Ofsted (14 to 17-year-olds)

16th July 2014 9.30 am

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Caton. It is also a pleasure to welcome the new Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities on his first full day at work. I hope this debate will be a memorable start to his tenure. He and I have worked closely together on various issues over the years, and I hope he brings the same sort of energy, commitment and good humour to this important subject. I hope we can work together to do everything we can for the 14 to 17-year-old group that we call pre-NEETs—for those unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for: not in employment, education or training. The idea is to catch those young people before they become proper NEETs and long-term youth unemployed, so I have called the debate to bring to the attention of the House some of the ideas we are developing in Nottingham to pre-empt the creation of those NEETs and long-term youth unemployed.

I have about 300 NEETs in my constituency. I will refer later to the fact that getting one of those young people into work will save the taxpayer an estimated £160,000. Imagine the benefits if we could get 300 of them into work; imagine the benefits if we could get my 1,200 or so long-term youth unemployed into work. So there is a human tale that I want to tell, but also a story that I hope will make the Chancellor salivate in terms of the savings we could afford the taxpayer and recycle some of that money into helping those young people make the best of themselves. We have a fair amount of time this morning. I will outline the positive ideas that we have in Nottingham and hope to get the support and encouragement of the Minister.

Ofsted is due to publish new guidance on that 14 to 17-year-old group this autumn, but it will be on inspecting the school provision for pre-NEETs. If we can follow it through locally with Ofsted, it should make it easier for schools to give this group of young people the structure that they need to thrive. I intend to bring lots of resources to bear on the pre-NEETs problem: first, the energy of the Rebalancing the outer estates project in Nottingham North, of which I am the chairman-designate; secondly, our project bid for the youth engagement fund; and thirdly, a positive and productive relationship with all of those who are involved in educating these young people, especially Ofsted. I want to touch on each of those three resources that I think we need to direct at this problem.

I am leading the rebalancing the outer estates project with partners in my constituency of Nottingham North, and helping the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEETs is one of our work streams. Rebalancing the outer city estates is a concept that local partners have developed over the past year in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Lord Heseltine, my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), the Big Lottery Fund, and lots of other partners, especially our superb local enterprise partnership, D2N2. We are putting that forward as part of the growth fund bid through the LEP.

I hope that, ultimately, the lessons learnt in Nottingham North can be taken to scale to help dozens of neglected and forgotten outer city estate-based constituencies throughout the UK. The Minister will know my record of starting things in Nottingham, trialling them, testing them and taking them to national scale, and this is no different. There are lessons, good and bad, from which we can hope to learn if we use the Nottingham North experience effectively, and it can work to the benefit of any Government that comes to power in the near future.

There are nine former council estates in my constituency. They illustrate the social and economic imbalance in the modern UK economy. They were visionary in their design—as in the garden city concept, there are no high rises or towers blocks. They were built to house those who worked in manufacturing, but those people have now lost their work-related identity following the loss of key employers. I am something of a microcosm: my father was a miner, but the mines have now gone; my mother was textile worker, but the factories have closed; my grandfather did 50 years at Raleigh bicycles, which has relocated to China; and some family members worked at Imperial Tobacco—John Player’s—which, sadly, has announced in the past few weeks that it too is closing.

One in five of the people in my constituency claim an out-of-work benefit, four out of six of my secondary schools are in special measures, and we have the lowest number of people going to university of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Our number of single parent households and free school meals is double the national average. However, I want to focus on employment and skills this morning. The number of unemployed claimants in Nottingham North is the ninth worst out of 650 constituencies in the UK. One in eight young people aged 18 to 24 are unemployed—1,190 on the last total. Nottingham North also has low levels of skills and qualifications. That is a poisonous combination. It is one of only 20 parliamentary constituencies in the UK that has more people with no qualifications than it has people with a degree level qualification. There seem to be particularly low levels of skill among the 25 to 29 age group. That is why there is merit in early intervention, going right back to the 14-year-olds and younger children to try to give them the skill base that is essential to their future development.

Using the evidence-based principles of the What Works centres, as well as Nottingham’s early intervention model, which has now been taken to scale in 20 different places with more to come across the UK, we are working closely with Government Departments to form a broad-based local partnership to develop and implement a rebalancing outer estates action plan. We have done a business plan, which has been submitted to the LEP and has got through all the hurdles so far, and we are looking for good news from it towards the end of the month. We believe that that can be taken to scale from the initial work that we do in Nottingham North.

We are also working closely with central and local government to propose and trial flexibilities, discretions, innovations and freedoms. Note, Minister: I am not putting in a bid for money and asking, “Please can you help us out with some more dosh?” This is all about letting us get on and do what we know we can do best in our constituency, and tailoring the one-size-fits-all regulations that governments inevitably need to put forward at national level. We are seeking that local discretion and some discretion to use existing moneys—not additional moneys—in a more single pot concept so that we can spend it how we feel is appropriate, which I think will deliver greater value for money.

We have very good relationships with officials and Ministers not only in the Department for Education, but in the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Ministry of Justice. The Department for Communities and Local Government troubled families scheme is working with the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, which has been set up by DWP to facilitate data-sharing agreements between the local DWP, skills agencies and others, such as public health. That is quite central, because it will allow us to collect robust data, facilitate proper sharing between agencies and ultimately allow us to measure the impact of what we do. That is so important, because much of what we want to do in the longer term is about payment by results and social investment. Consequently, measuring outcomes so that they can be effectively monetised is a key part of this process.

Our aspiration is in our business plan and has the agreement of the LEP and others. It is that, emerging from this process, perhaps Nottingham North could help Her Majesty’s Government to explore the potential of our approach. We have suggested that it could be adopted in 12 cities within about three years, and perhaps in 24 cities during the next Parliament.

It is appropriate that I put on record my thanks to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who took a great interest in what we are trying to do in Nottingham North. He was especially helpful in progressing the development of a new campus on our further education campus, which is part of New College Nottingham and is called the Basford Hall site. Anyone driving by there today will see builders demolishing the old campus and building the new campus in a £27 million development. We do not have many physical assets in the constituency, which consists of nine enormous council estates, but the catalyst in the middle is this redevelopment of the Basford Hall site, because we think it can be the hub for our local skills, including entrepreneurial skills, which we can use with our partners, community groups and social enterprises. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to go to a second phase of development. There is enough land on the site that we can dream about starter units for the young people who go to the FE college. Much of the current activity there is construction, plumbing, painting and decorating, but green technology and many other things will go on that site, and there is the potential to put in starter units, low-rental units and lots of other things, one of which I will go on to talk about.

Our key ambition for our project is summed up as making every four-year-old school-ready and every teenager work-ready, and then carefully to craft a Nottingham North job offer for every individual on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. We will continue to explore with the DWP the possibility of a Nottingham North social investment bond because, as I mentioned earlier, just one NEET going back into productive life will save us £160,000. Given the number of NEETs and people in long-term unemployment that we have, that is a very large pot of money that we could bring to bear if we do this work properly.

Having talked about the rebalancing project, the second area to discuss is a slightly more specific one around the youth engagement fund. I do not want this to sound too much like a funeral, but I will put on record the support and assistance that I have received from the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd). I regret very much that he is no longer in the Government, given the work that he has done; it has been a pleasure working with him. He has encouraged people locally to apply for the youth engagement fund, so we have put a bid together. We really want to initiate a 20-year behaviour change programme—it is pointless doing starburst, flash-in-the-pan, one or two-year projects, thinking, “Let’s throw some money at it.” We have to set out our stall. That programme would go alongside our 20-year early intervention work plan, which we have in our city of Nottingham.

In making the bid, we have put together a package that we hope will reduce the flow rather than the stock—I will use those economic terms. We need to use our existing providers to do what we can with the existing individuals, but we want to turn the tap off and start a process that will feed through and produce an intergenerational change by giving these young people what they need far earlier and way more upstream than is the case now. At the moment, we are firefighting and throwing money at a problem that is deep-rooted. I suppose that our bid and our objective could be summed up as, “Every young person work-ready in Nottingham North.” We will work with all the people locally, including some brilliant partners, to complete an individual pathway for every young person. That is perfectly possible. I said that the number of young people involved is high—it is way too high—but it is not so high that it is not manageable to produce a personal programme for each one.

We will do two main things in our package. The first one, which I am trying to do, is have a work-readiness coach for every child in secondary school. I am up with the jargon, so I use that term rather than being old-fashioned and saying, “careers adviser”—I was familiar with careers advisers when I was at school, but you certainly would not be, Mr Caton, as you are too young. In the six secondary schools in my constituency, current provision is lumpy—let me put it that way—but a work-readiness coach could give training skills and work advice throughout an individual’s school life, but with a focus on the period from 14 to 17. There would be professional, human and proper guidance delivered by a trusted and committed friend at the correct age, and tailored to the individual and their background; in addition, it would be given face-to-face. Time and again in the project and throughout this debate, the need for a known individual has come up: having all sorts of stuff on tap or accessible via a computer is not enough; for this group of young people, a face and personal contact is needed. They need to be able to pick up the phone and speak to a person, or to go and see them, in order to develop a relationship that literally lasts for years, so that that person gets to know them and can guide them in the right way. I understand from the experts that the best time to start this process is at the age of 13, or at key stage 3, because that is when these young people are at their most open, and supportive one-to-one interviews can make a huge difference, not least if they are supplemented by work experience that is not hindered by health and safety red tape. In that way, we can get these young people to raise their aspirations and focus their academic progression.

That is the first thing—having a careers or work-readiness coach in every school, who is dedicated to this group of young people and known to them. The second is to create a state-of-the-art Nottingham North work-readiness centre for those 14 to 17-year-olds who are least likely to go on to education or training from school, to build their social and emotional skills to work-readiness standard, and taking them out of school between one and three days a week. We are lucky to be rich in excellent social enterprises and local providers, including Building Engineering Services Training Ltd or BEST, Right Track, Groundwork, Futures, Futures, Aspley community centre and New College Nottingham. Using high-quality new premises in the brand new Basford Hall further education redevelopment that I mentioned earlier, we will show that we value these youngsters as much as those who are studying full time in our smart rebuilt schools across the constituency.

As one of the national advocates of social investment, I strongly welcome that our bid has to take the form of a social impact bond. I am asking my council and my LEP to guarantee the required 20% local participation, but I will try to ensure that we bring in a wide range of partners, including our excellent police and crime commissioner, our clinical commissioning group and schools themselves, which are able to use the pupil premium, so that they can all take a stake in what we are trying to do, even if they are providing only a tiny amount of money. That way, they will have a financial stake as well as an educational or social stake in our bid.

We are partnering Social Finance, Ltd, which I know very well, in order to raise the initial investment that is required to pay for the delivery of the programme, and we are engaging with a range of social investors, including the Private Equity Foundation, Big Society Capital and many others.

I think we are doing more than our bit and now I need the Minister to try to encourage Ofsted, which has done a lot of good work, to come to the party. Ofsted can become a tremendous power for good for the 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEETs. There are lots of well intentioned sentiments in Ofsted’s school inspection handbook about pre-NEETs. It talks about

“the next stage of their education and training”

and employment; about

“an appropriate balance between academic and vocational courses”;


“timely independent information, advice and guidance to assist pupils on their next steps in training, education or employment”; and about lots of other good things. If Ofsted works with what we have done in Nottingham, as an exemplar of what can be done, I believe that we can turn those words into action. It is no good just having a framework and then not helping schools and young people through, and following through. That thread runs through this final passage of my speech.

The truth is that many heads of schools in disadvantaged areas with poor demographics will say privately that the education and inspection systems incentivise schools to place greater emphasis on those capable of getting five A to Cs than on those who cannot. The pre-NEETs group is often packaged and parked, destined to become expensive NEETs and long-term unemployed, although that is wasteful. With Ofsted, we can change that by attacking a number of issues together. I shall list a few.

First, there should be clarity about targets for pre-NEETs. We know that for a generation schools have been programmed to focus on their target of five A to Cs. There is a message sent strongly from the ground, including from my patch, from the people who are there. These people do not lack leadership and are not lazy; they get out of bed every morning to go to a difficult educational environment and are among some of the most courageous, capable people to be found in education. They deliver in all sorts of ways. Their strong message is that any additional activities relating to work-readiness for supporting the 14 to 17-year-olds need to be rigorously tested, inspected and, above all, targeted or that provision will be an afterthought.

Schools need to be targeted on where their pupils progress to: carrots for good progression to FE, work and apprenticeships and sticks for bad progression—NEETs, prison, etc. Then schools will not be penalised, but motivated, as they wish to be, to invest energy into work-readiness provision. Otherwise they will pay lip service or just will not be able to do it, however much they want to, given all the other pressures. We have to help them by setting that framework and letting them do what they know they would like to do anyway—to help that group rather than park it, sometimes, in training that is not as good as we would like. That will require Ofsted not merely to pronounce and inspect, but to encourage and guide—to be a bit more proactive— in a willing local partnership. That can be pioneered in Nottingham, if people are up for that and willing to do it.

Secondly, we need the right type of qualifications for demographies such as mine, which exist in dozens of constituencies. The DFE and Ofsted rightly acted to remove the over-reliance on equivalency qualifications, as they were called, that were seen as being used to boost overall GCSE figures. What was lost in that change was the fact that many pupils were following credible, well regulated courses that served their needs and aspirations. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, because by forcing schools down a more academic route, the needs of the 14-to-17 pre-NEETs are not being met.

Employers in the locality tell me that many of these pupils fundamentally lack employability skills: social and emotional capability; functional literacy and numeracy; a sense of responsibility about such issues as punctuality and attendance; and the chance to develop self-discipline, resilience and respect for authority. They lack achievable goals in relation to their aspirations and, most importantly, a sense of direction and progression that will give them life skills that will turn them into active, engaged citizens for life.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, not just for securing this debate but for the work that he has been doing in this area for some time. His list of issues affecting young people, particularly in hard-to-reach areas such as working class estates, resonates, I am sure, with a number of hon. Members. Does he believe, as I do, that we need to ensure that best practice is replicated? Has he considered a template to be used throughout the United Kingdom, so that a new generation does not suffer the problems suffered by the generation that is out there now?

Mr Allen: I fully agree. If we can do this, even in one place, we can see what fails and what works. If we can have all the institutions working together in that one, tiny place—I do not want the Government to pass legislation and do something across the whole country—and prove, in the engineering sense, what can work, that will benefit everybody.

On the subject of capabilities, when I took Lord Heseltine to my constituency, we went to Right Track and met its chief executive, Stuart Bell, who said, “I’ve got 80 jobs available for any kid that walks through the door.” We both looked at each other and said, “No, don’t you mean you’ve got a job available and 80 kids are looking for it?” He said, “No, I’ve got the kids, but they haven’t got the wherewithal—the social and emotional capability—to work in retail and say, ‘Welcome, sir. Do you want a jacket or a tie today?’, ‘How are you?’ or ‘The weather’s nice’, or whatever.” That is the sort of basic capability and interaction they lacked. The vacancies were on the wall and Mr Bell was working with the kids to give them some of the basics that we would give our children, probably before the age of eight, at home in a normal environment, completely unconsciously.

That is what I mean when I say that measuring those kids on a five A to C basis is irrelevant. Measuring them on the demanding basis of what they should be attaining in terms of their own functional literacy and so on—a tough challenge—is exactly where they need to be. They will then attain and get self-respect and will, hopefully, spread that to their own children and raise good families of their own.

This is a complicated area—having looked at it for some time, I do not pretend to be an expert—and I certainly do not expect the Minister to be able to answer some of these questions on his first day. However, I hope that, when he has had a chance to get his feet under the table, he will consider whether he can work with us and Ofsted to review the balance on qualifications. Has the pendulum swung too far? Will he consider that, because it is quite urgent now? We need to get that balance right as this new Ofsted inspection comes in and, if we have the right qualifications going with it, the two things will be greater than the sum of the parts. We should ensure that there is a proper range on offer for demographies such as mine.

Thirdly, we should consider which roll children are on—the school roll or the FE roll—and all the complications that come with that. Schools are judged on how many pupils meet the requirement to achieve five A to Cs, including English and maths, and that judgment is based on all pupils in the year 11 cohort at census time. That means that pre-NEETS are in danger of becoming victims of that system. Schools need flexible arrangements for these pupils, so they are able to develop through transitional arrangements to work and training.

Most of all, schools need to be freed somehow from the need to count all pupils in league tables as if they were all the same, because they are not. This means students at 14 onwards having a more sophisticated school roll-non-school roll allocation, so that they can benefit from a personally tailored vocational and functional skills programme. As schools receive funding for each student, there is an initial reluctance to have any more than a handful of their most difficult students offsite. I am not talking about the most difficult students, such as the young lads who might end up in a pupil referral unit; I am talking about the big chunk of those who will not get five A to Cs, who are not the really bad lads. That is a big chunk of the population.

As a result of the disincentive, every school tries to develop some sort of partial vocational provision or units on their campus and, for that reason, they cannot then work out block timetabling. Such timetabling would mean, for example, that my six schools could have a given period when those young people could go somewhere else together, forming a critical mass to make it work economically. With absolutely stringent, tested criteria, so that the system cannot be abused, schools need to be legally entitled to remove from their league table accountability pupils who are following certified programmes. By doing so, we will find meaningful progression for such pupils, many of whom could be characterised as white, working class young people from former council estates.

At the moment, some of the provision is done under the table or with sleight of hand. We need to smoke the issue out, make it transparent and take action to make it clear that we are all working together. I do not pretend to have the issue buttoned down; I do not have a little policy document that I can hand to the Minister and say, “It has all been thought out and here it is”, but I know we can work together and find a much better way, so that we have a system that works for the kids I am talking about as well.

There are challenges. How can such kids be kept on the school roll, yet have a range of options externally? Who would be accountable for their outcomes, attendance, exam results and so on? Would the home school have to pay a premium for sending them to a further education institution? Many schools in special measures are facing financial difficulties. Would the student be removed from the home school roll? Many schools are struggling with falling rolls. If the Minister asks us to, we, working with Ofsted, would like to confront those challenges. With some flexibility and a little brainpower, we could trial that in my constituency, if the Minister felt it appropriate, as part of our rebalancing project.

“Destination outcomes” is a new phrase that we are using a lot these days. Post-16 progression routes need to be mapped for these learners, and we should aspire to put an offer in place for them to work towards at the start of a programme. A lot of the time, there is a sense of things being a package for a 14-year-old, moving on to a package for a 15-year-old, moving on to one for a 16-year-old and then one for a 17-year-old, rather than a sense of, “You should be working towards this end goal.” The goal might change, but if there is a sense of direction on roughly where someone wants to go, that can be set out at the start; the sense of “pass the parcel”, which a lot of these kids and a lot of the people involved with them feel, would diminish.

What a young person does in the September after leaving school is important, but we should be even more interested in what happens six months after that. It is okay saying, “We have pushed our pre-NEETs levels down and everyone is properly accommodated”, but then it is, “Oh my goodness, look at the NEET figure! We do not know where that came from. It has just shot up suddenly.” We need to measure where those kids are six months after they leave. That test must be on whether they have managed to stick with their college course, apprenticeship or whatever. That is a much more accurate measure. Working together, we should be able to organise a watertight data track for those kids.

Destinations need to be better factored into Ofsted’s inspections, so that efforts with the group are acknowledged and rewarded. Schools in my constituency are buying in external services to support the career progression of their students. Ofsted needs to acknowledge the exceedingly low “not known” numbers, which are being forced down due to the innovation fund, the good links between employers and schools and the role of the voluntary sector in supporting young people. Ofsted needs to work with that and make it even more standard in what it does. If we can pilot these ideas, we could help create an ever more demanding, but ever more helpful, Ofsted regime, which gets head teachers and principals to where they want to be.

Relevant inspections are at the heart of these ideas. This is a plea, on the Minister’s first day, to track us on progress over the next 290 days before the election, and to track Ofsted and our partners on how we can innovate to build a more effective inspection service, for the benefit of our 14 to 17-year-olds, by pre-empting NEETs and youth unemployment. A smarter system for measuring young people with complex needs is required, rather than their being measured against a “norm” group. I repeat: alternative provision for work-readiness is fine, but if a school is then faced with the consequences of that in the exam profile on their cohort, it is self-defeating, because heads will not do that. We need to facilitate heads and principals to do what they know to be right. They know what they can deliver. This is not rocket science—they know they can help those kids, but we have to reduce the disincentives in that.

To their credit, the Government have recognised the problem and have scrapped the five A to C measure for summer 2015 onwards in favour of the new “Progress 8” measure, which gives a much more rounded picture of every child’s progress in a school. That significant breakthrough having been made, however, it has to be followed through by the Department and, above all, by the inspection regime.

Ofsted, too, deserves commendation for recognising the need to address the issues. It says it wishes to go further than it did last year. The progress last year was great, but it has now told the House of Commons Library, which asked it a question on my behalf:

“We are adding some increased reference to advice and guidance into the school inspection handbook for Sept 2014”— that is a couple of months away—

“which should increase the focus on the quality of advice offered to young people and their careers education. Schools will be assessed on whether they ‘provide timely independent information, advice and guidance to assist pupils on their next steps in training, education or employment.’ Inspectors will explore the extent to which the school has developed and implemented an effective strategy for ensuring that all pupils in years 8 to 13 receive career guidance; the impact of this guidance in helping young people to make informed choices about their next steps and how well what is provided is meeting the needs of all vulnerable groups of students, including reducing the numbers who do not continue to education, employment or training.”

There is more:

“There will also be references to destination measures as one of the factors for inspectors to consider. The extent of any NEETs will be taken into account, depending on the structure of education in a specific area.”

All those things are incredibly welcome, as are the drive, sentiment and good intentions behind them. I have publicly put on record, and repeat again, how good and positive that is from Ofsted’s point of view, but we now have to make it happen on the ground—in reality—so that it is more than just a question asked at an inspection that then disappears. If we are to tackle 14 to 17-year-old pre-NEETs, we have to have Ofsted as part of that team following through, encouraging and ensuring that the guidance is implemented, as well as inspecting.

One quibble is that the schools are about to break up for the summer holidays, and the new handbook, which I have just quoted parts from, courtesy of the Library, is not yet published. Will schools in my constituency or that of any Member have the time to take advantage of the good things in the new guidance and get them up and running for September, when the kids come back? I doubt very much that they will. I hope the Minister will facilitate getting that handbook, if only by a question, to Ofsted and into the hands of the heads and principals who can use it and put it to work. They can then talk to their local Ofsted inspectors to make it a reality.

I hope that the Minister has a little more success in reaching the Ofsted HQ team than I have had, although I must immediately say what wonderful people we have in local and regional Ofsted; they have been very supportive and encouraging. Given the chance in my area to co-operate with Ofsted and to demonstrate how we can help the inspection regime, we could make a real difference. I am thinking of our youth engagement fund, the rebalancing project, our schools and Ofsted working together, and great guidance. Let us make it work. We can do that.

I have a number of other issues to touch on briefly, because I consulted with people in my area and a number of suggestions were made. I want to put them on the record. First, family support, because we are not talking only about what happens at the school; the issue is about bringing all the other services together and ensuring early intervention with families and others to ensure that we support the child outside school as well. Secondly, schools staying open, so we need to ensure that in high-NEET areas they have the funding to operate on a 46-week year, not a 39-week year, to reinforce continuity and positive learning. Thirdly, employers—local chambers of commerce, local small and medium-sized enterprises and LEPs—should come to the party, bringing their capabilities to speak not simply formulaically because there is a little money in training, but with real passion: to get involved, to take on individuals and to work very closely with what we are trying to achieve.

Finally, there are a number of things around technology. Sometimes we look for new technology to be a shortcut and a cheaper way to get information to people, but that does not always work in a demography such as that in my constituency. We may be piloting particular proposals and schemes, but many young people in my area do not have access to iPhones or the internet. Moreover, they cannot use phones for conversations; many of the students in my area cannot be accessed when they run out of credit. Ofsted, the Department, the National Careers Service and others come forward with apparently great things that might work in other constituencies, but they need to have an eye to what will actually help NEETs and pre-NEETs.

To sum up, I am making an offer to the Minister and, through him, to Ofsted that Nottingham North’s rebalancing the outer estates project will work hand in hand with schools, Ofsted and all our local partners to pilot an exemplar of the new Ofsted framework. We will try to make that work, to show how far the envelope can be pushed and, I hope, to be an example to others. The project will be backed up by work-readiness coaches in every school, a work-readiness, purpose-built college funded by us through the youth engagement fund and, perhaps above all, an in-depth and wholehearted collaboration and partnership.

In that way, we can demonstrate how the pre-NEETs group can be removed from the bureaucratic, one-way conveyor belt to NEETs and long-term unemployment and on to a genuine pathway to work and self-motivation. It is a great prize, which will save the taxpayer millions of pounds otherwise spent on the costs of failure. More importantly, it will turn wasted lives into productive and happy citizens. The Minister has not had long in his new role, but if he works with me, as I hope he will, he will have long enough to make a real difference for the young people I have been discussing.

10.13 am

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). That was an extremely constructive, thorough and positive speech, and it boded well that he made no request for extra money—had he been part of the reshuffle yesterday, I am sure he would have done well. Furthermore, he recognised that one size does not fit all. Every single town and community has different challenges and different opportunities, and that shone through.

I was not intending to speak, but I was disappointed that the Chamber is not packed with lots of eager Members. We are debating a challenge in all of our communities, and yet there are so many opportunities to shape ways in which we can make a real difference, so I am cobbling together some of my suggestions and will then be supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who has a huge amount of experience in this area. I want to concentrate on how Ofsted can focus on engagement, but not at the cost of the academic pursuit of the five A to C grades. Between us all, we are not asking for money or for huge amounts of change; we are only looking for some extras.

I welcome the new Minister of State for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). I hope he is “planning”—boom, boom!—a bright future for the development of young people; it is early in the morning, so apologies for that.

My interest arises because I went to a school at the bottom of the league tables. Many of my friends failed to engage and they took a very different path from me. Two of them spent time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, although it is fair to say that, when I phoned up my old headmaster to say, “I have made it into Parliament”, he suggested that that was possibly worse. Also, in Swindon we are proud that we will have one of the first university technical colleges opening in September. The UTC will focus on real, tangible skills and working with local employers. I am envious of that, because it was not something I had when I was growing up.

The crux of what I am asking for concerns utilising our fantastic school and community facilities. We have spent huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, rightly, on building brilliant schools, but right up and down the country, as soon as it gets to 4 o’clock, for use of the facilities we slap on a huge hire fee for community and sports groups and groups that want to engage constructively and positively. In a world of extremely busy families, it is incredibly difficult to find volunteers to contribute to society and to make a difference. Where we find them, however, we then say, “By the way, if you want to put on a football or street dance club or to provide scouts activities, we will charge you”—what a huge disincentive. We have already paid for the schools, they already exist, so it is simply a question of getting a caretaker to open them up.

I was a councillor for 10 years and we had precious little open space in my area, apart from in the schools, separated from us by huge fences. No wonder we have childhood obesity and children stood on street corners, not being engaged. I encourage, where possible, opening up those schools for sport, not only for the next potential draft for the World cup, after our disappointing performance this summer, but for the future coaches, treasurers and club secretaries, because the opportunity is for all to engage constructively. A huge number of careers can come about through sport, other than by being top-notch athletes.

Other obvious groups who might use the facilities include the St John Ambulance or the scouts. I have to pay credit to some of their work in the most challenging communities. Such groups have been given extra money to engage in those communities, and they have adapted their models. What might be offered in one community can be very different in another. Any group of parents who wish to engage with young people constructively should have access to our fantastic facilities without price being a barrier.

I also want to touch on the opportunity for young entrepreneurs. Many of the brightest entrepreneurs in this country, such as Lord Sugar and Richard Branson, left school without a single qualification between them. They found, however, that entrepreneurship engaged them. We already have fantastic organisations such as Young Entrepreneur, but we can go further.

I organised a session with one of my local colleges, Swindon college. Rather than running something for a week, based in the main foyer and selling to their friends, the students were dispatched to Blunsdon market. For those who do not shop there regularly, I should point out that it is a really tough environment, where the customers are price sensitive and trade is hard to come by. The students were given a stall on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but all seven teams engaged positively. The best team set up a 1950s cake stall, after visiting the week before and recognising that the clientele was older. They tried to match the market and took £120. What happened after that session is key—the landlords and local business entrepreneurs offered to mentor one of the young entrepreneurs to take things forward. After she left, she set up her own bakery, which is doing well, and the good people of Swindon enjoy her produce. There is real opportunity in such engagement, whether after school or in the school holidays.

I am also a big fan of the National Citizen Service programme. I make six or seven visits to each of the processes in the summer holidays—it is the highlight of the summer recess. The key is the absolute transformation of the children. As its stands, we wait for children to engage proactively—generally, these schemes are advertised and it is the most proactive children who sign up. I would like the NCS programme to be expanded far more, using the long summer break to get children to do good things. For those not familiar with the NCS programme, aptly, there is a debate on it following this one. It involves sport, team work and charity and community work and places a huge emphasis on carrying on beyond the initial programme during the summer.

My final request concerns the battle in this country of youth services versus sport—the two, it seems, will never meet. Actually, those budgets should be merged. Again, if leisure centres are not being used in the evenings, let us open them up and use the facilities. Sport often captures the imagination. When I was a councillor I was the lead member for leisure, and I remember the lead member for youth saying it was their job to engage with the youth. I said, “Well, I’m beating you, because on a Friday evening when we put the ice-skating disco on, I have 600 young people enjoying themselves. You should be parking your youth facilities outside our ice-skating disco and then you will actually engage with the public.”

When I first got elected, I tried to get in touch with young people by asking them whether we should expand youth clubs. They looked at me as if I was something from the ’80s—I probably was. We therefore need to merge youth and sport programmes and use them better. As with schools, we are not using our leisure centres on a Friday night at 10 o’clock, so let us open them up for constructive engagement if local parents want to put something on.

We have an extremely enthusiastic Minister. I would like every effort to be made to engage and inspire young people. They have only one opportunity. We cannot deliver one size fits all, but we can open up and provide fantastic facilities for positive and constructive engagement, and that will make a real difference.

10.21 am

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and to almost follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who, as my hon. Friend said, made a thoughtful and in-depth speech. I share my hon. Friend’s concern that there are not more people here. This is an important subject and should concern every Member of Parliament. I know that not every Member can attend every important debate, but it is sad that there are not more of us here today.

I will speak briefly about my own experience growing up, attending a proper comprehensive school and my time in the classroom as a schoolteacher, and then talk about some of the positive things that are happening in one of the local authorities in my constituency, North Lincolnshire.

I do not want to outdo my hon. Friend but I went to the worst performing comprehensive in the worst performing local education authority in the country. Like him, I went to school with people who went down a range of different routes. Some of them unfortunately went to prison on more than one occasion—that was just from my class, and we were the top set. Some went into good old proper, traditional apprenticeships, which I am pleased to see this Government have reinvigorated and restored. A small number of us went on to university. It saddened me that in the years after we left, that route to university was taken less and less by those from my school. In the end, our school was closed down on two occasions—it was a cycle of decline. Unfortunately, a lot of this happened before we had the term “NEETs” and before anybody really seemed overly concerned about disengagement.

By the time I started teaching, there was a lot more emphasis on the issue, I am pleased to say, and there has since been a lot more emphasis on different ways of engaging young people. The point the hon. Member for Nottingham North was making throughout his speech is that we need not only a co-ordinated solution—and not a one-size-fits-all solution—but early intervention. We hear about that all the time. The statistics are quite appalling: if we cannot get to a kid by the time they have started school, it is often too late to recover them.

I saw that both as a secondary schoolteacher and then, up to the day I was elected to this place, as a primary schoolteacher. They are very different jobs, but doing both really convinced me of the case for early intervention. When I was a secondary schoolteacher, we would sometimes be thinking, “What have they done to them in primary school to result in us ending up with this?” I realised as a year 1 teacher that unfortunately the battle was often lost before children even got into primary school. I would strongly endorse any strategy that identifies—as indeed the troubled families initiative and others do—families whose children are at risk of failing pre-school.

In my own area, we have tried to address some of the problems connected to literacy and to get kids to sit down with their parents through launching a project called the imagination library. That project was started some time ago by Dolly Parton, who comes from a family in which illiteracy was normal. It was first launched in the UK in Rotherham; the Labour leader of Rotherham council, Roger—unfortunately I have forgotten his last name—was the first man to bring it here. I took the project to North Lincolnshire council, which agreed to fund it.

Every child under the age of five receives a book in the post every month, and the scheme is properly integrated into the children’s centres in the local authority—an excellent local authority that has not closed a single children’s centre and indeed has expanded some services such as library services. Everything, including the children’s services and library services, is tied in together. Every child is now getting a book in the post every month and getting support from the children’s centres, so that by the time children get to school they have some of the basics. That is really important for their progress through school, but more important is that parents are tied into their child’s educational attainment in literacy very early on.

In the part of my constituency covered by a different local authority, East Riding of Yorkshire council, we have unfortunately not been able to secure council funding, but I run the scheme in Goole myself and raise the money for it. In North Lincolnshire, over 7,000 kids are signed up now, but the number in Goole is unfortunately a bit smaller. After the scheme had been running for a year, we did a feedback survey; I got a letter from a parent of one the children saying that having the books in the post every month was really great because there was a focused thing every month when the family sat down and talked about books. She also said that her own reading had been pretty poor, but the scheme had really helped her and she felt confident that she could help her own children. That is just one example of how we can engage with families early on to ensure that they buy in properly to their children’s education. When I was teacher, we always used to say that the one thing worse than the children was the parents, but the saddest thing I used to see was the parents who never engaged.

Justin Tomlinson: My hon. Friend is as ever delivering a powerful speech. When I visited some of the more challenging schools in my constituency, they echoed that comment about parents not wishing to engage. That is a further reason for using school facilities during the summer, as it would allow children to be in a constructive environment rather than one in which they are simply abandoned in front of the television.

Andrew Percy: Absolutely—I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. There are some parents who, if they have not achieved at school or school was a particularly bad place for them, remain intimidated by teachers or by school. In some cases, there is a sort of embarrassment—I have seen this myself—because they feel as if they are going to be tested and they know their own reading and literacy skills are really poor. Consequently there are some who are almost embarrassed if their children do better than them and so are disengaged from their children’s education. That is one of the saddest things to see. I entirely endorse anything that means we can bring parents in so that the school buildings become their buildings—for example, by putting on adult literacy and numeracy courses, as happens in a lot of places. Whatever, it is all for the better.

Moving up to secondary school, I agree entirely with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham North on the changes around equivalency. I taught in a really tough school in Hull, and I was appalled that, despite my protestations, which saw me dragged into the head teacher’s office, we went down the route that I call the GNVQ fiddle. That is exactly what it is. I had children who wanted to do my subject, history, at GCSE but were told they could not because they were not going to achieve a C, and consequently they were forced on to GNVQ media studies. Now, I do not disparage GNVQs at all, and perhaps GNVQ media studies was an entirely appropriate course for some young people, but when it was not their course of choice, and these things were done purely to get the figures up, something is seriously wrong with the system.

What happened when we started allowing the GNVQ fiddle? The school’s figures went through the roof, but as soon as the measure changed again, they plummeted—I think we recorded a pass rate of about 60% one year, but that plummeted to 15% or 16% when the measure changed. We were therefore absolutely right to remove what was clearly a way of fiddling the league tables. However, I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the pendulum should not swing too far the other way so that we concentrate only on traditional academic subjects. That was my concern about the EBacc when it was first introduced—that it would become the primary measure, whatever statements were made at the time.

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