National Skills Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:25 pm on 15th May 2003.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 6:25 pm, 15th May 2003

I congratulate the Minister on arranging the debate and I am only sorry that we will not have longer to concentrate on it. He has brought a real passion and commitment to his brief, and he has won much credit for engaging the House in the progress of the national skills strategy, especially from all the organisations with an investment in it. I say that to the Minister in a spirit of co-operation.

I am sorry that the Economic Secretary is about to leave the Chamber, because he took much unfair criticism over the individual learning account issue. While the Government handled the preparation of ILAs appallingly, the principle was right. For the Government simply to abandon the concept would be wrong, and I pay tribute to the Economic Secretary for the way in which he took the flak so politely on behalf of the Government.

We had an interesting debate earlier on education and schools funding, and this debate is not unconnected. The Minister began by talking about the way in which the Government have approached the crucial 14 to 19-year-old agenda, and he is right that schools are the bedrock of a skills agenda for later life. We need to leave behind the idea that education happens in one place and skills training happens somewhere else. One of the central strategies of the policy for schools is that every 14 to 16-year-old—irrespective of academic ability—should have the opportunity to spend one or two days on vocational courses in a further education college or with a training provider.

If youngsters choose to study vocational courses off a school site, in an FE college or with an employer—and I hope that many do—the issue of funding transfers increases in importance. Once school budgets are constrained—as at present, for whatever reason—head teachers are reluctant to invest resources in such transfers. As a former practitioner, I can confirm that that is an issue that the Minister must address. One particular problem is transport costs for youngsters moving from site to site, because it is not desirable for those costs to fall on the school directly or on the individuals. Unless we can increase what is offered to young people aged 14 or over in schools and colleges, we will continue to go down separate roads. I know from my constituency experience how difficult it is to get parents out of the mindset that their children go to school and then automatically on to university.

The Liberal Democrats have championed the importance of the schools agenda and we have been at pains to point that out to the Minister. We recognise the huge challenge that the Government face in getting the national skills strategy right. Last month, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills introduced the skills agenda as part of the Budget debate, and I set out a Liberal Democrat critique of the progress report. Today, I wish to build on those comments and describe what the Government must do to bridge the gap between the thinking set out in the progress report and the action that must be outlined in the national skills strategy in June. Given that the Government—especially the DES—are so fond of tests, I decided to set them some, and thought that five would be the right number.

The first test is to create a national education and skills strategy, rather than a stand-alone skills strategy. I accept that the focus on skills has added sharpness to the overall debate, but there is still a danger that the Government will create a new rigid, horizontal silo, comprising the vocational element for 14 to 16-year-olds, 16 to 19-year-olds, FE, higher education and adult learning, without bringing any of those aspects together. Such a system would prevent individuals from moving from the vocational into the academic route. We need to create a scaffold rather than separate ladders, otherwise we shall perpetuate the education and skills divide instead of breaking it down. Integration is the key.

The foundation of an integrated education and skills system is a qualifications framework—a point emphasised by the Minister in his opening remarks. However, such a framework must facilitate movement between academic and vocational pathways. At present, we do not have that. We nearly achieved it with the GNVQ system, which was working well. However, if that system is to be abandoned we need a new framework to replace it.

The Liberal Democrats want a unit-based credit accumulation system as part and parcel of the framework, which would allow education and skills training to be broken down into small units, thus enabling the two to be brought together. The creation of a national education and skills strategy should be based on an understanding of the strategic role of further education colleges. We all try constantly to emphasise that point. However, if colleges are to fulfil their role, their funding and their mission must be secure. When I talk to the Association of Colleges and to the principals of individual colleges, it worries me that they seem to be being squeezed out. The Learning and Skills Council will not talk to them about growth and expansion, and there is a genuine fear in colleges that, unless they produce courses that form part of the national skills strategy programme, they will not receive funding and will have to take a separate road and charge full fees for the courses that they offer. That is a genuine worry in colleges and for people who are interested in adult education more generally.

The second test for the Government is to develop clear progression routes for individuals. The national skills strategy will need to explain how young people with different types of level 3 qualification can progress to higher education. To be blunt, the DES ministerial team seem divided. The Secretary of State and the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education seem most fond of a progression route that involves increased achievement at GCSE, with five-plus subjects at that level, increased achievement of two A-levels, and then straight to university. That is a very traditional model.

The higher education White Paper, however, states that future HE expansion will take the form of foundation degrees rather than honours degrees. We support the Government in that vision—as, I think, do the Conservative Opposition. However, that gives rise to the question: why should bright 17-year-olds who stay on at school to gain two A-levels opt for a foundation degree rather than an honours degree? That is a skills mismatch if ever I saw one.

By contrast, the Minister who opened the debate believes that young people with advanced modern apprenticeships should be able to progress to a foundation degree. I support him in that aspiration. We should pursue it. However, the key question is whether such study should be full or part-time. I shall ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I put to the Secretary of State during the Budget debate: does he really think that an apprentice who has a job and a career will swap them for an income-contingent loan for living costs, and perhaps tuition fees, to study for a full-time foundation degree? The answer is that people will not do that. The vast majority of foundation degrees will be studied part-time. We must encourage people to combine their full-time job with a part-time foundation degree. That is the route forward.

The big black hole in the HE White Paper, as the Secretary of State has now conceded to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, is the issue of part-time higher education. I put it to the Minister that it cannot be right that part-time higher education students are charged upfront market-based fees when the Government are introducing a system of deferred, regulated fees for higher education students. Part-time higher education might be an irrelevance to the higher education White Paper, but it cannot be to the national skills strategy. We are not talking here purely about low-level skills.

The third test is the introduction of a fairly coherent system of financial support for adults in higher and further education. We have made it quite clear that we believe in free tuition for all adults wishing to achieve a "first" level 2, a "first" level 3 or a "first" level 4 qualification. That means abolishing fees for part-time and full-time HE students and for part-time and full-time foundation degrees.

The Liberal Democrats have been at the front of the campaign to abolish tuition fees, and although we welcome the Tory U-turn this week, I suspect that the Tories' conversion is more to do with vote catching than principle. [Interruption.] I am glad that that raised a response.

We welcome the proposals in the progress report for free "tuition and training" for adults of working age without a "first" level 2, but we expect the Government to assist all adults to achieve a "first" level 2 qualification. The Campaign for Learning has pointed out that in percentage terms the largest group who do not hold a "first" level 2 are economically inactive. Of the 8 million who were recorded as economically inactive in 2002, 4 million did not have a level 2 qualification.

However, tuition and training costs are only part of the financial barriers faced by young and mature adults wishing to enter HE and FE. There is also the question of support for living, study and travel costs, and it cannot be right for the Government to spend in excess of £2 billion a year on the living costs for full-time undergraduates but barely a tenth of that for adults wishing to study part-time in FE. The time has come for a comprehensive system of living cost support for full-time students wherever they are and for part-time students wherever they are, and we trust that the level of support will be the same as that for full-time HE students.

The time has also come for a comprehensive system of financial support for both FE and HE part-time students, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that education maintenance allowances will be extended to part-time adult students in FE, and say whether he will consider such a scheme for part-time students in HE also, because the education maintenance allowances may well be the basis for cracking this very difficult problem.

The Minister has repeatedly told the House that the national skills strategy will be truly Governmentwide, so this is our fourth test, although I am tempted to say that the DES must make a better job of joining itself up before turning on the rest of Whitehall. The progress report does not inspire confidence. I see only limited links with the Department of Health—and the national health service, even though that is the largest employer in Europe. It is astonishing that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is completely omitted from the progress report. Local authorities are often the largest employers in local communities. They, too, have skill needs to deliver world-class services. The progress report also states that one of the key drivers of skills development is physical investment, yet the progress report contains no links to the housing agenda or the regeneration agenda.

We had been led to believe that two Departments would feature highly in the national skills strategy: the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Trade and Industry, yet the former has no input in the progress report, although this week the Minister for Work signed an accord between Jobcentre Plus and the Local Government Association to join up welfare-to-work and regeneration policy. Again the Learning and Skills Council and the national skills strategy feature nowhere.

With regard to the Department of Trade and Industry, the progress report is half-hearted. It rightly makes the link between the DTI's innovation and business support responsibility and the national skills strategy, but innovation and business support are only a tiny part of the DTI's responsibility. It also has responsibility for employment rights, yet the progress report says nothing about the national minimum wage and employer training and it shies away from the issue of collective rights over training.

The TUC points out in its response to the progress report that there is no reference to the DTI review in the Employment Relations Act 1999 or to whether training should be placed on the bargaining agenda alongside hours, holidays and pay. I understand that the Government have ruled out placing training on the bargaining agenda, but the national skills strategy will need to offer a full and frank explanation of why.

The last test for the Government is to clarify where they stand on the statutory intervention in skills. At the progress report's launch, the chief economic adviser to the Treasury said that Government policy was

"moving to a post-voluntary approach to skills training."

Two weeks later, in his Budget speech, although not in the Budget report, the Chancellor said:

"Because nobody wishes Britain to compete on the basis of low pay but on high skills, the right to education to 16 must be complemented by the right to lifelong learning".—[Hansard, 9 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 282.]

Those two phrases, not the rest of the progress report, have captured the attention of the CBI and the TUC. What do they mean? Is the Financial Times accurate in its assessment that a statutory right to time off for training will be a key Government proposal? If so, we will support the Government on that proposal, because such intervention is needed to make all this a reality.

Those are the five tests that we would like to be addressed. We believe that the Government have made an admirable start in producing a national strategy, and we wish the Minister good fortune in June, when he introduces the final report.