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Sheffield college is also investing heavily in refurbishing its provision of engineering and construction, which is critical to the future of South Yorkshire. This is another of the economic clusters that I mentioned earlier and without it, South Yorkshire would grind to a halt. I am sure that the same is true across the piece in the other colleges in the area.

We need more support to encourage and incentivise young people to stay on after 16. That means that we must address the issue of why we have a lower take-up of education maintenance allowances. The Government have a role to play in that, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.

Independent advice and guidance has not been mentioned so far in this debate, but it is a critical issue. As a former tutor, it is my experience that IAG is generally of a very poor quality in both schools and colleges, but particularly in colleges, and is underfunded. I stress the word independent—IAG has to be independent. If we want diplomas to work and to break down the divide between the academic and the vocational, IAG is absolutely critical in delivering that. If we do not fund it properly and ensure that it is embedded throughout the system, all the effort, funding and investment that we are putting into diplomas and meeting the skills agenda will fail. Many young people get badly placed in colleges and sixth forms, which is why we have the big drop-out rates at 17. The participation rate goes down not at 16 but at 17, when young people find that they are in the wrong place for their post-16 training and education.

We need more of an input from employers to deliver the number of apprenticeships that we need. Employers say a lot about the skills needs of the younger generation, but they, too, have to deliver. The Government have a bigger role to play, as well. I know that they are trying hard, but we really must crack this. Whether by regulation or more levies—I would not like to see us go down that route—we must get employers engaged in apprenticeships.

Free school meals are not offered to post-16 students in colleges, but they are to sixth-form students in schools. That inequity must be sorted out. It is totally unbelievable that we think it necessary to feed a child of 16 in school because they come from a low-wage background, but not somebody who is in college. The likelihood is that the poorer kids are far more likely to be in college than in the local sixth form. What on earth are we doing? My long-term ambition would be to feed all young people and children in schools.

Jeff Ennis: As in Finland.

Ms Smith: In Finland, all children get free school meals. That may be a bit radical for the present times, but we could easily sort out the glaring inequity whereby kids in college do not get fed and kids in schools do. What on earth are we doing here?

Much has been said by my hon. Friends about the funding of colleges, so I will go through it fairly quickly. The point made about local authority funding and ring-fencing is a good one. Kids in South Yorkshire do not recognise the boundaries, so we need to ensure that the lines are straight and that the money meant for a fee goes to a fee when it goes through local authorities.

Other hon. Members mentioned Northern college and the need for a curriculum that enables adults to develop academically, as well as vocationally. Many of
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the skills needs in South Yorkshire are fairly specific to the area. Sheffield has just been awarded protected status for all locally made products, which are made by highly skilled workers. The term “made in Sheffield” is protected and cannot be used unless the product has been made in Sheffield. The only other city to enjoy that status is Windsor. We are very proud of that award, which is really important to us given our background in producing high-class cutlery, steels and so on. However, it means that the skills needs of the city are fairly special. Local further education has to be able to develop regionally. There should be locally accredited courses specifically designed to meet the needs of the area.

We have a cultural industries quarter in Sheffield that offers specialised development in the fields of film, television, art and so on. South Yorkshire has never been about just coal and steel. It has other very fine traditions, so please give FE the right to develop the courses that we need to deliver what South Yorkshire needs.

The situation is the same across the country—this is not just about South Yorkshire. If we can trust further education to be rigorous and absolutely certain about its quality and control, and if we can give colleges the chance to offer and accredit their own degrees, why on earth can we not give them the right to accredit locally and regionally their own courses at that level?

10.30 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I feel slightly like a fish out of water this morning. It is my first outing on the Front Bench—I am even newer than the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson)—and also, I am a Welsh Member taking part in a debate that, although not just about England, is strongly regional. However, there are important lessons to be learned, and some of the messages that we have heard are pertinent to Wales, as well. People in the south Wales coalfields in particular will be listening to them, and I look forward to taking them back to Wales.

In that context, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for raising this important debate about matters that affect his constituents and concerns that have been raised by many of his South Yorkshire colleagues. It is the timeliest debate possible, given the agenda on which we are now embarked.

I also want to pay tribute to the work in South Yorkshire of Higher Futures, the lifelong learning network, which seeks to combat the malaise of different learning providers and bring them together under one umbrella to provide fresh opportunities for the progression of vocational work-based learning. The network supports vocational education and lifelong learning, and, above all else, re-engagement and not just engagement. We have heard much about young people, but if the challenges of the Leitch report are to be seriously recognised, we must increase the participation of all groups in society, including young people, people who are making a change in course and the long-term unemployed. They need to be re-engaged, as well.

Liberal Democrats can agree with much of what has been said this morning, at least by Labour Back Benchers. It has been a refreshing debate. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central set the scene for why the subject is so
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important, not least the insufficient levels of literacy and numeracy. I used to be a teacher at primary level. If the system fails at primary level, there will be failures further along the line. It is essential that we address that.

I spoke to the principal of Barnsley college, who is one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, about funding. A real concern of hers is that if the lifelong learning networks agenda is to be pursued, there must be a seamless transition, which will require work by both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I liked what I heard about individualised learning. She used that expression as well, and said that we need to develop individual pathways to learning, which would involve money following the student through the education system.

There is an obvious need to provide a greater focus on basic skills. That is what employers tell us, as do students. Basic skills are the building blocks of any skills-based economy. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) discussed the disparity between middle-class and working-class participation. I have some figures on higher education. Over the past 15 years, the proportion of students in higher education with unskilled, manual worker parents has increased from 11 to 19 per cent. That is a laudable increase, but in the context of the increase in participation of those whose parents have professional occupations—from 35 to 50 per cent.—we still have a huge amount of work to do on engagement, and that means advice. We heard a great deal about advice from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). We must address that matter and the role of further education institutions’ outreach work, which involves speaking directly with people in local schools.

It strikes me that the experience of hon. Members in their own constituencies is that the structures are in place. The local learning and skills council, under the leadership of Sheffield Hallam university, has had resources of £3.5 million guaranteed up to 2009. That is to be welcomed, but the continuing perception that further education is the Cinderella of the sector needs to be addressed. We heard that the gap in funding between schools and colleges is some 12 per cent. There are also concerns about commissioning from small institutions that really need to be looked at.

On 16 November, the Government announced their UK-wide initiative on new places for training, including some 120,000 new apprenticeships for the under-25s and 30,000 places for older workers. There may be some dispute over the figures, but as was said earlier, I hope that the Minister will discuss training, which will be workplace training, and the concerns about the capacity of local economies to offer work-based training. We heard about the lack of large enterprises in South Yorkshire. In my area, rural Wales, it is out of the question that large-scale employers will participate in such schemes, as the economy of the area is based on small and medium-sized enterprises. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that issue and on the dialogue that he is having with employers.

Looking back a couple of years, the goals of the lifelong learning network have been ambitious: 6,000 learners undertaking vocational and work-based learning
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across the network, and a 5 per cent. increase in learners accessing higher education. That is laudable and encouraging. I know that many of the targets have been met, but I fear a too rigid, too academic approach at the secondary level. Many young people have been switched off education. Again, if we fail at the primary level, we will fail further along the line to encourage people to pursue further education. We heard about NEETs—people who are not in education, employment or training—and the extent of the problem. Like other speakers, I do not like the expression.

The Tomlinson report advocated a wider diploma approach to secondary education that would embrace both academic and practical education. Liberal Democrats have advocated a credit-based system in which successful completion of courses should be rewarded with credits that can be accumulated and put toward a particular level of diploma. Pupils and young people need to be encouraged to mix and match vocational and academic courses. To most of us, that is the real world—that is how people function. We need a structure to support that mix-and-match approach and emphasis on workplace training. It seems to be working well in South Yorkshire, if insufficiently so—there is a mountain to climb in respect of such matters—but it is an approach that we need to continue.

The mismatch that we heard about regarding adult education is a real concern. The comparison between £4.5 billion and £0.5 billion is a serious problem. The message from this debate is that although the sector feels very much like the Cinderella of the service, we appreciate it and understand that it makes a fundamental contribution, and it is up to the Government and associated structures to provide resources.

10.38 am

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) apologises that he cannot be here this morning. He had to pull out at late notice, unfortunately. Obviously, I was extremely pleased to be called in at the last minute to discuss someone else’s brief, but the debate gives me an opportunity to range across the further education sector. I just hope that I do not get my Front-Bench colleague into trouble by ranging too far.

Many of the challenges of further education have already been expertly outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central in his thoughtful speech. I do not wish to keep Members for too long, but I wish to make several points that I hope will gain general agreement.

My first act, though, must be to congratulate our further education institutions for doing such an excellent job. We have heard how impressive FE institutions are, and hon. Members have mentioned Northern college, Barnsley college and Rotherham college of arts and technology in South Yorkshire. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is making use of her excellent catering college. That shows even MPs how vital a role local further education colleges play in communities throughout the country. They fill a crucial gap between secondary and higher
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education, but too often their achievements are overlooked and their problems ignored. FE institutions are in many ways the forgotten or, as hon. Members have said, the Cinderella sector of our education system.

Hon. Members have spoken about the need for better access to high-quality vocational education and the worrying shortfall in fundamental skills, as the Leitch report made clear. As we seek solutions to improve our skills base in South Yorkshire and elsewhere, our further education institutions will, and should, play a pivotal role. Perhaps I can use the time available to me this morning to celebrate their achievements in South Yorkshire and elsewhere and to articulate a few of the challenges that face them.

One of the most attractive features of further education institutions is that they represent a much wider social mix than, for example, universities. Despite attempts to widen university participation in recent years, the social mix has remained stubbornly narrow. Recent statistics show that increases in admissions to universities from those from disadvantaged backgrounds have changed only marginally over the past decade. There is no doubt that access has been deepened more than widened, but there is debate about how far it has been widened.

I do not need to go to South Yorkshire to demonstrate how FE institutions differ markedly in social composition. Reading college in my constituency has a state-of-the-art design centre and a sixth form academy, and it teaches everything from GCSEs to PhDs. Such a wide range of disciplines naturally pulls in much wider social groups, which is why FE institutions can and should be harnessed to fill the skills gaps in local economies, such as South Yorkshire. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough made a valid point about free school meals and their availability to post-16s in schools, but not in further education colleges.

FE institutions tend to be rooted in and reflective of the local community. There is a sense of community ownership of local FE colleges, which also exists in schools but is less prevalent in universities. That was clear from the way in which hon. Members spoke about their local FE colleges this morning. Hon. Members raised a wide range of further education issues from funding differences between schools and colleges to the LSC’s role.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central rightly raised to the important issue of those who are not in education, employment or training—NEETs—in the context of increasing the school leaving age. I think that he said that NEETs in his constituency stood at about 8 per cent. Many of us across the political divide believe that compulsion is not helpful. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) described young people as conscripts and said that there is little point in forcing hostile 16 and 17-year-olds into occasional attendance at schools or colleges if they do not want to be there. I agree, and the Government may need to think again about compulsion, particularly as many young people in Barnsley find full-time work at the age of 17, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said.

I have always been of the view that carrot is more attractive than stick to a young person. Forcing teenagers to do something that they do not want to do will cause immediate rebellion, and encouraging young people to stay in education and training is more attractive. The
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hon. Gentleman highlighted the success of education maintenance allowances in his area, which has the highest number in the country. Clearly, that carrot has worked for young people in Barnsley, but I am sorry to hear that it has not worked as well in Sheffield, Hillsborough.

I note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) used the encouragement of Government regeneration money on two occasions to encourage young people into education in a coalfield area. Dearne Valley college is making a real contribution to the Barnsley area, and the hon. Gentleman made his point extremely well in using the college as a case study running through his thoughtful comments.

There are many ways in which to offer better and more attractive opportunities to young people, but we must have real apprenticeships that offer work-related experience. The Government boast about increases in the number of apprenticeships, but the LSC has confirmed that about 50 per cent. fail to complete them. At present, apprenticeships are delivered by training providers, only 20 per cent. of which are employers. So there are no guarantees of substantial employer involvement.

Should not all apprenticeships involve systematic workplace training under the guidance of an experienced mentor? Would not that be more attractive to young people who currently opt out of the system altogether? The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) spoke about the lack of large companies offering apprenticeships in his constituency. It would be worth his while looking at how the group trade associations can make it possible to take on apprentices.

The train to gain scheme has not been a success for most young people. It has been heavily promoted, but the results have been extremely disappointing. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made that point. Targets for learner numbers have been missed in every English region, including Yorkshire, and only 15 per cent. of learners have completed their training. My concern is that the train to gain scheme is over-bureaucratic, and it would perform much better if the brokers who act as intermediaries were removed. Indeed, the Select Committee on Education and Skills, on which I served, concluded that brokers

The fact is that most FE colleges already have well-established links with local employers and can recruit their own young people without the support of a broker.

There is also too much bureaucracy from the LSC. Further education is at its best when it serves the local community and local business together. I have outlined the problems of the train to gain scheme, but further education also suffers from too much regulation. For example, why is an FE college that wants to be flexible and responsive to local business required to seek approval for its courses from the LSC? Obtaining approval can sometimes take a long time according to those to whom I have spoken in the FE sector. FE institutions are looking for less centralisation and more autonomy in both funding and operation. That fits perfectly with the Government’s report by Sir Andrew Foster on further education, which called for

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Time is pressing, so I shall bring my comments to a conclusion. We have had a useful debate with a number of excellent contributions. The broad thrust of what hon. Members have said is that, if we are to fulfil our commitment to improve skills, support lifelong learning and strengthen vocational education, we must support our further education institutions. The Government’s further education Bill will soon come before the House, so this is clearly the beginning of an intensive debate, rather than the end. I look forward to engaging further with hon. Members in due course.

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