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Clause 6

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 7th February 2008.

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Relevant training or education

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I beg to move amendment No. 162, in clause 6, page 3, line 45, leave out from ‘Part’ to end of line 46 and insert

‘training or education in relation to any person to whom this Part applies shall be regarded as “relevant” if and only if, it is either—

(a) training or education towards an accredited qualification provided by a course or courses, or

(b) training or education which, if the person concerned were participating in full time education or training, would be considered appropriate having regard to the person’s age, ability and aptitude and any learning difficulties which the person may have.’.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 12, in clause 6, page 3, line 46, at end insert—

‘(1A) In-house training provided by employers is regarded as “relevant training or education” for the purposes of this Part’.

No. 13, in clause 6, page 3, line 46, at end insert—

‘( ) The Secretary of State may specify by order other non-formal education or training that will be regarded as “relevant training or education” for the purposes of this Part.’.

No. 32, in clause 21, page 11, line 16, at end insert—

‘(1A) In subsection (1) “appropriate arrangements” may include training provided directly by the employer which can lead to an accredited qualification.’.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Good morning, Mr. Bayley, and welcome back to the Chair. We have already made rapid progress today, but I hope that the Minister, who looks in particularly perky form, does not expect us to get through all the clauses and amendments with the speed that he dealt with Government amendments Nos. 132 and 133.

The clauses that we are about to debate are not ones that we support passionately. Indeed, we have tabled amendments to delete clauses 6, 7, 8 and 9 from the Bill. We gave our reasons for that when we discussed clause 5, and I am sure that the Minister will be relieved to hear me say that I do not need to repeat the arguments now. Some of our forthcoming debates will be about dealing with the problems in the Government’s approach, accepting that we have already discussed whether the overall approach is the right one to take.

Clause 6 defines relevant training or education for people who, under the Bill, will be obliged to engage in training or education while in employment. It specifies that that must consist of “a course or courses” leading to a qualification accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Amendment No. 162 and, to some extent, amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 32, tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and his colleagues, deal with two concerns about the clause. The first is about the definition and meaning of “relevant” in respect of the qualifications and the extent to which that will restrict the qualifications that young people can obtain. The second concerns the nature of the qualifications to which people will be restricted—whether they must be QCA-approved qualifications—and whether that restriction is sensible and gives the desirable flexibility. We have received representations from outside bodies that are worried about whether it is sensible for the clause to be so restrictive.

Amendment No. 162 was suggested to us by the National Union of Teachers to address its concerns about relevance, which was the first issue that I raised today. In a briefing note that it prepared for the Committee, which other hon. Members may have seen, it states:

“It seems that those in full-time education are able to undertake appropriate learning opportunities which do not necessarily lead to a qualification. Those in full-time occupation, however, must undergo training or education that is ‘relevant’ i.e. leads to a relevant qualification or a course of study that is of use to the employer and not necessarily of interest to the young person.”

I had not originally registered that point. I had assumed that there would be a large degree of flexibility in how those obligations were applied. It will be interesting to know whether the intention of the Bill is to be restricted in the way that the NUT is concerned about, or whether, in fact, it will allow for greater latitude. The NUT in its briefing note cites the example of a young person who might be working as a car mechanic and asks whether they would be able to take a course in something like accountancy, which might be seen to have no relevance to being a car mechanic but might be very useful for their future educational needs.

We just want some clarity from the Minister about whether the word “relevant” implies that the education and training taken up by young people should relate to  the employment, or whether it could be unrelated to the employment but of use to the young person later in life. That is incredibly important. If we are placing this duty on employers to ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds are in education and training, their attitude to those young people might be different if the education and training is directly relevant to the employment or if it is not. We want to be absolutely clear about that.

The second issue, which the NUT and other bodies such as the Association of Colleges raise, is whether it is sensible to restrict the qualifications to those that are recognised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. That is touched on, in part, by amendments Nos. 12, 13 and 32, which seek to impart greater flexibility to the Bill and which we therefore also support. On that point, the NUT states that there is a concern that the Bill

“will mean that ‘relevant’ training and education has to always result in a nationally recognised qualification. If this means that locally developed courses are therefore ineligible under the legislation the opportunities for young people and the benefits to local employers may be limited.”

The Association of Colleges says something similar in its briefing to the Committee, which was issued in January. It stated:

“We have some concerns over the position of young people with learning difficulties which prevent them from taking an external qualification.”

Accepting that we do not want those obligations to be placed on young people in the first place—because we think that being in full-time employment is important enough in itself and, in part, useful to education and skills—we want to hear from the Minister about the degree of flexibility in relation to the relevance of qualifications. Is he prepared to extend the same flexibility that appears to exist for young people who are purely in education and training in educational settings to those people who are in work-based settings in relation to whether or not the qualifications that they achieve must be QCA approved?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 9:15 am, 7th February 2008

It is good to be back under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, and engaged in our important work. I have some good news and some bad news this morning. The bad news is that, in relation to this Bill at least, I have come to disagree with Cardinal Newman, who wrote:

“Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”.

The difficulties that we are beginning to explore in relation to the Bill are causing doubt. The good news is that my hearing problem has improved. Like the young man in Matthew 17, my affliction has been lifted.

The points made in relation to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil require amplification. The difference between appropriate learning and relevant learning is an issue, because “relevance” is a loaded word. The hon. Gentleman understated his case, with typical humility. The use of the word “relevant” means that the study must lead to accredited qualifications. The Government have a prejudice against non-accredited learning, as demonstrated by the savage cuts in adult and community learning over the past few years. Although I do not want to contradict the general mood of the Committee that one of the tests of vocational learning is employability, the first route back to employability may not be through the pursuit of an accredited course.

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that it would be more appropriate to use the word “appropriate”. Appropriate learning would be better than relevant learning in that regard. I shall come on to deal with the amendments that stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends, but it is worth mentioning that the hon. Gentleman makes a good case about the word “relevant”. It is a much more significant word in this context than it might first appear.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point, which was also persuasive, was that there must be no disparity between young people in the workplace who are engaged in training and young people in further education colleges or other places of learning. There is a question mark over that. I say no more than that. It is clearly the business of members of the Committee to probe the Minister on such matters. I therefore seek his reassurance in that regard.

The Bill does not take sufficient account of the huge amount of training that already takes place in the workplace. That brings us back to the issue of relevance. The explanatory notes, which reinforce the hon. Gentleman’s point, say that such training

“must consist of a course or courses leading towards a qualification accredited by the QCA.”

The Committee will know that young people are already engaged in a large amount of training provided by employers.

On the subject of training, the British Chambers of Commerce in its briefing on the Bill says:

“SMEs in particular conduct a huge amount of this and its place in helping young people attain a Level 2 qualification should be recognised within the policy of raising the compulsory participation age.”

That brings us back to the fundamental difference between us and the Government. The determination to increase participation is a common cause. We can agree about that, but the route to that end is the subject of our discussions in Committee and points to the difference in emphasis between the two sides of the Committee. My hon. Friends and I would not wish to discourage any of the existing valuable work that is being done with young people by making provisions that were insufficiently flexible to embrace that work. That is purpose of our amendment.

The YWCA has also argued:

“Compulsory participation in formal education does not necessarily lead to learning. Non-formal education and youth work awards, accredited by QCA or appropriate bodies, should be recognized as valid forms of training for those most disengaged and disadvantaged.”

That points to a matter that has been raised in the Committee repeatedly: it might be difficult to reach the young people whom we most want to re-engage—namely, those least likely to take up training or educational places post-16—unless we retain sufficient flexibility at the points of access to learning. That argument has been made convincingly by a number of hon. Members in their considerations thus far, and it is directly relevant to the amendments that I am speaking to.

Surely, there is a strong case that in-house training should fall under the relevant training or education category as worded in the Bill, or that those words should be changed. Either we change the word “relevant”  to something that is implicitly more flexible, or we include the kind of training that I have described under the banner of relevance. In other words, we would amend the Bill to create a capacity for more flexibility. Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 are therefore designed to assist the Government by improving the Bill to take account of in-house training.

I make one final point. We have spoken at length on our personal experiences of employing people. My experience is that precisely that kind of in-house training is the first opportunity that young people of 16, who have left school perhaps without the strongest academic record, have to be both involved in and committed to, and I am concerned that the Bill’s inflexibility will make that altogether more difficult.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

We see full-time employment alongside educational training as an important route for young people to be able to follow. The training could be provided by either the employer or an external learning provider and could be an entry-level course, a vocational course in a specific sector, GCSEs or one of the new diplomas, for example. It could involve the young person being released for one day a week to participate, or it could be fitted around their normal working hours, as we have discussed. We have purposefully made that duty as flexible as possible so that personalised arrangements can be agreed that are suitable to both the young person and the employer.

We have had the discussion about relevance. Clause 6(1) states that

“‘relevant training of education’ means training or educational towards an accredited qualification provided by a course or courses.”

Therefore, we are clearly not defining relevant as being tied to the particular occupation that the young person is engaged in through their employment. The hon. Member for Yeovil referred to a scenario in which a car mechanic might be able to do an accountancy course. The young car mechanic could certainly do an accountancy course that might not be seen to be directly relevant to their employment, as long as it is accredited. It does not have to be relevant to the employment. A good employer might want to discuss with the young person what they are doing, but it is the young person’s choice. They might also want to do a foreign language or train for a different career, and there is a whole set of accredited qualifications that would allow them to fulfil their obligations in law.

Obviously, on one point we are clear. We have tried to frame the clause as flexibly as possible, but we are clear that the work must be towards an accredited qualification. There are currently more than 6,000 qualifications at entry level and levels 1, 2 and 3 that are accredited by the QCA for young people. We will consult shortly on a qualifications strategy that will set out over the next few years, as we move towards the implementation of the legislation, how we can rationalise that range of qualifications into something more comprehensible by the outside world. The fundamental part of that strategy will be to ensure that the qualifications available to young people are valuable to them and their employers, and we will address some of the concerns raised by, for example, Professor Alison Wolf, about the value of some vocational qualifications.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:30 am, 7th February 2008

May I take the Minister back to the entitlement of a young person to study for a course that is unrelated to the employment in which they are involved? Does that mean—I am thinking particularly of small employers—that there would be an obligation on employers to subsidise the training of an employee in an area that may be of no benefit to the company?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

No, there is certainly no obligation on employers to fund training. Clearly, employers that provide training would fund it. However, with regard to asking the person commencing employment how they plan to fulfil the duty and allowing them reasonable time to do that, we have set out the requirements in the relevant chapter on the duties of employers. As I have said, most types of employment in which young people are engaged—retail, for example—would allow a young person to work the maximum of 40 hours that they are allowed in law and still be able to access training. The provision would operate with a huge amount of flexibility. Employers would not end up taking on extra costs by having a young person that they employ undertake training in something that is not directly related to their work.

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

There are two points to make here. One is the point raised by my hon. Friend about parallel education and training, which does not have to be directly linked in the way that she described. The second point is about what I have called in the amendment non-formal training or education. We emphasise that that will be specified by order. We do not suggest that “any old training” will do; of course there should be proper constraints. However, surely getting a disengaged young person involved in meaningful training, is a more significant and important first step than adhering to a rather narrow view about accredited qualifications.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I shall talk a little about informal training, but it is important to stress the importance of accreditation to ensure that it is not “any old training”, to use the hon. Gentleman’s phrase. I draw his attention to, for example, the ASDAN awards mentioned by the Prince’s Trust. Those are accredited but are an effective way of engaging someone in employment. Equally, we are introducing the foundation learning tier to ensure that within the qualifications framework we have a range of qualifications to deal with those special educational needs mentioned by the hon. Member for Yeovil.

We are developing more forms of accreditation of employer training because we recognise the importance of in-house training. Now, employers can have their training accredited as part of a national system, but to do so they must work in partnership with an awarding body. We are concerned that that is unnecessarily restrictive, particularly on the full range of employers. That is why the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is conducting a number of pilots with employers to establish how, from a number of options, they might have their training accredited in future in the qualifications and credit framework. The options include passing the same scrutiny of standards as other awarding bodies, becoming recognised as awarding bodies themselves—we have had examples of that in the past couple of weeks—or being recognised as a body that can submit units, but not award full vocational qualifications. Thus, an aspect of in-house  training could become an accredited unit and lead to a qualification that is awarded elsewhere, or employers could work with other employers who have become recognised as awarding bodies, perhaps in their supply chain. I mentioned a notional scenario when I gave evidence to the Committee and during a discussion of the matter on, I think, 31 January.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

In relation to amendment No. 162, what is the Government’s objection to allowing young people to be in

“training or education which, if the person concerned were participating in full time education or training, would be considered appropriate”.

Taking into account those others factors, what is it about being in employment that means there should not be the same degree of flexibility?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I was just about to deal with that point. I will do so in summary. There is an important role for informal training in re-engaging a young person, but once they are sufficiently engaged and are in full-time employment, they have moved on from disengagement, when informal training had a powerful role to play. It is therefore important to ensure that training contributes towards an accredited qualification.

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

Will the Minister allow me to intervene on that specific point?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I would like to address the detail of that point and, if my response is still inadequate, the hon. Gentleman may wish to intervene later.

The hon. Gentleman referred to non-formal and in-house training. It has been suggested that informal and unaccredited training provided by an employer for their employees should count. We strongly believe that it should not count for the purposes of part-time education or training alongside employment. That does not mean that non-formal education does not have an important role, as we have made clear in response to previous amendments. It does have an important role, and that is provided for in the reference to full-time education and training in clause 4.

Some young people may not be ready for full-time employment; they may be engaged in an entry to employment programme or one of the “get into” programmes described by Martina Milburn in an evidence session. It is right that the legislation is sufficiently flexible to encompass those and other re-engagement programmes. Clause 4 covers those arrangements and amendment No. 13 is therefore unnecessary. Young people who are in full-time employment have already been engaged and gained sufficient skills for an employer to want to offer them a job. It is right to treat those young people differently, and that is why we do not accept amendment No. 162, which adds the clause 4 definition of full-time education and training to the definition in clause 6 of part-time education and training alongside employment.

We recognise the value of in-house training. If such training leads to an accredited qualification, it will count towards young people fulfilling their duty to participate. Crucially, it will count towards their being able to take that training onto their next job. We all  know that the reality of the notion of a job for life is extremely rare, particularly if someone has started a job at 16. Employers who provide their own accredited training will be under no further duties with regard to a young person’s participation—there is no duty to check or to release a young person for training elsewhere. There are some incentives for employers in that regard.

I was heartened by the comment of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton on the new employer-led qualifications that were announced last week. I think that I repeated his memorable quote to the Committee last time. He clearly recognises the value of employers offering their own accredited qualifications, and I hope he will also recognise that the proposed amendment to clause 21 is therefore unnecessary.

I have already set out in debate on earlier clauses, particularly clause 2, why we consider accredited training to be important for those in employment. Young people will of course be learning continually as they do their day-to-day job, but by also giving them the opportunity to participate in good-quality accredited training, we can ensure that they get recognition for their achievements and are able to demonstrate what they have learnt to others. Amendment No. 12 would have the effect of removing the requirement for accreditation, which would reduce the benefits of the legislation for those young people who choose to participate through part-time training alongside employment.

I hope that that more detailed response has been sufficient to persuade hon. Members not to press their amendments—

Mr. Hayes rose—

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

I managed to restrain myself for a considerable time as the Minister fleshed out his argument, however, there is another aspect that is relevant to our discussion. My experience in business suggests that much training that is accredited by reputable bodies would not necessarily fall within the compass of the Bill as drafted. Would that training be disregarded? In-house training is often accredited by other bodies. In the IT industry, for example, companies such as Microsoft, Novell and Oracle put in place training that they accredit and it is highly valued. A young person might get involved in that, but it might not fall within the orbit of the Bill.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

As I set out when describing the pilots that the QCA is engaged in with employers, we have some work to do over the intervening period between now and when the duties come into effect to maximise the potential for employer-based, in-house training to be accredited. I have been on one or two of those Microsoft courses, to learn the ins and outs of Microsoft Access, which was obviously a deeply fulfilling and fascinating experience. I can see the value of those courses in a small business context, which is the context in which I undertook that training. We will be working with those sorts of organisations and the QCA to ensure that we maximise the number of courses in the  qualifications and credit framework, which will be used when judging whether they are relevant training or education.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Has the Minister considered occupations such as working on a market stall? I am thinking, for example, of a young boy who has been a chronic non-attender and has not succeeded in a classroom setting but who, if taken on in a job working for a market trader, would learn skills such as being reliable, getting up early in the morning, carrying out instructions and interfacing with the general public. Does he envisage those sorts of skills leading to accreditation?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Being taken on at a market stall can be highly appropriate and engaging for young people and can be of significant value. They will acquire skills in their work, such as numeracy skills. The sort of individual that the hon. Lady describes may have been disengaged and may not have the level 1, level 2 or level 3 qualifications that reflect the numeracy skills that they acquire through working as a trader. It would seem highly appropriate that alongside all the fun of getting up early in the morning, setting up their stall and selling their wares in an engaging way, those people also find time to ensure that the skills that they have acquired, such as numeracy skills, have accreditation. That way, if they tire of getting up so early in the morning and assembling their stall, even though they might be acquiring huge wealth in the process, and they want to move on to something else, they will have something that is portable to future employers.

Given the reasoning that I have set out, I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 9:45 am, 7th February 2008

We are grateful to the Minister for his response, but are only moderately reassured. We made a little progress in clarifying the intent behind the word “relevant”. The Minister has put it on the record that there is no intention to restrict the courses that a youngster can take while in employment. There is therefore no reason, to take the hon. Lady’s example, that somebody working on a market stall should not also take a course in car mechanics, nuclear physics or anything else. It is useful to have that on the record.

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

The hon. Gentleman overestimates the degree to which the Minister conceded to the argument. With respect, what he actually said was that the QCA will work with bodies and try to bring into its network a range of the in-house training provided. A much easier way to achieve that end would be to amend the Bill to change the word “relevant” to “appropriate” or “meaningful”. That would be a shorter journey, and perhaps a more fruitful one.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I agree, and I said that I was only moderately reassured. I will come to the larger area of non-reassurance. However, unless the Minister wants to intervene, I think that we have clarified the relevant point that it will be quite possible, in the example that the NUT gave, for somebody working in a car workshop to do an accountancy programme and the employer will not be able to object to it.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman believes that I have clarified the notion of “relevant”. On the intervention of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, I think that it is best to have a framework for the accreditation of qualifications so that the court does not have to interpret the sorts of words that he has set out. That is the danger of the approach that he is suggesting.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I think we have clarified the first point about the word “relevant”. However, I am concerned about the wider problem of the distinction that is apparent in the Bill between those in formal education and training, and those in work. I was not entirely convinced by the Minister’s explanation for insisting on accreditation in the workplace but allowing greater flexibility in educational settings. His argument was that in educational settings there are likely to be more of the very high-need and vulnerable youngsters, whom we have discussed on earlier occasions. They might find the accreditation option too challenging initially and might need time to adapt on courses that are not accredited.

The indication from the Association of Colleges and others is that we will find in employment not only people for whom non-accredited courses are providing a high level of skills and training, but people with learning difficulties and special needs. From my constituency experience, such people are often in job placements and, as the Association of Colleges indicated, they might find it difficult to get accredited qualifications.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I referred to the foundation learning tier. That has been designed specifically to offer those sorts of young people accredited qualifications that they are capable of achieving. Too often at the moment, we undervalue their achievements because we cannot accredit them. That is why we are developing that framework.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I understand that point, but I still do not see the logic of dealing with these two groups in different ways. I still think that there is not a sufficiently persuasive case for allowing a large degree of flexibility for those in formal educational settings, but insisting on a more rigorous and stringent approach to accreditation for those in work-based settings. I think that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was hinting at this point, but I too fear that the Government have something of an obsession with accreditation for its own sake and will not acknowledge that many non-accredited qualifications can be extremely valuable.

I do not want to go back too much to the wonderful Alison Wolf research, but in one of her previous books on the subject—not the analysis of the Bill that she published recently—there is a long record, both pre-dating and post-dating 1997, of Governments inventing accredited qualifications that have often proved to be not very valuable. In some case they appear to have negative value and they often appear to have far less value than non-accredited qualifications.

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

I agree about the less formal qualifications that the hon. Gentleman cites, which is why I hope that we might press amendment No. 13—he may wish to do what he will—for exactly the reasons that he made clear.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I indicated, we support amendment No. 13 and think that it is helpful. But I would also, Mr. Bayley, like to press amendment No. 162 to a Division because I still feel that it deals with an issue that has not been resolved satisfactorily as a consequence of the Minister’s comments.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 7 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 6

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 13, in clause 6, page 3, line 46, at end insert—

‘( ) The Secretary of State may specify by order other non-formal education or training that will be regarded as “relevant training or education” for the purposes of this Part.’.—[Mr. Hayes.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Division number 8 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 6

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in clause 6, page 4, line 1, after ‘means’, insert—

‘(a) the iGCSE and Cambridge Assessment Pre-U qualifications; and

(b) ’.

The purpose of clause 6 is to define the meaning of “accredited qualification” for the purpose of defining “relevant training or education”. The definition says that it should lead to a qualification recognised by the QCA under section 24(2)(g) of the Education Act 1997.

The QCA lists hundreds of qualifications, including an NVQ in leakage detection, a City and Guilds certificate in professional cooking, GCSEs in geography or physics, and an NOCN level 2 award in drawing and graphics for garden design. Literally hundreds of qualifications, academic and vocational, are included in the list, but no  iGCSEs, despite the exam being a well-established qualification. In the UK, around half of all independent schools are using the iGCSE. The “i” stands for “international”, and the Cambridge version is in use in 2,000 schools in 125 countries around the world. In 2007 there was 10 per cent. growth in the use of the exam internationally. Edexcel also has an iGCSE exam, which is in use in 100 countries with some 350,000 entries per year. It reports the use of its exam in 200 independent schools.

CIE has also reported a keen interest in using the exam from schools in the state sector, something I have also noted in my visits to schools around the country. CIE says that some 50 maintained schools have applied to CIE to enter students for the iGCSE. The head of maths at Norton Knatchbull school in Kent was quoted in The Daily Telegraph in June 2006 as saying:

“It is really unfair, particularly when the qualification best suits the needs of our pupils, and ministers are always telling schools to tailor courses to suit individual children. Half of my pupils go on to do Maths A-level and the specification offered by the IGCSE would be much better for them. If Oundle can do it, why can't we?”

CIE has said that it believes that the iGCSE should be available for use in the state sector, and has applied to the QCA for accreditation. Ann Puntis, CIE’s chief executive, has said:

“The scale of independent schools’ use of the iGCSE risks causing an increasingly distorting effect on reporting of UK performance.”

She is referring to the fact that, because the iGCSE is not accredited by the QCA, if an independent school enters its students for the exam, the results do not count towards the five or more GCSE figure. This can result in a score of zero for the five or more figure, including English and Maths. Large independent schools, such as Eton or the Perse school in Cambridge are prepared to

“carry their zeros with pride”, but less well-known schools need to have their results reported accurately, and may be deterred from using the exam for this reason alone, despite believing the iGCSE to be the most appropriate qualification and syllabus for their pupils. The most iniquitous fact is that state schools cannot use the exam. In clause 6, this means in effect that a student studying for iGCSEs will not be considered to be in relevant training or education, which is of course absurd. CIE on its website says:

“Failure to approve IGCSE under Section 96 funding has the potential to create a two-tier education system, in which pupils in independent schools can access curriculum opportunities denied to pupils in maintained schools...Much good practice currently exists in terms of partnerships between the independent and maintained sectors. Such beneficial collaborations may be risked by a curriculum divide along IGCSE/GCSE lines.”

Some people have complained that the iGCSE is too tough. This is not the view of CIE. It points out that all around the world young people in state schools take iGCSEs. Their teachers find it a motivating and rigorous programme, which provides an excellent platform for future study. The CIE goes on to cite an example in the United States of pupils at an underperforming school who flourished so much when they studied for the iGCSE that the school and its teachers receive a presidential award under the “No child left behind” legislation. The CIE states that the iGCSE provides

“a highly valuable educational experience consistent with the aims and values underpinning the national curriculum.”

The amendment also refers to the Cambridge Assessment pre-U qualification, which has been developed over the last few years in response to growing dissatisfaction with the A-level, particularly following the curriculum 2000 reforms. The headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, said:

“We want the best courses that challenge our students and, if that means doing the Pre-U instead of A-levels then we will do it”.

Graham Able, the headmaster of Dulwich college, said:

“I expect that more than 50 independent schools will offer the Pre-U, mostly instead of current A-levels”.

As the Bill is drafted, of course, the pre-U would not count as a level 3 qualification. I raised these arguments in moving amendment No. 5 to clause 3, so I will not rehearse them again today.

The pre-U is expected to be worth more than four A-levels, comprising three subjects and an extended research project. All the exams are taken at the end of two years, instead of in stages throughout each module. Therefore, less time will be spent preparing for tests, giving more time for teaching: 400 hours, instead of 360 hours for A-levels. It was reported in January that the QCA was expected to approve the pre-U imminently. I will try again to get an indication on the matter from the Minister; any would be appreciated.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 10:00 am, 7th February 2008

My hon. Friend will understand my particular interest in universities and university entrance. Perhaps the Minister will confirm this, but as I understand it, universities are pressing hard for acceptance of this qualification. If they are satisfied, it would seem perverse for it not to be included in the Bill and acknowledged by the QCA.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. A number of top universities in the country have already confirmed their acceptance of the qualification. My concern is that, if they come to regard the pre-U as a preferable qualification to the A-level, they may give preference to candidates with the pre-U, feeling that they are better prepared for university life. That would create an unfair advantage for independent school students, as the state sector cannot use that qualification.

It was reported that the pre-U’s introduction was imminent, so I hope that the Minister will comment on that. At the moment, neither the iGCSE nor the pre-U will count as accredited qualifications for the purposes of the legislation, and the amendments seek to put that right.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I have mixed feelings on the amendment. I am concerned that, in the future, there may be a great fragmentation of qualifications across the education system, instead of the greater coherence that the Government aspire to; a coherence whereby youngsters feel that they can take qualifications that are regarded as broadly equivalent, but that offer different routes forward, either through a more traditionally academic or a more classically vocational route.

There is a risk that we will end up with three or four different higher levels of qualification, of the type that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred to, because of the concerns in parts of the  education system about the credibility and effectiveness of the existing A-levels and GCSEs. There will then be a middle tier of people potentially taking A-levels and GCSEs, and a quite unpredictable group of youngsters who will be taking the diplomas. We do not yet know whether those will be a success, or will be regarded as second-rate qualifications. We know that the Government are trying to deal with that question, not through the content of diplomas, but by trying to tilt the qualification value of diplomas in relation to GCSEs and A-levels.

It would be damaging to many young people’s future prospects, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, if we were to end up with a multi-tiered system of qualifications. Some schools with more challenging catchments could find that their young people are encouraged to take up qualifications that are seen to lead purely to vocational routes, and do not open up the potential to go on to any level within the traditionally academic system.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

We already have a two-tier system. The amendment and recognition of the iGCSE and the pre-U by the QCA would extend the availability of that qualification beyond the independent sector, making it a fairer system, not a less fair one.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I am coming to some comments that he may prefer to my former remarks. However, I wish to put on the record our concern that the increase in the number of high-tier—if I can put it that way—qualifications, seems to be a manifestation of a lack of confidence and credibility in the existing examination system, and a feeling among some universities and schools that there is no longer sufficient stretch within the traditional qualification system.

Mr. Tomlinson was very passionate about that in his report. His arguments for changing the qualification system in the country were not simply to open up more vocational qualifications and to deal with people who traditionally were not well served by GCSEs and A-levels. He was also concerned about the lack of stretch at the top end of the system and the fact that many schools find a huge proportion of their candidates being graded at the top level. They feel that qualifications such as A-levels do not stretch the abilities of their pupils enough. If that is a major concern, the Government should look to adapt some of the existing qualifications to provide that degree of stretch.

I hope that I do not sound too old-fashioned if I say that the Government should look at measures such as the S-level qualification that we used to have in my day. That was a good way of providing a stretch at the top of the system, without requiring youngsters to go through a system of force-feeding that would give advantage to a youngster from one particular educational setting over another.

However, if there are institutions that are concerned about the existing qualifications, want to do the best by their young people and are able to offer qualifications that have real status and credibility, not to acknowledge that within the educational system, the Bill and the league tables would be wrong and foolish. I have schools  in my constituency that would fall into the category mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. They are not necessarily the Etons of the educational establishment—who probably are not too worried about being included in the league tables, as they are generally regarded as performing at a high level—but schools such as the Park school in Yeovil. That is an independent school that this year had a zero in the relevant category for GSCE examinations because it takes the iGCSE that is not presently permitted to have the same status as other qualifications within the system.

If the Government are as concerned about the proliferation of these qualifications as I am, it would be wrong for them to deal with the problem by trying to throttle the qualifications that schools see as providing stretch. The answer must be to deal with the underlying problems within the existing qualification system. If the Government’s assessments show that these qualifications have credibility and meet the requirements for this level, I hope that notwithstanding their concerns—which may be similar to mine—they will move in the direction suggested by the hon. Gentleman. We look forward to clarification from the Minister, who is smiling in a knowing way.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

It is tempting to engage in a wide-ranging debate about the iGCSE, the pre-U and the A-level. We could discuss whether the iGSCE should be accredited or whether it is compatible with the national curriculum, given that it does not include compulsory study of Shakespeare, or any other author that is prescribed for the programme of study for the GCSE in English, or whether there is a non-calculator paper for iGCSE maths. We could debate all these things at length, but I do not think it is appropriate—

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Is the Minister intimating that the iGCSE is a less rigorous exam in English and maths than the GCSE?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Not necessarily—I am just saying that we could debate all these things at some length. Similarly, as regards the measures that were taken to strengthen A-levels, it would be very tempting to compare the attitude of the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, when he wanted to see the A-level flourish, with the notion that we should weaken it by having competing qualifications such as the pre-U.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I thought that the Government’s view was very much in favour of competition in qualifications, which was why they set up the competition between the diplomas and A-levels and GCSEs.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

We certainly are in favour of a strong range of qualifications for young people to study, however the amendment is unnecessary. If the qualifications referred to in it are accredited, they will come under the definition of an accredited qualification in any case, without the need to specify them separately. If they are accredited, my Department will make a decision then on whether to approve them for funding in maintained institutions under section 96 in the usual way.

I should not comment further in advance of that decision. Independent schools are free to offer whatever qualifications they like, and young people doing iGCSE or, in due course, the pre-U full time in those schools, will meet the terms of this legislation whether those qualifications are accredited or not.

The clause is about part-time training, alongside full-time employment. It is very unlikely that a young person will, for example, be doing the pre-U part time alongside employment. But if those qualifications are accredited, that would meet the requirements of the legislation. I would therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I was interested in the Minister’s response, and we will await the decision of the QCA on these qualifications. I hope that it makes the right decision, because if it is appraising hundreds and hundreds of exams, it will seem perverse and somewhat ideologically driven not to accredit two very well-established, credible and rigorous exams that Cambridge university—one of the top universities in this country—has created through Cambridge Assessment.

The Minister made the odd point that competition would weaken matters. That may show a difference of philosophy between Labour and Opposition Members, but Conservative Members strongly believe that competition strengthens all participants in the market place and that competition between exams will strengthen the A-level. One of my motives behind wanting to see the iGCSE accredited is that it will focus the minds of people at the QCA, when they bring in curriculum changes, to understand that they have to look at the popularity of the GCSE. They should not engage in further reforms that weaken the exams, as has happened over the last several years.

It will be beneficial to our exam system, making it more cohesive and less fragmented, if we allow the iGCSE, because in the long run it will strengthen A-level and GCSE exams. I was interested in the Minister’s comments that full-time students at school, taking exclusively iGCSEs or pre-Us, will be fulfilling the duty in this Bill. It is a pity that he will not relent in allowing these exams to constitute the relevant education and training for the purpose of the Bill, because since the QCA has not recognised these qualifications, a student who was in work and taking these exams would fall foul of the duties of this Bill, which would be absurd. However, as this was a probing amendment to draw out some response from the Ministers, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.