My Lords, I too shall focus on education and skills, which are fundamental to the stated priorities of the gracious Speech and to the whole idea of levelling up. Education and skills should be a central part of any Government’s aims and aspirations, so it is encouraging that the Queen’s Speech includes both a Schools Bill and a higher education Bill. The Schools Bill focuses on funding, academisation and attendance, but the Bill on its own will not be enough to achieve the laudable goal of helping
“every child fulfil their potential wherever they live”.
I will briefly address some of the other activities that will be needed but which are not covered by this legislation.
The first is the long-standing challenge of improving the quality and status of technical education. I am encouraged by the Government’s commitment to T-levels, apprenticeships and other initiatives, such as those in the recent Skills and Post-16 Education Act, and the planned lifelong loan entitlement, the introduction of which will be enabled by the higher education Bill. Successful delivery of these will be crucial, but more work is needed both to ensure that all the pieces of the complex skills jigsaw fit together—that Kickstart, for example, leads to apprenticeships—and to convince not just students themselves but their schools, teachers and parents of the value of technical education, such that it finally achieves the long-sought parity of esteem with academic routes. There is also a need for effective provision to allow students to mix and match, combining both technical and academic elements in their studies. Languages, for example, are an important skill in many technical careers, and my own experience shows how valuable classics can be in developing computer programming skills.
Secondly, every young person needs to be aware of the range of jobs and careers available and the routes they need to take to further their own aspirations and abilities. This calls for continuing enhancement of careers information, advice and guidance in line with the Gatsby benchmarks, including contacts with a variety of different employers and workplaces, as well as work experience opportunities. The enhanced Baker clause in the skills Act, specifying the number of meaningful employer contacts students must have, should be embraced as an absolute minimum and enforced when necessary.
Thirdly, it is surely time for the Government to address the persistent concerns of employers and others about the apprenticeship levy, introducing greater flexibility to make it more fit for purpose so that more young people are able to become apprentices, including 16 to 19 year-old school leavers; more small and medium-sized firms are able to offer apprenticeships; and more of the skills that are most needed are eligible to receive funding from the levy.
Other issues include recognising digital skills as a functional skill of comparable importance to English and maths and, as other noble Lords have mentioned, restoring creative and arts education to its proper status as an essential part of the curriculum, as indeed it is in most independent schools. Again, that would clearly qualify as levelling up.
Education and skills are fundamental to the Government’s priorities as set out in the Queen’s Speech. I hope the Minister and her colleagues, as well as meeting their heavy legislative commitments, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, will find the time and energy to press ahead on the other issues I have highlighted. What matters most is not so much the quantity of legislation—we already have rather too much—but the quality of delivery.