Clause 29

Part of Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 14th June 2007.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Yvette Cooper, Minister of State), Department for Communities and Local Government 2:15 pm, 14th June 2007

I rise to support the amendments and new clauses in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.

It is worth bearing in mind that the present provisions relate to the transition at the age of 16 from formal schooling and education to post-16 education—the 16-to-19 phase and above. As a country, we spend a lot of time focusing on the needs of young people as they move from primary to secondary school—from key stage 2 to key stage 3. The Government and the Department for Education and Skills have recognised the problems of transition, and a lot of new ideas are being implemented to deal with the transition from key stage 2. Is it not therefore about time that we paid more attention to what happens to young people at the end of the key stage 4, when they leave school to move into the adult world?

The idea that we need to do something is supported by evidence showing that too many people still leave school at 16, or nearly 17. They then become NEETs, which I always think is an unfortunate name for those who are not engaged in education, employment or training, because it sounds slightly insulting. The other interesting point is that many of the young people who end up as one of those unfortunate statistics do so after a further year of formal education. It is when people reach 17, or in some cases nearly 18, that the figures start to rise, and that is certainly the case in my area. That says something about the lack of support that exists for young people once they move on from formal school and education. We therefore need to do something, and I am pleased to see the proposals before us.

Let me briefly remind the Committee of why we need to do something. It is not only that such a situation represents a terrible waste of the talent and abilities of the individuals concerned or of the opportunities available to society, but that the country cannot afford to lose such abilities, because—it is worth making this point over and over again—we are competing in a global economy. This country can succeed internationally only if its people are sufficiently skilled to allow it to stay ahead of the field and at the competitive edge of international markets. For that reason alone—to ensure the future prosperity of our country and of all our young people as they move through adult life—it is important that we put all the necessary measures in place from year 10 onwards, and indeed earlier, so that we get things right.

New clause 3 is particularly useful because it implies that the measures outlined need to be clearly in place pre-16, and I would argue that a seamless programme of support should be available to young people from year 7 or 8 onwards. It also implies the need for clear collaboration to ensure that crystal clear career pathways are available to young people once they are in secondary education so that they no longer have a sense of confusion, as they often do at the moment, about what they should do next, what options they should pursue from year 9 onwards and what they should do once they leave school.

Clear career routes and professional pathways are a critical part of a young person’s education, and new clause 3 suggests to some extent the steps that are necessary to ensure that we get all that right. Several local authorities across the country are already working hard on the issue, and the 14-to-19 work that is going on in places such as Knowsley, Wolverhampton and Sheffield is fantastic. The Government need to learn from all that, and they are indeed doing so, but they need to continue learning and putting in place measures to address the issues as they arise. To some extent, that is what new clause 3 does.

New clause 4 is equally important. It is not just that young people do not go on at 16 or drop out of full-time education or employment and training at 17, they sometimes get on the wrong courses. That is a big issue in FE.

I know that because I have been there and I have seen young people on the wrong courses. I know of the pressures that force tutors to encourage young people to take up places on courses because they are desperate to make up their numbers. That is just not on. In the end it is a short-term measure which unravels because the young people end up dropping out. They are not in the right place and they are not doing the right course. That is one of the reasons why at age 17 the numbers of young people classed as NEETs rise.

There is a need for independent information, advice and guidance. Let us get the concept of independence clearly on the table. It is extremely important. It is important to have mentors for other reasons. Many young people between the ages of 16 and 19 are incredibly ambitious. They are much more ambitious than my generation ever was. They are keen to earn money and to get the things that we never thought of having until we were in our early 20s. A lot of young people want to buy a car. They want to enjoy life. When I was 17 I thought that I would enjoy life when I was a bit older and earning the money to do it.

When I was a tutor I often found that young people came into college in the morning absolutely shattered. They were almost falling asleep because they had been working at the local Morrisons on the night shift. That is a real issue in many parts of the country. The education maintenance allowance has done a great deal to address that problem, but let us not underestimate how ambitious many young people are to have money in their pockets. That is a very good thing, but we need mentors to ensure that young people are advised about the importance of getting the right balance between work, study and play.

That balance is encouraged very well in university and higher education institutions, but it is almost non-existent in FE. Usually it is down to the tutor to say to the young person, “Come on, you are doing too much here. You need to hold back a bit. Your studies are suffering. Cut down your hours and let us get this sorted out.” That is a very difficult message to pass on to a young person, especially one from a deprived background where there is no parental income to supplement their lifestyle. These are the people whom we need to help the most.

New clause 5 is very close to my heart. Young people with special educational needs and severe disabilities are almost completely ignored by the post-16 education system. Improvements have been made in recent years, but they tend to be piecemeal. In Sheffield, the special school for young people on the autistic spectrum and with communication disorders has established a relationship with the FE college and developed pathways post-16 for a number of young people on that spectrum. However, provision is not comprehensive, because the support mechanisms are not in place for children post-16 with special needs. That area of SEN provision that has been neglected for a long time, and the new clause is a start to the process of looking seriously at the issue.

A great deal has been done in recent years on SEN. In Sheffield, our special schools have been almost completely rebuilt. The programme is almost complete, so I want it on the record now that the Government  have done a great deal to help SEN education in terms of the buildings and the range of options that we offer young people through to the age of 16. Now, having congratulated the Government on that record, I say that it is time to start thinking about that post-16 period, because it has been neglected for a long time. The problem has not begun to occur recently, because it has been happening for generations.

Attitudes have moved on: 20 or 30 years ago nobody gave much thought to what happened to young people once they left school at 16 if they were disabled or had serious learning difficulties. It was all right for them to stay at home watching television all day and for parents and carers to have to cope with all that. Society has moved on, however, and we are now not prepared to tolerate such a waste of a young person’s life or the strain that such responsibilities can put on parents and carers. It is now time to address the particular needs of that section of the school population.