Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 58

Educational institutions: access and facilities
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 98, in clause 58, page 31, line 32, after ‘56(1)(b)’, insert
‘and subject to the consent of the pupil or student.’.
As you will have noticed, Mr. Bayley, after his arduous work over recent weeks, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton is having a rather quieter time this morning than he has had thus far. The burden has fallen heavily on me. None the less, he has been useful and supportive, as always in our team, in reminding me of the substance of the amendment. According to the explanatory notes:
“Clause 58 places a duty on the responsible persons for educational institutions to allow Connexions service providers reasonable access to pupils and students and to provide reasonable facilities on the institution’s premises for providing services.”
The amendment is straightforward, and it simply says that the powers that Connexions service providers are given should be
“subject to the consent of the pupil or student.”
That is important, because it underpins the approach that we have taken throughout our considerations that the Bill must be about engaging young people by encouraging them to make a positive commitment, rather than obliging them in a way that is likely to exacerbate their detachment from learning and skilling. We have relentlessly championed the cause of those young people, particularly the most vulnerable, and I make no apologies for doing so. It is my mission in politics to speak most loudly for those least able to speak for themselves. In that spirit, I am proud to have moved the amendment that stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, who has given me such assistance in making this short peroration.
Jim Knight: I start by congratulating the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and his scriptwriter, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, on that peroration. The effect of the amendment would be to prevent Connexions services from having access to students and available facilities in their place of learning, unless consent was given by the student. That would make it much more difficult for the Connexions service to provide support to young people, and it would also create an unhelpful, complicated and confusing layer of bureaucracy for schools and colleges.
Learning providers already enable all students to access Connexions, so that the service can offer them support. As local authorities are going to take responsibility for providing the Connexions service, the present arrangements should continue. If that were not the case, it would significantly jeopardise the effectiveness of the Connexions service. If accepted, the amendment would mean that the Connexions service would be unable to access in their place of learning young people who failed or refused to give their consent. Very often, those young people are the most vulnerable ones, and include individuals with behavioural problems or chaotic lifestyles—the very people whom the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has told us it is his mission in politics to represent.
The amendment would effectively bar Connexions services from helping the young people who need their support the most. I do not believe that that is the hon. Gentleman’s intention. I believe it is rather to ensure that if learning providers provide Connexions services access to their students, the students are under no obligation to accept the offer of Connexions support unless they choose to do so. That is existing practice, particularly in the case of one-to-one support, where the student has actively to engage with the Connexions personal adviser of their own volition.
The clause, as drafted, will continue to facilitate the existing arrangements, which are vital to the successful operations of Connexions services. There is no question of a young person being put in detention so that they can be forced to have a meeting with the personal adviser. It would remain a voluntary activity on the part of the young person. I would not want Connexions to be unable to go on to a school site without a specific piece of consent from a specific pupil.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): One of the problems that arises at some further education colleges is that popular courses are oversubscribed. If there is a hairdressing suite, for example, it can only take so many hairdressers. Would the provision interfere with that in any way? Would it enable a Connexions adviser to force somebody on to a hairdressing course if there was not really room for them?
Jim Knight: No, it would not interfere with that at all. There is no question of personal advisers forcing individuals on to particular courses. It is important that young people are motivated to take courses.
Mr. Heald: I did not mean forcing an individual to do a course, but forcing the institution to take an extra individual when that course is full.
Jim Knight: I do not believe that the service would have the power to force institutions to take individuals on to certain courses. The only powers of which I am aware are those that require institutions to accept individuals of compulsory school age. Those matters are dealt with in the admissions code, which has statutory force. The change that we made in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 means that a local authority can require an institution to take a looked-after child if it is in the best interests of that child’s education. I hope that in the light of my response to those interventions and my reasoning the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I shall not press the amendment, although I want to re-emphasise my point: the system will work only if it inspires young people to make their own commitment to be advised and trained. It will not work if young people are dragged grudgingly, kicking and screaming, towards the Connexions adviser, then forced on to a training course that they do not want to take. That will simply not work. During the passage of the Bill, we have made that point repeatedly—amplified beautifully by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton in particular—but I am not sure that it has been heard clearly by Ministers. Although I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, I suspect that we will return to the matter time and again in the continuing passage of the legislation.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 58 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 59

Internet and telephone support services etc
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 184, in clause 59, page 32, line 11, at end insert—
‘(c) the information, advice or guidance to be provided by telephone or other electronic means may include information and options expressed by persons who have pursued or are pursuing education, training or careers which are of interest to the said young persons and relevant young adults.’.
This group of amendments—
The Chairman: To clarify the position for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit, we are considering the two amendments separately: at the moment we are debating amendment No. 184; we will come to amendment No. 185 later.
Mr. Hayes: I am grateful, Mr. Bayley. I have notes on both amendments, but I accept that we are dealing with them separately.
Amendment No. 184 would insert additional subsection (c) into the clause, and I will illustrate the subject with a word or two about the view of the distinguished educational charity, Edge. Clause 59 says:
“The Secretary of State may provide or secure the provision of services for encouraging, enabling or assisting the effective participation of young persons and relevant young adults in England in education or training.”
As Edge reminds us, that includes the publication of information, advice and guidance, and responding to particular requests for information electronically or by telephone. The provision for advice is important, and clause 59 should be read alongside clause 66, which requires schools to provide impartial information and advice for education, training and careers.
As an aside, I am anxious that the advice given by schools and colleges and the advice given by Connexions should be consistent. In our last debate, we talked about the new powers that Connexions will have to offer advice in educational institutions, but we did not explore in detail the risk of inconsistency, which might come from advice being given by different people to individuals in schools and colleges. The Minister might want to deal with that in his summation.
11.45 am
“When faced with a choice, challenge or change in life, do you ever wonder how other people have coped in the same situation—what choices did they make, and how did they turn out? Wouldn’t it be useful if you could talk to someone who has been there, done that and is willing to share their first-hand experience with you? Wouldn’t it be great fun if that could be anonymous, confidential and secure?”
Such services should form a core part of the service offered by the Secretary of State in pursuance of the power created by clause 59, and that is the purpose of amendment No. 184. Essentially, the argument is that we should use the latest technology, emulate the best existing practice, and recognise that young people are often most influenced by seeing how something has been done through the eyes of someone else who has done it.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I am listening with interest to the case that the hon. Gentleman is making for other mechanisms to give information, advice and guidance, not least the suggestions from Edge and horsesmouth. Is he aware that the all-party skills group is conducting an inquiry into information, advice and guidance? That report will be published in due course, to the edification, I hope, of everyone, including Ministers.
Mr. Hayes: Yes, I was aware of that, because I do, as the hon. Gentleman knows, maintain a healthy dialogue with the all-party group. In fact, I am pleased to have been invited to attend and speak at events organised by the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to his work in that regard. I hope that the all-party group will come to a similar conclusion to the one that I have reached on advice and guidance, which I have articulated at considerable, but not sufficient, length.
There is good practice out there, and not all of it revolves around the mainstream institutions. It stems partly from the dynamism offered by technology, from which we can learn from and which therefore needs to be built into our thinking when considering this part of the Bill. I do not know if the all-party group has had a chance to look at that proposal, but if they have not, it may not be too late to use the provision as a catalyst for doing so.
Mr. Marsden: Although we are an all-party group and not subject to the requirements of Select Committees, it would be invidious to go into too much detail ant what may, or may not, be proposed. However, this is an area in which everyone, including the Government, wishes to look carefully at new mechanisms. The question is: what are the precise devices for using the new mechanisms?
Mr. Hayes: I did not want to compromise the hon. Gentleman’s position, as I am sure he knows, but we have had a helpful exchange. The way in which people gather, exchange and use information has changed immensely, and continues to do so. That lies at the core of our considerations today. The fact that we are talking about young people only exaggerates the significance of that point, because I suspect that many young people are accustomed to accessing information wholly or mainly by technological means. That is why Edge has done us a service in advising us on these matters, and I am delighted to reflect its perspective in the amendment.
Jim Knight: I agree with Edge, with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South, that it is important that young people should have access to the opinions and experiences of those who are already engaged in education, training or a particular career. I am pleased to be able to tell the Committee that the national service, Connexions direct, provides that material on its excellent website,, and I am sure the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will be reaching as we speak for his hand-held device to access it, Mr. Bayley, if that is in order.
Furthermore, if a young person cannot find a case study that is relevant to them, they can inform the Connexions contractor, who will take steps to find or commission an appropriate case study. That is precisely what Edge and the hon. Gentleman are interested in. There are close links between Connexions direct and organisations such as sector skills councils, which have databases of case studies that can be accessed. Connexions direct is an extremely successful service for young people in England, and it also offers an excellent helpline on 080 800 13219. There are more than 100,000 visits a week to the website, with an average 6,000 contacts to the helpline. The service has won several awards, and it offers information, advice and guidance at a time and in a way that is convenient and tailored to the needs of young people, particularly those who like to access their information by technology. Connexions direct is always considering new ways and initiatives to improve its service, and I am sure it will have listened carefully to what hon. Members have said, and will listen to what the all-party group report and Edge might tell it.
As for the consistency between schools and Connexions that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised at the beginning of his speech, 14-to-19 partnerships have responsibility to ensure proper co-ordination between careers education in schools and the information, advice and guidance provided by Connexions and local authorities. The quality standards set out that requirement, and I have already referred to the importance of those standards. Local 14-to-19 consortiums have to show that they meet the standards to progress through the diploma gateway. As the service the hon. Gentleman requires is already available, and will continue to be so under the clause as drafted, and given the indications I have made to the Committee, I invite him to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I appreciate the Minister’s remarks. This is a probing amendment, designed to highlight an important matter. The Minister might want to reflect further on the generality of this debate, given what the hon. Member for Blackpool, South and I have said and what Edge has observed. By the time that the Bill is enacted, assuming that that is so—we have no guarantee that the Bill will ever become law—it could easily be the case that anything other than the advice and guidance that is offered through the means that horsesmouth uses will be regarded as archaic. In that context, we need to be absolutely clear about how we use the available technology to best effect.
The revolution has only just begun, and although I am a deep Conservative and am resistant to all revolutions, I suspect that we have to deal with the inevitability of a changed world with regard to the use, exchange and distribution of information. Nevertheless, on the basis of what the Minister has said and the chance that we have had to explore those matters, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Hayes: I beg to move amendment No. 185, in clause 59, page 32, line 11, at end insert—
‘(c) the provision, in response to requests by young persons and relevant young adults with visual impairment, of text books and educational course materials, capable of enlargement and enhancement by electronic means.’.
This is the amendment that I tried to move earlier, but you advised me that I could not do so, Mr. Bayley.
The Chairman: It was a simple matter of looking at my selection list.
Mr. Hayes: Indeed. The amendment speaks for itself. We have not said much—indeed, we have perhaps said too little—about how the Bill will affect young people with various kinds of disability. Among the population of NEETs, as I lamented earlier, is a substantial number of young people with learning difficulties or other disabilities, and we need to concentrate particularly on their needs if we are to be successful in providing them with appropriate training that is likely to allow them to gain employment. The amendment deals with one group of young people: those with visual impairment. We ought, however, to find ways during the passage of the Bill to speak more broadly about disabled young people and people with learning difficulties.
The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is an important but very narrow amendment dealing with visual impairment. He rightly says that there might be opportunities elsewhere in the Bill to discuss other disabilities, but we should stick to visual impairment, because it is with that that the amendment is concerned.
Mr. Hayes: I take your point, Mr. Bayley. I did say, very much in that spirit, that we might find an opportunity to debate the wider issue at another time, but this debate is specifically about people with visual impairment. The amendment would implicitly add value to clause 59. It is important that we make adequate provision for young people who might otherwise be disfranchised simply because they cannot access the materials necessary to improve their circumstances. I find it almost inconceivable that, on that basis, the Minister will fail to accept the amendment.
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Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): This is an important if narrow amendment, which gives us the opportunity to right a wrong of which I was not previously aware, as may have been the case for other members of the Committee. It was drawn to my attention last year. Hon. Members may recall a lobby in Westminster Hall called “Right to Read”, in which parents of sight-impaired children came to Parliament lobby their MPs about their inability to access textbooks and learning material in schools.
At the moment, when a partially sighted pupil in a mainstream school goes to a lesson, the teacher must identify the relevant pages of the textbook that will be used and photocopy them. That takes up teaching time and delays the partially sighted pupil’s ability to start work. There are also obvious disadvantages with homework, as the situation deters those children from working independently. Initial inquiries that I made last year have led me to understand that there is not a copyright problem in having school textbooks available online, so that individual partially sighted pupils can enlarge and enhance the relevant text to their own needs.
It follows that the same problem will apply in college. I would therefore like to take the opportunity to make teaching materials available to partially sighted pupils in college, because it gives them independence and they will not have to rely on the additional service of teachers. If they could access all their teaching materials and textbooks independently online, it would be of enormous advantage to them, and it is relatively simple to make such material available.
Jim Knight: I am in complete agreement with the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for Upminster that young people with visual impairments should be able to derive the same benefit from information provision as their peers.
I applaud the hon. Member for Upminster for raising the “Right to Read” campaign and the importance of school textbooks being accessible to people with visual impairments. I will not be distracted for long in responding to her concerns, because I am aware of the narrowness of the amendment, Mr. Bayley, as you reminded the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. However, part IV of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires schools and local authorities to plan to improve access to the curriculum and written materials to disabled pupils over time. In addition, the new disability equality duty introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 into the 1995 Act requires all public bodies, including schools and local authorities, to promote disability equality more widely. As a result, new subsection 49A(1)(d), which deals with the general duty, includes
“the need to take steps to take account of disabled persons’ disabilities, even where that involves treating disabled persons more favourably than other persons”.
That is the duty under which we would want to see that problem addressed.
Angela Watkinson: May I just add that 2008 is the national year of reading, so it would be the ideal time to take this step?
Jim Knight: It certainly is the national year of reading. I had an excellent meeting with the consortium that is helping us to deliver it yesterday. I will look at whether there are opportunities to develop reading materials for the group which the hon. Member for Upminster discussed.
As hon. Members may be aware, my Department’s special educational needs strategy, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, sets out our vision for giving children with special educational needs and disabilities the opportunity to succeed. Furthermore, as I have said, there are various duties in the disability discrimination legislation that cover the needs of visually impaired young people, as is the case with other disability groups. The national service, Connexions direct, which is subject to the amendment, has taken great steps to ensure that its services are available to people with visual impairment. It is concerned with the provision of information, advice and support to young people, rather than with the provision of course materials, which was raised by the hon. Member for Upminster. To meet best practice and Government accessibility guidelines, the Connexions direct website has been developed to comply with the web accessibility initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. Connexions direct has worked extensively with the Royal National Institute of Blind People to ensure that, as far as possible, its materials are accessible to people with visual impairments. I have a list of about seven things they have done to meet that standard.
As a result of making those changes and design amendments, Connexions direct was successful in winning a visionary design award for the site’s outstanding efforts in ensuring the accessibility of content for visually impaired users. I am assured that it is committed to keeping that design on its website, to which the amendment refers. I trust that, in the light of that assurance, and the fact that this really is an example of best practice, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Hayes: I will do so but, first, I wish to endorse the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster that this is a critically important matter. I am delighted to hear that Connexions has won that award and that it takes seriously its work for visually impaired young people. The access to information for visually impaired people is variable—I am not speaking in particular about Connexions, but about access more generally—which explains our determination to highlight the matter by tabling an amendment. The Minister has responded positively to the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and myself, but we will not rest until we are sure that those good intentions are carried through and that visually impaired young people have the same opportunities that are enjoyed by all other young people. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment on the basis of the assurances we have received today.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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