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What progress are we making on reducing the proportion of those not in education, employment or training beyond the age of 16? Our latest indicators show recent progress: the Labour Force Survey covering January to March this year showed a 0.9 per cent reduction in 16-18 year-old NEETs and, specifically, a 1.9 per cent reduction at the age of 16, and latest Connexions data from local authorities show a 1 per cent reduction in 16-18 year-olds not in education, employment or training over the past year. However, we have got much further to go. Prior attainment is one of the strongest indicators of whether a young person will stay on beyond 16, so it is vital that we continue our focus on raising standards in our schools. More young people than ever are now achieving the level 2 standard of five or more grades A* to C at GCSE or equivalent at age 16, and 2006 saw the highest numbers ever continuing in full-time education when they completed Year 11.

However, we need far more young people to achieve at GCSE and to stay on beyond that. This is why the Government are today publishing the National Challenge strategy,which sets out the next phase of our programme to improve underperforming secondary schools. National Challenge is targeted on the 638 secondary schools nationwide where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils gain five good GCSE passes, including English and mathematics, and it is supported by £400 million of targeted investment. Where schools are stuck below the 30 per cent threshold, and self-improvement is not

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sufficient to raise them above it by 2011, more radical solutions will be implemented. They will include a large number of additional academies by 2011, so that we close more low-attaining schools and replace them with independently managed academies resolutely focused on raising standards and extending opportunity.

We are therefore fully alive to what needs to be done to improve standards at school level. I could talk equally about the changes that we are bringing about in the teaching profession and what we are doing to see that every child masters the 3Rs in primary school. However, over and above school improvements, we also need a more relevant work-related curriculum for teenagers who would benefit from it; we need new and better vocational courses and qualifications to lead on to more and better apprenticeships; and we need better advice and guidance for young people as they make decisions about the choices available beyond the age of 14. Together with higher school standards, it is on this basis that it is right and credible to raise the education and training participation age. Let me, then, take these three elements in turn—work-related diplomas, apprenticeships, and advice and guidance.

First, on work-related diplomas: for students beyond the age of 14, we are developing new diploma qualifications, which combine the best of theoretical and practical learning with educational rigour and extensive work-related experience. The diplomas will appeal to young people with all kinds of ambitions, giving them the opportunity to select from different units and options. The first diploma students will begin studying this September. The new diploma has three elements: generic learning, including English and mathematics, which is common across all diplomas; principal learning in a broad subject or sector; and additional or specialist learning that can be selected according to the interests and aspirations of individual students.

The diploma will be available at three different levels: at foundation level, it will be equivalent to five GCSEs at grades D to G; at higher level, equivalent to seven GCSEs at grades A* to C; and at advanced level, equivalent to three and a half A-levels. It will be available in 17 disciplines, including engineering, construction, information technology, health and other service sectors. All diplomas will require a student to achieve a minimum standard in English, Maths and ICT, to complete a project and to do a minimum of 10 days’ work experience. Diploma students will, therefore, acquire the skills and knowledge essential for a particular sector of employment, while they are also given the broader skills and aptitudes that employers require, including teamwork, independent learning and problem solving.

Secondly, on apprenticeships, we are transforming the quantity and quality. Apprenticeship starts increased from 65,000 in 1997 to 180,000 last year. Completion rates are rising just as radically, from 24 per cent in 2001 to 63 per cent last year. We are building on this progress, so that by 2013—when this legislation first takes effect—a further 90,000 apprenticeships will be available, alongside an entitlement to an apprenticeship for every suitably qualified young person who wants one. These are employer-led places and every apprentice

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will be employed under either a contract of employment or apprenticeship. Clause 67 is an important step in extending apprenticeships. It makes it explicit that the LSC is under a duty to provide apprenticeships on an equal footing with other education and training options beyond the age of 16.

However, I know that as well as wanting to be assured that enough apprenticeship places are available, noble Lords will be concerned whether the apprenticeships on offer are of high quality. We will strengthen the quality of apprenticeships by improving the apprenticeship blueprint against which all apprenticeships will be quality assured; by integrating apprenticeship component qualifications into the qualifications and credits framework; and by introducing new national completion certificates that will incentivise more apprentices to complete their training, give them the recognition they deserve, and provide future employers with clear statements of an apprentice’s achievements.

The role of sector skills councils in articulating employer demand will be central to extending apprenticeships. The new national apprenticeships service will work in partnership with the sector skills councils. We have also agreed a set of new functions for those councils, including: to promote the take-up and spread of apprenticeships, to brand national completion certificates, and to maintain a bank of qualifications from which apprenticeship frameworks will be formulated.

Some young people will want to work for employers without the capacity to provide apprenticeships of sufficient quality, and we certainly do not wish to stand in their way. Employment can give young people invaluable skills and experience from the age of 16. However, we believe that all young people should have access to high quality, accredited training for at least one day a week alongside their employment to make sure that they can continue to develop their skills and careers. That is provided for in the Bill.

Thirdly, I come to advice and guidance. It is essential that all young people receive the support they need to make the right choices about their education and training beyond the age of 14. At the moment, information, advice and guidance are provided by the Connexions service, which is the responsibility of the Secretary of State. The Bill will transfer the legal responsibility for delivering the Connexions service to local authorities. Through their children’s trusts arrangements, local authorities will be able to integrate the Connexions service into their wider youth support services. Local authorities are uniquely placed to tailor the service to meet the needs of young people in an area by working with schools, colleges and other local learning providers.

That will be vital to support some of the most vulnerable young people, who have complex needs which may act as barriers to participation. For some, that will involve targeted youth support, which will provide a dedicated lead professional to help to organise support across a range of services including education, social services and Connexions, drawing in what they need from the most appropriate services. That transfer will also support high-quality delivery by requiring local authorities to have regard to the information,

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advice and guidance quality standards, which were launched in July 2007 and have been widely welcomed by the sector.

Let me also say a word about a key incentive to encourage young people to stay in education beyond the age of 16: education maintenance allowances. For some young people, financial considerations can be the major barrier to learning. Through the new education maintenance allowance, the Government have already made significant progress in encouraging young people to participate after the age of 16, and we are committed to maintaining that progress. EMAs will continue as the participation age rises, although we will look at the structure of financial support to ensure that it is as effective as possible. More than 540,000 16 to 19 year- olds are now in receipt of EMAs at a cost of about £500 million per year. That is a wholly new investment and policy development under this Government.

This brings me, finally, to the issue of compulsion. Those who oppose the raising of the participation age argue that improving education and training is alone sufficient to improve participation. They argue that putting a legal duty on young people is heavy-handed; that it will lead to the criminalising of young people who face challenging circumstances often beyond their control; and that it will only increase the disengagement of young people.

The noble Baroness sitting opposite me may, in the nicest possible way, be about to make those arguments, so let me get my retaliation in first. Let me first say a word about enforcement. I cannot overemphasise that enforcement is a last resort. Making a success of this policy requires that we motivate more young people to continue beyond the age of 16 because they positively want to do so, taking advantage of all the new opportunities, including diplomas and apprenticeships, which I described earlier.

However, we cannot will the end without willing all the means required to achieve it. The experience of some other countries suggests that where a requirement to participate has been introduced without a means of enforcing it, it has had little effect, whereas those countries which have introduced a means of ultimately enforcing the requirement have seen a significant increase in participation—the most recent example being Western Australia. If participation in education and training really matters, it should be enforced, just as school attendance is currently enforced. I assume that those who do not wish to enforce this higher education and training participation age are not in favour of making school education voluntary simply because of the existence of truancy.

We also need to look at who loses from non-enforcement. Without compulsion, a hard core of young people who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and who have so much to gain from continuing their education and training, will be less likely to participate voluntarily, and may be left behind in a continuing underclass. However, with compulsion, we believe that participation will soon be seen as the normal and expected option for all young people—just as was the case when the Victorians made primary education compulsory for all and when the school leaving age was raised to 16 a generation ago. This is

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why the Bill necessarily sets out in detail the process that would be followed in cases of non-compliance. In doing so, it imposes duties not only on young people but on parents, schools, colleges, employers and local authorities, and all have their part to play in this fundamental social reform.

In conclusion, let me set this reform in a broader historical context. Precisely a century ago, in 1908, no less a figure than Winston Churchill—then in his Liberal phase—proposed a reform similar to the one we are bringing to the House today. His intention, he said in an impassioned letter to Prime Minister Asquith, was to,

A key element of that, he argued, was to make education compulsory until the age of 17. This did not come to pass, not least because of the rapid approach of war with Germany. However, there continued to be strong political and industrial support for the change, and as the First World War drew to an end, HAL Fisher, president of the Board of Education in Lloyd George’s Liberal-Conservative coalition, included in the Education Act 1918 a requirement that every young person should be in at least part-time education or training until the age of 18. Fisher argued that:

Alas, because of post-war economic uncertainty and cuts in government funding, the Fisher Act was never fully implemented. But Fisher’s words ring as true today as they did in 1918. This Bill is no restriction of wholesome liberty, but an essential condition of a larger and more enlightened freedom for our people. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Adonis.)

3.52 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his customarily clear introduction and thorough explanation of what the Bill sets out to do and for his interesting history lesson. I think that everyone in your Lordships’ House will join me in admiring the Bill’s laudable aim to raise the aspirations of our young people and equip them with the necessary education and skills for a fulfilling future. Those of us who believe that education is a good in itself share the Government’s hopes that the Bill will go some way towards improving the approach that we in this country take to learning and acquiring skills. If that ideal is spread as widely as possible, so much the better. We can all agree that the improvement of basic skills and the acquisition of new ones are to be welcomed.

However, in case the Minister thinks that I am getting carried away in my support for the Bill, I will add that, just because we can all sign up to the same goals, that does not necessarily mean that we think that the Government have found the right means of

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achieving them. However charmingly the Minister may try to pre-empt my arguments, I am still going to make them.

There are serious flaws in the Bill and I know that I will not be alone, both inside the House and outside, in raising them. Not least of these is the way in which the Government legislate, although sadly that problem is not confined to this Bill. Large parts have been added without proper debate or scrutiny, making our job here all the more important, and the consultation process is open to question, although I shall come back to that. The Bill, like so many before it and like the education Bill that we will see in the next Session and on which, bizarrely, this Bill depends for its full implementation, will once again bring in more structural changes to a sector that is heartily tired of tinkering and tampering.

Part 1 of the Bill deals with raising the participation age in education and training. Part 2 lays out the support that will be provided to enable this to happen. The Bill creates a duty on all young people to participate in education or training up to the age, ultimately, of 18 and places further duties on parents, local authorities and employers to facilitate this. I am sure that I will not be the only person to lift my hands in despair at how the Government are going about achieving this worthy ambition. A breach of this duty will result in sanctions. The Minister assures us that this is the last resort, that it will affect only a tiny number of people and that the sanctions are there simply to send out a message, but we have serious concerns.

The young people at whom these measures are aimed are already disaffected with the education system. I realise that we are now talking about the cohort of year 6, but the children are similar. In many cases, they have in effect dropped out before they turn 16. Truancy rates are at their highest for 10 years, so if the Government cannot keep in school all our children who should be there now, how do they think that we will cope with thousands more disaffected young adults who are suddenly being told that they must stay on in a system that they feel offers them nothing?

The Government have looked at this problem and have typically come up with the wrong solution. Instead of compulsion, with the threat of being slapped with a fine and hauled in front of the youth courts, we should look at how to engage and excite young people so that they have a desire to keep going, to maintain enthusiasm and to be informed and educated enough to make up their own minds without the Government bossily telling them what they can and cannot do. Surely that would be a better long-term approach than creating this raft of regulations, rules, penalties, duties, parenting contracts, threats, sanctions and the masses of attendant bureaucracy that these measures will inevitably create.

I had an interesting meeting with the Institute of Directors, 70 per cent of whose members are from small and medium-sized enterprises—the very employers on whom the burden will fall most heavily and who have the least resources to cope. They are extremely concerned about the extra paperwork, the extra time and the difficulties that the Bill will create for them; they are concerned about falling foul of the law should they miss something or make a mistake. The Government

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talk of sending out a message, but it would be just awful if the message that went out to employers was to avoid young people because, with all these new rules, they are too much trouble. We have real unease about the practicalities and the principles of compulsion and we will press the Government on this issue.

When we look at the training and education that will be made compulsory, we must be wary of allowing the Government to set targets in the heedless pursuit of just any qualifications. As my honourable friend Michael Gove said in another place, we should do everything that we can to harness every individual’s intellectual talent. I wholeheartedly agree, but would add practical talent. However, this is not only about acquiring a piece of paper. That piece of paper has to mean something.

My mother left school at 14 and worked until she was 67 without any formal qualifications. Yet you could not have met a better educated, better informed person, who was exceptionally good at what she did. There must be thousands of people like her; otherwise, our economy would not be as strong and robust as the Government assure us that it is. We must not have qualifications simply for qualifications’ sake. The skills that are to be acquired must be meaningful to the young person and useful to their work. This may well take the guise of informal education, where appropriate, which can help to provide young people who have chaotic lives with the self-confidence, resilience and skills that they need to make the most of formal education and their personal development.

A lot of these young people will move into jobs in service industries such as catering and retail, where perhaps the most useful skills are simple ones but ones that they simply have not been taught: the importance of time-keeping, personal presentation, being pleasant and looking at people when you speak to them. These things might seem minor to us but they can do so much to improve the attitudes and prospects of young people in that kind of workplace, or indeed in any kind of workplace.

Much of what the Government are trying to achieve would be unnecessary if only standards in our schools were better, as the Minister acknowledged. The Government announced today that they have given local authorities 50 days to come up with a plan of action for their worst-performing secondary schools, although I am slightly at a loss as to why the possibility of their becoming academies is seen as a threat. Nevertheless, it begs the question: why 50 days when the Government have had 11 years?

It is what happens before the age of 16 that will have the most impact. Our children should get the best start that they can. We simply must not tolerate a situation where four out of 10 children cannot master the basics. Without the ability to read and write, and without a grasp of numeracy, all the exciting and wonderful things that education has to offer are lost. We should not be surprised when children become disengaged and disruptive. Tackling underachievement early must be a priority before it has a chance to have a knock-on effect and handicap a child’s future.

We also need a proper route to vocational training through diplomas and modern apprenticeships, but

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that must mean suitable, hands-on experience, not someone just sitting behind a desk ticking boxes. Vocational qualifications must be rigorous and they must be valued by our young people, which means that they must be valued by employers. We will ask the Government to show that they have properly thought through the practicalities, logistics, funding and organisation required to provide flexible, meaningful and desirable training courses for all these young people. That includes proper support for young people with learning difficulties across the spectrum to help them to overcome the barriers to employment. We must also be mindful of the distressingly high number of young people who suffer from mental health problems. Unless we ensure that we make adequate provision for them, they will continue to fall through the cracks of the new system, as they have done in the old.

In addition, we should have better advice available for young people so that they know their options for the future and can make informed choices. Career guidance needs to start earlier and should be geared specifically to providing detailed information on the skills requirement of particular occupations. In two-thirds of schools in England, careers advice is co-ordinated or delivered by staff without any formal qualifications in this field. Moreover, wearing my shadow Minister for Women’s hat, I believe that careers advice should robustly challenge gender stereotypes. According to excellent research by the YWCA, the five lowest-earning apprenticeships are dominated by women, while—surprise, surprise—the top-earning apprenticeship is almost 100 per cent male. This is so important because women in poverty find it much harder to pull themselves out of it and a woman in poverty at the age of 16 is twice as likely as a man to be trapped in poverty at the age of 30.

Part 3 deals with improving adult skills, an aim that no one could criticise. Demographic change means that it is becoming increasingly important that we improve the skills of our existing workforce. We welcome moves to a more comprehensive, single careers service, but we fear that the Government are in danger of repeating the mistakes that they made in the establishment of Connexions. It would be a great pity if the objective of universal and impartial careers advice were overshadowed by the urgency of targeted programmes.

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