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Clause 1

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:30 pm on 31st January 2008.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 1:30 pm, 31st January 2008

Let me take this opportunity, as others have done, to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bayley, now that we are moving into the more traditional setting for a Public Bill Committee. Obviously, I extend the same welcome to Mr. Bercow. We all look forward to serving under what you have already shown to be your most sensitive and astute guidance. You will ensure that we remain on the subject that we are supposed to be talking about, as far as that is possible for Members of Parliament.

I also welcome the shadow Ministers. I was first appointed to my position as Minister of State with responsibility for schools at 5.30 pm on a Friday, and I was in Committee—probably in this room—at about 9.30 am the following Tuesday. We were considering the Education and Inspections Bill, and I was most grateful for the indulgent way in which my comments were scrutinised in those early sittings, as I strove rapidly to get up to speed with what on earth it was I was supposed to be talking about. I look forward to working in that spirit again with the hon. Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and for South Holland and The Deepings.

It is also a pleasure to debate these issues with my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Yeovil. It is a great pleasure that other members of the Committee will be able to add their wisdom and their obsessions.  Indeed, we heard a bit of both this morning, and I was particularly struck by the expertise with which my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli was able to draw on her experience as an inspector and a teacher. I was most pleased that she was on my side, rather than on the other. I look forward to working with the Minister from the other Education Department, the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, who will be working with me as the Committee proceeds.

I assume that we will not have a stand part debate on the clause, so I will make some relatively brief comments on it. I will then address the debate in all its glory and then briefly and directly address the amendment. It has long been our ambition as a nation for our young people to continue in learning until they are 18. As we heard on Second Reading, the Education Acts 1918 and 1944 stated that young people should continue their education, at least part-time, until the age of 18, although those provisions were never implemented. It is time to make a reality of this historical ambition; the school leaving age was last raised in 1972 and the world has changed a great deal since then. That is not to say that we should again be raising the school leaving age, but we should be raising the age at which people should be continuing to participate in educational training.

We have heard many of the arguments in favour of that. We know that continuing in learning post-16 has significant benefits for individuals, for the economy, for society, and increasing participation post-16 is therefore already one of the Government’s key priorities in education. We know that young people who continue in education or training are more likely to gain further qualifications by 18 than those who go into jobs without training or drop out altogether. People with qualifications find it easier to gain and keep employment, and earn more over their lifetime than those without. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for quoting some of the statistics on the extra earnings that people get just by securing level 2 qualifications. The individual benefits in turn translate into gains for employers and the economy as a whole.

Our ambition is to realise those benefits for all young people. Every young person has the right to start their adult life equipped with the knowledge, skills and attributes that they will need to succeed. Without compulsory participation, the young people who are least likely to participate voluntarily are likely to be those who are already the most disadvantaged and therefore have the most to gain. I will return to the issue of compulsion, as that is the main subject that we are discussing, once I have addressed the wide-ranging issues in the debate. I will be arguing that compulsion should be a last resort, in agreement with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, but that beyond the effect that it might have on individuals in motivating them, more importantly, there is a galvanizing effect on the whole system and a cultural effect, much in the same way as seat belt legislation changed the culture around road safety. In that case it took a little while for some of the true impacts to be felt—if that is not too much of a pun—but it has reduced the extent of injuries on our roads and has been successful in changing driving culture.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton gave an interesting and wide-ranging speech. Much of it focused on the importance of pre-16 learning and improving the quality of education even further than we have already done over the last 10 years, to ensure that all learners have more momentum through their learning, to take them past 16 and carry on until they are 18. He quoted, as he did when I was questioned by the Committee last Tuesday, research from the National Foundation for Educational Research. That research found evidence that there are benefits to increased voluntary participation in education and in training. It found evidence that there are benefits to increased compulsory participation in education. I concede that there is currently no evidence of benefits to compulsory part-time training, but equally, there is no evidence to suggest that there is no effect—there is no evidence either way. If we are an international trailblazer in the area, I am not shy about it: I am proud that we lead the way. As other countries continue a trend of legislating in the area, between now and when the legislation comes into effect, we will seek to learn from their experience. The hon. Gentleman also said that he was not convinced by the causal link between teenage pregnancy and non-participation. We do not claim a causal link, only that non-participants are more likely to experience teenage pregnancy. Education increases aspiration, and rates of teenage pregnancy are a pretty good measure of low aspiration among the young people concerned.

You will be amazed to hear, Mr. Bayley, that we discussed issues about whether people were reading and writing well enough when they left school. I hope to have dealt with some of that through interventions, but I can add that there are a huge number of things that will happen with regard to the reform of the pre-16 school system between now and 2013, when the measures for young people start to bite. For example, at primary level we have introduced the Every Child a Reader programme. We are rolling out the Letters and Sounds programme developed by Sir Jim Rose, which I know is supported by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, given his obsessive advocacy of synthetic phonics. I was surprised to hear that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was not such a rigid advocate of synthetic phonics and saw merit in some of the other options, but I am sure that that difference will be resolved on the Conservative Front Bench. Perhaps he was not speaking officially at that point.

As well as those, and many other changes at primary level, we will introduce personal tutors in order to improve the transition between primary and secondary education as set out in the children’s plan. Those tutors will be a constant thread that will run through the secondary school career of young people to assist the communication between home and school. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli talked effectively about her concern that the individuals in the class who miss out will be those that the teacher does not notice, those that keep quiet and keep out of the way. The introduction of personal tutors alongside the progression pilots that we are working on will ensure that a light shines on every child in the country and that they progress through their secondary education.