Previous SectionIndexHome Page

21 Jun 2005 : Column 185WH—continued

21 Jun 2005 : Column 186WH

Adult Education

10.56 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I appreciate the opportunity to introduce a subject that is important to me locally, but which is also timely and important nationally. I have been buried in paper in the past few days and pay tribute to the Association of Colleges, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the higher education teachers union, NATFHE, and others, for briefings that I have received.

The context of my remarks is the good news story that adult education in Britain is among the most    developed in the industrial world. We rank No.   2 on education participation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 3.5 million people involved in it. The participation rate is, it would appear, declining, but that is probably for demographic reasons and the growth in the number of very old people in the population. In general, however, Britain is well placed in this sector.

In the past few months, however, anxiety has been growing about the future of adult education. That has been most forcefully expressed by the Association of Colleges, which has estimated that participation could decline by 200,000 a year, at the start of the new academic year of 2005–06. It subsequently upped its estimate to 300,000. That has since been confirmed, I think, by the Learning and Skills Council, which is also working with estimates in that range. The Association of Colleges has talked of the state of affairs as a "funding shambles".

There are three headings under which I want to discuss the subject. The first is funding; the second, which overlaps with funding, is priorities; the third is governance, including centralisation, target setting and the role of the Learning and Skills Council. Before I start on those headings, however, I want to make a brief detour into local and personal details that explain why I take the subject seriously.

Richmond college, the adult education college in my area, is exceptionally highly regarded, even by the standards of the sector. It is a beacon college and a centre for excellence in many ways. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry visited a few months ago to pay tribute to its work. Its enrolment has doubled in the past five years, but what will probably give the Minister the greatest pleasure is the fact that about 55 per cent. of its income is raised through fees. That is twice the national average and it is way out ahead of the pack in that respect.

What is important about the college is, however, not simply the numbers. It does two things, to which hon. Members would probably all, from their constituency experience, pay tribute. First, it provides a sense of community. My constituency has many transient young professionals who do not sink roots, but who find a sense of community in the college. There are many people who are socially isolated—who, because of handicaps and difficulties, have little social communication. The adult education college brings them together.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 187WH

Secondly, the college also manages to help people to realise their potential in exceptional ways. I am sure that we all have relevant stories, but a few months ago I was asked to hand out the awards at the outstanding learners evening, and there were some remarkable examples. One young man with quite advanced cerebral palsy and little muscular control none the less succeeded at college in mastering advanced IT skills, and he now runs his own small private business. A Traveller from the local Traveller site was the first in generations to have learned to read, and she now reads bedtime stories to her grandchildren. A young black Londoner from south-east London, who could not get on an access course nearby, had to spend two hours a day travelling to south-west London to do an access course in drama. He was recruited to play the lead role of Othello in the annual play, and on the strength of the critics' reviews is now launched on a potentially successful drama career. Perhaps the most striking example is that of a man who travels for five hours a day from Essex to attend a college course in Dutch. He has never missed a class, yet he strives to do it against a background of learning difficulties and serious mental illness—difficulties that he has overcome.

That leads me to a personal point. I feel strongly about adult education because of what happened in my family. I guess that many people have a similar background. My mother, like many of her class and generation, left school at 14 to work in a York factory producing chocolates. She was an intelligent and creative woman, but her role in life was to produce children, bring up the family and to put three hot meals a day on the table for the men in the family.

Necessarily frustrated, she became what in modern parlance we would call a desperate housewife. The frustration drove her to mental illness—she spent a period of time in a mental hospital—and prolonged depression. She was saved, mentally, by adult education. She learned about poetry, art and philosophy, which were enormously difficult for people without rigorous intellectual training. It also required a lot of moral courage to operate in a community that disparaged such learning. I still remember the bitter arguments across the dinner table. My mother was berated for not doing anything "useful", such as learning to type, and was asked why she persisted with arty-farty subjects that were of no use or value.

I cite that personal example because it illustrates a fault line that runs through all debates about adult education. It was illuminated by the Minister in Education questions last week, although I do not know whether he intended to do that. He mustered all the withering scorn that he could to put down a Conservative question, saying that we should not waste our resources on what I think he called "Australian cake-making". It was not a terribly well chosen example because there is no such thing, but we all know what he meant. The Government have the idea that some subjects, such as plumbing, IT and operating machine tools, are useful, and that the leisure courses, such as Australian cake-making or flower arranging, which are
21 Jun 2005 : Column 188WH
populated mostly by middle-aged, middle-class women should, to the extent to which that form of education should be tolerated, be paid for in full.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that people in my constituency who develop hearing difficulties and who attend a lip-reading course now have to pay £186 for a course that used to be free, thus making it difficult for them to improve their way of life? Is he aware also that the learndirect centre in Wokingham is threatened with closure as a result of that policy, which will destroy many of the good opportunities to which he so rightly draws our attention?

Dr. Cable : Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is correct. British sign language—I think that that is what he refers to—is not an accredited course and it therefore falls on the wrong side of the rather arbitrary fault line that is    drawn through education. As he is a former Conservative Minister, I should mention in passing that his party has been through the same process. In 1991, the Conservatives tried to distinguish between useful and non-useful adult education, but they got a bloody nose and wisely retreated from that course of action.

On the main argument, I shall speak first about resources and then move on to matters of priority. We could have one of those rather futile debates in which critics say that the Government are not spending enough and the Minister says that they are, but that does not take us very far. It would probably be more useful to establish exactly what is happening with resources, which is a more subtle problem.

The starting point is the spending review, which the Government use as their base and the Opposition parties used as their base case in presenting alternative spending projections during the election. In the spending review, the further education sector was allocated 7.5 per cent. annual cash growth, which was quite a generous settlement. It is a mixture of inflation, improved quality and additional tasks and obligations on the sector, with which nobody quibbled at the time. However, in the last year of the spending review—2005–06—that figure has been reduced to 4.3 per cent. No explanation has been given for that. There may be good reasons for it, but they have never been given.

To compound the problem, the Learning and Skills Council sent a letter on 2 June to all college principals explaining how that 4.3 per cent. growth is to be made up. Within the aggregate, there is a remarkably large 10.3 per cent. growth in funding for 16 to 18-year-olds, but a cash cut of 3 per cent. for adult education. Therein lies the source of the problem. It is not just that there is a cash cut of 3 per cent. The colleges estimated that they needed 5 per cent. growth to maintain constant provision, but, in effect, they have had a cut in funding of 8 per cent. for the current year. The sector expects, on the basis of information received from the Learning and Skills Council, that the position in 2006–07 could get a great deal worse.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that in the colleges that place a large emphasis on adult education, such as Somerset college of art and technology in Taunton, the effect is more than £1 million a year in budget reductions, which is about
21 Jun 2005 : Column 189WH
8 to 10 per cent. of the overall budget? Consequently, many courses are being discontinued, leaving students in my constituency and elsewhere stranded.

Dr. Cable : That is the case. In practice, the issue confronting college principals is whether they deal with that problem by, as my hon. Friend says, cutting courses or by raising fees. That is the issue on which we should focus.

I have no ideological problem with raising fees in certain circumstances. There may well be a good argument for it, and my local college makes substantial use of fee income, which is more than the national average. So it is not a fundamental ideological problem. However, the problem with proposing a substantial increase in fees at this juncture is that it is superimposed on a fee increase for which the Government had already budgeted. Even before the recent cuts were announced, they said that colleges should raise the source of fee income from 25 per cent. of their total to 27.5 per cent., which translates into a 15 per cent. increase in fees on Government-approved courses. Taken together with the cut in funding in cash terms, either a large number of courses will disappear or, as the Association of Colleges predicts, the fees for many non-priority courses, as they are regarded, will double or treble.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): This is a serious issue, and I am tantalised by the problems described. More money is going in, yet we hear of courses disappearing. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not just courses, but lecturers, that are disappearing? Some of them may be facing compulsory redundancy and the bosses in some of those institutes can get away with that.

Dr. Cable : Yes, and many of those members of staff who are going to lose their jobs have highly specialised and valuable skills that will be permanently lost. It will be difficult to bring them back in a few years' time, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): A quick point. Given that so much of the budget is biased towards 16-plus education and schools have been more successful in getting people to stay on, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the effect is disproportionate because of the disparity of funding between schools and further education? The learning and skills councils, therefore, have had additional problems, which means that they end up cutting back even further.

Dr. Cable : The hon. Gentleman touches on a related issue, which is the unfairness—I think that is what he is talking about—of the funding gap between FE colleges and schools for the same age cohort. That is a valid point, but I am dealing with a somewhat different issue, which is the fees that would be paid for adults.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Dr. Cable : Perhaps I will press on and take the hon. Gentleman's intervention later.

The problem with a substantial increase in fees at this stage is that there would be two consequences. One is the substantial impact on people with disadvantages and on
21 Jun 2005 : Column 190WH
low incomes. A change that has been slipped through quietly and has not had adequate attention drawn to it is that a special stream of funding, which is available for child care and transport for people on very low incomes and with disadvantages, is being substantially cut—by 24 per cent.—simultaneously with the other provisions.

The other consequence is for the mainstream courses. Price elasticity being what it is, if there is a big price increase, demand will fall, lower volumes of people will apply, courses will close, fewer people will come into adult education and there will be less income for colleges. With less income, there is less funding to cross-subsidise the low-income and disadvantaged pupils.

We have an absurd position in my local adult college because of the Government's emphasis on 16 to 18-year-olds. The college authorities are chasing pupils from private schools, while disadvantaged learners are having to be turned away, because there is no prospect of funding them. Although I have no objection in principle to fee income, a substantial increase of the type envisaged will have all kinds of unintended and damaging consequences.

That leads on to the second issue that I want to raise, which is about priorities. The Government's job is, of course, to set priorities. I do not think that anyone would quibble with that. At first sight, what they have said about their priorities makes common sense. They said that, first of all, we need to concentrate on 16 to 18-year-olds. That is entirely legitimate. The problem is, whereas that may be a good generalisation about the needs of the national economy, in many parts of the country, that is not the relevant problem. Certainly in my part of London, most 16 to 18-year-olds already go into advanced studies. We do not have a large number of young people who are unemployed. So the priorities are different. Indeed, I would question the priority given by the Government nationally to that age group because it is, perhaps, excessive.

Labour market analysis has shown that two out of three new jobs created over the next 10 years will be for adults. We have a growing problem of people becoming redundant in their 50s, but who are expected to work to 70 so that they cover the deficits in their pension funds. They are going to have to work and to retrain. That is where the real demand will be.

NIACE makes a telling observation about the skewed priorities that are being introduced as a result of the emphasis on 16 to 18-year-old education. In many cases, the further education sector and adult education are being used to cover up for the failures within the school system. NIACE makes the point:

That is an enormous distortion and moves in the opposite direction of what the economy demands.

The second basic priority that the Government have established, which again is superficially attractive, is the emphasis on skills, particularly level 2 skills training—that is, GCSE equivalent. That may well make sense at a national level, but the problem in adult education is that it introduces all kinds of unintended distortions. For example, in the area that I represent the main demand locally is for level 3, not level 2, training. That happens to be the nature of the local economy. The
21 Jun 2005 : Column 191WH
national prescription does not fit. That priority also leads to some absolutely absurd situations in relation to fee income.

Until now, in areas with low unemployment such as my constituency, employers—for example, in construction and catering—have been happy to finance level 2 skill training and pay fees for their students. Under the Government's ruling, however, they are not allowed to pay fees. Colleges are required to provide free education and training and are consequently losing £20 million of fee income simply because variations in conditions in different parts of the economy are not recognised.

For many people from deprived backgrounds, what is known as "full-fat" level 2 training is not the right approach. A lot of people on low incomes who have had a difficult experience in the labour market and who are trying to gain qualifications gradually—particularly women with young children—prefer small courses to level 2 training. They want to enter the system at level 1 or through pre-entry courses. Those courses are not covered by the Government's priorities so those people will have to pay fees. All kinds of entirely unintended but very damaging consequences flow from the priorities that the Government have set.

A distinction is often made between accreditation and non-accreditation. In the further education sector, some courses are regarded as accredited and therefore worthy of certification, but many are not. A great deal of research has been done, particularly by NIACE—one of my constituents, Karen Bhamra, produced a good report on the subject—on the enormous contribution that both vocational and non-vocational non-accredited courses make to adult education. The way in which the funding system is now skewed seriously undermines non-accredited adult education. Some of it is protected through local authority funding, but much is not. An awful lot of non-accredited adult education will be swept away and a large number of courses will disappear.

Finally, I want to address the system of governance of adult education. In the early 1990s, adult colleges were made independent. There were arguments for and against that, but I will not revisit them. Now, not only has local authority accountability been lost, but we have a stream of highly centralised and prescriptive set of rules governing the adult education sector. They stem partly from public service agreements and partly from ring-fenced funding. Local labour market conditions, local preferences and the make-up of the local population are simply not reflected in freedom of choice for local colleges. Whatever is said about the level of funding, why are local colleges not better able to set their priorities, rather than them being imposed centrally in circumstances in which they are often inapplicable?

Another element in governance is the role played by the learning and skills councils, which, as far as I can tell, are a lavishly financed administrative layer. I have never understood the roles that sub-regional learning and skills councils play. In my part of London, there is an entity called London South. Although it is enormously difficult to travel from one part of the area to another and that sub-regional entity is in no way related to either London or regional government, it sets our local
21 Jun 2005 : Column 192WH
priorities. I suggest, not at all flippantly, that if some of the £350 million a year of administrative costs of the Learning and Skills Council was trimmed, some of the funding gap in adult education would be addressed.

When the Government were first elected, it was acknowledged in their Green Paper "The Learning Age", introduced by the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that a good start had been made at giving political backing to the concept of lifelong learning and that there was a proper understanding of the role that adult education performs. Partly as a result of legislation introduced in 2000, however, we have gone back to the idea that there is a utilitarian distinction between useful skills and frivolous leisure learning. That    now underlies much of the Government's preoccupation with priorities.

It may be useful to read a comment that captures an enlightened approach to adult education that is in serious danger of being lost:

Those comments were made by the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and they strike me as an enlightened and far-sighted view of what lifelong learning means. A central reason for having this debate is that I fear that that vision is in danger of being completely lost.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should say that six hon. Members have written to me, hoping to catch my eye during the debate. As can be seen, the debate is well attended. I want to give the Conservative and Liberal spokesmen time towards the end of the debate, and I want to leave ample time for the Minister to answer the questions that have been posed. If hon. Members are concise, I will call as many as I can to speak.

11.22 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I welcome the debate because we often see education only as higher education, degrees and top-up fees, and once we have finished debating them we discuss child care and so on. Adult learning has slipped back and been put bottom of the list.

I want to make one point to confirm much of what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said. The city college in Norwich faces funding cuts of £630,000 in its adult learning courses—an 11 per cent. cut—and a further £175,000 cut in additional learning support. Many adults attend the college, and I have been peppered with complaints from constituents—as has my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr.   Clarke)—about courses being withdrawn. Those include courses that are both oversubscribed and undersubscribed. There seems to be no rationale behind the decisions, although I accept that they are taken locally.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 193WH

Millions of pounds are being taken out of the further education sector. About 50 courses will be withdrawn in Norwich, and, as I said in an intervention, full-time posts will disappear. Some 20 full-time teaching posts will be lost, and negotiations are proceeding about compulsory redundancies.

Additional funds are coming in for 16 to 18-year-olds, but they do so at the expense of many of the positive developments that the college has made in supporting adults. The college has succeeded in attracting more and more adults. Enthusiasm is growing both in a burgeoning city and across the county, which is struggling in rural areas to keep up with modern learning. Three centres of vocational excellence in outlying areas will be closed, and it is there where local people acquire the skills to help in the areas that we are trying to develop—energy programmes, for example. Our hospitals are also trying to train our technical staff to assess infections and identify bugs, but all those programmes will disappear. Once again, we will all be asked to go down the road to Cambridge, and if anyone thinks that getting from Norwich to Cambridge is easy, they should try it.

About 10,000 learners aged 19 or over are enrolled this year on courses in Norwich. They want the knowledge and skills to compete in the employment market, and they want simply to develop their education. I find it difficult to know what is a good course and a bad course. I also find it difficult to know what is a good lecture and a bad lecture, having had personal experience of both. Aromatherapy, hypnotism and all those things are suddenly becoming quite important in the medical field, although they were pooh-poohed at one time as being practised only by witches and warlocks. However, they are now the subject of serious educational programmes, so we should never sneer at the kinds of things that go on. Learning word-processing and to become computer-literate are essential skills for adults and young people alike; if they are taken away from adults, it will affect UK plc.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Gentleman's people should not try to come to Essex to get their courses, because in some areas of Essex there has been a 10 per cent. cut in adult learning centres.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about courses. Is he aware—knowing him, I am sure he is—that the Department of Health published a Green Paper in March 2005, which identified the fact that only about 25 per cent. of people working in social care had the relevant skills? Does he think that the Government's policy on adult education will cut a means by which people who are getting on in life can pick up new skills and, for instance, go into social care?

Dr. Gibson : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree with him. I fear that we may be missing a trick or two in terms of the talents of many people in our society—even in Essex, where I believe there may be some talent in odd places. We will miss a lot of tricks if we do not allow those adult education courses to continue.

I also want to say that I do not believe that fees are the answer to anything. Many hon. Members present will know of my antipathy to top-up fees and similar
21 Jun 2005 : Column 194WH
measures aimed at trying to sort out funding crises. Fees will never do that—they are certainly not solving the problem in universities, and they will not do so in this situation. If there is a 15 per cent. increase in fees every year, that is more likely to put people off. Many adults I know are already being put off by the increases that are proposed for the coming year.

In an area such as Norfolk—I speak in a very parochial way about this—where there is a low-income economy, more and more skills will be lost to our society. Demographic results have shown that the number of 16-year-olds will fall over the next few years. If, in the kind of yo-yo effect that seems to go on in education all the time, we switch back to adult education again, will adults really have the enthusiasm and the trust to take up some of those courses? I doubt that, if the process that seems to be going on now is allowed to continue.

11.28 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and I join him in congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) both on his choice of subject and on the very balanced and measured way in which he presented it. Like the hon. Member for Twickenham, I want to focus on the reduction in resources made available by the LSC, and particularly on courses for those with a learning disability.

The Government have often spoken about lifelong learning and about the needs of people with learning disabilities. Before coming to the debate this morning, I revisited the Labour party's election manifesto, "Britain Forward Not Back" to see whether there was any hint of a cut of 3 per cent. in adult education within a month of polling day. If there was, I am afraid that it escaped me, but I did read:

However, as has occurred quite often, and as the hon. Member for Twickenham implied, the rhetoric is slightly ahead of the resources. I wonder whether Ministers realise what is now affordable locally and how that contrasts with their aspirations for that sector. I wonder whether they have really thought through the budget cuts for adult learning and tried to reconcile them with some of their ambitions.

Between 1999 and now the sector has done reasonably well, and I welcome that. However, the tap has now been turned off, as the LSC letter that the hon. Member for Twickenham read out made clear, and the budget reductions have been aggravated by the policy change to which he also referred, which has hit those with learning disabilities particularly hard. The policy change has removed the ability internally to accredit a course designed to meet the specific needs of people with learning disabilities. National funding is no longer available to locally accredited courses, and that double whammy has hit those with learning disabilities particularly hard. I am grateful to Andover and District Mencap for giving me a clear exposition of what is going on.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 195WH

There is a dearth of externally accredited courses for people with learning disabilities for which colleges can claim funding. Does the Minister plan to address that problem and ensure proper external accreditation for the courses that we have discussed?

It simply is not realistic for colleges such as Cricklade to fund such courses with their resources. People with learning disabilities often cannot travel the long distances to Basingstoke, or Salisbury as it would be for my constituents, for accredited courses. The point is well made in paragraph 4.2 of Peter Little's "Strategic Review of LSC provision for Learners with Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities (LLDD) across the post-16 sector—Interim Report", in which he says:

The impact of that is to restrict learner choice and the development of accredited courses at local colleges.

The letter is explicit about resources. There is simply a budget cut of £55 million—backwards, not forwards, to paraphrase the Labour party's manifesto. Last week, The Times Educational Supplement forecast a reduction in post-19 places of 300,000.

The LSC letter expressed the hope that

Sadly, that is not happening, and the cuts are beginning to bite, as we have heard.

I have a letter to one of my constituents from Cricklade college. It states:

I hope that the Minister will put into perspective the Government's policy not only on adult learning, but on adult learning and courses for people with learning disabilities, as they appear to be particularly vulnerable to the changes on which the debate has touched.

11.32 am

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): It is always good to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) because he brings a degree of expertise, particularly on those who require special learning help.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr.   Cable) on securing the debate. I think we all recognise, in our constituencies, his description of the successes of people going through adult learning. We should all use the Chamber and other places to celebrate that.

I shall address the impact of the changes in my constituency, and shall refer to my wider knowledge of the education sector as a whole. Hon. Members have raised the issue of funding cuts and the fact that they are squeezing out some of the non-priority courses offered by further education and adult education colleges.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 196WH

The Association of Colleges rightly recognises the 2.5 per cent. guaranteed increase that colleges are likely to get, but in our constituencies we are experiencing reductions in provision at the very time when the Government want the take-up of education and lifelong learning to increase.

The unintended consequences of the focus on level 2 provision has been identified as being part of the problem that colleges face. Ironically, it is having an impact on the very people whom the Government intend to help and support in offering free level-2 tuition. Some adults are unable to take up such tuition because they do not have the necessary skills to take part in the training, but colleges might be forced to reduce provision of training below level 2 as funding is reduced, which will, in turn, reduce the number of adults who will be able to take up the free level-2 tuition.

In some cases, the situation is worse, because only courses from a centrally approved list that lead to nationally specified qualifications are funded by the Learning and Skills Council and are therefore free to the learner. That means that some adults might end up doing a course that they do not need to do, which is clearly a waste of resources. Courses are also being cancelled because they are not centrally approved, even though they are designed to attract learners in the difficult, hard-to-reach areas of our communities. We should also all acknowledge that some adults are put off learning by the prospect of facing an examination at the end of their course.

Some colleges might respond to the funding change by over-supplying level 2 courses. That might not be relevant to local economic circumstances, as the hon. Member for Twickenham said. Indeed, some adults who are in work and who are able to afford level 2 provision—indeed, their employers might be able to pay for it—are now being funded free by the Government. The principal of Worcester college of technology estimates that it could suffer up to £100,000 a year in lost fee income as a result.

Above level 2, there is also a demand and supply issue surrounding the level 3 requirements of many employers in areas with a relatively strong economy, such as Worcester. In the wake of the recent crisis at MG Rover and the redundancies faced by many thousands of workers, it was found that many of them required level 3, not level 2 training. Colleges are not necessarily geared to respond to such a problem, and I would like the Minister to consider it.

Adult education has long been recognised as a route into more formal learning for many workers. The employee development programme operated by Ford Motor Company provided free adult learning for its staff so that they could participate in lifelong learning, even though it may not have had any direct relationship to the work that they did for Ford. The programme is used as an exemplar for many organisations around the country. My own employer, Jaguar, developed a very similar model; it did not offer free tuition for all courses, but if an employee could show that there was some relevance—even a tenuous link—to the world of work, the tuition was provided free. A basic bricklaying course might have equipped a worker only to build a barbecue in their back garden, but there was a link, in that, at some point, they might work for the building
21 Jun 2005 : Column 197WH
maintenance part of the company, rather than on the production line. So adult learning has always had an important link with more formal routes of learning.

There is a more general point, however, and I want to spend a little more time on it even though it has been raised. It relates to the funding gap for further education colleges generally. FE colleges deliver the vast majority of adult education courses. They were perilously poorly funded before 1997, and there was great hope and excitement in the sector when Labour was elected. In 2001, the promise was made to close the gap in funding between schools and FE colleges, but I am sad to say that progress seems to have stalled.

The gap is generally recognised to be about 10 per cent., but a report commissioned by the Learning and Skills Development Agency and presented to the Learning and Skills Council and the Department for Education and Skills in February showed a funding gap of between 12 and 14 per cent. Will the Minister confirm the findings of that LSDA report? Will he also ensure that it is made publicly available, perhaps by the end of the week, so that we can see what has happened to the funding gap?

Worcester city has a tertiary sector. No local school has its own sixth form. We are very well served by Worcester sixth form college and our FE college, Worcester college of technology, but with a funding gap of such proportions my constituents are losing out compared with those in other parts of the county of Worcestershire.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that cuts in adult education will have an impact on older people? Many over-60s derive incredible benefit, and enhance their quality of life, from courses such as those run by Barnet college in my constituency. The massive hikes in fees put such courses beyond the modest means of many pensioners.

Mr. Foster : I accept what the hon. Lady says. It also leads to the dilemma that I suspect that those who provide the resources face—that no assessment is made of the motivation or the needs of the learner in adult education. Those who are not particularly wealthy might suffer if they want to continue adult learning, whereas others who might be quite well off will be able to afford to pay a higher fee—for example, those who want to use adult education to improve their Spanish, which will be useful when they go to their second home when the weather here gets a bit inclement. No assessment is made of an adult's ability to pay the tuition fee, and that is a dilemma for those providing the resources. However, I do not want to address that matter now.

Schools benefit more than further education colleges in a number of other ways. For example, there is no funding reduction when a student leaves or drops out of a school course. Automatic funding increases when extra students are enrolled at a school but not at an FE college, even if it is the same course. Extra money is given to schools through the standards fund mechanism. Schools get reimbursement of VAT because no VAT is paid by education establishments for under 16-year-olds. It is estimated that further education colleges, but not schools, face irrecoverable VAT at
21 Jun 2005 : Column 198WH
hundreds of millions of pounds and various costs, such as transport, are picked up by local education authorities for schools but not for FE colleges. The cost of maintaining and financing buildings is lower in the school system compared with that in further education.

Will the Minister meet the stakeholders in the FE sector now to try to find a way through the problems that are being flagged up before they become greater problems for individuals in our constituencies? In the longer term, I fear for the benefit of the country as a whole.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Following what the hon. Gentleman said, which I agree with, will he persuade his hon. Friend the Minister to undertake a review of the impact in the academic year 2005–06 on post-19 adult education throughout the country? Will he also ask the Minister to consider ring-fencing post-19 adult education in 2006–07? Finally, will the hon. Gentleman comment on the impact of the job losses as a result of cuts in my constituency, which include the forward centre—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is rather long.

Mr. Foster : The Minister heard exactly what the hon. Gentleman had to say and I entirely agree with his contribution. I hope that the Minister will do what he asks. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to raise the issue of job losses later in the debate.

I hope that the Minister recognises that the debate is not a whinge but a genuine call to look closely at what is happening in local colleges. The Government have many friends in the further education sector who are drawn to them because of their sincere belief that education and lifelong learning can and do transform people's lives. They give many adults the second chance in life that they need, and I urge the Minister to listen to his friends on the issue.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. I will call the first spokesman at 11.50 am. If the next two speakers could limit themselves to two or three minutes each, there will be time for two more speakers.

11.45 am

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing such an important debate. I shall have to be extremely brief, so I should like to highlight the impact of the Government's priorities on my constituency, which is an area that the Minister might expect would benefit from prioritising training in level 2 and basic skills. The problem in my constituency is that the demand is for construction skills and basic skills, particularly English as a foreign language, which both require high-cost training.

The college of North West London in my constituency outperforms against all targets. There is a massive demand, but it cannot meet that demand. The high cost of such courses and the requirement on the college to provide
21 Jun 2005 : Column 199WH
them free of charge mean that it is penalised for meeting the Government's targets. The principal of the college must either turn away the students whom the Government have told the institution to recruit or risk its financial viability. That is a ridiculous situation, as I am sure the Minister will agree.

As in the constituency of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), the need in my constituency is for pre-entry or level 1 training. There is a huge waiting list for level 1 training, but there is now a push to move people through to level 2, which is not where the need is. That makes it difficult for the college to meet local need. Long-term unemployment in my constituency has jumped by 50 per cent. since 2001. The college is ready and able to train the young people and adults who need those skills so desperately, but because of Government priorities, it finds that it is unable to meet that need.

11.46 am

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) for her remarks and will make mine equally brief. Bridgwater college is one of the first seven beacon colleges and has won awards every year from the Association of Colleges. However, the Government asked it to take on a land-based college—Cannington college—which it did. As a result of that, this year Cannington college will have a cut in funding of more than £800,000, and that is just one of the colleges—Bridgwater college itself is losing 15 per cent. of its money for students. If that continues, the college will lose all its adult learning at that level, and the land-based education, which the Government want to promote, will disappear. The problem is an increase of 50 per cent. in basic skills training. The college also wants to increase provision for 16 to 18-year-olds by 7 per cent., but it cannot do it.

I plead with the Minister on behalf of Cannington college, which provides land-based education—which the Government want to continue—and Bridgwater college, which has achieved everything that the Government have set it, which has broken records and which I am delighted to support, to address land-based and apprenticeship training. Otherwise, places such as Bridgwater college will not do what they are meant to do, which, in my constituency, is to fill the gaps left by job losses in manufacturing. British Cellophane went last month and hundreds of jobs have gone. The colleges are trying to retrain people, but they do not have the money to do so.

11.48 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate, which is timely, as we all know from the representations that we have received from local colleges and local education authorities. Listening to the debate has led me to wonder what has happened to our vision of lifelong learning. Has the focus shifted too closely on to giving people, mostly younger adults, the skills required by employers?

The Liberal Democrats have supported the principles behind the Government's priority areas—basic skills, level 2 qualification for adults and increasing the
21 Jun 2005 : Column 200WH
number of 16 to 18-year-olds who stay in full-time education. It is indeed shameful that the fourth richest economy in the world should have one of the worst drop-out rates at 17 internationally, and too many adults without level 2 qualifications. However, many questions and issues have been raised today and I hope that the Minister will address them.

As recently as March 2005, the Government published a White Paper, "Skills: Getting on in business, getting on at work", which included the following words:

We have heard today about disadvantaged people who are losing out, and about people with disabilities. We must all have concerns about the size of the proposed fee increases and the cuts in adult education, while supporting the basic principles of the strategy. Its implementation has had perverse and unintended consequences.

Many of us agree that there is scope for increasing fees for some courses, but we are talking about fees going up by 50 per cent. The Government's policy is having knock-on effects and, with cost pressures, concessions have been removed. In theory, those on lower incomes will still be supported, but what about people on the margin? The size of the increases will be destabilising, because even where courses are still offered, take-up will be less than predicted, so even more classes may close. We have heard about the wider benefits for the elderly, but a lot is going to be lost. If there had been better planning, the increased fees could have been phased in. Some classes can be provided in other ways, but the middle class can access courses more easily through, for example, the university of the third age and learning clubs. The disadvantaged are losing out. The impact of increased fees will be a real loss to the process of widening participation, to which we are all committed.

Many of the courses that do not attract funding may be seen as gateway courses, and popular courses have been forced to close. An obvious gateway might be a level 1 course, which colleges are not required to offer free. More generally, participation in a non-accredited course that meets their interest gives people the confidence to know that they can learn, and can be the starting point for a lifelong engagement with learning. The entitlement to free learning to achieve a full level 2 qualification is unlikely to attract adults whose experience of formal learning has not been happy. I taught in further education for many years, and it is very rewarding to take on disaffected young people who have left school and go on to become prize students. However, the right attractions must be provided to make people want to take the first step through the door, or even open the door in the first place. I am concerned that the door is being closed, and we must think carefully about that.

The provision of basic skills courses is also important. The Association of Colleges points out that it is now a requirement that only courses from a centrally approved list leading to a nationally specified qualification can be funded. That means that some adults have to attend
21 Jun 2005 : Column 201WH
classes that they do not need, and others are put off by an exam. That is an important point. People need to take the first step into lifelong learning. Many of the basic skills courses that colleges run in their local communities, such as pre-entry literacy, are being cancelled because they are not on the centrally approved list. Many hon. Members have made that point about local courses.

I was privileged to meet this morning a group of students with learning disabilities who were written about in The Times Educational Supplement last week. It is possible that 60 disabled students with severe learning difficulties will lose places at their local college. It is now June and it is very late to start to secure other sources of funding. In my local area, there is a course for computing for the deaf, which may pick up funding from elsewhere, but time is a factor. Other losses include crèche facilities, making it difficult for parents to return to learning, and IT in the community. Women returning to work face another restriction; they may have a level 2 qualification, but they are still likely to need a course that is funded. We are also hearing about cuts in child care courses, although I believe that the Government are trying to recruit more child care workers.

Many colleges are in turmoil. My local college predicts cuts of £886,000 in funding for courses. How did we get into this situation? As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham said, the increase in LSC funding for November 2004 was predicted to be 7.6 per cent., but by May, the average cash increase actually granted to the colleges was 4.3 per cent.

In a way, it is good that the budget pressures have occurred because there has been a high take-up of education among 16-to-18 year olds. That is the ironic price of success; the more successful we are in increasing 16-to-19 participation, the smaller the sum that remains for adult learning. We should congratulate the Government, but say, "Hang on, we need to re-evaluate." My local college was told that it was very lucky because it had £400,000 extra cash, but that amounted to only a 2.1 per cent. increase and did not even cover inflation or wage costs.

I shall summarise the four main issues that have been raised this morning. First, we should not lose sight of the fact that learning is valuable in its own right and is not simply a way of meeting targets. It is not necessarily the targets that are causing the problems, but we must ask whether the current focus is costing us too much in terms of a broader curriculum and ultimately all that enhances our quality of life.

Secondly, the 2005–06 funding, and the reactions to it—we have had a few this morning—is yet another wake-up call from the further education sector. We should remember that this is not the first such call. We must take heed of that warning and at least re-evaluate the situation before finalising the funding for 2006–07, because the situation looks very serious.

I note that the Association of Colleges believes that it is impossible to reconcile the current and planned position of colleges, which provide learning for 3.5   million adults and more than half the technical qualifications in the economy, with the aspiration of the national skills strategy, unless there is serious reconsideration of both the funding and the way in which it is implemented.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 202WH


Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Thirdly, and lastly.

Annette Brooke : Thirdly, given the focus on 16 and 18-year-olds, why are the Government not doing more to close the funding gap between colleges and sixth forms in schools?

Lastly, localism—supplying and providing for local needs—is all-important.

11.58 am

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate and on setting out with great clarity the background to the problems that our further education colleges face today. Few people in Westminster Hall today would disagree with his analysis.

I want to follow up two of the hon. Gentleman's thoughts on the crisis. First, the Government's nationally set priorities do have an impact on local provision. That point was echoed by several hon. Members, who have had the same experience in their constituencies. How does one reconcile central Government priorities and the needs of the local community? The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) talked about the need for basic skills courses in her area, but different parts of the country have different needs. The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the high level of basic skills in his constituency, and the need for more advanced courses, which was not picked up in the Government's central priorities. This requires that local colleges have much greater autonomy, and a much greater ability to meet the needs of local communities and respond to the needs of businesses in their area.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the role of the learning and skills councils, and commented on their funding. It was certainly the Conservative party's policy at the last general election to replace them with a simpler and more streamlined form of funding to free up some of the resources that they currently consume and to use them to improve access to skills education and training.

Before moving on to the main body of my remarks, I want to comment on the theme enunciated by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). He talked particularly about how the funding changes will affect provision for people with special educational needs and learning disabilities. I spent a great deal of time before the general election talking to head teachers of special schools. One concern that they raised was how their achievement with children with learning difficulties would be maintained if there was not suitable provision post 16 or post 19. If we are to maintain the excellent work that those schools have done, we must ensure that there is proper provision elsewhere in the area for those young people.

The background to the problems that we face in adult education has been well rehearsed. The Government have set the priorities for the further education sector through directions to the Learning and Skills Council, and the Minister, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) at Education questions on Thursday, set out the funding priorities.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 203WH

One key area of Government focus is the need to improve basic skills—literacy and numeracy. I know from talking to principals of further education colleges that many young people with whom they are working to improve their basic skills have left school in the past three or four years. A great deal of resources have been spent in the further education sector on remedying some of the deficiencies in our school system. I hope that the introduction of qualifications relating to functional numeracy and literacy will mean that we have to spend less money on basic skills in future. As the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out, the cost of training one full-time student in basic skills can result in 10 adult part-time learners missing out on the opportunity to increase their skills.

The commitment to providing a free level 2 course to   people who need to develop that level of skills is worth while, but, as the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and for Brent, East highlighted, it reduces the money available in local colleges for basic skills and foundation courses, which create a pathway of progress to level 2 qualifications. Many people who return to learning, perhaps after time out of the work force looking after a family, need to gain confidence and build up their skills, and level 1 and foundation qualifications are an important way of gaining the confidence to move to a level 2 entitlement. Surely the closure of level 1 and foundation courses denies people access to level 2 courses.

The Government have ring-fenced a number of adult    education courses offered by local education authorities, but those account for only one third of all the adult education that takes place. The Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury at last week's Education questions suggested to me—wrongly, I hope—that he was interested only in those courses that fitted in with the Government's priorities. His comments about Australian cake-decorating courses perhaps suggested that all adult education courses that did not fit in with the Government's priorities were really leisure courses. We need to recognise that that is not the case.

If we consider some of the courses that will be affected by the cuts, we see that not all adult education courses that could be affected by the funding problem are leisure courses. Bishop Auckland college in the north-east is looking to cut first-aid courses, health and safety courses, taster sessions and information technology courses. City college in the constituency of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is looking to cut non-certificated basic skills courses—courses that people value enormously. Peterborough regional college is looking to close a range of courses and a Trades Union Congress study centre. Surely that is not the intention of the Government's funding priorities. Surely it is not the impact that they hoped to achieve by changing the way in which FE sector money is focused.

It is easy to list courses that will close and talk about the number of job losses, but we need to focus on individual learners' experiences, and what they will miss out on as a consequence of the changes. There was an article in The Daily Telegraph last week in which Mr.   Edward Broderick said that his life had been transformed by an evening class in computing—a
21 Jun 2005 : Column 204WH
course that may be affected by the funding crisis. It had enabled him to get to grips with literacy and numeracy, which he had been unable to do before. Mr. Broderick, a part-time student at Broxtowe college in Nottingham, said that

So there will be a real impact on people. Colleges are working hard to rectify the problem, but, sadly, many will have to close courses. My college, Fareham college, is trying to move its adult leisure provision to the community schools so that it can protect some of the access courses that are so important if we are to get people with a higher level of skills into our work force.

The problem is the inter-reaction between the Government's priorities, which are set at a national level, the needs of local communities, and funding. The Government should consider the way in which their priorities affect local colleges and local people. If they do not re-evaluate the impact of those priorities, many people who see such courses as an opportunity to gain greater skills and learn things of value to them that will improve their lives will miss out simply because the Government have not thought through the impact at a local level.

I hope that the Minister will show that the Government have listened to what has been said about the impact on FE colleges, and will consider the way in which funding streams have worked and their effect at a local level.

12.7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate, which has given me the opportunity to talk about the Government's commitment to adult learning, not just in Twickenham, but across the country.

As we have heard from the excellent contributions, the issue is vital because it affects people's lives and livelihoods. We have heard moving stories about individual learners, about the benefits that they have received from skills training in adult education and the difference it has made to their lives. That is why we are here—I am delighted with the turnout—because we all know the significance of this area of policy on our constituents' lives.

David Taylor : As the Minister said, there is an exceptionally high turnout. Indeed, not every Member who would have liked to speak or intervene has had the opportunity to do so. Will the Minister receive a delegation from MPs who are particularly concerned about the FE sector, such as those who have worked in it, as I have, and those who have colleges in their constituencies, as there are points to be made that we have been unable to make this morning?

Phil Hope : I was going to say that we have heard not only from MPs representing their constituents because of the value that adult education brings them, but from MPs who taught in FE colleges, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr. Foster), for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)—I hope that I have got that right. There is a wealth of experience here.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 205WH

Because of the concerns raised here this morning, and elsewhere, the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning and I are arranging meetings to which Members of Parliament may come to receive more detailed briefings, in which individual cases can be addressed. One such session is due this week, and one the following week, but I need to confirm the dates with my hon. Friend. Those sessions will provide opportunities to discuss individual cases as well as what we are trying to achieve generally with the changes.

We are going through a period of transition. Having been appointed to this job after the election, my first pleasant task was to celebrate national adult learners week, with which many hon. Members present were directly involved. I visited the vocational skills world championships in Helsinki and saw the talents that our younger people are displaying as a result of the support for their skills in adult education, but the media did not make a lot of fuss about it. I think that we should make a great deal of fuss about the achievements of colleges and training providers in raising the necessary skill levels of young people so that they can compete on a world platform.

Mrs. Villiers : Will the Minister explain to the group of students from the creative connections course who are in the Room—many of them have profound and complex learning difficulties and disabilities—why the teachers who have nurtured them will no longer be able to teach them because they cannot reach the numeracy and literacy targets that are the focus of the Government's spending priorities?

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. I let the hon. Lady finish her point, but I remind her that hon. Members should not refer to anyone in the Gallery.

Phil Hope : The hon. Lady is an important champion of the needs of individuals in her constituency and I am sure that I will hear from her on the subject in the coming weeks. She has already spoken in the debate about her concerns.

Lifelong learning and employability are central to our five-year strategy for young people and learners. Our two skills White Papers set out our agenda for building the skills base that this country must have if we are to maintain a competitive edge over countries such as China and India, which are investing heavily in their work forces. As a country, we need our skills strategy to succeed.

I will not apologise for the successes we have already achieved since 1997: 862,000 adults have achieved literacy, numeracy and language qualifications since 2001, a point raised by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban); 670,000 more adults a year now participate in further education than in 1997; and almost 18,000 employers and more than 130,000 employees have benefited from the employer training pilot, which the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned. My remarks need to be seen in the context of the massive improvement in basic skills and in other levels, and a massive increase in participation throughout the country.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Notwithstanding the very real successes that the
21 Jun 2005 : Column 206WH
Minister mentioned, will he take note of the anxieties expressed by Dr. Blair, director of adult and community learning, City college, Brighton and Hove? The college has a success rate over the years of widening participation among adults, but it has had to raise its fees for adult and community learning courses from £2 an hour in 2003–04 to £4 an hour this year, and to cut the length of its courses from 30 weeks to 20 weeks to maintain the level of services that it wishes to provide for the local community. It cannot go on doing so for very much longer.

Phil Hope : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will return later to the point about the balance between fees and other sources of income for FE colleges, but I say to my hon. Friend that City college, Brighton and Hove, had a 5 per cent. increase in funding for this year, which is well above inflation. Nine out of 10 colleges have had an increase this year, seven out of 10 above inflation and five out of 10 above 5 per cent. Although I understand the concerns that hon. Members have raised in the debate, the funding increases for this year should be seen in the context of the achievements that have been made.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham, a transition is taking place, but substantial extra resources are going into further education. Since 1997 there has been a 25 per cent. increase in the level of resources going into that sector.

Sarah Teather : In addition to the financial penalties that the college in my constituency faces because it over-performs against Government targets on level 2 and basic skills, it also suffers from the Learning and Skills Council's rationalisation of the area uplift. The Minister mentioned that he might be willing to meet delegations of MPs to discuss particular constituency issues. Is he willing to meet me and the principal of my local college to discuss those two issues?

Phil Hope : I want to make clear what I said earlier about meeting Members of Parliament. My colleague the Minister of State and I are arranging for sessions in the House for Members to come and see us, to talk about and to understand the concerns that they will be hearing about from their various training providers and FE colleges. That is the opportunity for the hon. Lady to make her point.

The hon. Lady's college, the North West London, has received an 8 per cent. increase in funding this year. Although I fully understand her concerns, I point out that an 8 per cent. increase is substantially above inflation. I understand the concerns about the transition from one funding priority to another—I will come on to that in a second—but I would like to point out that that funding increase is not insignificant.

David Taylor : My hon. Friend is rightly spending a great deal of time looking forward to how the sector can address the needs of the economy over the next 10 years. Is it not the case that more than two thirds of the vacancies that will be filled in that period will be filled by adults, not by new entrants to the work force? Of the 2015 work force, 80 per cent. will have already left school. Is it not important to get the balance right?
21 Jun 2005 : Column 207WH

Phil Hope : Yes. The big concern is to make sure that young people coming into our work force do not lack basic skills or the ability to get and sustain good jobs. One of the major reasons for prioritising 16 to 18-year-olds is the need to ensure that our problem of a lack of skills in the work force, and particularly of basic skills, is not worsened by more young people joining the work force without those skills. One of the core reasons for the priority is spelled out in our skills White Paper: it is to avoid the problem with adult skills, despite the successes that I described earlier, becoming worse.

The reasons for the adult skills priorities being basic skills, or skills for life, is to ensure that people have the fundamental skills that get them back into work and enable them to contribute actively as members of the community. Of course the level 2 skills, that is to say the equivalent of five good GCSEs, is the launch pad for an individual. To be honest, it is a failure of this and previous Governments that we have so many adults in the work force who do not have the equivalent of a level 2 qualification. We have to take action now. That is what these priorities are about, to ensure that we deal with that problem and raise the skill levels of our work force.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to a number of colleges whose funding is being increased. I wonder if he has the figures for Redcar and Cleveland. That college also over-performs on level 2 skills and suffers penalties, but in an area of high deprivation it offers a wide range of courses, including what I hope he will turn to presently: first-rung courses, which are about widening participation, imperative in an area such as mine. That college, I understand, is going to suffer cuts. Perhaps my hon. Friend can help me explain to the principal why that is to happen.

Phil Hope : In fact, that college will experience not an overall cut, but a 2 per cent. increase in its overall budget this year. The question is going to be about the balance of provision and where public funds or taxpayers' money should be directed as we make the transition that we are undergoing. Local negotiation about those priorities with the funding body, the Learning and Skills Council, will ensure that that transition is managed as successfully as possible.

David Lepper : Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope : I want to make just a little more progress, if I may, so that we can address some of the points that hon. Members have raised.

We need to give people the skills that employers want now. We need to give them the capacity to acquire the skills that they will need in the future. That means winning their commitment to learning and their confidence in the institutions that deliver it. Colleges and other providers have a key role to play in promoting learning—not just in marketing their own opportunities, but in selling the personal, social and wider health benefits of learning on which other hon. Members have remarked.

We want to ensure that learning is available and accessible to everyone, of all ages and backgrounds. All adults should have the opportunity to develop a
21 Jun 2005 : Column 208WH
foundation of basic skills and work skills to enable them to become more employable and more adaptable to the rapidly changing needs of the workplace. Many people in low-skilled, low-paid jobs have had bad learning experiences, and we want to help them to overcome that.

We need people who never thought learning was for them to become involved in learning. We need to motivate and support them—to help them to overcome their fears and lack of confidence. Of course, as hon. Members have remarked, we want to show individuals the pleasures of learning for its own sake, for personal fulfilment—indeed, for fun—without necessarily leading to a hard-edged target; we want them to know about learning not just by themselves but as parents, grandparents, carers and part of a community.

Importantly, we must be better at meeting the needs of employers. That point was made by the hon. Member for Fareham. That is a way of helping them to improve their productivity and competitiveness in a global economy. Employers need us to be more responsive and, to succeed in that, we must build strong and sustainable relationships between our policies and programmes in learning and skills and our industries and employers. The hon. Gentleman said that his party would abolish learning and skills councils. I remind him that local skills boards include employers who play an important role, ensuring that, as has emerged in many of this morning's speeches, the local dimension and local priorities are reflected in funding and courses provided locally to meet employers' needs.

In addition to that relationship we are establishing sector skills agreements in the 25 sector skills areas. The aim is to develop credible planning, funding and delivery models for what is needed in relation to the sector skills that we have identified. Of course, the national employer training programme, which the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned, supports employers with a system of training needs and assessment and learning delivery that meets business needs. It is crucial. The new skills academies are a key element of our new skills supply infrastructure, attracting significant interest and investment from employers.

There are some challenging goals for us. We are determined that every young man and woman will be able to reach the age of 19 ready for skilled employment or higher education. We want to increase by 75 per cent. between 2002–03 and 2007–08 the numbers of people who successfully complete apprenticeships. We need every adult, wherever possible, to gain literacy, numeracy and language skills and the skills that they need for continued and successful employment. That is a crucial part of what we must achieve. We have set ourselves a deadline: by 2010 we want 2.25 million adults to achieve competence in literacy and numeracy. We want 3 million adults to achieve a first full level 2 qualification.

The hon. Gentleman raised questions about the rationale for the level 2 commitment. It is our belief, and research has shown, that level 2 qualifications are the platform from which a person can gain a better job and more skills. That is why we want to remove barriers that adults face in trying to achieve such qualifications, and it is the reason for the level 2 entitlement. That is important because the market does not provide low-skilled adults with the training needed to achieve that
21 Jun 2005 : Column 209WH
level 2 qualification. That is why we need to put public money into it. If the market would solve the problem for us, there would be no need to put in public money.

We know that the training in question brings productivity gains for the employer, as well as providing opportunities for individuals, who become less likely to be unemployed, low paid or unable to get work. They become more likely to be offered training. The hon. Gentleman mentioned level 3, and I remind him that two pilots are currently operating, with additional Government funding, and are investigating providing level 3 training for employers. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that in some industries it is not level 2 but level 3 training that is needed; priorities vary between sectors and areas. We look forward to the results of the pilots.

Importantly, we need, with respect to adult education, to change attitudes towards an ageing society and perceptions of what that means, and to stimulate innovative ideas and technologies to transform older people's lives—a point made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). As the population ages, older people will make an increasingly important contribution to the country's economic success. Employers will have a major role to play in enabling society to adjust effectively to a new balance of life. We have undertaken to safeguard a wide range of learning provision for personal and community development. However, that will need to keep evolving so that it continues to meet changing learner and community demands.

On funding, which has been a major topic this morning, our biggest challenge is to fund learner demand. As I have said, we are investing more than ever before in post-16 learning, and the figure for 2005–06 is £10 billion. That is a highly significant sum, which, I might add, includes significant capital investment in FE. I was in Highbury college, in Portsmouth, opening a fantastic new centre, which offers a wide range of skills,   including construction skills. I was also in Northamptonshire to cut the sod for a new building because an FE college there is being rebuilt. So there is substantial capital as well as revenue investment, and, in 2008, it will increase to £350 million.

We are putting more money in, but resources are finite. Sometimes, difficult choices and decisions have to be made. It is only right that we should prioritise, so I make no apologies for doing what we are doing in making priorities. We cannot meet the demand for all learning, which is almost infinite, but it is right that the Government have responsibility for providing high-quality initial education and training for young people, which means a place in school or college or an apprenticeship for every young person.

It is also right that we make a major investment in adult learning, particularly for those in greatest need, so that public funding will focus on those adults without a sound foundation in skills, including basic skills. As we know, basic skills are not enough to sustain
21 Jun 2005 : Column 210WH
employability, which is why we are extending the entitlement to free tuition for a first full qualification at level 2.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I accept what the Minister says, but does he accept that there was a sense of disappointment and frustration that the 7.6 per cent. increase that the Secretary of State promised in the letter to the Learning and Skills Council in November was not delivered? That increase would have helped to achieve some of the priorities that the Minister mentioned. Does he accept that there is a real expectation on him to deliver an enhanced settlement for next year; otherwise, we shall have many more stories of cuts in the years ahead?

Phil Hope : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having the confidence in me to deliver that and I shall do my best to respond positively in whatever way I can.

Although the Government are clear about the priorities—and I have emphasised them—we do not accept that other adult education courses have to close. We do not want to lose courses that people value and enjoy, which means that providers will need to change their approach to income from fees. We have debated fees this morning. Colleges currently choose to waive more than £100 million in fees at their own discretion so that they can offer free or reduced-cost provision. That may help to raise participation, but a decision not to collect potential income must, in time, inevitably impact on quality and financial stability. We believe that there is a strong case for those fees to be collected.

Hon. Members have raised many detailed points.

Vera Baird : Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope : I have given way to my hon. and learned Friend already, and we have only two minutes left, so I hope that she will forgive me if I do not.

As the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned, allocations of learner support funds are being made by local LSCs, in discussion with colleges. There is a learner support budget of £143 million, which includes £61 million for FE colleges and £31.5 million for child care facilities for 19-plus learners. I offer the hon. Gentleman those figures.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) asked about Cricklade college, which I understand has had a 9 per cent. increase overall. I understand his concern about courses for learners with learning difficulties or disabilities, which was another point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). A review is under way at the moment and it includes representatives from a wide range of groups. That is a priority area, but we recognise that there are pressures on the growing budget. We shall look at Peter Little's review and work with other Departments to secure appropriate provision.

I have run out of time. I regret that I have not been able to answer all the points raised this morning. This has been an excellent debate. We face tremendous challenges, but the rewards are great.
21 Jun 2005 : Column 209WH

21 Jun 2005 : Column 211WH

Next Section IndexHome Page