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Alison Wolf has been cited frequently in the debate. She raised concerns about the effect of compulsion on the labour market and the employment prospects for 16 and 17-year-olds, especially given the legal duties that the Bill imposes on employers. She said that

The Government should examine the causes of the problem to determine why so many people are so disaffected with our education system that more leave school at 16 without going on to further education in this country than in most developed countries. As the Children’s Rights Alliance stated:

That does not mean that those young people are not entitled to an academic secondary education. It means that they went to one of the 49 per cent. of schools that Ofsted categorises as “not good enough”, or—worse—they attended one of the 638 failing secondary schools, or they started secondary education with a reading age of nine or lower, or they went to a secondary school where behaviour was out of control and the prevailing ethos was one in which being seen to work and study hard was to be uncool and an invitation to be bullied.

Two weeks ago, I visited a secondary school where more than half the intake had a reading age of nine or below. That is unacceptable. No child should leave
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primary school with such poor reading skills. Reading is a low level skill, which every child, whatever their ability, should have mastered in the first years of primary school.

As Alison Wolf said in her paper, “Diminished Returns”:

That is of course true. Nothing demotivates a person more than not being able to do something that they are meant to be able to do.

Starting secondary school still unable to read properly and with ease is bound to lead to five more years of disaffection with education. That is why we intend to introduce a screening test—a simple, standardised reading test—at the end of the second year of primary education, to ensure that every child can decode words effortlessly, including false words. For too many decades we have allowed millions of children to emerge without having mastered the basic skills of reading. That is no longer acceptable to the Government, the public or our party. Tom Wilson of the TUC told the Public Bill Committee:

They are right to be angry. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—I do not know whether I should mention him, but I have—was right to conclude his speech on Second Reading thus:

We need to ensure that our education system uses teaching methods and the curriculum that the evidence demonstrates are most effective and that are not based simply on a fad or someone’s assertion. The decades-long ideological experiment of look-and-say and real books has been deeply damaging to millions of children, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds. That, combined with mixed-ability teaching in secondary schools and a culture of low expectations in too many inner-city schools, has left this country with one of the lowest participation rates in the developed world. Tackling that issue lies at the core of raising participation, rather than introducing a Bill that criminalises the young people whom our education system has let down, threatens the youth labour market and burdens colleges and local authorities with new costs. Organisations that work with the most vulnerable young people say that the Bill and the concept of compulsion will simply not work.

9.42 pm

Mr. Chaytor: I commend the Government for getting the Bill on to the statute book. It is a landmark Bill, in exactly the same way that the raising of the school-leaving age in 1972 from 15 to 16 was a landmark piece of legislation.

To those who argue against compulsion, I simply say this: do they honestly think that if the 1972 legislation had not put a legal requirement on parents to send
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their children to school until the age of 16, we would have witnessed the progress that has been achieved since then? It is manifestly obvious that there must be a legal sanction if we want to increase the participation age. However, that does not mean that the legal sanction is the centrepiece of the Government’s means of increasing the participation age.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) is absolutely right that the root cause of our comparatively low level of post-16 participation lies firmly in weaknesses earlier in the education system, and in some aspects of secondary education in particular. However, I return to the point that we touched on in the debate on the first group of amendments on Report. He and his party remain in a state of denial about the relationship between school admissions policies and the capacity of individual schools to perform well and do the best for their children.

Some of the problems that the hon. Gentleman described are the legacy of admissions systems based on selection by ability, explicitly or implicitly, and many forms of quasi-selection, which leave large numbers of young people demoralised and demotivated, because they know at an early age that they have been deselected. That is one of the root causes of alienation in the secondary stage of education, and low self-esteem and demotivation at the age of 16, which result in Britain having one of the lowest post-16 participation rates of any country in the OECD.

I commend the Government for the progress that they are making on fair admissions to our secondary schools. The Bill will bring about significant changes as the years go by. However, the longer we put off tackling the fundamental issue of selection by ability, which is the cause of our hierarchical secondary school system, the more difficult it will be to expand the numbers of young people wishing voluntarily to stay on beyond the age of 16. We want a generation of young people who enjoy school, who have high self-esteem and self-confidence and who are able to follow a curriculum that is relevant and tailored to their interests. The Government’s curriculum reforms for 14 to 19-year-olds are absolutely central to this aim.

I want briefly to touch on two other points, which have not been mentioned in the debate so far. The first is transport. I want to say to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that, sooner or later, the House will have to look far more seriously at the question of concessionary travel for all young people. The changes proposed in the Bill will bring about a significant increase in demand for public transport. They will require more young people to travel further and in many more different directions in the course of a week than ever before. In the context of the national debate about climate change, congestion charging and the cost of transport, the Government will need to build on the success of the national concessionary fare scheme for pensioners. They must now start to do serious work on a national concessionary fare scheme for young people, because that will be the key to ensuring that the fairly complex arrangements envisaged by the Bill are successful.

Finally, now that we have a 14 to 19 curriculum and a 14 to 19 phase of education, and now that we expect to see far more young people continuing beyond the age of 16, is it not absolutely logical that we need fair
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funding across the 14 to 19 phase? We can no longer justify the differential funding between school sixth forms, colleges and workplace training. Perhaps the Minister will say a few words about that when he winds up the debate.

9.47 pm

Mr. Laws: I should like to echo the thanks given by the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Government and the Conservatives to all those in front of and behind the scenes who have helped with the scrutiny of the Bill over the past few months. It will be clear by now to all those who have taken part in the debates that there are fundamental differences of approach and philosophy in tackling this problem. On my side of the House, the emphasis has been on tackling the problems that cause many young people to leave the education system at 16 or even before. We have not yet focused on the fact that there are many young people aged 14 and 15 who should, by law, be in education but who are not, or on the fact that the existing laws are not very effective at keeping them in the system.

In our debates, we have tried to focus not only on the ideological or philosophical gap between the Government, who believe in making it a criminal offence to be outside education at the ages of 16 and 17, and our emphasis on challenging inequalities of opportunity and ensuring that young people have the ability to go on beyond the age of 16. We have also tried to focus on some of the practical issues that we want addressed in order to be able to sign up to the practical effect of the Bill. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House share the aspiration that 16 and 17-year-olds should be either in education or employment, or in some other form of support if they are unable to be in education or employment. Very few Members would not want youngsters aged 16 or 17 to be in one of those settings.

I want to raise a couple of points on which the Government have failed to satisfy us, and on which I hope the debates in another place will make some progress. I was disappointed that the Secretary of State was unwilling to incorporate into the Bill the provisions in new clauses 6 and 9 that would have made it clear that one of the options for young people, post-16, should be for them to be in some kind of supported setting that falls short of the formal education and training settings that the Government envisage in the Bill. I wonder whether the Government are more determined to reach a particular figure allowing them to say that every 16 or 17-year-old is in education and training than really to serve those young people’s needs.

We know, and I am sure the Minister would recognise, that there is a very small group of 16 or 17-year-olds who cannot easily engage in the type of education and training envisaged under the Bill. It would be sensible for the Government not to try to allow that eventuality to be dealt with in unspecified regulations or by urging local authorities and attendance panels to take some sort of flexible approach. This issue should be provided for directly in the Bill. It should be an option for local authorities to give young people with mental health problems or other health problems or who are alienated
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from the education system by the age of 16 the type of engagement that will bring them back into education while dealing with their underlying problems. I hope that the other place, which will look closely at this matter in its debates over the next few months, will seek to come back to this decision and include in the Bill the option to have not simply the inflexible education and training scenarios currently envisaged by the Government.

The second issue that I hope the other place will return to in the months ahead is the treatment of young people who are in employment at the ages of 16 and 17. I am concerned, as are many hon. Members who participated in the debate, that the Bill could dissuade employers from offering young people aged 16 and 17 the job opportunities that often may be more relevant to those who have become disengaged from education and training in a formal setting. The risk is not only that those young people could lose out, but that we end up with a group of young people who do not engage in education and training, and who could be in employment but will not be because employers will be unwilling to take the risk on account of the enforcement measures in the Bill.

I hope that the other place will be able to save this Bill, which is undoubtedly based on good aspirations, but is in danger, because of the process of legislation and the inflexibilities within the system, of becoming bad legislation, which would be bad for many of the young people affected by it.

9.52 pm

Mr. Walker: When I was elected to Parliament, I was told not to bring emotion to this place, but I have a list with me of 13 young boys killed in London since 1 January this year. It includes Jimmy Mizen, who was killed just a couple of days ago at the age of 16. Lyle Tulloch was 15; Amro Elbadawi, 14; and Devoe Roach, 17. These were young men killed by children and youngsters—people who have made the wrong decision in their lives.

I have a rage about the fact that that is going on, I really do. I was wondering about it, and I had this terrible thought. Why are people taking lives? I am so concerned that we have youngsters whose last thought before they go to sleep is, “Who am I?” and that the answer they get back is “Nobody, I am nobody.” Because nobody cares where they are going, who they are, what they have done or what their purpose in life is, they in turn do not care when they cause huge emotional disaster and tragedy by taking the life of someone’s child.

I hope that this Bill will reach out to some of those people who are lost to society and who make the wrong decisions. I hope that it will allow them to reconnect with society, to learn to read and write, to learn a skill, to remain in education and to have a job, someone who cares whether they turn up in the morning and a place to welcome them to work. Perhaps if they become part of our society, we will save lives in the long term. That is why this Bill is so important. It really is important. I know it has its flaws. We know in this place that it has flaws, but we must do something to stop the tragedies that are going on week in, week out, on our streets.

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We in this place, the people in the Press Gallery and the people watching this on television—the few out there—must all collectively say, “No more. No more tragedies.” We have to do something, and the Bill is a small step in the right direction. For that reason, I support it.

9.55 pm

Mr. Ellwood: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) for making a powerful speech. It is a reminder of why education is so important and how it can change people’s lives.

My first question to the Minister is whether he will come back to the House to explain the impact of the Bill, should it become an Act, on teachers and schools where students are obliged to stay in education until the age of 18—but it probably will not be him, or indeed other Labour Front Benchers, who will be in a position to respond, because it will be five years from now. That prompts the question whether we are getting into the situation that we have with the Liberal Democrats, in which this Government can make policy knowing that they will not be responsible for the consequence of that legislation when it comes into existence. [Interruption.]

The problem that I raised on Second Reading—if Labour Front Benchers can contain themselves—is the impact of disruptive students on teaching and the classes that they remain in. Of course the 16-year-old faces some choices, but many students will decide that the easy option is to remain in school. If the Minister has spoken to teachers, he will be aware that there is a genuine concern that disruptive students will remain in classes and have an impact on the learning ability of those who are genuinely there to learn. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said, the big difference between the Conservative approach and Labour’s is whether we incentivise students and pupils to remain in education or oblige them to remain in it. The fact that we face today is that half of teachers are choosing to leave the profession after five years. That is a horrific statistic. One of the principal reasons why they choose to leave is the disruptive nature of students.

Hon. Members across the House share the idea that we want more students to gain from education, particularly when we look over our shoulder and see what is happening in France, Germany and other places throughout Europe, where the standards of education are very high. The competition is extremely tough, and we must do all we can to ensure that we give children the best chances.

However, I repeat my concern: what will happen to those classes where students who genuinely want to learn face the prospect of sharing at least two years of their time in school with other students who want to tread water—who are taking the easy option of remaining in school because they have already decided to give up and have decided that they do not want to learn, do not want a job, and want to live on the state? We have already failed them. They will have a knock-on impact on those who genuinely want to do something with their lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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[Relevant document: The Minutes of Evidence taken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on Immigration and Human Rights, on 19th February, HC 357-i.]

9.58 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I beg to move,

I want to make the case that the Home Office must start again. I shall argue that the rule changes will involve injustice to many individuals, including some child victims of trafficking, whom the Government are pledged to help. The changes will introduce automatic penalties for breaches of rules which, in the view of the Liberal Democrats, will prove to be counter-productive—far from saving official time, they will mean more appeals to the courts. The essential issue is whether people who breach entry rules, perhaps by making a mistake, or whose agents breach entry rules, must pay for that with an automatic—I repeat, automatic—ban on the right to reapply for entry for at least a year and for up to 10 years, regardless of circumstances, regardless of fault, regardless of understanding. As far as I know, the Home Office has yet to win the plain English prize for Government forms.

The Government say in their explanatory notes that this is about penalising deception, but deception implies that the officials concerned understand intention. One of the most difficult things to prove in any court of law is what is going on inside the defendant’s head. It is certainly no more possible to infer from a potential immigrant’s mistake on a form that he or she is deceiving people than it would be fair for me to accuse Home Office Ministers of deception every time their Department made a mistake. Of all Departments of State, surely the Home Office—found, only this week, to have the lowest capability level of any Department—ought to understand better than most the difference between an honest mistake and a deception.

The proposed change is a serious matter, which will involve injustice and hardship. A mistake will lead to exclusion from this country for one year or more, which may mean separation from family, friends and, in some cases, employment. Imagine someone who has lived in this country for some years with a partner and children. He or she may have overstayed, and may now wish to regularise the stay. His adviser would now say “Come clean, depart voluntarily and reapply on the basis of continuing family life”, but he will be excluded for at least one year, and possibly up to 10 years if there has been any previous deception.

What an extraordinary incentive for people to remain undercover and not to regularise. What an appalling prospect for a person’s partner and child if he or she tells the truth and comes clean. What a potential infringement of the Human Rights Act, and of article 8 of the European convention on human rights on the right to family life. The Liberal Democrats are waiting eagerly to hear whether the Minister can make a concession on this, at the very least.

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