Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Bill provides for two bodies. The QC is to split. The curriculum becomes the responsibility of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the main successor to the QCA; the examinations by which regulated qualifications are assessed fall into the lesser body, Ofqual. It is far from clear whether the Bill provides adequate structures for the regulation of qualifications by Ofqual. In particular, it is unclear whether it provides adequate ways to secure the integrity and independence of the examinations and assessments that are relevant to regulated qualifications.

It is not so difficult in many ways. There is great agreement about the objectives that examinations and assessments for qualifications should provide. They should provide reliable evidence of skills and standards at each level of pass, for pupils and parents, employers and universities, which they can use to differentiate

2 Jun 2009 : Column 142

candidates and make decisions about futures. They should be efficient in various respects, and should not displace teaching unnecessarily. They should be fair and manageable for candidates, teachers and schools and command public confidence. The current system does not meet these objectives. In particular, there is no doubt that public confidence in standards has sagged.

Ostensibly the Ofqual objectives cover a number of these requirements. They are listed: the qualifications standards objective; the assessments standards objective; the public confidence objective; the awareness objective; and the efficiency objective—not very revealing. However, the Bill does not give Ofqual adequate independence from government, which may undermine all and any of the purported objectives.

Clause 126 says:

“In performing its functions Ofqual must also have regard to such aspects of government policy as the Secretary of State may direct”;

one of the many uses of “direct”. This general power is specified more narrowly in Clause 138:

“The Secretary of State may make a determination specifying minimum requirements in respect of a specified qualification”.

It is also said that:

“The Government intends that this power would be used only in exceptional circumstances”.

In winding, can the Minister tell the House what will constitute “exceptional circumstances”, and why they cannot be specified in the Bill—or can they, perhaps? In another place the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Schools and Learners, Ms McCarthy-Fry, stated that,

Indeed, no. It is supposed to exercise judgment. So that is not enough reassurance. What is there to prevent the Government or a future Government from reaching in to lower minimum standards? Incentives exist because Governments may wish to show themselves, if not others, that standards are rising. The Minister in another place gave the example of reaching in to determine which texts should be set for exams in English. Others commented that that could be applied not just to English but to politics or history. Above all, it could be used to alter the difficulty of obtaining a pass or a C, B or A grade.

Is not the safe way forward to place a barrier in the way of the Secretary of State adjusting standards at all? If in winding the Minister could tell the House why the Government resisted an amendment to this effect in another place, I believe that it would greatly aid your Lordships’ House in Committee.

5.25 pm

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I share doubts, especially those expressed by my noble friend Lord Baker, about whether the Bill will turn out to be a good thing in the end, but doubtless there are good things in it. I start, though, with something which is not in it but which I think the Government intend should be in it, and that is home education. I smell a rat when it comes to home education. A few months ago we heard very critical

2 Jun 2009 : Column 143

remarks from the NSPCC—since withdrawn—about the link between home education and child abuse. This was followed fairly rapidly by the appointment of a review into home education by Graham Badman, who is not at all a bad man but quite a sensible and well integrated individual. None the less, he is due to report this month. A typical pattern would be that we then get a rushed Henry VIII clause inserted at Report, giving the Government power to do what they want with regulations concerning home education. I do not think that is appropriate. First, it strikes at the heart of our attitude to education, which is that it is the responsibility of the parent to educate the child. An attack on that needs to be very carefully considered.

Secondly, many of the people indulging in home education have done so to escape just the sort of situations that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, described of terrible schools, terrible circumstances, insupportable effects on a much loved child and parents giving up their lives to support that child. To be corralled back into school under a Henry VIII clause, however well intentioned, is not something that I am prepared to contemplate. I have talked to the Minister about this and have offered her two ways forward: she can give me a promise in her speech that nothing will appear in Committee, or on Report or at Third Reading to implement any of the recommendations of Graham Badman’s review, or we can have some long debates in Committee on home education and the many aspects of it which need to be considered, because they do need to be considered. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, there is a move to integrate the whole business of child protection so that many more agencies work together to take an interest in what is happening to children. We have the children’s database, which will mean that for the first time local authorities will know who in their area is being home educated, and will not have the excuse that many of them have used to date for not paying much attention to this and letting parents get on with doing it in their own way. Therefore, the need to understand what is happening, to protect what is happening and to support it where it should be supported is going to get to us one way or another. In my view we should be extremely positive about home education.

We went through an analogous process a decade or so ago with the National Health Service when we started to recognise that people caring for the ill at home were doing a useful job, that enabling old people to stay in their homes was a useful thing and that, rather than standing back and just letting these people suffer and pay on their own, the state should offer support because that benefited everybody. That, I think, is the case with home education. Most of these people are doing an excellent job but receive absolutely no support from the state. They are not even get allocated centres where their children can take examinations. Putting your child in for a GCSE is an immensely difficult thing to do if you are a home educator because there are no facilities for that. Local authorities provide all sorts of facilities for children in their charge—including swimming, first aid and cycling proficiency lessons—that are closed to home educators. The Government could do many things to support

2 Jun 2009 : Column 144

home education, and it would be great progress if that happened. It would benefit not only the children but the parents and the Government.

The first thing to do in that direction is to open proper, permanent and well understood communications between the Government and the home education community. All sorts of things are happening in legislation. The current Welfare Reform Bill is one area, but there has been secondary regulation in other areas which impact on home education. The Government ought to understand how home education works, the way in which it will be dealt with when it comes to child protection, and assessing the quality of education needs to be understood and thought through and be done in a positive way. In Committee, I shall be encouraging the Government to take up the suggestion by Education Otherwise, the principal charity in this area, that there should be a permanent conclave within, I suspect, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, where discussions will take place between officials and home educators about how the regulation and support of home education should evolve. That may be the limit of it, or it may be much more extensive, depending on what the noble Baroness says to me.

The second matter I wish to cover is in the Bill, but you would not know it if you had not been told about it. I refer to specialist colleges. Colleges for the blind, the deaf and so on provide specialist education to children, mostly aged 16 and over, and are seemingly being cast into limbo because of the end of the Learning and Skills Council. What is to happen to a college whose pupils come from half way across England because of their particular requirements? The early discussions that some of the FE colleges have had with their local authorities seem to indicate an insistence that the colleges should do nothing that goes beyond the geographical boundaries of the sponsoring local education authority. That is difficult enough because of the way that sixth-form and FE colleges have flourished over the past couple of decades. They have reached out widely and many of the pupils at good colleges will come some considerable distance to get to them.

Therefore a narrowing down, because of the local authority’s determination that its influence and the benefits of its college should be extended only to its pupils—we have seen and fought against that in schools for long enough and it is not that surprising—will be extremely difficult when applied to specialist colleges. That problem was faced by the National Health Service when it went local. National centres of excellence found that very difficult for a while, but have now been accommodated; but we need to understand how that issue will be dealt with in the Bill.

Prison education now comes under local education authorities. There is supposed to be some sort of co-ordination between the local education authority in which, say, Feltham is, and all the local education authorities that its inmates come from as to the right way of dealing with these inmates in the extremely short time—a matter of a few months, mostly—when they will be in this prison. The Prison Service cannot co-ordinate itself; the idea that it can co-ordinate with

2 Jun 2009 : Column 145

a myriad of local authorities and get things right for individual prisoners is a total mirage. We shall have to think carefully about how this transition should be handled and exactly what the relationship between the local education authorities and prisons should be.

We should think deeply about what kind of education should be provided in prisons. There is a great opportunity. A child who in most cases will suffer from basic educational disadvantage will certainly be suffering disadvantage in terms of their behavioural patters, and you have an opportunity, if you design the education right, to set them right at a fairly early stage. However, we need to reach into the sentencing procedures to make sure that the assessment necessary for the prison to provide the right education has been done before the child reaches prison. Otherwise, half the sentence is spent finding out what the child needs and the other half is spent waiting for someone to appear to provide it. By the time the end of the sentence is reached, the prison is just about ready to help. We need to think that through very carefully, particularly given that we are moving to local education authorities.

Lastly, I echo some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said about Ofqual. It is terribly important that it should be independent and that it should do a real job in assuring us of the quality of the examinations that we are to take. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, that goes beyond just looking internally at what is happening in a particular exam. You have to look outside that; you have to do sample testing; and you have to follow pupils afterwards to see what the reality is. One of the great tests of the quality of, say, key stage 2 exams taken in particular schools ought to involve following those children to secondary school, seeing how they do there and seeing whether in key stage 2 testing you are getting real results or assisted results. It ought to show—it does show, where this analysis has been done in other jurisdictions—that following through is the only way that you can tell the difference between an easy course and one which really excites the students. You have to look beyond.

Ofqual will have to be able to work with and into the university sector. The Higher Education Statistics Agency is extremely bad at collecting information on which schools university students come from. That needs to be greatly improved if there is to be real understanding of how good A-levels are in particular contexts, and whether their quality is really improving. The whole area of working with the university sector needs to be much better.

As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said, we need to do away with the idea that the Government should interfere with Ofqual’s decisions. They do not need to; there is another acronym, JACQA, which is not mentioned in the supporting material for the Bill, but is actually a crucial, secretive and unaccountable committee which decides whether a particular qualification will be funded by the Government. If the Government want to affect what is going on in schools, they can use that lever; they do not need to use the lever that affects everyone’s appreciation of how good a qualification is and whether the standards are changing. Ofqual needs to be the body which sets the points allocation for qualifications. Whether a GNVQ is actually worth four GCSEs or

2 Jun 2009 : Column 146

only three-and-a-half or three, must be set by Ofqual. Otherwise the believability of the performance tables suffers, as it has suffered under successive Governments when they introduced new qualifications and overrated them to boost their popularity. That absolutely must end.

We will have an interesting Committee stage. I can see that I shall be paying great attention to many different aspects of the Bill and I hope that despite the reservations of my noble friend Lord Baker, we can make it a better Bill, if not a good Bill.

5.38 pm

Baroness Wall of New Barnet: My Lords, I, too, am delighted to participate in this debate, and I share the remarks that my noble friend made earlier in congratulating the Minister on her opening comments. The Minister has all my sympathy in trying to wind up the debate and address the many contributions made and the excitement and challenges expressed.

I am particularly concerned to be involved in this debate because it taps into fundamental questions for the country. How do we ensure that we as a nation can meet the challenges of the new world that will emerge from the current economic situation? How can we make the skills and learning landscape fit for the future, a landscape which employers need and individuals want? How should the organisations in that landscape be constituted to make the system truly demand-led?

The Bill contains extensive reform of structures and responsibilities which need to be managed carefully to safeguard consistency and quality during the transition period. The transformation of a body as large and influential as the LSC into new organisations which will provide funding for young people and adults is a seismic shift in approach. I shall not go into all the acronyms, as everyone else has enjoyed doing this afternoon. Employers are looking to the new structures to help them build the skills they need for their businesses for years to come.

I shall concentrate, as other colleagues have, on the apprenticeships aspect of the Bill. Apprenticeships have for years been the jewel in the training crown of the engineering industry. Engineering apprenticeships have for many years been regarded as the gold standard and a watchword for quality. This is because employers in engineering demand such high standards from their trainees. They support them through programmes that combine learning on the job with vigorous and rigorous off-the-job qualifications, along with wider skills in numeracy and literacy. Despite the demands and the rigour of the framework, the completion rate for engineering apprenticeships has always been among the highest. This is a reflection of the quality of the young people undertaking them, the quality of the training providers and the support of the employers.

Semta—the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, in which I declare an interest as I work with and support it in many areas—developed the engineering apprenticeship framework. Semta works continuously with employers and providers to make the programme both flexible and relevant to their needs while maintaining core quality and consistency. To give a quick example, the

2 Jun 2009 : Column 147

steel components company, Sheffield Forgemasters, is so convinced of the value of engineering apprenticeships to its business that almost 10 per cent of its workforce is on the programme. This very impressive organisation says that not only are its concerns about an ageing workforce reducing but that young people who have a lot of talent, which has often been latent for a long time, and who were not excited by school, are now fulfilling their potential. However, if apprenticeships are to grow at the rate to which the noble Lord, Lord Leitch, and the Government aspire, more of the same cannot be the only option. Further concerted efforts need to be made to raise employer demand for apprenticeship-level skills. If the apprenticeship guarantee is to be met, that is essential.

The barriers to recruitment vary between sectors. For the engineering sector the barriers tend to be around the cost and time commitment required, which sees trainees studying for more than three years at advanced level. There can also be barriers around the lack of knowledge about the framework; the lack of in-house staff who are suitable to be mentors, an issue raised by other noble Lords in their contributions; and concerns about the cost of the programme. If we can address these barriers, the guarantee is a far more realistic prospect.

How do we continue to ensure that apprenticeships meet employers’ needs? First, the apprenticeship framework needs to keep pace with the changing world. As a priority over the next year, Semta, along with others, will be undertaking research into emerging technologies and the skills requirements they will raise. Semta expects apprentices to play a significant part in meeting these needs and developing that programme. It will be using the outcomes of this research to help shape the future development of the organisation involved in the engineering apprenticeship framework.

Secondly, as the new apprenticeship settlement approaches and the organisations that the Bill taxes with securing provision seek to boost their capacity, we must ensure that we do not lose sight of the importance of maintaining the quality of the work-based learning. We need to raise employers’ informed demands for apprenticeships in tandem with the introduction of the guarantee, but we need to do so in conjunction with increasing provider capacity and with much improved guidance, an issue to which I shall return and which other noble Lords have mentioned today. We need employers to look strategically at their businesses, to raise their aspirations and ambitions and to demand apprenticeship programmes that meet their ever-increasing needs. From this will come more and better apprenticeships that prepare young people for the industry of the future and for their lives.

A balance needs continually to be struck between employer demands for training of their own staff and their expectations when recruiting adults into business. All the bodies involved in apprenticeship development and delivery proposed in the Bill will need to hold the employers’ views foremost in their minds. That means incorporating their specific training requirements into a framework and maintaining the quality of that framework. Through sector skills councils employers can influence the content of the framework. While

2 Jun 2009 : Column 148

SSCs should ensure that the overall quality is not reduced by employers, they must also make sure that employers do not attempt to force miscellaneous training courses into an apprenticeship, as that could devalue it. SSCs are always aware of that possibility and the need to ensure that it does not happen. It is important for the individual as well as the business to ensure that apprenticeships are viewed as being of comparable quality and value across the sector.

The process of apprenticeship certification is paramount to the credibility of the framework. The Bill recommends specific content that should appear on the certificates. However, sector skills councils, which currently award the certificates, are curiously absent. Why not include at least the logo of the sector skills council which developed the framework as a guarantee of the quality of the certificate and an endorsement? That would give absolute credibility both to the employer and to the individual achieving it. Employers currently value the Semta logo on engineering apprenticeship certificates as a mark of quality, as do those who achieve them. I have witnessed many apprentices receiving and valuing their certificates.

Sector skills councils must remain the organisations responsible for issuing apprenticeship frameworks. SSCs work with employers to ensure that frameworks meet their needs and frequently update frameworks to incorporate employer requests. While the Explanatory Notes to the Bill make it clear that the intention is to include SSCs, surely my noble friend will agree that it is worth reiterating that the important role that the SSCs play should remain with the employer-led bodies that, after all, were created by the Government to ensure that the standards and qualifications for their sector are fit for purpose. There has recently been some uncertainty regarding the apprenticeship contract, and I am sure that there will be lots of discussion in Committee about the employment tribunal cases. Some employers have been worried about the consequences of those but I shall not refer to the issue further today.

I referred earlier to careers guidance. One of the biggest disappointments in the Bill is the lack of teeth in Clause 35, which relates to careers education in schools. A number of noble friends have already referred to the issue. Those of us who support the vocational and work-based route for students of all abilities have been dismayed by the mounting evidence that high achieving young people are simply not informed about their options at key points in their schooling. A five-minute conversation with an advanced apprentice in engineering is all it takes to realise that the rigour of the programme means that it is not for those who are not extremely academically able and sufficiently skilled to carry on the apprenticeship process. Apprenticeships are simply a different way of learning, but the learning is just as challenging and exciting. Rather than leaving to schools the judgment about a young person’s suitability to receive information on apprenticeships, will my noble friend consider whether it would not be better to ask schools to justify why they have not given this information to all their pupils of the right age? With increasing concern about student debts, what school would not want their highest achievers to hear about a route to higher education that will enable them to work, learn and earn?

2 Jun 2009 : Column 149

5.49 pm

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, this Bill is as complex as its predecessor, on which many speakers today worked last year, as all are agreed, and has already attracted the same considerable interest and briefings from statutory and third sector organisations, to all of which we are most grateful. It is also clearly a Bill with clauses over which we shall need to take considerable time during later stages, so I, too, intend—no doubt to everyone's relief—to concentrate my remarks on only a few issues.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page