Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 66-79)


22 OCTOBER 2008

  Q66  Chairman: May I welcome the right honourable Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, and Lord Young, the new Minister from the House of Lords? We are very pleased to have you in front of our Committee. We are looking briefly in this pre-legislative inquiry into the new Apprenticeships Bill. We agreed with the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee that we would do this pre-legislative inquiry jointly. We are holding two sessions, of which this is the second. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is working closely with us; it is the lead Department. First, Minister, because a lot of young people out there are worrying about their education maintenance allowance, and whether and when they will be paid, before we get started on apprenticeships, would you say something about the progress of paying people their EMAs?

Jim Knight: Sure. Obviously, I would like to underscore what I said to the Committee before about how regrettable the situation is, and we will continue to update you by letter as well, as we have been doing. There are essentially three aspects to the processing that I have been reporting to you on. In terms of processing the applications, you will recall that—I think that it was at oral questions last week, when many of you were away—I reported that the backlog was around 111,000. It is now below 50,000. That is making good progress. Once those are processed, notices of entitlement are issued to learners, stimulating payment through the learning providers. These notices are going out but there is still an issue about whether they are going out fast enough. We are chasing that up and making progress. The number of notices of entitlement issued as of 20 October is 389,196 and there are 237,392 young people who have received payment. There is a gap there which we are trying to reduce rapidly. The challenge is for the colleges to process those notices of entitlement into the system. That involves, for example, putting in all the attendance information for six weeks and that can clearly take a little time. That is in essence the answer to the backlog. The other aspect that we have been reporting on is helpline volumes. They have improved, although they could still be better. They are now at a level where a reasonable service is offered. It is not as good as I would like, but it is reasonable.

  Q67  Chairman: Thank you. Will the Department be looking at the way that it awards contracts, given the ETS saga this summer? There is now a problem with this particular company delivering the results on time, which we expected to be a lot sharper and quicker than this. Are we going to look at the procurement process?

  Jim Knight: Certainly. Some time ago I agreed with David Bell, the Permanent Secretary, that we should be looking widely, as you say, at some of the procurement and contract management arrangements to see if there are lessons to be learned across the events of the summer. We need to be informed by Lord Sutherland's findings when he reports later this year because there may be broader lessons to be learned than just the issues around standard assessment tests. We can also translate the internal work that we are doing on lessons learned. I met staff from the Learning and Skills Council yesterday and they are also doing a lessons-learned exercise in respect of the processing of education maintenance allowances.

  Q68  Paul Holmes: On another aspect of the issue, the whole point of the EMAs—and they have been very successful—is to get children from poor backgrounds to stay on. I have anecdotally heard of examples in my constituency of Chesterfield of kids who dropped out in September because the EMA was delayed. I have heard that some colleges and schools have used their money temporarily to tide students over. What advice or support have you and the LSC given to schools and colleges about providing that sort of interim help?

  Jim Knight: We have been saying consistently to providers—schools, colleges and others—and reinforced in a letter that I sent at the beginning of last week, that we provide substantial amounts, millions of pounds, of hardship funds to providers and we expect providers to use them to provide some payment to young people who would otherwise be at risk of dropping out because they are still waiting for their EMAs. When they arrive the EMAs will be backdated to when term started and we have extended the deadline for applications to the end of October. We have reinforced and keep pressing that problem. I am pleased that the number of applications for EMAs is just above what it was at this point last year. Overall, we are not seeing an impact on numbers applying. You could perhaps attribute that slight growth to the amount of publicity that we have inadvertently managed to attract to EMAs. It is extremely regrettable if any individual has felt the need to drop out because they have not had an EMA but in global terms I am confident that it has not put people off.

  Q69  Paul Holmes: Have you any feel for how widespread the temporary support being provided in schools and colleges is?

  Jim Knight: It helped that we reinforced that message last week, because we were getting some feedback from some colleges through the Association of Colleges. A few colleagues in Parliament have also raised with me the fact that colleges in their area are concerned about this. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to get that letter out, so that people were reassured that they should use their hardship fund. If, in turn, they were concerned about whether they had sufficient resources in the fund, they were told that they should go to the Learning and Skills Council and discuss what is effectively a cash-flow issue for them, while awaiting the back payment.

  Q70  Paul Holmes: What about schools, post-16? They do not have hardship funds in the same way.

  Jim Knight: It would apply through the local authority, in that case.

  Q71  Chairman: Thank you, Minister. Anything more on that? Let us get on with the apprenticeships.

  Lord Young, I have not welcomed you yet. How long have you been in your post?

  Lord Young: I am in my third week.

  Q72  Chairman: Your third week?

  Lord Young: Yes, I bring you the vast experience of three weeks.

  Q73  Chairman: But you do have vast experience; we have never had a Skills Minister who has served an apprenticeship. Did you serve an apprenticeship?

  Lord Young: I did indeed.

  Chairman: Well then, you are very welcome—you will know something about the subject in a different way.

  Lord Young: It was one or two years ago.

  Q74  Chairman: I am sure Jim knows a lot about it. You are trade union-backed and you have kept in touch with that. Could you give us a micro-bio of your career?

  Lord Young: I started as a telecom apprentice when I was 16, in a grand organisation called the GPO. We had not even advanced to BT status in those days. It was a two-year apprenticeship. I got involved in trade union activities in the mid-'60s as a shop steward and eventually became elected general secretary of what was the National Communications Union in 1989. We merged with the postal workers in 1995, where my partner in crime, as I sometimes refer to him, was Alan Johnson, now Secretary of State for Health. That is a very potted biography.

  Q75  Chairman: That is excellent. It gives Members of the Committee a good introduction. Let us get on with apprenticeships. Minister, why is the Bill before the House? What is its purpose? I do not ask that in a silly way, but there are a lot of people who ask whether we really need legislation in this area.

  Jim Knight: I think we do need legislation. We need to put in place a more focused delivery body in the National Apprenticeship Service. We need to put in place an apprenticeship guarantee, so that we can create some leverage over the providers, particularly the Learning and Skills Council and its successor body, to ensure that every young person, regardless of where they are and their circumstances, can identify two sectors where they would be interested in pursuing an apprenticeship and then be able to take that forward. We need a coherent and consistent framework that sets out what would be in each apprenticeship. Technically, it is probably not a framework; we tend to refer to them as blueprints. We need to have that blueprint for all the apprenticeships and then the sector skills councils, and others, can deliver frameworks based on that blueprint. It is right that we set that out in legislation and obviously ensure that young people are getting the right information, advice and guidance about apprenticeships and that, up to the age of 16, regardless of their setting, they are being given advice that includes apprenticeships as they make their decisions as to how they will carry on their learning.

  Lord Young: I think that most of it has been encompassed by the Minister. The only other thing I would say is, given the importance we now attach to this in our contribution to developing the skill base, following the Leitch report and other publications on world-class apprenticeships, there is also a symbolic importance of embedding this in legislation. So it has a practical function, but it also signals the importance that we attach to what we are trying to achieve in apprenticeships up to the year 2020.

  Q76  Chairman: Describe the perfect apprenticeship for me. What are the essential ingredients of a good apprenticeship?

  Jim Knight: The essential ingredients would be that the learner has the theoretical knowledge, combined with practical skill and key skills such as literacy and numeracy, and a good understanding of the industry in which the learner is working and wants to continue working in. Those are the four core elements in every apprenticeship. Obviously, the ideal apprenticeship would have been developed by employers to suit their individual needs, for the individual occupations that they want to bring people into through this form of training.

  Q77  Chairman: So there are some apprenticeships that would involve employer engagement and some that would not.

  Jim Knight: Well, if you are referring to the debate about programme-led apprenticeships—

  Q78  Chairman: I was referring to your description. As you described it, it looks as though the employment bit was an optional extra.

  Jim Knight: No, we are being very clear that you have to be in employment in order to be doing an apprenticeship.

  Q79  Chairman: Okay. So, all apprenticeships should have a positive link with an employer.

  Jim Knight: Absolutely.

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