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Adult Education

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 29 June 2006

1. If he will make a statement on recent changes to the provision of adult education courses at colleges. (80879)

In 2006-07, we plan to invest £4.8 billion in further education for young people and adults, an increase of around £2.5 billion since 1997. Our overall investment in adult learning will be broadly maintained at £2.9 billion and will be focused increasingly on our priorities of providing support for those adults who lack basic skills or the level 2 platform of skills for employability, and of ensuring opportunities for developing skills at level 3. It is essential that funding is prioritised on those areas if we are to address skills weaknesses and improve productivity.

In Cornwall, courses aimed at people with special educational needs have been cancelled because of reductions in the additional learner support funding stream. Given the Department’s targets for concentrating money on provision for 16 to 18-year-olds, can the Secretary of State give any hope to the vulnerable people who depend on those SEN courses that no further cancellations will be made?

I should very much like to know about what is happening in Cornwall. We should not cut funding for the 640,000 people with learning difficulties and disabilities in this country. That provision must remain a priority, and it is not part of the reprioritisation that I set out in my response. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me, we will look into the matter further.

There is much to be applauded in the priorities that my right hon. Friend has just set out, but does he agree that community education is the basic building block that allows people to get back into education? Often, it is the glue that holds the whole system together. Will he look carefully at how his decisions are impacting on community education for adults?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I do not think that he, or his Committee, would disagree that there is a need to reprioritise, but there is concern about the community support that he mentioned. We are maintaining funding at £210 million for learning for personal enrichment. That is safeguarded and ring-fenced in the Learning and Skills Council budget.

My hon. Friend asked about courses designed to introduce people onto the ladder of opportunity and skills, but the effectiveness of some courses has been questioned in the past. For example, with regard to entry into employment, the statistics do not show that the courses always lead to progression. That is why we are looking at the foundation learning tier, as we want to turn the current complex structure into a much more coherent set of units that is easier to understand and operate. My hon. Friend makes an important point about a matter that we will look at in the future.

The Secretary of State will know that the Leitch review of skills made it clear that, because of demographic change, it is vital that we reskill and upskill the existing work force to meet the challenges of a changing world economy. However, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has said that the Government’s target culture has discouraged hard-to-reach groups from returning to learning. Will the right hon. Gentleman say why the number of people studying at further education colleges—not just those with special needs, but including all those between 25 to 59—has fallen by 9 per cent. in the past year?

I do not accept that comment from NIACE. The Leitch review, and the review that we have had from Andrew Foster, will be crucial in pointing us in the right direction, as will the further education White Paper that will subsequently become a Bill. The problems in FE were highlighted in Andrew Foster’s report, which showed that the sector has put up with poor provision for too long. There are some very good FE colleges, but others still believe that employers should accept their thesis about the education that they require for their work force. There has been too little engagement with employers, but we are putting them at the heart of the matter and trying to do something about the alphabet soup of qualifications that currently exists. We are also working to sort out the units available in foundation learning to which I referred earlier, and I believe that we can tackle the problems in FE by adopting those approaches. Certainly, the FE sector is much more of a priority now than it ever has been for previous Governments.

I accept the merit of the reprioritisation policy, but will my right hon. Friend look at how the funding formula operates? Last year, for example, the better that learning and skills councils seemed to do in encouraging participation among 16 to 18-year-olds, the worse they seemed to do with the 19-plus allocations. That was especially true in north Yorkshire.

I will look at the point that my hon. Friend raises, but I am glad that he supports our reprioritisation policy. The problem with FE and adult skills is that to prioritise everything is to prioritise nothing. We are concentrating on longer courses for people with no level 2 qualifications whatsoever, whatever their income, and we will also introduce an entitlement to level 3 for 19 to 25-year-olds on a similar basis. That must be our priority, but I shall certainly look into whether provision for 16 to 18-year-olds is affecting adult participation rates, as described by my hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State will be aware of concern in Hull and the East Riding about the reduction in courses, particularly for older people. The Government’s policy is a commitment to lifelong learning: education does not exist purely to increase skills to help people into the workplace and to aid the economy but is about broader issues. I am sure that he, like me, will have had concerns raised at his constituency surgeries. Will he respond to those concerns, perhaps giving reassurance to those who see courses that add to their quality of life being cut back? Will he give a message I can take back to those I represent?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say those problems have also been raised with me. There are problems across the country, and saying that we will reprioritise or that we will increase the level of fees in further education is not easy. There was always an implicit expectation that there would be a contribution of 25 per cent. from students, but very few colleges introduced that. We are gradually moving towards the expectation of a contribution of 50 per cent. by 2010. From constituents I have spoken to, and this is reflected in the MORI poll, I think that most people accept that if they can make a reasonable contribution to a course that they are pleased to be taking—whether in languages, learning for recreation or learning just to increase knowledge—they should make a contribution. When that is explained, along with our priorities for the country and the economy, people tend to accept what is, I accept, a sometimes difficult message.