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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): What about adult skills?

Mr. Collins: If the Minister does not understand that A-levels in modern languages and the key sciences are vital to adult skills, no wonder the Government are performing so poorly.

The numbers of A-level entrants for chemistry, for physics and for mathematics are all down by at least 10 per cent., and in some cases by nearly 20 per cent. In her statement, the Secretary of State rightly spoke of the essential nature of level 3 skills. Why, then, are the Government cutting funds for level 3 skills?

Today's statement was, sadly, all too typical. It lacked a great deal of substance. It was a mixture of repeat announcements: the announcement about the level 2 entitlement is welcome, but it has been made already. There is very little new money—almost all of it was announced in the Budget, and even that is a tiny percentage increase on what was already being provided. The small tinkering at the margin includes £4.5 million to be given to the trade union movement—which, no doubt by pure coincidence, is about the same as the amount that the trade union movement is expected to give the Labour party for the general election campaign this year.

Sadly, what was needed in this statement, and what employers were calling out for, is not provided. There was nothing about making exam standards tougher, more robust and more credible. There was nothing to simplify the funding for further education colleges or increase their freedom. There was nothing to match the Conservative commitment to a substantial increase in vocational education for 14 to 16-year-olds. There was a reference to providing funding for adults who are without basic skills at the age of 19, but no clarification as to whether, as the Conservative party proposes, that would be fully funded. We will see whether the Secretary of State can provide that commitment. There was no matching the Conservative commitment to set up a new national network of super-colleges and no matching our commitment to abolish failed, expensive and bureaucratic learning and skills councils, which, as the Secretary of State should know, are disliked equally and universally by schools, colleges and employers.

Instead, we heard the usual: vague words, empty aspirations and promises to do better next time. Meanwhile, British employers face real and growing difficulties. It is time to get a grip, and time to get on with the work. The Government will not do so; the Conservatives will.

Ruth Kelly: I find it extraordinary that, commenting on a statement on adult skills, the Conservatives made no reference to any policy on adult skills. Clearly, they have nothing to say.

We know certain things about the Conservatives' policies. We know that they are committed to abolishing the Learning and Skills Council, the union learning fund and the new deal for skills. We also know that they would cut the adult learning inspectorate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now tell us whether they also plan to cut Labour's education maintenance allowance, the young apprenticeship scheme and free tuition for adults.
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We also know that the hon. Gentleman said both last week and this week that he would match us on education. Perhaps he will also say whether he would match our policy on skills. Since the Government came to power in 1997, some 839,000 adults have gained basic skills qualifications. Since 1997, the number of adults with level 2 qualifications has gone up from 65 to 72 per cent., and the number of adults with NVQ level 3 qualifications has gone up from 43 to 50.8 per cent.

Clearly, there is more to do. We have to tackle the backlog of adult skills, and we have set out our policy. We are investing in a national employer training programme, which will provide—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks whether that would be free. It will provide free tuition for every adult to reach level 2 standard either in or out of work. We will use a nationwide system of brokers to work with employers so that all adults can gain access to level 3. In two regions, we are piloting co-financed level 3 training for employees, and we are investing an extra £20 million in level 3 training. We will not transform our skills base without employers, unions, the Government and the Learning and Skills Council working together actively to make that a reality.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is committed to abolishing the Learning and Skills Council, because, he says, administrative costs have spiralled out of control. But if he compares the council with its predecessor bodies, he will find that administrative costs have fallen by about 20 per cent. I know that he says that we ought to do more for school leavers and that we have not done anything to tackle basic skills, but perhaps he will reread the "14–19 Education and Skills" White Paper and see that we are toughening GCSEs in English and maths and ensuring that every child at school gains functional English and maths at level 2.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have to take this a whole step further with regard to adult skills, but he has nothing to say on that. Is it any wonder that when my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) left the Conservative party, he stood up and said that it had no policy on adult skills?

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I thank the right hon. Lady for her courtesy in giving me an early copy of her statement. After the depressing exchange that we have just heard, I shall make my party's position clear: we remain committed to driving up standards in vocational education in schools, and particularly, in skills in the workplace.

There will be considerable disappointment at the Secretary of State's statement today, because she has presented us with more of a progress report than a White Paper. Indeed, with the exception of her proposal for vocational academies, there is virtually nothing new in it. How are those academies to be paid for? Will that money come out of the £350 million that was given to the further education sector for capital development, or from a separate pot?

The previous White Paper, published in 2003, concentrated on level 1 and level 2 qualifications, and we understood the reasons for that. We expected this White Paper to contain significant proposals for level 3 qualifications. Indeed, the Secretary of State commented at the beginning of her statement that that was where the
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greatest challenge lay. Will she tell us what target she has set for the number of 19-year-olds achieving a level 3 qualification by 2010? We have such targets for levels 2 and 4, so can we please have one for level 3? Is there a level 3 strategy for 19 to 30-year-olds, with a clear target for achievement by 2010? Will she respond to the question asked earlier from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about whether the new 19-to-30 commitment will involve free tuition for all trainees and students?

We welcome the plan to unify the qualification structure for 14 to 19-year-olds and for adult skills, but will the Secretary of State tell us why she has not included higher education in that structure? Had she done so, we could have had a unified structure throughout the whole of our skills provision programme. We also welcome the extension of employer training pilots, with a universal system up to 2007, but will the Secretary of State say whether that provision will be demand-led? If so, does she honestly think that £65 million is sufficient to achieve that aim? LSC budgets are stretched to breaking point at the moment, and if more money has to be taken from other elements of adult skills provision to fund this proposal, we shall simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Secretary of State rightly identified the needs of small businesses. With regard to the entitlement to level 2 and 3 training, will she tell us whether she will extend employees' rights to time off for study? Has she considered and costed such a proposal? Will employers be given any compensation for the training that is obviously needed, particularly in small businesses? The lack of such compensation is often a real deterrent to employers allowing employees out.

I look forward to the Secretary of State's answers to those specific questions. We welcome the White Paper, and we welcome the journey that we are on. I hope that after the general election, we shall be able to proceed a bit more quickly.

Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his considered response to the statement, and for his detailed questions. He clearly shares our commitment to the skills agenda. As I have said, there needs to be a step change in the number of adults achieving both level 2 and level 3 qualifications.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the skills academies. We are committed to establishing 12 sector skills academies within the term of the next Parliament. They will be co-financed by industry and the Government and we have set money aside to finance the Government's contribution to them. Today, the Arcadia Group is announcing that it has put £10 million or more into a fashion retail academy that will serve the needs of the retail industry, and work with FE colleges and schools to develop vocational excellence in the retail sector. I hope that that model will be drawn on and that other models will also be used to develop the skills agenda across the country.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about level 2 and 3 qualifications. We are offering all adults a free training entitlement to receive basic skills training and level 2 training. We are also offering, through employers, a one-stop shop that will enable a single broker to go into
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businesses, from the smallest in the land to the largest, and, through face-to-face conversations, to assess the skill needs of the business and offer completely free, fully funded level 2 training for all the employees who need it. The broker will also identify the need for level 3 training in the business and offer to source that training, while the employer pays for it. Employers see a significant return on level 3 training—as do individuals—whereas on level 2 they do not. In two regions, we are also piloting the co-funding of the level 3 entitlement, so we shall be able to see whether a matched contribution from the Government will make a significant difference to employers who want their employees to gain level 3 training as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our target for increasing the number of people with level 3 qualifications. I have told him what the need of the country is: by 2012, two thirds of all existing jobs will require level 3 or higher qualifications. We have asked Sandy Leitch to carry out a review to determine precisely what our skill needs at level 3 and above will be over the next 10 years. He will report to us, and we will take his findings into account when we consider whether to put more money into level 3 training. We will of course await his report first.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we were doing to help younger people to acquire level 3 qualifications, and I can tell him that we are extending the adult learning grant, and that all young people under 30 will have access to a fixed sum from the Government so that they can study at that level. The results of the pilot schemes have shown that so far, the vast bulk of that funding has been drawn down to finance level 3 training.

The hon. Gentleman asked about higher education, and he was right to say that we ought to try to get employers involved in the design of qualifications at levels 4, 5 and beyond. In fact, that is what we are trying to do through the sector skills councils. Today, we are launching the first four sector skills agreements. For example, in the information technology sector, e-skills UK has designed a foundation-level degree in information and communications technology, which has involved employers coming together to specify exactly what is required in their industry. I would like to see the expansion of foundation degrees from the 50,000 being pursued this year to a significantly higher level as employers come together to back that expansion.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what was happening to the funding of the national employer training pilot, and whether it would really be demand-led. We have identified that take-up has so far exceeded the likely expected demand, which is why we have allocated an additional £65 million to the programme this year, in advance of the full roll-out over the following two years. We hope that that will be sufficient to meet demand, although we shall of course have to see how much demand is created. However, that is a sign of the success of the programme in its initial stages.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the right to time off for study. In the national employer training pilots, time off is negotiated as part of the agreement, so that workers can take time off to study towards a level 2 or 3 qualification. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will
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agree that we have today moved forward significantly to advance our skills policy, and that that is the right thing to do for employers and for the country.

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