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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:49 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lingfield Lord Lingfield Conservative 5:49 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, I welcome entirely the aspiration in the Queen’s Speech that,

“all young people have access to an excellent education … preparing them for the world of work”.

I will speak briefly today about the education and training of those who are not in the youngest quartile and who need as much investment in their needs as students in their teens and early 20s. I remind your Lordships of my registered interest as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education.

Adult learners can belong to a number of different groups: those who did not do well at school but now wish to make up for time lost; those who have decided, or been forced by redundancy, to seek a different career and need to be retrained; those who wish to be trained at a higher level in their present skills to help with promotion in their employment; and those who want simply to acquire new accomplishments. One criterion is nearly always present across these groups: that they are very well motivated to learn.

Yet it appears that we have been failing these adult learners for a very long time. During the past 10 years adult enrolments have diminished from 5 million to under 2 million annually, a fall of 62%. For those taking IT qualifications, for instance, the drop is a huge 89%. It would seem from these figures that many would-be adult learners can no longer find the courses they require from further education. Yet the Education and Skills Funding Agency tells us that there has been a national underspend in the adult skills budget in the last few years of £63 million in 2016-17 and £76 million in 2017-18. This is money allocated and available for adult education but unspent. Clearly, there is something wrong.

One obvious problem was that caused by the funding agency’s changes in recent years to the funding criteria. These changes in effect reduced the number of people who are eligible for courses. For example, those aged 24 and above could be funded for only level 1 or 2 courses, whereas we know that level 3 courses have the biggest impact on individual progress and therefore on national productivity. An inflexibility in the system has meant that, although funding has in principle been earmarked for adult education, the rules have often made it impossible to access for a large number of people. Thus many who would like to take those level 3 qualifications to improve their skills or chances of employment have increasingly had to pay for them themselves, which many find impossible, or take on a student loan, which can be very worrying for those on a low wage.

Hence, I welcome this year’s policy of devolving the adult skills budget to six combined authority areas and Greater London. This started to take effect on 1 August and can be operative for courses that began last month. It means that colleges of further education in those areas can be permitted to fund level 3 courses for adult learners, including those at work, if they judge that this will improve the local economy and lead to more jobs. I want especially to mention the forward-looking work of the West Midlands Combined Authority, which has already carried out a special consultation with colleges in its area to ensure that the right criteria exist for funding and that many more individuals are able to access funded level 3 courses and above to aid them in making progress in their careers.

The combined authority areas have about a third of all further education colleges and account for about half of the adult skills budget. For the other two-thirds of the country’s FE providers, government funding policy is still far too restrictive and can allow would-be adult students to be trapped in low-level jobs from which they cannot break free because they cannot afford to pay for the qualifications which would allow them to do so. Hence, it is imperative that the experiences of colleges and their adult learners in the combined authority areas are studied very carefully in the next year and that every effort is made to devolve more resources to individual vocational colleges and providers outside those areas in future. This could establish a far less rigid regime which trusts the professionals involved to know what is best for their students and to produce funded courses for them, suited to their needs and those of local employers.

It is absolutely essential that we get this right if we are to develop here in the United Kingdom the flexible, skilled and well-trained workforce we shall need to meet the productivity challenges that the next years will certainly bring to this country. I hope my noble friend will be able to reassure me on some of these issues.