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Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 5 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what percentage of 15 to 19 year olds were in education in 2007; and how that compares with other European countries.

My Lords, in 2007, using the international measure of student enrolment, 71 per cent of 15 to 19 year-olds in the UK were enrolled in education. This compares to 86 per cent in France and 88 per cent in Germany. We know that we need to do more to increase participation, which is why we have introduced EMA, the September guarantee and the 14-to-19 reforms, and have legislated to raise the participation age.

I thank the Minister for those figures, which are vindicated by the research done by the University and College Union. The result, though, is that we have ended up 26th out of 30 leading countries in that age group, and in the 20 to 29 group we are 25th out of 30. Given that the Government’s philosophy, as I understand it, is “education, education, education”, how can they vindicate such success as they have had with this fall in where we are within these 30 major countries almost to bottom place?

My Lords, I am extremely proud of the Government’s commitment to tackling our real concern about the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training. That is why, for example, we have unprecedented levels of investment in 16 to 19 participation and why we have legislated to increase the age of participation from 17 in 2013 to 18 in 2015. That is a historic commitment that the Government have made real. It is also why we have introduced the educational maintenance award, which has had a huge impact on improving the participation of young people and why we are promoting the 14 to 19 reforms of the curriculum so that we are not trying to put square pegs into round holes and we really do have an engaging curriculum to encourage all young people; not only those who want to pursue an academic career. I feel absolutely vindicated in the Government’s strategy and approach to ensuring that young people have the opportunity to fulfil their talents.

My Lords, I agree that quality counts rather than quantity in some ways, but I would not differentiate or choose to divide young people. I want to recognise that all young people have talents, which is something that our Prime Minister has promoted personally. We in central government, local government and all our communities must do everything that we can to ensure that young people’s talents can be realised by creating opportunities and welcoming young people in all aspects of our work.

Does the Minister not accept that a wide range of options for education and training for young people, which are not only of high quality as the noble Lord just mentioned but are relevant to both their needs and the job opportunities available to them, will do a lot more to engage young people than any compulsion that the Government may introduce in 2013 and 2015?

No, I do not. We spent a great deal of time debating this during the passage of the Education and Skills Bill when we looked at the question of compulsion. I know that the noble Baroness’s party is very much opposed to compulsion, but even when we have done absolutely everything—ensured that we had the most engaging curricula, a flexible approach personalised to meet the needs of all young people, however challenging their experiences or upbringing might be, ensured that the financial support is there and that we have the EMAs, courses and funding that this party has put in place—we will end up with young people who will still not engage. That is where the compulsion element becomes so important. We thought that it was right to make education compulsory to 16 and it is now right for it to be compulsory for young people up to the age of 18 to be involved in education, training or an apprenticeship, which I know that this House is particularly interested in.

Does the noble Baroness not realise that her unprecedented commitment to 15 to 19 year-olds is reflected in the highest level of unemployment recorded for 18 to 24 year-olds? Many of those about whom we are talking now who were educated in 2007 are now in the 18 to 24 year-old group. At 18.4 per cent, it is the highest level of unemployment since records began.

My Lords, I am extremely concerned, like many, that young people experience unemployment. The noble Lord knows better than most the impact of unemployment in areas of particular industrial decline around the country. However, we know from the review of my noble friend Lord Leitch looking at the skills that this country needs that we have to get more people into education. Low-skilled jobs are on the decline and it is vital that we have young people gaining skills and going on to university. That is why I, too, am proud that we have such ambitious aspirations to get more young people into university.

My Lords, we are told that we are in the worst recession since the 1930s, but will my noble friend give the comparable figures of the treatment of young people in the 1980s and during the recession in the 1990s?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an extremely important point. In facing these tough economic times, young people in this country are in a better position than ever before. For example, we have a much lower rate of long-term youth unemployment now than we had in the 1980s and 1990s. We have the September guarantee, under which this Government have committed to ensuring that all 16 and 17 year-olds have a suitable offer of a place to continue in learning, should they wish to take it. This year, we also have the January guarantee, which is funded fully to make sure that all young people who find themselves NEET this month have the opportunity to take back-to-work courses and have education maintenance allowance. None of this was evident in the 1980s or early 1990s.