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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 18 April 1999

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Learning Skills Bill [Lords]

Clause 2

Education and training for persons aged 16 to 19

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 71, in page 1, line 20, leave out `proper'. [Mr. Boswell.]

4.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 72, in page 1, line 22, leave out from `age' to end of line 23.

No. 20, in page 1, line 24, leave out `19' and insert `25'.

No. 73, in page 2 leave out lines 5 to 8.

No. 74, in page 2, line 12, at end insert—

    `(aa) satisfy itself that sufficient resources of high quality are available to meet the needs of individuals;'

No. 21, in clause 3, page 2, line 36, leave out `19' and insert `25'.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): It was 1944, Mr. Hancock. Committee members will remember that I was briefly trying to place in historical context our priorities for 16 to 19-year-olds, and to set that approach in the wider context of our commitment to lifelong learning. We were somewhat sidetracked by a discussion of the Franco-Prussian war and by other matters, but we should try to focus on the Education Act 1944. Committee members will recall that that Act was introduced by a coalition Government, who also introduced the Family Allowances Act 1945. That was a short-lived but distinguished Government.

The Education Act 1944 was a landmark in the history of publicly funded education in this country. Apart from establishing the concepts of primary, secondary and tertiary systems, it also established compulsory schooling for those aged between five and 15. School-leaving age was later raised to 16. Education between the ages of five and 16 is now taken as a right, and it is unthinkable in a civilised society to consider denying any young person the right to education. Their education must be free, and it is an entitlement. We have come a long way.

What is an entitlement? The Bill places various duties on the Learning and Skills Council. The duties that are contained in clauses 2 and 3 create corresponding rights for individuals. The Bill will extend current rights to education from school-leaving age up to the age of 19. We have made it clear that tuition up to level 3 for that age group will be free, just as it is for pupils of statutory school age.

As we established earlier, the efforts of successive Governments have gradually raised participation for 16 to 19-year-olds to its current high level. The efforts of previous Governments raised participation for younger age groups to increasingly high levels, to the point at which school education became universal. We all know that there is a significant way to go in relation to 16 to 19-year-olds. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said that it was unlikely that we will ever reach 100 per cent. participation. That may be true—time will tell—but no one could claim that people in that age group do not have the right to education. I am sure that all Committee members want 100 per cent. participation in education or training, or a mix of the two.

The Government are committed to a step change. In order to realise the highest level of participation for 16 to 19-year-olds, the LSC must have appropriate resources, just as those aged between five and 16 receive publicly funded education. The Government are committed to ensuring that the resources are available. That is part of the evolution of public education in this country. I continue to be amazed at how little attention that evolution has attracted. As we have noted on various occasions, that vital part of the education and training system does not tend to grab many headlines.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way in the middle of what appears to be a rather extended peroration. Perhaps the opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds do not receive greater attention because the approach of the Further Education Funding Council meant that they did not pay any fees.

Mr. Wicks: The point that I am trying to establish is that we have great ambitions for 16 to 19-year-olds. Fees will not have to be paid at certain crucial levels, and we are flagging up the fact that young people now have rights to education and training where previously that was not the case. However, such rights are meaningless if they cannot be exercised, and we have now reached the stage where full participation at the ages of 16 to 19 can be backed up by resources. The Government have been able to find the resources to make a reality of the right to education and training up to the age of 19. I have not previously heard anyone object to that step forward, which added to my surprise on seeing the amendment.

I want to say something about quality for young people's education and training. On amendment No. 74, the hon. Member for Daventry made several points about the need to ensure high-quality provision. I doubt whether there is much difference between us in that respect. We always expect provision that is resourced from public funds to be of high quality; that is why we have made quality an intrinsic part of the LSC's duties. I also refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 9, which empowers the LSC to develop schemes for assessing the performance of providers. Such schemes will inform decisions that are taken under clause 5 when financial resources are allocated by the LSC. That will enable the LSC to assess the quality of the provision that it funds and to take judgments about equality into account when making funding decisions.

We expect to start consultation on the LSC quality improvement arrangements after Easter, and the hon. Member for Daventry should be in no doubt that the Government will pay close attention to that. It will be am important part of the LSC's functions to ensure that quality is continually driven upwards, in addition to the important work that will be necessary to follow up the outcomes of formal inspections by the Office for Standards in Education and the adult learning inspectorate.

The amendment is unnecessary, because we have already built a quality dimension into the LSC's duties, and it will be failing in its duties if the quality of provision that it funds is inadequate. We consider that that is a strong enough safeguard. However, I will understand if the hon. Gentleman wishes to return to quality issues in connection with later relevant clauses, including, of course, part III, which deals with inspection.

The hon. Member for Daventry asked whether young people will be entitled to provision only if it leads to qualifications. The answer is no. We recognise that many young people benefit from general development and life skills courses, for example, and the LSC will provide for that. The same applies to adults, and we intend to make extensive provision in that respect.

I turn to learning entitlement for 19 to 25-year-olds. Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 would extend the learning entitlement that is provided by clause 2 to all those aged up to 25. We recognise that the country needs a substantial improvement in participation and achievement at every level. We are only too aware of the legacy that was left by a failure to invest in the nation's education. The LSC will be required to give priority to the learning of 16 to 19-year-olds. We gave that commitment in the White Paper, Learning to Succeed. The additional resources that we are devoting to post-16 learning will allow access to learning for all those who really need it, including adults. We are making the biggest-ever investment in further education: £3.9 billion in 2001–02, compared to £3.1 billion in 1998–99—an extra £800 million.

However, we must recognise that even those amounts may not be enough to meet all demand, especially when we consider how many adults need to improve and develop their skills and qualifications. At the end of 1998, there were about 4 million 19 to 25-year-olds in England. More than 1 million of those do not have a level 2 or higher qualification, about 100,000 of whom are studying to achieve one. Nearly 2 million adults in that age group do not have a level 3 qualification, and about 120,000 are studying to achieve one. The third report of the skills task force recognised that extending an entitlement to a level 2 qualification to the 19-to-25 age group might cost about £135 million a year. It recognised that a level 3 entitlement was not on the cards at present. Although we aim to meet an increasing proportion of this important demand, there are clearly difficulties in setting in legislation such an unqualified duty.

To extend the learning entitlement to all those up to the age of 25 at the stroke of the legislator's pen would be misleading, attractive as it may seem to anyone not thinking through the consequences. It would restrict the council's ability and discretion to make judgments about how best to target resources for adults. It would stretch the available resources across the entire 16-to-25 age range in a way that might endanger the higher funding generally required for those with the most pressing needs—for example, those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities or those with prior educational under-achievement. It would also divert resources away from adults over 25 as well—this was a point raised earlier by Opposition Members—as well as from those aged under 19, including those in sixth forms.

The LSC, and particularly local LSCs, must be able to exercise discretion about where to focus provision for adults. I assure the hon. Member for Daventry that this will be a matter not only for the LSC but for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. When such substantial amounts of taxpayers' money are involved, he will have to give careful and full guidance on the overall spending priorities for its use.

 
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