HC Deb 04 May 2000 vol 349 cc279-80
4. Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

If he will make a statement on area-wide inspections of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds. [119619]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

Area inspection reports provide, for the first time, an overview of education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds in an area. They will identify issues to be addressed, and it is vital that these are followed up in the interests of the young people concerned. The first report, a very useful one on Hackney and Islington, was published on 7 April. The new inspections are an important mechanism in our strategy to achieve decent options for young people.

Dr. Vis

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that, from next year onwards, the local learning and skills councils will play a crucial role after the inspections have been completed because they will integrate both funding and planning for 16 to 19-year-olds? Is it not the case that the Conservative party divided schools and colleges—providers of education—in such a way that they could not sensibly plan?

Mr. Wicks

I agree with my hon. Friend. We inherited a difficult situation in which too many young people—about one in 11 throughout the nation aged 16 to 18—are not in education, training or employment. We are determined to rectify that appalling situation in the interests of those young people and their families—hence the importance of the Learning and Skills Council. It will be set up by the Learning and Skills Bill, which is in Committee. I agree with my hon. Friend that it represents an important new mechanism. It joins education maintenance allowances and the new Connexions service for young people to ensure that each and every one of our young people will have the best chance in life. In these endeavours, it would help our school sixth forms if the Tory party did not send them missives containing political propaganda and giving misinformation about the Government's intentions for high-quality sixth forms.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Leaving aside the Minister's gratuitous abuse, is it not time that he put his house in order by taking a grip on the grotesque anomalies that are being created directly by his Department in relation to inspections, whereby the training of young persons is the remit of the adult learning inspectorate and their education is the responsibility of Ofsted? Any area inspections will have to be led somewhat uncomfortably by a framework arrangement between the two inspectorates. When the Minister has sorted out these bristling anomalies, will he get whatever inspectorate he then brings forward to consider carefully recruitment into further education, where on Government targets enrolments should be rising by about 10 per cent. a year on average? In fact, last week's figures from the Further Education Funding Council showed that they were falling between 1 and 2 per cent.

Mr. Wicks

We are concerned about quality as well as quantity. We inherited a situation in which the numbers were inflated and quality was declining as a result of abuses of the franchising system. We shall stick to our targets, not for the sake of the arithmetic, but because we are concerned with quality and quantity. There can be no doubt about that. The Hackney and Islington inspection shows that sensible inspections are taking place; indeed, we are confident that different kinds of inspection can work well together.

Serious and rigorous debate about good practice is needed, not the Tory scaremongering that I highlighted. The Conservative party wrote to schools giving misleading information to parents about our intentions for school sixth forms, which have an important place in the future.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

In general, does my hon. Friend believe that further education colleges providing for that age group are equal to the task, bearing in mind the big reorganisation that they have undergone in recent years? Is he aware of my concern for those young men and women who are not academically able and tend to find themselves always at the bottom of the pile, especially in relation to their job prospects? Would my hon. Friend care to visit the Deeside further education college in my constituency and see the good work that it is doing with young people?

Mr. Wicks

I certainly agree that our further education colleges are doing some extraordinarily good work with, for example, some of the most disadvantaged people, giving those young people the second chance that further education is all about. I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the college mentioned by my right hon. Friend and other colleges throughout the country.