Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to take part in a debate which will, I hope, rise above semantics. I do not know whether “initiation” is a partial word or not; I suppose it depends very much on what ceremonies one has undergone earlier in life.
This debate takes place in the context of a crisis of confidence in our education system and, more broadly—if I may pick a few headings at random—in our society’s ability to raise children so that they achieve, enjoy life, are safe and healthy, make a contribution, and go on to prosper. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables to which the Government frequently refer indicate that, on a comparative basis, this country’s performance has declined.
The first 10 years of the last Government, between 1997 and 2007, preceded the credit crunch. I should it put on record, in my party’s interests, that the period of solid economic growth between those years had begun in 1992. During that period, the number of young people aged 16 to 24—pick your age range—who were not in employment, education or training remained about level, but once the credit crunch arrived it spiralled up, and now as many as 1 million young people may not be in apprenticeships, at college, at school or in a job. That is a pretty tragic situation.
I have always believed that those who seek a crude proxy to measure the effectiveness of an education system should consider not so much the outcomes of those who go to Oxbridge—important though that is—or those who go to universities in general as the number of young people who end up as NEETs. We engage in an annual argument about whether exams are becoming easier, and how we are placed in comparative terms. I used to point out to Labour Ministers in the
Select Committee that existed under the last Government that the system of which education forms a part was intended to deliver Every Child Matters outcomes, and to ensure that young people were able to go on to prosper in life. They cannot do that—and, indeed, they are signally failing to do it—if they end up as NEETs.
As I have said, those who seek the best proxy to measure the effectiveness of society’s systems for bringing up children—which, I suppose, include families—should consider the number of NEETs. That number is at a record high, and we need to tackle it. However, we are also concerned about social mobility, and the fact that our record on teenage pregnancy, fatherless households, drug use and other issues connected with social breakdown and social failure is not good in comparison with the records of other European countries.
The intellectual running under the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government seems, ironically enough, to be being made largely by current and former Labour Members of Parliament. I am pleased to see that Mr Field is present. Whether we cite the Field report, the Allen report on early intervention or Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility, it is clear that a huge amount of work is being done, which indicates a general consensus in the House that we should try to become more effective.
The Select Committee produced its report as the Labour Government moved towards their target for full service delivery, which was at least 3,500 centres. I believe that there are now more than 3,600. Having initially established children’s centres in the most deprived parts of the country, the Government wanted to ensure that they existed in every part of the country. While it is fair to say that they wanted to provide a universal service, their rationale for taking Sure Start everywhere was the need to reach the poorest and most disadvantaged children in areas that were not themselves generally disadvantaged. They recognised that if they focused only on the most disadvantaged areas, many children elsewhere would be missed out.
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