Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  240. It has been hopeless, yes.
  (Mr Riddell) Right. I did not say that.

  241. I know you cannot but I can.
  (Mr Riddell) It has taken quite a long time to get ahead but they have mostly got reasonably solid plans and the evaluation, again, will be continuous. We have put quite a bit of money into spreading best practice and we have got a Skills and Knowledge Programme which is designed to spread that. We tend to use the NDCs as an exemplar of good practice to feed out to Local Strategic Partnerships in the broader 88 areas.

  242. Looking at some kind of averaging, given that there have been two waves of New Deal for Communities, we are getting on to a fifth of the way into the £2 billion programme.
  (Mr Riddell) Yes.

  243. One of the six areas which New Deal for Communities is supposed to tackle is worklessness.
  (Mr Riddell) Yes.

  244. You are saying now, as I understand it, that we cannot actually tell, a fifth into this £2 billion programme, whether it is having any impact or not. You might be able to tell me next week, is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Riddell) Yes. I should make it clear though that they are not a fifth of the way into the spending. It has taken a long time, most of them have taken a very long time to get the spending up and running and that is a function of, if you like, trying to bypass traditional bureaucratic routes and put the communities into the lead. That has been a very slow and much more difficult process I think than anyone anticipated at the start. It has taken a great deal of effort.

  245. I will look to the evaluation report with great interest.
  (Mr Riddell) Yes, we will send you that.

James Purnell

  246. When the Department was split with the employment role going over to the Department for Work and Pensions obviously that meant separating the skills part from the employment part. What effect do you think that has had? Obviously over the period they were together briefly some working relationships had been built up, synergies had been built up, are those being maintained?
  (Mr Lauener) I think with the split after the last election we all realised in both Departments that we would need to work harder to make sure that the links were maintained. Obviously we did want Departments' links to be maintained through natural day-to-day contact. We have looked harder at some of the regular groups that we have to make sure that we have got colleagues from both Departments, where that is right, represented. For example, in my own area I chair a group which meets every two months with work based training providers and many of these also deal with Jobcentre Plus. There is a colleague from Jobcentre Plus on that. We need to look quite hard at that kind of thing across the piece to make sure we are not just keeping together on the basis of something like a clock that is gradually winding down, we are always putting new things in place to keep liaison refreshed. I think with that realisation the two Departments have worked pretty well together over the last year and a bit.

  247. What role do you think building up new skills plays in getting people jobs? Some of the evidence that we have seen is actually that the education option in the New Deal has not had a great success in terms of getting people new jobs. Is it in preparatory work before getting people near to being work ready or as they are progressing their careers? Whose responsibility is it to get them into work and then they fall out of it quite quickly? Is that Work and Pensions? Is that yourselves? What mechanisms are there?
  (Mr Lauener) I think we have got a better picture now of the role of skills in helping people's employability, helping people to get jobs and keep them. Under the Skills for Life Strategy, the strategy for improving people's basic skills, we are quite clearly saying people who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills, who have missed out at some point in their formal education, for whatever reason, they should have a free entitlement to get better literacy and numeracy skills. That is base level one, not using level one in the technical sense of the level of education. Although clearly there are plenty of people in jobs with basic skills' deficiencies they are always at the fragile end of the labour market, in and out of jobs, low skill and low wage. Getting people those basic skills and improving the level of basic skills in the whole economy, hence the target of 750,000 people by 2004, I think is a key part of laying the base line for people to go on. I think then we need to take that a stage further. In the pilots that were announced by the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report, and confirmed recently as part of the Budget report, the announcement was made about where these are going to be taken forward, these are pilots to improve the extent to which people in jobs can get level two in particular, one or two other things as well but level two skills in particular. That is looking at what the barriers are, once people have got jobs, to improving their skills and saying, again, there is a public interest, a value for money case in helping people to get level two qualifications and skills. I think that gets you on to more secure employment. Above level two to level three, for example, I think there is much more of a case that people should be prepared to contribute themselves to their own development and indeed for job specific skills employers ought to be paying for these skills that employers need to make a success of their business.

  248. That is very helpful. Just in terms of the process from the individual's point of view, they are yours in terms of basic skills before they are really thinking about employment, then they get passed over to Jobcentre Plus to find them a job and then they get passed back to you in terms of developing their skills from level one to level two. You said at the departmental level there are meetings and co-ordinated structures. At ground level is there any way of helping someone progress their career and their learning?
  (Mr Lauener) Yes.

  249. Whose job is it? Is it the adviser at Jobcentre Plus or is it nobody's job at all?
  (Mr Lauener) I think there is a network here. The Learning and Skills Council and Jobcentre Plus are absolutely key, they ought to be talking locally about the nature of provision: is it meeting the needs of New Deal clients, are the screening methods of people's basic skills working, how should that be changed and developed? Another part of the picture is the information, advice and guidance services. The Learning and Skills Council, again, has a budget to fund information, advice and guidance. There is a national helpline through Learndirect which people can phone up and find out where to get training in X or Y. Locally there is more detailed intensive advice and guidance for those who need to go beyond the stage of information.

  250. Where would that be located, in a further education college or Jobcentre Plus or a community environment?
  (Mr Lauener) It could be any or all of those. The local people need to have that network themselves. One of the things we have found with the basic skills pilots which are now being set up nationally and where Jobcentre Plus client advisers are screening people who have been unemployed for six months to see whether they have got a basic skills problem, one of the things we found that made that work very much better was for each Jobcentre Plus office to have a basic skills co-ordinator who would be the person who would understand the network, where the opportunities are and so on. We are looking with Jobcentre Plus and DWP colleagues at whether that model can be rolled out across all Jobcentre Plus offices. It is that kind of detailed infrastructure that you need to have working to make the system work, I think.

Mrs Humble

  251. Thank you very much for the earlier information you gave us about the responsibility of the Learning and Skills Councils. You also pointed out that wherever possible you set them up to be coterminous with Business Link areas. We have had them for a year, picking up on James' point about skills training and education, have we seen more focus on the needs of the local labour market after a year of the LSCs?
  (Mr Lauener) I think the first thing I would say is the one word answer is yes but you would probably like a slightly longer answer than that.

Mr Mitchell

  252. No!
  (Mr Lauener) I ought to put it into context. It has been a very complicated transition from the previous arrangements to setting up the Learning and Skills Councils and, indeed, setting up the new Business Links as part of the Small Business Service, so a lot of effort locally and nationally has gone into managing that smooth transition. Managing smooth transitions are never of interest to Ministers, indeed to any of us, we just want them to happen. The interesting question is what is actually changing. Can I give examples of things that I think the local Learning and Skills Councils are doing that would not have happened before? The first is that the Learning and Skills Council nationally but operating locally ran a bite-sized campaign last summer to widen adult participation. There was a target of 50,000 people coming in trying new forms of learning and the key thing the local Learning and Skills Councils were doing was networking with all the local colleges and other providers to say "let us provide some opportunities at the same time altogether and we can advertise them". The target was 50,000 and they got 70,000 to 80,000. I think that was pretty good three months after being set up. The second thing is there is a programme to establish Centres of Vocational Excellence in general further education colleges. The idea there is to better serve local employers by giving leading edge skills training for local employers in the area or areas that are most important locally. We had 16 pathfinders last summer and the Learning and Skills Council recently announced the next 70. That is a programme that has gone well and smoothly, much better than we would have been able to manage if we had not got an infrastructure like the Learning and Skills Council.

Mrs Humble

  253. In this brave new world we have had one or two critical comments made to us. One of our earlier witnesses, Keith Faulker of Working Links, who also sits on a local LSC board, pointed out that a local Learning and Skills Council may identify those local needs but then may not have the autonomy to properly respond to those local needs. Just how autonomous are the local LSCs from Coventry head office? Also, how independent is the Learning and Skills Council itself from the DfES?
  (Mr Lauener) You are quite right, there has been some debate and controversy about the extent of "local flexibility", which are the buzz words. You always tend to get that debate happening between the centre and local, do you not? The view I take of this is that there is a big agenda for local Learning and Skills Councils which is not just about the budget, which I mentioned in the memorandum, which is labelled "Local Initiative Fund" and which is a very small part of the total, £90 million out of five and a half billion pounds in the year that has just finished and £90 million again in the year that we are in. That is a very small part of the Learning and Skills' budget and the real task for the Learning and Skills Council is to get the maximum value out of mainstream funding. They are responsible for getting better results out of all the funding that goes to colleges and other providers. They are responsible, for example, for taking forward actions identified out of local area inspections and in one case that has led to the setting up of a new college in Hackney, Brooke House College. I think to be critical and central to taking those decisions about major changes to local infrastructure is a very big and important role. I think as that role develops and becomes clearer, as the Learning and Skills Councils take on all these responsibilities, that debate will become much simpler and more straight forward, people will see there is a very major local role.

  254. You did mention earlier the role of the colleges and the examples of good practice that have already been taking place. In your memorandum you list lots of groups who are affiliated to the LSCs. To what extent are you actually seeing changes in the curriculum, in the actual delivery of education through many of the colleges to more properly reflect the needs of local employers?
  (Mr Lauener) I think that is something that will evolve over time. We do have evaluation plans to identify that. Given that the local Learning and Skills Councils were set up last April and given the forward planning time for provision it would have been wrong to expect detailed changes to the curriculum from, say, last August. Indeed, I think it is quite important to emphasise that the Learning and Skills Councils will not be operating by specifying a lot of the detailed provision in colleges, they will be operating at the local strategic level, they will be opening dialogue with colleges, identifying needs that are not being met and finding who is best placed to meet them. That is a slightly different role from saying "you will provide ten places in construction in this new skill area". The example I quoted I think is quite a good example where there has been real dialogue locally about the Centre of Vocational Excellence programme and how that can best meet local employer needs. That is a new debate which the Learning and Skills Council has been very well placed to take part in and to judge whether college proposals are going to meet local needs or not. One final point that the Learning and Skills Council is developing which I think will have an impact over time is a customer satisfaction survey on a national basis. I think that is very important to get an external perspective on whether the system is delivering what learners and employers want.

  255. That is very interesting. Just finally, to sum up. You have mentioned the Local Initiative Fund, which is only one per cent of the LSC's expenditure and you have already said that the bulk of the funding is tied up with the colleges in existing pots of money, so when you are doing your surveys will you be looking at trying to effect some positive improvement in developing those links with local communities, with the needs of local people who are unemployed and employers who want to employ those same people because otherwise it is just tinkering around the edges? Give me a reassurance that this will be a brave new world and people will be working together in the best interests of those who are unemployed or those who need reskilling and also will meet the needs of the labour market.
  (Mr Lauener) It is set out clearly in the remit. The Learning and Skills Council has been set up with local arms precisely to get that local engagement. It is now £7 billion that is spent through the system, including money for schools with sixth forms which goes through the Learning and Skills Council now, to ensure that all that money is spent in a way that gets better value for money and really does meet local needs better than the system at the moment. There is a very strong drive both nationally and locally because that is what local people want to see as well.

Mr Dismore

  256. Can I pick up the point you just made about school sixth forms. This is a matter of great concern to my constituency. The sixth forms are in schools and they have all suffered dramatic cuts in funding since the transfer to the LSC because of the focus of the LSC more on vocational courses than academic A levels. Our schools have lost over £100,000 and they are now having to look at whether they are going to cut back their sixth forms or cut back the courses they are offering because they simply cannot afford to provide the service they were providing when they were funded through the local education authority and direct through what was the DfES. Now why are the LSCs putting the squeeze on sixth forms in this way because in the end that is not going to suit anybody? All that will happen and effectively do is potentially reduce the pool of kids going into universities and inevitably put a greater burden on the FE colleges if the school sixth forms cannot cope because of the squeeze you are putting on them.
  (Mr Lauener) I am surprised to hear you say that.

  Mr Dismore: It is coming from all my head teachers. They are very, very cross about it.

  Mr Goodman: Yes.

  Mr Mitchell: They think they are being ripped off.

  Ms Buck: We all agree, for the record.


  257. One at a time. I think we have hit a nerve here. Do the best you can.
  (Mr Lauener) The key point to make about the transfer of funding from local education authorities to the Learning and Skills Council is that it comes with a real terms guarantee that every school's funding will be maintained in real terms.

Mr Dismore

  258. It has not. You work in a different year, you do not work in the school year.
  (Mr Lauener) I know there are a small number of difficult cases where numbers have fluctuated but I can give you an assurance that the real terms guarantee, which has been an absolutely critical part of Government policy on this, has been maintained and has been driven through into the implementation.

  Mr Dismore: It has not. It has not, that is a fact of life.

Mr Mitchell

  259. Can I just say, Chairman, I strongly endorse what Andrew Dismore has said. There is great fear on this subject and the reason is that the Council has been making it clear across the country it believes it is more effective for the money to be spent in further education colleges and costs less than it does in sixth forms. There are other factors as well but I just want to strongly endorse what Andrew has said.
  (Mr Lauener) In the part of the country where I live, which is Sheffield, the schools were quite encouraged because they felt they got a better deal from the Learning and Skills Council funding than under the previous arrangements.

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