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Colleges and Skills: Covid-19

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of colleges in a skills-led recovery from the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. There are a large number of colleagues looking to speak in the debate, and thus I will seek to keep my comments brief and very much to set the scene.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate during Colleges Week. This is the third Colleges Week celebration since the launch of the Love Our Colleges campaign in 2018. The week provides the opportunity to showcase and celebrate the role of colleges, 82% of which were graded either “good” or “outstanding” last year by Ofsted.

College education is something that we do well in the UK, but at times we unintentionally undervalue our colleges, which are at the heart of so many communities right across the country. In 2020, more than ever, colleges have demonstrated their value in supporting learners and businesses to deliver quality learning and training despite the challenges raised by the covid pandemic. Colleges have supported students through exam confusion, launched T-levels and adopted programmes for the safe delivery of learning both in person and online. It is also important to thank colleges for the role that they have played during the pandemic in supporting their local communities. East Coast College in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth created wellbeing packs that it distributed to care homes. Eight staff members cycled to Mount Snowdon and back—bear in mind that it is the most easterly college in the UK. They raised funds for the college’s food bank, and student Jasmine Foster created facemasks that she distributed to nursery colleagues, elderly neighbours and friends.

We face an enormous challenge as we emerge from covid-19 at the same time as we fully enter the post-Brexit world. There can be an exciting future ahead, but we shall secure it only if colleges are given the opportunity to play a lead role, are fully supported and are properly funded.

There has been college education in the UK for a long time. In 1874, the first art classes were held at St John’s School in Lowestoft, the forerunner of what is now East Coast College, with campuses in both Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. College education began to take a more co-ordinated form in 1890, when county councils were provided with Government funding to develop technical education. It is fair to say that successive Governments in the first part of the 21st century have not paid sufficient attention to the sector. The focus on higher education is important, but it should not come at the expense of further education, and the sector took too much of the brunt of the deficit reduction strategy after the banking crisis.

In the last three years—indeed, in the last few weeks—there have been positive signs that the Government recognise the lead role that colleges must play in the covid recovery. The industrial strategy published in 2017, and last year’s Augur review, set the scene. The Chancellor highlighted the importance of colleges in his plan for jobs in July, and in his winter economy plan last month. On 29 September, the Prime Minister gave his lifelong learning pledge in a speech at Exeter College.

The foundation stone has been laid, but the country cannot afford a false dawn and we must now deliver. Our colleges are up for the challenge of working collaboratively with the Government and employers, both large and small, to support people and businesses through covid, to help people retrain and reskill, and to improve social mobility so that young people—wherever they live and whatever their circumstances—have the opportunity to realise their full potential.

From the early stages of the pandemic, it has been clear that covid will have a huge negative impact on employment—an impact that we have not seen for 90 years. The Resolution Foundation’s report on “Young workers in the coronavirus crisis”, which was published in May, concluded that young people and adults with lower qualifications are particularly at risk of unemployment. Many people facing redundancy or unemployment want to retrain in order to enhance their skills levels and to increase their job prospects. Colleges will play a crucial role in providing that education and training, and it is vital that they are properly resourced and supported. The funding and prioritisation of colleges must take centre stage in the comprehensive spending review, and the opportunity must be taken with the forthcoming further education White Paper to prioritise colleges and to restructure the systems within which they operate.

As highlighted by the Association of Colleges, the following specific issues need to be addressed. College business centres should be established. The Departments for Education and for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should work together to set up specific college business centres that support employers with expert advice. There should be a new deal for college funding, with a new funding formula and rates rising towards £5,000 per student. The increase in capital spending that the Government have provided is welcome, but the Treasury should also allow for further investment in IT and the development of specialist provision. Funding levels should also be appropriate to enable colleges to move towards the 2050 net zero target. A second stage of the kickstart programme should be developed by the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions, to enable those who lose their jobs to retrain.

To assist left-behind areas in levelling up, the shared prosperity fund and the towns fund should supplement existing skills policy in areas where economic activity is lower and unemployment higher than elsewhere. In Lowestoft, East Coast College is playing an important role in the preparation of the towns fund bid that will be submitted shortly.

Rightly, there has been much talk about the role of house building and upgrading infrastructure in the recovery from covid. If they are to play that role, we need to address the construction and engineering skills shortages that the Federation of Master Builders and the Royal Academy of Engineering have highlighted. More young people should be encouraged to follow careers in construction and engineering. There should also be better support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the sector, which undertake 71% of the construction industry’s training. There is a need to recognise the role that colleges can play in helping new entrants into the industry, and more must be done to strengthen their links with businesses.

I shall conclude by going local and highlighting East Coast College’s role in the economic recovery on the East Anglian coast. The college has just achieved an Ofsted rating of good. Its total economic impact is estimated at £264 million per annum and its £11.7 million energy skills centre for the east coast opened last year. There are great opportunities in our area. We are on the doorstep of two of the largest infrastructure projects in the world: the cluster of wind farms in the southern North sea; and the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station 24 miles to the south. There are also the exciting reef plans to revive the East Anglian fishing industry. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for an area that has been left behind, but we will only realise them if the right investment is made in East Coast College, which itself is very much up for the challenge.

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future is due to report in the next few weeks, and it is likely that it will emphasise that the college of the future will be central to delivering a fair, more sustainable and more prosperous society. It is vital that colleges are given the opportunity, the support and the resources to play this lead role. If they are, a lot of people will benefit, a lot of places will benefit, and as a country we will benefit, as we bridge that stubborn productivity gap.

Order. In order to ensure that we have enough time for the winding-up speeches and a response from the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), I will begin by giving hon. Members five minutes in which to speak, but I may have to drop that to four minutes at some point.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important and timely debate—as he said, it falls in Colleges Week. Colleges and the further education sector as a whole have been close to my heart for a number of years. One of my jobs before entering this place was at Sheffield College. I went on to serve on the college’s board of governors and came to develop a deep appreciation for the way colleges can teach new skills, regardless of a learner’s age.

Education is our greatest tool in combating poverty and deprivation. Colleges well and truly play their part in doing that, with 54% of adult learners coming from the 40% most deprived areas in the country. They are vital for delivering skills-based learning, and those who teach in them are a testament to the quality of the teaching profession. That is evident, with four out of five colleges being rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted.

On many occasions, I have called for increased funding for the further education sector and for the Government to recognise the power that the Cinderella sector could have in bridging attainment gaps, developing skilled workers and giving those from working-class communities greater opportunities. Colleges, when properly funded, are places of great educational power.

The hon. Lady just called the FE sector the Cinderella sector, which I have always opposed. I know that she is making her speech, but would she not agree that it is worth remembering that Cinderella became a member of the royal family and we should banish the ugly sisters of snobbery, intolerance and underfunding?

I do love a fairy tale, but I will touch on that later on.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the impact that the previous 10 years have had on the sector’s finances. The brutal cuts to the further education sector have been felt most harshly by adult learners. In real terms, 35% of adult education funding has been cut since 2013. Over the same period, funding for those aged 16 to 19 has fallen by 7%. Those cuts have meant that fewer adults can learn core skills such as literacy and maths to be able to meet many jobs’ English and maths requirements.

The National Audit Office has said the FE sector’s financial health is fragile, warning that core funding has fallen significantly. The Government have had to intervene in half of colleges to prevent or address financial difficulty. There are too many examples where schools have received further funding while colleges have been ignored. I have spoken to staff at my local college and the morale among both teaching and support staff, who are now being asked to do more, is incredibly low. To add to that low morale and the sense of being ignored, when the Education Secretary announced a pay rise for schoolteachers, he made no such announcement for further education lecturers. The gap in pay between schoolteachers and FE lecturers now stands at just over £9,000 a year.

That background meant many of us were already deeply concerned about FE funding. Then the coronavirus pandemic highlighted more clearly than ever before the truly devastating consequence of widespread cuts. After a decade of cuts, I want to be able to welcome wholeheartedly the Prime Minister’s announcement of the lifetime skills guarantee. However, I fear that it is too little, too late and too slow.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis. Levels of unemployment have risen sharply while earnings have fallen across many sectors as a result of the economic impact of covid-19. In my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits has almost doubled since March, accounting for 9.5% of the working-age population. Colleges cannot wait for the funding to trickle through over the course of this Parliament; action must be taken to address the challenges they face now.

In our recovery, we have the opportunity to bridge the skills gap in a way we never have before. However, I feel that the Government are not being that ambitious. The introduction of the job support scheme at the start of next month will see many workers on reduced hours. I believe that the Government should integrate training into the scheme and allow workers to improve their skills. I am also concerned that the lifetime skills guarantee appears to offer little to those who have a level 3 qualification or above. People with qualifications of all levels have felt the impact of covid-19 and, sadly, many with a level 3 qualification or above will lose their jobs. Therefore, people with qualifications of all levels who will face unemployment should be able to access college courses and reskill should they need and want to do so.

The crisis in social care is an example of where cuts to colleges have had a wider impact. Since 2010, qualifications for health and social care have fallen by 68%. Year after year, we have been promised reform in social care. Instead, we have seen a consistent failure to boost the number of workers in social care or implement any long-term plan. There can be no doubt that after the events of this year the need for an effective social care system is paramount. Colleges can and should play a leading role in training future health and social care workers, and they should receive full Government support to bring the level of qualifications back to their previous levels, at the very least.

With the further education White Paper and spending review on the horizon, I urge the Minister to take the points raised in this debate and the strength of feeling in which they are made back to the Chancellor to urge him to fund our further education sector properly. I wait apprehensively for any announcement and hope that the finances needed to upskill our workforce will be provided. In the meantime, Labour will continue the fight for more funding for further education, and I will continue to proudly back the Love Our Colleges campaign.

We will have to reduce the time limit to four minutes. I may have to take it down further, now that other Members have arrived. I call Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Committee.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on initiating the debate.

We are in a potential golden age for further education. We have a Secretary of State who went to an FE college, and who has made a ground-breaking speech on further education—I think it was one of the most important education speeches that I have heard in many years. We have a Minister for Skills who, I think, is the only MP who has done a degree apprenticeship and is absolutely passionate about furthering apprenticeships. We are talking about apprenticeships and skills in a way that we have not done for a long time.

I welcome the increase in funding that is going into further education. I see it at my local Harlow College, which I have visited over 90 times since becoming a Member of Parliament. It is not just a place of learning, but a community asset and an important place of social capital. We have an incredible advanced manufacturing centre and money for a new maths centre. I hope that when we are out of covid the Minister will come to see the work that Harlow College does. We should also acknowledge the extra £1.5 billion for refurbishing the college estate; the capital funding of £290 million for new institutes of technology and the money for T-levels, which I think will be a great educational reform.

As the Secretary of State has said, FE has historically been underfunded. We need a long-term plan for FE— something that we argued for in my previous Education Committee, before 2019. We need a 10-year plan for college funding. We found that sometimes initiative-itis was standing in for long-term vision and the sector needed more money going into the base rate of funding, over small pots of funding.

There is a social justice case for a pupil premium to support disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds. We have to get the basics right. We know that the National Audit Office has found the state of some of the college estate to be grim. The Government have had to intervene in 48% of colleges as a result of their financial health, and have spent £253 million in financial support to colleges over the last few years.

I am very excited to hear about the lifetime skills guarantee and the work being done to encourage businesses to hire apprenticeships. These are absolutely central to our colleges. I urge the Minister to consider whether the apprenticeship levy pot could be fine-tuned so that companies can use more of their levy if they hire younger people from 16 to 19 years, people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people who are going to meet our skills needs where we have huge skills deficits.

We need to ensure that there is much closer collaboration between further education colleges and universities, because further education can play a major role in promoting degree apprenticeships—my two favourite words in the English language. Part of the £2.5 billion skills fund should be spent on covering training costs for small and medium-sized businesses taking on young apprentices.

Finally, it would be very special to see institutes of technology across our landscape. We have done this before, with national colleges and other schemes. I urge the Minister to ensure that they are properly integrated into further education, and that they are further education institutes of technology, not just some brand new shiny buildings. Why not help them to build the prestige of further education?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. I stood up in this Chamber many times during the last Parliament to support our further education colleges. I am a proud champion of the foremost further education provider in my constituency, Bath College. Today, I am even prouder to let the Chamber know about a very good initiative that it has brought together in the last six months.

When covid hit in March, our education leaders were quick off the mark. They saw the enormous scale of the economic fall out of the pandemic on our city and region and took bold, innovative action to address it together. Bath College is versatile and forward looking, and it has forged strong links with local businesses and our two universities, particularly Bath Spa University. Laurel Penrose, chief executive of Bath College, and Professor Sue Rigby, vice-chancellor of Bath Spa University, have worked alongside their teams to create a ground- breaking plan to help reskill and upskill our workforce, bringing together Bath College, Bath Spa University and the Institute of Coding. The project, called I-START, will deliver across innovation, science, technology, arts, research and teaching. Participants will be able to hop on and off flexible, blended modules, to more easily fit learning around their lives. This will be truly unique to Bath.

Businesses have reiterated the need for resilience, problem solving, creativity and communication, and building on those skills is at the core of the project. As a direct response to covid, the partnership has co-designed an exciting pilot for a skills and social inclusion element of the project, called “Restart”, which will begin next week. It is based on contributions from local employers and businesses on the skillsets they look for when hiring people. I urge the Minister to look at what has been done in Bath and the courses starting as we speak.

Innovation like that is utterly necessary, but it needs the Government to recognise the value of colleges. For far too long, further education colleges that have been relegated to a lower division in our education hierarchy—Cinderella status, if I may say so. There has been a 7% real-terms decrease in funding per learner aged 16 to 19 since 2013. Our excellent Bath College has not received the funding or the recognition it so deserves. Colleges need streamlined, targeted investment, and overall spending on skills needs to increase ahead of inflation. Higher technical education colleges teach economically valuable skills and must be a focal point of the national skills fund. I also urge the Department for Education to work closely on colleges with the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that adults who lose their jobs can train and retrain in the second stage of the kickstart programme.

Simply repeating what we have done before will lead to the same outcomes. Colleges are well placed to deliver so much more support to people, places and productivity, especially now, as we are coming out—hopefully, at some point—of the covid crisis. This could be an important opportunity. I urge the Government to look again at the funding and to talk to the Treasury. We have been here so many times talking about further education funding, but please look at what has been achieved in Bath. It is a truly exciting project.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate? It is particularly vital this week, in Love Our Colleges Week. I most certainly love mine.

The role of colleges in a skills-led recovery following covid is vital to our local communities, businesses and young people, but also to older people looking to reskill. Further education colleges have a wealth of experience and knowledge of delivering learning, training and qualifications in their local communities, and they are agile enough to adapt their offering, in terms of skills, to meet the needs of local markets in real time.

In Loughborough, we are looking at a V-shaped recovery, and we are stretching every sinew to achieve that. Loughborough College kindly came forward to lead the charge on the Government-funded kickstart scheme, working with Charnwood Borough Council, the Loughborough business improvement district and Loughborough jobcentre to be one of the first, if not the first, kickstart scheme started in the country. I am thrilled to inform hon. Members that, after only two weeks in operation, 143 job opportunities have been identified, and we are working on more.

The team that usually manages apprenticeships is managing the kickstart scheme, using its skills and working with the jobcentre to bring forward the young people to fill the posts. As part of the town deal, funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the town deal board—I declare that I am a member—in conjunction with Loughborough College and Loughborough University, has allocated money to set up a careers and skills hub in the centre of Loughborough, to attract those who would not normally venture on to campus, so that they can see what qualifications and training are available and can take up those opportunities. All of this is in addition to the great work the colleges have been doing in the local community for years, in developing skills and delivering outstanding teaching and learning that supports young people and the local economy.

T-level qualifications are of huge importance to the future of our country and our industries. We should support the development of technical training and development for younger people to meet the skills gap. These two-year courses—a combination of coursework and on-the-job training—create the ideal opportunity for people to earn and learn. Linked with the lifetime skills guarantee for older people without higher level qualifications, colleges can be the conduit to greater earning potential and demand-led teaching and learning.

Social mobility is best accessed by good qualifications and training, and never more so than when the skills that are acquired meet the local needs of industry. These businesses pay for the skills and the workforce they need. As a country, we have come to realise during the covid pandemic the gaps in skills and knowledge we have. Colleges give us the opportunity at a local level to tap into the manpower available and deliver the skills we need. Colleges are a jewel in the crown of any local community, and Loughborough College most certainly is in mine.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for bringing forward the debate and enabling us all to put on the record our huge appreciation for our local colleges, such as York College and Askham Bryan College in my city.

We have heard much about the green new deal—York is trying to make it a real deal through the BioYorkshire initiative. From the outset of my contribution, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to bringing this project forward, because last year the unemployment rate in York was 2.8%, and next year it is predicted to be as high as 27%. We need a bridge now, and that is what our colleges can provide.

York is set to be part of the devolution deal for North Yorkshire, and BioYorkshire is hardwired into that. However, that will not happen until 2023. We need to bring forward the BioYorkshire initiative to commence this year or next. It would be a significant win, not least for my community, which is on the precipice of a tragic level of unemployment.

BioYorkshire will put York at the heart of biosciences not only in the UK, but possibly in the world, in the race against climate change. It has been put together by a consortium of our two colleges, York St John University, the University of York, Fera Science and many other partners. Through this partnership and innovation, the BioYorkshire proposal will seek to create skills and jobs, and to attract investment. The vision of BioYorkshire is to bring together biotechnology, the natural environment, farming and food production, and the circular economy for a platform here in York and North Yorkshire that will become the UK’s centre of innovation and the bioeconomy.

We will create the nation’s first carbon-negative region, and deliver profitable and sustainable technologies to transform the region and help kickstart the UK’s economy with high skills and high growth following covid-19. BioYorkshire has shown the power of FE and HE working together by creating a BioYorkshire innovation centre, BioYorkshire district hubs and a BioYorkshire accelerator.

We are looking to BioYorkshire for a skills-based recovery by training for change, resilience and enterprise; driving innovation; and upskilling local talent. This will result in new spin-offs and start-ups, and the mentoring of a new generation of entrepreneurs. The bioeconomy skills academy will run across the three core institutions that offer training and education, co-developed with business, from post-16 T-levels and apprenticeships, through to postgraduate courses and continuous professional development.

The impact will be astounding. Establishing this world-leading science centre will create high-value intellectual property. With the global bioeconomy institute and the circular economy data hub, it will support 800 start-ups and spin-offs, innovate with 1,200 businesses and create 4,000 jobs in York, Yorkshire and beyond. It will cut CO2 emissions by 2,800 kilotons a year and reduce waste to landfill by 1,200 kilotons a year. In a decade, it will generate £5 billion in gross value added. We will attract £1.3 billion in capital investment and, through higher level skills training, we will train 25,000 individuals. We need to start this project now, and I trust that the Minister will back this proposal.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for obtaining this important debate.

Further education is hugely important not only for the economy and for the levelling-up agenda post-covid, but for the long term. Skills and education are the key to the long-term shift if we are to truly bring some of the most disadvantaged parts of our country up into line with everyone else and give people the opportunities they need and deserve. My hon. Friend the Minister is ably leading some hugely positive work in the Department for Education right now, including shifting the dial around further and higher education and the balance of what we advocate for our young people––where we push them in terms of education.

We know that HE outcomes are not as good as we would hope in many cases. There is a huge opportunity through further education and technical and vocational skills to advance and to get better qualifications and earning power at the end of it all than many young people get from HE. That includes the new T-levels and the better access to apprenticeships for SMEs that was in the recent lifelong learning announcement. That plan also includes the level 3 entitlement for adults. For communities like mine in Mansfield, where a huge proportion of adults do not have level 3 qualifications, that will give them the right to go back, for free and funded by the Government, and access skills and retraining that will help them get a better job or get back into work post coronavirus. The lifelong learning loans element will help adults to access higher levels of qualifications if they wish. That is hugely important.

It is very welcome that West Notts College in my constituency has had its first capital funding for a very long time. That has gone down very well. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney rightly pointed out the connection between the wider regeneration piece––town deals––and the skills and retraining agenda. We hope Mansfield will invest some of its town deal money in things like student accommodation, new skills and retraining commitments, and new premises to supplement the work being done by Nottingham Trent University and West Notts College in partnership, which is bringing better FE, better technical qualifications and HE degree qualifications to Mansfield so that young people can access them on their doorstep. That is all hugely positive for the future.

The Government are doing good work in this space and we can add to that post-coronavirus things such as the kickstart scheme and additional funding to support apprenticeships and promote those opportunities to business. There is some really good stuff, and it is key to the regeneration piece, to levelling up our country and to supporting communities like Mansfield.

The Secretary of State is bang on when he says that FE needs that boost and to provide an equal level of opportunity to the HE sector, into which young people are so often pushed whether or not it is the right thing. We need to make the case from this place, from Government and from business that FE presents a huge opportunity for young people to get into work and to get the skills and help they need for good employment opportunities.

My ask for the Government is to work with good college leaders on local priorities. I keep raising the example of West Notts College and its work with Nottingham Trent University, which is a really positive example of what could be done elsewhere. It would be great to have the Minister along, as we have discussed before, to see that when it is possible.

We need to look at the apprenticeship levy. We have made it easier for SMEs to access that funding to bring apprenticeships into smaller businesses. The regular feedback on the levy is that it is complicated and that businesses need help to access that money.

On age, I have never understood why we think FE and technical and vocational skills are so brilliant post-16, but are so averse to letting 15 or 14-year-olds have a go at these subjects. That would be really positive and help a lot of the most disadvantaged young people who are disaffected at school to find a reason to stay in education. There is some really good stuff happening in this space and I thank the Minister for all the work she is doing. I look forward to working with her in future.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for obtaining this debate on this important topic, especially in Colleges Week.

I particularly thank Derwentside College in my constituency, which I have visited many times. It is truly excellent at working with local employers across the piece. This has been a particularly challenging time for people in my constituency.

The announcements over the past few months on the Government’s work in this area have been welcome. The huge lifelong learning announcement will be transformational, particularly for adult learning and FE, and the kickstart scheme is helping to drive the apprenticeships that we need locally. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) mentioned levelling up, and to me that is exactly what the FE agenda is all about—putting some meat on the bones of that and providing a transformation opportunity in people’s lives.

I hope that, as the Chair of the Education Committee said, we are entering a golden age for the sector; I know that the Minister gets it, I know that the Secretary of State gets it and, having spoken to the Chancellor, I think that he gets it as well. However, if we are to drive productivity and opportunity for people across our communities, FE will be crucial.

As hon. Members across the Chamber have mentioned, we cannot debate on FE on its own, without mentioning the relationships with higher education and business. I, too, welcome the Government’s direction of travel, particularly in the relationship with HE and in not constantly driving people on to courses that are perhaps not best suited to them, just to hit a statistic. We should be driving people on to courses that they want to do and that best enhance their life opportunities. I welcome the broader direction of travel towards collaboration. I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships call today, and it was great to see some of the work that colleges are doing with universities, helping with degree-level apprenticeships.

However, this is not just about 16 to 18-year-olds; we face a difficult time as a country and we are going to see a large number of people looking to retrain and reskill, so it is important that we look after the FE sector and lean into it, to let it do what it does best. Part of that will be about upskilling people to levels 4, 5 and 6, but not taking them out of their communities. We should provide those opportunities as locally as possible, so that people can train part-time or in the evening and improve their skillsets while they are in work.

Finally, I ask the Minister to keep highlighting excellence in the sector and, therefore, to visit Derwentside College in my constituency when she gets the opportunity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the opportunity to highlight important issues in respect of colleges.

I am not going to repeat what others have said. My constituents are very fortunate in that they are served, following the area review, by the merged institution created from Harrow College and Uxbridge College— two of the highest-performing colleges in London. Having been engaged with those colleges for many years, I would like to highlight one strength of the sector that is especially relevant to all of us and the different local economic circumstances that our constituents face: the amazing flexibility that colleges have shown in tailoring their offer to the opportunities that exist in the area for young people.

I am fortunate to represent a constituency that is part of a wider west London economic community in which we have a particularly vibrant tech hub. The video assistant referee systems that support high-level football are located at Stockley Park—I see wry smiles from the football fans in the room—as are a number of the companies that programme some of the world’s most popular computer games. There is a nexus of opportunity for young people—not necessarily those who will be pushed by their schools into the traditional A-level academic route—to gain access to well-paid, prestigious jobs in a desirable working environment close to their home area.

I am impressed by the efforts the local college has made to link up young people who are studying and pursuing those topics with those businesses and to ensure that they are able to access those opportunities and find their way into those very good, highly-paid jobs in an internationally competitive environment. That can lead to people doing amazing things with their lives, from what to many people, when they first look at the prospect of college, perhaps seems a less promising beginning than going down a route that ultimately leads to university. The more we can publicise those opportunities in Colleges Week, the better, because the more our constituents—particularly the mums and dads—understand that that route of opportunity is open to young people, the better it will be.

I will finish by touching on finance. Quite a few Members have made the point that, compared with the schools sector, colleges often feel a bit like a Cinderella service. When we simply look at the money, that is a fact, but we also know that we can sometimes do great things on a relatively modest budget. I think colleges deserve praise for that. I do not simply say that the that the answer is to make sure that more money and resources go to vocational education, although that would be welcome; we should recognise that these are institutions that demonstrate that they can create fantastic opportunities for young people that are not driven simply by the Government spending more and more money.

The more that we can extend that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) alluded to, to a wider age group in this country, the better. I agree we need to look at young people, such as those who might have considered the technology college route in the past, but what about those slightly older people, who may be looking to get their lives back on track with further education later on? This could be exactly the opportunity they require.

I hope that those points provide a summary, but I also place on the record my thanks to the Harrow College and Uxbridge College principals, who have done such a fantastic job for my constituents over the years.

We have only two minutes before the wind-ups. I dropped the hon. Member for Warrington South down the list for the simple reason that he arrived well after the start of the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate.

We are, as the Chair of the Education Committee said, in a golden age for further education—that is good, because we need to be, due to the pressure we have on skills and the need to address the skills gap in this country. A lot of colleagues have talked about the work that FE colleges are doing. I want to go in a different direction and talk about the reason they are doing it. The reason is that business needs them to be doing it. The adoption of automation, new technology and artificial intelligence—the digital age we are living in—is unleashing profound structural shifts in the UK workforce. As a result, we have to change the way that we operate our skills.

UK companies need to respond to these threats. If they fail to meet this challenge, they will find themselves with even more acute shortages of talent. Worryingly, the CBI estimates that as many as nine in 10 people currently in work will need to be retrained or reskilled over the next 10 years, partly as a consequence of that new digital revolution. Therefore, hearing the Prime Minister announce that we will be moving to a system where every student will have a flexible lifelong learning entitlement of four years of post-18 education is very welcome, because that is what we will need. Bridging the gap between further and higher education, and increasing flexibility in the funding system to support adults to train—and retrain—and upskill throughout their working lives is absolutely pivotal.

I want to touch briefly on T-levels, which are now being taught in my local college. Priestley College in Warrington became one of the first colleges in the country to offer T-levels. I met the principal recently, and the successful launch of the T-levels in digital production, design and development and in education and childcare has gone incredibly well. I hope the Minister will join me in commending the work of Priestley College, which has not only reopened in extremely challenging circumstances, but made a fantastic start to teaching T-levels in the north of England.

I thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the debate. He is a powerful advocate for our colleges as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for further education and lifelong learning. It is clear that all contributors recognise the crucial role our colleges play. Many took the opportunity to specifically thank and acknowledge the work of their local colleges, and I have no doubt that all those contributions about the role of our colleges were genuinely felt.

As I know from my regular visits to Chesterfield College, our colleges are the providers of second chances. They are the home of about 30% of all apprenticeship learning and the focal point for our skills strategy. For so many, they are the road between school failure and academic and career success, and they have changed the life chances of people in my family. They are fundamental to our country having the skills it needs to cope with the twin threats to our economy of covid-19 and Brexit.

We have heard during this debate a familiar refrain: that our colleges have been ignored too long by successive Governments, and that they must finally be taken seriously. However, I somewhat take issue with that lazy characterisation, and with the suggestion that recent announcements by this Government constitute some kind of golden age of FE. In welcoming the campaigning zeal of the hon. Member for Waveney I also want to ensure that the record of this Government is properly put under the spotlight, because it is not a case of “it was ever thus”.

As was revealed by my recent written question, £2.61 billion was invested in further education capital expenditure in the final five years of the previous Labour Government. In the following five years, the Government reduced that spending in actual terms by a shocking 64%. In all, colleges have endured a decade of cuts amounting to a third of their budget, while attempting to continue to be at the forefront of equipping young people and adults in every area of the country with the skills they need to succeed. What is more, we have seen adult education funding slashed by 50% in real terms and appalling failure on careers guidance, and the Government announcement just this week that they were scrapping their “Get Help to Retrain” initiative—the centrepiece of the national retraining scheme—less than three years after it was announced should give us all pause for thought.

As we enter this period in which we are asked to believe that the Government have finally accepted the need for a skills-based economy, we do so in the shadow of the vindictive and destructive announcement that they are scrapping funding for the Unionlearn programme that their own assessment was so complimentary about. That is perhaps more revealing than 1,000 press releases. At the same time, we know that, just a few months ago, the Government sent £300 million of apprenticeship levy funds back to the Treasury. There is far more generous funding for the commitment-free kickstart programme than for apprenticeships, and the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) was absolutely right to say that SMEs are shut out of our apprenticeships far too often. The Association of Colleges has stated that colleges face a shortfall of £2 billion this academic year.

There is so much more to say about our further education sector, but unfortunately there is not the time in which to do it, so I will close with this: we need a Government that recognise that colleges are a fundamental part of our skills and economic ecosystem and that do not pit them against universities or even see them as opponents of the independent provider sector, but that see them working collaboratively across the piece. We need a Government that introduce policy based on evidence and then give policies a chance to work. We need a Government that are honest about the fact that the scale of funding cuts means that the current investment is a tiny step back up the mountain.

We need a properly resourced Department for Education that sees FE colleges working collaboratively with employers, universities, trade unions and Government schemes, and we need a Government who recognise that not all people can get careers advice from their father’s friends at the golf club. We need a skills system that works around real people’s lives and supports them to retrain without their families going hungry while they are doing so. Colleges are capable of playing the role we need them to, but not unless the Government show the humility and resolve to recognise where those colleges are starting from and what is required to help them back to the place they should be in: at the heart of a skills system relied on by employers, valued by learners and every bit as good as the very best in the world.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on having secured this important debate during this Colleges Week. I am sure we are all delighted to be back in Westminster Hall, and I cannot think of a better and more important topic than the role of FE colleges in our vital skills-led recovery from covid-19. I genuinely thank all hon. Members who are here today for their support for FE colleges and technical education. I know that they all love our colleges, so I thank them all for their contributions.

FE colleges and providers have never been as important as they are now. For some of us, they have been important for a long time—I attended mine 35 years ago—but they are going to become so vital for so many people up and down the country, many of whom will face changed circumstances. Their prospects will change in such a short period of time, which is highly unusual. The colleges have responded brilliantly during the crisis, and are continuing to do so as we look towards recovery, and I place on record my huge thanks to the sector. Every week I have heard how colleges are supporting not just their learners and vulnerable students, but the wider community. They were making scrubs and masks for the NHS, giving food parcels and meals to the most vulnerable, and doing all kinds of fundraising events. The stories that I hear from FE colleges are truly amazing.

Before covid-19 struck, longer-term reforms to the school system were already under way. For generation after generation, technical education has been undervalued and neglected. That neglect must and will come to an end. I am glad we started our technical education reforms when we did, because they are going to be important to the recovery, boosting productivity and offering young people a real choice of high-quality training and pathways to successful careers that are equal in esteem to traditional academic routes.

It will not have escaped anyone that the world has gone digital and that we are living through a technological revolution. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden) pointed out how important that is. It is a key pillar to levelling up and providing opportunity for all in the towns that will need support to recover from coronavirus and that have felt neglected for many years.

It is fantastic and timely to see that colleges and other providers have begun the roll-out of T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds. A number of Members mentioned their support for them, and I was delighted to hear it. They represent the biggest reform of post-16 education since A-levels were first introduced 70 years ago. They are attracting investment of £500 million each year, once they are fully rolled out. The introduction of these new, pioneering qualifications was challenging during the pandemic, so I thank all 44 providers who battled through to deliver them during very challenging times—they were too important to delay. We have waited a long time to put this bedrock for our technical education in place, working with employers and employer-led standards to ensure that we invest in the right areas and the right things.

We are also investing up to £290 million of capital funding to establish 20 institutes of technology across every region in England. I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) that these will be a pinnacle of technical education and training. They are unique collaborations between colleges, universities and businesses, and they will offer high-quality technical education and training in key economic sectors, such as digital, construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering. The first 12 institutes are being rolled out, and the competition for the next wave was launched on 8 October. The opportunity for innovative, high-tech proposals to come forward is now there. The Department for Education very much welcomes any new proposals for the second wave of the institutes of technology.

We need to increase the take-up of higher level qualifications—levels 4, 5 and 6—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham. These higher technical qualifications are key and give people of all ages the opportunity to develop a prestigious high-quality, high-technical route, if that is right for them. The Prime Minister has been clear on supporting that choice. Getting a loan for a high-value technical course should be as easy as getting one for a degree, whether it is taught in an FE college or a university. A new funding system will open up new alternatives, ensure that further education colleges and providers have the same access to funding that universities do, and “remove the bias”, as the Prime Minister put it, that propels young people into universities and away from technical education.

Technical education is part of the lifetime skills guarantee announced at the end of last month. We are already engaging with colleges on some of the measures to be delivered from April next year, particularly the first level 3 funding for adults. That will give adults who missed out on that opportunity the chance to pursue it, by fully funding their first full level 3. It will focus on valuable courses that will help them in the labour market. We will be supporting providers to develop more level 3 provision. We will encourage them to do so, and we will monitor the demand from adults closely.

One important aspect of our recovery is supporting the most disadvantaged. Further education colleges do a lot to provide opportunities and social mobility for the most disadvantaged in our society. We have already been investing in that. Some 20% of learners in FE have some learning difficulty and disability.

I thank the Minister for her important speech. One of the biggest problems in encouraging people to do FE and skills is the lack of proper careers advice promoting apprenticeships and skills in schools. Despite the Baker clause, which was meant to change that, not a lot has changed. What are her plans to ensure that schools encourage skills, apprenticeships and further education and give FE an equality of prestige with university?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I actually had a meeting about this long-standing problem just before I came here, because careers is a key pillar of our FE and skills White Paper to ensure that everyone understands the routes. The Careers & Enterprise Company has done a lot of work to ensure that young people get a broad range of opportunities to talk to businesses, look at career opportunities and visit colleges and universities, but not everyone gets all of the information they need to make an informed decision.

Hon. Members will all be aware of the skills recovery package and the Chancellor’s plan for jobs. There is a lot of investment in apprenticeships, traineeships and classroom-based study. We are also extending the National Careers Service and putting in an extra £32 million to provide additional careers support.

FE providers have always been key to delivering adult education as well. Therefore, as we develop our plans for reskilling adults, that will include an extra £2.5 billion over the course of the Parliament for the national skills fund. Contrary to what was said by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), the national retraining scheme has not been scrapped; it will be built on and become part of the much bigger national skills fund. The national retraining scheme had £100 million; it will be £2.5 billion for the national skills fund.

The “Get Help to Retrain” scheme was a pilot website in six areas, and all the learnings from those pilots will be brought into the new national skills fund. It will be called something else, but the learnings will not be lost. Digital bootcamps are also a new addition, which I am sure many hon. Members will welcome.

These policies are all part of a wider rebalancing between HE and FE, making FE a more attractive choice. However, we are not leaving out the basics. We mentioned capital programme funding, much of which in the past went via the local enterprise partnerships, and it was not always ring-fenced, which led to shortages in some areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney raised some interesting ideas including business centres and focused areas of investment. There will be much discussion between colleges, the Association of Colleges, business groups and the Government to address those issues. We are listening to ideas about how to strengthen the sector, and we will publish a White Paper in the near future.

There has never been a more important time for this. We are facing significant skills shortages in key sectors, including construction and engineering, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, but there are many others. Until recently, we also had low levels of unemployment. However, the prospect of dire levels of unemployment means that now is the time to ensure that we invest in our FE sector and build back better as a nation.

This has been a wide-ranging debate; we have covered a lot in an hour. I will quickly highlight some points raised. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) mentioned that colleges are the greatest tool in combating poverty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, made the social justice case for a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) showed how her college is deeply embedded in her community. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) highlighted how her college is getting involved in kickstart. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) showed collaborative working on the BioYorkshire initiative. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) highlighted the problems with the apprenticeship levy for SMEs. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) highlighted the role here for levelling up. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) talked about the global expertise coming from his colleges, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) highlighted the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

The clock is ticking. For a few seconds, let us suppose that that clock is ticking to midnight. Let us make sure that Cinderella really does disappear this time, that this is no longer the Cinderella part of education, and that we will not need VAR to determine that that is the case.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).