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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I shall be very brief. I often follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in debates, and he never is, but I shall take five minutes at the most. I wish that his speeches were shorter, but he does make good sense on some topics. I regret the fact that not one Opposition Member is sitting behind the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen today, but I suppose that that signals a great deal about the balance of their interest in higher education and further education.
This is a serious issue. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, may I say that the Minister knows that we will be looking with great interest at his national skills strategy when it is published in June, not only because that is our job as a scrutiny Committee but because a hell of a lot of moneybillions of poundsis poured into skills, and many of us believe that the Treasury money that we put into that sector probably provides less added value than the money that we put into many other education sectors.
We have every expectation that the improvements at pre-school and primary school level and in literacy and numeracy and much else will help as they move through the system, but there are not only skeletons but many hulks in the history of skills educationorganisations that we came to know, and some of us quite liked them. We remember the Manpower Services Commission, the training and enterprise councils, the industrial training organisations and the national training organisations,
The fact is that we have two challenges in this country, with the dreadful under-performance of a significant tail of our population. Those people are under-skilled and challenged in what they can achieve in their personal lives, as well as in their productive, working livesthe two must go together. As someone who used to teach not only in a university but in extramural education, I know how wonderful it is when someone comes to education later and gains skills and education. Not only their ability to earn money changes, but they themselves change, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree.
There is also shocking under-performance in this country's productivity. Many of us believe that we must attend to the skills, innovation and productivity circle in terms of what we do with the under-skilled people in our country. We will be considering the history and the cost in that regard, and I warn the Minister again that we need not just a new structure but the energy to make it work.
At some stage, many people, as in much of the educational world, will want a period of stability in which things settle and they get used to the institutions in which they are supposed to work. Let us determine the skills strategy and let the institutions know that they have a reasonable future and reasonable longevity.
This is the most difficult area. It will not be easy, and there will not be quick fixes. I emphasise this to the Minister: many people teaching in our colleges are on short-term contracts and have less training and less background in their subject, they are on lower pay, school teachers are earning much more than them, and many opportunities exist to go out and earn a much better living as a plumber, an electrician or an IT expert.
Lastly, the quality of the courses offered is vital. There is nothing worse than getting young people to stay on at school, or getting people to come back to college, and then giving them poor, under-resourced and poorly taught courses. There must be quality"It's quality, stupid"whether in higher education, primary education or the further education sector.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. One of the things that I want to stress is the need to be flexible to meet varying needs and demands. I want to draw attention to some examples of excellent work going on in and around my constituency.
Last year, I gave out awards at the end-of-year ceremony at the Greenacres primary school in my constituency. I gave awards not just to the children but to their parents, who had been attending a family learning centre in the school. That centre was set up on the initiative of the school. The biggest resource that had been put into it was the school's time and effort in getting it set upit had to beg, borrow and steal to finance it. It works in co-operation with local further education colleges, mainly Greenwich community
I have spoken to some of the parents who attended that centre, and they talked about wanting to fill the gaps in their education. They also talked about wanting to learn skills so that when their children go on to secondary school they have improved their employability. The school recognises the role that it can play in the local community by improving the education of adults in the local estate, and we need flexibility in the funding stream so that we can support that work and allow more schools to move into it. Alderwood school is now trying to follow suit and do exactly the same thing. It has already put its own money into setting up computer suites so that parents can come in and do the same work. Neighbourhood renewal money is provided for both schools, and both are working closely with the community college, as I said.
The other scheme to which I want to draw attention is the unique and innovative project set up by Greenwich community college, based at Charlton Athletic football club: the London leisure college. It is providing skills and training not just to local people but to the work force of Charlton Athletic, 400 of whose stewards are receiving health and safety training, first aid training and training in other basic skills. It has attracted the attention of Anschutz, which is one of the partners in the development of the peninsula and one of the primary leisure companies in the world, and will be running the millennium dome in the future. It wants to become a partner with the London leisure college to provide education, training and skills to its future staffit plans to employ 500 at the centre.
Greenwich community college secured beacon status for London leisure college, based at Charlton Athletic. It works in partnership with Greenwich Leisure Ltd. and has played a significant part in the massive and rapid expansion of the business's operation by being flexible and meeting the business's varying demands for staff training. The fact that the project is based at Charlton Athletic means that sport can be used to attract people into education. Such people, especially young people, were excluded from school in the past and did not have a positive educational experience, but the popularity of sport is now attracting them to undertake basic skills training.
Flexibility is required to meet various needs. Further education colleges can adapt to meet the needs of businesses that want skills and education training and to support grass-roots initiatives such as those at primary schools.
Further education colleges can and should be at the heart of the Government's skills strategy. Burton college, in my constituency, provides an outstanding service for young people, adults and employers
Burton college is especially proud of its long-standing and well-regarded services to employers. That has been nationally acknowledged and the college will form one of the case studies for best practice that Ecotec is developing. The college supported the Government's skills agenda and the local economy by delivering a wide range of programmes designed to meet the specific needs of more than 250 local employers. The business development team at Burton college is proactive in its work with local businesses and creates opportunities for training intervention in individual businesses and across sectors.
The college has worked with large local companies to develop bespoke training for graduate recruits and to design an HND course to enable progression to middle management. It has also provided one-day courses, day-release provision and on-site training.
Local colleges are sufficiently flexible to meet the specific needs of their local economy. Their involvement with local business can bring benefits such as the development of staff so that real examples of industry can be brought to the classroom. They offer learners up-to-date technical knowledge and examples from the workplace, as well as ensuring that training is relevant to employers' needs.
Further education colleges such as Burton college are able to work with their local communities. I welcome the community-based learning projects that have taken the world of education and training to those who may not be initially willing to access courses on the college campus. Burton college also works well with East Staffordshire borough council's economic regeneration unit and is actively involved in partnerships such as the local neighbourhood management initiative. I am sure that the Minister agrees that Burton college makes an outstanding contribution to fulfilling the skills agenda and assisting its region's economic growth.
My hon. Friend will know that colleges are expected to charge employers at least 25 per cent. of the cost of delivering any training funded by the Learning and Skills Council. Will he reassure me that there is no intention to undermine the work of colleges by sponsoring competing provision delivered by private providers through the LSC's national contracting service? Will he confirm that national contracting service funding includes the same requirements for employers' contributions and does not create unfair competition? Such unfair competition might cause colleges to lose their long-standing employer customers and thus destabilise the continued provision of training in the area. Will he confirm whether the LSC national contracting service has supported the training of employers in my constituency alongside existing providers and, if so, how that is likely to affect the college's capacity to expand such provision?