Union Learning Fund — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:46 am on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:46 am, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate Lilian Greenwood on securing this important debate. Like her, I grew up in the north-west in the ’70s and ’80s, and I am very familiar with Paul’s and Mark’s experience of school—it is one that I also had, with more than 90% of my school friends leaving our Knowsley comprehensive school with few or no qualifications, so I am familiar with the challenge.

We all know, too, how rapidly the economy and employment can change, with the decline of jobs for life; instead, it is a life of jobs, requiring new skills. Hence the need for people to have those new skills and qualifications in order to be more resilient to change and better able to take advantage of the opportunities in their area. Of course, that means that access to education and training is essential for young people and adults to get the skills they need to equip them for the future and to allow them to take advantage of the opportunities open to them.

I hope it comes as no surprise to anybody here that I am passionate about this subject. I have my own experience as an apprentice, and I know that gaining skills and training develops confidence and opens the door to so many opportunities. Apprenticeships are now available at any age, to any worker, up to degree and masters levels in almost every occupation we can imagine.

However, getting into work, getting on to a training course and getting those qualifications mark a stage in learning, not an end. Now more than ever, things are changing at a rapid rate. New technology means new industries and the decline of some others. Jobs change, jobs are lost and jobs are created. We are living in a period of rapid change, and the impact of coronavirus has created another level of instability, which means that everyone needs to react to take advantage of new opportunities or to minimise the risks that change can bring.

The Government are committed to ensuring that every adult has the skills they need to progress. That is why we are investing £1.34 billion through the adult education budget in 2020-21 alone. That commitment is not just about ensuring that all adults can get a full level 3 qualification, but about basic skills. We know that any adult without basic skills and qualifications faces an impossible challenge in securing employment, and that is why, since the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, we have fully funded adults without English and maths at level 2 to gain those essential qualifications. Since August this year, we have added a similar entitlement for every adult to gain basic digital skills at level 1.

Unionlearn, through the union learning fund, has done some really good work over the years in helping and supporting adults to gain the basic skills they need. It helps people to find out about learning opportunities and how to access them. Of the 200,000 people it helps each year, about 95,000 are supported in English, maths and information and communications technology up to level 2. In fact, almost all the Unionlearn help is at level 2 and below. It has been able to do this thanks to Government support. Since 2015, the Government have provided £74 million for the union learning fund, including £12 million for the current financial year.

There are limitations to the Unionlearn model, however. Although it is open to all, important information on opportunities is invariably circulated via the trade union network. Programmes are undertaken by the same set of unions each year. Typically, Unionlearn has supported 19 to 23 projects each year, but over time, only 24 unions have been involved. That is not to say that the projects are not good or worthwhile, but the support is going to the same unions for the same cohorts. Efforts to widen the range of programmes and unions securing project funding have not succeeded.

The Government want training opportunities to be genuinely open to all adults, rather than confined to a particular cohort by the limits of the union learning fund. Although many individuals feel that their learning journey would not have started without the support of Unionlearn, which I am sure is right, almost half of those training through it are qualified at level 3 or above, plus significant numbers said that they would have done the learning in any case.

We are not scrapping Unionlearn; we have decided not to continue funding it from taxpayers’ money. Of course, others could fund it, such as trade unions, employers and devolved Administrations. Indeed, it was established in 1998 and has been funded by taxpayers only since 2008, so there were 10 years of it being funded another way.

I referred to the work that Unionlearn has done to support people to gain basic skills, but I also spoke about the adult entitlement to financial support for them to get English, maths and digital qualifications. That was brought in after the establishment of Unionlearn, which brings me to a key point. At its heart, the Unionlearn model is a brokering one that helps to identify learning needs at an individual level or in a particular location, then to link those individuals to providers who deliver the training. It does not fund training, except in a few circumstances where it is not available through the adult education budget.