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Session 1999-2000
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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill

Learning and Skills Bill

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 11 April 2000

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

    That, during proceedings on the Learning and Skills Bill [Lords], the Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at Nine o'clock and at half-past One o'clock.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton, and also your co-Chairman, Mr. Hancock. My two ministerial colleagues and the whole Committee look forward to your guidance over the next few weeks in what we hope will be constructive and meaningful scrutiny of the Bill.

It will be convenient for hon. Members to assume that the Committee will sit on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and afternoons. I hope that we can make good progress and that agreement can be reached through the usual channels about when the Bill will leave Committee, but until then we must make that assumption.

We had a useful and wide-ranging debate on Second Reading last month. I welcome the opportunity to pick up on issues raised and to participate in closer scrutiny of the detail.

I also welcome the varied and very relevant expertise from which the Committee and the Bill will benefit. When wearing a different hat, Mr. Benton, you chair the governors at a college of technology, and Mr. Hancock is a former leader of Hampshire county council and is still chair of its planning and economic development committee.

We have former education Ministers on the Committee and I note particularly that we have several members of the Education and Employment Committee, which I had the great privilege to co-chair until relatively recently. Indeed, looking around I must remember that I am no longer chairing that Committee but that those present are in a sense here to scrutinise me and my colleagues.

Several Committee members are also members of relevant parliamentary groups on adult education and further education and of committees concerned with disability and many other relevant subjects. I note also from my research that several Committee members have been involved in different ways in the education process, as teachers or lecturers. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) is a former head teacher. In many other respects, too, we have an expert Committee to guide and stimulate us in the weeks to come.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) will help us to do important scrutiny of the provisions for Wales.

Several noble Lords made the point on their Second Reading—because of course the Bill entered the upper House first—that the Bill represents an all-too-rare opportunity for debates on further education and training. Despite the best efforts of the Education and Employment Committee, and although delivery of post-16 skills and learning is crucial for our economic well-being and social cohesion, I fear that that is true. This is a rare opportunity to study these matters in detail.

On Second Reading I said that this was legislation for the 21st century. I would like to take a moment to substantiate my claim and to remind hon. Members of the issues at stake and of the different areas that we will be considering over the coming weeks.

We have a serious situation in this country that we need to address and there are statistics to back that up: statistics that some of us know only too well but that are worth repeating. There are still more than 6 million adults in this country with no formal qualifications. One in five of the adult population have a lower literacy level than an 11-year-old should have. There are about 170,000 young people aged 16 to 18—about one in 11 of the age group—who are not in training, not in education and not in employment. The qualification achievement rates in further education colleges vary too much, from about 34 per cent. up to 94 per cent.

Dropout rates from training and enterprise councils courses range from 30 to 60 per cent. Small wonder, then, that business people talk about a skills gap. Employers are often able to offer jobs but receive no takers even in areas of unemployment. It is hardly surprising, too, that we lag far behind France, Germany, the United States of America and other nations in terms of productivity. In essence, the country is in no fit state to face the challenges and opportunities of the knowledge economy or to further the aim of creating an inclusive, learning society.

The Learning and Skills Council and the 47 local councils that we aim to establish in England will be concerned with stripping away bureaucracy and waste. Our aim is to achieve coherence and quality across the whole post-16 spectrum. We are talking about big money: large amounts of public expenditure. The Learning and Skills Council will have a £6 billion budget and will provide learning to some 6 million learners—academic, vocational, work-based and leisure-time learning for young people and adults.

We will build partnerships for private, public and voluntary sectors and at national, regional, sectoral and local levels to place the consumers of learning—employers, communities and individuals—at the centre, and to promote cohesive, dynamic communities. That will combine the benefits of a single, unitary system, guaranteeing a coherent and strategic approach, with local decision making and flexibility. Local people will make local decisions.

The Bill also offers the prospect of a real change in Wales through the creation of a new Council for Education and Training for Wales, the CETW. Under the aegis of the National Assembly, the new council will open up new opportunities for learning, remove barriers to learning, and help to continue the upward drive of education and training standards in Wales. The National Assembly in plenary on 1 February debated proposed arrangements and overwhelmingly endorsed the approach for Wales as now expressed in the Bill. The National Assembly will be taking a close interest in the Bill's progress through the House, not least to see that Welsh needs and circumstances are reflected. My hon. Friend from the Wales Office will be helping the Committee in explaining the provisions relating to that country.

I will now say something about school sixth forms, because this is a feature of the Bill and of the debate around the Bill. The provisions on sixth forms focus on coherence, quality and choice. The LSC and the CETW will fund local education authorities for their sixth form provision, as part of promoting coherence across the schools-further education divide, which was a principle welcomed widely during consultation.

We have arrangements to secure our commitment to standards in sixth form provision, including in schools. There will be provision to enable LEAs to propose new maintained 16-19 institutions—a reflection of the value that we place on sixth form provision in the schools sector. We want an effective and successful sixth form sector offering young people an attractive range of high-quality learning routes.

Inspection is another important part of the Bill, which will introduce the first ever rigorous, independent and comprehensive regime for inspection of post-16 learning.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Does the Minister have confidence in the existing arrangements for the inspection of further education by the further education inspectorate, whether in further education colleges or in sixth form colleges? He seems to be implying otherwise.

Mr. Wicks: We have great confidence in the inspectorates in place. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that the different inspectorates have been key in helping us in our objective of driving up standards. However, the Committee's purpose is to scrutinise a Bill that brings together education and training for those aged 16 and over. We are dealing with a new fund and a new policy strategy, and the Government will argue that we therefore need new inspection arrangements. We will have plenty of time to cover the important issues about which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and is so concerned, as we all are.

The current arrangements involve three different bodies with overlapping remits, different inspection cycles and no common methodologies, grading or post-16 inspection follow-ups. Given that we are proposing a new policy, that makes no sense, and we need to reform the inspectorates, just as we are reforming other parts of the sector.

Two massive and specialist jobs need to be done. There will be a new adult learning inspectorate to take on the inspection of all adult learning and workplace training, and the remit of the Office for Standards in Education will be extended to include the inspection of provision for 16 to 19-year-olds in further education colleges. Provision for effective joint working, especially for the inspection of all learning provision for 16 to 19-year-olds in an area, is allowed for.

I shall deal now with the aspects of the Bill that relate to disability and learning difficulties. Important and positive provisions are made as regards equal opportunities, especially for people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, whose learning might otherwise be delayed or disrupted. There will be a statutory duty on the LSC and on the council in Wales to promote equal opportunities. There will be duties on both councils to take account of the needs of people with learning difficulties when planning provision for learning and work experience. There will be new provisions to help people with learning difficulties to make the transition from school to other post-16 learning. Those have been worked up in consultation with disability organisations. All that represents a real advance on existing arrangements and an entirely appropriate boost for equal opportunities in learning.

There will be a statutory basis for the new ConneXions service, which will provide information, advice, guidance and support for all 13 to 19-year-olds. That will build on and better co-ordinate existing support services to raise aspirations and expectations and to enable young people to maximise their potential and get the most from learning. Government amendments will be tabled to provide for a local service for young people in Wales that is tailored to particular circumstances and objectives there.

I hope that the Committee agrees to the sittings motion. My brief run through the Bill has allowed me to give an appetiser to our debate, and I am sure that hon. Members are as anxious as I am to get on to the detail of the main course—there is certainly much to chew over. [Hon. Members: ``Oh dear.''] It can only get better. I am grateful for the time and effort that hon. Members, you, Mr. Benton, and your co-Chairman will expend over the coming weeks in scrutinising the Bill to ensure that we have got things right.

 
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