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7.24 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). I reassure him that whatever he says is not boring and I was most interested in his comments. I shall remember some of his points, and I am especially concerned about his reference to being unable to recruit staff with sufficient literacy and numeracy skills for his companies. That problem bedevils our country. Another skill that we do not have in sufficient quantity in Britain is oracy—a new word, meaning the ability to express oneself orally. On the continent of Europe, it is commonplace for working people to speak another language as well as their own, whereas we have difficulty in commanding only our own language. We should worry about that, too.

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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak about the Bill, which is positive, and I welcome that. However, we must go much further. I am alarmed by the state of skills in Britain. The hon. Member for Northampton, South spoke about skills being lost. If we lose skills in specific industries, we lose the industries and we can never regain them because the skills have gone. Many countries that try to develop cannot do that because they do not have the necessary skills. Rebuilding skills from scratch is difficult—much more difficult than retaining skills and perpetuating them for future generations.

Further education is the most vital sector of Britain’s education and training provision. It has been frequently neglected in the past. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said that officials often dismissed further education or did not take it seriously. He put it very amusingly. I believe that the reason is that officials have no experience of further education. They typically go from a grammar school or a public school to Oxbridge or some other elevated university and never come into contact with further education, which is more vital now than many elite universities. They are splendid, do well and we welcome their presence but we need further education much more. It is not properly valued. That is partly because of lack of experience of it and knowledge about it, but also because of a sort of elitism.

Those from my generation and previous generations who left school at 16, 15 or even 14 never went near college. No one will win an election by championing FE; nevertheless, it is vital to do much more for it. It is a truly massive sector with an enormous spread of activities, from A-level mathematics to bricklaying to basket weaving. It covers almost every activity that one can imagine. Its breadth means that it is difficult to focus on it. We know what schools and universities do, but further education is much more difficult to grasp. However, we must raise it in the public consciousness and, indeed, here, to ensure that we take it seriously in future.

I have a personal interest because, 35 years ago, I was a lecturer in further education when I taught A-levels. It was interesting, but more interesting for me were the day-release students to whom I taught liberal studies. Teaching resentful, alienated young people on a Friday afternoon and trying to get them interested in politics was not always easy. However, I started to understand some of the problems with the education system and our society.

I also taught highly motivated adults at evening class. That is another important component of further education that we forget. We have not done very well by adult students in recent years. I have criticised colleagues on the Front Bench for squeezing the adult education budget, especially the non-vocational budget, to focus on young people. We must ensure that young people are skilled and have the qualifications to do the jobs of the future, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate, millions of adults do not have skills now and they need to be trained and retrained. When manufacturing companies closed down in my constituency, many middle-aged people were asked to do mathematics tests and burst into tears because they could not do them. We have a big job to retrain and
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re-educate our adults in the most sympathetic and supportive way. Many studies have been undertaken of companies in America that trained their staff in mathematics and language. They showed that training made staff not only better workers but happier. It raises workers’ morale. Motorola in Detroit was one such company that improved the quality of the work force, made everybody happier and also made the company more productive. Focusing on adult workers is therefore very important.

Not only did I use to teach in FE, but I went back to the same college some years later to teach part-time. I have to say—this is a criticism of Opposition Members; I hope that they will forgive me for raising it—that when I taught in FE 35 years ago, morale was high. Teaching staff did well and felt good about their students. When I went back to the same college 22 years later, I found that they felt much less happy. Morale was much lower, and they told me so. When I taught a long time ago, we typically had better pay and conditions than teachers in schools. When I went back, pay and conditions were much lower than those in schools and understandably staff felt pretty bad about it. Other factors had also entered into their lives, which made them feel less happy. We must ensure that the staff and people who work in FE have high morale, and feel good about their work and valued.

I have two absolutely first-class colleges in the FE sector in my constituency. I describe them as first class because they genuinely are. Barnfield college was the first ever general FE college to be given beacon status and regularly gets a grade 1 in inspections. I spoke to the principal earlier today about the Bill. We also have the Luton sixth form college, which also regularly gets grade 1 inspections and has beacon status. It does a superb job and has improved remarkably in recent years. Both colleges have a high proportion of students from ethnic minorities. In the Luton sixth form college, 60 per cent. of students are from non-white ethnic minorities, and the college does a fantastic job sending its students off to a whole range of universities—from Oxbridge to our own local university of Bedfordshire.

Twenty years ago, I was chair of the governors of what is now the university of Bedfordshire and was then the Luton college of higher education. It was in the local government sector, but when I was chair we moved into the polytechnic sector and eventually towards university status. I was not thanked by some of my political colleagues when that happened, because it was Conservative legislation that got us into the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. However, it worked and we became a university.

Both the beacon status FE college and the university are rather worried about what is going to happen with degrees. In fact, I have had communications from all three of our college principals and vice-chancellors to ensure that I have their viewpoints. I shall pass on their written comments to Ministers to ensure that they are properly aware of all their concerns about FE colleges being able to award their own degrees. I will support the Government, but they should take account of the concerns of the modern universities, one of which is the university of Bedfordshire.

FE colleges do well. As has been mentioned, however, we must focus on the problem not of elites and the highly skilled but of NEETs—those not in
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education, employment or training. My Luton constituency has very large numbers of NEETs, despite the great lengths to which we have gone to improve our schools, and despite our first-class colleges and our relatively high employment compared with other parts of the country. There are large numbers of these young people, but a couple of weeks ago I found out, most astonishingly, that we do not even know who they are. What we must do first is track the NEETs.

If we do not address this serious problem now, we will in future have a permanent under-class of people with no skills and no jobs, living a relatively poor street life. We cannot contemplate that. We have to deal with that now, and we can start by finding out and tracking these people, then doing something to bring them back into the mainstream of economic life through education and training. We have to identify these people properly. They are not on our radar at the moment and they ought to be. It is no good just talking about them; we have to do something about them.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development drew attention a little while ago to the enormous gulf between the best and worst in Britain’s education and training. According to the OECD, in our top 10 per cent. we have some of the best and most academically capable people in the world. Our best universities compare with the best elsewhere, but equally, at the bottom end, we have some of the worst educated and most poorly trained people of all. The top 10 per cent. are brilliant; the bottom 10 per cent. are appalling; and the bottom half are not very good. That is where our problem has been. For generations we have been concerned about grammar schools, universities, whether we should reform A-levels and have international baccalaureates and so forth, but we have not faced up to the real problem, which is the lower half, the lower third and the bottom 10 per cent.

A report by Claus, now Lord Moser six or seven years ago drew attention to the fact—as did the hon. Member for Northampton, South—that 20 per cent. of people were functionally illiterate and 50 per cent. were functionally innumerate. I have said this before in the Chamber: 50 per cent. of the population do not know what 50 per cent. means. That is astonishing. We take it for granted that all these things are understood, but they are not. We expect people to fill forms in, to understand their pay and handle numbers. The days have gone when people used almost to boast by saying, “I can’t do mathematics”, as if it were a badge of honour. Now people realise that not being able to do simple mathematics or simple computation is not a badge of honour, but a disability. We should address it in those terms and do something about it—not to make people feel ashamed, but to help them so that they can do simple computation in future, without relying on others. We have all seen the advertisements of fathers—indeed, mothers too—who cannot help their children at school, and we want to overcome that.

I have also worked for a trade union and written quite a lot about economics, and time and again I have come across skills and education problems. A great deal of research was done back in the late 1980s by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Sig Prais and, indeed, Claus Moser—and some of the studies were quite astonishing. They compared Britain with the continent of Europe. I remember one study of
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construction apprentices. They took 30 such apprentices from Britain and 30 comparable apprentices from France. They provided a simple mathematics test and found that all the French youngsters could do all the sums in the test, while none of the British youngsters could do any of them in the same test. Frankly, that was frightening. Many other comparable studies were carried out.

Hon. Members may recall the television documentaries that were made on the basis of Sig Prais’s research—comparing German manufacturers with British manufacturers, for example, and the skills found on the shop floor. We saw German manufacturers who took a bespoke kitchen plan from England in English, read it, measured everything, drew it up and built the kitchen, which was packed away and sent off to Britain. In Britain, the staff on the shop floor could never have read a foreign language, so the design had to be done by the engineers upstairs. The chaps on the shop floor just cut on the basis of what they were instructed to do. The skill levels were enormously different. We have failed in manufacturing partly because of that lack of skill and lack of attention to raising those levels.

Significantly, we have seen this week, in spite of the fact that the euro has been a problem for the German economy, that Germany still has a gigantic trade surplus in manufactures, contrasting with our massive trade deficit in manufactures. In my constituency, tens of thousands of jobs in manufacturing have gone. We have seen jobs exported not to the third world, but in many cases to the continent of Europe or even to America. We have not retained our skill base, and we have not retained our manufacturing. Quite frankly, Britain cannot live with a massive trade deficit for ever. That will have to be dealt with at some point; it will unravel. We must start from the bottom by educating people in the skills that are needed in the modern world. That means addressing not just the people who will be lawyers, doctors or even, dare one say it, Members of the House of Commons, but those who work on the shop floor, ensuring that their skills are sufficient.

There are many useful measures in the Bill. I have raised my concerns about clause 17 with my hon. Friend the Minister personally, and he gave me some comfort by saying that colleges would be given the right to award their own degrees only if they met certain strict criteria. That is only right. Indeed, the principal of Barnfield college suggested to me today that one way of dealing with this matter would be to stipulate that only colleges with beacon status would be considered. That would be one possibility. Of course, his college has beacon status, so he is not so concerned, but other colleges might be more concerned. Before we introduce such measures, however, we should apply strict criteria to ensure that the process is well planned and will not damage other institutions.

I look forward to a more planned approach to training and skills education in general in Britain. I am not one of those who believes in the Maoist dictum, “Let a thousand flowers bloom”. I am sure that we all remember that Chairman Mao established a kind of competitive environment in which a thousand flowers were to bloom. It destroyed the Chinese economy, and it took the pragmatic planner, Deng Xiao Ping, to put things right after Mao had destroyed almost
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everything. We need to plan more and to look at these issues in pragmatic terms, rather than simply leaving them to the market. I might be out of tune with some of my colleagues on this matter, especially those in another place, but I still believe that a greater degree of planning for this provision is better.

I also want to talk about sixth-form colleges, which are now in the FE sector. They deal with the more skilled end of education, in preparing students for university and so on. As I have said, Luton sixth-form college is a first-class institution. I have been a governor there for some 17 years, and for the 14 years since incorporation. I have not only taught in further education, but seen what is being done today. The quality of education at Luton sixth-form college is far and away better than anything that I saw or undertook when I was in further education.

We need to ensure that sixth-form colleges are preserved. I am convinced that they are the jewels in our educational crown. I recently asked a parliamentary question about A-level points awards for different sizes of sixth forms, and I was grateful to the Minister for his answer. There is a simple correlation: the larger the sixth-form institution, the better the performance. That is standard across the country. The largest sixth forms occur in sixth-form colleges.

Luton sixth-form college has nearly 2,000 students, and 45 different A-level courses. Every student can study for a tailor-made mix of A-levels, and other courses as well. There are a variety of teachers teaching the same subject, so that they reinforce each other. While there is not exactly competition between them, if one teacher is not quite up to it, there are others who will pick up the pieces. In a small school sixth form, the students have to rely on one teacher per subject, and that teacher might not be particularly good. That teacher might also have to teach other subjects as secondary subjects, which would definitely not be in their chosen field. That sort of thing happens in schools, but not in sixth-form colleges. There, all teachers are geared to teaching their primary subject, and at Luton they certainly do a first-class job.

Sixth-form colleges also allow the possibility of optimum class sizes. There is plenty of research to show that the optimum sizes are typically in the upper teens, so a class with between 15 and 24 students would be the right size for a good class. When classes are very small or very large, they become less effective. In a sixth-form college, the solution is simple: split the class in half and have two parallel classes. That is not a problem. We ought to promote more sixth-form colleges and ensure that we protect those that we have.

At a recent conference, a sixth-form college principal said that, had sixth-form colleges stayed within local education authorities rather than going into the FE sector, we would now have at least 100 more of them. I am not suggesting that we should go back down that route, however. No local education is going to set up a sixth-form college now, because that would result in their giving away their school sixth forms. That would not be reasonable, and councils and officials would never do it. However, the Government ought to think seriously about ways of creating more sixth-form colleges, particularly in urban areas like mine. They do a first-class job, and we ought to give that matter some serious thought.

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Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the obstacles to setting up sixth-form colleges or planning post-16 provision in that way is the Government’s insistence that academies have to cover all ages from 11 to 18?

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman makes a useful point. I have expressed my lack of enthusiasm for academies before, and I shall no doubt do so again. I am hopeful, however, that with our new Prime Minister coming along, we might have a change of direction in that regard, and I look forward to it. Indeed, the Minister in the other place who was so enthusiastic about these institutions might perhaps be relocated to another Department. That would also be helpful. I am not going to make any specific suggestions to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench, or to the new Prime Minister, but such moves might be helpful. Encouraging other institutions to grow sixth forms to undermine sixth-form college provision would not be sensible—and that is an understatement.

I think that I have made all the points that I wanted to make. This is a subject on which I could speak at much greater length, but perhaps it is time for me to give other Members a chance to speak.

7.46 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who spoke with great passion and knowledge about the further education sector. I want to compliment him as profusely as possible because his mother lives in my constituency, and it is a very marginal seat. One never knows when one is going to need an extra vote—[Hon. Members: “Shameless!”] That was shameless, yes.

The hon. Gentleman reminded us that we sometimes forget how important the further education sector is to the success of the UK economy. The report on further education by the Education and Skills Committee, of which I am a member, described the sector as the “neglected middle child” of education, and I believe that all Governments would admit that they are equally guilty of neglecting that middle child.

These debates offer a good opportunity to take stock and even to celebrate just how significant a part the further education sector plays in this country. Many people forget how significant a contribution it makes. Several hon. Members have already reminded the House of the highlights involved, and I would like to do so as well. There are 4 million students in further education colleges up and down the country, and there are more 16 to 18-year-olds in such colleges than in sixth forms—nearly twice as many, in fact. Further education colleges provide a massive 44 per cent. of the entrants into higher education, and deliver 800,000 vocational qualifications each year. Nearly 300,000 students in further education colleges are over the age of 60. That is impressive by any measure.

Statistics such as those make all of us realise that further education should not be the “neglected middle child” and that it should perhaps take centre stage a little more often. The reason that it does not do so is that schools and higher education establishments are generally better understood and better supported. It is
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also true to say that further education is perceived—I emphasise that word—to be inferior in its importance and its overall contribution, even though that perception is far from the truth, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) made quite clear.

The further education sector has not been helped by the Government’s confusing array of stakeholders and strategies. We have had Success for All, the 14-to-19 strategy, the skills strategy, Skills for Life, and Agenda for Change—to name just a few—over the past few years. The hugely complex system of stakeholders is so confusing that the Education and Skills Committee had to call in the Audit Commission to make sense of it all. The Audit Commission produced a chart—I understand that it has not yet been released publicly—that looked a bit like the random scribble of a two-year-old. I can say that quite authoritatively because I have a two-year-old who produces plenty of random scribbles, and they look exactly the same as the chart produced by the Audit Commission. It is not the Audit Commission’s fault that it looks like that. How else does one show the incoherent and manifold interrelationships between 50-odd different organisations? Only the old Soviet Union could have devised something more bureaucratic and less coherent.

The bloated spider at the centre of the web is the Learning and Skills Council. If one looks at the tangled web woven by the LSC and its various linked organisations, one realises it is little wonder that Leitch described the UK skills profile as

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