In 1996–97—the latest year for which figures are available—the proportion of 16-year-olds participating in education was lowest in Salford at 57 per cent. and highest in Kingston-upon-Thames at 97 per cent. Unfortunately, information on school leavers entering higher education is not available by local authority area.
My hon. Friend will know that, in places such as Burnley, the number of school leavers going on to further and, ultimately, higher education is much lower than the national average, and that there are repercussions for towns where there is a lower than average take-up of education at the higher levels. How well does my hon. Friend think that the Government's initiatives to encourage more people throughout the country to go on to further and higher education are working? Does he propose to take any further action to encourage more people to take up those forms of education?
The dual objectives at the centre of the Government's education and training policy are to raise the competitiveness of the British economy through increasing the skills base of the work force, and to end social exclusion. My hon. Friend should take heart and realise that the problems faced by the youngsters in his constituency are a central feature of our objectives. Without taking up too much time, I should like to run through some initiatives.
Learning partnerships are very much at the centre of the battle to improve standards; we are bringing together training and enterprise councils, local government careers services and further education. We are setting local targets and persuading people, by every possible means, to reach the objective of increasing numbers. We are in the second year of the new start scheme, whereby schools, careers services and further education colleges are attempting to bring vocational education into schools for 14 to 17-year-olds. There is retargeting in the careers service so that it can work more closely with individuals who are in danger of falling out of the system. That is working extremely well. We have introduced legislation to ensure that there is a right to time off for study for 16 and 17-year-olds who have not reached an acceptable educational level. Without straining your patience too far, Madam Speaker, briefly, those are some of the things that we are doing.
Does the Minister accept that the percentages relating to school leavers depend on what has been going on in the schools? Is he aware that a local Staffordshire newspaper unequivocally stated, "Our schools betrayed", next to a picture of the Prime Minister? Does that not demonstrate that local newspapers and, indeed, local people are profoundly concerned, in the run-up to the local elections, about the way in which schools have been betrayed by this Government? Is the Minister aware that the standard spending assessment in Staffordshire is a complete disgrace, and that there is no reasonable comparison between what is going on there and in other counties, such as Hertfordshire?
Is the Minister also aware that there has been a Cabinet decision—in which the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Employment were intimately involved—which means that there will be no changes whatever in the SSA for the next three years, and that that is admitted by the Department for Education and Employment? A Cabinet decision has been made for which the Government are responsible—they have betrayed our schools.
It is a delight to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about something that is not Europe-based. I have been a Member of the House for several years and saw how the previous Government operated. The Labour Government are the first Government to approach post-16 education with the understanding that what happens to youngsters at the age of six months relates to where they will be at the age of 16.
We are struggling to deal with the problems of the post-16 age group: there are 5 million people in the community who have no basic skills, and 7 million without accreditation in the work force. Through the work of my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, we have put together an integrated set of policies targeted on improving standards in schools, so that the post-16 problems do not exist because we have dealt with the disease, not the symptoms.