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Schools: Drop-out Rates

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support is being given to schools to combat the problem of 14 year-olds dropping out of formal education.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as non-remunerated, non-executive chairman of Trinity College London, the international assessment and examinations company.

My Lords, the Government’s aim is that all schools manage and minimise their levels of pupil absence. Therefore we expect schools and local authorities to intervene early on pupil absence. The number of persistent absentees in secondary schools has fallen in recent years but we are not complacent about the need to find ways to keep those young people in education who are most disaffected.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The trend is going down, which is to be welcomed. Is it not a terrible condemnation that the most recent statistics state that 31,000 14 year-olds are still dropping out of school? Does she acknowledge the importance of stand-alone qualifications such as the Arts Award, which enable young people of all backgrounds to develop their skills across the arts as well as leadership qualifications? Will she give an assurance that government support for such qualifications will not be jeopardised by the impending changes to the education funding system?

My Lords, the noble Lord appears to suggest that a large number of 14 year-olds fall out of formal education through being persistently absent from school. We are unsure about whether hard evidence for that assumption exists, because our figures show that the number of absentees continues to fall year on year. There is no doubt that we need to be imaginative about how we keep those 14 year-olds who, for a variety of reasons, are not staying in school—some have chaotic lives and some are disaffected with traditional teaching. This can involve part-time school, one-to-one teaching or the kind of qualifications that the noble Lord has mentioned, which I am not familiar with, so I will need to come back to him on that. However, there is no doubt that vocational training off-site and all of those areas are important in keeping our 14 year-olds in school and engaged with education.

My Lords, what arrangements are in place for children who are excluded from school or for whom mainstream schooling is not working? How rapidly can such arrangements be brought into operation for the children concerned?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point, which leads on from the Question, about improving the alternative provision and getting children back on track. In 2008, we produced a publication on that. We are concerned to provide education for the 135,000 pupils a year who need to spend time outside mainstream settings, many of whom are very vulnerable. For example, we have online directory providers and we are working with the voluntary sector to use organisations, such as Barnardo’s and Nacro, to provide the sort of programmes that will help to get those children back to school or will provide them with the right qualifications that they will need to move on with their lives.

My Lords, in the light of the answer that the Minister has just given, why is it that the budget for the young apprenticeship programme, which has been extremely successful in helping young people at risk of dropping out of school and giving them pre-apprenticeship vocational skills, has been capped for the past three years, whereas it is grossly oversubscribed?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that we will discuss this matter later today. Our objective is that those young people should be able to participate and should have access to apprenticeship schemes. I know that this item is being considered by the new department, BIS, and the DCSF. Our objective is for all young people to participate in education or training at least until their 18th birthday. They should be offered the right kind of progression, whether it is apprenticeships, A-levels or a more formal education, at the right time.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the reasons why 14 year-olds and 16 year-olds are dropping out of school is that many of them have now twigged that this year there is much less chance of going to university? The applications for universities this year have increased by 60,000. The Government’s cuts mean that hardly any extra places will be given to universities. Why are the Government cutting funding for universities at the top of our education system when Gordon Brown is saying, “We are going to increase public services”?

My Lords, it is quite difficult to be lectured by the noble Lord, for whom I have the utmost respect, about the number of university places, given that this Government have massively increased them and are not cutting them.

My Lords, granted that the pupils to whom this Question refers could be the most significant beneficiaries of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, what steps are the Government taking to deal with the fact that these individuals will be conscripts rather than volunteers under the new provision?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. We have to keep these 14 year-olds engaged because the historic Act we passed last year, which increased the minimum age at which a young person can leave learning for the first time since 1972, will offer a huge choice of different sorts of learning for those young people, including apprenticeships, diplomas, the foundation learning tier; and young people will be able to get a job and continue their training part-time.

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, I do not believe that this Question has anything to do with university places. My noble friend mentioned Nacro, of which I was chairman for a long time. This is about young people who do not feel loved, who do not love themselves and who have lost their way totally in life. It requires a very imaginative approach if we are going to deal with this. Are we examining just why that is and who these people are?

My Lords, we are examining precisely the point that my noble friend makes. We are in the middle of an 18-month research programme into exactly those problems with this particular cohort. We know that some of the issues will be to do with special educational needs and the children’s chaotic backgrounds. We have to find out how we can keep them in school and support them, and put the resources in to do that.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that although absenteeism among 14 year-olds may be reducing generally, that is not the case in the Gypsy and Traveller community? I declare an interest as president of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany and other Travellers. What proposals does the noble Baroness have for improving access to education of teenage Gypsy and Traveller children?

My Lords, I have notes in relation to looked-after children, boys and children with special educational needs in my brief, but I confess that I do not have anything on the children of the Gypsy community. I know that such information exists, and I undertake to send it to the noble Lord.