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

The hon. Gentleman must not anticipate what we will publish, but we have a strong interest in making sure that there is sufficient investment in that area, and have a reasonable record in securing it in the past.

The first prerequisite of a skills strategy is the active involvement of employers as well as unions. The Government have introduced some union-oriented initiatives and the hon. Gentlemen will know from our debates on statutory rights for employees who are also trade union learning representatives that I always pay appropriate tribute to the work of unions in this area, but it is also important to involve employers. Interestingly, a written answer of 30 April to my hon. Friend Mr. Brady on Connexions partnerships, to which the Minister has already referred, said that only 15 of those partnerships had two or more employer representatives. Twenty-six had one representative and six had no employer representatives on their board. That pattern is broadly reproduced in other local learning and skills organisations. It is essential that employers have some ownership in this process, and I agree very much with Dr. Ken Boston of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that employers should have a stronger hands-on involvement in developing the right portfolio of qualifications.

On marketing the skills agenda, it is not just the credibility of qualifications among employers that is important but their acceptability to young people and employees. If there is not a consensus among students that qualifications are worthwhile or do-able, they will fail. They need to be interesting, manageable and flexible, but not at the expense of rigour. No one in the House would want to sign off a lot of second-rate vocational qualifications—I certainly do not. The qualification framework must be coherent. Mr. Seddon, whom I have previously mentioned, spoke about 40,000 qualifications and said rather briskly, "Too many." I have some sympathy with his remark.

The right framework for credit accumulation and transfer is critical to secure progression and coherence, not just upon young people's first leaving school but in their future career as well. All of that must be properly funded. The Association of Colleges has expressed concern that, despite the apparently large increases in college funding, after various things are deducted, there are functional shortfalls. We debated that in Westminster Hall only yesterday, and I do not intend to return to the subject at length. However, I wish to make particular reference to the association's concerns about cuts affecting adults who are taking A-levels and level 3 qualifications, both in vocational and academic subjects. I am afraid that, if I did not tell the Minister so, I did tell his predecessor, Malcolm Wicks. When we were discussing the Learning and Skills Act 2000, I said that increased emphasis on education for 16 to 19-year-olds has tended to displace adult provision, yet many skills problems centre on that provision. I worry that over-dependence on the foundation degree to expand numbers and trigger increases in college funding would result in a reduced number or the elimination of higher national diplomas and certificates.

Finally, a skills strategy requires an effective means of delivery. I am pleased that the Minister was prompted to refer to further education, because many of us believe that it is central to achieving a skills strategy. Vocational higher education is of course important, and much of this will be delivered in FE colleges. In any case, it is worth the House's considering whether a medical or a legal degree is not at least in part vocational, as well. So, of course, is straight workplace learning, and there is nothing whatever wrong with that. But in my view, colleges play a central role and can offer something to almost all students or learners. They deserve our active support and encouragement, and that will be a test of the coming strategy.

I shall close shortly and leave the path open, in this truncated debate, to at least some further contributions, in addition to those from Front Benchers. Before I do so, I should like to mention two more general educational points. First, above all we should not forget, in adult learners week—I am pleased that the Minister referred to this—that there is no absolute distinction between what I shall call "useful" and "useless" learning for shorthand. All learning is valuable in itself, and it is a good thing that people embark on it. Those who embark on the one may well end up on the other, and both have their own place. At the moment, there is definitely a run-back in participation in adult education, but I leave it for others to say whether that is directly or indirectly related to the situation that I reported in terms of vocational A-levels. Figures given to me just a few moments ago suggest a reported decline of 10,000 in adult learner participation. The system and the strategy must be robust enough—this will be a test of the Minister's bona fides—to ensure some continuity for adult and community learning. I hope—perhaps I may say that I expect—that Ministers will take the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education submission seriously on this matter.

Secondly, we all need to work together to re-emphasise the moral, as well as the material, work of skills. Of course, pay helps, and the rates available to plumbers in London, for example, indicate a real service need: they are needed and they get paid. However, there are others with high-level skills who do not perhaps get paid as much as they deserve, although that is difficult to prove in the market system.

What is missing from our debates and our approach to the skills agenda is a recognition of the need for quite proper celebration of good technical and vocational education, and of a high level of skills—regardless of whether they have been acquired through a formal process. Conservatives, at least, want a fair deal for every man and woman. We want no employee to be left out, and no employer to be a non-participant. Quite a lot of the people whom I have worked with in my life have been able to bring remarkable skills—skills that I may not have had—to bear on practical problems. I recall vividly from earlier stages in my career the impact in my own constituency of people with varied skills, such as agricultural fitters and Coventry toolmakers. They had a huge influence, and they deserve a great deal of respect. We can perhaps all agree that pride in the job needs to matter again. We need to encourage that to happen, and to celebrate it properly where it does.