National Skills Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:58 pm on 15th May 2003.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 5:58 pm, 15th May 2003

As I was saying, I think that that is a perfectly acceptable aim and aspiration.

I should like to draw on my knowledge of the German dual system for a moment. I have always felt that that system was rightly admired in this country, although not so much for its pedagogical qualities, because it can in practice be rather wooden and limited. It really succeeds because it involves the active commitment of employers, their work force and its representatives, and the education system, and because a great deal of commitment is invested in it. If a similar commitment were to be mutually beneficial in British terms, as I expect and hope that it would be, and if it were to reflect genuine consent between the parties rather than coercion, I would welcome such principles being applied in this country.

The proper role of the Government should be to set the appropriate policy framework, bearing in mind that for all the public spend on education and training post-16, the private sector contributes two or three times as much—depending on some definitions that are rather difficult to determine. There is a huge commitment from private employers, as well as a huge investment of employee time. Unfortunately, in their initiatives in this area to date, the present Government have made some significant blunders. Indeed, the Minister admitted to one today, in the form of the individual learning accounts, which were described by the ombudsman as amounting to gross maladministration and reported by the Public Accounts Committee to have involved a loss of nearly £100 million.

I welcome the fact that Ministers have confirmed their intention of introducing "son of ILA" in their skills strategy next month. I also welcome the fact that they have said that small training providers will not be excluded. There is a real danger that we might move from failure to an excess of bureaucracy and control in this area, and therefore stifle any new scheme. I hope that there will be a more rounded approach this time, and a more successful one.

Individual learning accounts are not the only thing that Ministers have got wrong. As the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mr. Sheerman, has already acknowledged, there has been a hiatus in the establishment of sector skills councils. I could never quite understand why the national training organisations were abolished before the new bodies were up and ready; that has created a good deal of uncertainty. There have also been concerns about the development of modern apprenticeships, although I appreciate that the figures are expressed in a number of ways and that that might partly reflect statistically the fact that people can no longer do a foundation course as part of an advanced modern apprenticeship, then come off such a programme and get credit for it. The record on A-levels has not been very good, either, in terms of delivery, and there are continuing problems with the sagging of vocational A-levels in terms of their attractiveness to students.

Ministers' record in this area has been at the very best—I speak in measured terms—patchy. But we shall stand back from that on the basis of trying to consult on the matter. Perhaps more basically, we need to ask why we need a skills strategy. I attended a recent conference on this issue, under the broad sponsorship of the Learning and Skills Council, and I was particularly struck by the message delivered by Vic Seddon, the executive director of the London South learning and skills council. He has a wealth of experience in further education. In what he admitted was a personal comment, which I found very striking, he said:

"Never confuse the absence of qualifications with an absence of skill, nor the converse."

He went on to say:

"Not every profession nor skilled trade requires graduate education."

I think that those are both perfectly reasonable comments. He went on to document some interesting statistics, which confirmed my impression that, while the United Kingdom compares favourably with its European competitors in terms of participation at graduate level, it is in the crucial level 3 and level 2 skills that the disparities are least favourable to us. That is where there is a real national skills gap.

As an officer of the all-party group, I am lucky enough to receive briefing from the Aluminium Federation. Only this morning I was sent some papers expressing the view from the sharp end. They refer to the falling number of students willing and able to read for degrees in material sciences and engineering, and report that whereas typically at the department of material science at Cambridge there have been 30 graduates per annum, this year there are nine, and of those not one is going into the United Kingdom manufacturing industry.

The federation's second major concern relates to the lack of craft technicians able to operate such equipment as rolling mills and extrusion presses, and shortages of people with skills in, for instance, welding, plumbing and maintenance. It concludes that the aluminium industry

"does not believe that a target of 50 per cent. of all school-leavers undertaking a university degree of sufficiently high academic standing is either feasible or sustainable."

It adds

"We believe that far more effort should be put into skills training at a lower technical level".

In fairness to the federation, I had better not report its views on top-up fees, lest the House imagine that I drafted them myself. There was, in fact, a close coincidence between those views and the Conservative view.