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Mr. Speaker: It might be helpful if I say that the Home Secretary was in order in the statement that she made. [Interruption.] Who said that? I did not pull up the right hon. Lady; I stopped her. I did so because I expect the opening statement in topical questions to
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last only one minute. That was the only reason for stopping her. I did not pull her up—I would not dream of doing that.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Hansard of 26 June 2003 quotes the then Leader of the House as saying about the conduct of hon. Members:

Given that quote from the now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, would it be appropriate for you to ask the current Leader of the House to make an urgent statement to indicate whether those views of 2003 remain the Government’s position?

Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You take seriously your duty to protect Back Benchers, this House and our constitution. Will you kindly make it plain to Ministers that, given the constitutional importance of the European Union (Amendment) Bill, we must ensure that there is as much time as possible for its debate and that, therefore, only the most urgent and unavoidable statements should be made on days when the Bill is considered in the House at any of its stages?

Mr. Speaker: That is a matter for the usual channels and the House to decide. The hon. Gentleman might be referring to the fact that in some circumstances I have powers to curtail the length of Front Benchers’ speeches. Obviously, depending on the shape of the debates, I will consider the matter.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. To follow on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), do you not agree that although the right hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) might be a Minister of State for Defence, that should not allow him to swear like a trooper—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have ruled on that matter.

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Orders of the Day

Education and Skills Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Education and Skills Bill is a landmark piece of legislation—the biggest reform in educational participation for more than 50 years. Its provisions to raise the education-leaving age from 16 to 17 by 2013 and to 18 by 2015 will fulfil a century-long ambition of this House to deliver educational opportunity for all young people.

For nearly 100 years, Parliament has expressed its belief that all young people should be in education or training until the age of 18. The Fisher Act of 1918 raised the school-leaving age from 12 to 14, but it also included a provision stating that all young people should participate in at least part-time study until the age of 18. We all know that that bold commitment was reneged on during the early years after the first world war, but in 1944 the Butler Act raised the leaving age to 15 and made provision for a rise to 16 as soon as possible, as well as for compulsory participation until 18. Although the school-leaving age eventually rose to 16 in 1972, it has remained unchanged since—once again, the provision to raise the education participation age to 18 was not enacted.

But our society and economy have changed dramatically since the early 1970s. What was visionary 90 years ago is essential today, both economically and for reasons of social justice. Lord Leitch’s projections to 2020 suggest a 50 per cent. increase in the proportion of jobs demanding high-level skills and a marked decrease in the number of jobs open to those with low-level skills.

Raising the education participation age is not just about economic strength; it is about social justice. Fewer than half of people with no qualifications are in work, young people who leave education or training at 16 are disproportionately from poor families and those who stay in education are more likely to gain further qualifications and earn more. If we do not act now to increase participation, it is the most disadvantaged young people who will be the losers in this new and fast-changing world.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Secretary of State began by saying that he wanted to provide educational opportunity for all, but is that opportunity not already there? Cannot 16 to 18-year-olds already stay in school? The Bill would oblige them to stay there. Has he not listened to the teachers up and down the country who say that it will have a detrimental impact to keep in school people between 16 and 18 who are dying to get out of it?

Ed Balls: I thought that I would need to make this point clear for the benefit of observers outside the House; I did not realise I would need to make it clear for Members of this House. This is not a Bill to raise
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the school-leaving age. Our projections do not anticipate a rise in the number of full-time school or college students over 16. The Bill will raise the education or training age to 18. We anticipate that the biggest rise in participation will be among people in apprenticeships—we forecast 100,000 more apprentices in 2013—and those in full-time work who will get training as a result of the Bill. It is not a Bill to raise the school-leaving age.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way so soon in his speech. The Government’s overall obsession with raising skills in this country so that we have an industrial future is something that I hope Members on both sides of the House share. However, I am concerned about how the very poorest do in our education system, and whether in this move alone we will do justice to them. The House of Commons Library has prepared a study of the poorest 50 constituencies, in which most poor children leave school without the minimum Government educational qualifications, although there are exceptions such as Wigan. Before the Secretary of State concludes, will he discuss what specific measures we can introduce to raise the standards of the very poorest children, some of whom leave school at 16 without any qualifications whatsoever?

Mr. Speaker: Before the Secretary of State replies, I must tell hon. Members that interventions should not be as long as that one.

Mr. Field: It saves making a speech.

Mr. Speaker: That is why I do not want long interventions.

Ed Balls: It may have been long, Mr. Speaker, but it was a helpful intervention, and I am happy to discuss that very point now.

Many of the reforms that we have introduced since 1997 are aimed not just at raising standards for the average child but at pulling up the poorest children in our society. It is still the case that children on free school meals from poor backgrounds do less well than the average. However, in the past five years there has been a faster rise in results for children on free school meals than the average, so we are making a difference. The Bill seeks to make sure that educational opportunity is available to all children, not just some. The poorest children are least likely to stay on at school at 16, so the Bill aims precisely to make sure that we address the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). However, it is only one of a number of issues that we seek to address.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): On the requirement to address the needs of poorer children, may I congratulate the Secretary of State on what he said about expanding apprenticeship schemes? Will he make sure that they are a genuine route for poor children to advance in life, as many hon. Members, including myself, did? Will he give us an assurance that the new apprenticeship schemes will be of higher quality, and will be more relevant and more workplace-based than the current schemes?

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Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman is a champion of apprentices in the House, so he will know that although the number of apprenticeships has risen in the past 10 years, there is still further to go. The Bill legislates for the first time for an entitlement to apprenticeships. In a few weeks’ time, we will announce further reforms, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will introduce, to make sure that we raise the quality and comprehensiveness of apprenticeships. We will provide a national matching scheme to match up apprentices with employers who can offer them apprenticeships. The most important thing that we have to do, consistent with quality, is achieve 90,000 more apprenticeships to bring the Bill to fruition. That will require serious effort from employers and the public sector, and from schools and colleges, as well as curriculum reform, but we are committed to making it happen.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I broadly welcome the changes introduced today. In Stoke-on-Trent, we probably have more young people out of education and training than anywhere else, so the reforms are essential. Does my right hon. Friend support our proposals for an education improvement partnership linked to the Building Schools for the Future programme so we can make sure that we can truly reach out to those young people who need that education?

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We can deliver the commitments in the Bill only if we make accompanying reforms to make sure that by the time children are 16 they have the skills and qualifications that they need to continue. Those reforms include many of the important reforms in our children’s plan as well as our reforms to BSF to make sure that we can continue to invest in the best school buildings. Those plans would be cut by more than £4 billion if Opposition Members had their way.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con) rose—

Ed Balls: I am not sure whether the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) represents a constituency that would lose a BSF school—I very much hope for his sake that that is not the case—but I am happy to accept clarification from him.

Mr. Heald: A lot of the poorest children whom we have heard about already get to 16 unable to read, write or add up properly. They are not functionally literate or numerate. What is the point of forcing them to spend another two years in school if they are going to be at that stage at the age of 16? What will the right hon. Gentleman do about those poorest children who need the help earlier on and who are sitting at the back of the class trying to hide, dreading that the teacher will turn to them, because they cannot read and write?

Ed Balls: I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I am going to do. I am going to keep investing in education. I am going to keep increasing teaching numbers and the number of teaching support assistants. I am going to introduce the Every Child a Reader and Every Child
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Matters programmes to ensure that we help those who fall behind. Most of all, I am going to avoid a return to the bad old days pre-1997, when even more children were failing than are now.

I am not happy with the figures today. It disappoints me to see that, in 2007, 71 per cent. are getting to key stage 4 in English and maths; however, in 1997 it was 53 per cent. There has been a radical increase in the numbers who are making the grade, but it is not yet good enough. We need to see more progress. That is why we need to keep voting in a Labour Government, who will match reform with investment to deliver for children.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ed Balls: I will make a little more progress and then take some more interventions.

Before I get on to the detail of the Bill, I want to put it in an international context. Despite the rise in participation that we have seen in recent years—participation at 16 has been rising—it is still the case that we have one of the lowest rates of staying on in education or training at 17 of any country in the developed world. It is the third lowest in the western world. Many countries and provinces throughout the world are already raising the education participation age or preparing to do so. In the Netherlands, since August last year, education has been obligatory until 18. In Western Australia, the leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in 2006 and to 17 this year. In New Brunswick in Canada, the education-leaving age is 18. It is because other countries are making fast progress that we must act now to ensure that we do not fall behind our international competitors.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): For 20 years, I was a head before coming into this school— [Laughter.] And it has been downhill ever since. For those 20 years, one of the great sadnesses was that the same proportion—roughly 180,000 to 200,000 17 and 18-year-old students—had no qualifications, or training; they had nothing. If the Bill does anything, it tackles that core issue. I compliment the Secretary of State on doing that. However, one of the biggest issues that I do not believe is addressed in the Bill, and I would like him to respond to this, is that of the guidance we give young people, particularly at key stage 3, so that they go into the right pathways. It is no good having compulsory post-16 education and training if we do not give young people the right guidance. Local education authorities failed; the Connexions service failed. What on earth is going to happen under this Bill?

Ed Balls: I will come in detail to that point in a moment. I am not sure, when the hon. Gentleman refers to this place as a school, whether he is referring to the quality of the desserts in the Members’ Dining Room or to the problem of unauthorised absences, which I know can be a problem on both sides of the House. On the particular point that he raises, we are legislating in part 2 of the Bill precisely to ensure that we strengthen further the information, advice and guidance that are available for young people. That is an integral part of the Bill. I welcome the hon.
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Gentleman’s support; it is only a pity that he has not yet persuaded his Front-Bench colleagues to take the same enlightened view of the reform.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): On disadvantaged young people's participation in education, secondary schools in my constituency such as the academy in Priestnall are developing specialisms. Will my right hon. Friend look at how schools can share resources and expertise in specialist areas with other schools so that young people in Stockport who have an interest in, for example, science or sport are not limited to what is provided in the school that they attend, but have the widest possible choice in and access to those subjects?

Ed Balls: I can indeed do that. As my hon. Friend knows, schools that have engaged in specialisms in recent years have seen a faster rise in results. Our ambition is that every school should be a trust, academy or specialist school. Just before Christmas, when we last discussed these matters, we talked about the threat to schools in her constituency, where 13 schools would be at risk if the Conservatives’ plans were put into practice. Today, I can give my hon. Friend no good news at all about the dangers to schools in her constituency if their plans to cut BSF were put into practice.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I have no problem whatever with the Secretary of State’s aims and aspirations, and have a great interest in them, but does he agree that the critical issue is whether they can be delivered in practice? As we know that on average 40,000 people below compulsory school-leaving age are bunking off, and that the number of people not in education, employment or training—NEETS—above the compulsory age is rising, how on earth will resources be provided to police the scheme? Would it not be much better to concentrate on the carrot rather than the stick?

Ed Balls: I do not think so. The fact is that absences are down and the number of NEETS is down, although it has not gone down far enough. The reason we are legislating for obligations to come into effect not today but in 2013 for 17-year-olds and in 2015 for 18-year-olds is to give us time to prepare and put in place the extra support we propose for those young people, to make sure that they are ready. The 10 and 11-year-olds of today will be the first to be affected by the Bill’s provisions, so we have six years to make sure that we do not have 25,000 long-term NEETS in our society, as we do at present. We have an obligation to do better by them, and the Bill will have a galvanising effect on schools, colleges and LEAs to make sure that we deliver for all young people and that some do not fall through the cracks.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): At any one time, 10 per cent. of young people are categorised as NEETS. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will commit the £100 million extra investment in the NEETS scheme and that we will commit to
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expanding the new deal, which has helped more than 1,500 young people in my constituency to obtain sustainable employment?

Ed Balls: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will never abolish the new deal. In fact, the extension of the new deal for young people on their 18th birthday is an important part of the reforms we have introduced.

Our ambition is that all young people continue in education or training until they reach the age of 18. That involves new rights for young people, but also new responsibilities. As I have said, our proposals are not just about raising the school-leaving age, but about young people choosing between full-time education in school or college, work-based learning such as an apprenticeship or one day a week in part-time education or training if they are employed, self-employed or volunteering more than 20 hours a week. There will be extensive opportunity for debate over the coming weeks as the Bill is discussed in detail in Committee, but today I want to make it clear that, in the Government’s view, it is only by requiring that every young person participate in education or training until the age of 18 that we can ensure that they all have the opportunities they need and that all employers, schools and colleges are galvanised to play their part so that no young person falls through the cracks.

Those duties must be enforced. That is necessary to strike the balance between rights and responsibilities. Of course, sanctions will be a last resort and—as they are at present for young people aged under 16—they are at the discretion of the local authority. When we say that everyone will participate, that is what we mean. No one will be left out on the basis that it is not for them or that it is too hard to meet their needs. Although some people, such as teenage mothers or young people with special educational needs, may require extra help, that does not mean they will be exempt.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): I urge the Secretary of State not to listen to the siren voices speaking against the Bill. Exactly the same arguments were made when the school-leaving age was raised to 16; indeed, the same arguments were made when the age was raised to 14. We want young people to stay in education, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that they are engaged in their education throughout their secondary career and given the right opportunities to make choices? What will he do to ensure that councils and LEAs make sure that a variety of courses are on offer to young people and that schools and colleges co-operate to ensure that their timetables allow young people to take advantage of those opportunities?

Ed Balls: I tell my hon. Friend what we will do—we will undertake one of the biggest overhauls of the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds for decades, to make sure that there is a greater focus on functional skills in English, maths and information and communications technology. Through our new diplomas, we will promote the best of theoretical and practical learning to engage more students. By 2013, all students everywhere in the country will be able to choose one of our first 14 diplomas.

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