Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th May 1996.
In this debate we shall show the success of Government policies for 16-to19 education and training. The Government chose this topic for debate, because 16-to-19 education and training is an area where we need to do still better to match our competitors in the global trading environment; because it is a key to achieving the demanding national targets that we have set ourselves; and because it is an area in which the creation of the new Department for Education and Employment gives us a great opportunity to improve.
The skills and knowledge of new entrants to the labour market are among the most important determining factors of the economic and social success of any nation. I shall briefly review the range of measures that the Government have taken to ensure that success is achieved in that vital area. I shall then outline areas of further action, because we have no intention of resting on our success. The nature of skills and knowledge needed by young people inevitably changes as technology changes the nature of jobs, the employment market and society.
Indisputably, Britain needs a highly motivated, well-educated, well-trained and adaptable work force. To achieve that, we have set ourselves demanding targets. We shall need to meet or even exceed them if we are to compete with the best in the worldwide marketplace.
To meet that goal, the policy for training and education of young people must be guided by some key principles. Young people must obtain the general understanding and skills that they need for adult life and work. They need opportunities to achieve at the highest level that they can. To create such opportunities, responsive and effective institutional structures must be provided in schools, colleges and workplaces.
That achievement must be measured against secure and rigorous standards in a range of high-quality qualifications. The Government are determined that all education and training qualifications be sound measures of achievement.
The first thing to make clear is that 16-to-19 education and training is already a success story. With the help of our partners in education and the world of employers, we have achieved much in recent years. Participation and achievement have reached record levels. By the end of 1994, the proportion of 16-year-olds in education and training was 88.2 per cent.—an increase from 83.2 per cent. only four years earlier.
Among A-level students, achievements continue to improve. In 1995, the provisional pass rate was 84 per cent. compared with 68 per cent. in 1980, with nearly 30 per cent. of 17-year-olds gaining two or more A-levels—more than double the 1980 figure.
We have introduced new qualifications alongside A-levels. General national vocational qualifications—or GNVQs—are an alternative set of qualifications for students remaining in full-time education. Although they were introduced nationally as recently as September 1993, they have rapidly attracted very many students—more than 200,000 are currently studying for GNVQs.
The Government are firmly committed to ensuring choice and diversity in the routes available to young people at 16. That means that we need to make available a high-quality work-based training option to young people who are more attracted by the practical approach than by traditional academic routes.
Modern apprenticeships, available nationally from September 1995, are already becoming established as the work-based route to higher-level skills. They will rapidly become a very important part of the post-16 education and training scene. Already about 25,000 young people have been recruited, and evaluation shows that modern apprenticeship is attracting young people with high achievement and that they have high regard for the quality of training that they receive.
We have also pioneered new training approaches. Youth training offers the opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds to receive training leading to a recognised vocational qualification of at least NVQ level 2 or equivalent. Between April 1994 and January 1995, 71 per cent. of young people completing youth training in England and Wales were in a job six months after leaving training, and 72 per cent. gained a qualification or credit towards one. About 4.5 million young people have entered Government-supported training since 1983. We want to do even better in future. I shall say more about that later.
Furthermore, all training and enterprise councils have been offering youth credits since April last year and young people are using them to access either youth training or modern apprenticeships. Youth credits help to give young people more choice, more flexibility and a greater sense of personal responsibility when buying their training. Early evaluation results show that young people are taking training more seriously, fewer are prepared to take a job without training and more are aware of the options and choices available.
Underpinning those successes in raising achievements, we have take action to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the delivery and administration of education and training. Within central Government, the merger between the two former Departments—Education and Employment—has been a clear sign of the Government's commitment to creating a national framework of training and education opportunities. The greater flexibility available to colleges of further education through self-governance, and the continued development of TECs, have helped to encourage responsiveness to local as well as national needs.
It was in the context of that enormous progress and improvement in achievement that the Secretary of State asked Sir Ron Dearing, in April 1995, to review the framework of qualifications most used by 16 to 19-year-olds. Sir Ron published his report on 27 March. He has received wide support for his analysis of the current situation and warm approval for his proposals for taking us forward.
We have asked Sir Ron, as chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and his counterpart in the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, Sir Michael Heron, to advise on next steps for the bulk of the recommendations. Our key task now is to pick up the challenge of the Dearing agenda and make it work.
Sir Ron recommended a new qualifications framework at four national levels—entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced—further strengthening of the rigour and standards of A-levels, the creation of a new AS qualification and the development of a new system of national traineeships. The Government have happily endorsed all those recommendations. We expect much of the new qualifications framework to be in place by September 1997, and work on developing new and revised qualifications to be well in hand by that date.
I should like to highlight some of the key areas where we are taking action to follow up the Dearing report. I shall begin, appropriately, with A-levels. Our firmly held belief is that A-levels remain at the heart of the qualifications system for 16 to 19-year-olds. They are tried and tested, popular and successful. We are committed to the A-level—I make no apology for that. The Government are not about to jettison an examination that has stood the test of nearly 50 years.
As a Scot, does the Minister agree that the Scottish system of Highers—a broader set of examinations, which Scottish children take at the age of 18, and which corresponds more closely to the baccalaureate or other European systems—is perhaps better than the narrow English system of A-levels?
Just because something corresponds with European systems does not make it any good—I do not know where the hon. Gentleman got that idea. My recollection of the Scottish system is that it served well those who had the privilege of enjoying it. I am too modest to judge the outcome of Scottish education and shall leave others to do that. The hon. Gentleman misses an important point: there are many different traditions in England and Scotland. He understands the differences in their legal systems, the Church, education and many other institutions, which is good and healthy. But any attempt to import—even from Scotland—something that is seen to be different or better would probably be mistaken.
We have our own traditions here in England. Sir Ron Dearing proposes to improve what we have; I know that he looked closely at the Scottish system, and I am sure that if he had thought that a straightforward importation of the Scottish system to England would have been of benefit, he would have recommended it, but he did not.
Did the Government accept the Higginson recommendations, which would have broadened A-levels in the way that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) suggested?
A legitimate debate is always undertaken—the Dearing report reflected that—on how far one seeks to change the breadth and depth of A-levels and how far one seeks to retain their essence. Sir Ron recommended a new-style AS-level as his method of broadening the system. Typically, he struck a careful balance between keeping the best of what we have—what we have been used to, what is recognised and understood—and providing a means of broadening that, mainly through the new AS-level, plus the national framework.
Does my hon. Friend agree that over the past 20 to 30 years there has been a dramatic change in the framework and form of education in this country? The one thing that is the gold standard, the test against which we can judge academic achievement, is the A-level. Would it not be a disgrace for us to change our system to those of other countries simply because they are different and because we are dissatisfied with everything about this country's education?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because she accurately reflects the belief held by not just the Government, but by most people, both inside and outside the education system. If we were tempted to go with what is sometimes mistakenly seen as some sort of popular flow, and to say that A-levels were outdated or elitist, we would be in great danger of losing the anchor that has provided stability and continuity in our education system for generations.
Sir Ron Dearing has managed to retain that anchor, but has built on and developed the key 16 to 19-year-old qualifications framework in a way that can carry us forward—we are grateful to him for that. But that does not mean that we cannot or should not consider A-levels from time to time or that they cannot be improved. The Government are determined to ensure, at the very least, that the rigour and standards in A-levels are protected and, if necessary, enhanced.
Sir Ron's report contains a number of recommendations, even on A-levels, a few of which I shall highlight. He said that we need to raise standards in subjects found to be easier than the average. We do not do young people any favours—and we do not improve skills in the work force—if we reduce standards.
We should aim to reduce the number of overlapping syllabuses in order to simplify the process of protecting standards. We should review examination standards every five years. We warmly welcome Sir Ron's recommendation of the establishment of a robust and systematic archive of examination material, so that we are better able to track the movement of standards over a period—which is currently very difficult. We should also reinforce rigour and standards in modular A-levels; we intend to examine options for combining aspects of both approaches. Sir Ron has also proposed introducing a new advanced subsidiary—or AS—qualification, representing the first half of a full A-level, to promote breadth of study in the first year of the A-level course and, it is hoped, to reduce wastage.
We have already welcomed those recommendations in principle, subject to further advice on the detail from the SCAA and the examination boards. We expect any changes to syllabuses that flow from the recommendations to be in place by September 1998. Some commentators have suggested that the outcome of the Dearing review risks diluting A-levels, but I do not believe that. We are planning the biggest ever programme of action to secure and improve the rigour and standards of the A-level examination. The establishment of a robust and systematic archive of examination material will, from now on, give us information to allow us to track more efficiently the rigour and standards of A-levels. We are confronting that issue head on, and Sir Ron has provided us with the basis on which to do that more effectively in future.
The need for rigour is no less important in vocational qualifications. Employers know what standards must be met in order to compete, and that is why NVQs are firmly based on standards set by employers. We have an on-going programme to help employers to articulate their standards, and they are increasingly using NVQs. More than 1 million NVQs have been awarded, and last year the number of awards increased by 16 per cent. Surveys show that 40 per cent. of medium and large firms now offer NVQs to their work force.
However, we need both to bring NVQs to more people and to improve assessment. We must reduce the unnecessary bureaucracy that has grown up around them. We want to make them more attractive, particularly to smaller firms, and to clarify the assessment requirements. Over the next two years, we shall review each NVQ and embark upon a rigorous programme of simplification, updating and revision, following Mr. Gordon Beaumont's report. When I visit factories and talk to those who have achieved NVQs, they tell me what a difference they have made to their motivation. They believe that they have achieved long-overdue recognition of the skills that they have acquired over many years. The NVQ programme will not only provide a new level of recognition of workplace skills, but motivate employees throughout the work force.
As with NVQs, GNVQs are contributing strongly to meeting the demanding national targets that I mentioned earlier. GNVQs have rapidly become a popular option. They are unlocking potential and motivating young people and adults of all abilities. However, they are not a soft option. Inspections by both the Office for Standards in Education and the Further Education Funding Council have confirmed that advanced GNVQs demand work that is at least equivalent to two A-levels.
Nevertheless, much remains to be done to improve the quality and relevance of GNVQs and the way in which they are delivered. We are determined to strengthen and improve them. We are making available about £30 million over the three-year period 1995–96 to 1997–98 to fund work following up the Dearing recommendations on GNVQs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem with GNVQs is that they are not recognised by employers? Perhaps he can allocate some of the £30 million to an advertising campaign that would highlight the advantages of GNVQs not only to employers but to the general public, who I believe are unaware of what they offer.
My hon. Friend tempts me to reallocate to advertising money that we intended to apply directly to GNVQs. I must think about that proposal. Although the power of advertising is well known—particularly to my hon. Friend—one must be rather cautious about diverting education money to advertising, even for the best of motives. A better route is probably through the careers service, which is being revamped and sharpened, and through improved awareness among teachers, parents and pupils of the value of GNVQs. That would be linked to an increasing acceptance of GNVQs in university admission requirements. My hon. Friend will know how quickly word spreads in the education world from universities, through senior school and down to more junior levels. GNVQ part 1, which we are piloting for 14-year-olds, is already beginning to gain attention.
My hon. Friend's approach is perhaps justified in that area. I shall think carefully about his helpful suggestion and consider whether we can justify spending a modest amount on advertising or promotional material in order to draw employers' attention to the excellence and relevance of GNVQs.
Dearing built on the recommendations of the Capey report on the assessment and grading of GNVQs. The report rightly criticises the complex and time-consuming nature of the current procedures. They must be simplified, the quality control improved, and clear national standards firmly established. We expect the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to make rapid and effective progress in those areas in the coming year.
The Government are fully committed to improving links between education and work, and GNVQs provide an ideal opportunity to achieve that—so long as employers understand their potential, as my hon. Friend said. We are working with a number of industry training organisations to ensure that GNVQs are wholly relevant to the industries that they cover.
One of the most promising parts of the Dearing report is the package of proposals on the key skills that employees need for lifetime learning. Those key skills include the ability to communicate effectively, to calculate and use numerical information, and to use information technology effectively. The Dearing report left no doubt as to the importance of developing key skills. Employers have called consistently for their development at increasingly higher levels; they know that they are necessary.
Sir Ron's proposals would give every young person aged between 16 and 18 the chance of developing those key skills. In GNVQs, that would occur through the core skills units that are already in place. In the work-based route, it would be achieved through his proposals for their inclusion in national traineeships and consolidation of their position in modern apprenticeships. In A-levels, key skills would be achieved through the development of a new AS in key skills and, over time, through review of the A-level subject cores.
That is a pretty tall order, but we are already making progress. Sir Ron recommended that the core skills unit in information technology be approved for use with 14 to 16-year-olds, and we intend to accept his advice. The unit will be available to schools from this September.
The question of organisation must be addressed in implementing the Dearing qualification proposals. We want clear equivalence between different types of qualifications—our old friend, parity of esteem—and we want to reward and recognise achievement, whether in A-levels or in other areas. We want to end up with a clearer, simpler and more accessible framework.
The SCAA and the NCVQ will be responsible for taking forward much of that work. We agree with Sir Ron that the time is right to look at ways of bringing those organisations closer together. Over the past few years, the SCAA and the NCVQ have helped to transform education and training. The NCVQ has created a framework for vocational education and training from the fragmented and unco-ordinated provision that existed before. The SCAA is responsible for implementing the national curriculum and its assessment arrangements, and it has done much to strengthen standards in GCSEs and A-levels.
The organisations have achieved much separately, but they could achieve more together. That is why this week we published a consultation document on the future of the SCAA and the NCVQ, which sets out some possible options. The first is to replace the SCAA and the NCVQ with two new bodies: one with responsibility for the curriculum and statutory assessment and the other with responsibility for qualifications.
The second option is to replace those organisations with a single body to take on all those responsibilities. There is a case for a single body having responsibility for qualifications and for curriculum matters. However, we want to be sure that the worlds of employment and education support that option as the best way forward. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will decide on the way ahead after the consultation ends in July.
One of the Government's top priorities is to bring employers' influence to bear on all phases of education, so that our young people understand the qualities and skills that they will need when they join the labour market, and the opportunities for which they are best suited. Close links between education and business are integral to our drive to raise young people's achievement levels. That is clear from our competitiveness White Papers. The first of those, "Helping Business to Win", which was released in 1994, sets out a framework of objectives for education business links work. It asks training and enterprise councils to meet challenging targets on work experience for young people, placements for teachers in business, and placements for business people in education. I am pleased to announce that 92 per cent. of secondary schools now have links with business and more than 190,000 teachers have had placements in business since 1989.
An important element in bringing education and employment together is the availability of good-quality work-based training opportunities for young people. Modern apprenticeships, which have been available nationally since September 1995, are a key plank of the education and training contribution to the Government's competitiveness agenda. The success of modern apprenticeships has shown that there is a strong demand for apprenticeship opportunities from employers and young people.
The Government are playing a supporting role, providing financial support and facilitating the partnership at national level. However, we are looking to industry and to employers to come forward with apprenticeships in the sectors and the numbers that they want. We expect the number of modern apprenticeship places to at least double in the coming year.
Youth training offers 16 and 17-year-olds the opportunity to receive training leading to a recognised vocational qualification of at least NVQ level 2 or equivalent. It is essential in supporting longer-duration training to intermediate skill levels and provides a foundation for further learning.
Progression from youth training to modern apprenticeships is available for those who show promise and will benefit from that more demanding training option.
Despite its many good features, there is scope to improve youth training. The Dearing review recognised that, but showed that we have been trying to do two jobs with youth training—delivering high-quality work-based training for those ready to benefit from it, and providing opportunities to reach first base for those who have fallen behind or are unclear about their way forward when they reach the age of 16. He suggested—and we agreed—that those two strands be developed separately.
National traineeships will provide high-quality, work-based training to NVQ level 2, along with the key skills of communication, number and information technology that employers are always telling us they need in new recruits.
Entry provision will be developed to provide a flexible range of local opportunities to meet the needs of young people who are not yet ready, or unclear about their future. The next step after entry may well be into a national traineeship—but might equally be back into full-time education. A flexible approach, driven by the needs of the individual, must lie at the heart of this exciting new initiative and we are already aware of many examples of good work on which we can build.
The Government welcome the recommendations and will consult widely during the summer on the detail of implementing the new arrangements, which we intend to phase in from September 1997.
I refer now to the careers service. We are providing a diverse range of opportunities after the age of 16. In that environment, effective careers education and guidance is more crucial than ever. One of the main reasons why people drop out of post-16 courses is that they have made the wrong choice. We want to help them make the right choice in the first place. Careers education and guidance helps to ensure that they make the most appropriate choice about their learning and occupational options.
We have reformed the careers service. Nearly all services are now on contract. The new arrangements encourage more efficient and effective careers advice and guidance, which is more adaptable to the changing needs of employers and young people.
The Government are committed to improving careers education and guidance even further. We intend to introduce legislation to improve careers education and guidance in maintained schools and colleges, in particular by securing the provision of careers education in maintained schools, making schools and colleges responsible for working with the careers services and providing facilities for them and ensuring that young people receive information on work-based and further education options.
That is another sector that benefits from the merger between the former Education and Employment Departments. We have a co-ordinated approach to careers education and guidance, which can make a significant contribution to the country's economic performance in future years.
It now remains for me to draw together the different strands of achievements and activity. Over the past 15 years, there has been a dramatic revolution in attitudes to staying on in education and training after the age of 16. We now have close on 90 per cent. of 16-year-olds, 80 per cent. of 17-year-olds and 60 per cent. of 18-year-olds taking part in education and training. The introduction of modern apprenticeships, GNVQs and NVQs has encouraged more young people to continue their learning.
In 1995, 67 per cent. of young people achieved five good GCSEs or the vocational equivalent and some 44 per cent. achieved two GCE A-levels or the vocational equivalent. Those represent substantial increases in attainment over the past decade. In addition, more than 1 million NVQ certificates have been awarded.
That is all good and positive. It is good for the young people who are realising their potential, and good for Britain as we develop the highly skilled work force that we need to compete effectively in the international marketplace into the next century. The proposals in the Dearing report will help us to do even better in future.
The nation must recognise that the effectiveness of our education and training, the skills of our work force and the competitiveness of the United Kingdom are inextricably linked. We need to get the best from the education and training system for young people so that it will stand comparison with our competitors.
Within 16-to-19 learning, the Government believe that fair competition and freeing up providers to exercise fuller managerial discretion will drive up standards and improve provider responsiveness to customer needs.
Last May's White Paper, "Competitiveness: Forging Ahead", set out a range of measures to improve individual choice, fair competition between providers and the relevance of provision to the needs of the labour market. They include action to improve the coverage and effectiveness of careers education and guidance in maintained schools and colleges, to improve the link between the bodies responsible for quality assurance of schools, further education and work-based training and to investigate the scope for making funding levels and systems for the various forms of post-16 learning more consistent.
I have outlined a series of interlinking measures that the Government continue to take to build on the success already achieved in the provision of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds. We have a combination of improved staying-on rates in education, improved training opportunities and improved access by employers to modern apprenticeships—all of which help to provide an increased opportunity and quality of outcome for the crucial 16 to 19-year-old age group. That, combined with what we are doing in further and higher education and the increased awareness by employers of the importance of the skills of their work force, gives us a real opportunity to make material improvements in the skills of our work force and of our 16 to 19-year-olds in the years ahead. I commend all those measures to the House.
The Labour party very much welcomes today's debate. There is no doubt that the education and training of 16 to 19-year-olds must be an important priority, as it is one of the most critical issues for our nation today and into the 21st century. Our success or failure in future decades depends on the opportunities that we give our young people today.
The education and training opportunities afforded to young people should provide a platform of learning throughout their lives. They need a secure foundation of educational attainment so that they are equipped to thrive and prosper throughout their careers.
We all recognise that the career patterns that will develop in the modern economy will be different from those of the past. Education is no longer for life for some at 16, for others at 18, for a diminishing number at 21 and for a very small number beyond. Education for life will mean providing opportunities for people throughout their lives. A commitment to education and retraining must be part of the perspective in developing opportunities in the new economy. Therefore, it is essential that we establish opportunities for people that will enable them to acquire basic educational skills and qualifications and will provide them with a framework within which they can maximise their employability and increase their opportunities for developing their education and skills after they have left full-time education.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? He referred to a diminishing number of people attending university or higher education at the age of 21. Is it not the case that when Labour last left office, only one in eight were in full-time education at the age of 21 and now the figure is one in three? What point was the hon. Gentleman trying to make?
The hon. Gentleman is misinterpreting me. I was referring not to participation rates in higher education, but to the qualifications structure in educational opportunities and the fact that fewer people participate in higher levels of education than in lower levels. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for helping me to clarify that.
Despite what the Minister said this morning, the Government's performance in the education of our 16 to 19-year-olds has been lamentable. Britain has fewer people aged 16 to 17 in full-time education than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country, with the sole exception of Turkey. So the numbers of which the Minister was boasting in terms of participation beyond 16 in full-time education are extremely poor in comparison with those of other counties.
I suspected that the hon. Gentleman might parade that figure. Like most of the figures that the Opposition produce these days, it is highly selective and somewhat convoluted. Does he agree that simply to quote the number of those in education beyond 16 does not necessarily bear any relationship to the needs of individuals, as many young people benefit more from leaving full-time education at 16 and getting jobs or entering training? Therefore, the fact that a certain number are not in full-time education after 16 does not necessarily tell us much at all.
It tells us a great deal. It tells us that the evaluation made by other countries of the time that their young people need to be in full-time education is quite different. If the Minister is suggesting that people go into worthwhile jobs with developmental prospects at the age of 16, he is not looking at the statistics closely. It is clear that a large number of people employed at 16 are in dead-end jobs that offer no training. It is clear also that a large proportion of that age group remain unemployed significantly longer. Those substantial issues must be addressed, and I shall dwell on them later.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) was wrong when he suggested recently that 80 per cent. of the children of unskilled parents leave school at 16? That was the figure under the last Labour Government, but today more than half such children stay in full-time education.
If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself and give me time to develop my argument, I shall refer to that specific point later. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman attaches such importance to it. Conservative Members are at last waking up to the scandal of the number of young people who have left full-time education and of how many of them come from less advantaged homes. Those young people deserve our attention, concern and resources, but the Government have scandalously neglected them over a long period.
By age 17, only 50.9 per cent. of young people in England and Wales remain in full-time education, so we need to address that high drop-out rate. By age 18, the figure falls to just 38 per cent. When we emphasise the need for young people to achieve higher standards than in the past, and when we take delight in marginal improvements in recent years for which the Government would ordinarily take credit, the Secretary of State is quite unable to praise the education system, commend parents and congratulate young people on their achievements each summer. Conservative Back Benchers are more concerned to claim that education standards are dropping and that young people only appear to be achieving more because standards have slipped. That extremely unfortunate development in Conservative party thinking is part and parcel of the reason for the Government's education and training strategy being hopelessly flawed, having a performance well below the required level.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that basic education standards have slipped because, although central Government must provide the money and carry responsibility, the actual education is delivered for the most part by left-wing local authorities, which are still employing the half-baked education theories of the 1960s?
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) is not alone in his outrageous remarks and receives commendation for such statements from other Conservative Members. Does the Minister claim that A-level performance levels in recent years reflect the failure of the education system? After all, the Conservatives have been in power and controlling the education system for 17 years, so they are certainly responsible. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to make an obscure point about the quality of teaching, I may point out that his Government were in power during the period when the vast majority of practising teachers were trained. If that issue is so significant, why did not the hon. Gentleman challenge the Minister to account for the situation?
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), so I shall set the record straight. Yes, I do agree. I shall pick two local education authorities at random—Islington and Southwark. Those LEAs, which are under Labour control, have received some of the highest funding per pupil of any authority in the country, yet they have let down generations of pupils to such an extent that caring parents, exercising parental choice, have removed their children from Islington and Southwark to send them to other London boroughs. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is the case because he has daily contact with those caring parents. That is a measure of education under Labour, which my hon. Friend had in mind.
The hon. Member for Shoreham may have done, but the Minister is in contact with a large number of other caring parents—and I assume that his colleagues on the Conservative Benches are also caring parents. They have such confidence in the Minister that they make sure that their children contract out from anything to do with the education system for which the Minister is responsible.
The Minister is indicating that he did not contract out. What a gesture of faith that represents. Why is the Minister so unsuccessful in convincing the vast majority of his colleagues of his achievements? The Minister made no reference to the most worrying statistic of recent years, and I did not notice Conservative Members eager to interject on that point.
I want to get this statistic out first, then the hon. Gentleman—having internalised my point—may intervene.
Last year, for the first time in living memory, the percentage of 16-year-olds staying on in full-time education fell. We saw not just a slowing in the growth of participation rates but a reversal, which will have knock-on effects for achievement at 17 and 18.
Is it possible that those young people were anticipating, God forbid, a Labour Government together—[Laughter.]—with the shadow Chancellor's tax on sixth formers?
The hon. Gentleman got the answer that he deserved, in the mirth that his question evoked. Nearly 8 per cent. of pupils failed to gain any GCSE passes in 1993–94. Those youngsters are among the 12 per cent. of school leavers who fall into economic inactivity or enter jobs without training. Nearly one in eight school leavers is lost to the education and training system, and the future is bleak for such young people. They are most at risk of long-term unemployment or dead-end, low-skill, low-wage jobs. Those youngsters are most likely to fall into criminal activity. Society seems to offer them so little that their commitment to society and its values tends to be low. They are a lost generation, which is why our policies are addressed significantly to that group. The facts tell it all. There are 600,000 unemployed people between the ages of 18 and 25—one in six of that age group. Some 265,000 people in that age group have been unemployed for more than a year.
Conservative Members should realise that that situation is a ticking time-bomb. A huge number of people have missed out on educational achievement and are drifting into permanent exclusion from mainstream society. If they occupy such a role, is it any wonder that we have seen a growth in anti-social activity among them?
Will the hon. Gentleman go on to make comparisons between the figures that he has given for this country and the figures for youth unemployment in other European countries, which no doubt some Labour Members—if not he—would hold out as a model? I hope that he will then go on to tell us what impact he thinks that the statutory national minimum wage proposed by the Labour party would have on the very people whom he is identifying as being disadvantaged.
The Minister should recognise that the thrust of Labour party policy is in sharp contrast to what he has identified as his priorities. He seems to think that the issue in relation to 16-year-olds may be partially resolved by a small increase in the number of full-time jobs that require no training.
Labour Members say that there are clear solutions to the issues. We cannot have people in jobs without adequate training, and we cannot afford the substantial drop-out rates in education beyond 16. The simple fact—the Minister knows that it is the case—is that, in future, there will not be jobs for young people who have no educational attainments. Unskilled jobs are being swept away, year after year. We cannot conceive of solving the problem of increasing employment prospects if people do not have basic skills. That is why it is so important that we should direct ourselves to providing the necessary opportunities for educating and training our young people.
I shall give way in a moment, although I have given way several times already.
The Government do not recognise, and have totally ignored, the problem. We cannot ignore that policy inertia any longer. We must offer that group of young people new hope, which of course means improving staying-on rates in education for all our young people. It means reaching out to those who are disaffected and do not participate, and, in particular, it means tackling the social inequalities that still scar our education performance.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. I would not belittle at all the danger of allowing so many young people to emerge from school without any significant qualification, but he should not over-egg the pudding. There is clear evidence—from experience and from figures—that a great many young people, once they have experience of the labour market and its disciplines, come back to take advantage of precisely the type of flexible education and training market that he spoke of at the start of his speech.
That was an extremely constructive intervention—the first from a Conservative Member today. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we create a framework in which people can re-enter education and develop opportunities after they have experienced employment. However, we are concentrating on this specific group of people because it is palpable that far too many of them drop out from education at 16. Given their disaffection with the education experience and the Government's limited efforts in the past to encourage them back into education and training, standards are lower than I should like them to be. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman joins me in realising that.
We must recognise that social inequalities still scar our education performance. To take the most obvious example, the gap has widened in recent years between the staying-on rates of students with the same GCSE results, according to their social background. In recent years, among young people with medium-range results at GCSE—which are five or more passes, but only one to four of those at grades A to C—the gap in staying-on rates has widened from 11 to 17 per cent., according to whether they come from better-off homes or socially deprived homes. We cannot have a situation in which education opportunities and training prospects are leaving people from the most disadvantaged groups further and further behind. If the Minister does not wish to intervene on that point, I shall explain to him precisely what we shall do to tackle the problem. I want him to recognise that the problem exists, and that he did not deal with it at all in his speech.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that his combined proposals to abolish child benefit for 16 and 17-year-olds while simultaneously introducing a national statutory minimum wage will shift the balance of advantage away from full-time education to employment, and therefore widen the gap to which he has referred?
If the hon. Gentleman has not followed recent discussions on the development of Labour party plans in that area to understand how we shall increase resources for that disadvantaged group, he has not been reading newspapers and following the debate with sufficient care, as he should do.
The fact is that if educational attainment at GCSE level is poor, one has far less chance of staying on and gaining decent qualifications if one comes from a lower-income household. The situation is getting worse, which is why the Labour party is directing a great deal of its attention to it. The shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has given particular emphasis to this issue.
Britain cannot meet national targets for education and training on current performance rates. Trends suggest that participation levels will continue to stagnate or even reverse without radical change. One academic commentator stated:
To reach a standstill nationally in the mid to late 1990s"—
which is the current position—
will mean falling further behind internationally as other countries continue to improve at a faster rate. The modest improvements which have taken place since 1987 will not produce any real competitive advantage.
I challenge the Minister to respond to that.
Today, the Minister mentioned the catalogue of the Government's achievements in developing skills in our young people, but the fact is that we are not keeping pace with our international competitors.
The hon. Gentleman has challenged me, so on this occasion, I shall happily respond.
I am looking at the Labour party's document, "Labour's New Deal for a Lost Generation: Key Points", which states:
Our education and training system must ensure 100 per cent. of young people are on the road to a qualification.
I assume that he will explain what that means.
Presumably, the hon. Gentleman will also answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). We are waiting anxiously for the hon. Gentleman to tell us how he will ensure that the differences in achievement between the different social groups that he mentioned a moment ago will somehow magically be eliminated, unless it is by reducing standards and compromising on qualifications to ensure that the people he approves of get qualifications of the type that he thinks are useful. Otherwise, what is the meaning of the expression:
100 per cent. of young people are on the road to a qualification"? Mr. Davies: That speaks volumes for the Minister's understanding of the problems that face us all. A large number of young people drop out of full-time education before they should for reasons related to the financial circumstances of their families. If the Minister does not realise that, I do not know which planet he lives on. Local authorities are losing their capacity to provide educational maintenance allowances, and transport support is in danger of collapsing.
I offer the Minister some figures. I am talking about the 16-plus group, not about students in higher education. I shall restrict my statistics to local authority support for the crucial group that we want to stay on in education beyond 16. The value of educational maintenance allowances paid to young people staying on after 16 declined by 20 per cent. between 1993 and 1994. So, owing to Government policies, young people discovered that they had even fewer opportunities to stay on in full-time education.
From time to time, Conservative Back Benchers draw the attention of the House to the parlous state of discretionary awards for young people. There has indeed been a huge decline in such awards in recent years. In 1992, they were worth £170 million, but that had declined by last year to £113 million. Yet that is essential support for the group to which we are supposed to attach priority.
The hon. Gentleman has told the House of his firm view that one of the problems in education and training relates to the difficult financial circumstances of families. I hope, then, that he may be able to enlighten us with his personal view of the suggested removal of child benefit. Surely that would worsen the financial circumstances of the very families about whom he is concerned.
If the hon. Gentleman will just contain himself, I shall identify precisely how we intend to increase resources to support those who need to keep their young people in full-time education.
The hon. Gentleman has made it very clear that the financial circumstances of the deprived parents who want to keep their children on in school are affected by the amount of cash that their households receive. When the hon. Gentleman comes to advise the House about his party's proposal, will he therefore give a categoric assurance that those families will receive an amount in hard cash equal to, or more than, they get at the moment in child benefit? Will he explain how that will work, and what the sums involved would be? That is crucial if his policy is to retain any credibility at all.
The hon. Gentleman, too, must contain himself. I have already said that I shall deal with that when I get to the relevant section of my speech. We intend to give additional support to this group to improve participation rates in education.
Let us be clear about why the Government have no grounds for complacency when it comes to achievement. Over one third of our young people have not even reached level 2 attainment by the age of 19. That means that over a third have not even managed to get good GCSEs or vocational qualification passes at intermediate level—a complete failure on the part of Government. Level 2 attainment, as any decent employer knows, is the basic qualification enabling people to function effectively in any decent job. At higher levels, the situation is even worse.
In 1994, 41.5 per cent. of young people achieved level 3 qualifications—half the rate achieved in Japan—but it is at that very level that we need to achieve more if we are to develop our economy. For leading-edge international companies, level 3 is increasingly the bottom level of entry to the work force. Is it any wonder, therefore, after more than a decade and a half of Conservative government, that Britain now ranks 35th out of 48 in the World Economic Forum league table?
In order to bring about improvement, we must examine the current distribution of support for students in post-compulsory education. That is why Labour has stated its intention to review maintenance support. Our aim is clear: it is to increase fairness in public spending. The system of funding post-16 students is riddled with inequities and anomalies. Indeed, it scarcely merits the description of "system" at all. It is based on outdated assumptions about forms of study, and it displays an historic bias towards those in full-time academic education. The relatively better-off do best out of the system. People who study part time or who do further education courses after 19 pay their own way.
Support for 16 to 19-year-old students is in disarray. In recent years, even the meagre support that used to be available has declined, and the discretionary grant system has almost collapsed. Local authorities no longer have the resources to provide the educational maintenance support that they used to provide just a few years ago.
I had the privilege of being educated at two universities in the United States where most of my fellow students were Americans who received no support from central or local government. They were astonished by the generous provision that we make for our students. Not only do we pay all their fees, but we give them generous maintenance allowances. Bearing in mind the high standards of educational achievement at American universities, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not simply a question of throwing money at the problem?
It is certainly a question of improving our participation rates in higher education compared with those of America, Europe, Japan and the far east. The logic of the hon. Gentleman's proposition seems to be that we should reduce support even more to solve the problems—that amazes me.
If the Minister took the trouble to find out, he would learn from everyone who works in the sector that the most crucial element in post-16 education for people from deprived backgrounds is transport. [Interruption.] This may seem a trivial aspect to some Conservative Members, but for 16-year-olds from deprived backgrounds, their weekly bus fares to get to the colleges of their choice can present an acute problem. All educationists working in those colleges know how it acts as a deterrent to young people considering whether to persist with their courses.
I have given way before to the hon. Gentleman and I must make progress. I am coming to the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.
Funding pressure is such that local authorities now provide only £32 million in transport assistance. Getting to college is increasingly difficult for students from low-income households, and the colleges are being asked to pick up the tab for such support at a time when their budgets are extremely limited. Any Government concerned with improving staying-on rates would have tackled those problems, but the Government blandly assert that there does not appear to be a problem.
Although the issue of funding for students is vital, we must also address other issues. In particular, if the Government were serious about prioritising the sector of opportunity for young people, they would not have introduced the draconian cuts in further education in last year's Budget. The capital cuts in further education in the Budget amounted to £100 million over three years. That is two thirds of the capital budget, and there were substantial cuts in recurrent expenditure. That leads to a situation in which many of the students' problems are thrust on to the colleges, but the colleges do not have the wherewithal to respond effectively.
The Minister also discussed the issue of the reforms of the structure of post-16 education. I know him to be an avowed advocate of competition in educational provision, but the education sector for which he bears considerable responsibility finds a whole range of disfunctions in the present dog-eat-dog environment of provision for the post-16 age group. The competition is increasingly unhealthy, wasteful and destructive. Institutions are under pressure to recruit students in such a way that many do not offer to students the levels of impartial advice that they need, and part of the cause of the drop-out rate is that students are recruited to inappropriate courses. At the same time, institutions in a locality can offer courses to attract students from their competitors even though those institutions have neither the experience nor the ethos to provide those courses as well as others, with the result that courses are simply duplicated. That is not efficient: it is a waste.
Nor is there any structure for sensible partnership or a strategic overview of local provision. Everything depends on the marketplace, which means that certain courses, especially courses that are intensive in their use of staff or capital, are cut back or abandoned.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's points carefully. I assume that he will answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) about a commitment to cash for less well-off families. The hon. Gentleman seems to have moved on to another part of his argument, but he has yet to answer that question. My hon. Friends and I are waiting most anxiously to hear, in detail, the commitments that the hon. Gentleman will make to address the problem that he identified earlier.
The Minister must allow me to make my speech in my way. I have said clearly that we attach great priority to the matter, and that is why the party is developing a review of funding arrangements. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] We are developing a review for the funding of the post-16 age group with the clear intention of allocating additional resources to certain categories of students. We have made it clear that the present system is also selective. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members do not recognise that the present system discriminates in favour of the relatively better-off, they do not understand the issues.
We also need to address the structure of institutions that provide education at the post-16 level. We need to develop structures of partnership—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for someone to mislead the House by saying that he will answer a specific point and then later saying—
Order. That is a bogus point of order because, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, hon. Members are responsible for their speeches.
The funding levels and methodologies, regulatory systems and forms of accountability differ between colleges, schools and private training providers. The structure is incoherent and fragmented.
The concept of democratically accountable, co-ordinated and efficient public service has all but disappeared. I notice that Conservative Members cannot address their minds to the weaknesses of the system. They should make no mistake about the fact that such damaging competition is bad for students. It means that a full range of properly co-ordinated learning opportunities may not be available. It means that providers have to fight against their environment to put the needs of the learner first.
We shall provide a structure of partnership and co-operation in tertiary education. We need coherent, high-quality and democratically accountable education services and we believe that the education needs of students must come first. That is why the change in the structure of the curriculum is so important. Labour welcomed many of the recommendations of the Dearing review of 16 to 19-year-old qualifications. It was long overdue. Our policies share points with Dearing, but in other areas, our emphasis is different.
The structure of the curriculum is vital to participation and achievement. The triple-track system of A-levels, GNVQs and NVQs is inflexible, confusing and complex. It does not allow for transfer between courses, the building up of credits for achievement, or the opportunity to combine options in a coherent way. The system is partially responsible for the high drop-out rates that are a waste of talent, effort and public resources.
One feature that we should recognise when we measure the achievement of young people at A-level is that 30 per cent. of young people do not successfully complete their A-level courses and have no qualifications to show for any achievement short of an A-level pass. Progression between levels 2 and 3 of GNVQs is especially poor. Since 1992, less than a quarter of students have gained full awards out of nearly 260,000 registrations. Greater coherence is clearly necessary in the 14 to 19-plus curriculum. So too is breadth of learning, the opportunity to combine options and gain credits for partial achievement and the attainment of key skills for all students.
We must ensure that there is broader academic study post-16; that vocational qualifications are upgraded and enhanced; and that there is a single, coherent framework for qualifications. We must recognise that the Minister's much vaunted youth training scheme is a failure. It has low status and it is inadequate. It is public money badly spent. Labour will scrap it and will devote the resources to a new Target 2000 programme, the importance of which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) will describe later in the debate.
We must recognise that training and education need to be developed more substantially than in any way that the Government have conceived so far. We shall develop a fresh strategy for the training of young people beyond 16 in place of the youth training system. We are committed to using a windfall levy on the excessive profits of the private utilities to fund a programme of education and employment for the young long-term unemployed. We shall offer four new options for those young people to ensure that no young person is out of work for more than six months, including a full-time education option; an employment with training option; a voluntary sector option, with improved education or training; and an environmental task force option. Those measures will give new hopes to the young unemployed.
Unlike the present discredited Tory Government, a Labour Government will face the global challenge to reach ever higher levels of achievement in education. We shall not let young people drift out of school into unemployment or unskilled oblivion. We shall offer a stake to all, high standards and real opportunities to learn and achieve. The country cannot prosper and succeed in any other way.
During my 20 years of involvement in education I have rarely listened to three-quarters of an hour of such unmitigated drivel. If the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) has set out the proposals that the Labour party is offering for the future education and training of our young people, I despair. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will take every opportunity to make it plain to young people that the chances that they have under any putative Labour Government are nil.
I read Sir Ron Dearing's report with a great deal of interest. Like the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton, I studied the table set out on page 3, which contains various targets and tables.
It is extremely important for us to concentrate on what the employer is looking for in young people when he considers taking them on as trainees or young people entering the work force. Before that stage is reached, however, we must ensure that there are jobs and employers who are active and able to provide new opportunities for young people who are entering the work force. That is the first lesson that the Labour party must take on board. Whatever other policies it pursues, the first and most important policy is to ensure that employers, industries and businesses can flourish in a climate that allows them to expand so as to provide opportunities for the youth of the future.
Secondly, we must concentrate on what is happening elsewhere in the world, and not merely in Europe. We are fond of taking note of what is happening in education in France and Germany, but we could learn many more lessons by taking account of what is happening in the emerging Pacific rim countries. I spent some time in Japan early in my time in the Department for Education. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been to Pacific rim countries on a number of occasions. It will not have escaped his notice, as it did not escape mine, that in those countries young people, when they are in school, are given a clear understanding of what the world at work is all about.
To meet the challenges of the world at work, young people of the Pacific rim countries are trained in basic skills. They are expected to be competent in numbers, reading, writing and managing their own languages. They are trained to be competent in the basic skills that any employer will require before he or she starts training them for the tasks that are carried out in the business.
It is no use us mouthing great words about what we shall do for people who have missed out when they are aged 16, 18, 19 or 21. That is too late. By the time that they are 16, young people must have acquired basic skills. Over the past year we have at least put into place structures within our schools for young people to obtain basic qualifications. It is a fact that it has been difficult to take the education establishment along with us in ensuring that teachers understand the importance of making certain that every child, of whatever background, understands that the goal that they are set when they go to school is that of acquiring basic skills and having them at their fingertips.
The task of acquiring basic skills does not rest with parents alone. It is the task of the teacher to remember that when a child comes into his or her class it is necessary to set the goal to which I have referred. It is not good enough for us constantly to say that we must excuse 40 per cent. of children for not achieving what they should be achieving because there is a social reason for lack of achievement.
One of the problems is that teachers are thoroughly confused. They think that it is extremely important, especially when damaged children enter their schools, to enable pupils to learn social skills that will allow them to succeed in the community. They forget that part of those social skills is the capacity to read, write and figure. If they do not have those skills to hang on to, they will not succeed. They are as important as learning how to do up their fly buttons or taking on board any other part of their social commitment.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He has put his finger exactly on the point. I can understand the confusion of teachers and I am not condemning them. I think, however, that many of them have been misled over a number of years by a tremendous amount of rubbish that has been put out in training colleges and elsewhere about the nature of a teacher's job. Their role is to ensure that the young people passing through their hands have basic knowledge. It is not a matter of being able to do up one's shoelaces. That can be learnt at any time. I will not refer to my hon. Friend's example.
It is important for young people to learn more than to read, write and do sums, although those skills form a critical part of their education. It is important for them to learn how to mix within a community, how to adopt a corporate form of behaviour, how to address people and how to recognise the social acceptability of their behaviour. Those requirements are partly the responsibility of the school, and a very large responsibility of parents.
The right hon. Lady has rightly said that it is important to take full account of the skills that are required by employers. One of my concerns about Sir Ron Dearing's report—I shall be interested to know whether the right hon. Lady is similarly concerned—is that although he referred to key skills, employers were saying that in addition people should have the ability to work with others. Employers talked also about self-development and problem solving. Does the right hon. Lady agree that these are important core skills that should be pursued in schools?
I do not dispute that. Sir Ron Dearing rightly drew attention to those skills. It is more important that young people learn how to behave and deport themselves within the world at large, and especially within the world of work, than to acquire a series of computing skills at a training college or during a training course.
Most children aged five years are beginning to learn how to use VDUs these days. It is not a great skill.
It is a mistake on the part of those who are trying to "do good" by the youngsters who have not managed to achieve proper basic skills within the school system to think that that can be compensated for by introducing them to a training scheme that may or may not, and probably will not, lead them into a job at the end of the day.
Was my right hon. Friend as horrified as I was on reading an article written by Stephan Shakespeare, in which he referred to the primacy of ensuring that reading, writing and arithmetic be taught to youngsters? I shall quote a tiny part of the article, which states:
even the word `reading"'—
this is a trendy socialist—
has been challenged and lampooned as 'barking at text' in that children who could merely read were like dogs"—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not be reading from a newspaper.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is trying to make, which is that political correctness has entered the classroom. Indeed, much to my regret, it is to be found throughout society. Unmitigated drivel is talked about political correctness.
I should like to pursue the point about what the employer wants. Like every other hon. Member, I visit the businesses and industries in my constituency. Apart from asking how they are doing, and finding out whether they have orders in their order books, I consistently ask them what sort of young employee they are looking for. They do not run off a great string of qualifications. If I ask about general national vocational qualifications, the majority of them look at me with a blank face and say, "Yes, I am sure that it is a good qualification." The vast majority will say that they expect young people to have O-levels. One or two who are young enough and have children going through the present system will remember that O-levels have changed to GCSEs. Others will say that A-levels are a good thing, but they do not particularly look for employees with A-levels. They look for young people who want to come and work and be trained; who are willing to undertake the task, not necessarily for ever and a day, but who are motivated. No one in the Chamber this morning has talked about the motivation of young people. We need to talk about motivation before we go into any report such as Sir Ron Dearing's or produce any number of different qualifications that confuse the young person as much as they clearly confuse the employer.
We must seek to create a motivated core of young people who understand the basic needs of the employer and that, in order to meet those needs, they must work when they go to school.
I have been following closely what my right hon. Friend has to say. Like her, I visit employers in my constituency. I agree with her about motivation, but does she agree that other basic skills are lacking such as interview skills and how to prepare a CV? Employers find that too many of our youngsters leave our education system without those basic skills in finding a job.
I put all those skills together within what I have consistently talked about, namely, preparation of young people by schools to meet the challenges of the world of work. Schools should not try to take children into industries or to emulate the world of work. They have no idea about the world of work. That has been demonstrated without question in the past 30 years. What schools are good at is teaching the basic skills. I firmly believe that they should stick to that and leave the employers to do the training.
I should like to examine not only what employers want but the question of qualifications, which Sir Ron Dearing has studied with great care. He did as good a job as he could under the circumstances, but I have considerable doubt about the obsession in this country with qualifications of all these different sorts. I am not absolutely convinced that we need to have so many different qualifications other than to satisfy those people who like to dream them up and write the pieces of paper on which they sign the name of the student.
Qualifications are of use only if they mean something. Everyone knows what a degree from a university means. A degree is not as good as it used to be because, for some absurd reason, in a country of this size, which previously had 43 perfectly good universities, we now have more than 100 universities. A larger number of people now go through university and obtain a degree.
In schools we have a consistent test which retains its standard. It has been whittled away, because these things always are, but we have the consistent A-level gold standard. I was concerned to see in Sir Ron Dearing's report a hint of a structure to whittle away further that gold standard. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to beware. If we start to mix up the academic with the theoretical and practical, we will lose the quality of academic achievement that youngsters attain in A-levels.
I assure my right hon. Friend that as long as this Government are in power, there will be no compromise and no tinkering with the essentials of the A-level. I hope that she has not confused—as I am sure that she has not—the desire that Sir Ron Dearing has expressed to provide underpinnings to the A-level to give a somewhat broader approach than the narrow, purist approach which has prevailed until now with a desire to change the standard of the A-level. As I said in my speech, the A-level must remain the core and anchor of our school education system. To that, we are absolutely committed.
I am extremely reassured to hear that from my hon. Friend the Minister. I am a purist, so I hope that some of the A-levels will remain pure. We should never deny to young people in our schools and universities who are really good and can achieve something that is meaningful the opportunity to achieve the highest academic qualifications at whatever level. That is incredibly important for the survival of any country, but it is most important for this country because we have a long and very good history as a country that produces great ideas, great scientists, great musicians, and great people in literature, art and drama, and we should be immensely proud of that. We have achieved that by ensuring that we retain the highest quality in our education system.
However, all that is not to say that we do not have to provide qualifications for others who are not quite so highly skilled and clever. I am very much in favour of providing qualifications for those people, but we must be careful not to introduce too many different qualifications, not to confuse the employer and not, believe it or not, to throw away some of the more modest qualifications which employers have become used to and understand. There is nothing wrong with allowing youngsters who are not high fliers in the academic world to obtain a BTEC. It is a good, proper qualification that will allow them to go forward and—to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)—might attract them back into education later.
There is no doubt that people want to return to education from time to time. There is nothing new about that. Anyone would think that we were creating a totally new world, but we are doing what we have always done. Many people have decided at some stage later in their lives to do a second degree or qualification. That has been consistently the case over the years. I cannot understand why we suddenly assume that, with the advent of new technology, which has been the most difficult revolution, we should reinvent the wheel or invent a new wheel.
I fully understand my right hon. Friend's argument and that of my hon. Friend the Minister about retaining purist academic A-levels, but does she agree that there is no mutual exclusivity between AS-levels, which broaden academic education, and the purist academic qualification for entry into university? Does she agree that Sir Ron Dearing may have hedged his bets between A and AS-levels? Does she accept that although she might think that A-levels are a gold standard, they have restricted Britain to being a nation which is good at research but not at development because we do not have the broad base that is so necessary in this modern day and age among people entering university?
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. There is no evidence to suggest that we have not been particularly good at development because we lack a broad education at A-level. I have always been in favour of AS-levels, because they offer students an opportunity to study a broader curriculum.
The last point on which I wish to concentrate is what young people want. We ask ourselves what employers want and talk about qualifications, but the other component has to be what young people want. For the lucky top 30, 40 or 50 per cent. of youngsters, that does not necessarily present a great problem. In my experience, unless they are going into a specific profession such as the law, medicine or accounting, many young people who go on to higher education rarely know precisely what they want to do. A vast swathe of young people reads science or the arts without a clear idea of precisely where that will lead them, but what they do know and are reassured about is that, with a good degree, the chances are that they will get a well-paid job, which they will be able to use as a jumping-off point to any other career that they want during their lives.
The difficulty comes for youngsters who are not in that category and who have to think carefully about where they are going and what they are doing. What do we say to those young people? Unfortunately, they are not as well equipped with the basic skills at the ages 16, 17, 18 and 19 as they should be, so what are we offering them? My hon. Friend the Minister is offering them a range of training opportunities, but, before any young person goes on to take such an opportunity, they must understand that it will take them into work.
Going from school into a training opportunity seems a nice idea because it takes up another couple of years, but it does not take the person into a job. We need to consider closely young people's aspirations to find out whether they do understand what work is all about and whether they are prepared to accept the world of work as it is. Let us not mince our words—it is a difficult and tough life. It is true that some of those young people will not be able to go into high-flying jobs. Many girls will end up as receptionists, behind counters in retail shops or doing fairly menial tasks. Many lads will find themselves sweeping floors or doing menial tasks in the post room. We do ourselves no service by not facing up to what happens in the real world. We stand up in the House and talk about things without considering what is happening out there.
We would be well advised to consider what young people see as their opportunities. It is not surprising that many young people say, "I don't really want to sweep a floor, be a post boy or a tea boy. Why should I?" The Labour party wants to offer them all sorts of concessions and bonuses to go on to even more useless training schemes, but then, at the age of 21, they will suddenly discover that they will not be offered any better job than they would have been offered at 16. They could have spent those five years advancing from being a post boy to being a young manager.
It is clear, therefore, that the key to all this is to ask young people what they want and to attract them into the apprenticeship schemes, which are right—and I congratulate the Government on introducing those newly enhanced apprenticeship schemes at this stage. The apprenticeship scheme is a tried and tested way. We abandoned it but we are returning to it. It must be the way forward to ensure that many more young people, when they consider what the world of work is going to offer them, see something more than simply going on a scheme that may or may not—many of their friends will have been on these schemes—lead them into a job. We should say to them, "The employer will take you on. You can continue your formal education by having sandwich courses, training courses and days off for college, but you are learning a skill that will get you a job." That is what young people's training and education is all about.
As can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I feel a certain amount of frustration today because I have been participating in these debates for about 20 years. There has been considerable advance—I congratulate the Government on the advances that they have made in the past 17 years—hut I acknowledge that it is incredibly difficult to turn a ship round when in it is midstream and going in the opposite direction.
For far too long, we had wishy-washy nonsense about trendy ways of teaching children in primary schools, idiotic ways of teaching children in secondary schools, and half-baked schemes for taking them off the streets through training schemes and training colleges. Young people do not want to do any of those things. They want to be motivated. Most of them have high expectations.
I will not accept from anyone, certainly not from Labour Members, that young people do not have aspirations because of their social background and their unfortunate circumstances. The majority of young people have a high expectation of what they can achieve. They may see others around them not achieving and they may think that it will be difficult, but take me to a young child who does not have a fairly optimistic view of what he or she can or cannot achieve.
If young children are not shown such optimism by schools, teachers and the people surrounding them, that is a problem that we need to deal with far better than whingeing in the House and in other places about the deprivations of people who do not have an opportunity in future. Young people have always been able to climb out of their backgrounds, provided we give them the right climate, the right opportunities in schools, and jobs. That is what the Government have been pursuing during their years in office. We should be shouting from the rooftops to youngsters throughout the country that there is a future for them and that we will ensure both the jobs, the adequate schooling and the right amount of training and apprenticeships for them so that they have job opportunities that are meaningful and that will take them on to a good standard of life.
My next-door neighbour from Mitcham and Morden made a considered speech. In what is likely to be her swan-song, she concentrated on education rather than on training. I shall focus on training. I shall also take up her remarks about deprivation's effects on opportunity, about which a little more needs to be said.
The Minister made large claims about the Government's achievements in education, training and young people's employment prospects. Few of those achievements are recognised by either young people or their parents. The charge against the Government, however, is not just one of ineffectiveness in the delivery of their policies on young people. The charge is one of deliberate and conscious neglect of their interests.
After all, this is the Government who scrapped minimum wage protection for 16 and 17-year-olds, who scrapped income support for the vast majority of them, who are the only Government in the European Union to oppose the directive against the exploitation of children and young people in employment, who, this year, will exclude 40,000 young people from gaining qualifications by clamping down on the 16-hour rule, and who, this year—incidentally, the Year of Lifelong Learning—are cutting £75 million from the training budget, on top of last year's cut of £200 million.
In few places in Britain is the Government's failure in employment and their failure in particular to equip young people for work more evident than in the part of south London that I represent. In the Streatham constituency, which includes part of Brixton, unemployment in general now stands at 16.3 per cent., well over twice the national average of 7.8 per cent., if we can believe that much massaged figure. One in three young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. On some estates in our inner-city wards, half of all young people are out of work. Among young black men under 25, unemployment is at 60 per cent.
For black people, and perhaps for young black men especially, the lack of education and training qualifications resulting from social disadvantage is compounded by discrimination in the job market. That was clearly shown in the Trades Union Congress report, entitled "Black and Betrayed", on the black experience of unemployment. When black people complete training programmes, their job prospects are worse than those of white people.
In 1993–94, although the proportion of white people going into jobs, on completion of the training for work programme, was only a disappointing 37 per cent., for black people, it was even lower at 26 per cent. That is why I welcome Labour's plan to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation in employment practices, as well as its commitment to work with ethnic minority groups to introduce training schemes aimed at unemployment in the ethnic minority population.
Unemployment, lack of opportunity and loss of prospects on the scale that I have described lead to frustration and despair for the many and alienation and violence for the few. I do not condone the disturbances which occurred in Brixton on the night of 13 December last year and which spread to my constituency. I was able roundly to condemn the vandalism and criminality at Prime Minister's Question Time the following day and I shall continue to do that.
I emphasise that black and white young people were involved in the Brixton disturbances and, of course, only a small minority of young people were involved. I do not suggest that social factors alone contribute to the climate in which such events can occur. We ought to understand the social conditions that form the background to such events and the challenge that they represent. Children growing up in many communities and estates in our inner cities are highly likely to be surrounded by unemployment and, often, by real poverty. It is likely that their relatives, elders and role models, especially in the ethnic communities, will be long-term unemployed.
In such an environment, where even those who have taken the trouble to gain qualifications are out of work, is it surprising that such youngsters have exceptionally low expectations and tend to regard education and training with scepticism? Even those who gain decent GCSE grades at 16 find it difficult to move straight into the job market. The avenue of apprenticeships, which were once an option for high-quality training for those wishing to enter employment, has been closed to most school leavers for a long time.
For those who find jobs at the age of 16, the work is likely to be low paid and insecure. Although the Government have deemed that 16 and 17-year-olds should be in work, studying or training, nearly one in five are out of work, and for those who have left work, high-quality training is difficult to obtain. In inner-city areas in particular, both the TECs and the regeneration projects have failed to provide adequate training for many of the groups that most need it. Drop-out rates are extremely high and the numbers achieving the required NVQs are low.
All those background factors combine to create a culture of non-work and hostility to training. The trouble is that once a young person has dropped out of training and the education system, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to clamber back on to the qualifications ladder at a later stage. After several years of unemployment, a young person in that position may come to the realisation that only a job can provide the decent standard of living that he seeks, and he may try to return to education and training. However, reliance on welfare may make that virtually impossible, especially if the person has dependants.
Such people may find that they lack the basic skills that are needed to pursue an educational course or may simply be deterred by the requirement to refresh their skills before embarking on study, thus adding time to the period that is already needed to gain a qualification. The alternatives are to find low-paid, insecure work or to continue to rely on benefits. Thus the cycle of hopelessness, aimlessness and dependency is resumed and moulds the next generation. It is vital to equip our young people with the incentives and skills that are needed to break out of that vicious circle.
The cost of not providing our young people with a decent start in life and a stake in the economy is £10 billion a year, which we pay in unemployment and other benefits and in crime. That is equivalent to 5p in the pound for every basic-rate taxpayer. We are abandoning a significant part of a generation, leaving them alienated and adrift with no stake in society, but with the same material aspirations as their contemporaries. I repeat that there is no excuse for lawbreaking, but that we are creating the conditions in which crime breeds, and the inner city is everywhere in our society.
The Government are failing, even by their own standards, to give our young people the education and training that they deserve. We count the cost of that failure in terms of the blighted lives of individuals, social collapse and economic inefficiency. An economy such as ours has no future unless it maximises the intellectual skills of all its citizens, yet Britain has fewer 16 and 17-year-olds in full-time education than any OECD country other than Turkey. The Minister squirmed when my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) put that to him. The Minister suggested that there were other activities that were suitable for many young people. I suppose that they are dead-end jobs and unemployment, and that this is another case in which the Government have got it right and the rest of the world has got it wrong.
How will the abolition of child benefit for 16 and 17-year-olds help to improve the figures?
It is bizarre that, for obvious, cheap scaremongering, the Conservative party is concentrating on a Labour party review that is designed to remove inequality in education and to assist low-income families and low-income young people to pursue education and training. In due course, we shall see the results of that extremely worthwhile activity. Until then, the hon. Gentleman will have to contain himself.
In Britain, only 59 per cent. of 17-year-olds remain in full-time education. That compares with 93 per cent. in Germany, 90 per cent. in Japan, 87 per cent. in France and 72 per cent. in the United States. They have all got it wrong, but we have obviously got it right. Every G7 country has more people in post-16 education than Britain, and by the age of 18, just 38 per cent. of young Britons are still in education.
It is perfectly clear that our training programmes are failing our young people. Only 46 per cent. of those who begin youth training complete the course. Nationally, only 64 per cent. achieve NVQ level 2 by the age of 19, but the Government's target is 85 per cent. This year in Centec, which covers my part of south London following the collapse of the South Thames TEC—
My hon. Friend correctly observes that it was a disastrous collapse. I understand that she is likely to speak about that if she is called.
This year in Centec, more than 3,000 students left youth training while fewer than 2,000 achieved NVQs. But a Department for Education and Employment survey in London last year found that a quarter of employers felt that there was a skills gap in their work forces and new entrants. Nationwide, the same survey found that concern about skills shortages had risen by 75 per cent. among companies compared with a year earlier.
It is clear that British employers are increasingly alarmed by our failure to create the skilled work force that we need to meet the new challenges of technology. To meet that need, the Labour party has launched the new Target 2000 guarantee, to ensure that every young person who can achieve it attains NVQ level 2 by the age of 19. We shall redeploy the funding of the failing youth training programme to support that initiative.
We aim to ensure that, by the year 2000, every young person stays in education post-16. We shall reform the benefit system by relaxing the 16-hour week to encourage part-time studies. We shall also encourage volunteering, by allowing those on benefits to establish contact with the job market and a routine of work. I believe that that is fundamental.
Work is a habit, which may be lost for ever if it is not acquired at a relatively early age. That is why we in the Labour party are so fearful for the prospects of that potentially lost generation of 600,000 unemployed between the ages of 16 and 25. For that reason, we are proposing our new deal for the under-25s, to be funded by the proceeds of a windfall tax on the excess profits of privatised utilities.
On offer will be a job with at least one day a week of training, leading to a vocational qualification; a job with the voluntary sector, combining training with a weekly wage equal to benefit plus a fixed sum; similarly funded, a job with the environmental task force, involving young people in the regeneration of neighbourhoods most ravaged by vandalism and giving them a stake in their local community; or the option of full-time education and training.
For the purposes of calculating the hon. Gentleman's proposed windfall tax—which, after the events of this week, is fast disappearing anyway—when is a profit an excess profit such that it is taxable in the way that he proposes?
When it emerges from a privatised monopoly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The events of this week have vindicated Labour's long-term claim that the privatised utilities were making money hand over fist in excess profits, so I make no apology for our commitment in that respect.
Labour in power will prioritise education and training, and the employment of the young. For the people whom I represent, and for our society and economy, there can be no higher priority. It is our only hope for the future.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this Government-inspired debate.
I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), for the fact that I am unable to stay for the winding-up speeches. I hope that my hon. Friend understands.
One of the few things that is agreed in all quarters of the House today is that young people are our great resource for the future. Although Eastbourne is rightly known as a delightful place to which one can retire, and about a third of my constituents are of retirement age, there are many and growing numbers of younger people in my constituency.
My job as the constituency Member is not only to secure things such as long-term health care for the elderly so that my older constituents can enjoy a long, happy and healthy active life, but to secure for my younger constituents, as far as I am able, a future of challenge, opportunity and fulfilment.
The latest figures show that about 75 16 to 18-year-olds are registered unemployed in Eastbourne. Of course, that is 75 too many, but it shows a substantial drop in unemployment in all sectors in my constituency in recent months, as is evidenced throughout the country—unemployment is at a five-year low. In Eastbourne, we have hovered around the 6 per cent. mark of unemployment, which is significantly better than other nearby towns.
Rightly, youth unemployment is at the heart of the debate. We are striving, as a Government, to reduce youth unemployment and to ensure that, when young people are unemployed, useful training is available to them. It must be said repeatedly that youth unemployment is much higher in the rest of Europe than in Britain. We all know, even if Opposition Members will not accept it, that youth unemployment will be especially badly hit by a national minimum wage, which the Labour party proposes.
A significant part of the local economy in Eastbourne is represented by hotels, restaurants and guest-houses, and the people who operate those businesses are adamant, when they speak to me, that a national minimum wage, far from enhancing employment, especially among the young, would have the opposite effect.
Other than France and Spain, which European countries have higher youth unemployment than the United Kingdom?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is a bit like saying that, were it not for the iceberg, the Titanic would have won the Blue Riband race. He rightly mentioned France and Spain. He asks us to ignore youth unemployment at 38.2 per cent. in Spain and to put to one side the embarrassing fact that in France, the statistic is 27.7 per cent.
I am preparing to answer it.
Let us also remember that in Italy, the figure is between those, and not very different—36.5 per cent.
Those are very substantial economies.
It is my contention that those unacceptable rates of youth unemployment are directly attributable to policies similar to those that the hon. Gentleman and his friends would introduce if they ever had the opportunity to do so.
In answer to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), the average of youth unemployment in all 15 member states of the European Union is nearly 21 per cent. The hon. Gentleman does not seem interested in averages, but that is the average. Youth unemployment in the United States of America is well below that level.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that penetrating intervention and his support.
Looking beyond the hotel industry and so on, a national minimum wage would have that effect. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) need not listen to me; he can listen to the Confederation of British Industry and other people who are even wiser on these matters than my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). We should not introduce a minimum wage, let alone the horrors of the social chapter—but that, perhaps, is for another day.
Our task as politicians is to ensure, as far as possible, that our young people find proper standards of education and training, not only for their personal fulfilment, but to allow the UK to compete effectively in the modern world.
I recently went to a meeting upstairs addressed by Mr. Bob Ayling of British Airways, who announced many hundreds—if not thousands—of new jobs for British Airways based in and around Gatwick, not too far from my constituency. One of the tragic things he said was that, because British Airways now requires people interviewed for posts as cabin staff to speak at least one foreign language fluently, it now has to recruit for some of those jobs in places such as Holland, simply because in this country we still have not cracked the problem of young people—
The hon. Gentleman confirms that he is, from a sedentary position—it is good of him to drop in on his way to Geneva, Brightside or wherever.
For very many years, we as a country have failed to persuade our young people to take one or more foreign languages. That is even more of a tragedy in the context of the runaway success of a great privatised British company, in the shape of British Airways.
Hon. Members may have seen the youth cohort study that shows that now more than half of the children of unskilled workers remain in full-time education after their 16th birthday. We, as a country, are spending about £3.5 billion on further education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds.
Tomorrow, I shall visit the Eastbourne college of arts and technology in my constituency, which does excellent work, as does Park college, in providing a range of courses for these young people.
I shall say a word or two about the excellent work of Sussex Enterprise, which was brought about by the merger of the Sussex chamber of commerce and Sussex training and enterprise council. I pay tribute to the work of Alan Caffyn, Ken Caldwell, the chief executive and his staff. Sussex Enterprise works closely with the careers centre in Eastbourne. It has funded a job ready course at GrandMet Trust and Eastbourne college of art and technology, a job club for young people and an enhanced careers guidance and placement programme. It is intimately involved in the delivery of the successful 1994 single regeneration budget challenge fund, where Eastbourne won a significant amount of Government funding to deal with an array of problems in the constituency. It is focusing on the needs of young people as they enter the labour market in Eastbourne. There is special focus on two town centre wards—Devonshire and Upperton, where unemployment and multiple occupation are particularly prevalent.
I am told that in Sussex as a whole about 4,800 people are involved in job skills modern apprenticeship training, of whom about 10 per cent. train in the Eastbourne travel-to-work area. More than 90 per cent. of trainees who complete their NVQs are in work when they leave the programme, which is an excellent achievement. Leading companies such as Llewellyn the builders and Caffyn, which is a distributor of motor vehicles, have direct training contacts with Sussex Enterprise. It is estimated that another 300 local companies of all sizes are involved in offering jobs and training placements, but more are needed.
Only the other day, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), visited my constituency. Among other things, he was able to see two modern apprentices at work at Johnson Pumps, where training is making a difference to the company as well as to the young people.
I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will forgive me if I mention the figures for children staying on at school that prevailed between 1974 and 1978. I do so not for purely party political advantage, but simply because there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of the current trends, which has, I fear, brought about the recent disastrous policy announcement by the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). When the Labour party was last in power, 80 per cent. of the children of unskilled parents left school at 16, but that is no longer the case. Sadly, at the John Smith memorial lecture on Friday 19 April this year, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East claimed that 80 per cent. of the children of unskilled parents leave school at 16. That was true between 1974 and 1978, when Labour was last in power, but it is no longer true.
I intervened during the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) to ask whether he accepted that the shadow Chancellor's claim was an error. The hon. Gentleman gave a rather wordy response, but I think that the basic thrust of his answer was yes. It has to be accepted that that was a fundamental error in Labour policy planning.
Some 72 per cent. of children over the age of 16 stay on in education. All young people are guaranteed a place on the youth training scheme. Some 90 per cent. of 16-year-olds, 80 per cent. of 17-year-olds and 60 per cent. of 18-year-olds are now in full-time education or training. Those facts matter—particularly as they undermine the shadow Chancellor's recent policy announcement on child benefit, which has been raised in several interventions.
We heard from the shadow Chancellor that child benefit was to be removed for children between the ages of 16 and 17. According to my figures, 1 million families currently receive child benefit for 1.1 million children in that age range. As child benefit is set at £10.80 a week for the first child, that means that a family would lose £560 a year, or the equivalent of 5p in the pound. It is no wonder that the shadow Chancellor's announcement was criticised by people from across the board, including Sally Witcher, director of the Child Poverty Action Group. At the heart of the policy announcement is the fact that it would bear hardest on the less well-off parents of children who are currently at school. One quarter of families receiving child benefit for children aged 16 and over are on income-related benefits.
What has caused that massive confusion at the heart of Labour's education and social policy? We all know that, with a great fanfare, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), whose seat I once had the honour of fighting, was dispatched by the Leader of the Opposition to go off for six months and think the unthinkable. However, barely had he returned and unpacked his bags from wherever he had been—
No sooner had the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury returned and unpacked his bags than we were told that, after six months of intense concentration, he had come to the firm conclusion that the subject was all very difficult and should be referred to a royal commission. He had barely made that pronouncement when his hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, apparently with no reference to him, announced out of the blue proposals to withdraw child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds. That policy would have precisely the effect that I described: the £560 could make all the difference for less well-off families; it could determine whether their child or children would stay in full-time education or go straight into the job market.
However, all was not lost. Today's Government-inspired debate has given us the opportunity to put the puzzling question to the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton. He promised several times during his address that he would return to the question how he was to deal with the policy of removing £560 from people, particularly less well-off families. After some pressure from my hon. Friends, we have at last received a definitive statement on Labour policy. The Labour party is developing a review on the subject. I do not know quite what that means—it might be one of our old friends, a royal commission, rearing its ugly head. I think that it means, "We do not know the answer and we have been caught out."
I hope that my hon. Friend is not being misled. Perhaps we are thinking of the wrong sort of review and perhaps the Labour party is developing a song-and-dance act to celebrate.
My hon. Friend may be right—we are in the looking-glass world of Labour policy formulation.
One thing we know is that the policy announced—apparently without reference to those involved with social policy in the Labour party—was based on a fundamental misapprehension of the statistics and of the true, modern numbers of unskilled workers' children staying on at school. That announcement caused a furore, particularly as everyone who thought about it for more than 10 seconds realised that it would disproportionately affect the less well-off.
All that we have heard today is that the Labour party is developing a review. The Labour party knows that it made a mistake; it does not know how to get out of it, so for the moment, everything is on hold. That is disappointing. It is a disgrace and an insult to the House that the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton has come here today, knowing that that would be the question on the lips of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and fundamentally failed to address it.
As many hon. Members have said, to have a debate now on the education and training of 16 to 19-year-olds is extremely important and timely. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) is not in her place at present as I have often been critical of her contributions in the Chamber. She made an extremely helpful and thoughtful contribution to the debate. I did not agree entirely with her remarks about A-levels, but I agreed with the rest of her speech. I think that her final point was one of the most critical made in this Chamber for a long time. She referred to the importance of having high expectations of young people. Sadly, I believe that we often do not expect enough of them. Young people often have high expectations and we fail them by not matching our expectations with theirs.
I am interested in the way in which the debate has concentrated on the issue of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds and has not been hijacked by a debate on the Labour party's extremely confused and confusing position regarding child benefit. I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who said that that aspect of Labour policy was not clarified today. I intend to raise another query about Labour policy later in my speech. Perhaps it is helpful if I place firmly on the record my party's commitment to the continuation of child benefit.
It is a little rich for the hon. Member for Eastbourne to criticise any party for reviewing any policy area. After all, the debate has highlighted the clear inadequacies of the Government's policies in respect of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds. The Government could offer no clear proposals and they were forced to appoint Sir Ron Dearing to conduct a review. The policies regarding further and higher education are also in a mess. The Government are not willing to explain to the electorate how they will solve that problem. They have put that whole policy area "on hold"—to use the hon. Gentleman's words—until Mr. Fixit, Sir Ron Dearing, conducts a review. We should not be unduly critical of reviews of policy areas. However, I hope that the Labour party will clarify its position soon.
No one takes exception to the idea of a review. The Labour party's fundamental error was to pre-empt the results of the review by announcing that it would abolish child benefit for 16 and 17-year-olds without announcing also a replacement for it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but he does not go far enough. The biggest problem was that certain Labour Members said one thing and, almost immediately, other Labour Members said another. That confused us even more than if the Labour party had gone in one direction and then changed its stance.
Today's debate is important because it has highlighted two problems in this country. We are well aware of the figures—they were repeated on many occasions in many different places—in the world competitiveness report. The report ranked our work force 24th in the world in terms of skill levels. Our education system came 35th out of 48 countries in terms of adequacy. That result was achieved after 17 years of Conservative government. It must be clear to us all that, if we are to halt the decline and to succeed in the increasingly global market, we must invest more in our most important resource: the people of this country. We must ensure that every individual can achieve his or her potential.
It would be foolish to say that there have been no changes or improvements. However, on the whole, the Government have failed to make the improvements that the country needs desperately. The hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen)—who is no longer in his place—let the cat out of the bag in a telling intervention when he conceded that education standards in this country have slipped. That is a real condemnation of a Government who have been in power for so long.
Other figures demonstrate that failure also. In 1995, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that 64 per cent. of this country's work force have no vocational qualifications. The similar figures are 27 per cent. in Germany and 23 per cent in Switzerland. The institute found also that qualifications and education and training of the work force were a major determining factor in the companies' results. For example, in Germany about 90 per cent. of those who work on the shop floor in the woodworking industry have a relevant vocational qualification. In this country, the figure is only 10 per cent. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the output per person in that industry is 2.3 times higher in Germany than in this country. The skills and qualifications of the work force are critical to the productivity, and hence the economic success, of this country. I do not think that the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) will dispute that point.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is dangerous to make international comparisons of that sort, because he is comparing apples with pears? Vocational qualifications differ between countries. If the levels of vocational qualifications are higher in one country than in another, obviously fewer people will achieve those qualifications.
The hon. Gentleman might have an interesting and a valid point if he had listened to the figure that I gave earlier: 64 per cent. of the work force in this country have no vocational qualifications. We could argue about the value of certain vocational qualifications between nations: I accept that there are differences. However, we are seeking to establish the broad principle that high-quality vocational qualifications are critical to this country's productive output. We are lagging a long way behind other competitor nations.
Many hon. Members have referred to statistics regarding the stay-on rate and so on. It is important to recognise that the stay-on rate in this country has increased. The hon. Member for Eastbourne said that 72 per cent. of 16-year-olds now stay on at school. My figure is slightly higher at 75 per cent., but it matters not. That figure is higher still in other countries—particularly those of our European competitors. However, there is a worrying trend that hon. Members have not identified: those who choose to stay on in education at age 16 do not often remain for long. By the ages of 17 and 18, there is a rapid reduction in the number of people who remain in education compared with the position in other European countries.
That is an important point. At the Rotherham college of arts and technology the enrolment rate is high, but so too is the drop-out rate. Up to 56 per cent. of students drop out of many courses after six months. I wonder whether the Government statistics for enrolments take into account the drop-out rate also.
The statistics show clearly that only 55 per cent. of 17-year-olds are in full-time education, compared with 87 per cent. in France and 93 per cent. in Germany. By age 18, the percentage has dropped still further. We could argue about the statistics, but I hope that all hon. Members will agree that there is real cause for concern.
The problem has been around for a long time. While looking at some old reports, I came across that of the royal commission on secondary education from 1895–101 years ago. I apologise for the sexist nature of the report's language, but it is appropriate to the time. The report states:
The educational opportunities offered to boys and girls who do not proceed to universities, but leave school at 16, are still far behind the requirements of our time. The disadvantages from which young Englishmen suffer in industry and commerce owing to the superior preparation of their competitors in several countries of continental Europe are real.
The same point has been made today, 101 years later. We shall succeed only if there is a radical overhaul of the courses and qualification framework for those aged 16 to 19—or even for those aged 14 to 19. We shall end the damaging academic and vocational divide only if we acknowledge the need for increased investment in education and training.
Hon. Members have referred to Sir Ron Dearing's review. My party welcomes many of his recommendations. However, we have some reservations, as do all hon. Members. Perhaps our biggest reservation relates to A-levels, which were mentioned by the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, among others. Perhaps because of the over-prescriptive remit of his review, Sir Ron Dearing has recommended retaining the title A-level. We are concerned that the title A-level, which the right hon. Lady referred to as a gold standard and the Minister described as the anchor point for academic courses, may inhibit the true parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses and qualifications. We are worried that the retention of that title and everything that it stands for may continue the practice whereby far too many young people embark on A-level courses that are inappropriate or too narrow for their requirements.
That said, we welcome Sir Ron's approach to the development of a qualifications framework based on different levels. Particularly with the new badging arrangements that he mentioned, it will enable the 16,000 or so qualifications that currently exist to be recognised and valued by society more quickly than, sadly, has been the case with GNVQs. The progress envisaged by Sir Ron Dearing may well be helped by a reduction in the number of qualifications available and the amalgamation of a number of the boards responsible for them. I very much welcome the Government's review on the potential amalgamation of the SCAA and NCVQ.
It is crucial that the proposed framework can form the basis for building on the work that has already been done on course modularisation and the development of credit accumulation and transfer. That would allow people to build up credits towards various qualifications in a way that focuses on their successes rather than their failures. It would also enable them to enter and leave the system at various times. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said that people need to be able to enter and leave the system of education and training in accordance with their specific needs and perhaps those of their employers. That is why a modular, credit-based system with a clear framework will be so important.
Mention has already been made—perhaps too briefly by some other hon. Members—of the importance of guidance. It is an incredibly complicated system and it is vital that we provide clear, easily available guidance to young people who are trying to find their way through it. That guidance must be disinterested; it must not be biased or unavailable from any of the providing organisations in education and training.
I should mention another issue on which I have slight qualms about Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations. Following my intervention in her speech, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden appeared to agree with me. It concerns the key or core skills that Sir Ron Dearing said every young person must have. He stressed three: communication—including oracy—the application of numbers and information technology. Employers are telling me that they require three more—that all young people should have the skills of self-development, problem solving and working with others. If we are to prepare young people for the world of work, we should incorporate those additional skills in our long-term planning.
The Government have displayed a certain smug satisfaction about Sir Ron Dearing's proposals and a failure to remember that Sir Ron was brought in to make proposals to get us out of the present difficult mess that—to a large extent—is of the Government's own making. Surely no one could deny that we have a real problem with the range of youth training schemes—youth training, youth credits and modern apprenticeships. The youth training scheme has not been a success, with its wholly unacceptable completion rate of under 50 per cent.
The Government cannot simply blame others. The hon. Member for Shoreham wanted to blame the teachers and left-wing trendy LEAs. The present failure must be placed at the door of the Government, not least because of their simple failure to increase the funding of courses in line with inflation. Training providers are expected to do more with less money. It is hardly surprising that so many disaffected young people—pre and post-16—have dropped out of full-time education and desperately need to be persuaded that there is something else worth doing. Currently, that something else is simply not available.
The Government have withdrawn money from the training and enterprise councils—£200 million last year and a further £70 million this year. They have squeezed local education authorities so hard that many do not have sufficient funds to provide discretionary awards. The introduction of a market-driven system in further education has led to a dog-eat-dog approach which is setting colleges against each other. That, combined with the funding cuts, has put a large percentage of further education colleges into serious financial difficulties.
Let me briefly digress into a subject that is most important to the education of that age group. The morale of staff in further education colleges is very low. Not only do they have to work with larger groups of students and shortages of books and equipment in increasingly ramshackle buildings, but they have to cope with constantly changing demands, the new employment contracts that have been imposed and uncertainties about funding arrangements as battles rage between local education authorities where schools plan to reintroduce sixth forms and the Further Education Funding Council.
The large number of part-time lecturers in further education also have to cope with growing uncertainty in respect of employment protection rights due to the influx of agency agreements with organisations such as the Education Lecturers Service.
The Liberal Democrats have expressed our clear commitment to increase investment in education. We have said clearly that, if necessary, we would raise the level of income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for it. We have acknowledged that increased expenditure cannot pay for everything and that we have to be clear about where we plan to spend the money. We know that it cannot be spent more than once—I shall return to that in respect of the Labour party's proposals.
We have made it clear that some of the extra money—and we have described in detail how we would spend it—was spent on the education of 16 to 19-year-olds' ensuring// that, whether or not they were in work, a minimum of two days' a week education or training was made available to them. We recently announced our policies for the establishment of individual learning accounts, which would have money put into them by the state, employers—most important—and individual learners. We would encourage employers to make their contribution, although many already do, through a 2 per cent. remissible levy. We have stressed the importance of restoring benefit entitlement to 16 to 18-year-olds not in work, education or training, and of companies listing in their accounts the details of the money that they have spent on training. We have emphasised the importance of companies including in contracts of employment a commitment to training for their employees.
Those measures would boost training, encourage rather than deter young people of post-compulsory school age to continue their studies and overcome some of the problems created by the Government.
The Government's problems are not unique. We have seen in recent days that Labour has a number of problems of its own in respect of training. Many of us are extremely surprised at the way in which the Labour and Conservative parties increasingly seem to be coming together on issues such as compulsion. The Labour party seems to believe that people do not want to enter further education or training and will have to be compelled. There appears to be a growing belief among Labour Members of the need for benefit sanctions. We have seen a particular problem in relation to child benefit in recent days—
The hon. Gentleman says that my remarks are cheap, but it was rich of the Labour party to hold a press conference recently at which the smiling faces did not hide the chasm between Labour Members on child benefit. [HON. MEMBERS: "You should go and join them."] Labour Members say that I should join the Conservatives. I am making the point that the thinking of the Labour and Conservative parties is so similar on some issues that only the Liberal Democrats have distinctive, different policies and a real commitment to explaining how the money for them will be found.
Labour's proposals will be funded by, for example, the removal of child benefit—which as my noble Friend Lord Russell said in the other place the other day, is like robbing Peter to educate Paul. Two thirds of the cost of Labour's proposals for Target 2000 would be funded by a windfall tax. We all know that a windfall tax comes only once, and when it has been spent it will not be there for further years. We know what Labour would do in year one, but when the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) winds up, I hope that he will say what his Government would do in year two. It will also be interesting to hear from him how Labour will deliver Target 2000. Normally, politicians make all sorts of promises but fail to say from where the money will come. In this case, Labour has stated neither its intentions nor the source of the funding—just that it will set a target.
The hon. Member for Wallsend will forgive me for reminding him that in a television programme on which he and I appeared yesterday, he was asked whether Target 2000 would be delivered by further education colleges or TECs but was unable to answer.
For the sake of accuracy, my reply was that we want a diversity of providers, which could include further education colleges, training and enterprise councils, the private sector or employers in the workplace. We will not be prescriptive. We want quality provision, from wherever it might come.
I am sure that the House is grateful for that detailed clarification.
If this country is to succeed in the increasingly global market, it is vital that improvements are made and that all young people are given the high-quality education and training to which my party is committed. The Government have rightly accepted many of Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations, which we hope will make some improvements, and the Labour party is beginning to develop some policies—although it has not explained the details or funding methodology. My party does have a clear set of policies, and we have said how much they will cost and from where the money will come. That is the sort of honesty for which the people of this country are looking. We will wait for the other parties to develop their policies, then tell the country what they are and how much they will cost.
I declare an interest as a trustee of Community Service Volunteers, which is a major provider of training for youngsters with special needs in particular. As my hon. Friend the Minister has probably been briefed, I have on behalf of CSV been locked in a battle with his Department for six or seven months because of the inadvertent damage done by the Government to voluntary sector providers. My hon. Friend will be relieved to know that I intend to glance at that subject only tangentially today.
We are talking about boys and girls, men and women—not just about figures and percentages. It is important to recognise that—as the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) said—an increasing number of 16 to 18-year-olds are damaged people. The number of pre-16 exclusions is growing at a worrying rate. If one is sufficiently damaged, one cannot learn anything. Twenty per cent. of 16-year-olds do not achieve even level G, which is the average of an 11 or 12-year-old, in their English or mathematics GCSEs—which means that something like 200,000 youngsters are excluded from hope.
That is a form of robbery. The proposition that people should be forced by law to spend five days a week for about eight months a year for 11 years of their lives under compulsion and emerge with absolutely nothing is a scandal. It is no use viewing that in isolation. The tax system, for example, should be rethought to encourage household stability. Primary schools should teach reading, writing and numeracy linked to information technology.
One of the most scandalous features of the education system has been the extraordinary resistance for a long time by the educational establishment to the Government's long-overdue reform of making schools publish their examination results. Now that that is done, we have a powerful instrument to single out schools that appear not to deliver the goods. It is reasonable to ask them the reason. It may be that a school's intake is of such difficulty that it requires additional resources to meet its obligations, but it is not right that a school should be allowed to get away with poor results. I welcome the Government's tightening up of the inspection system, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to fall victim to something that has done more damage to this country's education system over the past 40 years than anything else—taking the fashion in teaching at the time and forcing it on every teacher and school.
As anyone who has ever taught knows, the fact is that different teachers teach in different ways and get results by differences of personality and technique. Some will teach by talking and talking, and do it very well and with great success. Others will teach in small groups and do it very well and with great success. It should be for teachers as professionals to choose how they deliver results. It should be for the Government to demand that those results are delivered.
I sometimes wonder what schools ask of teachers at their annual appraisals, because there are far too many teachers who started on a weak wicket, have been allowed to deteriorate and are now delivering a standard of teaching that demoralises them. They know that they are not enjoying it or doing it well, and that they need to be recovered.
It is also important to remember that self-respect for young people is essential. If a significant number of young people cannot earn that self-respect through work—as is likely to be the case for a considerable time still to come, however well the economy performs—they should be able to earn it through service to others. I have urged that for years, and I am disappointed—actually, I am ambivalent—to read that the Labour party will bring in a form of community service, and that it will be benefit-plus. As I understand the proposition, instead of saying to young people, "If you do voluntary work, you put your benefits at risk," it will state—as I have urged for many years—"You should get a slight enhancement of any benefit to which you are entitled while you are doing worthwhile approved voluntary work, because of what it does for you." I am sorry that I have failed all these years to persuade my party to make a commitment like that. If the Labour party has stolen clothes that we have refused to pick up off the bank, I can say only that I am also sorry about that.
Many young people in the 16 to 19-year-old age group have come from the type of household and home that has given them absolutely no model of how to create a stable household of their own. It is tremendously important for us to prepare young people for marriage, for setting up a household and for household responsibilities. There is huge scope for making use of concerned adults as voluntary mentors. We should try to do that.
I also believe—this is the only point at which I revert to my long battle with the Department—that the Government should value established teams, which have a fine record of results in working with people who present particular difficulties, and that everything should be done to improve their position. The current position, which I agree has happened inadvertently, is that they have been put at huge financial risk by the way in which changes in training for hard-to-train youngsters have worked out in practice.
I very much admire, respect and welcome the fact that the Government have begun to eliminate a number of the old boundaries. Nothing could be more expressive of that than the combination of the old Department of Employment with the Department of Education and Science. There have for far too long been artificial barriers between the academic and the vocational routes into training and into employment.
The development of the national vocational qualification has been an enormous success. I take issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) in one respect. I believe that employers are quite rapidly beginning to recognise its value, and they are not nearly as confused as she suggested. It is very interesting that 90 per cent. of employers are prepared to employ on the basis of an NVQ gained in a different workplace. That says a great deal for NVQs, although I should tell her that they are still much too complex and that the assessment, which was quite properly done with tremendous care so that it would be credible against other academic routes, has gone over the top.
We should not pull up everything by the roots again. Many young people have good stories to tell about youth training, for example. We should go for incremental change. I believe that the Labour party's proposition of calling everything by new names and starting it all again from scratch—the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested the same thing—is a mistake. We have spent far too many years pulling things up by the roots, giving them different names and confusing young people, employers and teachers. For goodness' sake, let us try to get them to grow incrementally.
We should also be careful not to let the school agenda dominate. What are the real-life goals of many of the youngsters who re-sit GCSEs and expect to get a very low grade, if they succeed in getting any grade? Many of them would be very much better occupied out there in the workplace. I believe that we undervalue the self-confidence, the communication skills and the other enhancements that 16-year-olds get from their Saturday job in Tesco. Those are important, too.
As the debate has shown, the need for action is urgent. By 2001, only 11 per cent. of jobs are likely to be unskilled or semi-skilled. Some 4 per cent. of graduates are unemployed, whereas 16 per cent. of the unskilled are unemployed. Self-employment has almost doubled since 1979, and part-time employment has increased by almost 75 per cent. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), is on the Front Bench, not only because I know that he is interested and committed to this issue but because it is terribly important that the Department of Social Security takes part in this debate.
I give my hon. Friend the Minister one suggestion. It is high time to alter the pension rules. It is absurd that it is so difficult for older workers to cut back gradually. A great many people in their 50s would very much like to be able to work three days a week and to have a job share or something similar but cannot do so because, if they did, they would put their pensions at risk.
Another absurdity is that it is not possible for people who are working part time—for whatever reason, whether at an early stage because they have children, or at a later stage because they want to work less hard—and who have the means to pay to make up the contributions to receive a full old-age pension. That is nonsense, because more avenues of employment for young people would be opened if older people were allowed to let decline the amount of time they work rather than having to cut themselves off altogether or continuing to work when they are weary.
We ought to recognise that virtually all employment is equally valid. There is a tendency when talking about policy to say that health care is a burden, yet health and its allied occupations are one of the fastest-growing employment areas. That sort of work also appeals to many young people—
Yes, it also appeals to young people in Australia. Garages which maintain vehicles are not regarded as a burden on the state, yet the health service, which is engaged in maintaining human beings and returning them to work, is regarded rather differently.
One of the Minister's colleagues said recently in Edinburgh that it is vital to use the new technologies for those currently excluded by the system. There is a danger of using them only to enhance the prospects of those who are already secure in their training or employment. We need to ensure that the enormous opportunities for self-improvement that the new technologies offer are used by young people who are not especially successful.
The Government should be proud of the fact that the TECs are at last beginning to bed down. At Kent TEC, 3,880 young people achieved NVQs last year. Kent's target for modern apprenticeships is 1,936 starts this year, and we also have the first transnational youth work qualification, which is being set up with the assistance of the European Union.
The Labour party has produced a document containing some excellent ideas. It is, for instance, right that there should be no penalty for voluntary work or for part-time study. One of the absurdities of the present system is that people who do more than 16 hours of study a week put their benefits at risk. That is a mistake.
A lot of Labour's rhetoric, however, is pretty empty. At a press conference, the leader of the Labour party said:
We will show how we can provide jobs for the 265,000 people aged 18 to 25 who have been unemployed for more than six months.
Well, show us. Then there are Labour's destructive proposals for a windfall tax on the utilities, proposed by the shadow Chancellor. Such a tax will affect either the amount of money that the utilities invest—an amount that the Labour party continually says is not enough—or investor confidence, with consequent effects for the price of shares and for the ability of the utilities to operate effectively. It will also affect jobs—the very jobs which the Labour party claims it is raiding the utilities to provide.
I want to end with a word about child benefit. Anyone who wants to trace the evolution of new Labour from old Labour could not find a more satisfactory route than the one offered by child benefit. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), a Labour Front-Bench spokesman, has said:
the one universal, most effective and most important instrument for the alleviation of child poverty
is child benefit. He continued:
Labour will restore the cuts in child benefit because that is right, just and long overdue."—[Official Report, 6 June 1990; Vol. 173, c. 726.]
Next, that stalwart of the shadow Cabinet, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), said:
By letting child benefit wither on the vine, is it not manifest that the Government still have no family policy worth the name? Uprating child benefit for all children … is the litmus test of commitment to the family".—[Official Report, 24 October 1990; Vol. 178, c. 354.]
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short), another Labour Front-Bench spokesperson—for how long we are not sure—said:
The erosion of child benefit traps
people on low incomes
into poverty. It also deprives women of income. Giving the money to mothers ensures that it is spent on children."—[Official Report, 3 April 1990; Vol. 170, c. 1138.]
The hon. Gentleman must understand that the idea that has been launched is not to remove child benefit per se, but to take a look at child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds in order to target that part of welfare more directly. I believe that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern about the lost generation. If we want to help those people, we shall have to find the money somewhere—and giving child benefit to the mothers of children who go to the hon. Gentleman's old school is perhaps not the best way of arranging matters.
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a paragon of new Labour. The media, and sometimes even a few doubting Thomases on the Conservative Benches, occasionally question the extent to which new Labour differs from old Labour. I should have thought that the Labour party would welcome the clear demonstration of the yawning gulf between old and new Labour characterised by the quotations that I have just offered the House.
The subject of 16 to 19-year-olds is one of the most important that faces our nation. It involves the whole question of how we create a society in which, under all the pressures of modern life and the fragmentation of households, young people can enter school and enter training sufficiently self-confident in themselves to be able to take full advantage of those opportunities.
I shall end with a plug for what we shall do next Wednesday, when some 800 people will go to Coventry cathedral for a day of discussion, with the assistance of young people themselves, about the kind of world in which they are growing up and in which they want to grow up. I hope that that occasion will send a message to the nation. If we do not look after our young, we are looking after nothing.
First, I wish to inform the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that working with others and decision making are core skills that are included in GNVQs. We may need a little more publicity to let employers know what is included in GNVQs.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) mentioned average European youth unemployment. Did he mean the arithmetic mean, the median or the mode? If he told us which he meant, he would clarify his point. Most people tend to mean the arithmetic mean by the average, but the median is a more honest approach to averages. Let us not confuse one another, because another part of the core skills is numeracy.
I was quoting from Government statistics—well, the source is Eurostat, so I am not sure that they are Government statistics—and they are based on the International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment. It gives the figures as Spain, 38.2 per cent.; Italy 36.5 per cent.; France 27.7 per cent.; and the United Kingdom, 15.7 per cent. As I said, the average is 20.8 per cent., and that shows how good the United Kingdom's record is.
But which average is that? The arithmetic mean distorts the average, and people should use the median. What is the median figure and how does the UK compare with that? If the median is not in the statistics, it should be there in future.
One of the reasons why I attended the debate today is a letter from a group of my constituents—small business men—called the M42 Breakfast Business Club. They wrote to me because they have discussed a document issued by the Government office for the west midlands, and they wished to comment on it. The document shows that the west midlands today falls below the national average for manufacturing output. That area used to be called the workshop of Britain. When the Government came to office, that area was the manufacturing heartland, but it is now below the average.
The business club brought to my attention the widespread skill shortage and the related shortfall in education and training opportunities. Those small business men point out that they want to try to increase inward investment. Surprisingly, the west midlands has a strong tourism industry, but as a potential site for inward commercial investment it is very poor. My constituents are most concerned about the shortage of skills and disappointing educational achievements of young people. Several members of the business club give examples of experiences in their companies when they have not been able to find appropriately skilled personnel. They find that youngsters have low levels of basic education and expectancy problems. The business men are worried that if there is no improvement in the situation, the skills level of their manpower will continue to fall.
A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with the Further Education Funding Council. The FEFC's view of Britain and our work force is that we face a future of short-term, casual employment in which individuals invest in their own human capital and improve their own skills base. Anyone worth his salt will know that in business it is unacceptable to take an order and promise to deliver, only to find that the work force is too small to enable the production to take place. Unfortunately, that often happens these days. The future for our industry lies in a highly skilled and efficient work force. Against that background, it is possible to take orders and deliver. That is what we should be working towards.
Many companies in my constituency are extremely small. They represent, however, the sector from which growth will come. They are so small that they cannot assemble a training programme for themselves. They look to the local college to put on such a programme. They will be prepared to take someone on and send him to the college one day a week to improve his skills level.
British industry has relied for so long upon "sitting next to Nelly" as a training initiative. That is fine as long as Nelly knows the job. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years we have seen the demise of our skills base. Employees have been leaving industry, including members of our skilled work force. The youngsters who are going into industry can no longer learn from their peers. Lack of skill is placing our industrial base in a crisis. The Government still seem not to understand what is happening.
Schoolteachers are dedicated to their profession and should be applauded. Anyone who reads the report of my speech should thank his or her teacher for that ability to read. I do not know of a harder-working or more skilled group than our teachers. I would not do their job, even for a Member's pay. Most teachers earn nothing like that which we are paid.
We know that many youngsters are staying on at school. Far more are doing so than 20 years ago, for example. But 20 years ago, they had the opportunity to get a job. Unfortunately, jobs are no longer available for them. As a result, more youngsters are staying on. They believe that in so doing, they will enhance their opportunities in future to find employment.
We have been told that 72 per cent. of youngsters are staying on at school, but we have not been told about the social class factor. The lower a family's income level, the greater the pressure on youngsters to leave school to find a job. I remember one of the students whom I taught a few years ago. She is just about to complete her course. She prepared a CV for a university, but did not submit it. I discovered that since 15 years of age, she had been getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning and spending two hours cleaning the local supermarket before getting ready for school. I asked her why she had not submitted her CV. She told me that she felt ashamed because she had had to do early-morning cleaning work. I concluded immediately that anyone who knew what she had been doing would invite her for an interview. Such dedication can only be applauded. There are so many young people with that dedication.
I know of students who have had to leave courses, especially A-level courses, because they had no grant. They moved to a youth training scheme because that brought money into the family. Income is a vital ingredient for young people who continue on a 16-to-19 education programme.
I have never worked in a school, but I worked for many years in further education colleges. I have recent experience. The FE work force is probably more demoralised and demotivated now than ever before. That is partly because of incorporation, marketing, structuring and replacing A-level courses with general national vocational qualifications. It is also because colleges have become businesses. To get money in, they have to get people in, so in many colleges, no matter who walks through the door, the answer is, "Yes, we have a course for you," whether the course is appropriate or not. People are maintained on the course as long as possible, because the college is paid for delivery of the course. It then receives 15 per cent. of the money for the outcome. So if the student gains a qualification at the end of the course, the college is paid again.
The hon. Gentleman is on to an important point. It is a point that one hears frequently. I would regard an FE college as poorly managed if what the hon. Gentleman describes were the grounds on which it recruited people.
The hon. Gentleman talks about short-termism. If that is the way in which colleges recruit people, they will have a huge turnover of students who are not motivated to pursue their particular course, because they were put on it inappropriately. In the end, the reputation of such colleges will nosedive. But FE colleges that are trying desperately hard to drive up their standards will be in the business a great deal longer than the rest.
Yes, the college that drives up its standards will be in business when the rest have gone to the wall. The trouble is that it is very much short-termism. The college's money comes in in September and it has to meet its bills month on month.
If we are to look at facts and figures, we should consider the fall-out rate. About 50 per cent. of students do not complete the course in the first year. That is the truth. We should consider what qualifications are gained. Colleges are paid for every qualification. NVQ level 1 WB—warm and breathing—is well known. No doubt we could put some hon. Members down for it. Students gain that qualification because it is at such a low level, and if a college puts a certain number of students in for it, there is no difficulty.
If hon. Members go to British universities and ask about the quality of their intake, they will get a surprise. It is estimated that 25 per cent. of students in British universities today are not capable of undertaking the course on which they enrolled. They do not have the basic skills or qualifications. In many universities, the first term is spent pushing the students up to the starting level, but the universities must take the students, because without them they will not receive money. The system is money-driven. That is the problem. Unless we take the market-centred, money-driven aspect out of education for 16 to 19-year-olds, it will be doomed to failure. We must ensure quality provision in education and training. We must make it obligatory that employers send their youngsters to colleges or to take up training places in institutions that are recognised as providers of a quality, distinctive qualification.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with Sir Ron Dearing that the A-level must be the gold standard? If the efficacy of the A-level is reduced, we shall reduce still further the standard of education of our youngsters when they enter university. Will he resist the blandishments of some of his hon. Friends who believe that the curriculum should be broadened, thereby reducing the standard of A-levels?
If the hon. Gentleman believes that there is a dividing line between academic and vocational studies that cannot be crossed, he does not understand about subjects such as physics, science or computing. They are academic disciplines that are vocationally oriented. There is an intermix. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, it is not the breadth but the standard that we should worry about. So long as that standard is maintained across the disciplines, it does not matter whether the subject is vocational or academic. That is the problem that we have got ourselves into.
Sir Ron Dearing is right to say that there should be a well-known, widely accepted standard, but we should make sure that all our youngsters have the opportunity to reach that standard. Some young people do not do well with the academic-style A-level approach. They are much better with a hands-on, more vocational approach, which is more understandable to them and within which they can reach the same standard. Computing, science and physics are perfect examples. So long as we look constantly to improve the quality and inspectors are there to monitor it, we shall do well.
We must give young people the opportunity to study to A-level standard because, make no mistake about it, many of them must consider work in order to bring income into the family. We must put a procedure and system in place to allow youngsters to maximise their ability. That is what it is about. Without that, we shall suffer in the next century. We can achieve that, but it needs a bit more will. I am not sure that the Government have the will to implement that programme in Britain today.
If Labour Members, whether on the Front Bench or the Back Bench, are serious about forming a Government in the foreseeable future, they will have to do much better than they have today. I should like to refer to just two quotations from Hansard. The first comes from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who said during a debate on child benefit:
It was a Labour Government who brought in child benefit and, for the reasons that I have just given, we believe strongly that it is a key benefit, central to our social security system, which should be built up and not cut back.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) said in the same debate:
Child benefit is a right."—[Official Report, 27 June 1985; Vol. 81, c. 1098–120.]
Then we were told on 19 April by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East that, if he has his way, child benefit for 16 and 17-year-olds is to be abolished. I understood that that was a firm Labour policy, although that was queried by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who suggested that there was some doubt about it. The first thing that we should be told, therefore, is whether it is a firm Labour commitment.
Let there be no misunderstanding about the consequences. For families who have a 16 or 17-year-old in full-time education, it would mean the loss of £520 per year or would be equivalent to an increase in their marginal rate of income tax of no less than 5p in the pound.
The hon. Gentleman said that child benefit was available as a right. How many mothers of 16, 17 and 18-year-old children do not receive child benefit?
I did not say that child benefit was a right. I was quoting the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East— he said that child benefit was a right, and now he is telling us that it is not a right for the parents of children who are in full-time education.
The hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers) asks about children who are not in full-time education. Their parents are not entitled to child benefit at present. There is a good reason for that. It is that, as a matter of public policy, we wish to encourage parents to allow their children to stay on at school beyond the age of 16. That is why that arrangement is in place. There can be no doubt that, if child benefit were withdrawn in the way that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East apparently wants, that would be a major disincentive to every family involved.
For the record, child benefit is available as a right only to mothers with children up to the age of 16. Our review does not touch that at all. There are 846,000 mothers with children aged 16, 17 or 18 who, under this Government, do not receive child benefit.
Child benefit is a right for parents who have children in full-time education. It is those parents to whom the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East was addressing himself on Friday 19 April. He is proposing that child benefit be removed from those parents at a cost of £520 per year. When we ask what is to be put in its place, we are told that the matter is to be the subject of a review. That simply is not good enough. People have been told that the benefit will be removed and they have not been told what, if anything, will be put in its place. That will give all the wrong messages to those people. If the policy is introduced, it will be a major disincentive.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that child benefit is a right for all parents of children in full-time education, is he arguing that it should continue after the age of 18? What is being discussed here is simply the age at which it stops.
I most certainly am not. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East said that child benefit is "a right". For that group of parents, the benefit is a present entitlement. Those are my words, but the word "right" was used by the hon. Gentleman. Now he says that he wishes to abolish the benefit.
Instead of introducing red herrings, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) would be better advised to answer my question, because people outside want to know Labour's policy, and there is a gap, a gulf. We are told that there will be a review, but that is not good enough: we must be told what is to be done for parents in these circumstances. As I said in an intervention, if Labour's proposal on that is combined with its plan to introduce a national minimum wage, which would obviously apply to 16 and 17-year-olds in work in the same way as it would to everybody else—
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the national minimum wage would not apply to those people? If that is the case, we should be told. I understood that it was to be universal. Is this another change in Labour policy?
I think that I am entitled to make the assumption that the national minimum wage would apply to 16 and 17-year-olds, and that would seriously shift the balance of advantage against staying on at school and in favour of going out to work. But we want to achieve precisely the opposite. The same is true of Labour's proposal for a windfall tax which, it is suggested, would be used to finance all the improvements that it announced earlier this week at a press conference.
We have not been told much about that windfall tax, but we should be. For example, we have not been told what is meant by "excess profits". Let us take one company as an example. The Director General of Gas Supply announced some tough recommendations this week in respect of TransCo, a subsidiary of British Gas. The company says that if it has to implement those proposals, it will have to make 10,000 people redundant. If a future Labour Government introduced a windfall tax on top of tough regulations for all such companies, and not just British Gas, it is inconceivable that there would not be significant extra job losses.
The public should understand that those are the consequences of Labour's proposals to raise a significant sum. I think that it is £1,500 million, and that is a huge amount of extra corporation tax to be spread over two or three years. As the hon. Member for Bath said, it is a dishonest policy, because a scheme that would have to be funded continuously into the future would be financed by what is essentially a one-off tax. People should understand that when that windfall tax expired, there would be a continuing commitment and no explanation of how it would be funded. Both those aspects of the debate are important, and people deserve answers. I hope that when the hon. Member for Wallsend replies to the debate, we shall get them.
This subject has been debated in the House over many years, and the hon. Member for Bath referred to the 1895 royal commission on secondary education. It seems that some of the recommendations made at that time are still relevant today, but the debate goes back further than that: we could trace it back to the middle of the 19th century and the end of the industrial revolution. I made my maiden speech on this subject under a Labour Government in 1977 and, of course, the problem will not be resolved overnight. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) was right to point to some of the cultural problems.
We tend to view this issue as a top-down problem. We should also look at it from a bottom-up point of view. We should look at it through the eyes of the people of this country, especially young people, and try to raise their expectations.
Let us compare attitudes to education in this country with those in the far east. Someone told me earlier this week that there are people in the newly industrialised countries of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore who are prepared to sell their houses to invest in their children's education. The savings ratio in some of those countries is 40 per cent. They understand the importance of education.
We must ensure that people in this country get the message that there is no alternative to improved education and training if we are to compete effectively with those countries and if the individuals concerned are to play a full part in the job market. The Dearing proposals will improve the lot of those people; I support them, and I support the Government's policy in trying to improve the lot of all young people in training and education.
The Government obviously decided to call this debate in a lame attempt to score points on child benefit, but they scored an own goal. In France—a country not dissimilar in size to ours—four young people stay on in education for every one who does so here. The Government have no right to lecture anyone on education and training opportunities.
I do not want to indulge in petty political point scoring, easy and amusing though it would be. I want to talk, as my hon. Friends have consistently done, about education and training.
Anyone with an ounce of sense recognises how crucial it is to refocus the political agenda on the needs of 16 to 19-year-olds. We have not only a responsibility to do so, but a duty. It is in everyone's interests, and in the interests of our economy to do so.
We need to ensure that young people are fully equipped with the skills and knowledge that they need for the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) said, Britain has fewer 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country apart from Turkey. According to a Lloyds bank report published in March 1996, half of UK manufacturing industry, and 40 per cent. of firms, believe that they are suffering from serious skills shortages, and that better skills training is crucial to our country's economic success. Where is it?
Young people in my constituency have vividly expressed to me the low regard in which they hold training. Their view is hardly surprising, given the Government's failure to come up with a high-profile, high-quality training scheme for young people.
Training is seen as a last resort instead of a valuable, worthwhile option for the future. That assertion is, unfortunately, borne out by the facts. The number of young people who left school after year 11 and took network training places dropped significantly from the appallingly low figure of 6.28 per cent. in 1994 to the disgraceful figure of 2.7 per cent. in 1995.
The Tories' youth training programme has failed to equip young people with the skills that they need. Less than half—46 per cent.—of those who start youth training complete it. Despite such results, youth training costs more than £500 million a year. Even more scandalous is the fact that youth training does not require development of skills in the core areas of communication, numeracy and information technology. It is hardly surprising that training is not regarded as a positive option and is not the first choice of many school leavers.
By contrast, Labour intends to bring about a skills revolution that will target young people and which is relevant to them. They must be equipped with basic skills that they can use and build on throughout life. To raise the profile of skill training, we must improve quality standards significantly.
Let us consider what is happening after the Tories' pathetic record of 17 years of inaction. The figures for destinations—what happens after a person has been through one of the Government's failed attempts at training—show a depressing inadequacy in the quality of the training and the data available. What have our young people done to deserve a Government like this, who ignore their needs and aspirations, their talents and abilities?
In Birmingham, one in three leave youth training for unemployment. What sort of message does that send to our youth? Does it convince them that they have a stake in society? In central London—which my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham and for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) now have to deal with after the shocking demise of the South Thames TEC, in respect of which the Government washed their hands of any responsibility—a staggering 29 per cent. of young people end up on the dole. In my area, which has been clamped on to SOLOTEC, one in four young people end up on the dole. What will happen to their aspirations? Is it any wonder that our youth are alienated from society and their communities?
Even those outcomes are skewed, because they include the 7 per cent. of leavers who end up on another Government training programme. Those youths did not leave training, but were simply recycled. If those figures are taken out, the overall unemployment rate after training across the country is one in four, which is a disgrace. In fact, it is more than a disgrace—it is shameful—and no Government with that record can hold up their head and say that they have done anything for young people.
Early leaving is a particularly worrying and appalling indictment of schemes when the options for young people are so few. Lewisham is not a well-off borough and includes large areas of poverty and deprivation. Under this Government, our youngsters are expected to sink further and further into the mire, but young people are not stupid: they recognise Mickey Mouse schemes when they see them, which is why they vote with their feet. That so many young people leave, despite the absence of an alternative source of income, is a sad and pathetic reflection on the quality of their training.
There is something seriously wrong with the quality of training on offer to young people and with the programme to provide training leading to qualifications. The only people to blame are those on the Government Benches who have turned a blind eye to the prospects and hopes of our young people. To obtain an income, young people are being compelled to enter schemes but, having completed them, only half obtain jobs. Half will achieve qualifications, and one quarter will be unemployed. If Conservative Members had a conscience, they would be thoroughly ashamed.
I want to explain what could happen and to show how, under a Labour Government, the best would be available for all. I look forward to the day when young people actively seek skills training in the knowledge that they will be taught useful skills that will improve their career prospects throughout their life and that there will be continuing opportunities to update and develop their skills. High-quality training and education are not enough. For young people to open their eyes to the opportunities that will be open to them once they have completed their training, there must be a comprehensive, impartial, high-quality careers service. The Dearing report recognised that when it stated:
Central to maximising achievement and reducing wastage is the provision of expert independent careers education and guidance to young people on their choice of pathways and roles".
The careers service should be seen as the enabler that helps people to make good decisions about their future. The most basic stake that a young person can have in
society is a job. Unequal access to opportunity leads to social division, hinders individual development and squanders talent. The Labour party views an efficient careers service as the essential tool to promote equality of opportunity and to enable individuals, particularly young people, to maximise their potential.
Despite numerous assertions from all quarters that careers advice is essential for a flourishing economy and a fulfilled, effective work force, Britain's careers service remains the Cinderella service and its possibilities remain under-realised. In the long term, the benefits provided by proper careers advice will mean that the investment pays for itself. If the careers service was able to encourage only 10 per cent. of current drop-outs to attain higher-level qualifications, the monetary savings alone would amount to £35 million a year.
I utterly condemn the Government's implementation of a cut-price market-based system to run the careers service. Their tendering process has shown itself to have little to do with quality provision and everything to do with their obsession with asset-stripping local government.
Labour's Target 2000 programme will refocus and redefine the careers service to recognise its increasingly important role in helping people to maximise their potential. The personal development and guidance service will interview every young person aged between 14 and 18 once a year. That entitlement will ensure that talent is not squandered and that young people are set on the path to fulfilment. We must not let them escape through the net into a wilderness of despair.
I do not understand the Government's complacency. Labour Members are angry about what the Government have done to young people in education and training. We are angry that they have had the cheek to introduce the debate today, when they have done so little to serve our youngsters. I have taught many young people with talents, skills, aspirations and ability. I cannot bear to think that they, and others like them, have been let down so badly by this ignorant and uncaring Government.
The hon. Lady has complained a great deal about the Government. When will she offer some constructive, costed proposals that the Labour party would introduce if it had the opportunity?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has just entered the Chamber and did not hear me explain our proposals to provide quality advice and guidance to young people. He can read about them in detail in Hansard.
This is a lost generation: lost to society and lost to the economy. We all lose when the skills and talents of our young people are not utilised, and our young people are lost to themselves because they have become disillusioned, demeaned and alienated. They are lost in the minds and the actions of the scurrilous Tory Government, who have done nothing for them. They are lost and forgotten. This disgraceful rump of a Government have launched a slogan saying that it hurt but it worked. It is still hurting our young people across Britain, but they are not working.
Before I call the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), I remind hon. Members that, although they may speak with the assistance of notes, they should not read from their notes in the manner of a lecture. That general advice applies across the Chamber and this morning's debate has exemplified this problem.
The contribution by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) was singularly ill informed. I can only assume that it was written by her researcher at least six months ago, with reference to the Conservative party slogan added in the past few days. The hon. Lady's speech did not reflect the real situation.
In my brief contribution, I shall outline what the Government have done in providing education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds. I shall then offer some suggestions of my own and illustrate the appalling dichotomies that would occur within the Labour party if it ever attained office.
Despite what Labour Members have said, the youth training scheme is a success. It has trained more than 4.5 million people since 1983 and it is currently training more than 284,000 people. However, the test is not simply the number of people who are in youth training schemes, but the fact that some 72 per cent. of youth training scheme leavers go on to other work, education or training. That is the acid test. How can Labour Members claim that the youth training scheme is a failure when 72 per cent. of leavers go on to other activities? We should remember also that all young people under 18 who are not in full-time education or employment are guaranteed places on youth training schemes.
Career development loans are a success also, offering between £200 and £8,000 to cover 80 per cent. of fees for courses lasting more than two years. The Investors in People scheme has led to the burgeoning of training and enterprise councils. I congratulate the Staffordshire training and enterprise council. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) spoke at great length about the Sussex TEC. The job interview guarantee scheme, training for work and job clubs demonstrate that the Government are far from complacent about the training of 16 to 19-year-olds.
Let me now turn to some of the recommendations that have been made recently by Sir Ron Dearing and make some suggestions of my own. I welcome the fact that the Government invited Sir Ron to make his recommendations. However, that does not necessarily mean that I have to agree with them all.
Although it causes me concern and grave misgivings, sadly, for the very first time in my career, I agree with the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). It was quite a shaking experience. In an intervention, he spoke about A-levels and suggested that perhaps they are not the gold standard. I suspect that I might be the only Conservative Member here today who will say it, but I do not believe either that A-levels are the gold standard. I agree with the chief economist of the Financial Times that the so-called gold standard has been an unmitigated disaster for Britain.
It is not a matter of comparing academic education with vocational education, but one of comparing depth with breadth. One of the great weaknesses that Britain has had to endure, and I use the word endure advisedly, is the fact that 15 and 16-year-olds who are academic are forced to make such an early decision as to the three, four—or in some cases two—subjects in which they wish to specialise.
It is all very well for us to say that we have introduced NVQs and GNVQs for vocational study, but some people who are academic would prefer a broad education. In England and Wales the stock answer is to say, "That is fair enough. Don't take A-levels and take more AS-levels." However, if an academic person chooses one of the more popular universities—particularly Oxbridge—or one of the more traditional universities such as Durham, those universities always give preference to people with A-levels rather than AS-levels.
On that one issue, Sir Ron Dearing has hedged his bets by saying that he wants to retain AS-levels and A-levels. In practice, for someone who is academically inclined, they are mutually exclusive. If one chooses AS-levels, that can preclude one from going to one of the better universities. The only way to get round that problem is to be bold and get rid of the so-called gold standard and adopt the Scottish system of Highers. Nobody denies that the system in Scotland is one of the finest in the world.
Like others who have spoken today, I was educated outside the United Kingdom as well as at British universities. Bachelors and masters degrees in Britain, where I have attended universities, are often very narrowly focused. When universities say that we need the depth of A-levels to provide the basis on which to continue a degree course, that is patent nonsense. The combination of different examination boards and the choice of modules means that, in pure maths alone, there are some 320 possible different syllabuses. I took my pure and applied maths A-levels under the Oxford board, and the London board syllabus was totally different. In any event, university education cannot begin where A-levels finished because there are so many different syllabuses.
The legacy of A-levels has resulted in this nation being good at research but not at development. Members in all parts of the House often say, for example, "We invented the hovercraft, but another country exploited it." The electronic calculator was invented not in Japan but here in the United Kingdom, and exploited abroad. Young academic people have a narrow education beyond the age of 15, which is wrong.
I predict that A-levels will not survive, whether there is a Conservative or Labour Government in future, because they are patently old fashioned. The only reason for conserving A-levels is to allow schools a period of stability during the change that, rightly, they have had to undergo. A-levels must change for the sake of this country's future.
Labour's proposal for a windfall tax is fallacious. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) said, it would affect profits and jobs. In extremis, a windfall tax is the most ludicrous of the shadow Chancellor's many ludicrous proposals. Any industry that knows that it will be subject to a one-off windfall tax will ensure that there are no profits from which the tax can be taken. The shadow Chancellor predicted first that a windfall tax would raise £3 billion, then lowered the figure to £1 billion, and now gives a figure of £300 million. If the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) goes on talking about a windfall tax, he will raise nothing because industries will make sure that there are no profits for him to tax. If any of Labour's spending commitments are to be taken seriously, the party must address that issue.
Many schools, particularly in inner cities, have become failure factories. Earlier, I quoted an article by Stephan Shakespeare, in which he said that
even the word 'reading' has been challenged
by the politically correct, who lampooned it as "barking at text" and said that
children who could merely read were like dogs who knew when to make a noise.
The article goes on to describe a recent visit to a London primary school—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) was right to say that one cannot debate education for 16 to 19-year-olds without discussing the foundation of primary school education. Stephan Shakespeare writes:
I saw the teacher—unshaven, in T-shirt and trainers, with rings through his nose—squatting in the classroom while a boy was kicking a ball about in the corridor outside. 'He's been looking at a book about football,' he said to me with a smile—whether by way of excuse or the sharing of some new pedagogic technique, I'm not quite sure.
That is the political correctness that the Government inherited from the last Labour Government.
I believe that teachers want to be good teachers, and that they can best become good teachers if they have good headmasters. I also suggest that we introduce a staff college for head teachers. Let head teachers be proud and proclaim that learning the 10 times table or the 12 times table is no bad thing and that sitting there with a blackboard and chalk is not such a bad way in which to get across the foundations of reading, writing and arithmetic.
I further recommend that we find an objective testing measurement. That issue has been addressed by Sir Ron Dearing, who rightly pointed out that the so-called "gold standard" has become eroded, or even corroded—despite the fact that, as those of us who have taken science A-levels know, gold does not corrode. A-levels have become corroded because of the system of modular testing, and Sir Ron was right to deal with that fact.
As Friday mornings provide a good opportunity to raise philosophical points, I should like to say that the Government were right to increase the number of people entering further and higher education. As I pointed out in an earlier intervention, we inherited a situation from the previous Labour Government in which only one in eight students went on to further and higher education. One in three students now go into further and higher education.
I must, however, question whether further and higher education should exclusively take the form of a university education. I am not convinced that universities are the appropriate institution to attend for all people who seek a higher education. It is inevitable that standards of entry will be lowered if so many people are to go to university. More vocational courses in non-universities are also required.
What about the so-called "Labour Government in waiting"? What has been the Labour party's record on this issue? When the Government introduced the Education Act 1979, which was to save the remaining grammar schools, what did the Labour party do? It opposed it. When the Government introduced the Education Act 1980, which brought in parental choice and provided information through testing, the Labour party voted against it. When the Government introduced the Education Reform Act 1988 and the national curriculum, the Labour party opposed those measures.
When the Government introduced the Education (Student Loans) Act 1990 and top-up loans for students, what did the Labour party do? It opposed those measures. When the Government introduced the Education (Schools) Act 1992—which made it easier for schools to become grant-maintained and brought in the Funding Agency for Schools for England—the Labour party opposed it. When the Government brought in the Education Act 1994, which reformed initial teacher training—the very issue that I was talking about, and about which Labour Members agreed with me—the Labour party opposed it.
Labour's tax on sixth form education will be a disincentive for our most gifted students to continue their education. Labour's continued adherence to trendy dogma and political correctness will prolong the learning deficit suffered by many of our nation's children, which is a legacy from previous Labour Governments. Labour's continued unwillingness to set out a price tag for any of its policies reduces the promises of its Front Benchers to empty rhetoric. Labour's continuing betrayal of our young—our nation's future—creates a legacy that this nation should never forget.
No one could disagree with the words of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment addressing a Business in the Community conference last year:
I want all young people to have every chance to make the right choices at 16 and beyond … The education and training system has a vital role in addressing achievement. It should have high expectations of all young people, regardless of social background or disadvantage. We know that this is not happening. We need to act. We must ensure that we get it right first time for everyone.
Those are fine words indeed, but they ring very hollow with the young people of my constituency, who have had a pretty raw deal from the Government this year and last. They have witnessed the collapse of two flagship Government policies in education and employment owing to sheer neglect and incompetence.
First came the collapse of the South Thames training and enterprise council. That TEC fell apart before the Government's very eyes. In Dulwich, it left local schools high and dry without their promised funds, and training providers were left thousands of pounds out of pocket because of unpaid contracts. Hundreds of young people were left in limbo, not knowing whether they were going to be able to continue their work placements. They were denied the stability and certainty that is essential to sustaining young people's commitment to training.
During this shambles I was contacted by many parents. I particularly remember the parents of some young girls who were a month away from completing work placements with a nursery in east Dulwich. They had been told that their daughters could not complete the course as the funding had dried up. To them, lame excuses about the complexity of the funding arrangements and the training and enterprise council were irrelevant; but they did know that the Government had not got it right first time and that they were the victims.
The scale of the disruption that followed the collapse of the South Thames TEC, and the disruption it caused to training providers in Dulwich, was incalculable. Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of all was the spectacle of a Government who claim to want to raise educational achievement for all but who washed their hands so quickly of responsibility for the whole affair.
Hard on the heels of the TEC debacle came the Government's bungled attempt to privatise the Southwark careers service, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice) referred. The Secretary of State claims:
our reforms of the careers service are designed to provide more effective guidance.
Few people in Southwark would agree.
Earlier this year, the Grand Metropolitan Trust emerged as the Government's preferred bidder in the race to take over the running of the service; it was only when Grand Met read the small print of the contract and found out exactly what service it was expected to provide that it got cold feet and withdrew pretty quickly. The result has been months of uncertainty and a further erosion of local young people's confidence.
I entirely share the sentiments of the Secretary of State and Ministers that we must offer young people the chance to raise their achievements and skills. I wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary of State, who told the Business in the Community conference that there is a need to identify the parts of the country that need extra support. She has failed to act on those words, however.
Let us examine the position of school leavers in Southwark in recent years. Last year, less than 7 per cent. of the 2,000 year 11 students in Southwark went on to sixth forms; just under half went on to study in FE colleges. The grand total of students continuing their education was just under 60 per cent.—the jointly held lowest percentage of any London borough. Southwark has now been at the bottom of the London league of 16 to 19-year-olds who continue their education for some years, but rather than deal with the problems, Government policies conspire to make them worse.
The worst aspect of all is that the Government appear to enjoy pillorying inner London boroughs for their efforts to improve standards of education.
When the Minister opened the debate, he referred to the Ofsted assessment of the performance of inner London primary schools, and Southwark was one of the local authorities studied. The right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) underlined the link—and I entirely agree with her—between the level of achievement that children reach in primary school and their achievement later on as 16 to 19-year-olds. I wish to give the House a flavour of the unedited Ofsted report which, once it got to Ofsted' s offices, appears to have been doctored for political purposes and not in the interests of raising education standards in Southwark, Islington or Tower Hamlets.
Some of the passages that were deleted from the Ofsted report—I leave the House to judge why they were deleted—were:
Most of these characteristics—bilingualism, poverty, pupil and staff turnover—were outside the control of the schools and where schools faced a combination of them their task was a difficult one.
Another passage reads:
Weaknesses do not occur because the teachers are less well qualified or more inept than their colleagues elsewhere … teaching reading in many of these schools is a particularly difficult task for which the teachers are not always well prepared.
The final passage that was deleted reads:
The quality of teaching of reading was satisfactory or better in approximately two-thirds of the lessons observed in Year 2.
It was changed to read:
In one third of these the quality of teaching was unsatisfactory or poor.
Neither I nor my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), nor anyone who sits as a member of the majority group on Southwark council, would for one moment defend the poor attainment of many of the children in Southwark schools. Southwark co-operated with Ofsted and welcomed it into the schools. The borough co-operated because it is united in an absolute determination to improve the standards that everybody agrees—for reasons which are clearly evident—are unacceptable. We are not prepared to say that because children come from homes in which English is a second language, or because they come from poor homes or because they live with only one parent, they are not capable of learning and doing well.
The Government have a choice. They can continue to use the Ofsted report for cheap political capital or they can join hands with Southwark and other authorities across London and work to improve the level of education standards and the opportunities for children in those schools. It is important in the context of the debate to get those issues on the record.
Southwark has few sixth form colleges and as a result young people rely on Southwark college and other further education colleges outside the borough. A number of other obstacles have been placed in the way of young people, to which my hon. Friends have referred, especially the perverse incentive behind funding for further education which now acts as a deterrent to many young people who wish to pursue further studies. For example, in 1992, Southwark was forced to take the decision to withdraw the funding of transport costs for young people going on to further and higher education.
I have collected a catalogue of instances from my own constituency that show how essential bus fares are to make it practical and possible for motivated young people to travel to FE and higher education colleges. They also show a depth of motivation that is deeply moving. Twin sisters who lived in east Dulwich studied at Southwark college. Their parents could not afford to pay two bus fares every day, so when the bus fares were withdrawn the twins attended the college in alternate weeks. That illustrates that these are people who are desperate to continue to improve their skills. They see education and training as the way out of their present circumstances. They have had no proper help from the Government.
We are talking about young people who were born at the beginning of 17 years of Conservative government. The concern about this lost generation of young people is palpable wherever we travel. I have talked especially about the young people whom I represent and young people in Southwark. The hopelessness of so many should act to stir the conscience of the Government and make them act. The evidence is that they will not do so. They will simply make cheap political jibes. The opportunity for our young people lies only in the election of a Labour Government, who will be determined to see their inclusion in the mainstream of society as useful and valued young people with a clear sense of their own worth.
The hurricane of change that has swept through the entire western world during the past 10 years is nothing short of a second industrial revolution. At the same time, the western world has gone through the worst economic recession since 1929, one that has turned upside down the economies of the United States, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and almost every other developed country. The United Kingdom did not escape. It is fatuous to place the blame for that at the Government's door.
Those events have made it impossible for old industries to survive and for old patterns of work to continue. The end of the cold war has meant that new sources of cheap labour have opened up in eastern Europe along with new markets. Asian countries are now awakening and competing with us in low-tech and, sometimes, high-tech industries. That applies especially to information technology. It is now possible for a mail-order company, say in my constituency, to upload raw data via satellite to Pakistan, India or China, where the data will be processed by low-cost keyboard operators.
We live in a different, high-tech world. The education and training of our young people for the world of work is vital. Similarly, retraining is vital. Whether Governments like it or not, it is impossible now to guarantee a job for life. We must be flexible and retrain.
The Government take training immensely seriously, and I shall refer briefly to some of the many schemes that they have introduced. The youth training scheme has trained 4.5 million young people since 1983. Career development loans enable young people to purchase vocational training. There is also the Investors in People scheme; the job interview guarantee scheme; the training for work scheme, which provides places for 200,000 young people; and the job clubs. We know that 90 per cent. of 16-year-olds are in full-time education or training.
I have listened carefully to most of the speeches in the debate. I have yet to hear any constructive costed proposals as to how the Labour party, if in government, would do better or, indeed, do anything. Labour Members can only carp and criticise. No constructive proposals ever pass their lips.
There are 1.5 million places on employment and training programmes for the year 1996–97. I pay tribute to the work of the Industry and Parliament Trust, which arranged a conference at St. Andrews only two or three weeks ago, which the hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) and I attended. A serious effort was made at the conference to identify the problems that face young people, and not-so-young people, who are seeking work. Employability was considered from all possible angles. We had the opportunity to interview people who were unemployed and in need of retraining. We heard from them, from a practical point of view, what was needed. I commend the trust's report on the conference, which I understand will be published in two or three weeks' time.
Not all people can benefit from training. Some people do not have the temperament or the mental ability to benefit from a training course and perhaps do not want the responsibility that goes with a skilled occupation. I do not want a country which is rich enough to pay generous benefits. I want a country in which a useful job is found for everyone. Therefore, even in this high-tech age, we must find manual jobs for people who cannot or will not acquire a skill. I ask the Government to consider again the various forms of workfare scheme that have been proposed.
Industry provides most of the training opportunities in this country. When I visit industries in my constituency and elsewhere, I ask them what involvement they expect from the Government in training. The answer I get is almost always, "The role of Government is to provide us with young people at 16 or so with a good basic education. We want young people who are good at reading, writing and basic numeracy. We will do the rest. We will train them for our industry."
Only yesterday, I had a meeting with the directors of Lucas Industries, one of Britain's most successful manufacturers. They told me that they had established three training schools at Cwmbran, Tamworth and Wolverhampton to train people for their company. The schools also admit people who do not work for the company and charge them fees, which go to help pay for the school. I asked the directors whether they were worried about other industries poaching the young people whom they had trained. They said that they could live with that and it was sometimes an advantage for people who had been trained by the company to work for other companies which might be their customers or suppliers.
As for the need for basic education, it is astonishing that, although the Government have provided more money per child for education than ever before in the nation's history, the results are so poor. That is partly due to the fact that we have a federal system of education. Central Government provide the money and are expected to take the responsibility, but the education, or what sometimes passes for education, is delivered by local authorities, many of which are left-wing authorities which still employ the half-baked education theories of the 1960s. Two local authorities in point are Islington and Southwark, where concerned parents in the parliamentary Labour party have taken their children away to be educated in other parts of the country.
The British grammar school was the institution that provided the professionals, engineers and scientists who made this country great in the 19th and early 20th century. The Labour Government committed a crime of the highest order against the children of this country when they destroyed the grammar schools. It is a matter of great regret to me that when my party came back to power in 1979, all that we could do was to save those that had not been destroyed. We should have restored the grammar schools. Perhaps it is too late to do that now, but I endorse the Government's scheme for grant-maintained status, which will be a way of restoring the ethos of the grammar school and of giving head teachers, governors and parents the ability and incentive to create a really good school in their area.
The public schools are also a source of excellence in our country. I want to bring all our schools up to the standard of the public schools. I want nothing to do with socialist policies which would destroy our public schools or make it almost impossible for people of modest means to send their children there.
I believe in selection because it is impossible for mixed-ability teaching to work. If we ever had any doubts about that, we must look at the record of the past 30 years. Even the Labour party believes in selection because it talks about setting and streaming and about educating children of different abilities separately. If that is not selection, what is? There must be competition in schools because, in the outside world, the children will have to face competition. If they are artificially protected from it, when they get out into the world, they will not be able to cope.
I believe also in discipline in schools. It is wrong to deprive headmasters of the ability to discipline pupils. We must think again about corporal punishment in schools. We must make it clear to parents that, if they enter a school and assault a teacher, it will be treated not just as an assault, but as an aggravated assault, and will attract the severest penalties when they come before the courts.
Finally, it is a question not just of education and ability, but of attitudes. Most young people are well motivated, but not all. In my constituency, a young man was given a job. On his first day, he asked for a day off. He said that he did not think that he would be fit to come to work the following Thursday because his friend was having a birthday party the night before. The employer said, "We can do better than that. We will give you the rest of the year off. Goodbye."
I have enjoyed the debate and do not intend to contribute much to it. I should like to express my appreciation for some Conservative Members' speeches, especially that of the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), and that of the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), who shares with me the view that there is nothing wrong with the English education system that making it a Scottish education system could not put right, and I speak as someone who was educated in England. The speech of the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) shows that the lessons of social Darwinism have been taught thoroughly in university and taken to heart.
I put my name down to speak in the debate because, two weeks ago, I attended a meeting in my constituency with leaders of the council, officers and elected committee chairmen. At the end of it, the chief executive spoke movingly of the "lost generation"—the phrase came to his lips. He talked of the drug problem in my constituency. Rotherham has high unemployment—it is around 12 per cent. Twenty-five per cent. of people under 25 are out of work. Nearly half of the Pakistani population under the age of 25 is without work. That lost generation needs to be discussed. Policies need to be devised to try to help those people out of that world of darkness and into the world of work, where they can make a useful contribution to society.
In Rotherham, people are turning to drugs. There has been an increase in drug-related crime and most schools are reporting the selling or use of cannabis and harder drugs. In the past 12 months, there have been six drug-related deaths in a part of the world that has had many difficulties, but that is not—I think my friends in Rotherham would agree—part of the fast and loose world of big cities. The people involved in drugs are also part of the lost generation.
We are doing much good work in Rotherham to try to analyse the problem and to deal with it. I pay tribute to the business community and to the Prince's Trust, which does an excellent job. How pleased I was to see President Chirac in Easterhouse yesterday examining the initiatives undertaken by the trust.
Part of the analysis undertaken was the focus group's inquiry conducted in one of the comprehensive schools in my constituency. I should like to report what was said. Young people were asked what they wanted out of life and what they thought the reality would be. They said that they wanted to be a mechanic, a sports teacher, to work in a bank or to go to college—not high ambitions. What did they think would happen to them? They would go to prison or go on the dole and they said:
If we get a job parents will lose benefit.
That is the living reality of our future citizenry, and it has not been addressed much by Conservative Members.
I apologise to the Minister if I am not here for the whole of his winding-up speech. I hope that he will remember the five-letter word "sorry", because 17 years of not taking responsibility cannot be dealt with in a 10-minute speech. The debate started with the absurd sight of a Scottish Minister praising the A-level system. If there is anything more ridiculous than a little Englander being a little Englander, it is a little Scot being a little Englander. The debate will finish with no concrete suggestion likely to be put into Government policy, despite the helpful suggestions by the hon. Members for Mid-Kent and for Mid -Staffordshire.
In my constituency, the college of education is this week in the process of dismissing 80 members of staff: it is happening as I speak. There is an increase in hopelessness in Rotherham. The careers service has been taken away from the council, which is not even allowed to bid for it, and a rigged bid by Nord-Anglia will ensure that there is reduced access to careers advice for my constituents.
Of course Labour is addressing those matters, but perhaps our suggestions were not put in the round. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), the shadow Chancellor:
This has been a valuable and important debate addressing the needs and concerns of a group of young people who all too often are ignored in the considerations and proceedings of the House. It has starkly revealed the divide in the Chamber. With one or two notable exceptions, especially the speeches by the hon. Members for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), Conservative Members have displayed deep complacency and neglect for the needs of the people whom we are debating. They have shown bankruptcy in ideas and poverty in aspiration, and those are the clear signs of a tired Government in their dying days.
My hon. Friends have delivered extremely useful, positive and practical speeches. The contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Mr. Hill), for South—East Staffordshire (Mr. Jenkins), for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice), for Dulwich (Ms Jowell) and for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) revealed the needs of their communities and the way in which young people have been damaged and have had opportunities denied to them as a direct consequence of the Government's policies.
There has been a denial of skills, to the extent that people in the west midlands are proclaiming that there is a skills deficit. The Government's introduction of market forces to the careers service has caused problems, especially in south London. Those were clearly identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East. The South Thames training and enterprise council has been allowed to become bankrupt. When it was put into receivership, the Government did not lift a finger to help. As a result, private sector training providers are owed about £4 million to £5 million, which is unlikely to be repaid. They will compensate by cutting existing provision, thereby denying places to even more young people.
A common thread has run through Opposition Members' speeches—that we want to extend access for 16 to 19-year-olds. We want high-quality provision, diversity and excellence for all. That commitment and objective contrasts starkly with what we heard from the Government today.
The first industrial revolution relied on innovation and enterprise, and on investment in fixed capital, buildings, plant and machinery. The Opposition believe that the knowledge-based revolution of the 21st century will require investment in human capital—the skills and intelligence of our people. That will mean equipping men and women to cope with enormous economic and social change, to meet the needs that are all around us. For no age group is that more important than for 16 to 19-year-olds.
To meet the challenge of the future, we must enable our young people to cope with change. Otherwise, the demoralisation of job insecurity will threaten their employment prospects and the economic and social stability that underpins a socially cohesive and civilised society. Security resulting from the ability to cope with rapid change distinguishes Labour's proposals from the present Government's support for an insecure labour market that undervalues the skills and needs of the people on whom it depends.
We can meet the challenge of creating a high-tech, high added value, high-wage economy only by skilling our people so that they are able to provide quality products and services—in other words, we shall need a high-quality work force. That means paying special attention to the education and training needs of our 16 to 19-year-olds. We should regard that age group as our biggest resource for future development, yet far too few people in that age group are gaining the skills and qualifications which they need and which are vital to the future well-being of our economy.
The Government are selling our 16 to 19-year-olds short. They are the innocent victims of the Government's neglect of this important area. The Government pursue policies that create the conditions for personal failure and despair. There is a direct link between the lack of quality training and education opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds and Britain's crisis of youth unemployment.
Today's 16-year-old with no skills or qualifications is tomorrow's unemployed 23-year-old. The Government's most important role in that regard is to provide a secure framework in which young people can stay on in education and training to develop their skills and enhance their learning so that, when they leave education, they can get a job, be promoted in that job and improve their prospects of finding a new job if they lose the one that they have.
The challenge that confronts us as a nation is that, if we are to have lifelong education, with all the benefits that flow from it to the individual and our country, we must provide equality of opportunity and access for all after the age of 16. There can be no escaping the fact that it will require a major reform of the funding of post-16 education. At present, opportunities are denied to hundreds of thousands, which damages not just the individuals involved, but our society as a whole. Perhaps the biggest scandal is the lack of progress that has been made over the past 35 years.
Staying-on rates for young people from households of unskilled manual workers have hardly increased. Entry to university has remained stagnant. In 1963, Robbins reported that just 2 per cent. of children from semi-skilled families went to university. The latest study from the university careers service shows that only 3 per cent. of children from unskilled families gain a degree.
Is the hon. Gentleman comparing like with like? Most studies seem to suggest that the proportion of the population that falls into that unskilled category has shrunk.
I am comparing like with unlike unfortunately, because it has been shown that there is a lasting problem: that young people from unskilled families are not entering higher education. That figure has remained constant over the past 35 years.
Unequal opportunities are not just an affront to those of us who feel passionately about social justice, but an economic disaster in a world where education increasingly determines employment opportunity, earning power and national prosperity. The question that the Labour party is prepared to address is how to end the cycle of educational failure, unemployment and poverty. It is clear that to do so, we must bring to an end the national education lottery at 16. At present, some 16-year-olds receive grants while others do not for exactly the same educational courses, and some have their fees paid while some do not. Current educational maintenance allowances are both arbitrary and inadequate—they range from 90p a week in some areas, up to as much as £20 a week in others, with as few as one in 1,000 obtaining them in some local education authorities.
It is against that background that we make no apology for establishing our public spending review of post-16 education finance. The review will examine loans, grants, educational maintenance allowances, course fees, tax relief and child benefit from the age of 16. The review has only just begun, so no decisions have yet been made. But our intentions have been widely misrepresented and distorted by Conservative Members, who, all too often, prefer prejudice to stand in the way of facts.
Today, I shall put some facts on the record. There is not, and never has been, any intention to include in the review, child benefit where it is available as a right—where it is universal. That means that child benefit will continue to be available to all mothers of children up to the age of 16. But, at present, at 16, child benefit ceases to be a right or to be universal. Mothers of 43 per cent. of 16 to 18-year-olds do not receive any child benefit—that means that the mothers of 846,000 young people do not receive child benefit.
It is also important to note that, in real terms, child benefit brings no extra money to most financially disadvantaged families because child benefit is deducted, in full, from the income support received by income support claimants. Almost one in five mothers who receive child benefit are also on income support. Therefore, they do not gain financially from receiving child benefit.
Labour's review of post-16 education funding will be based on five clear principles. First, the policy must ensure value for money and the most effective use of public finances. Secondly, it must improve participation rates significantly by ensuring that no financial hurdles stand in the way of young people's taking advantage of post-16 education. Thirdly, it must introduce a coherent system that operates nationally. Fourthly, it must provide financial assistance more fairly rather than withdrawing support. Finally, it must broaden opportunities and ensure genuine equality of opportunity.
We are confident that when our review, which is based on those five principles, is completed and the policies brought forward, they will command broad and popular support. They will stand in stark contrast to the tired policies of the Government, who can offer only the discredited youth training programme. That is the only option for young people who decide that full-time education is not for them.
However, as Sir Ron Dearing illustrated clearly, the programme is failing many of our young people. He found that only 46 per cent. of young people who enter youth training schemes complete the course of study. The breakdown according to training and enterprise council areas is even more revealing. In Merseyside, 72 per cent. of all young people who start youth training fail to complete the course. In Sunderland, the figure is 66 per cent. and, in Norfolk and Waveney, it is 63 per cent. Only one in five training and enterprise council areas has a completion rate better than 50 per cent.
For those reasons, Labour has introduced its Target 2000 programme: a high-quality training initiative that will offer hope to a lost generation. The initiative has been costed at £1.5 billion and it will be financed by the money that we shall save by abolishing the youth training programme and the money that will flow from the windfall tax on the newly privatised utilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has made it clear that the money will be targeted at two specific groups: the long-term unemployed and the young unemployed. Those two programmes will be funded by the windfall tax on the privatised utilities. We aim to kick-start the economy by giving our young people high-quality training opportunities.
I shall not give way, as time is limited. If the Minister were to allow me to use some of his speaking time, I would be happy to give way. However, he will not do that, so I shall not give way.
Our policies have been worked out in conjunction with employers. We are confident that, although the Government have ignored and neglected them, our new deal for the lost generation represents a co-ordinated programme that will boost the quality of education and training for that age group. Our programme is based on a real partnership between young people, a Labour Government and employers. We share the rights and the responsibilities associated with building a future for ourselves and our nation. Through that partnership, we shall begin to prepare our country and our young people to meet the challenges of the new century.
This has been a most interesting, and in some cases illuminating, debate and it has occurred on a day when another socialist Administration has been unceremoniously booted out of office—the third in recent weeks. The hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) opened for the Opposition with a very interesting speech. He accused my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) of not reading the right papers to discern Labour policies. Conservative Members were mesmerised as we waited for the various answers that he promised but, despite the great length of his speech-45 minutes—none came to light.
The windfall levy—a remarkable, reusable, elastic tax that appears to have quite extraordinary regenerative qualities—has been mentioned. It has already been prayed in aid for 11 different uses by Labour spokesmen. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) made clear—the Liberal party is at least honest about this—money cannot be spent more than once. The Liberal Democrats at least admit that their proposals would lead to an increase in income tax. Today their spokesman expressed a withering contempt for Labour proposals that will have been echoed in all parts of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) made an interesting speech that included a plea for back to basics in primary education. He praised the league tables that the Government introduced in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party and wisely advised the Government to build on our achievements and not to uproot for its own sake.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield made a robust, wise and convincing speech. He exposed the fallacy of Labour policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) spoke warmly of his local training and enterprise council and the success of local schemes. He made a number of interesting suggestions to Sir Ron Dearing and his speech was thoughtful, if not politically correct—except when he agreed with the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). That happens to us all from time to time, but it is easily curable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) brought considerable expertise to the debate, particularly in respect of training, which he uses so well in the service of his constituents. He made a useful speech, inveighing against the fashionable nostrums of the 1960s which caused so much damage to children's education.
I cannot forbear to mention the hon. Member for Rotherham who, thanks to the generosity of both Front Benches, made a six-minute speech. As usual, it was both witty and original, but unfortunately not simultaneously.
We then heard from the hapless shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers), who was sent to the House to spin away the ghastly mess that his party has got into in respect of child benefit. I approached today's debate as the Minister with responsibility for child support, which is a central issue.
The debate takes place against the background of the welcome further fall in unemployment that was announced this week. The reductions in the number of people out of work for a year or more and in youth unemployment are particularly welcome. Long-term unemployment is down by 80,000 on a year ago and youth unemployment is down by 64,000.
Despite the various figures that have been batted backwards and forwards today, the United Kingdom now has the lowest unemployment rate of any major European country. It is lower than that in Germany, France, Italy or Spain, and well below the 11 per cent. average for Europe. We are reaping the benefits of our trade union and supply-side reforms, our opt-out from the social chapter and the absence of a statutory minimum wage.
Today's debate underlines the key point that our world competitiveness demands a highly motivated, adaptable and well-trained work force. My hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned the modern apprenticeship scheme, which is a success story. There is strong demand for it. It is the work-based route to higher skill levels. Already, 25,000 young people are taking advantage of it. The Government are playing a supportive role—providing financial help and facilitating the partnership at national level; industry and employers are in the driving seat.
Close links between education and employment remain the key, as has been made clear in our competitiveness White Papers. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned in his opening remarks, 92 per cent. of secondary schools now have links with business, and more than 190,000 teachers have had placements in business since 1989.
When I left university—just before Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister—only one in nine people went into higher education. Now, the figure is one in three. The
Conservative party understands the role of Government in facilitating the right economic circumstances in which markets—businesses—create jobs and opportunities for young people. The Labour party does not understand that. As The Sun said so eloquently in an editorial yesterday:
Labour is full of … contradictions. Yesterday we saw another one as plans to train and find work for 16 to 25-year-olds were unveiled.
But Governments can't create jobs—only businesses can do that.
And yet Labour would cripple business with the social chapter and a minimum wage.
If we want to help young people into work, we should not introduce a national minimum wage—as my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Beaconsfield pointed out. Commentators of all political persuasions have acknowledged that a minimum wage would destroy jobs.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development studies, the International Monetary Fund world economic report and the European Community White Paper "Growth, competitiveness and employment" all acknowledge that a statutory minimum wage would have a damaging effect on employment prospects. Even the deputy leader of the Labour party has made it clear that a minimum wage would destroy jobs, yet Labour persists with this totally counter-productive proposal.
Even if people on low wages still had a job to go to, a minimum wage would be an ineffective way to help them. Most low-paid workers live in households with two, or even three, earners. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that the richest 30 per cent. of the population would gain more from a minimum wage than the poorest 30 per cent.
Conservative policies of welfare into work have proved to be successful. The growth of family credit, enhanced support of child care and the panoply of into work measures that the Government have introduced have helped people into the labour market. By contrast, Labour's policies would lead from work on to welfare, particularly for younger people, who are the subject of today's debate.
Neither would a minimum wage help people who receive in-work benefits. Many are already paid in excess of £4 an hour. In practice, a minimum wage would result in job losses that would hurt those currently in low-paid employment and hurt the taxpayer, because reduced employment inevitably leads to higher benefit bills.
As to the grotesque debacle of Labour's plans for child benefit, they are—as has been elegantly pointed out by an unholy alliance of just about everyone apart from the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor—wrong in principle, wrong in practice, based on inaccurate information and research, and likely to achieve precisely the opposite result from that intended.
We had the assertion from the shadow Chancellor that 80 per cent. of children from homes with unskilled parents do not stay on at school after the age of 16. Were that to be the case, it would be truly appalling. It was the case in 1978, after nearly four years of the last Labour Government, but the picture has changed considerably. Whereas, under Labour, only 20 per cent. of children of unskilled parents stayed on at school after the age of 16, the figure now is 56 per cent. and rising.
Having wrongly analysed the problem, Labour presented its solution—removing child benefit from 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, which would take £560 a year away from families with one child. That proposal would result in the UK being the only country in Europe not to provide help to families with 16 to 18-year-olds in non-advanced further education.
For less well-off families—the very group that Labour suggests it wants to help—the loss of child benefit could make the difference between keeping their children in education and requiring them to go out to work so that they can make a contribution to the household budget. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) pointed out in an article in the Evening Standard:
I know of many young people and families who rely on Child Benefit to help them out and enable them to continue in education. We should maintain that and put more money into education for the young.
Labour would achieve the very thing that its absurd proposal started out trying to avoid.
What was billed as an example of Labour making "tough choices" on spending is instead a spectacular example of Labour shooting itself in the foot—as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said,
not so much pay as you earn but rather pay as you learn.
It is also, effectively, an increase in taxation. Child benefit replaced child tax allowances, and the effect of Labour's proposed change, of removing £560 each year from families with one child, would be the equivalent—as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne said—of a 5p hike in income tax for families on average earnings. That is Labour's teenage tax.
The potential damage is even graver. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said:
We now need a clear statement by the party Leadership that Labour will stand by its past pledges to retain Child Benefit in full".
If the Labour party is prepared to remove child benefit for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, what is the rationale for keeping it for younger children? Children become more expensive as they get older. The hon. Member for Brent, East has rightly spotted that the withdrawal of child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds is the thin end of the wedge. There is no logical reason for paying child benefit for children of compulsory school age if it is not needed for older children, as the Labour party's leadership now apparently believes.
I shall now deal with the new suggestion from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) that child benefit should be withdrawn only from those at fee-paying schools—a suggestion that found an echo in the Chamber today. That proposal would affect about 75,000 children and save about £40 million a year. Withdrawing benefit on the basis of the type of school attended, as was subsequently suggested, would penalise parents' efforts to do their best for their children. That is a particularly nasty piece of socialist ideology that shows that the green-eyed god of envy is alive and well on the Opposition Benches and sits happily with that other act of spite promised by new Labour—abolishing the assisted places scheme, which currently helps 60,000 families.
We have seen all this in the very week when the Labour party has argued in another place that foreigners who have no right to remain in this country should be able to claim child benefit while simultaneously seeking to deny it to the parents of A-level students who have lived here all their lives.
As Labour's social security spokesman said, we need to set priorities for the social security budget. Labour has now revealed what an astonishing set of priorities it really has. Its policy on child benefit will hurt not only young people—the Opposition spokesman on social security has not enjoyed it either. On 18 April, the shadow Chancellor's team briefed the press that Labour would abolish child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds. We know that he did not consult his colleagues in the shadow Cabinet. A few days later, the Opposition spokesman on social security was in the House answering questions, and it was perfectly clear to every hon. Member that he wanted to be anywhere but here, having to defend that ludicrous and ill-thought-out policy.
All that demonstrates that a Labour Government would be an unmitigated disaster for young people. We have known about some of Labour's disastrous policies for some time. It has, for example, been committed to a minimum wage throughout the lifetime of this Parliament. I should think that, after such failures, it would now steer clear of policies designed to damage young people's prospects—but no.
On Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition announced his plan to take away more of the opportunities that we have created. He lined up the shadow Chancellor, the shadow Home Secretary and the Opposition spokesmen on education and employment and on social security. We were supposed to witness the strength of the unity of the shadow Cabinet, but—as the hon. Member for Bath said—the smiling faces did not hide the gulf between them.
On Wednesday, we witnessed the unveiling of another unthinkable policy for young people. The shadow Cabinet announced that Labour would compel every employer to train 16 to 18-year-olds on their staff for one day a week. Labour's new document states:
Everyone under 18 who does not have level two qualifications should be studying, normally off the job, for at least six hours a week or equivalent. Employers will have an obligation to ensure that this happens for their employees.
That is absurd, and it is also extremely bureaucratic. How would Labour check that every employer of a young person had trained them for the requisite number of hours? Would there be a new corps of inspectors with clipboards and stopwatches? It is not a well-thought-out policy. More important, it would be a disaster for any young person looking to learn a trade or to do an apprenticeship.
Private sector employers are training young people—including the modern apprentices I mentioned earlier—because they want to, not because they have to. Employers are, increasingly, training young people. Labour would make training compulsory and turn training young people into a cost and a burden—something that employers do because Whitehall tells them to do it—rather than an opportunity. Employers would resent training, instead of valuing it.
Employers would respond by choosing to employ people aged over 18 whom they could train in the right manner for their company rather than in the manner decided by a Labour Government. Labour would, therefore, give employers a strong reason not to take on young people.
On Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that he had a "new deal" for Britain's young people, but it is not so much a new deal as a raw deal. We can now detect the substance behind the soundbite. Under a Labour Government, fewer young people would stay on in school. Under a Labour Government, fewer young people would get jobs. Under a Labour Government, fewer young people would get the right training. Under Labour, young people would be forced to start their lives on benefit, which is hardly the best foundation for a successful working life.
Labour's rhetoric claims that its policies are about welfare to work. In fact, its policies are about work to welfare, and young people would suffer most of all. The Opposition try to have it both ways. They announce that they have all the answers for young people, and then try to shroud their policies in mystery. As my hon. Friends have asked, why is it necessary for Labour to hide its policies behind several reviews if such policies would be so beneficial? The answer is that Labour's policies would not help young people.
Labour would take away young people's chances and make it far harder for them to prepare successfully for their working lives. As this debate has shown, a Labour Government would be an unmitigated disaster for young people. We Conservatives will not hesitate to remind the electorate at every opportunity of that fact.