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Clause 2

Part of Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 5th February 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) 4:30 pm, 5th February 2008

The starting point for legislation to raise the participation age is that it should give the same expectations and opportunities to everyone, whatever  their situation, and I accept that these amendments do not seek to alter that. It should not be the case that teenage parents, young carers or any other group of young people are treated differently from the outset, with reduced aspirations and opportunities as a consequence. Providing the same opportunities for such groups of young people may bring challenges, but just because it is difficult does not mean they should be excluded. We already have a comprehensive system of support available, and we will develop it further as we move towards implementation in 2013. We will ensure there is appropriate provision in place to enable all young people to learn in a way that is suitable to their circumstances. There will be a fully flexible set of learning options, timetabling and settings available to help young parents and young carers to participate in a way that suits them.

I will talk about amendment No. 5, which deals with young carers, and amendment No. 6, which refers to young parents, but first I want to take the opportunity when I am talking of young parents to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). It is not often I can correctly name his constituency—I have often made the mistake of calling it Haringey. Given that this is the first sitting of the Committee that he has attended since he became a father, I think it is appropriate to congratulate him. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

Amendment No. 5 refers to the support available to young carers. We want to ensure that all young carers receive the support they need to participate. Our recent carers review consultations have indicated that young carers share the view that they should have the same opportunities. We are looking at a range of options to ensure that young carers can continue their education and our thinking will take account of the recommendations from the cross-Government carers review, which is under way. The measures that result may involve, for example, targeted youth support, which will provide a dedicated lead professional to help in organising support across a range of services including education, social services and Connexions. There is a range of financial support available, including educational maintenance allowance and carer’s allowance, both of which go directly to young carers.

The Government are committed to continuing to improve the provision of support available to young carers and we will examine what more can be done as we move towards implementation. I make no apologies for extending learning opportunities to that group, and talk of compulsion and penalties is misplaced. The challenge is to deal effectively with the barriers that can get in the way of their participation. We are committed to doing this and our thinking will take account of the carers review.

No-one will enter the enforcement system if there is a good reason why they are not participating. I will talk about the independent attendance panel later, but local authorities and schools will have key responsibilities to deliver the services that young carers need, local authorities will have significant resources through general funding which they can draw on; in addition, over the past nine years, they have been able to make use of the carers special grant, which is not now ring-fenced, because of the freedoms we are giving  local authorities, but which from 2008-9 will be paid as part of the area-based grant. That continued funding means that by March 2009, we will have invested more than £1.2 billion to support councils in their work with carers.

Amendment No. 6 deals with the support available to young parents. The Government have committed to having a Sure Start children’s centre in every community, where teenage parents can access a broad range of support in one place, including child care, education and training, parenting support—I am sure the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will welcome that—and health-related information, advice and treatment. Information, advice and support to help young mothers are also available through Connexions and targeted youth support services. There is a range of financial support available to young parents to help with the costs of accessing education and training, including child tax credits and child benefit, which their parents may be able to claim, and education maintenance allowance, which is means-tested and goes directly to the young person. As has been mentioned, there is also financial help available through the Care to Learn programme, which funds child care to enable young parents to return to education.

It is very important that we help this group. Teenage mothers’ rates of post-16 participation in education, employment and training are low: only about 30 per cent. of that group are in education, employment or training. Some teenage mothers who do want to return to learning are experiencing difficulties finding child care and other support. It is certainly part of our focus in continuing to address teenage pregnancy, but I say to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that there has been steady progress on reducing teenage pregnancy rates since the teenage pregnancy strategy was launched. The under-18 conception rate has fallen by 11.8 per cent. since 1998 to its lowest level for 16 years, and the under-16 rate has fallen by 12.1 per cent.

The Government are committed to continuing to improve provision as we move towards implementation. We will do everything in our power to remove the obstacles and difficulties that prevent young carers and young parents from participating in education and training post-16.