Clause 54

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 26th February 2008.

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Support services: provision by local education authorities

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 10:30 am, 26th February 2008

I beg to move amendment No. 93, in clause 54, page 29, line 13, leave out ‘services’ and insert

‘information, advice and guidance about education and career choices’.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 41, in clause 54, page 29, line 15, at end insert—

‘(1A) Such services must include the provision of—

(a) generic information, advice and guidance, and

(b) targeted support for young people which takes into account their personal circumstances.’.

No. 94, in clause 54, page 29, line 35, at end add—

‘(6) Services provided under this section shall be known as “Connexions”.’.

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

It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr. Bayley, and it is good to be back in Committee. As you can tell from my demeanour, I have been preparing carefully this morning.

The gist of the amendment is that if we are to guide young people in the right direction, we must be explicit about the nature of that guidance. I wonder whether, instead of the clause referring simply to “services”, the nature of the new statutory obligations should be made clearer. In that sense, this is a probing amendment to test the Government’s commitment to and understanding of the need to offer the right range of advice and guidance on what is available to young people.

I tabled the amendment in the context that the Opposition continue to have profound reservations about whether Connexions is the right vehicle to provide the range of advice necessary to assist young people. I do not want to undermine or demean Connexions. It does good work; however, it is asked to do too much good work. An all-age careers service dedicated to advising on “career choices”, as the amendment labels them, that sat alongside Connexions  would be a much better vehicle to provide the advice and guidance that is required. I have made that point before and make no apologies for mentioning it again.

I am sure that the Government are considering that point, because it has been made not only by the Opposition, but by many agencies. I hope that in responding to the amendment, the Minister will expound his thinking on how he sees careers advice and guidance in the future. The demands upon the service will be greater, given that it will be dealing with the challenges of the statutory provisions at the heart of the Bill.

An all-age careers service is the vehicle used in other places to deliver such advice and guidance—for example, Scotland has an all-age careers service. Many people in the service believe that the problem with Connexions is that it is a jack of all trades, giving advice on sexual health, lifestyle issues and drug problems, rather than simply on careers, training and related subjects. Careers guidance in other European countries tends to be more systematic than in the UK. It tends to begin much earlier and is geared towards providing detailed information on the skills requirements for particular jobs or professions.

In a joint memorandum on the Bill, all the main organisations involved in careers guidance, including the National Association of Connexions Partners and the Institute of Career Guidance, expressed concern that the new local authority duty under the Bill is “not specific enough”. They go on to say:

“Effective participation requires assistance with choices. Such advice and guidance must be about choices not merely of which learning option to follow, but why—that is, with a clear view of progression beyond 18+ into employment (either directly or via further training or higher education). The key is that choices about the relationship between learning and work—i.e. about career—should drive participation in learning.”

The amendment places a clear duty on local authorities to provide just such services and to adopt just such an approach.

Although I started by saying that the amendment is designed to probe the Minister and test the Government’s thinking, it is also built on our considered and profound doubts about whether the proposed arrangements are sufficiently robust and appropriate to give life to the Bill. Those doubts are supported by a number of the agencies that have given evidence on the Bill. Given that critique, if the Minister resists amendment, I hope that he will range widely in saying why he thinks the amendment is not sufficient and not in line with orthodox thinking, and why his dogmatic concentration on the existing structure is right.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I assumed that the Conservative spokesman would speak to the wider purposes of the clause, which is primarily to do with young people, including young adults who are in the care of local authorities. I thought that the amendment might at least address that aspect. Such young people may, in fact, be attending the National Star College in the Cotswolds, which I visited last year, where many young adults with learning difficulties and other disabilities attend on a residential basis, not only to be given formal education that leads to qualifications but to be taught valuable life skills.

I support the broad intention of the amendment, which seeks to widen the scope of the clause by replacing the phrase

“such services as it considers appropriate”,

with the more specific “information, advice and guidance”. However, will the Minister expand on what services he believes it would be considered appropriate for the local authority to provide, so that we can see whether the amendment is relevant?

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)

Good morning, Mr. Bayley, it is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair. We trust that you had a good week last week, when the Committee was under the excellent stewardship of Mr. Bercow.

Amendment No. 94 would specify that services provided under the clause should be known as “Connexions”. In proposing to amend the clause in that way, I thought that the Opposition were seeking to pay tribute to the success of the Connexions service in winning young people’s support and becoming so widely known. I thought that they wanted to sustain a valued brand that is well known to young people and keep the advantages to authorities of badging services offering information, advice and guidance to young people with that name. I then listened to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and was saddened to learn that he does not hold Connexions in such high regard, but wants to retain the brand anyway. I reassure him and the Committee that we intend to use the power to direct in clause 55, which I am sure that we will come on to fairly soon, to require authorities to do just that.

To answer the hon. Member for Bristol, West regarding the services we envisage being delivered by what will continue to be known as Connexions, we expect it to carry out the services that the current service does, but to do so to the quality standards that we have published.

Turning to amendments Nos. 94 and 41, as the Committee will already be aware from debate on earlier clauses, Connexions delivers generic information, advice and guidance to young people, as well as more specific information and advice on career choices. That will continue when the responsibility is transferred to local authorities. The service Connexions provides is supported by the new IAG quality standards, which have been largely welcomed by local authorities and their partners.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings spoke of his desire for an all-age careers service. He is worried that, given the breadth of the advice that they are required to give, Connexions and its personal advisers are jacks of all trades and masters of none. Obviously, we have to strike a balance between genuine expertise and the ability to offer a joined-up service that can look across the range of issues affecting young people and advise them accordingly. Given the raising of the status of the quality standards—we intend to make them statutory guidance—we believe that we will get the best of both worlds. It is not a question of either/or: we can have personal advisers offering high-quality services and high-quality advice that looks at the range of issues.

I would say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a case for developing an all-age strategy, particularly with the extension of the participation age to 18. The Government are implementing the recommendation in the Leitch report to create a new adult careers service from 2010, and work is in train to development a coherent strategy for careers advice for all ages.

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 will in just a moment. Let me just finish the points I am making.

We should not necessarily have one service catering for all age groups, as different age groups have different needs. The strategy will help to ensure that transitions between services are managed effectively and that common issues such as labour markets and occupational information, contracting and work force development are looked at collectively, where possible. It will also ensure that the responses acknowledge and respect the different concerns and problems of adults and young people.

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

Will the Minister provide more detailed information on the pilots now being rolled out for the new adult careers service, as they are highly relevant to the issues implicit in the amendments? Secondly, what are the objectives of the pilots? There is some concern that the objectives are unclear and that the pilots are not being tested against any thesis or assumptions. He might like to take this opportunity to correct that misapprehension, if it is such.

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 most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to set out more details of the pilots. I fear that I would try your patience, Mr. Bayley, if I were to get too distracted at this point, but if I find an opportunity to address that matter directly as we debate the transfer of Connexions to local authorities, I will return to that issue to inform the Committee as best I can.

Our intention is to raise the status of the quality standards to that of statutory guidance. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to targeted youth support. We expect all authorities to deliver targeted youth support throughout their areas by December this year. That is a challenging but essential aim, and we are working with Government offices, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and local authorities to support that ambitious programme.

The provision of information, advice and guidance and of targeted youth support will be emphasised as a core function of Connexions through the directions that we will issue under clause 55. We intend those directions to set out that local authorities must ensure the provision of reasonable access to a personal adviser for all 13 to 19-year-olds, and 20 to 24-year-olds with learning difficulties or disabilities, to provide them with information, advice, guidance, advocacy and brokerage, including brokering access to targeted youth support services. We believe that those measures are suitable for ensuring a high-quality and consistent approach, while providing councils with local flexibility.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 10:45 am, 26th February 2008

I am surprised that the Minister is resisting amendment No. 93, given that the wording is lifted from the foreword to the “Quality Standards for Young People’s Information, Advice and Guidance” issued by his Department. His right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families says in the first paragraph of that foreword:

“In a complex and changing world all young people need access to good quality, comprehensive and impartial Information, Advice and Guidance...They need good IAG to help them make the right learning and career choices”.

I changed “learning” to “education” in the amendment. I am surprised that the Minister does not agree with his right hon. Friend’s wording and accept our amendment.

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 do not disagree with the wording or the intention of the amendment. I regard it as unnecessary, because we are going to give the guidance that he just referred to statutory status, as I said twice in my comments. That will fulfil the purposes of the amendments. On that basis, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

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

The Minister has underestimated the significance of this aspect of the Bill and, indeed, of this group of amendments. At the end of the day, the success of efforts to increase participation will be dependent—as we have argued repeatedly—on inspiring young people with a new thirst for learning. I believe that that learning must, at its heart, have a test of employability: whether it will lead to greater employability for the young person concerned. Much of that will depend on the learning being tailored to particular outcomes, so advice and guidance are critical.

As I said when moving the amendment, I do not want to demean the Connexions service; it does a good job. However, I am not sure that creating extra demands on an unreformed system is tenable. The clarity of what will be stated in the Bill if the amendment is made will be highly significant in ensuring that advice on careers and on the training related to careers is of a sort that is likely to lead to the encouragement of that thirst for learning and, thus, the greater participation that we all seek.

One might ask why I have reservations. Amendment No. 41, to which I did not speak at length in my opening remarks and on which the Minister did not dwell, either, makes provision for the existing dual-function Connexions service to be separated so that the targeted support can be focused on the young people who need it. The Connexions service cost £475 million in 2006-07, which is more than twice the cost of the careers service in its last year of operation—£236 million in 2000-01. Yet according to Government figures, less than a quarter of young people advised by Connexions actually require the kind of integrated support that it was designed to deliver.

The Minister is right to say that we need to strike a balance between tailored expertise on careers advice and the breadth of services, but I suspect that that balance is not finely tuned at present. That minority of young people who benefit from that range of  services—they are often quite challenged people—is certainly getting a good deal out of the existing arrangements. They have a one-stop shop for the range of skills and advice that is necessary for them to prosper. However, I doubt that the generality of young people benefits from the existing arrangements, thus my call for a parallel all-age careers service, which could give the sort of skilled and expert advice necessary for the Bill to have the best effect. The clearer we are about that on the face of the Bill, the better.

Nor am I convinced that the Minister has dealt with the question of capacity. By definition, there will be additional demand: we will draw into the system young people who I suspect do not now seek anything from Connexions, wither careers advice or advice on lifestyle issues. One of the reasons why I asked him about the pilots of the adult careers service was that if we are going to take an holistic approach to the relationship between supply and demand, capacity issues and weighting, we need to know what the Government’s medium-term intentions are regarding the adult careers service. The Minister said that the Government have responded to the Leitch report, but we do not know much about the pilots. The message that I get from the sector is that there are doubts about whether the pilots have been carefully enough thought through and have been built around assumptions that can be tested. Are the pilots aimed at establishing any clear outcomes?

We need to target our support more effectively. The aim of the Bill and of the advice and guidance that is critical to its success is at least in part to deal with the problem of young people not in education, employment or training. It is a cause of immense shame that, according to official figures issued on 16 January, the number of people aged 16 to 25 not in employment, education or training has increased by 223,000 since 2002 to reach 1.24 million. The number of young people who are not in education, employment or training has grown steadily since 1997 and is now a shocking and unacceptable figure. It is inconceivable that the quality of the advice and the nature of the guidance that young people receive from school onwards do not have a role to play in dealing with that.

That is why I started my summation by saying that the Minister underestimates the significance of this part of the Bill and the amendments. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to say that failure on NEETs is one of the most damning indictments of the present Government. If I feel strongly and state my case with some passion, it is because this a matter of real important. On the basis of what we have heard from the Minister, I am not inclined to press the amendment, but I hope that he will reflect further on the points made. It is not acceptable not to take this aspect of the Bill sufficiently seriously. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.