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Young People (Employment and Training)

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2013

It was, as ever, with pleasure and surprise that I realised that I had secured a debate on youth unemployment and the raising of the participation age, in which subject hon. Members will know that I have a long-term interest. As responsibility for this area stretches across the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, as ever, the Treasury, it is a complicated matter. I want to say a few words to introduce the debate, and to emphasise that I do so in a non-party political way.

We are at a crossroads for so many young people in our country. All parties agree that we want the very best outcomes for young people. We do not want, as a think-tank that reported this morning on youth unemployment said, a lost generation of young people in our country. We all want to achieve at least as well as the very best countries, particularly in Europe.

The last investigation I carried out as Chair of the former Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families looked at the problem of NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training. Our most convincing experience of how to handle that challenge was when the Committee went to the Netherlands, where we found better organisation and an emphasis that young people do not automatically gain social benefits until they are almost into their mid to late 20s. That emphasis on the need for every young person to be in education, training or some form of work experience is absolutely the way to tackle youth unemployment.

It was clear from our visit that an holistic approach is needed. Young people in the places we visited near Rotterdam would pitch up at a centre where they were assessed medically and their aptitude was rigorously tested. In one wing, there were private trainers, state trainers and people from colleges and education, while in the other wing there were employers—the presence of employers is particularly important—and private sector trainers. In addition, there were seminar rooms where, with professional leadership, these young people and those who used to be like them investigated how to get into further education or work.

I asked for this debate because at the moment this country has a fragmented approach, not a holistic one. I want to ask some challenging questions. Is 14 the new 16? What does it feel like to be a 14-year-old moving through the education system today? What choices does a 14-year-old—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Thank you, Sir Roger. Some of us were told emphatically by a normally well informed source that there would be two votes, one after the other. We were obviously misinformed. I will get back to the question that I finished on, if I can catch my breath.

What choices does a 14-year-old have to make about their education, training and future plans? One piece of research, which I will come back to in a moment, suggests that the countries that do rather better than the United Kingdom are those with well formulated dual education systems. What does that mean? It is not rocket science; it means that there is not just one trajectory. In our country, it is far too often the belief that there is only one path that anyone cares about.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and it may give him a little time to catch his breath. I am very grateful to him for introducing this enormously important debate, especially with all the expertise that he brings to the subject. Does he agree that, especially with the increasingly free-for-all institutional arrangements that we have with our schools, whereas there is at least some common framework of expectation for academic achievement—five GCSEs at grades A to C and all the rest of it—there seems to be nothing equivalent on the vocational level? Does he further agree that that is particularly damaging for those youngsters whose self-esteem is perpetually knocked back by academic underachievement and that therefore urgent attention needs to be given to good vocational options?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was talking about that rather obscure way of describing it—a well formulated dual education system. It is right to say that, too often, our education system is predicated on the expectation that children will go to school, go through the primary and junior years, go into secondary education at 11, take their GCSEs at 16 and be successful, and go through to the sixth form and get the qualifications to go into higher education. That does not apply to the majority of young people in our country yet. The majority of our young people do not actually do that, yet if people listened to most of the chattering classes, they would expect that that was the case.

The rest of the young people in our country have a much less certain future, only because we—all parties and all Governments—have tinkered with and changed the alternative. We have not changed the route through to higher education that dramatically, although there has been some change in nuance and there are some changes going through now. However, the fact is that we have been frantically trying to find ways in which to engage young people in meaningful further education, whether that be in colleges, by which I mean FE colleges, or whether it be through young people going into apprenticeships, going directly into employment—employment with training or, sadly, without training—or, of course, going into the hands of private trainers. There has been a range of opportunities.

The private training sector is very underestimated. I know the private training world very well. Unlike most parts of the education system, there are brilliant private sector educators and trainers, and there are some average ones and some not quite so good, but the market in private training is such that if someone does not perform, they are more likely to go out of business or see their business shrink quite dramatically than if they are running a college. That is the truth of the matter.

There is a cold wind coming through the education system and particularly in relation to the area that we are talking about today—the employability of young people and their getting the right skills for employability. That suggests that increasingly we must have greater transparency in the outcomes of the alternatives and accountability for what is delivered, whether it is the private sector through the Work programme, Jobcentre Plus and anything that it contributes, or what colleges do.

We all have to be very conscious of the last annual report of the chief inspector of schools. I was surprised that there was such a critical evaluation of the quality of FE in our country, which I felt, as a former Chairman of the Select Committee, was a slumbering giant. I was recently on the Skills Commission, looking at specialism in further education. Where further education is good, it is really good. We need only look at Newham and Hackney. We need only look at the brilliant experience in Cornwall. A fantastic-quality education is being delivered off six sites. People there know absolutely what the labour market is like and are engaging absolutely with small and medium-sized enterprises, not just the easy big ones, and delivering relevant skills training.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the incredible work that he has always done in wanting to improve the life chances of our young people. Does he agree that there has been a tendency in recent years for the FE sector almost to compete for the low-hanging fruit, rather than seeking ways in which it can engage those who are not in education, employment or training by offering innovative and inspiring courses?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. There is no doubt that the blemish on the record of our country, under several Governments, has been the inability to deliver high-quality education and training to about 25%—it is sometimes as high as 30%—of the population. They are a lost generation in many ways.

How do we have a system that allows so many children to underperform in primary school? We can predict by the time they are 10 that a significant percentage will never get the GCSEs to take them into a fulfilling career. By then, all the odds are stacked against them. What have we done wrong in primary school education? It is the new frontier. More people will look at the quality of primary education outcomes over the next few years, especially given the enormous pressure on places due to the boom in population growth. There will be a crisis in primary education. I am looking at the Minister, because he must know that.

We are not talking about primary education today, but when one goes into schools, and I still go into many schools over the year, every head says that they can predict NEETdom—the likelihood of a child becoming not in education, employment or training—very early, as the child emerges out of pre-school and into the early years of primary education. That is how challenging the problem is.

I am not sure, Sir Roger, how much time we have left for the debate.

How much time is left in the debate? I am being tentative, because I do not want to speak for too long.

That was the issue under discussion, which is why I was not paying attention. I am terribly sorry. I do not want to be ungenerous, so due to the interruption, the hiatus and some confusion over whether there would be a second vote, if the hon. Gentleman takes no more than another five minutes and we finish the debate at 4.45 pm, that would be fair.

Thank you, Sir Roger. I shall carry on the journey.

At 14, a young person is likely to be in school and studying full time. However, they could also enrol at a university technical college, study full time at a further education college or go to a studio school. Their older sibling may be starting an apprenticeship and their other sibling may be starting a different sort of apprenticeship —one in a different sector and perhaps of a different length—or a traineeship. What should the 14-year-old do? Should they stay in school or choose another option? What support are they given to make that choice? Are the options of equal value? Does each lead to a decent job? What happens if a young person chooses one option, changes their mind and wants to transfer?

At a time of record youth unemployment, the educational choices made by young people have never been more important. At the same time, the participation age is rising to 17 by September and 18 by 2015. The structures and institutions that make up our 14-to-19 education system are not evolving but being radically reshaped in design. That gives us a problem. It is a difficult path. There are no clear, simple pathways to progression.

This is the only party political bit of my speech: the Government seem to have given up on careers information, guidance and advice. They have more or less said, “If you want that sort of thing, it is up to a school or you do it on the internet.” I was on the Skills Commission inquiry into careers information, advice and guidance, and about 17% of young people were using the internet to access such information then—that percentage is probably in the 20s now. All the research shows that the key to getting through the pattern of complex choices is face-to-face guidance from a human being with experience, knowledge and networks.

I recently talked to a head of history in a school, who said, “I have just been asked to look after careers. I have no history of knowing about careers. I’ve had two interviews, which said, ‘Go into that classroom and show us you can teach.’ I know nothing about choosing a career, but I’ve been asked to teach careers.” Careers guidance is an important profession, but we have got rid of the system. If we do not do something about that, we will be in grave danger.

Raising the participation age means that we face a fundamental change. There are two choices: ignore it and fill schools with people who do not want to be there, or proactively ensure that when young people stay on at 17 and then 18, they are given opportunities for high-quality work experience. I have never been one of the naysayers about work experience. It is important. Having four brushes with work experience at school increases the likelihood of a person getting a job by 10 times. Young people at those ages must have opportunities for good traineeships and apprenticeships. Most of the good apprenticeships in Holland, Germany and the Nordic countries last three years; our average is one year.

The debate is a little chaotic for all sorts of reasons, but my plea in the truncated time available is about quality. We must ensure that we stop the party political shouting match and agree that we want our young people up to 25 never to be unemployed. They must always be in education, training or doing work experience, and should not be living on the margins of society on tiny bits of benefit, otherwise we will have intergenerational worklessness for the foreseeable future. Our young people should not be forgotten. We must deliver high-quality guidance and ensure that our country can be proud of what every young person, whatever their background, achieves.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out what the Government are doing to tackle NEETs in the context of raising the participation age. I am particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). He has experience and a long-held passion. He was Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills in the previous Parliament and clearly has a huge amount to say. It is important and valuable for young Ministers such as me to listen to what he has to say. I strongly agree that there is cross-party consensus on tackling youth unemployment, which rose too much in the good years and, although it is still far too high, is thankfully now falling.

The only point of partisan contention was the rather disappointing part about information, advice and guidance. The new duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice, the age range for which has since been extended, came into force only in September and is now in place. It did not replace a system. The Connexions system was widely regarded as a failure. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that the information, advice and guidance duty on schools is in place. Misrepresenting it, as the hon. Gentleman did—for party political reasons, he said—is unhelpful, because this is an area with broad party political support.

I shall take the opportunity to answer the series of questions the hon. Gentleman raised. I will try to get through as many of them as possible, but I am happy to answer them all in more detail if I cannot get through them in the seven or eight minutes I have left. The debate about the future of 16-to-18 education takes place in the context of raising the participation age, which was set out in legislation in 2008 under the previous Government and which we are taking forward. Since 2009, participation in education and work-based learning has risen from 78.8% to 82.2%. It is going in the right direction, but we must ensure that the tools are in place to make it go further. I shall touch on six areas where we are taking action to achieve that aim.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned apprenticeships and their value and importance. Doug Richard’s recent review of apprenticeships puts employers in a central role, setting standards, overseeing testing and becoming more demanding purchasers of training. We can all sign up to and agree with that. He wants a shift from what he saw as a box-ticking assessment to having clear standards towards the end of an apprenticeship, accompanied by a more open and innovative training market, with greater freedoms in how people are trained and greater emphasis on the outcome. I am very attracted to that model, which builds on some of the principles being tested through the employer ownership pilot. We will respond formally to the Richard review in the spring, and we will consult employers, educators, providers and apprentices, but we welcome the review’s direction of travel.

We know that, as apprenticeships become more rigorous, many young people are highly motivated by the prospect of work, but need support to get into it. I strongly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s support for work experience. The statistic that four episodes of work experience lead to a 10 times greater chance of getting a job was new to me; I am interested in the analysis behind that and want to know more about it.

The idea behind having a high-quality apprenticeship programme is that, as employers often tell me, young people lack the right skills and attitudes to succeed in the application process. When they have to compete against adults for jobs, they risk being passed over because they do not have such skills. Traineeships will support a significant number of young people into apprenticeships. We are consulting very broadly on their design, but our aim is for them to be available for young people from September 2013. They will offer a combination of extended work placements, work skills and English and maths, together with other flexible training and support to suit individual needs.

I completely endorse everything that the Minister says about building links between business and students, which will give students much more experience of the real world. I wonder whether, like me, he was very impressed by the “We made it” school exhibition earlier today? It has encouraged young school kids—often from year 9 upwards—to get involved in innovation and invention to build the entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors of tomorrow. We should encourage more such projects.

I am extremely excited by that project and many similar ones that are springing up. Part of the duty on schools to give information, advice and guidance to that age group is to encourage inspirational people to get into schools to show what they can do with their life, and to motivate pupils by bringing a plethora of opportunities and those from different industries face to face with them, so that they can understand what is available.

The only point that the Minister and I have fundamentally disagreed about is that if a school has no independent voice with experience about careers information, guidance and advice, all the emphasis is on keeping children in school, because bums on seats means income and money: if they go off to an apprenticeship or anywhere else, the school loses money. There is a terrible agenda in schools and colleges to keep children on one track, which is often not the one that is good for them.

There is a duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice. Ofsted is conducting a thematic review of how that is being implemented, which will report in the summer, and I shall look closely at its outcomes.

In my remaining minute, I will touch on the strengthening of vocational education and further education through a new FE guild and through stronger intervention in failing colleges, which is an important step, and on the introduction of progression through vocational education by ensuring that the highest quality vocational qualifications are supported and recognised. Those will include a Tech Bacc to ensure that, for students at 18, there is a high-quality and well-recognised suite of qualifications. When vocational education rightly becomes as rigorous and demanding as academic education, it will be seen as on a par with academic education, and that is what we hope to achieve.

I welcome this debate and the insights of the hon. Member for Huddersfield. I am sure that there can be plenty of cross-party collaboration to improve the life chances of our pupils and young people in this country for many years to come.

I thank both the Minister and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for their understanding. I am sad that the debate has had to be concluded in this way, but that is owing to the business of the House, and I am afraid that we all have to live by it.