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Education and Skills Bill

Volume 470: debated on Monday 14 January 2008

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Education and Skills Bill is a landmark piece of legislation—the biggest reform in educational participation for more than 50 years. Its provisions to raise the education-leaving age from 16 to 17 by 2013 and to 18 by 2015 will fulfil a century-long ambition of this House to deliver educational opportunity for all young people.

For nearly 100 years, Parliament has expressed its belief that all young people should be in education or training until the age of 18. The Fisher Act of 1918 raised the school-leaving age from 12 to 14, but it also included a provision stating that all young people should participate in at least part-time study until the age of 18. We all know that that bold commitment was reneged on during the early years after the first world war, but in 1944 the Butler Act raised the leaving age to 15 and made provision for a rise to 16 as soon as possible, as well as for compulsory participation until 18. Although the school-leaving age eventually rose to 16 in 1972, it has remained unchanged since—once again, the provision to raise the education participation age to 18 was not enacted.

But our society and economy have changed dramatically since the early 1970s. What was visionary 90 years ago is essential today, both economically and for reasons of social justice. Lord Leitch’s projections to 2020 suggest a 50 per cent. increase in the proportion of jobs demanding high-level skills and a marked decrease in the number of jobs open to those with low-level skills.

Raising the education participation age is not just about economic strength; it is about social justice. Fewer than half of people with no qualifications are in work, young people who leave education or training at 16 are disproportionately from poor families and those who stay in education are more likely to gain further qualifications and earn more. If we do not act now to increase participation, it is the most disadvantaged young people who will be the losers in this new and fast-changing world.

The Secretary of State began by saying that he wanted to provide educational opportunity for all, but is that opportunity not already there? Cannot 16 to 18-year-olds already stay in school? The Bill would oblige them to stay there. Has he not listened to the teachers up and down the country who say that it will have a detrimental impact to keep in school people between 16 and 18 who are dying to get out of it?

I thought that I would need to make this point clear for the benefit of observers outside the House; I did not realise I would need to make it clear for Members of this House. This is not a Bill to raise the school-leaving age. Our projections do not anticipate a rise in the number of full-time school or college students over 16. The Bill will raise the education or training age to 18. We anticipate that the biggest rise in participation will be among people in apprenticeships—we forecast 100,000 more apprentices in 2013—and those in full-time work who will get training as a result of the Bill. It is not a Bill to raise the school-leaving age.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way so soon in his speech. The Government’s overall obsession with raising skills in this country so that we have an industrial future is something that I hope Members on both sides of the House share. However, I am concerned about how the very poorest do in our education system, and whether in this move alone we will do justice to them. The House of Commons Library has prepared a study of the poorest 50 constituencies, in which most poor children leave school without the minimum Government educational qualifications, although there are exceptions such as Wigan. Before the Secretary of State concludes, will he discuss what specific measures we can introduce to raise the standards of the very poorest children, some of whom leave school at 16 without any qualifications whatsoever?

Before the Secretary of State replies, I must tell hon. Members that interventions should not be as long as that one.

It may have been long, Mr. Speaker, but it was a helpful intervention, and I am happy to discuss that very point now.

Many of the reforms that we have introduced since 1997 are aimed not just at raising standards for the average child but at pulling up the poorest children in our society. It is still the case that children on free school meals from poor backgrounds do less well than the average. However, in the past five years there has been a faster rise in results for children on free school meals than the average, so we are making a difference. The Bill seeks to make sure that educational opportunity is available to all children, not just some. The poorest children are least likely to stay on at school at 16, so the Bill aims precisely to make sure that we address the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). However, it is only one of a number of issues that we seek to address.

On the requirement to address the needs of poorer children, may I congratulate the Secretary of State on what he said about expanding apprenticeship schemes? Will he make sure that they are a genuine route for poor children to advance in life, as many hon. Members, including myself, did? Will he give us an assurance that the new apprenticeship schemes will be of higher quality, and will be more relevant and more workplace-based than the current schemes?

The hon. Gentleman is a champion of apprentices in the House, so he will know that although the number of apprenticeships has risen in the past 10 years, there is still further to go. The Bill legislates for the first time for an entitlement to apprenticeships. In a few weeks’ time, we will announce further reforms, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will introduce, to make sure that we raise the quality and comprehensiveness of apprenticeships. We will provide a national matching scheme to match up apprentices with employers who can offer them apprenticeships. The most important thing that we have to do, consistent with quality, is achieve 90,000 more apprenticeships to bring the Bill to fruition. That will require serious effort from employers and the public sector, and from schools and colleges, as well as curriculum reform, but we are committed to making it happen.

I broadly welcome the changes introduced today. In Stoke-on-Trent, we probably have more young people out of education and training than anywhere else, so the reforms are essential. Does my right hon. Friend support our proposals for an education improvement partnership linked to the Building Schools for the Future programme so we can make sure that we can truly reach out to those young people who need that education?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We can deliver the commitments in the Bill only if we make accompanying reforms to make sure that by the time children are 16 they have the skills and qualifications that they need to continue. Those reforms include many of the important reforms in our children’s plan as well as our reforms to BSF to make sure that we can continue to invest in the best school buildings. Those plans would be cut by more than £4 billion if Opposition Members had their way.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) represents a constituency that would lose a BSF school—I very much hope for his sake that that is not the case—but I am happy to accept clarification from him.

A lot of the poorest children whom we have heard about already get to 16 unable to read, write or add up properly. They are not functionally literate or numerate. What is the point of forcing them to spend another two years in school if they are going to be at that stage at the age of 16? What will the right hon. Gentleman do about those poorest children who need the help earlier on and who are sitting at the back of the class trying to hide, dreading that the teacher will turn to them, because they cannot read and write?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I am going to do. I am going to keep investing in education. I am going to keep increasing teaching numbers and the number of teaching support assistants. I am going to introduce the Every Child a Reader and Every Child Matters programmes to ensure that we help those who fall behind. Most of all, I am going to avoid a return to the bad old days pre-1997, when even more children were failing than are now.

I am not happy with the figures today. It disappoints me to see that, in 2007, 71 per cent. are getting to key stage 4 in English and maths; however, in 1997 it was 53 per cent. There has been a radical increase in the numbers who are making the grade, but it is not yet good enough. We need to see more progress. That is why we need to keep voting in a Labour Government, who will match reform with investment to deliver for children.

I will make a little more progress and then take some more interventions.

Before I get on to the detail of the Bill, I want to put it in an international context. Despite the rise in participation that we have seen in recent years—participation at 16 has been rising—it is still the case that we have one of the lowest rates of staying on in education or training at 17 of any country in the developed world. It is the third lowest in the western world. Many countries and provinces throughout the world are already raising the education participation age or preparing to do so. In the Netherlands, since August last year, education has been obligatory until 18. In Western Australia, the leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in 2006 and to 17 this year. In New Brunswick in Canada, the education-leaving age is 18. It is because other countries are making fast progress that we must act now to ensure that we do not fall behind our international competitors.

For 20 years, I was a head before coming into this school—[Laughter.] And it has been downhill ever since. For those 20 years, one of the great sadnesses was that the same proportion—roughly 180,000 to 200,000 17 and 18-year-old students—had no qualifications, or training; they had nothing. If the Bill does anything, it tackles that core issue. I compliment the Secretary of State on doing that. However, one of the biggest issues that I do not believe is addressed in the Bill, and I would like him to respond to this, is that of the guidance we give young people, particularly at key stage 3, so that they go into the right pathways. It is no good having compulsory post-16 education and training if we do not give young people the right guidance. Local education authorities failed; the Connexions service failed. What on earth is going to happen under this Bill?

I will come in detail to that point in a moment. I am not sure, when the hon. Gentleman refers to this place as a school, whether he is referring to the quality of the desserts in the Members’ Dining Room or to the problem of unauthorised absences, which I know can be a problem on both sides of the House. On the particular point that he raises, we are legislating in part 2 of the Bill precisely to ensure that we strengthen further the information, advice and guidance that are available for young people. That is an integral part of the Bill. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support; it is only a pity that he has not yet persuaded his Front-Bench colleagues to take the same enlightened view of the reform.

On disadvantaged young people's participation in education, secondary schools in my constituency such as the academy in Priestnall are developing specialisms. Will my right hon. Friend look at how schools can share resources and expertise in specialist areas with other schools so that young people in Stockport who have an interest in, for example, science or sport are not limited to what is provided in the school that they attend, but have the widest possible choice in and access to those subjects?

I can indeed do that. As my hon. Friend knows, schools that have engaged in specialisms in recent years have seen a faster rise in results. Our ambition is that every school should be a trust, academy or specialist school. Just before Christmas, when we last discussed these matters, we talked about the threat to schools in her constituency, where 13 schools would be at risk if the Conservatives’ plans were put into practice. Today, I can give my hon. Friend no good news at all about the dangers to schools in her constituency if their plans to cut BSF were put into practice.

I have no problem whatever with the Secretary of State’s aims and aspirations, and have a great interest in them, but does he agree that the critical issue is whether they can be delivered in practice? As we know that on average 40,000 people below compulsory school-leaving age are bunking off, and that the number of people not in education, employment or training—NEETS—above the compulsory age is rising, how on earth will resources be provided to police the scheme? Would it not be much better to concentrate on the carrot rather than the stick?

I do not think so. The fact is that absences are down and the number of NEETS is down, although it has not gone down far enough. The reason we are legislating for obligations to come into effect not today but in 2013 for 17-year-olds and in 2015 for 18-year-olds is to give us time to prepare and put in place the extra support we propose for those young people, to make sure that they are ready. The 10 and 11-year-olds of today will be the first to be affected by the Bill’s provisions, so we have six years to make sure that we do not have 25,000 long-term NEETS in our society, as we do at present. We have an obligation to do better by them, and the Bill will have a galvanising effect on schools, colleges and LEAs to make sure that we deliver for all young people and that some do not fall through the cracks.

At any one time, 10 per cent. of young people are categorised as NEETS. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will commit the £100 million extra investment in the NEETS scheme and that we will commit to expanding the new deal, which has helped more than 1,500 young people in my constituency to obtain sustainable employment?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will never abolish the new deal. In fact, the extension of the new deal for young people on their 18th birthday is an important part of the reforms we have introduced.

Our ambition is that all young people continue in education or training until they reach the age of 18. That involves new rights for young people, but also new responsibilities. As I have said, our proposals are not just about raising the school-leaving age, but about young people choosing between full-time education in school or college, work-based learning such as an apprenticeship or one day a week in part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering more than 20 hours a week. There will be extensive opportunity for debate over the coming weeks as the Bill is discussed in detail in Committee, but today I want to make it clear that, in the Government’s view, it is only by requiring that every young person participate in education or training until the age of 18 that we can ensure that they all have the opportunities they need and that all employers, schools and colleges are galvanised to play their part so that no young person falls through the cracks.

Those duties must be enforced. That is necessary to strike the balance between rights and responsibilities. Of course, sanctions will be a last resort and—as they are at present for young people aged under 16—they are at the discretion of the local authority. When we say that everyone will participate, that is what we mean. No one will be left out on the basis that it is not for them or that it is too hard to meet their needs. Although some people, such as teenage mothers or young people with special educational needs, may require extra help, that does not mean they will be exempt.

I urge the Secretary of State not to listen to the siren voices speaking against the Bill. Exactly the same arguments were made when the school-leaving age was raised to 16; indeed, the same arguments were made when the age was raised to 14. We want young people to stay in education, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that they are engaged in their education throughout their secondary career and given the right opportunities to make choices? What will he do to ensure that councils and LEAs make sure that a variety of courses are on offer to young people and that schools and colleges co-operate to ensure that their timetables allow young people to take advantage of those opportunities?

I tell my hon. Friend what we will do—we will undertake one of the biggest overhauls of the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds for decades, to make sure that there is a greater focus on functional skills in English, maths and information and communications technology. Through our new diplomas, we will promote the best of theoretical and practical learning to engage more students. By 2013, all students everywhere in the country will be able to choose one of our first 14 diplomas.

We have won the support of universities and employers as we seek to breach the long-standing divide between academic and vocational qualifications. In every area, a local partnership between schools, colleges and employers with the local authority will ensure that all young people are offered that wide range of choice. Whether they are going down the more academic route or seek a balance of academic and practical learning, they will be able to access a diploma.

In every area we will require that the full range of choice be made available. We are giving six years for preparations before 2013, when all 17 diplomas will be on offer. In the children’s plan, we discussed the important issue of transport. At that time, I referred to the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners had texted me from a plane at 5 in the morning to remind me not to forget the important issue of transport in rural areas. We are focused on that issue as we think about the next stage of our diploma reform.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about transport? Schools—particularly new-build schools under BSF, the money for which is welcomed in Stoke-on-Trent—should be accessibly placed for local communities. I am thinking particularly of poor communities, which need to get hold of the resources and facilities that schools provide. Schools should be placed in good locations, not ones to which it is difficult to get transport.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has asked me to point out that he is in discussions with colleagues in Stoke-on-Trent to ensure that the BSF programme works in the best way for all children and young people there. He also said that he did not text from the plane; the text had been sent before he got on it. I say that for the avoidance of doubt on that detail.

In the children’s plan, we talked about the importance of schools being in the centre of their communities. The 21st-century school is one that involves parents, is open beyond the school day and co-locates services on site.

I will not take a second intervention from my hon. Friend. However, I assure him that the Minister for Schools and Learners is taking forward those discussions.

I always listen with great interest to the Secretary of State. Skills shortages in this country are a real concern on both sides of the House. However, is there not a danger that the Government are neglecting the important point about the quality and relevance of education up to 16 and focusing only on its quantity by expanding it beyond 16?

No, there is no danger of that whatever. We are taking forward reforms in primary, secondary and early years education to make sure that in 2013, when the first 16-year-olds are affected by the provisions of the Bill, they are given the support and quality teaching that they need, and extra help if they need it, so that they make the grade. All the reforms to the children’s plan and to the primary curriculum and secondary teaching are essential to make sure that the provisions of this historic Bill have the right effect when they come into force in 2013. We will not let our focus on those reforms drop away at all.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the measures that he was describing before he started taking interventions are vital for improving skills levels in such towns as Swindon, which have really benefited from the economic boom during the past 10 years of Labour Governments? However, there is still a core of students who are not benefiting from the boom time because they simply do not have the skills that our modern, international companies require.

My hon. Friend is right. There has been real progress in Swindon on increasing the number of apprenticeships. However, there is still further to go. Too often, young people who want an apprenticeship cannot find one in their area, and other parts of the country find that they have more apprenticeships on offer than they are able to allocate. We need to ensure that we do that better through our national matching service.

Another important part of the Bill makes provision for improved advice and guidance to young people in schools to ensure that they have the support that they need to make progress, and gives greater financial support to overcome the cost barriers that can prevent young people from participating. Our education maintenance allowances have been a major success, but we are strengthening them further and trialling extensions, including to entry into employment, to ensure that all young people who need EMAs can get them.

We may disagree about the value of forcing people to stay on in education when they do not want to, but I am sure we can all agree that if people do want to stay on in education we should be helping them to do so. The Minister has taken an interest in the case of my constituent Kirsty Oldfield, whose parents died in quick succession and who found herself, as an orphan, unable to afford to stay on in school. Will he consider tabling or accepting amendments to the Bill to provide direct support from his Department to the small number of orphans who find themselves in a tragic situation and cannot afford to stay on in school?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who is not here at the moment, has been in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on that particular issue. The very unfortunate circumstances that affected his constituent should not have occurred, and she should not have received the advice that she did. We are addressing those issues in discussion with him.

On the hon. Gentleman’s more general point, I believe he would agree that compulsion in education for 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-olds is right. Those extensions were made in this House in previous Bills during the past 100 years. What I do not understand about his position is why he thinks, as a matter of principle, that compelling a 15-year-old to be in education is the right thing to do but compelling a 17-year-old is the wrong thing to do, when all the evidence is that countries around the world are moving in this direction because it is an economic and social imperative.

Surely the Secretary of State understands the difference between individuals who are otherwise treated as adults and individuals who are clearly children. Does he not find it a rather odd contradiction that the Government are proposing to grant the vote to 16-year-olds while at the same time proposing to take away from them a freedom to exercise their own choice?

I do not find it an odd contradiction at all. I will come to some odd contradictions in the hon. Gentleman’s position in a moment.

May I return my right hon. Friend to the point he made a moment ago about the importance of information, advice and guidance? Blackpool council is responding to the Government’s initiatives by putting together teams of workers who can offer appropriate advice and guidance to young people as they need it, with Connexions workers—including, I should put on record, my elder daughter, who works for Blackpool Connexions—youth workers, youth offending team workers, and specialist workers on teenage pregnancy and on drug and alcohol services. That will ensure that a young person knows who to go to and can get the right advice from appropriately trained people.

My hon. Friend is right. Under the Bill, local authorities, when they take over the running of Connexions, will need to give advice and guidance that is not only impartial but tailored, particularly for children with special needs or learning difficulties. There will be special help for young people in custody and for teenage mothers, and we will need to ensure that we tailor support for children with those particular needs. However, that does not mean that they should be excluded from the provisions of the Bill. When we say “educational opportunity for all”, that should mean “all”.

On Friday evening, I was at a meeting in West Yorkshire with a young people’s panel brought together by Connexions West Yorkshire to listen to their views. They said it was important that in the sub-region, across local authority areas, these panels of young people should continue to come together to give feedback to advice and guidance services. I hope that that will continue in our area and around the country.

To clear up one point, I should stress it is important that the advice is impartial, and that it does not push children down a particular route, whether it is to a school or a college. The idea that that means that schools cannot give a view on the choice between A-levels or diplomas is nonsense, but it is important that the advice is impartial and that it promotes the best interests of the young person.

My right hon. Friend referred to a visit he made on Friday evening to Connexions in Brighouse, in my constituency of Calder Valley. Does he agree that the extraordinary level of interest in the future development of the Connexions service expressed by those young people reflects the value that they put on the advice, guidance and information that they are receiving? Can he assure young people nationwide that they will be individually and collectively involved in any issues that concern their future lives?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know that she has taken a close interest in Connexions in her constituency; indeed, she was at the meeting I attended on Friday.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and the interesting thing about the discussions that we had with those young people is that they had a series of questions to ask me about the future of Connexions and information, advice and guidance. I used the normal trick of trying to ask them a question back, and they knew the answers to my supplementaries better than I knew the answers to theirs, which is a tribute to their knowledge and understanding. I can happily assure her that such discussion and engagement with young people will be required as a consequence of the detail of the Bill.

From 2001, the Connexions service has offered careers education and guidance to students who were not going to get five good GCSEs. I hope that as far as this Bill is concerned, the new guidance system will offer high-quality guidance to every single youngster, so that we do not have a divide between A-levels for the best and skills for the rest.

That is the last intervention I will take, and the Schools Minister has told me that that is a requirement. I can give the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) the assurance he seeks. The Bill will work only on the basis of comprehensive, high-quality, universal advice for all 16 and 17-year-olds. A two-tier approach to advice just will not work.

The Bill requires us to raise our sights. It will require not just legislation and guidance, but a new culture of enterprise, learning and aspiration. In order for it to work, we will need a new consensus in this country, throughout schools and colleges, and among employers, parents and young people, to make it happen. I also hope that we will be able to build a consensus across the House, given the importance of this landmark legislation. The 1944 Butler Act, which raised the education-leaving age to 15, received cross-party support, as did the Fisher Act in 1918, which also raised the school-leaving age. In this Bill, we are making a reality, 90 years on, of the 1918 commitment to education until the age of 18. But we do not know the views of the Opposition.

To give credit to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), we know the views of his Front-Bench team—although not those of all Liberal Democrats. The new leadership of the Liberal Democrats is opposed to extending educational opportunity to all 16 and 17-year-olds.

I think that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is opposed to our Bill, but he has not yet told the House of his true intentions. I hope that he will do so today. In recent weeks, he has persisted in cynical attempts to undermine and misrepresent our reforms by claiming that our policy is a gimmick or a stunt, or by deliberately misrepresenting it as forcing young people to stay on at school. He has also set his face against all the accompanying reforms that are essential if we are to make education to the age of 18 a reality. He is opposed to our curriculum reform, our new diplomas and our extension of EMAs, and he is committed to abolish the new deal, which we are extending for 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training. I hope that he will tell us today whether he will have the courage of his convictions and vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. Will he lead his side through the No Lobby or will he abdicate leadership and sit on the fence? Will he again duck that big issue? All the indications so far are that he and his party will join the Liberal Democrats in the No Lobby. Whether the Conservatives vote no or whether they abstain, however, they will still be reinforcing the view that theirs is the party of educational opportunity for some and not for all, opposed to the long-term radical reforms that this country needs.

No. Both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats are now embarrassingly out of step with the views not only of educationists but of business. The CBI said in its response to our Green Paper last summer that

“the government’s proposal for raising the age for compulsory participation in education or training to 18 is a necessary step”.

In addition, David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce said:

“Combining new specialised Diplomas and an expansion in the number of apprenticeships with a rise in the compulsory participation age to 18 is a move that we welcome.”

The CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce both welcome compulsory education until the age of 18—indeed, they say that it is necessary—yet the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Yeovil have put themselves and their parties on the wrong side of that debate.

The hon. Gentlemen are doing something more than that, however. Not only are they opposing reforms proposed in the House by this Government; they are opposing reforms proposed in the House by the great Tory and Liberal reformers of the past, such as Rab Butler and the former Liberal Member for Sheffield, Hallam—not the current one—Herbert Fisher. It might be interesting for hon. Members to learn that Herbert Fisher said of his 1918 Bill that it acclaimed the

“principle of the rights of youth”,

in that it held that

“young people have a right to be educated”

not just to 14 but to 18, and that that right was not just for the minority but for all young people. He was a Liberal reformer proposing a Liberal reform that the hon. Member for Yeovil now opposes.

I will not take any more interventions.

It is not too late, however. I urge Opposition Members to do the right thing. They should not stay stuck in the past or continue to take the view that excellence can be for only the few or that a two-tier Britain is inevitable. I urge them to join the consensus and back our reforms. We on the Government Benches are determined to deliver on the century-long ambition of the House to promote educational opportunity for all until 18, and not just for some. Let the Opposition join our consensus—that is my plea to them. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his speech. I enjoyed all 40 minutes of it. [Hon. Members: “Thirty-seven minutes.”] Indeed. I particularly appreciated the first 32 minutes, when he laid out his reasoning and the thinking behind the Bill. I am sure that the whole House will have found that helpful. However, the final five minutes, when he went into partisan, Punch-and-Judy mode, was an unfortunate coda to an otherwise interesting and analytically compelling speech. It is a great pity that someone with the Secretary of State’s intellect feels the need to indulge in partisan knockabout when we are discussing the Second Reading of the Bill, but I can forgive him that, because I recognise that his intentions are honourable.

In advancing any piece of legislation, the Government have to ensure that it passes a series of tests. Any Bill should pass three general tests before we can all have confidence that it will make good law. First, does it serve a desirable end? Secondly, does the legislation do violence to any valued principle; and if it does, is the end so transparently good that the damage to that principle is a price worth paying? Thirdly, are the mechanisms through which the legislation proposes to achieve the end the most effective that could be designed? I want to consider the Bill as set against those three tests and then propose some areas where greater clarification or amendment might be required to improve the effect of the legislation.

On the first question, whether the Bill serves a desirable end—[Interruption.] I see the Secretary of State proffering what I think is a note of apology to the Liberal Democrats’ Front-Bench spokesman for some unmannerly words. We know that when the Secretary of State descends into partisan mode, he is only putting it on and that, in his heart, he regrets it, so we can entirely forgive him on this occasion.

To the first question—does the Bill serve a desirable end?—we say yes. We believe that getting more young people to participate fruitfully in education for longer—and not just to age 18—is an unalloyed good. Our ambition is to see more and more people over time progressively broadening their horizons and participating in education. We believe in the democratisation of knowledge and in making opportunity more equal. We want to see more people going to university—and, indeed, more people acquiring level 4 qualifications in every way possible.

We also want to see what has become known as lifelong learning become second nature for many. The acquisition of new qualifications after people have left school, whether as a means of improving employability or simply of enriching their mental lives, is a good that is worth pursuing. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has been so eloquent in expressing his concern at what the Government might be doing through their policy on equivalent and lower qualifications. We want to ensure that people who want to acquire new skills that complement their existing qualifications are given every possible encouragement to do so. That was part of the noble impulse behind the creation of the Open university, and it is a pity that the party that set up that institution appears now to be in the process of limiting access to it.

I agree wholeheartedly with what my hon. Friend says. Is not the crux of the matter the fact that the Government do not understand that people can learn an awful lot in the workplace? I probably learned more in my time working for Asda than I learned on my degree course at university. Should not people have the opportunity to learn at work, rather than being forced to get some bogus educational qualification that they do not want?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all benefit from the experience that he secured in the workplace as well as from his academic arguments. He is right to say that individuals should have the freedom to choose the course that is best for them.

Yes, absolutely—[Interruption.] Well, the Secretary of State is the one who is paying for it. We are entirely in favour not only of the existence of the EMA but of the provisions in the Bill to secure an extension to it. We want to extend opportunity at every stage. We do not want to compel or coerce where we do not need to; we want to provide opportunity where it is required. That is at the heart of our approach.

Some people argue that the goal of ever-higher participation in education is wrong, and object to extending educational opportunity. I accept that the Secretary of State is legitimately concerned about those views, and I, too, want to explain why I think that they are wrong. The first argument that I would deploy is unashamedly personal. No one in my family had gone to university, and both my parents left school early. I know how education can transform opportunities. I would never want any child to lose out on opportunity through a lack of parental resources—that is where the EMA comes in—through a failure of schools to raise aspiration, which is where Connexions can come in, or through a cultural resistance to learning among a child’s peers or within his or her community. I am sure that we all know of circumstances in which such resistance exists.

My second argument involves social justice. We know that access to educational opportunity is a critical determinant of future earnings and of well-being. At the moment, educational opportunity is unequally distributed. Contrary to the impression given by the Secretary of State in his speech, figures that we excavated over the Christmas period show that the gap between the academic performance in the most advantaged 10 per cent. of schools and that in the least advantaged 10 per cent. has grown and is growing. It is a source of deep concern to us that that should be so. Work by the Sutton Trust and others has confirmed the melancholy correlation between deprivation and academic achievement. We believe that there needs to be a concerted drive to tackle that unfairness and to extend opportunity. We can do that by tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in the earliest years. That, once again, will open up the prospect of academic excellence to many, many more.

If the drive succeeds and the number of individuals from poorer backgrounds staying on to 18 in education increases, and if the number going on to university or equivalent institutions begins to catch up with the equivalent number for those from more fortunate backgrounds who are already enjoying such opportunity, the university population will clearly increase. That is our aim. To those who say that that is idealistic, I plead guilty, and I ask those who say that it is impossible to spend a little time looking at geography and then history.

First, let us consider geography. Across the globe, the participation rate in further and higher education is rising. In Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, the United States and even Poland, the number of young people going to university is higher than the proportion who currently do so here. In South Korea and Taiwan, the numbers participating in equivalent institutions is also rising fast. In China and India, of course, the participation rate is rocketing.

As to history, I would like the House to recall the experience of one minority community in Britain. Its members came here, often fleeing persecution, with few resources and little in the way of marketable qualifications more than 100 years ago. They found jobs in sweatshops, retail, low-level commerce and other unskilled or low-skilled environments. Yet within 100 years or so—the space of two or three generations—that community has reached a point where it sends 80 per cent. of its young people to university. That community, the Jewish community, is—in education, as in so many other areas—an example to us all. I see no reason why other minority communities might not aspire to similar levels of participation or why we as a nation should not be inspired by that community’s example.

Let me refer the hon. Gentleman to another community—that of young people with disabilities. Roughly 27 per cent. of young people with registered disabilities are not in work, training or education at the age of 19. The reality behind that is that organisations—employers, colleges and schools—do not have the relevant provision to attract those students. Is not the Secretary of State putting forward a decent argument when he says that, without compulsion, they never will?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I believe that there are ways other than compulsion by which we can ensure that colleges are oriented towards the needs of people with disabilities and employers take account of the many ways in which individuals with disabilities can contribute to the work force. Members of my own family who are living with disabilities have, partly owing to the effects of good educational backgrounds and the influence of sensitive employers, succeeded in securing employment. I believe that it is important to have an unrelenting drive to value what people living with disabilities can offer us, not just in economic terms, but in others. I take the point that many who believe in this Bill also believe that compulsion is the only way to secure that desirable end. At the moment, however, I am not convinced that the method of compulsion in the Bill is the most desirable way of achieving the ends of which the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly reminded us.

I have mentioned history and geography in respect of increasing participation in education, but it is also important, in deference to the Secretary of State, to mention economics. As well as personal conviction and social justice, economic imperatives, too, drive the case for greater participation in education. The Leitch report, to which the Secretary of State referred, is the latest in a long line of analyses of Britain’s educational underperformance. With specific reference to vocational skills, we have had reports on educational underperformance going right back to 1868.

Lord Leitch is very specific about the number of jobs that he believes will be available to those without skills in 2020—just 600,000, he argues. I myself am wary about predicting with such uncanny precision the specific demand for particular types of labour in an open marketplace in 14 years’ time. Some economists argue that the labour market of the future will be much more fluid than Lord Leitch envisages. However, I very much agree with the broader point that the more highly skilled and the better educated our work force—all other things being equal, as I was taught to say in my higher economics—the higher our overall productivity will be.

Yes, ceteris paribus, as the Under-Secretary reminds me from a sedentary position. Perhaps with his knowledge of Latin he is, unlike me, a grammar school boy. Anyway, as well as increasing our productivity as a nation, a higher level of educational participation will help us meet and master globalisation. The process of globalisation is leading to increased specialisation within markets and between countries, so those economies with highly skilled work forces can adapt and benefit more.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a great speech. He is building up to a conclusion that the Opposition must support the Bill. Am I correct?

I am grateful that the hon. Lady is enjoying the speech. I am seeking to make it clear that we believe the goal of increasing educational participation to be a good one. As I mentioned at the beginning, however, there is a difference between recognising that something is desirable and being concerned about the means that are used along the way to achieve that. With deference to the Labour party, I might call it the “Iraq test”. We all recognise the desirability of removing Saddam Hussein, but how something like that is done can be crucial. [Interruption.] I fear that the Secretary of State was once again quoting the right hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), but, I suspect, very much sotto voce—that is Latin too, is it not?

If we can get back to English, the pace of economic change and globalisation places an increasing premium not just on a more skilled work force overall but on ensuring that skills are distributed as widely as possible across the work force. As the pace of economic change is being driven by innovation and by the human brain achieving amazing things technologically and scientifically, brain power increasingly dictates destiny. Therefore, we should do everything that we can to harness every individual’s intellectual potential.

I should add one other rider to the economic arguments in favour of increasing educational participation. There are those who argue that educational achievement is primarily a positional good—a way of demarcating people’s position in a hierarchy so as to secure a better reward proportionate to that of those below them. Those who make that argument contend that qualifications are basically a way of separating sheep from goats. I reject that case. I believe that the more people who have acquired meaningful qualifications, the better. There should be no arbitrary cap on the number who might acquire any qualification, and the creation of communities and a society in which learning is highly valued and knowledge widely dispersed is enriching for everyone.

My hon. Friend is making a distinguished and very interesting speech. Does he agree that one of the worst aspects of a drift in the standards of attainment in qualifications is that it lets down the people who think that they have done really well, when in fact they have not, and they think that opportunities will be open to them when, in reality, they will remain closed to them?

My hon. Friend, who has a distinguished record in higher education, makes a very good point about the importance of ensuring that the standards of qualifications remain up to scratch. To be fair to the Secretary of State, which is always my aim, some of his announcements about the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are intended to achieve that goal. Whether or not they live up to the advance billing remains to be seen, but as with that change and this Bill, I am sure that his heart is in the right place.

It is up to the hon. Lady to decide.

As I was arguing, the more people who secure high- level qualifications, the more room there is for collaboration intellectually, the stronger the networks that generate innovation, and the more opportunities are open to every individual. Therefore, generating higher participation in education and making opportunity more equal threaten no one and enrich our whole society. In that respect, and in so far as this Bill is intended to express a national aspiration to increase participation, that is a noble aim.

That brings me to my second test: does the Bill do violence to any valuable principle? That takes us to the heart of the whole question of compulsion. At the weekend, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the current Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), made a very good speech—

Excellent, some would say—I think that it was very good; I would give it a B-plus. In it, he defined two axes of politics—progressive and non-progressive, liberal and anti-liberal. I would argue, and have argued, that working for higher levels of participation in education is progressive, but making anything compulsory is, almost by definition, unlikely to be liberal. Before discussing the practicalities of what the Bill proposes in terms of compulsion, and since this is the Second Reading, I want to explore the question of the principle.

The Bill places a new duty specifically on 16 and 17-year-olds to participate in education or training. In that respect, as I am sure that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) understands, it is qualitatively different from previous historic changes to the school leaving age. When previous changes were made—all, it must be said, by majority Conservative Administrations—the duty rested on parents to ensure that their children were being educated, and for very good reasons. Governments were legislating to protect children from the pressures—economic, social, cultural or whatever—which might have drawn them out of school prematurely. Those Conservative Governments, and their Liberal allies and supporters—I should say, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that we are talking about history: I refer to Conservative Governments and their then Liberal allies and supporters—they recognised that children were not yet in a position to decide on their own future. They had not yet reached an age at which they could freely consent to a particular course of action, so they needed to be shielded. The law ensured that no child could be pressurised out of education before being ready to make the decision for himself. That was a protective measure.

Today, we increasingly recognise that 16 is the age at which young people can take control of their destiny. It is an age at which an individual can marry, pay taxes, volunteer for military service, consent to sexual relations and so on. Indeed, I learned at the weekend that it is now the age at which the Leader of the House would like young people to vote for the first time. It is therefore ironic—I put it no more strongly—that just as social trends are moving towards giving individuals more freedom, autonomy and respect at 16, the Government propose to deny freedom and autonomy in respect of education or employment, and the Government recognise that.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that age group could include parents? People aged 16, and sometimes younger, have produced children of their own, but they will be put in the same category for the purposes of the legislation.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are all concerned about the rate of teenage pregnancy, and I noted over Christmas that Government efforts to reduce it had not been as successful as they might have been. I think proposals in the Bill attempt to deal with that concern—we will test their robustness in Committee, but, as I have maintained throughout, I do not doubt that the Government’s heart is in the right place—but the Government, or rather the draftsmen, recognise that the legislation is qualitatively different from what has been done before. The state is now taking on itself more power to direct and regulate the lives of young adults.

The Secretary of State’s view seems to be that this curtailment of liberty serves the greater good, but he did not give an answer to the hon. Member for Yeovil when he asked about that. He responded by saying that he disagreed, but did not produce an argument.

The hon. Gentleman is making rather glib use of the term “liberty”. I am sure he will recall the works of Sir Isaiah Berlin, who spoke of the double concept of liberty as something that must be promoted by society as well as something that is provided by the absence of control. If young people are allowed to fester at 16 with no qualifications and no skills, they may be free in one sense but they will be imprisoned in another.

That is a very noble point, but I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands Sir Isaiah Berlin. It is reassuring to hear a Fellow of All Souls quoted in the debate, but one of the characteristics of Isaiah Berlin was that he made a key distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. We absolutely believe in freedom to participate in all forms of education for everyone aged 16 and beyond, but another thing in which Opposition Members—both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives—believe is freedom from unnecessary state constraint and coercion. One of the key arguments is that the burden of responsibility rests on the Government whenever there is any curtailment of liberty.

As I have said, we increasingly recognise that at the age of 16 an individual has the maturity to exercise appropriate autonomy over his or her destiny. We must therefore have compelling reasons for restricting that individual autonomy. We must extend opportunity absolutely, restricting freedom only when there is a powerful argument for doing so—

The CBI says that it is necessary to extend compulsory education to those aged 18. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the CBI is wrong?

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is incapable of making his own arguments and once again uses the CBI as a prop, and that he regards the CBI as an authority on all things, given that he and I argued against membership of the exchange rate mechanism and the single currency when the CBI were on the other side.

Let me tell the Secretary of State what the CBI also says about this legislation. Like us, it is in favour of increasing participation, but it says:

“Firms offering valuable work opportunities will be discouraged”

by this legislation. It states that they will be discouraged by the duty

“to police participation and financial penalties for falling foul of the law.”

It also states:

“The CBI is concerned that these new duties may deter employers from employing 16-17 year olds, especially when they can move to recruit unqualified over 18 year olds or well qualified migrant workers. This would result in fewer opportunities for young people which provide valuable on the job training and help develop essential life skills.”

The CBI is thus arguing against aspects of the legislation, so when the Secretary of State prays in aid the CBI he should be careful to do justice to the full breadth of all its arguments.

I am sure that people on both sides of the House will try to avoid being glib. In response to our Green Paper, the CBI stated:

“Not all CBI members were fully supportive of the Government’s proposals”.

However, it also said:

“The CBI has undertaken extensive consultation with members and there is a general acceptance that the Government’s proposal for raising the age for compulsory participation in education or training to 18 is a necessary step.”

So, my argument is that the CBI says that this measure is necessary. Does the hon. Gentleman agree or disagree with the CBI’s consultation?

We first asked the Secretary of State to come up with his own arguments, but he could not do so and relied on the CBI. He then said that the CBI was wholly in favour, but we now discover from him that only a proportion of people in the CBI are in favour. When I cite the CBI’s arguments showing that it has well-founded and specific concerns about the legislation, the Secretary of State chooses not to answer the point. Perhaps the Minister for Schools and Learners will answer it when the Bill reaches Committee, because the Secretary of State has failed to do so today.

One of the key things is that the Secretary of State has twice failed to make an argument. He failed to make an argument in response to the hon. Member for Yeovil and he failed to explain why he thinks that this suppression of liberty is proportionate and likely to prove effective.

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Will he clarify something for me? He seems to be saying that at the age of 16 or 17—below the age of majority—society deems that a young person is not mature enough to buy alcohol or cigarettes, but is mature enough to decide how they should receive their education, which will affect the whole of their life. I am curious as to why the age of majority is 18, yet a young person should be given the responsibility, as well as the right, in those couple of years to decide how their future might pan out.

If the hon. Gentleman takes that view, he should take the matter up with the Leader of the House, who believes that 16 is an appropriate age at which individuals should vote. I hesitate to step into an internal Labour party argument about when individuals should have freedom and autonomy. I merely make the point that when society is increasingly recognising that 16-year-olds should exercise freedom and autonomy, it is ironic—I put it no more strongly than that—that the Government should take a different view.

I shall give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, and then to my hon. Friend.

Before we got on to the discussion about the CBI, the Opposition spokesman was making a useful and important point. May I clarify something, because I am most interested in this point in the context of the Select Committee? Was he saying that as far as he and the Conservative party are concerned a child ceases to be a child at 16? I do not agree with that. He should not throw back at me what the Leader of the House says, because I do not agree with her. The question of the age at which a child ceases to be a child is important.

That is a very important question. My view is that we are increasingly recognising that at age 16 someone is a young adult, and we have to show more respect to individuals at that point. That is not just my argument: it is the argument of a variety of organisations that work with young people. We have to show increasing respect for the autonomy of young people, and 16 is increasingly an age at which we recognise that that autonomy can be exercised. We recognise that we have a sliding scale of freedoms and entitlements at different ages—17 for driving, and 18 for voting and, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) pointed out, for buying alcohol and tobacco.

As I said, the Leader of the House is leading the growing consensus that 16 is the age at which we can confer young adult status on someone. That is recognised in the drafting of the Bill, which places the primary duty on the 16 and 17-year-old, rather than on their parents.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State is clutching at straws when he uses the CBI’s comments as an argument for industry and business in this country generally, because it represents a very small minority of businesses, mostly the very large businesses to which costs are proportionately less important than to small and medium-sized enterprises? The cost of policing will be massive for many SMEs.

My hon. Friend—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend has more direct experience of running small businesses than the Secretary of State or the Minister of State and should therefore be listened to with respect by them—[Interruption.] It is all very well for the Secretary of State to laugh, but my hon. Friend has direct experience of providing employment to all sorts of people. He has had a distinguished career in small business and it would behove the Secretary of the State to treat his interventions with more respect.

In my speech I read out the comments of both the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, and I agree with them. Indeed, many hon. Members would agree that the BCC is the best representative of the small and medium-sized business community, alongside the Federation of Small Businesses. The BCC has also said that compulsion until 18 is necessary for the economic future of our country. I am showing no disrespect to that business community.

The Secretary of State certainly showed disrespect to my hon. Friend, but I shall take that intervention as an apology to him.

More appropriately, I will emphasise that my hon. Friend was making a valid argument. The CBI is a valued voice in the debate on business, but it tends to speak disproportionately for those larger businesses that can more easily absorb the additional costs of the regulation that the Bill contains.

I wish to make a little more progress now.

I should refer at this stage to one curious consequence of what is proposed. Under this legislation, young people will be considered to be in education only if they are studying for a QCA-recognised qualification. A number of independent schools, and others, are currently dissatisfied with the curriculum and are developing, or have developed, their own qualifications and examinations, such as the iGCSE and the Cambridge pre-U. If a young person were studying for those qualifications, with their parents’ permission and in a respectable school, would that mean that they were breaking the law? Would that mean, for example, that the whole top stream at Winchester were criminals? [Interruption.] I know that there are some Labour Members who think the very existence of a top stream at Winchester is inherently criminal, but in drawing attention to that potential anomaly I just wanted to emphasise the potential existence of many flaws and many potential restrictions on liberty in the Bill. What about individuals who want to join and play for sporting teams? What about those who have obtained qualifications and wish to enjoy a gap year travelling or volunteering? We will seek clarification of every area in Committee, and if we receive satisfaction from the Government we will be delighted.

My third test is how effective the Government’s proposals are likely to be in practice. I have expressed my scepticism that compulsion, as the Government are proceeding with it, is quite the best way to secure the greatest level of fruitful participation in education. It is said in the Army that a volunteer is worth 10 pressed men. It is an old saw, but we all know that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. More broadly, anyone involved in education will know that an effective precondition for successful teaching is a willingness on the part of the student to learn. The presence of sullen conscripts in a classroom or learning setting, who resent being there, is unlikely to lead to their sudden conversion to the joys of learning, particularly if their previous experience of learning has been unhappy. Indeed, their presence is unlikely to be conducive to creating a calm and purposeful environment for all those who do want to learn. Given the present high levels of truancy pre-16, with the numbers increasing every year from year 8, the task of enforcing attendance post-16 will certainly be a challenge. The priority should be to ensure that we can provide the right incentives and encouragements to persuade young people to participate in education for as long as possible.

The Government have sometimes appeared to believe that any questions about their preferred method of proceeding spring from bad faith or some reactionary desire to limit opportunity, but the range of voices raised in connection with the proposal makes nonsense of any such thought. From the British Youth Council to the Children’s Rights Alliance and from Rainer to the Edge foundation, organisations that exist to champion young people’s rights and to provide a better vocational education for all have concerns. They all point out that unless disaffection is tackled before 16, the Government’s strategy will not succeed, and that an approach based on coercion will be less successful than one that places incentives at its heart.

Such organisations are not alone in raising concerns; a variety of influential educational voices have also issued warnings. One figure has warned that the raising of the school leaving age should be seen only as a “symbol” rather than a punitive measure. Another warned that

“this will work only if the levels of overall literacy and numeracy from the early years through primary and secondary schools are raised for those currently underachieving.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 184.]

That figure was Baroness Morgan of Huyton, formerly an adviser, of course, to Tony Blair.

What about this argument:

“young people already have a right to education or training, which many ignore, and compulsion means fines or imprisonment. Far better to focus on getting the choice of qualifications…right before requiring compulsion”?

That was Conor Ryan, formerly an adviser to Tony Blair. Another quotation states the person’s recognition that the measure

“will amount to nothing unless all the component parts”—

of education provision—

“are making a reality of near-universal participation by those ages by the time we come to raise the participation age…It is important that the actual raising of the participation age is…a formal change reflecting practice that is already taking place and is not…a new, punitive regime.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 234.]

That was said by Lord Adonis, a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and formerly an adviser to Tony Blair. Then, of course, this point was made:

“we need to look at why those young people have copped out of school, why they truant, why they find the traditional education system unacceptable…the idea…that deeply damaged young men and women could somehow be fined and it would make them go into education or training. I think it is cloud cuckoo land.”

That was, of course, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was a Minister under Tony Blair. We can see a clear Blairite analysis of the legislation—one with which I must say I have some sympathy—that stresses the need to avoid a punitive approach.

I agree that we need to ensure that everything is right before the age of 16 in order to engage young people. However, does the hon. Gentleman think that it is possible to reach 100 per cent. participation without the galvanising effect of compulsion on the professionals who work with young people? If he does not and if he thinks that we could reach, say, 90 per cent., does he agree that that last 10 per cent. are the ones who could benefit most? If so, what would he do to get that last 10 per cent. into education or training to get all the benefits for their outcomes that that would give them?

Does the Minister believe that with compulsion we will secure 100 per cent. attendance at ages 17 and 18, given that we already have levels of truancy and unauthorised absence that mean that about one in 10 of those aged 16 do not attend? I am happy to work with the Minister and the Secretary of State to maximise attendance and provide incentives.

I believe that the answer is to ensure at the beginning of schooling that every child who can is learning to read, so that they can fruitfully participate in education. I also believe that the answer is to get the vocational and academic offer right, so that we can ensure that the maximum number go down the academic route and that the vocational offer does not, as at the moment, leave far too many individuals dissatisfied. Excellence should not be rationed to academic or vocational routes. Unlike the Secretary of State, I believe that many more people should do A-levels and go to university.

There are reservations about the sanctions that can be introduced in legislation, but the hon. Gentleman cited someone’s comments about imprisonment. Nothing in the Bill would lead to imprisonment—that should go on the record now. Nothing in the Bill will lead to a student who does not undertake training or education going to prison.

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee. I should point out that the individual who raised the matter was the former special adviser to the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, and a former adviser to the Prime Minister on education—not a negligible figure.

The primary method of enforcement is fines. What will the state do in the case of non-payment? I am genuinely curious about what would happen if persistent refuseniks declined absolutely to pay any fine because they were so disaffected with the system and unhappy to go into education. In those circumstances, would a custodial sentence be imposed, as often happens with persistent non-payment of fines?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As I said earlier, approximately one in 10 of those who should be in education at 16 are absent in an unauthorised fashion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would require a significant change in the law for a court not to be able to impose imprisonment for failing to pay a fine, which is contempt of court? Perhaps the Secretary of State has some extra information that he would like to give us, but, on the face of it, his assertion is curious.

My hon. Friend, who has considerable legal and constitutional experience, makes a good point. I am genuinely curious about the Government’s position. Can people who deliberately refuse to pay a fine because they consider it to be unjustified evade sentencing? If so, what effective sanction is there? What deterrent exists to ensure that someone will attend?

Obviously, we will discuss the matter in Committee. However, to help the House, I point out that the matter would be referred to the youth court and that the new youth default order process, which is also going through Parliament, would come into effect. None of the options available to the youth court under that process includes imprisonment.

That raises the question of why individuals who are determined not to attend should comply. We will leave it for Committee, but the ultimate sanction is an open question in the minds of many of my hon. Friends and, I suspect, of a few Labour Back Benchers.

The point is important because the Secretary of State gave the example of New Brunswick, which is a relatively novel experiment in education. An academic analysis of what happened in New Brunswick stressed that weak enforcement secured only a marginal increase in participation in education. It is a tough question for the Government. If they have only weak enforcement, the additional number attending will be small, but a system of strong enforcement raises the question of whether vulnerable and damaged young people will be criminalised and potentially face custody.

I am happy to give clarification, though the subject is for Committee.

Under the court’s normal powers, a range of measures is available. They include an attachment of earnings order, which will stay with the young person. Under the new youth default order, measures could be an unpaid work requirement, a curfew or an attendance centre requirement for any young person who fails to pay a fine. Custody for under-18s is the one measure that will not be open to the courts as a means of fine enforcement. However, short of custody, a range of options is on offer. They will be a last resort for young people who deliberately flout attendance orders and have no good reason for doing that. Clearly, tough sanctions are available to the courts.

Clearly, the Secretary of State has still not answered the question. We look forward to a proper answer in Committee. However, I believe that an individual who is determined not to be in education or pay fines will also be determined to flout the orders. At what point will the state use coercive power to ensure that the individual is punished by restraining their liberty and placing them in custody? If that cannot happen, there is no effective deterrent. That is a hole in the measure’s heart. Weak enforcement does not secure greater participation and strong enforcement risks making criminals of those individuals.

That part of the Bill is immensely important, and the hon. Gentleman might know that I also have doubts about the compulsory aspect. He is making a powerful case, as did the Secretary of State, about how we fail some of the poorest children in our communities. Although he challenges the Secretary of State for not replying, we have not learned a great deal from the hon. Gentleman about how a Conservative Government would change things for the poorest children in our society. This may not be the right time, but I make this plea—that he bid for an Opposition day debate on the subject.

I should be absolutely delighted to have such a debate, whether in Opposition or Government time. I always enjoy dialogue with the right hon. Gentleman. We have proposed differential funding, as have the Liberal Democrats, to favour children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and we are anxious in particular that the testing regime should be changed to ensure that every child who can is reading by the age of six, in order to deal with the epidemic of illiteracy.

The debate must go beyond concentrating more resources on the poorest children. If they do not go to school after the age of 12, as many poorer children do not, there is little point talking about concentrating extra resources on them, as schools will just spend the money on somebody else.

That is an interesting point. I suspect that it is part of another debate, which I shall enjoy having with the right hon. Gentleman whenever the opportunity arises.

I am conscious that I have taken a great deal of time and trespassed on the House’s patience. I have done so in order to take as many interventions as possible—I do not believe that I have refused a single one—but I recognise that many Back Benchers wish to take part in the debate, so with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall bring down the guillotine on interventions. I apologise to those who still wish to intervene. Perhaps there will be another opportunity for them to speak.

On ensuring that participation is maximised, I have pointed out the weaknesses so far in the case being made for the Government’s strategy. There are others as well. We know that the Government are committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships. We also know, however, that apprenticeships offered by private sector organisations such as BT are massively oversubscribed, whereas apprenticeships sponsored by the Government, sadly, do not have the same completion levels. Unless the Government can improve their vocational offerings—unless they can make apprenticeships more attractive, increase the workplace element and ensure that they become a better route to work for those who take them—there will still be insufficient incentive for many young people to pursue what could, in the right hands, be a very attractive course.

Perhaps this is a matter for Committee, but we are anxious to ensure that increased participation is the goal. We recognise that international comparisons can teach us much, but in the economy most similar to ours, Australia—in both Western Australia and Queensland—people can satisfy the terms of the legislation by continuing to work full-time without training. It would be interesting to hear the Government’s arguments why an individual in fruitful employment who might wish to postpone training until after 18 should be criminalised. I am sure that the Government have an answer; I look forward to hearing it. One of our key concerns is that the Bill may price 16 and 17-year-olds out of the marketplace as a result of the costs of compliance, because every firm that hires them will have to monitor where they are when they go to college and find a replacement for them during the 20 per cent. of the working week when they are not there. The additional costs will be considerable. As I pointed out earlier, the CBI argues that firms offering valuable work opportunities will be discouraged from offering jobs by the duties to police participation.

The Secretary of State cannot shake his head—that is what the CBI argues. It is specifically concerned that the new duties may deter employers from employing young people, and it argues that the jobs may go to older individuals or people from other countries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) pointed out, the CBI represents larger firms. They may be able to absorb the costs, but 80 per cent. of 16 and 17-year-olds work in smaller firms, where it will be more difficult to do so. We must therefore ensure that any regulation of small business is as light-touch as possible. We will table amendments in Committee to ensure that the concerns of the CBI and others are met.

Our approach to legislation is guided by our desire to look beyond the hype and publicity, and to get to the nub of the proposals. We are committed to doing what we can to encourage the maximum level of fruitful participation in education, helping as many people as possible to acquire skills and enhance their qualifications. Our principal concern is that the Government have not concentrated sufficiently on incentives, and are over-reliant on a particular path of compulsion. We want to ensure in Committee that there is appropriate time for scrutiny so that the Government can clear up ambiguities, resolve tensions and perhaps even accept amendments that secure the better operation of our education system. I look forward to hearing more from Ministers as the Bill makes its hopefully—unimpeded, I hope—way towards Committee.

May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute time limit on Back Benchers’ contributions?

Given the time constraints on Back Benchers, although the time allowed is longer than usual, I shall plunge in and say that this debate will be regarded as an historic occasion. Historians will, I hope, look at it and suggest that something rather important happened. As long as we have a successful vote at the end of the debate, it will be regarded as a step in the march—a slow one, I suspect—towards the Bill becoming an Act.

I have a strong personal involvement in the Bill, and I pressed the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) on the age at which someone ceases to be a child and becomes an adult, because it is an important point. I have always believed—Opposition Members, including Front Benchers, who have served on the Select Committees that I have chaired know that I passionately believe in this—that a child is still a child until 18. Every child matters, and the outcomes of Every Child Matters should apply to every young person until they are 18. There is a great danger in society of our diminishing the number of years during which a child is considered to be a child. There is a serious challenge, and I agree with some of the voices that suggest that childhood is shrinking: we want children to develop earlier, to go to school and formal lessons earlier; indeed, we want to make them adults before they have the experience and judgment to become adults. I, for one, would not vote to reduce the age of suffrage to 16.

There has been a long campaign on Leitch. Lord Leitch’s review of skills is an important document, and running through it are two strands that we all consider important. First, an individual’s potential should be fully exploited, and we should be able to extend the period of time in which they find what they are good at, and discover what qualities they have and apply them. They cannot do so without extremely good help and advice, and the more inquiries the Children, Schools and Families Committee and its predecessor carried out, the more I realised that the quality of teaching and advice that young people receive during their development is important. To be fair, individual potential and its fulfilment are what brought most of us into the House. In my generation, I saw the waste of many people with whom I went to school—and I suspect that you did, too, Madam Deputy Speaker— who did not have my opportunities. The vast majority did not have the opportunity to exploit their potential.

A secondary aspect of Leitch is the fact that we want a more effective and prosperous economy and society. The more educated people are, the less prone they are to criminal and antisocial behaviour; the more they tend to volunteer; and the more they become multidimensional members of society, which is what we want. To develop Marcuse’s concept, it is not one-dimensional man, but multidimensional men and women whom we should seek to produce.

My personal involvement goes back to May when, supported by some Members who are in the House this afternoon, I introduced a private Member's Bill; one of the hon. Members who supported that Bill is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench today. We tried in a different way, because it was a private Member's Bill, to change what happens to young people at 16 and to introduce a system of proper assessment running through to 16. Under that Bill, there would have been a proper assessment at 16 of the abilities and potential of young people. Even today there is still the possibility of people just fading away from education. They may have some exam results, but what is needed is a full evaluation of what they have contributed not just academically but to the life of the school and to their own development. That still does not exist. This Bill may move us in that direction.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will remember that this is a Bill to promote the idea of young people staying in education, training or work-based learning until 18. It is not forcing young people to stay on in school until they are 18. That is not the purpose of the Bill. I would not be supporting it if it were.

If we take the long view, the interesting and refreshing thing about the Bill is that, unlike most Bills, which come through to make a law that will affect our constituents’ lives in a few months, so that we start running the country in a different way, it will have a long run-in—to 2013 and 2015. There is plenty of scope. There are some real problems around that; we would be daft if we did not accept that. Some have been articulated already, but the fact of the matter is that we have time to get it right. We have time to do more research, and to do pilots.

I suggested to the Secretary of State outside this place recently that we could set up a commission to look at the ways in which we can make the value of what young people do post-16—

Does my hon. Friend agree that this Bill, along with the children's plan and the Every Child Matters programme, is helping us to undo the destruction of the Tory years in this country?

I hear what my hon. Friend, who is a member of our Committee, says. I understand where she is coming from, but I am trying today to get away from that and from saying, “They did that so we are doing this.” If she will forgive me, therefore, I will not follow her down that path. I want to make the broader point that we have time to get this important change in our lives and fundamental change in our society right. As I said to the Secretary of State, we could have a commission of talented employers and people in public life—all sorts of people—to explore some of the things that we could do to keep young people involved in education and training. Young people do not seem to be accepting that at the moment. I suggested that, in parallel, we should have a shadow commission of young people planning what would work for them. That will be important.

The next point I want to make is a serious one. I want this fundamental change in legislation affecting young people to change the culture. That is what it is about. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who spoke for the Opposition, made quite a good speech but I thought that he missed the fact that we have a chance today to change the culture of our society and the parameters of how we start—what we think is a civilised thing for people up to 18 to do.

Most of the people with whom many people in the House mix will have had the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations until 18. For goodness’ sake, some of us have children who have not gone into paid employment until 26, which is the case with my youngest daughter. There is nothing wrong with that. I celebrate the fact that my children, like those of many Members, will be able to carry on having a valuable learning experience that makes them highly relevant to our society and enables them to enjoy a good life, but I want that for the poorest people in my constituency, too. I want everyone in the country to have that opportunity, and unless there is a change in the law it will not happen for a high proportion of people—about a third.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to make sure that young people from more challenged family backgrounds have those opportunities is to have good counselling services in schools and educational establishments to help them through some of the problems that stop them developing their talents?

My hon. Friend tempts me down a path that I will take. One of my few reservations about the Bill relates to the provisions on information, guidance and advice. My private Member’s Bill dealt with the quality of such information. I co-chair the Skills Commission, which is looking into information, guidance and advice, because those services are not too good at present. There is some good advice, and there are some good Connexions services, but there is a big black hole in the middle.

A revolutionary change is going on. Many young people, and older people, now find information, guidance and advice on the internet from sites such as Hotcourses and Monster. There are many innovative sources of advice on careers and personal development. There has been a revolution in positive psychology and life coaching. When the Prime Minister was still Chancellor of the Exchequer, I once told him that I wanted a life coach and a personal trainer for every young person in the country. He looked at me a little oddly, but that may have been because he had just sat next to a life coach at a long, boring dinner.

We need high-quality information, guidance and advice. The last time local authorities had responsibility for those services they did not do very well, so we must make sure that they do well this time. I hear that many local authorities are not even putting services out to tender, so I want to look carefully at the quality of information, guidance and advice under the Bill. It must be of the very best, because all barriers can be transcended if people are switched on to the internet and have access to positive psychology experts and life coaches. That is what I want for all young people. Developing world skills is a serious challenge and I want to change the culture in which we operate.

Leitch said that by 2020 the number of unskilled jobs—3.4 million at present—will be down to 600,000, and there will be fewer and fewer such jobs.

I accept my hon. Friend’s goal that people should expand their horizons and fulfil their best self. He tells us that there will be a dramatic drop in the number of unskilled jobs, yet there has been a massive increase in the economy since 2004 and most of the new jobs—most of which are unskilled—are going to newcomers, so if his prediction is fulfilled something will be going wrong with British industry. Does he agree?

I shall have to look more closely at the research because it is contradictory, but I believe—as the Government are supposed to do—in evidence-based policy, so my right hon. Friend leads me nicely to my next point.

Professor Alison Wolf is a leading critic of the Bill. I have worked with her over the years on a number of issues and have much respect for her, but she and I disagree fundamentally about the Bill. However, that does not mean that we should not take her qualifications seriously. I wish she had not published her recent paper for Policy Exchange, which is well known for leaning to the right of British politics. Her report would have had more credibility if it had been published elsewhere. However, that does not gainsay the fact that she is a highly respected academic and we should take her worries and concerns seriously. But hers is not the only research; I would like it to have been published in a more academic context because an academic paper is published after peer review and gives a much more thoughtful look at the relevant issue.

We have time to look at and meet Alison Wolf’s concerns in the coming period. One of the things that she harks on about a little that particularly worries me is the sort of analysis that we had when we introduced the minimum wage. People said that it would restrict employers, and I heard echoes of that from Conservative Front Benchers today. As my hon. Friends will remember, when we discussed the minimum wage, before the hon. Member for Surrey Heath came to the House, there were voices saying that it would be such a regulatory change that we were going to force people out of business and that small businesses would suffer, although big businesses would cope. That counsel of despair has not turned out to be true. It is also a counsel of despair to say that small businesses do not benefit from highly trained and skilled workers; we all do. The challenge is that we have moved to a much more highly skilled and competitive local and international economy. People expect higher standards all the time in everything—in health, education and retailing. There have to be higher standards in every possible area of life, and that means people trained to a higher level. In one sense, we must ignore the Alison Wolf arguments and go along with the view that what I have mentioned must happen to make the change.

Wolf and others whom I have heard in recent days and weeks ignore the fact that there has been an increasingly rapid and fundamental change in what is happening in 14-to-19 education. There are a large number of students between the ages of 14 and 16 at further education colleges today. More and more such young people are partly in work experience, partly at FE college and perhaps only based at school. That has been a real change. Education for 14 to 19-year-olds is also changing rapidly. Apprenticeships are vital and we must expand them. Work-based learning is also so important. What is wrong with society when someone with a day a week of training is not employed?

In the last seconds of my contribution I want to make two quick points. First, I have worries about sanctions. Perhaps they have to be there, although I hope that they are never used. I hope that in the coming years we look carefully at opportunities to have a society in which the courses, opportunities and options are of so high a quality that we never have to touch a sanction.

Finally, I want to mention in passing special educational needs. SEN provision for 16-plus and 18-plus is a disgrace. The Bill will wake us up to giving real opportunity and choice for SEN students post-16 and post-18.

It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee; he made an interesting speech that touched on some extremely important points. I am also delighted that he mentioned Alison Wolf’s excellent report, which was published at the weekend. We will all want to come back to it once we have had the chance to consider some of its detailed points in Committee.

I thank the Secretary of State, following his consensus-building speech—I think that that was the intention, although I am not sure. He passed me a biographical note about Herbert Fisher, of whom I confess I had not heard. Apparently, he was a predecessor of my hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield, Hallam as far back as 1916, and he advocated a Bill for compulsory education until age 14. I am not quite sure what point the Secretary of State was seeking to make. Nobody doubts that individuals aged 14 are children, and back in 1916 the voting age was 21. Are today’s Liberal Democrats supposed to be influenced by the fact that somebody in one of our seats in one part of the country voted in a particular way 100 years ago?

Instead of looking at Sheffield MPs in 1916, when there was a very different age of majority in very different circumstances, perhaps we should look at—perhaps the Secretary of State should be looking over his shoulder at—some of the Members who represent Sheffield today. I am advised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), who is right about most of these things, that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) represents a constituency with one of the lowest participation rates between the ages of 16 and 18 of any constituency in England. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) noted, the right hon. Gentleman said, not 100 years ago or in 1916 but last November,

“we need to look at why these young people”


“why they truant, why they find the traditional education system unacceptable”—

the hon. Member for Surrey Heath missed out that bit of the quote. He went on to say that

“the idea ... that deeply damaged young men and women could somehow be fined and it would make them go into education or training”


“cloud cuckoo land”.

I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman has visited many schools; indeed, I have been involved in education. Does he agree that a major factor in young people’s alienation from school at a very young age is a sense of failure from not getting to grips early on with elementary reading and mathematics, and that if that can be overcome such demoralisation will not take place?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I think he is suggesting, like the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, that we need to look first at the reasons why most young people who leave school at age 16 leave the education system. That is largely a consequence of the lack of skills that they have acquired up to the age of 16, as well as other multiple disadvantages. They usually leave because of a failure to be able to exploit the existing educational opportunities. We should consider the root of those problems first.

In a moment.

I think there is common ground in all parts of the House, certainly among Liberal Democrats, that there should be an aspiration to give young people a good education and every opportunity to stay on not only to 18 but beyond that, and to ensure that they are a success. Some of the statistics right across the country, particularly in the most deprived communities, show just how far away we are from giving people genuine educational opportunities at 16 and beyond. For example, the latest figures published by the Government show that, on the basis of their own chosen measure—the number of youngsters who get five A* to C GCSEs, including English and maths 84 per cent. of white British boys from poor families are failing to get those qualifications. We need to think about why there is such a chasm of educational disadvantage between those in the more affluent areas and those in deprived areas.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for not giving way immediately, because my question now makes more sense. He referred to some of these young people being damaged, and perhaps some of them are, but what struck me, when I talked to a large number of them over the summer holidays, was how intelligent they were, yet many of them had not been at school for years.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I am sure that he is right about the talents that many of these young people have. Later in my speech, I want to consider some of the categories who currently leave education at 16. They have very different characteristics and disadvantages, and we need to ensure that the systems that we put in place are suited to their needs, not merely to some blueprint passed down from on high by the Government, whether or not the CBI agrees with it.

I want to focus on the principal disagreement we have with the Bill, which concerns compulsion and potential criminalisation. I want to consider whether that is the right way to deliver the Government’s appropriate aspirations. There are many measures in the Bill with which we agree strongly, and to which we shall return in Committee, but today we are discussing the overall principles of the Bill, which is why I want to focus on those particular points.

My view is that the compulsion and criminalisation in the Bill are not the right means to deliver the Government’s objectives. Because we believe in the Bill’s aspirations, and in many of its components, we are not going to divide the House on the issue of criminalisation and compulsion today. I hope, however, that we can persuade the Government over the weeks and months ahead, not only in this place but in Committee and in the other place, that they have got some key decisions wrong, and I also hope that we can secure amendments to the Bill that will make it more acceptable.

At the moment, the Bill infringes liberty, fails to address many of the real causes of educational disadvantage, and could disadvantage some young people with regard to their employment prospects. I fear that when politics students in years to come look back at the Labour Government of 1997 to 2010, they will find that this Bill—

Whether there will be a 2009 or 2010 date depends on what confidence, or foolishness, the Prime Minister has. I am not going to speculate on that. At the moment, I am a 2010 man, but the polls are very volatile at the moment.

People looking back in years to come will see in this Bill a lot of the characteristics they associate with this Government and this Prime Minister—both the good characteristics and the bad. On the good side, they will see the passion that has driven this Government right from the very beginning—or perhaps more accurately, from 1999, when the Government were first able to take action that broke from the past—which is the desire to make Britain a fairer place, and to break down the barriers of disadvantage. My party feels extremely passionate about such matters. However, we also see aspects in the Bill of what has, I fear, become more characteristic under the current Prime Minister, which is an illiberal desire to micro-manage and to believe that those in Whitehall know best. As Alison Wolf’s paper shows very clearly, it is often the case that attempts to deliver improvements in services from on high in Whitehall are not only in breach of people’s freedom, but also counterproductive.

I would like to start not with the practical issues related to the Bill, which are extremely important to my party, but with the issue of principle. The Bill will extend state control over many people in a significant way. It will certainly do so over 16 and 17-year-olds. It could extend control over parents, although there is confusion, or doubt, in the Government’s mind about what responsibilities parents of 16 and 17-year-olds should have. It will certainly extend the obligations on local authorities and employers. The Secretary of State has sought to give the impression that there is some great consensus, which seems to consist largely of himself and the CBI—

Indeed. No doubt the Secretary of State will be able to cite others who are in favour of this element of compulsion. However, he could have cited not only the principal Opposition parties as opponents of compulsion and criminalisation, but many other bodies with which his party has been associated in the past—in some cases, the distant past—such as the TUC, the National Union of Teachers, the Children’s Society, the Professional Association of Teachers and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. All of those bodies are opposed to the way in which the Government intend to deliver what in other respects is an admirable aspiration.

In an earlier response, the Secretary of State did not do justice to the serious issue of the way in which we treat 16 and 17-year-olds in our society. They are not treated completely as individuals with adult rights, but they have many of the rights of adults. They have the power to start work, get married, be parents, or change their name; they are allowed to be pilots, to gamble, to join a trade union, to leave home and to apply for a passport. The Government are now, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said earlier, and as I implied in my question, proposing to give young people the vote at 16.

One wonders what the ideology is of a Government who think that young people of 16 or 17 should have the power to vote and determine the future of our country, as the Labour party does, but who also manage to hold the idea that those young people are not equipped to make judgments about their own best interests in education and training. There is an inconsistency in the Government’s approach and in their attitude towards liberty that I assume must reflect a confusion in their view of the age at which young people can be considered adults. I presume that the Secretary of State was not saying that if the CBI decided it would be advantageous for young people to be in education until the ages of 19, 20 or 21, the Government would consider legislating to force people to stay in education beyond even the age of 18. I assume that a confusion about when one acquires adult rights is behind that aspect of the Bill.

We think that the measure is illiberal, that criminalising many young people in that age group will be counter-productive and that it will be difficult to pursue such issues through the courts. I also suggest to the Secretary of State not only that the Government are not yet able to keep all the youngsters whom they would like to in education until even the age of 16, but that he would be hard pressed to find any other country in the world, including those where there is compulsion, where all those in the age cohort up to 18 are in education and training.

I have two points. First, the hon. Gentleman seems to assume that there has been a vote in the parliamentary Labour party or the Labour party at large about votes at 16, but there has been no such vote. I am old enough to remember occasions when there was blood on the floor in debates in the Labour party, and there might be again if that issue is debated. Secondly, has his party had a vote on leaving education or training at 18?

Yes. One of the characteristics of my party, for good or for ill, is that we have votes on such issues at our democratic conferences. It is party policy to extend the vote in the way I have described. I am sorry that the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee was unwilling to acknowledge the Government’s position on this matter. I was just quoting the deputy leader of the Labour party, who, as Leader of the House, too, I assume speaks with some authority on such matters.

I hope that when the Minister for Schools and Learners or the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Science—[Hon. Members: “Skills.”] Sorry, I am still learning. I do not know how long that division will last, but I am sure that in time I will master the names of the new Departments. I hope that when the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills sums up the debate, he will deal with the issue seriously and not simply use the rather feeble excuse that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families used earlier, which is that the CBI believes that 18 is the right age. I have great respect for the CBI, but I do not think it appropriate to take our ideology or standards on basic liberties from any business lobby, however distinguished.

It is my understanding that the Liberal Democrats’ position is that adulthood should start at 16—that is, that the ages for various things should be rationalised at that age. Does that thinking underpin the hon. Gentleman’s argument, or is he developing it on the basis of the current age for adulthood of 18?

My thinking is that it will be extraordinarily bizarre when the Secretary of State or his representatives knock on the door of an individual who is not in employment or training but who turns out to be married, a voter and a parent, and when they tell that person that, despite all the other responsibilities that they have acquired, which they might be exercising perfectly effectively, the Government do not like the way they are managing their educational or training affairs.

The hon. Gentleman has some consistency. He is opposing the current reform, just as he opposed the new deal, the windfall tax, the minimum wage and tax credits—all of which, in different ways, imposed rights and responsibilities on young people or employees—but how about pensions and pension contributions? Is it illiberal to require adults to make pension contributions for their savings?

The reason I supported that legislation—which I am not sure the Secretary of State was so keen on when it started out following Lord Turner’s commission, as he was attempting to sabotage it from the Back Benches—is that it contains a power to opt out. There is a power of choice in the proposals for personal accounts. If there were no power to opt out, I would ardently oppose the proposals, particularly because 50 per cent. of pensioners will in future be subject to means-testing, and automatically enrolling them in a pension scheme from which they would get no advantage would be wrong, philosophically and practically—[Interruption.] I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is trying to intervene on me.

We have been stuck in this important territory for quite a while, in my speech and in those of others, and I would now like to move on to consider some of the practical issues that affect this group of young people, as they are at least as significant as others we have been discussing. I have used these issues as tests when thinking about how the proposals might be adopted in my constituency, and whether they would be effective.

We need to start by considering who constitutes this group of young people who, sadly, leave the education and training system at the age of 16 and, as a consequence, probably end up with much more limited opportunities, much more limited incomes and many other associated problems in later life. We know who these people are; we do not have to guess. They are often from highly disadvantaged backgrounds and will often have secured few or no qualifications. They might well already have a history of truancy; the truancy figures are extremely high in schools in many parts of the country, which is relevant to the issue that we are discussing. They will probably have high levels of special needs, with emotional or mental health problems in some cases. They might be single parents. There is a whole issue about how we should deal with people aged 16 or 17 who have had a child, and we shall no doubt come back to that in Committee. In some cases, they will be caring for a close relative. Sadly, many young people end up in that situation, sometimes because of terminal illness in the family. They might have a drug addiction or be involved in crime. They could be in prison.

The young people who will be affected by the Bill might also be in employment and doing extremely well, but in a small business with no accredited training provision. They might none the less be learning the disciplines of the workplace and getting the motivation that they never received from an education system that sometimes seems completely irrelevant to those who do not have an orientation towards the subjects that we have been teaching in schools for a long time. The Government are, however, gradually starting to tackle that issue.

In regard to the practical needs of all those people, we must consider three issues. First, are we dealing with the real causes of their leaving the education and training system at 16? Are we focusing on dealing with the causes of the problem, rather than treating the symptoms? There are all sorts of problems in society that we could try to solve simply by passing a law to abolish the problem on paper, without actually dealing with the substance.

Alison Wolf’s excellent paper, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee referred earlier, lists in one of its later chapters a whole series of schemes—some of them Government-backed—with a proven record of having real benefits in tackling educational disadvantage early. She says:

“There is no need to settle for an education policy with such poor outcomes. Well-demonstrated and highly positive benefits could be expected from using the money”—

that is, the money to be spent on implementing the Bill—

“in other ways.”

For example, she talks about

“intensive one-to-one reading tuition for struggling primary school children”,

which has a well-proven record in dealing with educational disadvantage. She also talks about the funding of tuition in English as a second language, and about ensuring that there is an educational entitlement to the two additional years of education or training, which people will be able to take at a more flexible time. I shall return to that last point in a moment.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath touched on another proposal that would tackle disadvantage, which, sadly, the Government have yet to take up, and that is the pupil premium. I am glad that the Conservatives are showing some sympathy with this idea, although I am not sure that that sympathy has yet been illustrated by the shadow Chancellor providing any money to fund the proposal. Frankly, a pupil premium policy with no funding associated with it will not be effective in challenging educational disadvantage. A question that we can legitimately ask the Government is whether it is right to bring in this draconian extension of Government powers over individuals, their families and businesses without having done much more to invest in those areas and without having put in place a coherent structure for the curriculum and qualifications which meets the needs of these young people.

The second issue for Ministers is why the Government have rejected the idea of adopting a similar course in terms of aspiration, while building in more freedom and flexibility by making this an entitlement rather than an obligation at 16 to 18. It is absolutely right to see it as unacceptable that the most affluent youngsters in our society should have free education right from the age of three or four up to 18—with potentially further subsidies beyond that in higher education—when many of the most disadvantaged leave the education system at 16 without having the ability to draw down on that funding.

This may help me to get my thoughts together for my concluding response. The hon. Gentleman talks about extending a flexible entitlement, but has he not noticed that the Bill establishes a statutory right for funding for a first level 2 qualification throughout working life, and, indeed, a statutory right to funding for a level 3 qualification for those who are not in work up to the age of 25? The Bill thus goes considerably beyond a focus on 16 to 18-year-olds by establishing the very type of lifelong entitlement that the hon. Gentleman is asking for.

We will come back to that in Committee. I welcome those very sensible aspects of the Bill, but it is clear from Alison Wolf’s report and from talking to people in the further education sector that there are some flexibilities and freedoms in respect of these entitlements that could be dealt with far more fully in the Bill, so we will seek to amend it to deal with that problem.

I put to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills a point put to me by many head teachers in my constituency. In expressing their views of the Bill, many of them told me that many among this small core of young people with multiple disadvantages are very difficult to engage in education beyond 16; indeed, they may have left school or disengaged completely by that age. They are the type of people we can easily end up chasing through the courts for ever and getting nowhere. However, I have been struck by how many of the same head teachers have told me that they often see the same youngsters later on in their lives—at 18, 19 and 20—much readier to engage with education and much readier to benefit from it. We will want to ensure—I believe that this is the Secretary of State’s point—that those individuals have every freedom and opportunity to take up their chances then, when they are ready for it, rather than being forced down a course at 16 in order to allow the Government to publish a set of tables with a zero figure.

My former noble Friend Earl Russell, now sadly deceased, often commented in the other place on the extent to which Government legislation, particularly top-down legislation, does not deal with the world as it is in its full complexity and richness, as we try to legislate for large categories of people without thinking about the reality on the ground. When we return in Committee to the list of people likely to fall into this category, I hope that we can deal with their real circumstances, acknowledge the extent to which they may find it genuinely difficult to engage at 16 or 17 and provide them with some real choices.

I have other practical concerns, some of which are similar to those expressed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I hope that we can discuss this issue seriously in Committee. I noticed the Minister for Schools and Learners nodding in recognition of the point earlier, although he was doubtless not conceding anything by doing so. Although the bigger employers organisations can already easily supply accredited education and training for youngsters in their employment—often to a very high standard indeed—there may well be youngsters of 16 or 17 who find education a totally unrewarding experience and have no interest in engaging with it.

We saw earlier that in respect of accessing education, there are also huge transport gaps in some parts of the country. Youngsters there might be in employment that we would consider to be low-skill, and they might not be getting accreditation for it, but it might be teaching them valuable disciplines and it might lead to accreditation later. In trying, for the best of reasons, to ensure that those people have accredited qualifications, we need to be careful that we do not drive them out of the labour market and discover, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) indicated earlier, that their jobs are taken by many of the extremely energetic and effective economic migrants who are increasingly coming here from other parts of the European Union.

In relation to the exchange between the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Committee and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, it is useful to note the suggestion in Alison Wolf’s report that the figures that the Government often cite about the small demand for people with no or low qualifications in the future are not based, as I understand it, on an estimate of what the demands will be, but on estimates of how many people in the labour force will have no qualifications, which is a totally different thing.

My final point is on the assessment of costs and benefits contained in the documents published with the Bill. The paper that Alison Wolf has produced challenges the Government’s cost-benefit analysis, which has alleged benefits for each cohort of about £2.4 billion. She suggests that the figures are grossly optimistic and that the range of possibilities is centred around the measures not having a net benefit but potentially a cost. As we consider the Bill in Committee, I hope that we will scrutinise the Government’s assumptions closely, because if Alison Wolf is correct to say that the cost-benefit analysis of the proposals is unduly optimistic, some of the other educational proposals that I mentioned earlier might have a far greater effect.

On that cost-benefit issue, does my hon. Friend accept that a likely effect of the compulsion will be that youngsters are put on courses that, though vocational, might be wholly inappropriate in terms of economic benefit or fitting them for the wider world?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. We must make sure that the qualifications and accreditation are relevant to the needs of young people, and that they have a real economic value. We do not want to end up with a system that simply creates paper qualifications for the sake of the Government being able to meet particular targets.

We support the aspirations in the Bill, and will give the Government the benefit of the doubt by not dividing the House on it today. We will, however, bring forward many amendments in the course of the scrutiny of the Bill. In particular, those will deal with the problems of compulsion and criminalisation, and will be based on some of our concerns about the Government’s draconian and top-down approach to implementing the legislation. We hope that they will heed some of the warnings raised today in order to get a Bill that can command support and consent from both sides of the House.

I am very pleased to take part in this debate on a Bill that I am sure will be seen as historic and in a direct line from the Fisher Bill of 1918 and the Butler Bill of 1944. It is interesting to note that both those Bills commanded support throughout the House on Second Reading and were subject to a non-contested vote as they proceeded to become Acts. As a Bill of this kind obviously requires cross-party approval if it is to achieve its ambitions, I am very pleased that neither of the main Opposition parties will oppose its Second Reading. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) seems to be nodding—perhaps I misunderstood what he said, but he hoped that that would be the case.

Yes, indeed. Excellent. Then we will have unimpeded progress to the Second Reading. There are many issues to be discussed, not least those on which—rightly, in some respects—the Front-Bench spokesmen have concentrated. The possibility of the criminalisation of 16-year-olds has been raised, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—the Select Committee Chair—and others have given their views on votes for 16-year-olds. No doubt those issues will be hotly debated in Committee, and will be the subject of amendments and new clauses.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on what I consider a courageous measure, but my worry is that it poses an historic challenge to us to achieve something far beyond anything that we have achieved in the past 20 or 30 years in seeking to depoliticise this period of people’s education and concentrate on the cultural aspects. We all agree that skills are vital, and Lord Leitch’s report crystallised that national consensus, but I am less preoccupied with his target of the attainment of graduate status by 40 per cent. of the population than with those at the bottom end of the scale. All who have spoken so far have stressed that our real problem is the 20 per cent. who still leave school at 16 with no skills, although we have considerably increased the percentage of people who gain GCSEs. I cannot remember what the figure was before, but it is now about 71 per cent. If we are to make sense of this opportunity we must refocus our attentions as a nation through social policy, taxation policy and, not least, the education system itself.

The one disappointing aspect of the present position, around which we must somehow find a way, is the division of responsibility between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I happen to consider them both very sensible and co-operative Ministers, and I think that if they give a lead the civil servants will choose not to indulge in a turf war, but the danger exists none the less. I mean no disrespect to the civil servants concerned when I say that given the huge amounts that we spend on skills—some £11 billion a year, £7 billion being spent by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and £4 billion by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—we are not receiving anything like the return that we should receive.

I entirely agree with the caution expressed by my hon. Friend, but would he care to comment on an exchange that I had with the previous permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills in the Select Committee when the splitting of the Department was announced? When he said that there was good co-operation at the top, I pointed out that it was what happened lower down in the structure that was crucial, and the way in which middle-ranking civil servants in the two new Departments co-operated with each other.

I will follow my hon. Friend down that interesting route to some extent, but not too far. I merely say that it is not enough for Ministers to agree, and that forcing that agreement down the line will be a great deal more difficult. However, it goes deeper even than that. We simply do not have the experience of successful policies to solve the terrible problem of under-achievement and the absence of skills among 20 per cent. of youngsters leaving school. That is a scar on the national conscience, and on our competence to spend money. The money is there. It is not a question of piling in more money, which I think would be the worst thing we could do. What we need is a hard look at the issue, and I feel that the Government are bound to take a hard look at it.

The fact that the Government have made continuing education a statutory requirement for the children concerned, with all the problems to which that may lead, is not my preoccupation today. I want to focus on how we can make the Bill a success in the next five years, not on how we can get it through the House. The Government have entered into a statutory obligation to make apprenticeships available to all those going through the school system—particularly those aged between 16 and 18—who have met the minimum requirements. At this point, I see no real prospect of the Government’s making that legal engagement a reality.

We should look back at what has been achieved so far, and look forward to the numbers that will be involved in the process that the Government propose. I do not know the precise numbers—I do not think they have been published—but I know that in 2005-06 there were 155,000 apprenticeships, an increase of about 1 per cent. on the previous year. As was observed in the other place, we are now seeking to increase the proportion of 16 to18-year-olds in apprenticeships from 7 or 8 per cent. to 20 per cent. in five years. That is a threefold increase.

The task is huge, and it is one that the Government have imposed on themselves a legal obligation to fulfil. That is a serious commitment. We have two Ministers responsible for fulfilling it, and we have a record that, in itself, holds out little prospect of its being achieved. It is important for us to understand the position from which we start, and recognise the size of the problem that we must overcome. I believe that we can do it—certainly it can be done—but if all we do is come up with more schemes, more money and more new initiatives, we will not succeed.

I have a suggestion, which may or may not be appropriate for inclusion in amendments or new clauses in Committee. I propose, merely for consideration, that we remove the task from the Departments, although of course progress would be reported to them. What we need is a national apprenticeships service headed by someone with real fire in his or her belly, whose life would be dedicated to delivering this obligation. The service could be carved out of the Learning and Skills Council—I do not care where it comes from—but it should have its own budget and report very clearly to both Secretaries of State, as well as reporting annually to the House. It should state its progress towards achieving the Government’s five-year objective. No doubt many objections will be raised to my proposal, but I think that the Government should give it fair consideration. If we can find the right people to be members of the organisation, give it a budget and allow it freedom to go out and do the things that are necessary, there may be some hope of our achieving the target.

Two fundamental things are necessary. First, we must re-establish a decent counselling and advisory service for schools. I do not want to go into the history of what happened to the old service, and I have not followed it in great detail, but those who have done so will confirm that it collapsed, and under this and earlier Governments has not been restored to anything like the required level. Secondly, we shall need a proselytising effort by businesses. I do not mean just the large companies, although the hon. Member for Surrey Heath mentioned BT, which has a fantastic apprenticeship scheme. The big companies can certainly do more, but we need action through the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses—serious action throughout the country.

We must end the vicious circle, the Catch 22, whereby employers say they will not play as big a role as they should because the kids are not ready, as they cannot read or write—which, unfortunately, is largely true—while the schools say they cannot find local companies, or even big companies, offering anywhere near the number of places that they need for the children who want apprenticeships, which is also true. Our starting point should be the establishment of the counselling and advisory service, but there should also be work among industries, small and big, and in schools.

I also recommend that several other things be done more widely throughout the country; they should be considered in Committee. If we are serious about getting employers to act in this area, some subsidy should be available to them to engage youngsters in proper apprenticeships. I am not going to put a figure on it. This does not need more money; it needs a redirection of the huge skills budget. Radical though that may appear, it would take us a big step forward. It would engage the attention and the sympathies of employers, who would believe, for once, that we were serious about what we intended to do. Our approach must also include an element—one day a week, 350 hours a year or whatever figure one wants to put on it—of training off the job.

We should start to put together a package that addresses the problems involved in turning the Bill into reality. Apprenticeships play a central role; I cannot see how else we will get these youngsters into work I am told that a huge figure of some 10 per cent. of the population between 18 and 22 are simply doing nothing in the economy, so we face a massive problem. As I have said, we can overcome it, but that will happen only if we take a clear look at the problems that we face.

I noted in particular the remarks made by Alison Wolf in her article for Policy Exchange, to which other hon. Members have referred. She obviously has her view, and there is potentially much truth in what she says. Things could well turn out as she says, but it is our job and the Government’s job to make sure that they do not. It is as well that the Government understand that there is widespread scepticism throughout the country—in industry and in schools—about whether we can make this a success. I think that everyone in this House would agree that we are talking about a good aspiration, and nobody could say that we should not attempt to achieve it. The danger that we face is going down the same old routes and trying the same old things that have failed in the past. We must take a new look at this issue.

The Government should look at the idea of a group—not a quango; nothing like that—charged with the job not of supervising, co-ordinating or advising, but of having a statutory responsibility to deliver the apprenticeships at the level we need. That will not be easy. If we were to go down that route, both Secretaries of State involved would have to accept their differences.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills is responsible for those up to 24, and the great success of the Train to Gain scheme is testimony that we have done better in that area. However, we will never cope with the major problem of children leaving school with no qualifications by Train to Gain. We must tackle the problem, as we did when we first came into government, with the primary schools. If we want to improve secondary education on an ongoing basis, we must start with the primary schools. If we want to get this unemployment thing right, we must get it right in the secondary schools. I have mentioned counselling, but it is no good people having it at 16—it must start at 14. The children must see a meaningful link between what they do in school and a job that they will get. They must say, “That is a clear link. If I pursue it, I will succeed.”

I do not have much time to add to my comments. I shall merely say to the Government that the Bill is tremendously courageous, far-sighted, brave and bold, but if it is to be a success, it needs a radical change in how we set up apprenticeships and how we deliver them to children in schools. I hate to say it, but unless we change what we have been doing in the past, we shall continue to spend an awful lot of money and not get a good return.

I am pleased to be able to participate in this important debate on education and skills, and to follow the interesting analysis of apprenticeships and the way forward described by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). I congratulate the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families on making a constructive speech—Conservative Members would agree with a lot of it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) on his excellent speech, which got to the heart of the problems that we face.

I appreciate what the Government are endeavouring to do, and I understand and share their grave concerns about the skills shortage in our society. I am also concerned about the number of young people who are leaving school without the basic skills necessary to equip them for a career and for a fulfilling and long life. Of course we all want more people gaining more skills and qualifications, and we want to extend educational opportunities. The aims of the Bill are commendable, however I question the compulsion approach. Participation should be increased by encouragement, incentives and enthusiasm, not by compulsion.

As a former teacher and lecturer, the issues raised in the Bill and in today’s constructive debate resonate with me, but the fact that some aspects of the Bill are needed after 10 and a half years of this Labour Government suggests an admission of failure. After all the taxpayers’ money that has been invested and all the changes that have been made, we still have not reached the expected standards. Many of our children are failing to reach the standards of achievement that they need when they leave school, and some lack basic skills in maths and English.

The Secretary of State described the Bill as

“a key part of the Government’s commitment to achieve world-class levels of skills”.

We would all agree with that—that commendable aim is supported across the House—yet we know that major problems remain in our education system, in apprenticeships, and in the number of people leaving school or college without the basic skills necessary to equip them for their future.

My borough of Bexley contains some tremendous schools, and I am pleased to praise the dedication of teachers, governors, parents and pupils. I would like to highlight St. Paulinus Church of England primary school, of which I am a governor, and its fantastic success; I particularly congratulate its head teacher, Mrs. Marilyn Davey. That school is in the top 20 London schools for key stage 2 results. The traditional approach, the determination to ensure that everyone achieves and the pupils’ diverse backgrounds have given an added impetus to the determination to make the children achieve, and we should congratulate the people whom I mentioned.

There is a need to push forward adult skills, so I particularly welcome part 3 of the Bill, which places a duty on the Learning and Skills Council to secure the proper provision of courses to allow learners over 19 years of age to attain

“functional literacy, numeracy and First Full Level 2 qualifications”.

While I was out of this House between 1997 and 2005, I taught on a lot of courses for women returners, unemployed people and people who wanted to improve their career opportunities. There is a definite need for more courses to enable people to obtain level 2 qualifications, thus giving them the basis to achieve, so I welcome part 3.

The Government know that we are all failing too many of our young people. Despite the increased money available to them, schools are unable to achieve what we want them to achieve for the pupils. Far too many pupils still leave school at 16 without A* to C grades in English and maths, and it is worrying that we camouflage some of our figures by boasting about GCSE improvements that include attainment in other subjects, but exclude maths and English. I have already highlighted the fact that my borough has a mixed provision of excellent secondary schools, which includes grammar, Church, comprehensive and technical schools, as well as academies, but even there some issues of concern remain.

I must also point out that the Government discriminate against my borough, in comparison with other London boroughs, in terms of dedicated schools grant—only Bromley and Havering received less money per pupil this year. That discrimination is regrettable and acts as a local disincentive. I wish to put on record the tremendous work done by the Bexley council cabinet members, Simon Windle and Teresa O’Neill, and congratulate them on the tremendous job that they are doing in our borough. Although it is a good borough that aims to help everyone to achieve, the statistics show that 5.2 per cent. of 16-year-olds in Bexley left school in 2005 and entered full-time employment, but 8.2 per cent. who left in that year were not in education, employment or training. The Bexley Business Academy was among the 200 worst schools for children staying on for post-16 education. That is most worrying and a betrayal of our young people. Therefore we have to do more in the future to ensure that our children get a better education.

The Bill proposes to force all pupils to stay in education or training until they reach 18. I do not like the word “force”. We should not aim for compulsion, but to encourage and enthuse people. When we look back to the 1970s and the raising of the school leaving age, many children were forced to stay on an extra year. The Secretary of State pointed out that the Bill would not force them to stay at school, but it will force them to stay in education or training. There were problems in the 1970s with attendance and discipline among those who did not want to stay on at school and who were angry and disaffected, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. I was teaching at the time in a grammar school, and even there some boys wanted to leave school as soon as possible and made it harder for others in the class to learn and made life difficult for teachers. Those boys did not want to be there and they were already disengaged from the system.

Forcing young people to stay in education and training until 18 will not and cannot of itself improve their potential, or their education and skills. Nor will it increase their chances of getting a job. Those people have already been failed by the education system. Intervention is needed much earlier, and we should be encouraging and developing children at primary school and as they pass to secondary school. When they are 16 it is too late, and they should have counselling and other involvement at 14 to encourage them to realise that if they do not get the qualifications their lives will not be as fulfilled as they could be.

I am very concerned about indiscipline and truancy increasing if pupils are forced to stay on at school. If they are forced to stay on, it may lead to the same problems as we saw in the 1970s with the raising of the school leaving age. I therefore have severe doubts about this approach. The very people whom the Bill will target are already troubled, under performing, disengaged, vulnerable or damaged. Surely the best way to get children to remain in school is to be inspirational and encouraging, and to start much earlier.

We are all looking to the future, and I wish to ask the Minister about those people who are parents at age 17, or who are disabled or who play sports—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). Will people who have other commitments be exempt from the provision? For example, some people would want to leave school early to pursue a sporting career. Will they be excluded from being forced into training?

It is all very well to be dismissive, but we should be constructive. There is much in the Bill that we support. It is fundamental that everybody has the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. If there are failings, we should intervene much earlier in the school system. We need to reform the testing regime in primary schools, so that we reduce bureaucracy and focus on the pupils’ real needs to deal with them constructively much earlier.

We should also champion excellence, and there are some tremendous comprehensive schools that evangelise the best professional practice in the state system. We should more generously reward those who deliver for the poorest. It is essential that the most disadvantaged should be assisted even more, and we will need to debate how that can be done in Committee. We need change, but we do not need compulsion. We need to improve discipline and behaviour in schools and shift the balance of power in every classroom back in favour of the teacher. We should deliver more teaching by ability, which strengthens the strongest and nurtures the weakest.

There are tremendous opportunities to work together constructively, as we have seen in today’s debate. Many good points have been made, but I have many questions still to ask. I am especially concerned about the quality and relevance of education, rather than the quantity. The belief that the longer someone stays in education the better they will be equipped for life is questionable. It is quality that we seek.

The Bill provides some tremendous opportunities. It is very constructive, and it should have support on both sides of the House. I am encouraged by what I have heard, but I repeat that I do not think that compulsion is right. We should encourage and intervene much earlier, before 16, to ensure that youngsters who leave school without qualifications and the equipment that they will need for life are dealt with much earlier. That approach would be more successful.

I hope that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) will forgive me if I do not directly follow his speech, because I wish to pick up some of the themes in the stunning speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). It brought us to the heart of the debate, where we need to focus now and in the immediate future.

I wish to concentrate on what is happening to the poorest in our society. We are immensely proud that the Government are the first ever to undertake to abolish child poverty over a 20-year period. Progress has been made, and although it has stalled somewhat recently, the record is second to none. However, the number of the very poorest has increased. If we consider various health indices, the Government have generally made good progress, but the very poorest in our community are not benefiting equally with other groups. The gap between the very poorest and the rest of us—let alone the rich—is widening. My hon. Friend concentrated in his speech on what was happening to the very poorest in our education system, and I wish to put two pieces of information before the House that should caution us against concentrating solely on 16-year-olds.

We know from the Government’s own data that four in 10 children leaving junior school for secondary school do not have the qualifications expected of them for that age group. However, they go on to secondary school, where many of them fail. We also know that more than five out of 10 of our constituents who leave school at 16 do not get the minimum educational qualifications that the Government want everybody in that age group to get. The position has improved in the past 10 years, and although we should not make absurd claims about that, the numbers are truly great.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who was talking about a group of 16-year-olds who were damaged, I said that I spent time in the summer talking to people of 16 or over who were not in employment, education or training, or who were on the new deal and I did not think that they were damaged at all. I thought that they were highly intelligent. My point was that they posed a challenge not only because they were intelligent but because many of them had not been at school since they were 14; some had not been at school since they were 12.

In the Bill, we are talking about what we do with young people—whether we call them children or adults—at the age of 16. Although we do well by the majority of children who go through our schools, what makes a mockery of that is our failure to engage with a significant group. That lack of engagement does not arise because they are thick or damaged, but because we are serving a diet of education by which they are deeply bored and quickly failed.

Would the right hon. Gentlemen include in that group the very young children—those of primary school age—who care for their parents and miss out on a lot of the time that they spend at school, not because of a lack of ability but because of social circumstances?

That is a second group. We have a supporters group in Wirral and it is chilling and humbling to meet those very young people, who are often nursing parents who are dying. Their parents, because they are not as involved—naturally, given their state—in what is really going on, dress their children differently, and so those children are picked on at school because of their clothes. They get it in the neck when they are at school and come home to the full-time job of caring for one parent or, sometimes, both. However, I was talking not about that group of children—in no way do I want to detract from what they do—but about those who are so peeved off by education that the last thing in the world that they will do is turn up to school. The prospect of doing anything educational at the age of 16 prompts expressions of derision from them.

Although I do not want to detract at all from the noble aims of the Bill and what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West rightly described as the exciting aspiration that we are launching to put on the statute book, I want to make a desperately serious plea about the number of young people who will have no proper future in our country if we allow the status quo to continue. We have to think outside the box when considering what we can do for them.

One of my suggestions is to introduce a leaving certificate, because those young people might well knuckle down and do some work. It could cover the basic skills in maths, education and IT and, as soon as young people gained the certificate at 14, they would be allowed to leave school provided that they could get a job. At the moment, any moneys that we taxpayers put towards them are wasted. That group should have the £20,000 that we would spend on them between the ages of 14 and 16 if they turned up to school—although they do not—held as a dowry, which they would control. When they realised that it is quite tough out there in the world of work, even if they had a job, they might change their views about wanting to acquire skills. They would become buyers of skills, rather than the consumers of the training skills that Jobcentre Plus buys in job lots.

The House is aware of my right hon. Friend’s capacity to think outside the box; perhaps it is not sufficiently appreciated. I would not be dead against his proposals, but if the age is to be as young as 14, as he proposes, does he not think that there would have to be some element of training attached? Otherwise, the strategy would be out of all control.

During my hon. Friend’s speech, it was chilling to hear him give the time scale according to which the Government’s objectives on apprentices must be achieved, as well as the numbers that he gave. If my hon. Friend’s scheme gets off the ground, under the responsibility of someone whose only job it is to drive it through—rather than the 10 jobs that a Secretary of State has to do at any one time—we could perhaps start the scheme at 14 for some of those tough young people. That is my plea.

I want to finish with an observation made by Paul Sykes, who gave me permission to cite it. He is one of the richest people in the country, and began his route to riches by doing an unskilled job—breaking up Birkenhead municipal buses. He noticed that while his boss was interested in the metal coming off the buses, he was totally uninterested in the engines. Paul Sykes thought, “Maybe there’s some money there.” From that one thought, he built up an incredibly successful series of businesses and is now one of the most successful and richest businessmen in the country. He was interviewed recently on the television—I shall not say on which channel—by an Oxbridge graduate, who said, “Mr. Sykes, did you find that leaving school at 16 held you back?” In his wonderful Yorkshire accent, he said, “Yes, love, I had a job at 12 and I had to wait four more years ’fore I could start.”

Of course, lots of our constituents will not be Paul Sykeses. However, his example is a way of lighting up the landscape. We will not solve our constituents’ problems by pretending that we have it all right in our junior and secondary schools. We will not make things better with a system that engages them on the current terms after the age of 16. A small but significant number of constituents, represented by those on both sides of the House, are failed by our education system. We have to think of something different to offer them.

I am listening with great interest to my right hon. Friend’s speech. To what extent do you feel that the national curriculum in some ways stifles that innovative way of looking at what should happen? Do you think that the time is now right for a review of whether to introduce the flexibilities to allow for your suggestions to come through in the classroom?

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should talk in the third person if he is addressing his right hon. Friend.

In Birkenhead this year, 38 young people left school with no qualifications whatsoever. The cost to taxpayers of their education was a little over £1 million. I asked whether we could not do something different with that £1 million—as we know that there will probably be 38 such young people next year, I asked whether we could have an experiment with a small technical school that might engage their interest. The reply was, “No, we could not possibly do that. We could not teach the national curriculum in a school that size.” I reminded the person who said that that we are not teaching those young people the national curriculum now—so what is the point of pretending? I agree that the aims of the national curriculum were totally proper and have benefited most young people in this country, but they do not benefit most of the young people who do not fit into the box.

My plea is for the group whom we are failing most. There was, I think, an occasion when Aneurin Bevan challenged the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, saying, “Listening to the Prime Minister is like a walk round Woolworths. Everything is in place and nothing is priced over sixpence.” Sometimes, we need to think outside the little Woolworths box for those young people and give them something that will excite and engage them. As I said to the hon. Member for Yeovil, they are in no way damaged—

Yes, some are, but the ones about whom I am talking are not. They are very bright. The question is: why, when they are so bright, do we fail them so dismally?

It is right that there should be no ceiling on young people’s educational ambitions, but there needs to be a floor below which their educational attainment does not fall. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) said, there is a group of people who do not get the basic skills that they need to thrive in our society.

I welcome the Bill and the intention behind it to try to widen post-16 education and improve its quality. That is obviously a good thing to attempt. However, I am worried about compulsion and I share the concern of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West about apprenticeships and tackling the challenge for this country, which is that approximately 28 per cent. of our people are qualified through apprenticeships or educationally in the crafts and technically, whereas, in our competitor countries, such as France and Germany, the figure is more than 50 per cent. That is a huge challenge.

Let me start with the group that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead identified: the poorest in our society, who are not getting the skills that they need. Last year, I visited a range of projects that deal with social exclusion and also some prisons. The average reading age of prisoners is 11. There is a link between those in our society who fail in education and the consequences for them—the fact that they may end up committing crime, unable to work and socially excluded. Some of them also have social problems, which have contributed, and I shall say more about that later.

One of the projects that I visited was Rainer, which does much work with people who have been in prison or lack basic skills. A group there was preparing to learn to read and write so that they could pass their health and safety certificate to work in the building trade. Those people had had more than 12 years of education in which they had not been able to learn to read and write, yet in the group, they were picking it up quickly, as the right hon. Gentleman described. They were not unintelligent; they simply suddenly had a motivation for learning to read and write, and they were going for it and succeeding. What a sad reflection on their 12 years of statutory education that it could not get them to the point of having the basic reading and writing skills to do a manual job for which one needs some education.

I also spent a week working in a direct access homeless hostel, which concentrated on young people. We found people who were very ill through drink and drug abuse and needed a lot of help. However, after a period in the hostel, they improved. They would get to the point where they could move from the hostel into a flat. Their biggest problem at that stage was that they could not budget because they were so innumerate. A lady at the hostel, an administrator, took it upon herself to teach the young men enough maths to function in a flat. It was a male hostel, but I expect the same is true in women’s hostels. She did it in approximately a month. Again, those people had had more than 12 years of education in the state system. How can people be in education for that time, with all the money that is spent, yet unable to do basic maths or read and write? When one asks them about their experiences at school, one feels the fear that they felt when they explain that they had not learned to read and write by the time they were seven, and had spent years at the back of a classroom, where they were being taught history, geography or science, keeping their heads down, dreading the teacher turning to them, because they could not understand a word of what was happening.

The problem is more widespread than the hon. Gentleman suggests, because only seven years ago Lord Moser found in his report that half the population were functionally innumerate and that 50 per cent. of the population did not understand what 50 per cent. meant.

I am grateful for that intervention, but if we take only the Leitch figures, which are that 15 per cent. of the population are functionally illiterate and 21 per cent. are functionally innumerate—his target was to reduce that to 5 per cent.—it is a huge group. Evidence that we heard recently in the Work and Pensions Committee suggested that if a person’s mother cannot read and write, they are more likely to have problems because they are not getting the back-up at home. We have generations of families without proper reading, writing and arithmetic skills, who have not worked.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Does he agree that numeracy has an enormously important role to play in enabling people to stay out of debt, which is a huge problem in society?

I could not agree more. Numeracy is a basic life skill and we need an education system that, at the very least, delivers the ability to read, write and add up. I believe that we are failing.

When considering compulsion, we should ask whether our education system has a sufficiently strong basic foundation to justify telling somebody who has already spent 10 years with his head down, unable to answer questions in the classroom, or possibly so ashamed of that that he is truanting—let us not beat about the bush, truanting is increasing—that they have another two years of it. That is a dangerous suggestion and I note that the Professional Association of Teachers said in its response that insisting on two extra years is a worrying way in which to confront young people who have had such an experience. We must be cautious about taking that route. Getting to grips with the basic problem of teaching reading, writing and mathematics at an early age should at least be our starting point.

Special schools, which deal with learning disability, have specialist courses to teach children to read and write. They are based on synthetic phonics, with course books such as “Annie Apple” and “Bouncy Ben”, through which children learn “Ah, Buh, Cuh” and so on and to put it together. It is basic stuff, but if one can teach someone with a learning disability to read and write, surely those bright people whom the right hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned can be taught to pick it up. If they cannot, we are in trouble. If synthetic phonics can do it for a child with learning disability, we should use the system for children who do not have those barriers.

Are we to criminalise our young people and set a period of two more years when they live in fear, dreading the teacher turning to them? That is not the way forward. It is odd to read in the Bill an offence of effectively doing oneself harm. Clause 46 provides that, if young people do not follow the attendance orders, they commit an offence of not improving their education. It is an odd idea in a country with liberal values. The Secretary of State says that one would not necessarily go to prison if one did not pay the fine, but the sort of people whom we are discussing have gone year after year without attending school. It is possible that they would get an attendance order, not follow it, commit the offence, be fined and not pay the fine. One of the penalties is going to a young offender institution. The Secretary of State says that the Government are trying to change that so that the young person would go only to an attendance centre. It is still odd to provide such a criminal penalty for an offence that has a civil feel to it. I notice that a lot of the bodies that responded to the consultation said that they were worried about criminalisation. I am too.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that those most likely to incur the fines are also those least likely to be able to afford to pay them?

Yes, I do. I could not agree more with the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West and others—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) made the point, too—that we need detailed, effective, good-quality counselling from an earlier age.

Being a bit old-fashioned, I think of an apprenticeship as quite a serious undertaking. Deeds of indenture used to be taken out for them; that is how important they were. It is a worry that under the current arrangements about 59 per cent. of those between 16 and 18 do not complete what we now call apprenticeships. Quite large numbers of people do apprenticeships—250,000 at present. The Government would say—I think that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills might be saying it right now—that they have increased that number substantially, from about 75,000. That is true, but it says something about the quality of what is on offer if almost 60 per cent. of the young people in apprenticeships do not complete them.

The hon. Gentleman will find that the completion rate has risen, from 25 per cent. under his party’s Government to 63 per cent. We want it to increase further, but that is a significant improvement.

If there is an improvement, I welcome it—it is certainly overdue—but I must wonder whether they are genuine apprenticeships. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to listen to this point, as it is in the same territory. The House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs examined the sorts of apprenticeships offered and said that they were really the Government’s old work-based learning schemes renamed apprenticeships—in other words, a rebrand rather than something of good quality. I welcome the suggestion by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West that we should go for apprenticeships that are solid and high-quality and that have good content. That is what people in this country deserve—not a rebrand but something genuinely worth while.

I welcome the intentions behind the Bill, but we are right to question the matter of compulsion. Although the Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), gave the Bill a broad welcome, he said towards the end of his remarks that he was a bit concerned about the sanctions, and I think that that is the general mood of the House. The compulsion needs to be reconsidered, and we should look for quality from beginning to end in the education that we offer our young people. That should include synthetic phonics, high-quality mathematics education from the beginning and opportunities with plenty of encouragement between 16 and 19.

I welcome the fact that the Bill contains provisions for ongoing education through life, because that is of great concern. If we are to tell the public that they must work until 70 or 68, it is just not good enough not to give training and educational opportunities to those in the middle of their career so that they can continue employment through life. I welcome the opportunities that the measures will give for continual renewal of skills through life. I give a cautious welcome to the Bill.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in this debate on a key piece of Government legislation. The debate is basically about aspiration and showing our young people that they have a future. On a personal note, it is also about giving our young people the opportunities that I never had. It is a generational issue, on which we need to move forward. The Bill shows that we have confidence in our young people. It provides them with a route map to adulthood and the world of work that is not prescriptive and allows them to decide on a road that does not lead to a dead end, and I shall set out why.

Some young people want the independence that might accompany paid employment, and others want a career that requires vocational training, which can be difficult and time-consuming. Others simply want out of the classroom and lecture hall, and want to enter the adult world. In years gone by, when those youngsters left formal education and schooling, their continued educational development was not always seen as a priority, either for them or for society. In recent years, it has been increasingly recognised that employment prospects are closely related to skill levels. The Bill will entirely do away with the idea of our under-18s finding themselves out of employment, education or training.

We must ensure that our young people get the best start in life. The Bill will offer our young people the wide range of educational options that will be essential to our economic success in the long term. It will offer every young person relevant training or education. It is crucial to reiterate that the Bill will not force children to stay in school after the age of 16, but education should in no case come to an end when a young person walks out of the school gates for the last time. Education is a lifelong process.

As Lord Leitch demonstrated in his review of UK skills, maintaining, broadening and improving the country’s skills base are essential to our economic success. The Bill will include provisions to protect current entitlements; they are aimed at those who have already entered the work force and who, for whatever reason, do not have the appropriate training or qualifications for the increasingly skilled jobs that will soon dominate the UK economy.

To develop that point, there are communities where, traditionally, once people got to a certain age they went straight into the area’s industry, such as mining. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the underlying themes of the Bill is the need to tell young people in those communities that they have to raise their aspirations? The days of finishing school at 14 and going straight into the pits are gone; we have to make sure that such young people make the most of their educational opportunities for as long as they can, until their skills are developed enough to allow them to take other jobs.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) replies, my second piece of advice to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) is that interventions must be brief—certainly briefer than his—on days when there are time limits.

I absolutely agree with what my hon. Friend said. I am from a coal-mining constituency where the first thing that people did on leaving school was go down the mine. That has changed, and people have opportunities that they should feed on. Those opportunities should grow, so that people can fulfil their expectations and aspirations.

We should not forget that 70 per cent. of the work force of 2020 have already finished their school education. At present there are 3.4 million unskilled jobs available in the UK, but it is estimated that by 2020 the figure will be no more than 600,000. Many hon. Members will agree that it would be scandalous if we just wrote off those who have already left school. We must not neglect the large proportion of the work force of the future who are already in the job market, competing for jobs—increasingly, for the skilled jobs that are more frequently on offer.

About 75 per cent. of the UK’s work force possess at least level 2 skills, which are broadly equivalent to five GCSE passes. Level 2 has been identified as the basic level of skill required for a productive employee—it is a benchmark of competence. The Government have introduced extensive and unprecedented entitlements to skills training for adults, which include the right for adults to gain functional literacy and numeracy, the right for adults of all ages to get their first full level 2 skills qualification, and the right for adults under 26 to get free tuition for their first full level 3 skills qualification. Those entitlements are at the core of our efforts to improve adult skills in England, and they therefore fully deserve to be protected in law.

This is not just about maximising the economic performance of our work force. Numerous studies have shown how beneficial continuing educational and personal development can be, whatever form it takes. I have met constituents who have flourished after retraining; they have started a more rewarding career, or improved their skills to gain promotion or a pay rise. Lord Leitch merely underlined what experience has taught me and many others: additional skills help us to achieve personal goals.

The Bill will not only protect the UK’s global competitiveness in the years ahead; more importantly, it will offer children, young people and adults the chance to improve their chances in life. It is a scandal that anyone should effectively be on the employment scrapheap as soon as they leave school, and it is the Labour Government who have ensured that everyone has the right to the skills that are increasingly essential for the modern workplace and society. I said at the beginning of my speech that for me, this debate embodies aspiration. It is about harnessing potential so that aspiration can flourish. If the Government’s quest to ensure that 50 per cent. of people benefit from a university education is married to the basic tenets in the Bill, we can open the floodgates on people’s aspirations.

I want to give an example of the way in which the Government have created the environment for that to happen. It is about higher education as another avenue for our young people to pursue. If either of my sons attends university they will be the first Wilson in my family ever to do so. The results of a survey that the Government conducted as part of their “Be the first to go” campaign, which encourages young people to be the first members of their family to attend university, revealed a changing attitude not only to higher education but to training and education in general. In Newcastle for example, in my region, a third of parents and grandparents who responded to the survey decided not to go to university in a bid to get a job, and they went straight to work instead. Today, 95 per cent. of those people want the next generation of their family to go to university. Education has become a key priority for parents who are thinking about their own and their children’s future.

Some 25 per cent. of 16 and 17-year-olds in Newcastle could be the first in their family to enter higher education. That is 1,700 young people or, to extrapolate from those figures, 17,000 in the north-east and more than 325,000 in England. A Labour Government cannot let those young people down. We have the potential to open the floodgates for people’s aspirations, and we would be wrong to ignore the signs. According to the survey, seven out of 10 people polled across the generations in Newcastle believe that the biggest long-term benefit of going to university is the ability to get a better job. Some 62 per cent. agree that university education gives people a chance to earn more money, and nearly three quarters of the respondents think that studying a subject that people enjoy is a good reason to enter higher education or other training. Feelings of personal well-being and the belief that one is securing the future of one’s family should not be the preserve of a privileged few—they should be available to people from all walks of life.

As I have said, the Government’s policy on education, skills and access to university is going in the right direction. The Government want people from all walks of life and of all ages to be given the chance to achieve their full potential, and they want to ensure that people are given the best preparation for life that they can possibly receive. I remember the days when parents had to raise funds for exercise books, pens and pencils for their local school—I am pleased to say that that was not under a Labour Government. The Government’s approach to education differs from that of other Governments who thought, “You have an education, you keep it and you pull up the ladder on everybody else.” The Bill shows a Government looking to the future and being prepared to make the hard, strategic decisions necessary for the country while addressing the individual aspirations of the majority.

As the Secretary of State said at the beginning of our debate, this is an extremely important Bill. It is primarily based on the English regions, but given that youth inactivity and problems of gang culture are to be found across the whole country, I hope that when it becomes an Act, its measures will spread across the UK.

I had the good fortune to be an apprentice in the steel industry in the 1970s, when apprenticeships lasted for four years, not two. The quality of that training shone out, and we were the best in the world. In the last six months of those four-year apprenticeships, people completed their training and worked as craftsmen. Without such experience, they could not get a job anywhere else if they could not stay in the industry. Experience does not come off a shelf, and it cannot be found in a book—it comes from doing the job. I am worried that that is missing from the Bill, given the two-year time scale.

One of the best things about being a convenor in the steel industry was working with the apprentices and young people. The purpose of that role was inspirational. To develop the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), if work in any part of education is not inspirational we lose those individuals. We had difficult times. Although there was a huge selection process, there were still problems with individuals who lost interest in the work. It was not a bed of roses, even when a massive number of people applied for apprenticeships. The loss of manufacturing has resulted in the loss of jobs for life. We heard earlier about the coal and steel industries. In constituencies such as mine, people left school, and went into the steel industry as production or craft apprentices. With the loss of that industry, we have lost core apprentice training. The system that we seek to implement must not be onerous on the employer. If it is, it will fail, as employers will resist it. Companies such as BT have training departments that operate training facilities, but in smaller businesses, it is impossible to do so.

If young people fail to gain literacy and numeracy skills at 16, what will change to make them want to gain those skills between 16 and 18? The inspiration or desire to learn is often lost by 16, which is a serious concern. We have heard from Members on both sides of the House about the criminalisation of individuals and employers, and I would certainly vote against measures that imposed such penalties. The growing movement towards the academy system appears to favour degrees. I am not against the attainment of degrees, but some years ago, we had technical colleges that were linked to employers and businesses. They trained people to acquire practical skills, but we have lost a lot of that ability to provide practical training. We are looking at degree courses, but we have moved away from the things that industry needs.

The provision of education must be flexible. An innovation that we have looked at in some of the Welsh regions is apprenticeship sharing. Industrial estates provide training centres and more than one employer can buy in to that training. If there is a larger employer on the estate with training facilities, those facilities can be shared. An apprenticeship with a single employer can be onerous, so we should look at shared apprenticeships, and how they can be supported by local authorities and other businesses in area. I spoke earlier about equal opportunities, and we must recognise that people with disabilities face many barriers. Gender is important, too. Traditional industries were always regarded as male bastions. Today, barriers have been broken down in some steelworks, and gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

Quality as well as quantity is important. The goal of offering 250,000 apprenticeships is a numbers game, but if someone trains for two years and thinks they are an expert they will find that that is not the case. We need to look at the quality of the training that we provide. As a former school governor in both primary and secondary education, I have seen teachers identify problems with young children not at 16, 15 or 14 but at nine, eight and seven. We need to spread mentoring practice across the education system. We have mentoring in senior schools, but the building blocks are in primary schools. Unless we look at mentoring at that age, we have lost the plot.

Family support is extremely important. If a teacher identifies a problem with a child, the likelihood is that the family need help and support with an issue. Education is not just within four walls; it spreads across the whole family and into the community.

We have lost an opportunity. Citizenship was introduced as a curriculum item but the way it was introduced has not worked. In most secondary schools that I visit, the citizenship agenda has been lost. It entered like a lion but it is going out like a lamb. I would hate to see this Bill go the same route.

The managing of systems of apprenticeships and shared apprenticeships is important, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises. We heard earlier about the multinationals and the bigger industries, but SMEs and smaller businesses may need help. Sharing help with them would be an advantage.

On other types of training, the Gwent Association of Voluntary Associations has brought into our community a CAT scheme, or community apprentice training. That provides training for youth workers and community development workers. There is work for those people— much needed work—where I live and in other such places. The voluntary organisations have a big part to play not just in formal education, but in providing opportunities for young people. We should maximise the opportunities that exist within the voluntary organisations.

I have a concern about the numbers game. We have spoken about having over 200,000 apprentices. We have also spoken about needing people from other countries to come in to fill skills gaps, so where are the 250,000 apprentices going to go? As we continue to train more and more, will that mean that we will need fewer people coming into the country? How do we balance the books?

My area suffered from a steelworks closure some six years ago. An American gentleman by the name of Leo Schostack came in to help to regenerate the area. The statement he made about the area was that it was inspirational but we did not know it. That point was important. The way out of poverty is through education, but we need that inspirational element of education to get young people interested. To force them down a route is the wrong way to go. Encouragement is the right way.

I welcome the opportunity to make a few remarks about this important Bill. First, I apologise for being absent from the Chamber for a short while; it was unavoidable but I am pleased to be back and to be able to make a contribution.

I warmly welcome the introduction of the Bill. I believe that, at their root, its proposals will be very good for young people and good for our economy. The Bill will give more young people the opportunity to take part in learning and, crucially, training, beyond the age of 16, giving them more options, and more time to learn and to develop skills.

The logic is clear. Young people will have more opportunity to fulfil their potential and a more widely skilled population will be good for our employers, because it will help us to increase productivity and capacity for innovation. That in turn will boost our economy at home and in the world, and help us to achieve world-class skills by 2020.

We in Britain currently have one of the lowest rates of staying on at the age of 17 in developed countries, and at any one time around 10 per cent. of our young people are classed as NEETs: not in education, employment or training. That is a matter that must be tackled, and we have a duty to do that. It is my view that this Bill will go a long way to help address that issue and I welcome it on that basis.

By creating a Bill in which young people will have access to learning in a range of ways, be it through traditional academic education, or on-the-job apprenticeships, the Bill raises the status of work-based learning and vocational education, bringing it on to a par with academic education. That is long overdue and necessary. That is an important step in raising our skills level and young people’s self-esteem.

For too long, vocational education has not been wholly successful, or respected save for some outstanding instances. There are some well-recognised vocational colleges and some very good vocational qualifications. I would also point to modern apprenticeships, which have delivered a good model of the way forward. In Enfield, however, we have a low participation rate for such apprenticeships. I believe that the introduction of diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds, along with the Government's commitment to create 60 per cent. more apprenticeships by 2013, will further address that issue and again help to entrench vocational learning in our education system and views of learning. Young people undertaking vocational courses and employment training should not feel that they are second-class compared with those pursuing academic studies, or the poor relation. That is not good for them and it is certainly not good for our industries.

However, as with all matters, it is vital that the detail is practicable. After all, the Bill proposes a major change for deliverers, practitioners and businesses, not to mention the young people themselves, and we have to get it right. From my perspective as the Member for Enfield, North, most important of all are the views of those affected by these proposals in my constituency.

I have therefore contacted head teachers, education advisers and business representatives in my constituency, as they are experts in my area and they are on the front line of education, training and employment. I thank the practitioners from my constituency, who work tirelessly, for their contribution to developing skills in Enfield and for corresponding with me on issues in the Bill. It is crucial that we as Members of Parliament involve practitioners locally in those issues and do not just stand here and discuss them among ourselves.

In particular, I thank Dr. Steve Dowbiggin of Capel Manor college, and Giles Bird, head teacher at Kingsmead secondary school, which has just had the most wonderful report from Ofsted. It is breathtaking. It is a matter not of luck, but of sheer hard work. Those at the school deserve to be congratulated. I also thank Tahsin Ibrahim of the Enfield Business and Retailers Association, Jean Carter, principal of Enfield college, Bridget Evans, head teacher at Bishop Stopford's school, Sarah Knowles, Enfield's 14-to-19 strategy manager, Peter O'Brien, partnership manager at the Enfield learning and skills council and Hugh Jones from the North London chamber of commerce.

Overall, my constituents welcome the Bill and support its principles. Indeed, the chief executive of the Enfield Business and Retailers Association has told me that he believes that increasing the compulsory education-leaving age will provide young people with space to develop as individuals, to discover what they want from life, and to better prepare themselves for adult life.

Of course, this is not a Bill to force young people to stay on at school or college full-time. The proposals are flexible and are designed to meet the wide-ranging needs of young people. To date, leaving education at 16 has meant that, for some, learning has been about exams, tests and competition, but learning is of course broader and far more exciting that that. As the chief executive of Capel Manor college in my constituency states,

“if we are expecting young people to stay on in education and training, we need to make it relevant, exciting, worthwhile and productive, something which young people value, aspire to and can appreciate the point of. "

I know that teachers in schools and colleges and trainers in my constituency will welcome such a challenge.

It is vital that we provide young people with the best possible careers, education and learning advice. That point has been raised this afternoon by a number of Members. We need to make clear the range of opportunities available after leaving school, and to ensure that young people understand how they can realise those opportunities.

The Bill’s provisions for transferring such support services from Connexions to LEAs give rise to some questions, including in my constituency from Unison, which is concerned that LEAs might use the transfer of funds to make savings. Some local authorities would not dream of doing such a thing, but I fear that some would and that Enfield’s Conservative council might be one of them. I should be grateful for reassurance from the Minister that the transfer of funds to LEAs will not mean a reduction in funding for careers advice and support.

An enforcement system is needed alongside the requirement to participate, but as several organisations, including some in my constituency, have pointed out, it is important that such a system does not criminalise young people. The Association of School and College Leaders suggests extending the truancy system used for schools, and the Association of Colleges acknowledges that the penalties will act as a necessary deterrent. In Enfield, the manager of our 14-to-19 education strategy expressed concern that the tracking of young people will give rise to difficulties, as is sometimes already the case in the education system pre-16. It is important to ensure that penalties are based on incentives and punishment, not just the latter, which could further disengage young people and even criminalise them.

There is no question but that raising the compulsory education and training leaving age to 18 will create a better-skilled work force. In the long term, employers will realise the benefits for businesses provided by the Bill and its outcomes for young people. However, it is important to acknowledge the short to medium-term impact and the possible challenges for employers, especially for small businesses. The North London chamber of commerce has outlined the challenges posed by the Bill and states that the proposals may create difficulties for smaller businesses, which might suffer capacity, logistical and financial problems from the duty on employers to release under-18s for training. The chamber of commerce also points out that such legislation would have a particular impact on the retail sector, which employs the highest number of 16 to 18-year-olds.

The challenges will be cushioned by the phased introduction of the legislation—2013 for 17-year-olds and 2015 for 18-year-olds—which will give employers time to adapt. I welcome the provisions to ensure that employers receive support to accredit their schemes and that there is a brokerage service to help people choose appropriate training. It is reassuring to note that models with logistical challenges can work—for example, the modern apprenticeship scheme—but it remains crucial that the Government work closely with employers and their representative organisations to ensure that implementation of the new way of working is as smooth as possible.

Schools, education and training institutions and employers will face challenges from the Bill, but rising to the challenges will help to develop our nation’s skills and prepare our young people for the realities of working life in the global economy. People working on the front line of education and training delivery in my constituency are fully committed to meeting that goal and will continue to be so. I hope that the many important points made today about the practical implementation of the Bill will be addressed in Committee, which is the right place for dealing with more detailed matters.

The Bill is important and I wish it good progress. It has the potential to deliver a huge amount for our young people and our economy, and thus our country, in the coming years.

I welcome the aims of the Bill. We seemed almost immediately to reach consensus in welcoming the fact that if the Bill is passed every 18-year-old will receive education and/or training. They will have the skills for employment or to go into continuing or higher education; into full-time education for those who choose it, part-time education with an element of work or voluntary work—an important aspect of the Bill—or an apprenticeship. However, we need to be careful in our definition of “apprenticeship” to ensure that it includes a proper workplace component, so that apprentices learn the real, practical skills that will make them attractive to employers.

The debate seemed quickly to focus on whether the measure should have an element of compulsion or whether it should simply be about the provision of opportunity. Debate in Committee will no doubt concentrate on those points. The Opposition are not in favour of compulsion, although we are in favour of the Bill’s aims. We believe that what happens in school pre-16 is absolutely crucial in reducing truancy, disaffection, under achievement and lack of aspiration and ambition. In addition to the quality of teaching in schools, pastoral care, especially through personal, health and social education, has an important role to play in preparing students for adult life. Students should have proper information and warnings about, for example, the pitfalls of substance and drug abuse and the dangers not just for their education but for their health, motivation and progress to adult life.

Time and again, when young people are interviewed, I notice that their speech is almost unintelligible. Some of that is teenage affectation and style, but often they simply do not enunciate properly, especially in our part of the world where they speak “estuary English”. They try to speak without using their tongue or any of the muscles in their mouth or jaw—without any movement at all; it is almost as though they are ventriloquists. I hope that PHSE can help young people to understand that if they want to find a job, or even be enrolled on an apprenticeship scheme, they need to be able to communicate with non-teenagers who do not speak their language. Being understood is an important part of communicating with adults.

Does my hon. Friend agree that drama can do a lot in that regard and that it should be encouraged?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Drama and dance are helpful. I am glad that the profile of dance is being raised as part of physical education. Young people who are not keen on sport or physical education might enjoy dance, which has as many health benefits as traditional PE lessons. Activities such as art, drama and dance all help to improve young people’s confidence and communication skills, all of which prepare them for the adult world of employment, training or further education.

Several organisations are picking up on the importance of fiscal education, which my hon. Friend mentioned earlier. When young people go into the adult world, especially when they start to earn, it is essential that they understand that the amount at the top of their payslip, which is what they have earned, is not the same as the amount at the bottom, which is what they actually receive. If nothing else, they need to learn the Micawber principle: if they live on slightly less than the amount they have earned they will stay out of debt.

We all know how big an issue personal debt is at present. The year before last, personal debt in the UK reached the £1 trillion mark. Given the habit of borrowing on multiple credit cards and transferring debt from one to another, people need to be educated about the long-term effects of not living within their means.

The group of young people who care for their parents was mentioned earlier. Such children can be quite young; they may even go to primary school. Every year in Havering, a young people’s awards ceremony is organised by local police, and I am always surprised at how many very young children who care for their parents feature each year. Their parents have disabilities or are ill. Such children often have to go home in the lunch hour to make sure that their parent is all right. They do shopping on the way home, keep house and do laundry and all the nuts-and-bolts household tasks. They bear tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders and need as much extra support as they can get, at school and elsewhere, to help them to achieve their educational potential so that their opportunities in adult life are not blighted by their caring responsibilities as children.

I am sure that every Member here has received various items of briefing material. I should like to raise one or two comments that have been made to me. The Professional Association of Teachers, or PAT, raises points about the compulsion element in the Bill:

“Schools and colleges will be forced to accept a host of unwilling students who will poison the atmosphere for those willing to learn. Forcing an education on teenagers will create even more youngsters with a grudge against society.”

It feels that there is not a strong case for introducing compulsory participation, although the aim of participation is a laudable one that it would support.

I have to confess that another organisation, Working Links, was new to me. It places young people in employment or training and says:

“Any moves towards compelling young people to stay in education or training must be accompanied not only by a broadening of learning options but also by greater support. Our experience shows that many people who leave education at 16 are deeply disengaged and that it takes a considerable amount of work and patience to gain their trust and motivate them.”

I have also received briefing material from Barnardo’s. I had not realised what a large proportion of its work is education-related. It states:

“Over two-thirds of our services have an educational component.”

Barnardo’s works with the most disadvantaged children and tries to give the opportunity to re-engage with learning. It provides

“vocational and work-based learning and training, working in partnership with local employers, colleges and schools.”

All that is laudable. The organisation lists the sorts of problems that affect the children with whom they deal, including

“poor basic skills, low self confidence, financial hardship”.

Barnardo’s also mentions early parenthood, which has been raised several times in the debate and links in with PSHE. Girls need proper warnings about the dangers to which they expose themselves if they engage in promiscuous sexual activity. They can end up literally holding the baby and having responsibility for a young child when they are still children themselves. Some are lucky enough still to be living at home and have the support and protection of their parents, who may take responsibility for the baby so that their daughter can go back to school and continue her education. However, not all such girls find themselves in those circumstances. We need to find ways of supporting the young girls who do not have the support of home and family, so that they are not left isolated in a council flat with 24-hour-a-day responsibility for a demanding baby when they are still children themselves. We need to consider ways in which the baby can be cared for while the girl continues her education and training so that she has long-term prospects of joining adult life. Barnardo’s comments:

“Many of the NEET population effectively cease to participate long before they reach 16—through exclusion, persistent truancy or simply not engaging when they are in school. We need stronger support structures in school”.

That reinforces my comments about the importance of pastoral care. There are good examples of secondary schools that take their pastoral care roles extremely seriously in Havering.

I turn now to children with special educational needs, who are most difficult to place in continuing education or employment. This year, 2008, is the year of reading and I hope that in Committee there will be an opportunity to improve opportunities for partially sighted students. The parents of such students have contacted me because it is not possible to get school textbooks on disc. In this day and age, I would have thought that a fairly simple thing to achieve. Partially sighted children need very large, bold font and are unable to access their textbooks until their teacher has photocopied and enlarged the relevant pages for the lesson. That is a waste of the teacher’s and students’ time—the students cannot get on with their lessons and, particularly, their homework. Making school textbooks available on disc so that they can be accessed by computer and partially sighted students can get on seems a fairly simple solution. If 2008 is the year of reading, let us grasp that issue and try to help partially sighted students in that way.

There are three extremely good special schools in my constituency. Corbets Tey and Dycorts have pupils with learning difficulties and make enormous efforts to prepare their students for adult life. If the Bill is to encompass children with special needs and statements, we need to ensure that proper provision is made, in colleges and with local employers, so that such children can move into adult life and play their role to the best of their potential.

My hon. Friend introduced me to the excellent work done in her constituency in support of employment and training, and she will want it mentioned. If the Bill is to apply to young people with special needs, that work will need to be extended to take account of the special challenges involved in getting people with learning difficulties and others into the right training opportunities.


The third special school in my constituency is called Ravensbourne. It has quite a number of children on the autistic spectrum who are particularly difficult to place. TreeHouse, the national charity for autism education, has given all of us briefing material, which states:

“Children with autism represent 14.6 per cent. of children with a statement of SEN; pupils with statements are over three times more likely to be…excluded from school than the rest of the school population…the negative experiences of children with SEN has had an impact on the number staying on in further education”.

Although 2.3 per cent. of 15-year-olds at school have special educational needs, only 1.1 per cent. of 16-year-olds at school do, which reflects the number who do not stay on. We have particular efforts to make on that issue.

I never miss an opportunity to plug the ROSE—realistic opportunities for supported employment—project at Havering college of further and higher education, my local FE college; nor do my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb). The project is a wonderful example of good practice in getting students with special needs into employment, with special support that is gradually withdrawn until they are able to attend independently. That means outreach to local employers and liaison with parents. Everybody is involved. Those students achieve far more than anyone ever thought possible. I intend to raise that in Committee as well.

This is a consensual debate. When the Bill goes into Committee, we will be thrashing out items of detail, mainly on whether there should be an element of compulsion, how these plans are going to be delivered and whether there is enough capacity in the system. I welcome the Bill, with the caveat that I shall not support compulsion.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who always speaks with good sense, based on good experience, on these matters. I want to associate myself with those who have said that this is an historic opportunity. The Government are legislating to change the education leaving age to 18, with clear benefits, both social and economic, for individuals and for the country. That is an important aspect of the Bill, but not by any means the whole of it. As the Leitch review highlighted, the need for skilled people is growing, and the Bill’s provisions, which also focus on improving opportunities for young people and adults alike, will help to meet the needs of a high skill economy.

I should like to address three themes from the Bill: how we include the excluded; how we bridge the gap between the value that we place on vocational study and on academic study; and, perhaps most interestingly, how we create new architecture to promote dialogue and a greater sense of responsibility on the part of the private and public sectors of our schools and begin to bridge the historical gap between them.

As chair of the all-party group on skills and a member of two successive Education Committees, I have witnessed the development of Government policy on education and skills. It has been a long and significant journey over the past 10 years. Highlights included the Tomlinson review, which brought about the revolution in vocational learning that we are now extending. That revolution has progressed particularly under this new Government under two new Secretaries of State and a Prime Minister whose commitment to skills while in Government, for 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and now as Prime Minister, has been unrelenting. The Bill enshrines in legislation much of what Governments have been working towards for some time. It sends a strong and positive message to young people as well as to adults and promotes excellence and educational progression in a supported and well-resourced environment.

Raising the age at which teenagers remain in education to 18 should not be about dragooning them to stay on in education regardless, or straitjacketing them, but it should embody a recognition that it is not a realistic, life-changing option to enter the world of work without skills of some kind or another. That is why the Bill’s central commitment to 18 is book-ended by provisions that value vocational skills and promote social inclusion. I hope that it will prompt us to look at new structures in pre-16 and post-16 education—for example, the studio schools that are being suggested in my local authority in the context of the Building Schools for the Future project. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, we must crack the problem of bright young people who feel isolated from the education process. There must be much more on-site learning, and we must raise those people’s aspirations. A few years ago, I went on a visit with the Education Committee to North Carolina, where we saw how children as young as 13 or 14 who were traditionally isolated and alienated from academic learning did powerfully well in skills academies within schools. We should consider that option in future.

The Bill transfers responsibility for the Connexions service to local authorities. I hope that that will give us an opportunity to develop a step change in information, advice and guidance provision, and that the local link interacting between local authorities and mainstream educational services and children’s trusts will enable Connexions to provide a better service that responds more flexibly to the local economy, career opportunities and the skills base.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a student of these matters. Does he agree that it is worth considering introducing an all-age careers service that sits alongside Connexions to give the sort of dedicated advice that will be necessary to bring the Bill to life?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, with which I have an enormous amount of sympathy. The Skills Commission—of which I am a member, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—is conducting an inquiry into that matter and considering precisely that point. It would fit well with the renewed and welcome emphasis that the Government have placed on adult education.

Historically, Blackpool has not had a good record in terms of skills and people staying on in education beyond 16. Because of the nature of the local economy, with the emphasis on leisure, tourism and the related strength of small and medium-sized enterprises, vocational courses are very important. They range from traditional tourism and leisure courses, which are delivered to an excellent standard by my local further education college, Blackpool and the Fylde, to innovative ones. I do not want to tempt providence, but Blackpool and the Fylde college, along with other colleges, now offers courses as a member of the national Gaming Academy, whereby trainees have been able to hone their skills in mock casinos—in future, I hope, in real ones.

Connexions services should now be more likely to collaborate with local employers and businesses, but the Bill puts a key responsibility on local authorities to develop those links. While localising services, national standards must be maintained. Defining how local authorities use the financial resources that they will be given will be crucial to their success. Even at the time of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which set up the Connexions service and on whose Standing Committee I served, concerns were raised about inherent weaknesses in a system that was not mainstream enough and was focused semi-exclusively on NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. I hope that we will be able to move on from that under the new arrangements. In Blackpool, the Connexions service has had a striking impact on providing services for NEETs—I pay tribute to Mike Taplin and his colleagues—but there are other groups to consider. In the course of the Bill’s passage, Ministers should explore mechanisms to ensure that local authorities ring-fence the money that is given to them for information, advice and guidance, because it is crucial that those authorities use those resources effectively. That was among the issues that the Skills Commission touched on in its interim report.

Apprenticeships have been mentioned a lot during the debate. The Government have championed work-based learning, especially apprenticeships, and the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is prioritising funding and resources to develop and strengthen those apprenticeships. Completion rates have significantly improved—in Blackpool, by some 50 per cent. in a recent 12-month period. However, we need carefully to consider the structure of apprenticeships, particularly for those who are reskilling. The target of 500,000 apprenticeships by 2010 is ambitious and we should be proud of it, but in that process it is important that adult apprenticeships are not ignored. That is why I welcome the explicit duty in the Bill to ensure that the Learning and Skills Council makes reasonable provision in that regard; it should make that a major feature of its work. This is an opportunity for the LSC to deliver a strategic target rather than just to micro-manage part of the process.

Reskilling older workers is a growing challenge. In some cases, a greater combination of in-work activity and a modular approach will increase completion rates. Apprenticeships must be flexible and modular, particularly in the context of small and medium-sized businesses, of which we have many in Blackpool. It is particularly important that adult apprenticeships work for women who are reskilling and who may need time out for caring and other duties. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the £90 million announced by the Secretary of State recently to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to take up apprenticeships and expand training.

Social mobility and social inclusion are key elements of the Bill because improving the prospects of, and career options for, young people has consequences for their health and well-being as well as for their financial stability. Other hon. Members have already referred to part 2, which has a strong focus on the needs of children with learning difficulties. One of the most at- risk groups, members of which often leave education at 16, is that of disabled children and those with special educational needs. The issue of carry-over between the pre and post-16 stage for special educational needs is also highly important. The Select Committee on Education and Skills, which I served on, produced a report on SEN in July 2006 that made particular reference to that issue, and to the fact that it has not been dealt with well in the past. The work that children’s and adults’ services do is vital to the improvement of information exchange, continuity, support and advice for young people with SEN.

In that context, it is right to praise the work done for children, schools and families by the Secretary of State—in his previous capacity—and his noble Friend Lord Adonis. The most recent fruit of their activity was the report “Aiming high for disabled children”, which contained a funding package of £340 million, including a transition fund for young disabled people moving into adulthood. The Government need to consider whether there should be further advocacy and support for disabled young people.

The provisions in the Bill for 19 to 25-year-olds are welcome, but it will be useful to explore in Committee how we might increase that threshold. Although the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises have been addressed by the £90 million that the Secretary of State promised, we perhaps also need to look at how things will work in practice.

Finally, I turn to the issue of co-operation between the private and public sectors. The Bill, by rationalising the regulation and monitoring of independent schools, makes large strides towards increased co-operation between the independent and public school sectors. Appointing Ofsted as a regulator of independent schools will streamline the process, which shows the Government’s resolve to share understanding and knowledge between the public and independent spheres of education. The proposals come at a time when we have an historic opportunity to bridge the divide that has stultified educational progress in our country during the past 30 years. I believe that the Government, in their funding, intentions and structures, are committed to bridging that divide. However, it is key that we do so at a time when social mobility is a real issue, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made clear in his recent excellent pamphlet on social mobility.

The private sector must reach out to the communities it is embedded in. It must use its facilities to facilitate that contact and reach out with its techniques. But the public sector, too, must accept that it can learn things from the private sector. I would like to refer to two recent reports that illustrate some of the problems. The Sutton Trust produced a report that shows that a significant percentage of state school teachers would still not encourage their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge or other leading universities. Sir Peter Lampl, the chair of the Sutton Trust, said:

“It is clear that much more needs to be done to dispel the myths about Oxbridge and other leading universities, and to ensure that young people’s higher education decisions are based on fact not fiction.”

Equally, the Charity Commission is about to publish guidance on what private schools must do to satisfy new laws requiring them to prove their public benefit. In today’s edition of The Times there is a depressing litany of complacency and smugness on the part of the bursars of some of the leading private schools, who seem to be unaware of the need to build such a bridge.

We should build that bridge, not least because the general public want us to do so. A recent survey of public attitudes on the issue showed that half the respondents said that greater collaboration between private and maintained schools would improve state education. Nearly a fifth said that opening up those school facilities to the community was the key. I want to see such co-operation extended, and I believe that that will be to the benefit of all students in schools.

In conclusion, the narrative that the Government are taking forward for the 21st century through the Bill is that we are not here to fight the battles of the past. Although I welcome some of the things said by the Opposition, it is genuinely disappointing that some Opposition Members have been too slow to recognise that vocational qualifications are not an alternative to excellence, but part of it. In the fast moving 21st century, lifelong learning must combine skills and traditional methods of learning as seamlessly as possible—vocational and academic together. By 2020, we cannot afford to turn anyone down because they are stuck in one compartment.

For my constituents in Blackpool and its specialist schools, such as Highfurlong Park and Woodlands, which are beacons of excellence in the SEN field, for its secondary sector, which has just produced some excellent GCSE results, and most of all, for all the young people still not getting all the benefits and who are leaving without some skills, the Bill has a great chance of doing good.

Like many who have spoken, I begin by saying that I agree very much with most of the principles and the intent of the Bill. There are far too many young people in the NEET group—not in education, employment or training—and there are far too many pre-16 students truanting from mainstream education. A figure of 10 per cent. was suggested earlier. In comparison with just 20 years ago, jobs for unskilled, unqualified people of any age, let alone 16 to 19-year-olds or those in their 20s, barely exist. When Margaret Thatcher was presiding over the destruction of the British manufacturing industry, it was suggested, not least by her, that while basic mass manufacturing could be done in the developing world, which had cheaper wages and so on and could therefore compete far more effectively at that level, countries such as Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, could survive through internal service industries and high-skills industries that would sell to the rest of the world.

However, we cannot be complacent about those jobs either. Last year, the Select Committee on Education and Skills, as it then was, visited China; we went to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. We saw the phenomenal change and growth in that country—the massive expansion of university provision and the educational changes going through. As part of our investigation, we read about what was happening in countries such as India, which is competing with the west at every level, from universities to massive graphic design companies to massive call centres. No one in Britain or other western European countries can today assume that the sort of jobs that people could once get with no qualifications or low qualifications exist any more. They certainly will not exist in a few years’ time. The intent of the Bill is welcome, therefore.

I speak as someone who spent 22 years working in education and six years on the Education and Skills Committee looking at education throughout this country and in many others. While I was a teacher, I spent three to four years as an assistant head of year 10 and year 11, and 12 years as a head of sixth form. During those 16 years, I spent an awful lot of time every year working to persuade pupils to stay on in post-16 education. I tried to encourage them to take A-levels and to go on to university, or to stay on and take a qualification known as the certificate of pre-vocational education, which was designed for those who had not achieved their five A to Cs and who wanted to up their basic skills. There was a year-long course in which they sampled different vocational outlets to see whether that would give them an idea of where they wanted to go once they had upped themselves to a level 2 qualification.

That course was scrapped and replaced by GNVQs. My school had one of the first sixth forms to introduce that in the whole country; it was one of the first 30 institutions, most of which were colleges, to introduce the courses. I worked hard to persuade pupils of a range of abilities—from intermediate GNVQ to advanced—to stay on. I also worked to encourage pupils to stay on and take part in a college-school partnership that existed for a number of years between one of the schools at which I worked—I was the head of the sixth form there—and the local further education college, so I have a long and wide experience of working with the client group referred to in the Bill about whom we are in part talking today.

I support a huge amount of the intention behind the Bill, but like so many others I query the compulsion element, as have a vast range of organisations of every kind, including the Institute of Directors, various teachers unions, the TUC, the British Youth Council, Barnardo’s, the Local Government Association, and the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, as well as the children’s commissioner—the list just goes on and on. The Government should consider the weight of that evidence and what has been said today, and think again about the compulsion element.

The Government need to consider carefully why the problem that they are trying to deal with through compulsion exists. In part, the problem is to do with the situation in post-16 education traditionally, in particular the poor funding for post-16 students in further education compared with that for students in school-based sixth forms, and the poor funding for FE from 19 onwards compared with that for people in higher education, as well as the lack of flexibility in FE provision. For example, a huge problem is that people either complete an apprenticeship or they get nothing out of it—they cannot build up work in a credits-based system.

The situation is very much the same with college courses. Lots of college principals and teachers with whom I have talked over the years bemoan the fact that we do not have a system such as that which some years ago the Education and Skills Committee saw working incredibly well in California, the fifth largest economy in the world in its own right. Some 60 per cent. of the population in the relevant age group in California have university degrees, but the average age at which people complete them is 35, because a lot of students build up part-time accreditation over 15 to 18 years. Those students take a course, take a year off to work or take part-time courses, building up credits over a long period of time. We do not have that in this country, which affects the whole of FE and has an effect on those in the age group who might want to work and might also want to improve their skills, but who cannot take the mix-and-match approach that works so well in other countries.

We also have a lack of apprenticeship places, which the Government have been attempting to redress, albeit certainly not on the scale that the Education and Skills Committee saw some years ago in Denmark, where there is an incredibly wide network of apprenticeship places. Denmark also has an employers’ levy, which all employers pay. All the employers there chip into the apprenticeship system, and since they have already paid the money they might as well get a free apprentice out of it, instead of regarding taking on an apprentice as a problem, which is how many employers in Britain unfortunately regard it.

There are a lot of problems in the post-16 system that need addressing. The major problem is not with the system itself but with what happens pre-16, as a number of Members have already mentioned. For example, in his response to the Green Paper that led to the Bill, Dr. John Dunford from the Association of School and College Leaders said:

“The young people impacted by this bill primarily will be those who have turned their back on education and training.”

He said that we have to re-engage those young people, which will be a “huge challenge”. Will compulsion really be the way to achieve that, when most of that group have already switched off, dropped out or even truanted before 16, let alone after? In his response to the Green Paper that led to the Bill, the children’s commissioner said:

“Our support for a raised participation age is conditional on changes to the educational culture within schools. Meaningful participation must begin long before 18, and long before Key Stage 4. We look for greater evidence of progress towards giving students a more significant voice in their own education and the running of their own schools.”

The problem arises before the NEET group appears, not just at age 16.

Why do so many fail to engage pre-16? A lot of what I say will be coloured by my experience working in schools for 22 years, the experience of my three children, who have been through the state system, and my experience of serving on the Education and Skills Committee for six years, looking at different education systems across the country and throughout the world. One of the problems is that we have had three landmark changes in education, all of which have worked against the interests of the sort of education that we want to see in schools. The shift that took place between the ’50s and the ’70s was from selective schools to comprehensives, in so far as we have ever had such schools—we have never had a system of well-funded and respected local community schools or comprehensives in this country, as can be seen Finland, which tops the programme for international student assessment studies, or PISA studies, for success.

Then there was the O-level system, which was designed to be attempted by only 40 per cent. of the population and failed by a chunk of them, with perhaps only 30 per cent. passing, after which the certificate of secondary education was added, to cover the other 60 per cent. Finally, the two were merged in the GCSE, the introduction of which I was involved in, as a head of department back in the 1980s. Then there was the raising of the school leaving age, or ROSLA, the last occasion being in 1972-73. My year group at school was the last that could leave at 15 with no qualifications whatever and go into unskilled work, as some of my friends did.

One of the problems with all those landmarks was that we tried to impose an academic, grammar school-style curriculum on everyone. Being a mini grammar school was seen as the only thing worth doing, because academia was all that counted in this country. That was worsened by the massive, over-detailed, over-prescriptive and over-academic national curriculum, and further worsened by the intense atmosphere of frequent high-stakes testing, league tables and the professional pay review process, all of which I experienced in my professional career before being elected to this place. Let us remind ourselves that, as has been said, truancy has increased in the past 10 years, as the Government introduced those measures. Perhaps we should look at what effect those measures had on increasing the rate of truancy.

The two big PISA studies show that our rate of success in literacy and numeracy has fallen, from one study to the next, as the children who went through the literacy and numeracy strategy in junior schools came through to the secondary level and into the PISA age range. I taught children who were already turned off the school process at the age of 11—between 1979 and 1997, under the previous Government, as well as between 1997 and 2001, under this Government. By the age of 14, that situation was much worse; by 16 it was a nightmare. Some of those children had been a problem in school at the age of 14, 15 or 16, but when I went to visit them on work experience in the summer of year 10, I met entirely different people, working in an adult environment and doing something that they were enthused by. We have to harness those two sides of school to the benefit of everyone, in order to pre-empt the creation of the NEET group.

We must allow schools pre-16 the funding, the class sizes and the curriculum flexibility to engage all our children, not just the academic. We must not turn off such a significant proportion of our children. However, we are told that innovation and freedom from the national curriculum can be exercised only by schools that are outside the state system—the tiny minority of academies, for example, or the trust schools in their original version, before the watered-down version introduced after a Government Back-Bench rebellion altered the previous education Bill. Schools have to be outside the system.

What folly is it that says that we need innovation in our schools, but that we cannot trust education professionals to deliver it? We are told that the vast majority must be regulated to within an inch of their lives in order to teach in our schools—and yet if a school is taken over or set up by an outside body such as a religious body, or by millionaire used-car salesmen, fashion designers, carpet kings, creationists or wealthy City slickers, all of a sudden the school can have curriculum innovation. I just do not understand the logic of that, and have said so repeatedly in the Chamber in the past six years.

The current situation is nonsense; it is the education policy of the madhouse. I have worked under five heads, four of whom—not who the first one he was a traditionalist ex-senior Army officer—wanted to innovate, but were increasingly frustrated as the years passed by the diktats from the Minister in Whitehall. We should allow that freedom to all our schools, not just the chosen few set up by random outside bodies or wealthy individuals.

I hope and trust that those in my party who are now talking about free schools, possibly in the same vein, will not go down the route that the Government and the Conservative party have followed. I am reassured in part by the conversation that I had with my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), and will watch the policy developments carefully over the next year.

Finally, it seems that the same situation applies to post-16, too. I am glad that the Minister for Schools and Learners is back in his place, because although I would not want to misquote him, he said in an earlier intervention—I wrote this down, because I was so shocked by it—that one of the values of compulsion post-16 would be the “galvanising effect” on those working with young people. It is almost as if the only way that those who work in FE post-16 can deliver a good education to their charges is to force an unwilling client group, which will then scare those FE tutors into doing their job properly.

I have visited lots of colleges, including Chesterfield college, North Nottinghamshire college, Chester college and colleges across London—I also visited many when I was a teacher—and I have never met an FE principal who did not want to innovate and experiment. They would tell me, however, that the major obstacles that they faced were Government policy, Government funding processes and the dead hand of central Government. We must free up our schools and colleges and not try to impose ever more intensive and detailed central Government control. We must trust the education professionals, not the random amateurs from outside who set up schools.

Another teacher, I am afraid, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Newly qualified, I started teaching in the early 1970s at what was then the Crown Hills secondary modern school in Leicester. I quickly learned my place in the school hierarchy when I was given the ROSLA class, which contained those who were there as a result of the raising of the school leaving age. More experienced colleagues were given the opportunity to teach the CSE group, and the heads of department got the small number of students who were doing O-levels. I am not sure whether it was a case of me being dumped on the ROSLA class or it being dumped on me, but it was certainly a rough first year of teaching. I am convinced that I learned more in that year than the students ever did.

The reality was that a high proportion of those who were obliged to stay on for that extra year did not want to be there and resented the fact that they had to be. The situation was complicated by the fact that those who could leave at Easter did so, and those who could not left in the summer term as soon as they could get away with doing so. Indeed, there was often much relief for me and my colleagues when the most disaffected students decided that it was not worth turning up after Christmas.

That was a model for how not to do it, and a lot has changed dramatically since then, not least at what was the Crown Hills secondary modern school. It is now fully comprehensive and a very successful sports college. It is enormously grateful to the Government for what they have done to enable it to meet its full potential as a college, allowing it to meet the needs of the diverse range of students from different backgrounds who attend it. It now quite rightly receives much praise and many awards for its work.

The other thing that has changed dramatically is that the Government have learned the lessons from the raising of the school leaving age at that time. They are right to emphasise that the Bill is not about raising the school leaving age in that way; it is about enabling young people between the ages of 16 and 18 to have a range of opportunities to extend their education and training in a range