It was a great honour, as a Minister, to be responsible for skills under Tony Blair’s Government and for universities under Gordon Brown. I learned two things in those two different posts. First, when I put out a press release challenging Oxford and Cambridge as to why more people from the London boroughs of Richmond and Barnet went to those universities than went there from the entirety of Scotland and Wales put together it reached all the headlines—everyone wanted to write about universities. Secondly, when I wanted to talk about skills and FE, I struggled.
That is why this debate is so important and why we must focus on a couple of things. First, many deprived areas across the country—areas suffering different degrees of poverty and areas that would traditionally be described as working class—do not have particularly thriving sixth forms in school. What these areas have are sixth-form colleges and FE. This is often where the working-class children find themselves by virtue of history, and it is why this debate is important. Much has been made of the spending review, but it comes on top of a huge 16% cut in funding to the FE sector.
Secondly, the Minister said a lot about apprenticeship starts but very little about completions. She did not say that a lot of the growth in apprenticeships is in the over-35 age group. She did not talk about the quality of apprenticeships and where those apprenticeships are. In London, the increase in apprenticeships is in hairdressing. People can say, “What is wrong with hairdressing?”, but too often it is not her children who are going into those apprenticeships. That is why it is important that we get serious about what an apprenticeship is. Around the country, a lot of working-class kids are saying, “It is not worth the paper it is written on. I didn’t get a job after it. I cannot get the income I wanted.” That is the real discussion to have when FE budgets are cut.
My main point this evening, however, is that if we are to have a debate about FE, let us concentrate on the real collapse in FE in this country. The huge collapse is in adult learning. It is a disgrace and it is why our productivity is floundering. Bring back the night school. Where is it? When we get to this time of the evening, where is that thriving environment in our FE colleges across the country? It does not exist. On a Saturday and a Sunday, where can working people go? We have gaps in IT and green technology. We have huge new sectors of the economy, but how are working people to get access to jobs in them if the Government cut the funding and cut the central purpose of further education?
Our first night school was in Edinburgh in 1821, and we had wonderful working men’s colleges in our major cities. I remember films such as “Educating Rita” when I was growing up that looked at the context: professors and others who came alongside women and working people and got them into education. That has been cut under this Government and lost entirely in this country. That is why people are turning to parties such as the UK Independence party—they have nowhere else to go. Let us bring back night school and fund FE properly. It is a shame and an outrage that this is not being covered in a much bigger way across the country, because it is what people are talking about in local communities.