Non-Vocational Education (Hampshire)

– in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 20 July 2004.

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Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women and Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities 3:30, 20 July 2004

I welcome the chance to raise this subject, because I have been inundated with letters from constituents who are angry about funding being slashed for courses that they are attending. In approaching the debate, I originally intended to amass lots of evidence of the benefits of non-vocational adult education to make my case. However, the evidence that I came across very much echoed my constituents' sentiments, so I decided to let my constituents speak for themselves. That will be the main thrust of my speech.

I know that some of my constituents have written to the Prime Minister on this matter, because many of the letters that I have received are copies of letters to him. Often, they point out that the mantra of "Education, education, education" has a hollow ring to it. The gist is that education is not the preserve of the young and that it should be available in all forms to all ages. Clearly, the title Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education is something of a misnomer, and we should perhaps refer to the "Minister for All Sorts of Learning—As Long as We Approve of it and Think You're Young Enough to Enjoy it".

Let me quote from one of the letters to the Prime Minister, which sums up the situation and the concerns of many:

"I attend a day time Art Class in Romsey, Hampshire and have been advised that the charges are being increased significantly next term as the Learning and Skills Council is withdrawing funding from such courses. I understand this is because of your Government's policy that funding should be redirected to education for 16 to 19 year olds and be concentrated on courses that lead to a qualification. The result of this increase will reduce the number of people able to participate in Adult education, as many are living on fixed income so they will no longer be able to afford the fees."

That is a commonly held sentiment.

"For someone who constantly reiterated that education was an essential part of your government's plans, this policy change can only be regarded as a U-turn. If your definition of education includes only courses which result in a paper qualification then the country is in a sorry state".

How will be people be affected financially? I received a letter from a lady called Janet Hoskins, who happens to be heavily involved with the Romsey Disability Forum:

"For fifteen years I have attended Yoga lessons at Romsey community school which I am positive has been of immeasurable benefit in keeping me active and mobile. As a disabled person on a basic pension I have been paying a concessionary price of £7.95 per term but from September 2004 I will have to pay £52.50 for 10 weeks of lessons—or £157.50 a year which would entirely wipe out my pension increase for this year".

She goes on to talk about other things that will wipe out that increase, but I will not hold the Minister responsible for them; I will stick to the point.

Clearly, that course was subsidised, and the loss of such subsidies will be felt hard by many of my constituents. I acknowledge that many people are not subsidised and have been happy to find the fees from their own pockets. That said, the old non-subsidised rate for such classes was £32 a term, so there will be a 64 per cent. increase in fees, which many people have told me they can ill afford.

As I said, the courses that will be affected this year are non-academic adult education classes, and they include subjects such as yoga, art, flower arranging, dance, meditation, antiques, garden design, woodwork, textiles, cookery and exercise. As I said, the fee increases are swingeing. I readily admit that some constituents can afford the fees and will pay them, but they too may be deprived of the opportunity to take such courses, which will simply not be run if there are insufficient subscribers. It seems that everybody is a loser.

Although finance is the motivating force behind many of the letters that I have received, I have been struck by people's reasons for being so upset about not being able to access their courses. I have had a lot of letters from people who took up yoga; I do not know whether they got together to write to me, but I was struck by the frequency with which the theme arose. One of the letters stated:

"We think that this is a very short sighted move, especially as applied to fitness activities such as yoga which we are urged to take up and must reduce the burden on the already hard pressed NHS. I speak from experience on this latter point because yoga has cured a back problem which had troubled me for years."

Another said:

"Not only does yoga provide exercise, it also teaches techniques for coping with the stresses of modern living so avoiding the need to visit our GPs for tranquilising drugs."

Yoga classes are not the only classes that are being hit; all exercises classes are being similarly affected. That seems most peculiar at a time when the Government are supposedly concerned about the levels of obesity in the country. Their early mantra was "joined-up government," so I am particularly disappointed by their withdrawal of funds from exercise classes, which will have an effect elsewhere and will be detrimental to other Government policies. As one constituent put it:

"I hope that the County Council"—

I might return to county councils in a moment—

"will be able to find some way forward to meet the needs of all students and not just those who are financially advantaged, otherwise the number of obese couch potatoes in Hampshire is likely to increase."

A 72-year-old said:

"I need gentle exercise—as do many other pensioners. Please get the people who have thought this up to give it more thought as it will damage the elderly and people who could never pay these costs."

Another constituent said that

"people who attend them are mentally and physically stimulated and enjoy life more. I believe that some local doctors are already voicing their concern."

Many of the people who wrote to me to complain about the changes were elderly, but that was not exclusively the case. Courses are often accessed by people with young families, and can provide all-important "time for me" as well as an opportunity to learn a new skill that might lead to other things. I would go so far as to say that some young people might have missed the 14 to 19 boat and not made the most of the opportunities available to them at school. Such courses often provide an unchallenging environment in which the individual does not have to pass or fail. That is a very important factor for anyone who believes that they failed at school.

My local adult education partnership knows of several occasions when a non-vocational course has led to something more formal. By threatening the viability of these courses, the Government have cut off a possible lifeline to some people who might now never take that first small step towards another qualification. As one constituent put it:

"it has always been that those whose years of compulsory education were unsatisfactory or curtailed in any way, had the opportunity in later life to rectify shortcomings if they were prepared to sacrifice their free time. Soon, that opportunity will be available only to those with sufficient finance."

That constituent was talking more broadly, but he was referring to the fact that some people introduce themselves to something that does not have an examination associated with it.

I was also told that some people have used courses such as flower arranging as a starter into a business opportunity. I know of a lady from Angie's fruit and vegetable shop, which provides very nice bouquets. She learned her skills on a so-called non-vocational course and used them to add value to a business that was not doing as well as it might. Others have developed catering and cake decorating businesses or have gone on to teach classes of their own. Some have even taken art degrees. Particularly inspiring is a woman who teaches textile arts. At the weekend, I visited an exhibition that showed some of the students' work. I was very impressed. She started with a leisure course on her one free day a week while caring for a disabled husband. She gained confidence and went on to take a City and Guilds qualification. She took an adult teaching qualification after her husband's death, and now teaches to very high levels. She is in great demand. People ask her to work more than she feels she can.

Another person studied several languages, starting with a beginners' conversation class and moving on to more formal qualifications once confidence was gained. Language classes are safe for this year, but I gather that the plan for next year is to withdraw funding from "non-qualification courses", such as computer and language courses, which currently contribute to the skills strategy. This is a seriously retrograde step, as courses such as the local course on creating websites will be affected. On that course, four people from local IT companies came along in their own time to find out more about an aspect of IT that they were thinking of branching into independently. As one constituent put it:

"Was it not an aim of the Government that we should all become computer literate, and are we to continue to be the laughing stock of the world by our inability to cope with other languages."

I received an e-mail this morning from someone who has studied a number of languages in an adult education setting and has just sat the GCSE Spanish exam. I quote:

"I asked the Head of Department about the next level, and said that having got the Institute of Linguists Advanced Level Certificate in French back in 1996 I would now like to proceed to do the same thing in Spanish. She said that Eastleigh college had decided against putting on any examination based courses for adults, on the grounds that adults such as me only learn for fun and don't want to take exams: It's only 'Holiday Spanish' or 'Holiday French' I suppose. This ignores the fact that running a course leading to an exam gives the likes of me the opportunity to take it; and those who don't want to sit it can just do the course and opt out of doing the exam."

Either way, the skills base has been improved.

However, the vast majority of people who have written to me on this subject are the elderly—the pensioners. Their words say it all and I shall quote from some of their letters:

"These courses are a lifeline to many older people who not only enjoy the challenge of learning but the opportunity to make new friends."

"Why are older people (who are generally the ones who do day time adult education) given less priority than youngsters? . . . Is this another example of ageism that the Government is always arguing it wants to stop?"

"The Government wants pensioners to remain active both physically and mentally (use it don't lose it) to reduce the costs of the NHS and elderly care services. They do not want a lot of people vegetating and so becoming infirm and unable to cope."

"One of the benefits of the adult education scheme is that it gives people an interest and something they enjoy doing. This has the benefit of keeping brains active, making them go out and keeps bodies healthier, and providing an enjoyable hobby and companionship keeps people happy and less likely to sink into depression. Is this not a benefit to the NHS? I understood that it was preferable to keep the elderly members of the country fit, well and healthy—rather than having them atrophy in their armchairs."

"People who attend adult classes are often full time carers."—

I was surprised by the frequency with which that was mentioned; it had not occurred to me—

"The class is one of the few times that they are able to do something for themselves and forget the daily grind of looking after a loved one."

Another person says:

"I was widowed in June 2001, and retired in Dec 2001. I sincerely believe that attending these so called recreational adult classes has kept my mind sane, and my body fit, during the most difficult period of my life. Like many others of my generation I left school at 15 and these classes also give access to areas of learning that were simply not available to us when we were younger."

We sometimes forget that a whole generation left school at 15 or 16. Many people from that generation, because of their class background, did not have many opportunities. I am glad that the situation is not the same today, but it seems a shame for those people to miss out indefinitely.

Another person said:

"Such action, and the resulting increase in fees, will particularly affect pensioners, carers and many on income support and will be detrimental to the physical and mental health and well-being of many people."

I tabled some parliamentary questions on the subject. Initially, the rhetoric was positive, which I thought might be a good sign. I quote from the response to my question from one of the Minister's colleagues:

"The results from both areas of work confirm the positive impact of adult learning e.g. on health and civic participation and on the individual's confidence and motivation to undertake further learning. That is why we remain committed to safeguarding a varied range of learning opportunities for personal fulfilment, community development and active citizenship."—[Hansard, 8 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 291W.]

However, when I asked a more specific question about withdrawing funding from adult learning courses, the response was more defensive:

"Where there is a need for more vocational provision to meet the needs of learners and employers I would expect local LSCs and learning providers to re-direct resources to meet those priorities."—[Hansard, 15 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 907W.]

Although I fully acknowledge the needs of the young, I must point out that Hampshire is an area of relatively low unemployment. There is a skills gap but, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, it is a retrograde step to withdraw funding from adult education courses. There are many benefits to those classes. My constituents have spoken for themselves: the benefits are health, mental stimulation and social inclusion, as well as a less formal way of obtaining access to continuing education.

I hope that it is not too late to retrieve the situation. I urge the Minister either to obtain funding so that courses can go ahead, or give the Learning and Skills Council the clear message that the courses are important and should not be sacrificed because of the requirements of 14 to 19-year-old education.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) 3:45, 20 July 2004

I congratulate Sandra Gidley on securing the debate, giving me an opportunity to speak about the Government's commitment to maintaining appropriate provision for adult learners, not just in Hampshire but across the country. Our starting point must be our White Paper, "21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential", which was published last July and was welcomed by the Liberal Democrats, the trade union movement, employers and almost everyone involved in post-16 education.

We undertook in the White Paper to safeguard adult learning provision that does not lead directly to a qualification—the courses that the hon. Lady mentioned. We are committed to ensuring that people of all ages continue to have the opportunity to benefit from courses that will improve their lives and help them to sustain active roles in their communities. We know that participation in high-quality learning leads to positive social outcomes such as better health, reduction of child poverty, lessening of crime and a stronger sense of citizenship and personal security, especially for those living alone.

There is nothing between us on this; we also need to support and develop learning that leads to skills—including literacy, numeracy and use of information technology—that are relevant to the modern workplace and will help individuals who return to learning to take the all-important first step on the learning ladder. We also recognise the importance of giving people the chance to learn for its own sake, for personal fulfilment and, indeed, for fun. There must always be a place in every community for that kind of learning.

That is why we have agreed with the Learning and Skills Council a budget of £207 million from within the funding allocations for 2004–05 to safeguard non-qualification-bearing provision provided through local education authorities and family and neighbourhood learning. That compares, incidentally, with £206 million in 2003–04 and represents an increase of 43 per cent. on the £145 million that was provided at the turn of the century.

About 1 million adults attend such courses every year. The total funding for Hampshire local education authority for 2003–04 was £2,040,878. Despite other pressures Hampshire LEA's funding has risen to £2,074, 495 in 2004–05. I am assured by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Learning and Skills Council that there is no intention to withdraw funding from non-vocational learning in Hampshire. However, it is rightly working to ensure that funds are distributed fairly and effectively across the county, according to national priorities and local needs.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women and Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I am pleased that the Minister has received that reassurance, because when I spoke to the Learning and Skills Council it was made very clear that the total moneys that it had been given meant that it needed to prioritise; it was working with the county council to do so. Clearly, something has gone wrong somewhere. The money does not seem to be getting forward to the courses. Will there be a catch-up?

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

If the hon. Lady listens to my entire speech, I think that all will be explained. The view is sometimes projected—although this is not what she argued—that we are to withdraw all funding from non-vocational adult learning and direct everything towards education for the 14 to 19 age group. That is not true; it is not even true that the 14 to 19-year-old group is our particular priority.

We are still putting an incredible amount of funding into the provision—far more than three years ago and more than last year; there is a 45 per cent. increase. It is important to realise that we cannot fund everything, but we set out some priorities in the White Paper on the 21st century skills strategy, which I shall deal with in a moment.

According to the local education authority, of the 26,000 learners attending courses in 2003–04, some 20,000 followed traditional courses of non-vocational learning—leisure learning—with the remainder taking up family learning and other provisions. Hampshire and Isle of Wight are now re-assessing priorities, and some of the funding received from the LSC will not be used to support leisure learning but will instead be directed to provision for learners in line with the LSC's aim of widening participation in learning, and supporting the level 2 entitlement.

The 21st-century skills White Paper says yes to funding adult learning and non-vocational learning—it is an important part of our policy—but our priority must be to tackle the almost 7 million adults mentioned by the hon. Lady who, like my hon. Friend Mr. Laxton and me, may have left school without qualifications and find themselves in the workplace without the equivalent of five good GCSEs.

That group has been passed over by various strategies. People have spoken wise words, not to mention a few platitudes. The point about the skills strategy, which has been developed with the social partners—the CBI, the TUC, the educational establishment and others—is that it will tackle the issue once and for all. From next year, therefore, any adult who does not have at least an NVQ level 2 qualification will be entitled to training. They are not 16 to 19-year-olds; they are adults. Their training will be provided free of charge, and they will receive financial support. That is the big priority.

The LEA will continue to support learners in traditional leisure learning provision using its own resources, although there will be some increases in fee levels and some provision may not be offered in future. It is a fact of life that resources will always be finite and that, along with new commitments to investment, hard choices sometimes have to be made between competing priorities.

We have never said that no one will pay more for their learning, nor that the future of individual courses can be guaranteed. It is inevitable that some learners will pay a higher contribution to the cost of their learning, but not those who cannot afford it. Indeed, the priority for the LEA and the LSC is to protect those people mentioned by the hon. Lady who cannot afford to pay. However, as she pointed out, many can afford it. If we are serious about the skills strategy, those hard choices have to be made.

It is inevitable that some LEAs will need to refocus their provisions in order to address those new priorities. As set out in the skills strategy White Paper, we intend to achieve a new and fair balance of responsibilities for funding between Government, employers and learners. That is underlined in our recently announced five-year strategy, which places adult skills high on the agenda. Colleges are central to achieving our goals, and we want the sector to be better attuned to the needs of business and of learners. The strategy means that we shall have to review the national funding framework. Although we need to protect those in greatest need, the new framework will encourage and incentivise colleges to increase and diversify their income, with contributions being made by employers and those learners who gain most and who can afford it.

Later this summer, the Learning and Skills Council intends to consult widely on proposals for the reform and planning of non-vocational education for adults. That will include learning for personal fulfilment as well as opportunities for those who want to take a first step on the learning ladder or who want to try out learning before committing themselves. The aim is to establish a more consistent, more coherent and more equitable distribution of funding, which will iron out discrepancies—for example, between LEAs—and protect the provider base.

We are also working with the LSC to determine more accurately and in more detail the nature and scale of non-vocational learning. That will assist the LSC, its local offices and their partners in determining future priorities, including the balance between learning for personal fulfilment, and first steps and return to learn opportunities.

The spending review is a good settlement for education and skills. The total funding for colleges is planned to rise to £5.6 billion in 2005–06, which is an increase of £1.2 billion compared with the beginning of the spending review period and a totally unprecedented 19 per cent. real-terms increase. The settlement goes along with a 60 per cent. increase in capital and is a real vote of confidence in the FE sector.

Through the LSC, we are investing more than ever in learning and skills. Its learning participation budget has risen to £6.3 billion this year, but we must get the resource allocations right in order to redistribute and rebalance the contributions of the state, the learner and the employer and to recognise our shared responsibility.

The Government and the LSC will have to make decisions that are based on accurate and effective planning and monitoring. I am sure that they will be the right decisions, but we cannot promise that they will always be popular with everybody. Although we recognise that the benefits of learning reach beyond the economic agenda, we must prioritise public funding in areas where we believe it will have the most impact, and many of them involve developing the skills of our workers and potential workers.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women and Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I am interested in the skills argument, but many people have raised health arguments. Has the Minister considered consulting Health Ministers about a portion of health funding going towards at least some of the exercise courses for older people—a sort of course on prescription, which would help the Department for Education and Skills?

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

The skills strategy was actually signed by four Departments. It was unique, as it was signed by the Treasury, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Department of Health was not one of those four, but the hon. Lady makes an important point.

We do not know what we are unleashing. There is the potential for 7 million adults to return to learning and obtain a level 2 qualification. Many of them need entry to employment—a pipeline—before they even get to level 2. We estimate that 1.5 million people will enter the system in the first year, but the point is that we are trialling the level 2 entitlement in two regions, precisely to examine how it impacts on the issues that the hon. Lady mentions. One region is the south-east; the other is the north-east. One could not get two more different regions, geographically and socially. The trial will have an important effect on how we tackle issues.

The White Paper set out our plans for the introduction of a new entitlement to free learning for all those seeking to achieve their first level 2 qualification and some free learning for those in level 3 where there are real skills shortages. Level 2 is the foundation qualification for skills and employability and it will be supported by the introduction of an adult learning grant.

The latest data from the labour force survey states that 71.3 per cent. of adults in the work force are qualified to at least level 2, which is an increase from 70.6 per cent. at the same time last year and from 68 per cent. just over five years ago. However, as I have said, almost 7 million adults remain unqualified to that level, and, as the hon. Lady said, 400,000—the highest level—of those are in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight area. Some 235,560 people have a low level of basic skills, and we must attract those people back to learning and education. The trials will be crucial to getting the balance right, but I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that if we have a priority, we must pursue it, and that means hard choices.