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8 Feb 2007 : Column 350WH—continued

There are worries about the fit between the diplomas and other vocational qualifications, in some cases. I hope that the Minister will say a word now or later about that. It has been raised with me several times. There is a need for a tight fit so that people can move
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from one vocational qualification to another. There are doubts, also, about the coherence of the system, if consistency across the diplomas cannot be guaranteed. I hear that some of the diplomas are indeed rigorous and devised around what employers say is necessary, but that some are rather less so. The reputation of diplomas will depend on their all fitting the bill and meeting the standard. If one or two are not up to standard I fear that the esteem in which they are held will suffer; they will not be recognised by employers and the opportunity may be wasted.

I have spoken at some length but the subject is important, and it is the first chance that we have had to explore some of the issues arising from the Leitch review. I wonder, Mr. Hancock, whether I may at this juncture ask the Minister to facilitate a debate on Leitch on the Floor of the House. We have not had one, and it is a major report. It is highly significant for education and the economy, and hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome the opportunity to contribute to such a debate on a day other than a very cold Thursday afternoon in Westminster Hall.

We agree that skills matter and that they are a matter of economic performance. However, I end where I began: they are also about social cohesion, social mobility and social justice. I want to elevate practical learning because I want a new generation of craftsmen, who are proud of what they do, and who inspire pride in others. That is an ambition that I know Rab Butler had when he introduced the Education Act 1944 and spoke of education for democratic citizenship. If it was good enough then, surely it is good enough now. Let us see skills as we see education as a whole, in that noble context, and let the debate be a beginning of a cross-party commitment to that elevated view of vocational learning and skills.

3.29 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I have been a Member of the House 21 months or so, and this is the first time that I have taken part in a debate chaired by one of my colleagues, Mr. Hancock. So, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, although I am sure that you would rather be on your way back to Portsmouth.

I am at this debate today because I am the Lib Dem shadow spokesman on further and higher education, but I am also a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). He always says that, when we have a discussion on skills, the public gallery is less full than it is on many other occasions and the press do not turn up. It is slightly disappointing that this afternoon’s exchange of views is taking place between the Front-Bench spokespeople, rather than it being a fully-fledged discussion on this vital issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on turning up, although he will have the shortest journey home. Given the snow, I suspect that the journey home has been high in people’s minds. I hope that “Worst Great Western” will not let me down when I get back to Paddington later this afternoon.

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The title of Lord Leitch’s report is “Prosperity for all in the global economy—world class skills”. We face big challenges in this globalised world at the beginning of the 21st century. Let us consider the various league tables. Perhaps the most frightening thing is stated early in the report: we are at risk of being in a situation where we “run to stand still”. It is not my job this afternoon to say that progress has not been made, because I recognise that this country’s educational provision is different from what it was in 1997. However, no matter how much progress we have made, we must remember that the rest of the world has changed too.

Countries that used not to be our competitors now compete more than adequately. South Korea lay in ruins 50 years ago, and it still has a madman over the border, but it now tops the league in attainment at age 16 and staying-on rates, whereas our own country ranks 23rd in educational attainment at 16 and staying-on rates. There is some way to go before we are a world-class country in educational terms.

The Minister mentioned the number of graduates being turned out every year in India and China. We have a huge task ahead if we are to increase the number of people participating in higher education and to provide the improvement in intermediate skills and school-level skills, on which much of the debate has focused.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) finished by mentioning the 14-to-19 diplomas. They featured highly in Education questions this morning. The Secretary of State said that he thought that the first five diplomas in the initial tranche of collaborations were on track to be delivered by 2008, and I hope that he is right. It is vital that the diplomas succeed and are seen to be a success at the start, otherwise there is a terrible danger that they will not be taken up when they become a fully fledged national entitlement in 2013.

There are early warning signs that things might not be quite as on track as the Secretary of State indicated this morning. My Select Committee colleagues and I visited Lewisham college earlier this week and heard concerns from the coal face. People who will be delivering the diplomas, if they are successful in the gateway, are worried about the content of some of the diplomas. Worries have also been expressed in evidence to the Select Committee. Important work still needs to be done to ensure that the diplomas are a success by the time that we come to their early implementation in 2008.

I shall not reopen the debate about whether that is an implementation of the Tomlinson report—I suspect that we have been over that many times and doubtless it will be discussed again at some point, but now is not the time to do so. My other worry came when I heard the Minister for Schools tell the Select Committee that he expected the first collaborations to take part in the diplomas to build on what exists already. I worried that the diplomas will be delivered in the colleges, and in the schools that are collaborating with colleges, where a great deal of vocational education goes on already, and that vocational opportunities might not be widened to the whole family of schools.

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That is our worry about the Tomlinson report. We said that it was a missed opportunity to bring together GCSE, A-level, and vocational courses in one diploma, so that everyone takes the same named qualification, delivered in every state school and college in the country. There is a danger that we will continue the current divide where some people do vocational education and other children, depending on where they are in the country, struggle with the only academic offer that is available to them in their schools and do not have the opportunity to access the vocational training that the diploma should open up to them. None the less, we desperately want the diplomas to succeed.

It has been said a couple of times by the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning and by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that 70 per cent. of the work force that will need to be in place by 2020 is already in place—the Leitch report is all about where we need to be in 2020. Some 70 per cent. of that work force has already completed its formal, compulsory education. We also know that demographic change will take place over the next decade. Fewer teenagers will be entering the labour market or entering further and higher education, so it is all the more important that we invest in the existing work force. Leitch says that that is a tripartite obligation on the employer, the employee and the Government, but I think that there must be a step change in the attitude of some employers.

I was lucky that when I graduated I joined what was then one of the world’s largest consulting firms. It is now called PricewaterhouseCoopers and is the world’s largest consulting firm. The training that I received to get my professional qualification and the on-the-job training were second to none; the investment was huge. That situation was replicated in all the other large consulting firms, the legal firms and the other professional bodies that many of my friends joined. Even those who went into the large companies would have had a similar experience. One of my political colleagues in Bristol left school with only a handful of GCSEs, but she works for a large insurance company and it has invested in her and ensured that she is able to get financial planning qualifications.

If someone is lucky enough to work for a large consulting firm or a large quoted company, the chances are that their employer will have a positive attitude to investment in human resources. We know that that is not always the case throughout the economy. Small and medium enterprises need to make a cultural shift if the step change in the skills of our work force is to take place.

I see that the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) has joined us. I believe that it was the principal of Blackpool college who told the Select Committee that somebody came to take up one of its courses, but when her employer was told that the fee would be £70, he shook his head and said no. He was not willing to invest even that paltry sum in somebody’s education.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): First, I apologise for not being able to attend this debate before now, Mr. Hancock. I wish to amplify the
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point that the hon. Gentleman is rightly making. That company was unwilling to invest not just in one employee but in a number of employees.

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my point. This is where I share much of what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings was saying. Leitch is quite weak in that area. He relies on a pledge—a voluntary commitment—by employers to invest in their employees so that 90 per cent. of the work force are up to level 2 standard qualifications by 2020. The report says that if we do not see significant evidence that they are making that step change in just three years’ time, by 2010, more intervention might be needed. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what intervention he thinks might be needed in three years’ time. He might be confident that employers will make that step change in attitude.

We should encourage a culture of minimum entitlement for employees of all firms—an expectation that as one progresses through one’s career one will receive at least a minimum investment in training each year. That could be expressed in hours or days. I suggest that five days of training is the sort of level that should be considered.

Employers often say that they are afraid to invest in training because, if they invest, someone will poach their well-trained staff, and those staff will go to a firm that perhaps has not invested in training. If we achieve the culture shift that I am describing, however—such that every small and medium enterprise in the country invests in training, along with larger enterprises too—the fear of poaching will disappear. If employers invest in their human resources, the fact that there is turnover between firms and that people move around in the natural order of things can be a good thing, because people can bring with them the practical experience that they have gained with other employers.

The Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), has joined us. He will remember that when we in the Committee considered further education, one of the worrying issues that we identified was that there seemed to be, if not hostility, a lack of understanding between employers and further education colleges on what an FE college could offer to an employer, and on what an employer could reasonably expect of an FE college. That is a second area in which a change in attitude is needed, and there is much that can be done, by the Learning and Skills Council among others, to bridge that perception gap.

It is for that reason that I am slightly wary of one of the strong recommendations in the Leitch report, which was that much of the power over skills budgets and course provision should lie in the hands of employers. We need a more positive attitude from employers before too much power is handed to them. There is a risk in certain localised economies that, if employers are the main arbiters of the training provided in a community, there will not be flexibility in relation to individual needs and local economic development.

I think back to where I grew up. The body that is now the university of Glamorgan was originally the Glamorgan school of mines. It provided what was probably the only training that was available to my
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grandfathers in their day, and undoubtedly that training was what local employers wanted. It did not exactly facilitate labour mobility, however, and I am concerned that employers might sometimes have too much control over courses.

Change is also needed in employers’ attitude to the sort of people who are employed. Earlier, I mentioned demographic change—there will be fewer teenagers in the next decade and we know, in any case, that we live in an ageing society. I can announce that I am now 40—my 40th birthday was recorded at a Select Committee meeting a few months ago—so I am fully aware that when one reaches 40 there is a change in the attitude that one can usually expect from people. When one is over 50 and still in the work force, even more age-related discrimination can be experienced.

Some large providers actively invest in older workers—B&Q is perhaps the best known. That example should be followed. It is essential that we invest in the existing work force and in older employees if we are successfully to compete in the future. Much the same could be said in relation to the employability of disabled people. There is a stark gap if one studies the educational attainment statistics for disabled and able-bodied people and the employment chances of those groups. That is unacceptable, and attitudes need to change on that as well.

In future, that kind of perception change will be an economic necessity for firms and for the economy in general, rather than just a matter of combating discrimination. I echo the words of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings about cuts in adult and community learning. He was right that change will require rather more than Sir Digby Jones charging round the country demanding that employers meet the pledge. Sobriety has been mentioned, along with hope, but hope will not be enough to deliver what is needed—we need firm action.

There will be a change of Prime Minister some time this year—we think so anyway. On the last occasion of a change of Labour Prime Minister between elections, in the mid-1970s, Mr. Callaghan took the opportunity of becoming Prime Minister to announce that education would be his main passion. I hope that whoever succeeds the current incumbent, be it the Chancellor or whoever, will say that skills will be the number one priority of his Government.

Let me move from intermediate skills to higher-level skills. I was surprised that the 42-minute speech of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, despite capturing our attention, did not include any mention of such skills. They are just as important if we are to compete in the global economy during the time scale of the Leitch report. The report’s target is for 40 per cent. of the adult work force to be educated to degree level, instead of the current 29 per cent. That would be a significant change, and it is a challenging target. The current participation rate among 18 to 30-year-olds is approximately 42 per cent., but that rate has been stuck at the same level for some time, and we need urgent work to improve it, and to get more people involved in higher education.

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One way to do that is to deliver higher education in FE colleges. There has been mention of the fact that that is being done, but it was not the case previously. FE colleges might be very keen to get involved, but some of them have told me that they are not getting the necessary resources, particularly when those resources are compared with those available to universities. We should ensure that widening participation through further education does not mean delivering higher education on the cheap.

Foundation degrees were also mentioned. There will shortly be debates on the Floor of the House and in Committee on the Further Education and Training Bill after it is received from another place, so I shall postpone most of my comments on that subject until then. However, my party’s mind is currently open on whether FE colleges should be allowed to award the degrees.

Vocational degrees are already a great success in HE institutions. I do not know whether the Minister keeps it by his bedside, but I am sure that at some point he has read the Universities UK report entitled “Higher level learning: Universities and employers working together”, which is excellent, and from which I shall draw a couple of examples. The report predicts that the games software and electronic publishing industry, which is worth £65 billion to the UK economy, will achieve 20 per cent. growth in graduate employment over the period addressed by the Leitch report. According to statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, there are currently on offer 76 degree-level courses in games design, together with 52 in games technology, and 38 in games production. According to my maths, that makes 166 degree courses in higher education up and down the country, from Aberdeen to Plymouth. Those are courses that no one would have taken five or 10 years ago, so great change is happening.

A few months ago I visited the university of Bedfordshire, in Luton. There was much excellent work, and I met the professor of virtual reality. That does not sound like something that one expects to hear, but he was very much a real person, with real students who are going on to do real jobs, and who will earn a substantial amount of money in the gaming industry after graduation. The UK is a world leader in the gaming industry—it is ahead of Japan.

The Minister mentioned the Olympics, so I shall mention sport and leisure courses, which higher education also delivers. For example, there is a course in applied golf management studies, at which the popular press and some of our colleagues have often sneered unjustly. The course is offered by the university of Birmingham, a Russell group university. The course is heavily over-subscribed, and employment at the end is almost guaranteed. Such courses, sometimes sneered at as Mickey Mouse courses, are nothing of the sort; they are incredibly successful, and the employment outcomes are usually stronger than those of the more traditional degrees, such as history, which I studied more years ago than I care to mention. Higher education is flexible, and it has delivered successful skills-related courses.

We live in a fast-changing economy; it is probably changing at a faster rate than in the 18th century, when this country was the first to industrialise. People were
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bewildered by change at that time, and they protested against it. People, unless they are of a certain age, are no longer bewildered by change. They understand that they need the skills if they are to benefit from it.

I mentioned the gaming industry. I could mention aero-engineering. On my doorstep in Bristol, a huge amount of research and skills-related work is taking place at Airbus and at other firms to examine how we can use plastics rather than metals in aeroplanes not only to increase the efficiency of the airliners, but to combat climate change. If we invest more in renewable energy, we can take advantage of the skills and employment opportunities that it makes available.

I have mentioned demographic change a couple of times. One of its ramifications is a change in the building industry. We know that many more houses and smaller properties must be built. At the City of Bristol college, and at Lewisham college, which I visited earlier this week, one sees huge growth in the popularity of courses in plastering, bricklaying, kitchen design and plumbing. As the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned, upskilling has never been more vital.

The comprehensive spending review is coming up, and we will be watching closely to see how high a priority education and skills is for the Chancellor—possibly the future Prime Minister. We will also be watching to see whether the pledge to match investment in schools with private sector investment has any prospect of delivery, and whether there will be growth in higher education investment, which does not compare to the extra money invested in schools—over the past 10 years, higher education investment in percentage growth terms has been nowhere near as generous.

We will also be watching to ensure that there is no anticipated growth in fee income rather than Government investment, and to ensure in particular that there is continued Government commitment to further education and skills, so that it is not the unloved middle child of the educational world mentioned by Sir Andrew Foster in his report.

Our work force definitely needs upskilling. It is good for economic prosperity and for the well-being of individuals. Depending on which report one reads, the United Kingdom is either the worst country in terms of social mobility, or it is just behind the worst country, the United States. The Leitch report mentions many challenges that this country faces. There is much for us to do, and this debate will become ever more vital over the next few years.

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