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Life Skills (National Curriculum)

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Ian Lucas.)

If our babies, children and young people do not grow up with adequate social and emotional skills, we are storing up immense problems for our future. Some of the symptoms are teenage pregnancy, antisocial behaviour, drug and drink problems, a lifetime on benefits and educational underachievement.

Social and emotional skills are the bedrock of humanity —the key to turning all these current problems around and producing young people who not only will achieve educationally, hold down a job and be good citizens, but, perhaps most importantly of all, will be the great parents of tomorrow, thus breaking the intergenerational cycle of underachievement and dysfunction that so blights constituencies such as mine. It is therefore with great pleasure that I congratulate Ministers and officials in the Department for Children, Schools and Families on driving the changes in the national curriculum that will mean that, in the years 11 to 16, life skills will be properly taught to all those who need them.

I have already been to see the new Minister about this issue, and I know of her deep commitment to and interest in this subject. She knows that I mean no disrespect to her when I pay a special tribute to her predecessor, the Minister for Schools and Learners, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who painstakingly pioneered the thinking that led to this breakthrough, which will have such stunning implications for the children in my constituency and elsewhere.

However, I have one minor criticism to level at the Minister, which I hope that she will take in the spirit in which it is offered. Can we please not talk about PHSE, SRE and all the other baffling professional acronyms that make education policy so impenetrable? This more than any other subject is something it is essential for parents to understand, as it is about developing the skills that will help our young people navigate through the difficult times and decisions of their lives. In the couple of years before the proposals are implemented nationwide, will the Minister have a think about whether we can please call the subject 11-to-16 life skills, so that everyone knows what we are trying to achieve?

We are already using the expression “11-to-16 life skills” in Nottingham, and it is one intervention of about a dozen that make up Nottingham’s early intervention package. That package involves a circle of measures from birth to 18, based around the whole life cycle, that can then be repeated until the intergenerational cycle of underachievement is broken.

We are delighted that the Government have given added weight to our local efforts by ensuring that 11-to-16 life skills will now be included in the national curriculum, probably starting in September 2011. In Nottingham however, we cannot wait. Every year we wait means 214 more teenage pregnancies in my constituency, another 1,000 young people leaving school without the qualifications they should have obtained, more victims of drug and drink abuse and more wasted opportunities and lives. So, we intend to start our 11-to-16 life skills curriculum with next September’s secondary school intake. We will start with two of our new academies, plus any secondary schools whose heads wish to get their young people prepared ahead of the Government’s timetable.

We would appreciate continuing Government encouragement at both ministerial and official level. I pay tribute to the officials in the Minister’s Department for the help and advice that they have already given us. Led by our excellent new director of children’s services, Ian Curryer, we intend to seize the advice and opportunities on offer and to make the fullest use of them. In her reply, will the Minister perhaps let us know what assistance —not financial assistance, but help and encouragement—the Department can offer as we seek to pioneer the curriculum?

We will also develop locally, but with help from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and others such as the Department, the curriculum content of 11-to-16 life skills. There is no reason why we cannot come up with a synthesis of secondary SEAL—social and emotional aspects of learning at secondary school—sex and relationship education, personal, social and health education, citizenship and so on that is more than the sum of its parts and genuinely helps build the social and emotional capabilities of our teenagers. Perhaps the Minister could help us to pilot that curriculum, since lessons for the Government’s roll-out will surely become evident if we start early in Nottingham.

Just as we initiated primary SEAL, the local strategic partnership, One Nottingham, will put in whatever resources it takes to give 11-to-16 life skills the support they require. We expect a project initiation document to come to the One Nottingham board in January with proposals on the roll-out of 11-to-16 life skills and a funding request to back them up. The proposals will include the in-depth training of a critical mass of teachers who can confidently and clearly pass on the core life skills that our young people need. Can the Minister tell us what assistance might be available to give the teacher training required? We will fund it, but we need the Department’s expertise behind us.

Partnership working is central to our success. Life skills are a public health issue and a crime reduction issue. They impinge on housing, employment and communities. They are everybody’s problem. For many young people, 11-to-16 life skills will be a natural progression from the primary SEAL programme, which has been implemented in every primary school in our city. That programme teaches young people how to interact with their fellow pupils, to learn the skills they need to progress and to resolve arguments without violence as well as many other basic concepts that, sadly, all too many do not learn at home. Taking primary SEAL forward into 11-to-16 life skills should be a seamless transition, giving many of those youngsters the skills that they do not currently get at home.

For young people at secondary school in many areas, it may not appear necessary to teach what it is like to have a family, what the responsibilities are when they have a baby of their own or what it is to have and sustain a relationship. Many of these things are second nature to most people in the UK because of how they have been parented. Sadly, there are other places where they have to be taught, and if children are not given the chance to learn them either at home or at school, the whole of our society will reap the consequences. The high level of teenage pregnancy may be the most obvious consequence, but as children’s young lives unfold, many other symptoms become apparent. Young people who are marginalised and excluded from learning will tend to disrupt classes, while others will interact all too often with the criminal law in their teenage years.

We should beware of having a false division between social and emotional capabilities and academic abilities. All those calling for improved social and emotional education want higher academic attainment, but the latter can never be sustained without the former being in place. Pressure, exhortation and supervision can crank up scores only so much; the key to continued success for every child, not just those close to some arbitrary benchmark, is to produce, from the earliest years, better raw material. Social and emotional capability is the bedrock on which all academic achievement is founded and can grow.

The Department must be careful that, in its understandable pursuit of academic standards, it does not unwittingly squeeze out of the local curriculum, particularly in challenged schools, the very social and emotional learning on which rising and sustainable academic attainment must be based. Capable, bright, interactive, rounded children will always attain academically to a much greater degree than those who do not have the social and emotional basics.

Those basics need to be taught to children, ideally by effective parenting, particularly in the 0 to 3 age group, and any deficiencies must be made good by early intervention, before and during the school years. I hope that the Minister will comment on how secondary heads already struggling to meet the standards agenda can be helped to make room and time for the social and emotional skills upon which rising standards must be built.

In proposing 11-to-16 life skills for all, the Government are to be congratulated on thinking strategically. It is the Government’s role not only to react to crises, such as a child abuse case or poor GCSE results, but to look at the long term. They must enact the strategy that will build out the problem and break the intergenerational repetition of ignorance and failure. The Government did that with Sure Start, and they are now doing the same thing with 11-to-16 life skills. They are a small step away from completing the jigsaw and proposing nationally a holistic early intervention package. We have modelled such a package in Nottingham and have tried to establish a 0-to-18 cycle of interventions in our city. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from what we have done. By putting in place arrangements such as I have described, we will not only secure the future for every current child, but by creating the great parents of tomorrow, we will break once and for all the intergenerational cycle in constituencies like mine.

I shall conclude by congratulating Ministers in the Department again on their foresight in bringing forward proposals for an 11-to-16 life skills agenda in the not-too-distant future. In my city of Nottingham, we are trying to pioneer these ideas even before they come into law under legislation passed by this place, and I hope that we will continue to have Ministers’ support. There has been a great partnership effort in our city and we have made great progress, but we continue to need Government support. If we get that support, the prize is a fantastic one. It is that children growing up today can become the most fantastic parents of tomorrow. That will help to reduce the massive amounts of time, effort, energy and money that would go into picking up the pieces if we neglect the future of our young children.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, for hearing the debate tonight.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate on an issue with which he is very much involved; he has been to see me about it. I thank him for his work on the subject. I am sure that it is work for which his constituents are very grateful.

In the children’s plan, we committed to giving every child a world-class education, and to making this country the best place in the world in which to grow up. As far as I am concerned, the two must go hand in hand; we cannot have one without the other. Qualifications are extremely important—never more so than in the highly skilled 21st-century job market that Sandy Leitch projected two years ago. The power of education lies in shaping futures, and in giving people better and brighter prospects. Knowledge and technical skills must go hand in hand with life skills.

Children cannot learn to their full potential if they are not safe, secure and happy. To achieve at school, they need a good group of friends, a stable home life and encouragement from their parents or guardians. Where young people do not have that support, we look to local services, including schools, to provide stability and structure.The ability to relate to others better, to be organised and punctual, and to manage conflict is essential to fulfilling and satisfying relationships. In a rapidly changing society of instant communication, with new career possibilities and developing leisure pursuits and methods of social interaction, we need to make sure that we give young people the skills that they need to develop, and to make the right choices in every aspect of their lives, so that they can become confident adults and responsible citizens.

To respond to the changing world around us, we have introduced a new secondary curriculum. Teachers are the best judges of their pupils. They know about their interests, aptitudes and backgrounds, how to get the best out of them, and how to make the most of the resources available in their schools and localities. We have retained all the national curriculum subjects, and have put an emphasis on the core subjects. We have introduced functional skills, so that high standards can be achieved with regard to the central aspects of learning. However, within that framework, the new curriculum allows teachers greater flexibility to tailor their learning programmes to the specific needs of their pupils.

There is more time for students who need a bit of extra support to catch up, and for those who need it to receive vital one-to-one tuition. There is more space for the most able to pursue their learning more independently, so that they can get ahead. The curriculum also builds in more time for the valuable skills that my hon. Friend talked about, so that we can encourage all young people to develop their personal, learning and thinking skills, and the social and emotional skills needed for learning, personal development and well-being. The new secondary curriculum will encourage students to make connections between subjects through curriculum dimensions. Unifying themes such as cultural diversity and identity, healthy lifestyles, and enterprise and entrepreneurship not only make lessons more relevant and engaging, but help young people to make sense of subjects and how they relate to the world around them.

The new personal learning and thinking skills framework will ensure a more consistent approach to softer skills such as perseverance, confidence, resilience and learning to work well in a team. By fostering more independence in learning, and with a real focus on the broader skills essential to life and work, we are investing young people with more responsibility to make choices on all aspects of their lives, including their education, health and safety, from an earlier age. By raising the participation age in education, employment and training, and by opening up new learning routes for those aged 14 to 19, we are ensuring that every young person studies for longer in a relevant and engaging way that best suits them, and can gain a range of broader skills that will see them to success.

Increasingly, as employers and others in the community become more involved with 21st-century schools, young people are benefiting from a wider range of activities. Enterprise education, work experience and after-school activities such as sport, music and drama are all helping young people to relate to one another, to develop their communication skills, and to work well in a team. All are vital skills for later life.

However, our vision of 21st-century schools goes beyond attainment and professional skills. It is a vision of a learning community, in which services can come together around a child to support them in all aspects of their growth and development. Better links between children’s services and schools are helping to provide more consistent support to all young people, and more targeted support to those who need it. The larger the number of professionals talking to one another, the greater the capacity for spotting problems early and intervening.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North for his work on early intervention in Nottingham, which is designed to deal with the specific challenges faced by his locality. I wish him every success with the implementation of the 11-to-16 life skills curriculum in Nottingham. In response to his inquiry about what further support my Department can provide, we have already offered a bespoke programme for Nottingham to support the implementation of the curriculum, and that offer now lies with the local authority for consideration.

As for a curriculum which combines PSHE, citizenship, SRE and other elements, I am delighted that schools in Nottingham wish to develop their own curriculum, which is specifically tailored to the needs of local pupils. The bespoke programme on offer will support schools in designing the whole curriculum to meet the needs of their pupils, and in developing particular subjects or groups of subjects within the overall curriculum framework. A more flexible secondary curriculum, new learning routes and broader activities in schools are therefore helping young people to relate their academic studies to the real world. The new PSHE education programme of study will give young people the opportunity to study life skills and issues in their own right, and to tackle some of the issues they face as they enter adulthood—finances, health, and sex and relationships.

PSHE is an extremely important subject, and it should not be treated as secondary to the rest of a young person’s education. That is why we recently took the decision to put PSHE on a statutory footing, and we have asked Sir Alasdair MacDonald, head teacher at Morpeth secondary school in Tower Hamlets, to conduct an independent review into the best way to do that. My hon. Friend has asked whether PSHE or SRE could be called “life skills”. Although Sir Alasdair has not specifically been asked to look at that question in the review, I am sure that he will make recommendations on the way in which we describe that important area of education if there are good reasons for doing so.

As we develop the statutory core entitlement, we will take as our starting point the existing non-statutory programmes of study for personal and economic well-being in key stages 3 and 4. For key stages 1 and 2, the review will take account of Jim Rose’s work on PSHE as part of the primary curriculum review. Jim Rose’s interim report, published yesterday, recommends the strengthening of the personal development element of the curriculum by building a framework for the personal skills and attitudes that all children should develop throughout their schooling. That would come under the area of learning called “Understanding physical health and well-being”. By making PSHE statutory, we will ensure greater consistency across the national picture, so that all young people benefit from those vital skills.

All PSHE programmes must be flexible enough to allow individual schools to tailor their curriculum and teaching to their own pupils and parents, and to the ethos of the school. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, training and support for teachers is crucial. We have made £2 million of funding available each year to train teachers and professionals delivering PSHE in schools. We will also encourage schools to use in-service training to improve staff awareness of the duty to promote well-being, particularly the importance of high-quality PSHE.

We are working with the Training and Development Agency for Schools to develop a specialist route through initial teacher training, and we will update the existing SRE and drugs and alcohol education guidance for schools. Wider Government programmes such as the duty to promote well-being, and the healthy schools agenda will be used to drive improvements in PSHE. My hon. Friend asked how we help head teachers to make time for social and emotional education while they are working to meet the standards agenda. In my mind, the two go hand in hand. Wider learning, development and well-being are a vital part of raising standards in schools to provide a first-class education for our young people.

The school report card will provide stronger accountability to parents and local communities on how their schools are progressing across the board. The consultation on report cards that we launched yesterday will look specifically at how schools promote wider well-being alongside attainment. As we consider school reform, we must remember the vital role of parents, who are an enormous influence when it comes to raising the aspirations of their children and instilling the values and behaviour that will stand them in good stead later in life. Given that children spend only 15 per cent. of their time in school, parents are our most important ally in their children’s development. Through technology, personal contacts in school, and forums for parents to express their views, we are encouraging parents to become more involved in their child’s education and development.

I have been following the Minister’s remarks closely, and I am very encouraged. Heads in challenged schools often feel that they are regulated, supervised and overseen. If we make 11-to-16 life skills a central part of the curriculum, it will help to redress that balance, in which case heads should feel that both sides of the curriculum are equally important.

I could not agree more. That was certainly evident in the challenged schools in London that I have visited. In schools that have managed to make dramatic improvements in attainment, heads have said to me that tackling wider life skills, PSHE and behavioural attitudes has enabled children to raise attainment.

Engaging parents is a particular challenge in my hon. Friend’s constituency and other, similar constituencies. Many children and young people do not get much support at home. For those children, school is a safe environment in which they can learn about these issues. Health, safety and personal awareness cannot be left to chance. It is absolutely vital that young people get the information that they need to make the right choices.

I was very moved by the DVD that my hon. Friend sent me outlining the intervention work in his constituency, which features teenage mums. I was struck by the point that all those teenage mums said that, despite loving their babies very much, had they known more about the consequences of certain behaviours, they would have done things very differently. They said that by being a young teenage mum, they had, in effect, missed out on part of their youth, which could have been avoided with the right information and support. It is vital that we provide that information in schools, but we also need to continue to reach out to parents as a vital resource in nurturing children’s development in the round.

Education is not all about exam results and getting qualifications, important though that is. It is about developing an understanding of the world and one’s place in it, and helping young people to make the right choices for success both now and in the future, and it is about ensuring a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood. Tomorrow’s society will be formed of today’s young people. Investing in them is to invest in our nation’s future, which is the soundest investment we can make. That is the power of education. Through the curriculum, teaching and wider activities, we can build 21st-century schools that will equip our young people for the challenges of 21st-century life and work, and we can make this country the best place in the world to live, to learn and to grow up in.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.