My Lords, I too warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for this opportunity to think how we can be less wasteful of the full potential of our 14 to 19 year-olds. I also record my appreciation and thanks for the news in the Budget that there will be further consistent investment, particularly in teachers. Various speakers have mentioned the distinction between GCSEs, GCEs and vocational qualifications. Yesterday, I was reminded of the work of Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa, which does an outstanding job in ensuring that children in residential care do far better than many of their peers in education. Its education officer insists that her children get GCSEs because they see it as the gold standard. There is a danger that if the dichotomy continues, such thinking will continue, but I recognise that the problem is difficult to address.
I would like to pursue two themes. The first is the importance of concentrating on the potential of the children and allowing them to fulfil their capacity, and the danger of unintentionally slipping towards an emphasis on what employers need. It is welcome that employers are so involved, but we should not think too narrowly about simply skilling up a child to do a particular job. I do not see that in the papers that have been produced so far, but there might be that danger.
The second theme that I wish to pursue is that of engagement. Many of your Lordships have addressed that already. I think particularly of children in local authority care. I was looking at a website for the Department of Health about Quality Protects. It must have been two or three years old, but it said that 75 per cent of children aged more than 14 in care were not in education. I find that incredible, but the Minister has recognised in the past that our education system has badly let down those children. That has been exacerbated by the lack of investment historically in care, foster care and residential child care.
I welcome the thrust of both the reports in terms of really concentrating on engaging young people. Tomlinson says in his report, with regard to the principle that he adopts:
"What is apparent to us, particularly by looking at successful 14–19 systems abroad, is that vocational learning is not just a matter of contributing skills to the economy, nor of providing opportunities to young people who find difficulty with academic subjects—though it can do both of these things. Soundly-based vocational education is an absolutely key feature in the education project itself as it is capable of attracting large numbers of young people to participate in, and attain at, advanced level study".
It is very important that we want to retain the young people in education for longer periods, with a broader education than we currently allow them so that they can fulfil their potential and realise their full capacities.
The other point to which I would like to refer in Tomlinson's report is on the quality of teaching. It states:
"The quality of learning depends heavily on the quality of teaching. Time would enable teachers, lecturers and trainers to do more of what they do best—that is to inspire learners by delivering a varied, relevant and interesting curriculum in ways that motivate them".
Tomlinson is referring to his paring down of the assessments referred to by other noble Lords. I recognise that the Government still intend to move somewhat in that direction, but not nearly so far as he intended. I would welcome hearing from the Minister whether he will give careful thought to whether there is no further that he can go in reducing the level of assessment of pupils from 14 to 19. As has been said, we may have the most tested pupils in Europe at least. Perhaps more should be done in that direction. However, I welcome the investment that the Government are making in teachers and supporting teachers better, so that they can work more effectively in the front line. The recent education Act frees teachers from some of the burden of bureaucracy that has prevented them being creative in engaging with young people.
I shall refer briefly to the Government's report. Under the heading:
"A new means of re-engaging the disaffected", it states:
"We need a strong work-focused route designed specifically to motivate those 14–16 year-old young people who are at the most risk and who we know would be motivated by a different learning environment . . . We will therefore develop and pilot a strongly work-focused programme aimed at those with serious barriers to re-engagement".
I bear in mind what my noble friend Lord Northbourne said on that but, on the face of it, I warmly welcome it, so long as it is of good quality. I note what the Social Exclusion Unit's recent report, Transitions, states about socially excluded young people—that those in the poorest areas tend to have a short-term view of life. I very well see that a young person in school might not see the point of it. To have one day a week in a workplace can really motivate them to continue in their studies and develop basic skills at least before they leave. We have far too many people who are functionally illiterate, so I welcome the Government's response.
I would make one further point. The Social Exclusion Unit's report into teenage pregnancies had a very important, one might say principal, finding: girls choosing to have children in their teens had extremely low aspirations. They saw no prospects in their life for any future apart from maternity. I am confident that if we could engage more girls in education, by finding them interesting, engaging courses, then we would have a lower teenage pregnancy rate. It is far too high as it currently stands.
To conclude, I was dismayed, working on the recent Criminal Justice Bill, as we further discussed the anti-social behaviour orders, that we were making it easier for these to be used on children as young as 10. We were making it easier for them to be photographed, named and their addresses given in the local newspaper. One would also see the tabloids and national press picking these photographs up and publishing them on occasion. In my view, we have been far too quick to punish in the past, and we have been far too slow in supporting families and children. I welcome what the Government are doing, but if one considers that we have the highest number of children in custody of any of our neighbours in Europe, if we think of the numbers of women in custody—which have rocketed in recent years—we need to be more pro-active in engaging young people.
I also hope that the forthcoming youth Green Paper will say how we will invest further in youth services. We do not have a statutory youth service in our country. It has long been neglected. I look forward to the Minister's response.