Further Education and Adult Learning

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 16th May 2006.

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Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North 12:30 pm, 16th May 2006

I begin by congratulating the Government on the improvements that they have made in further education and on recognising the importance of the sector in their White Paper. The contribution that FE can make to improving our skills base, widening opportunities for 14 to 19-year-olds and addressing my particular concern of giving second chances to those who may not have had the educational advantages that they deserved is vital if we are to improve our educational standards and maintain a vibrant economy. It is fair to say that the Government have recognised that with the investment that they have put in; I believe that it has increased by 48 per cent. in real terms since 1997.

The results can be seen in bricks and mortar in constituencies such as mine. My local college has a£27 million new build, which will replace outdated and unsuitable buildings with something fit for the21st century. In turn, the investment has produced rising success rates in FE; there has been a rise from59 per cent. in 2001-02 to 72 per cent. in 2003-04. We know that more 19-year-olds get level 2 qualifications and that more people are completing apprenticeships.

Nothing that I say today is intended to detract from that success, which is real and life-transforming for many people. I do not suggest that we do not need to focus on skills and on ensuring that more people stay on at 16. That has been a blot on our educational record for far too long in this country, but we are making progress in that area. Some 8 per cent. of people in their 20s do not have any qualifications, and although that figure is still far too high, we are making progress.

We have a mountain to climb in respect of the people who left school 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We should focus on one stark fact: 24 out of every 100 adults aged between 40 and 64 have no qualifications. Those adults will need to reskill if they are to participate in the labour market. It is estimated that in the next decade two out of three jobs will be filled by adults rather than by new entrants to the labour market, so we should not neglect their needs. The difficulty that we need to discuss is how we get such people, particularly those with no qualifications, back into education. That is not always done in the way that we might expect. In my experience, many people first come back into education by doing shorter courses at venues that are not threatening. We should not underestimate how difficult it is for people who have failed in the past just to get through the doors of a college.

If we do not succeed, the penalties will be stark. I looked at the latest figures that I could find—those for 2004—and they were clear. Some 49 per cent. of those with no qualifications were in employment, whereas71 per cent. of those who had a level 1 qualification and 75 per cent. of those who had a level 2 qualification were. I am sure that the figures have risen since then, but the ratio will have remained similar.

The penalties for a lack of learning are low income, periods of unemployment and even an effect on people's health. I looked at the 2001 census, and it struck me starkly that the rate of limiting long-term illness among men who are long-term unemployed or who have never worked is three times that among people who have worked. Of course, some of that is because such people have been ill and cannot work, but some of it represents a consequence. There is an associated set-up of low income, unemployment and ill health, which costs not just the individuals, in wasted talent and blighted lives, but all of us.

I understand why the Government wanted to focus adult learning on those without qualifications and set key targets on skills for life and on first level 2 qualifications. Rightly, there are now no fees for people seeking first level 2 qualifications, and under the train to gain programme employers can obtain free training and development for those working towards a level 2 qualification. I applaud that, because it is the right thing to do, but I want to examine its unintended consequences—I stress that they are unintended.

We are losing many courses that bring people back to education in the first place. Let us be frank. We have not been very good at reaching those with no qualifications in the past. The last time I asked, last year's national adult learning survey was not available, but the trend in previous surveys is clear. Participation in adult learning is highest among people with professional and managerial jobs and lowest among unskilled manual workers.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education surveys show the same sort of pattern. We have been much more successful in increasing participation among people in socio-economic group C2, but the participation rate of people in groups D and E has remained almost constant from 1996 to 2005; it is still 26 per cent. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that the one area in which that trend is bucked is adult and community learning. In the winter of 2002, 9 per cent. of people in adult and community learning had no qualifications. By winter 2004, that had gone up to 17 per cent. At the same time, the rate in FE hardly rose. It went from 6 per cent. to 7 per cent. We need to learn the lessons of that and apply them elsewhere.

I fear that our targets might have different effects to those intended. It is easy to meet the targets for people getting a level 2 in colleges by taking on people who are already close to that level. I was surprised to learn, when the Learning and Skills Council came before the Education and Skills Committee, that it did little in the way of considering the social profile of adult learners. The council admitted that it could have the same number of people on courses but an entirely different profile to the target group. In other words, it could be that while targets are being met, some of those who are most in need are being neglected. Although the council considers the socio-demographic characteristics in an area before planning its courses, we need to do much more research into those who are actually engaged in learning. I have not seen the results of the Mosaic pilots, but I hope that we will see them soon, because there needs to be more research in that area.

The Government rightly want to improve qualifications among 16 to 19-year-olds, but while spending on them will increase by 4 per cent. in the coming year—we are spending more on people with disabilities and on learning difficulties—part of the adult learning budget will be squeezed. I asked a parliamentary question about the changes in the budget for adult and community learning in different LSC areas, but have not yet received an answer. The Association of Colleges estimates that there will be a7 per cent. drop overall. We therefore assume that asking colleges to increase their fee income from certain courses would mean focusing money on those most in need. I accept that that is the Government's intention, but I do not think that it always happens in reality. Some of the reductions being made are in courses such as first aid, food hygiene and health and safety, which are often the first courses that people take which bring them back into education.

Liverpool community college—I know that myhon. Friend Mrs. Ellman has secured a debate on Liverpool later today—is looking at a reduction of £1.5 million next year. In North Yorkshire, there was a 16 per cent. cut from 2004-05 to 2005-06 in the adult learning budget. Some of the courses that went were courses for classroom assistants and on British sign language, and some craft courses. There is an argument that some of the people on those courses can afford to pay, but there is also an argument that some people take them precisely because they are not threatening. They are the courses that get people through the door to adult learning in the first place.

To give the Minister an example, the college in my area ran very successful courses in schools and community centres on subjects such as "Help your child to read", first aid, and the one that I always call "Computing for the terrified", although that is not its name. A lot of mothers went on those courses because they were directly relevant to their children, but I can point to people who went on to further education after one of those courses. Some have become classroom assistants, and highly qualified classroom assistants at that, but normally we would never have got them through the doors of the college in the first instance, and that is the key. We need to know what motivates people to take up learning.

Let me give the Minister another example. The union learning fund and the college run a learning centre in a council depot in my constituency. A lot of our bin men take courses there, and when I went to ask what the most popular were, they said computing. Also, a lot of them learn Spanish for their holidays. Are those courses directly relevant to being a bin man? No, although I would like to say that they are very good bin men and they never drop things on the paths and so on. Do courses then spark people's appetite for learning, because through them people achieve things that they never thought they could? Yes.

The problem is that we do not have real research on what sparks people's appetite for learning; we do not really know. However, the history of adult education in this country shows that it has been most successful when it has built on people's interests and led them on from there. We need to learn those lessons. The union learning fund, which is one of the unsung successes of this Government, and the adult and community learning fund are very good at doing that, but adult and community learning is only 6 per cent. of the Learning and Skills Council's adult learning budget, which is itself being squeezed. According to the Department's own estimates, the result will be a loss of about 500,000 adult learning places from one year to the next.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will quote the neighbourhood learning in deprived communities fund, and that is an excellent initiative, but when I last looked, there were only 30,000 places under it. That does not replace the other adult education places that are being lost.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

My hon. Friend has talked a lot about adult courses being lost, and that is a concern for a college that I represent in Gateshead, but there is a further point that she has not picked up on; I do not know whether it applies only to Gateshead—perhaps the Minister can help on that. It is the loss of dedicated courses for people with learning difficulties. Rightly, the learning opportunities for people such as bin men, who I have had the privilege of representing for many years, are about much more than just what they do at work. However, for people with learning disabilities, the issue is actually about their whole life; not just education but what they do if they are not in education. What do they do with their lives during the day?

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Clearly, in some areas there is a difficulty for colleges and social services about what should be provided for people with learning difficulties and where that should be provided. We see that in my area, too.

My plea is for the Minister to look again at the subject. I accept that the Government did not intend there to be such consequences; the law of unintended consequences operates in so many areas. We should get some proper research on the effect of the policy on some of the people whom we most need to bring back into education. I ask him to imagine what the situation would be if he had failed in education in the past, and had had a very bad experience of education. What would bring him back? I suggest that it would be something immediate, fairly short and with an attainable goal; something not directly related to work skills at first, but that could lead on. If there is to be progression, which the Government want—and I accept that that is the right goal—we must first get people through the doors. If we do not do that, they cannot progress.

I hope that the Minister will look at the 1999 report from the policy action team in the social exclusion unit, which said that we needed to take a much broader view of the skills needed. People need a wider range of skills to keep themselves in employment, including confidence, motivation and the ability to present themselves and navigate the labour market. A lot of courses give people confidence and motivation. We could have an entire debate about the structure of adult education and education as a good in itself, which I firmly believe in, but I am concentrating on those who might fall through the net because courses are disappearing.

I urge the Minister to look at our successes in adult and community learning, at how the trade union learning fund has worked and at some proper research on what is happening and who is losing out, and not to see all adult education or adult and community learning as the same thing. I urge him to remember that those adults whom we need to get into learning and on to the skills path will be the mainstay of our economy as the population changes and ages.

The Minister is interested in the issue and has some concerns about it, so let me tell him that the experience of many of us on the ground is that sometimes what happens is not necessarily what those in Whitehall think happens. Let us take a real look at what gets people back on to the learning path. We talk about the learning society, but we always talk about the supply side. Let us also talk about how we create the demand for learning and try to ensure that we do not let people with no qualifications at all lose out.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk 12:46 pm, 16th May 2006

I indicated to Helen Jones that I would like to intervene in her speech, but having listened to what she said, I should like to congratulate her on the timeliness of this important debate and to take a minute to make a few points to the Minister.

Self-improvement is important to all members of the community. Does the Minister agree with the women's institute in my constituency, which says that cuts in the adult learning budget are "very short-sighted" and that they will impact on local communities and social groups, as well as on individual learners? I am sure that the Minister agrees that democratic adult learning, as part of a tradition of self-improvement, has changed the lives of people who, for social or economic reasons, have had little or no access to education, and that it should be safeguarded by public funding policies. Does the Minister understand the dismay that women's institutes throughout the country have expressed at older learners being excluded from adult education because of the cut in funding? Older learners are being denied their right to lifelong learning in the way that the hon. Lady so well articulated.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills 12:47 pm, 16th May 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Jones on securing a genuinely important debate and on the consistency with which she pursues such issues. It is right and proper that we should be having this discussion.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for rightly giving credit for what has happened in the further education sector generally since 1997. We can collectively be proud of what we have achieved. She referred to the48 per cent. real-terms increase in funding since 1997, which contrasts favourably with the 14 per cent. real-terms cut that took place in the five years running up to 1997. I agree with her that that transformation can be seen most effectively in capital expenditure. I visit further education colleges up and down the country, so I have seen the practical progress that is being made, including in qualifications. The latest figures show that the success rate has risen from 59 per cent. to 75 per cent. That is a genuine improvement.

My hon. Friend raised a number of issues to which I want to respond, but before doing so I should like to outline the backdrop, to explain the policy direction in which we are moving. Our overall objectives are to meet our future skill needs; to ensure that people maximise their potential through learning both as individuals and as members of families, local communities and a flexible and adaptable work force; and to establish the priorities for public funding of adult learning and a new balance of who pays for what, between the state, employers and individuals, in line with the benefits that they receive. Finally, we aim to reform the further education sector, to make it more responsive to the needs of the economy.

The skills strategy is at the centre of the debate. We live in a world where new markets, new places of production and new skilled work forces are emerging with astonishing speed. World trade is doubling every decade. Last week I visited China with a higher and further education delegation, where, unbelievably, trade is doubling every three years. Chinese wage costs are still just 5 per cent. of those of the European Union. We face a colossal challenge from those pressures, and if we do not respond we will be blown away by the global competition.

A few figures bring home the scale of the challenge and the skills gap that we face in this country: one third of adults are not at full level 2, which is the basic school-leaving qualification; 6 million adults are without functional literacy; and 17 million adults are without functional numeracy. The matter is a social and an economic imperative. The most effective way to tackle poverty and social exclusion is to give people skills so that they can get into the workplace.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson Labour, Blaydon

I made the point earlier about what happened at Gateshead. There is an economic impact as 30 jobs might go among the teaching staff because of the decisions that have been made, but there is also an economic impact on other public bodies. If disabled people are not in the classroom learning, they will probably have to go to day centres or hospitals, where they do not necessarily need to be. That will be the upshot of a policy that is not at all welcome in our area.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I actually signed a letter to him last night about the situation at Gateshead college. One of the points I made is that the Learning and Skills Council has gone through a very elongated process during the current allocation round in order to allocate funds to colleges. That happens at various stages. I ask my hon. Friend to wait until the end of the allocation round before passing judgment about the end game. I am reasonably confident that once we reach that stage the picture of overall funding for FE colleges will be very different from the one suggested by some. Regarding his second point, which he made earlier, the LSC has made it clear, as have the Government, that people with learning difficulties remain a priority. The figures that I have seen suggest that an overall cut is not taking place, but we undoubtedly need to keep the issue closely under review.

The skills strategy is an imperative, and like my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North, I believe that the impact of qualifications and skills on people's health, overall participation in society and access to income-generating jobs is crucial.

I shall now respond to some of the detailed points raised by my hon. Friend. She talked a lot about the danger of unintended consequences. In driving the policy through during the past year, both the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Phil Hope, and I have been very conscious of the danger of unintended consequences, and we will keep the matter under active review.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North that we do not want to lose good courses that demonstrably lead to progression. We made that clear in the grant letter from the former Secretary of State, when we asked for a good balance of learning opportunities for adults in every area. However, we also know that too much of the current provision, which is called "first steps" or "return to learn", is more of a revolving door than a true pathway to progression. I shall explain what I mean by that.

Our research suggests that the average number of years between attaining a qualification below level 2 and studying for full level 2 is 14 years. Most of us feel that that is far too long, which is why we announced in the recent White Paper the development of a new foundation learning tier. Through that, we intend to turn the current complex range of qualifications below level 2 into a coherent system of units that are easier for learners and employers to understand and which are based fundamentally on employability and life skills. The foundation learning tier will encompass a range of programmes, including clear pathways to progress to level 2. For those not able to achieve a full level 2, the foundation tier will also provide a rich mix of courses. As we made clear in the FE White Paper, over time and as resources allow, we intend to make that an entitlement.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

Will my hon. Friend undertake to look at the effect on women of the disappearance of some community courses? In my experience, a lot of women access learning in that way. Will he keep that matter under review?

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills

I will keep the matter under review, and to answer the hon. Gentleman, I shall meet the women's institute shortly to discuss some of those issues. The figures that I have show that women are well represented in the further education sector. We want to maintain that, and we must keep the issue under review.

My hon. Friend also made important points about the social profile of learners. I take her point that there is concern that the lowest take-up is among the poorest groups. However, we have more information on the social profile of learners than is sometimes suggested. For example, of those doing their first full level 2 qualifications, almost one in four had no qualifications at all, and the remaining 76 per cent. had a qualification below level 2. I cite that example just to suggest that the targeting strategy has an effect and is working. However, I accept her point, and we must keep the matter under review and conduct more research into who benefits. I intend to take that work forward, and I shall keep in contact with her about that issue.

I very much take my hon. Friend's point about family learning and extended schools. She gave as an example local courses where parents have the opportunity to help their children and, at the same time, help themselves through reading. There is no reason why such courses, where they are valued, should be lost. For example, we have specific programmes through the Learning and Skills Council, often run by local authorities and aimed at helping families learn together. The wider family learning programme is worth £12 million a year and helps 50,000 families. The specific programme for family literacy and numeracy is £25 million a year and helps 70,000 families.

In addition, the Government have committed£680 million in start-up funding during 2006 to 2008 to enable schools to provide access to the core offer of extended services. Part of that offer is parenting support, including sessions for parents to read with their children. It is an important initiative, and I am sure it will be welcomed.

My hon. Friend also talked about short courses and the policy that we are pursuing of moving away from short courses towards longer courses. The issue must be seen in perspective: the majority of short courses are short skills for life programmes and other—particularly IT—courses. The short skills for life courses should be part of larger programmes aiming for the achievement of qualifications. Other short courses appear to be of limited benefit to the progression of learners, and we must consider the issue in that context.

My hon. Friend talked about the importance of personal and community development, and as she knows, we have maintained its level of funding. However, we have rightly said that we want LSC partnerships at a local level to determine better the priorities for that expenditure. We do not want it centrally driven to the same extent.

My hon. Friend discussed the union learning fund, and like her I think that it is an unsung success story of this Labour Government. If I may make a political point, it is one of the most effective ways in which the Labour party and the trade unions work together. It has brought real benefits by introducing into the education and training system, through the support of their peers, people who would otherwise not have taken that approach.

My hon. Friend talked about having a mountain to climb in terms of people who left school or college 20, 30, 40 years ago with no qualifications. It is the most significant challenge that we face. On all the evidence they are the people who miss out on social, economic, health and other advantages. We need to focus on reskilling those adults, and we are doing so through the level 2 "Train to Gain" initiative. It is one of the most radical policies that this Government have pursued: for the first time saying to adults in the workplace who do not have a full level 2 qualification that the state will guarantee that level of education and training.

The recent change that we made in the further education White Paper to extend the free entitlement up to level 3 and the age of 25 is a significant step forward, as is the foundation learning tier to which I referred earlier. However, all that comes down to priorities, and we are a Government who have significantly increased investment in the further education sector. In that context, we have rightly said that the priorities must be 16 to 19-year-olds, adult basic skills, and the roll out of "Train to Gain". We want to do more than that, but we cannot say that we have those priorities and then have a set of other priorities. I know that that is not what my hon. Friend is saying, and we need to keep the issues under review to monitor their impact. However, if we are saying that those core priorities are genuinely important, we must commit resources to them—