Further Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Innovation, Universities and Skills – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 20th November 2008.

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Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton 10:30 am, 20th November 2008

What steps he is taking to ensure that further education college courses meet the needs of employers.

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Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Further education colleges play a valuable role in delivering work-based training through the Train to Gain scheme and apprenticeship programmes, responding to the needs of employers to ensure that their employees have the skills to stay competitive. Small businesses will be the focus of £350 million of Government funds recently announced to help them to train their staff in the tougher economic climate. We are working with the Learning and Skills Development Agency to see how it can provide further support. Only last week, the qualifications and credit framework introduced credit-based units of learning in the key skills that employers want.

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Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

My hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Winterton virtually pinched my question— [ Laughter. ] That is the last time I hold a breakfast meeting with him.

However, I reinforce the valid point that my hon. Friend made: in times of recession, it is even more important that colleges liaise closely with employers, and vice versa, to provide people with the technical skills required for manufacturing industry, which is the sector that will help to lift us out of the present difficulties. May I commend the Macclesfield college, which is attended by many Congleton students, for its close working relationship with the aerospace industry?

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Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. When she commended the Macclesfield college, I thought for a moment that she was going to commend her Macclesfield colleague. I hope that, by the evening, they will be reconciled. We hold Sir Nicholas Winterton in great affection in this House; I hope that she can be lenient with him.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. As a west midlands MP, I am in no doubt, and never have been, about the centrality of manufacturing to the history, present and future of our economy and this country. She is right, too, that the direction in which we need to take further education, and the way in which we need to develop it, is to make it more responsive to the demands and requirements of employers and business. As her hon. Friend said earlier, that means delivering training and education not just in college or in work time, but in the workplace in the morning, the evening or whenever it fits. We have to deliver it whenever people want it.

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Photo of Phil Wilson Phil Wilson Labour, Sedgefield

I know that my hon. Friend shares my concern that apprentices may lose their jobs in the global economic downturn. I warmly welcome the rapid assistance he provided by creating a brokerage service to assist construction apprentices into alternative positions. Will he assure me that he will continue to do all that he can to assist apprentices who might find themselves out of work, to ensure that they can continue their learning at college so that their talents do not go to waste?

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Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. He is a great champion of apprenticeships and further education in his constituency, and he is right to say that the Government have introduced measures, such as the construction matching service, which helps to find new places quickly for construction industry apprentices who lose their jobs. When the national apprenticeship service comes in, we will look at developing such services more broadly across the whole economy. However, I counsel him not to despair about the situation too quickly. All the early evidence shows that large numbers of apprenticeships have not gone by the board so far because, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, high-quality businesses that are running high-quality apprenticeship schemes understand how important they are to their future. They understand that they should not economise on skills and training in a recession. They are not cutting apprenticeships in large numbers, so far—thank goodness.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

In politics, we are always learning, are we not? We are all apprentices. The difference is that I am at level 3, and the hon. Gentleman is at level 2, so here is an easy one.

Colleges must be free to respond to local business demands, but the Government's Foster review criticised the galaxy of 17 bodies that constrains further education. Bizarrely, however, the Government are adding to their number by dividing the Learning and Skills Council into three new quangos—no wonder FE enrolments fell by nearly 20 per cent. last year. On the Minister's predecessor's watch, bureaucracy grew and participation collapsed, so does he expect that on his watch the number of bodies controlling FE will go up or down, and will next month's figures, of which I know he has a prediction, show that FE enrolments have gone up by 5, 10, 15 or 20 per cent., or will they continue to fall?

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Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

As the hon. Gentleman says, he is far more experienced and sophisticated than me on these things, but let me, in my clumsy, level 2 way, try to answer his question. As Auden said:

"To ask the hard question is simple".

In this case, perhaps, to ask the simple question turned out to be extraordinarily difficult for the hon. Gentleman.

What is the issue? Is it the case, as the hon. Gentleman claimed at the beginning of his long multi-question, that the system is too complicated? Yes, it is. What should we do? We should get a range of business bodies together and ask what they want to do to make the system simpler. When they present a set of proposals, we should implement them straight away. What did we do? We set up the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which speedily issued a simplification process. It was widely welcomed by business and we implemented it immediately.

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