Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Clause 1

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:00 pm on 31st January 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 1:00 pm, 31st January 2008

That is a harsh judgment from the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I should have said that my response will bear even less relation than usual to the thoughts of the person who intervenes on me.

I was saying that NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training—whose number has grown so dramatically and tragically, face a cocktail of circumstances that are of grave concern to those of us who take an interest in these matters, as all hon. Members in this Committee do. The first ingredient of that cocktail is the declining demand for unskilled labour. Lord Leitch, in his report, is clear about that, as the Minister and others will know. I have his report somewhere, but I know it off by heart. He says that demand for unskilled labour will fall by 2020 to some 600,000 jobs. There are debates about the detail, but what is certain is that he is right about the trend, so if people do not have skills, they face a decreasing likelihood of being employed. It is worth saying that in the 1960s there were probably 3 million to 4 million unskilled jobs in the United Kingdom. The feature of an advanced economy is that it needs advanced skills, and the future of the British economy is in high-tech high-skilled industry.

The second ingredient of the cocktail is the high levels of illiteracy and innumeracy, by which I mean functional illiteracy and innumeracy, which were discussed  at some length both this morning and during the evidence sessions. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, who is not in his place, has, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said, done the Committee proud in focusing on that matter, because it is critical to our discussions about skills and post-16 education. I shall make three points about that specifically.

First, of course there is a relationship between the problems that have been mentioned and methodology. My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has made something of a personal crusade of his passion for synthetic phonics, but he does so knowing that the way in which we teach people to read, write and calculate is critical to their success. He is right to say that there was a period when those fundamentals were neglected.

I do not take the view that there is a single method of teaching people those core skills that should prevail in all circumstances. I am a fan, as I guess you are, Mr. Bayley, of “Janet and John”; you will remember them from your childhood. I am a fan of those “Look and See” books—which we all enjoyed—not simply because of the marvellous old-fashioned imagery that they contain, which is useful for inculcating certain values in children—my children are benefiting from that—but because look and see has a place in the business of teaching children to read. We may disagree on this, but I take the view that we need to apply a range of methodologies—those most suited to the individual child and that child’s progress. That is true across the subject range.

When training to teach history—it was in the relatively recent past; the Committee will know that I am a mere stripling—I was disappointed to find that the chronology of history was so out of fashion that the dominant orthodoxy was built around the teaching of themes, with almost no reference to the progress of history. We need to teach the themes of history and its chronology. Similarly, in the words of the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, there is a marriage between teaching skills and transmitting a body of knowledge.

There is truth in what my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton says. Although some of us believe in that marriage, for a long time the chronology of history, the core elements of core skills—the body of knowledge—was neglected by our education system. It gave way to what my hon. Friend describes as an ideological concentration on a range of progressive methods. Although it is certainly true that we should take a balanced view about these matters, the balance of argument tips in favour of my hon. Friend, given the history of the past 40 years.

The third ingredient in the cocktail—the first being the decline in demand for unskilled labour and the second high levels of functional literacy and numeracy—is the import of large numbers of unskilled migrant workers. It is a myth that most of the people we import into Britain are skilled. Most of them are not skilled in the way that we would wish; for example, many do not have language skills, and many have to acquire skills on arriving here. However, that is not necessarily or implicitly a bad thing.

There has always been a demand for itinerant labour in my constituency because its economic profile is heavily weighted towards agriculture, horticulture and  the food industry. Nevertheless, the NEETs, who are central to our consideration, are competing with more people than ever for fewer unskilled jobs because of the number of migrants. Even in a constituency such as mine, which has a profile of low skills and high employment, unemployment among the indigenous population is rising. That is bound to be injurious to community cohesion, as it will breed resentment, particularly among young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who cannot get their foot on the employment ladder.

That is the cocktail faced by NEETs, and it is one to which public policy makers must pay regard. In doing so, it is legitimate that we debate whether compulsion is necessary to encourage the type of re-engagement that we all seek in order to give people the skills that they need to gain work, to access further educational opportunities and to engage in training. However, compulsion surely must be a last resort.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Yeovil that it is what young people want that really matters, and not what they ought to do or be. Unless we can encourage in them a thirst for learning or an appetite for training, I suspect that our endeavours will be unsuccessful. That encouragement depends upon a curriculum that they perceive to be relevant—relevant in terms of economic need and the skills base required to meet that need—and one by which they are inspired to progress. Good teachers have always understood that: good schools and good teachers inspire learners.

I am not sure that the case has yet been made convincingly that the alternative to obliging people to stay on would be fruitful. Having said that, I have no philosophical problem with the measure; some do—I suspect that the hon. Member for Yeovil does. His is a perfectly laudable and defensible position. I do not have a big philosophical problem with compulsion—at least not at core—because the arguments for liberty are often exaggerated.