[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Education Committee, The future of post-16 qualifications, HC 55, and the Government response, HC 1673.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £42,894,465,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1383 of Session 2022–23,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £22,809,063,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £62,518,154,000, be granted to His Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Andrew Stephenson.)
I am pleased to open the debate.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate on the spending of the Department for Education on adult education, post-16 education, further education and colleges, in response to an application by myself and Mr Walker.
I will begin by speaking about adult education, an area of provision that largely takes place in community settings and online. Adult education makes an important contribution to the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of the UK. It offers people opportunities for personal development, enriches lives and boosts mental health and wellbeing. It can help people to gain the skills they need to get into work, and to progress their careers once they are in work. There really is no downside—adult education is a social good.
It is vital that there are opportunities for people to benefit from adult education, no matter what their circumstances. It is important that adult education is made available in community settings and online, and that it is accessible to adults of all ages, because the needs and aspirations of people and the situations in which they wish to learn are incredibly varied.
An adult education student might be someone who gave up work in their 50s to look after an elderly relative, who has since passed away. That person could be looking to get back into work and, as their first step on that journey they might want to learn something informally to boost their confidence, where there is no requirement for them to study towards a qualification. Another person who might benefit from adult education could be someone who has retired, who wants to learn something new, such as a foreign language that they have always had an interest in but have not previously had time to study because of work, family commitments or both. Another might be a teacher who wants to retrain to be an accountant, or indeed an accountant who wants to retrain to be a teacher. In short, there are a vast number of reasons why adults might want to engage with education; the opportunities should be there for them to do so, no matter their circumstances, because when an individual thrives, their family and the community around them benefit too.
Last December, in its annual report on education spending in England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that even though total spending on adult skills is set to increase by 22% between 2019–20 and 2024–25, that reverses only a fraction of past cuts. The report goes on to say that
“total skills spending in 2024–25 will still be 22% below 2009–10 levels...Spending on classroom-based adult education has fallen especially sharply, and will still be 40% below 2009–10 levels even with the additional funding.”
An article entitled “The dismantling of a sector: Adult education in crisis”, in FE Week last September, reported
“a 50 per cent fall in adults taking qualifications at level 2 and below, alongside a 33 per cent fall in the number of adults taking level 3 qualifications since 2010.”
The impact of those cuts is devastating to the sector. It is a matter of extreme concern, and stakeholders have spoken about the “existential decline” of the adult education sector because of reductions in funding, status and public awareness of provision. It has been described as a “national tragedy” by sector leaders and experts.
The cuts could not come at a worse time. As we face a cost of living crisis, workforce shortages and a crisis in mental health, a major area of public provision that could be doing important work in addressing these issues is being brutally cut. It makes absolutely no sense. From my experience working as an adult education tutor, I know the power of adult education in community settings to improve people’s confidence, help them gain employment or help them move on to higher education. In short, it has the power to transform lives.
According to the Confederation of British Industry, 90% of the UK’s workforce—30 million people—will need to be reskilled by 2030. Further, the British Chambers of Commerce has noted that businesses are crying out for people to fill job vacancies at all skill levels. That must be the No. 1 focus for Government if they are serious about economic growth.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree with me that it is also deeply disappointing to see the decline in the number of part-time mature university students, who also benefit from this type of learning?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I thank him for his intervention. Absolutely, I do agree with him.
It is vital that Government funding of adult education and skills matches the need for it. I am concerned, too, that the Government’s proposals for implementing a new further education funding and accountability system could significantly reduce opportunities for adults to learn subjects such as art, history, sociology, drama, music, and literature.
The Government have consulted on the proposal that, in future, all non-qualification provision in adult education in areas funded by the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which accounts for about 40% of adult education provision, should meet at least one of the following objectives: achieving employment outcomes for all learners; achieving progression to further learning that moves individuals closer to the labour market for all learners; helping those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities to support their personal development and access independent living.
Although all of those objectives are hugely important, stakeholders are understandably concerned about what this might mean for people who need longer to gain the confidence or basic skills to progress into work, and for those adults who want to learn for reasons that are not necessarily employment related. The FE Week article that I referenced earlier also revealed a mass move among adult education providers towards fee-paying courses, as free languages and creative arts provision is squeezed out. It is incredibly important that we have a broad curriculum offer for adults. Failure to provide that is to ignore the great potential for personal development that is out there. Education is of immense value of itself and it is a poor Government who fail to see that.
The hon. Lady is making some very interesting points, and I agree with some of them on adult education. Does she then welcome the Government’s lifelong learning entitlement, which is another effective way of getting adults back into sustainable work? It will reduce the benefit strain and the pressure on the public purse.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come on to that point later in my speech.
At a time when we have an ageing society and increasing problems of loneliness, it cannot be right to bring in policy measures that have the potential to remove or significantly reduce community-based learning opportunities. The latest impact report by the Workers Educational Association, which does a tremendous job providing the secretariat for the all-party group for adult education, which I chair, highlights how last year 84% of its learners reported improvements in their overall wellbeing, while 95% claimed that their WEA course made them more aware of what they can do next to improve their skills. That demonstrates just how effective community learning opportunities for adults can be.
We need to create an environment in which learning breeds learning—one where learners can learn things in which they are interested and then, through that, find out about other learning opportunities that might be of interest to them. If the Government’s sole focus, when it comes to adult education, is on vocational skills, there are real concerns that that aspect may be lost.
There is a clear need for investment in the provision of information and guidance for adults when it comes to learning, too, and the WEA has highlighted the importance of that. It is highly likely that adults are missing out on learning because they do not know what is available to them or what they are entitled to. There is also wide variation across England when it comes to participation in adult education. The Learning & Work Institute’s most recent participation survey, for instance, highlights that London has by far the highest participation rate when it comes to adult learning, at 56%. That compares with just 35% in the south-west. That is a gap of 21 percentage points—a gap that has risen from 17 percentage points in 2019.
Something else that could see more adults become involved in learning would be if the Government were to come forward with a lifelong learning strategy that articulates the value of education to the individual and to society as a whole. It is remarkable that England does not have such a strategy and it is something that the sector has long been calling for. The Centre for Social Justice has talked of the need for an all-age, all-stage lifelong learning strategy, which builds from the foundations of adult community education, and has said that any such strategy should aim to provide every adult who needs to retrain with a pathway to develop the skills they need regardless of their starting point. This is something to which the Government should pay heed.
An area that needs particular attention and investment from the Government is adult literacy. According to the National Literacy Trust, 7.1 million adults in England—16.4% of the adult population—are functionally illiterate. These are people who may be able to understand short, straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently and obtain information from everyday sources, but for whom reading information from unfamiliar sources or on unfamiliar topics could cause some problems. I have spoken about that on numerous occasions in this place. I tabled related amendments to both the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, the latter of which was selected for a vote. That amendment would have required the Government to include reducing geographical disparities in adult literacy as one of its levelling-up missions. It would also have required them, during each mission period, to review levels of adult literacy in the UK, publish the findings of that review and set out a strategy to improve levels of adult literacy and to eradicate illiteracy in the UK. Unfortunately, the amendment was defeated by the Government, despite receiving cross-party support.
“The best way to solve this problem is to ensure that our young children get the reading skills, training and education that they need.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 729, c. 830.]
That completely misses the point about adults who, for whatever reason, may have missed out during childhood and does nothing to help those 7.1 million people I spoke of earlier.
In ignoring the scale of the crisis in adult literacy, I fear the Government are potentially wasting the talents of more than 16% of the adult population. That makes absolutely no sense either for the individuals concerned or for the economy. There is an urgent need for the Government to bring forward a programme to help adults to boost their literacy skills.
Looking at adult education more broadly, Government policy initiatives such as the lifelong learning entitlement, which is due to come into effect in 2025, and the current free courses for jobs offer, have limitations. The latter is limited in scope and covers only vocational level 3 courses, while the lifelong learning entitlement is aimed at level 4 and above and people over 60 will not be able to access it. In addition, many people will not be able to take out a loan or may feel anxious about doing so, for any number of reasons, including concerns about repayment and the cost of living crisis. Those on low incomes or in insecure employment in particular are unlikely to want to take on debt.
The Learning and Work Institute’s most recent adult participation in learning survey highlighted that, of adults who have not participated in learning within the last three years, 29% of respondents cited cost and not being able to afford it as a barrier. That is something the Government really do need to address.
I now want to talk about colleges and further education. Colleges in England educate more than 1.6 million students every year and employ approximately 103,000 full-time equivalent staff. They have a crucial role to play when it comes to growing the economy and extending educational opportunity. Support and investment from the Government are needed so that they can continue to effectively fulfil that role.
The IFS report from December 2022, which I referred to earlier in my speech, looked at education spending. It found that further education colleges and sixth forms are in a particularly difficult position when it comes to funding and that they saw larger cuts than other areas of education after 2010. There was no extra funding announced in the 2022 autumn statement to help colleges and sixth forms to cope with larger-than-expected cost increases. That is a matter of extreme concern and represents a serious threat to the sector.
I have heard directly from people who work in further education about the workforce crisis that they are facing. They have made it clear to me that, without further investment, there will be no staff to deliver the skills that our economy desperately needs. The Association of Colleges has pointed out that the average college lecturer is paid £8,000 a year less than average school pay and the sector faces particular challenges in competing with both schools and the industries it serves. The association is calling on the Department for Education to publish an evidence paper on college pay, using information collected by the FE workforce data collection, to provide the same sort of information that it provides to the teacher review body.
The Association of Colleges is also calling for the Government to raise 2023-24 funding rates in line with inflation, recognising that prices are higher than they were when the three-year budgets were set in October 2021. That would cost about £400 million. Without that cash increase, the Association of Colleges has expressed concern that colleges will need to make decisions this year that will damage their capacity to deliver the skills needed for economic growth and will leave the skills reform agenda unfulfilled. It is also calling for more investment to support skills in high-priority areas such as construction and engineering as we transition to a low-carbon economy. I call on the Government to engage with colleges and other bodies working within further education, hear their concerns and make sure that they are given the support they need.
To conclude, adult education, further education and colleges are crucial to the education and development of adults of all ages in every community. They play a vital role in addressing the skills and employment challenges that we face and they offer opportunities for people to mix with like-minded people and acquire knowledge and new skills, either online or in community settings. They are important for community cohesion and to address the devastating levels of loneliness that are apparent for so many. They enable parents to develop their own commitment to learning in a way that is beneficial to their children and to wider society. In short, adult education is a public good and the Government must make funding it a priority.
Thank you for sticking to the guidance on the time limit, which is much appreciated.
I congratulate Margaret Greenwood on her powerful opening speech on the hugely important topic of adult education, which forms one of the themes that we are debating today. She and I were before the Backbench Business Committee with our respective applications for debates on FE and college funding, and on adult education. We both agreed that, as both applications related to the education estimates, we would be happy to combine them. I share her admiration for the work of FE colleges and the community education sector in this space, as well as the important online work that they do. I echo her comments about the huge importance of adult literacy.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I focus mostly on the 16 to 19 element of this debate. I thank the Education Committee Clerks and members for the huge work that they have put into our report on the future of post-16 qualifications, which I hope we can discuss at some length today. I also thank the House of Commons Library and the Association of Colleges for the valuable briefings that they have provided.
Before delving into the detail, I should say that, as Chair of the Education Committee, I welcome the fact that the overall estimate for the Department for Education has increased, and that we are debating estimates today that see the total amount, across resource and capital, rise from £100 billion to £110 billion. We are spending substantial amounts of money on education. The Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, has been a tireless advocate for the FE sector, which he has often described as the “Cinderella sector” of education. As he has pointed out many times, that reflects not just how much it is asked to do with so little resource, but that there is no limit to its potential. As he has often said, Cinderella herself ended up marrying into royalty.
My right hon. Friend’s campaigning helped to secure extra hours for post-16 students as part of the catch-up programme, and his determination to support lifelong learning is as welcome for the FE sector as it should be for higher education. As Chair of the Education Committee, he recommended that the Department make the case for a three-year funding settlement for community learning at the next spending review, and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy for providers. Part of the reason that I—his successor as Chair of the Committee—wanted to debate the funding for that vital sector, and indeed for wider post-16 education, is that it has been, and still is, facing a very real funding squeeze.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that the FE sector has experienced a prolonged period of reduced funding, and concluded in December 2022 that 16 to 19 funding had experienced the biggest fall in real-terms funding of any education sector, in contrast with real-terms growth in primary and secondary schools, and a rapid and welcome growth in early years investment.
Having further education facilities is so important for developing new skills, unlocking careers and training people for new industries. We are soon to lose our main FE provider in my Broxtowe constituency, as Nottingham College moves out. On the point that my hon. Friend was making, does he agree that we need to increase FE funding so that we can provide more FE and skills provision for local communities?
I agree. I am sure that my hon. Friend will champion the need for FE in his area, under whatever branding or name it might come. I absolutely agree that we need to see an increase. I will come to more of the reasons for that shortly.
The IFS also reported that colleges and sixth forms have seen a long-term decline in spending per student relative to schools. That goes all the way back to the 1990s, when their funding was around double that of primaries. In 2022-23, it was lower than spending per pupil in secondary schools and only 11% to 12% higher than spending per pupil in primary schools. The report noted that although extra funding in the 2019 and 2021 spending reviews meant real-terms increases in funding per student up to 2024-25, those will only partially reverse previous years of cuts and the impact of increasing numbers up to 2030. It is important to note that that analysis came before the high and persistent rates of inflation that we have seen over the past six months. In real terms, the analysis from the IFS shows that both sixth forms and FE colleges have seen a substantial reduction in per pupil funding since 2018, and have lost close to £1,000 per pupil since 2015.
Why does that matter? We will all know from our constituencies—my hon. Friend Darren Henry has just given an example—about the hugely important work of the FE sector and local sixth forms in preparing students for academic and vocational qualifications that offer them a brighter future. They are quite literally engines of social mobility.
I am incredibly proud of the work of Heart of Worcestershire College in my constituency and the excellent Worcester Sixth Form College, and I regularly visit both institutions to celebrate their students’ success. I put on record my thanks to the recently departed principal of Heart of Worcestershire College, Stuart Laverick, who was a great champion for the college and the sector. I look forward to working closely with his successor, Michelle Dowse. We also have a number of smaller providers, including schools that operate sixth forms—Christopher Whitehead Language College and Tudor Grange Academy—which, alongside our popular and successful sixth-form college, increase the choice and range of options for post-16 pupils in Worcester. It is fair to say that all those schools regularly raise with me their concerns about funding.
I will take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to East Sussex College. It is equally as high-performing as Worcester and is the social mobility engine that my hon. Friend described. However, the finances, which he referred to, mean that it is in a very competitive field for the workforce. It is squeezed between schools and higher education. That means they struggle to recruit the quality, highly skilled staff that it needs to take us further and higher and to deliver on the Government’s priorities. Does he recognise that scenario?
I absolutely recognise that scenario, and I welcome that contribution from my hon. Friend, another Education Committee member. We heard that loud and clear as part of our inquiry and I continue to hear it from local providers. They compete not just with schools and higher education, but with the businesses for which they provide the skills, so there is an extra retention challenge for this sector.
This is a crucial part of our education system: the pathway for some between school and higher education; and for others, between school and vocational success, whether that is through apprenticeships or T-levels; and for others still, an introduction to the world of work. For many students who find schools hard to engage with, colleges can also provide a welcome cultural shift, with greater flexibility and independence as they move towards adulthood. Colleges play an essential and increasingly valuable role in preparing young people to be the workforce of tomorrow.
The Prime Minister has described education as “the closest thing we have to a silver bullet”, and in that respect the challenge he has set for more people to study mathematics until age 18 is welcome. However, that challenge can be met only if we fund post-16 education properly.
The Minister has never made any secret of his passion for vocational education and of his determination to see it gain parity of esteem in our education system. He has championed FE and colleges through a long and distinguished career as a Minister and a Select Committee Chair. It is from him that I inherited the inquiry into post-16 qualifications, on which the Education Committee recently reported. I have to say, with the greatest respect, that we were disappointed with some elements of his response to the inquiry, which the Committee published today.
The Committee heard evidence from a wide variety of post-16 providers, from colleges, academics, teaching unions and educational experts, and we heard a great deal that is positive about the direction of travel and the drive to raise attainment. However, we also heard consistent and extensive evidence on the resource, recruitment and retention challenge.
We made two particularly important recommendations: for a widespread review of spending on FE and post-16 education, which goes to the heart of today’s debate; and for a moratorium on defunding advanced general qualifications until the T-level route has been more firmly proven. Both recommendations were agreed unanimously by every Committee member from both major parties—seven Committee members are on the Government side of the House—at the end of a long and detailed inquiry. I am disappointed that amid much interesting commentary on the detail of our report and the Government’s position, the Minister appears to have accepted neither of those key recommendations.
As a member of the Education Committee, may I say that my hon. Friend is making some excellent points? Another point about the roll-out of T-levels is that there may be no places for people doing advanced general qualifications because they do not cover the same subjects. Quite a lot of 16-year-olds will therefore miss out on the areas that they particularly want to study, because the T-levels have not been rolled out and yet AGQs are being defunded.
My hon. Friend reflects the concerns—amply spelled out in the report—about not removing pathways to success and routes forward for students while the T-level programme is, as yet, not fully developed and not fully proven. I think we all accept that T-levels can be a very valuable part of the landscape.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Regarding his Committee’s call for a moratorium, the Labour party is committed to that. We entirely agree with him, and while he will not be in Parliament after the next election, he can be assured that if we have a Labour Government, the call he has made today will be supported.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister is listening carefully. I know he is not averse to making the case to the Treasury for funding, so I urge him to take from this debate the strong cross-party consensus, reflected in the Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 179 of our report, that:
“To prevent a further narrowing of 16-19 education, the Committee urges the Government to undertake a wholesale review of 16-19 funding, including offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students.”
Before my hon. Friend moves any further into his excellent speech, the witnesses to our inquiry were compelling when describing the impact of defunding on particular cohorts of students. On the impact of defunding BTECs, for example, they talked about vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs. Does my hon. Friend agree that for those groups, it is especially important that we keep open those pathways to success?
Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that specific issue; I was going to come back to it later and touch on the fact that it was partly the equalities impact of those decisions that led the Select Committee to its unanimous recommendation.
I will focus briefly on the element of targeted support for disadvantaged students in our recommendation that I just touched on. I recently took part in an inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group for students, alongside my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield—I should call him the hon. Gentleman, but I call him my hon. Friend because we have worked together for a long time. That was an eye-opening inquiry, which reinforced the need for an urgent review of support for the most disadvantaged in the FE sector.
The Government have rightly increased the level of pupil premium in schools, and have used programmes such as the holiday activities and food programme and the levelling-up premium to keep up a relentless focus on tackling disadvantage. However, there is concern about the support available for disadvantaged students in FE, and widespread worry that the available bursaries just do not go far enough. The extension of the pilot for pupil premium-plus to post-16 students was welcome, but we have to query why the extra support for that age group is so much lower than the extra support available to pupils under 16. My constituent Harrison Ricketts, who was in Parliament today to support a Youth Employment UK event, gave powerful and reasoned testimony to the APPG’s inquiry about the pressures facing students. I hope Ministers will look carefully at some of the recommendations in that report, which are pretty reasonable and not necessarily very expensive.
In fairness, there are elements of the Minister’s response to the Education Committee report that I welcome. The response expanded on investments for the financial year 2023-24. The Government state that they
“will invest £125 million in increasing funding rates for 16-19 education, including a 2.2% increase in the national funding rate for academic year 23/24…and an increase in funding for specific high value subject areas in engineering, construction and digital to help institutions with the additional costs of recruiting and retaining teachers in these vocational areas.”
With regard to supporting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Government draw the Committee’s attention to the 16-to-19 bursary fund, and state that in the last academic year,
“almost £152 million of 16-19 Bursary funding has been allocated to providers to help disadvantaged 16-19-year-olds with costs such as travel, books, equipment and trips, an increase of over 12% on the previous year.”
The response also states that the Government will continue to approve the international baccalaureate diploma for funding, and clarifies that they did not say—as I think the Committee took them to have said—that they will withdraw funding for the international baccalaureate careers programme.
I want to expand on the recommendation about the level 3 qualifications review, which we have debated at some length. The concern of the Committee is not that we do not believe in pursuing high-quality and high-value qualifications such as T-levels; we are concerned about the pace with which the Department is pursuing that course, and the risks of removing advanced general qualifications where students currently find them a valuable pathway to progression. A wider review of funding could help find the resource to maintain a wider choice for students, more flexibility and a range of routes to progression, including T-levels. We have highlighted significant equalities concerns if Ministers persist with the current approach, and we do not feel that those concerns were properly or fully addressed in the Government’s response, which we published today.
I do not have time today to detain the House on all the recommendations in our report, but I will highlight the need to address the issue of workforce if we are to deliver on the Prime Minister’s very worthy ambition of more people taking maths to the age of 18. In our inquiry on teacher retention and recruitment, we have heard worrying evidence about the extent to which the Department has missed its targets on maths teacher recruitment, and in the first session of that inquiry the Committee heard from the FE sector that whatever problems exist for retention in the schools system are compounded in the post-16 space. Around 25% of college teachers leave the profession after just one year compared with around 15% of teachers in schools, and three years in, around half of college teachers have left compared with around a quarter of schoolteachers.
In fairness, I should acknowledge some welcome elements in the Minister’s response in this regard, such as the updated teacher support fund, the national professional qualification for leaders in primary maths and the expansion of the Taking Teaching Further programme for further education, but I am not convinced that these small initiatives fully address the scale of the challenge.
My hon. Friend is making some good points, but there are two issues. First, bursaries to do maths are £29,000, yet when maths lecturers go into the workplace they only get £26,000, so their pay is automatically reduced. The other problem is that the pay rise for further education was only 2.5%, when of course teachers got 5%. That is one reason why retention is so poor.
My hon. Friend raises two very valid challenges. It is also worth noting that the IFS analysis shows a significant disparity in pay between college teachers and schoolteachers, even before that pay rise issue. That gap has grown over time, rising from 14% in 2010 to 21% today. These are, of course, the very teachers we rely on to get our children the highest qualifications in their time in school or college, to achieve the Prime Minister’s levelling-up ambitions and to inspire the workforce of tomorrow.
To touch on that very briefly, in our inquiry into careers education, advice and guidance, we heard from young people around the country who told us how much better in many cases the careers advice and guidance they received was in college than in school. The consensus was that many of them were only properly exposed to vocational opportunities, apprenticeships or the importance of the world of work once they reached college. Surely where our colleges are succeeding, we should ensure that they are rewarded for that work, and where they are not being given parity with other parts of the education system, this should be queried.
Just yesterday, I attended the launch of the Foundation for Economic Development’s latest report on a national education consultation, and heard its call for a long-term plan for education. This highlighted the importance of parity across all areas of education and the strong case for levelling up both early years and post-16 funding. It called for a 10-year plan for education to match the ambition of the very welcome long-term plan for the NHS workforce that the Government delivered last week.
The Association of Colleges has made the case for a five-step plan, which I believe the Government should carefully consider and to which I would be very grateful for the Minister’s response today. The hon. Member for Wirral West has already mentioned raising the 2023-24 funding rates in line with inflation, which is its first recommendation.
The second recommendation is to allow colleges to reclaim VAT. Colleges are now public sector organisations, but unlike councils, schools and academies, they cannot reclaim VAT. They spend an estimated £210 million a year on VAT that they cannot reclaim, and they see this as a tax on FE students. This strikes me as a sensible and timely recommendation, following the Office for National Statistics’ decision to reclassify the FE estate, and it would appear to be an opportunity to give the sector a much-needed Brexit bonus, given the greater flexibility the Treasury now has on VAT rules.
The third recommendation is to ensure that 50% of the apprenticeship levy is spent on apprentices at levels 2 and 3 and below the age of 25, echoing a concern picked up in the Select Committee report that so much of the apprenticeship levy is now going to older students. We do not begrudge the fact that there are higher apprenticeships and opportunities for people to go further, but we do want to make sure there is a balance that keeps the door open for people to enter the workplace through an apprenticeship.
The fourth recommendation is the need for a bigger skills fund to support skills in high priority areas, and the fifth recommendation is about the college pay analysis, which the hon. Lady has already addressed. While I appreciate that the Minister will face many challenges in delivering on all those recommendations, I believe that they merit careful consideration and a full response.
I believe that responding to those recommendations could make a real difference for my constituents. I have spoken to the new principal at the Heart of Worcestershire College about what could be achieved if they were addressed, and I was given the following examples. The college has had to limit growth in electrical installation due to its inability to attract additional staff in this area. If the college could attract one additional staff member, it could train an additional 30 students per year in electrical installation to meet the growing demands in that sector.
The college aims to have a gas centre in Worcester for conventional gas fitting, but also to take advantage of the developments in hydrogen-ready and hydrogen boilers and other sustainable technologies. It has advertised a position for that role on many occasions, but the low salaries just are not attracting candidates, and the gas centre project has therefore had to be put on hold.
Construction is a key growth area in our economy in Worcestershire and across the UK. Heart of Worcestershire College has struggled to recruit staff, so there have been ongoing delays to apprenticeships. As a result, the college has had to recruit several short-term agency staff.
Heart of Worcestershire College has struggled to recruit learning support staff, at a time when young people need more support than ever, post covid, to ensure that they reach their maximum potential and are work-ready. As part of its special educational needs and disabilities work, the Committee heard about the crucial importance of young people getting the right support in the right place at the right time, and that absolutely must include our colleges.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to keep making the case, as I am sure he will, for an increase in the estimates for FE, post-16 education and colleges, but also to consider again the detailed proposals from the Select Committee inquiry he launched and from the Association of Colleges and so many others. I welcome the fact that the Government have set out to create a ladder of opportunity for students, and I recognise my right hon. Friend’s passion for delivering that. I also welcome the fact that much has been done for the colleges in my constituency, including the consolidation of Heart of Worcestershire College on its riverside site, the refurbishment of its apprenticeship training centre and the delivery of a skills centre, as well as the expansion of our sixth-form college and much-needed improvements to its buildings and facilities. I am also grateful to the Minister for his detailed response to the Committee’s report, but I am disappointed that he could not go further on a funding review or on the moratorium on defunding advanced general qualifications, and I challenge him to make the case for both with the Treasury on the back of this debate.
The Minister himself has described this sector as having been a Cinderella sector for too long. It is high time we gave post-16 education the parity of funding and the parity of esteem it deserves. It is time for Cinderella to go to the ball.
I commend my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood for securing today’s important debate.
The UK workforce faces a multitude of present and future challenges. A recent report found that almost 80% of businesses are seeing reduced output, profitability or growth due to the ongoing skills shortage. To help plug that gap, everyone must have the opportunity to upskill for the jobs of the future. The scale of the challenge is huge, with the CBI finding that nine in 10 people will need to reskill this decade alone. Having a thriving further education sector is vital to overcoming those hurdles. For decades, colleges have been helping people of all ages to upskill.
The stark figures I have just mentioned should be enough for anyone to see the need for investment. However, that is a far cry from the reality faced by the sector, which has withstood cut after cut at the hands of this Government. Between 2010 and 2020, spending per student for those aged 16 to 18 fell by 14%. The impact of those cuts is clear: the number of adults participating in some form of learning has collapsed to only one in three—the lowest level for 22 years. The Government have brought about a lost decade in adult education, just when investment was critical to meet the challenges of the future.
Ministers might overlook that harsh truth and instead focus on the extra funding announced in the 2019 and 2021 spending reviews, but our colleges still feel the full brunt of their cuts. Even with that extra funding, spending per college student will remain 5% below 2010 levels. For school sixth forms, the situation is even worse, and their spending per pupil will remain a staggering 22% lower than in 2010. To make matters worse, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, there was not a single penny of extra funding for further education in last year’s autumn statement, despite huge pressures on college and sixth form budgets, including sky-high inflation and energy bill rises.
If the Government were truly committed to levelling up areas such as Sheffield, they would invest in the vital work of our colleges and sixth forms. I have seen that fantastic work at first hand in my constituency, where we are lucky to be home to Sheffield College and Longley Park Sixth Form Academy. Both are run by hundreds of dedicated staff, who go above and beyond to support students and prepare them for the working world. Anybody who sees their work is left in no doubt that every penny of investment in further education is money well spent. I use the word “investment” because that is what it truly is: money put into further education is an investment that pays for itself many times over.
I am proud to fly the flag for our further education sector. It has sadly borne the brunt of this Government’s cuts, but it has also shown itself to be resilient, and it will continue to benefit us all directly and indirectly. As we begin to face up to the full scale of the skills shortage, and with future technologies including AI starting to have an impact, our further education system stands ready to help us embark on this new chapter. I was pleased to hear the Minister being pressed earlier to fund everything adequately, and we heard about the challenges that are there. The Select Committee has done an excellent piece of work to identify the changes that need to, and hopefully will, take place.
We should not underestimate the challenge that not being able to claim back VAT presents to colleges, particularly with current funding levels. Retention and recruitment is a massive problem, and many hon. Friends have discussed that already, so I will not go over that again. I will finish by saying that we hope this round of estimates is not another missed opportunity to provide our colleges and sixth forms with the funding they need to thrive. The sector is in dire need of investment, but if the past 13 years are anything to go by, we will not be waiting with bated breath.
Like other Members of Parliament, I am frequently invited to local schools in my constituency, to education and skills providers and, importantly, to local businesses. In recent weeks, I have visited Ibstock, a big manufacturer of bricks, Aldridge Accident Repair Centre, Phoenix Tooling and many others. I hold business breakfasts and I speak with local employers, employees, apprentices and students.
Today’s estimates day debate is on the Department for Education’s spending on adult education, post-16 education, further education and colleges, and that is to be welcomed. It is extremely well timed, because we need to keep focused on building skills for today and tomorrow. As we have already heard, we do that through support for the further education sectors. It is the only way we can ensure that we are matching education and skills spending with the needs of industry, whether that is in science, innovation, technology, manufacturing or other key industries in the Black Country and the broader west midlands. The pandemic taught us many things—not only the fragility of supply chains, but the importance of onshoring skills and manufacturing capacity in key areas.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has set out a range of challenges faced by the FE sector, including rising costs and recruitment and retention problems. We have heard some of those already this afternoon. The number of 16 to 18-year-olds is projected to rise by 18% between 2021 and 2030, which would make, I reckon, for around 200,000 extra students by 2030. We need to be working on addressing that rise in demand alongside the skills need and funding requirements.
I want to use today’s debate to highlight the impact of skills shortages in the wider workforce and the role that further education and post-16 education can play to bridge the gap. In a BDO UK survey published in December 2022, three quarters of the 500 medium-sized business leaders who responded reported that the current skills shortage was a problem and could pose a threat to their own growth and the ability to find wider economic growth in the economy. We need to be investing in further education now for future growth today and tomorrow, not least because according to a Learning and Work Institute report in 2019, the skills shortage will cost the country £120 billion by 2030 due to a shortfall of 2.5 million highly skilled workers. When coupled with the predicted oversupply of traditional intermediate or low skills, we can start to see the emergence of that skills gap. We need education to address that, as well as working closely with and understanding the needs of industry.
I share the Government’s ambition for the UK to be a high-skill, high-wage economy, but that can be achieved only by addressing the skills deficit, and we need the broadest skills base possible to match those sector demands and needs. That means investing in people, skills and technology, including robotics and AI. I have seen some fantastic examples in my constituency. Last week, in the tooling industry, I saw a mix of traditional skills and experience with high-tech skills and apprentices demonstrating how industry, apprenticeships and the education sector really can be pulled together for the benefit of all. From speaking to local businesses, it is evident that we have skills shortages in my constituency, with vacancies for technicians, mechanics and toolmakers as well as in many other sectors. Across the wider region, we have businesses with skills gaps and persistently high youth unemployment. To achieve greater growth over the next decade, we need greater investment in further education and adult education, and recognition that there are alternatives to university as part of the education mix. It is really important that young people understand that choice—and I say that as somebody who left school after A-levels and went to university slightly later in life.
I have met some fantastic apprentices. Just last week, Britney from my constituency was here speaking at an event in the House of Commons, and she was absolutely amazing. We need to do more to encourage females into apprenticeships and engineering and debunk the myth that engineering is a dirty environment, because it does not have to be. It is time to realign and grasp the opportunity to strengthen the link between further education, learning opportunities and industry.
In the west midlands, with Andy Street at the helm and his tremendous focus and drive for the region, we are grasping that opportunity. We have seen the growth of further and higher education providers such as Walsall College and local providers such as In-Comm in my constituency, alongside the strengthening role of our chambers of commerce. I am sure the Minister is aware that, through the west midlands skills action plan, we have seen further engagement with businesses, and particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, colleges such as Walsall College, Youth Employment UK—I met it today in this place—and the Department for Education working to increase the take-up of apprenticeships. We see a clear plan to reduce the number of people with no qualifications and for more support to be given for people to progress in work by working with the Department for Work and Pensions.
Given the flexibility offered in the adult education budget through devolution, alongside the national skills fund investment, the west midlands has seen a sevenfold increase in level 3 provision. Cash investment at that level rose from £4.4 million pre-devolution to £13.9 million in 2021. The plan feeds into the work of local providers such as In-Comm in my constituency, which is a leading provider of engineering apprenticeships, training and upskilling that works closely with industry partners. Perhaps I could be so bold as to invite the Minister to visit In-Comm. I am sure he would really understand and appreciate its work.
The importance of tripartisan relationships between education, providers and industry to address the skills gap absolutely must not be under-emphasised. However, I do recognise the complexity involved in the various funding streams and that the types of qualifications are confusing for many industry leaders. We need to work to address that.
According to the Coventry and Warwickshire chambers of commerce, businesses do want to invest in people—even with the current pressures due to the cost of living—but they need to find the right people to invest in. As we shift to decarbonising our economy, the need increases further. Like many, I welcome the Government’s £10 million investment to address the outcomes of the local skills investment plan, but we need to align education and training providers more closely with industry to ensure that that tripartisan relationship is maintained.
I have two asks of my good friend the Minister. First, do the Government have any plans to increase the hours of industry during T-level programmes? Secondly, I have a plea not to overlook the FE sector and ensure that it is adequately funded to meet the aims I set out. The west midlands plan for growth gives a great focus to bringing together public, private and university partners who are best placed to use their local knowledge to efficiently allocate resources and overcome barriers. I want us to be ambitious for our country and for the next generation while not losing sight of today’s generation and today’s skills needs. My big plea is: let us work with education, providers and businesses today to develop the skills we will need for tomorrow.
It is a privilege to contribute to this estimates day debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood on securing this discussion on such an important topic.
I was contacted by the Trafford College Group, which delivers skills and qualifications to more than 12,000 learners and employer partners across the south of Greater Manchester across multiple college sites, including its North Trafford campus in my constituency. Like many colleagues, I am not naive to the challenges facing the further education sector, but I confess that I was still shocked by what Trafford College Group told me about the impact that more than a decade of underinvestment in further education and a workforce crisis have had on its ability to meet the needs of local students and, indeed, employers. Its frontline experience must be considered today as we discuss departmental spending on further education.
Allow me to offer a brief summary of what I was told is happening on the ground: 140 staff vacancies in the last 12 months—a cumulative figure of nearly 20% of its workforce. In health, care and early years courses, it reported significant issues recruiting staff, due to salary expectations leading to more than 20 vacancies in those areas alone in the past year. That forced Trafford College Group last year to take the decision to cease delivery of health and social care apprenticeships. Given the challenges in recruitment in that sector, that is a tragedy.
There are approximately 165,000 vacancies in social care and 132,000 vacancies in the NHS—the total figure is roughly equivalent to the entire population of a city the size of Newcastle. I suggest to any member of the New Conservatives group who seeks to blame immigration for the recruitment problems in our care sector that, instead, they look at their own party’s record on funding the courses that train and upskill the care staff we need, because it is blatantly not good enough.
It is not just health and social care where Trafford College Group is having to restrict entry to courses. Building services, electrics, construction, engineering and early years education are all areas in which students in Greater Manchester are not accessing courses, which could be vital to improving their life chances, all because there simply is not the capacity in the workforce to teach them. It is not just students who lose in that situation; each of those courses is crucial to the needs of our local, regional and national economy. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has highlighted construction and engineering in particular as areas of the economy where skills shortages are most acute.
Like social care, early years education is crying out for more and better qualified staff, who can serve the equally essential purposes of narrowing attainment gaps for children from disadvantaged backgrounds while freeing up young parents—especially women—to drive forward in their careers, with all the benefits that has for the economy through increased productivity.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour from Greater Manchester for an excellent speech. Trafford College Group has several campuses, including Stockport College, which I visited recently. One of the key issues that the principal highlighted was workforce recruitment because the pay scales are so low. That has a disproportionate impact on more disadvantaged communities, some of whom I represent. Does he agree that the Government are simply failing on pay for that sector?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is a champion for further education in his constituency. I quite agree that pay for the further education teaching workforce has lagged behind teaching salaries more broadly for some time. This is a growing crisis, which is leading to a loss of opportunities for our young people. I absolutely agree that the Government are failing on that and need to address it urgently.
Holding colleges back with inadequate funding to both address their workforce crisis and reverse the cuts since 2010 is the ultimate false economy, but that is exactly what is happening. Despite recent uplifts, the truth is that further education funding compares extremely unfavourably with both university and school funding.
The latest IFS annual report on education spending in England found that further education spending per student aged 16 to 18 in 2022-23 was £6,800, which is lower than spending per pupil in secondary schools and only 11% to 12% greater than per pupil funding in primary schools, having been more than two times greater in the early 1990s. Mr Walker made a similar point with that data earlier.
The report acknowledged that extra funding announced in the 2019 and 2021 spending reviews would result in real increases in funding per student up to 2024-25. However, that only partially reverses earlier cuts, and increasing numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds up to 2030 will put further pressure on finances after 2024, when departmental spending plans have been scaled back. The director of the IFS has himself said the Government’s real-term cuts to further education are:
“not a set of priorities consistent with a long term growth strategy. Or indeed levelling up.”
In contrast, the Labour party sees how a thriving further education sector is essential to growth. That is why a Labour Government will create a skills system that works for businesses and for people across our country, by reforming the apprenticeships levy, devolving skills budgets and delivering a national mission to upskill, led by a new Skills England. Devolving skills budgets in particular is something I would welcome after seeing, from my time leading Trafford Council and as the work and skills lead for Greater Manchester, the real need for skills policy to be better aligned and integrated with regional economic policy and local labour markets, to deliver a more localised, tailored approach to skills provision. In short, colleges, like those currently doing great work in the Trafford—and indeed Stockport—area, have a critical role to play in any plans to grow the economy, but they need support and investment to be able to do that after years of declining funding for adults’ and young people’s education.
I hope that when the Minister replies, he will set out what further support and investment will be provided to Trafford College, and colleges like it across the country, to tackle the workforce crisis that is holding them back, holding students back and holding our local, regional and national economy back, too.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s estimates day debate, which I think is the fifth allotted day. I begin, like other Members, by acknowledging the hugely important work done by all those in our FE colleges, delivering apprenticeships and providing access to adult education, and thanking them for the significant contribution they make to upskilling our nation in Eddisbury and across the whole country. For the purposes of my contribution today, I will unashamedly focus on one in particular.
Reaseheath College is one of the UK’s leading land-based specialist colleges. Located near Nantwich in Cheshire, it sits within my Eddisbury constituency. It is also in very close proximity to my previous Crewe and Nantwich constituency. That means that since 2008 I have been fortunate to be able to develop a close and very constructive working relationship with the former principal, Meredydd David OBE, and the current principal, Marcus Clinton.
Rated good with outstanding features by Ofsted, Reaseheath, which has not long since celebrated its centenary, offers full-time and part-time courses from entry level to degree level, and apprenticeships in all land-based subjects and in sport. It has 1,900 students aged 16 to 18, 360 adult students, 550 apprentices and 130 students with high needs. The college’s truly world-class facilities— which I have seen many times for myself and made possible, it has to be said, by significant Government funding in recent years—and its industry-focused technical courses, help to support continued student success. Last year, 97% of students gained a job or progressed on to an apprenticeship or a degree in their chosen industry. That is very encouraging indeed.
However, as we go through a period of rebalancing our academic and vocational offer to students, we must all recognise the changing labour market and the need to equip our young people with the knowledge and skills that subsequent decades will demand. In that regard, both the college and I are very supportive of the Government’s commitment to an ambition for further education, post-16 skills and apprenticeships, and adult education. In the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, they could not have—from maiden speech to ministerial office—a more consistently passionate advocate. I know that, as was demonstrated only last week in a meeting with Graeme Lavery, Reaseheath’s vice-principal and director of finance and resources, my right hon. Friend will continue to listen and seek to act on some of the issues and concerns raised by colleges that are holding them back from helping to achieve that shared ambition, and, in some circumstances, are putting them at unnecessary risk. Some of those issues have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Walker, the chair of the Education Committee, but I want to mention two of them in particular.
Let me begin with technical levels, or T-levels. Since 2019, they have been at the core of the Government’s plan to meet the needs of industry and ensure that those entering employment have the technical acumen in order to succeed. Reaseheath has embraced T-levels and is delivering a range of courses, from business and construction to agriculture, food science and animal care, but in doing so it has found that the main risk posed to T-levels is the ability to attract competent technical lecturers to deliver to both T-Level and apprentice standards.
There is also concern about the in-year clawback that places a 10% threshold on numbers at T-level colleges, setting T-level funding apart from other further education funding which is based on lagged numbers. Other FE colleges are able to react to a downturn in student numbers in a measured way, whereas in the cases of colleges such as Reaseheath, in-year cuts caused by the clawback can be short-sighted and damage capacity that has been developed over many years, and the implementation of lagged funding for T-levels is unlikely to happen until after 2025-26. I trust that the Minister is willing to address this, and I look forward to his response.
T-Levels also include a substantial element of work placement, and there is an element of funding to support such placements, but a problem is currently affecting all land-based colleges. The capacity and delivery fund, which was designed to support the development of networks, systems and staff, has been withdrawn for the 2023-24 academic year. The arrangements for the animal management and equine T-levels have been deferred by the awarding bodies until, respectively, 2024-25 for animal management and 2025-26 for equine. That means that there will not be enough funds to support the maintenance of those networks, which raises the inevitable prospect of valuable links being lost. That was mentioned to my right hon. Friend during our meeting last week—for which, as I have said, I am grateful—and he was kind enough to agree to look into it further, but we really need to bring it to the attention of the Treasury in the hope that we can avoid losing key courses at this time of transition.
It is also the case that, while significant capital funding has been made available to support the implementation of T-Levels, there is considerable disappointment about the fact that specialist colleges received either no or very little funding in round 4, and the fact that the opportunities that were there to maximise strategic investment may have been lost.
My second point, which has also been raised by other Members, concerns funding and staff recruitment and retention, which are becoming the most critical and pressing issues facing not just Reaseheath but many other colleges. Despite recent uplifts, the base funding rate has fallen behind in real cash terms over the past 10 years, which has forced colleges to reduce non-pay costs, facilities maintenance and the school sector as the gap grows between schools and FE. Recruitment and retention of staff with the necessary specialist technical knowledge and experience is their largest concern, but the issue is now affecting all areas of Reaseheath, including catering and domestic teams.
Salary scales are understandably affected by pressures from the minimum wage and general inflationary pressures. The college estimates that a 3% basic cost of living increase would cost it about £830,000, while a 6% increase would cost it £1.22 million. As much as it would want it to, a sector grant increase clearly would not cover that. To match salaries and compete, Reaseheath suggests that it would require at least £3 million that is simply not there. As a consequence, the salaries that the college can offer are understandably limited to the income that it receives.
Despite engineering being a critical area for the college and the country, Reaseheath is finding it extremely difficult to attract and retain technically competent engineering lecturers, especially in agricultural engineering. It is working hard with employers and their federations to explore how employers, including major players such as JCB, can support the delivery of apprentices in particular, but unfortunately the current subcontracting rules are not flexible enough to support that—an issue of which I know the Minister is cognisant. The college is currently working with the Education and Skills Funding Agency to find a quick and acceptable solution, but the reality is that it will have to mothball the year 1 apprentices in agricultural engineering if a solution cannot be found very soon. That all has a significant impact on the employers and the future engineers to support the bounce back. With the additional issue of an ageing workforce in engineering more generally, there is—as the vice-principal, Graeme Lavery, has told us—a perfect storm brewing.
I ask the Minister, in continuing his personal mission to make specialist land-based colleges the cornerstone of our technical revolution, not only to come and visit Reaseheath College but to intervene where necessary to address its legitimate and well-intentioned concerns with his customary gusto, pragmatism and relentlessness.
My hon. and learned Friend is making a passionate speech, focusing on key land-based educational issues. He mentions courses such as agricultural engineering, animal handling and equine studies. Does he agree that we need flexibility of approach to protect and preserve the specialist courses that are so important for animal health and welfare, for the agricultural industry and for food security?
It comes as no surprise that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. With his veterinary background, he knows a lot about this area. He will know that such flexibility allows us to shape the demand that we place on our land and the skills that will be required to work the land as the technology changes. Reaseheath is at the forefront of that work and wants to continue it, but the Government strategy needs a level of flex to compensate for the transitional changes that do not always take into account the nuances that we can see at Reaseheath and elsewhere across the country.
We need to make sure that the strategic vision becomes a reality. For the last century, places such as Reaseheath have embodied the ladder of opportunity which my right hon. Friend the Minister has so long championed. With the right support, they can do so for the next.
I congratulate Mr Walker, who chairs the Education Committee, and Margaret Greenwood on securing this important debate, which feels long overdue. We can probably all agree that successive Governments of all colours have left our sixth forms, further education colleges and adult education providers unloved, to a certain extent, and certainly underfunded—hence the references to Cinderella.
We now expect all children to remain in education or training until the age of 18, yet spending per pupil aged 16 to 18 is lower than it is in secondary schools. Despite that, we ask our sixth forms and our FE staff to teach more specialised subjects, with smaller classes and on lower budgets. When Ministers eventually stump up desperately needed cash for schools, as they did in last year’s autumn statement, colleges rarely get a look-in.
The result is that over the next few years our further education system faces a perfect storm of funding challenges that I sense the Government have limited interest in fixing. That includes the population bulge that is currently moving through our secondary schools and is about to hit further education. The Government are also prematurely scrapping funding for dozens of level 3 qualifications to make way for T-levels, as has been set out extensively today. That has led to an unprecedented situation in which the Association of Colleges has refused even to make a pay offer to trade unions representing FE staff. Colleges simply cannot afford to make an offer to teachers that fairly reflects the work they do, and that protects them from the cost of living crisis. When half of teaching staff at FE colleges leave within three years, our colleges and staff simply cannot afford a protracted pay dispute with the Government.
Sadly, the Government’s mismanagement of the economy and their failure to control inflation means the next spending review will involve some difficult and painful decisions, but the Open University’s latest survey shows that almost three quarters of UK organisations are experiencing skills shortages. Now, more than ever, the Department needs to make the case to the Treasury on the long-term benefits of investing in our colleges, which equip our young people with new skills, nurture their creativity and develop their talents.
Our starting point should be to support those with the most to gain from post-16 education. Liberal Democrats in government were very proud to introduce the pupil premium, which targeted funding at our most disadvantaged schoolchildren. It is high time we extended it to age 18.
I was recently delighted to welcome Get Further to Parliament. The charity has achieved astounding results by providing small-group tutoring to college students resitting GCSE English and maths. It is now looking for long-term certainty that the Government’s 16 to 19 tuition fund will continue beyond next year. I hope Ministers will soon be able to provide that certainty. If the Government are looking for extra cash, they could repurpose the millions of pounds of apprenticeship levy funding that is returned to the Treasury every year.
As we have heard, Ministers are compounding colleges’ funding woes by scrapping dozens of BTECs and other applied general qualifications that students value and employers trust. They are a well-established route for students to get into university, particularly those from under-represented backgrounds, with research from the Social Market Foundation finding that 44% of white working-class students enter university with at least one BTEC, and that 37% of black students enter university with only BTEC qualifications.
I fully understand and support the Department’s desire to achieve parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes post-16, but the Conservative Government seem hellbent on shutting down the middle route for those students who would benefit from a mix of both academic and applied qualifications, or for whom T-level entry requirements are simply too high.
An analysis by the Sixth Form Colleges Association reveals that just 60 of the existing 134 level-3 applied general qualifications will be eligible for public funding after 2025. At a time when young people need more support than ever to realise and rebuild their future, scrapping these qualifications is a backward step that will damage the prospects of our most disadvantaged students.
Popular subjects such as criminology, which is studied by more than 40,000 students, and travel and tourism have fallen off the approved subject list entirely. Britain’s hospitality sector is crying out for more recruits, at a time when the Government are desperate to reduce economic migration, yet the BTEC in hospitality and tourism is being defunded. The Government’s catering T-level does not even have a start date. How does that make any sense at all?
Scrapping these courses is a huge and unnecessary challenge. In 2019-20, some 17,000 students enrolled on one of 25 level-3 childcare courses, which the Department is defunding next year. We know we have a shortage of staff in the childcare sector, yet all these courses are being defunded. In 2021, a little over 2,000 students started the education T-level that is replacing those courses. Again, that makes no sense whatsoever, given the shortages we face. It would take a miraculous expansion of the T-level in 2024 to prevent the number of trainees from falling off a cliff.
I have a great relationship with the wonderful Runshaw College in Leyland, and I am in the Chamber to highlight some of the things we have done to support the college. There is a worry about the 10% of students who do not have GCSEs to get on to T-levels, and who need some kind of vehicle to help them move into 16 to 18 education. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should encourage the Government to make sure that, while putting on only suitable level-3 qualifications, not placeholder qualifications, we should bear in mind the minority who might need a different type of qualification between A-levels and T-levels in their 16 to 18 education?
If I have understood the hon. Lady’s point correctly, she and I are in agreement that there needs to be something in between T-levels and A-levels for students who may not be able to cope with either of those. So I believe there is agreement on both sides of the House that we need to slow this process down, allow the T-levels to bed in and prove that they are the right thing, and continue to fund the BTECs as an option for those who might not be able to cope with a T-level or an A-level. Let me finish my point on the childcare qualifications by saying that I do not think parents will thank the Chancellor for providing more free childcare hours if their local nursery has to shut due to a lack of qualified staff. This policy will only exacerbate that.
Colleges are also dealing with the fallout from the reclassification by the ONS of colleges as central Government institutions. That amounts to a near absolute ban on colleges borrowing from banks, making them solely reliant on Government grants. The Government have promised another £150 million in capital spending to ease the blow, but we are yet again in a situation where colleges are asked to deliver the same value-for-money objectives as schools, with few of the financial perks. Colleges that did not convert into 16 to 19 academies were consistently told that their unique status meant that they should have to pay VAT on the goods and services they buy. They are now back in the same boat as schools, so will the Treasury extend to them the VAT relief that schools receive? That is only fair. The Department should also guarantee a college’s pension contributions if a college were to close, which would also cut its pension contributions.
Finally, on adult education, the Government’s flagship lifelong learning entitlements are at least a step forward in improving access to lifelong learning. However, the Government have still not made a compelling case that a student finance system designed for undergraduates will be an attractive way for older people to finance their education. The Government will be asking mature students, many of whom will have mortgage or family responsibilities, to be repaying their student loans well into their retirement. The Department’s short courses trial, which is meant to prove that there is a demand for student loans for individual modules, has handed out a mere 37 loans in the past year.
As I said on Second Reading of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, I do not believe that shows a lack of demand for lifelong learning, but it may show a lack of interest from the public in this mechanism for financing it. That is why the commission on lifelong learning set up by my predecessor as the MP for Twickenham, Vince Cable, recognised that grant funding would have to be part of the mix of funding adult education. Liberal Democrats have built on its proposals to create a skills wallet, giving every adult up to £10,000 over their working life to spend on education and retraining. It can be partly match-funded by employers, local authorities and other organisations.
I want to finish by paying tribute to my local college, Richmond upon Thames College, which does a fantastic job, in challenging circumstances, in serving students from not just across the London Borough of Richmond but right across London, with many from very disadvantaged backgrounds. I also wish to reiterate that the Liberal Democrats believe that education is an investment in our children’s and young people’s future potential and our country’s future growth. That vision is embodied by our colleges, which provide learners of all ages with the skills, confidence and resilience they need to flourish. It is high time we valued them properly, by extending the pupil premium, protecting student choice and fostering a culture of lifelong learning. That is what our post-16 education budget should be delivering.
I am pleased to participate in this important estimates debate on post-16 education, as I am a great advocate and strong supporter of FE colleges. I am delighted to see the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, in his place. He has always been a champion for this sector and I look forward to hearing his response.
I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend Edward Timpson for his brilliant speech, to my hon. Friend Mr Walker, who chairs the Education Committee, and to Margaret Greenwood, who opened the debate. We had a really good start to the debate and it has been very constructive.
In an age when we need to upskill our workforce, teach new skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century and develop staff, I believe colleges are a vital part of any Government’s plan for our economy and our future. We know our country has skills and labour shortages, as well as workers whose skills are out of date. We also have many working-age people who are not in employment. We need a constructive discussion and debate on the way forward, such as the one we are having this afternoon. The debate has not been partisan, but constructive and sensible, looking at the interests of our economy and our country.
The challenges for this Government, and any Government, and for businesses, organisations and communities are enormous. I had the privilege, opportunity and pleasure of working in the FE sector at Bexley College between 1997 and 2005, when I was out of Parliament. Bexley College was then under the dynamic leadership of the principal, Dr Jim Healy, who was forward looking, innovative and heavily involved with the local community and local businesses. Many colleges at that time were not as involved in the community and businesses as they should have been, but Dr Healy made sure that Bexley College was involved.
The college has now merged with others and is part of the London South East Colleges Group, which is progressive and forward looking under the great leadership of the principal, Dr Sam Parrett CBE. She has transformed the college to meet the challenges and opportunities of our area, but I am afraid she is restrained by the funding issues we have heard about from Members across the Chamber. I was privileged to teach and to serve. I taught courses to women returners, the unemployed, business groups, young students and many people who wanted to upskill, advance their careers and jobs, or change career direction. I saw at first hand what an FE college can really do and what it can achieve for individuals, communities and businesses.
I regularly visit and support the London South East College’s Erith campus. It offers an exciting and wide range of educational opportunities at different levels, including business and finance, computing, education and teacher training, health and social care, media, nursing, building development and many other courses. I believe in lifelong learning. We all spend our lives learning new skills and developing new opportunities. I always tell my grandchildren that when I left Parliament in 1997—not by choice, I have to say, but because of the election—we did not have mobile phones or computers. When I came back in 2005, it was quite a different world. I was fortunate to be able to learn the skills of how to use a mobile phone and computer at Bexley College, because as a member of staff I received some training.
I strongly welcome the Government’s Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, which will increase opportunities to develop skills and knowledge at all stages of people’s careers. I believe FE colleges are fundamental to the delivery of that.
I agree with the Association of Colleges, which reports that the UK faces a range of challenges that will require workers to upskill or retrain. As we have heard, colleges play a vital role developing the skills required in the future and addressing longer-term productivity problems, which we in this country are suffering from.
The CBI reports that nine in 10 people will need to reskill, in large or small measure, by 2030. Every year there are significant changes in our economy and society requires workers to gain new skills, so that they can not only add to their own career development but contribute to their communities and the economy.
We must not always be too negative. The only criticism I have of the debate is that we have not been as positive as we should have been about some of the things that the Government have been doing. They invested £1.34 billion in education and skills training for adults through the adult education budget in the 2022-23 academic year. The AEB funds skills provision up to level 3 for eligible adults aged 19 and over, to help them gain the skills they need for work. The Government are also investing £1.5 billion to upgrade the estate of FE colleges. I know that that is not enough, and that we would all like more, but I am afraid that is the world in which we live at this time.
Leyland loves engineering. It has been famous for making trucks for hundreds of years. As my right hon. Friend mentions, the Government have been investing to help these legacy skills work for the 21st century. We have £3 million for a new Buttermere building at Runshaw College in Leyland for engineering, civil engineering and design T-levels. Does he agree that the future is bright as these skillsets hit the workforce?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I welcome what she has told us: it is an exciting time. We are in an era of change and we should glory in that. She has raised an example of a college development in an area of the country that is looking to the future.
The Government have invested £286 million of capital funding in the financial years 2023-24 and 2024-25. I realise that we would all like much more per-student spending, but for 16 to 18 education, it is set to rise by 9% in real terms by 2024-25. In 2021, the Government allocated an extra £900 million in funding for adult education and apprenticeships. That is something else in which we should glory. We are creating more and more apprenticeships. We all know that our excellent Secretary of State for Education took an apprenticeship rather than going to university to start with, and then she subsequently went—and what a success she has been, and what a great job she and the Education team are doing! The Government’s extra investment will boost colleges’ capacity to train and upskill more and more students and improve facilities. It is not just the students that we have to think about, but the facilities, as my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher mentioned.
Of course, more needs to be done. I welcome what the Government are doing, but an increase in funding is necessary. Perhaps a three-year funding package is the answer, because that would help colleges and institutions to develop and know how much money they have to play with in the next couple of years. One-year funding is always difficult. We all know that from our own personal budgets. If we knew what we were going to get, things would be so much easier.
Recruitment and retention of FE lecturers remains a major challenge. Colleges such as our college in south-east London are dependent on skilled tradespeople and industry experts to teach their courses, but the salaries are not good enough to attract people in to do this work. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that 25% of college lecturers leave the profession after one year, compared with 15% of schoolteachers. I know that 15% of schoolteachers is too many, because we need good schoolteachers. We have good schoolteachers, but we must retain them. However, 25% in the college sector is a huge number, which is such a disappointment. The fact is that replacing them is a big issue; they are talented people.
We have heard that teachers earn much more than college lecturers. That cannot be right if we are looking at investing in young people and not-so-young people to develop their careers and be of real value to our economy. How can it be right that we do not offer a decent salary that is commensurate with what people can earn in a school? We have heard the figures. There is an £8,000 difference between schoolteachers and the average college lecturer, but college lecturers are also specialists. They are specialists in the field that we need—real life specialists. They are specialists in industry, in commerce and in veterinary skills, and we need those people who have practical experience to be able to enthuse our young people post 16. Dr Parrett from my college said:
“Staff pay is constraining colleges from delivering both on government priorities (including T Levels, Higher Technical Qualifications and apprenticeships) and from meeting employer need and learner demands.”
Those are key points that we should take on board.
Of course our south-east London colleges have been impacted by the lack of investment in further education and the current FE workforce crisis. I have highlighted the fact that we are losing staff and that we need talented people, with experience outside academia in the practical skills that we want people to deliver and learn. I will not repeat the list of wants from the Association of Colleges, although there are a couple that we have heard repeated across the Chamber. Reclaiming VAT seems to be an essential part of what we are looking for, as well as increasing the prices. Everything is going up and yet colleges’ funding rates are not going up in line with inflation.
That is a huge disadvantage if we want to encourage colleges to be innovative and to develop as fast as they can to meet the challenges of our economy and our society. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who has been a friend of mine for a long time and has always talked sense on education—on higher and further education—needs to be supported. We are trying to do that, and to encourage him to ask the Treasury to look at the very important points that we have all raised this afternoon.
Further education colleges work superbly and effectively in the community and make a huge difference. Mine covers the boroughs of Bexley, Bromley and Greenwich, and it is pivotal to the success of south-east London that we have colleges training the workforce that we need in those areas.
My right hon. Friend is making a passionate speech from his personal and professional perspective, having worked in the FE sector. On the equality of opportunity for our young people that FE colleges provide, we ask our young people to be in training or education until they are 18, but local authorities are not mandated to provide transport. In my constituency, I have had to campaign and put pressure on the local council to free up half a million pounds to provide bursaries for young people to get to their next stage of training. Does he agree that we should mandate local authorities to use central Government moneys to allow our young people to take their life decisions and go on to their next stage of training, as we are asking them to do?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is something that colleges and local authorities should look at, because it is important that we should not restrict choice, but increase opportunity. The way to do that is to ensure that people can get to the college, that they can take the courses and that there are the staff there to teach them. It is a joint effort.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on the need for more funding and appropriate resources for the sector. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, and one thing that has been raised in respect of longer-term education is not necessarily getting the students to the colleges, but the colleges doing a bit more outreach, including by going to parish halls and other good, secure places. In Sedgefield, as in many constituencies, the local infrastructure for buses, trains and so on is particularly poor. We need to make this a push-and-pull equation to enable people to study.
When I was lecturing we did go to various halls and other places, so we were in the community rather than making the community come to the college. That is very important.
I will close by saying that I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will take on board the constructive comments we have all made this afternoon. My concerns have been highlighted, but we want to see a thriving FE college sector, and the Government’s endeavours to reskill our workforce will only be successful if we use the colleges as one of the foundations of that.
I thank the alliance between Wirral and Worcester for forging this debate. I must warn my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood that she is now linked up with the militant trade unionists; in the debate we had on BBC local radio stations, Mr Walker was strongly in support of the industrial action by the National Union of Journalists, so, given some of the attitudes at the moment, I just want to express some caution. I say these things but then I realise that Hansard has no irony, so I need to point out that that was irony.
These estimates debates are useful in different ways. As we have heard, they enable individual MPs to come from their constituencies and report their own experience of what is happening, and that feeds into a general understanding of what is happening in the field overall. However—I take this point from Sir David Evennett—there is another role for such debates: where there is a recalcitrant Minister, they enable us to hold that Minister’s feet to the flames, and where we have a co-operative Minister, as we do here, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they give us the opportunity to strengthen that Minister’s negotiations with the Treasury.
There will be a King’s Speech in the autumn, an autumn financial statement in the normal way, and a Budget next year. If we are honest with ourselves, the reality is that that will be a pre-election Budget. The Chancellor has an element of headroom to create, if not a Budget that will create an economic boom, then one that will spend more money to attempt to create a feel-good factor before the general election. Every Government do it, so we have to recognise that. There is a real window of opportunity for us to strengthen the Minister’s hand in those negotiations with the Treasury, and to reap quite rich rewards for—in the discussion of wider economic issues—relatively small sums that could have such an impact.
We all come from our different experiences, as we have heard. I dropped out of education and was then a production worker for many years. I went to Burnley FE college and did my A-levels, and then I came down to do university degrees, including a master’s degree and so on. That gave me an understanding of what a liberating experience education is. It also changes life chances, and that is what it did for me. I have been campaigning for a number of years to establish a national education service built, like the NHS, on the principle that it should be free from cradle to grave—from the early years through to school, college, university and lifelong learning. That is my ambition. We are nowhere near that at the moment, but I think there is still potential for it. We cannot go on in the way we are at the moment. That is why I want to do everything I can to support the Minister in those negotiations with the Treasury, and to arm him with the arguments that we have heard today about the scale of investment that we need.
I do not want to run through too many stats, and I will be very brief, but the reality is—we have to admit it—that education spending is below the OECD average. We are the 19th highest spender out of the 37 OECD members. I looked at the House of Commons Library figures, as others have done. They show that education fell as a percentage of GDP in every year from 2011-12 to 2018-19. That is the longest continuous decline in investment in education that we have seen.
Outside this House today were thousands of teachers—National Education Union members—demonstrating and marching. I joined them. They were protesting about pay, but—this is why I commend them—it was also about ensuring that there is proper funding for education overall. It was a twin demand on their part: their dispute is about pay but, as importantly, it is also about ensuring that education is properly funded.
Owing to my interest in FE, naturally I want to advocate for FE. My hon. Friends the Members for Wirral West and for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western) referred to the IFS figures, including the £6,800 spending per 16 to 18 student, which is lower than spending per pupil in secondary schools. I think one of my hon. Friends made the point about college and sixth form funding being only 11% or 12% greater than that of primary schools, having been two times greater in the early 1990s.
I will drill down a bit further into the figures. Total spending on adult skills—for those aged 19-plus—is set to increase by 22% between 2019-20 and 2024-25, and I welcome that, but the Minister should be saying to the Treasury, “That reverses only a fraction of past cuts.” Total spending on adult skills in 2024-25 will still be 22% below 2009-10 levels. The Treasury must listen to this argument if we are going to have—as others have said—the skilled workforce that we desperately need in a 21st century economy.
The IFS stated:
“Spending on classroom-based adult education has fallen especially sharply, and will still be 40% below 2009-10 levels even with the additional funding.”
The argument is irrefutable and I hope that the Minister does steam in, with cross-party backing for increased investment overall. As the Library briefing mentions, the IFS also stated:
“Spending on adult education is nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003-04 and about 50% lower than in 2009-10. This fall was mainly driven by the removal of public funding from some courses and”— as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said—
“a resultant drop in learner numbers” overall.
The Library states:
“Since 2011/12, the number of learners on classroom-based education and training has fallen by 42%”,
and “community learning”—let us think about that in a diverse community such as mine—has dropped “by 55%”. The National Audit Office report published in September 2020 detailed how
“the financial health of the college sector remains fragile”,
as we have heard today. This is not only about funding constraints; it is about uncertainty relating to the resourcing to meet future challenges.
Pay was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford. The IFS warned—exactly as he said—that below-inflation pay settlements for college staff mean that the level of pay is not a fair reward for the skills of those educators, and that that exacerbates “recruitment and retention difficulties” in colleges. The problems are everywhere—this is national. There is not a college without problems in recruiting, and that is happening because the qualified educators that we need literally cannot afford to work in the colleges, because it does not sustain them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recruitment problems in further education are seen not only in all the vacancies, but in the fact that further education colleges are not even running a huge number of courses? They say, “We know that we won’t be able to find the lecturers and we can’t run this profitably, so we’re no longer going to put the course on.” There is therefore not a vacancy there, but a denial of opportunity to young students.
I do not want to keep quoting the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, because it becomes embarrassing after a bit, but that was exactly his point, and I think my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said this, too. Without those staff, colleges will simply withdraw the course because they cannot get the qualified staff. That relates to investment, as well as to pay. One point that has been raised with me in my discussions with educators is that this also relates to the conditions of employment and to its precarious nature. If investment is not guaranteed for those courses, we get into a situation where some staff are on temporary contracts, and that cannot be right for the sector. We are dealing with people who have spent large parts of their lives gaining the qualifications that enable them to pass on that education to others.
Does the right hon. Member not agree that the reason that people may make other choices, including, perhaps to go back into industry, is that we have a shortage of skilled people to go into those jobs, and that employers are paying a lot more than they used to to secure these kinds of people?
That is a really good point, and I think that is right: we have to pay the going rate. At the moment, the going rate is not being paid in colleges, because the colleges do not have the funding that they need to do that. We will be caught in that vicious circle unless we ensure that there is adequate, decent pay within the sector.
Apprenticeships have been mentioned. In real terms, the figures for 2021-22 show that the level of apprenticeship funding was 11% below the peak in 2009-2010.
I cannot be on my feet without mentioning university funding, I am afraid, because it is one of the things that I have been lobbied on extensively. To be frank, the state has all but withdrawn from funding university education. Government funding for university teaching is now 70% below what it was a decade ago, and if we compare our spending on tertiary education with other advanced countries, we see that we are now bottom of the league. It is shocking: we put in less public investment than every single one of the other 38 OECD countries. To cite some figures, Government spending on tertiary education in the UK is equivalent to just 0.5% of GDP. In France, that figure is 1.1%; in Germany, it is just over 1%; and in the US, it is 0.9%. The average across the G20 countries is 0.9%. We are falling behind in this key sector because of that lack of investment.
I want to make another point that has been made to me continuously: the one area of funding in UK higher education that does not seem to have dried up is the pay of university vice-chancellors. Every single vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university is paid more than the Prime Minister. In 2021-22, the vice-chancellor of Imperial College London received £714,000. That cannot be right, and it builds resentment when we have low pay and a casualised workforce elsewhere—to be frank, that differentiation is just abusive. At the moment, we are in a dispute in London regarding the low pay of security guards and other facility staff at universities, simply to get them paid a living wage. That cannot be right.
There are other issues I would raise, but I do not want to delay the House. We have had an excellent debate today about the future of our economy and the skills that we need, but to achieve those skills, we need investment in the education itself. We have heard about capital investment, and I am pleased by some of the additional investment, despite the huge backlog. However, if we are going to deliver on that aim, the key ingredient is the staff. Unless we get the investment to ensure that we recruit the appropriate staff with the right qualifications—and not just recruit them, but retain them—we will not achieve what we want to achieve in terms of developing a 21st-century economy, particularly with the challenges of artificial intelligence, new technology, and everything involved in the fourth industrial revolution.
I say to the Minister that whatever support he needs in those negotiations with the Treasury, he has got it on a cross-party basis. Let us make this one of the key issues for the autumn statement and next year’s Budget. If there is anything we can do to help him, either publicly or privately, please let us know.
I congratulate the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon on his contribution to the amazing revolution in apprenticeships that has taken place under consecutive Conservative Governments since 2010. That ambition has really come to fruition, and the number and variety of different opportunities for young people is amazing. It is a shame that Opposition Members do not recognise that, because the ambition of Conservative Governments has been far greater than that of the Opposition parties.
Since becoming an MP in 2010, my experience has been to have an apprentice every year from one of the schools in my constituency. I am now on apprentice 14; they have all been fantastic, and almost all of them are now working for colleagues across the green Benches here in Parliament, or as special advisers for Ministers. If any Members who are in the Chamber or are listening on their television are interested in a parliamentary apprenticeship, I really recommend it. It is a fantastic opportunity for a school leaver in your area—fantastic for them, and fantastic for you as the Member of Parliament. As I say, it has been a real career path for many of those apprentices.
However, what I really want to talk about today—just very briefly—is the early years workforce. As my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, for many years, I have championed giving every baby the best start for life. With the huge support of both this Prime Minister and previous Prime Ministers, we have been successful in rolling out the family hubs and the best start for life vision across England, and we are now well into the implementation phase. As part of that, the family hubs and best start for life programme are providing £10 million for pilots of a multidisciplinary early years workforce.
We know—and I think there is cross-party agreement about this fact—that we need to put far more support into giving every baby the best start for life. Families—from pregnant people all the way through to new parents and carers of babies and toddlers, and right up to school level—have to come to terms with this new arrival in their life, with all the challenges that brings. They have to try to find their way around antenatal classes, mental health concerns, parent-infant relationship problems, breastfeeding and infant feeding. There are all the challenges they have with finding childcare and getting back to work, and all the decisions they have to make about whether to go for a nursery or a childminder, and so on.
We have a shortage of health visitors and midwives are under pressure, but in the early years space there are actually so many people who would love to get more involved and have a real career path in the early years workforce. We see so many fantastic volunteers, who work on a voluntary basis for Home-Start, grandparent drop-in groups, or stay and play groups. There are the people working in the charity sector as community champions, who bring people into family hubs to help them find their way around early years services, and act as navigators to advise people struggling with mental health, smoking cessation, debt advice, couple counselling and all the myriad problems that face new parents in our country.
As we embark on the roll-out of the family hubs and start for life programme, it seems to me that there is a lot more we could do to upskill the early years workforce for people who are currently volunteering. Indeed, people who are currently pregnant may be thinking, “Well, do you know what, I used to work in Tesco, but now as a new mum I’d actually quite like to go and work in a nursery, and perhaps have my baby in that nursery and be able to work with my baby alongside me, or I’d like to go and work in a family hub and I’d like to be a mental health first aider or a breastfeeding adviser.” Some of those roles do exist, but in large part they do not.
I really do think this is a subject whose time has come. I know the Opposition are also very keen to see much more support provided to help families give their baby the best start for life. So I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to look very carefully at what roles there are and what sort of career paths there are for people wanting to get much more involved in the early years space, and to look at how Government can support their ambitions to see every baby get the best start, while also upskilling the crucial early years workforce.
I understand that there are some 300,000 people working in the early years space right now. With our changes in childcare allowances and provision for families, which is absolutely the right thing to do, there will be the need for many more nursery workers and people associated with the care of young children, including childminders or those giving kinship care. Upskilling and providing those people with the right resources and qualifications they need is going to be a very big priority in the immediate future and in the longer term. I also believe it will give many young people a really satisfying career path for the future.
For childcare, as for many sectors, this is obviously about attracting other people into the sector. I sometimes think we could get the vocabulary better when we are trying to go out and reach people, and instead of talking about basic skills, we could talk about essential skills and just be upselling the whole thing. These skills can be things such as resilience or teamwork, and these are the areas that people who have been at home and who have not got out much into the community would really value, and they would feel better if they were going into a different type of employment. I think this applies to the childcare sector as well as to many others.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that the prestige of working in early years, and indeed childcare, has sometimes not been what it should be. In any society, our babies are the future—quite literally—and everything we can do to help them to get the best start is absolutely essential. Often, the role is seen as fairly lowly, but trying to steer, nurture and empathise with tiny children and to help them learn to play nicely, pay attention, come when they are called and perhaps start reading are among the most crucial roles.
The same is true of supporting families, who often struggle. You do not have to be a special person to become a parent, but when you do become one, you are a special person to your baby. Parents are often crying out for a bit of help because they feel jittery, they do not feel confident or they do not have at their fingertips the information they need.
There is so much that we can do, and our skills revolution really should focus on creating valued, proper career paths and a proper ambition to have a career in the early years workforce. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will look closely at the early years workforce pilots that are starting in the very near future.
I have worked in the further education sector for 22 years—I hear the Minister’s inner voice saying, “No! Surely that means my hon. Friend started teaching in FE when she was still at primary school,” but unfortunately that is not the case—so I have a lot of experience of the absolutely glorious things that further education can do, but I have also seen it warts and all.
People seem to forget that the further education sector, alongside schools, interacts with more members of the public than any other sector. Adult education, community education, 16 to 19, apprenticeships and higher education are all provided for within the further education sector. Even when I was learning to be a lecturer and doing teacher training all those years ago, the sector was called the Cinderella sector. It has always been acknowledged that it has done a lot of the heavy lifting from an educational perspective, but it has rarely been given the same funding as schools and, in particular, universities. The university sector does a wonderful job, but a university lecturer will generally deliver about half as many hours of actual contact time in a year as a further education lecturer.
The teams do a fantastic and very varied job, but I have heard a lot about how we need more funding, and of course every sector will always ask for more funding. I am pleased the Department for Education is increasing funding into all the sectors mentioned, but we do have a particular issue, as many Members of the House have said, about how much salary we are able to pay people coming into teaching, or taking part in teaching, and to technicians, assistants or whatever it might be in the further education sector. We might want to attract engineering lecturers, for instance, but someone would have to be crazy, or have a private income that meant they could just work as a hobby, to even look at doing an engineering teaching job if it did not start at £55,000 a year at least. That is because they could go and work anywhere else and start at that salary or a lot more.
That is a perennial problem in the industry, and I would like the Government to look at it. I understand that the issue really is challenging in the current climate, but if we do not start to look at it, we will end up with an ever-increasing problem. We already have skills shortages, ergo, in five, 10, 15 or 20 years’ time, not only will even fewer people want to go into further education but even fewer will have the skills and industry experience to do so. As a country, we really have to take this issue seriously in order to see where we are going.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as I knew she would given her experience in the sector. We see this particular challenge in engineering, maths and physics. Does she agree that the Prime Minister’s aspiration of getting everyone doing maths until 18 is exciting in that context, but that it requires supporting the workforce in our FE colleges to deliver it? We need that breadth of teaching of mathematics, alongside other key skills.
I thank my hon. Friend for his expertise, and he is absolutely right. However, many students when I was teaching struggled with their maths GCSE. They struggled with their basic skills and functional skills in numeracy. There was still a fairy tale, seemingly, that if someone had studied mathematics for 11 years in school and failed their GCSE, magically the further education sector—everybody seems to think it can do everything magically and often it does—in less than one year can produce a grade C or above, or a grade 4 or 5 and above, as the grades are now. There was this idea that someone who had failed at maths, hated maths and was scared about it could study for nine months part-time—maybe for one hour a week—in their college and would suddenly and magically have a maths GCSE. That is not the reality.
When I was head of department, all the mathematics we used to teach was applied, and further education has still not been able to do that across the board. That is often because we cannot find people who can teach maths confidently. Certainly we find it difficult to find people who can teach functional skills, numeracy or maths that is applied to the industry for which the students are coming to study. We have some real problems. For instance, I taught a group of level 2 media students once. I said to them, “I am giving you a tape measure, and I want you to go into the studio. We are going to calculate the square meterage of the studio so that we can do a lighting plan.” The students went off and within a minute they came back. They said, “Lia, we are having a problem here.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because the tape measure is not long enough.” Think about that for a moment. Those students did not think that perhaps they had to measure it multiple times with one tape measure. Those are the basic skills we are talking about. I had to go into the studio and talk about it. That is the level we are at.
Schools are struggling to recruit maths teachers. I love the aspiration that everyone can be better at maths through to 18, but I always have the analogy of saying, “If you do not feel you are good at maths, equate that to something that you really don’t like”, because a lot of people have a fear of maths, or have been told over years, “You are not good enough at it”, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I say to people, “Do you like horses?” They say, “No, I’m scared of horses.” I say, “Okay, so you’re scared of horses and horse-riding. You’ve never wanted to do it, or when you’ve tried it, you’ve hated it, or you’ve fallen off or you’ve never dared to get on. Tomorrow, I will make you go to a horse and get on it. You are going to have to ride it for an hour every week for nine months, but boy, you will be an Olympic showjumper by the end of it.” We need to think about how we will do these things, because we know as a country that we are a potential powerhouse in so many areas, but we have to think with common sense about how we will overcome some of the difficulties that we have.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point, because Britain is an outlier in not doing maths to 18. Other countries must be able to do it, so we should look around the world to see how they are achieving it. We need to go from primary school straight up to the age of 18 and work out a proper syllabus that everyone can access.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we have been able to do with phonics and literacy-based subjects, where we have moved ahead quickly, we need that thinking from primary school age and all the way up. As wonderful as further education is—I know that it is—it cannot repair all the structural issues to do with maths within that year or two years of study. We all want that to happen, but we have got to think sensibly about how it will happen, because people who are Prime Minister and have been Chancellor find maths very easy, but perhaps the rest of us do not.
From a further education perspective, Grimsby Institute, where I worked for many years, is a fantastic college that works really hard with industry. It was a grade 1 “outstanding” college for many years and is currently grade 2. I know how hard the staff work and thank Ann Hardy, the chief executive officer, and her team for looking at new ways of doing things and innovating.
I also thank Peter Kennedy and his team at Franklin College, which is our sixth-form college. The week before last, I went to see “The Bridge”, a new facility that it has opened to recreate corporate ways of working so that its 16 to 19-year-olds and adult learners—and its staff—can work in a corporate, modern environment, preparing them for work. Franklin College has done all its renovations and new build without grant help; it has done that with really good financial management. That is really worth celebrating and shows how outstanding leadership and management can do great things in the community.
I say to the Minister that we know how fantastic further education is, and he knows that, but it cannot do everything, so we need to start thinking about how we can do things more creatively and more flexibly. As my hon. Friend Paul Howell mentioned, we know that many colleges go out and deliver in the community. Many years ago, Grimsby Institute worked on blended learning, making sure that there was online provision and that it was going out in the community. We need to think differently in the environment we find ourselves in, with more vacancies than people available for the work, skills mismatches and a lack of skills in areas that we need to move forward.
Absolutely, apprenticeships can be the answer, but, with respect, they may be a little too complicated at the moment, and standards can often restrain our ambition. We know that we need standards, but my concern is that while large companies can become involved with apprenticeships, what about our sole traders and small and medium-sized enterprises? They really are the lifeblood of our businesses and industries, but it is a real challenge for them to take on apprentices with that right support. We do need to look at that.
I have concerns about some areas of T-levels. The aspiration for high quality is good, but while T-levels came out of the Sainsbury review of 2016, which was looking at parity between vocational and academic routes, I do not believe that they have parity with A-levels. That is not because people might think, “Academic is better.” No, actually T-levels are perhaps more demanding than A-levels in many ways. When an “academic student” goes to study A-levels, they can choose two, three or four subjects, plus work experience, a work placement or employment, so when they have finished their A-levels, they can go to university, get an apprenticeship or go and work—they have all those options at hand.
However, for T-levels, similar to national diplomas, students have to decide, for example, that they want to work in the health and social care industry, and have to study that with an employer. But what happens at the end if they discover that it is not what they want to do, or they feel that they are better at something else? If T-levels or something similar were smaller and modular, with a similar amount of guided learning hours to A-levels, a vocational student could do health and social care, travel and tourism, and digital media, and they could go and do some work experience as well. They could still build a T-level, but it would be multifaceted and very enjoyable. It would give vocational students much more choice about where they go from there, rather than just studying their health and social care level 3 T-level and that is it. They would then have to spend money later in life to do something else to go into another industry. I would like the Minister and his team to think about something like that.
The further education sector has always been the Cinderella of education but, along with schools, it is the kingpin to ensuring that this country can continue to be a powerhouse in future. I thank everyone in the further education sector, no matter what job they do—whether the cleaner or all the way through to the chief executive, and everyone in between. I thank them and appreciate their work, and I look forward to seeing colleagues again in the future.
I congratulate Margaret Greenwood and my hon. Friend Mr Walker on their efforts in securing the debate, and my hon. Friend on his work chairing the Education Committee, in particular for the publication in April of the Committee’s report “The future of post-16 qualifications”, which in many respects is the cornerstone of the compelling case for change to the way that post-16 education is provided in the UK.
Further education in its many forms—whether full-time in college, on day release, in the evening or through an apprenticeship—is the bridge between school and the workplace. It enables people from all backgrounds to realise their full potential and achieve their ambitions. It is also the means through which Great Britain plc can operate as an efficient economy, with increased output, improved profitability for businesses large and small, and high economic growth. Further education is the route to removing what is becoming the 21st century British disease of low productivity. To perform that role, FE and colleges must be fairly funded and their courses properly structured. At present, they are not, although my hon. Friend and his Committee have shown us how to remove the many obstacles they face.
My interest is as an MP serving a coastal constituency where there are exciting opportunities emerging in such sectors as renewable energy, sustainable fishing, and maritime and ports. East Coast College, with its campuses in Lowestoft and Yarmouth, is doing great work in preparing people for those exciting careers. However, despite significant investment by the college and Government in new facilities, such as the Energy Skills Centre in Lowestoft and the Eastern Civil Engineering Construction Campus in Lound, it feels that it is operating with one arm behind its back.
The FE sector is facing significant challenges. The number of 16 and 17-year-olds is rising rapidly as a result of the population boom moving through the education system. Many young people have been severely disadvantaged by covid and the ensuing lost years of learning. Colleges are helping to support them, ensuring that they catch up and assisting them in making the right education decisions and career choices. Colleges and sixth forms, like everyone else, are facing rising costs as a result of rising levels of inflation. There is also, as we have heard, a workforce crisis. Without further investment, there will be no staff to deliver the skills that our economy so desperately needs. It is important to emphasise the vital role that colleges perform in delivering the economy’s future skills needs.
On the East Anglian coast, significant opportunities are emerging in renewable energy, with the transition to a zero-carbon economy. Over half of the nation’s UK offshore wind fleet is anchored off the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. Sizewell C will be one of the largest construction projects in the world. There is enormous potential for retrofitting, for hydrogen and carbon capture, and for the oil and gas infrastructure, both in the southern North sea and running through East Anglia to serve much of the UK.
East Coast College is doing great work in training, upskilling and providing careers advice. The scale of the opportunity is both enormous and exciting, but the college needs the revenue and resources to rise to the challenge. It also faces a similar dilemma in the NHS and social care sector, where it works closely with the James Paget University Hospital at Gorleston and other care providers in the north-east Suffolk and south-east Norfolk area.
The case for investment in colleges and FE is compelling. Despite recent uplifts, FE funding compares unfavourably with both the university and school sectors. That was confirmed by the IFS in its 2022 annual report on education. It highlighted both larger cuts than other areas after 2010 and no extra funding announced in the 2022 autumn statement. At a time when we are rightly promoting lifelong learning, it is concerning that participation in adult education has fallen at all qualification levels, particularly among those who are worse off.
Colleges are facing extreme challenges in the recruitment and retention of staff, which are exacerbated by funding rates rising by less than 3%. Further education colleges are facing their worst staffing crisis for two decades and they are increasingly constrained from delivering much-needed courses as the pay they are able to offer their staff is way below that which they can earn in industry and in schools. Colleges, I am afraid, are losing staff because they cannot match the pay in those other sectors. There is an ever-widening pay gap with those industries where skills shortages are at their worst: construction, engineering, digital and care.
The college workforce crisis is impacting on the Government’s delivery of key policy priorities, including the roll-out of T-levels and higher technical qualifications. This will ultimately result in growing skills gaps, impacting on our nation’s productivity, efforts to address regional inequalities and the transition to a low-carbon economy. This will leave people in poorly paid, insecure work.
At East Coast College for over a year there have been vacancies in the engineering, electrical and science teaching teams, where there is an urgent need for staff and new recruits. This means the college has had to restrict teaching where businesses urgently need staff, such as for plumbing and electrician apprentices. The college has also been unable to recruit civil engineering teachers for T-levels. Those vacancies are putting enormous pressure on existing staff who in turn, as matters stand, will be looking at minimal pay increases, with their wages comparing very poorly, as we have heard, with other similar local sectors. If the situation is not addressed, with more funding provided, the crisis will get even worse, and at a time when the FE sector has such a vital role to play.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning, whose secretariat is provided by the Association of Colleges. It has a straightforward five-point plan to address the crisis, which my hon. Friend for Worcester set out and which I will re-emphasise. First, the 2023-24 funding rates must be raised in line with inflation, in recognition of the fact that prices are significantly higher than they were when the three-year budgets were set in October 2021. That would cost £400 million and is in line with what many of us campaigned for ahead of the spring Budget. Secondly, as we have heard, there are clear advantages in allowing colleges to reclaim VAT. Thirdly, we need to ensure that 50% of the apprenticeship levy is spent on apprentices at levels 2 and 3, below the age of 25. Fourthly, we need to provide a larger skills fund to support skills in high-priority areas such as low-carbon energy and healthcare, both of which East Coast College has prioritised. Finally, the Department for Education should collate evidence on college pay, similar to that which it provides for the School Teachers’ Review Body.
I look around and see gaps everywhere, not just gaps on these Benches, but alarming gaps in our economic and education systems; gaps that are ever widening—skills gaps, pay gaps, productivity gaps. We must eliminate these gaps as quickly as possible. It is clear from today’s debate that we are united behind, dare I say it, our champion, my right hon. Friend the Minister, in seeking to secure the funding that will be the first step that is needed in this vitally important work, so that Cinderella really can go to the ball.
Further education colleges have a wealth of experience in delivering learning, training and qualifications in their local communities, and that includes the fantastic Loughborough College in my constituency. They have a unique understanding of the skills gap through their relationship with businesses, industry and other local stakeholders, which enables them to adapt the courses they offer to help to skill young people, as well as upskilling and reskilling workers to meet the needs of the local economy in real time and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. That makes them essential to our local communities and crucial to economic growth.
The country should make much more of, in particular, the flexibility of FE colleges to tailor the skills and training made available to meet local need, although we have already done that to some extent through the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. Let me give an example involving Loughborough College. Not long ago, a business was thinking of coming to the area, but needed a workforce that was skilled in a certain way. I contacted the principal of Loughborough College by email, and she came back to me within about 10 minutes, having already contacted the business and reached an agreement on what they would do. Such flexibility and deliverability of that kind are available to the whole town of Loughborough and the local area because of what the FE college can deliver.
As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on T-levels, I am also immensely proud of the fact that at the heart of Loughborough College is one of the first T-level centres built with town deal funding. The college will have an institute of technology, which it will be building along with Loughborough University, the Derby College Group and Derby University. The Minister, very kindly, officially opened the centre, and broke ground at the IOT not long ago. All those developments have been brought together by a phenomenal staffing team, and an equally phenomenal principal and chief executive, Jo Maher. I have named her because I want to thank her very much: she has done an enormous amount for people in Loughborough, and has achieved a huge amount in a very short space of time. She is moving on, but thankfully she is staying in Loughborough to become the university’s pro vice-chancellor for sport—and it doesn’t get much better than being in charge of sport at Loughborough University, let’s put it that way. She has achieved an amazing thing, along with all her staff, the governors and others. It is an amazingly proud moment for the town. The college has everything from T-level engineering to courses on health and social care and training for electricians and nursery staff. There are people who are going to make fantastic emergency service workers, prison officers and so on. It is a wonderful draw for the whole region to get those skills into the area.
For FE colleges to continue to deliver much-needed skills education, we must ensure that they are placed on a sustainable footing by addressing their historic levels of underfunding. Despite recent uplifts, FE college funding compares unfavourably with funding for universities and schools. As colleges spend 67% of their income on staff, current budgets are having a detrimental effect on recruitment.
Many colleges are being constrained in their ability to provide training at the level necessary to address skills shortages, because they cannot offer salaries competitive enough to attract the right people, who can earn far more in industry and even in schools. To reinforce that point, the Association of Colleges has informed me that, on average, teachers in schools are paid over £8,000 more than college lecturers, despite many college lecturers being more specialised and bringing real-life industry experience to their roles. That concern has also been raised with me locally. Salaries in the private sector are used to attract people with skills and knowledge; the same should be true in FE colleges.
Alongside the issue of additional funding in these areas, Loughborough College has highlighted to me that despite now being considered essentially to be public bodies by HM Treasury, colleges are not able to reclaim VAT as the vast majority of public bodies do. I have been told that this tax currently uses up 3% of a college’s income. The money voted for by Parliament for 16 to 19 education in a wide variety of key sectors is being taxed, which is disproportionately affecting those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who make up the majority of those attending college. It is compounded by the fact that, following ONS reclassification, an immediate block on commercial borrowing was placed on colleges.
That has left colleges stuck between a rock and a hard place: unable to receive private funding, as they are considered to be a public body, but having to pay VAT as if they were a private entity. It is therefore important that due consideration is given to including colleges in the VAT refund scheme. That simple change would go a long way towards helping colleges to provide the high-quality skills training that our economy needs.
In these debates, we have heard a lot about parity. Does my hon. Friend agree that now that there is greater flexibility, the Government should look across the education sector and ensure that early years settings, colleges and others are given parity with schools in their treatment for VAT purposes?
I absolutely agree. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
FE colleges such as Loughborough College are our greatest asset in local communities and the best conduit for social mobility. Let us reform the sector for the future, so that they have the tools and resources in place to make the difference to the lives of their students and to the businesses where they will go on to work. I want to put it in a positive rather than a negative way: yes, we need to look at the money and look at the VAT, but there is such fantastic resource within FE colleges. It is all there to be had. Let us do that, and let us help them.
It is a tremendous pleasure to respond to this excellent debate. I thank my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood and Mr Walker for securing it. They have both announced that they will not return to this place after the next election; they will both be a tremendous loss, especially given the contribution that they both make to our debates on education and their passion for the subject. I take this opportunity to thank them both for the contribution to the sector that they make in this place. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester on his Committee’s report, which precipitated this debate and has been tremendously welcome.
This has been an important debate about an area the Government have consistently underfunded, which has contributed, as Wendy Morton said, to the staff and skills crises that employers raise with Members every week of the year.
I will reflect on a few of today’s contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West spoke about the economic benefits of adult education, which helps people to engage in education before often moving into the world of work. The hon. Member for Worcester, referring to adult education being a Cinderella service, said that Cinderella went on to marry a prince, but I remind him that Cinderella is a fairy tale. He was not in the mood to listen to any fairy tales today, speaking powerfully about the many measures outlined in his report and his disappointment that the Government have not engaged more willingly on some of the recommendations on funding cuts. We entirely agree that there should be a moratorium on defunding BTECs, and he made a powerful point on the importance of careers guidance in opening opportunities, particularly to people from more deprived communities.
Jane Hunt spoke about an excellent college that I recently had the great pleasure of visiting with my colleague Jeevun Sandher. The college’s responsiveness when the hon. Lady got in touch says everything about the specific role our further education sector plays and about the passion of people within the sector for ensuring that they are linked to the local community, to the local business community and to employers, and for ensuring they make a real difference.
Few areas of Government spending more directly explain Britain’s sluggish growth figures than our failure on skills, on which Peter Aldous reflected a moment ago. My hon. Friend Gill Furniss said the savage cuts inflicted on colleges and adult education over the past 13 years have had an adverse impact on life chances and on our wider economy. From 2010 to 2019, the further education budget was cut by a third in real terms and adult education funding was cut by almost half, as my right hon. Friend John McDonnell said.
The collapse in public funding for our FE sector has had many disastrous consequences. My hon. Friend Navendu Mishra and Munira Wilson spoke about the fact that college lecturers are now on £8,000 a year less in real terms than their equivalent salary in 2010. Years of pay freezes, redundancies and non-replacement of lecturers have seen as much as 80% of the FE workforce leave.
We heard excellent speeches from Lia Nici and Sir David Evennett, who both spoke of their experience in the sector. They got out in time not to have the £8,000 a year pay cut they would have had if they stayed. The hon. Lady’s call for further education salaries to be taken seriously was powerful. These salaries often mean that colleges cannot put on courses for which there is demand because they cannot recruit people to teach them, as the hon. Members for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) and for Loughborough said. David Hughes of the Association of Colleges has said:
“The past 12 years have witnessed a decimation in funding for education and skills for 16 to 18-year-olds… There are now insufficient places available and those which remain are inadequately funded.”
Alongside the exodus from the further education profession, there is profound difficulty in finding courses of real importance to our economy in many areas. My hon. Friend Andrew Western reflected on the fact that care apprenticeships are no longer being offered at Trafford College. The collapse in public funding has been mirrored by and has partially caused a reduction in the amount employers are spending on training their workforce. Research by the Learning and Work Institute found that employer investment in training their staff is now 28% lower than it was in 2005. So 13 years into what the Government say is a “revolution” that places employers “at the heart” of our skills system, our employers are spending less on training their staff now than they were 13 years ago and fewer courses are available. The Government seem unable to make the changes that they are constantly told we need.
It is not just in the underfunding that our young people, learners and employers have been let down. An incoming Labour Government will offer the reforms that many employers and providers have been crying out for. My hon. Friend reflected on Labour’s plans to reform the apprenticeship levy into a growth and skills levy that is more flexible and will allow some of it to be spent on other, more modular courses. So many organisations have called for that; Kate Shoesmith, the deputy chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said at the time of the last Budget:
“Offering flexible skills training, by reforming the Apprenticeship Levy, is long overdue.”
As we well as discussing boosting apprenticeships, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby spoke about the difficulty of the bureaucracy that many small and medium-sized enterprises encounter and the fall that we have seen in level 2 and 3 apprenticeships. As well as allowing employers to utilise their funds to help people back into work, it is important that the Government also get it right on qualifications. We heard from the hon. Member for Worcester about the Government’s review of BTECs, which is tremendously important. The Labour party supports T-levels, recognising that they are a qualification in evolution. Their purpose has changed before our eyes since they have been in place, but there have been issues with implementation, as Edward Timpson said. The primary role at the centre of that qualification of the passing of a single exam, as opposed to the more modular forms of study and assessment available in some of the other advanced general qualifications, means people are missing out on something that has proved transformational for many students. That is why I repeat that Labour will pause the disastrous approach the Government are hellbent on pursuing of defunding level 3 courses.
It is worth recalling the role that the dysfunction at the heart of the Government has played in the approach they are taking. Gillian Keegan was the Skills Minister who set England on the path to an all T-level world. She then disappeared into other Departments, while Nadhim Zahawi headed up a consultation on the Government’s approach, where a staggering 86% of respondents—skills professionals, employers, learners and their families—were opposed to their plans. That 86% is not a small minority—it is the kind of overwhelming response that we normally see only on a Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflet. When the Government say that 86% of people are opposed to their plans, that needs to be taken seriously. The right hon. Gentleman did all he could do and announced that the Government would be removing only a small number of courses, and the sector breathed a huge sigh of relief. He was then promoted and we had the two-day reign of Michelle Donelan. She was followed by James Cleverly, who was then followed by Kit Malthouse. Finally, exhausted DFE officials provided briefing to their sixth Secretary of State in just over a year, the right hon. Member for Chichester, who returned as Secretary of State for Education.
Whether the outcome of the original level 3 consultation had gone missing somewhere between briefing Secretary of State No. 3 and briefing Secretary of State No. 6, I do not know, but what we do know is that, Bobby Ewing-like, the previous year had not happened and suddenly we were back to the disastrous approach that 86% of consultees had warned the Government against. We believe there is a real need for skills policy to be aligned with regional economic policy and to be evidence based. Unlike the current Government, we will ensure a joined-up approach, with a new body, Skills England, to co-ordinate the framework.
For too long this short-sighted approach has held back the ambitions of our people and our economy, but we all hope those days are nearly behind us. Finally, this exhausted Government can be put out of their misery and the Conservative party can have a period of quiet—or maybe not so quiet—reflection, during which it can consider what kind of a party it wishes to be.
And then it will be time for a Labour Government that recognise the importance of a joined-up skills system, encourage employers to invest in their staff, ease the bureaucratic burdens that shut small and medium-sized enterprises out of apprenticeships and ensure that money allocated for skills is actually spent on skills. A Labour Government will see that making the best use of all of our talents is the way to grow our economy and repair our society, and will see FE college lecturers, schoolteachers and local adult education providers as key contributors to our economic plan. Yes, the Labour Government will inherit a rancid economic picture, but they will have the plans needed to return our nation to growth, with schools, colleges, universities, devolved decision makers and employers working in tandem. That Government are coming, and they cannot come a moment too soon.
I am pleased to respond to the debate. When my hon. Friend Mr Walker, the former Schools Minister and now the Chair of the Education Committee, said that he had applied for the debate, I welcomed it because I wanted a good debate on further education. Despite the kind words of John McDonnell, I do not know if he is quite the secret weapon I would take with me when I have negotiations with the Treasury, but his point was well made.
“Labour cannot commit to boosting FE funding levels”.
The article went on to say that speaking to FE Week, Bridget Phillipson
“said the economic landscape had changed significantly and could not pledge any uplift in cash for further education or address the disparity between FE and higher education funding until the economic outlook was clearer.”
So despite what the hon. Member for Chesterfield says, the Opposition are not guaranteeing any uplift in further education funding.
I thank Margaret Greenwood for opening the debate. She is passionate about adult education; I am with her and I understand the absolute importance of community learning. I have seen that in my own constituency and I champion it in the Department. I will say more about adult and community learning later in my remarks, but looking at all the programmes together—the skills boot camps, the level 3 offer, Multiply and adult apprenticeships—we are spending well over £3 billion.
My hon. Friend Peter Aldous as well as the hon. Member for Wirral West raised the issue of community learning, which has actually increased over the past year. If we look at the key focus, we will see that, in the 2021-22 academic year, 304,000 learners participated in a community learning course, compared with 243,000 in the 2020-21 academic year. That is an increase of 24.9%. I have other figures that I could quote, but that does not mean that everything in the garden is rosy. We are doing a lot of work to try to support adult and tailored learning, which I will go on to discuss a bit later in my speech.
I am experiencing a bit of déjà vu here. This time last year, I believe that I was the Chair of the Education Committee leading the estimates debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester was answering it. What we say here is, I think, touché. What I would say to him is that, absolutely, he has made a valid case for funding for further education, as have many other Members. I will go on to talk about that a bit later in my remarks. I also think that it is important that we do not paint just a partial picture. We should look at the 10% uplift in T-level funding, the £300 million that we are spending on institutes of technology, the £115 million spending on higher technical qualifications, which are now being taught in more than 70 institutions, the £2.7 billion that we will be spending on apprenticeships by 2025, the up to £500 million that is being spent on Multiply, and the many millions of pounds being spent on boot camps. Billions and billions of pounds are being spent on skills, which is absolutely right.[This section has been corrected on
Munira Wilson raised the issue of BTECs, as did my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee. He was resolute on this, so I will be quite resolute in return. BTECs have already been delayed. They have already been reviewed, and are being reviewed. There will be a significant number of BTECs that remain. We have specifically introduced the T-level transition year, the whole purpose of which is to prepare those students for T-levels, because, as was rightly said by my hon. Friend Lia Nici, T-levels are harder. But there is now a T-level transition year, and more than 60 institutions are teaching it, and there will be another 70 along the way to prepare students.
Importantly, we are removing some BTECs and other qualifications that have low uptake or poor progression. The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the tourism qualification. I shall write to her with the details and the figures. I shall also come on to childcare in a bit because of the brilliant speech by my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom. As I was saying, though, we are removing T-levels that have low uptake or not great progression, or that significantly overlap with other T-levels. The whole purpose of this is that we have created employer-led qualifications through our apprenticeship reforms. The T-levels and the higher technical qualifications are all employer-designed with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education; I was proud to legislate for them in my last stint in this role. Employers will be able to develop new qualifications. For example, if they wanted to, they could develop a new tourism qualification.
There is another important issue, which has come up time and again. I have said that some BTECs will remain. I recognise that disadvantaged students are doing some of these BTECs, but we go down a very dangerous road if we say that we want to keep some qualifications because disadvantaged students do them, and the other ones, the middle class and everybody else can do. That is a dangerous road, because I do not want to have two-tier qualifications: some for the disadvantaged and others for the middle class and the well-off. What I want, and what I have devoted my whole parliamentary life to, is to develop state of the art, world-beating vocational and technical qualifications that are as good as, if not better than, A-levels. That is what is important. That is how I would respond, politely but robustly, to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee.
That is a very interesting comment on the people who are doing BTECs at the moment. We were told by several people that T-levels had a very high entry requirement. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that is no longer the case? The other point we heard in our inquiry was that 20% were dropping out of T-levels. What will they be doing if they are not able to carry on with T-levels?
First, as I say, a significant number of BTECs remain and will remain. There are new qualifications that can be developed so that those who do not pass will be able to do some other qualification at level 3, or they may want to do a level 2 or level 3 apprenticeship instead. There will be options for those people, but we could make the same arguments about those people who fail A-levels. We should not just have one rule for T-levels and another rule for those doing A-levels.
I will come on to funding, because every hon. Member has raised that. Gill Furniss talked about it, and I am pleased that she has had more £7 million invested in Sheffield City College. My right hon. Friend Wendy Morton was thoughtful as always; we have talked a lot about skills over the years and I reiterate that we are championing quality qualifications, which will address the skills deficits, and introducing lifelong learning through the lifelong loan entitlement.
Andrew Western again talked about funding; I will come on to that, and I am happy to write to him about the specific issue that he raised regarding Trafford College. I was pleased to meet my hon. and learned Friend Edward Timpson and the principal of Reaseheath College. Land colleges have been beneficiaries of important capital funding and I know the college has received more than £6.5 million. I said in that meeting that I would work with my hon. and learned Friend on the issues he has raised and I will continue to do so as much as I possibly can.
The hon. Member for Twickenham talked about the skills wallet, and we do have a difference here. I have sympathy with many of the things she says and I genuinely admire her for her knowledge of education and skills, but we looked at the skills wallet and, as I understand it, it gives every adult £10,000 to spend on training, but with incremental payments, starting with £4,000 at age 25, £3,000 at age 40 and the final £3,000 at age 55. That would mean that learners would be constrained by when the funding became available. We want to be fair to students and fair to the taxpayer. Our lifelong loan entitlement will be transformative, because everyone will have access to up to £37,000 that they can take any time up to the age of 60. There are 12 entry points and they can do short courses or modules of courses.
I have nothing but incredible admiration for the way my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire champions early years. I have good news for her, because when I found out she was on the list to speak in this debate, I wanted to be sure about what we were doing on early years skills—as my Department officials, who are watching, will know.
To let my right hon. Friend know what is going on, there is a lot. The first-ever national professional qualification in early years leadership cohort began in October 2022 and the second cohort commenced in February 2023. The employer trailblazer groups have developed level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships, but we now have a level 5 apprenticeship and we fund more than 20 childcare courses through our free courses for jobs offer. Some 2,000 learners started T-levels in education and childcare in September 2022, and there is a load of early years higher technical qualifications. There is masses going on, so we will have the trained workforce that she passionately and rightly talks about, right across that sector.
My right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett has great experience and wisdom. He too talked about funding, and he will know that his college—I think it is the London South East Colleges group—has had £24.5 million since 2020. I think the shadow Minister has also had £18 million in capital funding for Chesterfield College in his constituency; again, that is a brilliant investment by the Government that no doubt he will be celebrating to the rafters.
I have mentioned the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. I appreciated the way in which he said what he did. We have spending constraints, but I will talk more about those in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney spoke powerfully about the skills revolution in his area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby made a brilliant speech. There was a lot that I agreed with. On the maths to 18 issue, I was one of those people who had a fear of maths. I passed my maths O-level, but it took me three months and a second time around—I was slightly dyspraxic; it was a nightmare. It is wrong that I was told that I would never have to do it again. We should have practical numeracy—basic numeracy, times tables and so on—and what I call numerical literacy, so that people can read bills and understand budgets. That would help those who have difficulties. Of course, any maths teaching should promote careers in mathematics. I think that the Prime Minister is right: we must have maths to 18 along the principles that he set out in his speech. I absolutely believe in that. The experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby was clear to see.
This is an estimates day debate, so we have to talk about facts and figures. The DFE’s resource budget is about £86 billion—an uplift of more than £2 billion since the spending review—and £9 billion is directly linked to apprenticeships and further education. Apprenticeships are a key rung on what I call—colleagues have nicely quoted it back at me—“the ladder of opportunity”. We redesigned the programme in partnership with industry. There are now accredited routes to more than 670 occupations, from entry level to expert. Government funding for apprenticeships will reach £2.7 billion by 2024-25, as I have mentioned, and that money is reaching the economy.
The hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the apprenticeship budget. We spent 99% of the apprenticeship budget, and let us not forget that we send hundreds of millions to the devolved authority, so the levy is being used.[This section has been corrected on
As the Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, mentioned, the Association of Colleges has called for 50% of the apprenticeship levy to be spent on apprentices at levels 2 and 3, who are below the age of 25. Under-25s made up 50% of starts in 2021-22; 70% of starts were at levels 2 and 3, providing an entry-level springboard into work. Contrary to the bad news set out by the shadow spokesman, we have had a 22% increase in apprenticeship achievements in the academic year—that is what counts: achievements. The 90% who achieve get good jobs when they finish their apprenticeship. There were 8.6% more starts in 2021-22 than in 2021. We are pushing and encouraging more degree apprenticeships. They are a brilliant route up the ladder. We are now putting in £40 million over the next couple of years—it was £8 million previously—to encourage providers to take up more students for degree apprenticeships.
My goodness, what a brilliant visit we had to the college in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jane Hunt. Anyone who wants an example of T-level success should go to Loughborough College, where state-of-the-art T-levels are being taught brilliantly—including healthcare T-levels, creating a pipeline for future NHS workers—and an institute of technology is being built. It was an honour to lay the groundwork. As I mentioned, we are spending £300 million on 21 institutes of technology around the country, of which there are already 12. They are the Rolls-Royce of further education in collaboration with higher education and big and small businesses, and an example of the Government’s commitment to skills and of the investment in the skills that we need for the future. Sadly, I understand that the principal is leaving Loughborough College, but I am sure that the college will find a principal who is just as brilliant as her to take over.
I mentioned the higher technical qualifications and new and existing levels 4 and 5. We have the T-levels. Yes, there are delays in some of them, but we want to get them right. We have 164 providers across the country, and 10,000 students started T-levels in 2022—that is more than double the 2021 figure. We will roll out T-levels in 2024-25 so that more young people can benefit from those high-quality qualifications. More than 92% of students achieved a pass.
I am grateful. There is much I would like to come back to the Minister on, but I want to ask specifically about T-levels. He mentioned that 10,000 people are starting them, and many of the T-level students I have met have very much enjoyed their courses. However, at the moment, 230,000 students do applied general qualifications whereas 10,000 are doing T-levels. In two years’ time, the vast majority of those 230,000 students will not have that course to study. Does he not hear why the call for a moratorium, for him just to take his time, is so powerful and why that view is so widely held?
I absolutely understand the reason why. There will, of course, be some worry when we change to a new system, but we have already delayed the onset under the previous Secretary of State for Education. We want to encourage people to do T-levels. They are world-beating qualifications, and those students will also be offered the chance to do a T-level transition year. As I said, new qualifications can be developed.
I want to talk about funding, because it has been raised significantly. We are allocating £3.8 billion more to further education and skills over the Parliament. We announced the final stage of the FE capital transformation programme, worth £1.5 billion. We are investing up to £584 million in skills boot camps. There is an extra £1.6 billion in 16-to-19 education. Many Members have raised the issue of VAT for colleges, and of course, that needs to be considered in the context of wider public finances. As hon. Members know, those things are decided by the Treasury. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury recently responded on this issue in a Westminster Hall debate, but the views of Members across the House will have been heard by the Treasury today.
We are offering tax-free teacher training bursaries of up to £29,000 in priority subjects to encourage more people to come into FE. There are other funds, including a Taking Teaching Further incentive payment of £6,000 for those coming from industry into FE. We are doing a lot to try to encourage more teachers, and we have spent a fair bit of money on advertising to try to encourage more FE teachers, even with the financial constraints that we have.
The hon. Member for Wirral West spoke passionately about adult education, and I want to let her know about the five pillars that I have for adult education: community learning; careers support; learning for jobs; the lifelong loan entitlement, lifelong learning; and empowering local decision making. I will briefly explain what I mean by them, but first I will answer the question from the right hon. Gentleman.
Before the Minister moves on from FE, it is worth acknowledging that only a few weeks ago, the University and College Union decided that it will ballot its members in September, with the potential result being industrial action in October if there is not some realistic offer with regard to pay and working conditions. Is the Minister addressing that at the moment?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that FE colleges are autonomous on these matters, so they have to make their decisions with the UCU. However, I certainly urge members not to strike, because it causes significant damage to students and learners, many of whom have suffered enormously during covid because of the lockdown.
Let me go through the five pillars that I mentioned to the hon. Member for Wirral West. Community learning refers to the education that we provide for adults in the community. It forms part of the overall adult education budget of £1.34 billion a year. We will continue to use the skills fund provision to support learners furthest from the workplace who may need a stepping stone towards formal learning. The provision is not qualification-based and is part of what we call tailored learning. She will know that there are a significant number of courses that people can do, if they do not have those qualifications or have not done those courses already, that are completely free. That supports adults to access further learning and employment, and their wellbeing. I accept the hon. Lady’s argument that adult community learning is vital for wellbeing.
Careers support is another issue that was raised by the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester. I am considering the Committee’s report carefully. We are investing over £87 million in high-quality careers advice, both for adults and for young people. We have careers hubs in over 90% of secondary schools; we have the new Baker clause, which means that schools have to have encounters with apprentice organisations or technical colleges as well; and we have the National Careers Service providing advice to adults. The Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge network is also going around schools and colleges, promoting careers.
Learning for jobs is the third pillar—all of the pillars are linked. I have talked about the Multiply programme, the free courses for jobs—there are over 400 courses—and skills boot camps, in everything from engineering to heavy goods vehicles and the green economy. We also have the local skills improvement plans, which ensure that communities can advise on what skills they need in their local areas, and when we have skills deficits, we have the Unit for Future Skills to look at the national situation. We have the lifelong loan entitlement, which I have spoken about briefly. That entitlement will be very powerful and absolutely transformative, because it will allow people to have the end destination of a qualification, but to get on and off at various stations along the way by doing short courses and modules of courses.
The final pillar of adult education is empowering local decision makers: Mayors, learners and employees. As the hon. Member for Wirral West pointed out, we have devolved 60% of the adult education budget to 10 areas of the country, amounting to almost £800 million going to the mayoral authorities, but empowerment is not just about devolution to local government. The lifelong loan entitlement will devolve power to individuals, and apprenticeships devolve power to employers, allowing them to develop the skilled workforce that their businesses need. We plan to publish the mandatory FE workforce census findings later this year as experimental statistics, which will include findings on workforce sector pay—I think it was the hon. Member for Wirral West who raised that issue.
To conclude, we are investing in FE and skills in difficult circumstances. I absolutely recognise the pressure on resources, and will do everything I can to champion resources with the Treasury and elsewhere. I welcome the thoughtful cross-party debate that we have had right across the House of Commons. I have a picture of John Kennedy in my office at the Department for Education, because I am a big fan. He said that “We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Like JFK, this Government are unwilling to postpone our FE and skills reforms because they are difficult. In testing times, we know how much the benefits that they will bring to our nation’s economy and prosperity are needed. We are determined to build an apprenticeship and skills nation.
This has been a really useful, wide-ranging debate, and I thank everybody who has taken part in it. I particularly thank Mr Walker for helping to secure it and for his flexibility around that, and also for his focus on 16-to-19 education and for raising the issue of BTechs. That is incredibly important; it is something that has been raised by local school leaders in my area, and something that Munira Wilson also raised.
I support my right hon. Friend John McDonnell in calling for a national education service, free from cradle to grave. As he said, we are a long way away from that, but it is still a really important ambition that we should have. I thank my hon. Friend Gill Furniss, who spoke about the impact of Government cuts. She spoke of a lost decade in adult education and the importance of meeting the skills challenges that we face. My hon. Friend Andrew Western spoke about the appalling workforce crisis in his constituency, an issue that Edward Timpson also raised. Recruitment and retention of technical staff is something of an issue.
Adult education is a public good, and at a time when we are facing challenges in the economy, skills and employment, it is vital that the Government revisit the level of funding being provided to the sector and address the recruitment and retention issues that have been so clearly expressed. It is also important that the Government think again about their approach to non-vocational education and consider the value it can bring to an individual’s personal development and particularly to our cultural sector, and that they fund a broad curriculum.