Clause 59

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 26th February 2008.

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Internet and telephone support services etc

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

I beg to move amendment No. 184, in clause 59, page 32, line 11, at end insert—

‘(c) the information, advice or guidance to be provided by telephone or other electronic means may include information and options expressed by persons who have pursued or are pursuing education, training or careers which are of interest to the said young persons and relevant young adults.’.

This group of amendments—

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

To clarify the position for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit, we are considering the two amendments separately: at the moment we are debating amendment No. 184; we will come to amendment No. 185 later.

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

I am grateful, Mr. Bayley. I have notes on both amendments, but I accept that we are dealing with them separately.

Amendment No. 184 would insert additional subsection (c) into the clause, and I will illustrate the subject with a word or two about the view of the distinguished educational charity, Edge. Clause 59 says:

“The Secretary of State may provide or secure the provision of services for encouraging, enabling or assisting the effective participation of young persons and relevant young adults in England in education or training.”

As Edge reminds us, that includes the publication of information, advice and guidance, and responding to particular requests for information electronically or by telephone. The provision for advice is important, and clause 59 should be read alongside clause 66, which requires schools to provide impartial information and advice for education, training and careers.

As an aside, I am anxious that the advice given by schools and colleges and the advice given by Connexions should be consistent. In our last debate, we talked about the new powers that Connexions will have to offer advice in educational institutions, but we did not explore in detail the risk of inconsistency, which might come from advice being given by different people to individuals in schools and colleges. The Minister might want to deal with that in his summation.

The Edge foundation welcomes the clauses, because they emphasise the importance of comprehensive and impartial information, advice and guidance on educational training and careers. However, it believes that if young people are interested in a particular course or career, they should be able to hear directly from people who have pursued, or are pursuing, that course or career.  There are many ways in which that can be achieved, but the internet opens up almost unlimited opportunities. That argument has considerable merit. Young people are often most inspired by people who have done something themselves. Through such examples, we can engage people whom we might not successfully encourage down a particular professional route by other means. Edge uses as an example the national youth volunteering service, which provides substantial financial support for a web-based service called “horsesmouth”. Through horsesmouth, people considering different options for learning and careers put questions to people who have faced similar choices. The website says:

“When faced with a choice, challenge or change in life, do you ever wonder how other people have coped in the same situation—what choices did they make, and how did they turn out? Wouldn’t it be useful if you could talk to someone who has been there, done that and is willing to share their first-hand experience with you? Wouldn’t it be great fun if that could be anonymous, confidential and secure?”

Such services should form a core part of the service offered by the Secretary of State in pursuance of the power created by clause 59, and that is the purpose of amendment No. 184. Essentially, the argument is that we should use the latest technology, emulate the best existing practice, and recognise that young people are often most influenced by seeing how something has been done through the eyes of someone else who has done it.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Labour, Blackpool South 11:45 am, 26th February 2008

I am listening with interest to the case that the hon. Gentleman is making for other mechanisms to give information, advice and guidance, not least the suggestions from Edge and horsesmouth. Is he aware that the all-party skills group is conducting an inquiry into information, advice and guidance? That report will be published in due course, to the edification, I hope, of everyone, including Ministers.

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

Yes, I was aware of that, because I do, as the hon. Gentleman knows, maintain a healthy dialogue with the all-party group. In fact, I am pleased to have been invited to attend and speak at events organised by the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to his work in that regard. I hope that the all-party group will come to a similar conclusion to the one that I have reached on advice and guidance, which I have articulated at considerable, but not sufficient, length.

There is good practice out there, and not all of it revolves around the mainstream institutions. It stems partly from the dynamism offered by technology, from which we can learn from and which therefore needs to be built into our thinking when considering this part of the Bill. I do not know if the all-party group has had a chance to look at that proposal, but if they have not, it may not be too late to use the provision as a catalyst for doing so.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Labour, Blackpool South

Although we are an all-party group and not subject to the requirements of Select Committees, it would be invidious to go into too much detail ant what may, or may not, be proposed. However, this is an area in which everyone, including the Government, wishes to look carefully at new mechanisms. The question is: what are the precise devices for using the new mechanisms?

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

I did not want to compromise the hon. Gentleman’s position, as I am sure he knows, but we have had a helpful exchange. The way in which people gather, exchange and use information has changed immensely, and continues to do so. That lies at the core of our considerations today. The fact that we are talking about young people only exaggerates the significance of that point, because I suspect that many young people are accustomed to accessing information wholly or mainly by technological means. That is why Edge has done us a service in advising us on these matters, and I am delighted to reflect its perspective in the 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 agree with Edge, with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, and with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South, that it is important that young people should have access to the opinions and experiences of those who are already engaged in education, training or a particular career. I am pleased to be able to tell the Committee that the national service, Connexions direct, provides that material on its excellent website, www.connexions-direct.com, and I am sure the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will be reaching as we speak for his hand-held device to access it, Mr. Bayley, if that is in order.

Furthermore, if a young person cannot find a case study that is relevant to them, they can inform the Connexions contractor, who will take steps to find or commission an appropriate case study. That is precisely what Edge and the hon. Gentleman are interested in. There are close links between Connexions direct and organisations such as sector skills councils, which have databases of case studies that can be accessed. Connexions direct is an extremely successful service for young people in England, and it also offers an excellent helpline on 080 800 13219. There are more than 100,000 visits a week to the website, with an average 6,000 contacts to the helpline. The service has won several awards, and it offers information, advice and guidance at a time and in a way that is convenient and tailored to the needs of young people, particularly those who like to access their information by technology. Connexions direct is always considering new ways and initiatives to improve its service, and I am sure it will have listened carefully to what hon. Members have said, and will listen to what the all-party group report and Edge might tell it.

As for the consistency between schools and Connexions that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised at the beginning of his speech, 14-to-19 partnerships have responsibility to ensure proper co-ordination between careers education in schools and the information, advice and guidance provided by Connexions and local authorities. The quality standards set out that requirement, and I have already referred to the importance of those standards. Local 14-to-19 consortiums have to show that they meet the standards to progress through the diploma gateway. As the service the hon. Gentleman requires is already available, and will continue to be so under the clause as drafted, and given the indications I have made to the Committee, I invite him to withdraw the amendment.

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

I appreciate the Minister’s remarks. This is a probing amendment, designed to highlight an important matter. The Minister might want to reflect further on the generality of this debate, given what the hon. Member for Blackpool, South and I have said and what Edge has observed. By the time that the Bill is enacted, assuming that that is so—we have no guarantee that the Bill will ever become law—it could easily be the case that anything other than the advice and guidance that is offered through the means that horsesmouth uses will be regarded as archaic. In that context, we need to be absolutely clear about how we use the available technology to best effect.

The revolution has only just begun, and although I am a deep Conservative and am resistant to all revolutions, I suspect that we have to deal with the inevitability of a changed world with regard to the use, exchange and distribution of information. Nevertheless, on the basis of what the Minister has said and the chance that we have had to explore those matters, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 185, in clause 59, page 32, line 11, at end insert—

‘(c) the provision, in response to requests by young persons and relevant young adults with visual impairment, of text books and educational course materials, capable of enlargement and enhancement by electronic means.’.

This is the amendment that I tried to move earlier, but you advised me that I could not do so, Mr. Bayley.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

It was a simple matter of looking at my selection list.

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

Indeed. The amendment speaks for itself. We have not said much—indeed, we have perhaps said too little—about how the Bill will affect young people with various kinds of disability. Among the population of NEETs, as I lamented earlier, is a substantial number of young people with learning difficulties or other disabilities, and we need to concentrate particularly on their needs if we are to be successful in providing them with appropriate training that is likely to allow them to gain employment. The amendment deals with one group of young people: those with visual impairment. We ought, however, to find ways during the passage of the Bill to speak more broadly about disabled young people and people with learning difficulties.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this is an important but very narrow amendment dealing with visual impairment. He rightly says that there might be opportunities elsewhere in the Bill to discuss other disabilities, but we should stick to visual impairment, because it is with that that the amendment is concerned.

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

I take your point, Mr. Bayley. I did say, very much in that spirit, that we might find an opportunity to debate the wider issue at another time, but this debate is specifically about people with visual impairment. The amendment would implicitly add  value to clause 59. It is important that we make adequate provision for young people who might otherwise be disfranchised simply because they cannot access the materials necessary to improve their circumstances. I find it almost inconceivable that, on that basis, the Minister will fail to accept the amendment.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons) 12:00 pm, 26th February 2008

This is an important if narrow amendment, which gives us the opportunity to right a wrong of which I was not previously aware, as may have been the case for other members of the Committee. It was drawn to my attention last year. Hon. Members may recall a lobby in Westminster Hall called “Right to Read”, in which parents of sight-impaired children came to Parliament lobby their MPs about their inability to access textbooks and learning material in schools.

At the moment, when a partially sighted pupil in a mainstream school goes to a lesson, the teacher must identify the relevant pages of the textbook that will be used and photocopy them. That takes up teaching time and delays the partially sighted pupil’s ability to start work. There are also obvious disadvantages with homework, as the situation deters those children from working independently. Initial inquiries that I made last year have led me to understand that there is not a copyright problem in having school textbooks available online, so that individual partially sighted pupils can enlarge and enhance the relevant text to their own needs.

It follows that the same problem will apply in college. I would therefore like to take the opportunity to make teaching materials available to partially sighted pupils in college, because it gives them independence and they will not have to rely on the additional service of teachers. If they could access all their teaching materials and textbooks independently online, it would be of enormous advantage to them, and it is relatively simple to make such material available.

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 in complete agreement with the hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for Upminster that young people with visual impairments should be able to derive the same benefit from information provision as their peers.

I applaud the hon. Member for Upminster for raising the “Right to Read” campaign and the importance of school textbooks being accessible to people with visual impairments. I will not be distracted for long in responding to her concerns, because I am aware of the narrowness of the amendment, Mr. Bayley, as you reminded the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. However, part IV of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires schools and local authorities to plan to improve access to the curriculum and written materials to disabled pupils over time. In addition, the new disability equality duty introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 into the 1995 Act requires all public bodies, including schools and local authorities, to promote disability equality more widely. As a result, new subsection 49A(1)(d), which deals with the general duty, includes

“the need to take steps to take account of disabled persons’ disabilities, even where that involves treating disabled persons more favourably than other persons”.

That is the duty under which we would want to see that problem addressed.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I just add that 2008 is the national year of reading, so it would be the ideal time to take this step?

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 certainly is the national year of reading. I had an excellent meeting with the consortium that is helping us to deliver it yesterday. I will look at whether there are opportunities to develop reading materials for the group which the hon. Member for Upminster discussed.

As hon. Members may be aware, my Department’s special educational needs strategy, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, sets out our vision for giving children with special educational needs and disabilities the opportunity to succeed. Furthermore, as I have said, there are various duties in the disability discrimination legislation that cover the needs of visually impaired young people, as is the case with other disability groups. The national service, Connexions direct, which is subject to the amendment, has taken great steps to ensure that its services are available to people with visual impairment. It is concerned with the provision of information, advice and support to young people, rather than with the provision of course materials, which was raised by the hon. Member for Upminster. To meet best practice and Government accessibility guidelines, the Connexions direct website has been developed to comply with the web accessibility initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. Connexions direct has worked extensively with the Royal National Institute of Blind People to ensure that, as far as possible, its materials are accessible to people with visual impairments. I have a list of about seven things they have done to meet that standard.

As a result of making those changes and design amendments, Connexions direct was successful in winning a visionary design award for the site’s outstanding efforts in ensuring the accessibility of content for visually impaired users. I am assured that it is committed to keeping that design on its website, to which the amendment refers. I trust that, in the light of that assurance, and the fact that this really is an example of best practice, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will withdraw his amendment.

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

I will do so but, first, I wish to endorse the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster that this is a critically important matter. I am delighted to hear that Connexions has won that award and that it takes seriously its work for visually impaired young people. The access to information for visually impaired people is variable—I am not speaking in particular about Connexions, but about access more generally—which explains our determination to highlight the matter by tabling an amendment. The Minister has responded positively to the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and myself, but we will not rest until we are sure that those good intentions are carried through and that visually  impaired young people have the same opportunities that are enjoyed by all other young people. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment on the basis of the assurances we have received today.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.