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Further Education (South Yorkshire)

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

I am delighted to have secured this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am also delighted that so many of my colleagues from South Yorkshire are here, and I look forward to hearing their contributions in due course. I hope that we can discuss a number of issues relating to further education provision in South Yorkshire, although the issues extend throughout the further education sector.

This debate originated in a recent meeting and dinner in the House attended by the principals of all the further education colleges in South Yorkshire, including Northern college—an adult education college based in the county that covers the whole northern region. As a consequence of that meeting, I decided to apply for this debate. Many issues were raised there, not least of which was the further education funding regime, which is affected by the 14-to-19 provision and will be affected by the decision to move 14-to-19 funding back to local authority budgets. I should like to express my gratitude to the principals of our colleges for providing us with the opportunity to have this debate.

I shall remind colleagues of the situation regarding skills in South Yorkshire, where there is a tradition of hard work and ingenuity, rather than lengthy study and formalised learning. The area is typified by lower educational attainment in secondary schools, lower post-16 participation and high numbers of young people not engaged in education, employment or training—NEETs, as they have come to be called. There are high numbers of unwaged adults and adults who receive incapacity benefits.

South Yorkshire is recovering well from the industrial collapse of the 1980s, when we lost our major industries of coal and steel. At the time, reliance was high on larger employers, such as the British Steel Corporation and the National Coal Board. We had fewer business start-ups and relied more on public sector employment than the national average.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, British Steel and the National Coal Board took on the post-16 education situation, particularly in Barnsley. The change in the industrial scene after their disappearance meant that the local authority had to reorganise its priorities completely, and the two education departments have concentrated on training. Does he feel that that concentration is sufficient to bring about the regeneration that we require in South Yorkshire?

My hon. Friend and I have debated many times the safety net provided in South Yorkshire by the National Coal Board and British Steel. Young people who went to work in those industries received a second chance for education through management and training schemes. I sincerely hope that the Government’s focus on training will assist us to address problems in South Yorkshire, but I fear—I shall refer to this again in a few moments—that we must address the underlying problems of literacy, numeracy and general education.

A few years ago, the Japanese company Koyo—my hon. Friend will know it well, as it is located in his constituency—tried to attract young people into its employ and give them adequate training. Provided that they came to the company with the ability to read and write and had basic skills, it would train them to do the job, but the company’s worry was that the young people’s literacy and numeracy skills were not sufficient. I hope that the Government’s concentration on training will help to improve the situation in our area.

I am pleased that the post-16 and further education agenda is receiving so much parliamentary time. We had the opportunity recently to consider some of its aspects during the Queen’s Speech debate on forthcoming education legislation. It is good to see that the post-16 agenda is firmly in focus. I hope that we shall hear the views of colleagues and the Government on apprenticeships—whether there will be enough places and employers to offer them—as well as on 14-to-19 funding, the future of the learning and skills councils, the education maintenance allowance, NEETs and the consequences of raising the school training participation age, not the school leaving age, to 18.

Where is post-16 funding likely to be allocated? The question was asked during the Queen’s Speech debate, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said that the Government were

“integrating for 14 to 19-year-olds”

and

“involving employers in our diploma programme and in education and training in schools and colleges. We have brought the funding of 16-to-19 education into my Department and local authorities precisely to allow that integration to work more effectively. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I are working on that; we shall set out our proposals in due course.”—[Official Report, 13 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 568.]

My right hon. Friend indicated that funding for 16 to 19-year-olds will return to local authorities. The colleges’ first question is whether their funding will be reduced or protected and continued.

That is the key question. We have two fine institutions in Rotherham: the Rotherham college of arts and technology and Thomas Rotherham sixth form college—a big new institution where I had the honour of opening a new hall recently. They are the two lifelines for the young men and women in my constituency who will not go to university but who wish to plunge themselves into the labour market.

Ring-fenced and guaranteed funding for colleges must be flexible, and the education maintenance allowance is central to that. If funding is simply given into local authorities’ hands, there will always be a temptation, dedicated though Rotherham councillors are, to allow some of that money to slide to other local education authorities. We must ensure that the two education Departments—the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which deals with children up to the age of 18 or 19, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—work together to send out a signal, as the Prime Minister said to the CBI on Monday, that the money will be there to reduce the 5.5 million unskilled workers in the work force to 500,000 by upskilling the other 5 million. We will therefore need lifelong education, but, again, the money will have to be found for that. I welcome the strong points that my hon. Friend is making.

My right hon. Friend has made his point eloquently. He is right to suggest that the funding must be protected and ring-fenced. He knows as well as most South Yorkshire MPs that the pressures on local government funding are constant. Probably next week, we will see a tight local authority settlement, and we need to ensure that the money for our colleges is protected.

So what about the funding for our colleges? Will it be administered by the local authorities? Will colleges receive separate funding? Will it still be distributed through the learning and skills councils? What will be the future of the learning and skills councils from now on? What role will they play in college funding? Since the days of the training and enterprise councils and the advent of the learning and skills councils, they have changed out of all recognition and been amalgamated and reformed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that, either today or in writing.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the annual statement of priorities from the local learning and skills council also refers to four special institutions—the four residential colleges. One of those colleges, Northern college, is in my constituency. One worry at Northern college about the funding proposed by the learning and skills council is that the curricula will be lessened rather than widened. For example, the college wants social sciences and humanities to be broadened, so that adult returners can go forward in their learning future. If the curricula are not broadened, the only option is to take GCSEs, which are not necessarily the right base for new learners. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider the curricula for those four institutions? Does he also agree that there is a need to review the funding for adult learners, whose contribution to the regeneration of South Yorkshire is so important?

Yes, I support my hon. Friend on that. He mentions Northern college, and we would do well to remember that we recently celebrated the Ofsted report on the college, which was one of the few to be rated as outstanding. The report was excellent and showed just how good a service the college provides. He refers to the foundation learning tier and the lack of a qualification to bridge the provision between further and higher education for adult returners. I hope that the Minister can say a little about whether the curriculum can be adjusted to provide a suitable qualification or subject for study that can provide that link into higher education for adult learners. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter.

Let me return to the idea of funding through local authorities for the 14-to-19 agenda and for our colleges. If the funding is not protected and the colleges begin to receive less funding, that will have a knock-on effect on the idea of the difference between vocational diplomas and academic qualifications. If the funding is not put in place, the vocational path will still be considered as second class to an academic career based purely on GCSEs, A-levels and so on. I hope that we will not allow that to happen and will bolster the idea of vocational training, which is so necessary.

In the debate on 13 November, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families responded to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who referred to the gap in funding between our schools and our sixth form colleges. The gap was 12 per cent., with funding for colleges lagging behind that for schools. The gap needs to be closed, rather than widened, to deal with the disparity in funding.

As I have mentioned, it will be interesting to know what the future holds for the learning and skills councils and what their role will be in the new system. Another point, which follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) said about residential colleges, concerns the idea of commissioning from the learning and skills councils. In the past, the learning and skills councils have commissioned tenders from large institutions. Northern college has made the point that it is a small college but a quality provider, as can be seen from its recent Ofsted report, but it is concerned that it will miss out if the learning and skills council continues to commission from large providers and does not allow for secondary commissioning from smaller institutions, such as Northern college. Will the Minister comment on that? Can he reassure Northern college that the tendering and commissioning processes will not exclude it?

The Association of Colleges, which provided a briefing for hon. Members for the meeting with South Yorkshire principals and for today’s debate, has suggested a single Government Department for those aged 14 to 19. In fact, it suggests that a single Department should cover those aged from nought to 19. At the moment, we have a division between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The Association of Colleges commented:

“It is important for one Government Department to be solely responsible for all aspects”

of education for those up to the age of 19. It makes the point that many people do not recognise the age-related boundaries, stating:

“The education and training offered pre-19 is considerably different from that offered post-19 and this could potentially threaten the efforts to open up basic skills routes through to level 2.”

The association argues in favour of

“A single national funding formula for 16-19 education regardless of…institution or location”.

That is what we have just been discussing. It also argues for

“No increase in bureaucracy as a result of working to two funding regimes”,

and for colleges

“to be able to decide their own responses to Government policy, including decisions on courses, pay etc.”

The association also stated:

“Cross-boundary student intake is not unusual for colleges and could result in some logistical confusion about funding for 16-19 education at local authority level.”

Those are just some of the issues raised by the association. They are relevant not only to South Yorkshire but across the country.

The Government want to increase participation in skills and training by raising the age for participation in schools, training and education to 18. That has been broadly welcomed by most commentators, but there are problems, some of which were referred to during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. We have to ensure that we use the resources that we have to intervene at the right point in a student’s life. The point was made during that debate that keeping someone at school for an extra year or two in a situation that they are unhappy with or do not like will not address the problem. If the problem is that kids are reaching 16 without basic numeracy and literacy skills, we should intervene earlier in their school career.

In Barnsley, Northern college has designed a qualification that extends to the age of 17, because it has found that young people in Barnsley will stay on from 16 to 17, taking advantage of the education maintenance allowance, and then enter employment at 17. However, it is worried that it cannot hold on to young people from 17 to 18. Some 8 per cent. of young people in Barnsley are NEETs—the lowest ever level—which the college is pleased with. To achieve that figure, it has worked hard with local schools, which it is essential that we do, because they must take some responsibility as well, and it hopes to reduce the figure even further.

The Secretary of State has referred to various structures that we will use to ensure that, by 2013, every young person is in education or training. They include the expansion of the apprenticeship scheme—we hope, to 500,000—the provision of proper advice and guidance to young people and the continuation of the education maintenance allowances, which have been a huge success in my constituency. Barnsley has the highest take-up in the country, which has done a great deal to improve out post-16 education, which a few years ago had the lowest participation rate in the country. I hope that that programme will continue.

The need for advice and guidance was stressed during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Advice from the Association of Colleges has reinforced the idea that, for the national roll-out of the diploma to be successful, advice and guidance to 14 and 16-year-olds, which is usually provided in schools, requires greater independence. It suggested that local authorities should have a greater role, which was echoed during the Queen’s Speech debate. Also during that debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made great play of an organisation called Skill Force, although I do not think that it operates in my area.

An enormous effort has been made to regenerate the local economy in Barnsley, but it has no large firms, only small ones, which it is difficult to get to engage with colleges. Does my hon. Friend agree that greater flexibility is required in the provision of advice in towns such as Barnsley, to create an interface between those small businesses and colleges? That would put the authority in a much better position to provide careers advice.

My hon. Friend anticipates my next point about apprenticeships, where the same point applies. Not only the Association of Colleges, but those in areas such as ours are concerned that there is not a sufficient number of large companies to provide the number of apprenticeships needed. The Government have set a target of 500,000 new apprenticeships—a great aspiration—but the worry is that our industrial base, with so many traditional large industries having been eroded over so many years, does not have enough companies able to provide those apprenticeships. The fear is that we will lose out. He is right therefore in saying that we need flexibility to take advantage of the provision of such advice.

We must bear in mind—I realise that this is not relevant to further education provision—that some of our industries have been, and will be, affected by environmental taxation, such as the climate change levy. Further pressures from climate change and environmental taxation will affect areas such as mine and our remaining industrial base.

Diplomas are also relevant to the point that my hon. Friend has just made, and although they are welcome, I hope that they will not become second-class qualifications in the vocational world. Advice must be given to employers, because they need to understand that the diploma is a qualification of good standing. They need to realise the relevance of diplomas and to accept them as qualifications. Barnsley college has expressed this concern:

“Employers are unclear about the split in the funding and the way it will work. A very important aspect is that it is already difficult to get employers involvement in and understanding of the importance of the diplomas to vocational education and ultimately delivering the skills the employers are looking for. The government bases its claims on how the multi nationals respond. Few areas have these and there are none in Barnsley. The split between the departments simply reinforces for the employers that diplomas have nothing to do with the skills agenda.”

In South Yorkshire, we welcome the Government’s proposals on the post-16 agenda announced in the Commons and the airtime that they have received, and we want them to succeed and to benefit our areas. We want the people of South Yorkshire to benefit from the raising of the training age, from the apprenticeships and diplomas and from the provision of vocational education. Above all, we want the Government to ensure that those new structures will work, that they are copper-bottomed and that they will be adequately funded.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate. My constituency is served by three colleges in South Yorkshire: two big ones—Barnsley and Doncaster colleges—and a smaller one, Dearne Valley college, which is the closest to my constituency. It is only half a mile across the River Dearne in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. It acts as a good case study of how we need to fine tune the further education machine.

It is important to understand the origins of Dearne Valley college. In the early 1990s, the previous Conservative Government tried to reinvigorate deprived communities through their city challenge initiative. At that time, Barnsley council was the only local authority in the country to win two city challenges. As deputy leader of the council, I was proud of that because it showed that we were willing to work with any Government for the betterment of our constituents.

Ours was a joint city challenge between Barnsley council, Rotherham council and Doncaster council, and our vision—our flagship project—was the building of a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley, because we could see the importance of higher education to the future of those communities. None of the coalfield communities in South Yorkshire had access to higher education provision at that time—the only place in South Yorkshire that did was Sheffield, and we wanted to correct that. However, we could not get the funding package together to deliver that university. I am not saying that we had to settle for second best, however, because that was not the case.

Does my hon. Friend recall that, in the initial stages of the development of Rockingham college, the location of the institution was an old bin depot in Wath upon Dearne? It is thanks to a Labour Government that we got a brand new college building on the site of the old Manvers pit. Is that not the case?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. It shows the lengths that we will go to, as both a Labour Government and a local Labour government, to pursue recycling.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, yesterday the Housing and Regeneration Bill had its Second Reading. As he will know, the new agency will incorporate English Partnerships, which played an important part in the regeneration of coalfield communities. Does he share my fear that the new agency may focus on the south-east rather than on the coalfield communities, as was the case previously? It is necessary to ensure that Ministers realise that the coalfield communities are still dependent on a great deal of regeneration and therefore we need the focus to be retained on those communities.

My hon. Friend, who is chairman of the all-party group on coalfield communities, is doing a magnificent job on that issue and I could not endorse his words any more strongly.

The one thing I did not mention about South Yorkshire colleges was the recent innovation whereby we now have University Centre Barnsley, due to the collaboration between the university of Huddersfield and Barnsley college, which is providing higher education within the Barnsley area after so many years without it.

Obviously, I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said. The same thing applies to the Doncaster end of my constituency, where Doncaster college has gone into collaboration with the university of Hull.

I would like to make a little progress now and get back to the Dearne Valley college case study. In the strategic area review conducted by the Learning and Skills Council, Dearne valley was recognised as an area of particular significance for planning. The review said:

“There is significant growth in Employment and Housing in the area, we feel that a local vocational Further Education College has much to contribute in providing further enhancement to the provision offered by Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham Colleges.”

Sheffield city region has established a special board to consider the Dearne valley. The Minister for Local Government, in whose Wentworth constituency the college is situated, and who unfortunately is not here this morning, has been selected to chair the first meeting of that group, which will take place this Friday, 30 November.

We have already mentioned the changes to the Government machine, as it were, and the separation of the two Departments. Dearne Valley college has some concerns about the implications of education funding for 16 to 19-year-olds being accessed through three local authorities. That means that the college must work in collaboration with Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster authorities. It is vital to emphasise the continuing importance of informed choice in driving the system for those aged 16 to 18 and in providing reassurance that funding will follow the learner, regardless of local authority boundaries. Although it is technically in Rotherham, almost two thirds of the students at Dearne Valley college come from Barnsley and Doncaster, and the vast majority of those students come from my part of the Dearne valley.

Moving on to the agenda for those aged 14 to 19, DVC is working on a number of collaborative initiatives related to diploma development. Diploma submission work is also taking place based on a DVC approach. Collaboration is essential if diplomas are to be successful. However, it is costly in terms of staff time in the preparation phase and there will be significant additional delivery costs: for example, the costs of travel where students move between education providers. I think that diplomas are the way forward and I am a big supporter of their introduction. They will be important to the future of South Yorkshire. Their one really big strength is the greater collaboration that is involved, both between colleges and secondary schools and between different secondary schools, to ensure that we have a network of diploma provision in all our areas. That is a strength rather than a weakness.

DVC is the lead college for Yorkshire and the Humber on the active participation in sports strand of the national higher education framework, to maximise the opportunities that will arise from the 2012 Olympics. I understand that there will be a national strategy for physical education in schools from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Universities seem to be well resourced to bring sport and fitness to the fore, but in FE there is no funding to support any entitlement to keep young people active. Is the Minister aware of that problem and, if so, will he raise it with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that it is rectified?

On adult provision, nationally, we have moved towards train to gain, but that scheme remains a contentious issue in South Yorkshire. The South Yorkshire colleges want to play their part in the delivery of train to gain. However, barriers will continue to exist if only full qualifications can be funded when individuals and employers want bite-sized chunks. Train to gain needs to be more flexible to meet the needs of both students and, just as importantly, businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central made in his submission.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of train to gain, I wonder whether he would like to comment on the situation that arose in the summer of 2006 in South Yorkshire. At that time, a consortium of six colleges in the area bid for 1,600 places on the train to gain scheme, but they were allocated only 695 places, having been led to believe that they would achieve the full 1,600 places. Obviously, they lost out in the funding for that scheme.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. At that time, we were faced with a mini-crisis in funding for the colleges in South Yorkshire. We made representations to the Ministers at the time and hopefully that situation will not be repeated.

I know that we are still waiting for details of next year’s funding. However, the rate of standard learner numbers that we hear suggested would have a detrimental effect on college budgets and the ability of colleges to meet the demands in relation to students aged 16 to 19, when the emphasis is on those in the NEET category—those not in education, employment or training. There is also a lack of employers willing to take on apprentices, which was another point made by my hon. Friend.

There is also an issue about students with learning difficulties and disabilities. If they are 19-plus when they embark on a level 1 programme, although we can waive their fees, they are too old for education maintenance allowance and they do not qualify for the adult learning grant, as their programme is not a level 2 programme. That particular problem links with the general problem of 19 being something of an artificial barrier in lifelong learning, and I would like the Minister to say more about that issue later. I know that the issue overlaps the two Departments, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, but I would still like to hear his comments.

As we are looking at FE, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the jewels in our crown, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned: Northern college, which is in his constituency. It is an outstanding college that achieved grade 1 inspection levels from Ofsted in all categories last November.

Northern college is often referred to as the Ruskin college of the north. I am afraid that I do not refer to it as that; I refer to Ruskin college as the Northern college of the south. Northern college has brought three areas of concern to our attention as local MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone made the point about the problem with the current foundation learning tier and how that disadvantages adult learners in particular. The college states:

“The proposals for the Foundation tier do not include any broad based Humanities/Social Science curricula which would support this progression, and there is nothing available at level 2 outside of GCSEs which are not appropriate for adult returners. To put it crudely we are in danger of perpetuating a system in which the middle classes can access education, but the working classes (particularly those returning as adults) can only access skills training. For these adults to be able to progress to degree level study must be as valuable to the economy of the UK as those progressing to level 4 skills training.”

My hon. Friend made the second point that Northern college has drawn to our attention: that the LSC prefers to deal with big providers rather than the smaller ones such as Northern college. I shall not go into too much detail on that, because of time constraints.

The third point that the college made to us, on which I will elaborate, is that it has noticed that the statement of priorities calls for a review of, among others, the special designated institutions, of which it is one. It states:

“The LSC is just in the process of completing a detailed review of the four residential colleges which includes a value for money study and it is not clear what a subsequent review will add.”

That is my point. The college is outstanding in every inspection category and has already gone through one review, but we seem to be carrying out another review that is not particularly relevant.

That leads me nicely to another major concern that I have: the disparity in funding support currently available to adult learners in FE and HE. It underlines the point that FE is often considered the Cinderella part of the education service. Currently, adult learners in higher education have access to approximately £4.5 billion of support via grants, loans, bursaries and child care. That covers approximately 1.5 million adult students, taking up roughly 1.1 million full-time equivalent places in universities. Yet adult learners in further education have access to less than £500 million of support, catering for 3 million students or 630,000 full-time equivalent places. Obviously there are far more part-time adult students in FE than in HE. I know that the comprehensive spending review for the next three years has already happened, but I hope that we can revisit the matter in the short term rather than hide behind that.

As has been said, diplomas have the potential to transform our education system, particularly to the benefit of places such as South Yorkshire, but all stakeholders need to get on board. I am thinking of colleges, schools, students, parents and employers, particularly SMEs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, when teaching diplomas, we need to encourage enterprise among students? He will have seen the figure provided in the briefing from the Association of Colleges: if we could get one in every 300 students to start their own business, it would greatly help the regeneration of the entire South Yorkshire economy. Does he also agree that there is a need to ensure that the diplomas have a currency that is accepted universally? As he knows, our focus on education in rebuilding and renewing the local economy in Barnsley has added to social mobility. Young people from Barnsley are travelling to work in Sheffield, Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds and Manchester, and a real stimulus to that is that the qualifications that they achieve are as good as qualifications anywhere. We need to ensure that diplomas have universal currency.

My hon. Friend makes an extremely forceful and valid point. Qualifications are currency in the job market, and that is what we must achieve with the diplomas. We must ensure that employers consider the currency of a diploma just as they do that of more formal academic qualifications. That is a key strand that we need to deliver as a Government; we must try to get that message over, particularly to SMEs.

Apprenticeships are popular in South Yorkshire. For example, in Barnsley in the past four years there has been a 167 per cent. growth in the number of apprenticeships. In 2002, there were 211 completed apprenticeships in Barnsley; last year there were 564. In Doncaster there has been a 147 per cent. growth in the same time frame, from 356 completed apprenticeships in 2002 to 830 last year. I support fully the drive to increase opportunities and, again, we must target SMEs to become engaged. I keep repeating that opinion, and I know that the Minister shares it. We have an over-reliance in South Yorkshire on very few large companies in the private sector and on the public sector. We need to engage more with SMEs.

I have flagged up a number of concerns that have been passed on to me by colleges in my area. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Government have done many things to improve further education, particularly lifelong learning, since they came to power. I hope that the Minister will accept that I make my points to improve the current model so that it can benefit many of my constituents who are currently disadvantaged, such as adult learners. They have been failed by the education system in the past and must not be in the future.

I remind the House, to save any embarrassment later, that the Chairman is required to call the first of the three Members who are to make winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the termination of the debate. We therefore have only 13 minutes left before I shall do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this important debate. He went through the background to the debate in some detail, including the recent economic development of South Yorkshire, and I shall not repeat the statistics that he gave. Unemployment in the area has reduced significantly but remains slightly higher than the national average—6.5 per cent. for South Yorkshire compared with 5.3 per cent. for England as whole. South Yorkshire traditionally enjoyed higher employment rates than the national average in the days of coal and steel, so we still have some way to go to rebuild the prosperity that we enjoyed in the past.

To some extent, those figures can be related to education maintenance allowance take-up in South Yorkshire. Barnsley has enjoyed a good take-up of the allowance but in Sheffield, for some reason, it is much lower and brings the South Yorkshire figure down. I am not proud to say that. The increase in take-up in Sheffield in 2006-07 was only 28.6 per cent., which brings the average increase in South Yorkshire down to 43 per cent. In England as a whole, it was 76.9 per cent. That statistic tells me something about what we need to do to build further education in South Yorkshire.

There are two parts to the problem: low aspiration, which is reflected in the higher level of young people not in education, employment or training—I hate the term NEETs, so I shall try not to use it—and Government structures and regulations that tend not to work to the benefit of further education. Those are the two points that we need to debate. Further education has a critical role to play in developing the post-16 staying-on rate, and in ensuring that we meet the economic and skills needs of this country and of South Yorkshire. Why is that the case? I have a firmly held view, based on my 10 years of experience working in further education, that young people—like anybody else—have differing needs. Some benefit from a sixth-form environment, but quite a lot benefit from the independent learning environment offered in further education. They need not to be spoon-fed but to be able to explore and learn in their own manner. In my view, many young people are ready and able to do that at a much earlier age than we have ever assumed before, which is why I welcome the involvement of FE in pre-16 education.

I want to see an education system that is increasingly geared toward the individuality of young people and that offers a mixed package, so that they can learn in a sheltered school environment and enjoy the independent learning environment of the local college. In most case, many young people would benefit from that mix. Therefore, colleges have a critical role to play, and in South Yorkshire they already cater for 61 per cent. of post-16 education. The importance of the colleges is suggested in the range of provision in South Yorkshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) mentioned Dearne Valley college. I worked at that college, which is why I mentioned its rebuild. I remember very well the old bin depot and was pleased to get out of it and into the brand new building. I will always be grateful to the Government for providing us with those wonderful new buildings. Dearne Valley college is a centre of vocational excellence for sports and fitness. One of South Yorkshire’s economic clusters is the development of sports, the fitness industry and sports medicine via the local universities. Dearne Valley needs to be embedded much more successfully in that economic cluster—the development of the sports economy of South Yorkshire—but it needs support to do that. Given the location of the college and the poor state of local transport because of deregulation in 1986, which at last we are doing something about, such support may involve helping some students to get to the college.

Northern college, which has been mentioned frequently, is a great institution that serves the whole of South Yorkshire and beyond; it is the Ruskin college of the north. The fact that we have the Ruskin collection in Sheffield underlines the point that was made earlier in that regard. Sheffield college, which is the biggest college in South Yorkshire, has a number of areas of excellence, not the least of which is catering. It has the most tremendous catering department that I have ever seen. It is good that I entrusted my wedding reception to the training department at Sheffield college, and I never regretted it for a moment. I got a much better deal from the college than I ever would have from any of the local hotels and institutions. It is an absolutely superb facility for young people in Sheffield. Many of our nationally regarded chefs come from the catering department of Sheffield college.

Sheffield college is also investing heavily in refurbishing its provision of engineering and construction, which is critical to the future of South Yorkshire. This is another of the economic clusters that I mentioned earlier and without it, South Yorkshire would grind to a halt. I am sure that the same is true across the piece in the other colleges in the area.

We need more support to encourage and incentivise young people to stay on after 16. That means that we must address the issue of why we have a lower take-up of education maintenance allowances. The Government have a role to play in that, and I would welcome the Minister’s comments.

Independent advice and guidance has not been mentioned so far in this debate, but it is a critical issue. As a former tutor, it is my experience that IAG is generally of a very poor quality in both schools and colleges, but particularly in colleges, and is underfunded. I stress the word independent—IAG has to be independent. If we want diplomas to work and to break down the divide between the academic and the vocational, IAG is absolutely critical in delivering that. If we do not fund it properly and ensure that it is embedded throughout the system, all the effort, funding and investment that we are putting into diplomas and meeting the skills agenda will fail. Many young people get badly placed in colleges and sixth forms, which is why we have the big drop-out rates at 17. The participation rate goes down not at 16 but at 17, when young people find that they are in the wrong place for their post-16 training and education.

We need more of an input from employers to deliver the number of apprenticeships that we need. Employers say a lot about the skills needs of the younger generation, but they, too, have to deliver. The Government have a bigger role to play, as well. I know that they are trying hard, but we really must crack this. Whether by regulation or more levies—I would not like to see us go down that route—we must get employers engaged in apprenticeships.

Free school meals are not offered to post-16 students in colleges, but they are to sixth-form students in schools. That inequity must be sorted out. It is totally unbelievable that we think it necessary to feed a child of 16 in school because they come from a low-wage background, but not somebody who is in college. The likelihood is that the poorer kids are far more likely to be in college than in the local sixth form. What on earth are we doing? My long-term ambition would be to feed all young people and children in schools.

In Finland, all children get free school meals. That may be a bit radical for the present times, but we could easily sort out the glaring inequity whereby kids in college do not get fed and kids in schools do. What on earth are we doing here?

Much has been said by my hon. Friends about the funding of colleges, so I will go through it fairly quickly. The point made about local authority funding and ring-fencing is a good one. Kids in South Yorkshire do not recognise the boundaries, so we need to ensure that the lines are straight and that the money meant for a fee goes to a fee when it goes through local authorities.

Other hon. Members mentioned Northern college and the need for a curriculum that enables adults to develop academically, as well as vocationally. Many of the skills needs in South Yorkshire are fairly specific to the area. Sheffield has just been awarded protected status for all locally made products, which are made by highly skilled workers. The term “made in Sheffield” is protected and cannot be used unless the product has been made in Sheffield. The only other city to enjoy that status is Windsor. We are very proud of that award, which is really important to us given our background in producing high-class cutlery, steels and so on. However, it means that the skills needs of the city are fairly special. Local further education has to be able to develop regionally. There should be locally accredited courses specifically designed to meet the needs of the area.

We have a cultural industries quarter in Sheffield that offers specialised development in the fields of film, television, art and so on. South Yorkshire has never been about just coal and steel. It has other very fine traditions, so please give FE the right to develop the courses that we need to deliver what South Yorkshire needs.

The situation is the same across the country—this is not just about South Yorkshire. If we can trust further education to be rigorous and absolutely certain about its quality and control, and if we can give colleges the chance to offer and accredit their own degrees, why on earth can we not give them the right to accredit locally and regionally their own courses at that level?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I feel slightly like a fish out of water this morning. It is my first outing on the Front Bench—I am even newer than the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson)—and also, I am a Welsh Member taking part in a debate that, although not just about England, is strongly regional. However, there are important lessons to be learned, and some of the messages that we have heard are pertinent to Wales, as well. People in the south Wales coalfields in particular will be listening to them, and I look forward to taking them back to Wales.

In that context, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for raising this important debate about matters that affect his constituents and concerns that have been raised by many of his South Yorkshire colleagues. It is the timeliest debate possible, given the agenda on which we are now embarked.

I also want to pay tribute to the work in South Yorkshire of Higher Futures, the lifelong learning network, which seeks to combat the malaise of different learning providers and bring them together under one umbrella to provide fresh opportunities for the progression of vocational work-based learning. The network supports vocational education and lifelong learning, and, above all else, re-engagement and not just engagement. We have heard much about young people, but if the challenges of the Leitch report are to be seriously recognised, we must increase the participation of all groups in society, including young people, people who are making a change in course and the long-term unemployed. They need to be re-engaged, as well.

Liberal Democrats can agree with much of what has been said this morning, at least by Labour Back Benchers. It has been a refreshing debate. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central set the scene for why the subject is so important, not least the insufficient levels of literacy and numeracy. I used to be a teacher at primary level. If the system fails at primary level, there will be failures further along the line. It is essential that we address that.

I spoke to the principal of Barnsley college, who is one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, about funding. A real concern of hers is that if the lifelong learning networks agenda is to be pursued, there must be a seamless transition, which will require work by both the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I liked what I heard about individualised learning. She used that expression as well, and said that we need to develop individual pathways to learning, which would involve money following the student through the education system.

There is an obvious need to provide a greater focus on basic skills. That is what employers tell us, as do students. Basic skills are the building blocks of any skills-based economy. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) discussed the disparity between middle-class and working-class participation. I have some figures on higher education. Over the past 15 years, the proportion of students in higher education with unskilled, manual worker parents has increased from 11 to 19 per cent. That is a laudable increase, but in the context of the increase in participation of those whose parents have professional occupations—from 35 to 50 per cent.—we still have a huge amount of work to do on engagement, and that means advice. We heard a great deal about advice from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). We must address that matter and the role of further education institutions’ outreach work, which involves speaking directly with people in local schools.

It strikes me that the experience of hon. Members in their own constituencies is that the structures are in place. The local learning and skills council, under the leadership of Sheffield Hallam university, has had resources of £3.5 million guaranteed up to 2009. That is to be welcomed, but the continuing perception that further education is the Cinderella of the sector needs to be addressed. We heard that the gap in funding between schools and colleges is some 12 per cent. There are also concerns about commissioning from small institutions that really need to be looked at.

On 16 November, the Government announced their UK-wide initiative on new places for training, including some 120,000 new apprenticeships for the under-25s and 30,000 places for older workers. There may be some dispute over the figures, but as was said earlier, I hope that the Minister will discuss training, which will be workplace training, and the concerns about the capacity of local economies to offer work-based training. We heard about the lack of large enterprises in South Yorkshire. In my area, rural Wales, it is out of the question that large-scale employers will participate in such schemes, as the economy of the area is based on small and medium-sized enterprises. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that issue and on the dialogue that he is having with employers.

Looking back a couple of years, the goals of the lifelong learning network have been ambitious: 6,000 learners undertaking vocational and work-based learning across the network, and a 5 per cent. increase in learners accessing higher education. That is laudable and encouraging. I know that many of the targets have been met, but I fear a too rigid, too academic approach at the secondary level. Many young people have been switched off education. Again, if we fail at the primary level, we will fail further along the line to encourage people to pursue further education. We heard about NEETs—people who are not in education, employment or training—and the extent of the problem. Like other speakers, I do not like the expression.

The Tomlinson report advocated a wider diploma approach to secondary education that would embrace both academic and practical education. Liberal Democrats have advocated a credit-based system in which successful completion of courses should be rewarded with credits that can be accumulated and put toward a particular level of diploma. Pupils and young people need to be encouraged to mix and match vocational and academic courses. To most of us, that is the real world—that is how people function. We need a structure to support that mix-and-match approach and emphasis on workplace training. It seems to be working well in South Yorkshire, if insufficiently so—there is a mountain to climb in respect of such matters—but it is an approach that we need to continue.

The mismatch that we heard about regarding adult education is a real concern. The comparison between £4.5 billion and £0.5 billion is a serious problem. The message from this debate is that although the sector feels very much like the Cinderella of the service, we appreciate it and understand that it makes a fundamental contribution, and it is up to the Government and associated structures to provide resources.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) apologises that he cannot be here this morning. He had to pull out at late notice, unfortunately. Obviously, I was extremely pleased to be called in at the last minute to discuss someone else’s brief, but the debate gives me an opportunity to range across the further education sector. I just hope that I do not get my Front-Bench colleague into trouble by ranging too far.

Many of the challenges of further education have already been expertly outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central in his thoughtful speech. I do not wish to keep Members for too long, but I wish to make several points that I hope will gain general agreement.

My first act, though, must be to congratulate our further education institutions for doing such an excellent job. We have heard how impressive FE institutions are, and hon. Members have mentioned Northern college, Barnsley college and Rotherham college of arts and technology in South Yorkshire. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is making use of her excellent catering college. That shows even MPs how vital a role local further education colleges play in communities throughout the country. They fill a crucial gap between secondary and higher education, but too often their achievements are overlooked and their problems ignored. FE institutions are in many ways the forgotten or, as hon. Members have said, the Cinderella sector of our education system.

Hon. Members have spoken about the need for better access to high-quality vocational education and the worrying shortfall in fundamental skills, as the Leitch report made clear. As we seek solutions to improve our skills base in South Yorkshire and elsewhere, our further education institutions will, and should, play a pivotal role. Perhaps I can use the time available to me this morning to celebrate their achievements in South Yorkshire and elsewhere and to articulate a few of the challenges that face them.

One of the most attractive features of further education institutions is that they represent a much wider social mix than, for example, universities. Despite attempts to widen university participation in recent years, the social mix has remained stubbornly narrow. Recent statistics show that increases in admissions to universities from those from disadvantaged backgrounds have changed only marginally over the past decade. There is no doubt that access has been deepened more than widened, but there is debate about how far it has been widened.

I do not need to go to South Yorkshire to demonstrate how FE institutions differ markedly in social composition. Reading college in my constituency has a state-of-the-art design centre and a sixth form academy, and it teaches everything from GCSEs to PhDs. Such a wide range of disciplines naturally pulls in much wider social groups, which is why FE institutions can and should be harnessed to fill the skills gaps in local economies, such as South Yorkshire. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough made a valid point about free school meals and their availability to post-16s in schools, but not in further education colleges.

FE institutions tend to be rooted in and reflective of the local community. There is a sense of community ownership of local FE colleges, which also exists in schools but is less prevalent in universities. That was clear from the way in which hon. Members spoke about their local FE colleges this morning. Hon. Members raised a wide range of further education issues from funding differences between schools and colleges to the LSC’s role.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central rightly raised to the important issue of those who are not in education, employment or training—NEETs—in the context of increasing the school leaving age. I think that he said that NEETs in his constituency stood at about 8 per cent. Many of us across the political divide believe that compulsion is not helpful. During the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) described young people as conscripts and said that there is little point in forcing hostile 16 and 17-year-olds into occasional attendance at schools or colleges if they do not want to be there. I agree, and the Government may need to think again about compulsion, particularly as many young people in Barnsley find full-time work at the age of 17, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central said.

I have always been of the view that carrot is more attractive than stick to a young person. Forcing teenagers to do something that they do not want to do will cause immediate rebellion, and encouraging young people to stay in education and training is more attractive. The hon. Gentleman highlighted the success of education maintenance allowances in his area, which has the highest number in the country. Clearly, that carrot has worked for young people in Barnsley, but I am sorry to hear that it has not worked as well in Sheffield, Hillsborough.

I note that the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) used the encouragement of Government regeneration money on two occasions to encourage young people into education in a coalfield area. Dearne Valley college is making a real contribution to the Barnsley area, and the hon. Gentleman made his point extremely well in using the college as a case study running through his thoughtful comments.

There are many ways in which to offer better and more attractive opportunities to young people, but we must have real apprenticeships that offer work-related experience. The Government boast about increases in the number of apprenticeships, but the LSC has confirmed that about 50 per cent. fail to complete them. At present, apprenticeships are delivered by training providers, only 20 per cent. of which are employers. So there are no guarantees of substantial employer involvement.

Should not all apprenticeships involve systematic workplace training under the guidance of an experienced mentor? Would not that be more attractive to young people who currently opt out of the system altogether? The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) spoke about the lack of large companies offering apprenticeships in his constituency. It would be worth his while looking at how the group trade associations can make it possible to take on apprentices.

The train to gain scheme has not been a success for most young people. It has been heavily promoted, but the results have been extremely disappointing. The hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough made that point. Targets for learner numbers have been missed in every English region, including Yorkshire, and only 15 per cent. of learners have completed their training. My concern is that the train to gain scheme is over-bureaucratic, and it would perform much better if the brokers who act as intermediaries were removed. Indeed, the Select Committee on Education and Skills, on which I served, concluded that brokers

“may be succeeding only in adding an extra, unwelcome, layer of bureaucracy to the process.”

The fact is that most FE colleges already have well-established links with local employers and can recruit their own young people without the support of a broker.

There is also too much bureaucracy from the LSC. Further education is at its best when it serves the local community and local business together. I have outlined the problems of the train to gain scheme, but further education also suffers from too much regulation. For example, why is an FE college that wants to be flexible and responsive to local business required to seek approval for its courses from the LSC? Obtaining approval can sometimes take a long time according to those to whom I have spoken in the FE sector. FE institutions are looking for less centralisation and more autonomy in both funding and operation. That fits perfectly with the Government’s report by Sir Andrew Foster on further education, which called for

“less centralisation and moves towards greater self-regulation.”

Time is pressing, so I shall bring my comments to a conclusion. We have had a useful debate with a number of excellent contributions. The broad thrust of what hon. Members have said is that, if we are to fulfil our commitment to improve skills, support lifelong learning and strengthen vocational education, we must support our further education institutions. The Government’s further education Bill will soon come before the House, so this is clearly the beginning of an intensive debate, rather than the end. I look forward to engaging further with hon. Members in due course.

I am pleased to be here this morning, which is my first opportunity as Skills Minister to speak in an Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) for initiating this important debate. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who was present earlier. I am pleased that there has been a shared commitment this morning among all parties to this important agenda.

My hon. Friends know that, over the years, great solidarity was forged in our party between MPs representing constituencies such as mine, which is very different from those in Yorkshire, but which shared the high unemployment that blighted the lives of our young people. Many of us came into the movement because of what was happening, particularly in former coal mining areas. I was therefore pleased that one of my first major visits as Skills Minister was to South Yorkshire, where I spoke to employers and providers to get a sense of what is happening on the ground. I was particularly pleased to speak to people at the Forgemasters site in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn). Just a few years ago, the business had almost gone bust, but it has now brought on apprentices, who not only work alongside much older colleagues, but provide for the future, and they are seeing the business prosper. The company is therefore leading the way and showing what more we want to see in the region.

Hon. Members will be aware that much of my Department is also based in Sheffield, while the Sector Skills Development Agency is based in Wath upon Dearne, and I have visited both. Hon. Members will therefore see that the issue is close to the Department’s heart, and there is no way that it can slip off the agenda.

Not all Ministers can say this, but I hope to indicate that the spending review has been a good one for the sector. On 16 November, the Secretary of State announced the sector’s funding settlement for the coming period. It was a good settlement for post-16 learning and skills and will allow us to increase investment to about £12.4 billion up to 2010-11, compared with only £6.5 billion previously. I am particularly pleased that that will allow us to increase funding for adult participation by 17 per cent. over that period.

One realises just how important such funding is when one speaks to people about their concerns in sectors of the economy where people could currently almost be fully employed without qualifications. They recognise that jobs will not always be there for people who lack qualifications and that such jobs will go overseas, and they want the Government to assist them to gain qualifications.

It is important to mention the work that our union learning reps do on the shop floor, nudging, cajoling and encouraging people in their 40s, 50s and 60s to take up opportunities to acquire basic skills and level 2 qualifications. Those reps are acting in solidarity with people and preparing them for the changing economy, and that will help us to get South Yorkshire back to a position in which employment is beyond the national average.

It is also important to mention the huge capital investment that is going into the further education sector and to recall that the Government expenditure earmarked for FE was zero in 1997—it is now just under £500 million. It is important to appreciate that further education has moved on and can probably no longer be described as the Cinderella sector, as it was when many of the working-class young people whom we particularly want to flourish were unable to get funding.

Achievement records are up by 20 per cent. Post-16 participation in FE is higher than it has ever been. The number of adult learners now totals more than 3 million a year. Some 1.8 million people have gained the skills for life qualifications that we want them to have. Unfortunately, we will not be able to read about skills for life in our newspapers, but they are about more than the capital investment that I mentioned; they are about people being able to read to their grandchildren, to apply for jobs and to have the literacy that many missed out on in schools that were previously failing.

Since 2001, 16 large-scale further education capital projects have been approved in South Yorkshire, with £241 million coming from the Learning and Skills Council’s grant support. Barnsley college is benefiting from a redeveloped campus, with a new science and technology block, workshops and a sports hall.

Our continued refocusing of funding will enable us to target funding at the provision that is needed most by people in areas such as South Yorkshire. It allows us to subsidise courses, and it is important for people to recognise that there are subsidised courses in their name that offer level 2 GCSEs and national vocational qualifications and that there is a part subsidy at level 3 and A-level. People should take those courses, whether in the form of work-based learning or at local colleges.

Many colleagues have talked about the changes to the machinery of government. A letter will shortly be sent out explaining the shared principles that underpin the 16-to-19 and post-19 systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough argued for funding that follows the learner, and the provision will be transparent and accountable, focusing on quality and the learning experience. We need to ensure that there is coherent funding across the 16-to-19 and 19-plus systems and to recognise the many local authorities that can serve one college. That will be followed in the new year by wide-ranging consultation on our proposals, and I can reassure colleges in the area that they will be consulted. We are listening to them and hearing some of their concerns, and we are determined to get things right.

It is important to recognise that funding for the 14 FE colleges and providers in South Yorkshire has increased by £5.6 million. There has been a 23 per cent. increase in adult participation in level 2 courses in South Yorkshire. Barnsley, in particular, has seen a 45 per cent. increase over the same period. South Yorkshire has also seen an increase of just under 10 per cent. in 16-to-18 FE funding. Money is therefore going in and there is progress, and we need to build on that.

On the colleges that were mentioned, we recognise the excellent quality of existing provision at Northern college. It has not been excluded from the LSC commissioning process, and the LSC is working with it to deliver provision alongside its priorities. The foundation learning tier will be rolled out, providing progression pathways at level 2. The LSC statement of priorities shows that our commitment to Northern college is sincere, and we will work with it to ensure that it benefits.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham is not in his seat, but I should also mention the great success of Rotherham college of arts and technology and Thomas Rotherham college. In that respect, I hope to visit the region shortly.

It is important to recognise the contribution that apprenticeships will make. Hon. Members are right that there has been a growth in apprenticeships, and the situation will continue to get better. We are conducting an apprenticeship review precisely so that we can bring in small and medium-sized enterprises to ensure that our young people benefit from apprenticeships. The new vocational diploma will help to improve the participation rate—the number of those staying on until 18—and ensure that young people get work-based learning. New apprenticeships, which will ensure that people can work with smaller employers as well as larger ones, will bear down on the problem that hon. Members mentioned.

Order. We must now turn our attention to our next topic, which is the broad and very intriguing subject of welfare reform.