Careers Service (Young People)

Part of Opposition Day — [20th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 13th September 2011.

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Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Shadow Minister (Education) 9:40 pm, 13th September 2011

The Minister said earlier that he did not want to rule anything in or out regarding the right hon. Gentleman’s recommendations and I should have thought that meant an abstention in tonight’s debate to make sure that all the cards were on the table, but that does not seem to be the case. I do think that the Minister is thinking about moving in that direction and I hope that he will accept an amendment to the Education Bill—we will certainly put pressure on him as the Bill makes its way through the Lords—but it is disappointing that, in the spirit of consensus that we have seen in tonight’s debate, he cannot make more positive remarks to make sure that we get face-to-face guidance.

Two or three weeks ago, our young people got excellent GCSE and A-level results and, as hon. Members have said tonight, we should all celebrate their success. The Minister said in August that

“we have to make sure we prepare young people for the future, whether they are going onto further education, training or into the workplace.”

He reiterated that tonight by saying that it is important for young people to make the right choices in order for them to be guided in the future. We could not agree more, but it is abundantly clear that the Government are failing to do that.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has made clear, young people are facing the most difficult and turbulent prospects for at least a generation. The modern world is complex and often disorienting and is unrecognisable from what it was a few short years ago, both in its challenges and in its opportunities. The certainties that we had in the labour markets in the 1950s and 1960s when the Minister of State, Department for Education, Mr Gibb, listened to his gramophone records have gone for good. Much of that change is due to large-scale shifts in global forces, such as the economic rise of China. The present economic situation is made more difficult by the current turbulence in the global economy. I fully accept that when global aggregate demand goes down, additional pressure is placed on youth employment, but the Government’s policies are making a bad situation very much worse.

As we heard in an earlier debate today, the loss of EMA, the abolition of the future jobs fund, the scrapping of the young people’s guarantee, the trebling of tuition fees and the ending of Aimhigher have made it more difficult than ever for young people in this country to work hard, to get on and to succeed. That implicit contract that we had, in place since the post-war era and shared by successive Governments, that somehow the next generation would do better than the previous generation, is in real danger of being broken. That was made clear in an excellent contribution by my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg.

In difficult and confusing times such as these we need, now more than ever, an effective, functioning and professional careers service to support and navigate young people through the turbulence. We need a personalised service, with close links between the young person and the adviser. We need, as the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said tonight, face-to-face guidance, helping to motivate, inspire and enthuse young people in difficult times.

In the current economic difficulties, when a young person receives rejection letter after rejection letter, it is neither use nor ornament just to point them to a phone. As my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman said, IT is important but we cannot do it with technology alone. We need a professional to say to that young person, “Keep going,” or “I think you should try this,” or “This might suit you.” As my hon. Friend Julie Hilling said, we need in the careers service trusted professionals who know the young people—young people such as Thomas—who can help inspire and motivate them. Tragically, the cuts to such services mean that the professionalism and expertise of careers personnel has been lost, and lost for good.

Time and again in the debate we heard that our young people from places across the country have been denied such opportunities. We heard that from my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield and for Darlington (Mrs Chapman), who in a powerful speech expressed her concern that high-quality advice might be confined to those in fee-paying schools.

Ministers in the Department for Education pride themselves on trusting professionals in making the right decisions, but we have had in the last month the astonishing, and possibly unprecedented, situation where a Government advisory group of some 20 renowned experts and professionals considered resigning en masse in protest at the Government’s shambolic and incompetent handling of careers services for young people. Steve Higginbotham, president of the Institute of Career Guidance, blasted the Government and stated that the service

“will not be an all-age careers service. It is a rebranded Next Step service for adults plus an all-age telephone advice line and website.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, if the Government truly wish to aid social mobility and break the cycle of multigenerational worklessness or low aspiration, they need to provide all possible tools. By removing face-to-face careers guidance for all young people, they are taking one of those vital tools away.

Ministers also often cite international comparisons to support their policies. Elizabeth Truss cited those a lot tonight. But international evidence shows clearly that devolving such career advice to schools has not worked in other countries. Professor Tony Watts, giving evidence to the Education Committee, stated that in studying 55 countries it emerged that three negative things happen when it comes to school-based guidance. First, impartiality goes out of the window because schools have a direct and vested interest; secondly, there is a weakening in links with the labour market; and finally there is an unevenness in performance in schools. Professor Watts said that two countries, New Zealand and the Netherlands, have recently done what this Government are now doing, and in both cases it resulted in a significant erosion in the quality of help as well as the breadth of its extent.

I mentioned the Education Committee. In its excellent report on participation in education and training by 16 to 19-year-olds, it makes a valued point on the unease about the Government’s changes to careers. That was highlighted several times tonight. It draws attention to the fact that the Department for Education’s funding commitments to an all-age careers service consists only of online and phone services. As we heard tonight, the Select Committee makes the very clear recommendation that the Departments should fund face-to-face careers guidance for young people under the age of 18. Opposition Members very much agree.

So I ask the Minister—for the sake of his career, let alone the careers of hundreds of thousands of young people—to look again at this important matter. Will he listen to the impassioned pleas made tonight by hon. Members on both sides of the House? Will he consider the almost unanimous view of professionals? Will he take on board the Education Committee’s reasoned comments? Will he listen to what is best for young people? Will he listen again to the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and act urgently to guarantee face-to-face careers information, advice and guidance for all and not just some young people in schools? Listening to the speeches made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, that definitely seems to be the will of hon. Members tonight. I commend the motion to the House in a spirit of consensus.