Clause 29

Part of Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:24 pm on 14th June 2007.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills 3:24 pm, 14th June 2007

As I was saying, I would be the first to acknowledge that we need to do more. We are planning to publish this summer a set of standards—covering information, advice and guidance—to ensure that all young people benefit from high quality advice and  guidance wherever they are, and that the standard of the services with which they are provided is consistently high across the country, although they will be differentiated to meet the needs of individuals. We are keen to spread best practice.

Funding and responsibility for Connexions is migrating from the Connexions partnerships to local authorities, a process that we expect to be complete by next April. That, combined with the introduction of quality standards for information, advice and guidance, will further strengthen the services that young people receive.

That was the most important part of the debate. Let me now respond to some of the specifics, particularly mentoring. One example of effective practice that we want to encourage is that of transition mentors. In that model, an adult who has been supporting a young person in school stays with him across the transition, continuing to work with him at the start of post-16 learning. A number of areas are already using that approach. The mentor can be based in a school, college, Connexions service, local business or community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough raised some important issues in terms of transition at the end of key stage 4. One of the most significant things that we have to consider—as she knows, we are doing so—is raising the compulsory education and training age. For far too long, we have allowed 16-year-olds to lose all contact with the world of education and training. That is crazy. We have to ensure that we make the right offering available. That is why the expansion of apprenticeships and the roll-out of diplomas is crucial. When one considers that education and training until the age of 18 was first proposed in this country in 1918, and that it appeared in Butler’s Education Act in 1944, the fact that that is still not the situation today is lamentable. That is why we are pressing for it so strongly.

Other hon. Members have talked about information, advice and guidance. We need to ensure in that regard that we lay a responsibility on the further education provider to consult not only existing learners but potential ones—those who are not yet in the system—to ensure that college provision, courses and the way in which the system operates genuinely cater for their needs. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made the point that functional illiteracy and innumeracy do not amount to people not being able to read, write and add up. That is important; sometimes such terms are misunderstood. He also, rightly, called for further improvements in the school system. I, too, want improvements to continue. However, we need to acknowledge the progress that has taken place. I have observed it particularly in my constituency, where 10 years ago 28 per cent. of young people gained five A to C grades at the age of 16. Today, the figure is 58 per cent. That represents thousands upon thousands of young people whose life chances have improved.

The hon. Gentleman also asked specifically about the Government’s response to Leitch. I assure him that that response will come very soon. However, we were right to separate the response to Leitch from the important announcement that I have been involved with elsewhere in London during the gap between  Committee sittings—along with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby, the Chancellor, the Secretary of State and Digby Jones. That was the launch of the skills pledge, the incredibly important process by which employers up and down the country sign up to commit to educate and train their employees to level 2. That will be hugely important in changing the culture of education and training in this country, and I hope that it will be welcomed across the House.

There has also been a lot of reference to NEETs. It is important to make it clear that the proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training has remained fairly constant at about 10 per cent. for the past 10 years. We have made progress: more than three quarters of 16-year-olds are in full-time education or training. That is the highest proportion ever. However, the situation is not static—those in the NEETs category include people on gap years, mothers looking after children and young people between jobs and courses. We cannot simply say that there is a permanent 10 per cent. who are excluded from the system. Nevertheless, there are causes for concern, and we are setting ourselves tough and challenging targets to reduce the figure further.