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National Skills Strategy

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

As I was saying, I think that that is a perfectly acceptable aim and aspiration.

I should like to draw on my knowledge of the German dual system for a moment. I have always felt that that system was rightly admired in this country, although not so much for its pedagogical qualities, because it can in practice be rather wooden and limited. It really succeeds because it involves the active commitment of employers, their work force and its representatives, and the education system, and because a great deal of commitment is invested in it. If a similar commitment were to be mutually beneficial in British terms, as I expect and hope that it would be, and if it were to reflect genuine consent between the parties rather than coercion, I would welcome such principles being applied in this country.

The proper role of the Government should be to set the appropriate policy framework, bearing in mind that for all the public spend on education and training post-16, the private sector contributes two or three times as much—depending on some definitions that are rather difficult to determine. There is a huge commitment from private employers, as well as a huge investment of employee time. Unfortunately, in their initiatives in this area to date, the present Government have made some significant blunders. Indeed, the Minister admitted to one today, in the form of the individual learning accounts, which were described by the ombudsman as amounting to gross maladministration and reported by the Public Accounts Committee to have involved a loss of nearly £100 million.

I welcome the fact that Ministers have confirmed their intention of introducing "son of ILA" in their skills strategy next month. I also welcome the fact that they have said that small training providers will not be excluded. There is a real danger that we might move from failure to an excess of bureaucracy and control in this area, and therefore stifle any new scheme. I hope that there will be a more rounded approach this time, and a more successful one.

Individual learning accounts are not the only thing that Ministers have got wrong. As the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), has already acknowledged, there has been a hiatus in the establishment of sector skills councils. I could never quite understand why the national training organisations were abolished before the new bodies were up and ready; that has created a good deal of uncertainty. There have also been concerns about the development of modern apprenticeships, although I appreciate that the figures are expressed in a number of ways and that that might partly reflect statistically the fact that people can no longer do a foundation course as part of an advanced modern apprenticeship, then come off such a programme and get credit for it. The record on A-levels has not been very good, either, in terms of delivery, and there are continuing problems with the sagging of vocational A-levels in terms of their attractiveness to students.

Ministers' record in this area has been at the very best—I speak in measured terms—patchy. But we shall stand back from that on the basis of trying to consult on the matter. Perhaps more basically, we need to ask why we need a skills strategy. I attended a recent conference on this issue, under the broad sponsorship of the Learning and Skills Council, and I was particularly struck by the message delivered by Vic Seddon, the executive director of the London South learning and skills council. He has a wealth of experience in further education. In what he admitted was a personal comment, which I found very striking, he said:
"Never confuse the absence of qualifications with an absence of skill, nor the converse."
He went on to say:
"Not every profession nor skilled trade requires graduate education."
I think that those are both perfectly reasonable comments. He went on to document some interesting statistics, which confirmed my impression that, while the United Kingdom compares favourably with its European competitors in terms of participation at graduate level, it is in the crucial level 3 and level 2 skills that the disparities are least favourable to us. That is where there is a real national skills gap.

As an officer of the all-party group, I am lucky enough to receive briefing from the Aluminium Federation. Only this morning I was sent some papers expressing the view from the sharp end. They refer to the falling number of students willing and able to read for degrees in material sciences and engineering, and report that whereas typically at the department of material science at Cambridge there have been 30 graduates per annum, this year there are nine, and of those not one is going into the United Kingdom manufacturing industry.

The federation's second major concern relates to the lack of craft technicians able to operate such equipment as rolling mills and extrusion presses, and shortages of people with skills in, for instance, welding, plumbing and maintenance. It concludes that the aluminium industry

"does not believe that a target of 50 per cent. of all school-leavers undertaking a university degree of sufficiently high academic standing is either feasible or sustainable."
It adds
"We believe that far more effort should be put into skills training at a lower technical level".
In fairness to the federation, I had better not report its views on top-up fees lest the House imagine that I drafted them myself. There was, in fact, a close coincidence between those views and the Conservative view.

I realise that the hon. Gentleman is obliquely trying to justify the policy statements that he made earlier this week, but the big problem for all of us here is how to divide students into the right progressions, as it were, at an early stage. Does the hon. Gentleman think the skills document contains any attempt to lead us in that direction, encouraging us not to think in terms of sheep and goats but to keep an open mind when it comes to the progress of young people after the age of 14?

In this instance, I think the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting and important point. Having, to an extent, experienced such treatment myself, I think it regrettable that young people should be forced to make choices affecting their long-term careers—although they are presented as academic choices—at an exceptionally early age. Whatever emerges from the strategy, it could be said that the test the Minister is setting up for it is the degree of flexibility it will involve, and the extent to which policy involving areas of weakness can be embellished or reinforced.

Conservative Members believe that the Government's pursuit of a 50 per cent. target for higher education—which has, as far as I know, no objective basis or justification—has distorted their efforts. It does not match the actual requirements of the economy, it will not bring about the right skills mix, and it is very derogatory of the 50 per cent. of young people to whom the target does not apply. We genuinely hope that as many as possible will participate in appropriate education and training after reaching the age of 16. Of course, we also hope that they will proceed to higher education in due course if they show that they can do it.

It is interesting that the Conservative party's education policy is now influenced by the aluminium industry. That is surely a first in British politics.

Why should there necessarily be a conflict between the objective of securing more graduates and the objective of increasing the number of level 3 qualifications? Why should the two be mutually exclusive?

I did not intend to say that, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman should caricature what I said. My point was that the Aluminium Federation's submission happened to coincide with, and in my view expressed rather well from an independent source, much of our own thinking.

I hope that we all want greater participation among the post-16s. What divides us is resourcing to some extent, and also what constitute the right pathways for individuals.

From the hon. Gentleman's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), can we assume that if the Conservatives' policy is to restrict the number of graduates, there will be additional investment in intermediate and vocational skills training?

The hon. Gentleman must not anticipate what we will publish, but we have a strong interest in making sure that there is sufficient investment in that area, and have a reasonable record in securing it in the past.

The first prerequisite of a skills strategy is the active involvement of employers as well as unions. The Government have introduced some union-oriented initiatives and the hon. Gentlemen will know from our debates on statutory rights for employees who are also trade union learning representatives that I always pay appropriate tribute to the work of unions in this area, but it is also important to involve employers. Interestingly, a written answer of 30 April to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) on Connexions partnerships, to which the Minister has already referred, said that only 15 of those partnerships had two or more employer representatives. Twenty-six had one representative and six had no employer representatives on their board. That pattern is broadly reproduced in other local learning and skills organisations. It is essential that employers have some ownership in this process, and I agree very much with Dr. Ken Boston of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that employers should have a stronger hands-on involvement in developing the right portfolio of qualifications.

On marketing the skills agenda, it is not just the credibility of qualifications among employers that is important but their acceptability to young people and employees. If there is not a consensus among students that qualifications are worthwhile or do-able, they will fail. They need to be interesting, manageable and flexible, but not at the expense of rigour. No one in the House would want to sign off a lot of second-rate vocational qualifications—I certainly do not. The qualification framework must be coherent. Mr. Seddon, whom I have previously mentioned, spoke about 40,000 qualifications and said rather briskly, "Too many." I have some sympathy with his remark.

The right framework for credit accumulation and transfer is critical to secure progression and coherence, not just upon young people's first leaving school but in their future career as well. All of that must be properly funded. The Association of Colleges has expressed concern that, despite the apparently large increases in college funding, after various things are deducted, there are functional shortfalls. We debated that in Westminster Hall only yesterday, and I do not intend to return to the subject at length. However, I wish to make particular reference to the association's concerns about cuts affecting adults who are taking A-levels and level 3 qualifications, both in vocational and academic subjects. I am afraid that, if I did not tell the Minister so, I did tell his predecessor, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). When we were discussing the Learning and Skills Act 2000, I said that increased emphasis on education for 16 to 19-year-olds has tended to displace adult provision, yet many skills problems centre on that provision. I worry that over-dependence on the foundation degree to expand numbers and trigger increases in college funding would result in a reduced number or the elimination of higher national diplomas and certificates.

Finally, a skills strategy requires an effective means of delivery. I am pleased that the Minister was prompted to refer to further education, because many of us believe that it is central to achieving a skills strategy. Vocational higher education is of course important, and much of this will be delivered in FE colleges. In any case, it is worth the House's considering whether a medical or a legal degree is not at least in part vocational, as well. So, of course, is straight workplace learning, and there is nothing whatever wrong with that. But in my view, colleges play a central role and can offer something to almost all students or learners. They deserve our active support and encouragement, and that will be a test of the coming strategy.

I shall close shortly and leave the path open, in this truncated debate, to at least some further contributions, in addition to those from Front Benchers. Before I do so, I should like to mention two more general educational points. First, above all we should not forget, in adult learners week—I am pleased that the Minister referred to this—that there is no absolute distinction between what I shall call "useful" and "useless" learning for shorthand. All learning is valuable in itself, and it is a good thing that people embark on it. Those who embark on the one may well end up on the other, and both have their own place. At the moment, there is definitely a run-back in participation in adult education, but I leave it for others to say whether that is directly or indirectly related to the situation that I reported in terms of vocational A-levels. Figures given to me just a few moments ago suggest a reported decline of 10,000 in adult learner participation. The system and the strategy must be robust enough—this will be a test of the Minister's bona fides—to ensure some continuity for adult and community learning. I hope—perhaps I may say that I expect—that Ministers will take the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education submission seriously on this matter.

Secondly, we all need to work together to re-emphasise the moral, as well as the material, work of skills. Of course, pay helps, and the rates available to plumbers in London, for example, indicate a real service need: they are needed and they get paid. However, there are others with high-level skills who do not perhaps get paid as much as they deserve, although that is difficult to prove in the market system.

What is missing from our debates and our approach to the skills agenda is a recognition of the need for quite proper celebration of good technical and vocational education, and of a high level of skills—regardless of whether they have been acquired through a formal process. Conservatives, at least, want a fair deal for every man and woman. We want no employee to be left out, and no employer to be a non-participant. Quite a lot of the people whom I have worked with in my life have been able to bring remarkable skills—skills that I may not have had—to bear on practical problems. I recall vividly from earlier stages in my career the impact in my own constituency of people with varied skills, such as agricultural fitters and Coventry toolmakers. They had a huge influence, and they deserve a great deal of respect. We can perhaps all agree that pride in the job needs to matter again. We need to encourage that to happen, and to celebrate it properly where it does.

6.18 pm

In his opening comments, the Minister said that through access to learning we need to achieve both social justice and economic success, and that it should ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to obtain a minimum foundation of learning for their future employability. Nowhere is that more true than in my constituency, where adjustments to a decline in traditional industries in the defence sector have led to very high levels of unemployment. However, there has been a dramatic change in that regard. Developing the skills sector through further education, the Learning and Skills Council and the regional development agencies is playing a very important part.

The debate is important. As my hon. Friend outlined, the Government have already done much to identify the key issues, and the roles that individuals, Government and employers must play. I especially welcome the progress report on the Developing National Skills Strategy and Delivery Plan, which outlines just how much has been achieved.

I know that many other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, so I shall speak for only a few minutes. I want to touch on two areas the role of the unions, and issues relating to basic skills. My hon. Friend the Minister responded to an intervention by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) by saying that there were opportunities to build the relationship with trade unions, and that perhaps we had not focused enough on what could be done in that respect. The skills strategy progress report to which I referred earlier makes a brief mention of trade union learning representatives and of the pilot schemes that have been carried out. However, the south-west TUC has given me information as to the extent to which those measures are making a contribution, and the results are really quite impressive.

In my constituency, the union learning service, through the south-west TUC, has trained learning reps in the Land Registry, the Ministry of Defence, and the Inland Revenue, and arms such as DML and Toshiba. An interesting item in the progress report concerned ISS, Mediclean and the Derriford national health service trust. After an initial foray into the area in the computer course called "Keep up with Your Kids", three more GMB learning reps have been trained—one in Mediclean and two in the trust. Courses in basic skills and IT communications are now being planned by the GMB for trust employees later in the year. Those courses will raise skill; and confidence, and it will make people aware of the potential for raising skills in a part of the NHS work force that is often overlooked.

I could list many other items, but time does not permit. However, I want to turn to the TUC submission in respect of developing the skills strategy, which refers to the important intermediary role played by union learning reps in encouraging employees to engage in learning. That is partly acknowledged in the skills strategy document, but a great deal more could be done. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the scope for specific measures to develop a partnership between Government, employers and unions, at all levels, to implement and drive forward the national skills strategy.

I hope that my hor . Friend the Minister will look at the continental experience. For example, 63 per cent. of German workers have intermediate qualifications, compared to 28 per cent. of workers in this country. Clearly, that lends support to the Government's strategy to improve the quality of what is called the "vocational offer", and to expand its take-up. However, we need to recognise that the skills gap with countries such as Germany will not be tackled unless we take account of the social partnership model that exists in those countries. The recent Budget speech by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer hinted at the need to emulate that approach, when he said:
"Moving beyond the old voluntarism of the past in this national effort for skills, everyone—government, employers, employees trades unions—has a responsibility and a part to play"—[Official Report, 9 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 282.]
I want to touch briefly on the basic skills agenda. In Plymouth, it is incredibly important, where between 38,000 and 40,000 people lack the literacy and numeracy skills needed for even the most basic contribution in the work force. It is very important that something is done about that, and that it becomes a priority target for funds. I hope that the basic skills agency will be given sufficient funding to build on the important work that it is doing through the gremlin advertising programme that it is running. The agency gave important support to one of my constituents, Sue Torr, and her Shout It Out project. Sue has had dyslexia, but has written a play and presented it to people in the south-west and across the UK, as well as in Paris, Japan, Thailand and Africa, through UNESCO. Sue is currently seeking business backing through Co-Active in Plymouth, and I hope to be able to arrange a meeting with the Minister in a few months' time to talk more about the project.

I shall conclude my remarks on that point in order to allow others to take part in the debate.

6.25 pm

I congratulate the Minister on arranging the debate and I am only sorry that we will not have longer to concentrate on it. He has brought a real passion and commitment to his brief, and he has won much credit for engaging the House in the progress of the national skills strategy, especially from all the organisations with an investment in it. I say that to the Minister in a spirit of co-operation.

I am sorry that the Economic Secretary is about to leave the Chamber, because he took much unfair criticism over the individual learning account issue. While the Government handled the preparation of ILAs appallingly, the principle was right. For the Government simply to abandon the concept would be wrong, and I pay tribute to the Economic Secretary for the way in which he took the flak so politely on behalf of the Government.

We had an interesting debate earlier on education and schools funding, and this debate is not unconnected. The Minister began by talking about the way in which the Government have approached the crucial 14 to 19-year-old agenda, and he is right that schools are the bedrock of a skills agenda for later life. We need to leave behind the idea that education happens in one place and skills training happens somewhere else. One of the central strategies of the policy for schools is that every 14 to 16-year-old—irrespective of academic ability—should have the opportunity to spend one or two days on vocational courses in a further education college or with a training provider.

If youngsters choose to study vocational courses off a school site, in an FE college or with an employer—and I hope that many do—the issue of funding transfers increases in importance. Once school budgets are constrained—as at present, for whatever reason—head teachers are reluctant to invest resources in such transfers. As a former practitioner, I can confirm that that is an issue that the Minister must address. One particular problem is transport costs for youngsters moving from site to site, because it is not desirable for those costs to fall on the school directly or on the individuals. Unless we can increase what is offered to young people aged 14 or over in schools and colleges, we will continue to go down separate roads. I know from my constituency experience how difficult it is to get parents out of the mindset that their children go to school and then automatically on to university.

The Liberal Democrats have championed the importance of the schools agenda and we have been at pains to point that out to the Minister. We recognise the huge challenge that the Government face in getting the national skills strategy right. Last month, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills introduced the skills agenda as part of the Budget debate, and I set out a Liberal Democrat critique of the progress report. Today, I wish to build on those comments and describe what the Government must do to bridge the gap between the thinking set out in the progress report and the action that must be outlined in the national skills strategy in June. Given that the Government—especially the DES—are so fond of tests, I decided to set them some, and thought that five would be the right number.

The first test is to create a national education and skills strategy, rather than a stand-alone skills strategy. I accept that the focus on skills has added sharpness to the overall debate, but there is still a danger that the Government will create a new rigid, horizontal silo, comprising the vocational element for 14 to 16-yearolds, 16 to 19-year-olds, FE, higher education and adult learning, without bringing any of those aspects together. Such a system would prevent individuals from moving from the vocational into the academic route. We need to create a scaffold rather than separate ladders, otherwise we shall perpetuate the education and skills divide instead of breaking it down. Integration is the key.

The foundation of an integrated education and skills system is a qualifications framework—a point emphasised by the Minister in his opening remarks. However, such a framework must facilitate movement between academic and vocational pathways. At present, we do not have that. We nearly achieved it with the GNVQ system, which was working well. However, if that system is to be abandoned we need a new framework to replace it.

The Liberal Democrats want a unit-based credit accumulation system as part and parcel of the framework, which would allow education and skills training to be broken down into small units, thus enabling the two to be brought together. The creation of a national education and skills strategy should be based on an understanding of the strategic role of further education colleges. We all try constantly to emphasise that point. However, if colleges are to fulfil their role, their funding and their mission must be secure. When I talk to the Association of Colleges and to the principals of individual colleges, it worries me that they seem to be being squeezed out. The Learning and Skills Council will not talk to them about growth and expansion, and there is a genuine fear in colleges that, unless they produce courses that form part of the national skills strategy programme, they will not receive funding and will have to take a separate road and charge full fees for the courses that they offer. That is a genuine worry in colleges and for people who are interested in adult education more generally.

The second test for the Government is to develop clear progression routes for individuals. The national skills strategy will need to explain how young people with different types of level 3 qualification can progress to higher education. To be blunt, the DES ministerial team seem divided. The Secretary of State and the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education seem most fond of a progression route that involves increased achievement at GCSE, with five-plus subjects at that level, increased achievement of two A-levels, and then straight to university. That is a very traditional model.

The higher education White Paper, however, states that future HE expansion will take the form of foundation degrees rather than honours degrees. We support the Government in that vision—as, I think, do the Conservative Opposition. However, that gives rise to the question: why should bright 17-year-olds who stay on at school to gain two A-levels opt for a foundation degree rather than an honours degree? That is a skills mismatch if ever I saw one.

By contrast, the Minister who opened the debate believes that young people with advanced modern apprenticeships should be able to progress to a foundation degree. I support him in that aspiration. We should pursue it. However, the key question is whether such study should be full or part-time. I shall ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I put to the Secretary of State during the Budget debate: does he really think that an apprentice who has a job and a career will swap them for an income-contingent loan for living costs, and perhaps tuition fees, to study for a full-time foundation degree? The answer is that people will not do that. The vast majority of foundation degrees will be studied part-time. We must encourage people to combine their full-time job with a part-time foundation degree. That is the route forward.

The big black hole in the HE White Paper, as the Secretary of State has now conceded to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, is the issue of part-time higher education. I put it to the Minister that it cannot be right that part-time higher education students are charged upfront market-based fees when the Government are introducing a system of deferred, regulated fees for higher education students. Part-time higher education might be an irrelevance to the higher education White Paper, but it cannot be to the national skills strategy. We are not talking here purely about low-level skills.

The third test is the introduction of a fairly coherent system of financial support for adults in higher and further education. We have made it quite clear that we believe in free tuition for all adults wishing to achieve a "first" level 2, a "first" level 3 or a "first" level 4 qualification. That means abolishing fees for part-time and full-time HE students and for part-time and full-time foundation degrees.

The Liberal Democrats have been at the front of the campaign to abolish tuition fees, and although we welcome the Tory U-turn this week, I suspect that the Tories' conversion is more to do with vote catching than principle. [Interruption.] I am glad that that raised a response.

We welcome the proposals in the progress report for free "tuition and training" for adults of working age without a "first" level 2, but we expect the Government to assist all adults to achieve a "first" level 2 qualification. The Campaign for Learning has pointed out that in percentage terms the largest group who do not hold a "first" level 2 are economically inactive. Of the 8 million who were recorded as economically inactive in 2002, 4 million did not have a level 2 qualification.

However, tuition and training costs are only part of the financial barriers faced by young and mature adults wishing to enter HE and FE. There is also the question of support for living, study and travel costs, and it cannot be right for the Government to spend in excess of £2 billion a year on the living costs for full-time undergraduates but barely a tenth of that for adults wishing to study part—time in FE. The time has come for a comprehensive system of living cost support for full-time students wherever they are and for part-time students wherever they are, and we trust that the level of support will be the same as that for full-time HE students.

The time has also come for a comprehensive system of financial support for both FE and HE part-time students, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that education maintenance allowances will be extended to part-time adult students in FE, and say whether he will consider such a scheme for part-time students in HE also, because the education maintenance allowances may well be the basis for cracking this very difficult problem.

The Minister has repeatedly told the House that the national skills strategy will be truly Governmentwide, so this is our fourth test, although I am tempted to say that the DES must make a better job of joining itself up before turning on the rest of Whitehall. The progress report does not inspire confidence. I see only limited links with the Department of Health—and the national health service, even though that is the largest employer in Europe. It is astonishing that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is completely omitted from the progress report. Local authorities are often the largest employers in local communities. They, too, have skill needs to deliver world-class services. The progress report also states that one of the key drivers of skills development is physical investment, yet the progress report contains no links to the housing agenda or the regeneration agenda.

We had been led to believe that two Departments would feature highly in the national skills strategy: the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Trade and Industry, yet the former has no input in the progress report, although this week the Minister for Work signed an accord between Jobcentre Plus and the Local Government Association to join up welfare-to-work and regeneration policy. Again the Learning and Skills Council and the national skills strategy feature nowhere.

With regard to the Department of Trade and Industry, the progress report is half-hearted. It rightly makes the link between the DTI's innovation and business support responsibility and the national skills strategy, but innovation and business support are only a tiny part of the DTI's responsibility. It also has responsibility for employment rights, yet the progress report says nothing about the national minimum wage and employer training and it shies away from the issue of collective rights over training.

The TUC points out in its response to the progress report that there is no reference to the DTI review in the Employment Relations Act 1999 or to whether training should be placed on the bargaining agenda alongside hours, holidays and pay. I understand that the Government have ruled out placing training on the bargaining agenda, but the national skills strategy will need to offer a full and frank explanation of why.

The last test for the Government is to clarify where they stand on the statutory intervention in skills. At the progress report's launch, the chief economic adviser to the Treasury said that Government policy was

"moving to a post-voluntary approach 10 skills training."
Two weeks later, in his Budget speech, although not in the Budget report, the Chancellor said:
"Because nobody wishes Britain to compete on the basis of low pay but on high skills, the right to education to 16 must be complemented by the right to lifelong learning".—[Official Report, 9 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 282.]
Those two phrases, not the rest of the progress report, have captured the attention of the CBI and the TUC. What do they mean? Is the Financial Times accurate in its assessment that a statutory right to time off for training will be a key Government proposal? If so, we will support the Government on that proposal, because such intervention is needed to make all this a reality.

Those are the five tests that we would like to be addressed. We believe that the Government have made an admirable start in producing a national strategy, and we wish the Minister good fortune in June, when he introduces the final report.

6.41 pm

I shall be very brief. I often follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in debates, and he never is, but I shall take five minutes at the most. I wish that his speeches were shorter, but he does make good sense on some topics. I regret the fact that not one Opposition Member is sitting behind the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen today, but I suppose that that signals a great deal about the balance of their interest in higher education and further education.

This is a serious issue. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, may I say that the Minister knows that we will be looking with great interest at his national skills strategy when it is published in June, not only because that is our job as a scrutiny Committee but because a hell of a lot of money—billions of pounds—is poured into skills, and many of us believe that the Treasury money that we put into that sector probably provides less added value than the money that we put into many other education sectors.

We have every expectation that the improvements at pre-school and primary school level and in literacy and numeracy and much else will help as they move through the system, but there are not only skeletons but many hulks in the history of skills education—organisations that we came to know, and some of us quite liked them. We remember the Manpower Services Commission, the training and enterprise councils, the industrial training organisations and the national training organisations, which are almost gone, but not quite. We are now trying to learn to work with, and even love, the new bodies that are coming along.

The fact is that we have two challenges in this country, with the dreadful under-performance of a significant tail of our population. Those people are under-skilled and challenged in what they can achieve in their personal lives, as well as in their productive, working lives—the two must go together. As someone who used to teach not only in a university but in extramural education, I know how wonderful it is when someone comes to education later and gains skills and education. Not only their ability to earn money changes, but they themselves change, as hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree.

There is also shocking under-performance in this country's productivity. Many of us believe that we must attend to the skills, innovation and productivity circle in terms of what we do with the under-skilled people in our country. We will be considering the history and the cost in that regard, and I warn the Minister again that we need not just a new structure but the energy to make it work.

At some stage, many people, as in much of the educational world, will want a period of stability in which things settle and they get used to the institutions in which they are supposed to work. Let us determine the skills strategy and let the institutions know that they have a reasonable future and reasonable longevity.

This is the most difficult area. It will not be easy, and there will not be quick fixes. I emphasise this to the Minister: many people teaching in our colleges are on short-term contracts and have less training and less background in their subject, they are on lower pay, school teachers are earning much more than them, and many opportunities exist to go out and earn a much better living as a plumber, an electrician or an IT expert.

Lastly, the quality of the courses offered is vital. There is nothing worse than getting young people to stay on at school, or getting people to come back to college, and then giving them poor, under-resourced and poorly taught courses. There must be quality "It's quality, stupid"—whether in higher education, primary education or the further education sector.

6.47 pm

I shall be brief to allow other Members to speak. Talking at speed is something that I learned in my former life.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. One of the things that I want to stress is the need to be flexible to meet varying needs and demands. I want to draw attention to some examples of excellent work going on in and around my constituency.

Last year, I gave out awards at the end-of-year ceremony at the Greenacres primary school in my constituency. I gave awards not just to the children but to their parents, who had been attending a family learning centre in the school. That centre was set up on the initiative of the school. The biggest resource that had been put into it was the school's time and effort in getting it set up—it had to beg, borrow and steal to finance it. It works in co-operation with local further education colleges, mainly Greenwich community college, and provides basic numeracy and literacy skills and teaching for parents in how to help their children in GCSEs and other aspects of their education.

I have spoken to some of the parents who attended that centre, and they talked about wanting to fill the gaps in their education. They also talked about wanting to learn skills so that when their children go on to secondary school they have improved their employability. The school recognises the role that it can play in the local community by improving the education of adults in the local estate, and we need flexibility in the funding stream so that we can support that work and allow more schools to move into it. Alderwood school is now trying to follow suit and do exactly the same thing. It has already put its own money into setting up computer suites so that parents can come in and do the same work. Neighbourhood renewal money is provided for both schools, and both are working closely with the community college, as I said.

The other scheme to which I want to draw attention is the unique and innovative project set up by Greenwich community college, based at Charlton Athletic football club: the London leisure college. It is providing skills and training not just to local people but to the work force of Charlton Athletic, 400 of whose stewards are receiving health and safety training, first aid training and training in other basic skills. It has attracted the attention of Anschutz, which is one of the partners in the development of the peninsula and one of the primary leisure companies in the world, and will be running the millennium dome in the future. It wants to become a partner with the London leisure college to provide education, training and skills to its future staff—it plans to employ 500 at the centre.

Greenwich community college secured beacon status for London leisure college, based at Charlton Athletic. It works in partnership with Greenwich Leisure Ltd. and has played a significant part in the massive and rapid expansion of the business's operation by being flexible and meeting the business's varying demands for staff training. The fact that the project is based at Charlton Athletic means that sport can be used to attract people into education. Such people, especially young people, were excluded from school in the past and did not have a positive educational experience, but the popularity of sport is now attracting them to undertake basic skills training.

Flexibility is required to meet various needs. Further education colleges can adapt to meet the needs of businesses that want skills and education training and to support grass-roots initiatives such as those at primary schools.

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I shall try to be equally as brief as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford).

Further education colleges can and should be at the heart of the Government's skills strategy. Burton college, in my constituency, provides an outstanding service for young people, adults and employers throughout east Staffordshire and neighbouring parts of Derbyshire. It has approximately 12,000 students, of whom 9,000 are on further education programmes, 940 are on adult and community education courses and 450 are in higher education. The college made a significant contribution to achie ving Government targets because more than 3,000 students progressed to level 3, half of whom were young people. Basic skills programmes were completed by 820 adults.

Burton college is especially proud of its long-standing and well-regarded services to employers. That has been nationally acknowledged and the college will form one of the case studies for best practice that Ecotec is developing. The college supported the Government's skills agenda and the Local economy by delivering a wide range of programmes designed to meet the specific needs of more than 250 local employers. The business development team at Burton college is proactive in its work with local businesses and creates opportunities for training intervention in individual businesses and across sectors.

The college has worked with large local companies to develop bespoke training for graduate recruits and to design an HND course to enable progression to middle management. It has also provided one-day courses, day-release provision and on-site training.

Local colleges are sufficiently flexible to meet the specific needs of their local economy. Their involvement with local business can bring benefits such as the development of staff so that real examples of industry can be brought to the classroom. They offer learners up-to-date technical knowledge and examples from the workplace, as well as ensuring that training is relevant to employers' needs.

Further education colleges such as Burton college are able to work with their local communities. I welcome the community-based learning projects that have taken the world of education and training to those who may not be initially willing to access courses on the college campus. Burton college also works well with East Staffordshire borough council's economic regeneration unit and is actively involved in partnerships such as the local neighbourhood management initiative. I am sure that the Minister agrees that Burton college makes an outstanding contribution to fulfilling the skills agenda and assisting its region's economic growth.

My hon. Friend will know that colleges are expected to charge employers at least 25 per cent. of the cost of delivering any training funded by the Learning and Skills Council. Will he reassure me that there is no intention to undermine the work of colleges by sponsoring competing provision delivered by private providers through i:he LSC's national contracting service? Will he confirm that national contracting service funding includes the same requirements for employers' contributions and does not create unfair competition? Such unfair competition might cause colleges to lose their long-standing employer customers and thus destabilise the continued provision of training in the area. Will he confirm whether the LSC national contracting service has supported the training of employers in my constituency alongside existing providers and, if so, how that is likely to affect the college's capacity to expand such provision?

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I want to send one clear message to my hon. Friend the Minister. I commend the Government for at last taking seriously our national weakness in education and training. I think that they have got the message that we have a problem, which they are addressing. It is instructive to examine how we used to deceive ourselves about how well we were doing. We have a talent for national self-deception in our ability to, for example, play football or run railways. We are not good at it, but we think we are. We thought that we were good at education, but we were not.

When Professors Sig Prais and Claus Moser of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research conducted research in the 1980s, they gave 30 electrical apprentices from France and 30 from Britain a simple mathematics test. The French apprentices got all the sums right and the British apprentices got all the sums wrong. There was an enormous difference. A subsequent comparison of kitchen manufacturers was featured in a television documentary. Workers on the shop floor in Germany could calculate, measure and produce a bespoke kitchen from a plan in English. In Britain, the equivalent workers could assembly standardised units and no more. The comparisons were stark. We deceived ourselves then, but things are getting better and I like to think that we will not deceive ourselves in the future.

One of the differences between Germany, France and Britain in those days was the rigour of the teaching. The classroom pedagogy was endless hours of rigorous mathematics. That is difficult and unpopular, but it is necessary. If one is to succeed in such things, one must do mathematics. I used to teach economics and statistics at A-level. One of the basic problems was that the youngsters I taught were not numerate. Many of them did not have good English either. Those problems are being addressed and that will come through in the future.

We must have rigour in the classroom from pedagogic teaching and rigour in practical skills. I should like to say much more, but that will have to suffice.

6.56 pm

With the permission of the House, I shall do my best to respond to the contributions, but it is unlikely that I will get through them all. If that is the case, I shall write to those hon. Members whom I do not mention.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made the valid point that we must not simply have a collection of existing initiatives and that we need a step change in our approach to skills. He made the Conservative party's proposal on higher education a big part of his contribution. Its policy will deny universities the significant income that they need and cap the aspirations of many young people. When the announcement was made, we heard that the money would be used to invest in vocational education and training, the implication being that money for university graduates would come from a different pot because they are a different cohort of young people from those who take vocational courses. That is not the message that we should send.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) made an extremely good point about the positive contribution of trade unions. They have been incredibly effective, especially in respect of the trade union learning fund and the individual learning account intermediary. This is a good opportunity to pay tribute to the work of John Monks at the TUC, who adopted a progressive and positive view of skills. He will soon move on to his new job and I have every confidence that Brendon Barber will adopt a similar approach.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said far too many nice things about my political future. Many people do not know that my in-laws are voters in his constituency, which may influence what he says to me because his seat is so marginal. They have admitted to voting for him from time to time. He made valid points about the importance of the ILA successor scheme, and I agree with him. He said that funding and other organisational arrangements might have a negative effect on the 14 to 16 flexible work-related learning pilots. Those are being evaluated and evidence is emerging about a positive college-school relationship. We will present that evidence to the House.

The hon. Gentleman set five tests for the skills strategy. I expect us to meet all of them with one exception—the provision of finite resources without regard for the financial consequences. No member of the Liberal Democrat Treasury team was in the Chamber to influence his comments. He wants us to fund everything for everyone without regard to the financial consequences. That is why he is such a good Liberal Democrat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will no doubt hold me to account for the skills strategy. He was cynical about our capacity to deliver it in June. We are going to deliver it in June. However, I am not cynical about his capacity to hold me and other Ministers to account on the skills agenda.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) rightly cited examples of good practice in his constituency—Greenacres primary school, Alderwood school, and the work that Greenwich community college and Charlton Athletic are doing. Linking children's education to adult learning is a means of tackling intergenerational underperformance and deprivation. If my hon. Friend can raise aspirations in his communities and get adults learning alongside kids, that is in the best interest of our creating a lifelong learning culture and society and doing something about intergenerational—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.