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It is a pleasure to follow Will Quince.
The West of England combined authority, which includes my Bristol South constituency, is one of the areas currently producing a local industrial strategy in a bid to help to boost productivity. Early analysis of the evidence base for the strategy has shown gaps in educational and training provision compared with future business needs and that the job market does not work well for all residents, particularly those with low or no formal qualifications. The attainment gap is larger in the west of England than nationally, with 16 to 17-year-olds more likely not to be in education, employment or training, and there is significant inequality across the geographical area. These inequalities in education need to be addressed to improve future productivity. The local industrial strategy will be successful only if it is inclusive and supports opportunities, but how will that be achieved? I will confine my remarks to the policy areas that I think are critical to reducing inequality and improving social mobility: early years, further education and apprenticeships.
Tim Loughton gave a good summary of the need to support early years education. The evidence base is strongly in favour of high-quality education between birth and the age of five, as has been well established for a number of years. I am a former governor of one of Bristol’s many nursery school and children’s centre settings that has education, not social work or childcare, as its core purpose. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I remember when we looked into the entitlement to free early years education. We saw strong evidence for the sector but recognised that it was not stable and that local authorities needed more support. Local authorities and, indeed, the Department for Education had no real mechanism for identifying what was happening in the sector or whether it was being managed well.
The Education Committee and the Treasury Committee are looking into the provision of the additional childcare element, but we need somehow to get the Government to look across Departments and join up the policy objectives and the money so that we can be clear about what is wanted from the sector. I recently met some of my local headteachers, some of whom have been teaching for 30 years, and they have never seen so much of their workload given over to picking up the crises families are going through. The question for the Department is what is its early years policy objective and how is it going to get grips with it and with the local government cuts that are having such an effect, particularly on the maintained sector.
Several colleagues have spoken about further education, which is absolutely the other key driver of social mobility. It offers everyone a second chance and the opportunity of lifelong learning that the economy and individuals need. The funding cuts to post-16 education have been really quite severe, particularly since 2010. FE funding has been the hardest hit since that peak, resulting in closures, job losses and, critically, cuts to the student numbers that are needed so much. The post-16 transition time is vital. We really need to get to the point where we consider that point as important as the transition into school and the transition from primary into secondary education. The cuts to further education are a barrier to that happening, so I absolutely support the call to increase the funding rates for 16 to 18-year-olds.
I support the letter of the chief inspector of schools to the Public Accounts Committee in which she, too, supported the increase in the base and a welcome look at the accountability across the different bodies that are involved in further education to try to improve their performance, to improve what they are trying to do and to share information.
The Public Accounts Committee also looked at the sustainability of the sector. The area reviews are coming to an end, and I do hope that the Committee will look again at what is happening in this sector. We have seen some good leadership in this sector with regard to financial sustainability, but, again, I ask the question: what does the Department want to achieve for its money in further education? I worry about whether the sector has been made financially sustainable and what on earth are we left with in terms of the teaching in some of those settings to help on that productivity and skills gap, which is so crucial.
When Robert Halfon was a Minister, he came to Bristol South, looking at the importance of a good further education provider in a constituency such as mine, which has many similarities to Harlow in terms of supporting young people into those better opportunities.
I support part of what the Government are trying to do with apprenticeships, because of the post-16 situation in my constituency. Since becoming an MP, I have championed apprenticeships as a route, or a ladder, to greater opportunities. I am about to hold my third apprenticeships and jobs fair on Thursday. This year, I have managed to work with the council and the Department for Work and Pensions to cohere the work that is being done in my constituency around the people of Bristol South. I hope that the fair is again a great success. Again, we are not seeing the apprenticeship policy really doing what it needs to do to improve life chances.
In conclusion, we have a good overview on this matter. Again, I thank the National Audit Office for its briefing—I went to one this morning. We know what the Department is spending its money on, but we are not really clear about its objectives and about how it is achieving better outcomes for young people. We are also clear that we have a skills gap, a productivity problem and a population who are desperate to fill those jobs, which can give them better life chances. The Department’s vision is to prioritise support particularly for disadvantaged people in disadvantaged areas, but, I am afraid, that it is not working in my constituency. I am keen to work with the Government to make sure that it improves.