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Mr. Willis: I realise that the hon. Gentleman is obliquely trying to justify the policy statements that he made earlier this week, but the big problem for all of us here is how to divide students into the right progressions, as it were, at an early stage. Does the hon. Gentleman think the skills document contains any attempt to lead us in that direction, encouraging us not to think in terms of sheep and goats but to keep an open mind when it comes to the progress of young people after the age of 14?
Mr. Boswell: In this instance, I think the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting and important point. Having, to an extent, experienced such treatment myself, I think it regrettable that young people should be forced to make choices affecting their long-term careersalthough they are presented as academic choicesat an exceptionally early age. Whatever emerges from the strategy, it could be said that the test the Minister is setting up for it is the degree of flexibility it will involve, and the extent to which policy involving areas of weakness can be embellished or reinforced.
Conservative Members believe that the Government's pursuit of a 50 per cent. target for higher educationwhich has, as far as I know, no objective basis or justificationhas distorted their efforts. It does not match the actual requirements of the economy, it will not bring about the right skills mix, and it is very derogatory of the 50 per cent. of young people to whom the target does not apply. We genuinely hope that as many as possible will participate in appropriate education and training after reaching the age of 16. Of course, we also hope that they will proceed to higher education in due course if they show that they can do it.
Why should there necessarily be a conflict between the objective of securing more graduates and the objective of increasing the number of level 3 qualifications? Why should the two be mutually exclusive?
Mr. Boswell: I did not intend to say that, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman should caricature what I said. My point was that the Aluminium Federation's submission happened to coincide with, and in my view expressed rather well from an independent source, much of our own thinking.
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): From the hon. Gentleman's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), can we assume that if the Conservatives' policy is to restrict the number of graduates, there will be additional investment in intermediate and vocational skills training?
Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman must not anticipate what we will publish, but we have a strong interest in making sure that there is sufficient investment in that area, and have a reasonable record in securing it in the past.
The first prerequisite of a skills strategy is the active involvement of employers as well as unions. The Government have introduced some union-oriented initiatives and the hon. Gentlemen will know from our debates on statutory rights for employees who are also trade union learning representatives that I always pay appropriate tribute to the work of unions in this area,
On marketing the skills agenda, it is not just the credibility of qualifications among employers that is important but their acceptability to young people and employees. If there is not a consensus among students that qualifications are worthwhile or do-able, they will fail. They need to be interesting, manageable and flexible, but not at the expense of rigour. No one in the House would want to sign off a lot of second-rate vocational qualificationsI certainly do not. The qualification framework must be coherent. Mr. Seddon, whom I have previously mentioned, spoke about 40,000 qualifications and said rather briskly, "Too many." I have some sympathy with his remark.
The right framework for credit accumulation and transfer is critical to secure progression and coherence, not just upon young people's first leaving school but in their future career as well. All of that must be properly funded. The Association of Colleges has expressed concern that, despite the apparently large increases in college funding, after various things are deducted, there are functional shortfalls. We debated that in Westminster Hall only yesterday, and I do not intend to return to the subject at length. However, I wish to make particular reference to the association's concerns about cuts affecting adults who are taking A-levels and level 3 qualifications, both in vocational and academic subjects. I am afraid that, if I did not tell the Minister so, I did tell his predecessor, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). When we were discussing the Learning and Skills Act 2000, I said that increased emphasis on education for 16 to 19-year-olds has tended to displace adult provision, yet many skills problems centre on that provision. I worry that over-dependence on the foundation degree to expand numbers and trigger increases in college funding would result in a reduced number or the elimination of higher national diplomas and certificates.
Finally, a skills strategy requires an effective means of delivery. I am pleased that the Minister was prompted to refer to further education, because many of us believe that it is central to achieving a skills strategy. Vocational higher education is of course important, and much of this will be delivered in FE colleges. In any case, it is worth the House's considering whether a medical or a legal degree is not at least in part vocational, as well. So, of course, is straight workplace learning, and there is nothing whatever wrong with that. But in my view, colleges play a central role and can offer something to almost all students or learners. They deserve our active support and encouragement, and that will be a test of the coming strategy.
I shall close shortly and leave the path open, in this truncated debate, to at least some further contributions, in addition to those from Front Benchers. Before I do so, I should like to mention two more general educational points. First, above all we should not forget, in adult learners weekI am pleased that the Minister referred to thisthat there is no absolute distinction between what I shall call "useful" and "useless" learning for shorthand. All learning is valuable in itself, and it is a good thing that people embark on it. Those who embark on the one may well end up on the other, and both have their own place. At the moment, there is definitely a run-back in participation in adult education, but I leave it for others to say whether that is directly or indirectly related to the situation that I reported in terms of vocational A-levels. Figures given to me just a few moments ago suggest a reported decline of 10,000 in adult learner participation. The system and the strategy must be robust enoughthis will be a test of the Minister's bona fidesto ensure some continuity for adult and community learning. I hopeperhaps I may say that I expectthat Ministers will take the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education submission seriously on this matter.
Secondly, we all need to work together to re-emphasise the moral, as well as the material, work of skills. Of course, pay helps, and the rates available to plumbers in London, for example, indicate a real service need: they are needed and they get paid. However, there are others with high-level skills who do not perhaps get paid as much as they deserve, although that is difficult to prove in the market system.
What is missing from our debates and our approach to the skills agenda is a recognition of the need for quite proper celebration of good technical and vocational education, and of a high level of skillsregardless of whether they have been acquired through a formal process. Conservatives, at least, want a fair deal for every man and woman. We want no employee to be left out, and no employer to be a non-participant. Quite a lot of the people whom I have worked with in my life have been able to bring remarkable skillsskills that I may not have hadto bear on practical problems. I recall vividly from earlier stages in my career the impact in my own constituency of people with varied skills, such as agricultural fitters and Coventry toolmakers. They had a huge influence, and they deserve a great deal of respect. We can perhaps all agree that pride in the job needs to matter again. We need to encourage that to happen, and to celebrate it properly where it does.