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Vocational Qualifications

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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What progress has been made on increasing flexibility for vocational qualifications to meet local employer needs. [115001]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is now working closely with the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency to develop a high-quality system of vocational qualifications that will respond to the needs of both employers and learners.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating further education colleges on the excellent work that they do in meeting employers' training needs. Is he aware, however, that they face two major difficulties in doing so? First, they can offer only the formal qualifications approved by the Government, which are often not what local employers want. Secondly, the provision of training of the type that is wanted at the time and place required to meet the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises is difficult within the funding regime administered by the Learning and Skills Council. Will the Minister assure the House that he will be meeting representatives of the FE colleges to try to overcome those obstacles and to allow the colleges the freedom and flexibility that they need in order fully to meet employers' needs?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise the centrality of further education in the context of employer training. We think that the new "success for all" investment and reform vision for further education will give colleges incentives to form much closer relationships with employers. We also believe that the skills strategy we will publish next month will be fundamentally concerned with creating an education and training system that is far more focused on employers' needs than has historically been the case. We want, for instance, to ensure that funds give incentives for the development of the right kind of relationships, and that the qualifications framework is flexible enough to make employers want to sign up for investment in vocational qualifications.

I believe that the reform of further education and the skills strategy will deal directly with the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

I am delighted to hear that the education and training programme is to be focused more on employers' needs. Was my hon. Friend—like me when I read about it at the weekend—a little distressed to learn that most resources for training in work tend to be taken by those who are already highly educated? Are the Government not right to focus on those in vocational education now, if we are to close the productivity gap on which the Chancellor is concentrating? Is not what my hon. Friend has just said absolutely right?

I am always delighted to hear colleagues describe what I have said as "absolutely right"—and relatively non-controversial.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. One thing that the skills strategy will seek to do is to clarify, once and for all, what constitutes appropriate state investment in education and training. We must give priority to those seeking qualifications up to level 2 if we are to narrow that productivity and competitiveness gap, and we must ensure that we get the best possible value for money. That is not to say that higher-level qualifications do not matter, but when it comes to adult learning we must put resources into helping people to achieve level 2 qualifications.

If more employers, or their nominees, volunteered to serve as governors in schools and colleges, could they not bring influence to bear and create greater flexibility in the sphere of vocational qualifications? Will the Minister pay tribute to employers who serve voluntarily in school and college managements, and encourage more to do so?

I do pay tribute to those individuals. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear his wish to see a daily, dynamic relationship between employers and schools, colleges and universities. One way in which such a relationship can manifest itself is through employers serving on governing bodies. That would also make educational institutions focus more on the needs of the labour market than they have historically.

Over the next couple of years, we shall be introducing enterprise education into the national curriculum for the first time, and we are building much closer local relationships between employers and schools, especially through the specialist schools programme. That is fundamental to improving educational opportunities for young people, but also to improving the competitiveness and productivity of our economy.