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Skills for Life

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

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

I welcome those few colleagues who are here to join us for this important debate. The subject is one that the Minister takes a particular interest in—skills for life. We are debating a Government motion. This is not the case in many Westminster Hall debates, but the first speaker is the Minister.

I am pleased to be here in the House this afternoon to discuss skills for life, Sir Nicholas, and I welcome the opportunity for a debate on a critical area of the Government’s skills agenda.

I know that you, Sir Nicholas, will appreciate that the abilities to read and write, to perform mental arithmetic and to manage money are so essential to modern life that anyone who struggles with those basic skills is at a huge disadvantage at work, in the supermarket, as a parent and as a citizen. In a knowledge economy that places a premium on high-level skills, we simply cannot afford to have any people of working age in that position. We must ensure that people who scrape by without basic skills—whether they are sales assistants, hospital porters, care workers or car mechanics—have the opportunities and encouragement to improve their prospects and realise their ambitions.

Without question, we are in the midst of a global skills race. Every workplace, every further education college and every university will have to adapt, so that Britain’s skills base has firm foundations in every area, from basic numeracy to cutting-edge nanotechnology.

Since 2001, the Government’s skills for life strategy has transformed the basic teaching of literacy, language and numeracy skills with new national standards, curricula, national testing and an increasingly well-qualified work force. Over the past seven years, we have invested £5 billion in that programme and as a result 5.7 million adults have improved their skills, taking 12 million courses.

Those courses take place not only in FE colleges, but in waste management sites, bus depots, libraries, unionlearn centres and all sorts of workplace settings all over the country. Indeed, earlier this week I was pleased to announce that more than 2.25 million adults have gained first qualifications through that investment, meaning that we have met our 2010 public service agreement targets two years early. Those figures are a tribute to the combined efforts of teachers, colleges, unions and, of course, the learners themselves.

Skills for life has faced significant challenges in generating demand, building capacity and improving the experience of adults who must overcome fear, inertia and many practical obstacles so that they can return to learning. Those adults are now more effective at work, they can help their children with their homework and they are more likely to gain qualifications. I am pleased that the National Audit Office report published earlier this month recognised the progress being made by the strategy, engaging more hard-to-reach learners, convincing more employers of the need to invest in basic skills, increasing the provision delivered outside formal settings and improving teaching quality.

Let us be in no doubt, however, about the challenges that still lie ahead of us. In England, an estimated 5.2 million people aged between 16 and 65 would fail GCSE English and an estimated 6.8 million people lack the numeracy skills expected of an 11-year-old. Skills shortages at that level may cost the country as much as £10 billion annually, in lost revenue from taxes, lower productivity and the needless burden that is placed on the welfare state.

At the same time, the Government response to the findings of Lord Leitch has set ambitious targets in this area. The goal is for 95 per cent. of adults to have functional literacy and numeracy skills—in other words, the skills that are the basis for a decent job and further studies—by 2020. To that end, we expect to spend more than £600 million a year over the next three years on improving adult literacy and numeracy, because we must keep pace with international competition to be a global leader economically and to be world-class on skills.

This afternoon, I want to focus on numeracy because, as the NAO report noted, we have made less progress on that front than on raising literacy levels. Before I do so, let me stress that numeracy represents only one part of our broader skills strategy. Basic numeracy is one end of a continuum that involves introducing functional mathematics in secondary schools, giving all pupils with an aptitude for science the option to study triple science at GCSE and expanding the number of science and engineering ambassadors who inspire young people to aim for careers in those fields.

Our purpose is not simply economic. I have spoken before about how a good grounding in the so-called stem subjects is essential in a democracy that must consider the pros and cons of genetically modified foods, biometric data or nuclear energy. With such a grounding, people are in a better position to make informed decisions for themselves, their families or society.

With no such grounding, however, the dilemmas that people face are much more fundamental. For the innumerate, cooking to a recipe becomes a matter of guesswork, since measurements are meaningless; booking a holiday is a lottery, because they cannot extract information from a table of dates and tariffs; and counting money in a shop is all about looking the part and not about checking to see whether they have been short-changed. We cannot turn back the clock for middle-aged people who, for whatever reason, did not acquire the basics as schoolchildren, but we must address the situation whereby people attempt to muddle through the rest of their lives in shame and confusion.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to transform a culture of acceptance of poor mathematical skills. We have a tendency to regard people with a genuine interest in maths as “boffins” or “nerds”. At the same time, too many people get into debt because they do not understand compound interest. It is a formula for waste and inefficiency, in both the private and public sectors, when staff cannot manage money or their own time. That puts us at a real disadvantage against countries where there is no cultural squeamishness about numbers and where mathematical ability is held in high regard.

A 2006 study by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy found that men and women aged 30 with poor numeracy were twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy. Moreover, men with poor numeracy were at greater risk of depression and women with poor numeracy were more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and to feel that they lacked control over their lives. Quite simply, without numeracy we struggle to make sense of the world around us.

All told, people lacking basic literacy and numeracy generally opt first to tackle their problems with literacy. According to our research, numeracy is much more daunting, with anxiety about the nature of the courses a contributing factor.

The Government are helping adults to escape the frustration and misery of poor numeracy in several ways, and I want to summarise three of them. The first is about changing attitudes and generating demand for courses. In March, we launched the national numeracy campaign. Hon. Members have probably seen the television adverts featuring hand-based characters, which build on the success of the previous Gremlins campaign. In the first three weeks of broadcast, the helpline received around 10,000 calls, with a further 20,000 people visiting the campaign website. Other approaches that are being considered include, of course, celebrity endorsements, partnerships with supermarkets and a focus on issues around children’s homework.

At the same time, we are looking to build demand in the workplace through the skills pledge and Train to Gain, the main skills service for employers. It is vital that employers, with the help of the Train to Gain brokers, first recognise the skills shortages within their own business and then access free skills for life training for their staff through colleges and providers who can tailor what they offer according to specific need. Literacy and numeracy are now available as stand-alone qualifications in Train to Gain and are also embedded in vocational programmes, and the right to request time for training will be a powerful lever for bringing about the skills revolution that we so desperately need.

The integrated employment and skills agenda is similarly important. From 2009, there will be basic skills screening for new jobseeker’s allowance and lone-parent income support claimants, with referrals, where necessary, to local providers. Similarly, skills health checks will be available through the new Adult Advancement and Career Service, which enters the pilot stage this autumn. If work-based learning proves too daunting, there are further means to develop skills. For example, family numeracy courses and IT programmes are helpful and will be extended. There is often less stigma associated with admitting poor computing skills, and those courses provide a chance to address numeracy problems as well.

The second area involves ensuring that providers are focused on numeracy. For the current spending review period, we have set separate literacy and numeracy targets. We will expect all providers to screen their literacy students for numeracy skills needs. Above all, no learner should complete a Government-funded course at level 2 without their basic skills being assessed and addressed.

Thirdly, we need more qualified teachers to support adults with unhappy memories of school. We have extended existing incentive schemes, including £9,000 bursaries and £4,000 golden hellos to attract more numeracy teacher trainees. We have funded the development of flexible routes into skills for life teaching involving accelerated and top-up courses. Altogether, we have £1 billion per year for skills for life funding, and I will shortly be launching a strategic plan for numeracy that sets out how we will ensure value for money on that investment—not just for basic skills, but at every level.

We must consign to the past the notion that it is okay to be rubbish at maths. In the same way that it is unacceptable for an adult not to be able to read, it should be unthinkable that any adult cannot perform basic mathematical functions. Anyone in that position needs our help, but they will also benefit from living in a society that regards numeracy as necessary, exciting and enabling.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, and a great pleasure to take part in such an important debate.

I pass on apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who would have loved to take his place here this afternoon but has been unavoidably detained. I have stepped into the breach at fairly late notice to carry out his responsibilities. However, I assure the Minister that my hon. Friend’s absence has nothing to do with the acid put-down that he received in the Chamber this morning from a certain hon. Member who shall remain nameless.

Developing the nation’s skills to maximise economic prosperity and improve social justice is an ambition that I am sure everyone here shares. Leitch was right to set policy makers the challenging ambition of making the United Kingdom a world leader in skills by 2020.

In a perfect world, every school leaver would have skills suitable for an independent life and schemes such as this one would be unnecessary, but the dream could not be further from reality now as more than 40,000 young people finish school functionally illiterate or innumerate. It is a scandal that anyone should leave school after 12 years of compulsory education without being able to read, write or count.

Nevertheless, the Government’s failure in our schools is no slight against the skills for life programme. In 2001, a report commissioned from the now Lord Moser stated:

“Seven million people have poor literacy and numeracy skills… This has disastrous consequences for the individuals concerned, weakens the country’s ability to compete in the global economy and places a huge burden on society. People with poor literacy, numeracy and language skills tend to be on lower incomes or unemployed, and they are more prone to ill health and social exclusion.”

I am sure the Minister agrees that that analysis still holds true today.

The skills for life programme was and, unfortunately, still is important in trying to skill those more than 40,000 school leavers who have been failed by the school system. I am encouraged that skills for life has met its overall targets this year, and I hope that people who leave school without basic skills use the programme to widen their opportunities as individuals, but the Government should never be complacent, and they should not be happy with the status quo. I am sure that the Minister is not happy with it.

At the beginning of the month, the National Audit Office published the report, “Skills for Life: Progress in Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy”, which outlines several areas where the programme needs to improve to fulfil its potential and increase its value. Ministers should be seriously concerned that numeracy is improving much more slowly than literacy. Only 10 numeracy qualifications have been achieved for every 100 people with numeracy skills below the level of a good GCSE grade A* to C. It is no surprise, therefore, that the report also highlights the lack of numeracy teachers attracted to the scheme. In 2006, the number of numeracy teachers was lower than 6,100, compared with more than 9,000 teachers of literacy. The report also highlighted the fact that only 35 per cent. of the teachers hold relevant qualifications, although it was good to hear the Minister say that a recruitment drive is on to improve the situation.

Following the Leitch review of skills, the Government set a target that, by 2020, 95 per cent. of the adult population should have functional numeracy at entry level 3, which equates to the level expected of an 11-year-old. Bodies such as the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education have expressed serious concern that the target will not be met. Much more attention is needed to boost both demand and supply of classes. It is vital that such issues are addressed thoroughly in the Department’s numeracy plan.

The second area that needs serious and urgent attention is the programme’s failure to have an impact on the hardest-to-reach adults. The NIACE states that people with the lowest level of skills have barely been touched by the skills for life strategy. It is obviously a huge worry that the target-driven nature of skills for life has, in the opinion of the NIACE, led to providers neglecting entry level provision as

“it does not contribute to the PSA targets”.

We endorse the conclusion in the report that to engage hard-to-reach learners, voluntary organisations at the heart of local communities must play a bigger role in skills for life. As the report and the NIACE conclude, local groups are best placed to identify the needs of learners in their community. We urge the Government to implement the report’s suggestions.

Another group of people to whom the strategy has given little attention is the elderly, yet that group has the highest concentration of people with literacy and numeracy problems of any in society. One area in which older adults typically need reskilling is financial literacy. Changes to the way people handle their money such as chip and PIN, online banking and an increase in direct debit have left many older people behind. As we continue to find through skills for life, older adults are harder to engage.

A survey by Help the Aged identified several barriers to participation in adult education. For example, 39 per cent. of older people agree that adult education courses are out of their price range, 37 per cent. say they have no access to transport to get to the courses on offer, a disturbing 64 per cent. are concerned about the threat of crime when they go out and 43 per cent. agree that there is not enough information on what adult education courses are available. At the very least, the Government need to consider, before implementation, the impact that policies will have on upskilling and reskilling the elderly.

Surely the cultural barriers to learning for the elderly were enormously exacerbated by the Government’s decision to cut funding to adult and community learning. Numeracy rates and engagement with the hardest to reach are disappointing, but if the Government carefully study the NAO report and implement its recommendations, they will find that both are areas that can and will improve.

The one area in which there is continued underachievement is the Train to Gain programme. The take-up of skills for life through Train to Gain was expected to reach 62,808 at the start of 2008. By the end of January 2008, there were only 34,250 skills for life learners. As the NIACE argued, that failing reflects the narrow focus of Train to Gain. The fundamental problems of Train to Gain cannot be underestimated. The NIACE says:

“'The concentration of funding on Train to Gain over the next few years (over £1 billion by 2010-2011), and the consequent decrease in funding for other programmes, is dangerously close to putting all our eggs in one basket.”

Skills for life has made progress and is to be applauded. We all want a society in which every school leaver has the skills to be able to live a prosperous and fulfilling life, but achieving targets and ticking boxes should not lead to a complacent Government. The NAO report clearly spells out numerous areas in which the programme should improve. It is a moral scandal that in 2008 there are so many people who could not even read the NAO report.

I am afraid that I do not have the nicely crafted speech of my two predecessors. I put my notes together at rather short notice. I was also slightly uncertain when I saw the title of the debate as to whether we were discussing the narrow skills for life and basic skills agenda, or whether we were considering the skills that we need to develop, improve and extend over a lifetime. Therefore, I will dip a bit between the two, particularly as I could not let today go by without making a few comments about the next stage of our equality programme, which we launched today with the Equality Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiry that I chaired and presented us with a number of good examples of how we could promote opportunities to extend skills for women. I would like to touch on that matter fairly briefly at the end.

My hon. Friend started off by talking about maths, and I have a nice local example to relate on that matter. Last year, the “Aimhigher” campaign invited the schools in Derbyshire to take all their pupils who were capable of getting A to C grades in their maths but were falling behind for a variety of reasons—they could not be bothered, they played around at the back of the classroom, or they had never worked out how to concentrate—to the university of Derby for a day. Those pupils got a flavour of being in a university, which they otherwise would not have got. They also had some specialist teaching by people who taught in rather different ways. They were shown how to think about maths in a different way. Being out of the classroom was a new experience. The enthusiasm with which those young people took to it was great. It is important to think of different ways in which to learn. We should also stick with the younger age group. Getting them to have the basic skills by the time they leave school is what we really want.

One of my other nice experiences was going to the reading challenge in our local libraries last year. Derbyshire county council has run such a scheme for many a year, but it has been enhanced by the reading challenge and the fact that Members of Parliament have been given a pile of books to take to our summer reading schemes. Taking children from the Sure Start programmes and getting them into a library to realise what fun it is to read is a great way to enhance learning.

With regard to skills, we have our agenda to ensure that young people stay on in education—either in school or at work. However, raising the skills of future generations of young people is only one part of the story. More than 70 per cent. of those who will be of working age in the UK in 2020 are already over the age of 16. We obviously need to focus on those who do not have the basic skills by the time they leave school and also those whose skills we need to enhance at a later stage.

What we are now doing to give adults a right to basic and intermediate skills training, and to give them a second chance to gain basic skills for employability without having to pay for those courses, is clearly an important and valuable development, which I applaud. There is a role in this area not just for the Government but for employers and others, which leads me on to my most positive examples. For many years, I worked for the National Union of Public Employees, before it became part of Unison, and taking part in union courses was one of the most enjoyable things that I have ever done. Trade unions have played a great role, historically and more recently, in developing training.

I remember many years ago, my union being among the first to try to look at the basic skills of some of its members. I remember a course for staff at the university of London, which the union took forward. The Union Learning Fund’s work in enhancing skills is invaluable. My own union in Derbyshire has a Train to Gain programme with Derbyshire county council. I think that we should use every channel that we have to enhance training.

The chair of my local learning and skills council is the owner of the country’s largest privately owned construction company, and he is a real advocate for training. I am not sure whether I am meant to say this, but when his employees, or the employees of his subcontractors, are considering taking a health and safety course, his company takes the opportunity to suss out whether or not they have their basic skills. If they do not, the company tries to wean them on to basic skills training.

One of the local schools in my constituency, Aldercar community language college, started to address basic literacy and numeracy problems with a fervour before we, as a Government, started to give it a big push. I remember seeing the room that the school had set aside for those who were falling behind. The school also asked the parents to come along to encourage their children, which gave it the opportunity to help some of the parents who did not have the basic skills. Therefore, we need to use every trick in the book to enhance those skills at every age.

Our local learning and skills council gave me some figures for Derbyshire. We have certainly made progress with regard to those who have reached the skills for life 2010 PSA targets. In 2005-06, 5,935 adults had been helped through all the funding streams—through colleges, community providers, European Social Fund projects and so on—to reach that level. In 2006-07, the figure had risen quite substantially to 7,573. Significant increases are planned at the next functional level— entry level 3 numeracy and literacy—for the next year, and there are 1,719 planned places for functional levels in 2008-09 with the further education colleges alone. Therefore, a lot of work is going on in Derbyshire and in my area and, I am sure, around the country. It is important that that progresses.

I should like to mention other areas of development. The education maintenance allowance has been invaluable in encouraging young people to stay on at school. It is another development that I certainly like to applaud. In the last year in Derbyshire, 7,230 pupils were receiving that allowance at the last count. That has to have had an impact on the rising levels of those who are staying on in education, which is so important. In addition, the schemes and programmes in place to enable young people to carry on education in a work-related environment has to have helped with the progress that is being made to cut the number of NEETs—those who are not in education, employment or training.

I shall give two examples from local schools. I am in debate with education Ministers about whether several of my excellent schools with high-performing specialist status in deprived areas are somehow starting to fall slightly foul of the complicated new formulae that are coming along, but I think that they are doing an excellent job in pushing them forward.

Swanwick Hall school’s NEET levels have fallen from 12 to 4 per cent. over three years, and those of Aldercar community language college, which is in a very deprived part of my constituency, have fallen from 9.3 to 4.1 per cent. That shows that we are being successful in keeping people in education and training.

Other programmes that are well worth applauding include the apprenticeship programme which we are developing. It is important and exciting. Apart from what we are planning to do, apprenticeships in Derbyshire have already doubled over the past three years to 2,087, which is above the east midlands and national average, which I am pleased about.

The young apprenticeship programme is important because it enables youngsters who might not be excited about other forms of education to get a feel for it. I had a depressing experience with equalities and gender issues at Aldercar school. A girl wanted to go into the construction programme as a tribute to her Dad, who was in the construction industry, but her father told her that it was not appropriate for her, so she ended up doing a completely different course and not doing what she wanted. She was discouraged by family pressure.

I was delighted when I went to Collis Engineering, which builds signal gantries for the railways, and saw a young woman of 14 or 15 from one of my local schools who was on the young apprentice scheme. The people working there, of all ages, had adopted her, decided that she was wonderful, and were trying to persuade her not to go back to school, but to remain working with them. That was a positive experience for her of work in an area that she might not otherwise have thought of going into, and where she was able to learn some of the skills of being at work.

Incidentally, when I went there and before going on to the shop floor, I was talking with one of the young managers who asked me whether I had been summoned to see the Chief Whip. That was when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was our Chief Whip, and when I asked what he meant, he said that he had been in her class during her last year of teaching. I asked whether she was any good, and he said that she was a fantastically good teacher. So not only is she a good Home Secretary but she was a good teacher, which is probably why she was a good education Minister.

Our apprenticeship programmes are important. We must develop skills for the future to be a high-class, high-skill area. We have pretty good levels of employment in my area, but it is often not well paid or skilled. We need to upgrade skills, although it is an area that traditionally had fantastic skills. With you in the Chair, Sir Nicholas, I must mention the textile industry. We were at the heart of the industrial revolution with the old textile mills and the brilliant skills in the industry. They have transferred to modern textile technology, and the skills still exist and are needed. For example, Advanced Composites in my constituency makes the materials from which formula 1 cars are made. If the drivers knew that that was a textile-based technology, they might be worried.

There are plenty of other areas where we need skills—for example, many apprentices go on to Rolls-Royce for their training. The course that I mentioned for youngsters who were not achieving their GCSE levels had a high-flying maths group and put together a film showing all the jobs requiring maths. It included Rolls-Royce, which for them was rather commonplace because lots of people work there. It included social security offices, where figures are worked out to show what benefits people should be paid, which is interesting. But the one that really hit them was the banking profession, where people were making a fortune. The youngsters’ eyes lit up and one could see them thinking that that would not be such a bad job to go into. That was another way of trying to show people that skills are needed and worth developing because something good could come out of that.

I cannot remember exactly what the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) said about the Train to Gain programme, but he expressed concern about the way in which it could develop. I have been given a number of positive examples of the way in which Train to Gain has been used in a number of Derbyshire companies. The first comes from a local charity, which said:

“As a charity our budget for training is very limited, equally, our staff would not be able to afford to pay for the training themselves, so the Train to Gain service is fantastic. Under the scheme, I currently have three carers training to level NVQ 2 and a new member of staff who is undertaking induction training."

It then expanded on that. A Derbyshire company, Aqua-Jet Specialist Drainage Contractors Ltd, which is unblocking the potential of its staff with help from Train to Gain said:

“In recent years the drainage jetting industry has been labelled as a ‘cowboy industry’ as it’s very common to find drainage contractors on sites without standard PPE or basic health and safety training.”

It is now saying that the skills gap is being bridged with the help of Train to Gain in getting people up to NVQ level 2. A glazing company in Eckington said:

“Eckington Glass has always been a family business and the traditions associated with that, such as excellent customer service, are very important to us as we go forward into the 21st Century…As part of our continuous improvement we have arranged for our Office Staff to undertake their NVQ Level 2 in office administration, dealing with subjects such as telephone techniques and promoting our customer service ethic, through Train to Gain”.

I hear many positive examples of how Train to Gain can be used to upgrade skills and to persuade more people to obtain the skills that they need for employment. That is important, and should be applauded. We have a number of programmes that are extremely useful.

One programme that I did not mention, but which is close to my heart, is the “entry to employment” programme. In Amber Valley, we have a very good sports development programme, and last week I had the honour of meeting Jonathan Edwards with my neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who knew everything about how far Jonathan Edwards had leapt as an Olympic gold medallist. My hon. Friend was a marathon runner and walker in his youth.

As we are focusing on the Olympics, I must mention my local Amber Valley sports development programme, which works with the Learning and Skills Council and the E2E programme. Young people who did not even bother to go in for exams start at a low level as sports monitors putting the mats away, and are gradually pulled into the programme and end up being sports coaches. Some of them have gone all the way through to training at Loughborough college and taking up coaching as a profession. That is another way of enhancing skills and pulling disaffected people into the skills nexus so that they can then develop, and it is encouraging.

I shall briefly mention today’s statement on the Equality Bill. Although girls are doing well in getting into universities and other educational areas—there is now often a problem with boys underachieving in schools—girls and women tend to go into specific career choices and we end up with a huge gender pay gap. That was described during the debate in the Chamber this morning.

A number of proposals were suggested by the inquiry that I chaired for the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee on how to encourage and enhance the position of women. One area is how to give women the opportunity to go into non-traditional employment, because they usually go into a limited number of the available apprenticeship schemes. We also looked at the fact that the apprenticeships that girls go into tend to have a lower pay rate than those that boys go into.

As a result of our proposals and moves by Ministers, the Low Pay Commission has now been asked to look at pay rates for apprenticeships to see whether apprentices should be on the minimum wage. Similarly, we have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to look at apprenticeships to break down some of the barriers. It is interesting that girls will go into hairdressing, which is typically seen as a girls’ trade—indeed, it is a very good, portable trade—but that the top stylists, such as Vidal Sassoon, are men. Given what people can achieve, hairdressing can be a good trade to go into, but it does not always work out to have prospects for women.

There are several aspects to enhancing skills and enabling girls and women to get the training and education that they need to break down some of the barriers. In their response to our report, the Government set out several of the ways in which they have responded to some of the issues that we raised. For example, they have introduced proposals to promote flexibility in the training offered by adult education providers so that women can fit their training needs in with their family responsibilities. They are also looking not only at getting women into non-traditional areas of work to break down the barriers there, but at how woman can advance in their traditional areas of work. For example, some of the programmes that are being introduced under the pathways initiative are giving women workers in food manufacturing NVQ 3 training to enable them to advance and become supervisors or team leaders. Such issues are important. Other initiatives include providing funding for skills coaching and the Train to Gain level 3 pilots, such as the one that I just mentioned.

It is important that we tackle education in a way that enables young girls to break down some of the traditional patterns that they would be expected to follow and that enables women to get the training that they need to move into other areas and to progress up the ladder in traditional areas of employment. At the same time, we must prevent women who have gone back to work after having children, and who might have been doing very well before they left, from slipping back because they need additional training to re-grade and upskill themselves. There are therefore a number of areas in which education, the skills agenda and improving basic skills will be critical if we are to meet our objectives not only of upgrading skills but of promoting equality. We will miss out on future economic development if we neglect the skills of a substantial part of the population.

I was pleased with one of the proposals in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s presentation earlier, because it tied into proposals from our Select Committee report. It related to the use of public procurement, which is another tool for upskilling people. In two of its reports—one specifically on public procurement and one on the gender pay gap—the Select Committee has argued that the duty on public authorities to promote gender equality means that they must check that the employers to whom they give contracts for goods and services seek to promote equality. That was a major part of the Secretary of State’s statement.

There are examples of such practices, which highlight not only the promotion of gender equality—whom employers employ and on what grades—but the use of public procurement to advance apprenticeships and training. As part of its commitment, the Olympic Delivery Authority, for example, has been giving contracts to building firms in the east end of London that seek to get young, black and unemployed people into training.

Similarly, when we were told that we could not legally use public procurement in terms of European law, we contested that. I took the time out to talk to the person putting in bids for contracts for another major building company. He was using the carrot of saying that the company would develop apprenticeships in the local area to persuade one of our local authorities to give his firm a contract under the Building Schools for the Future programme. So these things can work both ways.

If we are to enhance people’s skills, we must be imaginative in so many different ways. We must use Government action, concrete programmes and the learning and skills programme, as well as giving people money to enhance their skills and working in different ways at school. Only then will we start to crack the massive problem of ensuring that everybody has the basic skills that they need and that they can extend those skills. When we do that, we will be able to ensure that we have the skilled work force that Britain needs to make its way in the future. People will be able to enjoy their lives, be interested in them and increase their skills, which will ensure that they can work and live their lives to the full.

We are talking about a very exciting agenda, and there are many factors that we must take into account, but there are also many opportunities, and we need to be as imaginative as possible in drawing people into the learning community and into learning for life.

Let me say what a pleasure it is to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of so doing, and your reputation goes before you. Let me also say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber)—taking this agenda into constituency territory brings what we are discussing alive. There is a danger that this afternoon will be a giant love-in because we all support what the Government are doing to deal not only with the wider skills agenda but with the skills agenda for those with the greatest needs.

I compliment the Government on the fact that the series of reports and inquires that we have had over the past 10 years indicate a genuine commitment to resolving what has been an appalling stain on the UK’s educational landscape for generations. The principle that education is somehow for our best young people and that skills are for the rest is something that we challenge. I do not say that in a party political sense, however, because we have all been guilty of saying good things but never putting them into practice.

Perhaps I could start, however, with a word of caution. Sandy Leitch’s seminal inquiry was incredibly important in directing attention to what must be achieved by 2020. The interesting thing about it was that Sandy Leitch was challenging the British establishment at all levels—not only Parliament, but our employers and our educational establishments, including our universities, colleges and private sector providers. He was challenging everybody to up their game by 2020, and that was the first time that that had happened. We have often seen inquiries about higher or further education or some other aspect of education, but this inquiry brought everything together. Although there is a lot in Lord Leitch’s report that still needs to be challenged, his analysis was incredibly important in concentrating our minds.

However, one thing worries me a little. Since Lord Leitch published his report “World Class Skills”, the Government have been at pains to accept his recommendations, and it was important that they did not put such a major piece of work on a shelf somewhere. But what have we seen since then? In November 2007, the Government published “Adult Learning and Skills: Investing in the first steps”. In the same month, we also saw “Opportunity, employment and progression: making skills work”, “Train to Gain: A plan for growth”, which upgraded the Train to Gain programme, and “Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16—from policy to legislation”.

We had a little break in December, but in January we had another report, “Informal Adult Learning—Shaping the Way Ahead”. Indeed, January was busy, because we then had “World-class Apprenticeships: Unlocking Talent, Building Skills for All—The Government’s strategy for the future of Apprenticeships in England”. January got even busier, with “Ready to Work, Skilled for Work”—obviously civil servants worked all Christmas, and did nothing but produce reports—which was subtitled “Unlocking Britain’s Talent”. Then in February we had an analytical discussion paper, “Life Chances: Supporting people to get on in the labour market”, followed in March by “Raising Expectations: enabling the system to deliver” and in April by “Higher Education at Work—High Skills: High Value”.

It has been a hectic programme and perhaps I can say, in a genuine spirit of comradeship—if I can still use that word to a Labour Minister—that there is a danger of the Government’s micro-managing a system when they have the will of both employers and the political establishment, including all the political parties, to move forward. There is a need now to allow people to blossom and deliver some of what is envisaged, and be trusted to do that.

The Moser report was for me, as probably it was for many colleagues, a stark reminder, with its figures of 7 million functionally illiterate people and 2.5 million functionally innumerate adults. I was a head teacher for 20-odd years before I came to the House, and a teacher for 32 years, and I felt that that was an indictment of me and my career. It was an example of how the school system had failed so many young people and continued to fail generations throughout my working life. That is quite a hard thing to say in the House of Commons, but we do not say it often enough. The fact that literacy and numeracy are crucial to every section of society, including the elderly, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) mentioned, means that the skills for life programme is of far greater significance than any of the others in related areas that the Government are running. It is crucial.

The fact that the scheme has exceeded its target two years ahead of time, and that some 2.29 million adults have improved their basic skills up to level 2, is something for which the Minister and his colleagues should rightly pat themselves on the back. It is well worth noting. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which is not noted for its undying support for the Government, states in a briefing:

“Skills for Life is a world-class programme—a strategic, significantly funded and comprehensive attempt over more than one electoral cycle seeking to improve the literacy, language and numeracy skills of a significant number of people.”

I echo that. However, NIACE goes on to say—because it always has a “but”, as indeed do most politicians:

“But there is plenty of room for further improvement”—

it is like one of my school reports—

“and achieving our targets should not make us complacent, as the most marginalised learners are yet to be reached.”

That is a stark reminder that we are just at the start of a journey, not its end.

I was struck, during the Minister’s remarks, by the fact that he rarely mentioned links with his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. If I have one concern about the present agenda, it is about the changes in Government that have split the education world from the skills world. However, those two agendas need to mesh much more closely than ever before. Perhaps the Minister will deal in his closing remarks with ensuring a seamless progression between them, rather than two separate set-ups. It is interesting that in the first three years of the skills for life programme virtually half the resources that were spent by his Department were spent on 16 to 19-year-olds. I do not think that that is core business; it is core business for another Department. The Minister’s Department should be raising its game in participating in the agenda that we are debating. Perhaps the Minister will say how that will gel.

There is a need, as we drive forward, constantly to appraise the effective management of the scheme and consider the relevance of targets. The targets need to be changed. Important policy decisions such as those on funding of English for speakers of other languages must be returned to; non-qualification-based access, particularly for the older population and the group of young people not in education, employment or training, is also relevant. However, the No. 1 challenge that I want to set, which is fundamental to the basic group of learners that we are considering, is the confidence of the learner in getting access to training, at whatever level. No matter how much money, training or opportunity is made available, unless people want to take part in it, it is pretty valueless. That is a challenge, because to date skills for life has been successful largely where people have recognised their need and have had the confidence to come forward. They have seen the value in gaining qualifications, which they have often missed at school. There is a danger that we constantly see qualifications as a proxy for skills. In doing so, we turn off, or turn away, those who have been frightened of qualifications all their lives. That is important to remember.

What I am saying applies to entry-level provision, which must be the biggest target for the Government. I should like the Minister to outline what he will do for the relevant group. Analysis of the skills for life figures shows that only roughly 2 per cent. of those who are hardest to reach have been reached. That means that 98 per cent. of the most difficult to reach are still out there. I do not have a clever solution; if I had, I would readily share it with the Minister. It is a big challenge to all political parties and to society in general to solve the problem. However, formal mechanisms will not work—not sufficiently.

Before I came to the House I was a head teacher in east Leeds. The hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) was my MP, and both his children were in my school. The hon. Gentleman and I recognised that we were failing huge populations of young people in the Seacroft, Swarcliffe and Gipton estates, and that our kids were not part of the prosperity in Leeds, which was a buoyant financial and commercial centre that was racing ahead. They were kept apart and quite separate. The hon. Gentleman and I, with others, set up the East Leeds Learning Centre, which is still going, and our aim was to try to pick up people who had left school, and the single mums and young adults on the estates, who were without work, hope or future, and bring them into a learning environment. Frankly, it did not matter what they did, provided that they started to engage with it. The centre still operates today and remains highly successful. A significant number of the young people in question have come out of their estates and gone to universities, and have good careers.

We did things differently because the hon. Member for Leeds, East was able to persuade the powers that be in Leeds to give us money to do things outside the box. It is important to do things differently if we are going to get to those who are hardest to reach. That means working in communities. The Minister serves one of the poorest communities in Britain—apart from those who actually go to see Tottenham Hotspur on a Saturday. He will realise that getting those young people and young adults, or even older people, into learning centres is a no-go area. We need the leaders of learning to go out and work with where people are—in their communities, their pubs, the clubs, their social groups and everywhere else—in order to engage them. We cannot engage them by putting a form in front of them and asking them to sign up for a particular course or qualification. It does not work like that. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on the flexibility of funding and organisation necessary to achieve something.

If the Minister were to visit Islington, just past King’s Cross, he would see the multi-billion pound redevelopment that has taken place in the area, yet some of the poorest communities live on the nearby estates. I visited a project called Spark Plug Yard, where some of the most disadvantaged, switched-off, difficult youngsters were engaged on a motorcycle project. They came in to ride motorbikes. Those youngsters were nicking bikes and riding them around the estates, and the idea was to buy some bikes and let the youngsters ride them at the club without causing difficulty—and they did. Before they were allowed on the bikes, they had to learn how to ride them. That was partly to engage them in learning how the bike worked. One step on was for them to gain basic mechanics qualifications. The next step was for them to train as mechanics, so that they could get jobs and move on. It is that sort of interesting thinking, like some of the things mentioned by the hon. Member for Amber Valley, that will make such a difference at entry level.

The one thing that disaffected learners suffer more than anything else—it is the same with the youngsters in the Minister’s constituency as it is in the poorer parts of mine—is a lack of self-confidence. The kids lack self-confidence, their parents lack it and their communities lack it. Unless we can build self-confidence, we will not move forward. Learning must therefore be convenient to the learner. It must be free at the point of entry. The individual skills accounts—I support them, just as I support the individual learning accounts—are one of the best ways to achieve that. Once young people are hooked, we can say, “We not only trust you, but we value you so much that here is a lump of money for you to spend on your future.”

That is a really powerful message for us to take forward, but it is risky. The Public Accounts Committee may write a report saying that money has been wasted here and that this could have been better ordered, but I believe that we have to start taking risks. The sums involved will be relatively small compared with the gains that could be made over those individuals’ lifetimes. In that respect, I hope that we will see some courage.

The Minister has rightly pointed out on a number of occasions that most of those with literacy and numeracy problems are to be found in the workplace. They are not sitting at home doing nothing, but are active in the workplace. They are poorly paid, and their work is often seasonal. They can be easily dismissed, and often move from job to job, but generally they are working. We spend too much time talking about those who do not work, rather than those who do.

The hon. Member for Reading, East was right about Train to Gain: it is not reaching some of those on the lowest rungs of the ladder. The Government missed their target for January 2008 by 28,630. That was a significant drop. I do not pretend that it is easy, but the employers are being given free money. They are given the money to train people, but the people do not want to be trained and the employers do not want to train them. Why is that? What has happened as a result? It is a real challenge. Will the Minister say what sort of ideas the Department is thinking of?

An employer might say that it was not worth training the hon. Member for Reading, East because he could get someone with reasonable skills from eastern Europe to do the job without training; and the hon. Gentleman—I presume by this point that he has lost his seat—may say, “I’m not interested in training. I just want to do my bit of work, and go home to watch the football” or whatever. We need to break that cycle. Unless we can find a way to break in and incentivise people, it will be difficult.

One billion pounds will be spent on Train to Gain by 2011. Surely it is worth pulling a lump out of that sum to tackle the problem. The reality is that roughly 6 million people are working in unskilled jobs. In 10 years’ time, we will need at most 1 million and probably only half that. In other words, 5 million people will have no job. At the same time, we will need another 5 million people with skills in order to run our economy. It is not rocket science to communicate with people, telling them that they will not have jobs in 10 years’ time unless we move through this problem. The Chancellor needs to get those people into work in order to get the taxes in order to pay for everything else. A compact needs to be made with those who have low skills or no skills in order to move forward.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Reading, East mentioned the elderly. The hon. Member for Amber Valley said in her opening remarks that she was not sure whether the debate was about learning basic skills or learning for life. I was glad that she said so, because we constantly forget that skills for life should mean exactly that—the whole plethora of learning. Roughly 9 per cent. of 65 to 74-year-olds and between 7 per cent. and 8 per cent. of the over-75s are engaged in learning. Two in 10 have access to a computer. However, a significant number—nearly 1.5 million—cannot read the forms that their doctor sends them, and cannot access NHS Direct.

It is important that we try to ensure that no one is left out of society because they do not have the relevant skills. The interesting thing—I confess that I have a vested interest in saying this—is that it would be a cost-effective investment for the state to continue to engage the elderly in education and skills training for as long as is humanly possible. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions in order to consider the issue in the round?

I return to the main issue raised by the Minister, that of numeracy. I am pleased that he concentrated on that. I am good at mathematics. I am really, really good. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Amber Valley says from a sedentary position that she, too, is very good at mathematics. The number of people that would make that statement in a public forum can be counted on a couple of hands. It is a badge of honour to say, “I really struggle with reading” or “I can’t write”. That is okay, but we would be condemned for saying that we were good. We have to deal with that.

On a discordant note, I think that the Minister is falling into the same trap of having low expectations. The Department now includes Professor Smith, who has done major work on mathematics, and the Williams commission is looking at primary mathematics. Two of the leading figures in the world in maths are working in adjoining Departments. I have a lot of hope for that issue.

The Government’s target for literacy discusses reaching level 1, but their target for numeracy is for people to reach level 3. They expect 590,000 people of working age to achieve a first level 1 or above in literacy, yet only 390,000 to achieve a first level 3 or above in numeracy. Even though the target for maths is much lower, we expect fewer people to reach it. That sends out the wrong signals, just as it does in schools, where we accept that children can achieve level 4 or 5 in their SATs at the end of key stage 2, but it is somehow okay not to do quite as well in maths. That is certainly the case at the end of key stage 4 with GCSEs. I hope that we will up those targets and set much more ambitious ones in future.

I am pretty sure that I speak for the Liberal Democrats when I say that we want to engage productively in a debate about the whole schools agenda and empowerment through education and training. It is important that the Minister continues to engage the House and the political parties in a constructive dialogue, and that we do not go back to the system where we bandy insults across the Dispatch Box and the only losers are the people who have lost throughout their lives.

There are few of us in Westminster Hall this afternoon, but this has been a good debate. I am grateful for the contributions, the manner in which the debate has been held and the passion with which people have talked of the importance of skills for life, literacy and numeracy and the challenge facing this country. That applies to everyone who has spoken. I shall go through the issues raised in turn.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) began by talking about schools in this country. It is important to stress that the context in Britain has arisen over many decades and has included Governments of different colours and descriptions. Britain’s industrial heritage has made it possible for someone with low skills to find good employment and provide for a family. He might remember the old CSE/GCSE divide. Many millions of people were streamed off to do CSEs, and many did not attain the highest grade of CSE. Many of those, now adults, require skills for life programmes and the ability to retain maths skills and literacy in a way that was not available to them at school.

In many constituencies across the country, whether in constituencies with multiple deprivation or constituencies with pockets of deprivation, many young people and their parents live chaotic lives and, for that reason, do not receive the kind of education that we all desire for them. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned that people have left school and can still do so without the appropriate numeracy and literacy skills, but it is important to put the subject in context as we think about the challenges that lie ahead.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the scale of the challenge of finding the work force—of finding the teachers that we need—particularly to teach numeracy. I am pleased that we have been able to offer £9,000 bursaries to attract teachers of numeracy. We have a range of part-time and full-time teachers teaching basic skills in the further education sector. We will probably need to double the amount of numeracy teachers at least three times over the next few years if we are to deliver the scale of the Leitch ambition by 2020. Colleagues at the Department for Children, Schools and Families have seen success in schools as a result of their bursary, which is less at about £4,000 or £5,000. I hope that we will increasingly see that sort of success in the FE sector as well, as we seek to attract teachers to the FE work force to join us in the challenge.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the elderly. I hope that he will be pleased to hear that we are in the midst of a consultation on informal adult learning, which is engaging organisations such as the university of the third age in order to help us ensure that many of the elderly particularly those who are isolated, get access to education, learning and opportunities. I also hope that he will note the work of our unions, which often work with people over 55 in the work force, which of course is ageing. Often, it is not a Minister or a teacher but a fellow worker who has done a course, gives someone a nudge and says, “Have you thought about this?” who makes the difference.

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the work of trade union learning representatives? It is important that we as a Government have given them status and opportunities to carry out their work and do precisely what he said. In my experience, unions have been a great force historically for encouraging education.

I was coming to precisely that point. The work of the 18,500 union learning representatives across the country has been incredible, and we must put on record what a contribution they have made. Last week I was at the Boots distribution centre in Greenwich, which will unfortunately close within the next two years. The work of the centre’s manager to get people on courses, supported by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, has been incredible. It transforms the lives not only of the learners but of their families. They will leave Boots, but they will move into employment, and some of them will progress into even better employment as a result of those courses. I was proud to give them their certificates.

My hon. Friend mentioned her previous role as a National Union of Public Employees representative. I wish to put on record the work that that union has done over many years. My mother was a member of NUPE. Sadly, she died just a few months ago, so I am in that period of reflecting on someone’s life. The other day, I was in the kitchen of my family home, and on the wall were her basic certificates. Without the support of her union, at a difficult time in her life—she had five children to raise on her own without much money coming in—I would not be here today. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to put on record the fact that we have standardised that work and that more funding is available, which makes a huge difference. To some extent, my ability to contribute in this debate is testimony to that.

I was very grateful for the manner in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made his remarks, and of course he has many years’ expertise in this area. He was right to concentrate on the scale of the ambition and to indicate the confidence that is a key issue for the communities and people about whom we are talking. I am sure that he would agree that in parts of his constituency—and certainly in constituencies such as mine—there are five ingredients to success: good-quality education; good-quality and sustained—not jobs just for a month or two—employment; an aspirational culture, which is difficult; the community being at the centre; and far more work on parenting. The real joy of skills for life is that when it works it covers all five areas.

The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted me to give him some confidence that we really understood that. I can tell him then that we are increasing the budget for family learning, because we understand that the family are at the centre of many communities—I am thinking in particular of Traveller communities and others that have been here for many decades, such as the Bangladeshi and Bengali communities. We want to work with mothers and children and help them to make the necessary steps to literacy and numeracy, which is why we are increasing those budgets.

I have talked already about the important work of unions. The hon. Gentleman is right that a lot more needs to be done in Train to Gain, but we should recognise the successes achieved so far. The programme is relatively young—less than a couple of years old. Money is in place for hard-to-reach companies, which we define as those that have not invested recently in training. Across the country, those benefiting from Train to Gain are those who have not had training in the past—this is not dead weight. We are reaching into new places. Last year, employers spent £38 billion on training, and the Government have about £5 billion to spend on skills. It is important that we lever in our money in a way that has the most effect, and that we hit the places that employers might not touch were we not there. That is where skills for life comes in so acutely and importantly.

It is right for the Government to have something to say on qualifications. All of us here probably have qualifications, so if our constituents turf us out at the next election, we would have the means with which to apply for a new job and to demonstrate the skills from which we have benefited. In the past, local short courses, based solely on entry-level certification by a particular college, left people ill-equipped to progress across the system, to more from town to town and county to county and to demonstrate where they had come from and where they were going. That is why we have insisted on qualifications. Given the current low level of skills, ours is a huge ambition: that 95 per cent. of the country have the appropriate literacy and numeracy skills by 2020. We are talking about entry level 3 for numeracy and slightly higher for literacy.

We are starting from a low base, however. As I, and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, indicated in our earlier contributions, at about the age of 12 or 13, people switch off from maths at school, and never switch back on. We will publish further elements of our strategy over the coming months, but we have a big task to get that message across. He will have seen the adverts on television tempting people back on to courses, but he is right to indicate that we must reach out to communities and where people are at. We need a cadre of people with the necessary skills across our work force, which is why we are working with companies such as McDonald’s and Microsoft, which has a wonderful online resource. We are working in all sorts of ways to get the message across.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley mentioned how such work is bearing fruit in her area. The contribution from unions is important, but it is important also to expose young people to different ways of looking at maths early on and to connect that to other opportunities. That is why we believe that participation in education, training or learning up to the age of 18. Too many young people leave school at the age of 16 and miss out on that journey. That is not appropriate. However, work is not just being done in our colleges and by the Government and the unions. We rely heavily on organisations such as the Prince’s Trust, Rathbone and Rainer, and the many other voluntary organisations working in communities.

We must remember that in constituencies such as mine many of those whom we are talking about have been in trouble with the law. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough be familiar with that. He spoke about estates in Leeds, which I know well and have visited on a few occasions. We have increased the budget for offender learning. Learning in our prisons is much better, and connections are much better between probation services and local colleges for prisoners in the community and for those who are just leaving prison. Right across the piece, we have to be in the business of securing for our population those basic skills. I do not need to repeat the figures that the hon. Gentleman used in respect of the jobs that simply will not exist. One privilege of being a Member of Parliament is the many foreign and international connections that it allows, and most of us will have visited India and countries in the far east, such as China. We know what is around the corner and what could happen to many jobs, so we understand the urgency with which we must deal with the problem. I was pleased that all Members put on the record their commitment to the Leitch agenda and to the drive that we are making in relation to it.

I hope that I have dealt with the comments in today’s debate. It has been a pleasure to lead on behalf of the Government. Some Members, watching or dipping in and out of the parliamentary channel, may have been union learning reps or have benefited from a numeracy or literacy course, and I hope that they will take heart from the fact that all present are committed to this agenda over the next 12 or so years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Four o’clock.