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My hon. Friend started off by talking about maths, and I have a nice local example to relate on that matter. Last year, the “Aimhigher” campaign invited the schools in Derbyshire to take all their pupils who were capable of getting A to C grades in their maths but were falling behind for a variety of reasons—they could not be bothered, they played around at the back of the classroom, or they had never worked out how to concentrate—to the university of Derby for a day. Those pupils got a flavour of being in a university, which they otherwise would not have got. They also had some specialist
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teaching by people who taught in rather different ways. They were shown how to think about maths in a different way. Being out of the classroom was a new experience. The enthusiasm with which those young people took to it was great. It is important to think of different ways in which to learn. We should also stick with the younger age group. Getting them to have the basic skills by the time they leave school is what we really want.

One of my other nice experiences was going to the reading challenge in our local libraries last year. Derbyshire county council has run such a scheme for many a year, but it has been enhanced by the reading challenge and the fact that Members of Parliament have been given a pile of books to take to our summer reading schemes. Taking children from the Sure Start programmes and getting them into a library to realise what fun it is to read is a great way to enhance learning.

With regard to skills, we have our agenda to ensure that young people stay on in education—either in school or at work. However, raising the skills of future generations of young people is only one part of the story. More than 70 per cent. of those who will be of working age in the UK in 2020 are already over the age of 16. We obviously need to focus on those who do not have the basic skills by the time they leave school and also those whose skills we need to enhance at a later stage.

What we are now doing to give adults a right to basic and intermediate skills training, and to give them a second chance to gain basic skills for employability without having to pay for those courses, is clearly an important and valuable development, which I applaud. There is a role in this area not just for the Government but for employers and others, which leads me on to my most positive examples. For many years, I worked for the National Union of Public Employees, before it became part of Unison, and taking part in union courses was one of the most enjoyable things that I have ever done. Trade unions have played a great role, historically and more recently, in developing training.

I remember many years ago, my union being among the first to try to look at the basic skills of some of its members. I remember a course for staff at the university of London, which the union took forward. The Union Learning Fund’s work in enhancing skills is invaluable. My own union in Derbyshire has a Train to Gain programme with Derbyshire county council. I think that we should use every channel that we have to enhance training.

The chair of my local learning and skills council is the owner of the country’s largest privately owned construction company, and he is a real advocate for training. I am not sure whether I am meant to say this, but when his employees, or the employees of his subcontractors, are considering taking a health and safety course, his company takes the opportunity to suss out whether or not they have their basic skills. If they do not, the company tries to wean them on to basic skills training.

One of the local schools in my constituency, Aldercar community language college, started to address basic literacy and numeracy problems with a fervour before we, as a Government, started to give it a big push. I remember seeing the room that the school had set aside for those who were falling behind. The school also
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asked the parents to come along to encourage their children, which gave it the opportunity to help some of the parents who did not have the basic skills. Therefore, we need to use every trick in the book to enhance those skills at every age.

Our local learning and skills council gave me some figures for Derbyshire. We have certainly made progress with regard to those who have reached the skills for life 2010 PSA targets. In 2005-06, 5,935 adults had been helped through all the funding streams—through colleges, community providers, European Social Fund projects and so on—to reach that level. In 2006-07, the figure had risen quite substantially to 7,573. Significant increases are planned at the next functional level— entry level 3 numeracy and literacy—for the next year, and there are 1,719 planned places for functional levels in 2008-09 with the further education colleges alone. Therefore, a lot of work is going on in Derbyshire and in my area and, I am sure, around the country. It is important that that progresses.

I should like to mention other areas of development. The education maintenance allowance has been invaluable in encouraging young people to stay on at school. It is another development that I certainly like to applaud. In the last year in Derbyshire, 7,230 pupils were receiving that allowance at the last count. That has to have had an impact on the rising levels of those who are staying on in education, which is so important. In addition, the schemes and programmes in place to enable young people to carry on education in a work-related environment has to have helped with the progress that is being made to cut the number of NEETs—those who are not in education, employment or training.

I shall give two examples from local schools. I am in debate with education Ministers about whether several of my excellent schools with high-performing specialist status in deprived areas are somehow starting to fall slightly foul of the complicated new formulae that are coming along, but I think that they are doing an excellent job in pushing them forward.

Swanwick Hall school’s NEET levels have fallen from 12 to 4 per cent. over three years, and those of Aldercar community language college, which is in a very deprived part of my constituency, have fallen from 9.3 to 4.1 per cent. That shows that we are being successful in keeping people in education and training.

Other programmes that are well worth applauding include the apprenticeship programme which we are developing. It is important and exciting. Apart from what we are planning to do, apprenticeships in Derbyshire have already doubled over the past three years to 2,087, which is above the east midlands and national average, which I am pleased about.

The young apprenticeship programme is important because it enables youngsters who might not be excited about other forms of education to get a feel for it. I had a depressing experience with equalities and gender issues at Aldercar school. A girl wanted to go into the construction programme as a tribute to her Dad, who was in the construction industry, but her father told her that it was not appropriate for her, so she ended up doing a completely different course and not doing what she wanted. She was discouraged by family pressure.

I was delighted when I went to Collis Engineering, which builds signal gantries for the railways, and saw a
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young woman of 14 or 15 from one of my local schools who was on the young apprentice scheme. The people working there, of all ages, had adopted her, decided that she was wonderful, and were trying to persuade her not to go back to school, but to remain working with them. That was a positive experience for her of work in an area that she might not otherwise have thought of going into, and where she was able to learn some of the skills of being at work.

Incidentally, when I went there and before going on to the shop floor, I was talking with one of the young managers who asked me whether I had been summoned to see the Chief Whip. That was when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was our Chief Whip, and when I asked what he meant, he said that he had been in her class during her last year of teaching. I asked whether she was any good, and he said that she was a fantastically good teacher. So not only is she a good Home Secretary but she was a good teacher, which is probably why she was a good education Minister.

Our apprenticeship programmes are important. We must develop skills for the future to be a high-class, high-skill area. We have pretty good levels of employment in my area, but it is often not well paid or skilled. We need to upgrade skills, although it is an area that traditionally had fantastic skills. With you in the Chair, Sir Nicholas, I must mention the textile industry. We were at the heart of the industrial revolution with the old textile mills and the brilliant skills in the industry. They have transferred to modern textile technology, and the skills still exist and are needed. For example, Advanced Composites in my constituency makes the materials from which formula 1 cars are made. If the drivers knew that that was a textile-based technology, they might be worried.

There are plenty of other areas where we need skills—for example, many apprentices go on to Rolls-Royce for their training. The course that I mentioned for youngsters who were not achieving their GCSE levels had a high-flying maths group and put together a film showing all the jobs requiring maths. It included Rolls-Royce, which for them was rather commonplace because lots of people work there. It included social security offices, where figures are worked out to show what benefits people should be paid, which is interesting. But the one that really hit them was the banking profession, where people were making a fortune. The youngsters’ eyes lit up and one could see them thinking that that would not be such a bad job to go into. That was another way of trying to show people that skills are needed and worth developing because something good could come out of that.

I cannot remember exactly what the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) said about the Train to Gain programme, but he expressed concern about the way in which it could develop. I have been given a number of positive examples of the way in which Train to Gain has been used in a number of Derbyshire companies. The first comes from a local charity, which said:

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It then expanded on that. A Derbyshire company, Aqua-Jet Specialist Drainage Contractors Ltd, which is unblocking the potential of its staff with help from Train to Gain said:

It is now saying that the skills gap is being bridged with the help of Train to Gain in getting people up to NVQ level 2. A glazing company in Eckington said:

I hear many positive examples of how Train to Gain can be used to upgrade skills and to persuade more people to obtain the skills that they need for employment. That is important, and should be applauded. We have a number of programmes that are extremely useful.

One programme that I did not mention, but which is close to my heart, is the “entry to employment” programme. In Amber Valley, we have a very good sports development programme, and last week I had the honour of meeting Jonathan Edwards with my neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who knew everything about how far Jonathan Edwards had leapt as an Olympic gold medallist. My hon. Friend was a marathon runner and walker in his youth.

As we are focusing on the Olympics, I must mention my local Amber Valley sports development programme, which works with the Learning and Skills Council and the E2E programme. Young people who did not even bother to go in for exams start at a low level as sports monitors putting the mats away, and are gradually pulled into the programme and end up being sports coaches. Some of them have gone all the way through to training at Loughborough college and taking up coaching as a profession. That is another way of enhancing skills and pulling disaffected people into the skills nexus so that they can then develop, and it is encouraging.

I shall briefly mention today’s statement on the Equality Bill. Although girls are doing well in getting into universities and other educational areas—there is now often a problem with boys underachieving in schools—girls and women tend to go into specific career choices and we end up with a huge gender pay gap. That was described during the debate in the Chamber this morning.

A number of proposals were suggested by the inquiry that I chaired for the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee on how to encourage and enhance the position of women. One area is how to give women the opportunity to go into non-traditional employment, because they usually go into a limited number of the available apprenticeship schemes. We also looked at the fact that the apprenticeships that girls go into tend to have a lower pay rate than those that boys go into.

As a result of our proposals and moves by Ministers, the Low Pay Commission has now been asked to look at pay rates for apprenticeships to see whether apprentices should be on the minimum wage. Similarly, we have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to look at apprenticeships to break down some of the
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barriers. It is interesting that girls will go into hairdressing, which is typically seen as a girls’ trade—indeed, it is a very good, portable trade—but that the top stylists, such as Vidal Sassoon, are men. Given what people can achieve, hairdressing can be a good trade to go into, but it does not always work out to have prospects for women.

There are several aspects to enhancing skills and enabling girls and women to get the training and education that they need to break down some of the barriers. In their response to our report, the Government set out several of the ways in which they have responded to some of the issues that we raised. For example, they have introduced proposals to promote flexibility in the training offered by adult education providers so that women can fit their training needs in with their family responsibilities. They are also looking not only at getting women into non-traditional areas of work to break down the barriers there, but at how woman can advance in their traditional areas of work. For example, some of the programmes that are being introduced under the pathways initiative are giving women workers in food manufacturing NVQ 3 training to enable them to advance and become supervisors or team leaders. Such issues are important. Other initiatives include providing funding for skills coaching and the Train to Gain level 3 pilots, such as the one that I just mentioned.

It is important that we tackle education in a way that enables young girls to break down some of the traditional patterns that they would be expected to follow and that enables women to get the training that they need to move into other areas and to progress up the ladder in traditional areas of employment. At the same time, we must prevent women who have gone back to work after having children, and who might have been doing very well before they left, from slipping back because they need additional training to re-grade and upskill themselves. There are therefore a number of areas in which education, the skills agenda and improving basic skills will be critical if we are to meet our objectives not only of upgrading skills but of promoting equality. We will miss out on future economic development if we neglect the skills of a substantial part of the population.

I was pleased with one of the proposals in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s presentation earlier, because it tied into proposals from our Select Committee report. It related to the use of public procurement, which is another tool for upskilling people. In two of its reports—one specifically on public procurement and one on the gender pay gap—the Select Committee has argued that the duty on public authorities to promote gender equality means that they must check that the employers to whom they give contracts for goods and services seek to promote equality. That was a major part of the Secretary of State’s statement.

There are examples of such practices, which highlight not only the promotion of gender equality—whom employers employ and on what grades—but the use of public procurement to advance apprenticeships and training. As part of its commitment, the Olympic Delivery Authority, for example, has been giving contracts to building firms in the east end of London that seek to get young, black and unemployed people into training.

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Similarly, when we were told that we could not legally use public procurement in terms of European law, we contested that. I took the time out to talk to the person putting in bids for contracts for another major building company. He was using the carrot of saying that the company would develop apprenticeships in the local area to persuade one of our local authorities to give his firm a contract under the Building Schools for the Future programme. So these things can work both ways.

If we are to enhance people’s skills, we must be imaginative in so many different ways. We must use Government action, concrete programmes and the learning and skills programme, as well as giving people money to enhance their skills and working in different ways at school. Only then will we start to crack the massive problem of ensuring that everybody has the basic skills that they need and that they can extend those skills. When we do that, we will be able to ensure that we have the skilled work force that Britain needs to make its way in the future. People will be able to enjoy their lives, be interested in them and increase their skills, which will ensure that they can work and live their lives to the full.

We are talking about a very exciting agenda, and there are many factors that we must take into account, but there are also many opportunities, and we need to be as imaginative as possible in drawing people into the learning community and into learning for life.

3.15 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Let me say what a pleasure it is to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of so doing, and your reputation goes before you. Let me also say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber)—taking this agenda into constituency territory brings what we are discussing alive. There is a danger that this afternoon will be a giant love-in because we all support what the Government are doing to deal not only with the wider skills agenda but with the skills agenda for those with the greatest needs.

I compliment the Government on the fact that the series of reports and inquires that we have had over the past 10 years indicate a genuine commitment to resolving what has been an appalling stain on the UK’s educational landscape for generations. The principle that education is somehow for our best young people and that skills are for the rest is something that we challenge. I do not say that in a party political sense, however, because we have all been guilty of saying good things but never putting them into practice.

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