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My Lords, this is one of those odd debates where I suspect that a great deal of agreement is going to break out on the problems that arise and the solutions to them. We shall then take a deep breath and fight savagely over small differences in implementation. However, that seems to be the nature of what we do.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, spoke about a huge array of subjects. I asked the Library what was available in further education and found that there were eight levels with a variety of qualifications. I noticed that the letter “Q” was used very often in further education courses. It probably meant something different on each occasion it was used. Finding your way through this will always be immensely difficult. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, pointed out, higher education is easier to understand as a concept but we are in agreement that we must get slightly more coherent about what we are doing.
Whatever else they have done, apprenticeships have given this sector a publicity boost and a way forward. I do not think that most noble Lords present have had to suffer hearing me go on about my next point, but we managed to make a massive mistake when we brought them in as we effectively excluded anybody with dyslexia or a reading problem from taking them. We had decided in our great wisdom that employers needed employees who had studied English. In the university sector you could get assistive technology that allowed you to get through your course if you had a problem with English. It appeared that employers wanted competence in reading English and could not function without it. This issue turned out to be basically about people refusing to move their ground, not understanding the technology and not responding to change. I do not think that we should have to introduce a Bill into Parliament to make such changes. We should be slightly more flexible and open. The Children and Families Act has resulted in greater emphasis being given to those with special educational needs. However, many problems still remain in this regard because traditionally they have not been seen as something that the higher education sector and other education provision deal with. Although they have a legal duty to do so, they are not very good at it. For instance, they are not required to publish, the way schools are, what they will do so that parents and students can look at it and know what support they will get.
I am dyslexic myself and the British Dyslexia Association, of which I am a vice-president, started out getting a little trickle but is now getting quite a stream of people presenting to their helpline with problems in further education. The Government provide voice-from-text technology that helps read stuff back to you but only 30% of colleges have taken it up. It is an appalling situation that so few colleges are taking up something which is given to them free and allows students to access and get through their courses.
JISC TechDis—he says, staring down and wishing he did not need glasses—is a body which has been looking at technology but is about to be wound up. Technology is a great way forward. I am a convert to it myself and use voice recognition all the time. Technology has a huge advantage: it is cheaper than having support tutors all the time; you can take it away with you and it allows you to be independent afterwards. Why are we not embracing and using it in this field? We are not just teaching people how to use their educational skills—acquiring reading, mathematics and writing—we are giving them skills in how to cope in life. If you have one of these disabilities it is with you for life. You will always learn more slowly and have more problems. If a person can find a way round it and embrace it they can function in the modern world. We can help with this but we do not seem to be embracing it.
I hope the Minister will tell us what will actually happen and what pressure we will place on colleges to make sure they do their best and match the achievements of the schools and higher education, which mainly came through the DSA. Let us see if we have as happy a situation after the reforms and changes to the DSA. I trust we will be talking about that in the future. I hope they can do something here because there are two good examples. At the moment, colleges are just becoming aware that we have this problem. If you have the problem at school you have it there too. I hope they can tell us that they are admitting this, getting involved and taking it on. If they do not, they are guaranteed that a large section of this target area—the group we are trying to skill up—is always going to underachieve and, in a large part, fail. We can avoid a lot of that now by taking on practice which is well established in the rest of the education field. Joined-up government should mean something and not just be a slogan that is brought out to fill the last 30 seconds of any set speech.