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Adult Education

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

4. What recent assessment he has made of provision of adult education courses at colleges; and if he will make a statement. (127473)

Colleges have benefited from our 48 per cent. real-terms increase in further education funding between 1997 and 2005-06. We have realigned funding to support our priorities and, as I announced today, we have met our interim adult level 2 target, with 1 million more adults with essential employability skills in the work force since 2002. Also, more than 1.6 million learners have achieved skills for life qualifications in literacy, language and numeracy.

I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that Cornwall has a low wage economy and very low levels of adult skills. As a result of the funding changes, Cornwall college has had 10,000 fewer applicants for adult courses this year, not only for recreational courses but for technical equipment courses and even for courses for those with learning disabilities. What assessment has the Minister made of the economic impact of the funding changes on deprived areas with low levels of skills, such as Cornwall?

We are continually evaluating the shift in adult provision to ensure that it is having the right beneficial economic effects. The train-to-gain initiative, which offers a radical commitment to ensure that every adult in the work place who does not have the equivalent of five good GCSEs gets a guarantee of that educational training, is a move in the right direction. We are increasing funding, but there is also a shift in priorities away from short courses towards longer provision that will have a more beneficial impact. I announced this morning that we have got 1 million more adults up to level 2 in the past five years. That is a significant achievement that will benefit the whole country, including people in Cornwall.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about more adults coming into employment. Will he also consider increasing key and basic skills training in inner-city areas such as Birmingham, where we need to offer better provision to get more lone parents re-engaged in education and back into employment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We are absolutely right to focus on the level 2 commitment, because that is the minimum platform for sustainable employment in the work force. However, we also need to ensure that the stepping stone provision below level 2 is protected. I think that that is the kind of provision to which my hon. Friend is referring. The introduction of the foundation learning tier, which we have made clear will be guaranteed as resources become available over time, is the kind of commitment that he and his constituents are looking for.

The Minister will know that Macclesfield is fortunate, in that it will shortly have a virtually new college as part of the learning zone, for which the people there are very grateful. Does he accept that there is a growing need for vocational training, particularly for adults, in order to fulfil the needs of local industry and commerce? Will he come to Macclesfield to visit the college when it opens later this year, to discuss adult education with the corporation and me?

I am happy to accept the plaudits about the capital transformation of further education colleges that is taking place up and down the country. We are spending some £500 million this year; 10 years ago, there was not a penny in the mainstream capital funding budget. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point; we need to do more in the area of vocational skills. The train-to-gain initiative, which guarantees training to adults in the work place who have not reached level 2, is an exceedingly important step forward. Diary permitting, I will see what I can do about coming to Macclesfield.

My hon. Friend will be aware that a key recommendation of the taskforce established to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the Longbridge car factory was the creation of at least a 14-to-19 centre on the former MG Rover site, and possibly a full college relocation to boost skills and regenerate the area. A feasibility study of that recommendation should have been completed and available by now. Will my hon. Friend have a word with the local learning and skills council so that we can get on with this project, which will be vital to skills boosting and regeneration in the south-west Birmingham area?

I will happily look into that and meet my hon. Friend to discuss such issues. I remember visiting Longbridge a year or so ago, talking to the Rover taskforce—

Order. I know that the Minister means well, but if he looks in the hon. Gentleman’s direction when he speaks, he cannot be heard by the rest of the Chamber.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

I visited Longbridge about a year ago, met the Rover taskforce and was extraordinarily impressed by the cross-departmental working taking place, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) has championed strongly. I commit myself to considering the matter and meeting him shortly.

Seventy per cent. of the 2020 work force is over the age of 16 now, so it is vital that we upskill and reskill the adult population. Yet adult education is being savagely cut—it is down 10 per cent. in the past year and below its 1997 level. Not all such courses are on crochet and croquet: many of them lead to further study and work. Given that workplace training is also being cut, and that less than 6 per cent. of employers are involved in “train to gain”, how have the Government managed to spend so much more on FE, but achieved so little and delivered so much less?

Normally, I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views but I will not take lectures about the funding of further education colleges. Under this Government, funding has increased by 48 per cent. in real terms, which compares favourably with the 14 per cent. real-terms cut that took place in the five years up to 1997. According to its evaluation, the “train to gain” initiative, which is still in the first year of its national roll-out, is incredibly highly valued by employers, who are keen on the brokerage element. It is bringing huge numbers of people into adult education and training, and is particularly benefiting the over-45s, who are a key target group. It is in its first year of operation, it is a truly radical initiative, and it is delivering results.