My Lords, I too thank the most reverend Primate for this important debate on education, and I remind your Lordships of my registered interest as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education.
I was particularly pleased to see the right reverend Primate’s choice of words—“a flourishing and skilled society”—and it is about the provision of those skills that I want to make just a couple of points this morning.
For many years, colleges of further education in this country have had a strong tradition of developing technical skills, working alongside employers. The outstanding Dudley College, for instance, has its roots in the 1862 Dudley Public Hall and Mechanics Institute. There are many more with equally venerable origins, just as the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded us the church schools have. However, successive Governments have seen their most important task for young people as pushing them towards university entrance. Consequently, fewer young adults and their parents have come to view further education colleges as providing a viable and creditable vocational and educational path.
The prestige of the FE sector has therefore declined, being often considered as a second-tier alternative for those who did not do too well at school. This is at complete odds with the valuable work that it does, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, reminded us, and the opportunities it creates for its students, business and the economy of this country.
Concomitantly, the FE sector has progressively had its remit altered through changes in government policy. I have mentioned to your Lordships before that the sector’s main mission, which should be the provision of high-quality technical skills, has been too often distorted by its having to teach kindergarten competences to teenagers who have been most seriously failed by primary schools that have neglected to teach them literacy and numeracy properly. Of the 2014 students transferring from schools to FE at 16, some 28% were functionally innumerate—that is, their arithmetical abilities were those normally associated with an 8 year-old—and some 15% functionally illiterate by the same criterion.
For several years it has been the obsession of Governments that too few of these students at 16 have passed GCSE English and Maths at grade C level. Ministers are right to be concerned that secondary schools, like their primary counterparts, are failing these young people, but they are wrong to insist that further education colleges should be the places where the pieces are picked up. This is not a task which should skew the vocational mission of further education. Often, the largest departments in colleges are now those devoted to fulfilling the Government’s directive of getting students from D to C grades in GCSEs; the largest departments should be devoted to engineering and the technologies and not to school resits.
For these students, passing GSCE at grade C in English and Maths, when they have had a history of bad teaching and failure in these subjects at school, is often inappropriate and difficult and the success rates are very poor, especially for those with free school meal entitlement. In some areas such as Wealden in East Sussex, Wyre Forest, Maldon and Ashford, fewer than 4% of students without a C in English and maths at the age of 16 went on to achieve this by age of 19. The average success rate seems to be about 25%. Instead of these resits, such students should be allowed to prepare for vocationally oriented tests of literacy and numeracy, which will seem to them more relevant to their lives and future work. The Government have talked about alleviating the current requirements; perhaps the Minister would let us know when this will happen.
Secondly, an article a few weeks ago in the Times Education Supplement showed that the average funding figure available per student aged from 11 to 16 in secondary schools is £5,700 per annum, and in universities it is £8,500, whereas for providers of further education from ages 16 to 19 it is only £4,500. This disparity is very worrying and suggests that the FE sector is insufficiently funded to deal with the challenges that it faces at a time when skills development is at the heart of the economic agenda. Perhaps the Minister would comment on the worrying £1,200 yearly gap between school and further education funding.
Productivity levels in the United Kingdom remain stubbornly low and have not improved in real terms since the 2008 economic downturn. We are currently ranked 16th out of 35 OECD countries in the international productivity league table—way behind our major trading partners such as the United States, France and Germany. Productivity is of course a factor of investment, but it is also most importantly a factor in the training of young people in technical skills. Yet the Economic Affairs Committee of this House identifies this country’s,
“lower emphasis on technical and vocational education”,
as a major contributing factor to low productivity.
As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us, Brexit will bring great opportunities and our workforce must be well prepared to use them. The further education sector in this country must be better resourced and better used by government policy if it is to help this country face the economic challenges that the next decades will surely bring.