Clause 5

Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 12th June 2007.

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Young people’s learning committee and adult learning committee

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

We talked earlier about the multiplication of committees and these are two that are going. I am not sure that we need them in the statutory form. I would simply like to reinforce to the Minister my view, which I think he probably shares, that the importance of the development of adult skills is particularly intense because we know that we have a skills gap—it has been identified by the Leitch report. We also know that most of the people who will be in the work force by 2010 are  already in that work force now. It is impossible to upskill the country simply on the basis of recruitment, particularly as the cohort of young people is now beginning to turn down. We must address adult skills.

On reflection—indeed, to some extent I felt this at the time—my main reservation about the Learning and Skills Act 2000 is that it gave emphasis to the 16 to 19-year-olds. As I said on Second Reading, the Government have helpfully extended that group to14 to 19-year-olds. I have no problem with that. However, I think that it is extremely important that we now emphasise upskilling in the adult community. That requires, for example, the active involvement of the sector skills councils, and in educational and pedagogical terms it often implies a more flexible approach than we have traditionally delivered in the younger age group. So this is simply a warning and a reinforcement to Ministers of something that I think they know about, which is that we need to tackle this issue very seriously.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings also has a contribution to make on this subject.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (Education)

May I say, Mr. Atkinson, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?

Very briefly, I wish to reiterate the comments made by the hon. Member for Daventry, to emphasise the Liberal Democrats’ concerns with regard to adult education. As the Minister will be well aware, there have been concerns expressed, particularly by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Regarding the clause, NIACE has said that it is concerned that adult education and training is losing much of its statutory underpinning. This is a very good opportunity for the Minister to refute that view. Although we understand the need for flexibility, which is the reason given for the clause, it is vital to tackle that crucial area of concern at this stage, and I hope that the Minister will do so in his brief comments.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 12:00 pm, 12th June 2007

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry is absolutely right that the critical need is to upskill and reskill the existing adult population. Even if we got skills training absolutely right from the perspective of young people, the demographics make it clear that, unless we upskill and reskill the existing working population, we will not be able to meet the targets necessary if we are to remain economically competitive. That also means examining the access to learning and the re-entry to learning. I am very concerned about the decline of adult and community education. I make no apologies for saying that the loss of a number of adult and community places has been a disgrace, and I hope that the Minister might comment on that issue.

The clause abolishes the two statutory LSC committees—the young people’s learning committee and the adult learning committee. I draw attention to adult and community learning because, if we are going to upskill and reskill the existing working population, it  is critically important that we are as lateral in our thinking as possible about the routes to learning, including the re-entry to learning for many people who have perhaps been failed by the system the first time round.

These two committees provide an important voice for adult learners within the system and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister as to why he feels that they should go. They are low-cost and they provide valuable scrutiny of the LSC’s work on age-related issues. In particular, with the abolition of the adult learning committee and the end of an independent adult learning inspectorate, it appears that the distinctive nature of adult education and learning is losing much of its statutory underpinning.

These may seem like minor matters in relation to the Bill, but they speak volumes for very significant issues about adult learning. Many of us are strongly committed to the principle of adult learning. A few days ago, I was at the City Lit college in Covent Garden, which I am sure that both Ministers will know well. There are 52,000 enrolments and 3,000 courses there. The courses are overwhelmingly, perhaps exclusively, non-accredited and are attracting learners of all kinds, of all ages and from all backgrounds into education and back into education. The work of organisations such as that college should be celebrated. It deserves a voice in the system. I am concerned that in a small way clause 5 will diminish or quieten their voice unacceptably. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. May I thank hon. Members for their kind remarks? It is good to be here in Committee. It is great to be with the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings whose articulate and eloquent contributions in Committee I know of old. He never uses one word when three or even more will do. That is always a real pleasure.

The clause means that schedule 3 paragraph 1(1) of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which places the Learning and Skills Council under a duty to establish both a young people’s learning committee and an adult learning committee, shall cease to have effect. I will try to address the points that hon. Members have made, but first I should like to pay tribute to the work of both committees. They have played an important role in advising the LSC over several years and have worked extremely hard in promoting those interests. The evidence before us illustrates the work that they have been doing. There are now more young people in learning than ever before. We have more apprentices in learning and more young people completing their apprenticeships than ever before. More adults are improving their basic skills.

The hon. Member for Daventry is absolutely right: it is important that we now look at the existing adult work force. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made the point that 70 per cent. of the work force that will be there in 2020 is already in place. As well as working to improve the skills and employability of young people coming through the education system, we need to upskill the existing the work force. That is common ground between us on where we need to go.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

Does the Under-Secretary agree that one of the reasons why the points made by both my hon. Friends are so important in this context is that, whether or not we regard education as a lifelong experience, our wish to encourage people to reskill and upskill is to some degree informed by the way in which they see some of these non-accredited adult education courses being treated? That is why it is important, with or without the existence of the committee, that we continue to ensure that adults have access to that kind of learning too.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

There is agreement across the Committee about the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. Adult funding has increased by 48 per cent. since 1997. That is a real terms increase of 48 per cent. Indeed, over the next two years adult education funding will increase by a further 7 per cent. So this is a track record of growth and investment in adult education. Of course, we had to ensure that that funding is focused on our priority, which is—this is the point that the hon. Members for Daventry and for South Holland and The Deepings are making—those adults, who, let us be honest about it, were let down by education 10 or 20 years ago.

These people are in the work force now and do not have basic literacy skills. They do not even have a first full level 2 qualification, the basic platform for employability. Through the train to gain initiative and the growth in the demand-led approach, which meets the needs of employers, we will both raise the skills of individuals in the work force and meet the needs of employers to improve their productivity and their profitability.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

Would the Under-Secretary concede—I do not attach blame to him on this—that there has been considerable concern at local level about cutbacks in the delivery of community education, notwithstanding the fact that he has ring-fenced some money towards that? That is an example of our concern, to which the Minister is trying to respond.We need the non-threatening, positive educational experiences that many such adults failed to achieve during their schooldays.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but most of the reductions in courses that he describes were in short, non-priority, non-accredited provisions that did not offer opportunities for individuals to progress to further learning or to gain skills for employment.

The hon. Gentleman also raised an important point about wider adult community learning. The Government are absolutely committed to adult learning in the broadest sense. That is why, through our strategy for personal and community development learning, we have this year ring-fenced £210 million to ensure new partnerships at the local level. They will be led by LSCs, and they will bring together all the partners, including local authorities, the LSCs, the voluntary sector and organisations such as the Workers Educational Association. Working in partnership, they will be able to ask, for such courses and for this kind of broader learning, what strategies can be put in place to maximise the various contributions made by different organisations in order to reduce  overlap and ensure that those who do not benefit from such opportunities can benefit in future.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

As ever, the Under-Secretary speaks with great sincerity and commitment. The point that we want answered is what proportion of the adult courses that have been lost relate to employment? He is right to emphasise that those that do not are far from valueless, and that education is more than equipping people to get work. However, I am anxious about the number of courses that have been or are being lost that could lead to further study or that might directly relate to employment.

I do not expect the Under-Secretary to answer that off the top of his head, but it might be useful if he considered the matter and gave the Committee some information about the proportion of courses that fall into that category. Put simply, my worry is that we might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By focusing on accredited level 2 courses, we are narrowing the opportunity for people to return to education who could then move on to further learning, which might aid or facilitate employment. We need that information in order to get to the heart of the matter.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. However, he was earlier praising the role of the sector skills councils in determining, through labour market information, the kind of economically valuable skills and the qualifications that reflect those skills; it is that which drives the system. I agree with him; it is in exactly the direction that we wish to proceed.

The hon. Gentleman also argues that there may be other courses and other developments, and we recognise that. However, if we are serious about allocating public money—the taxpayers’ money—to those areas where there has been a market failure, whether in literacy or numeracy or in the level 2 qualifications that meet the employers’ needs, it is right to focus those resources on places where market failures have occurred so that we can get people into learning for the first time.

The hon. Gentleman will know of learners, and I have certainly met many, for whom the light bulb was switched on when they undertook their first course, perhaps in literacy; they became switched on to learning in a way that had never happened before, because of the education system’s failure. From that moment, they started on a progression, going on courses that they would never have taken up previously.

The philosophy of taking people who have been let down in the past and focusing resources on them, putting them on the first rungs of that ladder to learning, is important for them, their families and communities; but it also benefits the employers who provide the job opportunities, promotion, productivity and so on. It is not either/or; it is both. As for public money, we must clearly focus our resources on those who need it most.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

This is a critical debate. The Minister will know that one of the biggest growth areas in the labour force is among the non-employed. Over the past15 years, a large number of formerly non-employed people has joined the work force. I am not speaking of  NEETS; I speak more of the mature women who return to work after bringing up the family. They often find their way back to work, through re-entry to education, after some time out of employment, and I want to tease out how many of them come in through adult and community learning, perhaps initially in non-accredited courses. I hope that he might look at that and bring back further information, as I am not clear about the numbers. I think that the Committee would benefit from having a feel for those numbers. He is right that it is not either/or, but we need some specificity about the significance of adult community learning as a route back into employment for the kind of people whom I have described.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

Without wishing to prolong this debate too far, and to stay with the point of the clause, the issue here is progression. What opportunities at alocal level, whether via employment or through community—doing a 10-year college course or perhaps doing something in the local library or through LearnDirect; there are many other routes to learning—allow people to progress? Not just to take a course, and then another, and another, and go round and round in circles, not getting further forward: what can we do to ensure that the vision at a local level generally offers progression for individuals?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is not a decision that can be made in Whitehall; it has to be made at a local level by local providers where, through our rigorous emphasis on quality, we are able to make a judgment at a local level that that is a course that helps individuals to start learning and to make progress, as opposed to a circular, revolving door of course after course that does not give them the needs to move into a job or to improve their lives or skills as parents as members of the community.

That quality issue is what the hon. Gentleman is really getting at. Are we making sure that, as we drive forward our priorities, as we deliver literacy, numeracy courses, level 2 qualifications, and courses in the community to engage people for the first time, we are doing so by funding those course providers who are providing the best in terms of quality to allow people to progress? That is the point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier about the decline. We do not want to put Government and public resources into courses that are short, that do not give people progression, that do not give people qualifications, and do not provide what the hon. Gentleman asks for.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks PPS (James Purnell, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions 12:15 pm, 12th June 2007

Does my hon. Friend agree that even within the private sector a great deal of provision is provided by distance learning? It is a vital role that fits neatly into the jigsaw that Ministers have presented to the Committee today.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

Yes—I was distracted and diverted away from the key point—my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are many providers in the private sector, the public sector and the third sector that have the ability to reach out and contact individuals in communities who would otherwise not see themselves as returning to  learning by going to a college or school. That is the one thing that such people will not do—it is anathema to them.

There are innovations and new approaches that private providers in the third sector can take, particularly at a local level. There are partnerships through personal community development learning, which I have mentioned, andI hope to see that strengthened at a local level to engage people in learning. Those people may not necessarily be learning to get a qualification, as the learning may be for their own personal development or leisure.

I shall return to the clause. I want to confirm to the hon. Member for Daventry that the proposals are about removing a statutory requirement to establish an adult learning committee and a young persons’ learning committee. By removing that requirement, the clause will give the LSC much greater flexibility to respond to the complex, changing needs of learners, employers and communities.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Conservative, Reading East

Can I confirm that the abolition of those two committees means that there will be no financial saving?

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Skills), Department for Education and Skills

I cannot confirm that there will be no financial saving, because there will be a reduction in that statutory structure. If the LSC does not have two statutory committees, we expect it to consider replacing them with a single committee. There may be a minor financial saving to the sub-committee of the LSC national council itself. That single committee may look in the round at all the interrelated issues to do with the needs of young people, adults and the FE sector work force. We are taking other measures, which may involve expenditure, to strengthen the voice of learners generally in learning and skills.

Clause 7, to which we shall come later, makes new provision for the LSC to consult learners. We will also recruit and appoint a learner to the national council in due course—possibly this autumn—and we expect each of the regional committees, which we debated earlier, to include a learner. In addition, we will use the national learner panel and other learner networks to ensure that the learner voice is heard. We also expect the LSC to convene regular stakeholder forums and advise the council. It may even establish time-limited groups to look at specific concerns and make recommendations on the way forward. To take one example, in November 2006, the non-statutory working together strategy committee focused on the council’s work with the voluntary and community sector—the third sector.

I cannot guarantee that there will be savings or costs either way. However, in removing the statutory requirement for the two committees, we expect that the LSC will provide a range of new measures to consult learners and hear their voice during its deliberations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.