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Education Leaving Age

Volume 469: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

May I take this opportunity, on behalf of my ministerial team, to wish you, your staff and all Members of this House a very merry Christmas, Mr. Speaker, on this cold and wintry day?

We have introduced the Education and Skills Bill to legislate to raise the participation age, so that all young people continue in education or training until 18 from 2015. The Second Reading debate is now scheduled for mid-January.

In my constituency we have a lot of looked-after children, and people who have been in care are disproportionately less likely to stay on in education past the age of 16. Does my right hon. Friend agree that raising the participation age to 18 will ensure that those young people, who do not have the advantage of a secure family background—or of having their name put down for Eton from birth—will get the education, training and skills that they need?

In the cohort of 10 and 11-year-olds in year six, there are 5,000 children in care. On present trends, those young people would be much more likely to be out of education, employment or training when they reach 16 than the rest of the population—about four times as likely. That is why it is so important that we do everything we can between now and 2013, when this legislation kicks in, to ensure that such young people have opportunities for work and training or to stay in school or college. Giving opportunities to them is a key priority for this Department, and for the Children and Young Persons Bill.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is little point in encouraging, let alone compelling, people to stay at school until 18 unless there is adequate tuition and guidance in the crafts? There are many young people who will never have an academic ambition but who can become very fine craftsmen and prepare for a proper apprenticeship.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we will not fulfil our ambitions unless we make sure that school, college or an apprenticeship is an offer available to every young person. That is why we are legislating in the Education and Skills Bill to give every 16 and 17-year-old a right to an apprenticeship, and why we have increased the number of apprenticeships by more than 100,000 and will double them again by 2013. That is why the Conservative party is wrong to call the Bill a stunt, when in fact it will do precisely what the hon. Gentleman wants, which is to give opportunities to the young people who need them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that this is not a “Staying on in Schools” Bill? It is about staying on in training and education, and a whole variety of things that young people can do to get the right skills for the modern economy. It is quite a long time until 2013 and 2015, and my right hon. Friend has just wished you and everyone else a merry Christmas, Mr. Speaker. In the spirit of Christmas, can we not do something for these young people faster than by 2013 and 2015?

But we are, and we will progressively do more between now and 2013, when the legislation comes into effect. A few weeks ago, I extended the availability of education maintenance allowances to young people on entry to employment courses. In our children’s plan, we introduced last week a new scheme called “entry to learning”, precisely to ensure that young people who could benefit from apprenticeships if they had the qualifications to start those courses have indeed got them. That is why it is right that we do more now and in the coming years to ensure that by 2013, when the legislation comes into effect, every young person can benefit from the new opportunities on offer.

How will young people in the Berwick area be compelled to attend courses when the nearest further education college is 50 miles away, when there is only one high school, and when those who stay on at school beyond 16 are charged £360 a year for transport by the Labour council?

The important thing to ensure is that schools and colleges in that area have the support that they need. We will need to look at transport in rural areas, as I have said in past discussions on this issue, to make sure that when we say that there is an opportunity for every young person, those opportunities exist and are real. There will be an obligation on local government to make sure that the opportunities are real and can be taken advantage of. The right hon. Gentleman is right: we will need to look at transport as part of those discussions.

My right hon. Friend will know that in the past three years, in Barnsley the number of students taking modern apprenticeships has gone up by some 167 per cent., and in Doncaster by some 150 per cent. However, can he tell the House what role the new 14-to-19 diplomas will play in improving the vocational education base for young people?

The diplomas will ensure that from the age of 14 young people in schools and colleges can study the combination of theory and practice that they need to move on to an apprenticeship or to university. It is important that we ensure that the curriculum engages and challenges young people, so that they want to stay in school or college and do well by their talents. The diplomas that we are introducing will be a real step forward for those young people’s learning, and will ensure that young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who want to benefit from an apprenticeship will reach 16 having been given the learning that they need to do so.