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The Conservative Party believes that lifelong learning and acquiring new qualifications—either to help with better employment prospects or for general well-being—are worthy goals, which is why we have deep concerns about the Government’s policies on equivalent-level qualifications. The University of Bolton—an institute close to my heart—has 9,000 students, half of whom are mature students and many of whom are working and studying for their degrees on a part-time basis. The Government’s actions will cost Bolton £1.5 million next year, but the university is so committed to those students that it will bear the cost, which will not be easy. Universities all around the country will be facing the same problem.

Part 4 causes us great concern. I declare an interest as a governor of Bolton School, my old school, and as a member of the executive committee of AGBIS. The Bill will transfer the regulation and registration of

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independent schools from the DCSF to Ofsted. If there was ever a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, this surely is it. Our independent schools are recognised by the OECD as the best schools in the world. I have been enormously encouraged by the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to encourage understanding between the state and independent sectors, to foster excellent working relationships and to share best practice. Independent schools have a good working relationship with the DCSF but are upset and worried that it will be ruined by these changes.

I should have thought that the Government would welcome and encourage a good rapport between one of their departments and a sector for which it has responsibility. Perhaps Ministers are so unsettled by such an unusual occurrence that they were not thinking entirely logically. It is such a shame that, at a time when barriers, real or perceived, are being broken down between the independent and other sectors, the Government would jeopardise that by injecting confusion and difficulty into the situation. The Government tell us that they consulted on the issue, but the Bill was written and published before the consultation was complete. This is a reform—I use that word loosely—that the independent sector did not want, that Ofsted did not ask for and that will place the Secretary of State further away from what was and should continue to be a good working system. We will seek to have this part removed from the Bill.

I also hope that the proposed changes to Section 347 schools, of which there are only 75 in the country, will be considered carefully so that we do not end up with a fearfully bureaucratic scheme where none is necessary and serves only to hamper the excellent work that the schools do. Two other areas that we will want to explore further are the changes to the admissions code that were added so late that there was little time for debate in the other place and—I am sure that this will come as no surprise to the Minister—the protection of personal and sensitive information, on which we will be seeking reassurance.

In conclusion, I quote the words of the educational charity Edge:

I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords. My noble friend Lady Perry of Southwark, who I am glad to see is in her place, unfortunately has had to withdraw because she cannot stay for the closing speeches, but she will be taking part in the further stages. Throughout the Bill, we need to think about imaginative and positive schemes. Over the past few weeks, I have been heartened after speaking to some of the truly remarkable organisations that we are so lucky to have in this country, such as the Prince’s Trust, Edge, Barnardo’s, Rainer, the YWCA and countless other voluntary bodies that do so much excellent work in helping our young people to realise their potential. I place on the record my thanks to them and to all the other organisations that have taken so much time and trouble to brief us. There is so much opportunity for noble Lords on all sides of the House in this Bill. We have the chance to make a real difference

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to the hopes and prospects of young people in this country. We must ensure that we deliver the best that we can, because they deserve the best that we can give them.

4.08 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the Government’s intentions in bringing forward this important legislation. We on these Benches are at one with him in his intention to ensure that as many young people as possible participate in learning, at least until they are 18. All the statistics show that the qualifications one obtains by the age of 18 are a good predictor of future life chances and income prospects. However, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that we take issue with him on some of the ways in which the Government propose to achieve this desirable outcome. To be 24th out of the OECD list of 29 countries for staying on in education or training is a terrible indictment after 11 years of a Government who try hard but often choose the wrong systems in order to achieve their outcomes. We are also in serious doubt about whether some parts of the Bill are necessary at all. Despite the consensus about the desirability of the outcomes, this has already been a very contentious Bill in another place.

I turn first to Part 1, which addresses the duties on young people, their parents, LEAs, education institutions and employers, in relation to participation up to 18 and the framework of penalties proposed. When looking at measures proposed by the Government, I usually ask myself five questions. Is the outcome desirable? Are the means proposed right and proper? Are they the most appropriate means for achieving the end? Have the Government assigned the necessary resources? Is the timescale appropriate?

The first question is easy: of course the outcome is desirable. All the indicators show that, so there is no need to dwell on it. As to resources, only time will tell. Are the means right and proper? Well, some of them are and some of them are not. The proposals to widen the range of educational and training opportunities and support arrangements are much needed. Many young people who leave education at 16 do so because they have already become disengaged from school; turned off by the curriculum and perhaps by the style of teaching; demoralised by failure; possibly even bullied. Some of them with special educational needs or physical or mental disabilities find the world of school so difficult to cope with that they are only too glad to leave at 16. Some of them have already voted with their feet and failed to attend for years.

We all have great hopes for the new national diplomas, although some of us have considerable reservations, in particular about whether they contain relevant practical experience. We welcome proposals to increase the number of apprenticeships and of pre-apprenticeship courses that will make them accessible to a wider range of young people. However, we are unhappy about the compulsion element in the Bill and the penalties for those who refuse to participate. Enforcement may be a last resort, but so, we are told, is imprisoning children. We have 3,000 children in custody at the moment, so pardon my scepticism about that.

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On the question of a timescale, the Bill puts the cart before the horse. There is a strange tension in it. On the one hand, the Government introduce an entitlement for every young person to study a diploma or take an apprenticeship by 2013. They also introduce two adult entitlements, which Liberal Democrats have long supported: a lifelong entitlement to free level 2 and basic skills tuition, and a similar entitlement to level 3 tuition up to the age of 25. Hurrah for all that. However, they spoil it by saying that in the same year that these entitlements come into force, young people must participate up to 17; and, two years later, up to 18. This timing is inappropriate and I shall table amendments to put these things in the correct order. We should try entitlement and support first before we resort to compulsion.

I also question whether we are on track to have the quantity and diversity of provision in place by then. I will table an amendment to ensure that this is audited before the implementation of compulsion. I believe that compulsion is inappropriate and possibly self-defeating, and I will seek to overturn it. At a time when the Government are considering giving young people of 16 the right to vote, it is wrong to force them to spend their lives in a certain way. They can go to work and pay taxes, get married and have children, join the Army and possibly vote; and the Government believe they have a right to tell them what to do. No, I do not believe that Governments have that right. Staying on after 16 should be an entitlement, not a legally enforceable duty.

We should help and encourage young people, so let us look at those who are most likely to resist the duty to participate up to 18 and see whether the Bill contains enough support for them as the system will work only if it adequately identifies and addresses the reasons for their exclusion. They are the disengaged ones, and the ones with physical and mental disabilities and special needs. There is often an overlap here, because their special needs were not addressed earlier. The reasons for disengagement are complex and will not be solved by compulsion. If you look at the options available in Clause 2, you will find the clause lacking. The main focus should be to ensure that there is flexible, varied and high-quality provision for all young people, whatever their circumstances. I will table an amendment to add to the list in Clause 2 a package of learning and support tailored to the needs of those who find it most difficult, which will widen the limited range of learning experiences to include more informal and community-based options. This should help the most vulnerable young people—teenage mothers, young carers, those with health or addiction problems, Traveller communities, young people in custody and others with special needs.

It is a pity that the Government are spoiling what could be a good Bill by trying to insist on the penalties and I shall seek to change their minds. The Joint Committee on Human Rights also expressed its concern that,

I will table an amendment to give an LEA a duty to assess the young person’s specific barriers to participation and provide a tailored package of support and appropriate learning experiences before it can embark on the

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enforcement process. It is just not good enough to accept caring responsibilities or a young baby as a “reasonable excuse” for not participating and let the person opt out. That could just be a let-out for the LEA from providing the help and support that would allow these young people to take up their entitlement to education beyond 16.

Despite the Government's assurances about criminal records, I am still concerned about the duty in the Bill to disclose the offences and the effect it might have on a young person's future prospects. I am also concerned about all the data protection issues in the exchange of information. As for fixed-penalty fines, there should be a much lower cap than has been discussed in another place. Of course, I welcome the expansion of the EMA to a wider range of courses, but the rate has not increased since 2004. A fine of up to £200 for someone whose only income is EMA is completely disproportionate. It will, of course, fall on the parents, who probably have not got much money anyway.

There are particular concerns among those who work with young people with special needs about the arrangements for good quality and timely assessment. We would like to see this done for all those with special needs, not just those with statements, especially given the wide range of attitudes of different authorities to statementing and the general move away from reliance on it anyway.

I have concentrated on Part 1 of the Bill as my noble friends on these Benches will deal in more detail with Parts 2 and 3. However, careers guidance is a vital part of the jigsaw. Since this function was handed over to Connexions, careers guidance in schools has almost disappeared and will need to be completely recreated. Although there is much good quality careers advice on the internet, young people will need knowledgeable guidance to find their way through it before they make their GCSE choices. That will require a great deal of training in the teaching force, and this is one of many places where we are not yet ready to implement these changes and will probably not be for five years. It is vital that the opportunity is taken, with a major shake-up of careers advice, to address the gender, race and other stereotypes on the labour market, and ensure that all young people have all options available to them. In my convent school, if you were any good, the nuns would suggest that you become a teacher; I did. However, that was the extent of their ambition for us. Things are quite different now, but we have a long way to go to achieve wage equality between men and women and between the various races that make up our population.

On Part 4, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton. I, too, believe in the old adage, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it”, which applies in this case. Whatever you think of independent schools, there is no good reason for changing the registration and regulation arrangements for them. Transferring them to Ofsted is unjustified and unnecessary, and the consultation was sadly lacking. No one has called for it. There has been no major issue about quality or inspection needing to be addressed. If the system needs streamlining, there are other ways of doing it that do not upset a system that is working well. I, too, will be seeking to delete this part from the Bill.

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On Clause 129, which abolishes the “approved” status for independent schools taking SEN pupils—the so-called Section 347 schools—this, too, is unnecessary and undesirable. At a time when we are desperate for more expert and high quality provision for such young people, it seems to me nonsense to dilute their expertise and specialism. For what purpose? Is it in order to save money? I challenge the Minister adequately to justify these measures and, if she cannot, I will seek to delete them from the Bill.

In Part 5, I welcome the tightening up of the admissions system—which we will of course scrutinise in detail—and thank the Bill team for their assurance in an e-mail this morning that all this will apply to all academies. However, I have concerns about Clause 138 on the powers schools will be given to allocate alternative provision. I am concerned that this may have a disproportionate impact on groups already over-represented in school exclusions. I ask the Minister for an assurance that there will be a thorough equality impact assessment of this measure as soon as possible. Some PRUs do an excellent job although the quality is patchy across the country. I am again grateful to the Bill team for their assurance that the place of good PRUs in post-16 provision will be seriously considered.

I will be taking the opportunity to fill in gaps in legislation and to table amendments on the voice of the child, statutory PSHE and on the gap in promoting well-being in FE colleges. I have raised all these issues before and I will do so again.

Finally, I should like to say a word about Wales. I understand that the Minister may bring forward a single framework clause to allow Wales to make up its own mind about these issues. He will be aware that the nearer we on these Benches can get to letting the Welsh people make their own decisions, the happier we will be. Much progress has been made on Welsh education since devolution and matters relating to 14 to 19 year-olds are in hand. We should like to ensure that there are no barriers here. Having said all that, I assure the Minister that we shall adopt our usual level of constructive engagement as we take forward our detailed debates.

4.21 pm

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his characteristically clear and cogent introduction to the Bill’s issues. I listened with great interest to the other two opening speeches and look forward with equal interest to seeing amendments being tabled, which I shall assess dispassionately from the Cross Benches.

The good news for the Minister is that I welcome the extension of educational opportunity and aspiration. That is the clear intention of the Bill, for which it must be praised. Its direction of travel is one that we all believe in, as has been said more than once. The more sombre news is that some have said in my hearing that, if the pre-16 system were adequate and performing as it should be, the Bill would not be necessary and that, if it is not adequate and is not performing as it should be—many of us see the difficulties in that regard—the

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Bill will not solve the problem. However, that analysis is too simplistic; the matter is more complicated than that.

I take heart from the Minister’s points about the various developments, not least as regards diplomas, which seek to change pre-16 and post-16 education. However, the critical question is whether the Bill comprises a new start for 16 year-olds or whether its provisions can be built into the existing system. The proposed improvements add to the strength of the Bill and the possibilities that it lays out will be an incentive to improve the existing system. I hope that at later stages I shall be able to return to questions that I cannot deal with now, such as inspection, which has been mentioned, and adult education, where the Bill is too timid. There are great possibilities in that area, which we ought to address—if not in this Bill, on a future occasion.

The Bill embodies a new form of encouragement but also a new principle of compulsion in post-16 education. This will be a major issue in our debates. It is not quite as significant as the raising of the school leaving age that was introduced 30-odd years ago, but it none the less constitutes a significant compulsory extension. My mind is open on compulsion, as I accept that some may not respond to encouragement in this area. If a large number do not respond to encouragement and that number grows beyond what can reasonably be predicted, the question arises of what is to be done with and for them. I shall come back to that complex point, on which I have reservations.

The Bill takes the right direction but the fundamental question is whether it will work. Is it a practical solution to a specific problem and a clear answer to a clear question? It proposes a single solution for two rather different problems and two rather different questions—that is both a strength and a weakness—which may be overoptimistic. I realise that these days Ministers have to be optimistic—I accept that that is part of the trade—but I do not always share the optimism. I shall return to that in a moment.

The two issues, problems or questions that the Bill tries to deal with, are, first, the need to develop further our national skills base, for all the reasons that the Minister properly laid out, and, secondly—this is the emphasis in the Bill’s detail—the need to provide further opportunity for a wide group of young people. The dangers lie in the width of the group of young people. It will include young people who have done well in the pre-16 system and who will enjoy and benefit from the opportunities that will be provided if the Bill goes through. However, as has been said, many have drifted out of education. How in a realistic and practical way does one target those who have joined the ranks of the NEETs—those not in employment, education or training?

The proposed legislation is based on the assumption that a solution to the real range of problems encompassed in the second question—the needs of young people—might well be met in a way that simultaneously deals with the issues in the first question, enhancing the national skills base. That may be overoptimistic and may have led to some of the details being generalised rather than being made more particular. In other words, it suggests that there is a demand and that we have a potential source of supply.

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There will be a series of questions that I hope I can be reassured about during our debates. My first question is whether legislation is the solution to all the problems, especially to the second group, when what is certainly needed is a change of culture—with a small “c”—in the widest possible sense. We need a change in aspiration—the Government and the other parties have paid due attention to this—among our young people and a change in the culture of the playground, so that particularly boys are not put off further education and further study. These will be the difficult cases.

A change of culture is required. Legislation can help that, but it cannot guarantee it. It can, however, hinder it. I will raise that point in a few moments. Parliament and legislation alone will not win the battle. There are other players: the schools and colleges, the employers, the local authorities, the young people in question and their parents. All have a significant part to play if the aspirations of the Bill, which I think we all share, are to be met.

I am enthused by the vision, but the range of players leads me to want to examine in greater detail, as I am sure we will in our deliberations on the Bill, how those who have an important part to play can be encouraged and supported. The colleges are primed. They are enthusiastic and ready to go. They properly see opportunity in this. That is marvellous, because they have a role to play that is not sufficiently well developed in our education system.

In many cases, the need for the Bill, as I suggested, arises from the failure of the early school system in basic literacy and numeracy. Will the provision include what we might otherwise call remedial education in the basics of literacy and numeracy? If these skills are not there very early in the process, the process will not carry through to successful conclusion.

The employers’ record is not always good. The Minister has given us some encouraging statistics, but I have recently seen some others about the building and construction industry, which one would hope might be an important player among the group of employers, that are not encouraging. The number of apprenticeships being created is certainly not near the target for that group. The worries that the industry has, which the CBI has flagged up, include the possibility that there could be unintended consequences—for example, 16 and 17 year-olds, who might have a job at the moment, not being offered jobs for fear of the bureaucracy and regulation that will descend particularly on smaller employers. The consequence of fewer jobs for 16 and 17 year-olds cannot be a good outcome.

What help will be given to the local authorities? Again, we have had some outline of this, but how far were they consulted on the onerous and complex responsibilities that will be given to them? What was their response? On policy—this matter will fall under the purview of local authorities—at what point will avoidance become a criminal offence? This is a key question. I read what is in the Bill but when in the process will this occur?

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