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Adult Learning

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

2. How many places there were on adult learning courses in 2005-06; how many places there are in the 2006-07 financial year; and if he will make a statement. (114149)

In the 2005-06 academic year, there were about 4 million funded adult learner places. Figures for the 2006-07 academic year are not yet available. As set out last October in the Learning and Skills Council’s annual statement of priorities, funding for adult learners from 2005-06 to 2007-08 will increase by 7 per cent., including an additional £300 million for Train to Gain activity. We are committed to realigning funding to support Government targets, apprenticeships, Train to Gain and free first full level 2, while protecting support for disadvantaged adult learning and securing more resources for those with learning difficulties and disabilities.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but how can we have confidence that only 200,000 places will be lost out of the 3.5 million that were announced last April? Just before Christmas, the Government announced that a change in focus in further education policy meant that as many as 500,000 adult education places might be lost. Will the Minister explain the discrepancy?

I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to a period before the most recent changes were introduced, but it is undoubtedly true that the reprioritisation of funding to support skills for employability has delivered higher-than-expected levels of achievement, both at full level 2 and in adult basic skills. Most of the learners who have been lost were involved in non-priority learning. Up to now there has been a cross-party consensus on this matter, but it is important to bear it in mind that the reduction in adult FE volumes must be seen in the wider context of total adult provision. We expect more than 350,000 adult learners to be involved in Train to Gain by 2007-08. The Foster review, the Leitch review and the Government’s FE White Paper received cross-party support and focused on the importance of skills for employability, which has to be our priority.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be more flexible in the provision of courses as part of our commitment to lifelong learning? Does he agree that individuals and employers need to follow the Government’s example and contribute more to lifelong learning provision?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. No one can criticise this Government’s FE funding record over the past nine and a half years. In that time, we have increased funding by about 50 per cent., in real terms. That compares very favourably with the 14 per cent. real terms cut that was imposed in the five years before 1997. On the back of that increased state investment, we have to see a greater contribution from both individuals and employers if we are to meet the skills challenges that Sandy Leitch set out for us.

Does the Minister accept that as well as many courses closing, a number of previously well-attended courses are becoming prohibitively expensive for a number of people as a direct result of the Government’s policy of concentrating resources on 16 to 19-year-old education and qualification-based learning?

Interestingly, the evidence shows that the average hourly cost of an adult education class has increased over two years from £1.42 to £2.05—still a relatively modest sum, with significant protection for those on means-tested benefits. But the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he supports, as I believe he does, the substantial increased investment in skills for employability, he cannot say that the individual should not have to make a greater contribution towards non-priority learning. It is interesting and instructive that the public back us in this view. Three separate independent surveys have suggested that the public believe that for non-priority adult leisure and recreation, the individual should pay a little bit more.

My hon. Friend is right to say that skills for employability are essential, but what progress has been made in discussions with LSCs in distinguishing between leisure courses and community courses that encourage people back into education who might otherwise not go on an accredited course? They are different, and often LSCs confuse the two.

I know that my hon. Friend takes a real interest in this issue. It is important to focus on level 2—the equivalent of five GCSEs—but it is also critical that the stepping-stone provision that gets people up to level 2 is preserved and maintained. That is why we have established the foundation learning tier. We want to identify those courses that lead to progression. The commitment that we made in the FE White Paper is that over time, as resources allow, we will seek to make that an entitlement.

The Minister is right to highlight the importance of lifelong learning, not least to match the skills required by industry to the courses put on by colleges. Will he congratulate Macclesfield college on the number of courses that it is organising relevant to the needs of local industry and commerce? I recently attended the opening of the European Centre for Aerospace Training at Macclesfield college by the director of the local learning and skills council. The centre is very relevant to the needs of industry and commerce.

I am more than happy to endorse the record of Macclesfield college. I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks up very strongly on its behalf. The focus on skills for employability is key. Sandy Leitch’s report states that our economy is changing. We are going from 9 million skilled jobs to 14 million, while at the same time the number of unskilled jobs is falling from 3.5 million to 600,000. Unless we equip people within the workplace with the skills to face up to that challenge, we and they will lose out significantly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts in funding for training in English for speakers of other languages, effectively ending free tuition for low-paid migrant workers from next September, is rather at odds with statements from Ministers, including the Chancellor, about the central importance of migrant workers learning English?

It is important that migrant workers learn English. Both the numbers and the funding for ESOL have tripled in recent years, but the current funding framework is unsustainable. In some parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for those in the greatest need. That is why we are saying, as we are across the FE system, that the individual and the employer have to make a contribution. Nevertheless, even with the changes, more than 50 per cent. of those currently receiving free ESOL training will continue to do so.

If I understand the Minister correctly, that means that there will be a 50 per cent. cut in funds for English for speakers of other languages. I am grateful for the question asked by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). I remind him of the words of the Prime Minister, who said that, when people come to this country

“as well as people preserving their own distinctive identity”—

it is vital that—

“they integrate with British society. And that is the reason why it is important in my view that people who come into the country and settle here, learn to speak English.”

[Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, “and settle here”, so perhaps that is the answer, but will the Minister explain the logic to many baffled immigrants who seek to learn English and integrate in this country, and tell them why funding for that vital course has been cut?

From the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I assume that he thinks there should be different treatment for people coming to this country compared to British citizens. I do not take that view; there needs to be a level playing field, and where individuals and employers can make a contribution, they should do so. The current position is unsustainable. As I said, in parts of the country there are waiting lists of 18 months to two years for people in the greatest need. Unless the hon. Gentleman is making a commitment to additional public spending for ESOL, his intervention completely lacks credibility.