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BTEC (Public Uniformed Services)

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, for this debate, which is important to my constituency and my constituents and to the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education.

In this half-hour Adjournment debate, I want to highlight the important part that MOD service personnel are playing in supporting cadet forces in state schools and, in particular, the involvement of service personnel in delivering the BTEC in uniformed public services. That course and well run school cadet forces generally are making a real difference to the lives of youngsters who attend state schools. Along with the Department for Education, more than £10 million has been pledged to expand cadet units into more state schools by 2015. I understand the budget pressures that the MOD currently faces, but I want to stress that I believe that is a good use of money.

Two state schools in my constituency—Walker technology college and Heaton Manor school—have cadet forces. The benefits have a real impact on individuals. Involvement in cadet units and work on the associated BTEC teaches participants the ethos of public service, as well as beneficial life skills, such as discipline and organisation. Not every pupil encounters those virtues outside the school environment.

The head at Heaton Manor school, Lynne Ackland, told me that the cadet force at the school has had a very positive impact. Attendance and attainment has increased among participants, their physical health has improved notably, and many have had their confidence and self-esteem reinforced. She said:

“As a head teacher who was sceptical at first I have been so impressed with the achievements and presence this opportunity has brought to the school”.

The staff and individuals who offer to help with cadet forces and in teaching the BTEC show great dedication. For many staff, including Ministry of Defence service personnel, the commitment is purely voluntary. Without their efforts, many units would not be viable. For the staff, the benefits are twofold. There is the personal satisfaction of teaching youngsters—sometimes very disadvantaged youngsters—and also the personal professional development through leadership and team-working skills. For the youngsters themselves, the results are even more marked, although not always easy to quantify.

I should declare an interest here, Mr Streeter. I am, and have been since 1980, a governor of Walker school—now Walker technology college. At Walker technology college, the uniformed public services BTEC is delivered as a curricular activity via the cadet unit. The qualifications gained by the pupils currently count towards the school’s value-added best eight GCSE or equivalent points score measure. The way in which Walker technology college has offered the BTEC course has helped to give it real status, and it has been praised by the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation as an example of excellent practice. The model has even been adopted by a number of other schools. The school has seen success with the qualification, which has included groundbreaking work with the Ministry of Defence and 15 (North East) Brigade at Catterick. Both the MOD and the school have made significant financial commitments to the qualification by running the cadet unit as though it were a full curriculum department. The school also looks to offer ex-service personnel the opportunity of full-time employment, helping to staff that area.

The crucial point is that Walker technology college relies on the BTEC qualifications associated with the cadet unit being counted in the school’s performance indicators to justify its level of commitment and investment. That arrangement is different to many schools, including Heaton Manor, where the cadet unit and associated qualifications are extra-curricular. The Prime Minister, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education have publicly pledged their commitment to school cadet forces. In a previous exchange in the House, admittedly with a different Minister, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)said:

“It would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman”—

a reference to myself—

“and some of his colleagues used their links with the trade union movement to ensure the fullest possible participation among trade unions in helping to support cadet units.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 3.]

Always willing to help out in a good cause, I asked the regional secretary of the northern TUC, Mr Kevin Rowan, to check the position of the TUC-affiliated trade unions, and he very kindly did so. He contacted every schools’ trade union representative in the north-east of England, under the heading “Unusual Query of the Day”, asking for trade union representative’s views.

The quote from Walker technology college’s National Union of Teachers representative, Mr Shaun Dunlop, is typical of the rest of the responses:

“To my knowledge, there have been absolutely no objections raised by unions to the BTEC in public uniformed services that has been followed by many students at Walker over the last few years, nor to the combined cadet forces attachment we have at college. The vast majority of staff see the combined cadet forces and the BTEC course and the effect it has on the confidence of the students who are following it as a great asset to the college. Certainly nothing negative has come my way. I have personally volunteered to help out in probably more than a dozen weekends away with cadets over the last four years or so to help them gain their BTEC qualifications.”

I wrote to the Minister on 29 November last year, asking if he was aware of any specific issues relating to trade unions. I hope that the response I have read out will serve as a reassurance that, when it comes to supporting local cadet units, we are on his side in east Newcastle.

There is, however, a problem for Walker technology college, which I highlighted to the Minister in our exchange in the House, and today’s debate gives me the opportunity to highlight it again. Following the recommendations of the Wolf report and subsequent actions by the Department for Education, the uniformed public services BTEC has been removed from counting towards school performance indicators. Schools must now focus on a narrower range of courses. That puts into jeopardy the excellent provision at Walker technology college. State schools must consequently focus their funding towards courses that count towards pupil and school performance indicators. It is more difficult to justify spending funds on an activity when it would take place on a purely extra-curricular basis, as would be the case for the cadet unit at Walker technology college from 2014. That is of real concern to everyone involved and it is counter-productive, given the Government’s stated commitment in that area.

If we believe in the value of the course, which I do, it must be recognised for evaluation. If the Prime Minister and the Government generally want to realise the course’s objectives, they need to ensure its inclusion in performance indicators. The Wolf report acknowledged the growing importance of BTECs and states that many who take BTEC level 3 national qualifications continue on to higher education. I do not seek to disagree with the recommendations of the Wolf report or with the efforts of the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that significant rigour is present in the education of our children. I am, however, eager to ensure that courses that provide beneficial skills to young people are recognised and included. It seems to me that the uniformed public services BTEC and associated cadet force training is of notable merit and should be one of those recognised qualifications.

The Department for Education has made some changes to the approved list of courses that will be included in school performance indicators from 2014. I am arguing that the BTEC in uniformed public services should be on the approved list. To that end, I have already been in contact with Pearson International, the company that owns Edexcel, which runs the BTEC. Representatives have told me that they are happy to sit down with the MOD and the Department for Education to explore how that could be achieved through looking at the BTEC and how it may comply under new guidelines.

In praising what the Ministry of Defence has done in this area so far—I have nothing but praise for that—I hope to enlist the Minister’s support in progressing discussions about the uniformed public services BTEC within the Government. I know that the Secretary of State for Education is sympathetic, because he has told me so. I have the impression that the institutional view of the civil service in the Department for Education is less sympathetic. Our cause is just and therefore I hope that I can enlist the Minister’s help in championing it.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown)on initiating the debate. I am very pleased to have his heartfelt endorsement of our cadet units, particularly in view of his extraordinarily long service with Walker technology college. Serving as a governor since 1980 is extraordinary. It is very good to hear how well the BTEC to which he refers and cadet forces in general—the cadet experience—have helped improve the lives of young people. I am very grateful also for his iteration of Mr Dunlop’s testimony. It is my experience, too, that the opinion of teachers who may be a little sceptical about involvement in the cadets is often turned around once they have experience of the work that cadet volunteers do to help young people. It is always good to hear such stories.

It is worth while putting on record that one of the great things about youth in this country is the presence among them of our cadet organisations. I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not need to be convinced of that. Broadly speaking, they fall into four parts: the Combined Cadet Force, of which more anon if I have the opportunity, the Army Cadet Force, the Air Training Corps and one that is particularly close to my heart—the Sea Cadet Corps. There are 140,000 cadets in more than 3,000 units. It is worth while putting on record our thanks to the 26,000 cadet force adult volunteers, who make all this possible.

Some 530 units are based in schools across the country, either as an integral part of the school or using them simply as hired venues. Schools that have set up cadet units have seen significant benefits for their young people, their school and the local community. Students learn self-discipline, resilience and leadership, but also develop a sense of community and teamwork. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the research done by the universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, which studied cadet forces and found that 92% agreed that their leadership skills had improved through being in the cadets; 91% agreed that being in the cadets had made them want to do well in life; 91% agreed that being in the cadets had taught them to respect other people; 90% said that being in the cadets had given them a sense of community; and, very importantly, 79% agreed that being in the cadets had helped them stay out of trouble.

I think that that is impressive, and that is why we and the Department for Education are working together to deliver 100 new cadet units in state-funded schools in England by 2015 and working hard to break down the apartheid that regrettably has existed as far as the CCF is concerned between the maintained sector and public schools. Building on the Government’s Positive for Youth agenda, the Departments have allocated £10.85 million to provide the equipment and training support needed to ensure that the cadet experience is maintained for all our cadets, with schools or sponsors then paying the running costs of those new units; I shall come back to what I mean by “the cadet experience”. That is about increasing opportunities for more young people: the skills that they learn and the personal qualities that they develop as cadets prepare them for entry into the work force and life in general. We all, as constituency MPs, have seen that in practice.

In some parts of the UK, our cadets are the only presence in military uniform. Most of us who represent constituencies will be well aware of the activities of our cadets locally. We see them, particularly on parade on Remembrance Sunday. I am very pleased to note, in my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative for the commemoration of the great war, that they are already limbering up to take a very active and obvious role in local commemorations of that conflict. They are, for example, taking part in In Memoriam 2014, the War Memorials Trust effort, supported by the SmartWater Foundation, to find, record and protect every war memorial in the country by 2014.

The cadet experience varies depending on the cadet force, as it is founded in the particular environment of the parent service, with, for example, flying being the unique selling point of the Air Cadets—a point I remember well from my own schooldays. Sadly, I did not get much flying, but I got a great deal of marching. Things have, I believe, changed. It is that cadet experience, not external qualifications, that the Ministry of Defence funds. Cadets do, however, have the opportunity to gain all sorts of qualifications, whether it is a first aid certificate, a Duke of Edinburgh’s award or one of a number of BTECs. That is a valuable by-product of the MOD-funded cadet experience.

The majority of BTECs awarded to cadets are in public services, with the Cadet Vocational Qualification Organisation delivering an Edexcel qualification, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. Other level 2 BTECs available to cadets include music and engineering. Like all BTECs, these focus on practical vocational learning. The partnership between the cadet forces and CVQO is more than 12 years old. CVQO was founded to give cadets the chance of explaining their service in a way that employers could readily understand. However, it should be recognised that the BTEC qualification is an outcome of cadet service, not an output, and the MOD cannot provide funding to pay for an educational qualification. Cadet service alone is not sufficient to receive the BTEC. Some 30% of the work needed to receive the qualification is done outside the cadet unit.

Although almost 1,400 Army Cadets have received a level 2 BTEC in public services from CVQO in the last academic year, that is quite a small number when we consider that almost 11,500 first aid certificates were awarded to Army Cadets in the same year. The BTEC is important but only one of many options open to cadets.

I know the Walker school very well as a former councillor for the area. Does the Minister agree that what the cadet force does there is keep certain pupils in education and give them life chances that they would not get if it were not for the cadet experience?

Yes, I agree absolutely with that. The research done by the universities of Southampton and Portsmouth, which I have cited, is germane to that. Certainly, expanding the range of options, particularly vocational options, that kids are able to take up at school when they might be alienated from straightforward academic subjects is very important. However, I will go on to talk about some of the characteristics that the Department for Education believes are necessary in order to qualify a BTEC for inclusion in league tables. It is important to emphasise that the MOD does not fund the BTEC qualification. It is funded from either Education or charitable sources.

For the sake of complete clarity, I point out that that is not what I am asking the Minister. I am asking that the BTEC in uniformed public services be counted in the evaluation of the school. The school to which I am referring serves a predominantly working-class community. Resources are restricted. The school has to prioritise and it has to prioritise those courses that count towards its evaluation, yet the uniformed public services qualification work is doing so well for the school. If it can retain it, it really wants to.

I am sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope that what I am able to say will give him some comfort and be helpful. I should point out, however, that education is of course a devolved matter. We are all still picking our way through the devolution settlement, and it adds a level of complexity to discussions of this sort. Although the MOD has the luxury of dealing with matters that are not devolved, the Department for Education simply does not. In England, as the CVQO-led BTEC in public services has been approved by the Secretary of State for Education under section 96 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, schools can choose to fund it from within their budgets. Alternatively, I can confirm that CVQO is funded by the Education Funding Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Education, to deliver qualifications for 5,000 English cadets a year aged over 16 and under 19. I am aware that, as a charity, CVQO is raising funds to meet an ever-growing demand from within the cadet forces and other youth organisations.

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, the issues that he raises regarding changes to the recognition of the BTEC in public services are a matter for the Department for Education, not the Ministry of Defence. However, I am informed that in reforming the school performance tables, the Secretary of State for Education is incentivising schools to offer qualifications that have the greatest value for the majority of pupils at key stage 4—qualifications that will best enable them to progress to further study and into employment. Due to its specialist nature, the BTEC in public services does not feature on the list of qualifications that will count in performance tables from 2014. If it assists the right hon. Gentleman, I can provide the existing characteristics needed for performance tables and a list of BTECs that currently count.

I am interested in the right hon. Gentleman’s conversation with Edexcel and Pearson. It would clearly be desirable to reconcile the list of characteristics with the BTEC in public services. I would be more than happy to discuss with my colleagues at the Department for Education whether a dialogue would be helpful, so that we can reach the conclusion the right hon. Gentleman seeks. I understand the experience he and his local schools have had with the imperatives the Department for Education has established.

Notwithstanding that, in recognition of the fact that there are pupils who will benefit from taking other qualifications, schools remain free to offer any qualification approved for use pre-16, including the BTEC in public services. I know that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that. Ultimately, it is for schools to decide which qualifications are most appropriate to meet the needs of their individual pupils. His testimony about his two schools will no doubt encourage the head teachers of those schools to do what they can to support the qualification.

I am grateful to the Minister for the general approach he is taking. I do not think there is a quarrel between us. As he clearly understands, my objective is to get, not the cadet force itself, but the BTEC qualification to count towards the assessment of Walker college. I ask for that because a well resourced, fee-paying school has enough money to offer the cadet experience or even the BTEC experience as an optional extra, but a state school serving an inner-city community at a time of public expenditure constraint has limited ability to do the same.

The cadet force experience offered to young people relies heavily on the altruism of the school’s teaching staff and the voluntary commitment of Ministry of Defence personnel, willingly giving up their free time because they believe in what they are doing and want to help the youngsters on the course.

The benefits of not only the cadet force, but the BTEC are such that the course should be included. I would be more than willing to engage with either Department or with the BTEC providers to make progress towards that.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think he and I are more or less on the same page. It is clearly a matter of reconciling the characteristics, which the Department for Education has laid down to assess BTECs and their inclusion in performance tables, with the needs of schools, such as those he described in his constituency, and our need to ensure that young people have something that will be of value to them. We heard from the right hon. Gentleman, and we hear from people in our constituencies, testimonies about the transformational experience that such work can engender in youngsters. We are in agreement.

The Government believe that teachers should use their professional judgment to balance the subjects that are directly linked to a pupil’s future success, and are reported in the school performance tables, with those that match the pupil’s abilities and interests. Where schools judge that their pupils have benefited from the uniformed public services course, we encourage them to maintain that provision, but I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s point about resources.

In the Ministry of Defence, we recognise that a BTEC in public services can be life-changing for some young people, with its either being the only qualification they receive or the additional qualification that allows them to fulfil their ambitions. That however is not why Defence funds and supports the cadet forces; we do it to improve the awareness and understanding of the armed forces and their role in British society.

Finally, I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute, once again, to the 26,000 cadet force adult volunteers. Most give up at least two nights a week and one weekend a month to provide a challenging and safe environment for young people. Without them, the cadet forces would cease to exist. I hope that everyone here agrees that we owe them a massive vote of thanks.

Sitting suspended.