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I have two final points. First, I do not think that anyone in the House would disagree with the view that scrapping the current careers organisation and starting
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afresh is desperately needed. We have some really good people working in Connexions; we have some good people working on careers in local authorities; and many in the private sector have good skills for dealing with careers. Putting them all together into a new service will not be easy, but it needs to be done and done effectively.

During my exchange with the Secretary of State, I was quite surprised by his response to my question about careers advice relating to apprenticeships. Unless we can get high-quality vocational guidance into schools so that young people of all abilities can get access to opportunities for apprenticeships, quite frankly, apprenticeships will be seen as something to do if people are not very bright or no good at traditional learning. That is entirely the wrong approach to take; everybody must be offered this.

The explanatory notes to clause 35 make it clear that

What that says, and what the Bill says, is that, again, the teachers or somebody in the service will decide who gets advice on apprenticeships. That is fundamentally wrong. Every single student must be exposed to the same careers guidance. Of course it can be tailored to individual needs, but organisations simply saying—I think some schools will say this—that apprenticeships are not for them, that they do not want their students doing them and that they want students to stay on in the sixth form must be knocked on the head.

My final point, Madam Deputy Speaker, is about progression into higher education. I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise; I get excited. My Committee was absolutely clear about the fact that, to have the status to attract the brightest youngsters, advanced apprenticeships at level 3 must be seen as a progression route into higher education. We recommended that UCAS points be allocated for advanced apprenticeships and I see no reason why that should not be the case. The Minister disagreed with the Committee, but I hope that that aspect can be revisited during consideration of the Bill so that, before it leaves the House, we have a clear statement of intent that UCAS must be involved to accredit apprenticeships for points for higher education.

8.12 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): This is a diverse Bill and the debate has therefore been interesting because hon. Members have brought their own perspectives to it and made many interesting contributions. The Bill is self-evidently full of sensible and pragmatic proposals, and it is hard to see how anyone could object to it, although Members in all parts of the House accept that there will be some interesting amendments to debate in Committee.

I simply want to support the proposals, particularly on restructuring the Learning and Skills Council. In retrospect, it was perhaps not the right thing to do to form the LSC in the first place, although we must remember the legacy of a series of major bureaucracies with responsibility for skills training that were developed
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in the 1980s, all of which ultimately failed to deliver. The LSC was perhaps the last attempt to establish a mega-bureaucracy and the lesson is that it, too, did not work as intended.

I welcome the creation of Ofqual, the separation of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the statutory basis given to apprenticeships and to the Sure Start programme, which is one of the Government’s great success stories. In particular, I welcome the recognition of the unique status of sixth-form colleges. It is important to remember that about 380,000 of the young people in education are in school sixth forms, but 146,000 are in sixth-form colleges—not quite 50 per cent., but a substantial number. It is my view—I do not apologise for repeating it yet again—that if we had more sixth-form colleges in more towns up and down the country, the overall quality of education would improve and there would be far more opportunities for our young people.

Post-16, we have the three-part system of sixth-form colleges, school sixth forms and tertiary or general further education colleges, so the issue of funding must be addressed by the Bill. All Members of the House will know that for many years there has been a significant discrepancy between the college and schools sectors. The schools sector has traditionally had a 13 or 14 per cent. advantage in funding per student over the college sector. To the Government’s credit, that has been progressively reduced in recent years, but the gap is still unacceptable. The logic of the Bill and of moving responsibility for funding to local authorities, with the support of the Young People’s Learning Agency, is that, eventually, we will get convergence of funding for all post-16 students, wherever they study.

I want to mention also the question of the advice service. I welcome the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) about the importance of strengthening adult guidance. In this time of enormous economic dislocation, the number of adults seeking advice about their future and about opportunities to train or retrain, or to become involved in further education, will increase. This country has never had an adequate adult guidance service, and this is an opportunity to establish one.

I want to reiterate in particular the point about clause 35, that a number of hon. Members have made. The clause deals with the responsibility of schools in respect of information about apprenticeships. Although we are not yet considering the Bill in Committee, I want to draw the attention of the House to exactly what clause 35 refers to. The Government’s defence is that it puts a responsibility on schools to provide information about apprenticeships. Well, it does not do that. It requires schools to consider whether it would be in the pupil’s best interests to receive advice about apprenticeships. That is a fundamental distinction, because there will be a lesser responsibility on the schools.

That aspect draws attention to what remains a weakness in our structure, whereby it is clearly in the interest of schools to maximise the number of young people staying on beyond the age of 16. There is a tension here that is still unresolved. Unless we get a stronger legal obligation for the provision of advice and information about apprenticeships—preferably, responsibility for that should not lie within the individual school—young people will still not get fully objective advice on all the options available for their future.

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Mr. Willetts: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that he is making an excellent case for a proper independent careers service that can go into schools and provide such information?

Mr. Chaytor: Yes, I am, but to a large extent that is what we already have. On my visit to my local Connexions service just two weeks ago, I was hugely impressed by the work it is doing, although there are still questions to be asked and I am sure that there is still variability of performance in different parts of the country. I do not accept the argument that the return of Connexions to the local authorities will automatically mean reverting to the situation that applied 20 years ago, whereby the careers service was less than adequate, but questions remain as to exactly what are the roles and responsibilities of the Connexions service and of the individual schools. I am sure that that debate can be worked through in Committee. The key principle has to be that every young person must be entitled to objective, independent advice when they make choices about their future.

I welcome the new provision to request time off for training for adults in the workplace, which I hope will be one step forward to what in future years turns out to be a guaranteed right to time off for training. I draw the attention of my ministerial colleagues to increasing concern, which was flagged up in the business pages of some newspapers yesterday, about the rebirth of some rather dubious private training companies. Yesterday’s press carried examples of companies offering to vulnerable people qualifications that turned out to be worthless, and of companies masquerading and offering courses that did not take place or were not what they seemed to be.

Can the Government offer some response to that, given that we have seen huge growth in private training companies and that that growth is likely to continue? How do the Government intend to regulate to guarantee quality? How will they ensure that the growing number of young people and adults who take advantage of private training opportunities are not—

John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is dealing with an important issue. Is he aware that in respect of autism, about the causes of which relatively little is known, there has been a great opportunity for possibly unscrupulous companies to come onstream, putting forward a variety of quack therapies for which there is no evidence base but which can offer—wholly inappropriately—a lifeline of hope to very anxious parents who will dole out large sums of money that many can ill afford to spend in pursuit of courses that, in the end, prove to be hopeless?

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. I was not aware of that, but it underlines the need for appropriate regulation of the private training sector. We all remember the fiasco of individual learning accounts some years ago, when it was easy for companies to come in and abuse the system. I am a little concerned about the possibility that the impact of the economic slowdown and the increase in the number of new training opportunities for those who have lost their jobs will once again give rise to a less than satisfactory private training sector.

I want to make a couple of points about issues that are not in the Bill, but perhaps ought to be. The first is the issue of school admissions. The last two education
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Bills have contained useful and important provisions that have moved the policy forward and helped to strengthen the Government’s approach to fair admissions, but perhaps more needs to be done. My clear recollection is that following the recent consultation on the new admissions code, the Government responded that they accepted that the definition of fair banding needed to be revisited so that it was based not on the total number of children who applied to a school, but on the total number and distribution of children within a given area. That is an important distinction. Improving the definition of fair banding would, without question, move us even further along the route of a fair admissions policy. The Government also said that they would seek to make the change at the next legislative opportunity. As far as I can see, this is the next legislative opportunity, and I therefore give notice that I may wish to table an amendment to that effect in Committee.

The Bill does not deal with primary schools as such. One of the big stories in the last few days has been the impact of the Cambridge primary review, and we all await with interest the outcome of the Rose review of primary education. It seems to me that at some point the Government will have to legislate for changes in our primary curriculum, and perhaps our system of assessment. In his opening speech the Secretary of State did not state, but indicated, that this would not be the final education Bill in the current Parliament. It would be very helpful if the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills would give an absolute assurance in his winding-up speech that there will be another Bill, preferably featuring a big bang and not just a whimper.

I found the criticisms of the Bill made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—the shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families—rather curious. He did not say directly that he was against the Bill: there was nothing specific in it that he opposed. He spent half his time talking about standards. Of course standards are extremely important, but I suspect that the level of concern about them and the vociferousness with which Members express that concern are related to a wider concern with destabilising the Government, and that in reality the issue of standards is more complex.

The shadow Secretary of State quoted a number of academics, but did not quote any of our examining boards, although they are clearly best equipped to make judgments about standards over time. As I have said, however, the issue is complex. We are not comparing like with like. The shadow Secretary of State did not take on board the impact of new content and new structures on examinations—the impact of modular structures, for instance—and the fact that some examinations are now designed to cover a far wider age range. An example of that is the transition from the old O-level to the GCSE. All those factors are relevant to any debate about standards.

I agree that the issue of standards is crucial, and I think it important for either Ofqual or a contractor to it to have a statutory responsibility to monitor that over time. However, we must draw a distinction between genuine concern and a rigorous analysis over time, and the use of the issue as a bit of cheap populism with which to bash the Government of the day. If Opposition parties use that opportunity time and time again, August after August, all that they will do is undermine the
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achievements of hundreds of thousands of young people who have worked their socks off throughout their school careers and are achieving better results than any previous generation.

The shadow Secretary of State argued that, in almost all aspects covered by the Bill and in education policy more generally, we should deregulate, leaving things more and more to the market. He gave the example of Sweden, but I am not convinced that buying a 99p ticket to fly with Ryanair to an airport 40 miles out of Stockholm and looking at a couple of schools is necessarily the best way in which to form an education policy in this country. I also found it curious that the hon. Gentleman cited Finland as one of the highest-achieving countries, but did not pursue the logic of his argument by putting the case for the structures and approach to the curriculum that it has adopted.

Given the events of the last 12 months or more, including the total collapse of the international banking system and the financial services sector as a result of a completely deregulated approach, it strikes me that this is not the best time to argue for more deregulation. There is not a direct analogy between what happens in financial services and what happens in education, skills training, health or any other area of public policy, but the principle remains: we must get away from our obsession with total deregulation, or even light-touch regulation, and concentrate on appropriate regulation.

In my view, the way forward for our education policy is appropriate regulation and the right balance between coherence, strategic planning and managerial autonomy for individual institutions. I believe that the Bill, with its diverse package of measures, moves us one important step further down that road.

8.27 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. Nearly all the speeches so far have been thoughtful and constructive. However, I feel that most Members have been rather too kind to the Bill. It is a portmanteau Bill bringing together a number of issues, which causes problems in terms of parliamentary scrutiny. To me, it represents an extended exercise in wish fulfilment dressed up as legislation. It is the product of people who, perhaps, like to confuse and mislead others, but in this instance they may have confused only themselves. The Bill’s title gives a clue to the confusion of its contents.

Throughout the years of the present Government, the Secretary of State has been the Prime Minister’s chief confidant and lieutenant, part of a machine that sought policy headlines but did not consider sufficiently how to make the outcomes a reality. Cynicism by design, the distortion of statistics, the politicisation of the civil service and the neutering of dissent and debate have performed a short-term service, but have undermined the Government’s ability to deliver any real reform. That is why in this twelfth year of this Government, the Secretary of State will not meet the promise to halve child poverty by 2010, and why, with one in five children leaving primary school without basic literacy and numeracy skills, one in 10 ends up on the NEETs scrapheap just a few years later.

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Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Stuart: It is why the school curriculum has been dumbed down, why our society has grown more unequal, and why we are having to deal with what I consider to be an apology of a Bill today.

Michael Jabez Foster rose—

Mr. Stuart: For this legislation is a mishmash of poorly considered, unco-ordinated initiatives—more dog’s dinner than food for thought. Redeeming features are few.

Michael Jabez Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stuart: I will give way in a few minutes.

The Bill makes promises that cannot be kept, claims to simplify where it complicates, and will be subject, as usual, to fairly limited parliamentary scrutiny.

If the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) had been present throughout the debate instead of having just arrived, he would know that the Secretary of State has already today told the House that he plans amendments for the Committee stage of this Bill; the Second Reading had barely begun, and the Bill was starting to crumble.

I do not have time to itemise all the Bill’s shortcomings, but if selected to serve, I would hope to contribute to any possible improvements in Committee.

Michael Jabez Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stuart: The hon. Gentleman has only recently entered the Chamber, so I do not think it would be appropriate to let him intervene.

The Bill provides a statutory guarantee of an apprenticeship place for young people, but it is a guarantee that carries no definition of what an apprenticeship is, has no mechanism for its delivery, and provides no measures to ensure quality. Instead of legislating, the Secretary of State should be taking the practical measures that will make more apprenticeships available. It is welcome that contractors for Building Schools for the Future will be required to take on apprenticeships in this coming year; it is only a shame that the Secretary of State decided to announce that in the Sunday Mirror, rather than on the Floor of the House today.

It is practical measures that will provide the places, which are most desperately needed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) set out, the number of people who have had access to apprenticeships has been grossly short of the promises made by the Government, and specifically by the Prime Minister. In fact, there has been a fall in numbers in the past few years.

The Government have not simply made false promises; they have also used sleight of hand. Government websites announce that apprenticeships have undergone a renaissance in the last decade, yet they have not. All apprenticeships used to be level 3 or A-level equivalent, but the Government have added other, lower-level youth training to boost the apparent numbers. In fact, there are now fewer level 3 apprenticeships—now called advanced apprenticeships—than 10 years ago.

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