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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:15 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, I shall speak on education, although this is stretching the Queen’s Speech way beyond its content. As my noble friend Lord Storey and others have said, the only mention of it is:

“My Ministers will ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for the world of work”.

That is hardly controversial, but it would be good to know just how the Government think they are preparing young people for the world of work with their constant focus on academic GCSE and A-level results at the expense of vocationally talented and motivated learners. Do the Government never make the connection between the growth in gangs and violent crime among young people and the fact that their compulsory education has left them alienated from learning, with a lack of self-confidence and self-respect because Shakespeare and algebra were not their skill set? Had there been encouragement and opportunity to work on cars, plumbing, construction, catering, hairdressing, caring or the arts, how different their lives after school might have been, but schools are not measured on practical achievements.

I declare interests as a fellow of Birkbeck, which has adult and lifelong learning at its heart, and as a vice-president of City & Guilds, which for more than 140 years has provided highly respected and well-understood employer-led vocational qualifications.

Preparation for the world of work depends on careers information and guidance at the earliest stage—certainly at primary school. The country faces a critical skills shortage and all the encouragement we can muster should be going to those young people whose motivation and talents lie in areas where GCSEs will be, to a great extent, irrelevant. What are the Government doing to motivate those young people? They may gain no credits for their schools in the narrow definition of education against which schools are judged. They may wish to embark on apprenticeships, often in the teeth of the opposition of schools and parents who fail to understand just how important a skilled workforce may be, even if they cannot pass GCSE English and maths in the approved fashion.

Where is the Government’s encouragement for lifelong learning? We certainly need the skills of adults to make up for the shortfall in younger skilled people. The Augar report, which seems to have been conveniently parked, recommended much better funding and support for further education for adults and work-based education. I endorse all that the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, said on this subject. Love Our Colleges has been an active campaign, because for too long colleges have been the Cinderella service of our education system, with lower funding and lower pay for staff than for school teachers, but with huge responsibilities put on their shoulders. This has to be wrong.

As Liberal Democrats, we would aim to rectify this and to extend the pupil premium to the age of 19, because deprivation does not stop at 16. The £400 million that the Government have announced marks the first meaningful investment in further education for 16 to 19 year-olds for more than 10 years. It is not enough to reverse the decade of cuts, nor to properly stabilise the sector for the future, but it is a good start. We would introduce a personal education skills allowance to give motivation and funding to adults to retrain and reskill at key points in their working life. We would encourage support for those who take Open University degrees, who are motivated by learning but deterred by funding.

Given my portfolio, I must address the dreaded T-levels. I echo all that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said. This innovation is mistimed, mistaken and flawed. Instead of building on BTEC and City & Guilds qualifications, which have long been the benchmarks for industry, the Government threaten to undermine such tried and tested qualifications in favour of untried, untested T-levels. The noble Baroness, Lady Barran, repeated the mantra that by renaming vocational qualifications as technical qualifications we would, at a stroke, solve the academic and vocational divide. If only life were that simple.

This Government will not be forgiven if, in pursuit of this latest initiative—which might well be one of many that founders in the course of time—they withdraw funding and support from technical, craft and vocational qualifications that have long served employers so well. I therefore appeal to the Government to think again on T-levels, to give more time to pilots and, meanwhile, to ensure that existing qualifications remain available and supported to work-based learners. I will not hold my breath for a response today as we do not have an education Minister here to reply, but the education team on these Benches will keep pressing the Government for action on further education and lifelong learning and for recognition of the very real value of practical work-based achievement.

We face huge skills shortages in this country: in construction, engineering, hospitality and the creative industries. We deserve an education system that meets the needs of learners and of the economy. Yes, of course we need to support our brilliant universities, but for the 50% or more who do not go to universities, let us celebrate their talents and the skills that they acquire that meet the needs of employers.