Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 300-318)

MR IVAN LEWIS MP

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

  300. Is the Government taking steps to encourage SMEs to take part in that scheme?
  (Mr Lewis) Absolutely. I think one of the issues for Government as well as specifically dealing with the FESs is that it is okay when we talk about connecting with business to talk about "We met today with the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce"; we all know that what is equally if not more important than that is to get into communities at a grass roots level and to connect many of the Government's initiatives with the small businesses—whether it be the one-person businesses, the businesses that only employ five people or those that employ 30 or 40 people—because they are at the cutting edge of our economy. They are often the people that are actually quite close to the fabric of the community in a variety of ways—schools, colleges, community activities—their children go to local schools and, therefore, there needs to be much better linkages and relationships and partnerships between those SMEs in localities and education and learning institutions. That will be, by the way, very central to the vision that we have in terms of not only modern apprenticeships but in terms of a new, distinct approach to 14-19 education.

Chairman

  301. I wonder if I could draw your attention, Minister, to the article by Hilary Steedman? I do not know if you have seen it. It is entitled Five Years of the Modern Apprenticeship Initiative: an Assessment against Continental European Models.[5] Are you familiar with it?

  (Mr Lewis) No, but I am about to be!

  302. I would like you to get your department to consider it seriously. You mentioned the CBI and the Chambers of Commerce, and I would like to read one very small part: "With a few honourable exceptions—mainly in the traditional sector such as engineering and electrical contracting—trade unions have done nothing to protect the interests of young people entering apprenticeship. Unlike their German counterparts, they have not fought for the right to education and transferable training. Unlike their Danish counterparts, they have not upheld the importance of assessment based on objective evidence. And for successive governments, the work-based training route has been all but invisible. The result, as set out here, is that apprenticeship in Britain, judged as a programme, falls short of that provided elsewhere in Europe on every important measure of good practice." That is a condemnation, in a sense, of the TUC and the trade union movement, let alone a condemnation of government not producing a viable route for non-academics through our educational system. It seems to us, on this Committee, when we hear encouraging reports of the vocational GCSEs and A levels and so on, the join-up between that and modern apprenticeships does not yet seem to be happening.
  (Mr Lewis) Fair point, Chairman. It is one of the reasons why Cassels was commissioned to do his report and it is one of the reasons why, not only are we going to introduce new GCSEs, as you know, but I am very clear that one of the problems is we do not attach negative labels to qualifications. It has now been agreed within the department—and some people may snigger at this—that we now refer to them as "new GCSEs in vocational subjects" rather than "Vocational GCSEs". I hope, in due course, we will drop the word "in vocational subjects". I think if we are serious about this, parents, young people and employers, have to see parity of esteem and have to see work-based learning as a high-value option. We have to see young people from a variety of backgrounds feeling that that route, in conjunction with traditional academic study, is an appropriate route for young people to take.

  303. Can we ask for your assurance that, by the time we see you again, you will have drawn the trade unions and employers together to specifically talk about the vocational routes and the modern apprenticeship scheme?
  (Mr Lewis) I give you that guarantee. I can also give you a guarantee that in terms of our response to the modern apprenticeship report and what I believe is one of the most significant, potential and exciting changes to education in this country with regard to 14-19, the importance and the status of high-valued, high-quality routes for all young people is going to be absolutely integral. Chairman, if I can just very quickly explain: if at 19 you are going to be eligible (and this is an option, it is not definite but we can explore it, as everybody knows, as part of the overarching certificate concept) for the overarching certificate, which, as I say, is not decided but we are considering it and the principles are outlined in the White Paper with a detailed document due in January, through a variety of options, either through what a lot of young people do now, an academic route, or a route which is a combination of academic and practical subjects, or a route which has exclusively a practical base, if we get to the situation where we do that, that will drive a process in terms of education where there is a far stronger commitment to parity of esteem and equality in terms of those various routes. I am very committed to that. I also think that we need to remember that modern apprenticeships, for example, or practical, vocational-type learning within schools can lead to a degree. There is the assumption that it cannot, that somehow it is separate—it is not. Although we have a clear target of 50 per cent of young people having access to higher education, I also think it is very important that we make strong statements about the other 50 per cent as well. Modern apprenticeship as a more practically based route for those young people is no less important socially, in terms of social justice, nor in terms of economic success in the long-term. We have written off far too many young people. One of the reasons for that is if at 14 we do not offer a young person a flexible package of learning which builds on their strengths and their aspirations and what they are good at and, instead, we say "If you do not fit into this rigid set of options you have failed", then we are asking for the trouble that we get as a consequence of that approach.

  Chairman: That is music to our ears.

Valerie Davey

  304. We welcome your enthusiasm generally but in this area, in particular. So we have now got a diverse group of routes, we have got excellence in all of them and that brings us back—
  (Mr Lewis) Not yet.

  305. —to the Careers Service and the need to ensure that young people set off down the right route. More recent reports seem to indicate that we are polarising somewhat. What enthusiasm have you got for the Careers Service, and where is that going?
  (Mr Lewis) I have great regard for the importance of credible, strong, effective and professional careers advice to young people as being very, very important, but the Careers Service as a separate entity will not exist once Connexions is rolled out nationally. What will be integral to the work and responsibility of Connexions will be, as part of this removing any obstacle and any barrier which gets in the way of young people doing well 13-19, about sound and high-quality careers advice with people who will be personal advisers but personal advisers who will specialise and focus on specifically careers advice. There will be individual partnership agreements between the Connexions service and each learning institution—school or college—which will be clear about the level of service that that institution and those young people can expect from that adviser. As I would say to you, some young people will require intensive, extensive, on-going input, but other young people will not require that. It will very much depend from individual to individual. It is very important.

  306. The evidence that has emerged in September seems to be that, yes, the pendulum is swinging, that intensive work is beginning—and thank God it is because it has not been done in the past—but we are now, perhaps, not giving as much care to, let us say, the high-fliers academically, and we have obviously got to keep the balance. I am just hoping that you recognise that.
  (Mr Lewis) I think I do. One of the first speeches—probably the first speech I made but I have made so many I have forgotten—was about Connexions service, saying this is a universal service, and with universal services many of them differentiate in terms of the level of activity and intervention, depending on the needs of the people receiving help.

Mr Pollard

  307. Very quickly on this: in careers advice will there be included the opportunity of working for yourself or starting your own business—SMEs?
  (Mr Lewis) I very passionately believe that that should be an option for young people. A lot of young people do not feel that opportunities that most people in this room take for granted are for them, because they have no experience of them in their family, their community, their school—whether that be university or whether it be the whole concept of starting a small business. We all know that many of the young people we are talking about, if you look at what switches them on and what they are good at, many of them would be entrepreneurs of the future if we tapped into what they are good at rather than focussing on what they are not so good at. I am totally with you on that.

  Chairman: Paul Holmes got cut off when he lost his thread earlier, but I think he has found his thread again.

  Paul Holmes: I think I was so stunned by what you said. If I was still a head of sixth form I think I would be quite worried now because looking back over the last 12 years I am sure for at least four, possibly five, our numbers in the sixth form would have dipped; so at least a third of that time. You seem to be saying that just one dip in one year means you lose that guarantee. There are a number of questions here which you might want to come back on in a written answer. Are you saying that a drop of 1 per cent would be enough to cut off your guarantee for funding, or is there a band? Are you saying that 1 per cent would be too small, that you need 5 per cent or 10 per cent? Or is it with just a drop however small, that is it, you lose your guarantee for funding? Are you looking at the whole sixth form numbers, Year 12 and 13, or in-take into Year 12? For example, one of the points about AS levels is that students who have soldiered on for two years to get A levels and do badly at the end, might now leave at the end of Year 12 with an AS level having achieved something rather than going on for two years and getting nothing at all, and that might affect overall numbers in sixth forms if it is going to work in that flexible way. Are you judging the figures on the in-take in September or when Form 7 is done in February or on the numbers still on the course in June or July? Are local Learning and Skills Councils having total autonomy across all 40-odd Skills Councils in how they interpret this or is it a central judgment from the Learning and Skills Councils?

Chairman

  308. That is a very complex question, do you want to answer that in writing?
  (Mr Lewis) I do not think we should forget the fact that a number of schools will see significant increases in the number of people attending sixth forms, nobody has addressed that, and will therefore benefit substantially. The fact there is a 3 per cent increase per year over two years you could probably argue is significantly above inflation actually, so in terms of cushioning with regard to fluctuations in terms of numbers there is that as well which we should not forget. The final point I would make is, no, we would expect there to be a consistency of approach across the Learning and Skills Councils with regard to these policies rather than different approaches in different areas. On the AS level progression point, I have to say, whatever the criticisms of AS levels the evidence suggests that ultimately AS levels lead to people staying on rather than saying, "We can get an AS level and then drop out".

Paul Holmes

  309. It is too early to judge, surely, we have only had one—
  (Mr Lewis) I will write to Mr Holmes with the relevant information.[6]

Mr Baron

  310. Two very quick questions on young people at risk. Can you clarify what appears to many to be muddled thinking on the policy of exclusions? On the one hand we have had Estelle Morris saying that the scheme intends to make life easier through the appeals panels to take into account what head teachers and governors want, on the other hand, yet again, next year we have a target which is lower than the previous years. How are going to balance these two? Speaking to head teachers in my constituency, they would welcome a little more freedom when it comes to exclusion, which we all know should be an issue of last resort but it would suggest that this arbitrary target to reduce the numbers is going to produce complications.
  (Mr Lewis) We would say that most head teachers and governing bodies in this country now do their best to support young people stay within their educational environment and understand the importance of doing that, and that exclusion is seen not as a first resort but a last resort. We believe that is largely because of the policies we pursued in our first term of government, that we did try and ensure the pendulum reversed in certain situations where we felt anyway it had often been too easy an option to exclude young people, that it was important to put that right and to make sure we did not have any levers in the system which encouraged people to not try perhaps as hard as they needed to do with young people who would be able to stay within the school system with some additional support. We believe we achieved a lot in the first term in that respect and now, having done that, having established that culture and that set of principles and those targets, we have to recognise there are young people within schools who make life so intolerable, for whatever reason either on a short-term or a long-term basis, for teachers and for their fellow pupils that it is frankly irresponsible not to give head teachers the chance to deal with them in a responsible manner.

  311. Point taken, but you do not see any contradiction between imposing targets on head teachers or schools generally which are lower than in previous years and giving them more freedom to make decisions about this matter?
  (Mr Lewis) No, I do not see a contradiction.

  Mr Baron: This is broadening it out slightly, but the National Council of Citizens Advice Bureaux this morning came out with a report suggesting that what they find particularly worrying is the lack of financial knowledge that young people have when they leave schools. I know this is broadening it out from young people at risk, but many people are leaving educational establishments and getting further into debt, being subject to unscrupulous practices by lending companies and so forth. What is your Department going to do about trying to, if you like, put people on some sort of very brief financial course covering the basics—mortgages, interest rates and so forth—so they are not such easy prey when they leave school?

  Chairman: I was at the launch, it was yesterday morning actually.

Mr Baron

  312. I apologise.
  (Mr Lewis) I think this is a valid point. In many schools there is some quite innovative work going on in terms of young people in the early years of secondary education, which I have seen personally, which is getting them to think of linking careers to financial rewards and also lifestyle consequences, if you like. So if you want to be whatever, this is the amount of money you are likely to get, and this is the impact on your lifestyle.

  313. But that is individual initiatives in individual schools. What is your Department going to do about it?
  (Mr Lewis) I think it is fair to say—

Chairman

  314. Can I interrupt and say that according to our information Sir Howard Davies is chairman of the Treasury/DfES Review of Financial Education.
  (Mr Lewis) Howard Davies is also a wonderful Manchester City supporter, which is more important.

  Chairman: I knew there was something wrong with him!

Mr Baron

  315. I knew there were two of them!
  (Mr Lewis) He is doing a review of enterprise in education, and that is slightly different, Chairman, it is about creating more entrepreneurial spirit, enterprising activity within schools, similar to the point Mr Pollard made. What we would say is we are not going to impose from the centre a requirement that schools give young people a prescribed course on financial management. We believe however, if you look at the citizenship agenda, the citizenship part of the curriculum which will come in next September, that is a very logical part of that teaching process, talking to young people about financial responsibility and about financial management issues.

  Mr Baron: So you are saying it will be included in the citizenship course?

  Chairman: It could be.

Mr Pollard

  316. Are you satisfied with the number of parenting orders which have been brought in?
  (Mr Lewis) Nobody has tried to take out one against me just yet despite the behaviour of my kids! I think the answer is, no, I am not satisfied. I sat on the Crime and Disorder Bill early on in the last Parliament in 1998, I think, and while I participated in the Committee I felt we passed some very important legislation which was very consistent with what the public was telling us for many years in this country about what was affecting the quality of their lives and their communities, and that was to do with the anti-social behaviour, to do with lack of parental responsibility, to do with gangs of people terrorising others, all of those issues. It seems to me in that context the implementation of many of the new powers which our legislation gave to the agencies on the ground—the local authorities and the police—has been patchy to say the least. As a constituency MP as much as an Education Minister, I am not satisfied that enough of those orders have been used by the local authorities and the police, having said for years, "We need new powers, we need enhanced powers, to deal with this behaviour undermining the quality of people's lives". We should not reach for the parenting order and the anti-social behaviour order as the first option but there reaches a time when you have to protect the decent majority and at the same time support and help somebody who might be behaving in that way because either they do not have positive role models in terms of parenting or parents are struggling to cope or young people have no boundaries. People talk about discipline, particularly the Daily Mail, but they never talk about love. We have large numbers of young people in this country who have neither love nor discipline. I am very passionate about that and in some ways you wonder whether those agencies charged with seeking those orders have, in a sense, subverted the will of Parliament by not using those orders in a way which we would expect. As I say, for years we were told, "We have not got enough powers to tackle these fundamental problems in our community". Parliament makes those powers available and then not enough of them are used and you have to ask some serious questions about why that has happened. I have never said this should be the first resort, nobody in Government or no MP has ever talked about using them as a first resort, but when problems reach a particular stage surely there should be an intervention. Where parents have been the subject of these orders, it might sound strange, many of them have talked very positively about the programme of support they had as a consequence of being served with a parenting order, which is not very nice to start with, I am sure, but the support which has flowed from that has really supported those parents and has not actually been, a lot of the evidence suggests, particularly stigmatising. On the contrary, it has supported them to do what they want to do in most cases, which is bring up their children well.

Chairman

  317. Minister, we are coming to the end of the session, you have been very good to stay on an extra ten minutes, and the Chairman is going to get the last question. One of the greatest allegations against the Department is that it is very good at producing red tape especially on head teachers and on schools generally, and just before you became a minister, Lord Haskins, Chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force, said that the DfEE, as it then was, "was the most Stalinist department he had ever come across". You were just talking about subverting Parliament, have you been able to subvert Stalinism in the Department?
  (Mr Lewis) I suppose with a name like Ivan I have a chance! I think the honest answer to that is that I am responsible for deregulation and I take that responsibility probably more seriously than just as an add on part of my range of duties and responsibilities. I hope that was reflected, if you read it in the White Paper, in that there was a whole section—and I am not sure that has happened very often before certainly in an Education White Paper—which talked about deregulation. As I have said, central to the Bill there will be various measures to free up successful schools and leaders of education institutions generally performing well, allowing them far more discretion and flexibility to run their schools and colleges in the way they feel they should. But I do not make apologies for getting that balance between accountability and standards and transparency and allowing people to run their institutions and make locally-based decisions which they feel are right. It is a very delicate balance. We can never go back, Chairman, to the days when there was insufficient accountability, there was not a clear commitment to standards, and as a consequence of that too many of our young people in my view were failed by our education and learning system. In terms of my commitment, in the Department we are looking at regulation in FE at the moment, we have to do something about it. The concerns from the centre, where they are legitimate, not where they are simply saying, "We do not like accountability"—because sometimes you get that—need to be tackled. I am also determined to build into the mainstream culture of the Department an analysis of whether a new piece of legislation or a new regulation is absolutely necessary, or whether we can use existing structures, existing processes, to achieve the same outcome without piling on additional bureaucracy. We are doing a piece of work at the moment in terms of our interaction with local education authorities, do we send them too much paper and too much information. Is that done in a proper way. We all know we are waiting for the PricewaterhouseCooper report on burdens particularly in relation to teachers, but I want to build into the Department not a group of officials who are responsible for deregulation but that it is in the mainstream thinking of all officials, first of all, how we ensure when we implement new policy we do it in a way which minimises burdens and red tape, but secondly where in our responsibilities are we finding there are obstacles which are getting in the way of us achieving what we need to achieve when in fact if we use the new powers the Government has given, the regulatory reform orders, we can get rid of those obstacles and remove them. So it is a cultural shift in the way the Department thinks and the way it works. I regard it as one of my significant responsibilities and not just an add-on. I think Stalinist was a bit strong, Chairman.

  318. We look forward to a whole new era in the Department. Minister, thank you for bearing with us this morning and answering our questions fully and fairly. I hope you have an impression of the concerns of the Committee. Thank you.
  (Mr Lewis) Thank you very much, Chairman.


5   National Institute for Economic and Social Research.............ref. Back

6   Ev. p. 81-82. Back


 
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