Clause 29

Part of Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 14th June 2007.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 2:30 pm, 14th June 2007

This is a useful series of amendments and new clauses, and it has enabled us to speak about the context in which the Bill will fit. The speeches so far have made those contextual points powerfully.

We should be frank about the dilemmas that we face, not as party politicians but as public policy makers. The first of three dilemmas that I want to highlight during this short debate is the conflict between the importance of investing early in a child’s life in the core skills that are necessary for all other educational progress, and the need to rescue those young people who have been failed by the system.

Dealing with that conflict is very difficult for the Government, because roughly 45,000 young people who leave school each year are functionally illiterate and/or innumerate—they are not entirely illiterate or innumerate, but they are functionally so. Many of those young people, although not all of them, will become NEETs. Much of the Government’s focus, therefore, has been on skills for life and ensuring that those young people have a second chance, and one understands why the Government have taken that view. Who could argue otherwise, and why would we not want to bring those young people back into learning? However, focusing on that problem prompts two questions. If public policy attention and resources are focused there, does that mean that there is less to spend on earlier education? Of course, the answer is yes. Moreover, does it reduce pressure on schools to ensure that those basic skills are acquired up to the age of 16?

My two little darling sons, who are aged three and six, will be taken by the state and educated for a long time; as their parent, I am legally obliged to ensure that that happens. If, at the age of 16, they could not read, write or count proficiently, I would feel cheated, and they would have been cheated. If the Government have any duty, it is surely the duty, in terms of education at least, to ensure that people end up with those core skills.

All kinds of factors affect people’s capacity to learn. Many come from altogether less charmed backgrounds than the one that I enjoyed and that I hope my children will enjoy, too. However, it is a mark of failure that, barring extreme circumstances and particular special needs, we still cannot ensure that all who enjoy a state education leave school numerate and literate. Surely we have that responsibility.

The first dilemma is about resources. Some in the primary sector will say—I am sure that the Minister has heard it said, as have you, Mr. Atkinson—“We are worried that the emphasis on the 14-to-19 age group will de-emphasise the significance of younger children.” I do not think that that is the Government’s intention. As public policy makers, we need to have an honest debate about it. I do not know the answer, but we need a serious, open-ended and even-handed discussion about the matter.

The second dilemma is highlighted in the Leitch report. In a slightly partisan fashion, may I say how disappointed I am that the Government have delayed their response to the report? We had expected and eagerly anticipated that the Prime Minister in waiting—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—perhaps the Minister and certainly the Secretary of State for Education and Skills would this week furnish the Committee and the House with their detailed response to the report, which was published last December. We are now told that the response will come later, but we do not know whether that is days, weeks or months away. It certainly is not good enough that we still do not know where the Government stand on the fundamentals of the Leitch review. I hope that the Minister will say something about it today.

That is the partisan bit over and done with; I return to my main theme. Leitch makes it clear that the demand for unskilled labour is plummeting. Although it is contested by some economists, I tend to share Leitch’s view; he argued that the demand for unskilled labour will fall radically. Indeed, he said that it will fall by 2020 to 600,000 jobs. Simultaneously, the number of NEETs, which has been referred to by members on both sides, has grown to 1.3 million—a growth of about 15 per cent. since 1997, as we heard earlier. If we take account of those young people older than 24 or 25, and consider those aged between 30 and 35, there is a substantial number of people not in work. Given the changing macro-economic profile of Great Britain, we have little chance of getting them into work unless we can get them skilled.

The second dilemma then is how much emphasis should be placed on bringing those people back into education and skilling, and how much we should concentrate on upskilling and reskilling the existing work force. Given the demographic profile, unless we do the second, we will not meet out skills targets. That is another big dilemma for the Government, and a big issue for public policy makers.

The third and final dilemma, which is relevant to these helpful amendments and new clauses, is about advice and guidance. I have come to the conclusion, in common with Lord Leitch, that we need to disaggregate the careers service from Connexions. Connexions does an important job for a particular group of young people. It is true that some young people, particularly those who are described as NEETs—not a terribly helpful term, I agree—need a multifunctional service. However, I am not sure that we have not lost something in the careers service by asking those who run it to be Jacks-of-all-trades.

We should probably maintain a service like Connexions, but have an all-age careers service running in parallel. That could be cost-effective. The cost of the old careers service was about half of what Connexions now costs us. As for the throughput of people, there has been nothing like a doubling in the number of clients. Taking into account what the Learning and Skills Council spends in addition on adult careers, we could, within the existing budget, reorganise the careers advice structure so as to deliver much better advice both to young people and to those in the work force seeking to upskill and reskill. That is why it will be Conservative policy to develop an all age career service alongside Connexions. Public policy makers will have  to address the dilemma of how much emphasis to place on the multifunctional role—dealing with people with problems—and how much to put on the careers role that is likely to affect the majority of people.

In conclusion, let me say a word about mentoring. We have heard a lot about it, and I want to mention it in relation to apprenticeships. I am sorry to raise the matter again, because I know that every time I do so, the blood pressure of the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby, of whom I am immensely fond, rockets. I do not want to cause him any unnecessary distress this late in our proceedings. However, I see that he is getting his notes out; he is preparing his weaponry for a counterattack. It is clear that there is not enough mentoring in relation to apprenticeships. Most people think of an apprentice as an eager young learner acquiring a key competence by the side of an experienced craftsman, with a serious emphasis on workplace training. It is not unreasonable to say that every apprenticeship that bears the name should be employer-engaged and mentored, with a serious element of workplace training.

When he talks of mentoring, the Minister will tell us that that happens anyway. He will say that much of my complaint is imagined. However that is not the view of the adult learning inspectorate, which has said that it is possible to complete an apprenticeship without ever having set foot in a workplace. The inspectorate undertook a survey in which it found examples of programme-led apprenticeships that were completed even though they contained no significant period of time spent in employment and little prospect of a job at the end of the programme. The survey came across some engineering apprentices completing a full framework on a six-month programme-led pathway with no period of employment and little or no work experience.

Some apprenticeships, by no means all and not in all sectors, are not mentored; many are insufficiently mentored; some have no employer engagement; and many have an inadequate workplace element. It is critical that the best of the apprenticeship system should become typical. Indeed, it should become the standard for the whole system. When we talk about mentoring, let us talk about that, and let us once again, as public policy makers, have an honest debate about it.