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Clause 1

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 31st January 2008.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 2:45 pm, 31st January 2008

My expectations are never raised by Ministers. I am grateful for that clarification and hope that the Minister will tell us what the Department’s thinking is on those issues at a relatively early stage in our proceedings because it may save us time when dealing with later clauses. That would be helpful to us and to Ministers.

Let me set the scene in relation to some of the groups that we are concerned about in connection with compulsion. Earlier, the Minister cited some of the supporters of compulsion and some of the potential benefits, but I thought that it would waste the Committee’s time if I jumped up to mention those who have opposed compulsion. The Minister knows that many Labour Members who have a lot of experience of young people who are excluded from, or are outside, the education system, are also sceptical about whether the approach is right, particularly for the group of vulnerable young people on whom I shall concentrate when discussing amendments Nos. 70 and 77. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who represents a part of the country with one of the largest numbers of young people outside education and training, went on the record in November 2007, saying that

“the idea that deeply damaged young men and women could somehow be fined and it would make them go into education or training;—I think it’s cloud cuckoo land”.

We want to explore whether local authorities should be able to grant a waiver from the Bill’s provisions on compulsion to groups of young people for whom the requirements may be unrealistic or undesirable. We also want to consider whether we can give other types of help to young people, because we are not suggesting that the alternative is to write them off and forget about them. Even where there are entitlements, many young people are not getting effective support to help them to re-engage in education and training later on.

Notwithstanding the evidence that the Minister cited from those groups that engage with young people and support compulsion because they consider it to be a galvanising influence, we heard, as the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said, from many groups that have huge experience and are sceptical about whether compulsion is the right route. Only earlier this week, James Cathcart of the British Youth Council gave evidence to us and said that, although he could think of many young people who would be able  to engage with some of the proposals in the Bill, there would be many who, even with sanctions, would not be willing to participate.

Nigel Haynes, the chief executive of Fairbridge, also said that a large number of young people who will be affected by the clause have

“walked away from institutionalised provisions in one way or another, and they really could not give a damn. The secret is getting the commitment...to do it”— to enter into education and training—

“voluntarily.”

He also spoke about the difficulties that Fairbridge has engaging with that high-needs group of young individuals and getting them to take part in the education and training that it offers. He said that among the cohort of young people whom Fairbridge deals with, who have after all come forward voluntarily, a large number still do not succeed in engaging with the process. He said:

“In our cohort, you have got to consider what you mean by an outcome. If you can get away from throughput, statistics and ticking the box, and consider an individual’s progression in their own journey, you might be lucky to get about 60 per cent. participation—you might be lucky. That is roughly what we get voluntarily. The compulsion will not cut it”.——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 29 January 2008; c. 195-204, Q450-472.]

We heard similar comments and concerns about the group of vulnerable young people with higher needs from other witnesses. We also saw written evidence from Treehouse, the autism charity, and the Campaign for State Education, which said:

CASE believes that a group of young people who have severe personal problems or have become disenchanted with or disengaged from schooling...are unlikely to be able to benefit positively from the processes presently envisaged in the Bill.”

Other groups cited specific evidence of young people with particular characteristics that might make it difficult for them to engage in education and training. The National Children’s Bureau gave us evidence that in England in 2005, there were about 10,000 mothers under 18 years old, and that only about 30 per cent. of them were in education, training or employment. The bureau emphasised that a large number of those youngsters suffer from post-natal depression and other problems and restraints, and may prefer to have an option to start training post-19 when their child is slightly older.

We are all acutely conscious from our constituencies and experience of the fortunately small but notably high-needs minority of young people who may be parents, and may have drugs and alcohol problems, mental health problems, special needs problems or housing problems, as the Minister for Schools and Learners said in his evidence, that it will be extremely challenging for them to engage with the compulsion envisaged in the Bill. In the evidence, even from some of the bodies that were fairly supportive of the Government—for example, Barnardo’s—there was a clear indication that they wanted flexibility to allow for that group of young people, both in giving exemptions and, I assume, ensuring that provision is available that meets their needs and does not merely tick a Government box.

In her evidence, Ann Pinney from Barnardo’s said that

“there will need to be flexibility and pragmatism by the attendance panel.”

I shall not touch directly on the attendance panel issue in this debate, because we shall come to that when we discuss clauses 40 and 41. She continued:

“We hope that such issues would be covered in the guidance issued to the attendance panel. Clearly, if a young person is suffering ill health or cannot attend for a short period for another reason, flexibility is needed.”

She made the same point as another witness that

“It might be more helpful to look at it as an entitlement that they could defer if there was a compelling reason why they could not attend.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 22 January 2008; c. 14, Q31.]

The same points were made, again powerfully, by Kim Bromley-Derry, vice-president elect of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, although in the evidence from that body the suggestion was that “reasonable excuse” in the Bill was likely to be defined very narrowly, which was precisely our concern. In her evidence, Kim Bromley-Derry referred to individuals

“suffering serious emotional or mental trauma, in in-patient facilities or subject to a high level of psychiatric or psychological support.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 22 January 2008; c. 81, Q187.]

She also referred to long-term medical conditions.

I think we all know that there are many poor young people in every part of the country who might not meet a hurdle that is quite as high as that. They may not have got to the stage where they are in a mental health facility or have been sectioned, particularly in the current environment when, for both budgetary reasons and wider social reasons, there is strong pressure to keep people in the community, even when they have mental health problems. There will be many people who do not meet that quite high hurdle, but who will find it almost impossible to engage with the proposals.

Without going into any great detail, for obvious reasons, I shall give an example of a recent case in Yeovil of a young man who was essentially homeless, and was considered by the local Somerset Partnership NHS and Social Care Trust not to have mental health problems that made him sectionable. He had had drugs problems, but did not seem to have severe problems at the time. He was receiving no help from the other agencies, who did not consider him to be in such a state that they could impose that help against his wishes, yet he frankly has zero probability in the short term of engaging with the Bill’s measures, and it may take a lot of care and attention to sort out some of his issues and to get him anywhere near being able to engage in the sort of education and training that we all want.

The amendment probes whether such individuals should be given a waiver. We are keen to understand the Government’s view of the extent to which they will invite some form of waiver process that can be implemented quickly and effectively, rather than going through the complex mechanisms outlined in clauses 40 and 41.

We also wish to explore the separate issue of whether other types of support that fall outside the definition of education and training will be on offer to youngsters. I want to be clear on the position of the Minister for Schools and Learners because the evidence that he has  given on the subject has been a little unclear. In his evidence to the Committee on Tuesday, he said in answer to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton:

“I believe that we can effectively get to 100 per cent.” in take-up by the 16 and 17-year-old cohort.

“With the right levels of support for informal and formal learning, we can get to that point and achieve the cultural change that we require, particularly given that these measures do not come into effect until 2013 and 2015.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 29 January 2008; c. 207, Q477.]

But later in the sitting, he elaborated on what a reasonable excuse might mean in practice. He said:

“We have deliberately not defined it in legislation, because we think that local authorities should be able to take into account individual circumstances: the more we define it in the Bill, the less that will happen. However, we will issue guidance, as we are wont to do, to local authorities on how to interpret the provisions. Examples are: a young person who does not have a home; and suitable provision for the young person not being available, such as lack of entry to informal employment training appropriate for someone who has received full-time provision; and long-term medical treatment for a young person recovering from addictions. Those are examples of what might constitute a reasonable excuse.”——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 29 January 2008; c. 209, Q482.]

That raises as many questions as it answers, which is perhaps understandable at this stage. The fundamental question is whether the guidance will be pragmatic and allow for a large number of types of exception to deal with the concerns that the Opposition have, or whether it will be narrowly defined, as local authorities appear to anticipate. It appears that there will be very high hurdles to be cleared.

The opinion of the local authorities appears to be supported by the Minister’s evidence, which was that he thought we could get close to 100 per cent. I suggest to him that a potentially large number of people will have needs that, although not of the extreme type described by the local authorities in their evidence, are extreme enough to make it difficult to engage with them. The amendment invites the Committee not only to consider that matter at an early stage in the Bill’s progress, but to consider whether a more effective and faster route is needed to deal with such individuals and recognise their problems, rather than taking them through the attendance notice process, with its appeals and enforcement mechanisms.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the group of people that he talked about the other day in the second part of his evidence—the homeless and people with medical and mental health problems—could be a large rump, if I can put it that way, of the 10 per cent. that we will be left with. Local authorities and others may find it extremely difficult to engage with those young people, who, sadly, in the rather fractured society that we have today, are found in large numbers across a large part of the country. We want local authorities to deal with them consistently. We need it to be clear in the Bill how flexible the Government are willing to be, because we are worried about the potential effects of a sledgehammer Bill on young people who deserve to be dealt with differently, but may not be if the Government are seeking to get to 100 per cent.

My other point touching on whether there should be a waiver certificate to be issued by a local authority relates to what obligation in respect of education and training will be set out in the Bill and the extent to which that will be flexible. If it is flexible, we might not need a waiver. If it is very inflexible, and education and training can take place only in educational and training settings, we probably need a waiver. I am unclear from what the Minister has said, and from what is in the Bill, whether other options will be available that will meet the needs of the very high-need group of young people who will not be ready to engage with education and training in any formal sense.

That point was made by James Cathcart, the chief executive of the British Youth Council, in the evidence session on Tuesday. He invited the Committee to consider a fourth choice, saying:

“That does not necessarily need to be nothing, but it might be an opportunity for young people to do other constructive activities that have been so stimulated”.

He mentioned volunteering. He also said:

“If the choices are the first three or a sanction, I think that is where it feels rather limiting. I know that, indeed, in a lot of the research done prior to the Bill, many other options are explored and arguments put on both sides——[Official Report, Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, 29 January 2008; c. 192, Q444.]

It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s views on that, and to know to what extent the options available in the Bill will include, for example, medical and other support, not simply to go alongside the education and training obligations, but potentially to tackle the problems that young people have before they engage in education.

When we touched on that issue earlier today—although it seems a lot earlier—the Minister intervened and mentioned and the obligation in clause 4 that an individual should be in full-time education or training

“at a school, at a college of further education, at an institution within the higher education sector or otherwise.”

He invited us to think that “or otherwise” was quite a significant concession because it implied that it might be in a much more flexible setting with a great deal of additional support. However, if we go further into the Bill and look, for example, at clauses 40 and 41 which deal with the way in which attendance notices will be applied, it appears to be more prescriptive regarding the young person’s obligation to be in education and training per se.

I suggest that, as regards the practicalities of the Bill, the Minister would command a lot more support from people from all parts of the House if he was offering not only the entitlement and obligation to be in education and training, but another option, which would not be the one that he described earlier of staying in bed under the blankets.