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The Government may try to maintain that the recession has now passed over and that we are coming out of it, but it is very possible that the recession proper has not even begun yet. It was caused by policies that were partly the fault of the Government, such as not regulating the banks properly, and made worse by the fact that they failed, even during the times when the economy
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was growing, to spend what they were taking in taxation. It will be made considerably worse by the fact that with one last throw of the dice, one last gamble, they decided to borrow billions upon billions of pounds-something like £180 billion-to try to keep the party going before the general election. That is what will concern young people in the years ahead, and it is right that it should. Whoever wins the next general election, the news will be very bad.

Of course, the reality has been disguised from many people, partly because of the failings of the education system, which should have delivered the high-tech work force that we need to thrive in a globalised economy. We have heard great rhetoric today about what the Government have done for young people and graduates, but the reality is that one in four people still leave their primary school unable to read and write properly. One in four are not getting any GCSEs at grade C or above, and one in six 16 to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. It was a Labour Government who promised us a welfare state that would look after people from the cradle to the grave, but in education they have delivered a failure from the nursery to the bursary. [Interruption.] I am happy to give way to Ministers if they wish to intervene.

Kevin Brennan: Would the hon. Gentleman care to give us the figures for 1997, so that we can compare them with the figures that he is complaining about so powerfully?

David T.C. Davies: I shall come on to what I think the Minister alludes to. I do not have the figures to hand, but what he alludes to is important. He will attempt to suggest through statistics that more people are now getting higher levels of exam qualification, which is certainly true on paper. The fact of the matter is that virtually everyone who takes exams these days seems to pass them, which certainly did not happen in 1997.

Two possible reasons have been suggested for that. One is that the exams have become easier and the other is that pupils these days are much cleverer than pupils used to be 10 years ago. I have my views about that, but let us be generous to the Ministers, who are hopping up and down now. Let us assume that the reason why more people are getting higher grades in their GCSEs and A-levels is nothing to do with the fact that the Government have downgraded exams, even though there is plenty of evidence to suggest that that is exactly what has happened. I still say to them that it is wrong that virtually everyone who takes the exams passes them, whether at GCSE or A-level. It is impossible for the universities, and beyond that employers, to distinguish those who are good from those who are very good.

The point of an exam should not be to make people feel good about themselves. It should be partly so that people understand their strengths and weaknesses, so that employers can understand who is likely to fit into a particular role and so that universities can pick and choose the best people for the courses that they offer. The Minister should ensure, if he gets the opportunity over the next few months-I do not think he will after that-that exams are properly set so that we can understand who is good, who is very good and who is no good at all.

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Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is in danger of disappearing into the vortex of his own illogical representations. A minute ago he was complaining about the fact that not enough people were passing exams, and now he is saying that too many pass exams. Which is it?

David T.C. Davies: That is a very good question, but the reality is that at the moment people who are unlikely to pass are simply not put in for the exams. That is why one in four people do not get a grade C or above. Generally, all those who are put in for the exams come out with some sort of qualification. That is the clever use of statistics and targets that the Government are so very good at. The Minister cannot deny that one in four people are not getting a grade C or above, or that there has been a huge increase in the number of people gaining As and Bs. It is he who needs to be making explanations.

I happen to believe that the Government have failed to impose proper standards in schools. That view has been reflected by employers, who have complained that even graduates who have come to them do not understand basic English or maths. Some companies have actually had to teach people how to write letters. A member of the public walking into the House of Commons is greeted with a sign that says, "Visitors Entrance". Where is the apostrophe? It is not there. Who wrote these things? Perhaps it is because I am rapidly approaching 40 that that sort of thing irritates me. We cannot even get our grammar right in the mother of all Parliaments, so how do we expect people leaving schools to do so? What sort of example are we setting?

We need to go back to the basics in schools and get rid of all this politically correct stuff, with people sitting around their desks chatting to each other. What is wrong with people learning by rote, in rows, one behind the other? What happened to the three R's in schools-reading, writing and arithmetic? They have been replaced by the three C's-cultural studies, climate change and, for five-year-olds in primary school now, carnal knowledge. That is absolutely disgraceful.

We need to get rid of the sham degrees that allow people to spend three or four years doing such things as surfing studies or game theory. I once thought that that might refer to the respected branch of economics, but it is literally about understanding the differences between Playstations and Xboxes, as far as I can see. That course is actually being offered in one higher education institute in London, which is absolutely disgraceful. We are not going to pull ourselves out of recession and help young people by setting an artificial target of sending 50 per cent. of them to university if they are going to come out with those Mickey Mouse degree qualifications that will mean nothing to employers.

What about ensuring that people can be respected for gaining vocational skills? I have letters after my name: I am David Davies HGV class 1, a graduate of the Heads of the Valleys school of motoring, Gilwern 1992! That qualification enabled me to have four years of gainful and very well paid employment as a contract driver at Lucas Girling. That is nothing to be ashamed of; I am very glad I did it because I do not think I would have benefited at that age from a university education. I believe we should give all the support we can to those who would benefit from such an education, but we
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cannot put 50 per cent. of the population into university and think there will be no cost to the people concerned who will rack up bills, or to taxpayers who pay £10,000 a year to fund those courses.

If we are going to get Britain out of the recession, we need to start matching the skills that are needed by employers to the skills that are offered by universities and training courses. I do not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that hundreds of thousands of people are coming into this country from eastern Europe and beyond. My wife is from eastern Europe, so I am in no way prejudiced about that, but it irritates me that all the jobs for plumbers, carpenters, electricians and other skilled tradesmen are being taken by people who have come here from other countries because nobody in this country is qualified to do them. At the same time we have graduates in things such as surf study management who cannot get a job. Surely I am not alone in thinking that that is the policy of madness-many young people and employers can see that too. They are going to be coming out at the next general election to vote and campaign to ensure that the next generation of young people are educated under Conservative policies, so that we have a work force who are able to compete in a globalised economy, and who have the ability to drag us out of the recession that this Government did so much to get us in.

3.22 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I want to stay with the very narrow point of the relationship between skills training and the workplace. This issue concerns me greatly and I have spoken about it in the House on a number of occasions. I make no apology for the fact that I come from a business background. I have been a business manager for 40 years, and I can tell the House that business increasingly relies upon employees with high literacy and numeracy skills. Therein lies a serious problem. Fifty per cent. of employers or thereabouts are dissatisfied with the quality of the training and education of the school leavers whom they meet.

Literacy and numeracy training begins at primary school. It is worrying and frightening to learn that each year, about 120,000 children leave primary school unable to read and write properly. The Government are aware of the problem and are working on it, but it is already seriously inconveniencing the futures of many of our young children. We must crack that problem. Otherwise, talk of further skills training is almost meaningless: if kids cannot add up or read properly, the difficulties of training them later are considerably enhanced. That is my first point.

I will not say much about NEETs-people not in employment, education or training, about whom much has already been said-but I will make the point that Britain's future is to an immense extent tied up with having people who are skilful enough to work in the hi-tech, highly skilled businesses that will create for Britain what I hope will be a more interesting and wealthier future when the upturn comes. I must tell the Government, as businesses will tell them, that the upturn has not yet happened. Frankly, we do ourselves no favours by saying that the recession has ended.

Lorely Burt Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Binley: I normally would, but I do not have very much time.

We need a knowledge-based economy, to ensure that those hi-tech, highly skilled jobs that we could produce in manufacturing are produced, and that the opportunity is exploited. We have a real opportunity. Manufacturing jobs are coming back, because the level of skill and technical knowledge is increasing greatly in certain areas of the sector. We need to be able to exploit that, which means training people, which in turn means colleges of further education. However, to my mind , Governments of both hues have neglected and failed to enhance FE colleges properly in the past 20 years. The building programme that is under way is immensely welcome, and I recognise that in that respect, there is some hope for the future. However, this is about not only the buildings but what happens inside them, which is so important.

I spoke to a very fine principal of Northampton college of further education-which, I am delighted to say, is a recipient of the Government programme to enhance our FE infrastructure. His name is Len Closs. He is a highly skilled and experienced teacher, and leads and runs a very effective and important college in Northampton. I asked him what he thought we needed to take on board if we were to move forward, and he said:

In other words, he is telling us that the human relationship between pupil and teacher lies at the heart of good skills training, which indeed it does; it lies at the heart of education generally, but I am focusing particularly on skills training. We need to learn lessons from what heads of further education colleges tell us, and I hope that Ministers have heard those comments.

In conclusion, colleges are vital to inform us about how to solve the problem of skills training, and we need to listen to their recommendations; that is the first piece of advice that I would give the Government. Secondly, we need to develop good literacy and numeracy skills at the base of our educational structure, for without those we will not succeed.

Thirdly, vocational and skills training should be workplace-driven, and local businesses should motivate, direct and be involved with local vocational problems. All too often, vocational training is created by educationists-although that does not happen in Northampton, I am delighted to say. We need business to be involved in the process if we are to be successful. All too often, ill-designed packages are being created and delivered away from the workplace, and they are distant from the ethos and culture of the working environment.

I could go on, but time forbids; it is right and proper that I should give the Front-Bench spokesmen the time in which to sum up. But I want to encourage the Government to understand the importance of outreach, of bringing in businesses to help create the training programmes, and of training in the workplace.

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Most of all, we should ensure that we have skills trainers who are inspired to train and can make that vital connection, on a one-to-one basis, with those whom we are letting down at the moment-the NEETs. They are best handled by inspirational people in colleges of further education, to ensure that we put right the mistakes that we have made earlier, in primary education. It is a very tough job, but if we do not face up to it and make the advances that we need to make, we will not be in a position to exploit the high-tech opportunities that I believe Britain can exploit when the upturn comes. That means increasing our manufacturing base, which is so important to us.

3.31 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): W. B. Yeats said:

In Britain today, however, there are people whose fire has been extinguished: the young people who are out of education, untrained, left behind and with little prospect of a fulfilling job. I am talking about an army-one might say a "forgotten army"-of 1 million young people not in education, employment or training. They are a generation of broken lives and shattered dreams-but the tragedy is not only personal to them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who began the debate, pointed out, the situation is a tragedy for our nation as a whole, and a growing burden on the state. The Prince's Trust estimates that the cost of the growing forgotten army is about £3 billion a year. We know that if a young person's first experience of the labour market is of unemployment and failure, that can leave deep scars of disadvantage. As the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) pointed out, prospects can be damaged for a whole lifetime.

The problem is not caused simply by the recession. Youth unemployment rose in the last decade, even when unemployment overall was falling. As the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) said, the number of NEETs has remained stubbornly and unacceptably high throughout the lifetime of this Government. Instead of more young people being helped to enter skilled employment, most new jobs have gone to people born overseas. It is not ethically sustainable that, at a time when more and more British young people, of all kinds and from all origins, are finding themselves unable to get a job and access training, we should be importing so much foreign labour. The OECD says that seven in 10 jobs created since 1997 have been filled by foreign workers.

That might have led one to suspect that the Minister would speak at the beginning of the debate with a degree of contrition, and that he would be in the mood to apologise or concede. But no-we heard a mixture of windy rhetoric and partisan bombast. I have to say that I am disappointed in the Minister-and it all comes after years of spin and debt. We simply cannot go on like that, and he knows it. We must lay the foundations for a stronger, broader-based economy by providing real opportunities to young people.

Rob Marris: Given that such a high proportion of foreign workers come from other member states of the European Union, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we revisited the question of the free movement of labour within the EU?

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Mr. Hayes: That is a different subject for a different day. I do agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to boost apprenticeships; I know that he and the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough are advocates of the apprenticeship system. They will know that in 2007 a report on apprenticeships by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs concluded that many who would benefit from an apprenticeship were not doing so, mainly because of the severe shortage of places. Again, it is time that Ministers came clean.

We might have expected an admission of falling apprenticeship numbers. In the fourth quarter of last year, we saw a fall in the number of apprenticeship starts. We did not hear about that when the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property spoke. The figures are worse than has been suggested. The fact is that all of the increase in the number of apprenticeships over the past decade has been a result of converting other forms of training into apprenticeships. That is precisely what the Lords Economic Affairs Committee's report said in 2007.

Ministers like to count the number of apprentices in terms of apprenticeship starts, so when the Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs sums up, will he confirm that at the beginning of the decade there were 84,500 advanced apprenticeship starts at level 3, and that by the end of the decade that number had fallen to less than 80,000? The number of level 3 apprenticeship starts-that is the level at which all apprenticeships were once defined, and below which a position would not be regarded as an apprenticeship in other countries-

Kevin Brennan rose-

Mr. Hayes: The Minister can confirm that when he sums up, I hope, rather than interrupting my rather attractive rhetorical flow at this moment.

The Government failed because they failed to engage employers. It is time to change. A Conservative Government will make it much easier for companies to run apprenticeships. The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property invited us to give a description of our policies. We never resist that kind of invitation, so let me remind him what those policies are. We will tighten the apprenticeship frameworks so that they are relevant to each sector of the economy, we will cut the bureaucracy that surrounds apprenticeships, we will pay employers directly for the training they provide, we will boost the apprenticeship programme by almost £800 million in support from Train to Gain to help those most in need and, because we know that small and medium-sized enterprises need extra support, we will pay an apprenticeship bonus of £2,000 for each apprenticeship at an SME.

As the Minister should know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant pointed out at the beginning of the debate, we will also introduce an all-age careers service so that people get the right advice about the right opportunities to be trained and educated. We will also put in place special additional support for NEETs, through a NEETs fund. Those are tangible, costed real policies. I do not know whether the Minister had not heard about them before today, but I know that he will go home a happier man for having done so.

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