Education and Inspections Bill
Baroness Thornton (Labour)
I speak to AmendmentsNos. 206 and 207 which stand in my name. I have been encouraged to bring the issue to the Committee by a group of organisations and charities that deals with children who are the subject of the amendment. They include: Action on Aftercare, Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, NCH, the NCVCCO—which deals with children in care—the NSPCC, Save the Children, and the Who Cares? Trust. I mention them because I would like the Committee to understand that these organisations have been passionate about the issue and have pursued it at every opportunity in your Lordships' House. I have been pleased to be identified with them and to support them. I should declare an interest. I work closely with NCH and Rathbone, two organisations which deal with this cohort of young people and address their issues.
These are probing amendments that seek to explore the Bill's effect on children and young people who have experienced particular educational disadvantage. Young people leaving local authority care and children who are or have been engaged in the youth justice system need to receive every possible opportunity to overcome those disadvantages. For some of these young people the cut-off age of 19 will be too low to enable them to take advantage of this well-intentioned new entitlement. The Government and the Minister are very clear on their commitment to education and on the role that education plays in giving life chances to young people who are socially excluded. Certain groups of young people have experienced particular educational disadvantage. They include young people who have been detained either as a result of offending or mental health problems, young people who have been looked after by a local authority, and those from the Travelling communities.
The Government themselves have clearly acknowledged and made extended provision for such disadvantage in some legislation. Some Members of the Committee were actively involved in the Children (Leaving Care) Act, which says that because young people who have been looked after are liable to have suffered disruption to their education, they are quite likely to be embarking on further education much later than their peers. The legislation therefore provides considerable flexibility to catch up. Care leavers covered by legislation have until the age of 21 to get an agreed programme of educational training included in their pathway plan, and therefore to be supported by the local authority.
I very much welcome the Bill's provision to extend the entitlement to free basic education up to age 19. However, the educational disadvantage of those in the groups mentioned above is sometimes so severe that I wonder whether the extension goes far enough. For example, nearly half of young people of compulsory school age detained in young offender institutions have literacy and numeracy levels below those of the average 11 year-old, and more than a quarter have numeracy levels equivalent to that of the average seven year-old. Some 41 per cent of young people in young offender institutions were aged 14 or younger when last in school. Some 57 per cent of young people leave care with no qualifications at all. Gypsy/Traveller pupils, mostly either Gypsy-Roma or Travellers of Irish heritage, have the lowest results of any ethnic minority group and are one of the groups most at risk in the education system. Many, especially the boys, opt out of education by year 9, and very few go on to achieve success at GCSE or beyond.
The educational disadvantage of these young people is so substantial that, as evidence from, for example, the staff of NCH who work with these young people and from Rathbone suggests, considerable time and effort is required to get them to re-engage. Indeed, in 2005, the Government's own Social Exclusion Unit said that, for some disengaged young adults, the support needed to help them get a job or to consider re-engaging in education might take substantial time and effort. I am told by the teachers who work with these young people that one of the first obstacles is to get them to be willing to take the risk of going back into education. Research indicates that these young people have failed so significantly in the education system that they are very reluctant to access opportunities even when they are there. It seems that taking a long-term perspective and thinking about the future and the usefulness of qualifications in this cohort can be only to their benefit and to that of society, because these young people are heading towards costing the state significant amounts of money one way or another.
According to the Youth Justice Board, young people who offend are experiencing considerable difficulties in accessing, for example, sufficient suitable accommodation when they come out of secure accommodation, so one of the challenges facing us is that you have to get these children and young people into homes that are stable and suitable before they can address the question of how they will educate themselves and what kind of education might be appropriate for them. For these reasons, I am concerned that cutting off access to benefit at the age of 19 may not give these young people enough time to sort out some of their more basic needs and to reflect on the benefits of educational qualifications.