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26 Jun 2008 : Column 156WH—continued

Perhaps I could start, however, with a word of caution. Sandy Leitch’s seminal inquiry was incredibly important in directing attention to what must be achieved by 2020. The interesting thing about it was that Sandy Leitch was challenging the British establishment at all levels—not only Parliament, but our employers and our educational establishments, including our universities, colleges and private sector providers. He was challenging everybody to up their game by 2020, and that was the first time that that had happened. We have often seen inquiries about higher or further education or some other aspect
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of education, but this inquiry brought everything together. Although there is a lot in Lord Leitch’s report that still needs to be challenged, his analysis was incredibly important in concentrating our minds.

However, one thing worries me a little. Since Lord Leitch published his report “World Class Skills”, the Government have been at pains to accept his recommendations, and it was important that they did not put such a major piece of work on a shelf somewhere. But what have we seen since then? In November 2007, the Government published “Adult Learning and Skills: Investing in the first steps”. In the same month, we also saw “Opportunity, employment and progression: making skills work”, “Train to Gain: A plan for growth”, which upgraded the Train to Gain programme, and “Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16—from policy to legislation”.

We had a little break in December, but in January we had another report, “Informal Adult Learning—Shaping the Way Ahead”. Indeed, January was busy, because we then had “World-class Apprenticeships: Unlocking Talent, Building Skills for All—The Government’s strategy for the future of Apprenticeships in England”. January got even busier, with “Ready to Work, Skilled for Work”—obviously civil servants worked all Christmas, and did nothing but produce reports—which was subtitled “Unlocking Britain’s Talent”. Then in February we had an analytical discussion paper, “Life Chances: Supporting people to get on in the labour market”, followed in March by “Raising Expectations: enabling the system to deliver” and in April by “Higher Education at Work—High Skills: High Value”.

It has been a hectic programme and perhaps I can say, in a genuine spirit of comradeship—if I can still use that word to a Labour Minister—that there is a danger of the Government’s micro-managing a system when they have the will of both employers and the political establishment, including all the political parties, to move forward. There is a need now to allow people to blossom and deliver some of what is envisaged, and be trusted to do that.

The Moser report was for me, as probably it was for many colleagues, a stark reminder, with its figures of 7 million functionally illiterate people and 2.5 million functionally innumerate adults. I was a head teacher for 20-odd years before I came to the House, and a teacher for 32 years, and I felt that that was an indictment of me and my career. It was an example of how the school system had failed so many young people and continued to fail generations throughout my working life. That is quite a hard thing to say in the House of Commons, but we do not say it often enough. The fact that literacy and numeracy are crucial to every section of society, including the elderly, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) mentioned, means that the skills for life programme is of far greater significance than any of the others in related areas that the Government are running. It is crucial.

The fact that the scheme has exceeded its target two years ahead of time, and that some 2.29 million adults have improved their basic skills up to level 2, is something for which the Minister and his colleagues should rightly pat themselves on the back. It is well worth noting. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which is not noted for its undying support for the Government, states in a briefing:

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I echo that. However, NIACE goes on to say—because it always has a “but”, as indeed do most politicians:

it is like one of my school reports—

That is a stark reminder that we are just at the start of a journey, not its end.

I was struck, during the Minister’s remarks, by the fact that he rarely mentioned links with his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. If I have one concern about the present agenda, it is about the changes in Government that have split the education world from the skills world. However, those two agendas need to mesh much more closely than ever before. Perhaps the Minister will deal in his closing remarks with ensuring a seamless progression between them, rather than two separate set-ups. It is interesting that in the first three years of the skills for life programme virtually half the resources that were spent by his Department were spent on 16 to 19-year-olds. I do not think that that is core business; it is core business for another Department. The Minister’s Department should be raising its game in participating in the agenda that we are debating. Perhaps the Minister will say how that will gel.

There is a need, as we drive forward, constantly to appraise the effective management of the scheme and consider the relevance of targets. The targets need to be changed. Important policy decisions such as those on funding of English for speakers of other languages must be returned to; non-qualification-based access, particularly for the older population and the group of young people not in education, employment or training, is also relevant. However, the No. 1 challenge that I want to set, which is fundamental to the basic group of learners that we are considering, is the confidence of the learner in getting access to training, at whatever level. No matter how much money, training or opportunity is made available, unless people want to take part in it, it is pretty valueless. That is a challenge, because to date skills for life has been successful largely where people have recognised their need and have had the confidence to come forward. They have seen the value in gaining qualifications, which they have often missed at school. There is a danger that we constantly see qualifications as a proxy for skills. In doing so, we turn off, or turn away, those who have been frightened of qualifications all their lives. That is important to remember.

What I am saying applies to entry-level provision, which must be the biggest target for the Government. I should like the Minister to outline what he will do for the relevant group. Analysis of the skills for life figures shows that only roughly 2 per cent. of those who are hardest to reach have been reached. That means that 98 per cent. of the most difficult to reach are still out there. I do not have a clever solution; if I had, I would readily share it with the Minister. It is a big challenge to all political parties and to society in general to solve the problem. However, formal mechanisms will not work—not sufficiently.

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Before I came to the House I was a head teacher in east Leeds. The hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) was my MP, and both his children were in my school. The hon. Gentleman and I recognised that we were failing huge populations of young people in the Seacroft, Swarcliffe and Gipton estates, and that our kids were not part of the prosperity in Leeds, which was a buoyant financial and commercial centre that was racing ahead. They were kept apart and quite separate. The hon. Gentleman and I, with others, set up the East Leeds Learning Centre, which is still going, and our aim was to try to pick up people who had left school, and the single mums and young adults on the estates, who were without work, hope or future, and bring them into a learning environment. Frankly, it did not matter what they did, provided that they started to engage with it. The centre still operates today and remains highly successful. A significant number of the young people in question have come out of their estates and gone to universities, and have good careers.

We did things differently because the hon. Member for Leeds, East was able to persuade the powers that be in Leeds to give us money to do things outside the box. It is important to do things differently if we are going to get to those who are hardest to reach. That means working in communities. The Minister serves one of the poorest communities in Britain—apart from those who actually go to see Tottenham Hotspur on a Saturday. He will realise that getting those young people and young adults, or even older people, into learning centres is a no-go area. We need the leaders of learning to go out and work with where people are—in their communities, their pubs, the clubs, their social groups and everywhere else—in order to engage them. We cannot engage them by putting a form in front of them and asking them to sign up for a particular course or qualification. It does not work like that. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on the flexibility of funding and organisation necessary to achieve something.

If the Minister were to visit Islington, just past King’s Cross, he would see the multi-billion pound redevelopment that has taken place in the area, yet some of the poorest communities live on the nearby estates. I visited a project called Spark Plug Yard, where some of the most disadvantaged, switched-off, difficult youngsters were engaged on a motorcycle project. They came in to ride motorbikes. Those youngsters were nicking bikes and riding them around the estates, and the idea was to buy some bikes and let the youngsters ride them at the club without causing difficulty—and they did. Before they were allowed on the bikes, they had to learn how to ride them. That was partly to engage them in learning how the bike worked. One step on was for them to gain basic mechanics qualifications. The next step was for them to train as mechanics, so that they could get jobs and move on. It is that sort of interesting thinking, like some of the things mentioned by the hon. Member for Amber Valley, that will make such a difference at entry level.

The one thing that disaffected learners suffer more than anything else—it is the same with the youngsters in the Minister’s constituency as it is in the poorer parts of mine—is a lack of self-confidence. The kids lack self-confidence, their parents lack it and their communities lack it. Unless we can build self-confidence, we will not
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move forward. Learning must therefore be convenient to the learner. It must be free at the point of entry. The individual skills accounts—I support them, just as I support the individual learning accounts—are one of the best ways to achieve that. Once young people are hooked, we can say, “We not only trust you, but we value you so much that here is a lump of money for you to spend on your future.”

That is a really powerful message for us to take forward, but it is risky. The Public Accounts Committee may write a report saying that money has been wasted here and that this could have been better ordered, but I believe that we have to start taking risks. The sums involved will be relatively small compared with the gains that could be made over those individuals’ lifetimes. In that respect, I hope that we will see some courage.

The Minister has rightly pointed out on a number of occasions that most of those with literacy and numeracy problems are to be found in the workplace. They are not sitting at home doing nothing, but are active in the workplace. They are poorly paid, and their work is often seasonal. They can be easily dismissed, and often move from job to job, but generally they are working. We spend too much time talking about those who do not work, rather than those who do.

The hon. Member for Reading, East was right about Train to Gain: it is not reaching some of those on the lowest rungs of the ladder. The Government missed their target for January 2008 by 28,630. That was a significant drop. I do not pretend that it is easy, but the employers are being given free money. They are given the money to train people, but the people do not want to be trained and the employers do not want to train them. Why is that? What has happened as a result? It is a real challenge. Will the Minister say what sort of ideas the Department is thinking of?

An employer might say that it was not worth training the hon. Member for Reading, East because he could get someone with reasonable skills from eastern Europe to do the job without training; and the hon. Gentleman—I presume by this point that he has lost his seat—may say, “I’m not interested in training. I just want to do my bit of work, and go home to watch the football” or whatever. We need to break that cycle. Unless we can find a way to break in and incentivise people, it will be difficult.

One billion pounds will be spent on Train to Gain by 2011. Surely it is worth pulling a lump out of that sum to tackle the problem. The reality is that roughly 6 million people are working in unskilled jobs. In 10 years’ time, we will need at most 1 million and probably only half that. In other words, 5 million people will have no job. At the same time, we will need another 5 million people with skills in order to run our economy. It is not rocket science to communicate with people, telling them that they will not have jobs in 10 years’ time unless we move through this problem. The Chancellor needs to get those people into work in order to get the taxes in order to pay for everything else. A compact needs to be made with those who have low skills or no skills in order to move forward.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Reading, East mentioned the elderly. The hon. Member for Amber Valley said in her opening remarks that she was not sure whether the debate was about learning basic skills or learning for life. I was glad that she said so, because we constantly forget that skills for life should mean exactly
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that—the whole plethora of learning. Roughly 9 per cent. of 65 to 74-year-olds and between 7 per cent. and 8 per cent. of the over-75s are engaged in learning. Two in 10 have access to a computer. However, a significant number—nearly 1.5 million—cannot read the forms that their doctor sends them, and cannot access NHS Direct.

It is important that we try to ensure that no one is left out of society because they do not have the relevant skills. The interesting thing—I confess that I have a vested interest in saying this—is that it would be a cost-effective investment for the state to continue to engage the elderly in education and skills training for as long as is humanly possible. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions in order to consider the issue in the round?

I return to the main issue raised by the Minister, that of numeracy. I am pleased that he concentrated on that. I am good at mathematics. I am really, really good. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Amber Valley says from a sedentary position that she, too, is very good at mathematics. The number of people that would make that statement in a public forum can be counted on a couple of hands. It is a badge of honour to say, “I really struggle with reading” or “I can’t write”. That is okay, but we would be condemned for saying that we were good. We have to deal with that.

On a discordant note, I think that the Minister is falling into the same trap of having low expectations. The Department now includes Professor Smith, who has done major work on mathematics, and the Williams commission is looking at primary mathematics. Two of the leading figures in the world in maths are working in adjoining Departments. I have a lot of hope for that issue.

The Government’s target for literacy discusses reaching level 1, but their target for numeracy is for people to reach level 3. They expect 590,000 people of working age to achieve a first level 1 or above in literacy, yet only 390,000 to achieve a first level 3 or above in numeracy. Even though the target for maths is much lower, we expect fewer people to reach it. That sends out the wrong signals, just as it does in schools, where we accept that children can achieve level 4 or 5 in their SATs at the end of key stage 2, but it is somehow okay not to do quite as well in maths. That is certainly the case at the end of key stage 4 with GCSEs. I hope that we will up those targets and set much more ambitious ones in future.

I am pretty sure that I speak for the Liberal Democrats when I say that we want to engage productively in a debate about the whole schools agenda and empowerment through education and training. It is important that the Minister continues to engage the House and the political parties in a constructive dialogue, and that we do not go back to the system where we bandy insults across the Dispatch Box and the only losers are the people who have lost throughout their lives.

3.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): There are few of us in Westminster Hall this afternoon, but this has been a good debate. I am grateful for the
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contributions, the manner in which the debate has been held and the passion with which people have talked of the importance of skills for life, literacy and numeracy and the challenge facing this country. That applies to everyone who has spoken. I shall go through the issues raised in turn.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) began by talking about schools in this country. It is important to stress that the context in Britain has arisen over many decades and has included Governments of different colours and descriptions. Britain’s industrial heritage has made it possible for someone with low skills to find good employment and provide for a family. He might remember the old CSE/GCSE divide. Many millions of people were streamed off to do CSEs, and many did not attain the highest grade of CSE. Many of those, now adults, require skills for life programmes and the ability to retain maths skills and literacy in a way that was not available to them at school.

In many constituencies across the country, whether in constituencies with multiple deprivation or constituencies with pockets of deprivation, many young people and their parents live chaotic lives and, for that reason, do not receive the kind of education that we all desire for them. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned that people have left school and can still do so without the appropriate numeracy and literacy skills, but it is important to put the subject in context as we think about the challenges that lie ahead.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the scale of the challenge of finding the work force—of finding the teachers that we need—particularly to teach numeracy. I am pleased that we have been able to offer £9,000 bursaries to attract teachers of numeracy. We have a range of part-time and full-time teachers teaching basic skills in the further education sector. We will probably need to double the amount of numeracy teachers at least three times over the next few years if we are to deliver the scale of the Leitch ambition by 2020. Colleagues at the Department for Children, Schools and Families have seen success in schools as a result of their bursary, which is less at about £4,000 or £5,000. I hope that we will increasingly see that sort of success in the FE sector as well, as we seek to attract teachers to the FE work force to join us in the challenge.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the elderly. I hope that he will be pleased to hear that we are in the midst of a consultation on informal adult learning, which is engaging organisations such as the university of the third age in order to help us ensure that many of the elderly particularly those who are isolated, get access to education, learning and opportunities. I also hope that he will note the work of our unions, which often work with people over 55 in the work force, which of course is ageing. Often, it is not a Minister or a teacher but a fellow worker who has done a course, gives someone a nudge and says, “Have you thought about this?” who makes the difference.

Judy Mallaber: Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the work of trade union learning representatives? It is important that we as a Government have given them status and opportunities to carry out their work and do precisely what he said. In my experience, unions have been a great force historically for encouraging education.

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