Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

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The Chairman: Copies of the memorandums that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee room. The submissions received so far have been circulated and are available.
That, at this and any subsequent meeting at which oral evidence is to be heard, the Committee shall sit in private until the witnesses are admitted.—(Jim Knight.)
The Chairman: Just before we clear the room, I would like to put on record my appreciation for the enormous amount of help that the Committee has had from the Scrutiny Unit in preparing all the documents for today and subsequent sessions.
10.35 am
The Committee deliberated in private.
10.43 am
On resuming—
The Chairman: We are now going to hear evidence from the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the TUC and the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils. I welcome you and ask each of you to introduce yourself.
Richard Wainer: I am Richard Wainer, head of education and skills policy at the CBI.
John Lucas: I am John Lucas, policy adviser on education and skills at the British Chambers of Commerce.
Tom Wilson: I am Tom Wilson, head of the organisation department at the TUC.
Keith Marshall: I am Keith Marshall, chief executive of SummitSkills, the sector skills council for building services engineering. Inside the Alliance, I chair the qualifications reform strategic group.
The Chairman: Before calling the first member of the Committee to ask a question, I remind everybody that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must stick strictly to the timings in the programme motion agreed by the Committee. I hope that I do not have to interrupt mid-sentence to achieve our objective of bringing this section of questioning to a close just before 12 noon. Bearing it in mind that there are four of you, would witnesses please make their responses brief because otherwise we will not cover the range of subject matter that we have before us? I call John Hayes to ask the first question.
Q 1Mr. Hayes: My question is for the British Chambers of Commerce in particular. Are the changes in the management and funding of skills likely to bring greater organisational efficiency? Not that I want to lead the witness in any way, but in your submission you describe those changes as bizarre.
John Lucas: Absolutely. We are very uncomfortable with the state of play of the reform, particularly with the dissolution of the Learning and Skills Council and the introduction of the Skills Funding Agency. We believe that the changes are too bureaucratic and do not address the underlying issues and problems of the education system. Too much management time will be drawn in to oversee the changes, and that will cause serious disruption to long-term relationships and processes that have been established. There were obviously problems with the LSC, but our preference would have been for organisational change to have happened within the existing structures rather than through a complete overhaul.
Q 2Jim Knight: I recall the very welcome support that the CBI gave to raising the participation age to 18. What is the CBI’s view on the need for local authorities to have at their disposal the tools to make raising the participation age a success by 2013—the time scale set out in legislation? Is that not a good reason for the delegation of 16-19 commissioning to local authorities?
John Lucas: I am from the BCC.
Jim Knight: Sorry.
John Lucas: That is okay. In relation to the raising of the participation age, I understand why transfer of funding has happened, but in terms of business engagement it will be very difficult for businesses and employer bodies to engage with the system set out in the Bill. Basically, we believe that the Young People’s Learning Agency will have to intervene so often that that will bring into question the use of transferring funding directly to local authorities, and the point of dissolving the LSC may also be brought into question if the systems stay fairly similar and the national agency has to keep stepping in.
Q 3Jim Knight: Why do you think the YPLA will have to step in all the time when most of the arrangements for post-16 learning are set for most people? They will either carry on at school or go to college; those are well-established arrangements that are pretty much learner-led.
John Lucas: In terms of funding and its distribution, I do not think that local authorities have a track record of employer engagement and of ensuring that the system post-16 is focused towards equipping young people coming out of the system with skills and vocational qualifications that enable them to work. They certainly do not have a track record of successfully engaging with business, and I think that this will cause an awful lot of bureaucratic change for what I see as little tangible benefit.
Q 4Mr. Hayes: My question is for the CBI, on that subject. When the Select Committee looked at the draft Apprenticeships Bill, you were asked by one of its members what you felt about local authority involvement and whether you thought that the model would be too prescriptive, and you said that it was a concern. Why did you say that?
Richard Wainer: Moving responsibility to local authorities is about ensuring that they take into account local and regional business views and demands. Our members are primarily concerned about ensuring that they get a good-quality apprenticeship programme, so as long as local authorities adequately consult and work with local employers in ensuring that they are putting on the sort of apprenticeship programmes that are in demand, I think that our members will be generally happy.
Q 5Mr. Hayes: Would you therefore welcome greater emphasis in the Bill on the quality and standard of apprenticeships?
Richard Wainer: Apprenticeship quality is a very important issue and businesses generally see high-quality apprenticeships as coming from strong employer involvement. So, the priority for our members is to ensure that the apprenticeship programme encourages strong employer involvement and that the programme is more fit for purpose—delivering the sort of skills that are in demand by businesses.
Q 6Mr. Hayes: Do you think that the Bill goes far enough in involving employers in that process? We are going to have a very complex new structure—we have mentioned local authority involvement already—and the Bill does not specify much about the issue of quality that you described.
Richard Wainer: No, I think that the Bill is silent on local authorities and the YPLA consulting employers. There is a concern about ensuring that local authorities are required to work with local businesses.
Q 7Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): The Minister has just mentioned raising the participation age in education and training to 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015, but the sector skills councils have to move first. The Bill says that apprenticeships should be offered to all young people who want one, which is a hard-to-quantify figure. Do you think that the sector is up for it? Is there enough capacity among employers to offer sufficient apprenticeships to young people?
Keith Marshall: That is the element that concerns us. An apprenticeship is not an apprenticeship unless it includes learning in the workplace on the job, and you can do that only if you have employers. Although I understand that we need to think about coming out of the recession, with the way that the economy is going and the challenges there, the biggest challenge in the commitment is ensuring that there are enough employers, and in that I return to the issue that has just been spoken about and our real fear that, to hit the targets, quality will be lowered. For us, the maintenance of apprenticeships as a high-standard, valued programme and qualification is absolutely key. We would rather see redefined targets, but maintained quality.
Q 8Stephen Williams: Are the 25 sector skills councils that you represent all adapting their thinking to prepare for the challenge that lies ahead?
Keith Marshall: Yes, indeed, we are in the middle of working through a programme that we can bring forward to deal with this specifically.
Q 9The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. Siôn Simon): May I ask the BCC a question? You said that you thought that the arrangements in the Bill for the Skills Funding Agency were too bureaucratic. Can you give us more details about what you think is too bureaucratic and in what way?
John Lucas: Absolutely. I think that the dissolution of one organisation and its replacement with a host of others, including management and set-up time, is a very bureaucratic process in itself.
Q 10Mr. Simon: You think that the transition will be bureaucratic. You said that the new structure will be bureaucratic. In what way will it be too bureaucratic?
John Lucas: We do not see anything in the plans that addresses some of the underlying problems as our members see them. I must add that our members include a large number of private training providers, which are attached to our chambers of commerce across the country.
Q 11Mr. Simon: Are there any elements in the SFA design in the Bill that you consider too bureaucratic that you can tell us about in detail?
John Lucas: In detail, I would have to go back to our membership. Then I would be able to reply in written evidence.
Q 12Mr. Simon: May I ask the CBI whether this is a good Bill?
Richard Wainer: It is a mixed bag. There are certainly elements that our members would very much support, particularly on allowing employers to submit their own apprenticeship frameworks and ensuring that those programmes better fit their needs, but there are elements that we are nervous about. The introduction of apprenticeship standards and minimum periods of time off, for example, are making our members nervous.
Q 13Mr. Simon: Would you say that it is broadly good on apprenticeships?
Richard Wainer: A mixed bag.
Q 14Mr. Simon: What about the right to request time to train?
Richard Wainer: It will be a useful measure, certainly, if it takes us away from the sterile debate about whether there should be compulsory training measures. It will be a useful compromise. It certainly goes with the grain of what the vast majority of CBI members are already doing in terms of discussing training needs between managers and employees.
Q 15Mr. Simon: And has the right to request flexible working been a disaster for British business?
Richard Wainer: Absolutely not. It has been one of those pieces of regulation over the last 10 or so years that has been really successful. It has ensured a good balance between business needs and employees.
Q 16Mr. Simon: So we might expect to have the same hopes for the right to request time to train?
Richard Wainer: Yes.
Q 17Mr. Simon: May I ask the TUC whether this is a good Bill?
Tom Wilson: It is a very good Bill.
Q 18Jim Knight: I would be interested to hear from all the witnesses how they think we should balance what I hope everyone agrees is the importance of sustaining high quality in apprenticeships with setting standards. Concerns have been expressed that those standards become too high an obstacle. How do we balance sustaining quality and standards?
Richard Wainer: We understand the desire to ensure that apprenticeships are high quality. How do we think that should be best delivered? Well, that is through strong employer involvement and allowing employers the flexibility to ensure that their apprenticeship programmes meet their individual needs.
We do not see high quality and flexibility as being mutually exclusive. If you ensure that apprenticeship programmes best meet the needs of employers, they will be more encouraged to get involved and that will drive up quality. I do not think that top-down conditions on minimum periods of time off work for training are a good way to do that. Employers already have to ensure that their apprentices have adequate time and resources to undertake the qualifications that are part of their apprenticeship framework. We see no added value in prescribing minimum periods of time off.
Q 19Jim Knight: Do you agree that apprenticeships need to be mobile so that apprentices can work for more than one employer? In which case, how do you think it is best to regulate the transferability of the quality of an apprenticeship within that flexible framework?
Richard Wainer: Standards are fine. It is just specific standards for minimum periods of time off that are not needed. Each framework has to ensure that it accords to the blueprint at the moment. There are recognised qualifications within each apprenticeship framework. There are other factors relevant to apprenticeships too. That is the way that you will ensure mobility.
John Lucas: I would like to add that we were very positive about the planned increase in apprenticeships. We think it is a long-term, positive thing for business and for the economy. I would very much agree with what Richard said. We think that apprenticeships need to be employer led and employer focused. Obviously there has to be a high-quality programme element to them too. We would like to see solid growth and development in making sure that apprentices have transferable skills as much as work-specific skills. That must all be within an employer-led framework.
Tom Wilson: For 150 years, unions have been campaigning for apprenticeships. One of the biggest problems has always been the pressure on quality. During the recession, that pressure will become more acute. The reason we applaud the Bill particularly is because it sets in statute both the framework and the standards that will apply to all apprenticeships. That is new and important. It is important because it sets a bulwark against the inevitable pressure, which is always there and is particularly acute in a recession, for some dilution in quality.
As my colleagues have said—we would support this—a large part of the content of the framework and the standards will come from employers through sector skills councils and their trade union colleagues. That is as it should be. They will vary and will need to be adapted to particular sectors. The importance of the Bill is in setting things in a statutory framework, which gives the protection and fall-back that apprentices need.
Keith Marshall: The key to this is the framework. If we get the framework right, it will ensure that the quality is maintained. From the point of view of sector skills councils, that is what we do. We work with employers to identify what the framework is.
I have a slight hesitancy around this flexibility issue because one person’s flexibility is another person’s anarchy. While you need the ability to take account of slightly different circumstances, a young person, or even an adult, will carry this qualification with them throughout their working life, and the apprenticeship must be just as relevant to their second or third employer as it was to the first. The Bill, as I read it, encapsulates what is already happening in many sector skills councils and will ensure that good practice exists and that we share it.
A slight concern of mine is that the Bill does not address sector skills councils enough. Unfortunately, councils that were set up to work with and represent employers, and to identify the apprenticeship frameworks that everyone is working towards, do not rate a mention. Returning to the earlier points on splitting up the LSC and how we are to square off the sectoral special dimension, sector skills councils are very important because if you cut the regional elements and make them too small, you lose a lot of the benefit.
In my own sector, plumbers and electricians working on the Olympics site live in Leicester and travel to work every day. I am not sure whether that is a London or a Leicester skills problem, but it is definitely a plumbers and electricians skills problem, so the sectoral dimension is very important. We must not lose it and must ensure that it pulls in the clear responsibility of the sector skills councils on framework development.
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