Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 2

Duty to participate in education or training
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 2, page 1, leave out line 12 and insert—
‘(1) A local authority in England shall enable and assist a person belonging to its area to whom this Part applies to—’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 15, in clause 10, page 5, line 35, leave out from ‘applies’ to end of line 36.
Mr. Gibb: We seem to be rocketing through the Bill—already on to clause 2 so early on in the proceedings. However, this is the clause that actually imposes the duty, whereas the previous clause defined to whom the duty will apply. Clause 2 comprises the meat of the Bill.
Amendment No. 4 would take out the opening line of the clause, which states:
“A person to whom this Part applies must—”
and replace it with:
“A local authority in England shall enable and assist a person belonging to its area to whom this Part applies”.
The person would then be entitled to participate in appropriate full-time education, to participate in training according to the contract of the apprenticeship, or to be in full-time education and receive sufficient training of 280 hours a year. The amendment would remove the compulsory element of the Bill, but I shall not try the Committee’s patience or yours, Mr. Bayley, by repeating the arguments that I made this morning on clause 1. I shall instead advance some other arguments about compulsion.
The new wording, “enable and assist”, comes from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, which argues that although it supports measures that positively encourage young people to engage in education, it fundamentally opposes the creation of a duty of participation on young people. It believes that compulsion would be counter-productive and potentially damaging to the most vulnerable people in our society. It also argues that as human rights legislation enshrines education as a fundamental right, we should look to the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights, which says that the right to education requires member states
“take positive measures that enable and assist individuals”
to take up their right to education. Giving 16 and 17-year-olds a right to education is different from imposing a duty on young people to participate. Amendment No. 4, and amendment No. 15 to clause 10, would change the approach, giving local authorities the duty to enable and assist young people to participate in education or training.
In its briefing and in evidence to us on Tuesday, the British Youth Council said that 46 per cent. of people whom it surveyed did not agree with raising the compulsory participation age to 18. It said that the focus should be on ensuring that the education system is geared more to helping people and preparing them for further education and training.
3.33 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
3.48 pm
On resuming—
Mr. Gibb: The Children’s Rights Alliance, to which I was referring before the Division, argues that 16 and 17-year-olds are capable of making decisions about what is in their best interests. It goes on to say in its briefing to us:
“The imposition of a duty runs counter to significant professional opinion about the capacity of young people for independent decision-making and the Government’s own policy of youth participation. At a time when the Government is considering proposals to give young people the vote, why does it seek to remove responsibility from young people for decisions over their own education?
Young people who leave education at 16 may do so because they have a history of unsatisfactory experiences in the education system, or because they have issues in their lives which make it difficult for them to continue, such as homelessness or emotional problems. It is just such young people—the most vulnerable—who may be unable or unwilling to comply with such a duty. What is more, the creation of a duty to participate in education will not guarantee educational success for these young people.”
The amendment would impose a duty on local authorities to “enable and assist” such young people, rather than imposing what the alliance believes will be an unsuccessful and unenforceable duty.
Jim Knight: It may be helpful at this point if I explain why we think that the measure is not in contravention of article 2 of the European convention on human rights. We believe that it is entirely compatible with that article. The right simply sets out that no one should be denied access to education, and the Bill does not do that.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention, and I shall wait for his full response.
The Prince’s Trust believes that
“the priority should be for all 16 year olds to be encouraged and supported to achieve Level 2”
It goes on to say
“that raising the compulsory age to 18 will simply prolong the process and potentially lower the aspirations of some students.”
While we are discussing the Prince’s Trust’s excellent work, Martina Milburn said in her evidence on 22 January that it gets young people into education, training and work, and did so with 40,000 young people last year. Will the Minister confirm that a 16 or 17-year-old participating full-time in a Prince’s Trust course or a programme run by Fairbridge—another excellent organisation—will be regarded as being in full-time educational training for the purpose of clause 2(1)(a)?
Professor Alison Wolf pointed out in her evidence that young people who are not in employment, education or training already forgo weekly handouts from education maintenance allowances of up to £30 a week, which they could have received simply by turning up at a college. She said that those people are not simply neutral and waiting for Government direction; they are actively opposed to participation, so imposing a duty on such people will have minimal effect.
In “Diminished Returns”, she pointed out:
“A wealth of psychological evidence demonstrates that human beings that human beings do not learn unless they are motivated to do so.”
Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that one the beauties of amendment No. 15 is that it imposes on the education authority a duty to look at the interests of people generally in their area? On the point that he has just made about motivation, is not the case that to create a secure environment for other students in the college or whatever, it is necessary for someone who is, say, a drug dealer to put that life to one side, to become involved in education and to set themselves straight. When he gave evidence, Mr. Head mentioned the lad who turned up in the brand new BMW 3, and who was obviously economically active. There are drug dealers in that age group, and we do not really want them in college unless they are motivated to learn rather than to act in a criminal manner.
Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I am about to come on to that point. He may like to read the book, “Wasted: Mark Johnson”, which is recommended by the Prince’s Trust. I have met Mark Johnson, who is a splendid man of 30 who has turned his life around. When he was 16, the idea that he could have attended any sort of training course, given the problems that he faced and the life that he led, was just not credible.
Mr. Heald: Last night, the Prince’s Trust held an excellent reception with Bill Gates, and many young entrepreneurs were present. Several of them had been to prison, come out and, while still young, had set up businesses with the support of the Prince’s Trust. However, they had chosen a different lifestyle, and were motivated to make a success of it. That is important.
Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I agree with him totally.
The Local Government Association adopted a similar position to Alison Wolf, and noted in its written evidence that it does not believe that compulsion
“is the way to engage with young people or to obtain their attendance for effective learning.”
Indeed, compulsory participation might not only result in unmotivated youngsters learning very little: it could also damage the wider atmosphere, undermining those young people who are ready and willing to participate. As the hon. Member for Yeovil said, Professor Wolf raised that concern in “Diminished Returns”, in which she stated that it was “empirically demonstrable” that large numbers
“of forced participants will have a strong negative effect on the environment”.
There is therefore a real danger that compulsion will fail to ensure that disaffected young people successfully participate in education. Moreover, forcing unwilling youngsters into unwanted training may well hamper the progress of those who are motivated to gain new skills.
I noted widespread concern among witnesses in our evidence sessions that compulsion could have a severely detrimental effect on the prospects of those marginalised young people who will invariably bear the brunt of the new enforcement measures. The Association of Learning Providers, for example, told the Committee that for a minority of youngsters,
“compulsion will not have the desired effect and you will accentuate a problem we have now.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 24 January 2008; c. 123, Q300.]
The ALP said that, as a result, the problems afflicting the NEET group could become worse rather than better. The Institute of Directors, in its response to the consultation process, stated that
“the only sustainable and workable system is founded on a voluntary approach to participation”,
and that any measures resulting in young people entering the youth justice system had to be regarded as a “terrible outcome.” The National Association of Head Teachers wrote:
“Compulsion, because of the negative impact which it will have both on the younger generation and on schools, is emphatically not the route to choose”.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers wrote:
“The case for compulsion has not been made”.
Ministers have insisted that enforcement will be treated as a last resort. The Minister of State has implied that the number of people involved is small, but he conceded in his evidence that the number of people who would have attendance order notices issued against them would be 6,000.
Jim Knight: I think that I made it perfectly clear in answer to question 481, asked by the hon. Member for Yeovil, that I had examined the figures closely because they
“reflected a high level of enforcement.”
I said that they were
“at the bleak end of the scale of enforcement.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, Tuesday 29 January 2008; c. 208, Q481.]
The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said that I think there will be 6,000, but that is simply not the case. That is the very top end of the expectation, because we wanted to be generous in our assumption of the cost so that we would not be criticised for underestimating it. As ever, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful for that clarification, but the Minister did say:
“The number of attendance notices is assumed to be 6,000”.——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, Tuesday 29 January 2008; c. 208, Q481.]
I take his point; it was assumed to be that number for the purpose of assessing potential cost in the regulatory impact assessment. However, the Minister will remember that in 2006, he announced plans to deal with 13,000 pupils whom his Department identified as persistent secondary school truants.
Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman referred to the evidence that the Minister gave on 29 January. Does he agree that it might be useful if the Minister agreed to publish the assumptions behind the figures that he gave? We would then be in a better position to judge whether they were pessimistic or whether they might actually be considerably exceeded.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his sensible suggestion, which I shall put to the Minister. If he could publish those assumptions, and set out the parameters of the bleakest figure, which he says is 6,000, as well as the most optimistic figure and the most likely outcome, we could see the assumptions from which those three figures derive. Given the very specific numbers that he mentioned—278 youth court fines, 111 youth default orders and 33 breaches of parenting orders—I assume that there must be good papers to back up those numbers.
Jim Knight: I thought that John Coles gave a good explanation of that. He said not only that the calculations were
“intended to be on the high side”
but that
“the numbers are very precise—in a way, they are over-precise for extrapolations—but they are based very precisely on the nearest equivalent we can find in the existing system for the rates of default and so on.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, Tuesday 29 January 2008; c. 208, Q481.]
Mr. Gibb: That is very helpful. It would therefore be useful if we had that data and the extrapolations referred to by Jon Coles.
I return to the point that I was making. In 2006, the Department identified 13,000 secondary school persistent truants on whom it wanted to focus. Given that there were 13,000 of them, it is most unlikely that they will be rushing to participate in the duty that the Bill will impose on them. One could argue that 6,000 is an underestimate, given that the Minister has already identified 13,000. I do not know which year they come from, but if one assumes that half of them would be persistent non-attenders under the Bill, that would take us up to 6,000. I cited that figure originally to back up the Government’s likely figure, but the Minister now claims that it is a bleak outcome. I think that it is a much more likely outcome.
Jim Knight: We have made it clear that if we raise the participation age tomorrow such outcomes are extremely logical. However, it is important that we make all the changes that I set out earlier in the intervening period. We need to address levels of persistent absence and make secondary education more engaging than it is now, and then reduce the level of enforcement post-16.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. It almost supports what I said in our earlier scrutiny sittings. We need to sort out what is happening in our secondary and primary schools; that would have a bigger effect on encouraging participation than any duty.
Ministers also assert that a legal obligation—and the enforcement that it entails—is a uniquely crucial factor in ensuring a “cultural shift in aspiration”, creating an expectation to participate among all young people. However, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers—NASUWT—states the very opposite. It argues that
“it is unlikely that a change in the law will change the minds and attitudes of youngsters who are disinclined to stay on now.”
We believe that compulsion is unlikely to succeed. We believe that it is far better to use the carrot rather than the stick in such circumstances, and that the duty should be on the education system to enable and assist young people to take part in education. That is what the amendments seek to do, and I hope that they will have the support of the Committee.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday 5 February at half-past 10 o'clock.
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