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5.12 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome this Bill, which is very much a continuation of the Education and Skills Bill of 2008, not least in its expansive nature and its ambitions. I want to concentrate on the issue of apprenticeships and skills, and I do so because I have been involved with three major inquiries in my role with the all-party group on skills—one on information and guidance, a report on women and skills that we have just published with the National Skills Forum and a forthcoming inquiry on apprenticeships—and because I was a member of the Select Committee that considered the implications of the Leitch report and which scrutinised the draft apprenticeships Bill.

Skills and apprenticeships were at the heart of the policies needed before the recession, and that requirement is even more pressing now. The social imperative embodied in this legislation is as important now as at any time in the past 10 years, and it should be linked to the issue of lifelong learning. Those issues are critical to my constituency in Blackpool, where the process of regeneration in a traditional low-skill, low-stay-on at school setting needs to be transformed. Regeneration is about reskilling people as well as being a matter of buildings and structures, and the Bill needs to tackle both issues.

It is right, therefore, that we acknowledge what the Government have focused on, what they have emphasised and what they have achieved. They have maintained a constant focus on the issue—a process that has accelerated since we have had two ministries responsible for it and as a result of the increasing, vital co-operation between those Departments and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government have rescued apprenticeships— we should be in no doubt about that. In 1997, we inherited an apprenticeship figure of 75,000, but today we have a quarter of a million. We have made significant progress on completion rates. The creation of the national apprenticeship service, the £350 million that was promised for small and medium-sized enterprises under Train to Gain, which is very important in my constituency, the opportunity to study in bite-size chunks, the business improvement package, the £100 million for retraining and reskilling and the enormous success of the union learning fund and union learning representatives all
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show the persistent commitment of this Government, and particularly of the Secretary of State and Ministers past and present.

I emphasise the critical importance of continuity. The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), was an outstanding skills Minister and of course now has responsibility for higher education. Such continuity is absolutely right, because what we deliver in skills at level 4 will be critical to our success.

I do not say that there are not Opposition Members who have a passion for skills, apprenticeships and training. I know that many do, such as my colleague from the all-party group on skills, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who is in his place, and the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who has just left the Chamber. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) has spoken passionately and constructively on the matter for the Liberal Democrats. However, to will the ends of success in apprenticeships and skills, one must also will the means. I am afraid that the Leader of the Opposition’s ill-advised playing with words and figures and his proposed 1 per cent. block have inevitably laid his party open to the charges that the Secretary of State so eloquently made this afternoon. The Opposition’s lack of commitment to diplomas and the vocational route in the past, and the black hole that abolishing Train to Gain would open up, are not the ways forward.

We need to place increasing emphasis on skills and apprenticeships for the post-16 cohort. Just as the profile of higher education students is changing—the average higher education student is now in his or her mid-20s—demography will ensure that the profile of those taking up skills and apprenticeships will change rapidly from 2010. We must pay due recognition to that, but we must also get the pre-19 situation right. That means getting information, advice and guidance right and emphasising the critical role of schools and teachers and the pivotal role of further education and sixth-form colleges. The question that we must answer in considering the Bill is whether it will give young people the skills and adaptability to gain jobs in an economic downturn and keep them, and the flexibility to go through a series of careers. Specifically, we must consider whether there will be clear, not clashing, pathways between diplomas, apprenticeships and higher education.

Schools are not just about teachers, and clauses 212 to 227 contain welcome provision for the new school support staff negotiating body. The trade unions that represent support staff, Unison, Unite and GMB, of which I am a member, along with the TUC, are concerned that there should be national consistency in the agreements that are ratified. I ask Ministers to take that on board when they examine the details of the Bill. The role of support staff is as key to the success and ethos of a school as that of its teachers.

The role of teachers in encouraging young people to go down the route of apprenticeships and skills is crucial, as is independent advice and guidance. Frankly, Connexions has hitherto not been able to provide that advice terribly well and has reached too few people. As the Skills Commission’s report, “Inspiration and Aspiration”, stated, only 40 per cent. of young people have had one-to-one interviews under the current process. I therefore welcome clause 35, which will oblige schools
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to give advice on apprenticeships, but it remains the case that teachers need more guidance on both apprenticeships and diplomas. The Sutton Trust considered the matter recently and suggested that only a third of teachers felt that the 14 to 19 diplomas were useful in widening participation at higher education establishments. A recent survey by the Edge foundation showed that only 24 per cent. of teachers perceived apprenticeships as a good alternative to A-levels. That contrasted with much higher figures—percentages in the 40s and 50s—for parents, young people and employers. We therefore need a major push on apprenticeships.

It has already been said that the Bill will deliver new structures, not least the Young People’s Learning Agency. However, how will that change the quality of the advice? Allister McGowan, chair of the National Institute of Careers Education and Counselling, has consistently warned about Connexions weaknesses and already wide variations in delivery. He and his colleagues will revert to that subject. It is important that the Young People’s Learning Agency should take a firm hand in ensuring that there are national standards and that local authorities co-operate when necessary.

I have mentioned the key role of further education and sixth form colleges. In Blackpool, I have two excellent examples, which are second to none—Blackpool and the Fylde college, and Blackpool sixth form college. They promote vocational skills, especially in aeronautics, design and leisure. In the past 12 months, Blackpool and the Fylde college put 900 people through skills for life and employability programmes. It works with a local enterprise growth initiative to train local unemployed people in construction skills. All that is vital to Blackpool’s regeneration, as is the capital build programme of £100 million to relocate the college in the centre of the town. It would be remiss of me if I did not take the opportunity to remind Ministers of the importance of linking future expenditure with regeneration—not only of buildings but of people.

It is crucial that higher education institutions recognise apprenticeships and diplomas as proper qualification routes. Some areas are better at that than others. Fortunately in the north-west, the regional development agency is positive and active. We have the North West Universities Association and good links between the higher education and FE sectors. However, we need a proper framework to accredit advanced apprenticeships with the UCAS tariff. The Select Committee has already argued for that. Just as teachers need to learn swiftly about the importance of apprenticeships and diplomas, so do universities and admissions tutors, perhaps especially some of those at the older universities—sometimes, but not always, Russell group universities—which have less experience of the older, non-traditional cohort.

A false dichotomy is sometimes posed between basic level 2 and 3 and level 4 skills. We need both; we need different proportions in different parts of the country—that is why the Select Committee’s report on Leitch called for regional and sub-regional strategies. However, we know, not least from the projections that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and its energetic chief executive, Chris Humphries, has produced, that more than 50 per cent. of all job demand in the next eight to 10 years will be for high-level skills. There must therefore be a much clearer link and mapping between diplomas and apprenticeships. The main message is that we need both to be recognised and accepted rapidly.

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Apprenticeships are about principles, not only the mechanics of delivery. Equality and diversity must be built in, especially for non-traditional groups—women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and younger adults. That means reconsidering flexibility in some of the guidelines for statutory rights to apprenticeships. The Open university has done that for years with its admission of students. If such flexibility is good enough for the Open university, which produces wonderful results, it should be reconsidered for apprentices.

Neither skills nor apprenticeship policy can be coherent without considering older workers, and I give the Government great credit for recognising that, and for what has been done so far. Indeed, the new adult advice and careers services are an important step forward. However, as with younger workers, the National Institute of Careers Education and Counselling has argued that an effective mature adult apprenticeships programmes is not the same as a programme that is suitable for first-time entrants. Recognition of prior learning experience, as on the OU model, and stress on the modular will be key, as will the new rights to request training and encouragement.

We need also to be clear about the rights to apprenticeship, especially in a recession. Who will pick up the slack? Public sector apprenticeships are important, but we must also consider the role of universities, which will take on and, frankly, shelter apprentices who have been let go by business because of their failings.

There is already good practice among older employers such as BT and British Gas, but the Government have to use every lever to ensure that public procurement brings with it apprenticeships, so I very much welcome what has been said about that today. We need to boost productivity, not just employability. There are long-standing skills challenges. Figures suggest that about 60 per cent. of health and social care job demand in the next 10 years will be in professional and personal services and that 60 per cent. of construction job demand will be in the skilled trades. Again, however, those are precisely the sectors from which 30 to 40 per cent. of the work force will retire in the next 10 years. We have to address that.

In particular, we have to address that problem among certain groups. I want to talk again about the importance of women. “Closing the gender skills gap”, the report that the Skills Commission has just published, is all about that. It covers everything, from challenging role models and stereotypes in schools and colleges to linking work with Department for Work and Pensions policy. That is particularly important in respect of the role of carers and making the allowance available to people on courses for more than 21 hours a week.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a measured and well-informed speech. In the light of what he has said about older learners and workers, does he support Conservative proposals to fully fund post-19 apprenticeships? Surely the disparity in funding cannot be justified, given the need for more older people to train in the way that he has described.

Mr. Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If we were starting from point zero, we might take a different view, just as we might with the funding of academic students, too. However, we are
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where we are. I support the moves that the Government have made so far. I would like them to move further, but that has to be done on the basis of balancing the needs of younger learners and the available funding.

We have talked quite a lot about statistics today, but this debate is all about the life-changing effects on individuals. When I think about women and skills, I think of the woman from the Mereside estate in my constituency whom I met at the recent opening of a children’s centre. She had taken her children through Sure Start, in which she had been a volunteer. She then returned to a further education college in her late 30s to train as a primary school teacher. She had got through, but the structures need to be made much easier, to encourage many more people to do so. That is also true for marginalised groups, such as workers displaced by recessions and those returning to the labour market. I am glad to see the commitments, which the Secretary of State has underlined this afternoon, in clause 47 on young offenders’ learning.

None of us can leave aside the recession. What are we training people for? The key task for the agencies created out of the Bill will be to refocus learning opportunities around soft skills and give people credit, in both senses of the word, for training that does not always have to lead directly to employment. That has consequences for Train to Gain. It means that more flexibility will need to be built into Train to Gain, to ensure that many more people not now employed can access training and ongoing education, and that, for the time being, the Government, not the employer, will increasingly be the co-ordinator and sponsor for ongoing education and training.

We have to be careful, in the drive for skills and reskilling during the economic downturn, that the case for lifelong learning is not lost. Even with the imperatives of skills funding, informal learning can still loom large. The sort of skills that older people require if they are moving from a low-grade job or returning to work are often clustered. They are not linear; they are gateway skills to do with developing self-confidence, time-keeping and office skills. Such skills will not always be gained from job-based qualifications. The Government, as well as employers, have to recognise that the development of skills accounts, the Government’s laudable initiative to revive the original intention of individual learning accounts, must include funding incentives for non-instrumental learning, as the City and Guilds national learning bank proposals say. As our Committee said:

We have to think about the contribution of adult learning above and beyond the world of paid work. Being able to use the talents and commitment of people from the third age, especially in the third sector, will be an essential ingredient of voluntary and community work, and, where possible, that should be funded.

As we recover from the economic downturn, it is also going to be necessary to reskill people with green credentials, and not just through capital expenditure programmes. As Chris Humphries has recently emphasised, skilling will have a big impact on hundreds of thousands of people. The TUC’s new pamphlet on unlocking green enterprise highlights the fact that this is not just about
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degree levels but about the installation and maintenance of renewable energy technologies, which will require much more modest qualifications.

We should also look at what is going on in the USA. Barack Obama has produced an ambitious programme, and there have recently been proposals about how those policies will affect people there. For example, a report called “Job Opportunities for the Green Economy” makes the point that wind farm projects will create jobs for sheet metal workers, machinists and truck drivers, while increasing the energy efficiency of buildings will rely on roofers, insulators and electricians.

This is all about practical politics, and about bringing together not only skills but aspirations. The title of our Select Committee report on Leitch was “Re-skilling for recovery”. I believe that, with enough blue-sky and green-sky—if I can put it like that—thinking, we can deliver skills and educational fulfilment for people of all types and ages. The Bill, with its focus on skills and training, can be a key vehicle for delivering that.

5.31 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I would like to start where the Secretary of State began, by paying tribute to Lord Dearing and the work that he did, during a long period in education, on curriculum reform, higher education and, more recently, modern languages. I would also like to thank the Minister and his team for meeting me and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) to discuss the Bill and its later stages.

When we had our meeting, however, the Minister did not mention that he was already in the process of amending his own Bill. We have heard from the Secretary of State today that a number of amendments are already in the offing. I think that at least one of them might emanate from Barnardo’s, although I hope that the Minister will correct me if I have got that wrong. It would be useful to know, either now or at some stage before the debate concludes, how many amendments there are already, particularly on special needs, and when members of the Committee and Members of the House can expect to be made aware of them, so that we can avoid pursuing issues that the Government may already have addressed. Perhaps the Minister could deal with that question later in these proceedings.

I should also like to thank all those outside this place, such as Barnardo’s and others, who are already busy scrutinising the Bill and proposing a series of amendments and adjustments to it. In my view, they do not have a particularly enviable job. This is a very long Bill, with 265 clauses, and it is not a particularly exciting Bill. If it is going to be the final education Bill of this period in office for Labour, as I suspect it will be, it will mark Labour’s leaving with a whimper rather than a bang. With the exception of the proposals on apprenticeships, it seems to be a rag-bag of different proposals with no common theme other than, in many cases, that of centralising power and increasing the level of bureaucracy.

The Bill is particularly deficient in respect of tackling some of the continuing, entrenched disadvantages and inequalities in the education system that are manifested in the enormous gap between the performance of those from deprived neighbourhoods and those from more affluent areas. It is still the case, for example, that about
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85 per cent. of white boys from poor families fail to reach the Government’s benchmark of five good GCSEs. We also know that a majority of schools in the poorest areas fail to get more than 30 per cent. of their pupils to reach the five good GCSEs target.

I had hoped that the Government would provide a greater sense of momentum and vision through the Bill. I had hoped that they would accept the proposals for a pupil premium developed by the Liberals and others to target disadvantage, and that they would raise funding levels and effectiveness to reach the people who have been and continue to be left behind. I wanted to see those proposals in the Bill.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman dismisses much of the Bill as of little consequence, but does he not accept that the proposals for sixth-form colleges are radical and could lead—will lead, I hope—to the development of many more sixth form colleges, which might well be seen as highly significant in future?

Mr. Laws: We will see in time how radical they really are. What I am suggesting is that if we look at the real challenges this country’s education system faces and acknowledge the huge number of youngsters, particularly in lower-income groups and among those with special needs, who are being left behind in education, we find precious little in the Bill that will make much difference to them in two, five or even 10 years’ time.

What I would say—the Government have been a little reticent in acknowledging this today, despite the Secretary of State’s teasing by his opposite number on funding—is that the Government are moving into a period in which education budgets will be much more restrained. Indeed, after 2011 we will probably see an end to the Government’s pledge made a number of years ago to expand the education budget as a proportion of GDP, so it will be much more challenging to deliver the improvements that the Government have committed to and that many of us would like to see.

We will have plenty of time in later stages to scrutinise the myriad detailed and, in many cases, quite small proposals in the Bill’s 265 clauses.

Mr. Willis: Two hundred and fifty-six.

Mr. Laws: Yes, 256. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his usual pithiness and focus.

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