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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Education and Skills Bill

Education and Skills Bill



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen:John Bercow, Hugh Bayley
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Lammy, Mr. David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Soulsby, Sir Peter (Leicester, South) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Nick Walker, Tom Goldsmith, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 31 January 2008

(Morning)

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Education and Skills Bill

Clause 1

Persons to whom Part 1 applies
9 am
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert ‘; and
(d) who agrees in writing, on ceasing to be of compulsory school age, that it applies.’.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow; and I welcome your co-Chairman, Mr. Bayley, who will preside over our next sitting. May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship? I am sure that you will be objective and occasionally indulgent to members of the Committee. You have a high regard for parliamentary procedure, so it will be real pleasure to work under your chairmanship.
I also welcome the Minister for Schools and Learners and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) to the Committee. May I say how warming it is to see Ministers from two Departments sharing the Bill, especially as it is the first Bill to be dealt with by Departments that were once together? No sooner have they been separated than they are working together again.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Joined-up government.
Mr. Gibb: Exactly—split them up, and then join them together again.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, and the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. I also welcome the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Bristol, West. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said on Second Reading:
“We believe that getting more young people to participate fruitfully in education for longer—and not just to age 18—is an unalloyed good.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 669.]
However, we have some concerns about compulsion, and about the danger of criminalising young people who have been let down by the education system—those who, at 11, fail to reach level 4 in English. Alison Wolf said in a recent paper that one of the best-established findings in educational research is that children who are behind when they leave primary school find it almost impossible to catch up. She went on to say that with very few exceptions children who perform well at age 11 do not figure as NEETs—not in education, employment or training—at age 17 or 18.
The Green Paper, “Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16”, makes a similar point:
“Those achieving less than five G grades at GCSE are six times as likely to drop out at 16 than those who achieve five or more A*-C grades.”
We do not believe that is right to criminalise the very children whom our schools have let down. We do not believe that it is right to subject them to monitoring by local authorities, with their educational, health and police records being sent to local authorities, and sensitive information being shared around as though it were Army recruitment information.
We share the same goal as the Government on the importance of raising participation, but we hope to demonstrate to the Committee that it is best achieved with the carrot of centres and better education in primary and secondary school, rather than the stick of penalties and sanctions. Amendment No. 1 attempts to draw out from the Government an answer to the question of whether compulsion will achieve the objectives set by Ministers to increase the proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds in education or training. Raising participation is an important objective, and it is one that the Opposition share. Indeed, the regulatory impact assessment states:
“In England...77 per cent. of 17 year olds participate in education or work-based learning.”
That puts England 19th in the table of participation produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—below Belgium, France, Germany, the United States and Australia, and below the OECD average. It is clear that there are huge benefits for the individual from longer participation in education.
The Green Paper states:
“People with five or more good GCSEs earn on average around £100,000 more over their lifetime than those who leave learning with qualifications below level 2.”
It goes on to say:
“Those who participate are less likely to experience teenage pregnancy, be involved in crime or behave anti-socially.”
It also states:
“Those who participate are more likely to be healthy”.
I am not entirely convinced of the causal link to teenage pregnancy; participation rates have been rising in recent years, and so have teenage pregnancies.
The point about the importance of staying on in education and training is well made, and we agree with it. It is good for the individual, and it is important for the United Kingdom’s economy. The Green Paper cites a report by O’Mahoney and de Boer that shows that
“up to one fifth of the UK’s output per hour productivity gap with Germany...results from the UK’s relatively poor skills.”
The Green Paper goes on to say:
“And in relation to literacy, for example, a study has found that if a country’s literacy scores rise by 1 per cent. relative to the international average, a 2.5 per cent. relative rise in labour productivity and a 1.5 per cent. rise in GDP per head can be expected.”
It notes that the key driving force behind the Bill and clause 1 is the move to raise participation by compulsion and, therefore, to raise not only the general level of technical skills, but basic skills, such as literacy and maths. In that respect, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has performed a valuable service to the Committee in his dogged pursuit of the issues of literacy and numeracy in our evidence sessions.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is relentless, too.
Mr. Gibb: I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings to the Committee.
The essence of the Government’s case for compulsion is that disaffection with school among a significant minority of students has left the country with a lamentable participation rate, particularly in relation to other developed nations. Their way of tackling the problem is to use the law to compel 16 and 17-year-olds to remain in education or training, albeit accompanied by ways of increasing their opportunities. However, the research commissioned by the Government from the National Foundation for Education Research concluded:
“There was little or no direct evidence of the likely impact of introducing a system of compulsory education or training to the age of 18; in many cases change had only recently been introduced, and it was as yet too early to find evidence of impact.”
When I asked the Minister why the Government had proceeded with compulsion, given the conclusions of the research that they had commissioned, he simply resorted to listing the advantages of higher participation rates, which we would, of course, all accept. The issue, however, is how we get there.
Jon Coles, the Minister’s civil servant, who bravely came to his rescue, conceded that the research had reached the conclusions that I outlined, but gave the excuse that there was a lack of direct precedents. The nearest example that the Government provided was the raising of the school leaving age, but that was not a matter of compulsory training. As page 3 of the research commissioned by the Government says:
“There is substantial evidence that participation in education and training leads to higher wages...but studies relate to raising the school-leaving age, or (in a few cases) to voluntary participation in vocational training”—
the subject of the studies on which the Government’s research was based. The report continues:
“it cannot be assumed that the proposed requirement to participate in education or training to 18 would necessarily have the same impact.”
It concludes:
“vocational qualifications do not yield the same economic benefits as academic qualifications”.
Conservative Members believe in good-quality vocational education, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings has been exemplary in his espousal of it. We also believe that young people leaving school, whether at 16 or 18, should have a good general knowledge, and research shows a direct correlation between an individual’s general knowledge and their income.
The Government believe that compulsion will help to tackle the problem, but they are seeking to tackle the symptoms of the problem of low participation rates, not the cause. We should be asking why 16 and 17-year-olds are so disaffected with education—more so than youngsters in France and Belgium. The fundamental reason is the quality of education that many of them receive in their 11 or 12 years of compulsory schooling.
Ofsted complains that 49 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough, and 17 per cent. of 11-year-olds leave primary school without reaching level 4 in reading, while 46 per cent. leave without reaching level 4 in reading, writing and maths combined. That group is among the 41 per cent. who fail to achieve five or more grade A* to C GCSEs, and it is also among those who fail to achieve five or more GCSEs, including in English and Maths. Of course they are disaffected, because nothing demoralises a person more than being unable to do something that they are supposed to be able to do.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has wisely pointed out, it goes back to literacy. Reading is a low-level skill—children with a very low IQ are perfectly capable of learning to read fluently—but the look-and-say approach to reading is not appropriate for children of low ability. It involves exposing children to words, and it requires them to repeat those words until they recognise them on sight, much as we do when we see words that we have read 10,000 times. The method can work for bright children, particularly if they have supportive parents or are among the one in four children who has a private tutor in addition to school.
Look-and-say has been around for a long time; it was introduced in the 1950s, and reached its peak in the mid-1980s, which is why, when the Conservatives left office in 1997, only 56 per cent. of 11-year-olds reached level 4 in English. In 1998, a study of 300 primary school children was begun in Clackmannanshire by two academic psychologists, Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson. The children were divided into three groups. The psychologists found that the 100 children who took a synthetic phonics programme in the first 16 weeks of schooling had a reading age seven months ahead of their chronological age, and seven months ahead of children in the other two groups. Synthetic phonics was so successful that they put all 300 pupils on to the programme. The 300 children were followed for seven years, by the end of which period they had a reading age three and a half years ahead of their chronological age—they had a reading age of 14 and a half at age 11.
Synthetic phonics is about teaching children in the first weeks of school all 44 sounds of the alphabet, and how to blend them into words, so d-o-g is dog and c-a-t is cat. It works. Children who are in schools that use the method read simple words almost straight away, and key stage 2 results are invariably in the mid-90s, with very high proportions of level 5. I raise the issue, because it goes to the root of what the Government are trying to achieve by increasing participation. It is at the root of disaffection and the country’s skills shortage, particularly the shortage of basic skills about which employers complain, so it goes to the root of whether compulsion will achieve the Government’s objectives. I raise the issue now—I beg a little indulgence—so that I do not have to keep raising it later.
Tom Wilson of the TUC, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire during our evidence sessions, said:
“A lot of working people feel very angry that the system has let them down and that they have gone through 10 years of school and emerged unable to read or write.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 22 January 2008; c. 52, Q132.]
Reading is a low-level skill, as I said, but it has simply not been taught properly to generations of children in this country. The look-and-say method is like expecting someone to be able to play the piano after hearing Mozart over and over while looking at the sheet music. People learn to play the piano by learning the notes and by practising scales and finger movements—it is laborious, but there is no other way. Phonics is the same, but children love to learn to read by that method, because they can genuinely read—they do not pretend to read a passage after memorising it.
“Newsnight” filmed the Britannia Village primary school in east London when the head teacher brought in Ruth Miskin to transform the way in which reading was taught. One girl of nine could not read at all after four years at the school, and she knew that she could not read. A boy of eight was perpetually in trouble for poor behaviour—he could not read either. After a few months of synthetic phonics, both children could read, and both were transformed into happy, achieving children. The boy’s poor behaviour stopped, to the delight of his mother. That suggests what the root cause of disaffection is.
There are similar issues in maths teaching. Ideological obsession means that children are not taught straightforward, formulaic approaches to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I hope that the Williams review that the Government have commissioned will achieve for maths what the Rose review achieved for reading. If we can get those things right in our primary schools, we should see participation rates rise without the need for compulsion. It is an intellectual battle that the Government have still not won, despite the fact that they have changed the law requiring schools to use synthetic phonics. There is no research to show that look-and-say is the most effective method of teaching children to read. A multi-million-dollar research project by the National Reading Panel in the US concluded that synthetic phonics is by far the most effective method, particularly for children from lower socio-economic groups and ethnic minorities. However, Mick Brookes of the National Association of Head Teachers—I get on well with him on most issues, but disagree with him on this—said:
“To say that look and say is not a tactic to be used in schools defies the knowledge that we have about how children learn.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 24 January 2008; c. 134, Q319.]
9.15 am
I visited a primary school recently—I shall not say where—that changed to synthetic phonics two years ago. The children’s reading was transformed. The head became a convert, but when he discussed it with other local heads, some said, “I am opposed to synthetic phonics on ideological grounds.” Therein lies the Government’s problem: how to eschew ideology and replace it with what works.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): My hon. Friend was explaining that there were objections on ideological grounds. I am a bit surprised. What sort of ideology was it?
Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend is right, and I shall turn to that. I know that I am trying your patience, Mr. Bercow, so I shall quickly reach the end of this line of argument.
Michael Barber, who was the head of Tony Blair’s delivery unit in No. 10 from 2001 to 2005, in his excellent book, “Instruction to Deliver”, wrote on page 187:
“Most troubling of all was evidence that the training of headteachers by the NCSL”—
the National College for School Leadership—
“for the Consultant Leaders’ Programme had given little attention to literacy and numeracy”.
This was written in about 2004—it does not go back to 1997. Michael Barber went to write that
“Indeed, we had evidence that some of the trainers on the course had even made explicit the view that focusing on literacy and numeracy was actually wrong. My faith in the NCSL, and in the departmental officials...was shaken.”
That ideology also permeates secondary education. The obsession with mixed-ability teaching damages children of all abilities, but the least able are damaged the most, sitting in lessons that they cannot understand, humiliated on an hourly basis. No wonder they become disaffected. Some 60 per cent. of academic lessons take place in mixed-ability classes, including 50 per cent. of English lessons and 75 per cent. of history and geography lessons.
Jim Knight: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman that there is an important role for setting, but he mentions history and geography, for example, which are optional subjects at key stage 4. If a school had only 20 or 30 pupils taking those subjects, would he still advocate setting them? If so, how would he resource the extra cost?
Mr. Gibb: That is a valid intervention. I have never advocated setting when there are only 30 children. Setting takes the most able children in a subject and puts them in one class. If there are 60 children, there should be two classes of separate ability levels. In fact, the statistic that three quarters of history lessons take place in mixed-ability classes applies also to the first three years of secondary education. There is a long way to go to get setting into our secondary schools without worrying about low numbers. Of course, if there is a low number of children, they have to be in one class.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I should like to know where the hon. Gentleman gets his figures from. As a former school inspector, I have always found that schools have an enormous variety of imaginative ways of dividing up pupils, depending on whether the subject is art, history or English. There are many forms of setting, and I am sceptical about those figures. I should like to some explanation of how the hon. Gentleman would work the system in small rural schools. Would he prefer fewer options for pupils at 14 so that they can be set more finely?
Nia Griffith: I do not dispute the fact. I was a timetabler myself, and I have seen many different forms of timetabling as well as mixed systems, in which there can be banding in one subject, setting in another and mixed-ability teaching in another, which, for subjects such as PE, may be much more appropriate. However, the fact remains that if a school wants to offer a subject such as German or music and does not want to confine that subject to the most able pupils, it inevitably ends up with a mixed-ability group, and often the results in such groups depend more on the enthusiasm of the teacher and the materials used than on the pupils’ abilities at the beginning. I do not question the value of setting, which has its place, but there are many approaches, and simply to shower criticism on one seems inappropriate.
The Chairman: Order. Perhaps at this stage I can assist the Committee by making a number of observations. First, it is fairly customary at the outset of clause-by-clause, line-by-line consideration to allow a certain latitude as the initial amendments are proposed and debated. I hope that hon. Members agree that I have shown such latitude. Secondly, interventions should be brief.
Thirdly, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton will be aware, not least in relation to synthetic phonics, of the presence on the amendment paper of amendment No. 115 to clause 70, page 43, line 33, for consideration later, at which point there will be a good opportunity for a debate on this matter. I wanted to let the hon. Gentleman develop his argument and allow hon. Members who were suitably provoked to intervene on him. However, may I say to him more widely before we continue that it is legitimate for him to refer to, but not to dilate on, a number of matters that are at best only tangentially linked to the amendment that he moved?
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful, Mr. Bercow. I am aware of how indulgent to me you have been during this sitting. It is only in this sitting, and on this issue, that my remarks will be wide-ranging, but I wanted to make the argument about compulsion.
The Government have resorted to compulsion which, I believe, deals with the symptoms of the problem, rather than the cause. It is better to deal with the cause, so that changing the law—and the criminal law, indeed—to make it compulsory for young people to stay on in education or training is not necessary. Having made that argument on this amendment in this sitting, I will in future seek to confine my remarks to the precise terms of the amendment.
Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman’s argument is that we should not introduce compulsion, because we should improve pre-16 education and then everyone will fly through to 100 per cent. participation. How, then, does he account for the 20 per cent. of 16-year-olds and 25 per cent. of 17-year-olds who are not participating but have achieved level 2 qualifications? Why have they not sailed on into participation? How would the hon. Gentleman engage them to participate in the way that he accepts would be beneficial not only for them but for the nation?
Mr. Gibb: It is a good argument. Young people get the qualifications that they need to get. The question is: have they enjoyed their education, have they achieved while at school and have they acquired the knowledge and ability to pursue further academic study or further training, based on what they have acquired leading up to that stage? They may have a raft of qualifications—we could have a debate on another occasion about what has happened to qualifications in the past 20 or 30 years—but I am arguing that many young people leave school not adequately prepared for later life, and that they have an unhappy experience in their time at school.
During the evidence sessions, we heard a number of witnesses talk about making the key stage 3 curriculum more relevant. I will talk on another occasion about what has been happening to the curriculum in recent years and why it has contributed to the disaffection and boredom that some children face in school. For example, I believe that a geography lesson about town planning is a key reason why so few children want to study geography to GCSE.
The system should be about imparting knowledge. I recommend another book to the Committee: E.D. Hirsch’s “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them”, which explains the ideology that has dominated American schools and the British education system for decades. It is an anti-knowledge ideology that says that children should be given all-purpose tools to learn, rather than have knowledge imparted to them—as if there is such a thing as an all-purpose tool. Every subject has its own approach to learning and concepts, and needs to be taught as a subject.
I disagree with Professor John White, an external advisor to the key stage 3 review, who, in a work entitled, “What Schools Are For and Why”—I do not recommend it to the Committee—said that the
“academic, subject-based curriculum is a middle-class creation”.
He goes on to ask:
“Is reading Scott Fitzgerald of higher value than walking in the woods or spending an evening with friends”?
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I am familiar with the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I gently suggest to him that it is rather old news. Such debates about content versus skills were widely circulated when the national curriculum was created—I had a peripheral involvement in that creation. The same arguments were made then about the teaching of history. Surely the answer is that we need both skills and content.
Mr. Gibb: Yes, but the balance has shifted way too far towards skills. The key stage 3 curriculum that comes into place this September is based very much on the Opening Minds curriculum proposed by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—I may cite the RSA later in Committee—thus demonstrating that the curriculum has moved to that end of the spectrum. I recently sat in on a history lesson that focused on skills—chronology in this case—in which children were taught isolated and unnuanced facts and dates about the civil war and asked to put them in chronological order. It was excruciating: all the nuances and interesting aspects of that important period in our history were lost in teaching the so-called skill of chronology.
I do not want to pursue that line of argument any further; the Committee has been very patient. However, when discussing changes in the law that require, on pain of criminal sanctions, a young person to participate in education or vocational training, it is important to understand why we have such a low participation rate compared with other developed nations. Unless we, as parliamentarians and Ministers, are prepared to challenge that ideology, as Michael Barber bravely did, and as Lord Adonis continues to to do, there will be no improvement in educational achievement in this country. New laws to compel attendance might result in data suggesting higher attendance rates, but new examinations and qualifications that prevent comparisons with results in previous years will not conceal the effects of an educational system from the real world, which increasingly demands high levels of knowledge, expertise and general education. The real objective is to help young people who are not in education or employment.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) concluded his speech on Second Reading thus:
“My plea is for the group whom we are failing most...they are in no way damaged...They are very bright. The question is: why, when they are so bright, do we fail them so dismally?”—[Official Report, 14 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 705-706.]
Before imposing this new duty on young people, whom the Government, the education system—all of us—have failed, should we not first examine how young people have been let down by our education system, and put that right, rather than pass the whole burden of our failings on to a group of 16 and 17-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and communities?
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): May I join the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow, along with Mr. Bayley, in due course? We have great confidence that you will continue to chair our proceedings with fairness, incisiveness and a degree of tolerance, or what you described a moment ago as latitude. I hope that, at some stage, I may benefit from the same latitude from which the hon. Gentleman benefited.
9.30 am
I also welcome the excellent ministerial team who, I am sure, will allow us to have a civilised, constructive debate. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham will not spread any of his germs among us. He has temporarily departed the Committee, although I am not sure whether that is to prevent the spread of germs or because he knew that I was speaking.
I welcome all the enthusiastic Government Back Benchers who will support their colleagues over the next few weeks, with varying degrees of passion and commitment, but no doubt with an interest of some of the fundamental issues that we will debate. I welcome the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and his colleagues. He has already given us an excellent display of his passion for this subject. When I took over this portfolio, and asked my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), what the Conservative Front-Bench team was like, she said that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton was excellent and passionate about education, but that her only complaint was that he tended to go on a bit about synthetic phonics, as we have seen today. No doubt that is a result of his great belief that synthetic phonics is an important issue in education that makes a great difference to many people’s opportunities. He semi-promised us that his mentioning synthetic phonics today would be almost his only indulgence. However, some of us are rather sceptical about whether that will be so, given the other amendments that deal with that matter. In any spare moments during our proceedings, we shall score the rate at which the hon. Gentleman mentions synthetic phonics against his excellent colleague, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, who has also coined a catchphrase with his questions about reading, writing and adding up. We look forward to hearing more about that later on. We also look forward to hearing from the other Front Bencher, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, as well as from my colleague—whom I must mention otherwise I will be in trouble—my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West
We are discussing amendment No. 1 to clause 1, which is an important paving provision. In five lines, it ushers in the element of compulsion that is central to the Bill and is a significant expansion of the Government’s power over 16 and 17-year-olds and their parents, and over employers and local authorities. It is therefore right that we look carefully at the clause and at the amendment. The clause sets out who will be affected by the powers of compulsion. It describes them, essentially, as English, and it highlights the fact that the measure will not apply to other parts of the United Kingdom. It indicates that it will apply broadly to those between the ages of 16 and 18 and to those individuals who have not attained a level 3 qualification. The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton would give an opt-in to those individuals in relation to compulsion. To that extent, we welcome it. We have already expressed, on the record on Second Reading, our many concerns about compulsion. Amendment No. 1 would turn what would otherwise be compulsion into an opt-in, which is sensible.
The hon. Gentleman said—you indicated this was satisfactory, Mr. Bercow—that he would try to use debate on the early clauses to set out his broad philosophical approach to avoid detaining the Committee later in our proceedings. I shall start by saying that I think that all Committee members share the Government’s aspiration that young people between the age of 16 to 18 should be in education, training, employment or—and we will come to this later—some other kind of support that will help them into education, training or employment. It is of great concern that so many young people between those ages are not in education, employment or training and do not receive adequate support. The hon. Gentleman reminded us that in trying to resolve those problems, we should not focus simply on the symptoms, but on the many problems that create the environment in which many young people drop out of education, training and employment at 16—no doubt we will spend time on that issue later. We all know that many of those problems go back to the earliest years in education and, indeed, even before youngsters engage in education and training in the first place. We share the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration that more focus needs to be put on that particular part of young people’s lives to ensure that they are equipped with the skills and aspirations to enable them to choose for themselves whether to stay on in education beyond the age of 16.
We have other concerns about compulsion, which I will outline in a moment, but I begin by saying that we support the amendment for the reasons given, and because it will blunt the compulsion weapon that the Government are seeking to apply in that area. One of the issues that we rehearsed on Second Reading, and to which we should now return, is whether it is appropriate to apply compulsion to young people between the ages of 16 to 18. In introducing the Bill, the Government believe that it is perfectly proper for the state to insist that young people should stay on until the age of 18. We assume that at some point, even the Minister would agree that the Government have no place putting a duty on young people to undertake education and training. We also assume that even if there were evidence that it is beneficial to be in education and training beyond the age of 18, the Government would stop at that point and say that once people have reached full adulthood, it is totally inappropriate for the state to insist that they should engage in a particular form of activity.
Jim Knight indicated assent.
Mr. Laws: I notice the Minister is nodding, so we can be reassured that there will not be an appeal to determine whether the Government have decided that education and training is enormously beneficial up to the age of 21 or 25 and that everyone will be obliged to stay on until then.
On Second Reading, we debated with the Secretary of State the compulsion exercised in the past to raise the education leaving age from the low level, for example, 100 years ago. We consider that to be a different issue. There has never been any dispute that individuals of a much lower age than 16 count as children, and therefore that it is appropriate for the state to legislate for them and insist that they should be in education until the age at which they are considered to assume adulthood. I hope that the Minister recognises that, in applying compulsion to this group of young people, we are in much muddier waters. We grant an extensive range of rights to 16-year-olds in relation to the choices that they make. However, the Bill seems to be cutting against that.
On Second Reading, we noted that the deputy leader of the Labour party and Leader of the House had suggested that those rights might be extended in future to allow young people to vote at 16. They would therefore be considered to be of an appropriate age to have a say in the running of the country. That would add to the huge range of rights that 16-year-olds enjoy. As we are we are considering the issue of compulsion, we should remind ourselves what those freedoms are—it is important that we discuss the subject, now rather than return to it later. The Children’s Legal Centre has provided a useful list of the freedoms that young people enjoy at age 16. I will refer only to a few of them, Mr. Bercow; otherwise, not only would I try your patience but I am not sure that I would have time to read out all the things that a 16-year-old can do.
Members of the Committee may be interested to know that 16-year-olds are afforded the following freedoms: they are considered capable of joining the armed forces; they are allowed to change their name by deed poll without parental consent; they can hold a driving license; and at the moment they can leave school, although they are still entitled to receive full-time education far beyond 16. Members of the Committee may not know that 16-year-olds are also allowed to enter or, indeed, live in a brothel; apparently, even children under the age of four are allowed to do so, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Furthermore, 16-year-olds can work full-time if they leave school; they can act as a pilot in command of an aircraft, for the purposes of flight; they can participate in private or non-commercial gaming or betting, and—it says “probably” in my notes—they can leave home without the consent of their parents or anyone else with parental responsibility.
Police officers and community support officers can issue 16-year-olds with an on-the-spot fine, so 16-year-olds are considered to be moving up into an area where the state regards them as fully responsible for their actions. They can marry or register a civil partnership. In the case of female 16-year-olds, they can purchase emergency contraception over the counter at a pharmacy. 16-year-olds can buy premium bonds, should they wish to do so. They can also consent to all sexual activity; obtain a national insurance number; travel, and apply for their own passport. I think that hon. Members understand the point that I am trying to make. That is an extensive range of freedoms and, in most respects, it indicates that we have begun to consider young people aged 16 as adults. Indeed, my party, in the way that it approaches most policy issues, generally considers young people aged 16 to have reached an adult age and therefore to be ready for the extension of voting rights.
We therefore need to think carefully, having given young people all those rights and freedoms, before we determine that, because the state has made a judgment that it is in their best interests to remain in education and training, we should pass the measures in the Bill that essentially treat young people over 16 who, in many other respects, are considered adults, basically as children, in that the state, rather than they or their parents, determines what is in their best interests. That is a big concern, and it would trouble me even if the measures were popular among young people. The Department and the Minister will acknowledge that, in the run-up to the Bill’s introduction, there was a consultation not only with people in the education and training sector and employers but with young people themselves. A parliamentary written answer in November acknowledged the response from young people to surveys about whether they agreed with increasing the education and training leaving age, and indicated that 47 per cent. of young people were against such a move, 36 per cent. agreed and 17 per cent. were not sure.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I have been trying to follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. We have had a great long screed of all the things that 16-year-olds are allowed to do, which I think is leading towards the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should not compel them to stay on and participate in training when they can do all those other things. Does he think that 16-year-olds should legally be allowed to buy alcohol?
9.45 am
Mr. Laws: When we consider the other things that 16-year-olds can do, it is a serious issue, and we ought to review the law and regulations throughout the area to ensure that that there is consistency, because currently the situation is inconsistent. If the hon. Lady believes that young people are capable of making the decision to get married or to join the armed forces, and of making other fundamental decisions such as to leave home, it seems odd that they should not be allowed to make decisions about what is best for themselves regarding education and training. In its significance for somebody’s life chances, it seems to be a lesser decision than the decisions I have just mentioned.
The Professional Association of Teachers summed up its view before Second Reading by saying that compulsion was
“a potential minefield that could be disastrous. We could end up with married, voting parents being disciplined or criminalised for not attending school or college”
That is not just a debating point, but a real risk. The association also said that it was concerned about the possible effects of the measure on other learners who were keen to engage in education at 16 and 17 and had made that choice for themselves. It said:
“Schools and colleges will be forced to accept a host of unwilling students who will poison the atmosphere for those willing to learn. Forcing an education on teenagers will create even more youngsters with a grudge against society.”
We have heard similar opinions from several bodies that gave evidence to us over the past couple of weeks. Those concerns about young people’s freedoms and the balance between rights and responsibilities were echoed by many other groups—certainly by the British Youth Council, and, although we were not able to take oral evidence from it, by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England in its written submission.
Mr. Marsden: The hon. Gentleman referred to the evidence that the British Youth Council gave us, but does he recall that in response to my question about whether it had considered the broader aspects, such as work-based training or other educational provision outside school, it said that it had not? Does that not somewhat weaken the arguments that it put forward?
Mr. Laws: No. I am happy to examine the council’s evidence later, but my recollection is that it made similar points to those I have cited from other bodies. It was concerned not only about the restriction of freedom, but about the consequences of trying to force young people who are not engaged in education and training into it. The council was concerned about whether the situation would be counter-productive, and its concerns seemed similar to those of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, which said in its submission:
“We recognise the good intentions of Government to encourage the maximum development of 16 and 17 year olds for the benefit of children in wider society. We welcome the introduction of measures in the Bill to secure better support for 16 and 17 year olds and their families to achieve more in education and training... However, while we would support measures which positively encourage young people to engage in education and training, we are fundamentally opposed to the creation of a duty of participation on young people”—
we will discuss that in a later amendment—
“or an extension of the duty on parents. We believe this is unnecessary, indeed that it will be counter-productive, and that it will be potentially damaging for the most vulnerable young people in society. Further, it is not supported by human rights principles.”
It went on, interestingly, to quote article 3 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, saying that it ought to be balanced by the protections in article 12 of the convention, which requires states party to it to
“assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child”.
Earlier this week, we heard similar evidence on the potentially difficult and counter-productive nature of compulsion—obligation—from Fairbridge, an organisation that tries to re-engage the young people who are likely to be in the Government’s target group. Nigel Haynes, the chief executive of Fairbridge, said in his evidence that he did not think that all the young children who are not engaged in education and training at the moment would want to engage:
“Do not forget that quite a lot of them have walked away from institutionalised provisions in one way or another, and they really could not give a damn. The secret is getting the commitment—the first step is to get them to want to do it voluntarily—and then sustaining that commitment by making them realise that there are options.”——[Official Report, Education & Skills Public Bill Committee, 29 January 2008; c. 195, Q450.]
That is one of our big concerns. If the young person does not have commitment and feels that they are being driven into the provision, it may be difficult to get them to engage seriously.
The same concern about compulsion was echoed by Alison Wolf in her evidence, and in her excellent paper, “Diminished Returns”, which she published recently through Policy Exchange. In the executive summary, she says:
“A policy of coercing them”—
that is, young people—
“into continued participation is at odds with everything we know about the links between motivation and learning. Young people who are enrolled for courses and training they do not wish to attend will be unmotivated and, therefore, extremely unlikely to learn.”
There is an issue about young people’s freedom and whether the state should have the freedom to compel them to be engaged in education and training. There is also an issue about whether compulsion will be counter-productive.
I want to raise two other concerns about compulsion that are at the centre of our worries about the Bill. We shall table amendments at the appropriate time in Committee, but our concerns are relevant to whether there should be compulsion.
I shall restrict my comments about our first concern, as I shall speak about it in more detail on a later amendment; it concerns a group of people about whom we are worried in relation to compulsion for education or training, because they have great vulnerabilities in their personal circumstances. They may have drug or alcohol problems, mental health problems or other health problems and issues; they may be caring for someone who is terminally ill or they may be a parent. As we know there is already in society today a proportion of young people who are not engaged in education or training and, unfortunately, a larger group of young people—larger than we like to think—who have grown up in severe and difficult circumstances, either because of their environment or because of their medical and other problems. Many of those youngsters are detached from education and training, not only at 16 and 17, but sometimes way before that. The Government, and perhaps even some of the witnesses, underestimate how many such youngsters there are and how difficult it will be to get them to engage.
I do not underestimate the superb work of some voluntary bodies and many colleges in getting difficult-to-reach youngsters back and engaged, and giving them the necessary support to sustain them in learning. However, I wonder whether for some young people education and training is not a viable option. From recent experience, I can think of some in my constituency with whom we would have no chance whatever of getting them to engage meaningfully in something that looks like education and training.
Jim Knight: Are there therefore categories of young people who should be exempt from a duty to participate? I realise that the hon. Gentleman must accept the principle of compulsion to answer that question, which he does not, but he implies that education and training should be available to everyone, except for a few on whom we should just give up.
Mr. Laws: Obviously, I believe that education and training should be an entitlement and available to everyone, but I do not believe in compulsion. A particular concern with compulsion—we will return to that later so I shall not go into too much depth because another amendment to clause 1 touches on this directly—is that there may be a group of young people whose vulnerabilities mean that the prospects of getting them to engage in education and training per se will be remote. We may not persuade the Minister to back away completely from the concept of compulsion, although we will not hold up the white flag yet, but I want to persuade him of the need to make the system more flexible.
Some young people might need to take their entitlement later because of their personal circumstances or because they need a kind of support that does not constitute education or training, unless we stretched the meaning of those words beyond what most people would understand by them. Such young people might need intensive support, which might be immensely expensive and specialist, but might not constitute education or training. As we are all aware—one of the groups representing young people with special needs made this point—there is a large group of young people with very great needs, but they are not getting enough support to meet those needs.
If the Government press ahead with compulsion, I want them to consider what one of our witnesses called a fourth option—it might be the fourth option, the third option or whatever. That would involve not employment or education, but whatever support is needed to re-engage such young people with society and give them the prospect of being able to re-engage with education and training.
Jim Knight: Has the hon. Gentleman read clause 4, which attempts to define appropriate full-time education and training? Subsection (1) refers to
“having regard...to the person’s age, ability and aptitude, and...to any learning difficulty which the person may have”.
The clause goes on to say that regulations may define education and training and it allows for a very wide definition, which may include informal training and a third, fourth, fifth or sixth option—indeed, whatever number of options we think appropriate to allow us to engage the young people the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
Mr. Laws: No doubt we will be able to have that debate when we reach clause 4. I am mildly encouraged by what the Minister says, but I am not quite sure whether his concept of “or otherwise” in the clause is as wide as I would like it to be. Education and training of any kind might be impossible for some young people because they have acute medical problems, while others might be able to engage personally with education and training, but be completely unable to do so at the moment because of their personal circumstances—for example, they might recently have had a child. I want to explore how serious the Government are about making that “or otherwise” flexible. The more flexible and pragmatic they are willing to be, the more they will deal with our particular concern about compulsion, notwithstanding our general dislike of it.
I have a second big practical concern about the effects of compulsion under the Bill— although I am coming to the end of my comments, in case you are feeling nervous and less tolerant, Mr. Bercow. Quite a lot of the evidence that we heard from various bodies—we shall return to it later—points to the sometimes low value of the qualifications on offer to young people in employment. It also highlights the fact that if we compel young people in employment to go into education and training, there is a significant risk that some employers will not embrace education and training, but will dump young people and take on migrant workers or workers over the age of 18.
The evidence from Alison Wolf and others is that employment can be an enormous release for some young people because their educational experience has often not been very good. Equally important, however, employment can often impart skills in terms of attendance and ways of working that are far more valuable than some piece of paper that meets a Government target but which might not be the best thing for the young person involved.
Our practical concern about compulsion is that there is a group of very vulnerable young people for whom it will be completely inappropriate and we are not sure that the Bill is flexible enough for them. We are also concerned that compulsion could deny some 16 and 17-year-olds an employment opportunity that is far more valuable to their future, and a far better education and period of training than anything the Government could offer through the available vocational qualifications, many of which, as we know from much of the academic research, have not been notably successful over a long time, predating the present Government, at giving people marketable skills.
We hope that at some stage in the debate we will persuade the Minister to experience a conversion—to see the light—on compulsion. Even if we do not, we will press him to ensure that he is more pragmatic, so that the elements of compulsion do not, in addition to offending against our liberal principles, make circumstances less favourable for the young people whom we are seeking to help.
10 am
Nia Griffith: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this extremely important element of the Bill. To me, compulsion is the heart of the Bill. We need high expectations for our young people. If we tell them that they can drop a subject at 14, at 12 or 13 they are already thinking about doing so. If we tell them that they can leave school at 16, they are already thinking about that when they are 14 or 15. By saying to them, “We expect you to be training or in some form of education right up to the age of 18,” we give them a much better vision right the way through from 11 to 18 and we get them into the frame of mind that says that they will participate, they will do something and they will use their lives constructively.
Another key element of compulsion is the duty that it places on Government and statutory authorities. There is no doubt in my mind that when budgets are squeezed, non-statutory services are the first to suffer. If there is no element of compulsion, it is extremely easy for people to put to one side the duties that are imposed on them. I refer in particular to the extremely valuable work of following up and chasing up the young people who have fallen through the system. We all know that those are often the most vulnerable, who end up in the most difficult circumstances and quite possibly in young offenders institutions, prison and all sorts of undesirable situations in which they may be exploited and their limited intelligence may lead to them being used as minor criminals for major criminal gangs and so on.
Clearly, if there is a compulsion on authorities to follow up, to find out what those young people are doing, to engage them and to offer them the right opportunities, that will be done. If there is no compulsion, patchy practice will ensue and some areas may have a far better service than others.
Mr. Gibb: I am interested in that argument, which was put by the Minister during the evidence sessions, that imposing a potential criminal sanction on vulnerable youngsters is somehow a way of galvanising and energising officials working in local authorities. I find that a reprehensible way of trying to make our public services function better. It seems a huge burden to place on a minority of vulnerable people.
Nia Griffith: In response, I tell the hon. Gentleman that my experience of dealing with young people in the classroom is that, often, we have the image that the ones who are difficult to reach are difficult in the classroom, but that is not necessarily the case. Many teachers will have wished for certain pupils not to turn up on certain days, but we can be certain that the disruptive ones are always there, because they love the audience—I am sure that many hon. Members have some empathy with that. The ones who really fall through the system are often the ones whom the teacher can hardly name. There is a name on the list, but the teacher has hardly seen them. One has tried one’s best and sent a few letters and made a few phone calls home, but at the end of the day one has 29 other young people to deal with. The pupil who is merely a name on a list and has hardly been seen is forgotten about, is not entered for the examinations, and so on.
Mr. Heald: My fear is that that person is sitting at the back, trying to avoid the teacher’s eye, because they cannot read and write, or add up.
Nia Griffith: I shall certainly respond the hon. Gentleman’s point in a moment, but I should like to get back to that young person who is not in the classroom and has fallen by the wayside. We need to chase those children up, although I am aware that schools are now far more vigilant in doing so.
Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Given that we have had a compulsory school leaving age of 16 since 1972, which is a long period, why does she think that we still have the problems of non-attendance and non-engagement with education? What improvement would the hon. Lady expect if we raised the leaving age to 18?
Nia Griffith: I shall certainly take on the hon. Gentleman’s point in a moment.
There are young people whom we want to bring back into education. Post-16, the temptation is to say, “Okay, no problem—you are not our responsibility, so off you go,” but the compulsion element placed on authorities will mean that those people will be chased up. The hon. Member for Yeovil—if I said that phonically, it would be yeh-o-vil—pointed out that young people have rights. However, with rights come responsibilities. It is crucial that people recognise that if they want to share in the wealth of the country, they have a responsibility to share in the creation of that wealth. I do not believe that any young person between the ages of 16 and 18 should have a free ride.
I should like to respond to the points made by Opposition Members. First, I remind the Committee about the issue of GCSE grades A to C. The Committee will recall that the GCSE was created from thinking in the late 1970s about how we could put the old O-level system, which was designed for 20 to 25 per cent. of the population, depending on how many children got grammar school places in a particular area, and the CSE system, which incorporated another 50 to 60 per cent. of the ability range, into one examination system. The 16-plus exam was developed, followed by the GCSE.
The GCSE was then divided between A to C grades, which were the equivalent of the old O-level, and the D to G grades, which were equivalent to CSEs. The D grade was set as the average grade—the thinking was that children of average ability would attain D grades. Therefore, those who do not get A to C grades are not failures. There is a huge danger in focusing again and again on the idea of grades A to C and grades A to G in our statistics: we could be telling children that they are failures if they do not get grade C.
Mr. Gibb: The maths specialists to whom I have spoken say that 80 or 90 per cent. if not a higher proportion of the cohort should be able to achieve grade C in the maths GCSE. I point the hon. Lady in the direction of schools in this country such as Thomas Telford school, where despite a banded, genuinely mixed-ability intake, 100 per cent. of the children achieve grade at least a C in maths GCSE—if it is not 100 per cent., it is 98 or 99 per cent. How can those schools achieve that, but other schools cannot?
Nia Griffith: Since setting up the system, we have seen year-on-year improvements in many schools. They have pushed a far greater percentage of children to take the higher papers and to achieve those results, because they believe that if the opportunities exist, they should push their pupils. That was one of the ideas behind creating an integrated, escalator-type system, so that children had the opportunity to move from one tier to another and to move up. However, it is important that our ideas do not fossilise on a divide between grades A to C and grades A to G. That stops people from pushing children up from F to E or from E to D, because statistically there is not much point worrying about them. Schools will instead concentrate solely on pushing children up from D to C. It is important that we push up all the way, from Gs to Fs, Fs to Es and from Es to Ds, because only by doing things that way can we achieve what the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s patience and for that of other Committee members throughout the morning. Would she therefore condemn the local education authority in Greenwich, which is providing incentives for 200 children on the D-C borderline to achieve a grade C, rather than focusing on the whole cohort to achieve higher grades?
Nia Griffith: I understand the temptation to do that. I am an ex-teacher and I used to “see” a figure on every child’s forehead, because we had intelligence-type testing that told us what they were capable of. For example, the lazy, bright, intelligent type, with which I am sure many hon. Members are familiar, who should have been getting an A* but was only getting a B was as much of a pain to a teacher as the hard-working, and perhaps much less privileged, pupil who was struggling to move from an F to an E. Undoubtedly, we need to be wary of focusing only on one group of pupils. We need to ensure that we are raising the whole cohort.
If a pupil does not get a C in English or Maths, that does not necessarily mean that they cannot read, write or add up. The tasks set involve large amounts of writing, which have to be read digested and responded to in essay form. Many pupils can read perfectly well and can understand basic English messages and write perfectly straightforward English messages without necessarily having those particular skills.
Mr. Hayes: That brings us to the definition of functional literacy. Ministers have previously told us that functional literacy is defined as an individual’s capacity to write to his bank telling it that he has changed his address. We were told that people who cannot do that are functionally illiterate. However, people who cannot do that are in a bit of pickle, because that basic level of literacy is essential to making one’s way in life, is it not?
Nia Griffith: That is why, in more recent times, we have looked much more at the basic skills. Some of the things that pupils enjoy doing in maths and English lessons for GCSE courses are not about basic numeracy or literacy skills. That is why the introduction of a more determined focus on those skills is important and we should certainly continue in that way. However, one of the reasons why there was a move away from that type of teaching and from vocational courses in the late-1970s was the introduction of the national curriculum—a straitjacket of some 10 or 11 rather academically defined subjects, which was not a suitable diet for all pupils. I saw many schools abandon teaching the more vocational courses.
I am pleased that, alongside what we are doing on compulsion for 16 to 18-year-olds, we are engaging in a new look at what we do from the age of 14. There is no doubt in my mind that a range of different courses is appropriate from the age of 14. Why we ever abandoned what had been working in the 1950s and 60s in the technical colleges, and so forth, for the straitjacket of the national curriculum perhaps only the Conservative Government of the time could tell us.
Mr. Heald: I hope that the hon. Lady recalls that it was, in fact, Jim Callaghan’s idea originally.
Nia Griffith: Indeed, the original thinking was his, but Committee members may remember that it was considerably changed and driven into a much more straitjacketed approach by Sir Keith Joseph, who dreamt of everybody having exactly the same sort of education that he had had, not quite in the century before last, but not far off.
To return to the issue of compulsion at 16 to 18, it is essential that we send a clear message that we expect young people to engage, right from the age of 11 and that they should, at 14, choose appropriate options that they will want to continue with. We must ensure that we follow up all of them, whatever their path in life after 16, to ensure that they can make a contribution to our society and that we offer them the best of opportunities.
10.15 am
Mr. Heald: It is good to have this opportunity to say a word or two about compulsion. I promise not to spend all my contribution talking about reading, writing and adding up.
Last year I visited a lot of projects dealing with social exclusion, and quite a lot of them also dealt with the interface with the criminal justice system. For example, I went to the north Liverpool community court, which is part of an exciting trial of community justice that the Government are doing. I worked in a direct access hostel for young homeless men for a week. I visited Rainer, which is doing excellent work teaching people basic skills, and I went to all sorts of other projects. Right across the spectrum I noticed that a lot of people lacked basic skills. I had not quite realised the extent of the problem, and I have been shocked to learn that 40,000 young people leave school each year without basic skills.
When I talk to a person whom I have found on the streets sleeping rough, with drug and alcohol problems, of course those things are the first that strike me. However, in the hostel it was quite interesting that, after a time, they would come through a lot of those problems. We wanted to move them from the hostel into a flat, but a lot of them could not be moved, because they could not add up and do their budgeting. The staff in the hostel were teaching them and encouraging them to attend various projects to learn how to add up properly, as I would put it—to learn basic numeracy skills.
Some of the young people were really very damaged. Some of the reasons for that damage were other social reasons. However, when one talks to a person about what it is like to sit at the back of the class for years, unable to read and write, it is not surprising that they gradually start failing to attend. That is not true of every person, but a lot of people sit at the back, keep their heads down, go to secondary school and cannot perform, and start bunking off. It is no coincidence that the average reading age in prison is 11. As a society, we must do much more on basic skills.
Jim Knight: I do not have the information to dispute the average reading age of people in prison, but I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman thinks a reading age of 11 means that those people are capable of.
Mr. Heald: The first thing to say is that the Minister has his level 4 in standard assessment tests, which is the category that someone has to reach to be seen as able to read effectively at age 11. That is the average reading age in a prison, so what it says about the literacy level of that community is that a lot of them cannot read, write and add up properly.
Jim Knight: To help the hon. Gentleman, a level 4 child’s
“writing in a range of forms is lively and thoughtful”,
Their handwriting style is “fluent, joined and legible”. Full stops, capital letters and questions marks are used accurately, and the pupil can use punctuation in a sentence. Level 3, which is the level below and so relates to the hon. Gentleman’s point, requires writing that is “organised, imaginative and clear”, and that punctuation to mark sentences—full stops, capital letters and question marks—must be used accurately. Handwriting is “joined and legible”, and pupils are
“aware of standard English and when it is used.”
I caution against saying that such people are incapable of writing. If they have achieved level 3 at primary school, they can write.
Mr. Heald: I simply do not think that to have a population of adults with an average reading age of 11 is right. The Minister’s target is functional literacy and numeracy, and 40,000 people a year do not have that when they leave school. I am all in favour of having a ladder of skills, and I do not think that grade A to C should be unattainable. However, for that group, what would it be like, having done 10 to 12 years in school, found it a desperate experience and been deeply damaged by it, to be told, “You’ve got to do another two years.”?
Mr. Marsden: The hon. Gentleman has heard numerous examples in Committee and numerous arguments from witnesses and Ministers that the Bill’s intention is not to keep such people—to take the hon. Gentleman’s words—in school for a further two years, but to offer them other forms of training and education, including work-based training and education. Does he not see the value of pursuing that route, rather than that false antithesis?
Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman ignores the point that they are angry young people. The TUC and others have said so. Some are sad that young people face that stigma, but all the experts and organisations, such as Fairbridge, for example, say that the key to rescuing those young people is to get them to want to undertake training or education. In homeless hostels, social workers throughout the country try to persuade youngsters who do not have such skills to give it another go. They say, for example, “If you want to be a dry liner, you’ve got to have a health and safety skills, so come on, let’s get your basic skills.” They motivate them to do it. Such measures are not for the stick, but for the carrot, which is why I am not in favour of compulsion.
Mr. Hayes: It is good to be back in harness with, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. We are willing workhorses, ploughing a furrow towards all that is lovely and noble, and in that spirit we begin our consideration of the Bill, certain, Mr. Bercow, of your sagacity, and hopeful of your generosity.
Before a Minister or another hon. Member intervenes, however, I must qualify that point. It is true that the NEETs figure includes gap-year students and young people who have severe challenges, such as drug problems, mental health problems and so on, so it is not fair to say that all those 1 million-plus young people are willing and able, because of their circumstances, to engage in education, employment or training. However, even at the most conservative estimate—I am one of the most conservative of people—the Committee will agree that, let us say, 750,000 of those young people would like to be, should be, and in my judgment are entitled to be, in education, employment or training.
Jim Knight: Alison Wolf has already been, and I am sure will continue to be, quoted a lot throughout the Committee’s sittings. Does the hon. Gentleman, like myself, disagree with Professor Wolf, who, when she gave evidence, said that we should not be fussed about NEETs, because sooner or later they will catch up?
Mr. Hayes: Yes, I disagree with Alison Wolf about that. I have spoken with her on a number of platforms and disagreed with her publicly about that issue before.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.
 
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