Clause 7

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 7th February 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Relevant period

Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

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)

What a delight it is to see you in your place, Mr. Bercow, and to be serving under your guidance this afternoon.

Clause 7 defines the relevant period, and says when it starts and finishes. We had a fascinating discussion about that. In particular, we explored the scenario posed by the hon. Member for Yeovil about what happens when a course collapses, in his phrase, and whether that would lead to a decision from an attendance panel and whether the collapse of a course would be a reasonable excuse. I do not intend to detain the Committee, suffice it to deal with that scenario. Hopefully, we will then decide on the clause, which I obviously recommend to the Committee.

If a person’s part-time training collapsed while they were in full-time work, the case would not of course go anywhere near an attendance panel, because support would kick in at that point—enforcement would be inappropriate, assuming that no other appropriate course was available. The relevant period stops when the young person stops participating in full-time education or an apprenticeship, or when the next academic year begins. It would not be suspended if a course is withdrawn. If that happened, the learning provider or Connexions would help to provide an alternative. While a person is receiving help or waiting for the identified alternative course to begin, they would not be subject to enforcement action, because they would have a reasonable excuse and because the local authority cannot take any such action unless a young person has been given adequate opportunity to participate voluntarily. Clearly, the absence of an alternative suitable course would mean that a person has not been given adequate opportunity to participate voluntarily, so no enforcement action would be taken. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Committee.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister, and I welcome you back to the Chair for this afternoon’s sitting, Mr. Bercow.

The Minister helpfully clarified some of his comments, but I wish to press him a little further. He said that if someone’s course collapses, which would mean that  they were no longer compliant with the education and training requirement, they would be helped to find an alternative by the education provider. Does he accept that in a rural area, for example, there might not be an alternative provider within a reasonable distance? There is a real issue about what alternative provision might be in such a situation. The expectations of a young person who is interested in some specific course or support that was offered through a college might be different from the alternatives.

There are examples in my constituency where, on a number of occasions, courses have not got off the ground or they have fallen through part way through the year. I have received letters from people who are very upset at having lost that provision and who clearly do not feel that a reasonable alternative has been offered. I am not sure that I want those people to be pushed back into an alternative that is specified by the college or by a local authority as suitable, because that might not meet the needs of the young person.

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)

It will be incumbent on the local authority—clause 10 specifies the authorities’ duty to promote fulfilment—to ensure that an alternative is appropriate. People should not be compelled to take up an inappropriate offer of education or training made by their advisers.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I understand the Minister’s point, but it does not necessarily reassure us that, in areas where the breadth of provision might not be as wide as we would like, viable alternatives will be available that young people want to take up. I am still unsure whether enforcement action would be taken if a course fell through in the mid-year period or even early in the conventional academic year. What if no other course was on offer that matched the original needs of the young people and there was not to be another course until at least the new academic year when, say, a new teacher might be in place? Would those young people be required against their wishes to enter another course for a time instead of waiting until the new course was established in the new academic year?

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)

If no other relevant training or education was available that was appropriate to the young person, enforcement action could not be taken. As soon as the matter reached the attendance panel, it would throw it out as the young person having had reasonable excuse for not fulfilling his duty.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I do not want to labour the issue, but the Minister puts local authorities in a difficult position. He referred to relevant education and training. Who is to say whether it would be relevant for a young person with aspirations in a particular career sector, and who was looking for particular education and training, suddenly to discover that the course that they wanted, had been offered or were, perhaps, on, folded and, instead of being offered a course relevant to their needs, they were offered something that sounded to the education provider and local authority to be something that they would expect the young person to be involved in, but the young person did not wish to be involved in it? I accept that we cannot resolve the problem now, but will the hon. Gentleman reflect on it and consider  whether that person will have the option to stay out of what he believes to be inappropriate education or training until, for example, the right type of new course becomes available in the new academic year?

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)

Clause 4 sets out appropriate full-time education and training. However, we are discussing part-time education and training because the people are in full-time employment. It is not appropriate for me to prescribe the detail in respect of individual scenarios. That is why independent attendance panels are part of the design of the whole system. As we have discussed, the local authority may enforce; it does not have to enforce. Local authority officers would have to assess whether or not to take up the option knowing that their local attendance panel would judge matters on the basis of whether there was an alternative appropriate form of training.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

That is precisely what I am worried about and dislike. The Minister says that it will be up to local officials to decide what they think is in the best interests of young people and to withdraw that power from the young people themselves. On the say-so of those individuals, young people could be forced back into a course mid-year that is completely unsuitable and that they do not wish to take up in order to meet the Government’s targets and to demonstrate that 100 per cent. of the cohorts are in education and training, instead of their being allowed to stay out of the education and training market until a suitable course is available.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

It seems that the hon. Gentleman has the Minister on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the Minister says that there will be flexibility in that the local authorities will have discretion yet, on the other hand, he is saying now, and was so during our hungry pursuit of such matters just before lunch, that he will not amend the Bill to broaden the definition of what training will be permitted, to include all that is meaningful and appropriate. He said that it must be relevant. That is a highly loaded term. The Minister wants the Bill to be inflexible, but interpreted flexibly.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman makes yet another devastating point, which helps to hit at the very structure of the Bill and the compulsion contained within it.

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)

I am not devastated by the point, but by my apparent inability to persuade the hon. Gentleman that things will not be down to the individual officer. In the end, an attendance panel would have to be persuaded, so it is down to several individuals. If it is clear that there is no alternative relevant training or education, it would be a perfectly reasonable excuse for the individual to carry on for some period with full-time employment, waiting for an appropriate part-time course to become available.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

That may be of some use, but I fear that it is so vague that what it means in practice could vary enormously throughout the country. Let us take the  example provided by the National Union of Teachers of a young person on a car mechanics course who also wants to do an accountancy qualification, not wanting to be in the car mechanics business for ever. Let us say that the young person gets on a course at a college to do some form of accountancy relevant to their aspirations. The individual who runs the course becomes ill, moves away or is made redundant, and the course collapses. No equivalent course is available in the catchment area, and the local authority then considers what other courses are available in the college setting. There may be a business-related course, or a mathematics for business course. Are those acceptable relevant alternatives that the Minister would want to compel the young person to take up?

Alternatively, if the young person considered that the courses might be relevant in some way to their general interest, but were not the specific course they wanted and they wanted the option to wait perhaps 18 months for the next accountancy course to come along—after the further education college had, hopefully, recruited a new person—how on earth could local authorities know what the definition of “relevant” is, to determine whether to force the young person to take the alternative course? Will we end up with all sorts of different circumstances around the country, depending on the generosity of the local officers’ view, and their interpretation of the Minister’s comments which may also vary?

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)

I would expect those advising the young person to be mindful of where they wanted to end up, of whether there was an alternative appropriate to the pathway of learning on which they were set, and of whether taking up a course in the interim before the alternative became available would preclude the funding of the alternative that the young person really wanted. All those things would have to be borne in mind so that the young person could achieve his potential and go on the pathway he was after. In this case, “relevant” is irrelevant, if that is not too confusing. It does not mean that the course must be relevant to anything that the young person is doing or wants to do, but simply that it is relevant for the purposes of part-time education or training as a way of fulfilling the duty.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

We understand that “relevant” may be irrelevant, but we are still confused about how the duties will be applied in practice, and we fear that there will be an enormous element of judgment surrounding the matter.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The Minister calls it flexibility. I call it confusion, potentially, in the way in which the duty may be implemented in the future. I shall not labour the point, Mr. Bercow, not only because I may try your patience, but because there may be other opportunities later in the Bill to clarify the point by way of amendments.

May I prompt the Minister to consider the subsidiary issue that I raised of circumstances in which the course has not collapsed, but the young person’s interest in or commitment to it has ended? We heard a lot of evidence in the evidence sessions that the rate at  which young people leave such courses early on is very high. Presumably, many of those leave on a voluntary basis. Are the attendance panels and local authorities likely to take a different attitude towards young people who decide to terminate their involvement in a course compared with those whose course terminates their involvement? Will there be less flexibility?

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) 1:15 pm, 7th February 2008

No, the same flexibility will have to apply. I remind the Committee that we are talking about people in full-time employment who are also in part-time training. One would expect the personal Connexions adviser to bear in mind the needs of the individual. If they have become disengaged from their part-time course, another part-time course should be found that they have a reasonable chance of completing and which will fulfil their needs. They must not use the ability to nip from one thing to the other to flout their duties under the Bill.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I assume that if a young person leaves a course very late in the academic year, it will be possible to reach the conclusion that restarting another course at that stage would not be sensible. They should be given some latitude to wait until a new course starts.

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)

In that scenario, it might be pragmatic to wait until the prescribed date set out in clause 7(3)(a), which by regulation is very likely to be the start of the next academic year.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister for his patience and for his responses. I think that we have made a tiny bit of progress and we will return to this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.