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House of Commons

Thursday 23 November 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

New College Nottingham

1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What representations he has received on the future of the Basford Hall College campus of New College Nottingham; and if he will make a statement. [102283]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): The Department has received two representations about Basford Hall’s future, although we are aware of the high level of local interest in New College Nottingham’s proposals. The Learning and Skills Council will need to consider proposals from the college, and made it clear in a recent letter to the college, which my hon. Friend may have seen, that it must be satisfied that learners will continue to have convenient access to facilities for education and training that meet their needs, and that levels of participation in the area will not be adversely affected.

Mr. Allen: My constituency has some of the worst educational deprivation in the UK. At none of the seven secondary schools can youngsters stay on. We have fewer youngsters going on to university than in any other constituency. If ever a constituency needed to keep its last remaining further education base open, it is Nottingham, North. Will my hon. Friend facilitate further discussions between all parties in the Nottingham area, including New College Nottingham and other FE providers, private sector providers, the community and the voluntary sector, so that we can ensure not only that that further education college is preserved, but that it reaches out into the communities that need FE the most?

Phil Hope: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. He has had two meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, he has had an Adjournment debate on the topic, and I notice that he has a parliamentary newsletter campaigning on it. All the other Education Ministers appear in it but I do not, so I shall have to have a word with my hon. Friend about that. Let me
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make it clear that only in exceptional circumstances would we expect to see the removal of a significant further education site from an area of educational deprivation. We have seen no evidence of any such exceptional circumstances in this case, so I urge New College Nottingham to draw up a proposal, and, yes, we would expect the Learning and Skills Council to use its good offices to work with all partners to develop a solution that will enhance skills training for young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Adult Education

2. Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): If he will make a statement on the recent changes in provision of adult education courses at colleges in England. [102284]

3. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What changes there have been in the number of places on adult learning courses in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [102285]

7. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What changes there have been in the number of adult learning courses in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [102289]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): We do not hold details of current programmes centrally, but between 1997-98 and 2005-06 investment in further education increased by 48 per cent. in real terms. Public investment in adult education will increase again by 7 per cent. to over £3 billion in 2007-08 compared with 2006-07, and we will continue to support over 4 million adult learners and safeguard £210 million for personal, community and development learning. In order to tackle skills gaps in our work force, we will increasingly focus funding on longer courses that lead to qualifications, so that adults have the right employability skills. This will result in a reduction in publicly funded places on low priority short courses and non-accredited provision. However, that will be offset by increased funding for skills for life courses, train to gain activity and those studying for their first, full level 2 qualification.

Mr. Willis: The Secretary of State would accept, I think, that in the next 10 years, two out of three jobs created in our economy will be for older workers because of demographic trends and the shortage of youngsters coming through the school system. I am sure he would also accept that between 2005 and 2008, according to the Association of Colleges, we are due to lose some 700,000 places for adults in our FE colleges. Given that in constituencies such as mine, the main way in which older workers get back into learning and training is through non-accredited courses, how can the right hon. Gentleman justify the almost total eradication of community education in north Yorkshire, so that now, unless people can afford to pay for a non-accredited course, they simply cannot find one?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman knows about these matters from his long experience. I do not recognise the figure of 700,000. The LSC said that
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when we make the transition—which, remember, Foster recommended in his report—we must be much more focused on employability skills, given the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It was the LSC that said that the net result would be a reduction of about 230,000 in fully publicly funded courses. It has since scaled that figure down to about 200,000, but that is set against the courses available in train to gain where, so to speak, the caravan of learning goes to small businesses and offers a service to them, rather than small businesses having to seek out that service. The important point is that we should have the courage and fortitude to see the change through. I know the hon. Gentleman accepts that. It means some painful decisions in colleges because the taxpayer should be funding our priorities, and the level of funding that the college asks the individual and the employer to contribute has to be much greater. That is the essence of the Foster review and of our approach.

Philip Davies: It is not just a question of people having to pay more for adult education courses. People in Burley and Wharfedale in my constituency have suffered because Bradford college has closed Burley grange, which provided adult education courses. Will the Secretary of State look again at the financial provision for adult education courses to prevent such closures from occurring? What are he and the Learning and Skills Council doing to ensure that buildings such as Burley grange in my constituency are protected so that they are used for education purposes and not sold off for purposes such as house building?

Alan Johnson: Following incorporation, further education colleges are in charge of their own property. Shipley college has very good links with employers. We understand that good progress is being made towards full cost recovery. The number of adults in further education is increasing, as is the investment in further education. The difference is the focus; we focus remorselessly on those who do not have at least an adult level 2 qualification, and from next year, we will focus on 19 to 25-year-olds getting a level 3 qualification—that is where taxpayers’ money should be spent—on train to gain and on the huge expansion in apprenticeships. If we prioritise everything, we prioritise nothing. I have outlined our priorities, which are the right ones for the country. I accept that there will be problems in places such as Shipley, and in other places, but we need to overcome them to put FE in a far stronger position than it has been in the past.

Mr. Evennett: I understand what the Secretary of State is saying, but is he not concerned that there are pensioners in my constituency who cannot afford to take the courses because the fees have gone up so much? Many who want to upskill, or to retrain and reskill, find that the courses have been cut and are not in existence. What reassurances can he give on this? It is all very well for him to talk in these words, as he does, but real priorities exist in areas such as mine in south-east London, which are suffering because of his redistribution of money so that courses are not available for my constituents.

Alan Johnson: I will try to find another way to talk other than in words, but at the moment it is just about the only way I have got.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about 60-plus learners. In 1996, there were 78,000 60-plus learners in FE, whereas there are now 147,000. On personal, community and development learning, which is learning intrinsically for the sake of learning, we have ring-fenced and safeguarded £210 million, both now and into the future, and that remains available.

I believe that Bexley college is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As he well knows, it under-delivered in 2005-06 to the tune of providing only 84 per cent. of the provision that it should. It had a bad inspection in 2004. It is now satisfactory and things are improving. I am sure that Bexley college, like others, will adapt to this new situation and succeed.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House, or at least Labour Members, will want to join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend on the increase of more than 7 per cent.—more than £3 billion next year—in public investment in adult education. Does he share my concerns that we have not got the balance quite right in the past on the investment made by the Government, by individuals and by employers in adult education? Does he not think that employers need to do a lot more if we are to have the sort of investment in our adults that we need?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Having been placed at the heart of the skills agenda—employers have rightly argued that previously it was educationists, civil servants and politicians who told them the skills that they would need in the future—I think that employers recognise that, through the sector skills councils and other measures, we have put them at the heart of this process. I think that the Leitch report will have a lot to say about the balance of who should be doing what in providing the skills we need for 2020.

Returning to a point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), Leitch’s first report found that 70 per cent. of the work force of 2020 are already in the workplace now. That makes the issue of even higher priority than it has been before.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I, too, welcome the increased funding for adult education. In my constituency, part of our plan to make it easier for people in work to access the training that they need is to build a new education campus with both higher and further education elements. I am delighted that the Learning and Skills Council has indicated that it will make the funding available for its own component of that. Will my right hon. Friend provide me with the reassurance that my constituents need that the application before the Higher Education Funding Council for England for the higher education component will also be taken seriously?

Alan Johnson: I assure my hon. Friend that it is being taken seriously. Even as we speak, 14 per cent. of higher education is carried out in FE colleges and, with the welcome expansion of foundation degrees, that will increase. It is important that we see further education in relation to the skills that it provides not only at an
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intermediate level—levels 2 and 3—but at level 4 and above so that it provides the skills that we will need in the future.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): I accept my right hon. Friend’s statement about the need to focus on adult skills, but will he also consider carefully the decisions that are being made by learning and skills councils about non-accredited courses? Some non-accredited courses are the way in which the most disadvantaged adults come back in to education, and we need to ensure that such courses are available and that we build on them. They are not the same as leisure courses. The tendency is for colleges to focus on those who will attain level 2 very easily, and the most disadvantaged can often lose out.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We recognise the importance of that first level; that is why the foundation tier is crucial and we are considering these pathways that adults can gain. Entry to employment—E2E—had its successes and failures, and we think that we need a new foundation tier. One of the other issues that my hon. Friend mentions repeatedly—she mentioned it again in an excellent contribution to the Queen’s Speech debate on this subject—is the role of union learning reps in the job of being almost evangelical about learning and education. That is something we need to expand and build on. It is an important point and does not detract from our priorities; in fact, it adds to our ability to meet them.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): The Secretary of State said that demographic change means that opportunities for older learners and workers are vital, but adult learners are seeing their courses cut across the country, as we have heard from Members from all parties. The Association of Colleges says that 700,000 places have been cut; the Secretary of State says 200,000. He has talked about priorities. Will he tell us, therefore, how many of the courses that are being cut relate to older learners, and how many relate to employment and to vulnerable groups such as disabled people? Learners deserve to know the facts, colleges need to plan and, frankly, this House deserves more than bull and bluster.

Alan Johnson: Let me make one important point about the disabled and people with learning difficulties. We are prioritising provision for learners with disabilities or learning difficulties, with a record £1.5 billion being spent on 640,000 learners. That is an increase of £200 million and of 60,000 learners in the past two years alone, so that is crucial. I obviously do not have the detailed information about the age profile of people on such courses, but I am clear—even more so since my visit to the AOC conference this week—that FE colleges realise the need to change and the need to drop shorter, low-priority, less expensive courses in favour of longer, more expensive courses that lead to something at the end for the individual involved.

The spokesmen from the two Front Benches—the three Front Benches, even—should not disagree about this fundamental issue, given the fact that by 2014 two thirds of workers will require at least intermediate skills at levels 2 or 3 and that by 2020, 40 per cent. of jobs
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will be filled by graduates. There will need to be 5 million more highly skilled jobs and, perhaps most frightening of all, the number of unskilled jobs will go down from 3.5 million to just over 500,000 by 2020. If that does not focus our minds on the need to change course with FE, despite all the pains, and all the bull and bluster—which I believe comes from the Opposition rather than from us—nothing will. I hope that Leitch adds to that focus when his final report is published soon.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): While I recognise the importance of the shift—my right hon. Friend’s comments demonstrate why it is a strategic shift—will he specifically consider sports coaches? One of the dilemmas is that they are older adults. The Government have a policy of trying to drive up the standard of community coaches, and there is a problem. I have met Ministers but will my right hon. Friend take a specific interest, so that we can deliver another Government target and ensure that the legacy of the Olympics applies throughout the country?

Alan Johnson: I had trouble remembering that my hon. Friend was the Member for Loughborough until he finished his question. I accept that the issue is important. My hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning has been to Loughborough to discuss the matter, focusing on sports in schools, especially the school sports partnership, which will lead to two hours of high quality PE and training by 2010, increasing to four hours thereafter. This is the age of the sports college coach.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I am sure that we understand what the Secretary of State says about the number of people going into adult education, but does he accept that the mix of people is crucial? Does he also accept that, at places such as Weston-super-Mare FE college, where I am a governor, the number of places for people over 25 on courses above level 2 is being cut? As the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) said, there is a problem with the number of people who are trying to get back into the work force and require non-accredited courses as an interim step. It is crucial that the FE sector responds to the needs of those groups—those returning to work, those who have been made redundant and need to reskill and older workers. At the moment, it is taking a backward step.

Alan Johnson: I do not accept that. I do not know the circumstances in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but if he writes to me, I shall look into the matter. However, public money is finite and needs to be concentrated on our priorities. The majority of people who already have skills and are at level 2 or above should make a bigger contribution. That does not apply to those on low income, those who have just been made redundant—normally a package is put together in those circumstances—or other groups of people who qualify for free further education. The presumption has always been that everyone at an FE college will pay 25 per cent. of the costs. FE colleges rarely charged that. The presumption has now moved to 37 per cent. and by 2010, it will move to 50 per cent.
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That is not the full cost of the college course, but it constitutes a necessary rebalancing of finances between the taxpayer, the individual and the employer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said earlier, that is the important message to get across.

School Meals

4. Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): What measures local education authorities are considering to increase the take-up of healthy school meals. [102286]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): Local authorities are using a range of measures to increase school lunch take-up. They include: improving dining areas to make them more attractive to eat in; creating promotional materials on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, and involving parents in activities such as tasting sessions for the new food.

This Government are offering an unprecedented £477-million package of support to help schools and local authorities improve school food and increase take-up.

Ms Johnson: A recent BBC survey showed that the take-up of healthy school food was falling. Will my hon. Friend consider the eat well, do well scheme in Hull, which introduced free healthy school meals in all our primary schools and special schools and led to doubling the take-up? In some schools, more than 90 per cent. of children have taken up the healthy school meals option.

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes a good point about what Labour-run Hull chose to do in 2004—it was ahead of the game. I accept her general comments about take-up and the BBC survey. However, although we accept that there are problems with take-up, which we anticipated two-and-a-half months into the new standards, we are in this for the long-term and we believe that we will make a difference to take-up. The BBC survey had 59 responses out of 150 local authorities, of which approximately 35 had experienced problems with take-up. That means that 115 did not respond to say that they had problems with it. Having said that, I understand that we need to work on the matter. We are therefore doing a great deal with pupils, schools and parents to ensure that take-up increases.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the excellent work being done by the British Pig Executive—BPEX—to promote the uses of pork as a nutritious, low-fat food? Could he spare 30 minutes to meet representatives of BPEX to discuss how pork could be more widely used in our schools, which would be welcomed by the award-winning pig farmers of South Norfolk and elsewhere?

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