My Lords, first, I thank those who contributed to the debate following Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, when we first discussed this Bill. I also thank noble Lords who attended the recent briefing with departmental Ministers. For the benefit of noble Lords contributing remotely, I note that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills is physically present with us in the Chamber today. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, and it is wonderful to see the priority given to the Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is speaking today on her birthday. I am glad to see a common desire to look at skills reform and further education. I look forward to the debate that we will share, and I welcome the scrutiny that the Bill will be placed under.
We can all agree that skills and post-16 education needs its moment in the spotlight, both in Parliament and in communities across the country. We talk about the forgotten 50% of people who do not go to university; today, we are giving this policy and the people it affects the attention they deserve. We can see today the vast challenges facing the nation. Covid-19 has significantly impacted the economy and shown us how urgently we need a resilient, highly skilled workforce. We all see the clock ticking towards 2050, when we have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions, and we are all aware of our need to succeed as an independent trading nation, following our departure from the European Union.
This is also the perfect opportunity to think about what constitutes our nation. Is it one big city, or a couple of big cities? No, it is a diverse set of communities, families and individuals, with different ambitions and potential. This means that we need to match opportunities with the talent that we know can be found across the country. We need to ensure that people can succeed without feeling that they have to move to one of the big cities. This past year’s extraordinary transition to flexible working for many has only proved this further. We have a duty to make sure that the skills provision offered in people’s home towns meets their needs and ambitions and that of employers, so that everyone has the opportunity to realise their full potential and find success, wherever they live and whatever their background.
The evidence is clear: we have a problem in the balance of education. Only 4% of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25, compared to a third who get a degree or above, yet 34% of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment. No wonder more parents would now prefer that their child gain a vocational qualification than a degree. University is a great option for some but not the best option for everyone, and it should not be seen to be the only pathway to success. My honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills often tells me how inspired she is by the learners she meets on visits to colleges and further education institutions—people who have found their vocation and their way of success through technical education.
Philip Augar’s 2018 Post-18 Review of Education and Funding made the call for parity of esteem between further and higher education. I take this moment to offer my congratulations on his recent knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. The review set out the case very clearly for a genuine choice, for everyone, beyond the fantastic opportunities offered through our world-class university system. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who served on the review’s panel. The Government have listened to this call; the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published earlier this year, set out our vision to reform post-16 education and training. We will prioritise flexibility, accountability and quality, and we will put employers at the heart of the system, building on what we have done with apprenticeships and T-levels, so that individuals can know what their qualification leads to, and employers can have confidence in them. Given that 80% of the workforce of 2030 are already in work today, it is essential that we have a flexible system for adult retraining which supports people to progress in their careers.
We want our reforms to work for everyone, which is why we are working with noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to ensure that we support those with special educational needs to access the improved skills training and education that our reforms aim to deliver. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord for his dedication, challenge and advocacy on this issue, as well as our other FE ambassadors, who have brought a breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm to our discussions.
“recognises the vital role that colleges and further education will play in levelling up for people and places whilst tackling long standing concerns about stagnating productivity”.
Employers such as the Co-op welcomed our reforms.
We know that to deliver the reforms successfully requires funding. That is why we have backed up the White Paper with £2.5 billion towards the national skills fund, £1.5 billion to improve the college estate, and £650 million extra into further education for 16 to 19 year-olds. The White Paper sets out our comprehensive programme for reform, and the Bill before us will provide the necessary statutory underpinning for change.
The Bill is divided into three sections that support the principles of the White Paper. First, it aims to provide a framework for ensuring that skills and post-16 education leads people towards a great job. That is why we are creating a statutory underpinning for local skills improvement plans, which we will shortly be trailblazing in some local areas. By putting employers and their representative bodies at the heart of the post-16 skills system, we are focusing on meeting local skills gaps and prioritising training in growth sectors. This will ensure that employers have the skills they need to drive growth in local areas; it will support opportunities for learners to get good jobs and help the existing workforce to retrain. This will help us get rid of the idea that career success can be found only in a big city.
Relevant providers will need to have regard to these plans when considering their technical education and training offer. These changes will also be supported by a new duty on further education institutions to review their provision to ensure that it meets local needs. In addition, the Bill supports the provision of the advanced technical and higher education skills the country needs by creating a strong link to employer-led standards. The Bill will reform the technical education system so that it is high-quality, stable and coherent. It does this by giving the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education powers to approve new categories of technical qualifications, simplifying a system in which there are currently over 12,000 qualifications. The Bill also gives a statutory footing to the collaborative relationship between the institute and Ofqual.
Perhaps the major plank of the Bill is that it supports the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, as part of a flexible lifetime skills guarantee. This measure will be rolled out from 2025 and will give all adults access to the equivalent of four years of student loans for higher-level study at levels 4 to 6. The loans will be able to be used flexibly, full time or part time, for modules or full qualifications and for provision in colleges or universities. At the moment, maximum amounts for funding are set in relation to an academic year. The Bill will make it clear that maximum loan amounts can be set in other ways. The Government will consult on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement, including on how best to support students with the living costs of study, and whether equivalent and lower qualifications restrictions should be amended to support retraining and stimulate provision.
The ambition is to replace the two existing systems that offer government-financed loans to learners studying at levels 4 to 6 with the single LLE system. These two existing systems of higher education student finance and advanced learner loans provide funding support for different types of courses. The lifelong loan entitlement aims to create a simpler and clearer system, but it will require extensive operational changes to the student finance system and the types of course available, which is why it will be rolled out from 2025. It is the step change in the system that will give people the opportunity to upskill, retrain and reskill, providing the alternative to the notion that a standard three-year degree is the only route to success and giving people the flexibility to change their future.
Of course, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient provision for lower-level qualifications. That is why, separate from the Bill, the Government’s adult education budget will continue to fully fund courses in English and maths up to and including level 2 for adults who have not previously attained a GCSE grade C or, in new currency, grade 4. The national skills fund funds adults to complete their first level 3 qualification alongside the new skills boot camps.
These reforms mean very little if education or training provision is not of the highest quality. That is why the second part of the Bill proposes powers to make regulations to improve and secure the quality of FE initial teacher training by shaping the market for that provision. This power will be used only if these improvements cannot be achieved through working collaboratively with the sector. The Bill will also make it clear that the Office for Students has the ability to make assessments by reference to absolute student outcomes. This will give confidence that the same standard can be applied across all higher education providers and for all students, while continuing to take into account context and individual circumstances.
The third part of the Bill aims to ensure there are sufficient protections in place for learners. It will allow the Government to introduce a list of post-16 education or training providers. To be on this list, providers will need to meet conditions aimed at protecting learners against the negative impacts of potential provider failure. This issue, which relates particularly to independent training providers, was raised in this House during the passage of the Technical and Further Education Bill in 2017. I am glad to bring a solution to this issue back to the House today. This section of the Bill also gives powers to the Secretary of State, who took his place on the steps of the Throne as I began, to intervene in the statutory further education sector where local needs are not being met, or to direct mergers or structural change where that is the best way to secure improvement. Alongside the final part of the Bill, it will improve the efficiency of the FE insolvency regime. One of the strengths of the FE market is the flexibility of its provider base. These measures will give the impetus for this flexibility to be used to protect learners and provide education and training that has this clear path towards the labour market.
I am delighted that this Bill is before us today. We have an opportunity to begin the process of transforming opportunities for young people and adults. Events of the past year have shown us how important skills and further education will be to our recovery as both an economy and as a nation. As noble Lords have often said, this has been the Cinderella of the sector for too long. This reform is long overdue, but is only one step on a longer journey. We will work to ensure that the 50% of people who do not go to university will no longer be called “forgotten” and stuck in what are wrongly called “forgotten towns”. Instead, we will make skills and jobs available to everyone, wherever they are. This Bill will help provide those learners with high-quality provision, protection and the skills and education that can transform their lives. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for her kind wishes—a year older and, hopefully, a year wiser in the company of your Lordships.
I am opening this debate from the Opposition Front Bench, and I am able to do so after a lifetime of working with young people, developing their skills and encouraging lifelong learning. In recent years I was able to use that experience as the local government education spokesperson for Wales, specifically with a skills agenda as the lead portfolio holder in the Cardiff capital region, which covers 52% of the Welsh population. The regional skills partnership showed me that, by working together with all interested parties, real progress could be made to promote strategic and collaborative decision-making. Representatives from business, further and higher education training providers and national and local government joined together to share their knowledge and understanding of the sectors they represented, to ensure the region was able to respond to a demand-led approach to developing skills and talent. The lack of that level of shared collaboration across all sectors is a significant area of concern on the face of the Bill as it stands.
While wholesale changes to the way we support FE skills, adult learning and part-time HE are long overdue, this Bill remains inadequate to tackle the scale of the skills challenges that have resulted from years of neglect and austerity, exacerbated by the pandemic. As furlough ends, no community will be untouched by unemployment. It is vital, therefore, that a joined-up, place-based employment, skills and careers system offers adults and young people the recovery they deserve, by providing access to quality education and training opportunities. A range of choices and opportunities should be central to any reform, and changes to the post-16 education system should allow for progression and pathways between technical education, apprenticeships and existing further and higher education qualifications.
Among others, local government has an important role. Councils have direct functions to plan post-16 skills, support young people with specific needs and deliver adult and community learning and other related functions. Mayoral combined authorities have devolved responsibility for the adult education budget, which they have used to reshape the local further education offer, working with employers, FE providers and constituent local authorities.
There is, however, an overt emphasis in the Bill on an employer-led approach to develop local skills improvement plans alongside training providers. We offer that MCAs and local authorities should be strategic partners—and on the face of the Bill. Their wide-ranging knowledge and expertise on this agenda are currently missing, and we will be seeking amendments to develop collaboration, away from the overarching employer-led approach that currently dominates.
Therefore, can the Minister explain why metro mayors and combined authorities, many of which have democratic accountability for local skills and economic regeneration, have been excluded? How do the Government envisage LSIPs relating to existing local and regional economic strategies, especially where funding may be directly linked to delivery against them? And why are local enterprise partnerships not covered in the Bill?
Furthermore, the Bill does not provide support for any qualifications below level 3, despite lower-level qualifications offering many adult learners key progression routes. Nor does it support subjects outside a narrow band of technical disciplines. Labour is concerned that nearly 1 million priority jobs will be excluded from the LSG in sectors facing a skills shortage.
The Bill also appears to omit reskilling and second level 3 qualifications. So can the Minister confirm that the LSG does not cover subsequent level 3 courses? Does she agree that all adults should be eligible for retraining, given the impact of the pandemic and changing market needs? Is it not now time that the Government put the LSG on a statutory footing?
We are concerned that the detail of the lifetime loan entitlement is yet to be confirmed. It appears that it will only cover tuition costs for higher-tuition courses. Labour believes the system of loans, and in particular means-tested grants, should be extended to support adult learners’ living costs, and that universal credit conditions should be reformed so that the people who would benefit from attending college or accessing training while unemployed or in part-time employment do not lose out.
The planned introduction of the LSG in 2024 and the LLE in 2025 should also be brought forward by several years. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will introduce these LLE amendments in Committee and ensure that they are not tabled at the 11th hour?
There is concern that many adults will be unable to take advantage of the opportunity to gain level 3 qualifications if they lack a level 2 qualification. The Bill omits the value of qualifications below level 3 in creating progression pathways for students. Recent Department for Education data has shown the return on investment of these qualifications and concluded that the present net value of qualifications below level 2 is higher than for level 3.
Another clear omission is funding for adult learners to take a second level 3 qualification. Many adult learners will have achieved their first level 3 many years ago and may have used it to pursue a career that is no longer viable. With the economic turmoil that has come from this pandemic, many adults will want and need to reskill rather than upskill—to switch sectors and enter new careers. Support for second level 3 qualifications could facilitate this.
Every area in the UK needs a mix of provision specific to their local context—to their community and sub-economy. However, the Bill is not explicit in certain features of the LSIP, including what constitutes “local”. Is it a specified area, or is the scope of further education provision included? Does the Minister believe that the definition of “local need” should incorporate a broad range of outcomes related to health and well-being, community participation and other social and economic outcomes that can be linked to community adult learning?
The Bill does provide for a statutory basis for LSIPs, with the Secretary of State gaining powers to designate employer representative bodies. I am pleased to see that he is here to hear it directly from me. But we are concerned that the Government’s desire for employers to take the lead in skill reform lacks clear structure and transparency and will render providers passive recipients of LSIPs. We will seek to amend the Bill to empower metro mayors and combined authorities to coproduce the plans, in recognition of the crucial they have to play.
We will seek to extend LSIP consultation to student representatives, trade unions, local and devolved government and other relevant agencies. We also intend to probe further how ERBs will be held to democratic accountability and the degree to which providers meet local needs. We are concerned that the Secretary of State has the power to select or sack ERBs, sign off on all LSIPs, dictate whether colleges fulfil these requirements, and to merge or replace colleges without recourse to local circumstances. The first port of call for approving local plans and remedying poor local performance should be local and not the centralisation of taking back control to Westminster. The Secretary of State’s powers must be narrowed to apply only in clearly defined, exceptional circumstances.
The Bill gives the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—a non-departmental public body directly accountable to Ministers—the ultimate sign-off power for the approval and regulation of technical qualifications. We are concerned that this handing back, day to day, of political control of technical qualification regulation would undermine the independent status of Ofqual and risk a cumbersome new dual regulatory approval system. We will seek to amend the Bill to ensure that Ofqual remains the sole body.
We further believe that the failure to link this Bill to the apprenticeship levy is a missed opportunity, given that the underspend could be used to provide quality training, education or employment opportunities. It is especially disappointing that supported internships, which can play a huge role in supporting learners with learning difficulties to prepare for and enter the world of work, are missing from the Bill.
We urge the Government, in tandem with the introduction of the Bill, to prepare and publish a cross-departmental 10-year national strategy for education and skills to deliver on a wide policy agenda. Consultation must be wide so that the strategy and oversight of meaningful collaboration, as I outlined at the beginning, can be carried forward towards a better tomorrow for the people who have done so much during this past year to demonstrate the dependence we have on their skills and their hard work in running our services and industries.
My Lords, I too wish the noble Baroness a happy birthday. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Black.
We are finally getting there, are we not? There is the work that the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, has done and now she has been promoted to advising the Prime Minister on this area. There is Philip Augar’s report, which was so important. There is the Technical and Further Education Act, which the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, was part of; it is good to see him taking part in this debate. There seems to be a sort of sea-change taking place, which I very much welcome. I suspect that many of us will repeat the same issues.
I consider this the most important education Bill that your Lordships have considered in certainly the last 20 years. The skills and vocational education Bill arrives when we face huge skills shortages, high rates of youth unemployment and the uncertainties of the post-Brexit, post-pandemic world. Yet opportunities are there, not least the green revolution. The Bill must be about the education system that we want for our children and young people.
Many young people are being denied the opportunities that their academic peers have always received. We have an educational ethos in our country that celebrates and rewards the academically minded and treats the rest as second best. For most parents and, indeed, society, the hallmark of a successful education is passing the required number of GCSEs to progress into the sixth form and then getting good A-level grades to secure a university place. However, research tells us that an academic and knowledge-based curriculum is not suitable or worth while for 50% or so of our school pupils, yet we persist in putting these pupils in an academic straitjacket. Instead, we should provide a vocational education as good, respected and celebrated as the academic one. Would it not be uplifting to see banners outside school gates praising not only the A-level pass rate but the vocational success of our students?
The other key ingredient must be first-rate careers guidance and education. Every pupil should be given regular face-to-face support by a qualified careers teacher or officer to understand the pupil’s abilities, interests and passions, and to clearly let the pupil see the opportunities available and not try to push them into the sixth form. It might be more appropriate for them to go to a further education college or a UTC or to undergo an apprenticeship. By doing this, we will gradually change the mindset not just of pupils and parents but of society itself, so that vocational education is regarded as the right route for a large number of our students.
The Bill is an important beacon for changing attitudes and perceptions. It gives us the opportunity to realise that education should be an opportunity for life, so whether you are a mum who is now ready to go back and study or someone who wants to retrain so that they can improve their job prospects, that opportunity is freely available. There should be no barriers to learning. Everyone, no matter their circumstances, should be encouraged to have lifelong learning opportunities. Indeed, as our Prime Minister said:
“These new laws are the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all … I’m revolutionising the system so we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives.”
They are passionate words from the Prime Minister. We must ensure that the Bill captures his rhetoric. I am sure there will be a large number of amendments that enable this to happen.
If we really mean lifelong learning opportunities for all, a number of areas need clarification and probably amendments. The lifetime loan entitlement would open up tuition fee loans for people taking level 4 and level 5 qualifications, which are especially important for unlocking higher technical skills. Many adults will be unable to take up these opportunities because there is no support for living costs while they are taking a course. Thus these people will be prevented from transforming their life chances and being part of the skilled workforce that the country and the economy need. We also need to look at the entitlement rules for those people who are unemployed and on universal credit and would benefit from attending college. The 16-hour rule is a barrier to those NEETs who could be upskilled or retrained.
As we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the Bill offers no support for those students below level 3. Surely it is important that we recognise that this is part of the educational landscape. Many adults achieved their level 3 many years ago and maybe want to pursue a new career or reskill. Support could facilitate this. Should we not be making funding available for these learners?
I want to raise two other considerations, perhaps minor ones but important ones. Some people of faith, including Muslims, do not feel able to take on an interest-bearing loan. The Government identified this as a barrier to participation. What progress has been made on a sharia-compliant loan system? Students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those on universal credit struggle to get the technology they need. Will the Government consider making IT support available for these students? While we are talking about barriers, what progress has been made on the issue of 16 year- olds who are denied the opportunity to take part in the Kickstart programme because they are on universal credit?
Apprenticeships were one of the flagship policies and achievements of the coalition Government, but sadly we have seen the number fall 18% year on year, so that in 2019-20 it was down by 319,000. We know that any business with a payroll of more than £3 million has to pay 0.5% in a levy, but businesses are often unable to use all their levy, so it gets clawed back by the Treasury. A recent survey by Energy & Utility Skills received responses from 22 companies which employ 100,000 people, with over 4,000 apprenticeships, and found that half the levy they paid was going back to the Treasury. Could we not be imaginative and start using that levy in different ways? Some businesses are already being imaginative and using the levy to provide courses for their existing staff. At the Youth Unemployment Select Committee today, we heard one of the witnesses say that the apprenticeship scheme was in danger of becoming an adult learning scheme. That is a sad indictment of our high hopes for apprenticeships.
I reflect that a significant number of employers are concerned that young people entering apprenticeships and vocational training programmes do not have a sufficient foundation in practical skills and work readiness to enable them to progress as quickly as they might; often the shortcomings are not academic. Would it not be imaginative to use some of that levy which has to be returned to the Treasury to fund local employment engagement, perhaps with local schools?
If the Minister has time, perhaps she would be kind enough to write to me about regulation. The Bill will transfer powers from the independent regulator, Ofqual, to the less independent, non-government body, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. It is responsible for introducing its own T-levels while also regulating the broader qualification market. Is there not a risk of a real conflict of interest? The Bill would allow it to charge fees for the approval and accreditation of new qualifications already regulated by Ofqual. There is no information about how these fees will be regulated. The relationship between Ofqual and the IfATE needs detailing. The current proposals have the potential to cause overlap and confusion.
We have seen how other European countries, notably Germany and Switzerland, have valued the importance of vocational education and, as a result, have done far better than the UK in providing the skills that their economies need. Let this Bill, wisely amended, give every person the opportunity they need, as well as what the country and the economy need, to be successful.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill because it acknowledges the importance of skills and vocational learning to the economy, productivity and, let us not forget, the capacity of people to fulfil their personal potential. I hope it will be a significant step towards reversing the huge decline in adult learning we have experienced in recent years which, as some of us believe, is overdue. But whether it is successful in doing that will depend not on bold ambitions and warm words but on the detailed delivery. In particular, it will depend on some issues which are either not covered at all in the Bill or referred to only in outline. I want to touch on one or two of those today.
The first is advice and guidance. The White Paper for skills and jobs rightly says that we need:
“Clear and outcomes-focused careers information” and that it is
“fundamental to the success of our reforms.”
The White Paper says:
“We need impartial, lifelong careers advice and guidance available to people when they need it, regardless of age, circumstance, or background.”
I would also say that we need a system in which the Careers and Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service are working more effectively together to create an all-age careers system better able to support learners seeking to navigate what will be a much more complex system following the implementation of this legislation. I would also like to see us providing more face-to-face coaching, not just a better digital information bank. I think that will be especially important as we exit the pandemic. I know that Sir John Holman has been appointed to advise on all of this, but we still await his recommendations, and it is unfortunate that it has not been possible to incorporate them in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can update us about where these recommendations are, when they will be published and how they will sit alongside the Bill.
The second issue is the lifelong learning entitlement. The Open University has pointed out that this is presented in the Bill as a bolt-on, creating a separate funding system for modular study. A more ambitious reform would have been to create a unified credit-based system for learning that does not distinguish between different modes of study. But leaving that to one side for the moment, Clauses 14 and 15 leave some very important questions unanswered—questions which I have raised before in the House in debates on lifelong learning. For example, will people be able to use their entitlement to study at an equivalent or lower level to their previous studies? The local skills improvement plans might well encourage them to do so. I know that this is subject to consultation, but could we not take action on this earlier? What will the repayment terms be for any loan? Will we continue—perversely, I think—to penalise students who choose to study at a distance? How exactly will the credit transfer arrangements work between providers?
Then there is the cost of study itself, including living costs. This is not addressed in the Bill; it is another matter for consultation, but it is key to the successful implementation of these reforms. The Welsh Government recently introduced reforms to tackle this by extending maintenance support, including means-tested grants, to all students, regardless of the mode of study. Importantly, they also introduced lower tuition fees for part-time study. As a result, they have been rewarded with a huge increase in participation, which is what we all want. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are thinking along similar lines?
I agree with the principle of having the employer’s voice heard clearly in the skills system and for skills providers to be responsive to, and accountable to, local employers for their provision. Actually, some older Members will remember that this was one of the reasons why we once had a department for education and employment. Some colleges and independent training providers have too often focused on offering courses and programmes which generated much-needed funding but were not necessarily relevant to local employment needs. What I struggle with, though, is why this is being piloted with chambers of commerce and other representative bodies when they are not resourced for the task and sometimes do not have very strong membership bases. We already have skills advisory panels that bring together employers, providers and funding agencies and are supported by learning and enterprise councils, so do we really need to introduce additional complexity? Why not build on the existing skills advisory approach and make a more inclusive way of providing advice on employers’ needs?
Finally, as I suspect others may not raise it, I shall say a word about independent training providers. The Bill rightly focuses on supporting colleges and further education, but independent training providers at their best can be more fleet of foot and more responsive to employer and local skill needs. In my local area here in Gloucestershire, many providers feel that the skills Bill could make their existence more perilous. They recognise the importance of offering high-quality provision and being sustainable businesses, but many feel that they will be disadvantaged by, for example, not being able to bid into the skills accelerated development fund and being seen as second-tier providers for various contracts. During the passage of the Bill, we need to ensure that it is possible for independent training providers to continue to provide their best and to strengthen in the future.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Bill. I begin by declaring my interests as chancellor of the University of Leicester, a visiting professor at King’s College London and a member of the boards of Thames Holdings Ltd and UKRI.
The principles and objectives of the Bill are very welcome. It is absolutely right to want to do more for further education colleges, to focus on technical and vocational skills, and to try to do more on lifelong learning, but there is a lot to do to flesh out those principles in practical legislation. The Government have several important consultation exercises under way at the moment, which will help them see how they intend to apply those principles. I hope the Minister can assure the House that we will have ample opportunity to review and revise this legislation as it goes through both Houses of Parliament in the light of the outcomes of their consultations.
While I welcome the principles, the really important matter is what they mean in practice. Here, I have to say that I am concerned about a deep confusion—an artificial conflict, perhaps—between “vocational” and “academic”. In her opening speech, the Minister herself referred to parents preferring that their child should have a vocational qualification rather than a degree. I am familiar with the research, published by the Social Market Foundation, on which that statement rests. I find it very hard to make sense of the question that was put to people in that opinion survey. I talk to universities, which tell me that 70% of their students are studying on a course accredited by an employer or an employer organisation; they are doing courses that are a licence to practise. The White Paper rightly refers to the need for nurses and engineers. These courses are also delivered by universities—are they academic or vocational? It is a false distinction, which should not be used to create conflict between higher and further education when both have an important role to play. You can do academic courses in further education colleges and vocational courses in universities. If distinctions are used to create conflict between these two parts of our education system—both very important—the cause that the Minister rightly supports will be put back rather than advancing.
I have met a young man at a workbench making a bit of kit to be launched on to a satellite as part of his doctoral training. It is an old Oxbridge mindset, the belief that universities are for the liberal arts—for gentlemen—while vocational courses are for training colleges, and that if a university dares to provide vocational training it must mean that it is a bad university. That model is one of the reasons we have the skills crisis that we worry about now; it is the wrong mindset for trying to tackle this problem. I very much hope, therefore, that the Minister will be able to assure us that she fully understands that universities—especially some of the less prestigious universities, whose origins are often as colleges of advanced technology and which have not lost sight of their original mission—are one of the instruments that she can use to fulfil her objectives.
This is also very important, and will be tested, in the Minister’s admirable objective of tackling the anomalies of level 4 and 5 funding—a peculiar feature of the system, going back to provisions in the 1992 Act. Augar was right to say in his report that we need a more flexible regime for levels 4 and 5. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, for her campaign on this. We do need a better funding arrangement for levels 4 and 5. At the moment they are niche, essentially nursing diplomas for women and engineering courses for men; I do not say that with any endorsement of the stereotypes but it seems to be the origin of the widely cited figure for earnings for some at levels 4 and 5. We need to make it easier and more flexible, but can the Minister assure the House that funding for levels 4 and 5 should be institution-blind? It should be delivered by FE colleges but could also be delivered by higher education institutions.
The new loan scheme is an exciting initiative. I confess to this House that, looking back on my record in government, one of the things I most regret is the decline in adult learning during my time as Minister. There are many complicated reasons for that. One was that we tried to apply the same funding model to adult learning as to 18 year-olds going to university. For an 18 year-old, taking on a loan when they are at a big fork in the road does not, thank heavens, put them off going to university. For adult learners, however, taking out a loan may be a very different decision and far more worrying. So, one lesson I learned from what we went through was that a single funding model may not work as well for adult learners as for younger people en route to university. I hope the Minister will reflect on that as the Government design this new single scheme.
I wished to comment further on the role of employers and the importance of individuals, but I see that time has passed. I just say to the Minister that while, of course, employers have an important voice, we should not forget the individual learner. He or she may be inspired to shape their life around a course or an occupation, and it might not be for a big industry in the area where they live; it might be in something exciting on the horizon for which there is not currently an employer. I very much hope that, in the course of our debate, the Minister will say that the individual shaping his or her destiny matters as much as the employer and the education institution.
My Lords, I strongly endorse the previous speech, particularly as it notes the crazy distinction between vocational and academic study. On these Benches, we welcome the commitment from the Government to the further education and skills sector as set out in the Bill. It is particularly pleasing to see that the Bill builds on the practical reforms outlined in the Skills for Jobs White Paper. In this context, I also strongly commend to the House the Church of England’s new vision for further education report, published at the end of April, which also recognises the key role that FE plays in driving individual, community and societal transformation.
I wish to make three points. First, how might learners be enabled or incentivised to upskill or reskill, particularly those such as the long-term furloughed or people heavily reliant on welfare payments, who have been particularly impacted by the pandemic? The Bill outlines structures and organisations required for delivering training but does not suggest how such people actually get to the training in the first place. Clearly, the welcome commitment to a reintroduction of maintenance grants is a significant part of this, yet the need, already referred to by other speakers, to cover basic living expenses while studying is an immediate and powerful potential barrier to learning. This could be an opportune time to reconsider the 16 hours-a-week work rule for those in receipt of universal credit, with proper safeguards in place to prevent abuse of the system. Great training is pointless if the people who need it are not incentivised to access it.
Secondly, how do the Government plan to ensure that local SME voices are heard and not overpowered by larger employers, which typically find it easier to meet expectations from Government? Over 80% of the UK economy is driven by the service sector, which is dominated by small and medium-sized employers. SMEs play a central role in levelling up, as they are typically more likely to employ those from disadvantaged groups with lower employment chances. This lies behind Wakefield Council’s launch, in March, of its new strategy to become a “Learning City and District”, one of the four pillars of which is to:
“Provide an inclusive jobs market for residents to find and sustain well paid employment, by ensuring access to learning is available for all levels and to all ages with increased participation from hard to reach/disadvantaged communities.”
An employer-centred focus is crucial to the success of the skills reforms. However, equally crucial is the development of longer-term thinking about the future skills needs of society. This means that meeting present perceived needs locally must be balanced by an appreciation of longer-term changes in future skills demand, particularly if we are to join up local and national provision.
Thirdly, colleges play a vital role in providing for students with specific learning difficulties and disabilities. According to the Association of Colleges, such students make up 17% of the overall intake, a figure which rises to 23% of 16 to 18 year-old learners. In 2019-20, local authorities placed over 64,000 students with education, health and care plans in colleges—90% of them in general FE colleges and the rest in specialist institutions. The funding regime does not provide support for students in FE who do not have EHCPs to anything like the degree required, yet the Bill makes no specific reference to such students, although we welcome the promised Green Paper due in the summer. It would be helpful if the Minister could consider how the appropriate degree of priority could be given to this diverse cohort of learners in policy and funding terms, and how that might best be reflected in the Bill, as it passes through the House.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward a Bill to address an area which, for more years than I care to remember, has resisted every attempt to implement a coherent long-term employment policy. I am no fan of Dominic Cummings but, during his recent evidence to the Select Committee, he was precisely on the money in pointing out the lamentable record of successive British Governments to learn lessons from countries such as Norway, Finland and New Zealand —the noble Lord, Lord Storey, added Germany and Switzerland—which have successfully created well-thought-through skills and apprenticeship programmes. These policies have allowed many of them to race past us in offering appropriate pathways and opportunities for skilling and reskilling those for whom higher education was either unavailable or simply not all that attractive.
I have never been able to establish whether this is as a result of arrogance or ignorance but, either way, many sectors of our economy have been allowed to atrophy as a result of inattention and neglect. This has not been for lack of announcements, speeches or data; it is more to do with an inexplicable failure to follow through, fund and deliver. This Bill, if enacted with imagination and commitment, could prove a watershed. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they can be credited for at least giving themselves the legislative opportunity to prove it.
The Bill has the potential to become a vehicle for broadening and deepening apprenticeship schemes, for example by taking account of the mobility of freelance employment, but that should be the beginning of its ambition, not the end of it. While I broadly agree with the employer-led concept, a potential Catch-22 situation needs to be considered, whereby established incumbents find themselves favoured over those wishing to take advantage of new business opportunities, most especially in areas with diminishing growth prospects. I am sure the extension of things such as maintenance provision, as a counterbalance to embedded regional inequalities, is something the Minister will want to touch on in her response.
While well-intentioned, I am concerned that this Bill and the White Paper on which it is based are nowhere near imaginative enough in their interpretation of what future employment patterns might look like. Regrettably, when it comes to implementation, we invariably seem to find ourselves working from a 10 year-old playbook. I cannot have been the only person dumbfounded that “creativity”, having featured in the Secretary of State’s introduction, failed to reappear in either the Bill or the Skills for Jobs White Paper that preceded it. When she responds, could the Minister please explain this omission or possibly tell me that I need my glasses tested?
Creativity is an entirely sustainable asset—one the UK has proved to have in abundance. In my judgment, it will prove the great differentiator among ambitious, competitive nations in the digital world. Surely it needs to be incorporated into every aspect of the way that we think about skills and training for the future. For example, far too little thought has been given to how we cultivate greater agility in the workforce by encouraging transferrable skills across sectors. The White Paper described the need to develop
“higher-level technical skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths”.
Of course, STEM and digital skills should be at the forefront of how we plan for the future, but they have to walk hand in hand with creativity if we are serious about developing a truly successful economy.
“Some of the most interesting areas of science are in the gaps between … subjects… What I’ve tried to do in building DeepMind is to find ‘glue people’, those who are world class in multiple domains, who possess the creativity to find analogies and points of contact between different subjects. Generally speaking, when that happens, the magic happens.”
The successful growth of companies such as DeepMind should serve as a warning regarding the dangers of a purely employer-led focus, because history suggests that incumbents are a lot less likely to spot where the next big opportunity will come from.
I find it unsurprising to learn that, in 2018, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that education in these subjects should include the humanities, arts, crafts and design. That recommendation has now been rolled out right across North American universities. For example, 100% of undergraduates at MIT, one of the world’s leading technical institutes, study the arts, humanities and social sciences. In fact, those subjects now account for 25% of their overall class time.
Collaboration between a variety of talents and skills has to be the right way, possibly the only way, to ensure the success of a balanced competitive workforce—the kind of workforce that the Bill seeks to create. There will also be an overwhelming need for departmental collaboration. Can the Minister assure the House that the transition of support from the DWP into this new skills framework will be made as uncomplicated as possible? It will need to be if the Government’s levelling-up ambitions are to be fully realised.
Finally, on this vital issue of collaboration, the idea that improved provision for further education can be resourced only at the expense of higher education is to totally misunderstand the challenges of the global economy. Far from being in competition for resources, these two sectors should be encouraged to move in lock-step, as never before. This point was powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and I completely support what he said. In my view, ensuring a successful partnership between further and higher education represents exactly the type of approach that is needed to make this legislation a success. I do not see this as a political Bill so, given a thoughtful Committee stage and a listening Government, we have the opportunity to send a valuable and uncontentious piece of legislation for ratification in another place.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to the Bill which, in many respects, I welcome very strongly. It has a sense of direction; the Government have clearly been listening to the advice of employers and the education sector. I very much look forward to hearing shortly the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome.
I cannot recall a time when there has not been a skills shortage or a skills crisis. This is inevitable because the needs of our economy are constantly changing. However, there is a substantial difference today: the needs of our labour market, post Brexit and post Covid, are changing quickly. As an example, we do not have enough technicians or engineers, and there is a need to develop greater strength in digital skills at all levels. As a further example, the pandemic has resulted in a reduction in the number of apprenticeships available. There are not enough generally, nor at degree level.
The lifelong loan entitlement could be a boost to both individuals and employers, but I hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said, the Government will not try to bolt it on to the current system of funding and will instead make it part of a reformed system of financial support. The Government’s forthcoming consultation should reflect the fact that loans by themselves may not be an attractive proposition to some adults, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, pointed out a few minutes ago.
Recent government policy towards the FE sector and part-time higher education has led to both being treated as the poor relation of traditional academic learning. Funding per student has been lower in FE for too long. There has been a very worrying drop in participation rates in part-time higher education in recent years, caused by funding cuts and the HE loans system. It is vital that the silos between higher, further and adult education and apprenticeships are reduced. Further education and higher education should not have to compete against each other for resources. The ambition should be a unified skills system with expansion of the FE sector, apprenticeships and part-time higher education, with parity of esteem between these and traditional full-time, non-vocational academic routes.
I would like to make a point about progression routes. I welcome national skills funding to help adults have free access to level 3 qualifications through some 400 courses, but there is no mention of any qualifications below level 3, yet it is these which promote progression to higher levels. Six million adults were identified in the Augur review as not having qualifications at level 2, yet the total number of adult learners has been falling in recent years. If we want people to reach level 3 and above, more of them need to achieve level 2. I wonder if the Government have a plan.
The Government’s ambition to put employers at the centre of skills development is welcome. But the test of the new approach will come in how effective the forecasting of future requirements is for industries that are in the early stages of development. Long-term investment in the green economy, for example, will require new skills sets at all levels. As the Bill progresses through the House, I hope we can examine whether the Government are putting in place structures that will effectively identify skills needs five years and 10 years ahead and how our education system as a whole should adapt to deliver them.
I spoke earlier of the lifelong loan entitlement, and I understand that a consultation will start this summer, but secondary legislation can be expected only in 2024, with implementation in 2025. Given the impact of the pandemic, what is happening over the next four years to ensure that all those who need to access training can get it, in addition to meeting the needs of employers post Brexit? Does it have to take so long—four years—to effect this change?
The lifelong loan entitlement may be a crucial part of future plans, but a lot more detail is needed on the extent of entitlements, on the funding of modular systems, on repayment terms, on whether modular study will be permitted for all subject areas or just those defined by the Government, on whether students can get the same support for their costs irrespective of their method of study, and on whether existing graduates can use it to retrain.
Finally, I hope that we will take a close look at how local skills improvement plans will work in practice. It will not be the first time that such planning has been localised. That said, I wonder if the Government have a plan for bringing together the information from all the local skills improvement plans to shape national workforce planning? It will be extremely important to do so.
My Lords, it is a great honour to have been appointed to your Lordships’ House and to speak here today for the first time. I draw the attention of the House to my current employment in higher education. I am sure that most noble Lords will remember only too clearly how they felt in those first few days and how grateful they were for the generosity of spirit shown to them by others. That paying forward of grace is a testament to the strength of community in this House and its all- embracing welcome, and I am both grateful and humbled to be a beneficiary.
There are so many who deserve my unreserved thanks for their kindness, from the justifiably legendary doorkeepers to the police officers and Black Rod, and indeed all staff and departments—including those in digital services, who have been unbelievably patient with the shortcomings of this technological dinosaur. I also wish to extend my thanks to Garter, who was somewhat relieved when I chose the simple “Strome” as my territorial designation, rather than the more complex Gaelic, “Tomnahurich”. I am so very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for their support and guidance when introducing me to the workings of the House, and to my noble friend and mentor Lord Patel, who has always held my deepest respect and gratitude for the kindness shown to me in the 15 years that we have known each other. I recognise that I still have much to learn from his vast experience in this House, but I hope that I may contribute on matters within my domain, which might include science, justice, education, death and dying, anthropology, child protection and forensic investigation.
Many of our skills are transferred and learned from those closest to us, whether they are family, friends, teachers or mentors, and we cannot predict which will stand us in the best stead. Arguably, my most practical life skill was acquired at the age of 15, when I studied for an O-grade in secretarial studies. It was a class comprised exclusively of girls, who were all taught to touch type. I could never have predicted the benefits that an average of 95 words a minute would bring in the digital world that now dominates our lives.
A second skills set was taught by my father when preparing the rabbits, deer and pigeons that he would bring home for my mother to cook. It led me comfortably to my first job as a teenager, working in a butcher’s shop, and then to honing the dissection skills required by a human anatomist and to the practical skills and strong stomach required by a forensic anthropologist, whether working to identify the deceased in the aftermath of the war crimes in Kosovo or processing the mass fatalities of the Asian tsunami.
A third skills set was developed in the meeting rooms of the Women’s Institute, the Rotary and the Round Table, learning how to convey science to the public in a manner that was concise yet understandable. This served me well in the UK and at the International Criminal Court, where I have given evidence as an expert witness to assist juries in their deliberations.
My current role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement at Lancaster University affords me the great pleasure of working closely with our further education colleges, universities and civic partners, to embed the value of education in our local and regional communities. Operating as we do in an area of multiple deprivation, the partners are acutely aware that the lifelong acquisition of skills is critical to the development and future workforce placement of our young people.
I am supportive of this Bill in raising and promoting the quality and place-based relevance of post-16 skills provision, although I inwardly flinch at the partitioning of education into traditional age and sector-based silos. In my experience, education can be an effective route out of poverty, but it requires all parts of the ecosystem to work in progressive collaboration. We sometimes forget that our life habits and ambitions may be hard-wired long before we even enter secondary school, yet the discussions about “workplace” and “skills set” still come towards the end of that educational pipeline. Perhaps that is too late to have any realistic hope of breaking the educational poverty cycle that has become a generational and geographical norm for many.
Perhaps I may share a brief example. The Morecambe Bay Curriculum is a 25-year, educational, place-based community commitment. It is a civic collaboration between local residents, pre-school, every primary and secondary school in the region, Lancaster & Morecambe College, the universities, the local city authority, the NHS, the LEP, the chamber of commerce, businesses, employers and the Eden Project North. Many young people from this region come from homes with no prior experience of formal post-16 education and no experience of regular paid employment that leads to skilled jobs. If we wish to break that cycle, we need to sow the seeds of change much earlier.
Children as young as five will undertake little work experience placements with local businesses, developing a sense of pride in both belonging, and contributing, to their “place” while learning that each aspect of their own educational journey can evolve seamlessly into the next. We aim through that programme to make post-16 education and the concept of a “skilled job” the norm.
The role of early intervention in the success of the uptake of skills-based learning, its translation into the local workforce and then into regional economic growth and regeneration requires sustained commitment from all component parts. It will take the combined will of a joined-up community ecosystem to break the current cycle and educate those young people into skilled jobs.
I would simply request that, as we progress this Bill and focus, as we inevitably will, on a particular sector of our education system, we are mindful of changes that may need to be effected elsewhere if we are to maximise success. We will all benefit from a holistic approach, because strength and success lie with all our educational components working together seamlessly as an ecosystem—not just the colleges in isolation, but in genuine partnership with the schools and the universities.
In conclusion, it is an honour and a privilege to be a Member of this House and to be permitted to participate in its work.
My Lords, it is a huge pleasure to follow such an outstanding maiden speech by my noble friend Lady Black of Strome. I am sure that all noble Lords will, like me, be in awe of her distinguished career and achievements. As a forensic anthropologist she has pioneered techniques of human identification both in the UK and worldwide which have helped bring people to justice. In the UK, her work on the sexual abuse of children marked a step change in the ability of the criminal justice system to identify paedophilia, and internationally, her work in Kosovo after the atrocities there, in Thailand after the tsunami and in Iraq have brought her work worldwide renown.
Glancing through her illustrious career, I have to say that I was pleased to discover one small thing we had in common: we both took Saturday jobs at the age of 12. I was a humble shelf stacker but, as we have heard, my noble friend had the foresight to get a job in a butcher’s shop, where she clearly learned things that would be useful in her later career in forensic anatomy. I know that my noble friend will bring her insight, knowledge and experience to this House and that we will all benefit from hearing from her. She is most welcome in your Lordships’ House and I congratulate her once more on her excellent maiden speech.
On the Bill, I declare my interests as co-chair of the APPG on Modern Languages and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, and I hope that the Government and employers will take advantage of the opportunities this Bill offers to act on what they know about the importance of language skills—namely, that the UK’s deficit in foreign language skills damages the economy and inhibits recruitment and employability across all sectors and at all levels. Languages are not just an academic discipline but a vital technical skill that can boost export growth and social mobility. Foreign language skills are in particularly high demand in finance, IT, transport, fashion and hospitality.
There are marked regional disparities in the UK’s skills base. Regional weaknesses in the take-up of foreign languages correlate with regions of poor productivity and low skill levels. In the north-east in 2016, for example, only 43% of pupils sat a GCSE in a language, compared with 65% in inner London, and this gap has been widening year on year. Employers say that they are unhappy with the foreign language skills of school leavers and graduates in the UK and are increasingly forced to recruit from overseas to meet their needs. If the Government are serious about social mobility and levelling up, a boost to language skills would be a jolly good place to start.
We need the business community to step up and be very clear when it comes to its input in shaping the new local skills improvement plans to insist that language skills are needed and must be included. Research suggests that the UK economy is losing out on well over £50 billion a year in lost contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce. Viridian Solar, an SME based in Cambridgeshire that makes solar roofs, told me:
“Foreign language skills are important” for “global export growth.”
Another Cambridge company, i-Teams, helps the next generation of science-based entrepreneurs develop business skills and has so far helped 90 start-ups. Its founder told me that
“language skills are a key advantage” and said that innovators
“need to be able to communicate both through language and across cultures. It cannot be assumed that all the people with whom they must work … can speak English.”
And Alchemie, a large company specialising in sustainable technology for dyeing fabrics, has found:
“Language and cultural knowledge is very important to Alchemie in its expansion into China. A basic knowledge of Chinese for business purposes would be really useful for staff members. Further training or coaching in that is really important.”
New research released only last month by Aston Business School confirmed that language skills are a key driver for SME export success, revealing that firms making use of language capabilities are 30% more successful in exporting than those that do not. Export sales, growth and profits are all significantly increased by hiring people with language skills and cultural intelligence, language training for existing staff and investing in professional translation services.
Employers’ organisations and sector groups are also on board. The CBI’s chief UK policy director has said that better foreign language skills are
“critical to increasing the UK’s global competitiveness and to ensuring young people have the high level of cultural awareness that supports a successful career.”
The tourism sector trade association UKinbound asked its members what barriers they faced when recruiting a British national and 60% responded
“insufficient skills for the role”, including foreign language skills. Some 23% of respondents to a British Chambers of Commerce survey said that German and Mandarin will be important to their business in the next five years, and 20% said French and Spanish. The BCC says the extent of our languages deficit is sobering, with the biggest language barriers in the fastest-growing markets. It wants to see commercial export skills at the heart of business education in both further and higher education, with fully integrated foreign language skills as part of that, as well as in schools and workplace training.
Finally, the Bill refers to FE colleges, but local skills improvement plans should also seek to build links with university-based training opportunities, and university language centres rather than modern language faculties are the best place to make connections with community colleges. So will the Minister ensure that no regional language skills gaps remain as a result of the new improvement plans and say what, if any, oversight or indeed override the DfE will have to correct any such gaps? Are the Government prepared to provide leadership and encouragement to local business communities to follow through on all the surveys, research and sector examples I have quoted today, perhaps by using the power the Bill will give the Government to issue guidance to support the development of the plans in order to ensure a place for language skills? Will the Minister also spell out how the DfE will be working with BEIS on this, given that department’s international remit and extensive networks, and experience of language skills? I very much look forward to her reply to this and my other questions.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her extraordinarily fine maiden speech. I am looking forward to learning a lot from her in a lot of different areas.
I too welcome this Bill. It is an important bit of legislation, possibly the most important for the levelling-up agenda in this Parliament. I have a few reservations and would appreciate reassurance on a couple of points from the Minister. I declare my interest as a visiting professor at King’s College London, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and chair of two private education companies Tes, and Access Creative College, a provider of further education training for the creative industries.
There is a huge amount to welcome in this Bill, but for me there are two features in particular: the lifelong loan allowance, which is being put on a statutory footing; and the introduction of modular funding, which a long-overdue reform that will bring valuable flexibility into our student funding system. However, I have some concern that the Treasury may water down the rocket fuel of the promised skills revolution. A number of noble Lords have already hinted at where this might arise. One of my concerns is around the rigidity of the current system that prevents people from studying at an equivalent or lower level than an award that they already have, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said in his excellent speech. To my mind, that makes a nonsense of the lifelong loan entitlement. I appreciate that the Government are consulting on it. I hope that the results of that consultation come out the right way, because if we stick to it, it will prevent people from reskilling effectively.
My other area of concern is around what I see as the Treasury’s persistently flawed conception of how to measure value for money in post-16 education. The idea that you can measure the worth of a course by the proportion of the student loan that ends up being repaid is far too reductive. If we stick with it, it will stop us from properly funding what are socially useful and valuable but lower-earning professions and paths in life. We already see hints that this is the prevailing view and that it will continue to be the prevailing view in the list of some 400 qualifications that are eligible for funding in the lifetime skills guarantee. That list of 400 qualifications is still too restrictive. As far as I can see, it does not include any creative arts courses, for example.
My concern, as this Bill makes its way through this place and the other place, is that when the section lands on the new student finance system, the Treasury uses this legislation’s fine print to further defund those areas of provision that have lower rates of repayment associated with them, through a mix of potential policy tools, including student number controls by subject, higher minimum entry requirements by subject and a variety of others, most notably the potential for much lower fee levels for those courses.
Those are all big risks as this Bill makes its way through this place. I would appreciate any reassurance that the Minister can give on that front. I am particularly concerned about what it would do for the provision of creative education courses. It is highly likely that, if we go down that path and defund courses on that basis, it will starve the supply of talent into some of our most promising industries as an economy—performing arts, creative design, creative computing, music technology, music performance and so on. That would be a sad outcome for us as a society and it would also be an economic nonsense. These were industries that were growing at five times the rate of GDP before the crisis, and we should not do them the disservice of starving them of talent as we come out of it.
My sense is that if the Treasury wants to save money, and I understand that it wants to invest money in other areas or education systems to support catch-up elsewhere, which is entirely understandable, I recommend that it looks at lowering the repayment threshold on the student loan as a far more sensible source of much larger sums of money. The Higher Education Policy Institute, for example, has calculated that lowering the repayment threshold to just below £20,000 from the current level of £27,295 would save £3.8 billion and reduce the proportion of the student loan that is not repaid to one-third, from current levels of over one-half. That seems a very sensible and more fruitful area of reform for the Treasury to look at.
Time is running out, but I welcome this Bill. It is a really important Bill. I congratulate the Minister and the Secretary of State for bringing it to Parliament. I will certainly be supporting it. However, it is clearly something of a down payment on a much bigger set of changes that, ultimately, we will need if we are going to have a joined-up system of post-16 education and skills. We have a rather bewildering array of regulatory and funding bodies out there in the landscape: the OfS, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, and so on. The time is surely coming, now that through this Bill we are introducing much more flexible systems of funding, for us to move to a joined-up system of regulation and funding for all post-16 education.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome this Bill and endorse the Government’s decision to give technical education the profile and priority that it deserves.
Unlike other noble Lords contributing to today’s debate, this is not an area on which I am a policy expert, but I hope to make a relevant contribution as someone who chose a technical education at the local FE college after leaving school at 16, and who, armed with that technical training, professional pride in my skills and an aptitude and enthusiasm to keep learning on the job as I progressed in my career, became Leader of your Lordships’ House. I have had the great privilege of working for and alongside, and of being supported by, some brilliant people with high academic credentials, and together we have been an effective team. I endorse the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, not to create new divisions or false distinctions between people who are talented and gifted. I feel I must put on record that I love highly educated people. I am not looking to do anybody down here, least of all the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.
However, one of my concerns about the consequences of successive Governments prioritising university and getting a degree as pretty much the only route to an increasingly narrow definition of success is the lack of diversity in leadership roles across politics, Whitehall, the public sector more broadly, business and the media. In other words, we have the rather conflicted situation now where those in positions of real power or influence, regardless of where they may have started in life, have all followed the same university path and therefore tend to define success in their own image. Therefore, while I welcome this Bill and applaud all that the Government are doing in this area to promote skills and further education colleges, those of us who make decisions which affect everyone else still have work to do in how we think about technical education or those who do not go to university.
As we consider this legislation and look beyond it, I will highlight three big traps that we must avoid falling into. The first is seeing technical education as a consolation prize for those who, in the minds of graduates, do not have the potential to be like them. Some people learn to know; some of us learn to do. Some of us learn best by observing and absorbing rather than by studying theories. Non-graduates are often more strategic in their thinking because they rely on what they can see to understand and identify the problem that needs fixing for things to work better. Therefore, it is important that we recognise the value from this difference to achieving our collective goals if we are to see results which benefit all of us.
The second trap we need to avoid is assuming that anyone who follows a technical route is not ambitious, or to dismiss as unimportant what some people might see as modest ambition because it does not involve holding power over other people’s lives. We are all different. What is important in my mind is encouraging pride and professionalism in doing a job well, whatever it is, and showing respect for that when we see it.
The final trap is assuming that people who follow a technical route, or indeed anyone who does not have a degree, cannot become senior leaders in business, politics, the public sector or anywhere else. We have to get out of this mindset that somehow leadership is all about knowledge—it is not. It is about being able to understand and see the bigger picture and to communicate in bold strokes. That does not come from having a degree; it comes from experience, and a desire to engage and understand the world through the eyes of people who see it differently from us.
As one of your colleagues who is technically trained, who started out with modest ambitions and who has grown in confidence and ability as I have gone from job to job, I offer that perspective, with all due respect to those who have followed a different path and those who will be charged with implementing the results of this legislation. In addition to what the legislation seeks to achieve in improving technical education, I hope that through our scrutiny and debates we as parliamentarians change our perception of the potential of those for whom not going to university is the best route to their own definition of success, and that we aim to achieve much greater diversity in positions of power.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black. In this House, we always enthusiastically congratulate those who have made their maiden speech. On this occasion I thought hers was absolutely excellent, and I would like her to develop the origins of why she and I are technical dinosaurs—because I am, and she declared her objection to technology as well.
I strongly welcome the Bill, and the fact that the Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary have joined us. I welcome it because it shows a genuine commitment to further education, adult learning and the development of the technical education and learning process for the future. I fear, however, in the very short time I have, that I am going to have to concentrate on the things that worry me, rather than the things I am enthusiastic about such as the lifelong guarantee, the commitment to professional development in further education and private providers.
The reason I am concerned is that the opening speech by the Minister highlighted divisions. She was clearly following the script, if I might put it that way, because she is not like that at all. The divisions that grew up five years ago on the back of the referendum are almost embedded in our politics. The divide described this afternoon between town and city does not really exist. The divide between further and higher education does not really exist. The divide between the academic and technical does not really exist. I am very self-assured, as you all know, so there are rarely times in my life when I hear a speech and think I could not do better than that. This afternoon, however, the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, was much better than the one I am making. It made many of the points I would have wished to have made.
Let me very quickly touch on my journey, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, touched on hers. I got my qualifications at evening class and day release and eventually, after six years, went to university. I did a vocational qualification on day release, and my A-levels in the evening. I saw no difference between those; I saw no reason why we should divide them. I see no reason why we should not be in favour of T-levels but strongly in favour of retaining BTEC national diplomas, which got my eldest son to Liverpool University and later to a master’s degree.
I see no reason why we should not learn from our own history. In metallurgy in Sheffield, it was the factory worker and the researcher who put their heads together. Now we have advanced apprenticeships with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Sheffield University; I should have declared my interest in it. We have the commitment of Sheffield Hallam University with the Sheffield College and other colleges in South Yorkshire, and Huddersfield University with Barnsley college of technology—where I once taught in further education, and where many people, like my elder sons, got their education through FE. There is no divide: it is an artificial concept which I think is extremely dangerous. Please do not let us go down that route.
T-levels are one thing, and organising for people will not go down one route for life is another. This is why the appeal by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in relation to what is happening with artificial intelligence and robotics is so important. These are not qualifications for life any more. There are no jobs for life. We need to return to learn on a continuing basis. I tried to instil this in the learning-age policy paper over 20 years ago when I was Secretary of State, when we set up learning and skills councils at local level that were designed to engage employers, colleges and individuals. Unfortunately, my own Government then centralised that and eventually killed it off. We have been around this road before. Some areas have very strong chambers and employer engagement. Some lack the capacity to do it. That is why what the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said at the beginning of this debate is so important—that we draw people together to be able to do the job well.
In the meantime, do not defund courses that are valuable to learners, do not claw back money from further education as is happening at the moment, and do not defund or claw back money from residential colleges such as Northern College in South Yorkshire. Instead, let us join together—because we can on the Bill—to make this a really exemplary piece of legislation. Let us go forward in unity to offer people the education that they need at the time that they need it, and do so on the basis that they will progress through life in very different ways from where they started.
My Lords, this is one of those debate where I feel a degree of sympathy for the Minister, not only because she was nice about me when she started speaking, but because she may acquire a sore neck from having to turn around to answer people on her own Back Benches.
The noble Lord, Lord Willetts—he has clearly had enough now and is running away; I could not resist that, sorry—set a very high bar for us. He also made many of the points that I would have started with before my main point here, which is about special educational needs. The primary one is that we are going through part of a continuum, and that we are putting in place artificial barriers for further and higher education. That does not really work. Secondary school education cannot be seen as removed from this as well; it is part of a continuum. Where people start and how they go through is affected. The original block of their educational experience is going to affect the way they come through this. As my noble friend Lord Storey started by saying, if they do not get better career guidance, they will carry on with the same types of intervention, powers, hierarchies and activities they have always had, because that is the way you do it—that is the way you carry on. No doubt that is an important factor.
If we are to build up T-levels at levels 3, 4 and 5, replacing the status this sort of thing had a few years ago—or a few decades ago; I forget how old I am getting—we have to make sure that parents know they are career choices that will get people employed and make them a valid and interesting career, and we have to guide them through it. That will require real investment in those giving that advice. They have to be in the secondary schools, or in the initial phase that connection has to be made. It does not matter what is being given; if something becomes a secondary option, it is downplayed —end of.
To declare my interests, I am chairman of the company Microlink, which deals with assistive technology. I am president of the British Dyslexia Association. I am dyslexic and a user of assistive technology. I have not misspelled a word in years, but I have occasionally put the wrong one into many a message via voice technology and then not checking it. Many here will have suffered hearing that, I am afraid.
If we are to get the best out of all our students, we have to start dealing more coherently with special educational needs. At the moment we have a savage fight to get identification. Quite a while back, councils stopped putting £100 million a year into contesting people who wanted to get education, health and care plans. They lost 85% to 90% of those cases. We have a ridiculous system where the graduated approach we are supposed to be bringing in with the plans is not working. People are not getting identified because of the system.
What the Bill can do for the majority of those with special educational needs is make sure that those with moderate needs or those who are not identified are being picked up and offered the support that is easily available to them. Everybody’s phone, effectively, does voice recognition, so why do we not use voice recognition as a perfectly valid way of getting through an English test for those with dyslexia, dyspraxia or one of the other conditions? It is established in our lives. But no: someone who cannot do this has to take a spelling test.
I refer back to the hours I have inflicted on this House on the English test for apprenticeships. If you want to read all of it, then masochism is probably a part of your life, but this is something we should be adapting. There is a clause in the Bill on teacher training; we need to ensure that teachers can spot these conditions. Dyslexia is only one of the ones available: ADHD, dyspraxia, higher-functioning autism—they are all there, and that is just neurodiversity. How are we going to spot these conditions for people where it is not an absolute and who do not have the tiger parent to get it identified? Are we going to make sure that we can do this to get these people through the system?
We have a model to support this for level 4 and 5 qualifications requiring independent skill. It is called the disabled students’ allowance, and it has all the institutions that go with higher education, such as information capture—the sort of stuff we are doing now, which is being recorded by people using this for Hansard—which is now a given in higher education. Most of the colleges that run higher education courses will run through levels 4 and 5. Can we make sure they are all integrated—it is not that big an ask—so that somebody who cannot take notes from a lecture given as part of a course is presented with the information they need to study? If it is in an electronic format, they can get it into a verbal format. Voice to text and text to voice are very old hat now: how many people read books in the form of audiobooks?
We are not asking for the world here. These sorts of changes help, and they also help those who do not have these problems or are not on these spectrums. Can we make sure that this is integrated into our approach? If it is not, we will make life needlessly difficult. Please let us not get sucked into the idea that only higher needs need to be paid attention to, because that is a small group. It is those who are just failing and continue to fail that we should be giving some thought to.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington. It is an enormous pleasure to add my congratulations to my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her brilliant maiden speech. She is undoubtedly a world leader in forensic science and its use in the criminal justice system, and in forensic anthropology. I have known her for many years. “Tenacious” and “determined” are words I associate with her. She tried to recruit me once to help raise funds for a new mortuary in her department. I declined, so she set up a competition between 10 crime writers: the first one to raise £1 million from their readers would have the mortuary named after her or him. She raised over £2 million. Her newly unveiled portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh will, I wager, become the most talked about portrait among viewers for three reasons: its size—it is big—it’s title, “Unknown Man”, and the various images within it. I have little doubt that the noble Baroness will make a huge contribution to the House, and I wish her well.
I declare my interests as Professor Emeritus at the University of Dundee and as a former Chancellor there. I support the principle of the Bill and congratulate the Government on bringing the legislation. I am also pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, is taking the Bill through your Lordships’ House. I say this because I witnessed her passion for and commitment to improving the lives of disadvantaged young people through creating opportunities for education and skills training when she was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility.
My comments mainly relate to the need for education in STEM subjects. The Bill sets out government plans to produce a skills revolution and to introduce flexible loans, and a promise to strengthen jobs. The intention is to drive up opportunities, reduce ethnic disparities and narrow pay gaps, all of which is welcome.
Simply offering more further education and training courses alone will not deliver on the levelling-up agenda. Young people need clear advice and guidance on how to access courses, what it will cost them and what is on offer. They will need to be able to see at first hand what kind of jobs are available. Key to all this is the need for high-quality careers advice for young people and adults—an area where the Bill has very little to say, despite the acknowledgement in the Skills for Jobs White Paper that careers provision is an important element of the overall education system.
EngineeringUK, together with seven other STEM and careers organisations, highlights this in its recent report, Securing the Future: STEM Careers Provision in Schools and Colleges in England. It finds that schools and colleges struggle to deliver STEM careers provision to many of their young people. Time and funding are cited as key barriers by careers leaders surveyed for the report, with 70% saying that staff time was an issue and 46% saying lack of funding was a barrier.
The report also finds that the digital divide that has affected young people’s learning throughout the United Kingdom since the start of the pandemic has also affected STEM careers activities in schools and colleges. The report found that 68% of schools with above average free school meals eligibility said that a lack of access to technology and the internet was a barrier, compared with 36% of schools with below average FSM. I hope that my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox might say more regarding the digital divide following her committee’s fantastic report on the subject.
Going back to a lack of careers advice, will the Government commit to publishing a fully funded careers strategy alongside the Bill to help unlock the skills reforms in the Bill and build on the Skills for Jobs White Paper? It sets out the Government’s blueprint for reshaping the technical skills system to better support the needs of the local labour market and the wider economy, with local skills improvement plans being the key component. Clause 1 encapsulates the Government’s plans to deliver on the above. With a fast-evolving labour market, effective local skills planning is important to identify specific skill needs across the country, including demand for skill needs in the engineering sector, the wider STEM-based industry and the economy.
Real-time labour market data is important for ensuring policy reforms to education and skills and emerging sector needs. I would welcome more clarity about how the local skills improvement plans proposed in the Bill will feed into national workforce planning, as has already been mentioned. How will DfE and BEIS work together to ensure a strategic approach to addressing the skills gap? How will information within local skills improvement plans help shape and inform national industrial policy and workforce planning? How will the Government use the reforms in the Bill to identify and respond to low-density regional skills needs important to the overall strategic direction of the UK, such as specialised engineering skills?
I realise that the Minister may not be able to answer all my questions today; she may agree to write. I look forward to the Committee stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I had a good education; what I have made of it is perhaps a different matter. Sixty years ago, I was taking my A-levels and S-levels. At 17, I left school and went to work. I have said that I have no regrets about that, but I would not recommend it.
It is perhaps relevant to agree with the delightful maiden speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, regarding the great advantage my wife had—along with my noble friend Lady Stowell—in getting secretarial skills. How I miss the ability to take shorthand and to type. How I miss the digital tools that many noble Lords feel embarrassed by not having to hand and that the current generation has. But it will please the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, that I did go and work in Holland and learn Dutch.
I am a fan of this Bill. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for introducing it and for us to be able to talk about it. It obviously derives from the Skills for Jobs White Paper, and we all know that there is—and I am not given to hyperbole—a real crisis in skills in this country. It is having an effect on productivity in our industries and service industries, and at every level.
In my view, localism is the key, and the Bill draws on that. We know that resources for further and technical education vary enormously at local level. I believe that the employer-led LSIPs are an important factor in addressing this problem, and I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport—I am sorry to see that she is leaving the Chamber at this moment, as I disagree with her. I believe that employers will guarantee that the resources, the buildings and the trainers and teachers are in the right place. This whole strategy will have a huge benefit from employer participation in deliberating on the employment of assets.
Perhaps I can deal with practical aspects of the Bill; I will concentrate on my own experience as an employer. It will not surprise noble Lords—knowing that I am a horticulturalist and a farmer in intensive horticultural production—to learn that many people working in that industry, in both the field and the packhouse, are seasonal workers. The whole business of Brexit has revealed the flaw in this strategy and the need for a skills base in horticulture and intensive agriculture. We need skills training and skilled workers, and we need automation in the field and the packhouse because we can no longer rely on this skilled workforce. Who speaks for these people? Who speaks for seasonal workers in getting skills? That is why this Bill is important in giving employers the opportunity to make sure that they have these opportunities.
I also have another interest in that I am the group leader on the visitor economy section for the Midlands Engine APPG. This is another area in which seasonal work is very much the rule. Take the seaside strip of Lincolnshire—Skegness, Mablethorpe, Cleethorpes and that area—where as many as 40% of people are, in some way or another, employed in the seasonal economy based on recreation and leisure. There is no harm in that—there is nothing wrong in it—but we ought to realise that they too need opportunities to train and to find alternative out-of-season employment, which might well be to their advantage. Who speaks for them? I like to think that at least I do so, here today.
If we are to build back better, we need bricklayers, plumbers and engineers—all the practical people whose absence from our daily lives has only to be witnessed by anybody trying to get any construction work done in their home or factory. The need for training in these basic skills, which have largely been forgotten, is essential.
My Lords, I first join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her maiden speech. Not only was it an excellent speech but she gave us a glimpse of her background, which is so fascinating that, had I been in charge, I could have let her go on for ages and listened to more of it. I know it will be a very good background for the contributions she will make to our debates in future, and I wish her well.
I also join others in generally welcoming this Bill. A lot of people have said that we have not done enough about skills before; that is why we welcome the Bill. We need to be really careful about this. We have tried to do a lot about skills, but we have never got it right—there is a big difference. Over the last 30 years, 70 pieces of legislation or government interventions have tried to make our skills provision and training better than they are. Anyone here who was a Minister would possibly say, as I do when I look back on my time in office, that they are not satisfied with what was able to be done on the skills agenda. Doing something for the first time is good but it is different from trying to get it right this time. That is how I will approach my contributions to this issue as we go through.
Two things have been done wrong in the past, and they were referred to by my noble friend Lord Puttnam. One is a lack of persistence: Governments have started along this track, then dropped it. Secondly, it has never been a priority for money; they have given some money but never enough, and lessons can be learned there as well.
I want to say briefly—this has been touched on by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and the noble Lord, Lord Johnson—that the division between creative and technical is a false one. If ever in our history there was a time when we could separate creative subjects and the humanities from technical subjects and the sciences, it is not now. We need to drop that language and those thoughts, because success will lie with the people who can bring those things together. That goes to the argument about the lifelong loan entitlement, which I broadly welcome. I have two questions on that. The first is that I am not sure for which subjects the grant will be available. I hope it will not exclude creative subjects, because that would not be good for the agenda before us.
I welcome modular learning with some caution: it is not as easy to organise or do as linear learning. Something we have done wrong in the past with vocational studies is to make it modular but not give students and learners the opportunity to link one module with the other. The joins are where it goes wrong, so my advice to the Minister is: watch the joins and mind the gap. We have to make sure that people can move from one module to the other.
I want to spend my time on the local skills improvement plans, which I gather are going to be called LSIPs, so that is how I will refer to them. The Government have said that employers and businesses are at the centre of the creation of local skills improvement plans. I cannot disagree with that; I cannot say that they should not be at the centre or not be listened to. They are important, but I am worried about how much emphasis the Government are placing upon the leadership of employers and businesses at the centre, at the heart, or in the driving seat of these LSIPs, depending on which words you choose to use. Although they are important to this plan, so are others.
Learners are at the centre of what we want to do, as are providers and our locality and its needs. The local economy in that area is also at the centre, and whoever can guess what the skills of the future will be also needs to be at the centre of these LSIPs. It is a more complicated Bill than just being about putting employers and businesses in the driving seat. At the moment, I am not sure that the Bill really recognises that complexity or gives some indication of which route the Government will wish to take. That is what the Committee and Report stages will be about. I hope that we will have the opportunity to flesh it out then.
We are asking employers to become partners in the education process, and that is a big ask; it is not their core job. It is not what they worry about in the middle of the night or get up in the morning thinking about. We are asking them to become educationalists while they have other worries, especially now; they have other things to prioritise. I am not sure what happens and what powers the Government will have when it goes wrong: when the businesses do not lead us in the right direction or take a back rather than a front seat.
The challenge here is to get the partnership right between the providers and employers. I worry that the Bill is written almost as a customer/provider relationship. There is an invitation to employers to lead the show and a legal obligation on the providers to provide the learning courses. The Government will be taking a power to sack colleges or hit them over the head if they do not deliver on the local plans. It is not imaginative or creative, or the sound basis for a meaningful partnership, so I want to look at that as we go through the Bill.
I know that having too many people in the driving seat can lead us nowhere; I understand that, and that leadership is important. But we want partnership with a purpose in which everyone has a role and a responsibility, and everybody needs to be held accountable in that. How we write that into the detail of the Bill will be vital in making sure that the wish across this House for the Bill to be a success comes to fruition.
I too offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her impressive and extremely entertaining maiden speech. I am sure that we are all looking forward to her contributions to our work.
Like other noble Lords, I welcome many of the proposals in the Bill, particularly to make it easier for adults and young people to study more flexibly, allowing them to space out their studies, transfer credits between institutions and take up more part-time study. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has just said, the principle of colleges and employers working together underpins much of the Bill. It rests, too, on the leadership of employers. My experience leads me to agree very much with the issues she identified. Yet it is important that this is a co-operative and fully accountable partnership. Will the Bill create a duty on schools and universities to collaborate with colleges and employers in the development of skills plans, so that the training on offer meets the needs of local areas and of the national economic strategy?
As a former council leader, I have seen that the actual experience can be very patchy: stronger in some areas than others. In sectors where there are many SMEs the employers’ input can be limited, for a variety of reasons. As the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, sometimes employers are not well represented by particular employer organisations which vary in strength in different areas. There needs to be better accountability and understanding of the difficulties involved. The present system gives no incentive for proper co-ordination. Instead, it focuses on delivery of qualifications rather than on the long-term strategic priorities.
I would welcome a better understanding from the Minister as to how she sees this working. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, also said, I am sure that we will want to explore this area during the passage of the Bill. I also emphasise that local authorities should be key players in any future collaboration. Many people face great difficulties in accessing education, whether part-time or full-time. They may be care leavers or have special educational needs, as my noble friend Lord Addington mentioned, or not in education or training. They may be long-term unemployed people. They face difficult barriers and would need access to a whole range of local services to help them to be ready for work or training.
Local authorities are of course essential in providing these sorts of services. They link with adult education provision and other support, such as mental health, housing, debt management, support for parents and childcare. Their involvement will be essential to prevent those most in need of support and training being left behind. As a former adult learning tutor, I know that the role of local authorities in adult and community provision has been a bedrock, providing many adults with opportunities to train and upskill. For many adult learners, adult education is the first step that they take. It gives them confidence and so often inspires people to take up further learning opportunities. The current budget has been halved; I very much support the LGA proposal to reinstate this budget as a fundamental building block in the provisions of the Bill.
It is also important that financial support is considered essential if poorer students are not to be penalised. Flexible and part-time learning is essential for potential learners. My own experience is that, although I went into higher education when I left school, I subsequently took a degree with the Open University. I experienced for myself the great difficulties that one has in trying to keep up the commitment to learning while either bringing up a family or working and needing to prioritise earning a living. These can really undermine the motivation of people who are trying and gain qualifications or skills or, indeed, add a new dimension to their lives through study. I underline here the need to revisit the benefits system so that those acquiring new skills will have their needs fully taken into account and not be excluded from benefits.
I also emphasise the importance of longer-term strategic goals. Anyone involved in education over the last 20 years has experienced constantly shifting grounds in how the system operates, in its objectives, and in the local and national priorities. We need to recognise some long-term objectives and ensure that our training and education objectives and skills acquisition link fully to the economic strategy and its requirements. In recent years, many of us have found the unhelpful element of competition in post-16 provision counterproductive, with an overemphasis on delivering qualifications rather than focusing on strategic and local long to medium-term priorities.
So I hope the Bill will ensure that the providers of post-16 education and training are aligned and not preoccupied with short-term expediency and quick fixes that do not really take us further forward. We certainly welcome the Government’s interest and ambitions for skills and lifelong learning, in particular the strong collaboration of cross-providers. The new lifelong learning entitlement is a huge step forward, but there must be access to all, and we must address the skills shortfall of so many citizens if we are to face the challenges of the future. We support much of the content of this Bill and look forward to taking forward these issues through its passage.
My Lords, it may be worth noting that the Back-Bench advisory limit of six minutes per speaker will allow us to finish at around 8 pm this evening.
My Lords, I am very sorry that we have not been able to hear the chair of the Covid-19 Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. I hope we will be able to hear her contribution at some point during this debate.
I draw the House’s attention to my role as a director of the Careers & Enterprise Company. I am also delighted to be one of the FE ambassadors that my noble friend the Minister mentioned earlier on. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her excellent maiden speech. I am entirely in agreement with her that one of the most useful skills I have ever been taught is to touch-type.
I welcome the Bill, as other noble Lords have done, and also the White Paper on which it was based. It has confirmed and elevated the importance of further education, and it is a clear commitment not only to boost skills but to strengthen our economy and increase individual productivity. In the time available I will focus on the involvement of employers in skills needs and, if there is time, say a little bit about the lifelong learning entitlement.
The involvement of employers in identifying skills needs, which is in Chapter 1 of the Bill, I entirely support—and there is wide support for this, as we have heard—the aim for there to be a more strategic relationship between employers and further education and training providers. However, I have spoken to Loughborough College locally, which is already working with more than 700 employers—and I am sure that many other colleges would say the same. So there is a feeling that perhaps what is being asked is not always new but is being pulled together in one place for the first time.
Other noble Lords have mentioned the local skills improvement plans, which will obviously be very important. But, as my noble friend the Minister said, they are really only being piloted in certain areas now. I hope that I can prevail on her, and through her to the Secretary of State and to the skills Minister, that in the course of rolling out the local skills improvement partnerships, we should not undo what is already there.
As the noble Lord, Lord Patel, said, careers education is of critical importance. It gives a strong underpinning to the Bill; although it is not mentioned in the Bill, it was mentioned in the White Paper, where there was a commitment to careers hubs. Careers hubs have improved careers provision by 92% in the two years since they were started. They are a central plank of the White Paper, they are set up and delivered through the Careers & Enterprise Company and they are designed to bring together employers, schools, colleges, apprenticeship and training providers and others aligned to national skills and local jobs. They have already established themselves as anchor institutions in local areas, not just as careers programmes in schools and colleges but also as the link with the local economic strategy, because they are tailored to be responsive to local economic need.
I hope that Ministers are aware that careers hubs offer the Bill three things. The first is that they are the key route for local businesses of all sizes into schools and colleges. I know from my time both as a local Member of Parliament and as Education Secretary that that is often the missing link. Schools and colleges want to work with local employers and businesses but are unsure how to make those connections. I entirely take the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, that those who run businesses are not educationalists—but many of them obviously have a great interest in working with young people and learners locally. But again, bridging that gap into schools and colleges is often tricky, and that is where the careers hubs come into force.
The second way in which careers hubs can underpin the Bill is by renewing the emphasis on vocational and technical learning and building the right level of skills into our economy—hubs can be an enabler for these reforms—and the third way is by helping the Government’s levelling-up agenda. So I am pleased to see that employers and providers are being directed to work with the Careers & Enterprise Company’s network and careers hubs when establishing local skills improvement plans. Can the Minister say in her remarks at the end how the Government intend to keep careers hubs at the forefront of their thinking as they develop trail-blazing local strategic improvement plans and roll them out across the country?
I turn briefly to the Bill’s definition of “employer representative bodies”. It would be helpful now—or certainly in Committee—for Ministers to explain who they think the employer representative bodies are. This ties in with the future role of the LEPs and what their responsibilities will be. Clause 2 of the Bill talks about an employer representative body as being
“reasonably representative of the employers operating within the specified area”.
“Reasonably representative” is very broad, and I wonder who will decide how the members of an employer representative body are indeed reasonably representative.
I also draw attention, as others have done, to the local need point. Of course, exactly as my noble friend the Minister said in her opening remarks, we want people to stay in their local areas, to have jobs and to improve their prospects locally. There is also a need to identify future jobs—particularly in relation to future technologies, for example, or industries such as the growing industry around green jobs—and emerging skills needs and to see those on a national level too. Again, I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify how the local skills improvement plans feed into a national overall skills strategy and how that is then communicated back to the colleges and providers.
Briefly, on lifelong learning entitlement, as others have said, it seems somewhat confusing. We recognise that many people will have several careers now. The Bill is trying to address the long-held policy ambition of helping people to reskill throughout their working lives. A big argument advanced by the Association of Colleges is that level 3 should also be eligible for the lifelong loan entitlement. So can my noble friend say what the process will be for determining which courses will be eligible for the lifelong loan entitlement?
We welcome this Bill across the House, I am sure, and I hope that we will be able to enhance it as it goes through future stages.
The irony clearly weighs heavy when I have wi-fi issues. I apologise, but the internet completely collapsed in my home—fingers crossed that it works this time. You would think that I would have been able to crack it, but I appreciate that I am the least qualified person, perhaps, in many ways.
I too commend the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her maiden speech. She is an absolute heroine to many of us. I can still see in my mind’s eye her visceral explanation of cutting into flesh for the first time, which may haunt me to my later days. In fact, she might have tempted me to swap careers had I not already become a Member of your Lordships’ House. That is one important dimension of this interesting and important Bill that I shall talk about as part of my role as chancellor of the Open University.
As noble Lords will know, because many in the House today are graduates of the OU as well as honorary graduates—we even have a wonderful ex-chancellor in the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, as well—the OU is the largest university in the UK. It provides part-time learning through all people’s lives and careers. Perhaps less known to people is the fact that 70% of OU learners are also in full-time work, which is why this Bill is so important in unlocking the relationship between work and vocational technical training and between employers and study.
Furthermore, as I referenced in declaring my own interest in perhaps changing careers, there are some concerns from the Open University about the way in which this is constructed—particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, mentioned in his earlier remarks, there are concerns about the lifelong learning entitlement and how it is structured. The OU would be extremely keen to see it structured in the most creative and imaginative way possible to prevent too much rigidity around learning requirements and to make sure that we really allow for part-time learners who may be in work who may want to go sideways in their career. It is unclear yet to me whether, if I became a forensic anthropologist as a Member of the House of Lords, that would be down, up or sideways. But jokes apart, we must make sure that people are enabled to take sideways and forward leaps and, potentially, upgrade their skills but slightly downgrade what might be seen as their natural career prospects. The Open University has concerns around the LLE requirement and how it is structured, and I would be very keen to hear the Minister’s response on this.
Similarly, the OU, as will be known to many Members of your Lordships’ House, has seen a collapse of more than 67% in part-time learners—not just for the Open University but in those going into higher education over the last decade. The Government themselves have recognised that this is cataclysmic for our economy, and we must make sure that we build back the capacity for part-time learning right at the heart of this Bill and put at the heart of it the importance of part-time learners for the economy and wider society.
I always joke in the OU degree ceremonies that part-time learners are no such thing at all. Normally, they are double-time learners, holding down a family and making sure that they also study. It can sometimes take five or even 10 years but, in all my interactions with OU students, they have been people dedicated to improving their learning through their career and the various ducks, dives, weaves and twists that life takes. We want to be clear at the Open University that this Bill will represent part-time learners very clearly—and, as I say, without too much rigidity about requirements, particularly in Clauses 14, 15 and 17. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.
The Open University is one hat that I wear very proudly, and I am thrilled to be its chancellor and champion of all the types of learning that it represents. I have also recently chaired the House of Lords Select Committee on the long-term implications of Covid. As other noble Lords have alluded to, particularly my noble friend Lord Patel, we have done work recently to look at the hybrid nature of our world right now. As some noble Lords may know, I have a long-standing interest in digital skills and, surprise surprise, that came out very clearly from our work. So I am pleased to see a recognition that we need these technical skills in this Bill, but I hope that it goes far enough and fast enough.
As I think the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, very articulately declared, we cannot design for the here and now; we need to look ahead to the next decade and think about what those skills will constitute and look like. We have found consistently that not only is there a lack of skills right now for employers, there are also huge concerns among employers about what skills will be available in the next decade to take on the challenges that we have not yet even managed to quantify or think about. We in our committee report called for a closer partnership between government and employers to tackle professional qualifications and digital skills to help, for example, a nurse or anybody dealing with any kind of front-line service to have a deeper understanding as part of their professional development. I hope that we take again an imaginative and creative view of what that looks like.
I end by reiterating the point made by my noble friend Lord Puttnam about Demis Hassabis and the importance of creativity and imagination. I am always struck by the words of Sugata Mitra, the great tech entrepreneur, who did a huge amount to open up learning and access, who said that learning is the new skill, and imagination, creation and asking questions should be at the core of skill. We must bear that in mind as we take this Bill forward; we must not get too stuck in rigid ways of thinking about skills, as they will shift immeasurably over the next decades. It may be best to equip people with the ability to ask questions that they want answered and equip them with the ability to personalise their studies through their whole lifelong journey.
My Lords, what a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, particularly in her last comments, as part of what has been a really interesting debate, with an excellent maiden speech in it. I remind noble Lords of my interests in the register relating to education, particularly my work with my clients, Purpose and 01-Edu.
There is of course much to welcome in this Bill but, sadly, as my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, time prevents me from dwelling on those elements. However, it is welcome that the Government are prioritising adult skills and to hear the Minister stress the need to focus on the needs of those not going on from school to university but going on to learn other skills. The combination of globalisation, new technology and climate change mitigation means continued rapid changes in the demand for skills. The World Economic Forum projects that almost half the skills needed for employees to work effectively will change in just the next four years—so deskilling is rampant. It is therefore the urgent responsibility of every Government around the world to transform their skills infrastructure so that it is highly flexible and to anticipate as well as react to the needs of the labour market, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said. Skills policy is now as much about changing in-work skills as it is about helping those at the start of their working lives, which appeared to be an assumption in the Minister’s opening speech.
Here in the UK, decades of underfunding of an overly complex skills system, persistent low productivity, Brexit uncertainty, and widening regional prosperity gaps make an emphasis on this all the more important. The Institute for the Future of Work’s recent report, The Amazonian Era, highlights recent trends, with worker management platforms rapidly deskilling people, from the warehouse floor to hollowing out supervisor roles—deskilling by algorithm. Yet this Bill seems to assume that skills qualifications act like a ratchet and that, once you have got a level 3, the only way is up, to level 4 and beyond. But skills are not like a platform computer game moving up through the levels; they are less Super Mario and more Snakes and Ladders. Personally, I would advocate the development of individual skills accounts over the loan system advocated in this Bill, using a mix of funding from the Treasury, employers and individuals, rather than what is being proposed.
In my remaining time, I want to focus on the diverse needs of three very different groups: the deskilled, the always reskilling, and the perennial professionals. On the deskilled, can the Minister confirm that the local skills improvement plans will fully integrate with welfare-to-work provision? In 2009, when I moved as a Minister from the DfE to the DWP, I struggled to get effective integration of skills and welfare policy—perhaps my weakness. But one department measures success in qualification outcomes while the other does so in job outcomes—and they work to very different timeframes. That has to be fixed through changes to the universal credit regime.
We also need an all-age careers advice service—and I enjoyed the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan —that aligns with a business advice service. For example, the move to a net-zero economy will create huge opportunities as we transition to new ways of living in our homes and at work. We will have new skills systems and businesses growing to meet those opportunities and anticipate these changes rather than just reacting to them. The fact that Wrexham College only recently became the first FE college to offer training in electric vehicle maintenance is truly shocking. For this group—the deskilled—the qualification ecosystem needs to be more dynamic.
Then there are those sectors, especially in the digital economy, that will always move too fast for qualifications to keep up. I am currently working with Nicolas Sadirac and 01 Founders, which is opening its first school in London later this year to train full stack software engineers. This proven system does not charge tuition fees, is a two-year course and has virtually a 100% employment rate at an average starting salary of over £40,000.
This model—no prior attainment, applying by playing an online game, no teachers and no qualifications—freaks out policymakers because it explodes all the foundations of what we understand about good education, but employers are desperate for this talent because it works. It has a highly dynamic curriculum and does not wait for qualifications to adjust to labour market demand. What is this Bill doing to support more innovative skills training like this, which is hardwired to deliver the shortage skills we need to grow successfully across the country? Does the Minister foresee funding skills measured by job outcomes as well as qualification outcomes?
Finally, I must say something about the training of professionals and here I will focus on teachers. The Government are currently engaged in a review of initial teacher training. Last week they quietly published a document titled Delivering World-Class Teacher Development, which does not mention universities once. It is part of a move that appears to be one of statist centralisation where they want to control the content and method of teacher training to fit Ministers’ judgments on what is best.
This is a grotesque attack on the academic freedom of universities that may destroy the very system supplying teachers into our schools. It betrays a view that teaching is little more than a craft skill, rather than a profession that needs both continuous academic and practice-based development. Can the Minister reassure me, and the many ITT providers I am talking to through the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Teaching Profession, that there will always be a place for universities like Oxford, UCL and Sunderland in teacher training? Our adult skills infrastructure must meet the needs of great professions like teaching, as well as traditional trades and emerging jobs. In doing so, it must fully respect the role of academic vocational training.
This is a really important Bill, but it is no more than a start. I look forward to trying to help improve it and I hope that Ministers are listening to the real-world reality of change and reflecting that policy thinking needs to change to take account of rapid deskilling and the diversity of needs we all face.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, for a fantastic and fascinating maiden speech. Secondly, I need to declare rather a list of interests. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, kindly pointed out, I have become an adviser on skills to the Prime Minister. I was a member of the Augar panel, which reported to the review of post-18 education and funding, and I am also a professor at King’s College London.
I am delighted that the Government are introducing this Bill. A system which offers all adult citizens the chance to obtain high-quality education and training is not just fundamental to our economy; it is central to our future as a country committed—I hope—to opportunity, second chances, openness and making the whole idea of shared citizenship a reality. I believe that the measures incorporated in this Bill are an important step towards creating such a system.
I have argued for many years that our post-18 education and training system is indefensibly lopsided. The gap in spending and the tension between higher education and vocational provision has widened and become even more entrenched. But the Prime Minister last year announced reforms in which two concrete objectives were set. I think these are fundamental, and this Bill will contribute to meeting them. They are about the need to bring higher and further education closer together, and about tackling the great divide which has opened up between the well-resourced and well-signposted opportunities for young people leaving school to go into full-time higher education, and the world of part-time and adult retraining—an area in which we used to be global leaders. As other noble Lords have already pointed out, the last decades have seen us go backwards in a way that it is vital we correct.
When the Augar review reported two years ago, the first recommendation we made was:
“The government should introduce a single lifelong learning loan allowance” for adults. The Government accepted this and consequently are working quite hard to transform the whole student higher education funding system. The clauses in this Bill are only part of what will be needed to deliver the new system, but they are fundamental foundation stones for what I hope—and I know other noble Lords also hope—will genuinely transform the system of higher and further education in this country in a way that will be good for everybody.
As well as a very divided system of post-18 education, we have managed in this country to create an extraordinarily complicated one. This is reflected in the Bill, which contains a number of specific reforms designed to clarify and simplify. In my remaining time, I would like to comment on two in particular: the regulation of post-16 education and training providers, and the clauses which deal with education and training for local needs.
In 2017, along with other noble Lords, I was quite involved in the passage of the Technical and Further Education Act, which included provisions to protect students in the event of college failures. However, there were no equivalent provisions in the Act for independent training providers. The need to protect all students, trainees and apprentices has been evident for a long time. While the independent training provider sector contains many truly excellent, innovative and effective organisations, that part of our system and its overall reputation have been bedevilled by regular failures and scandals. In 2017, the Government declared they were unwilling to amend the Act then and there but would consider the issue. The mills of government grind slow, but they have considered, and what we now have proposed is a single unified system of protection for learners which I hope other noble Lords will join me in welcoming.
I will comment very briefly on the proposal to create local skills improvement plans. These have attracted a lot of attention this afternoon and I look forward to further comment and discussion. As many noble Lords will be aware, our college network was in large part created by local businesses and employers. Colleges therefore responded very directly to changing local business needs because they talked all the time to individual local employers.
Over the years, those organic links have in many places withered away. Of course, there are a number of fantastic colleges, but it is very much individual principals and employers who make them as excellent and responsive as they are. Far too often, colleges—for very good reasons —spend most of their time and energy focusing on their relationships with public funding bodies and not with local employers. The White Paper’s fundamental goal of bringing employers right back in and making this part of the infrastructure seems to be absolutely correct.
Clearly, just creating LSIPs is not going to revolutionise everything; there are other important reforms in the White Paper which will, for example, give colleges far more autonomy. But putting employers in the system in a structured way—not via other public bodies where members are selected and appointed centrally, but as a group of local employers—is a necessary part of creating that responsive system we all need.
It has been an enormous pleasure to speak today. I hope that the Bill and our discussions on it will take us forward into a new era and we will look back on this as an important and major part of what this Government have done for the skills, education and future of this country.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her outstanding maiden speech. I look forward very much to meeting her face-to-face very soon.
This country’s skills deficit is enormous, and it hits a wide range of sectors and industries. Despite periodic reforms, practically every employer in each sector says that those who complete their formal training are still not job ready. At the same time, there is a huge pool of people of all ages with ambition and drive who would love to have the opportunity to develop their skills and transform their employment chances, and who are frustrated that there is no suitable route for them to follow. While I sincerely hope that this skills Bill will succeed at last in joining up the supply and demand, noble Lords will perhaps forgive me if my hope is not entirely matched by my expectations.
I want to outline the dire gap that there is between ambition and reality by its application to the construction industry. The construction industry is strategic for the delivery of practically every government policy. Whether it is free ports, new prisons, 300,000 homes a year, or 40 new hospitals; whether it is a mighty levelling-up agenda, or simply the vital overhaul of 20 million existing homes to make them fit for zero-carbon Britain in 2050; none of that can happen without a flourishing construction industry to deliver them. The ambition is there, but the capacity is not. I hope that this Bill will go some way toward bridging that gap.
Construction faces a desperate workforce and skills crisis. The Construction Industry Training Board says that an extra 217,000 people will need to be recruited in the next four years to deliver on the ambitious targets set before it. This is not about hod-carriers but about skilled tradespeople, professionals at all levels, and a range of completely new skills, some of which your Lordships might never have heard of before.
After the outflow of EU 27 workers from the industry post Brexit, we needed to at least double the output of new entrants simply to plug that gap. On top of that, however, we also need to train for the new skills required to deliver zero-carbon homes and to retrofit 20 million existing homes. We will need completely new roles, ranging from heat-pump installers and air-pressure testers to retrofit co-ordinators and energy managers. Your Lordships may never have heard of those job titles, but all of them were major bottlenecks in the delivery of the ill-fated green homes grant fiasco last winter. Now, the forthcoming building safety Bill will ratchet up another shortage, this time of fire safety engineers.
I am indebted to the CITB for sharing figures that show that, at present, about 100,000 people take up construction-related courses in the further education sector each year. The problem with that is that only 24% directly enter the industry, while another 16% take up construction-related apprenticeships. The remaining 60% of further education construction starters do not reach the construction workforce at all. It is even worse than that, as many of those apprentice starters do not finish their training, and by some accounts up to half of them also leave the sector. Therefore, out of every 100 trainee starters in further education, only around 30 finish up working in the industry.
And who exactly makes it through the training to the workforce? Some 84% are men. The industry has the most unequal gendered workforce in Britain, and only 6% of that workforce is BAME, about half the national proportion. There is plenty of evidence of the industry’s consequential problems: low skills at every level of activity. The stark evidence emerging from the Grenfell Tower inquiry shows that it is not just a shortage of good bricklayers that is the problem but capacity and competency from top to bottom. Poor productivity, consistently the worst of all our major industries, and very low investment in research and innovation, leads to a depressing spiral of poor quality, low profitability and multiple business failures.
I simply say to noble Lords that, in the construction industry, there just has to be a total rethink of the training provision, and that should include but certainly not be limited to: who actually provides the training; what that training is; who is going to foot the bill for the training; and how to make it attractive to young BAME people and to women. Those questions have to be answered first by the Government. This skills Bill has to be the next step towards putting training in the industry, for the industry, at the top of the agenda. Otherwise, every other policy target and best wish of the Government will certainly be missed.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Baker Dearing trust. I have four comments on this Bill. First, I welcome its proposals to create a skills plan for each town in the country. Secondly, it has missed the opportunity to revolutionise digital skills, which are the weakest part of our present education system. Thirdly, I am very concerned that this Bill could lead to the separation of technical education from academic education, a concern shared by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. Fourthly, I will move an amendment to make the Baker clause a statutory duty, rather than dependent upon ministerial advice.
First, I am glad to see that skills plans will now emerge for every town in England, reflecting the needs of the local medium and small-sized businesses. These plans will reveal the skills that the FE colleges will need to teach. It will certainly put industry at the heart of education. This is exactly what university technical colleges have been doing for the last 10 years. The governing body of a UTC is controlled by the local businesses and the local university. The university comes in to teach, and the local businesses bring in projects for the students to work on in teams. I thank the Government for adopting the UTC principle of combining technical and academic education.
Secondly, all the evidence that we are getting in the Select Committee on Youth Unemployment reveals that there is a dramatic shortage of digital skills. Businesses, students and even the unemployed all say that they suffer from not having digital skills. In a survey of 1,000 companies big and small, ranging from nuclear to pubs, 76% said that they lack digital skills, notably data analysis with AI, and this restricts their growth and reduces their profits. We have also been sent evidence—and this I find totally surprising—that, since 2015, in schools for 11 to 16 year-olds, 40% fewer students are being taught about computing than six years ago. That is a staggering statistic in the digital age; it beggars belief. What the Government need to do is to provide all students with a laptop and an internet connection; computing should be taught from the age of 11 for at least one hour a week and that should grow each year. GCSE computing science should be a compulsory subject. There are 75,000 computer GCSE entries: it sounds a lot, but it is 1.5% of the total and fewer than those who take Spanish GCSE. This will need a revolution in teacher training, for all teachers should be expected to acquire digital skills.
Thirdly, I fear that this Bill will separate technical education from academic education, so that there is virtually no connection between them when they should be going hand-in-hand. At 16, school leavers can go to FE colleges, start apprenticeships or go to a provider of technical education where their training will reflect the needs of local employers, and that is good. However, less than a quarter of young people who start at an FE college at 16 will progress to level 4, a critical age where the skills gap really begins, and an insignificant number will then start a higher or degree apprenticeship.
Most students at 16 will stay on in the sixth forms at their schools, and the heads of those schools will tell them that the only way that they can get into university is to stay in school and study academic A-Levels. There are no engineering A-levels and very few technical ones. Technical education between 16 and 18 barely exists because the courses are costly and the teachers are few, so it is not surprising that many 18-year-olds leave with no employability skills. No wonder that 16 to 18 unemployment is now 14.4% and likely to rise.
Evidence presented to the Select Committee on Youth Unemployment is that employers do not want just exam results but employability skills, such as having worked in teams, made things with hands, designed things on computers and engaged in problem-solving. They are looking for adaptability, creativity—which the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, mentioned earlier today—and imagination. This will not happen if technical and academic education are separated in two separate silos—one marked “technical and vocational” and the other “academic”. What happens then to the parity of esteem? The Government should act to ensure that this educational apartheid does not come about.
My Lords, I would like to start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her interesting and fascinating maiden speech, from which I personally learned a great deal, and, equally, by saying how proud I am to follow the noble Lord, Lord Baker, because his ideas and what he has achieved in education policy are also very interesting and have taught me a great deal.
For many years, I have been heavily engaged in the lifetime learning debate, which is increasingly important because of the longevity of our population and the impact that technology is having on employment. Added to this, we have just lived through a pandemic which has caused considerable disruption to the labour market, resulting in changes that are going to be very long-lasting.
I want to congratulate the Government on the reforms to post-16 education that this Bill seeks to implement. As the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has already outlined, this Bill will give employers greater input into skills development and ensure that there is stronger regulation and consistency of qualifications. This Bill also responds to the current skills gap in the economy and places duties on education and training providers in specific areas to co-operate with designated employer representative bodies to develop, review and revise plans.
We live in a society where people are living longer and a great many of us are working much later in life than previous generations were able to do. It is projected that someone entering the workforce today will change careers five to seven times during their working life. We know that many jobs may significantly change or become obsolete because of technology change. It is also likely that many children born this year will eventually end up in careers that, at present, do not exist. There needs to be significant investment in lifelong learning and a fundamental rethink of the way we deliver education. Our current school system, where compulsory education finishes at 16, increasingly does not prepare pupils for modern life in a labour market that is changing so rapidly. In the future, we will need most people of working age to participate—perhaps more than once and perhaps many times—in further education to keep up with labour market changes.
It is, therefore, disappointing that in the last 10 years there has been a 26% fall in the total number of people in England of all ages accessing undergraduate higher education. This has been driven by a significant decline in part-time higher education. Now, there are 67% fewer part-time undergraduate students in higher education than a decade ago. The Government have acknowledged that this is a problem, and this Bill is an important start in trying to reverse this trend.
However, in its current form, the Bill does not go far enough in reforming our education sector. There is an opportunity to ensure that the education system provides equal access and support for learners, regardless of where the learning takes place. Rather than creating a unified, credit-based funding system, the Bill creates separate funding systems for those who study module by module compared to those who study a full degree. Education of technical skills or qualifications should be given the same level of importance and respect, and there should be one funding system that does not separate them. Our society needs people to gain degree qualifications, and it is crucial that the Government do not undervalue our universities; apprenticeships and other technical qualifications are different and they teach different skills, but they are just as valuable and should be given equal status.
In a world where an 18-year-old leaving school today will likely work well into their mid-70s, or even later, and where the labour market is likely to go through significant change, investment in lifelong learning is crucial. This Bill makes an important start, and I support what it aims to achieve. However, much more needs to be done to support the lifelong learning education system that we are going to need in the future. I look forward to being a participant in this Bill, which aims to do just that.
My Lords, we should really welcome this Bill, because, as we know, our country does a pretty good job with its graduates but a much less good job with the other 50%. If we are looking for reasons for the difference in the treatment of these two, we should look immediately at the different ways in which they are funded. If you are going down the academic—the route to university—the funding automatically follows the student. Any sixth form or university, therefore, has total freedom to put on a course and admit students, because it knows that if it attracts students, they will be funded, student by student. This system has produced one of the most dynamic learning systems in the world. The non-university route is totally different. The FE college or other provider has to contract, with the Education and Skills Funding Agency, for its budget year by year. The total budget is capped, and it is the Government, therefore—not the students or providers—who decide how many places there are in the sector.
Over the last 10 years, the result has been quite extraordinary. In the 10 years before Covid, the further education budget for people over 18 was cut, in real terms, by 50%. Even if you add in the funding for apprenticeships, the cut is over a third, while, at the same time, university funding has soared. The difference is just incredible. This situation and this system cannot be allowed to continue. Elementary fairness requires that we provide automatic funding for every qualified person, whether they go down the route to university or the route through further education.
This is the moment to make the change, because the Government have, to their great credit, announced that they plan a lifetime skills guarantee, which provides free education up to level 3, independent of age. The guarantee would be a historic landmark if it were put in the Bill, which it has to be. But there needs to be a mechanism to make sure that the guarantee can be implemented, because you cannot implement such a guarantee with the existing system of funding, which has no mechanism for reflecting the demand from the students.
The Bill therefore needs two more clauses: one to put the lifetime skills guarantee in law, and a second to state that by, say, 2025, all colleges and other approved providers should receive automatic in-year funding for any student covered by the lifetime skills guarantee. That is my main proposal.
I will end on the subject of apprenticeships. In the year before Covid, nearly one-third of all 18 year-olds were not in any form of education or work-based training. That is amazing—what a disaster. In my view, most of them should have been on a level 2 or 3 apprenticeship, or on a pre-apprenticeship course, but currently, there are simply not enough apprenticeship places to meet the existing demand from young people. It is not a cultural problem; it is a problem with the supply of places. Yet at the same time, half of all apprenticeship starts are not for young people but for people aged over 25, many of them long-standing employees getting top-up training that should be paid for by the employer. In addition, as the department’s own research shows, the benefit-cost ratio for apprenticeships for those aged over 25 is barely half what it is for apprenticeships for those aged under 25.
Many more of our apprenticeships have to be directed at young people. In my view, the state’s prime duty in education is to get every young person a proper start in life and a proper skill. Until we have done that, there should not be any apprenticeship money—or nearly none—for the over-25s. At the very least, there should be a legal requirement in the Bill that, by 2025, no more than, say, one-quarter of apprenticeship funding goes to people over 25.
This is a Bill with enormous potential to transform people’s lives and to improve our economy, but I believe that it needs at least three additional features. First, if it is to mean anything, the lifetime skills guarantee should be in the law; secondly, there should be automatic in-year funding for every student exercising the lifetime skills guarantee; and, thirdly, there should be a maximum limit of, say, one-quarter on the share of apprenticeship funding going to people over 25. I hope the Minister will be able to consider and support these proposals.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her excellent maiden speech.
I rise with some trepidation, as this is the first time that I have spoken in an education debate. My reason for doing so is to raise issues about what is not in the Bill. Although the Minister mentioned the green revolution in her opening remarks, she failed to note that there is not a whisper of reskilling to meet the challenge of climate change in the Bill itself.
Like others, I welcome the Bill. For far too long, lifelong learning has been seen as being a bit quirky. It must instead become an acknowledged norm. We must make it easier for people to upskill or reskill, so that they can redirect their efforts to where there are going to be opportunities in future developments as we reshape our economy to meet the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and threats to our natural world.
This Bill should represent a pivotal moment for supporting UK efforts to move to a prosperous zero-carbon economy and society. It could help with building public understanding and confidence and the behaviour change needed to meet net zero and to protect our finite natural resources. It could offer impetus for green jobs and the competitiveness benefit that comes with them. However, it does none of those things. It is silent on the massive skills shortages in sectors that will be crucial to building a greener economy. There is no provision to embed climate and sustainability considerations into the post-16 framework, despite strong evidence from business, educators and learners on the need to do so.
Given that there is unlikely to be further legislation in this area for some time, this Bill is where these gaps must be addressed. The Government are well aware of this, which makes it rather puzzling that there is a lack of even a signalling of their intent to address how they will join up their strategy to achieve net zero with the planned reforms of the post-16 and skills system.
The Government have a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which highlights the opportunity to unlock hundreds of thousands of jobs in the transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a more sustainable one—one that will support a just transition for workers. They have the Green Jobs Taskforce, set up jointly by BEIS and the Department for Education, whose remit is to support the UK to transition to a net-zero economy and deliver a green recovery by developing recommendations for an action plan for government, business, education institutions and trade unions to support 2 million good-quality green jobs and the skills that will be needed by 2030. The taskforce finished its work in April this year and has not yet reported. How do the Government plan to incorporate the task force’s findings?
Is it indeed the case that local skills improvement plans would be prepared without reference to strategic objectives such as the net-zero targets or the associated sector-specific strategies, such as the industrial decarbonisation strategy, the transport decarbonisation strategy, the energy White Paper, the nature strategy and the heating and building strategy? Can the Minister reassure me that these crucial underpinnings of how we build back better—in the Government’s own words—will be taken into account in LSIPs? If so, how will that happen?
It is unclear how the Bill will offer support to workers transitioning from industries such as oil and gas, or to fossil fuel heating engineers who will require retraining and reskilling. Current policy plans mean that workers transitioning out of high-carbon sectors who already possess level 3 qualifications would not be able to access the lifelong learning entitlement. Maybe the lifetime skills guarantee level 3 entitlement could be put on a statutory footing and extended to include subsequent qualifications where relevant.
The interrelated climate, biodiversity and Covid challenges have intensified questions from students, teachers and parents about the purpose of education. The learning approaches and analytics they need and want are those that are necessary to tackle global and local crises. This Bill is an opportunity to embed climate and sustainability aspects in both non-vocational and vocational 16 to 19 provision, as well for older adult learners. I hope that the Government, in later stages of the Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House, will address the green gap within it.
My Lords, I add my warm congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome—I am in awe. I also slightly wish that I had had my first job in a butcher’s shop, rather than packaging up the pear drops in the newsagent, then I too could have been an international high-flyer. It was a brilliant maiden speech.
I need to declare a few interests. I am a non-executive board member at Ofsted, from August I will serve on the Court of Newcastle University, and I had a temporary role on a committee at Ofqual towards the end of last year.
I of course welcome this Bill. As it so happens, my dad was an FE lecturer in Tyneside until his retirement. I remember very well when I was growing up meeting some of his students. We would bump into them in town or they would come round and thank him. A lot of them had come to education later in life and would talk about how their confidence had been transformed, so I am particularly pleased to speak on this issue today.
In my own maiden speech four years ago, I said that the pace of the technological revolution meant that the Government must use the tools they have to ensure that the labour market can adapt as nimbly as possible to an unprecedented pace of change. The Bill is certainly a step in the right direction, although there are areas I want to probe.
The Government are clearly passionate in their determination to level up and to ensure that we see a tangible link between skills and retraining and local jobs, and there is a very clear rationale for the local skills improvement plans. I agree that employers should be at the forefront of this. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister is aware that the pace of change in work- places means that we must think beyond the immediate jobs requirements of local employers, because we need to ensure a long-term employment market in which all can thrive according to their talent and hard work.
It is with this in mind that I gently ask my noble friend whether she can reassure me that we are definitely going far enough to empower local communities. Voters across the UK have just given a big vote of confidence in local leadership—for example, in re-electing local mayors. How will local leaders, with their in-depth understanding of demographic trends, existing skills, market trends and local infrastructure, be involved in the plans? Although I was unable to speak in the Queen’s Speech debate, I read it all back, and several noble Lords across the House expressed concern at a sense of “Whitehall knows best”. My noble friend absolutely has my sympathy, as she knows—this is an age-old dilemma for Governments who want to grip an agenda—but I would be grateful for some reassurance.
Like others, I turn now to lifelong learning. The Government are to be commended for the funding for level 3 qualifications, but I share concerns about those who could, in effect, be frozen out because they have an existing qualification. Does this not contradict the principle of retraining? As far as the loan entitlement provided for in Part 1 is concerned—the Government can consult on it—again, in principle all is good. It is absolutely right that we disrupt the status quo away from a one-size-fits-all approach, but I want to be sure as the Bill progresses that we really understand how gaining skills and/or retraining can work in practice, and do not make an assumption that policy and legislative change translates into easy decisions for, for example, a cash-strapped, time-poor 45 year-old.
There are lots of points on the detail that will need to be worked through, but there are immediately some glaring questions which others have raised and I share concern about, particularly regarding the equivalent or lower qualification rules, which my noble friend mentioned in her opening speech. Surely the pace of change we have discussed at some length today means that those with all sorts of qualifications will find themselves in need of retraining; again, I go back to the need for a nimble system.
More broadly, I support the Government’s optimistic message on lifelong learning and retraining but, ultimately, it is not me they have to persuade. We do not need a huge leap of imagination to understand how daunting the thought of taking on a loan in order to train or retrain can be to those who, through no fault of their own, have lost their job or have effectively been frozen out of the jobs market as a result of childcare pressures or caring responsibilities. Therefore, I urge the Government and employers—because I do not think government can or should solve every problem—to prioritise the social infrastructure that will enable more people to realise their ambitions and be part of a sustained recovery.
The Government acknowledge that the funding and loans system is complex. The more complex the system, the greater the need for clearer signposting. There is a lot of work to be done to develop a consumer- friendly system, particularly for the hard to reach. We are talking about lifelong learning, so we need to match that with a genuine understanding of the factors that affect decisions and resilience at every stage of life. But for all the challenges I have highlighted, I am absolutely confident that there is a way through. I look forward to working with the Government, who have my full support as they take the Bill forward.
My Lords, I welcome a Bill which focuses on lifelong learning and is committed to enhancing skills among the many young and indeed older people who do not go to university. I also welcome a Bill which aims to enhance the further education sector and support outstanding teaching as well as emphasising collaboration between employers and education and training providers, with the provisos made by my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley. Lastly, I welcome a Bill which seeks to correct the injustice of considerable financial support for students in universities against negligible financial support for students studying in FE colleges.
We undoubtedly have serious skills gaps compared to other OECD countries, with shortages of skilled employees in many sectors and low levels of productivity. This reflects too little investment by government and employers in alternative qualifications to university degrees. This has been particularly apparent in the last decade, when the coalition Government and the Conservative Government who followed them slashed further education, cutting colleges’ incomes by 50%.
Having welcomed the aims of the Bill, I turn to some of its limitations. As a piece of legislation, it is short on detail; it is a skeleton with too little flesh on it to allow us to understand how it will work in practice in key areas. This perhaps explains the long timescale for implementation, which will not be until 2024-25 for core proposals. The Bill reads a bit like a work in progress rather than the end of a detailed policy-making approach culminating—rather than beginning—with a piece of legislation. In a post-Covid world, action will be needed urgently and cannot be delayed for four years. This is especially true of training and educational support for the unemployed after furlough ends.
As others have said, the Bill’s implementation is also dependent on a large injection of resources, both in the short and the longer term. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has questioned whether these resources will be forthcoming and whether detailed calculations of the costs entailed have been undertaken. What is the total price of the Bill when implemented, and when will the Government start injecting new resources?
Let me illustrate this with respect to FE colleges. Their funding has been insufficient. They need more, and they need longer-term funding settlements. This much was recognised, as the Minister knows, in the White Paper. It becomes even more salient when their funding is compared with that of schools and universities —as my noble friend Lord Layard has already mentioned—since they are much less well off in funding per student. Recent research by the IPPR found that to keep up with demographic pressures and inflation, over the last 10 years we would have had to invest £2.1 billion more per annum in adult skills and £2.7 billion more in 16 to 19 year-olds in FE. The Government must provide for future needs and redress the long-standing past underinvestment. Are the Government committed to starting the process in the next spending review, and will they move to long-term, multiyear simplified funding? Without this, the colleges will not be able to develop their curriculum and the range of courses needed to meet the outcomes of discussions with employers on local skills needs, nor will they be able to pay the salaries needed to attract high-quality lecturers to develop and teach new programmes.
I want to pick out one important area for new courses that may not emerge from locally based identifications of skills needs but requires a national scheme. This concerns the green economy. The Government’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 requires a big shift to education and skills training to stall climate change. The Bill is a lost opportunity as it fails to link the Government’s goals on decarbonisation in energy, transport, and buildings, sustainable land management and carbon sequestration. Not only will those entering the labour force for the first time need to be prepared for green jobs, but many who currently work in fossil fuel sectors will need retraining. Why does the Bill make little or no reference to net zero? Should there not be a requirement for skills improvement plans to refer to national objectives on the green economy?
Lastly, I want to touch on the lifetime skills guarantee, on which the Government are still consulting. I am really glad that the gist of the Augar report’s recommendations on student support has been accepted, but the Government must provide more detail on eligibility, whatever the level or type of course the student is training in. Who will be eligible in terms of the range of subjects? I hope the range will be very wide and not narrow. They also need to consider, as others have said, how to support the maintenance needs of students from disadvantaged backgrounds—or are the Government just going to ignore this? There will be a great deal of work to be done in Committee in this area and, I fear, in many other areas too.
My Lords, I too welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, and congratulate her on an impressive maiden speech. I very much welcome this Bill, as it is clearly appropriate to revisit how current legislation is meeting the needs of students, employees, potential employees and employers, in a rapidly changing world. Let me declare my interests: I have been actively involved in encouraging the establishment of the institute for agriculture and horticulture, TIAH, which is under way, to help improve the image of the sector, provide signposting to quality-approved courses and CPD opportunities, and establish a national register. The support of Defra on this has been very welcome. I am also a fellow of City & Guilds.
The key objectives of the Bill are laudable and very welcome. Putting employers at the heart of post-16 skills policy has been the intention of previous policies. That is easily stated but more difficult to apply in practice. To devolve responsibility to local level, to have local skills improvement plans and employer representative bodies, must be the correct approach. What is unclear from the Bill is how this intention links to national skills priorities for each industry sector, how this relates to regional priorities—in particular, the involvement of local enterprise partnerships—and whether local employer representative bodies to be designated by the Secretary of State are intended to represent all industry sectors within a given local area.
Too often in the past, employer representative bodies have been dominated by large industrial employers and new high-tech sectors regarded as sexy and attractive. Other sectors, which are crucial but fragmented and characterised by SME employers, are sometimes not recognised and therefore not included. This is particularly true of the rural sector and agri-food businesses. They are not identified as sectors with skills gaps in the White Paper but are hugely important and provide exciting opportunities for those choosing a career. I hope the Minister can provide reassurance on this point and, in doing so, give a definition of “local”. Is local a county or parish definition, or something else?
The need to facilitate and encourage lifelong learning is vital; even more so as we emerge from the Covid experience, when many who have been furloughed or made redundant may have wished to retrain. A lifelong loan entitlement is an interesting concept and we await the consultation with interest. However, to wait until 2025 before this loan becomes available is regrettable. In my view, we will miss an important window, when such a facility would be very helpful. I hope that the Government have learned lessons from the student loan experience in determining the thresholds and timetables for repayment. I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, in this respect.
I will now comment on the changes to the regulatory framework proposed in the Bill. In my view, there is potential for significant confusion, as referenced by other Peers in this debate. Government support for vocational training and skills development, with T-levels et cetera, is very welcome. The ability of students to achieve degree-level qualifications as an alternative to attending university, with all its associated costs, must be correct. There is, however, some concerning potential overlap among the regulatory bodies. The Bill must be clear about the relevant roles of the Office for Students, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofqual and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—particularly the latter two bodies. Unless I have misinterpreted the wording, it appears that the new roles envisaged would create a two-tier and rather cumbersome regulatory approval system. The last thing we need is confusion, duplication and an additional load of bureaucracy. Within this new framework, it is essential that the authority of Ofqual and its accountability to Parliament are not diluted.
We also need to be aware of the administrative costs of regulatory oversight. I speak as a former chair of the Regulatory Policy Committee. Every new or amended regulator adds a new level of cost. The total cost of the suite of regulators in this space will be substantial.
I fully appreciate the need for nationally recognised industry standards. It is important that statutory control, as proposed in the Bill, particularly the role and influence of the Secretary of State, does not lead to overcentralised control or inhibit competition on skills provision in the marketplace.
I conclude by raising a concern about rural and land-based education. The Minister will be aware of the deep concern in the north of England about the proposed closure of Newton Rigg College in Cumbria. The failure to find a solution so far, and the possible loss of this geographically important college and its unique role in serving the needs of the uplands sector, as well as woodland and forestry management, is, I hope, not a signal that the Government do not regard rural as important. I left school aged 15 and the only formal education I received afterwards was in Northumberland, in what is now called a land-based college, very similar to Newton Rigg. As it was for the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, this was through evening classes and day-release courses.
As has been stressed a number of times today, we must ensure that young people and those who wish to retrain are well informed on course availability, including rural, land-based and agricultural courses, and have every opportunity to choose a career as a consequence. In the light of climate change, our net-zero ambitions, the importance of food security and opportunities within the rural economy, I hope the Government continue to regard this sector as important. I fully support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, on the need for seasonal workers in the agricultural and horticultural sectors.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. I begin, as many others have, by paying a tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, who made a fascinating and somewhat gruesome maiden speech. I look forward to hearing her again on those subjects and in more detail. I long for the day when this Chamber is full again, when we can have a proper debate, without too many colleagues Zooming in.
I will concentrate on one issue in particular, which is an aspect of the construction industry, about which the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, spoke with some passion and deep knowledge. I declare my interest as the founder and chairman of the William Morris Craft Fellowship programme and the first vice-president of the Heritage Crafts Association.
As many of your Lordships know, I am passionate about restoring buildings, particularly this one and Lincoln Cathedral, which I look at from my home every time I am back on the weekends or in recess. I am acutely conscious that great buildings, such as this one, Lincoln Cathedral and churches around the country—often focal points of their local communities—are in greater danger than they have been for many a long year. It is partly a consequence of the pandemic: many churches have been shut for months and have deteriorated. Many are bat-infested, which is a real problem that I have talked about in your Lordships’ House before. We owe these buildings to craftsmen and, more recently to crafts men and women, through the ages. One evening every month in Lincoln Cathedral, when we generally pray for those who have been benefactors or achieved great things, we pray for the unknown by name who created that great building. It is the same here and in every parish church in the country.
We founded the William Morris Craft Fellowship, named after that great pioneer—also a great socialist, but I will not talk about that—in the 19th century because of his dedication to the arts and proper restoration. We sought to find mainly young crafts men and women around the country who showed enormous potential but who had all been through a long apprenticeship. I say in parenthesis that one of the things that disturbs me about the Bill is that it does not confront “apprenticeship” properly. The word has been too loosely used in recent years, even attached to flower-arranging courses that last nine months—although I say nothing against flower arranging.
To master a craft is a long, arduous and challenging business. We were looking for those who had done so, who had shown great interest in kindred crafts—because you cannot be master of your own unless you understand others—and who showed the potential to be able to take charge of important sites. Over the last 35 years since we founded this fellowship, we have chosen well over 100 mainly young men and women who have gone on to do all manner of things, including writing notable books about the subject.
That is why I am so much in sympathy with my noble friend Lord Willetts when he talked about not having an artificial distinction between the academic and the vocational. I am a great believer in vocation. I consider that those of us in this place, and in the other place where I had the honour to serve for 40 years, are following a vocation to public service. It is desperately important that we encourage more and more young people to realise that by working with their hands they are also using their brains and helping to create or preserve things of great beauty.
I mentioned the other day, when we were we were talking about the Environment Bill, the importance of constructing buildings of quality today—I cited the Prince of Wales on Poundbury—but the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, was right: there are not enough who have mastered their crafts. I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, about the delay in the implementation of aspects of the Bill, but I hope there will be a real emphasis on encouraging young people to embrace real crafts and to help to create or preserve those buildings of beauty in which the history of our country is embodied and will continue to be built.
My Lords, it is a pleasure as always to follow one of the interesting speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. However, on this occasion it is an even greater pleasure to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her maiden speech. I have a bit of history with her: her current position is pro-vice-chancellor for engagement at Lancaster University, and when I was chair of the council I—along with others on the panel—appointed her. It was the easiest appointment I have ever made in my life, and that does not reflect on the quality of the other applicants. Sue is tremendous and she will make a great contribution to this House.
We are talking today about a very serious subject: that of decades of public policy failure on Britain’s part in education. We have made multiple efforts: the technical schools of the 1944 Act that never happened; the training boards that Labour established in the 1960s but were then thought unsatisfactory; and the learning and skills councils established by my noble friend Lord Blunkett but then abolished. There has been no stability of approach and no stable institutions, and we have huge problems.
I first came across this issue when I worked with my noble friend Lord Mandelson at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at the fag end of the Labour Government. We suddenly realised, based on the work of my noble friend Lord Sainsbury and his Gatsby Foundation, that we were facing a real crisis in technicians: if we were not able to have sufficiently highly qualified technicians, how could we be a successful economy working at the frontier of knowledge? We have heard today from the noble Lord, Lord Baker, about the lack of training in digital skills and computing. Another worry is construction. This Government, rightly, have huge ambitions for public investment—we are raising it from something like 2% to 4% of GDP—but if we do not have the workers how are they going to fulfil those ambitions?
I welcome the Bill. I would not say that the present Secretary of State for Education was one of the Conservatives whom I most admire—I admire many Conservatives, by the way—but I praise him for taking up the cause of further education. I hope his efforts will have more success than the past decades of failure.
One of the most shocking things that I have learned in this debate is from my noble friend Lord Layard, who had enormous influence over the policies of the Blair and Brown Governments, when he said that today we are in a situation where one-third of 18 year- olds are not in any form of education or training. That is a recipe for a low-pay, low-skill economy with massive inequalities for decades to come. It is a recipe for social disaster in the world of knowledge, advanced technology, artificial intelligence and all that which we are moving into. We have to do something about it.
The funding of lifelong learning, the introduction of modular courses and efforts to secure greater employer involvement are all admirable. However, there are a couple of matters about which I worry. First, I worry that the whole approach is too centralised. I have always been very sceptical of the Skills Funding Agency, which holds the whole system in an iron grip and does not allow for local flexibility and initiative. I would like mayors and combined authorities working with employers to develop skills improvement plans on a localised basis in England. Secondly, the education system needs collaboration, not polarisation. I saw this at Lancaster, a very good university, where we had a very good partnership with Barrow’s college of further education to train graduate engineers for the Vickers yard.
Such collaboration between colleges and universities should be strengthened; we should not be trying to force the systems apart. That is very important. I worry that we are allowing ourselves to think that university expansion has reached its limit. We in this country are supposed to admire places like Asia. Well, in places such as South Korea something like 70% of children are going to university, so do not let us have any artificial limits.
I shall make a final point. We must be prepared to put public money into this. We can make choices about it, but I think personally that my own party’s commitment to abolish tuition fees is ridiculous, given the amount of money that we have to spend on other aspects of education. On the government side, the Conservatives have to recognise that further education and apprenticeships have been an area of massive underfunding. We need a joint commitment to create stable institutions and to provide the funding that will lead to a transformation in this field.
My Lords, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill represents an opportunity to create a more agile and jobs-focused skills system that is underpinned by local collaboration between further education, higher education and business. Strengthening collaboration with business can help us to identify and respond to skills demands through providing short courses that support employment and provide a talent pipeline for job creation.
For local skills improvement plans to be successful, they must leverage the input and strengths of businesses, along with further and higher education providers. Partnerships between colleges and universities can build clear pathways for people to learn new skills and support employers to recruit and upskill their workforce across the different stages of education and training. Local strategies should complement the work of LEPs and combined authorities in skills planning and harmonise the efforts of regional actors. A fragmented approach across different geographies risks confusing employers and leaving gaps in coverage.
The Government must go faster to support adult learning, ahead of the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement. The CBI, of which I am president, in its Learning for Life report found that, by 2030, nine in 10 people will need to upskill or retrain in order to prevent skills gaps emerging in the UK. Covid-19 has thrown this challenge into even sharper focus, with an urgent need to respond to increasing unemployment. The introduction of a lifelong loan entitlement is a positive step to enable more adults to acquire the skills they need to flourish. However, the 2025 timeline needs to be accelerated in order to support the reskilling that our economy demands. In the interim, the Government should work with further education and higher education providers to incentivise and upskill through more flexible, modular and bite-sized courses.
To build on the Bill and deliver on the priority of boosting adult education, the national skills fund must also provide support for individuals facing the biggest barriers to learning, thus supporting those with the greatest retraining needs. This will be essential to mitigate the job displacement being caused by the pandemic and will help the UK to seize the benefits of an increasingly digital and green economy. We need a levelling-up of opportunity for people to build their skills, but that will require significant business investment. Realising the Government’s ambitions for this Bill will require fundamental levy reform. Addressing skills gaps in our economy and giving everyone access to the education and training they need will cost approximately £130 billion over the next decade. That is what the CBI has estimated. The Government must create the right incentives to unlock business investment in every town, city and region.
In its current form, the apprenticeship levy serves as a barrier to investment in skills. It is distorting investment as firms try to make training fit awkwardly into an apprenticeship. Many firms are also reticent about investing in further skills support until they have spent their full levy fund. A flexible skills and training levy could unleash business investment in both people and workplaces, and could capitalise on the increase in employer demand for the more modular, skills-based provision that the Government are proud of. Does the Minister agree with that?
The Government have also taken steps to make it easier for employers to transfer funds to SMEs in their supply chains. While levy payers are keen to help smaller firms invest in apprentices, that does not overcome the wider challenges, including those faced by SMEs. The fundamental issue is that employers are being forced to address all their training needs via the apprenticeship route, leading to most levy payers underspending their pot of funds. We have reached an impasse with the Government, with the Department for Education pointing the finger at Her Majesty’s Treasury. Will the noble Baroness the Minister clarify the situation?
The Open University has said clearly that the Bill is a key opportunity to reverse the calamitous decline in part-time students in higher education in England. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is essential that this is not missed. I was proud to be the youngest university chancellor in the country at the time, from 2005 to 2010 at the Thames Valley University, now the University of West London. I saw at first hand the amazing number of mature and part-time learners, but that has sadly declined hugely now.
Professor John Holford, who was a fellow commissioner on the Centenary Commission on Adult Education that reported in November 2019, has made some really important points. He says that a Bill which focuses on skills and productivity is important, but post-16 education is also vital for many other reasons too. For example, it can help individuals and communities who are struggling to counteract loneliness and isolation in the wake of Covid. We need to recognise the wider educational role of the further education sector.
Schools and universities celebrate learning for vocational qualifications, but they also teach philosophy, ethics, art and music, which are the tools needed for active citizens. Further education alone is denied that breadth. Educational breadth is needed so that adult education can engage with those who are most in need. Education has often not worked for them in the past. They do not see education as a route to earning more. Adult education needs to be able to offer the kind of learning that will enthuse and engage people. Does the Minister agree? Very often, this will build their confidence so that they can go on to study further for a qualification to progress towards better work, improved health and well-being, along with other outcomes that benefit themselves and their communities.
This Bill offers no new support for students studying below level 3. That pathway is vital to the post-16 educational landscape. Without adequate support in the adult education budget for lower-level qualifications, many students will not be ready and able to take up the level 3 offers that are included in the Bill. Does the Minister agree with this?
The preparation of local skills improvement plans must involve wide consultation not just with employers but with professionals, including community adult education providers such as the institutes for adult learning, general further education colleges and local authority community adult learning representatives.
In conclusion, I am proud to be chancellor of the University of Birmingham. Earlier on, my fellow chancellor, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, made such an important point in this debate. Far too often, people have a mindset that further education equals technical and vocational, while university education equals academic. Universities are also proud to offer vocational training and qualifications, whether that be in filmmaking or engineering.
The noble Lord, Lord Flight, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker.
My Lords, I join in the congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, for a most interesting speech. I welcome this ambitious Bill and the lifetime skills guarantee, both for filling our skills gap and for the personal fulfilment it offers for many who were ill-served by secondary education or need to change direction. I declare interests as a former chair and current fellow of the Working Men’s College, chair of the Department for Education’s stakeholder group for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma education and other positions as listed in the register. I am also grateful for the extensive guidance sent to us on the working of the new plans.
While I very much support expanded provision of higher-level technical education, whose dearth has so much impaired our competitiveness and domestic standards for so long, I want to focus on provision for that large number who need a second chance by widening access to further education.
The fact is that, in 2019, 34.1% of students—over one-third—failed to get a standard pass at grade 4 in GCSE maths or English, the gateway to almost all forms of further education, and that is without counting the number who drop out of education long before the GCSE years. The noble Baroness the Minister will be aware that many Gypsy and Traveller children do this because of the relentless bullying and prejudice which many schools seem unable to eradicate. I am indebted to the Education Policy Institute and the excellent report, The Forgotten Third, for its analysis of the reasons for inadequate attainment. It shows the dismal outcomes in unemployment and low-level crime for this deplorably large proportion of our school students. Needless to say, lack of innate ability does not feature. These are young people who are in the main capable of earning a living and making a contribution to society. They need enhanced access to a second chance.
So, I have a series of questions. How will lifelong entitlement work for them? It seems to be available only for study at higher technical and degree level. How will skills acceleration and local skills improvement plans work for them? In relation to the obligation on colleges and designated institutions to make regular assessments of local needs, how will the colleges take account of school dropouts and school leavers not equipped for available work? It should be said again that there is no evidence that these young people are all lacking in intelligence, although some may have limited aspirations. What account will the proposed government intervention process take of these factors?
In principle, my points all concern access to vocational qualifications. The basic question is: what scope is there for funded initial or foundation courses to enable access to traineeships, apprenticeships and the rest of further education for non-achievers in English and maths? What provision is there for tutoring and mentoring, which are particularly important because of the Covid-related gaps in education, and how will careers advice and guidance on these and other access arrangements be made available? According to the Traveller Movement, Gypsies and Irish Travellers in 2017-18 obtained only 40 traineeships out of 17,700 and 180 apprenticeships out of 216,000.
It is also important for improved teacher training to include the cultural backgrounds of students, including the culture and heritage of that large group of minority ethnic students, not least Gypsies, Travellers and Roma children, who appear prominently in the numbers failed by the system. There have been many incidents of ethnicity-based bullying and prejudice in the further education sector for those few Gypsies, Travellers and Roma students who have surmounted the obstacles to getting in, and it may be similar for other students from minority ethnic backgrounds. Such training would not only be just but would increase the effectiveness of teaching. The same applies to the Office for Students. What assurances can the Minister give us on that point?
In conclusion, as it stands, this potentially useful Bill has little to contribute to levelling up. It is rightly aimed at strengthening the economy but misses the opportunity to include the many who need, and deserve, a fairer chance.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend the Minster for the way she introduced this very important piece of legislation today. I also join them in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her maiden speech.
The Bill highlights areas that in my view have for far too long not received the government attention that reflects their importance. If we are to be an outward-facing global country, the development of skills permitted by the Bill will be critical. The key areas that I want to address briefly today concern the lifelong learning that should be available to all if we are to become that global, competitive country. There is no such thing as “a job for life” anymore. We live in a world where all jobs are expected to be fluid and interchangeable, and to have technology and digital skills at the centre of their roles. Whether it is in construction or in the new emerging economy, our future job roles will need all those skills, from basic technology to intricate digital mapping and AI skills.
Therefore, access to skills training and opportunities to move across sectors will be critical for an agile and quick-reacting economy such as ours. As others have said, will my noble friend ensure that there are no barriers to accessing new qualifications, even if people have already benefited from entry-level qualifications? Lifelong learning must mean exactly that. Employment needs are changing at pace and we must not stop at entry-level roles, as that in itself stops employment development.
I also place a strong emphasis on the importance of language skills. So many times we hear of people from minority communities being exploited in poorly paid roles or, sadly, in some instances being subject to modern-day slavery simply because they lack language skills. It is not good enough to have funding provided to local authorities without clear evidence of how that funding provides tangible, measurable results. The pandemic has shone a light on the fragility of communities in their struggle to protect themselves from not just the pandemic but abuse. They lack access to educational tools and support for families in multigenerational households. We need to address the poverty of learning. I say to my noble friend that these are deeply embedded, long-standing problems that have been ignored for decades.
I will also touch on life skills and experiences. Like many noble Lords, I have participated in educational political surgeries with schools. I recently did one with a high school in Gloucester. There, I was really encouraged to hear the thoughtful and pragmatic approach students had to the world around them. The key points that stuck in my mind included whether focusing on exams at the end of a year was an outdated approach to measuring a student’s potential. Some are great at sitting exams, but many are not. They want a true reflection of their abilities to be measured, rather than just leaving it to the end of the year. Real life does not exist in vacuums, so why should the student experience?
The students also wanted greater exposure to real-life skills such as financial literacy, budgets, and debt management. I thank one particular student called Rose, who made the point so beautifully that I realised how poorly qualified I had been when I left school to manage the businesses I manage now. They were incredibly sensible and practical asks for those thinking about the future jobs market.
Careers advice needs to be delivered by a combination of factors, with technical, business and academic-informed provision. This does not stop or start with young people, but should be available for everyone. Employment will undoubtedly change many times over in our working lifetimes, but people in their mid-40s upwards who might lose their jobs because of the pandemic will need skills to meet the new and current requirements of the jobs market today and in the future. We cannot airbrush these groups out because they do not make a loud noise. Their past experiences mean they need the new skills. I therefore urge my noble friend to make support easily accessible to these groups. Please do not forget that we have a pool of people who will feel that they have been left behind.
Finally, let us celebrate alternative routes to top jobs. Let us treat alternatives to degrees with parity. I have raised this in the House on many occasions: how are the Government monitoring career progression across the Civil Service and Whitehall, where we see less and less inclusion and diversity as we go higher up the organisation? Will my noble friend go back to looking at the levelling-up agenda being not just for the private sector but for all sectors where education and skills play a huge role, so we reach the large pockets of the population who remain on the edges of communities, without hope or help? Let this important Bill be the real game-changer for those communities with untapped potential, such as those in my city of Leicester, that will need ongoing support, particularly after the pandemic.
My Lords, I join in the congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her excellent maiden speech. I declare my interests in the register, particularly my position as chair of council at the University of Salford. I am particularly interested in the provisions in the Bill in respect of bringing together the higher and further education sectors, and providing greater parity of esteem between the various routes, academic and vocational, that one can travel down to secure a quality job. That blurring of the lines between academic and technical education is at the heart of the University of Salford’s mission. Its founding institution was the Royal Technical Institute of Salford, which was established in 1896 to train the workforce of the industrial revolutions.
Over 125 years later, the university is dedicated to powering the fourth industrial revolution. Today, academics are working hand in glove with employers, both public sector and private sector, to transform higher education. The university offers industry-focused degrees, designed with employers and with real-world experience baked in from day one, alongside new routes such as higher and degree apprenticeships. It is this legacy that the university is now building on, with its ambitions to develop an institute of technology. This innovatory project will bring together, in partnership, employees and further education colleges across Greater Manchester, to offer a range of level 4 and 5 courses, higher technical qualifications across digital, engineering and data, to plug the missing middle skills gap that we know employers are so desperately crying out for.
Turning to the legislation itself, I will focus on two areas. Of course I welcome the principle of the lifelong loan entitlement. Access to funding for training and retraining throughout one’s life will be a critical foundation for any aspiration to build a vibrant economy after the coronavirus, However, despite the positive mood music on the lifelong loan entitlement, the Government are leaving us hanging on for the detail. I look forward to seeing the specifics in due course, but I would like to outline two broad principles that I hope the Government will keep in mind when they decide this funding scheme, and perhaps they will respond to them today.
First, parity of esteem between further education and higher education cannot be achieved by simply increasing the funding going to further education at the expense of higher education. Colleges and universities working in partnership to deliver pathways that are right for the individual learner is how we achieve their ambitions, not by promoting further competition between these parts of the education and skills sector, as colleges and universities race to secure limited resources. The funding system, along with the regulatory system, across further and higher education needs to promote collaboration and co-operation, not competition. It is also worth stating that meeting our country’s economic aspirations is not just about more people choosing to do higher technical qualifications rather than going to university. It is about making sure that people go on to further education rather than stopping their learning at level 2 or 3. Our main challenge is not too many people going to university, but that too many people finish education too soon.
The cost of fees is only part of the issue when it comes to securing greater numbers of adult learners through further and higher education. We know that mature students are more debt-averse and cost-conscious than maybe school and college leavers. We have seen this in the sharp decline in mature students, following the raising of tuition fees and the ending of maintenance grants in recent years. Alongside the lifelong learning entitlement, the Government need to consider what maintenance and cost of living support can be provided, especially for adult learners who might have to reduce their hours to enable them to work and study part-time, and for a block period of shorter time-intensive courses. Again, I would welcome a response from the Minister on that today.
I quickly turn to the second matter, the OfS. I have grave concerns about the Government’s plan to allow the OfS to set minimum baselines on quality that do not have regard to students’ background, institution type, subject or location. This move seems at odds with the aspiration to level up access to education and training. It could well also have unintended consequences. There is a real risk that universities will be disincentivised from increasing access to further and higher education to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and from introducing more flexible modes of study.
I conclude with another word of caution to the Government on the Bill. Where collaboration is already taking place in local areas between many local actors—including colleges, schools, universities, businesses, local government, the NHS, elected mayors and combined authorities, as we have in Greater Manchester—support it to flourish. In my area at the University of Salford, we are already leading a consortium of employees and colleges to develop new technical qualifications to meet local skills needs. The university and college sector has already committed to working together. Where structures are in place for joint working, do not seek to replace them for the sake of it. Work with those places to deepen and enhance those structures, recognising the unique needs, strengths and challenges of individual places.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Bill, which I believe is absolutely key to the recovery of our industrial and commercial base post Covid and post Brexit. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, on her maiden speech. I shall be very brief and make just a couple of observations.
Last year, in a debate in your Lordships’ House on the economy, I flagged up the case of an exemplar skills, training and retraining centre: the Marches centre in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. It was experiencing funding issues, and I tried to connect it with government. I was unable to obtain any real sort of response at all from Treasury officials, so I advised the business that I would connect it with the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street. His office was extremely sympathetic, but unfortunately no success was achieved. The training business has survived but in a much reduced way.
It occurs to me that part of that problem was that neither Bridgnorth nor Shropshire and the Welsh Marches benefits from the same level of training and skills education support enjoyed by the large West Midlands conurbations. With this Bill, such a situation must not be allowed to happen.
I have two questions for my noble friend on the Front Bench. How closely are the Skills Ministers and Business Ministers working together to ensure that the Bill is supported and inputted to by business? It is vital that business takes the lead in skills training; it knows exactly what the needs are at the coalface. Secondly, with many training providers facing cash-flow issues due to reduced and considerably leaner numbers from Covid restrictions, what support will those providers be given? Without training providers, the Bill’s deliverables will not be met.
The Bill is an excellent opportunity to provide and enhance the skills of our national workforce, and I welcome it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her outstanding maiden speech, and welcome her to the House of Lords. I know she has made a huge contribution to the higher education sector, most recently and presently at Lancaster University. Her expertise and experience will be of great value in our future debates. I look forward to working with her on this Bill in the forth- coming weeks.
Who could argue with the principal aims of the Bill—to transform post-16 education and training, to boost skills and productivity, to involve employers more closely in course planning and provision, to get more people into work and to launch a new lifetime skills guarantee? What is there not to like? But let me just stop there a minute. We are learning that this Government speak in headlines—ringing headlines that are echoed in the press and social media—but then frequently there is little or no follow-through.
It is important to make it clear that to deliver the transformation that is needed in post-16 provision, a transformation which it is quite clear from the debate so far that we all support, to deliver the objectives of this Bill, we must acknowledge that significant changes are needed, changes to structures, attitudes and funding. On these crucial areas, the Bill is largely silent.
I have been involved in post-16 education in various ways, having served as a governor of an FE and an adult education college. Post-16 education, especially 16-19 education, is incredibly fragmented. There are 11-18 grammar schools, faith schools, 11-18 academies, comprehensives, sixth-form colleges, FE colleges and, very occasionally, tertiary colleges. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that putting employers at the heart of the post-16 skills system relates to their relationship with the local FE college only, but what of the other units providing post-16 education? Will adult education colleges be involved? Will other education providers be drawn into collaboration and, if so, how will this happen?
To be successful, local plans must bring together all schools and colleges in an area, as the noble Baroness, Lady Black, so vividly reminded us in her story about the schools working together with the college in the Lancaster area. Employer groups need to include such major employers as the NHS, local government and local universities. Can the Minister clarify the intentions here because unless there is significant collaboration in local areas across the area, the aims of this Bill will never be achieved?
There is also a huge issue around parity of esteem, and the Minister pointed this out in her opening remarks. Parental choices and student preferences have not changed that much in the past 50 years. Leaving aside public schools—although they cast a long shadow—grammar schools and 11-18 faith schools remain very popular with parents, followed by 11-18 local academies and sixth-form colleges. I regret to tell noble Lords this, but in the local areas that I know well, students are not clamouring to go to the local FE college, even when they want to pursue courses in computer games technology or basic health skills.
I was talking to my 18-year old grandson about this issue recently. He attended a sixth-form college in the north-east. I asked him whether any of his former schoolmates went to the local FE college. His reply was swift and telling: “Only if they couldn’t get in anywhere else.” That showed me that attitudes and perceptions have not changed very much. We all know the problem, dating back to the Education Act 1944, that technical schools and technical education never developed as envisaged, and that in the past two decades all the emphasis has been on getting a university place, not on developing practical technical expertise or getting technical qualifications.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, has been working incredibly hard in recent years to change this situation, but the difficulties that he has encountered show the magnitude of the problems that we are still facing in this area. It will take great effort and a huge transformation of technical provision throughout the country to change perceptions. It is something that we must do, but it will not be easy, and it requires long-term investment.
The Bill is silent for the most part on funding issues, yet we know that one reason why FE colleges have struggled in recent years and have had to cut courses and narrow curriculums is lack of funding and constant cuts to budget. Post-16 education funding is at present not fair and not rational for all the competing institution. My noble friend Lord Layard pointed this out very clearly.
If the Government mean what they are saying about wanting to improve opportunities and boost skills, particularly among disadvantaged students, they must commit to long-term funding, not just for post-16 FE colleges but in a whole range of social welfare provision, to enable poorer, more disadvantaged and unemployed individuals to access courses, train and retrain and become more skilled.
Among the briefings sent to me for this debate was a sobering statistic that 13 million adults in this country—that is nearly one in four people over 18—lack level 2 qualifications, equivalent to GCSEs. Some 9 million adults lack functional literacy and numeracy skills. The Bill has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and it will need major investment over many years if it is to be more than aspirational. We want it to be successful, and I await the evidence in Committee that the investment will be forthcoming.
My Lords, I am proud to be a fellow of City Lit, the leading adult education college in the country, which, alongside other institutes of adult learning, works hard to ensure that all adults, whatever their age or stage in life, can receive high-quality education and learning throughout their lives. However, during this stage of recovery from the pandemic, many people may not yet be ready for retraining or reskilling and will need to rebuild their confidence first, for example, people with a lower level of formal skill, those with long Covid or people who have been in the same sector for decades and are still unprepared for a career change.
The Bill introduces a new duty for further education providers to review how well the education or training provided by the institution meets local needs, with new powers for the Secretary of State to intervene where providers are not meeting local needs, as seen through the lens of the needs of local employers. There is also a focus on technical qualifications and on careers in certain sectors at level 3 and above. However, surely the definition of local needs should incorporate a broader range of outcomes, for example, progression into work for students taking non-accredited courses or qualifications below level 3. Indeed, recent Department for Education data has shown that the return on investment for qualifications below level 2 is higher than that for level 3. As my noble friend Lord Bilimoria and others have emphasised, without adequate support for these lower-level qualifications, many students will not be ready and able to take up the level 3 offers which are featured in the Bill. The Government response to a recent consultation on these qualifications is promised later in the year, and I suggest that this consultation will need to be properly considered alongside the provisions in the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s thoughts on these points.
Education institutions across the country have been impacted by the pandemic but throughout lockdown have continued to deliver high-quality provision by accelerating the development of online courses, retaining many of the strengths of venue-based provisions, such as interaction with tutors and other students, and the ability to draw on learning resources in a range of media. Now that social distancing restrictions are gradually lifting, institutions will look to blend online with in-person provision to offer a range of courses which have greater flexibility than ever before. This is a key time to codesign some of this future provision with local employers and other local stakeholders. However, colleges and providers will be unable to maximise this without an increase in infrastructure, support and investment.
A core purpose of lifelong learning has always been to give people purpose through new experiences and knowledge and by connecting them with other like-minded individuals. We have some amazing institutions that work hard to ensure that everyone is enabled to learn and improve themselves as well as to hold roles within their communities. These institutions provide pastoral support on top of meeting the educational needs of their students. What have I learned during my life about the skills that all citizens need for an uncertain but exciting future, especially during and after a pandemic? First, more traditional approaches to further and higher education are in need of a rethink. In further education there is an aspiration to develop close links between education, business and the cultural and creative sectors. I want to see educational institutions become inclusive places that allow each and every person to find personal fulfilment—places which fully understand the ethical underpinning that enables equality of opportunity, where people can learn from each other, across traditional disciplines, learning to fuse arts, science and humanities to enrich them all. If we do not support the next generation to do this, we will be failing them.
To me, the pandemic launched a cultural revolution which has left some people feeling out of their depth and others thriving because of the resilience and adaptability for which their life experiences and education to date has prepared them. We can learn from their differing experiences. It is becoming clearer that being a digitally competent and confident communicator who is able to work anywhere and manage one’s own time is more important than being a compliant worker who clocks in and out on time. Being able to balance one’s work and personal life is critical too. Some people have perhaps not developed emotionally and in other ways that enable them to manage these boundaries well enough.
We need to be careful not to put all learners in one box, which the Bill and White Paper are at risk of doing. My own interest is to make sure that adults with learning disabilities are not left behind, and that this future strategy ensures that individuals who need high-quality education but may experience significant barriers to accessing it are better catered for. Institutions such as City Lit, offering world-leading provision for adults with learning disabilities, the deaf community and people who stammer or struggle with communication issues, must be able to continue this invaluable work. As we consider the Bill, let us ensure that no one is left out.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her speech.
Over half a century in Westminster’s Houses, I have seen countless Bills, presented by successive Governments— Bill after Bill—and today we have the noble Baroness’s Bill. Britain is still striving to find the holy grail of skills and it is truly a worthy, welcome and urgent objective. One recollects the embattled Chancellor Denis Healey exhorting Britain’s manufacturing companies to drive down unit costs. Today’s Chancellor, Mr Sunak, urges British industry to raise its productivity—not much change over 45 years as Britain struggles to hold on to her manufacturing base.
The Federal Republic of Germany is a mighty industrial presence in Europe, a formidable competitor, a huge exporter, and renowned for engineering skills. Did not Chancellor Bismarck forge a lasting technical skills template in the 19th century? How can we persuade more school leavers to compete to take up apprenticeships? How can we persuade more young women to enter this crucial field? Female entry is woefully low but a successful apprentice in our blue-chip companies might find that the world is her oyster. In the Times the noble Lord, Lord Baker, revealed that the big engineering, motor and aircraft companies pay their apprentices salaries of £12,000 to £20,000 per year, and some even more.
Does the Minister agree that parents of high-school leavers should be told formally and in a timely fashion about these salaries, prospects and activities? Should not head teachers encourage their students to apply for apprenticeships in the most positive manner, as a priority? Do we envisage in the future school tables for apprenticeships gained? It is far-fetched, perhaps, but how better to spur matters forward for the national future?
Ultimately, so much depends upon the head teacher. Today, young women are storming the rugby pitches, soccer fields, cricket squares and the boxing ring. A far better place might be the aerospace shop floor where excellent apprenticeships lead to salaries of £25,000 per year and much more, consequent upon qualification, bonus and shift work. Overall, the modern shop floor is spotlessly clean, well policed by health and safety and complete with pension and holiday. The current industrial playbook demands high-quality housekeeping in today’s factory environment. Rolls-Royce, Nissan, Tata and Airbus all have close, local links with their adjacent FE colleges.
Take, for instance Airbus—the register refers to my interests—which furnishes a splendid example in north-east Wales, my homeland and one-time constituency. It is a 6,000-strong establishment of world-class skills, a reservoir of unbeatable technical prowess and the equal of any comparable factory in the world. It makes the wings that fly the unsurpassed Airbus fleet. Each year a large cohort of able apprentices enter mainstream production. This company earns many billions in exports for Britain and has outstripped its mighty competitor, Boeing. It is the jewel in the crown of Welsh industry and the foundation of its famed advance is leadership, fine apprenticeships, FE and business collaboration, and skills excellence.
The FE college in this renowned mix is Coleg Cambria, which is near the factory runway. It has British awards and competition wins aplenty. The paramount requirement in post-16 education is always the leadership skill of the principal, the CEO. This establishment had fine leadership from Wil Edmunds OBE and David Jones OBE. These able professionals always liaised with head of plant, the professional acknowledged throughout Europe, Mr Paul McKinlay—a brilliant leader. The business world of north-east Wales is the customer for skills. Skills training fails if the business world is shut out. I am keenly aware that unions make up this global and local success in aerospace.
To conclude, in the helpful Explanatory Notes in annexe A on page 23 on provision, there is reference to
“the competence of the Senedd”.
Will the Minister expand on this? How and when was there consultation on the Bill with Senedd Ministers and officials? There may not be time for the Minister to answer; if so, will she please write on the points I have raised?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a council member of City & Guilds. I am very much looking forward to Committee. It has been a pretty challenging Second Reading so far and I am confident that we can do some things to improve this Bill. My own suggestion will be that we should broaden the definition of outcomes in Clause 17 to cover mental health in higher education.
Going into HE is a huge step change for most children. In JCB’s apprenticeships provision, which is pretty remote and therefore provides the facilities a university might, it goes to immense lengths to look after the mental and general well-being of their apprentices. To my mind, universities fall well short of that standard.
When I tried a few years ago to see whether it might be possible to persuade universities to rely more on teacher recommendations to pick out students who were underperforming for reasons of background but might turn out to be extremely good students none the less, they said that they could not do that as they never got to know their students well enough over the course of three years to evaluate whether the teacher recommendations had been accurate enough.
Universities can be lonely, frightening, isolating places. The NHS mental health provision can take some long while to catch up with the move from home to university. I am sure that many of us have stories of friends or relations who have had a mental health crisis at university. In my case, a colleague of mine had a son at a Russell Group university, who happened to be on a course where there did not seem to be much social life revolving around it. He was going back to his student accommodation, where there was not a lot of social life, and it was a chance telephone call from a fairly distant university friend to this child’s mother that prevented the suicide.
It really is not acceptable these days that we allow these sorts of things to go on, when we know they are happening and we know we can do something about it. Universities can and should come up to speed. I do not think that we should find ourselves in a situation where we are giving universities a bad mark—it is something that they can all do well enough and come up to speed on, given a bit of oversight, so that they know they will be watched on it and that this is something they have to do. Clause 17 gives us an opportunity to make some serious progress in this area.
On local skills, I am very much in the same camp as my noble friend Lord Willetts. This is a matter of our children, not just businesses; it is not just the interests of the businesses that matter but what our children are and could become. It is ridiculous to imagine that all children in Eastbourne, where I live, are destined to become either waiters or brickies. I am sure that there are just as many musicians, programmers and engineers in our cohort as there are in the middle of some well-provided city. We are a town of 100,000 people, with no academic state sixth-form provision. It would be very sad if that same attitude of provision was to be extended to vocational education as well.
There is a big role in this area for a national input on skills, on what is needed and on where the jobs are going to come from over the next 20 years. Not all employer groups have good coverage of industries, good skills and good cohesion; not all know what they need in a changing world. We have to support the local structures that we are going to build with a very strong understanding of what is happening in the world outside, and therefore an understanding of how to support those of our children whose destinies are not to work in the local economy.
In that context, I very much hope, along with the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we will do something serious about careers information, advice and guidance. There is an opportunity in this Bill to embed that in a structure that can truly nurture it, to build on the current but much divided successful institutions and provide something that will be part of someone’s lifelong education, which they can turn to whenever they need, and to build on a flexible and modular education that they will receive. Perhaps it will move out of schools, where it really struggles, and into the world of FE, making it much easier for people to obtain the information that they need when they think that they want to change a career.
My Lords, the problem that the Bill addresses has been with us for a very long time. Our education system has long been guided by a single model of human excellence: you start your education in a school and keep progressing until you get to a university degree. If you are smart enough and have the resources and inclination, you might do post- graduate work and end your education with a doctorate. But that is not important; what is important is that you must have a university degree—you must be certified by the university to have acquired a certain body of knowledge and skills. If you are not good enough to go to university, what do you do? You turn to technical education, to the polytechnic, and if you cannot make that, you walk out of the education system altogether.
In short, there has been a deep divide between university and technical education, between higher and further education, and between successfully negotiating the obstacles to higher education and failing to do so. This divide has had some profound consequences for our society and economy. Since university education is the only marker of success and the basis of individuals’ self-respect, everyone wants to go for it, with the result that there is inflation in the pursuit of degrees. Secondly, just as a GP thinks of himself as a failed consultant, the person who fails to make it to university thinks of himself as a failed university graduate. This leads to a tremendous amount of bitterness and sadness, and a lack of self-worth on the part of the individual. The system also means that practical intelligence, being good with one’s hands and mechanical skills are treated as inferior and not valued at all.
Obviously, there is no movement from university to technical education; they are parallel universes and you are confined to one or the other. This has been our problem for the last 150 years. Various attempts have been made to tackle the problem; this Bill is a very sincere and profound attempt to do so. It has some very good ideas—I do not need to spell them out—and the idea that individuals who are interested in higher education would have lifelong access to resources is one that levels up opportunities and is to be greatly welcomed.
Before ending, I want very briefly to point out three or four limitations of the Bill, and I very much hope that the Minister will take account of them. First, it concentrates on technical education and treats it as wholly separate from university education. As in the present system, there is no movement from one to the other; each is encapsulated in its own little stream.
Secondly, and this worries me even more than the first point, technical education is seen and justified almost entirely in instrumental terms. There are skills that a society or region needs, and the question is how you persuade students to go for those skills. What is now suggested, therefore, is a kind of industrial fodder—like parliamentary fodder perhaps, but in the case of industrial fodder students will become not so much respectable individuals trained in the art of thinking for themselves but rather individuals who are masters of certain skills, which they are able to sell.
This has a very important consequence, which I must emphasise, on the regional or local orientation of the education system. Each locality, area or region must indicate its employment needs, but how is this to be done? By employer representative bodies providing a list of skills. That, in my view, is to give employers an enormous amount of power and influence. They will suggest which skills are to be produced, and we know what the limitations of that will be. They are not democratically elected, and so the result will be that you create almost a kind of corporate state, where the state works hand in glove with large employer organisations. I fear the consequences of that.
Finally, in order to execute a system of this kind, the state obviously has a tendency to become heavily bureaucratic. This is one noteworthy feature of the Bill that many of your Lordships has pointed out. It gives the Secretary of State the power to indicate which employer representative bodies to recognise and which to withdraw recognition from, and to ask whether the sector is functioning properly and which provider institutions are not satisfactorily run. Again, this gives the state an enormous amount of power in the field of education, the like of which we have not seen in this country before—not even under Mrs Thatcher. So, while the objectives are valuable, I very much hope that the means to realise them will be just as civilised and humane.
My Lords, I, too, strongly welcome this important Bill. Skills are fundamental to our future well-being both as a nation and as individuals. In order to succeed in an increasingly complex, competitive, technologically driven, net zero-targeting world, we need the right skills in the right places for the right people at the right time. The Bill includes many proposals to enable that. Most of what I wanted to say has been more eloquently expressed by other noble Lords, so I will confine myself to questions in three areas that I believe may need some further thought, relating to small businesses, independent training providers and careers education.
The Bill rightly focuses on ensuring that skills are relevant to local needs, mainly through local skills improvement plans, created and managed by local partnerships and led by employer representative bodies. The Government play a central role through designating the employer representative body for each local area and then through approving the actual plans. This sounds to me more like a top-down, centrally driven approach than a truly local one.
So how will LSIPs engage smaller businesses, particularly in areas with few major employers, where most employers are small? How will the Government ensure that LSIPs are not dominated by the views of larger, better-resourced employers in determining local skills needs and allocating available funding? How will LSIPs build on and work with existing local partnerships, such as LEPs, careers hubs, skills advisory panels and local digital skills partnerships?
On independent training providers, I have a rather different perspective from my noble friend Lady Wolf, who I am rather relieved to see is no longer in her place. ITPs provide a substantial proportion of skills training, including in the great majority of apprenticeships and traineeships. They are an essential and valuable part of the system. Many are small, but they bring much-needed responsiveness, innovation and competition to the skills training marketplace. Yet the Bill seems focused on constraining them through requirements to meet potentially onerous conditions for inclusion in the list of relevant providers.
Before joining noble Lords, I ran a small independent business providing employability training for young Londoners. Our work was commissioned by bodies such as the former London Development Agency, Barnardo’s, Nacro, schools, colleges and local authorities. These provided stringent supervision and oversight. But, as a small business focused on service delivery, we would have struggled to meet the sorts of conditions suggested in the Bill—for example, for insurance cover against possible cessation of training. Such a sledge- hammer approach risks penalising all ITPs for the failings of a few.
So how will independent training providers be more positively engaged in the development and delivery of local skills improvement plans? Will the Minister commit to ensuring full consultation before details of the register of training providers and of the conditions ITPs have to meet are finalised?
Many noble Lords have emphasised the importance of impartial, independent, expert and personal information, advice and guidance, including the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, just now. Careers education and guidance have improved significantly in recent years, helped by the careers strategy launched in 2017, which ended last year. But there is still some way to go to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality careers advice, that its provision covers all ages and circumstances and that it is provided by well-trained, highly qualified professionals with an understanding of the skills scene, both locally and nationally, including pathways for acquiring skills in areas such as creativity—as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam—and entrepreneurship, which we have heard rather less about. Yet the Bill makes no reference at all to careers information and guidance.
Will the Government consider including a right to professional careers guidance as part of the lifetime skills guarantee? Will the provision of good careers education be made a formal requirement for colleges to achieve high Ofsted ratings? Finally, will the Minister commit to producing an updated careers strategy to support the aims of the Bill, including the extension of career hubs to cover the entire country?
I support many other suggestions made by noble Lords, including the desire to see the Baker clause given statutory force and a more flexible apprenticeship levy. I fervently hope that the Bill, when it leaves this House, will be even better crafted to create the skills system we so badly need. I like the description of the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, as a “down- payment”. Will the Government complement it with a comprehensive, overarching, cross-departmental, long-term education and skills strategy, so that the Bill will prove to be much more than just another of the regular reorganisations of our education and training furniture that have so signally failed to deliver in the past?
As my new noble friend Lady Black of Strome suggested in her splendid maiden speech, we need to create an education ecosystem that brings together the talents and energy of all participants in delivering the skills we need, including SMEs, ITPs and careers professionals.
My Lords, I speak today to add my support for this Bill and to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on her maiden speech. The United Kingdom stands at a reset moment. It has delivered on the vote for Brexit, is forging a new trading relationship with our European allies and is charting a course towards global Britain. While the UK was among the hardest hit by Covid-19, it is now finding a way out of the global pandemic, emerging as a world leader in the design, development and distribution of effective vaccines. But if we are to make the most of this reset moment, we will need to unlock the talent, prosperity and potential of our regions, communities and people. In order to do this, there needs to be a real focus on developing the skills required not only for a 21st-century skills revolution but to create the economic powerhouse that will drive the United Kingdom forward. We will need every element of British talent.
In many ways, the UK is well positioned to do just this. We are one of the most prosperous countries in the world, with an open and vibrant economy. Our national institutions are robust and our people are among the most educated in the world. But there are also clear challenges. While levels of prosperity in the UK remain much higher than other nations and increased further during the first half of the 2010s, in more recent years this prosperity has been stagnating. One of the key drivers of this stagnation has been declining enterprise conditions, including skills shortages and barriers to doing business. England, for example, has three times more low-skilled people among those aged 16 to 19 than the best-performing countries such as Finland, Japan, Korea and the Netherlands. In many ways, this was less visible while we had unrestricted immigration. But now that we can feel the impact of more controlled migration, we can see the need to really focus on upskilling our own people. This is a good thing, and one that we should hugely welcome.
So why is this Bill so welcome, and why has our existing approach to skills development simply been insufficient? For the past 20 years, the UK poverty rate has shimmied at around 20% of the population. In the Labour years, just about every income transfer that could be thrown at this challenge was thrown, and the level still shimmied at or around 20%. In the coalition days, just about every employment intervention was thrown at this challenge, and the level still shimmied at or around 20%. If we have learnt anything in the past 20 years, it is that we cannot solve poverty through income transfer alone, or through supporting people into low-paid work alone.
The poverty data shows that if you are on the national living wage, it takes all adults in a household working full-time to lift a family out of poverty. Even then, 10% of such households are still in poverty. These families cannot work any more hours. They need to increase the value of each hour they work. To do this requires increased skills.
The way to ensure that families who are doing everything right are out of poverty is to invest in their skill level and enable them to be able to earn more for each hour they work. This Bill is therefore hugely important as part of an anti-poverty strategy, but to actually level up requires us to develop those with the lowest levels of skills at a faster rate even than those who are already skilled. This will require opportunity, so there is one area where I would specifically like to probe a little on this matter.
The current welfare system is not really designed as a support mechanism for those on low incomes to upskill. It is designed as an anti-poverty tool and to support people as they transition into work and up their hours. So I ask my noble friend the Minister: what changes are the Government considering to universal credit conditionality to support their excellent approach to skills development?
But this Bill is important not only as an anti-poverty tool; it is also hugely important for employers. Many businesses report a deterioration of local conditions for enterprise, including skills shortages and barriers to doing business. Assessments of adult skills generally point to skills mismatches and many employers report that a lack of skilled workers is a major and increasing bottleneck for their operations, affecting their capacity to innovate. On average, 26% of vacancies are generated by skills shortages within businesses. This is as high as 36% in, say, the south-east. Across a range of sectors, there is a growing employer demand for the skills that higher technical education provides.
The White Paper highlights the need for technicians, engineers and health and social care professionals to meet the many vital challenges we face as a society. Investing in these skills at both a local and a national level is critical to improving our productivity and international competitiveness. Our skills system has been very efficient at producing graduates but has been less able to help people get the quality technical skills that employers want. A stat that we have heard quoted today is that 4% of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25, compared with the 33% who get a degree or above. Just imagine if we could have a society where 33% achieve higher technical level qualifications as well as 33% getting a degree.
I am delighted to be supporting a Bill that will enable people to invest in their ability to earn more for each hour they work, that will enable employers to develop their businesses using the incredible talents of the British people and that will enable us to compete on the world stage at this critical moment of transition for us as a nation.
My Lords, I agree very much with a lot of what the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has just said. But I shall be listening to the Minister respond—I hope—to the questions from the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Puttnam, and to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Layard, made about the cuts.
Of course, I must welcome what was—no doubt about it—an awesome maiden speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome. I fully admit that I had read about her in the past and was in awe of what she was doing and what she had achieved. Her speech was absolutely magnificent.
First, I declare my interests—no, let us do the Lords’ interests. At present, there are about a dozen ex or current university vice-chancellors in the Lords and, last time I checked, over 40 university chancellors. I am unaware of any leader or ex-leader of further education being in the Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Layard, made the point about the cuts to FE. If that had happened in higher education, there were 40 chancellors waiting in the Lords to pounce on Ministers.
In 12 years in government, in several departments, I never met a civil servant who had further education experience and, as far as I am aware, no one in the Cabinet has been through further education. It is a bold claim, of course, but I doubt that many Members of the House have had actual FE experience as a student—and as for the Commons, such experience today would be a rarity. This makes the Bill even more important. It is concerned with important aspects of life that policymakers and lawmakers have no hands-on experience of. Those are not quite the criteria to get it right.
I left secondary technical school in 1957. There were two such 13-plus schools in Birmingham, one specialising in engineering at Handsworth and the other in Bournville specialising in construction. It is amazing: these are of course two of the sectors where there are skills gaps existing now that this Bill is supposed to address, but there were only ever two technical schools in Birmingham. I did three years day release in further education while I was doing my indentured apprenticeship for a mechanical engineering Ordinary National Certificate, and two nights a week to get my endorsements in electrical and English—although I suspect I never really made it in the latter.
In the FE college at the time, there was abundant adult education, as there was in some secondary schools. For many years in the period 1972 to 1997, I served on the board of an FE college, so I was aware at first hand of the changes from pure technical skill to a more comprehensive range of courses, and the change from local authority control. I think our first action on the board, post local authority, was to change the name of the college so that people knew where it was. This was far more important than it sounds, by the way, from a marketing point of view.
In some ways, I missed the phase where colleges became more competitive and aggressive, and indeed remote from their communities—although I was shocked, when taking over from my friend the late Lord Corbett of Castle Vale as chair of the local community organisation, by the negative approach of a city centre further education college to a campus at Castle Vale. That was caused purely by remoteness.
I freely admit I am now more out of date, but I want the Government to succeed in this endeavour for the good of the country—as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said, this is not a political Bill. But I fear a further narrowing of the existing provision and curriculum. It appears the educator voice is missing, which cannot be a surprise given my introductory remarks, and there is clearly no accountability to communities. I am not, however, fearful of employer involvement in courses. This was very strongly the case in the 1950s and 1970s, but employers are not the same. Today they are more “here today, gone tomorrow” than in the days before our deindustrialisation. Some strategic stability is required and therefore a partnership with educators is vital—and I have to say that I think this should include professional organisations such as the chartered institutions. I do not think anybody has referred to those today. They were crucial in FE, in awarding certificates, along with the old Ministry of Education.
The range of courses has got utterly out of control due to the market. But we need to be careful about classifying qualifications that have so-called “low economic value” and therefore restricting choice and flexibility. Low economic value to one can be the salvation for another new enterprise or product. We have an unequal nation where levelling up is not I hope intended to make us all the same, but we need to ensure that the Bill works for more diverse, non-traditional cohorts of students.
Further education, unlike higher education—I have a mixed experience of a sandwich course at a college of advanced technology and then, after a 10-year gap, post-graduate work—can be more transformative. It can help build the alert democracy and support the aspirations of all, going well beyond skills preparation for jobs. For some, it may be the only route to any qualifications they ever obtain, but there needs to be LA involvement, maybe through the mayors. We ignore our local capacity at our peril. Indeed, I once read that a nation’s greatest asset was the capacity and willingness of its people to work. This Bill must improve our human asset base.
My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I feel I should declare my FE experience, which was shorthand at Wagga Wagga College in Australia and a very brief, and perhaps best glossed over, experience of farm mechanics a long time ago.
I will start with some older history, however: human history, or rather prehistory. Some 400,000 years ago, in the East African Rift Valley, the human species faced a huge threat: a massive ecological change. The very foundations of their world had shifted. Archaeological evidence shows that those ancient humans—individuals just like you and me—developed new skills and technology, and used their creativity to develop new forms of communication, all remarkably quickly. That is an account drawn from a major study in the journal Science Advances, published last year. I hope your Lordships’ House will see the parallels with what we face today.
We face a climate emergency, the state of our nature is dire and our current growth-driven economic model has left us in a crisis of poverty and inequality. Massive change is needed—yet, for all the Bill’s talk of the future and the need for transition, neither it nor the policy summary make any mention of climate or nature. There is only a brief mention of them in the impact assessment. Your Lordships’ House has found itself in this situation with multiple recent Bills, and other Bills have left here only after the addition of at least some reference to climate and nature. I hope that we can do that again. As the country that is the chair of COP, with a Government who like to attach the words “world leading” to “green”, it is quite astonishing that we should find ourselves in this position again.
I point noble Lords to the excellent Peers for the Planet briefing on these issues, which goes into far greater depth than I have time to do today. However, I will tick off some points. First, the global economy has to be green, and, even in the Government’s own terms, there is a significant competitive advantage in enabling UK workers to upskill in green areas. Secondly, the Government have, or are promising, a whole range of sector-specific strategies, but we see no sign of how these will be joined up with the local skills improvement plans. Thirdly, we get from the Government a very narrow idea of what future skills are needed—there seem to be a lot of hard hats involved and, of course, the ubiquitous digital skills. Of course we need a huge amount of improvement in those areas, but equally urgent are skills in sustainable land management, nature-based solutions and ecosystem management—hard-toed boots perhaps, but caked in healthy life-rich soil rather than hard concrete. Fourthly, we see no way in which the Bill feeds into the need for a just transition for individuals and communities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, powerfully illuminated.
Young people are demanding that their education include far more information about climate and sustainability. They understand that it is central to every part of their future life—so why are the Government not able to consider this in every part of education in our society? The sustainable development goals to which the Government signed up and the systems thinking that underlies them should be in every part and level of education.
That brings me to some points about what is in the Bill. I begin with the expert remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport. I would associate myself with everything that she said but focus particularly on one point: she said that the local skills improvement plans need to be coproduced by communities, politicians, educators, students and businesses. From the Government, we are hearing very much a sole focus on business, and we know that the loud business voices are likely to be the big ones, which are not the major part of our economy. As the excellent University and College Union briefing on this Bill notes, the educator voice is missing from the Government’s plans. I want to focus on and extend the noble Baroness’s point about students, for if students are not at the heart of designing courses, they are unlikely to meet their needs, not just for a narrow set of technical competencies but for life in a fast-transforming world.
We now come to the big issue: what is education for? The majority of today’s speakers have focused on employment, but we all need lifelong learning and continuing education in varying forms and fitting various places in the Government’s classifications, from level 2 upwards. We need to function in society as community members, voters, parents and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, noted, users of the financial sector. In a society with an epidemic of mental ill-health, we should not underplay the value of learning new skills, finding new places in society for public health, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, noted.
The Minister said in her introduction that 34% of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment. I really hope she will acknowledge that that does not mean they are not using the skills they obtained from that education. Employment is not the only place those skills are needed. That is where I find myself, considerably to my surprise, in agreement with the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Johnson. Setting further and higher education against each other, even in opposition to each other, and suggesting that funding should not be available to those with higher qualifications for so-called lower-level courses further hardens what is already an extraordinarily hierarchical system.
I fear that the Minister, in response, may say I am drawing the brush too widely, that these are matters for other Bills and other days. I go back to the first words of the Bill:
“A Bill to make provision about local skills improvement plans; to make provision relating to further education”.
Education is not and cannot be just about jobs or serving the economy.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a board member of the Capital City College Group and chair of the advisory board of Learning Development Training, a private further and higher education provider. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who raised some important issues. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, and look forward to hearing more about her life.
FE and skills were described by the Minister, and many others, as a Cinderella service in education. However, Cinderella did actually get to the ball: FE rarely has. This is not new; we have a record of neglect. In his history of the loss of British influence, Corelli Barnett set out a two-centuries’ long failure to foster a coherent skills base, which equipped us so poorly as an industrial power before each world war and then again afterwards. Yet we routinely say that the Government must do better, and despite efforts in FE and some exceptional colleges—I pick just one, Bridgwater & Taunton College—the Government themselves routinely do no better. This legislation is a major opportunity for more than 2.2 million students per year currently to develop career opportunities. I welcome that, but the devil is in the detail.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, set out an extensive set of details we will need to amend, especially given the extent of cuts in recent years. The Bill faces a world of profound social and cultural change. Work is restructuring and sometimes vanishing at an unprecedented rate. AI will accelerate the change. Personal and group identities and aspirations are changing, and I believe there is a concomitant acceleration of social fragmentation. Access to information and knowledge is unparalleled, and with changing technologies has come a growth in personal demand for choice—an insistence on personal choice which will not be amenable to strict direction.
The world of skills providers is no longer the traditional rationalist, calculative, instrumental and depersonalised one. It still demands expertise, not least because of its complexity, but it is now more characterised by being networked, information-based, personal, risky and often post industrial. There is a demand for new competences, the capability to withstand more competition, to deal with faster technical and environmental change and to know that there are no jobs for life. They flow from the structural changes in industry and occupations, and all these changes in the nature of workplaces, work/life balance, and the dreadful fact that some households have people now in the third generation of unemployment —truly left behind—pose a great challenge. This must surely focus us on enabling personal aspiration wherever the aspiration can be met in the UK.
The Bill has to achieve vital goals. First, it must overcome chronic poor productivity against the background I have tried to describe. It must ensure high skill levels are achieved and geographically distributed, but allow for enhanced personal mobility. That means far more lifelong learning and far better literacy and numeracy. Raising skills would drive the UK to being a high-supply, high-demand economy and away from low productivity but, if it is to succeed, the financial support of students must be far more explicit than it is in the Bill, especially up to level 3 and as people change career course.
Secondly, the Bill has to respond to the need for work readiness. The better the qualifications of students, the better employers say their applicants are prepared. It is right to focus on employability, but experience shows that employers are not always expert at reading the runes about the future rather than identifying their immediate needs. If the Bill is to succeed, there will need to be serious consultations about developments in business demand. With the best will in the world, that cannot rely exclusively on employers. There is a significant role for government industrial strategy, for skills advisory councils and certainly for individual students.
Next, a third of adults engage in no formal learning whatever after leaving school, yet they live in a world which is changing rapidly and constantly, so the Bill must address the motivational barriers from early learning onwards. This is not just a matter for colleges, sixth-form colleges or indeed the many entities in this space. They need to work collaboratively; it is a whole-society issue. It is fundamentally an issue of economic and social resilience for the United Kingdom, and we must learn the lessons of the last couple of years. Perhaps our most valuable asset is our ability to co-operate.
Finally, a simple switch between university and skills funding, as several noble Lords have said, is surely misconceived. To prosper in a world of rapid technological change and innovation, and with the growing importance of creativity, including the arts, in our economy, it is essential to develop people who can work through the challenges of fundamental rethinking. A significant proportion will have to be able to deal in conceptual analysis, and this has been a central example of progress in history. Professor Robert Reich’s huge influence on boosting the competitiveness of the United States economy was built on this thought. In short, higher education provides the necessary condition for education-led prosperity, as it is also a wide basis for vocational qualification. Yet we must also meet the needs of the sufficient conditions, and that is where the skills agenda and this Bill can be transformative. This is the foundation of meaningful parity of esteem. Let us not embark on a turf war between HE and FE funding—that can never help. We, and the Bill, will be tested on the promotion of an all-through co-operation, not on robbing Peter to pay Paul.
My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of the Royal Veterinary College and former chancellor of Cranfield University and my various environmental interests. It is really great to be number 50 on a speakers’ list; everything that could be said has been said, but unfortunately I have not yet said it, so I will try to be brief.
I welcome the Bill in principle for its provisions on technical skills education and lifelong learning opportunities for all, but it misses a real opportunity that has already been raised by a number of Peers. The twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity decline are the biggest existential threats globally; the Bill needs to respond to that and to take an ambitious approach to developing the wide range of skills to meet our global climate and nature goals and to exploit new UK and global markets and jobs that these goals are already creating.
We need to move to a prosperous zero-carbon economy and society with the help of the Bill. It should be a catalyst for building the wider public understanding and behavioural change fundamental to meeting net zero and reversing biodiversity loss, such as in the case of those challenges driven by our rising consumption across the globe. This is not just my view—businesses, educators and learners have all expressed their views and provided strong evidence that climate and sustainability considerations need to be embedded into our post-16 framework.
Local skills improvement plans have been raised by many noble Lords; they must not just be driven by local employers but take account of government priorities and strategies, such as the industrial decarbonisation strategy, the energy White Paper, the nature strategy and the heating and building strategies. This Government appear to have quite a lot of strategies. With skills for nature-based solutions, ecosystem management, drainage and even tree planting, we will need to think of the future. A child starting school this summer will leave in 2035 and will move into labour markets that will be largely zero carbon. The Bill also needs to offer support to workers transitioning out of high-carbon sectors or intensive agriculture who already possess level 3 qualifications but will not be able to access the lifelong loan entitlement. That needs to be changed.
Along with many other noble Lords, I want to voice my comments about the mood music around higher and further education at the moment, which might well impact on this Bill and on post-16 education. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Johnson, that there should not be a false conflict between further and higher education; they should work in collaboration and not compete for resources. Ensuring parity of esteem is important, but it should be by investing in further education, not by taking funds away from higher education and levelling down.
At times, the Government are almost hostile to higher education, with the result that courses are being judged on student outcomes defined partly by getting degree-level jobs, whatever they are, and earning appropriate incomes. It seems to be obligatory at this point to declare your education, so here I go: I have an MA in Classics from Edinburgh University, a highly relevant degree, but not exactly job orientated in some people’s views. For reasons best known to myself and a complete mystery to my mother, I took a job as a secretary for two years post graduation, which would have screwed up Edinburgh’s outcome measures, had they existed 50 years ago.
I believe that we need careful scrutiny of Clause 17 on quality assessment for higher education. Metrics of quality need to take account of contextual factors, if they are not to jeopardise widening access for the less advantaged. They must take account of how students define their success and the flexibility that they will need in the fast-changing job market.
My Lords, this has been an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate. I thank the Minister for her co-operation and for having meetings with us beforehand. I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, on a brilliant maiden speech. I noticed all the Lancaster connections, with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, being Lancastrians; my daughter and her husband met at Lancaster 30 years ago, so it has fond memories for me too. I hope we shall hear much more from her in the future, whether it is on the living or the dead.
Given all the very many briefings we have received from far and wide, I start by asking the Minister what discussions the Bill team had with stakeholders before drafting the Bill. Did they take advice from the Association of Colleges, the Open University, City & Guilds—I declare my interest as a vice-president, having worked there for 20 years—or from the Federation of Awarding Bodies, which held a discussion this morning that threw up some interesting questions that I had not thought of, or from independent training providers? We heard from the noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Aberdare, about the importance of independent training providers, and other awarding organisations. If so, did the Government take their advice or, given all the amendments that we seem to be throwing up, did they proceed without reference to those whose professional lives have been devoted to skills, colleges and adult education?
I am also involved in the Professional Qualifications Bill, where the Minister keeps telling us he will “assuage” us, as he attempts to convince the Committee that all is well with that Bill. Will the Minister hope to “assuage” us this afternoon, I wonder?
Of course, we are all delighted to have a skills Bill; as we know, skills and further education are too often overlooked. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I blame it in part on the fact that almost all officials and politicians have gone the university route. They have had little or no contact with work-based, vocational qualifications, nor indeed with further education, as they have followed the gilded path of academia, often regarding trade, if they regard it at all, as another less privileged world. How wonderful that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, is a shining example of how very mistaken that view is.
The growth in apprenticeships is beginning to erode the divide and curiously, one outcome of Covid may be that university experience with no face-to-face teaching, socialising or drunken raves may be looking less inviting to the young school leavers. So we approach this Bill with high hopes and expectations but, having read the myriad briefs, those hopes and expectations are not as high as they might be.
If I am one of the winders, I like to namecheck, but I am afraid I will have to apologise this time. I have listened to everyone, including when I was doing my duty on the Woolsack—I am quite capable of multitasking —but time will not permit me to acknowledge all the insightful contributions we have heard today.
I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, is not in his place. I welcomed his piece in yesterday’s Times, with his well-reasoned arguments for abandoning the ELQ rules whereby you cannot get funding for studying for an equivalent or lower-level qualification than one you already possess, even in a completely different subject area and when it could open doors to other employments. I hope the Government will look at this again, because it really is very detrimental.
We welcome the lifelong learning entitlement, although we Liberal Democrats regret that it is in the form of a loan. We heard the reasons why from both the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wyld. Many adults will be reluctant to incur debt when, mid-life, they have responsibilities to families, so pursuing their own improvement could seem selfish. We wish to see this as a grant, a skills wallet, which we are sure would pay for itself as the recipient’s earning power and self-esteem increase.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, we are also anxious not to lose sight of the value of levels 1, 2 and 3 qualifications. Level 1 can often be the stepping stone for those who have never passed any exams to gain new confidence and the desire to continue to learn. We saw this many times with NVQs at level 1, derided by the snobbish press as “not very qualified”. Actually, they applied that to all the NVQs, which just shows how ignorant and prejudiced some journalists can be. At City & Guilds we saw non-learners grow in stature when awarded a national qualification—a national certificate—and given a real incentive to continue. The Minister says that they do not feature in this legislation because they are catered for elsewhere. Perhaps she could clarify that.
All the questions I would have asked have, of course, by now already been asked—just not by me, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said. I will concentrate on a handful of areas in which we would really like to hear the Minister’s reply and hope to be assuaged. The first is the relationship between Ofqual and IfATE, which has already been raised. The Minister said this would be collaborative. Will it be collaborative? Will it duplicate? Will it make things much more complex? The fear is that these two organisations will make the situation more complex.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, talked passionately about enforcing the Baker clause. When the technical education Bill was going through, this was the only amendment the Government accepted. Of course, it was a Conservative amendment. All our brilliant Liberal Democrat amendments got thrown out. Then an election was called so we were not even able to have ping-pong. The Baker clause is a very valuable thing whereby people have to go into schools, at an early enough stage that the youngsters still have decisions to make, to tell them about UTCs, colleges and all the other possibilities.
This leads us on to the whole business of careers information and guidance, which a great number of noble Lords brought up, including the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Lucas, and my noble friend Lord Stunell in connection with the construction industry particularly. It is vital that young people are shown the possibilities at a very early stage. There is evidence that youngsters at the age of six or seven have already gender-stereotyped particular jobs. This is not good for them, the economy or anybody.
Schools need to collaborate with colleges. Schools have all sorts of incentives for wanting to hang on to their pupils and to make them do GCSEs and A-levels. My noble friend Lord Storey asked: would it not be wonderful if schools celebrated their apprenticeships? I remember, in the balmy days of coalition government when I was in the DfE, saying to Michael Gove: “For goodness’ sake, get the schools to celebrate their apprenticeship leavers. If they’re putting up a placard outside the school saying, ‘These kids have all gone on to university’, put up another one saying, ‘These ones have gone on to apprenticeships’.” He said, “What a very good idea, Sue”, and did absolutely nothing about it—but there we are.
If we are to work with the colleges, one of the inequities that needs to be redressed is the difference in pay between college teachers and schoolteachers. It really is not right, so will the Minister please take that away and try to do something about it?
One of my major concerns when the technical education Bill was going through was that T-levels were technical—just “technical”. As we have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam, Lord Johnson and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, a whole range of craft and creative industry qualifications really deserve their place. Not only are they good for careers and economy but, by goodness, they increase our quality of life. Yet this emphasis all the time on technical qualifications rather implies that craft does not matter; it does, and we need to do something about it.
I had another bit of paper somewhere; I have just a couple more things. We fully endorse funding for modular and short courses. That is absolutely essential, but why not until 2025? As we have already heard, that really needs to come forward. We need it as soon as possible.
We also notice with concern the sad drop-off in part-time learners from both the Open University and Birkbeck, but I also read that there has been a 26% fall in undergraduate higher education in the last decade. Where are all our young people going? What are they doing? This really is not good enough. We need a full-time push to try to get skills and education back on the agenda. If this Bill can be the catalyst for that, that will be terrific.
I have a last bit of paper somewhere, except that I have lost it. No, here we are. We have too much paper in this place. I have to say that, when you sit for six hours in the Chamber with a mask on, some of your rationale does disappear.
We have had an absolutely wonderful variety of speeches. All of us in the Chamber are committed to skills and education, and to the Bill going through and improving skills and education opportunities for everybody, but we have also heard major concerns that it really does need amendment. I feel sure that we shall all be prepared to work cross-party to try to ensure that we improve the future for young people and adults, and that the Bill ends up as a major contribution to the economy and the well-being of all of us. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and to Committee.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating and in many ways stimulating debate. Perhaps that was inevitable given that participants included four former Secretaries of State for Education. For more than an hour, we had the company of the current holder of that post, which does him some credit. Four former Education Ministers also spoke.
As my noble friend Lord Rooker pointed out, in his typically forthright style, many noble Lords referenced positions held in higher education institutions. To the best of my recollection, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, was the only Member to declare a position as a board member of an FE college, far less a school. That is another aspect of the divide that we need to bridge if our calls for parity of esteem are to have the ring of authenticity.
I am pleased to wish the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, a warm welcome to your Lordships’ House. I add my congratulations on her remarkable maiden speech. I do not know the noble Baroness, but I certainly know of her. She was a professor at the University of Dundee, my home city, so I was aware that she had created the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification there. It has now gained an international reputation.
This Bill has been a long time coming, because it is the first piece of government education legislation laid before Parliament for almost five years. That is so far in the past that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, was then the Education Secretary. We are now on her third successor.
The data shows that 16 to 19 education in England has suffered a huge funding squeeze, as my noble friends Lady Blackstone and Lord Layard stated. Between 2010-11 and 2018-19, real-terms funding per student in sixth forms and colleges fell by 16%. Technical students received 23% less funding than academic students. Recent additional funding of £400 million announced by the Government focused on technical education will, I am afraid, reverse only a quarter of these cuts.
The Bill does not deal with fundamental resourcing issues, but these have to underpin any serious attempt to transform post-16 education and training, which the policy summary notes claim is the main aim of this legislation. The impact assessment identifies the huge decline in adult education, apparently without appreciating the irony, given that the adult education budget has been slashed by half in real terms, which has led to a sharp decline in adult learners and particularly in workplace learning. The Government’s recent pettiness in axing the Union Learning Fund showed that Ministers are more interested in playing politics than supporting workplace learners. None of the Bill’s objectives will be achieved if these issues remain unaddressed.
The Bill covers only FE providers and sixth-form colleges. It makes no reference to schools, yet they play a vital role in equipping young people with the skills they need to thrive in life. The White Paper stressed the importance of good careers education in schools, a point made in today’s debate by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, yet the Bill does not mention that either. A significant number of schools deliver technical qualifications —some have been accepted to pilot T-levels —and it is difficult to understand how a meaningful local skills strategy can exclude post-16 provision in schools.
One of the main planks of the Bill is the introduction of a lifetime skills guarantee, albeit, as many noble Lords have said, with a rather narrow focus within the technical disciplines that it will support. Almost 1 million priority jobs will be excluded from the lifetime skills guarantee in sectors facing a skills shortage. What about Wednesbury Woman who wants to retrain as a computer programmer, or Mansfield Man who wants to go into hospitality? What is in the Bill for them? Inexplicably, hospitality—a sector desperate for new staff and suffering terribly from the effects of lockdown—is excluded.
One significant barrier for adult learners is the cost of study, an issue not included in the Bill despite being highlighted in its impact assessment. Perhaps the Minister can explain that conundrum. While provisions are made for a lifetime loan entitlement, it is unfortunate that its details are yet to be revealed. The effect of this is that they cannot be scrutinised by noble Lords today and must be delayed until Committee.
Lifelong learning must mean just that, as many noble Lords have said. People should have access to training and reskilling throughout their lives, but there remain concerns that the LLE may see participants being saddled with substantial debts, especially if the Government fail to deliver on the recommendation of the Augar review that maintenance grants should be reinstated for people from low-income households, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. We are told this is an issue on which the Government will consult. I have to ask: why? Wales has shown that these grants attract many into training, so why yet more delay?
The question of delay also concerns the LSG, which will not be introduced until 2024, and the LLE a year later. The Minister referred to complexities in this regard involving the modular system, but the many people facing unemployment in the coming weeks and months needs access to courses now to help them to retrain and upskill. What does the Minister say people should do in the interim while this is being developed?
The Government say that their main focus is on helping the country recover from the pandemic’s damage to the economy and spreading opportunity more evenly across the regions—worthy aims. Local skills improvement plans are identified as the means of achieving that, but the employer representative bodies in the legislation seem designed to be creatures of direct ministerial control; several noble Lords have registered their concern about that. While it is right that our skills system should be better at identifying and meeting the skills needs of employers, designating them the exclusive drivers of technical education, as my noble friend Lady Morris said, gives them too much power. Employers certainly have a contribution to make, but to suggest that no other bodies have anything to offer is surely wrongheaded, not least because employers do not have a great track record in training their employees for future patterns of work and developing skills demands. After all, the Government introduced the apprenticeship levy specifically because encouragement had failed.
The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, referenced the West Midlands metro mayor. I wonder what Mr Street’s reaction is to being completely sidelined, along with other metro mayors, combined authorities, local enterprise partnerships and universities. We will bring forward amendments that empower these bodies to co-produce local plans in recognition of their own vital roles.
The Minister has important questions to answer here. Top of the list is to explain the membership, functions and central government control of employer representative bodies. How will they undertake their planning, particularly when starting from scratch? How will ERBs be held to account, and how will the extent to which providers are meeting local needs be measured and assessed? What will happen if a metro mayor disagrees with the ERB? What role is envisaged for local enterprise partnerships, which are not mentioned in the Bill at all? Yesterday’s issue of the Local Government Chronicle carried an article claiming LEPs were to be evolved rather than abolished. Can the Minister confirm that, and whether such evolution will be the subject of consultation?
My noble friend Lady Wilcox made the important point that supported internships, which can play a major role in supporting learners with learning difficulties to prepare for and enter the world of work, must be added to the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, also spoke passionately of the need for the inclusion of supported internships, which should be an integral part of local skills plans. This is sure to be addressed in Committee.
The Bill’s centralising theme also extends to two aspects of further education. It hands the Secretary of State powers of intervention if he does not like what a particular college is teaching, even if the quality of that teaching has been shown to be good. The Secretary of State can dismiss the local leadership team if the college is deemed not to be following the LSIP. Independent training providers will also be cowering at the thought of being targeted by Ministers for the same reason—a warning we heard issued by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard.
That seems draconian, but the Bill also gives Ministers the ability to regulate initial teacher training for further education. Such a system did exist; it was introduced by the Education Act 2002 but abolished by the Deregulation Act 2015. I ask the Minister what has led to the need for change just six years later. It seems the intention is to introduce standards for ITT in further education and to accredit providers to deliver them. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that, but it sounds like the politicisation of initial teacher training—something that, as my noble friend Lord Knight highlighted, is already happening in ITT for schools, as a result of Ministers’ commitment to a particular educational ideology.
In opening the debate, the Minister referenced the Augar review’s call for parity of esteem, and many noble Lords followed her lead. If one theme has dominated the debate, it is the need to end the division between academic and technical routes, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, rightly said, is a false one. He illustrated that by reminding us that academic courses are offered at FE colleges, while technical subjects can be studied in universities. The divide was characterised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds as a “crazy distinction”. While my noble friend Lord Puttnam stressed that this is not a zero-sum game, my noble friend Lord Liddle called for “collaboration, not polarisation”. I echo these sentiments and very much hope that the Bill will at least begin to bridge that divide.
While we welcome the Bill’s aims, there remain many areas of detail—some not in the Bill, as drafted—that require extensive scrutiny and testing. We look forward to engaging with both Ministers in Committee, with a view to enabling the Bill to achieve a joined-up system of education, including regulation and funding.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions today; I appreciate the expert knowledge that they bring and the many passionate speeches. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, I hope I have retained some of my rationality during this interesting debate.
I begin by giving a special thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, for her maiden speech. Like my noble friend Lady Morgan, I am the beneficiary of a touch typing course, which has stood me in good stead. I was fascinated to hear of the career of the noble Baroness, Lady Black, in forensic anthropology—but, as one of the more squeamish Members of your Lordships’ House, I do not need to know anything further. I wish her well, and hope that she enjoys her time in this House as much as I do.
I turn now to the points that noble Lords have raised. But given that there have been 50 speakers, as was outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I am afraid that the department will be writing some letters after I have concluded.
Before I turn to the specific questions, many of your Lordships followed the lead of my noble friend Lord Willetts, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and my noble friends Lord Baker and Lord Cormack. I am the beneficiary of the wisdom of previous holders of junior and Secretary of State positions in the department, in that my homework has been corrected: there is no artificial distinction between vocational, technical and academic—no sense that one is better than the other. We are trying to achieve a system where they all have parity of esteem, where the institutions that teach these qualifications have parity of esteem and where the quality of all those qualifications is there.
The reforms in the Bill are aimed at bringing the system closer together and the lifelong loan entitlement, for instance, will bring together all the funding support for learners—that is, level 4 to level 6—wherever you might be studying that. One can also look at the system at the moment and see that there is not a conflict or a battle between FE and HE—the Government do not desire that at all. We recognise the collaboration there is. When we look at the recent introduction of institutes of technology, we see that they have been a collaboration; the university technical colleges of my noble friend Lord Baker have also been a collaboration, as have been the recent specialist maths sixth-form colleges, with universities involved in 16 to 19 provision. So the system is not even that twofold—just FE and HE. We will also fund T-levels, A-levels and other high-quality academic and technical qualifications for young people and adults at level 3. This will ensure that, whatever option learners choose, they will have a pathway to success.
A few noble Lords mentioned being disqualified from access to LLE. If you want the funding for level 4 and you are accepted by the institution to study that, it does not matter if you do not have level 3 or level 2. That is how universities have operated for a while: they sometimes have different access routes. Therefore, although obviously we have the funding situation for levels 1 and 2, you will have that entitlement. If you get accepted on a course at level 4, you will be in the lifelong loan entitlement pot. There is no prerequisite that you have to have level 3. However, of course we recognise the value of those qualifications, as many noble Lords have said, and therefore the advanced learner loans will still exist for level 3 courses that are not the 400 courses that we are currently funding if you do not have the full entitlement or if you have the full level 3 entitlement and want to do something different. I hope that clarifies that everyone will have that lifelong loan entitlement between levels 4 and 6.
On the measures in the Bill on local skills improvement plans, I agree with my noble friend Lord Taylor on the importance of localism. The local skills improvement plans are putting employers at the heart of the skills system in a way similar to the apprenticeship situation and the T-levels that we have designed. Many noble Lords talked about that tension: someone has to be in the driving seat here. There cannot be a cast of thousands but there needs to be appropriate consultation. So the Government have decided that these will be employer representative groups. To clarify to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we did not define them as businesses but as employers. That might be the big local hospital, or a university might be an employer for that purpose rather than just being the provider. They are well placed to have that convening role, including of course the SMEs, in their local area. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds highlighted, their involvement is crucial.
My noble friend Lady Morgan asked what the Government envisage ERBs to be. We consider them to be independent bodies designated by the Secretary of State to develop local skills improvement plans. They are capable of developing that plan in an effective and efficient manner and many noble Lords talked about the future—the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Lane-Fox. The plans have to be dynamic and will include not just existing skills but what the future for the local area looks like. I want to reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Janke, Lady Henig, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that in Section 4 the relevant providers are not just FE and HE; they include the schools that are delivering post-16, as well as the independent training providers. So the educators are included, and it is supposed to be a dynamic relationship between the employer representative body and the relevant providers that, as I say, we have outlined.
On a point raised many hours ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the mayoral combined authorities will be engaged in developing the local plans. The White Paper talked about the fact that they will be consulted on this and, as I mentioned, we have these trail-blazers that we have recently procured, so we will know the particular areas where we will be starting there. They will help to shape the local plans.
However, one reason to have local skills improvement plans is the gaps we have at the moment. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, referred to this position for parts of Shropshire, in such a dynamic region as the West Midlands. There will be a local skills improvement plan across the country and it is obvious to state, but perhaps I need to say it, that not everyone has a mayoral combined authority. As noble Lords have often said, we do not have a settled, defined geography out there for many things—our police authorities, our local government—so this is where “local” will be defined by the local employers coming forward. Many of the current trailblazers have come with the endorsement of local government or, where relevant, the mayoral combined authority.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked how the local skills improvement plans will interact with national strategies. They will be informed by the national skills priorities, as highlighted by the Skills and Productivity Board; that will remain. The board will undertake expert analysis of the national skills that we need to inform government policy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked what powers the Government have should businesses take a back seat and rest on their laurels. If the ERB does not comply with the set conditions, the Secretary of State may not approve and publish its skills improvement plan and could remove its designation. Obviously, it goes without saying that all the powers of the Secretary of State are subject to criteria for judicial review. These powers must be used in a proportionate manner, et cetera; they are obviously not an absolute power.
The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan, Lady Young and Lady Bennett, talked about the importance of green jobs and net-zero carbon. We expect the LSIPs, led by the employer-represented bodies with that link to the national strategy, to look at what future green jobs are in the area. An element will be national because of what needs to happen with household boilers, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned, so there will be an interconnection there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, raised questions on local needs. It is about the needs of the learners and the employers in a local geographic area served by the college. The noble Lord, Lord Bradley, questioned the centralisation here, but what we are saying here is that we are allowing “local” to define itself. We have not said that it has to be the local authority area, the MCA area or the LEP area. There is a dynamic here to areas being able to say, “This is the area that we, as employers, need to look at.” The plan will be an important point of reference.
As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, spoke, I mouthed “Newton Rigg”. I am aware that there have been issues in relation to the provision of land-based education in that part of Cumbria. I regularly see questions about it, so I will happily engage with him if I can offer any further assistance.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and other noble Lords that the purpose of the section of the Bill dealing with technical educational qualifications, which includes a lot of hospitality within that sector, is to simplify the approach to regulations between the institute and Ofqual. The two bodies already work effectively together. They are effectively collaborating; we are embedding, or perhaps futureproofing, it so that they carry on working in the way that they do at the moment. In the legislation, we are extending the technical qualifications that IfATE can regulate but Ofqual will continue to have independent regulatory oversight of technical qualifications in live delivery. The legislation will bring the treatment of technicals more in line with A-levels and GCSEs, where the content is subject to regulatory scrutiny. Obviously, we have been talking to Ofqual during preparation of the Bill.
Extending the institute’s power will raise the quality bar and ensure that the majority of these qualifications, like apprenticeships and T-levels, are aligned to employers’ standards. This will place the employers’ voice at the heart of the system. We are creating a clear progression pathway for learners and there will be an opportunity for Parliament to consider the details of the regime when the regulations are laid.
It has become clear today that a lot is happening around this legislation; this is the statutory underpinning to the skills White Paper, but we also have the consultation that has just finished on level 3, the call for evidence on level 2 and the consultation on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement. Turning to that, I confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that it is our intention, as outlined in the Explanatory Notes, to bring forward amendments to the lifelong loan entitlement ahead of Committee. I can also confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, that the LLE will be available to be used from levels 4 to 6. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, also mentioned the funding of level 3. As I have outlined, that is covered by the national skills fund and there are now the boot camps—flexible courses for up to 16 weeks. As I have said, that is in addition to the availability of the ALL and bursary support fund for level 3 qualifications.
Many of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lady Wyld, raised questions on the detail of the LLE ahead of the upcoming consultation. We will do that as soon as possible during the passage of the Bill. I am not able to give a clearly defined timeline on this, but the consultation will cover questions on, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned, maintenance credit transfers; the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and many other noble Lords mentioned the ELQ rules, which will also be within the consultation. I am happy to ask officials to set up briefing sessions with noble Lords once the consultation has been launched.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Curry, my noble friend Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, asked about the introduction date of the LLE. As well as the consultation, we have got a lot of work to do with the Student Loans Company to co-design a system capable of delivering the required operational changes, and we will introduce secondary legislation to enable the LLE to function. This, as I have outlined, is the whole pot for level 4 to level 5, so there will of course be changes. Once you release the maximum loan amount for the academic year, that has a knock-on implication for that which it already funds—mainly the level 6 undergraduate degree. We have got to get this right operationally and, unfortunately, it is going to take more time than we would ideally like.
The question of part-time study was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Greengross. I have to say, having been to a graduation at Birkbeck university, I was overcome by emotion seeing people getting their degrees, many with their families and children there. The decline in part-time study and adult education is a great shame, and I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for his humility in accepting that it is something that we are seeking to put right. One of the main purposes of this is to ensure that the loan entitlement enables that modular, part-time learning to begin again. But I accept the questions raised about how adults access loans, as opposed to young people; I am sure there are behavioural scientists looking at how we get people to take these loans up.
In response to my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, the LLE will be available regardless of where you study—it will be “institution blind”, as I think another noble Lord said. It will be based on the level of qualification you are studying, not which institution you have selected to study in.
On the parts of the Bill that relate to initial teacher training, as I have outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the powers we are taking are to deal with the small part of the market that is not producing the quality that it should for initial teacher training for FE. Once we have worked in collaboration with the sector, if we still need that power, we will use it, but we want to make sure that the quality is there.
I believe the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, relate to the current review of the ITT market for school-based training, and so I will ask officials to write to him, as that is outside the scope of this Bill.
On that note, there were other matters, as this Bill sits quite narrowly within a framework of a lot of other interconnected issues. I will deal with a few of those in the time I have left.
I am very grateful again to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for highlighting the importance of special educational needs and of using the assistive technology to support FE learners with SEND. This is an important part of the Bill. Obviously, the figures for those with SEND show that a higher proportion of them go into technical or vocational qualifications or into FE institutions.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about alternative student finance. We are considering a student finance project that is compliant with Islamic finance principles in parallel with the post-18 review of education and funding. That review is due to conclude alongside the next multi-year spending review, so we will provide an update then. I know that that is an issue that has been talked about for a number of years.
Of course, many noble Lords raised questions about apprenticeship funding. Again, apprenticeship levy funding is not part of the scope of the Bill, but £2.5 billion is available this year and the funds available to levy-paying employers are available to be transferred down the supply chain. We are working on the apprenticeship levy to ensure that it is meeting those needs. Most employers who pay the levy might not spend all of their funding, and they can fund apprenticeship starts in smaller employers. We will make improvements to support employers offering more apprenticeships and to make them more flexible through accelerated front-loading and flexi-job apprenticeships and making transfers easier. We also have a specific piece of work on the sector that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is in—that is the creative industries—where apprenticeships have been difficult because there is not one employer and people are going from project-based work.
The importance of careers advice was mentioned by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Patel, Lord Addington and Lord Bichard, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lady Morgan. Obviously, that is not within the Bill, as far as I am concerned, because we do not need statutory underpinning for that. However, I recognise that the Bill is sitting in this wider framework of connected issues, and we have given £100 million to the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company this year.
On the perennial issue of cross-government working, which was mentioned by many noble Lords—particularly the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam and Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and my noble friend Lady Stroud—and also came up in one of our meetings in advance of today’s Second Reading, we are looking to answer those questions, so I will write to noble Lords about the interconnection of this with the benefits system. It is not straightforward to answer in a Second Reading debate how we can ensure that it connects properly, but I will write to noble Lords.
In relation to the specific question on the Kickstart scheme, I am told here that universal credit claims are eligible if the claimants are aged 16 to 24 and meet the relevant conditions. We are working with DWP to turn those as well into apprenticeships when it is right for the employer and that young person. I hope that answers the specific question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, but if it does not, I will write further to him.
Obviously, I have read the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, in the Times, which I think were more properly addressed to the Treasury in relation to the finances. The issue was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and that will also be passed on.
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree with the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about the importance of the Bill. The imperative is the need now for us to follow through, to fund this and to deliver it. I beg to move.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 8.09 pm.