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Non-Vocational Education

9. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What assessment she has made of the value of non-vocational adult education. [66212]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): We believe that non-vocational adult learning increases motivation to learn and self-confidence and improves family and community relationships. It also brings wider benefits such as improved health, greater tolerance and reduced crime. That is why the Government have committed some £210 million to personal and community development learning in 2006–07 and 2007–08.

Dr. Cable: Do Ministers have memories? Do they not remember that 15 years ago they campaigned alongside women's institutes against what they described as the mindless philistinism of the then Conservative Government, who sought to introduce the policy that this Government have now adopted: channelling resources much more into narrow vocational skills—which employers are often happy to pay for themselves—and away from the popular, broad-based non-vocational courses greatly favoured by many people, particularly older adult learners?

Phil Hope: Yes, I do remember the philistinism of the Conservatives when they were in power; I was a county councillor at the time and I had to deal with some of the implications of the appalling cuts that they inflicted on our education system. Broadly speaking, we are focusing our adult learning priorities on level 2 qualifications—for which, as we heard earlier, there is a great need in this country—skills for life, and 16 to 18-year-olds. That is not to say, however, that we are not investing in adult learning. In 1996 some 78,000 older learners were taking adult learning classes; by 2005 that figure had doubled to approximately 147,000, so there
 
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has been an increase. If people, including the Liberal Democrats, value short courses in stand-up comedy—they are available—and tarot card reading, they should be able to do them. However, we might expect them to make a little more of a contribution to the cost of such courses.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I was pleased to be invited a few weeks ago to the 10th anniversary of the university of the Third Age in Buxton—a magnificent organisation that is doing very well indeed, and which, of course, is not dependent on Learning and Skills Council funding. Although I do not oppose the principle of refocusing such funding—my hon. Friend has talked about that—the speed of change during the transition period is causing real problems for some organisations other than the U3A that are providing adult non-vocational education. Will my hon. Friend look again at the speed of the transition period?

Phil Hope: Yes. I should reaffirm that the £210 million personal and community development learning budget has been ring-fenced for the next two years to ensure that we protect family and neighbourhood learning, for example. On the wider roll-out of our priorities, we see evidence of colleges—City college Brighton and Hove is an example—that are able to increase both fees and participation rates. We are asking colleges about this issue and we signalled the direction of travel in successive White Papers, including the recently published further education White Paper on raising skills and improving life chances. I expect local colleges to take the opportunity provided by the roll-out of the train to gain programme, in particular, to increase fees and participation rates, and start providing much better delivery of the skills training that our employers require.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): The Government's policy of focusing further education funding on skills for life and level 2 qualifications has meant that courses in FE colleges suitable for adults with severe learning disabilities, which are often non-vocational, are being cut, because they do not neatly tick the boxes for the Government's national priorities. I recently met a group of young men with learning difficulties who attend many different colleges, including those in Reading, Newbury and Alton. This year, all their courses have been cut. Does the Minister feel that it is right to take away these men's opportunities for more independent living—and perhaps even employment—or will he join me in looking for ways to change what he will doubtless agree is an unintended consequence of the current policy?

Phil Hope: It is not an unintended consequence of Government policy—nor, indeed, an intended one—to cut such training and courses for the client group to which the hon. Lady referred. Adults with learning difficulties and disabilities are a priority for the Government, as we have made clear to the Learning and Skills Council. Indeed, we spent £1.5 billion in 2004–05 on meeting the needs of some 641,000 learners with learning difficulties and disabilities. This issue is a priority for the Government and will remain so.
 
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Classroom Assistants

10. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How many classroom assistants have been recruited by primary schools in (a) England and (b) Leicestershire since 2001; and if she will make a statement. [66213]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): In January 2001 there were 65,500 teaching assistants—that includes classroom assistants—employed in maintained nursery and primary schools in England. The number had increased to 97,900 as at January 2005. The equivalent figures for Leicestershire were 600 in 2001 and 1,200 in 2005. Figures released today show a further increase in the number of teaching assistants in the maintained school sector in England, with numbers rising to 152,800 in 2006.

David Taylor: I am grateful for that answer, which illustrates the success of the initiative in helping to drive up standards in primary schools across the land. There is, however, a continuing problem in the deployment of classroom assistants, which other hon. Members may have encountered. Can the Minister tell the House what changes are planned to harmonise the employment conditions of those often low-paid staff, who are of course predominantly female?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, I can. The pay and conditions of support staff are determined at local level so that they can fit local circumstances. First, many local authorities are reviewing the pay of, and undertaking job evaluations for, support staff in the light of the single status agreement. Secondly, the Government are working directly with social partners to determine how best to ensure fair play and rewards for staff. Thirdly, we have also extended the remit of the Training and Development Agency for Schools to encompass some of the issues around career pathways and career escalators. Finally, we have developed new vocational qualifications and opportunities for support staff to improve their qualifications and their career development while they are employed.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): The increase in the number of classroom assistants in England is reflected in Worcestershire. What evidence does the Department have of the impact of those greater numbers of classroom assistants?

Beverley Hughes: As I just said, decisions about employing classroom assistants and the way in which they are deployed are matters for local determination, but we are receiving increasing evidence from schools and local authorities that this is an important source of support for teachers, not least as we move towards personalised learning, which schools will have to adopt if they are to maximise the attainment of all children and, in particular, reduce inequalities for low achievers. However, as I have just said, the Training and Development Agency for Schools now has an extended remit and is beginning to undertake a much more systematic survey of evidence on the impact that classroom assistants have on the important agenda of children's levels of attainment.
 
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Students (Career Choices)

11. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What steps she is taking to enable students in higher education better to match their aspirations and future employment prospects in chosen careers; and if she will make a statement. [66214]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Graduates' contribution to our economic growth is greatly valued and there is significant alignment of needs, with evidence of low unemployment rates and high utilisation of university-acquired skills. A key driver of Government policy at all levels is a better fit for the education provided with the skills needs and career opportunities in the economy.

Michael Fabricant: In a debate last week on the Science and Technology Committee report, we learned that there are some 50 courses on forensic science and some 350 different course combinations. Those include courses such as forensics and music, forensics and drama, and forensics and a foreign language, but apparently those courses do not provide the sort of qualification needed to have a career in forensics. Similarly, a degree in media studies is less likely than a degree in chemistry or history to get someone a job in the BBC. How can we better meet the aspirations of people studying for degrees in achieving the careers that they want?

Bill Rammell: That is the old chestnut about media studies again. In terms of employability, media studies has one of the best track records for degree qualifications. The hon. Gentleman's point about forensic science is an important one, and we need to ensure that students are aware of which qualification will lead to which particular career opportunity. However, I am heartened and encouraged by the fact that applications for the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—have increased in the past year. I refer to the significant increase in chemistry applications mentioned in answer to a previous question.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Yorkshire Forward is investing a large amount of money in universities and technical textiles, but one of the problems in trying to advance an important industry for our area is that some schools have not really geared up for the new industries of the future. What can be done to co-ordinate work in schools so that they are properly skilled to take advantage of the work being done in universities?

Bill Rammell: The most significant thing is the development of the 14-to-19 agenda and the diplomas that will directly attempt to ensure that we are capturing at the age of 14 young people who may be switched off and lost from the academic route, so that they have a decent, high-quality, high-standard vocational route to lead them not only to a particular career choice but also, ultimately, to university too, if that is their choice.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Walford and North Shropshire college delivers 500 courses to 8,500 adults at 150 venues. Those courses
 
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are of extraordinary value. People do not only learn skills; if they cannot read, that is picked up and they are brought into the world of reading. I wrote to the Minister after I posed a question at Education and Skills questions last November. He replied, but he did not answer the question. The White Paper wants museums and other institutions to deliver such courses, which is wholly inappropriate in a rural area such as Shropshire. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 5 January and again on 23 February. May I bring Mr. Pugh to visit the Minister and educate him on the realities of education in a rural area?

Bill Rammell: I will happily respond to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall be happy to meet his constituent, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is genuinely misinformed, as the types of qualification that he has just outlined fit absolutely into the skills for life requirement, which is a fundamental priority in the funding system.


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