Skills White Paper

– in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 22nd March 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills 12:33 pm, 22nd March 2005

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the next phase of our skills agenda. Earlier this month, I launched our reforms of education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds setting out how we will equip young people for employment by securing the basics and improving vocational opportunities. Today I will focus on our ambitions for adult skills.

I start by putting on record my thanks to the national Skills Alliance. Never before have we had such strong and effective collaboration between all the key partners—employers, unions, training providers and four Government Departments—on the skills agenda. They all understand that, in a global economy, we must invest in our future and equip our employees to compete with the best in the world. We cannot afford to stand still on skills. Although the productivity gap between the United Kingdom and countries such as France and Germany is closing, it remains large. In terms of gross domestic product per hour worked, France is 25 per cent. more productive than the UK and Germany is 13 per cent. ahead. Up to 20 per cent. of the gap is accounted for by our skills base.

In previous decades, emerging Asian economies competed on the basis of lower labour costs, but with about 20 million graduates in China and 2 million new graduates each year in India, those countries are increasingly competing on expertise. The only viable course for the UK is to change to a high-skilled, high-value-added economy.

Meeting that challenge will require us to build on the progress that we have already made. Since 1997, 839,000 adults have achieved basic skills qualifications, more than three times the number of young people are enrolled on apprenticeships, and more than 130,000 employees have benefited from our employer training pilots. But 5 million adults still do not have basic literacy skills, 15 million adults lack basic numeracy skills, and more than 6.5 million adults in the work force do not have the equivalent of five good GCSEs.

We also face a crucial challenge at technician level. In 1997, 43 per cent. of the adult work force were qualified to level 3 and above; today that figure is 50 per cent. However, it is estimated that by 2012 two thirds of jobs in the UK will require skills at level 3 or above, so we need to do more. Rising to that challenge will require us to transform the skill levels of young people entering employment through our radical 14-to-19 reforms, the growth in apprenticeships, and our commitment to move towards 50 per cent. of 18 to 30-year-olds participating in higher education. We also need a step change in our approach to developing the skills of the adults already in the work force. Our strong and stable economy, with record levels of employment, means that we now have an historic opportunity to do that. Securing that step change is the aim of this White Paper.

I am clear that these reforms can work only if we put employers' needs centre stage in the design and delivery of training, support all individuals to acquire skills so that they can get on at work, and ensure that training providers are high quality and respond to the needs of employers and learners. That is what we will do. We will support employers through new employer-led skills academies in each major sector of the economy—world-class centres of excellence providing a new benchmark in the design and delivery of skills training to young people and adults.

We will create a national employer training programme from 2006–07, offering free training in basic skills, NVQ level 2 and access to higher-level training. To support the transition to the national programme, as announced in the Budget, in 2005–06 we will invest an additional £65 million in the existing employer training pilots on top of the £290 million already allocated. The national employer training programme will help to train the next generation of technicians. Today I can announce that across two pilot regions we will invest £20 million each year in 2006–07 and 2007–08 as part of a new partnership between Government and employers to improve performance at level 3.

We must also strengthen the voice of employers through sector skills councils so that they shape the supply of training and qualifications in each sector, including new specialised diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds. I therefore welcome the first four sector skills agreements launched alongside this White Paper. For the first time ever, they bring employers together on a voluntary basis to tackle the skill needs of their sector and to give them new leverage over the way in which public funds are used to pay for training. Furthermore, we will advance a partnership with the trade unions. As announced in the Budget, we will invest £4.5 million over two years to support the TUC's proposals to create a union academy. We will also increase the number of union learning representatives from 8,000 to 22,000 in 2010.

I am committed to supporting people in gaining the skills and qualifications needed to get satisfying jobs and a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. Our skills policy underpins our ambitions for a fairer, more socially mobile society. We will help individuals up the career ladder through an unprecedented extension of opportunity. We will expand nationally free training to NVQ level 2 for all adults without that level of qualification, alongside the free training that is already available for basic skills. Every adult has the right to a second chance to a decent education. We will expand the adult learning grant to support adults in training full-time for NVQ level 2 and young adults aged 19 to 30 in studying full-time to NVQ level 3.

We will also expand foundation degrees, with 50,000 places available next year. We will offer more help to adults to help them to navigate their way through the system. For the first time, we will create a one-stop telephone and online service helping people to make decisions about their careers, training needs and financial support. Through the new deal for skills, we will provide one-to-one advice from a learning coach and financial support on top of benefits in order to remove the obstacles that people face in gaining access to training when moving from welfare to work.

To deliver those benefits, we need excellent and responsive providers of training and a clear qualifications system. Our delivery partners have already made considerable progress on that. We will build on it by investing £1.5 billion over five years as part of a long-term commitment to transform the further education sector. For too long, FE has not received the attention that it deserves. I want to see a rejuvenated college sector brought about through investment and reform.

We will also provide a simple credible qualification structure for individuals and employers. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's proposed framework for achievement will apply a consistent approach throughout the 14-to-19 phase and to adult skills, helping people to build up credit towards qualifications. We will use regional skills partnerships to drive regional economic development, bringing together regional activity on training, jobs, innovation and business support.

Skills benefit all of society. If we tackle the challenges that face us, we shall have a real opportunity to make a fundamental change for the better—for individuals, for employers and for the country. The reforms in the White Paper will do that, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

This is a genuinely important subject and we are pleased that the Government decided to produce a White Paper.

In January, the director general of the Institute of Directors said that the Government were failing to remedy the UK's shortage of skilled workers. He pointed out that some 25,000 16-year-olds were leaving school each year with no GCSEs, and that last year the skills shortage left 135,000 vacancies unfilled. That is not just the view of the Institute of Directors: only last month, in a survey of 6,000 businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce found that the number of firms finding it hard to recruit skilled workers had risen by 50 per cent. in the last 10 years. Yet the number of young people in the NEET group—those not in education, employment or training—has increased, not fallen, since 1997.

As for basic skills, literacy and numeracy were supposed to be independently assessed for each school leaver as a central part of the Tomlinson recommendations—regrettably abandoned by this Secretary of State. In the House yesterday, she claimed that the national literacy strategy was

"now almost entirely based on synthetic phonics."—[Hansard, 21 March 2005; Vol. 432, c. 607.]

I hope that that was off the cuff—it did not seem to be in her text—and I hope that the Secretary of State will feel able to correct it today. Basic skills—literacy and numeracy—are not moving in the right direction, and they will not do so if the Government continue their present strategy.

Then there are higher-level skills. The number of entrants for some of the most challenging yet most important A-level subjects has gone down, not up, since 1997. The number of entrants for French A-level is down by nearly 50 per cent., the number for German A-level down by more than a third, the number for chemistry—

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Education

If the Minister does not understand that A-levels in modern languages and the key sciences are vital to adult skills, no wonder the Government are performing so poorly.

The numbers of A-level entrants for chemistry, for physics and for mathematics are all down by at least 10 per cent., and in some cases by nearly 20 per cent. In her statement, the Secretary of State rightly spoke of the essential nature of level 3 skills. Why, then, are the Government cutting funds for level 3 skills?

Today's statement was, sadly, all too typical. It lacked a great deal of substance. It was a mixture of repeat announcements: the announcement about the level 2 entitlement is welcome, but it has been made already. There is very little new money—almost all of it was announced in the Budget, and even that is a tiny percentage increase on what was already being provided. The small tinkering at the margin includes £4.5 million to be given to the trade union movement—which, no doubt by pure coincidence, is about the same as the amount that the trade union movement is expected to give the Labour party for the general election campaign this year.

Sadly, what was needed in this statement, and what employers were calling out for, is not provided. There was nothing about making exam standards tougher, more robust and more credible. There was nothing to simplify the funding for further education colleges or increase their freedom. There was nothing to match the Conservative commitment to a substantial increase in vocational education for 14 to 16-year-olds. There was a reference to providing funding for adults who are without basic skills at the age of 19, but no clarification as to whether, as the Conservative party proposes, that would be fully funded. We will see whether the Secretary of State can provide that commitment. There was no matching the Conservative commitment to set up a new national network of super-colleges and no matching our commitment to abolish failed, expensive and bureaucratic learning and skills councils, which, as the Secretary of State should know, are disliked equally and universally by schools, colleges and employers.

Instead, we heard the usual: vague words, empty aspirations and promises to do better next time. Meanwhile, British employers face real and growing difficulties. It is time to get a grip, and time to get on with the work. The Government will not do so; the Conservatives will.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I find it extraordinary that, commenting on a statement on adult skills, the Conservatives made no reference to any policy on adult skills. Clearly, they have nothing to say.

We know certain things about the Conservatives' policies. We know that they are committed to abolishing the Learning and Skills Council, the union learning fund and the new deal for skills. We also know that they would cut the adult learning inspectorate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now tell us whether they also plan to cut Labour's education maintenance allowance, the young apprenticeship scheme and free tuition for adults.

We also know that the hon. Gentleman said both last week and this week that he would match us on education. Perhaps he will also say whether he would match our policy on skills. Since the Government came to power in 1997, some 839,000 adults have gained basic skills qualifications. Since 1997, the number of adults with level 2 qualifications has gone up from 65 to 72 per cent., and the number of adults with NVQ level 3 qualifications has gone up from 43 to 50.8 per cent.

Clearly, there is more to do. We have to tackle the backlog of adult skills, and we have set out our policy. We are investing in a national employer training programme, which will provide—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks whether that would be free. It will provide free tuition for every adult to reach level 2 standard either in or out of work. We will use a nationwide system of brokers to work with employers so that all adults can gain access to level 3. In two regions, we are piloting co-financed level 3 training for employees, and we are investing an extra £20 million in level 3 training. We will not transform our skills base without employers, unions, the Government and the Learning and Skills Council working together actively to make that a reality.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is committed to abolishing the Learning and Skills Council, because, he says, administrative costs have spiralled out of control. But if he compares the council with its predecessor bodies, he will find that administrative costs have fallen by about 20 per cent. I know that he says that we ought to do more for school leavers and that we have not done anything to tackle basic skills, but perhaps he will reread the "14–19 Education and Skills" White Paper and see that we are toughening GCSEs in English and maths and ensuring that every child at school gains functional English and maths at level 2.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have to take this a whole step further with regard to adult skills, but he has nothing to say on that. Is it any wonder that when my hon. Friend Mr. Jackson left the Conservative party, he stood up and said that it had no policy on adult skills?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills, Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her courtesy in giving me an early copy of her statement. After the depressing exchange that we have just heard, I shall make my party's position clear: we remain committed to driving up standards in vocational education in schools, and particularly, in skills in the workplace.

There will be considerable disappointment at the Secretary of State's statement today, because she has presented us with more of a progress report than a White Paper. Indeed, with the exception of her proposal for vocational academies, there is virtually nothing new in it. How are those academies to be paid for? Will that money come out of the £350 million that was given to the further education sector for capital development, or from a separate pot?

The previous White Paper, published in 2003, concentrated on level 1 and level 2 qualifications, and we understood the reasons for that. We expected this White Paper to contain significant proposals for level 3 qualifications. Indeed, the Secretary of State commented at the beginning of her statement that that was where the greatest challenge lay. Will she tell us what target she has set for the number of 19-year-olds achieving a level 3 qualification by 2010? We have such targets for levels 2 and 4, so can we please have one for level 3? Is there a level 3 strategy for 19 to 30-year-olds, with a clear target for achievement by 2010? Will she respond to the question asked earlier from a sedentary position by Mr. Collins about whether the new 19-to-30 commitment will involve free tuition for all trainees and students?

We welcome the plan to unify the qualification structure for 14 to 19-year-olds and for adult skills, but will the Secretary of State tell us why she has not included higher education in that structure? Had she done so, we could have had a unified structure throughout the whole of our skills provision programme. We also welcome the extension of employer training pilots, with a universal system up to 2007, but will the Secretary of State say whether that provision will be demand-led? If so, does she honestly think that £65 million is sufficient to achieve that aim? LSC budgets are stretched to breaking point at the moment, and if more money has to be taken from other elements of adult skills provision to fund this proposal, we shall simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Secretary of State rightly identified the needs of small businesses. With regard to the entitlement to level 2 and 3 training, will she tell us whether she will extend employees' rights to time off for study? Has she considered and costed such a proposal? Will employers be given any compensation for the training that is obviously needed, particularly in small businesses? The lack of such compensation is often a real deterrent to employers allowing employees out.

I look forward to the Secretary of State's answers to those specific questions. We welcome the White Paper, and we welcome the journey that we are on. I hope that after the general election, we shall be able to proceed a bit more quickly.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his considered response to the statement, and for his detailed questions. He clearly shares our commitment to the skills agenda. As I have said, there needs to be a step change in the number of adults achieving both level 2 and level 3 qualifications.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the skills academies. We are committed to establishing 12 sector skills academies within the term of the next Parliament. They will be co-financed by industry and the Government and we have set money aside to finance the Government's contribution to them. Today, the Arcadia Group is announcing that it has put £10 million or more into a fashion retail academy that will serve the needs of the retail industry, and work with FE colleges and schools to develop vocational excellence in the retail sector. I hope that that model will be drawn on and that other models will also be used to develop the skills agenda across the country.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about level 2 and 3 qualifications. We are offering all adults a free training entitlement to receive basic skills training and level 2 training. We are also offering, through employers, a one-stop shop that will enable a single broker to go into businesses, from the smallest in the land to the largest, and, through face-to-face conversations, to assess the skill needs of the business and offer completely free, fully funded level 2 training for all the employees who need it. The broker will also identify the need for level 3 training in the business and offer to source that training, while the employer pays for it. Employers see a significant return on level 3 training—as do individuals—whereas on level 2 they do not. In two regions, we are also piloting the co-funding of the level 3 entitlement, so we shall be able to see whether a matched contribution from the Government will make a significant difference to employers who want their employees to gain level 3 training as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our target for increasing the number of people with level 3 qualifications. I have told him what the need of the country is: by 2012, two thirds of all existing jobs will require level 3 or higher qualifications. We have asked Sandy Leitch to carry out a review to determine precisely what our skill needs at level 3 and above will be over the next 10 years. He will report to us, and we will take his findings into account when we consider whether to put more money into level 3 training. We will of course await his report first.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we were doing to help younger people to acquire level 3 qualifications, and I can tell him that we are extending the adult learning grant, and that all young people under 30 will have access to a fixed sum from the Government so that they can study at that level. The results of the pilot schemes have shown that so far, the vast bulk of that funding has been drawn down to finance level 3 training.

The hon. Gentleman asked about higher education, and he was right to say that we ought to try to get employers involved in the design of qualifications at levels 4, 5 and beyond. In fact, that is what we are trying to do through the sector skills councils. Today, we are launching the first four sector skills agreements. For example, in the information technology sector, e-skills UK has designed a foundation-level degree in information and communications technology, which has involved employers coming together to specify exactly what is required in their industry. I would like to see the expansion of foundation degrees from the 50,000 being pursued this year to a significantly higher level as employers come together to back that expansion.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what was happening to the funding of the national employer training pilot, and whether it would really be demand-led. We have identified that take-up has so far exceeded the likely expected demand, which is why we have allocated an additional £65 million to the programme this year, in advance of the full roll-out over the following two years. We hope that that will be sufficient to meet demand, although we shall of course have to see how much demand is created. However, that is a sign of the success of the programme in its initial stages.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the right to time off for study. In the national employer training pilots, time off is negotiated as part of the agreement, so that workers can take time off to study towards a level 2 or 3 qualification. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have today moved forward significantly to advance our skills policy, and that that is the right thing to do for employers and for the country.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

My friend talks about transforming the further education sector, and about the £1.5 billion that is going into it over the next five years. May I take it that that money will close the funding gap between FE colleges and schools? The principal of my local college, Dr. Alison Birkenshaw, tells me that that funding gap costs the college £500,000 a year, which is a huge sum.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the funding gap in the unit funding costs for young people in FE colleges. That gap has narrowed for colleges that have delivered on their targets, from about 10 per cent. a few years ago to about 7 per cent. today. The £1.5 billion investment is part of an investment radically to transform the infrastructure of FE colleges and to build colleges for the future, so that they will have the first-rate, world-class equipment that they need to train young people and adults. The £350 million that was identified in the Budget represents the first step in a long-term process to renovate the entire sector.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions and Welfare Reform, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

While I would welcome any long-term and lasting conversion to the cause of vocational skills, will the Secretary of State consider two matters in particular? First, will she consider the acquisition and accrediting of basic skills in the workplace, or at least in vocational settings, where those acquiring them are likely to see their relevance more clearly than in a classroom? Secondly, in relation to further education colleges, which will continue to be the major providers of adult skills, will she ensure that any increases—I fear that the genuine incremental increases announced today are modest ones—are not at the expense of other provision for adult learners in those colleges? The displacement effects from young persons' education have already put stress on the adult learners programme. We would all agree that the colleges are currently under severe financial pressures.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is absolutely right that vocational training delivered in the workplace is far more likely to produce results than vocational training delivered outside the workplace. Where it is possible to deliver it in the workplace, that is what we shall seek to do, through the national employer training pilot. The returns to the individual from level 2 training delivered through the workplace are significantly higher than those from training delivered outside the workplace.

The hon. Gentleman also asks about adult learners in further education. He is absolutely right that we should continue to protect adult learning provision, which is delivered through FE colleges. We have built into our skills policy a safeguard on the funding directed towards adult learners, which does not mean that that provision is not co-financed, and where appropriate, that fees are not charged. It does mean, however, that we recognise the importance of that agenda, and we will protect the funding that goes towards it.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

I welcome particularly the newly established employer-led skills academies. I have two construction academies in Four Dwellings high school, in which the school works very successfully with the construction industry. Similarly, the focus on regional skills partnerships is extremely helpful. Could the Secretary of State assure me, however, that when we consider the regional dimension we use a microcosm approach. I saw success in Birmingham city centre, where pockets of unemployment of young people were tackled by providing catering skills, which were exactly those that could be used by unemployed local people and that could provide local jobs. The regional dimension is important, but we should not take the region as too wide, and we should consider smaller areas, too.

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Regional skills partnerships will be working with the LSC and Jobcentre Plus to identify local skill needs, and in areas such as her constituency, employers can come together with FE colleges, schools and centres of vocational excellence to develop training that is appropriate to the local area. I would like to see a lot more of that in the future.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

I, too, am interested in skills academies, and with my background, particularly the retailing ones. Will the Secretary of State ensure that fashion retailing does not get all the attention, as there is a whole other world of retailing out there? Can she go into a little more depth about how people access those skills academies and the sort of things that they aim to teach?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

Yes. We have worked closely with Arcadia Group, the retail industry and the Learning and Skills Council to develop qualifications and credits within the fashion retail academy. Young people can study those towards a level 2 qualification and can access them not just on the site, which will be based in London, but around the country, too. Online learning will be available, as well as accommodation for pupils who want to access the facility. An important part of the skills academy programme, however, is that it will link into centres of vocational excellence around the country and spread best practice into the further education sector, so that children up and down the country can access such skills.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

I very much welcome today's statement. It is vital that we get the skills equation right, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will not listen to the blandishments of the Conservative party, which, when in government, betrayed this nation through its failure to develop a policy on skills. She rightly talks about a partnership between all the parties on skills training, and that is a good and healthy start. The best employers always trained well, and the good employers will train. We have a problem, however, with those employers who regard training as simply cost and not benefit or who are resistant to any training whatever. Will she always keep in mind that we need some power to coerce bad employers, as they fail not only their employees—and their businesses, interestingly—but the nation?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why the development of sector skills councils is so important. Sectors, and industries, come together to define their own skill needs and the best way of delivering those for their sector. Certain sectors, such as in the film industry, have decided together that they want a training levy paid by all their members. We are examining how that has been working in practice, but I believe that about two thirds of all employers are paying the training levy. They have asked us to make it mandatory, and we are currently consulting on that. The key, however, is to consider the question sector by sector, and to ask sectors to identify the appropriate approach for them and what would make the most difference in terms of upgrading their skills.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Shadow Minister (Higher Education), Education & Skills

There seems to be one big hole in the statement—I hope that there is not a similar hole in the White Paper—in relation to education, training and skills for those in prison. Does the Secretary of State agree that such education and training is one of the best ways of reducing crime in our society, and that it is important that the cuts in education and skills training under the previous Conservative Government are rapidly reversed so that those who are in prison can avoid the risk of returning to a life of crime when they leave?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. If offenders can acquire skills, they will be less likely to re-offend in the future. We have already made significant progress on giving access to basic skills to offenders, but I would like to go further. Later this year, we will publish a Green Paper on offender education, which will take that a stage further.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy PPS (Rt Hon Nick Raynsford, Minister of State), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Does my right hon. Friend share my anger about the situation inherited in 1997, with some 4 million adults unable to read and 10 million adults without number skills? Does she agree that union learning reps are in one of the best positions to reach out to people who lack not only skills but confidence? Will she congratulate the south-west TUC, which ran a conference just two weeks ago with which I was able to share experience, on its work to improve not only the lot of individuals, but the productivity of businesses in the city of Plymouth, the south-west and our country?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I agree completely with my hon. Friend, which is why it is so important to increase the number of union learning reps, and why we have pledged to increase their number from 8,000 today to 22,000 in future. It is often the case that employees, particularly adults already in work, do not want to come forward and say that they have a problem with literacy and numeracy. However, it is often much easier for them to discuss their skill and learning requirements with a union learning rep with whom they feel comfortable and work alongside. Union learning reps have already increased demand for training significantly, and more than 100,000 people have accessed learning as a result. I hope that we can increase that significantly over the coming years.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

In her statement, the Secretary of State mentioned the national employer training programme. Bearing it in mind that 92 per cent. of all businesses employ fewer than 10 people, what will be the role for small firms and their representatives? She also mentioned sector skills agreements. Is the construction industry involved, and in particular, will the Construction Industry Training Board be part of this initiative?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, as the result of the national employer training programme pilots showed, in fact, the programme was most successful at reaching small businesses. It is businesses with fewer than 10 employees that find it difficult to assess training needs and to identify what they could do if their employees upgraded their skills. Where a broker can talk face to face with the person running such a business, there is a real opportunity to bring about a change in the skill level involved. The construction sector will launch its sector skill agreement this afternoon; indeed, it is one of the first four sectors to launch such an agreement. It has pledged to qualify more than 250,000 workers to VQ level by 2010, and the hon. Gentleman will doubtless agree with me that that is a significant step forward.

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

May I welcome this progress report? As my right hon. Friend knows, I was one of those who witnessed during the 1980s the decimation of apprenticeships and the shutting down of departments that did not teach physics or chemistry, particularly engineering departments, which were deemed too expensive. I ask my right hon. Friend not to get too carried away with centres of excellence and the regional concept. Although such centres are needed, they will not deliver the programme. What will do so is the localised concept of schools banding together and working with local authorities to give every 14-year-old the chance to gain vocational experience. Would she like to support schemes such as the one in Tamworth?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that individual local authority areas need to determine the provision appropriate to their authority for 14 to 19-year-olds, and that schools, colleges and employers need to work together to identify what they can offer. Over the next 10 years, I hope to see an entitlement to 14 different specialised lines of learning that our 14 to 19-year-olds can follow. However, the question of adult skills also presents us with a challenge. We must work with employers and sectors at a regional level to identify how we can increase the number of employees with a full level 2 qualification, and see them progress to a level 3 qualification.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

The Secretary of State's weasel words about level 3 will, I suspect, provoke a hollow laugh in the college sector. Is she not—[Interruption.]

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

I accept your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State's comments about level 3 qualifications will undoubtedly be greeted with a degree of surprise by the college sector. Is she aware that colleges are having to divert funding away from level 3 to basic skills, and that her own Government have introduced top-up fees for level 3 students? Is she aware that the Learning and Skills Council has said that such money will be clawed back? Will she match the Conservative party's commitment to adult learners doing level 3 qualifications, which is that their first full-time level 3 qualification will be fully funded?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that more adult learners studied at level 3 last year than did so in the previous year. As I said to one of his colleagues, we will safeguard local authority-funded provision for adult learners going forward, and I should also point out that I have not ruled out co-financing where that is appropriate. Some of the fee increases currently being discussed by the Learning and Skills Council could cost an adult learner up to an extra 19p per hour. However, I do think it right that, in certain circumstances, adults contribute to the cost of such learning, particularly at level 3, which is a qualification that enables them to benefit economically. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the provision in the White Paper. The national employer training programme and the safeguarding of adult learning provision will lead to a significant increase in the number of adults gaining basic skills, level 2 qualifications and, indeed, level 3 qualifications.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Workers Educational Association is the largest voluntary provider of education in the country. She referred earlier to assisting adults in navigating their way around learning, but is it not the case that organisations such as the WEA assist excluded and deprived groups in navigating their way into learning by opening doors and opening their minds? A formal qualification is not always the best way to get a foot on the first rung of the learning ladder; rather, it is more informal learning that enables the increase in skills levels that we want to see. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to organisations such as the WEA, and about the informal learning that is a vital and vibrant part of our communities?

Photo of Ruth Kelly Ruth Kelly Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I pay tribute to the work of the WEA, and I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is a vital part of our local communities and plays a valuable role in increasing demand for learning. It is right that we preserve entry-level courses for adults that do not necessarily lead to a qualification, but might do so in time. That is why I have said that it is so important that we safeguard the funds for adult learning going forward, while also ensuring that they are appropriate to the needs of individual local authority areas. I agree with my hon. Friend that the WEA performs a very valuable role.