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Lifelong Learning and Skills Development

Volume 702: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

As set out in the spending review, we are investing £3.8 billion more in further education and skills over the Parliament as a whole. We are supporting adults to get the skills that they need through the adult education budget and delivering on the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and welcome him to his place. Following last week’s phenomenal investment in education catch-up, does he agree that the catch-up funds, along with the new T-levels being offered at Darlington College, part-funded through the towns fund, will be vital as we create new high-skilled, high-wage technical jobs up and down the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am delighted that Darlington College will offer T-levels in education and childcare and in engineering and manufacturing from next year. If we can make T-levels as famous as A-levels, Mr Speaker, you and I will have done something really great by the end of this Parliament. I am grateful for the efforts of Darlington College to help learners to catch up with their education following the pandemic by making good use of the 16 to 19 tuition fund, introduced in 2020.

About a third of my constituents in East Surrey do not have a level 3 qualification, so I am hugely supportive of the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. I am also tremendously lucky to have a brilliant further education college, East Surrey College, to deliver it. Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of that programme will rely on our ability to let people know that it is available, and will he set out some steps on how he is ensuring that the right people know so that we can get the maximum uptake?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We know that now more than ever we need to invest in adult skills and training. The lifetime skills guarantee gives adults in colleges just like East Surrey College the opportunity to develop the skills to succeed in work throughout life. I was the apprenticeships tsar under the coalition Government, and if you had told me that a Prime Minister would introduce this, I would have bitten your arm off. We have to make this famous, and we can do that through the work of everybody in this House taking the message out to their constituents.

But since 2010, funding for adult education has been slashed in two and funding for further education has been cut by a third. Of course, it was this Government who scrapped the union learning fund, which was transformative in moving people into skills for the future economy. Could the Secretary of State set out exactly how he will invest in skills and what the skills strategy priorities are, in the light of the fact that the Government seem to be making demands for skills that they simply do not have in the economy?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I can set out precisely how we are taking this forward: we are investing £2.5 billion—if we take the Barnett funding, it is £3 billion—in the national skills fund. The Budget confirmed that further investment through the national skills fund will reach just over half a billion pounds—£554 million—by 2024-25. That will include extending the eligibility for about 400 free level 3 courses to more adults and further expanding skills boot camps. We will announce more details in due course. On qualifications, the free courses for jobs offer is another intervention in the economy, and the boot camps are an incredibly successful intervention in the economy, producing skills through heavy goods vehicles boot camps and others. Strategically, it is about making T-levels, apprenticeships and apprenticeship degrees absolutely equal to A-levels and degrees from university.

Given that so many of the current labour shortages are in so-called unskilled jobs such as HGV driving, in which the Road Haulage Association tells me that there are more than 100,000 vacancies, why is so much funding for career retraining focused on levels 3 and above? For example, the advanced learner loan is available only for levels 3 and above, which means that a HGV driver who wants to retrain has to self-fund.

As always, the hon. Lady makes an important contribution to the debate. It is important to remember that we are focusing on tactical interventions such as bootcamps and our current work on kickstart, which has £2 billion, and restart, which has £2.9 billion. The strategic aim is that by the end of this Parliament we ensure not only that T-levels are embedded and at scale, but that apprenticeships continue the journey of quality that we began when we introduced the new standards.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place; he has made a brilliant start as Secretary of State. The emphasis that he is placing on further education and skills is the very opposite of myopia, if I may offer that observation to the House.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the extraordinary institution that is the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering in my constituency—a transformative model of higher education and further education together, focused on skills, and an extraordinary lift and shift model for levelling up. Does he share my view that this is something that the Government should be really leaning into and supporting for the longer term?

I certainly share my right hon. Friend’s priorities and ambition. More importantly, if we can make this work, it truly is scalable and can be a model for other parts of the country in our levelling-up agenda.

I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State to his role. The Protect Student Choice campaign warns that many students might struggle to enrol on so large an occupation-specific qualification as T-levels at the age of 16. By withdrawing funding from BTECs, how will the Secretary of State guarantee student choice?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I want to just squash that misrepresentation: we are not withdrawing funding from BTECs. BTECs that are of high quality and are valued will continue, but it is only right that we look at the landscape and see where quality lies and how we can increase the ladders of opportunity, not take them away from people.