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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 21 February 2008

(Afternoon)

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Education and Skills Bill

Clause 41

Attendance notice: description of education or training
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 164, in clause 41, page 22, line 33, after ‘person’, insert
‘having regard to a person’s age, ability, aptitude and needs (if any) for personalised support and personalised learning opportunities’.—[Mr. Laws.]
1 pm
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Good afternoon, Mr. Bercow. May I welcome you to the Chair of the Committee? It has been noted that either you are a glutton for punishment, or Mr. Bayley has deserted us. We are not sure whether this reflects enthusiasm on your part or reticence on his.
In any case, we left this morning’s sitting at clause 41, when I was mentioning that the amendment is inspired and supported by the National Union of Teachers. The last time I moved an amendment that was supported by the NUT we had a tremendous triumph when the Government crumbled in the face of the force of the argument and acknowledged that it had to be accepted. I think that that is the only concession that the Minister has made so far on the Bill. We look forward to seeing that in the future.
I am optimistic, therefore, at this final stage of the week, that we might also persuade the Minister to accept this amendment, which is an addition to clause 41(5) that would strengthen the responsibilities of local authorities to identify individual needs and ensure that they are provided. In particular, the amendment would ensure that a local authority has to have regard to the
“age, ability, aptitude and needs...for personalised support and personalised learning”
of the young person in question.
This morning, I also referred to a helpful letter that the Minister wrote to me on 13 February—I understand that it will be copied to members of the Committee—in response to the undertaking that he made at the evidence session on Tuesday 29 January to write to the Committee and talk, prior to guidance being issued, about the Government’s attitude to young people who would find it difficult to comply with the responsibility to be in education or training. In one sense, the Minister’s letter might not be regarded as directly relevant to the amendment, because it deals primarily with the circumstances in which an attendance panel would not insist upon a young person being in education or training. However, I would like to relate that directly to the amendment and to the requirement that there should be a provision of support for young people, because the Minister’s aspiration, as he has already told us, is that in all but a minority of cases, young people should be in education or training or some other setting.
Therefore, we are seeking to discover two things in that regard. First, we want to know the extent to which there will be a clear responsibility on local authorities to ensure that the education and training relates very much to the young person’s needs and circumstances, and that that includes proper support for their personal needs. Secondly, we are seeking to discover the extent to which the Minister will be willing to envisage the type of fourth-way option or gateway option that some of us have talked about during the Committee’s proceedings and that many of the outside lobby groups have also talked about. I have in front of me a note from Fairbridge, which has given evidence to the Committee and has been talking about a gateway phase to re-engage the most difficult to reach.
The letter that the Minister sent to me on 13 February indicated that he accepts that
“there will be young people who temporarily, or for a longer time, cannot in practice participate due to their individual circumstances.”
He also mentioned the need to provide the personalised support that will help young people to be in education and training. He usefully documents a list of the types of characteristics that might cause an individual to need support services or potentially not to have to comply with the attendance panel. He mentioned homelessness, health problems, addiction, the nature and timing of the courses being studied, young parents and people with caring responsibilities. Although those may be reasons for a young person not to have the education and training responsibility placed upon them by the attendance panel, they could also be characteristics that should be taken into account in the clause in providing for personalised support.
Those characteristics could also lead to a fourth way that is not covered explicitly in the Bill, but upon which I would like to test the Minister’s mind yet again. That option is to have personalised support that would in no sense meet most people’s understanding of an education or training setting. These clauses and the amendments that we discussed under clause 40 are predicated on the basis that people will be in a formal education and training setting and that their personal support needs will be moulded around that.
The Minister acknowledged in our earlier exchanges that the Government might be willing to allow people to be not in education and training settings, but in some form of supported setting that would meet their needs prior to them being able to access education and training. We do not know whether the Government are willing to translate that good intention into practice. How these support needs will be met is in the hands of the guidance that will be issued later. That will show how flexible the Government are and whether they will allow people to be not in the formal education and training institutional environments referred to in these clauses, but in the other settings that were envisaged by the outside groups and voluntary bodies that gave evidence to us.
Secondly, there is the possibility that the Minister raised in his letter of 13 February, that some young people with very acute needs might not be in any setting whatsoever. Thirdly, there is the other possibility that I am asking the Minister to comment on because it is relevant to the issue of young people’s support needs. I am asking whether there could be another option between doing nothing and being criminalised and having personal support delivered in an education and training setting, which would enable providers with expertise in this area to be involved. That could be a drug rehabilitation centre where there is nothing that would be regarded as accredited education or training, but where the young person would be in a setting that is dealing with a personal problem to enable him or her to go back into education or training.
This is one of the places in the Bill where we can explore with the Minister not only whether the right sensitive support will be available for young people in education and training, but whether such a different setting is envisaged. Given that we were so successful with our NUT-linked amendment, we would like to hear whether he is willing to put in the Bill this more robust form of wording to ensure that there is a strong duty on local authorities to consider all of the needs of young people defined in the amendment.
We would also like to hear how the Minister envisages the fourth option, or gateway option, working. Is it a serious option that the Government would consider as a mainstream alternative to what appears in the Bill or would they use it just as a short-term stopping-off point prior to a young person entering education and training with personalised support? That is what I am hoping the get out of moving the amendment.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I want to return briefly to a point that I made earlier. When it comes to the service of the notices that are created in clauses 39, 40 and 41, and the question of personalising the training and education opportunities, as in amendment No. 164, it is important that there is genuine engagement between the local authority and the individual concerned.
I am worried that a person who has left school with the sort of the problems that I have mentioned in Committee, who is perhaps able to read and write at only a low level—they might be at a lower level than one at which they would be able to tell their bank, for example, about a change of address—will find the notices complicated. A young person who is ill-educated might not understand the sort of details that are being talked about—the courses are called things such as basic skills or life skills. Will the Minister assure us that when the notices are served on someone who might have poor educational attainment, there will be a discussion with them to explain exactly what the notice means?
In answer to earlier questions, the Minister told me that there will be advisers—I accept that—but could there be some more formal legislative requirement to ensure that a person is notified, so that we do not have a situation in which notice after notice arrives at a person’s house and are ignored? Ultimately, such a person could find themselves in a serious process, in court and so on. I am concerned about the possibility of a paper trail but no active engagement between individual and authority. Will the Minister say whether the notices will be served personally or served by post? If it is not a personal service, will the panel require that a person has understood a notice? Will the Minister comment on those issues?
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): What a pleasure it is, Mr. Bercow, to see you in your place yet again. I am sure that the Committee will not tire of your presence in the Chair, however consistently and frequently you are there.
The Chairman: Order. I do not want to delay the Committee, and I appreciate that this announcement will be accompanied by much flowing of tears, but I told the Minister before the sitting that, sadly, this is my last sitting in the Chair of this Committee.
Jim Knight: Naturally, Mr. Bercow, we are distraught, which is not to say that we are not looking forward the Mr. Bayley’s return next week. I might not have the opportunity later on this afternoon to say how much I have enjoyed serving under your chairmanship, so let it be recorded now that I have thoroughly enjoyed serving under your guidance.
I absolutely agree that the education or training specified in an attendance notice must be appropriate to the young person’s needs. The aim of the notice, ultimately, is to get the young person to participate in education or training so that they can benefit from the opportunities and advantages that that offers. They can do that only if the learning programme meets their needs. In addition, the local authority must identify an appropriate learning place for the young person and give them the opportunity, and support to engage in it voluntarily, before they can even meet the conditions for issuing an attendance notice. It is important that the hon. Member for Yeovil understands that the attendance notice is a stage in an enforcement process and that enforcement should not start, as I have said repeatedly, unless adequate support has been provided but not taken up.
I also agree that in many cases the learning programme specified at that point would need to be specialised and personalised. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked about discussion and whether the notice would be personally served. As I have said to him before, prior to enforcement, all the support provided and the contact via Connexions with a personal adviser would be personal.
1.15 pm
Mr. Heald: My concern is the person who just does not engage with the process, which happens in other contexts such as the welfare-to-work programmes. I am worried about the sort of people who do not go when they are invited to an interview and ignore a letter when they get it through the door. How do we ensure that such people understand what they are supposed to be doing and how the process cranks open?
Jim Knight: I understand that the hon. Gentleman is describing a scenario in which someone just does not engage with the process in any shape or form. However, there will still be the expectation that the personal adviser will have made contact with the individual. It will not be sufficient in terms of adequately assessing and offering support to have sent letters, e-mails or other forms of communication. It is important that there is a personal exchange between those involved either by phone or face to face to discuss the matter. I envisage that taking place over a series of exchanges, not simply one.
On the serving of the notice, obviously the initial steps are set out in clause 39 in relation to the 15-day notice period. It would normally take the form of a letter to the address that Connexions and the local authority have for that individual. Clearly, if the 15 days elapse and there is no response, the process would move to the serving of the notice. If the person to whom the initial letter has been served says that they did not receive it, that it did not arrive in the post, or that they could not read it, it may be that the letter would at that point be reissued. The notice would be reinstigated by means of it being personally served and the personal adviser going to the address, giving the person the letter and explaining its contents. That is what would need to happen at that point.
Later, in respect of the attendance panels themselves—and I am sure that we will discuss this in the context of later amendments—we want to ensure that panel hearings take place in a friendly way and not a formal court-like setting. Such a setting would occur later down the track, if the matter is sent to the youth court. The panels should be informal and the young person should participate in the panel hearing, which is something that we will also discuss later. The young person should understand what is happening and the process in which they are involved at every stage. I hope that that helps the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.
Mr. Laws: I hope that I am not pre-empting something that the Minister will come to later, but subsection (5) states:
“The education or training must be suitable for the person”.
Before we proceed, how will “suitable” be defined?
Jim Knight: I will address the specific wording of the subsection of this clause in a moment, but there is great flexibility in the way that it is currently worded. On the questions of the hon. Member for Yeovil about what we keep referring to as the fourth option and fourth way, as I have said, support is important both in practice and in theory, for however long it is needed, but it should not be separated from participation. The specific aim of the attendance notice is to set out participation in education and training, but we envisage that support will also continue and that it will be flexible in the form that it can take. However, support is not an alternative as other ways of participating are. It is not an alternative to education or training, but it must work towards those to get to the point of the attendance notice.
Mr. Laws: I apologise for interrupting the Minister again. However, I wonder whether he is going back on an undertaking given earlier in the Committee that he could envisage circumstances in which people might need support that could mean that they are not in education or training for a long period of time, and that that support, possibly from a voluntary group, might not look like education or training. Is that still a possibility?
Jim Knight: It is certainly still a possibility. I would not want to retract that in any way. I am simply suggesting that we envisage support continuing, but the support is not an end in itself, as I have said before. The end is appropriate education and training. A re-engagement activity may be required in order to get young people into education or training, but in most cases I would envisage that it would have been offered, and hopefully delivered, beforehand. The attendance notice process is there to try to get them to engage and I do not want to define it any differently from the way it has been defined previously.
The amendment is technically unnecessary. The existing provision in subsection (5) that the education or training specified in the notice must be suitable—the words that he picked up on—for the young person, already implies in law that it must be appropriate for their individual needs and circumstances. In that respect, it is very flexible.
However, I have reflected and will continue to do so between now and the Report stage on whether we need to define the matter slightly more closely so that it is not only suitable for the person, but addresses their individual needs. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance because I need to reflect further and consult others on the matter. However, I intend to see how we can refer to the flexibility of the definitions that we set out in clause 4, but without relating solely to that clause, because it does not include the employment with training option. We would obviously want that to be available within the attendance notice. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some encouragement and that he will make only a short intervention.
Mr. Laws: In addition to providing the definition of suitability, which the Minister still has not really given us although he said that he might reflect on it, will he also clarify whether he will determine the matter of suitability?
Jim Knight: The interpretation of “suitable” will be undertaken, first, by the local government officer issuing the notice, and, secondly by the attendance panel, should one be convened to look at the notice.
Mr. Laws: And the definition?
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister. Given how difficult it is to wring any concessions out of Ministers on these occasions, I suppose that I should be extremely grateful and rush out a press release that champions the achievement and glorifies the NUT for being associated with only the second twinge of movement from a Minister during Committee.
May I, however, clarify a couple of concerns? Perhaps I did not emphasise the issue of suitability enough in my opening comments. I took it for granted that the Minister would trot out his line on it, but he did not say as much as I expected, so I shall say something about it now before moving on to the issue of support, and the question of what he might concede and what he will not concede.
Clause 41 (5) says:
“The education or training must be suitable for the person.”
That raises the question of what the word “suitable” means and who should interpret it. I think that we know who will interpret it, but the greater problem is what it means. The Minister said that there is great flexibility around the word, but that can be a good or a bad thing. It may mean that there is a lot of uncertainty or that the word is interpreted very differently in different parts of the country, so we need to be slightly clearer about what it means.
We can think of a number of different examples in which the issue of suitability might arise. One with which the Government will not have a problem is a young person who is in employment. To take our earlier example, someone who is employed as a car mechanic may want to become a nuclear physicist.
Jim Knight: It was an accountant before.
Mr. Laws: Perhaps that person has become more aspirational and more interesting since we last discussed the Bill and wants to do something that requires a course that does not relate to their employment. They therefore tell the local government officer that they are not willing to go on the local college’s tedious car mechanics course, which people are trying to persuade them to take, and say that they are waiting to go on a course in accountancy, nuclear physics, fishing or some other subject. Will there be any obligation on them to take up education and training that is related to the employment that they are in? Does the question of suitability have any relevance in that situation?
The Government can probably provide reassure on that issue, but the amendment also refers to the question of ability and aptitude. What if someone considers a course is too difficult for them, given their skills? What if they think that they need some other type of education beforehand? What if they simply think that the local college course on offer in their subject is hopeless and rubbish or that it is being taught that year by somebody who is not in regular attendance? What if they want to wait until the next year?
Jim Knight: I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said this morning. At any point, the young person can voluntarily opt to fulfil their duties under clause 2, in which case the enforcement proceedings will stop, unless the issue has reached the youth court. If they do not want to go on a particular course with a particular lecturer, and there is something else that they want to do that they think is more suitable for them, they can do it.
Mr. Laws: Yes, that is true, but they might not have that option, particularly if the course that they want to take is closed that year or is not available in a setting that they reach. It may be difficult for them to afford transport costs, which we shall discuss later.
If I were a young person who did not want to comply with the Bill, I might well argue that the education offered to me was not suitable, particularly if I was not enthusiastic about taking up education and training in the first place. Somebody might come to me and say, “You should be in education and training. How about these eight different courses at Yeovil college?” All those courses would no doubt be excellent, particularly, I hasten to add, if they were on offer at Yeovil college. In another part of the country, however, there might not be any exciting courses on offer, and the educational institution might be less effective. How would suitability be defined in that case?
We therefore want a bit more clarity from the Minister on how the word “suitability” relates to a person’s needs and aptitudes. I am not sure whether he is saying that he will consider clarifying the issue between now and the Bill’s later stages, or whether, when he said that he would reflect on it, he meant that he would reflect on its more personalised elements. He said that there could be guarantees that the support needs would meet the young person’s requirements. That is a major concern, and there is also concern about the funding that might go with it. The issue is not only whether support needs can be identified, but whether they will be funded and whether that will be acceptable.
1.30 pm
I am tempted, notwithstanding the Minister’s generosity, to press the amendment to a Division. However, if he intervenes on me to clarify which part of the issue he is willing to reflect on, I might feel much more reassured, and therefore less likely to do so.
Jim Knight: I am particularly interested in reflecting on how the person’s individual needs could be interpreted, but it is difficult to reflect on one aspect an eight or nine-word phrase without reflecting on the other words in the provision. If I think about whether the education or training meets the individual needs of the person, I shall inevitably think about the word, “suitable”. If I reflect on that issue, I shall reflect on the subsection in its entirety—all 10 words, or whatever it is. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Laws: I would feel guilty and ungenerous in pressing the amendment to a Division, so I await the Minister’s thinking. I hope to be satisfied at a later stage, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
 
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