall raise the issue with him; together, we are driving forward the revolution in apprenticeships that our country needs and I shall ensure that my hon. Friend gets a proper reply from him.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The first tranche of diplomas—in subjects such as construction, IT and engineering—are coming in this September and they are very welcome. Will the Secretary of State explain who is meant to be engaging with employers in our constituencies? Do the Learning and Skills Council or the sector skills councils make sure that as many small and medium-sized employers as possible get signed up?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State in due course—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary question is fine.

Ed Balls: In the case of apprenticeships, the new national apprenticeship service will have teams around the country to drive the number of extra apprenticeships that we need for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds. At the moment, the issue of 16 to 19-year-old learners taking up diplomas and engaging with employers is taken forward by the Learning and Skills Council as part of the local consortiums for driving forward the take-up of diplomas, and we now have that in most parts of the country.

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In the next few weeks, we will publish a consultation on how to move the funding of 16-to-19 education to the local authority level. When local authorities are at the centre of the local funding partnerships, the issue will be their responsibility, although they will work closely with regional development agencies and sub-regional employer skills partnerships to make sure that employers are engaged in the widest possible way. Without the support of employers, we will not be able to make a success of the diploma scheme. So far, the employer reaction to our diploma programme has been very positive indeed.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I strongly support the Government’s policy in this area and their efforts to improve education at every level. However, the fact is that a significant proportion of young people, mostly low achievers, become alienated from school and education at a very young age, and that carries through into the teenage years. We are in stark contrast to some other countries in this respect. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at ways of overcoming that alienation and demoralisation among young people? That would make the Government’s policy for 17 and 18-year-olds much more successful.

Ed Balls: Our policy for compulsory education to 18 will first affect the young people who today are 10 and 11 at school. What will motivate them will not only be the support that they get from teachers and families, but whether the curriculum is motivating for them in the period up to age 16. That will determine whether they want to stay on in education or training after that. It is certainly true that we have a lower staying-on rate at 16 than other countries, although the rate has been rising. However, the reforms that we are putting in place to the curriculum at key stage 3 level, and our diplomas, are more likely to achieve the kind of mix of theory and practice that will engage young people.

Sports colleges, for example, today have the fastest increase in results, including in English and maths, because they use the motivation of sport to get young people learning across the range of different subjects. That is a great success story for the Government and shows the way forward for other areas.

Youth Services (London)

2. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): What plans he has to fund youth services in (a) Leyton and Wanstead and (b) London in the next three years. [183679]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): In addition to funding that local authorities can choose to allocate to youth services from their own budgets, over the next three years London will benefit from direct investment from my Department of £226 million for Connexions services, £64 million for Positive Activities for Young People and £34 million for youth opportunity and capital funds. The corresponding figures for Redbridge and Waltham Forest local authorities combined are £13.9 million for Connexions, £3 million for PAYP and £2.1 million for youth opportunity and capital funds.

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Harry Cohen: I very much welcome that answer, which shows the Prime Minister’s and the Minister’s commitment. Indeed, the Mayor of London is keen to put money into youth facilities as well. In London, those better youth facilities are very much needed to stop the drift towards gangs and gun and knife culture. Will the Minister ensure that the money is spent as intended and that some local authorities—for example, Conservative ones—do not siphon the money away from youth facilities?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his continued interest in ensuring that his local authorities invest in youth services. He is right to say that the Mayor of London has added £20 million to our money over the next two years to constitute a dedicated London youth offer. A relatively large proportion—about two thirds of the £679 million in the 10-year youth strategy—will be ring-fenced so that we can insist that local authorities spend that money in conjunction with young people themselves. It is important, however, that local authorities maintain and, if possible, increase their contribution to their youth services from their own area-based grants to continue to drive up improvements. My hon. Friend is aware that Redbridge local authority was judged to be inadequate for youth services and value for money, and it is important that he keeps monitoring it to ensure that it puts the money where it is needed.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): The Government’s strategy, “Aiming high for young people”, is a worthy commitment, but it is rather vague. Will the Minister clarify what sort of places she envisages young people will be looking for in boroughs across London?

Beverley Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the specific amount of money in “Aiming high for young people”, which was £6 million and which was increased by a further £160 million in the children’s plan for refurbished and new youth facilities—the capital part of that offer—we are very much open to local authorities working in conjunction with young people to come forward with ideas for what is needed in their areas. We want them to use the opportunity to work in partnership with voluntary organisations and with the private sector. I have seen some innovative projects putting youth facilities in place in which the private sector has come on board to provide not only money but expertise, motivation and leadership. There are excellent examples around the country, including in London, and we want the best practice to be emulated everywhere to get some really exciting places for young people.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I very much welcome the additional money that the Mayor of London and the Government are putting into youth services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when youth service investment is matched with extended schools, that can make a real difference to tackling antisocial behaviour and improving academic performance and attendance? Does she also agree that it is bizarre that youth services are often closed on the nights of the week, such as Fridays, when the demand is greatest and the need to get young people
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off the street is greatest? Will she work with local authorities to ensure that youth services are delivering when they are needed most?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As she knows, I have been leading something of a campaign on this. We did some research in eight local authorities and discovered in a spot check that in none of them were youth facilities open on a Friday and Saturday. It is time that we got away from providing services that suit the hours of the people who want to work in them rather than those who need the services. As local authorities come forward with their plans for using this money, we will press hard to ensure that, conditionally, these places must be open at times when it makes sense for young people who want to use them.

Teenage Pregnancy

3. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What steps he is taking to tackle teenage pregnancy through the Every Child Matters agenda; and if he will make a statement. [183681]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): The teenage pregnancy strategy is based on the Every Child Matters principles of integrated working, early identification and prevention, and draws upon the best available international evidence on reducing teenage conception. Since we launched the strategy, there has been a steady decline in England’s under-18 conception rate, and it is now at its lowest level for 20 years. However, as we discussed last week in an excellent Adjournment debate, that progress nationally masks a wide variation in progress between local areas. We have identified what is working in the best areas, and we are now pushing all areas to incorporate those lessons into their local strategies.

Sandra Gidley: The Minister mentioned a decrease, but she will acknowledge that there have been local increases—particularly in Southampton, which has been dubbed the teenage pregnancy capital of the south. Does she agree that many young people have unprotected sex after alcohol, and what is her Department doing to ensure that children realise that there is a clear link between the overconsumption of alcohol and unintended pregnancy? They may go home with more than a hangover.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Alcohol contributes to a significant proportion of unwanted teenage pregnancies, which is why it is important that the strategy adopted locally by local authorities, primary care trusts, youth services and schools—all working together—addresses a comprehensive approach to young people. Those bodies must offer all the support they can in relation to alcohol and the other factors that make young people vulnerable.

As I explained, although some areas are not doing well and need to do better, the areas that have done well have reduced their unwanted conceptions by up to 40 per cent. If all areas performed at the rate of the best 25 per cent., national progress would be double what it is at the moment. It is a comprehensive local approach, addressing all those factors, that makes the difference.

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Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend do what she can to encourage local authorities to aim their strategy at preventing first-time pregnancies? In my experience, too many strategies concentrate on young girls’ second pregnancies, and we want to ensure that the first baby is prevented. I hope that she will encourage local authorities to use programmes that concentrate on that issue, including provisions to ensure that nurses work in those schools where early pregnancies are most prevalent.

Beverley Hughes: My right hon. Friend is expert in this area because she spent a lot of time in her previous position in the Cabinet Office striving for progress. She is absolutely right; about 80 per cent. of teenage pregnancies involve first-time mothers. It is right that we address that matter in every way we can, and it is also right that schools play their part in a clear way by providing, where appropriate and with the agreement of governors and parents, good advice centred on young people, on school sites where necessary. That includes sexual health advice, as well as other advice relating to young people’s problems.

However, it is also important that we address second pregnancies because it is a really serious failure when 20 per cent. of teenage pregnancies are second or subsequent pregnancies involving young women who are still teenagers. If services cannot capture women who have already had a baby, and help them to avoid a second or third, they need to do a lot better.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The Minister is right to talk about integrated working, but she has no reason for complacency. If the Government have done so much on sex education, why did the UK Youth Parliament reveal that almost half of teenagers rate their sex education lessons as “poor” or “very poor”? The World Health Organisation said that more children in this country have sex than those anywhere in Europe, and there has been an alarming 43 per cent. increase, not in second pregnancies, but in the number of children having abortions for the second time. If everything is going as well as she claims, why has her Department halved the number of staff in its teenage pregnancy unit? Does that not show that the Government’s 2010 target for halving teenage pregnancies is another failed ambition?

Beverley Hughes: I really welcome the hon. Gentleman’s indication that he supports much more systematic, rigorous and consistent sex and relationship education in schools. Frankly, that is not the message we get from many of his hon. Friends.

In relation to the teenage pregnancy unit, the focus is now on local areas. We cannot command strategies from the centre. Having developed the strategies and given local areas the tools they need, we need only a small team at the centre. We need local areas to improve their focus on and investment in local activity because we will make the difference there, not through command and control from Whitehall.

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