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4.30 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I am delighted to take part in this debate on this important subject. Like the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), I am a beneficiary of the social mobility available to those born in 1958. I am delighted to participate, even though it means missing my youngest son Edward’s fifth birthday party. With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall wish Edward a happy birthday on behalf of you and the whole House.

Education changes life chances, because the skills and knowledge that people acquire through learning give them the chance to prosper. More eloquently, one of my heroes, John Ruskin, said:

Even before the recession began to bite, we were failing to help too many people do their best and be the best that they could be.

We should go further than the right hon. Gentleman suggested. It is not enough to redistribute opportunity; we must redistribute advantage. The uncomfortable truth is that we have not done enough to expand access to the professions, partly because we have not done enough to extend access to higher education. Opportunity for some has not led to opportunity for all. The reason I described the expansion of the education sector as having cemented social division is that our failure to expand opportunities for those from under-represented groups, who do not typically tend to get to university, coupled with graduate recruitment into the professions, has meant that the less advantaged, cut adrift, see opportunity drifting away from them.

In 2005, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) pointed out, the Sutton Trust pointed out that people born in 1970 were less likely to have moved between social classes than those born in the mutual year of birth of the right hon. Member for Darlington and myself, 1958. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, the problem has been exacerbated rather than countered by public policy assumptions—over the lifetime of more than one Government.

In the space of 12 years, a child born into poverty has become less likely, not more, to escape the consequences
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of their birth. Behind that change has been a rise in educational inequality. Young people from the poorest income groups increased their graduation rate by just 3 percentage points between 1981 and the late 1990s, compared with a rise of some 26 per cent. for those from the richest 20 per cent. of families. The clear conclusion reached by the authors of the Sutton Trust’s report was that

It is still more dispiriting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) noted, that a raft of Government measures and a deluge of spin seem not to have made much difference, as a recent Cabinet Office report was forced to conclude. As has already been quoted, it stated:

The latest statistics, released just last week, showed that the number of undergraduates from lower social and economic groups was actually falling. If we failed to expand opportunities when the economy was booming, how can we possibly do so when 100,000 people every month are losing their jobs?

I am not an adherent of laissez-faire. Indeed, as many hon. Members know, I am not a liberal of any kind. I believe that Governments can and do make a positive difference, and, like the right hon. Member for Darlington, I believe that they have a responsibility to do just that.

Governments can influence people’s lives; they can change people’s lives for the better by laying the foundations for a stronger, broader-based economy and social order, in which people can move more straightforwardly. To do that, we must give people the opportunity to study, to acquire skills and improve their chances to change their lives. Critically, we must give them the wherewithal to do that; wherewithal, not lack of ambition, is the problem. Although the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property and I agree about much, I think that we probably disagree about that, in nuance if not in substance. I am being as generous as I can, but I shall doubtless hear more about that when he sums up. The critical point about wherewithal is providing the right sort of quality advice and guidance, a subject to which I shall revert shortly and about which my hon. Friend the Member for Havant spoke so eloquently.

However, we must also rethink our perception of study. Instead of forcing people to fit the education system, we must make the education and training system fit people’s lives. We will not broaden access to higher education as long as we think that the full-time, three-year university degree is the only or the best way in which to study. Woody Allen—you did not expect to hear from him today, Madam Deputy Speaker—once said that

However, people need to know where to show up. Wherewithal, not aspiration, is lacking. There are high ambitions, but low expectations. People aspire to much because they know that more skilling, training and education is likely to help them prosper, but they do not expect to achieve that because they know too that most of their fellows do not.

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It is important to provide people with the information they need to decide when, where and how to fulfil their ambitions. We should deliver higher education at a place, time and pace that meets people’s needs. We should recognise that increasing participation does not apply only to 18 to 30-year-olds but to the whole of our society.

Recent Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills research on social mobility—I am not sure whether it is rather vulgar now to mention DIUS, but I will anyway—suggests that there is

Yet the number of first-time mature entrants to HE from all social classes is falling. Lifelong learning provision in higher education is being decimated by the Government’s misguided decision to cut funding for equivalent level qualifications.

Last month, a report warned that adult education in HE is

with the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Durham, Exeter, Leeds, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton and Surrey all scaling back or shutting their lifelong learning departments. As hon. Members know—I say “Members”, and as I look around, I see the press release emanating from my office: “Hayes galvanises packed House!”—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has pointed out repeatedly that approximately 1.3 million adult learning places have been lost. Yet people often find their way back to learning through non-accredited study, for example, women returners, people without a previous successful history of learning, mature learners and disadvantaged learners, such as people with special needs and disabled learners, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned at the beginning of the debate.

Lifelong learning provision, the loss of which I lament, is critical because it directly affects people such as those not in education, employment or training. We discussed NEETs at the beginning of the debate, but they got scant mention subsequently. However, there is a lot to discuss, so I understand that. All the evidence suggests that young people not in education, employment or training are more likely to find their way back into all of them by taking small steps on the road to learning. Yet the lack of availability of adult community learning means that they cannot take that first step back into education.

To broaden access we need to challenge prejudices about higher education. The rhythms and structures of campus culture are often simply unsuitable for the needs of the under-represented. The ingrained pattern of low participation in some neighbourhoods and among certain social groups requires solutions sympathetic to the lives of different types of learners. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) mentioned child care in that context, and I agree with her. Full-time study is difficult for those who work or have families. The financial burden of living away from home is heavy for those from low-income groups.

We must recognise that different lifestyles necessitate different learning experiences, with more emphasis on part-time courses, community-based learning and modular
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and distance learning. Through changed modes of learning, we can change the life chances of thousands of potential students. We can and must build bridges between aspiration and HE admissions, achievement and social mobility. As community institutions, further education colleges have a vital role to play in building those bridges, but at present, there are too many barriers to education of all types and at all levels.

Twelve years ago, the late Lord Dearing concluded in his review that much greater flexibility in HE provision was vital to widening participation. His review found that

Yet the system has not become flexible in the way Dearing envisioned. If an American leaves university before finishing a full degree, they will describe themselves as having studied one, two or three years at college, implying that they will return to complete their studies later. If someone leaves university or college early in the UK, they are branded a drop-out. There could not be a greater difference between taking a break and dropping out. However, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirms that most working-class students who leave college or university early gain skills, confidence and life experience from their time there and, most interestingly of all, that the majority re-enter higher education later.

Dearing’s vision of a transferable credit-based framework has yet to be properly realised, however. He recommended that

FE colleges are uniquely placed to serve those whose lives do not fit traditional forms of university learning, because those colleges are characterised by localness, accessibility and flexibility. Their proximity to non-traditional students’ homes, workplaces and previous learning experiences enables them to have an easy reach to the under-represented. However, enrolments for HE and FE have declined and are below their 2001-02 level.

Colleges are often prevented from responding to the communities that they serve because of the byzantine bureaucracy that they face—recognised some years ago, in a report commissioned by the Government and written by Andrew Foster. He said that the

was diverting staff, managers and teachers from their proper purpose. Rather than reducing the bureaucracy in further education, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which has wended its way through this House and is currently being debated in the other place, adds to it. The Bill, which has been described as “obscure”, “opaque” and “obtuse”, creates three new bodies with a role in further education. For all its faults, the Learning and Skills Council was a bit like the red army: expensive and big, but at least it was predictable. The new bodies are more Byzantium.

Another recent report by DIUS found that

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As a nation, we surely cannot afford to fall behind in e-learning or other forms of distance learning. I commend the work of the Open university, which has led the way in that area, and where I was speaking just this morning.

Opportunity is not enough, however. I repeat that the wherewithal is critical as well. Too often, young people in particular do not get the advice and guidance that they need to turn their ambitions into reality. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families made that clear in a brief intervention, and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and the right hon. Member for Darlington also highlighted the point.

By abolishing the careers service for young people and replacing it with Connexions, which provides support also on issues ranging from housing to drugs and sexual health, the Government have undermined the professionalism of careers advisers. In two thirds of schools in England, careers advice is given by staff without any formal qualifications in the subject. Two years ago, a House of Lords report concluded that young people were not being given the information that they needed to access apprenticeships. A recent study found that 31 per cent. of young people felt that they were not getting enough information about going to university. We heard today from the right hon. Member for Darlington that 70 per cent. of young people in a particular survey said that they had had no careers advice at all. I can add to that: 94 per cent. said that they needed better subject and careers information and support.

This is why we are so fervently in favour of a dedicated, impartial, all-age careers and guidance service. Such a service should have a presence in every school and college, as well as on the high street. Everyone should have access to universally recognised, community-based, impartial advice and guidance about education and career options. This applies not only to young people. As an advanced economy, we have a continuing need to re-skill and up-skill in this recession, and advice for mature learners is also vital.

Education is the key to unlocking individual potential, increasing employability, and building fuller lives for individuals, which in turn helps us to construct a society that works. Each of us must play our part, and feel proud because we are valued in a society that is socially mobile, cohesive and just. As a country, we led the world into the industrial revolution. We also led the world in the growth of the service sector. I believe that we can now lead the world into a new economy, a 21st century economy in which the professions will become ever more important and ever more representative, because people can find their way in those professions, no matter where they started from.

It has been said by speakers across the Chamber today that our economy will need people with high-level skills and the aptitude and ability to adapt quickly to different roles and new challenges. We need an education system that is flexible enough to respond to these new demands. Instead of becoming ever more prescriptive, instructing and dictating, we must look and learn from the best, trust those with a good track record and evangelise to the rest. Instead of telling potential students that they must study in a particular way at a particular
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place and at a particular time, we should be opening up provision and valuing different forms of lifelong learning. Instead of strangling further education with ever more red tape, we should dismantle the bureaucracy and trust colleges to manage their own affairs. And we should trust learners to make their own decisions, supported by the kind of dedicated professional advice and guidance that I have recommended.

All with stout hearts and sharp minds should have their chance of glittering prizes, should they not? Learning drives social mobility, and the inequalities implicit in a free society can be ethically legitimised only in a social order that allows people to prosper, no matter where they began.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) said that this was an important debate on a vital subject. Like him, I am pleased, proud and privileged to take part in such a debate. Surely we want to create a society for which each plays their part, and of which all can feel proud, a nation in which disadvantage is fought and advantage is spread—a Britain that stands tall when it is socially cohesive because it is socially mobile and socially just because it is both of them. To instil Britons with confidence, politicians must be confident enough to be bold. We need nothing less; and nothing less than that is right.

4.50 pm

The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): This has been a tough few weeks for the House of Commons, but I think it right to say that this debate has seen the House at its very best. There are, of course, some political differences about the “how” aspects of much of what has been said, but the passion and eloquence with which Members made their case and shared their desire for social mobility and greater access to the professions has been palpable. I am deeply honoured as a member of the Government to have witnessed this occasion.

It is right to say that many hon. Members have a professional background. Much is often said about barristers and lawyers more generally. Since Labour came to power in 1997, however, the barristers have been outnumbered by the large number of teachers and lecturers on the Labour Benches. It is also right to say that our numbers include doctors, architects and former senior members of the armed services. Although the Chamber has not been packed this afternoon, I know that many hon. Members will either have been watching the debate in their offices or will read Hansard tomorrow and will agree with much of what has been said.

It is my deep pleasure to pay tribute my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), who is my very good friend. Back in 2002, it was a great honour when I received a call from the No. 10 switchboard and the operator asked me whether I would hold for the Prime Minister. I held—I have never met anyone who has said that they would not hold for the Prime Minister—and Tony Blair asked me to join the Government. I was very pleased to be made a junior Minister in the Department of Health, which was then led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Darlington.

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