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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 16 May 2000

(Morning)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

10.30 am

The Chairman: Before we commence proceedings, I have two brief announcements to make. Government new clause 7 has been printed on page 1182 of the amendment paper instead of page 1188, and on the selection list amendment No. 255 should be listed under clause 73, not clause 72.

Clause 50

The Inspectorate

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I beg to move amendment No. 211, in page 21, line 21, at end insert

    `or such higher or lower number as may be approved from time to time by affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 205, in page 21, line 26, leave out `have regard to the desirability of appointing a person who' and insert

    `ensure that the person concerned'.

Mr. Clappison: Good morning, Mr. Benton, on this beautiful morning. We now come to a new subject, that of the adult learning inspectorate. Under the provisions of the Bill, the Office for Standards in Education will be responsible for all colleges that teach any 16 to 19-year-old students. For post-19 provision there will be a new adult learning inspectorate.

It is worth noting that later on in the Bill we shall come to the question of how Ofsted and the adult learning inspectorate will work together, and what role will be played by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools in setting a common inspection framework.

The amendments relate in the first place to the composition of the adult learning inspectorate. We hope that although some have characterised the adult learning inspectorate as a junior partner in the process that I have described, it still has an important role to play. Will the Minister tell us about the Government's thinking on the composition of the adult learning inspectorate? Implicit in amendment No. 211 is the question why the Government have chosen nine as the number of members on that body. Will that figure enable the adult learning inspectorate to contain a sufficient breadth of experience? There must be a reason for the Minister's choice of that figure.

We note that the membership and the chairman are to be appointed by the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 205 is designed to probe the Minister on the need for members of the adult learning inspectorate to have relevant experience. Subsection (5) provides that

    the Secretary of State must have regard to the desirability of appointing a person who has experience relevant to the Inspectorate's functions.

We would like to hear more about that. Under the provision, although the Secretary of State must have regard to the desirability of having an experienced person, could he none the less, after having due regard, appoint somebody without experience? In what circumstances might that happen?

We would like to hear from the Minister, therefore, about the composition of the adult learning inspectorate, the number of members and their experience.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): Good morning, Mr. Benton. Given that this is the first amendment to Part III, it may be helpful if I set out the Government's thinking behind the inspection provisions before I deal with amendment No. 211 in detail.

I believe that the Government have put forward a logical series of proposals, designed to create a rigorous and independent inspection regime. I doubt whether there is anything between us in the Committee on the need for rigour in the inspection process.

If we are to succeed in raising the quality of post-16 education and training, we need to reform inspection. There are currently too many fragmented methods of inspection. For example, the Training Standards Council and the Further Education Funding Council each separately inspects adult basic skills, and, as we know, Ofsted is also involved. That is three inspectorates.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): In the early stages of his remarks, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary passed rather cursorily over an assertion on which I should like to ask him to expand. He said that if we are to improve the standards of education and training post-16—which I believe we can take as a common objective—it is necessary to reform the inspectorates. He is not implying by that, I trust, that the work that has already been done by the FEFC inspectorate and by the Training Standards Council—and indeed by Ofsted in relation to its role—has been wasted. Will he make it absolutely clear to the Committee that they have played a positive role, and will he explain why reshuffling them is likely to produce better results?

Mr. Wicks: The inspectorates have played a significant part in helping to raise standards of education and training in this country, and we pay tribute to their work. That should not be in doubt. However, the Committee is considering a Learning and Skills Bill which will produce a new regime for post-16 education and training, and we feel that reform of the inspectorate follows logically from that.

I was making the point that at the moment, given where we want to move to, the position is too fragmented. I have given one example. Another is that A-levels and what are now called vocational A-„levels are inspected separately by both Ofsted and FEFC. School sixth forms are inspected by Ofsted, whereas identical provision in further education colleges is inspected by the FEFC. I hope that that adds to my explanation to the hon. Gentleman of why we feel that reform is needed.

The frequency of inspection also varies. There are no shared assessment arrangements, grading systems, report formats, post-inspection requirements, intervention arrangements or performance indicators. It is no wonder that there are such large and unacceptable variations in performance between providers of post-16 education and training.

In this part of the Bill, beginning with clause 50, we are trying to create for the first time a coherent approach to post-16 inspection. The Bill creates a new, fully independent adult learning inspectorate to take on inspection of all post-19, non-higher education learning and all government-funded work-based training. It expends the remit of Ofsted to inspect provision for 16 to 19-year-olds undergoing education outside schools. The Bill provides for a common post-„16 inspection framework, and it makes provision for area inspections and for joint inspections where the remit of two inspectorates overlaps, notably in FE colleges.

The creation of the adult learning inspectorate is therefore an essential part of our reform of post-16 inspection. It will work with Ofsted to create a rigorous and independent method of improving the effectiveness of post-16 education and training.

We have listened very carefully indeed to the views of providers, and have spent some time explaining our proposals in detail to them. We have made it clear that where ALI—I am afraid the adult learning inspectorate is destined to be known as ALI, and no doubt it will be one of the greatest inspectorates—

Mr. Boswell: Very good.

Mr. Wicks: It was not that good. Where ALI and Ofsted work together on joint inspections there will be a single inspection, producing a single report based on the common inspection framework. Since we have made our intentions clear, the early concerns expressed by some FE colleges, in particular in response to the ``Learning to Succeed'' White Paper, have been shown to be unfounded.

Having briefly explained the context, I turn to amendment No. 211. I cannot but conclude that it would allow a future Government, confident of securing a majority in both Houses of Parliament, to reduce the number of members to, say, one. The amendment is far too broad. That may not be the hon. Gentleman's intention, but the amendment would give far too much leeway to any future Government with dishonourable intentions. It could certainly allow a future Government to specify an unusual number of members, and there is no need for it. The Government looked carefully at the size of both non-Departmental Government bodies created by the Act. We decided that the LSC should have between 12 and 16 members, as we have debated, and that the ALI should have nine.

Mr. Clappison: Will the Minister explain how, if in the light of experience during the planning and development of the new body it was decided that it would be advantageous to have a wider range of experience, the Government or anybody else would go about increasing the number of members?

Mr. Wicks: As I have said, we have made a judgment that, given the inspectorate's functions, nine seems the right number. It is difficult to argue precisely why nine is better than 10 or eight, but for the LSC, which has wider functions, we feel that 12 to 16 members is right, and for the ALI, nine. That would allow for a range of experience, which could include some members with direct experience of inspections in the sector. Others may have experience of, say, industrial training or community learning, or might have an interest in basic skills. We are certainly not looking for people who have come directly from the post-16 inspection process in every case. From time to time, having someone with experience of inspection in a different area could be useful, should such people present themselves for membership.

The inspectorate must be knowledgeable and competent in the full range of adult education and work-based training. Nine is the number that we believe is consistent with that requirement and will allow the inspectorate to make informed decisions rapidly. It also reflects the fact that ALI will be a smaller and more specialist body than the LSC. The LSC has a much wider and more complex remit, and that was the thinking behind the relative numbers of the two. I am, therefore, not attracted to an amendment that allows an unlimited number of people to be added to or subtracted from the ALI, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) also argued eloquently for amendment No. 205 and I appreciate his arguments. Nonetheless, there are some awkward aspects to the amendment, which would put a much tighter constraint on the Secretary of State when he was appointing members of the adult learning inspectorate.

First, I recognise that to ``ensure'' that a person has the relevant experience is a stronger duty than to ``have regard''. But in making appointments to the ALI, the Secretary of State will need some flexibility. It is quite probable that he will want to consider the balance of experience between candidates, as well as their professional calibre. Not every candidate will have the full experience of the inspectorate's functions, of course, and there may need to be a balancing act to ensure that there is the necessary collective competence.

For those reasons I prefer the existing wording of clause 50(5), which is the form used in statute for many other non-departmental public bodies. ``To have regard'' to the desirability of appointing someone with relevant experience is, in any event, quite a significant duty on the Secretary of State. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for Hertsmere will not press amendment No. 205.

 
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