National Skills Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 15th May 2003.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee 6:41 pm, 15th May 2003

I shall be very brief. I often follow Mr. Willis in debates, and he never is, but I shall take five minutes at the most. I wish that his speeches were shorter, but he does make good sense on some topics. I regret the fact that not one Opposition Member is sitting behind the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen today, but I suppose that that signals a great deal about the balance of their interest in higher education and further education.

This is a serious issue. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, may I say that the Minister knows that we will be looking with great interest at his national skills strategy when it is published in June, not only because that is our job as a scrutiny Committee but because a hell of a lot of money—billions of pounds—is poured into skills, and many of us believe that the Treasury money that we put into that sector probably provides less added value than the money that we put into many other education sectors.

We have every expectation that the improvements at pre-school and primary school level and in literacy and numeracy and much else will help as they move through the system, but there are not only skeletons but many hulks in the history of skills education—organisations that we came to know, and some of us quite liked them. We remember the Manpower Services Commission, the training and enterprise councils, the industrial training organisations and the national training organisations, which are almost gone, but not quite. We are now trying to learn to work with, and even love, the new bodies that are coming along.

The fact is that we have two challenges in this country, with the dreadful under-performance of a significant tail of our population. Those people are under-skilled and challenged in what they can achieve in their personal lives, as well as in their productive, working lives—the two must go together. As someone who used to teach not only in a university but in extramural education, I know how wonderful it is when someone comes to education later and gains skills and education. Not only their ability to earn money changes, but they themselves change, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree.

There is also shocking under-performance in this country's productivity. Many of us believe that we must attend to the skills, innovation and productivity circle in terms of what we do with the under-skilled people in our country. We will be considering the history and the cost in that regard, and I warn the Minister again that we need not just a new structure but the energy to make it work.

At some stage, many people, as in much of the educational world, will want a period of stability in which things settle and they get used to the institutions in which they are supposed to work. Let us determine the skills strategy and let the institutions know that they have a reasonable future and reasonable longevity.

This is the most difficult area. It will not be easy, and there will not be quick fixes. I emphasise this to the Minister: many people teaching in our colleges are on short-term contracts and have less training and less background in their subject, they are on lower pay, school teachers are earning much more than them, and many opportunities exist to go out and earn a much better living as a plumber, an electrician or an IT expert.

Lastly, the quality of the courses offered is vital. There is nothing worse than getting young people to stay on at school, or getting people to come back to college, and then giving them poor, under-resourced and poorly taught courses. There must be quality—"It's quality, stupid"—whether in higher education, primary education or the further education sector.