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Skills Gap

10. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): What steps he is taking to close the skills gap. [201236]

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Dr. Kim Howells): In July 2003 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched the skills strategy White Paper. Since then we have made significant progress, setting the foundation for future activity. There are 20 sector skills councils in place, over 12,500 employers and 80,000 employees benefit from employer training pilots, since 2001 over 750,000 learners have achieved a skills for life qualification, and over 620,000 more adults are qualified to at least NVQ level 2 or its equivalent.

Mr. Illsley: At a recent event in my constituency hosted by the local chamber of commerce, we heard encouraging news about the initiatives that my hon. Friend has mentioned. However, one issue that was raised was the lack of basic skills among some school leavers and other young people going into the world of work. The situation is a little worse in my area, because for the first time for ages we have full employment. Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that we need to encourage better numeracy and literacy among young people going into employment?

Dr. Howells: I agree that that is vital. I have visited some wonderful colleges of further education where 14-year-olds are at last waking up to learning. That is long overdue. Those young people have either excluded themselves or been excluded from school, or else school simply did not work for them. It is amazing to see them working on automobiles, welding or electronics.

Those young people do not talk of basic skills or core skills but of reading, writing and arithmetic. I have made a point of asking them what they think of having to do all that. They say—this is a wonderful thing—"We do not like it, but if we did not do it they would not let us in here." That is a great trick, and it just might work. If so, we will see skills start to increase to the benefit of everyone, not least the economy.
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Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Does the Minister agree that if we are to close the skills gap, it is vital for young people to be aware of the employment and career paths that are open to them and of what is required to gain access to those paths? Does he accept that while accessible careers advice from universities is fundamental, it is being compromised by being mixed up with other advice for young people through the Connexions service? Will he consider removing careers advice from Connexions, so that young people can be guaranteed the independent careers advice that they so badly need?

Dr. Howells: I understand that we are reviewing all that and will produce a Green Paper. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. I am amazed at the number of agencies out there and I have been trying to draw a map of them. I think that people are often confused by the sheer wealth of advice. We need to make the system much simpler, and I think that the review will be an interesting exercise.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I agree that genuinely exciting things are happening in further education and in skills training generally, but our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills mentioned market failure, and we know that there are bad and indifferent employers, and freeloading employers, who will not shoulder the burden of upskilling their work forces. It is vital for the country's future that we ensure that all involved play an active and proper part. Will my hon. Friend continue to monitor the skills gap, and ensure that the possibility of introducing an element of compulsion where necessary will not be ignored?

Dr. Howells: We have been developing sector skills councils to drive forward that agenda. I certainly do not want public money to go to companies that do not have an agreement with a sector skills council to ensure that it is used properly, that good education and training are being provided and that that is seen as a vital part of economic development in every part of the country.

Educational Psychologists

11. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): When he will announce his decision in respect of the future training of educational psychologists. [201238]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): Educational psychologists play an important role in supporting children with special educational needs and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Their future training will need to reflect the changing role of the work force involved in children's services, and we will publish a consultation paper on this in January. We are also planning a review of the functions of EPs, which we aim to complete by the end of 2005.

Mr. Heath: That is a very disappointing reply. When I had an Adjournment debate on the subject six months ago, which the hon. Gentleman answered, we had already had the consultation and agreed the general shape of educational psychologists' training. The view
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was taken that we should move to three-year postgraduate training instead of the current teaching qualification. The problem is that many of the people leaving university and who are still engaged in such education do not know what they should do with their future careers and on what course they should enrol. It seems unfair that the Government should shilly-shally on this issue, if we are to have a properly motivated educational psychologist caucus in future to do the job that we want. Will the Minister please try to reach a decision, and to make sure that the people whom we want to train as educational psychologists know what qualifications they should have?

Mr. Twigg: I am sorry to have disappointed the hon. Gentleman, and I do want to acknowledge the interest that he has shown in this issue by securing the Adjournment debate to which he referred. We are absolutely determined to get this right, and it is clear that a great deal is changing in respect of children's services and some other services provided through schools. We want to ensure that the review of the role of educational psychologists is absolutely part of that wider review of children's services, so that the particular needs of the children with whom EPs work are properly met. That is the purpose of the review.

Children's Commissioner for England

12. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab): When he last met his counterpart in the National Assembly for Wales Government to discuss the role of the Children's Commissioner for England in Wales. [201239]

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Margaret Hodge): I had contact with various representatives of the National Assembly for Wales during the passage of the Children Bill in 2004, including the First Minister and the Minister for Health and Social Services. Discussions have also been held with the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, the latest of which was on Monday.

Mr. Griffiths: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. She will know that during the Children Bill's legislative passage, the concern was expressed that problems could arise if the commissioner for England carries out his duties in Wales while the commissioner for Wales continues to have a role in Wales. I urge my right hon. Friend to do everything possible to ensure a seamless service for children in Wales, and to ensure that there will be no confusion between the work of the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and that of the commissioner for England when operating in Wales.

Margaret Hodge: I am aware of these concerns, which have been expressed by my hon. Friend and others on several occasions. I hope that he shares my delight at the Children Bill's having become an Act. We have advertised the post of the first children's commissioner for England, and we hope to appoint someone shortly after Christmas. I am sure that the new commissioner will want to meet the commissioners in the other countries and to ensure a seamless service for children, wherever they live.
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Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): Is it realistic to expect vulnerable children to know the difference between devolved responsibilities and those that are not? Surely a better solution would be a single commissioner—a single port of call—as suggested by the Welsh Affairs Committee and the National Assembly for Wales.

Margaret Hodge: All children will be competent and able to ensure that their rights and concerns are expressed to wherever is appropriate. We will ensure, and all the commissioners will doubtless want to work together to ensure, that children's aspirations, needs, priorities and concerns are heard loud and clear in this Chamber, as well as in other areas of public life.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend has advertised the post of children's commissioner for England. Has she discussed with officials in Wales how the Children's Commissioner for Wales was appointed? She will doubtless be aware that children were involved in the advertisement and shortlisting, and in the actual appointment of that post.

Margaret Hodge: My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have ensured that children in England are involved in the job specification of the children's commissioner for England, and in the advertisement design. Indeed, they will themselves be interviewing candidates.

We are determined that the commissioner will be a powerful champion of children and I am sure that we will hear the voice of children loud and clear once the post is filled.

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