Skip to main content

Girls (Educational Development)

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Main, in this important debate on the development of confidence for girls in school and the importance of role models to the future career paths of young girls. The debate is important to every schoolgirl in the country. The outcome and agreed actions need to take effect to ensure that girls achieve their full potential. As Mrs Robinson, the headmistress of West Kirby grammar school, has said, we have to encourage girls to have a can-do attitude from as young as possible, perhaps from year 7. Many schoolgirls lack confidence in themselves and their ability, and while boys think that they can, girls think that they cannot.

I have worked in the area for the past decade with schoolgirls, women-in-business organisations and through academic study and research. Today, I hope to bring to the debate not only my experiences, but those of my colleagues, renowned academics, Girlguiding UK, which, with more than 500,000 members aged four to 25, is the biggest voluntary girls’ organisation in the country, teaching professionals and business women who mentor other business women and schoolgirls. I will also talk about the findings from a recent Ofsted report titled, “Girls’ careers aspirations”.

My personal journey resulted in my writing a careers guide for girls called, “If Chloe Can”. The book was written to help provide an array of role models for girls, showing them examples of inspiring women from different backgrounds who all excelled in their careers. The book has now become a play to inspire girls and to show them what they are capable of achieving with hard work and determination. The play is now being done with the National Youth Theatre, which found a young writer, Karla Crome. She is only 23 and was delighted to write the play, which helped her along her playwriting path. There is also a group of young female actresses, who are also gaining experience to help launch their careers. All that is consistent with the theme of building confidence through doing and achieving in a supportive environment, while being helped by role models.

The female role models who took part in the play and the career book totalled some 100 women, who are some of the most successful women in the UK and the world.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we, as Members of Parliament, also have a great deal to offer as role models? I am mentoring six young girls in Redditch, and I learn a great deal more from them than they learn from me.

My hon. Friend has an excellent point. As female MPs, we are role models. To become an MP, someone has to be one in 100,000 people, and there are so few of us here, which relates to the cycle of learning that she has discussed. Knowledge from one generation can be passed to the next.

I was impressed by how openly and honestly the 100 successful women that I have mentioned talked about confidence, the need to develop it and how important it was for them in achieving in life. They compared confidence to a muscle that needed to be worked out through repetition of small, ever-increasing achievements. From those accomplishments, they developed a mental power—a power based on ability, achievement and a track record, further enabling them to strive for success.

Confidence can be difficult to describe. Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust groups of schools, past managing director of Penguin Books and two-time winner of “Publisher of the Year”, explained it as follows:

“There are many interrelated aspects to confidence, but there are two I would highlight as particularly important for girls, and which schools can help girls develop. The first is having the confidence to take risks, to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Schools can nurture this by encouraging girls to take small risks—to stand up in front of a crowd and make a speech”—

like I am doing today—

to direct and produce plays, to take part in debates, to take on challenges like the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. These kinds of experiences make girls much more confident about risk, and risk is absolutely essential in working life.”

I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).

My hon. Friend says that confidence can be difficult to describe, but we know exactly what it is when we see it. Does she agree that girls often do much better in a single-sex environment in schools, even if it is only in a single-sex class in a co-educational comprehensive? They are not having to live up to a stereotype in front of their colleagues and friends, the boys—

Thank you, Mrs Main. Does my hon. Friend agree that girls do much better if they are not threatened by apparently more confident boys?

My hon. Friend raises a point about girls being taught in a single-sex environment. Obviously, parents know best whether they want their children to be taught in single-sex environments. Whether there is stereotyping, whether girls are living up to stereotypes and whether they have the ability to speak freely within their peer groups can affect their confidence.

Although academic subjects are important, does my hon. Friend agree that confidence-building subjects such as music, drama, the arts, sports and reading out loud in class are also important? Some children may not flower academically at a particular moment, and those subjects can boost their self-confidence and self-esteem.

I totally concur. That is what Helen Fraser was talking about—little bits that people can do to build up confidence. As we know, some of us flourish and blossom at different times in life. Therefore, someone has to feel confident in what they have done when they do it.

The second aspect that Helen Fraser raised is

“the confidence to be yourself, not to feel you have to conform to everyone’s expectations. This includes the confidence to stand up for yourself, to disagree with the group consensus if you believe they’re wrong and you’re right. Even if it is just speaking up at a meeting, or daring to have an opinion that isn’t the same as everyone else’s, it’s important to have the confidence that your…opinions and beliefs matter just as much as any other woman’s or man’s.”

An interesting thing that I found in business clubs, particularly in girls-only schools, is that when girls set up and run companies—the companies are sort of junior social enterprises—it builds their confidence and helps them break out from ordinary school. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

I will indeed. I will talk about work experience and employing other styles of developing confidence later on. My hon. Friend has certainly touched on an important subject.

The aspects that I have talked about make up confidence. They are important throughout life, and girls lack them. Quantitative studies over many years have shown that levels of self-confidence in girls and young women are much lower than those in boys—Hisrich and Bowen in 1986, Hollenstead and Wilt in 2000 and Kickul, Wilson, Marlino and Barbosa in 2008. Such issues need to be addressed, because they have lifelong implications.

Today’s debate centres on the key ingredients that assist in life fulfilment and in achieving personal potential, which need to be nurtured especially in girls far more than boys. Broadbridge noted that a lack of confidence resulted in girls being far more critical of themselves and their abilities. That can become self-doubt later in life, preventing them from applying for promotion and bringing attention to their own achievements, as Singh, Vinnicombe, James said in 2006.

That stands the test from a recruitment point of view. Having conducted informal quantitative studies, recruiters will say that they can probably check a woman’s CV in 20 minutes, because a woman usually underestimates her ability, whereas they might need up to two hours to check a bloke’s CV, because he is convinced that he can do something, even if he has not necessarily done it yet.

In Carol Gilligan’s book, “In A Different Voice”, she explained how male and female traits develop differently from birth through parental guidance. Boys strive to be independent by, for example, playing competitive games, whereas girls stay close to their mother and their games are dominated by “sharing” and “playing together”. That means that men can put “winning” ahead of relationships and that women value co-operation and do not like the quest for victory, if it threatens the harmony of a group. The academic Albert Bandura noted that

“confidence in our ability to perform”

is developed in four key ways—social persuasions, mastery of experience, modelling and judgment of our own psychological state. Social persuasions and stereotyping, as identified by Bandura, are a huge concern when considering girls in school.

Girlguiding UK’s 2009 girls’ attitudes survey showed that girls aspire, stereotypically, to female careers. Hairdressing was the No.1 choice for under-16s; teaching was the No.1 choice for 16 to 21-year-olds; and only 1% of those surveyed said that they wanted to work in science or engineering. In the same survey in 2011, when the girls were asked why so many of them aspired to be hairdressers and so few to be engineers, more than half those surveyed—57%—said that hairdressing is what girls are interested in, while they veer away from engineering because of a lack of interest, as expressed by 51%, and a significant lack of female role models, as expressed by 60%. It was also perceived that girls “don’t do that sort of job”, as expressed by 47%, and that they did not know enough about it anyway, as expressed by 43%.

As demonstrated by those figures, there is a confidence issue when we explore areas of work that are outside the stereotypical areas of female work, which often limits the job prospects, wages and promotion of women. In turn, that often leaves women in much more vulnerable jobs later in life, such as “the five Cs”—cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work. The widening of girls’ horizons from a young age is vital, especially as there is a constant battle with the daily barrage of media sexualisation and stereotyping of girls. Studies over the past 30 years—from McArthur and Resko, to Manstead and McCulloch, to Hyde—have constantly found that, overall, men and women in the media and advertisements differed in terms of credibility, with men being portrayed as authorities and women as users, and women in terms of relationships and men as independent. Given the daily amount of television alone that we consume—on average, four hours a day—and how highly we regard TV as our major source of entertainment and our most important news medium, we can realise how important that constant barrage of TV images is when it comes to fixing our views and adding to existing stereotypes.

Many girls tend to be seen, and see themselves, as the nurturers, which is reflected in their choice of occupation. The recent Ofsted report, “Girls’ Aspirations”, showed that the sort of fixed views exhibited by girls in the Girlguiding UK report are being maintained, because girls are sticking to strict, old-fashioned stereotyping. The Ofsted report also found a lack of knowledge among girls about what careers are available and about progression and promotion in careers in general, which highlights concerns about the careers system and careers advice.

What are the Government doing? They have taken some important steps. I welcome the introduction of the E-bac, or English baccalaureate, which is one of the Government’s most recent initiatives. It is a new performance measure for schools and is designed to give children a more rounded education, encouraging more students to take traditional academic subjects, including English, maths, history, geography, the sciences and a language. It was reported in August that the E-bac is steering twice as many pupils in England’s secondary schools towards core academic subjects. A Government-commissioned survey showed that 33% of pupils will take E-bac subjects in 2012 and 47% in 2013 compared with only 22% in 2010.

Further to the point made in an earlier intervention, will the hon. Lady tell us what the impact of the introduction of the E-bac has been on the study of music?

I must admit that I do not know what the impact of the E-bac has been on the study of music, but hopefully the Minister can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I am working with the 30% Club, which is a group of women aiming to increase the percentage of women on top company boards to 30%. One member of the 30% Club, Katushka Giltsoff, a partner at the Miles Partnership, said that knowledge is key and that the most important thing that girls can do is study serious, mainstream subjects and obtain an all-round education, so that they can do what is best for them later in life. It is also important that we do not limit girls’ choice of subject early on, because limiting subject choice early on ultimately limits career choice later.

Where could we be doing more? We need to ensure that girls have a better understanding about career choice and its impact on their long-term earnings. We also need to develop better and more carefully planned opportunities for girls to meet female professionals who are working in non-stereotypical roles, so that they gain a better understanding of what a job entails and how they can follow a career path. That process could even be extended so that female professionals could act as mentors to guide girls into careers that they are interested in. Everywoman has begun the Modern Muse project, which tries to link business women with schoolgirls. Claire Young of Girls Out Loud is piloting Big Sister. That project is very much like the American model of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which bring mentors and business professionals into schools so that children can have a selection of role models. Similarly, Etta Cohen, who is the founder of the biggest women’s network in the north-west and an ex-teacher herself, has said that schools and teachers in particular have a big role to play in getting real role models into schools and in getting schools to engage more closely with the business world. The Government could address that issue by preparing more girls to become women entrepreneurs, which we know is important. At the moment, 150,000 fewer women than men are setting up in business. If we had 150,000 more women in business, they would be fulfilling their potential and paying into the economy. Moderate estimates are that they would pay in £9 billion, but it could be as much as £30 billion.

There are various routes to follow. The other thing that the Government are doing, and need to do, is link up what is already out there. We should not reinvent the wheel but encourage organisations to do more together, whether that involves MerseySTEM promoting the study of science to girls, the Chemical Industries Association and the Royal Society of Chemistry encouraging girls to study chemistry or—if I can mention it again—the National Youth Theatre producing the play based on my book, which will be seen by 1,000 schoolgirls at a time. All those organisations can give girls an array of role models.

All this activity is vital for future generations of girls, and we are looking at this issue at a very important time. Lots of changes are going on, but the progress of girls has not improved in the past 30 years. The progress of girls has been glacial, and whatever has happened in the past 30 years has not helped girls. That is why today I have specifically cited academic studies from the past 30 years, as well as very practical studies and reports by business groups. I have done so to say, “We must do more.” The help and support is out there, and I know, from working within our Government, that we have a will to improve things.

I have a question for the Minister, who I know has done so much to change the landscape of apprenticeships and expand their availability and take-up by both companies and individuals. I hope that he can shine his spotlight on this area and achieve similarly successful results. To do so, he must encourage confidence-building measures for girls, through the types of activities that I have discussed, beginning with girls in year 7 or younger, and he must actively encourage girls in the pursuit of the Duke of Edinburgh award in performance, arts and music.

I welcome the Government’s national citizenship service, which was piloted in the summer. On Wirral, it brought children together from all kinds of backgrounds and at the end of the two-week project the children said it had pushed them, allowed them to engage in activities that they had never done before, including team play, and built their confidence. They said that it had been life-changing and transformational. If we could build on that success in one way or another and encourage more children, particularly girls, to participate in those projects in their summer holidays, it would be a giant step forward.

The Government should develop work experience links during summer holidays. I wonder whether the Government’s plans, for 5,000 women mentors over the next three years to inspire female entrepreneurs, could be extended into schools to help with initiatives such as Modern Muse and Big Sister. As John Asgian, a teacher at St George’s school in Maida Vale, puts it:

“Self-confidence is a function of self-identity. It is not always about ‘feeling good about yourself’, it is about doing well for yourself and doing good for others.”

If we want a generation who are doing well for themselves and good for others, it is time we helped them build the ability to do it, and we can do just that by building self-confidence for girls.

The Government are right to put so much emphasis on qualifications and on raising school standards. Every time our excellent Secretary of State for Education gets up and raises the flag for higher standards in schools, I want to cheer him, and as a parent I harass my children regularly, with mixed results, but I must confess that there is perhaps one thing more important than qualifications and that is, of course, confidence. If you have confidence and qualifications you are king and are likely to become a Member of Parliament—

Order. Could you not say “you”? I have masses of confidence and qualifications, but I am sure that the hon. Lady is not referring to me. I have noticed other hon. Members doing the same. I do not wish to stop the flow of the debate, but if speakers could not refer to me, I would be grateful.

Of course, Mrs Main. I will adhere to that, confidently. With qualifications and confidence—king. Without qualifications—trouble, absolutely. But anyone who is brimming with confidence can get on and make the right choices.

It is very important that, along with studying for their qualifications, young people learn confidence at school, but why is it particularly necessary for girls? We so often see girls outperforming boys in qualifications, so why is it that when I go, as I often do, to the mixed schools, particularly the secondaries, in my constituency and get up and talk to the pupils, I get many questions, but very rarely from the young women? They seem to think that they have to sit quietly, and that worries me. It worries me that the next generation of young women are not confident enough in the classroom, and that will have an impact on their future lives. We know what low confidence is about; it is about low self-esteem, and in areas of high deprivation, such as the ones I have in Hastings, we are more likely to get the low self-esteem that goes with lower family expectations and unwise choices.

The topic I want to address today is teenage pregnancy. The UK has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe and the developed world, and one of the highest in the whole world. The previous Government made strong efforts to tackle the problem. In 1999 they put together a 10-year strategy to reduce the number of teen pregnancies, and a lot of money was spent on it. The different impacts and influences on the young women making the choices were analysed, and we found out a lot about the effects of welfare, of access to employment and housing, and of confidence, but unfortunately the strategy did not have a tremendous impact. Over those 10 years, the number of teen pregnancies fell by only 13%; the goal had been 50%. Any decrease is of course good, because having such high levels is an unacceptable way for communities to operate, but we could do more, by boosting confidence in schools. We must have a platform that addresses how we can influence young women so that they make smart choices.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of influencing young women to make smart choices is to show them role models? All too often the role models in the media are about make-up and singing as career success. Does she agree that a great advantage of the initiative taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) is that it shows young women that there is a huge multiplicity of female role models out there who can inspire them?

I agree. It is incredibly important that young women realise that there are other women out there who can help them to make smart choices. We need to reduce the impact of all the advertising and television that seems to suggest to them that celebrity and early parenthood are a way forward. It is well known that these young women sometimes make what we call a choice to go ahead and have a baby at a young age. They think it is a smart choice—they see the welfare benefits—but in the vast majority of cases it is not a smart choice, and it has unhealthy outcomes for the young woman and the baby.

In schools, we can do two things. We can raise educational standards, of course. In some cases, it is hardly fair to say that young women with no qualifications make choices. They do not make choices, because they are left with no qualifications. Having qualifications is incredibly important, and I hope that this Government raise standards. We also need to help young women with their self-esteem, so that they have, quite simply, the confidence to make choices—to say “No” when they want to, and to ask for birth control so that they do not end up having babies quite so young.

Last week I saw Hilary Pannack of Straight Talking, a leading UK charity, which was set up in 1998 to combat the high levels of teenage pregnancy. The charity does an extraordinary thing, delivering peer-to-peer education in schools. It employs young mothers who have had babies as teenagers to go into schools and make clear the sort of life that lies ahead. They do not say, “This is a disastrous thing to do,” because no life is a disastrous thing, but they do explain the hardships of young motherhood and the lack of choice about their own lives. The organisation is very successful. It told me that it tries to explain why not to get pregnant:

“The approach is centred on the belief that young people might know how not to get pregnant”—

this is not pure sex education; they understand the facts—

“but they also need to know why not to get pregnant.”

My experience of talking to young women in Hastings is that that would be a very useful guide.

Coming back to the impact of deprivation, in 2007-09 the teenage conception rate in Hastings was, unfortunately —

Order. I am trying to give some latitude to the Member, but somewhat tangentially some of her comments range rather wide of the debate on confidence. If she could keep bringing her comments back to confidence, I should be grateful.

Okay. I am interested in talking about this topic because confidence is probably the single most important element in a young woman’s life choices. One of the most destructive factors is a young woman not having the confidence to be able to make the choice to get her qualifications and develop her career, and instead making what is effectively a choice to have a baby very young. That is why this is absolutely about confidence. It is about having the ability to make that choice.

I encourage the Department for Education to engage with the charity Straight Talking so that we have more representations from women who have been in that situation and can deliver peer-to-peer advice in schools, so that young women can focus on that choice. I welcome the fact that the Department is consulting on the subject--if any Members would like to input into it, the consultation closes on 30 November. If we are going to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy, which is a casualty of lack of confidence, addressing confidence is absolutely paramount.

For 14 years before becoming an MP, I was a primary schoolteacher. I ended up as deputy head of the primary school that I went to when I was three—Billy Backwater, perhaps, and some might say that I have swapped one set of bells and playground humour for another. While I was a teacher, I taught eight, nine and 10-year-olds. The young girls had confidence, dynamism and enthusiasm—I could see it in their body language, their movement, their facial expressions and how they interacted with boys, teachers and each other. Something happens around the age of 13 or 14 that turns girls from dynamic people to not-so-dynamic ones who adopt the role of second-class people in school.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing this debate on a subject that is rarely debated. The briefing pack from the House of Commons Library concentrates on jobs and not on the essence of the debate, which, as you have said, Mrs Main, is girls’ confidence.

The hon. Member for Wirral West mentioned many research documents and books. I draw hon. Members’ attention to Mary Pipher’s book “Reviving Ophelia”. Ophelia, as hon. Members will know, determined her own value by how she was perceived by her father and Hamlet, and ended up dying, drowned in a beautiful dress that made her look ever so pretty but dragged her down and kept her underwater, surrounded by flowers.

At the crucial age of 13 and 14, in early adolescence and puberty, the battle for self is won or lost. Much is made of qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels, but only 18% of a person’s success, measured over a lifetime, is down to qualifications. We focus attention and funnel billions of pounds of funding into education, but is that the wisest use of our public funds? Are there other ways we could try? Could we divert some of it into confidence-building measures such as mentors and role models?

If what the hon. Gentleman says about early puberty and age 13 and 14 is correct, should we not concentrate all our efforts on that age group? If we have to take resources away, we should take them and concentrate them on that age group, in order to give them the confidence to shoot through and go on to do GCSEs, A-levels and so on.

I agree that it is a crucial age, but as another hon. Member mentioned in an intervention, the most crucial age is probably nought to three, when children are dressed up in pink or blue and told to be active or passive. For me, though the thrust of this debate is that 13 and 14 are a critical age.

Other factors that determine success are emotional intelligence and confidence. Luck, as everyone within this room will know, provides a great deal, as do social connections and networks. Some people are well connected—I would say that most of us here are—but in places such as the constituency of the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), a seaside constituency like my own, social networks and networking opportunities for jobs, placements and internships are minimal.

During the period when girls are aged 13 to 14, smartness is seen as a liability. There is pressure to be popular rather than honest with themselves, and young girls are taught to be feminine rather than a whole person, as that might be slightly unfeminine—“She’s a bit tomboyish. She’s a bit too big for her boots. Get down.” Many young girls spend more time on make-up than on developing value systems. We could do a lot to teach young girls to develop their own value systems.

I mentioned the education budget, but there are also consequences for the health budget. Mental illness among children is running at 25%, and obesity in young children at 29%. We are following the American model, although we are 10 years behind, so we have a lot worse to look forward to. Binge drinking is on the rise, and smoking has decreased in virtually every sector of society save for one group: 15-year-old white working-class girls. What is going on? Why is that group the worst affected? Incidences of bulimia, anorexia nervosa, loneliness and self-harm are on the increase and need to be tackled. Not only do they have an economic consequence, they have a human consequence. Girls’ complicated lives are often reduced to one thing by the media: weight. “If you’re thin, you’re okay. If you’re not, you’re not okay.”

Mary Pipher’s book outlines some practical tools, one of which involves centring oneself on a regular basis. We are all on the hedonic treadmill. As MPs, we get up at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning and get home at 11 o’clock at night; often, we find little time for our spouses, parents and children. We are not alone; other people out there are in the same position. We pass on those values to our children, and they do not have time to reflect. Reflection and centring are key, especially for young girls, but perhaps for all of us here.

Mary Pipher says that a distinction should be made between thinking and feeling. Girls should not just follow their emotions; they should slow down and think. Is that feeling intelligent? They should check with reality. Girls need to develop personal value systems, which she describes as a north star, by asking, “Who am I? What is important to me?” and holding it up so that when advertisers try to throw them this way or that, they say, “No, I’m going that way. I’m following my star.”

Mary Pipher says that we should take time for the important decisions in life. Teenage pregnancy has been mentioned. Deciding who their first boyfriend will be is a big step for girls, as is how that relationship unfolds. Who are their friends? Are they the right friends and not just the popular ones? Do they have the right values that fit with a girl’s own personal values? Mary Pipher also says that young girls, like all of us, should try to manage pain. Pain can be a good thing if we handle it right: if we feel under threat and get on top of that threat, we become stronger people; if we fold under it, we become weaker. It is a dangerous game. Pain is all around, and to overcome that pain, proper support is needed, as is time to talk with family, friends, trusted mentors and role models. Organisation of a young person’s life is also important. We should help them manage their busy schedules and be there when they need help.

Other hon. Members mentioned providing the right activities, although it sounds a bit old-fashioned, a bit big society and a bit like the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron)—perish the thought. The right activities, such as exercise, reading, hobbies and meditation are all old-fashioned but good stuff, as opposed to the wrong activities, which are thrown at kids in every advert. We witness something like 1,400 adverts a day. They are full of promotions of drinking, eating and overeating, sex, drugs and smoking. The advertising industry is a multi-billion-pound industry that tells us to consume, consume, consume and not to bear in mind its effect on individuals and families.

Developing the right activities is important. As was mentioned, we need to recognise, record and celebrate successes, whether in sports or other activities. That becomes a virtuous circle, as a girl gains confidence in one activity such as singing or dancing and becomes a bigger person for it. Again, it is big society-ish, but we need to develop altruism and volunteering to get away from the self-absorption forced on us by the media, and to use skills such as humour and to develop a thick skin against our peers when they say, “Your values are wrong and ours are right.”

In his book “Affluenza”, Oliver James calculates the amount spent on advertising in America to be 2% of GDP. In the UK, it is 1.5%, and it is 1% in mainland Europe. The purpose of advertisers is to sow discontent and make people think that their life is not quite right, but that it would be right if they had this or that. Some of us can say, “No, I don’t want that,” but young girls are especially vulnerable to advertising and that state of permanent dissatisfaction. Advertising comes through the TV, the radio and, increasingly, through the internet. It comes especially through girls’ magazines, which have been described as the work of the devil. Considering the values that they communicate to young girls, should such magazines be regulated? I know that we are not in favour of press censorship, but let us at least have an assessment of the harm that they are doing to young women.

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will bring the word “confidence” into his discussion of all these activities.

With respect, Mrs Main, every single point I have made is about confidence. This is about someone creating their own value system rather than having the media’s values rammed down their throat, and it is about developing as a person with individual confidence. Another way people can combat such pressure and develop confidence is to check the messages that enter their ears and eyes daily. Hon. Members may laugh at the concept of media studies, but when we became a literate society 600 years ago, literacy flourished and people studied it. Now we are in the age of the moving image, but we do not study the moving image. It is pooh-poohed, because the owners of the media do not want us to understand it or to appreciate the control that they have over our lives.

I am overawed by them. The hon. Gentleman mentioned literacy. I also have two sons, and I have found that the daughters spend so much time reading compared with the boys. That is absolutely fabulous, and we should use it somehow to develop confidence among our children.

In conclusion—I realise that others want to speak—there is a number of positive actions I hope the Minister will take. Much of the research that was done for Mary Pipher is American, and although there is a direct correlation with this country, we need British research to find out what is going on in our society. We must not leave such research on dusty shelves, but use it to create practical activities in the classroom and in the home for young women. We need a curriculum that includes properly structured confidence building, which is measured over time to ensure continual improvement. Dare I say it, we may even need regulation. I know that the Government are loth to regulate, but we need an assessment of the damage advertising causes to specific groups, especially young, vulnerable women and children, and if regulation is needed, we should implement it.

Thank you, Mrs Main, for allowing me to take part in this incredibly valuable debate.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) for the huge contribution she has made to tackling the lack of confidence among girls by securing this debate and by working over many years to bring this issue to the public consciousness. It must have taken some confidence to stand up today and speak about this issue, because confidence among young women seems for some to be a marginal issue that is worthy of comment but always plays second fiddle to the goals of academic success, sporting achievement and extra-curricular excellence in schools. I believe, however, that the most important thing we can take from today’s debate is the understanding that confidence is absolutely pivotal to a girl’s success. That confidence and self-belief, which eludes so many girls in our schools, is the foundation of their achievement throughout life.

At senior levels across the sectors women remain a rare breed. FTSE 100 boards are plagued by a chronic under-representation of women, and only one of the 12 Supreme Court judges is female. However, the commendable aim of getting more women on the boards of top companies or to the heights of the professions is entirely alien to many girls in my constituency. The worlds of business, law or science are a million miles away from where some of the young women in Gosport believe they can take their lives, because of their persistent lack of confidence and aspiration. One teacher told me quite bluntly that many girls will get pregnant because they see having a baby as the one thing they are capable of achieving. As a primary school teacher, she sees first hand that from a tragically young age girls allow themselves to be shouted down by boys in class, as they mimic the lack of confidence, attainment and ambition they see in their own mothers and other female role models.

As children grow, so does the gender gap. National statistics show that girls are more than capable of outperforming boys throughout school. I could mention as anecdotal evidence the fact that, on the school run on Monday morning, my nine-year-old son bemoaned the fact that the two most brilliant children in his class were both girls and asked at what age girls stop being better than boys at everything. Despite the statistics, however, many girls are falling behind in the most deprived areas of Gosport. A teacher told me about one girl whose ability in maths far outstretched what she was actually achieving. At a certain point the girl started to believe that doing well in maths or in science was in some way not cool or attractive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West mentioned a survey by Girlguiding UK, which found that being a hairdresser or beautician is the top career goal for many secondary school girls. Although, God knows, I appreciate the work of beauticians and hairdressers as much as the next woman, more work is needed to ensure that careers advice and work experience opportunities highlight the hugely diverse avenues that are open to women.

I apologise for not being here earlier for the debate; I was detained in the main Chamber. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have an opportunity to advance the possibility of careers in science and engineering, and to show how attractive they can be for girls and how much opportunity there is?

That is absolutely correct. Raising aspiration for girls is about not only showing them opportunities but convincing them that those opportunities are within their reach. More than half the girls questioned eschewed science and engineering, because they believed that careers in them would be too difficult. From a very early age, our schools must convince girls of the simple truth that they are capable of achieving a great deal. One pioneering primary school in my constituency has launched a children’s university, which runs every Friday. The children’s university empowers kids as young as five to chose their own courses in subjects as diverse as microbiology, woodwork and Spanish. For a girl who has never seen a woman in her family go to university, or indeed even hold down a job, the impact is immense. The role that our schools play—through careers advice, the introduction of positive role models or innovative projects such as the children’s university—is central to raising the confidence and aspiration of girls.

Finally, we must accept that promoting confidence in young women requires a holistic approach. Other Members have said that eating disorders, mental health issues and self-harming all greatly undermine what girls can, and believe they can, achieve. We need to encourage more joined-up thinking between schools, training providers, and other youth and health services, rather than just seeing academic failings in isolation. Nurturing confidence in young women will ultimately rest on seeing the whole person; it will involve seeing the lack of ambition they experience at home, the insecurities that are re-confirmed by their peers and the emotional challenges that young girls will always endure. Only then can we ensure that young women will reach the great heights that we know they are capable of in their chosen career.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and other hon. Friends who have spoken thus far. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing the debate. I went to an all-girls school, and I look forward to going back shortly to do its prize-giving. I have a suspicion that confidence will be a key part of any speech I make, so this debate will be not only important but incredibly timely. For that, I thank my hon. Friend.

Everyone has approached the debate so far from completely different directions, which is interesting. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) mentioned the importance of literacy and education, which is telling when we look at other countries across the world that ban women from reading books because the regimes are frightened of the information and education that women can gain from them.

One quote, which I did not use before, is: “The less a woman has in her head, the easier she is to carry.” What does the hon. Lady think of that?

It is interesting how in the past certain comedians have mocked women’s education, to try to belittle women. Some dictatorships have banned women from being educated, which makes the point.

In my short remarks I want to mention the importance of sport and physical activity in building girls’ confidence. I am interested and active in sport, and am pleased to say I have just been appointed parliamentary ambassador to Us Girls, a lottery-funded project within 50 areas of high disadvantage, spread throughout England. It is tied in with the hugely successful StreetGames. I am also the manager of a girls football team in Chatham. I have been with the girls since they were nine and 10 years old, and now they are 13 and 14—the key age group we have been talking about this afternoon. They have gone from timid little girls to strong, confident and often cheeky teenagers. It has been very interesting to see them grow up, and I am proud to have played a small part in their lives thus far.

I am pleased to be involved in youth sport, not least because a quick search on the internet shows that there has been much scientific research into how sport can help to build confidence in girls. In addition, it has been proved that girls who do sports do better in school, because exercise improves learning, memory and concentration. It can also help to reduce stress and make people feel a lot happier, not just about their physical self but about their mental ability. What is fantastic about some of the recent initiatives to get youngsters—boys and girls—active in sport is the fact that there has been much more innovative thinking about the type of sport or physical activity that is offered. In my day—without meaning to sound as if I am 100 years old—the only opportunities for sport we had were netball and hockey in the winter and athletics and tennis in the summer. We were very lucky to have the playing fields so we could do those activities, but not everyone wanted to do competitive team or field sports. Now there is much more to do, ranging from dance and trampolining to Zumba, which is apparently the latest craze.

I am not an expert on Zumba, I am afraid, so it was not on that matter.

The hon. Lady is making an interesting point about choice and diversity for girls in PE and games in school, and physical activities. In her role as an ambassador will she emphasise that to Ministers, too? An emphasis on competitive sports between schools is right, but for some girls the physical activities that will get them to participate, and increase their confidence, are not necessarily the traditional games she mentioned.

I agree. Competitive sport is important as it builds team spirit and confidence in many different ways, but other sports build personal confidence. I am thinking of dance and the advent of “Strictly Come Dancing”, which has inspired many more young people to get involved and interested in dance. We should try to maintain as much variety as possible in the range of sports available to young girls.

That reminds me of Debbie Moore, the first lady to set up a public limited company. She did not like sport, but wanted physical exercise, team play, confidence building and to go before an audience, and dance was how she found those things. That is not sport, but the encouragement of other active pursuits.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and have been careful not to talk just about sport, because physical activity is incredibly important.

Getting people involved in sport or physical activity is one thing; keeping them involved as they get older is a very different problem, and all clubs or organisations involved in providing sports opportunities are finding it difficult. In my field, football, girls drop out more as they get older. The Football Association and other organisations that are looking at sport for women are trying to deal with that. Interestingly, when girls start to drop out of sport their confidence often drops, partly because when they are participating they become more confident about their weight and body shape, so it follows that they get less confident if they drop out.

Access is one way of keeping girls involved, and that is a debate for another day, but confidence can be instilled by others, which is why media portrayal and positive role models are important factors. So far, every Member has mentioned those two elements. I hope that I am a positive role model for my girls football team and indeed for local schoolgirls, who may or may not be interested in politics, but see a female politician in the local area. There are only three female MPs in Kent, and I think it is important for me to go out to schools in my area. We have a few single-sex schools in Medway, and I visit them to show them that women locally can achieve.

I am merely one woman in their lives, and television and local newspapers are often shaping influences. The shape, size and style of women on our TV screens or in magazines is often commented on. I applauded loudly when in the current series of “The X Factor” talented but not stereotypically size 8 beauty-queen participants were put through to the later stages. From an early age girls see what happens, and they go from wanting to be the Disney Princess to wanting to be a slimline pop star. The irony is that often the bigger girls are better singers. What we do to encourage diversity of representation in the sector is important.

Will the hon. Lady congratulate Sami, from Rhyl, my home town, who, when pressured by the judges to lose weight, said, “No, I am happy the way I am”?

The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know it was Sami I was thinking of when I wrote those words earlier. I thought she was a fantastic singer and that it was an inspiration to everyone watching to see someone of a bigger size be talented, and have the confidence to go up on stage and sing well.

It is a shame we do not see as much coverage of female as of male sporting heroes on our televisions. I hope that that will be addressed during the Olympics next year, and that serious consideration will be given to how to achieve balance in broadcasts and writing. The lack of women on the shortlist for BBC sports personality of the year is in the news today. Some superb sportsmen are on the list, and I would not want any woman to be included on it for anything other than merit and excellence, but it might be easier for females to be considered if they had a higher profile in the coverage in the first place.

I am proud to have co-signed with the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), earlier in the year, a letter to Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, which helped to secure coverage of the women’s football World cup quarter final on terrestrial TV. It was an important step forward in achieving wider interest in women’s football, but it is now time we looked at how broadcasters cover women’s sport in general. At the moment coverage is dominated by men’s sport. I do not suggest it should be 50:50, but I would like a bit more coverage, especially at peak times.

We have some brilliant sportswomen at the moment, and I will quickly plug Kat Driscoll, from Chatham, who has just secured her place in team GB, for trampolining. I cannot think of anything more inspiring for girls from Chatham than to see someone who grew up in the same street or went to the same schools as they did representing their country. Girls who play sports learn to set goals and develop discipline. Often they learn about teamwork. Those skills are good not just for sports but for life. We heard earlier, from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West, that confidence is hard to define. However, participation in sport and physical activity develops friendships and relationships and a passion for something that can stay with people for life, building the strength of mind and body that perhaps encapsulates what confidence should be about. I hope that the legacy of the Olympics and future sporting events will be to identify female role models, inspire greater participation in various sports and, ultimately, build confidence in girls, which in turn will stand the next generation of women in good stead.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing the debate. It has been excellent, ranging far and wide on the issue of confidence and in particular on the confidence of girls in education.

As someone with two older sisters and a teenage daughter, I am aware of the importance of the subject and, particularly as the father of a teenage daughter, of many of the issues that hon. Members have discussed in relation to the way in which girls grow up and develop, what happens to their confidence over that time and the impact of culture, the media, school, education and friends on confidence, self-image and self-awareness. In fact, I had a conversation with my daughter about this debate when I found out about it.

She would be quite capable of doing so, having recently got through to the next stage of a debating competition with her school. Members may be interested to know, however, that she is not particularly interested in following me into politics—I think that she has higher ambitions than that.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Wirral West highlighted the work that she has done on the subject. I commend her for her work with girls to try to build their confidence and make sure that they have opportunities. She spoke about the National Youth Theatre project in which she is involved with her book and her work with Girlguiding UK, an excellent organisation with which I had many dealings as a Minister in the old Department for Children, Schools and Families. Girlguiding UK is a superb organisation that does great work with young women and girls, and it is also extremely progressive and forward looking. I commend some of its publications to hon. Members, if they have not had the chance to look at them and see the work that it is doing with young women. It is a modern organisation doing a great deal of good work, and the hon. Lady gave an extremely thoughtful and thoroughly researched speech on the subject.

The hon. Lady then talked about the English baccalaureate and the role that it might play in building confidence, but that is one point on which my opinion might differ from hers. The reason why I intervened on her on the matter of music—another hon. Member said that it is a subject that can give confidence to young people and to girls in particular—is that, when I asked the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who has responsibility for schools, a question recently, I was unable to ascertain an answer from him about the survey to which the hon. Lady has referred as to what has happened to those subjects not included in the E-bac.

The hon. Gentleman is making a good point—we have all said that music, drama and sport are vital in developing confidence—but my point was about the ability of a person to have confidence and choice in their career later in life, so that they have the skeleton of a very good, sound education that does not limit them later. That is what we found to be the case for so many girls who limited their choices and future avenues early on.

That is a valid point. I completely accept that it is important that, when it comes to those crucial points in school when choices are made, young people and young girls in particular are aware of the choices that they are making and given good advice and mentoring about their consequences. My personal view is that the English baccalaureate does not serve that purpose particularly well and that it demonstrates that more young people are choosing the subjects that the Government want them to choose at a particular level. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that that will happen when schools are told that that is how they will be measured. Inevitably, they will then change their timetables and resources in order for that to happen. My point is that that does not necessarily deal with the issue of having the confidence to take those subjects in the first place. I am concerned that we still do not know, because the Government did not ask the question thoroughly in the survey, what impact that has had on the other subjects that are outwith the English baccalaureate, such as religious education and music and drama, both of which have been referred to as confidence-building subjects.

The hon. Lady was followed by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who made some important points about confidence in relation to teenage pregnancy and the rates of teenage pregnancy in this country. She is absolutely right. Teenage pregnancy fell by about 13% during the period in which the previous Government were in office, but the figure is still far too high in this country. All hon. Members want to figure out the best way to tackle that, because it is far too high. There are sometimes differences of opinion on the best way to approach the matter in relation to sex and relationship education and other such issues, but I have no doubt that the hon. Lady is absolutely right that building girls’ confidence and self-esteem is key to lowering that all-too-high statistic.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the issue of self-image, weight and obesity. I commend to hon. Members, if they have an opportunity to read it, the Foresight report, which was produced during the previous Government’s time in office, although it is not a political report. It centres on obesity and was published about four years ago. It is a key document to understanding the subject and its importance, particularly in relation to some of the issues under discussion.

The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) was also very thoughtful and well researched. He made the point, which I think all of us strongly recognise, about the confidence that young girls have at about the age of 10. I have always thought that if someone wants to find common sense on legs, they should talk to a 10-year-old girl and they will get the common-sense answer to any question on any subject. Something happens, however, during the course of secondary education, puberty and the teenage years, and, often, girls who were tremendously confident, articulate and able to speak up for themselves, and who had ambitious ideas about what they wanted to do for their future, become withdrawn all of a sudden.

I was a secondary school teacher for 10 years from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, teaching children between the ages of 11 and 18, and I saw that for myself when I observed their progress during that period. I was lucky enough to be a form tutor for one form group for seven years, so I saw the boys and girls who stayed for each of those years grow up during that time. It can be depressing to see what can happen to young girls in particular at the crucial age mentioned by my hon. Friend, although I did everything that I could as their teacher and form tutor to try to instil in them the kind of confidence that they should have had. My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of networks and the frightening statistic that the only group in which smoking is increasing in the country is 15-year-old, white, working-class girls.

My hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who spoke with a great deal of passion and commitment about the importance of science and engineering, and about encouraging girls to take up those subjects and to have the confidence to do so. I listened recently, while driving, to Jocelyn Bell on Radio 4. She was, of course, denied the Nobel prize for science. Many people think that that would not have happened to a man if he had discovered the pulsar, but because she was a relatively junior scientist at the time she never got the recognition, through the Nobel prize, for her achievement. She still went on to be an extremely distinguished scientist, but her description of the sexism that she faced as a young scientist working in the scientific community was disturbing. That was back in the 1960s, which is quite a long time ago, but there remains a certain attitude towards girls and science that we need to make sure is overcome.

The hon. Lady was followed by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who spoke about the importance of sport and physical activities in instilling confidence in girls. When I was a Minister with responsibility for school sport, I was fortunate enough to work with Dame Kelly Holmes and Baroness Sue Campbell on this subject. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I had the wonderful experience of witnessing my daughter’s one and only brief experience on the hockey field at the age of 11, but then, somehow or other, she disengaged from sport and physical activity, so I think that the hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to do more to encourage a wider range of activities for girls.

I want to mention one sporting heroine of mine, Nicole Cooke from south Wales, who won the gold medal for Great Britain in the cycling road race at Beijing. She won the world championship in the same year, which is something no other cyclist has ever achieved. If she were a man, I am sure that the recognition would have been absolutely enormous. It is a shame that there is not a female sports person on the sports personality of the year shortlist this year, as the hon. Lady has rightly said.

As I have said, I was a school teacher for 10 years until 1995 and became an MP in 2001. There is rightly a focus on standards and on the need for high achievement in the curriculum. However, I am absolutely convinced that we should not lose sight of some of the things that I fear might be regarded in some quarters of Government as the softer, wishy-washy liberal aspects of our discussion today. For example, one of the things that I was responsible for when I was a Minister was the social and emotional aspects of the learning programme in school. That dealt head-on with the problem that some children, particularly girls, were sometimes coming to school with a lot of baggage—emotional baggage rather than the bag in which they carried their school books—because of the nature of modern society, which some hon. Members have described today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has said, girls can come under pressure in the home, from the media or from the pace of modern life. As was mentioned earlier, the social and emotional aspects of learning programmes and subjects such as dance, drama and sport, or extra-curricular subjects such as debating, group work or the Duke of Edinburgh award can build self-esteem, confidence, resilience and the ability to take risks.

As the hon. Member for Wirral West has rightly said, those things are extremely important. I sometimes fear—it is entirely possible that when we were in government, we gave this message as well—that, in our desire rightly to say, “We want to raise standards. We want academic standards to improve. We want this to be the country that is the best place to go to school in the world and that has the highest academic achievements,” we lose sight of the importance of some of the social and emotional aspects of learning. Such subjects actually promote better academic achievement. Anyone who has worked in education will know that children who are well-balanced, well-rounded and emotionally stable will do better in the classroom.

I do not give credit to the Prime Minister for many things, but he is introducing the index of well-being, which is being dealt with by the Office for National Statistics. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work that is being done by the Government to measure well-being as well as academic standards?

It is important to measure well-being, because welfare in the economic sense is not entirely related to the level of gross domestic product. There is nothing particularly new in that concept, but it is important to have a measure of well-being. It is also important for there to be such a measure in schools. That is the point I am making. If we are going to have such a measure for society as a whole, let us make sure we have it for schools, too.

Many books have been mentioned today. Hon. Members may have read the interesting book, “Grit: the skills for success and how they are grown”, by Yvonne Roberts, which talks about how to build social intelligence, emotional resilience, enterprise and discipline skills in girls and the importance of social and emotional intelligence. It also mentions how crucial reinforcement, mentoring and building resilience are. Some of the work done on that in schools by organisations such as the Young Foundation is extremely valuable and important.

Today’s debate has been extremely informative and of a very high standard. The subject is probably not highly politically controversial, but it has provided a useful opportunity to explore what the Government are doing to try to instil greater confidence among young women and girls in our schools and colleges.

As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), has said, this has been an interesting and important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) on securing it.

I do not have daughters; I have two young sons. However, women have been very important to me throughout my life. My mother was a woman and, curiously, my wife is, too. Therefore, what I learned literally from the cradle is that women—mothers—shape our character and form our ambitions. We gain the confidence that has been described by so many of the speakers in this debate—it was highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane)—very early in our lives. Governments, schools and others can do much—I will talk a bit about what we are trying to do—but, in the end, the familiar influences, particularly maternal influences, are critical to subsequent progress.

I learned from my mother and my father, who were both wonderfully archetypically male and female. I think of my mother and I think of her softness and the smell of talcum powder; I think of my father and I think of how bristly he was and how he smelled of tobacco and work. They were certainly both archetypically male and female and were both wonderfully demonstrative and loving. They gave me the feeling that I was the most special little boy in the world—a feeling that has never left me, by the way. I feel that now, at this very moment, so my ambitions were reinforced by not only their direct support but the sentiments that they instilled in me.

I entirely appreciate the points that have been repeatedly made in this debate. As the shadow Minister has said, they have been made on the basis of good information and a shared determination across the Chamber. I entirely recognise that the challenges people face as they turn their own ambitions into reality are affected by many influences. In the short time left, I will try to deal with some of those influences, some of which are benevolent and some of which are malevolent, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd said.

The hon. Gentleman made a wonderful contribution that underpinned the fact that this debate is as much about values and attitudes as it is about education. I reassure the shadow Minister that we understand—at least, I understand—that education is more than utilitarian. It is about values and attitudes, and ethos and sentiments. Although the work done by parents in instilling both ambition and the capacity to realise ambition in children is critical, the work done by our schools matters so much, too. Indeed, it matters more for those children who are not as fortunate as I was in having a stable, loving and supportive family.

In respect of girls and women, we need to go the extra mile. We need to take further steps to ensure that they are able to fulfil their potential. In the brief time available, I will talk about some of the steps that the Government are taking, but before I do so I will just say a word about Plato because I know that hon. Members would be disappointed if I did not. Some 2,500 years ago, Plato said:

“Nothing could be more absurd than the practice that prevails in our country of men and women not following the same pursuits with all their strengths and with one mind, for thus, the state instead of being whole is reduced to half.”

How interesting that the classical world understood what so often in the modern world we forget.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West, who initiated the debate, has not forgotten because she has dedicated a great deal of her considerable skill and energy to the promotion of the interests of young women. I pay tribute to the work she has done. I was pleased to be able to support it in a room close to here, when she was able to launch her magazine, Chloe Can, which is aimed at young women. She was able to articulate some of the points that she has made today at greater length then. The work we do to establish role models in these terms is important, and my hon. Friend is indeed a role model for young women whose interests she has championed with such vehemence and to such effect.

We have learned much—I defer to the two former teachers who have spoken—about what characterises good schools in this respect. Schools with little or no gender gap in achievement tend to be characterised by a positive learning ethos—we have heard about that today, have we not?—high expectations of all pupils, high quality teaching and learning, good management and close tracking of individual pupil’s achievement. Teachers know all their pupils well and plan their resources and teaching accordingly, rather than conforming to preconceived views about what those pupils might achieve, whether that relates to gender or any other particular characteristic.

We can do three things in particular to support teachers in their efforts to fuel social mobility and achievement. The first concerns advice and guidance. It is very important that young people get the right quality advice and guidance. In truth, one of the principal inhibitors to social mobility is this: I suspect that our children will become socially mobile because of us. Our children will benefit from the fact that we, in the Chamber, are reasonably well informed about the opportunities that might exist, be they boys or girls, and will impart an understanding of how to turn those ambitions into opportunity. That is not true for all young people, however. The advice and guidance that we can provide through the new national careers service will, to some extent, ameliorate the disadvantages of many young people who do not have either advice from a family or social networks.

Is the Minister concerned, in the light of the debate, that the lack of face-to-face guidance in the careers service will be a hindrance to girls gaining confidence and being able to make the right choices?

It is important to appreciate the value of face-to-face guidance. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Education Bill establishes the new statutory duty on schools to secure independent, impartial advice and guidance. When it was debated in the House, we agreed, in the statutory guidance accompanying the Bill, to ensure that face-to-face guidance was available in particular to people with the greatest disadvantage, those special needs and learning difficulties. We also said that schools should make the most appropriate provision for their pupils. I emphasise that it is vital that that should include a range of provision, and that that provision should be linked to the quality standards that are being developed by the profession itself.

As well as changing the law, we have worked with the careers profession to establish a new set of qualifications, with appropriate training and accreditation. That means that we will re-professionalise the careers service after the disappointing years—I put that as mildly as I can—of Connexions. We are on the cusp of a new dawn for careers advice and guidance, with a professionalised service, a new set of standards, a new statutory duty and the launch of the national service co-located in Jobcentre Plus, colleges, community organisations, charities and voluntary organisations. I do not say that the task will be straightforward, but it is a worthwhile journey. The destination to which we are heading will be altogether better than the place we have been for the past several years. That advice and guidance will assist young women, in particular, to fulfil their potential in the way I have described and, as a result of this debate, will re-emphasise the significance of opportunities for girls and young women in the establishment of the national careers service this spring.

The second issue I wanted to speak about was apprenticeships. I made a point—the hon. Member for Cardiff West knows this subject well too—when I became the Minister of challenging the National Apprenticeship Service on the under-representation of particular groups. The obvious example in relation to this debate is women in some of what might be called the traditional apprenticeship frameworks: engineering, construction and so on.

I conducted some surveys and analysis on that, which was very interesting. For young girls who took science apprenticeships, it fitted in far better with their family life because they could achieve a job and status far more quickly than the slow process of going through university. It fitted in much better with the cycle of a woman’s life and child-bearing age.

How interesting. I defer to the greater expertise of my hon. Friend, but what I have done is ask the National Apprenticeship Service to run a series of pilots, building competencies and understanding on how we can make the apprenticeship system more accessible to those who are currently poorly represented. That is not to say that women are poorly represented in apprenticeships per se. More than half of all apprenticeships are taken up by women, but they tend to be in areas such as care and retail. The effect of that, because of the wage rates in those sectors, is to exaggerate the difference in wage-earning potential among successful apprenticeships between men and women. I have asked the NAS to work on a series of pilots. Bradford college is prioritising action to increase female representation in the energy sector. Essex county council is focused on women in engineering and on acting as the prime contractor for a regional provider network. West Notts college, whose representatives I met recently, is also looking at increasing female representation in engineering. There are a number of others, but I want to give the Chamber merely a flavour of what we are trying to do.

The third issue I wanted to speak about is women and science, technology, engineering and maths. Basically, not enough girls study STEM after the age of 16, as has been mentioned a number of times, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport. There are several things that we can do. The Department for Education has worked closely with the Institute of Physics. Its stimulating physics network incorporates many of the recommendations of the Girls into Physics report, which the hon. Lady will know about. The STEM ambassador scheme, co-ordinated by STEMNET, is arranging for working scientists and engineers to visit schools to support teachers, and engage and enthuse pupils to continue studying science. The hon. Lady will know that a large proportion of the STEM ambassadors are women. We want to focus that energy on what we can do to encourage more girls to study STEM subjects. By making different choices early, they cut off some of the routes that might be available to them later. So much of this is about early intervention and changing perceptions about what choices can be taken to facilitate subsequent progress. I will happily give way before I come on to my exciting conclusion.

Will the Minister congratulate the new president of the Royal Society of Chemistry? For the first time in 300 years, it has a female president. In the next year, she will try to increase the number of female teachers becoming ambassadors and the number of girls taking chemistry.

I not only add my voice to that congratulation, I suggest that we invite her here to a tea party with the hon. Lady and myself, which, needless to say, she will be funding.

This debate has brought to the attention of the House the important subject of opportunities for girls and women. I do not take the orthodox view, by the way, that men and women are more alike than is often supposed. I think that they are rather less alike—my life has taught me that. However, that does not mean that the opportunities available to them should not be just as demanding, just as exciting and just as exhilarating. We should work tirelessly to create those opportunities in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West has done for so long, beyond old frontiers to new horizons.

I learned at my mother’s knee first, and I learn from my wife every day, as Yeats said:

“That Solomon grew wise

While talking with his queens”.

In that spirit, I assure the Chamber, and all those who have contributed to this important debate, that the Government will go the further mile that I described at the outset to achieve the ambitions of my hon. Friend, which reflect the ambitions of so many girls and young women.