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Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]

Volume 711: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

Consideration of Lords message

Clause 7

Additional powers to approve technical education qualifications

I beg to move,

That this House disagrees with the Lords in their amendment 15B proposed instead of the words left out of the Bill by its amendment 15.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the Government motion that this House agrees with the Lords in their amendments 17B and 17C.

I am delighted to be back in the House to discuss our landmark Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I am pleased the Bill has progressed to this point, as it is a real opportunity for us to create a chance for more people to develop the skills they need to move into a job and support our economy. We have made the case that this Bill and the work surrounding it will provide qualifications that have been designed with employers to give students the skills that the economy needs. That will help us to boost productivity and level up our country.

Lords amendment 17B is a Government amendment on provider encounters. I am delighted that we were able to make this amendment, thanks to the tireless work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Select Committee on Education. His successful campaigning on this issue, and on further education and skills more broadly, is testament to his expertise, his persuasive powers and his dedication to his constituents, who will be well served by this Bill.

This amendment represents a compromise that will require schools to put on six provider encounters for pupils in years 8 to 13—two in each key stage. This should help to ensure that young people meet a greater breadth of providers and, crucially, it should prevent schools from simply arranging one provider meeting and turning down all other providers.

The underpinning statutory guidance will include details of the full range of providers that we expect all pupils to have the opportunity to meet during their time at secondary school. The Government intend to consult on this statutory guidance to ensure that the legislation works for schools, providers and, most importantly, young people.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Does he agree that defunding BTECs poses tangible risks to disadvantaged students and that Lords amendment 17, which ensures that the earliest qualifications can be defunded will now be 2025, gives the necessary time for a good evaluation of T-levels and how they work in this new landscape of qualifications? We should support our colleges to allow every child to achieve their potential.

I am always anxious to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I believe his comment is a reference to amendment 15B, which I am coming to in a moment, but I hope he will forgive me if I finish talking about 17B first.

I hope this House will agree that we have reached a sensible compromise position, with the help of my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Education Committee. This middle ground of six provider encounters will help to give every pupil information about what further education colleges, independent training providers, university technical colleges and other alternative providers can offer.

Turning to Lords amendment 15B on the roll-out of our technical education qualification reforms, I begin by reiterating the announcement made in this House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Second Reading. We are allowing an extra year before public funding approval is withdrawn from qualifications that overlap with T-levels and before reformed qualifications are introduced that will sit alongside T-levels and A-levels.

Our reform programme is rightly ambitious, but we understand that it would be wrong to push too hard and risk compromising quality. The additional year strikes the right balance, giving providers, awarding organisations, students and other stakeholders enough time to prepare while moving forward with these important reforms. That is why we cannot accept the three-year delay that the amendment proposes.

These changes are part of reforms to our technical education system that have been over a decade in the making; they have their origins in the Wolf review of 2011 and were taken further by the Sainsbury review in 2016. Both those crucial pieces of work showed that we must close the gap between what people study and the skills employers need. As Lord Sainsbury said:

“Whatever their background, individuals need access to a national system of technical qualifications which is easy-to-understand, has credibility with employers and remains stable over time.”

T-levels will deliver on that pledge. They are a critical step change in the quality of the technical offer. They have been co-designed with more than 250 leading employers and are based on the best international examples of technical education. We have already put in place significant investment and support to help providers and employers to prepare for T-levels. By September 2023, all T-levels will be available to many thousands of young people across the country. The change to our reform timetable means that all schools and colleges will now be able to teach T-levels for at least a year before overlapping qualifications have their funding removed.

Last November, the Secretary of State also announced the removal of the English and maths exit requirement for T-levels. That is about making the landscape fairer so that talented students with more diverse strengths are not prevented from accessing this important offer. The change brings T-levels into line with other level 3 study—notably A-levels, which do not have such an English and maths exit requirement.

In addition, this amendment given to us by noble Lords would require consultation and consent from employer representative bodies before withdrawing funding approval from qualifications. As hon. Members will be aware, we have twice consulted on our intention to withdraw funding from qualifications that overlap with T-levels. T-levels were designed with employers to give young people the skills that they need to progress into skilled employment, the skills that employers need and the skills that our economy needs.

The Minister refers to the consultation that the Government did on the defunding of BTECs and the twin-track approach. Am I right in saying that 86% of respondents to the Government’s own consultation said that the Government should keep the twin-track approach? If so, why is the Minister highlighting that consultation, which has come back to him telling him that the approach he is taking is wrong, as a reason not to vote for the amendment the Lords have proposed here?

Our consultation showed that there was widespread support for having a system of technical qualifications that offered both co-design with employers and entrenched, embedded work experience. The choice before Parliament in debating this Bill is whether we wish to push ahead, following the best international examples, on technical qualifications that are designed with employers and give students the best work experience opportunities as part of that qualification. That is the choice. We on the Government side know where we stand. We wish to have gold-standard qualifications that rank among the best in the world. I am afraid the Opposition do not seem to wish to follow us on that journey.

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will continue to involve employers actively when making decisions about qualification approval, including through its route panels. Those panels hold national sector expertise and expert knowledge of occupational standards that have portability across employers. Institute approval will be a mark of quality and currency with business and industry, and will ensure that both employers and employees have the knowledge, skills and behaviours they need. The requirement for a public consultation and consent from employer representative bodies would duplicate existing good practice and introduce an unnecessary burden.

We have listened to the views expressed in the House and acted upon them. The Secretary of State’s policy announcements of significant changes acknowledge and satisfy the aims of the amendments. To push the amendments would risk the whole reform programme and risk letting down a generation of learners. I therefore urge the House to reject the amendment from the other place.

I am very pleased that we are starting to make real progress with this legislation. Through our change to provider access legislation, I believe we have made this Bill better, but now is the time to crack on with delivering our important skills reforms.

Last week’s spring statement showed that this Government have a Chancellor ill-equipped to tackle the size of the cost of living challenge in front of him. This week, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill shows that, when it comes to addressing the key skills challenges our growth-starved nation faces, we have a Government ill-equipped for that challenge too.

We should remember that in the Chancellor’s statement last week he referred to reviewing the apprenticeship levy and other taxes, and by Friday he was forced to deny that there would be any formal review of the levy or the system at all. What a mess. This is a Government who spend the back-end of the week denying what they said in the first part of it. No wonder the sector is utterly disillusioned with their approach.

Let us stop for a minute and think how it could have been. A skills Bill worthy of the name would have seized the challenge posed by the huge reduction in apprenticeships since the introduction of the levy and demanded a review that ensured that small businesses were better served and that more level 2 and level 3 apprenticeship opportunities were created, and sought to return at least to the numbers we had before the levy was introduced.

A transformative skills Bill would also have ensured that all the relevant bodies were around the table directing local skills funding. It would also have recognised that, if universal credit is really going to be a bridge from the dole to a rewarding career, people on universal credit must be able to afford to invest in themselves in the way that the excellent Lords amendment suggested.

One can only imagine what their noble Lordships made of the Commons consideration of their amendments. A range of peers from across the political spectrum had brought their considerable knowledge and experience to bear to strengthen this “act of educational vandalism”, as Lord Baker described it, and voted through a series of amendments that a wide variety of knowledgeable judges, including groups such as the Association of Colleges, had described as strengthening the Bill.

Yet, one by one, the Government rejected those amendments, meaning that they have failed to grasp the huge opportunity, presented by the first skills Bill in their 12-year period in office, to put England’s approach to skills on a comparable footing with the best systems around the world. Their noble lordships reluctantly agreed to place just two further amendments in front of us today.

On amendment 15B, when this Bill was first debated nine months ago we had the then Secretary of State and the skills Minister in dismissive mood, decrying BTECs for all they were worth. Since then, we have had the more ameliorative approach, which we welcome, of the current Secretary of State first offering an extension to funding for BTECs into the next Parliament, then saying that the Government would conduct a qualifications review and tell us which level 3 qualifications they consider not of sufficient quality or duplicating T-levels.

All the while, however, the suspicion remains—reinforced by the Minister’s speech a moment ago—that the Government believe that only by discrediting or defunding BTECs will T-levels flourish. I am confused about why they so lack confidence in this new qualification. As my great friend Lord Blunkett said when moving amendment 15B last week, the Opposition have no hostility towards T-levels; indeed, we believe they are of real value. Just two weeks ago, I was at Barnsley College—a fine institution where I met several good T-level students studying construction, digital production, and health and care. They were hugely impressive, as were the lecturers and the leadership team, and had a real vision for where they might go following this qualification. I have no problem with saying that I have seen good quality T-level provision.

Nor should the Government refuse to recognise that BTECs, CACHE diplomas and other level 3 qualifications have also been transformational for so many students, and they should proceed cautiously before abolishing them. If the qualification, in its current form or in any future form, is a strong one, it will prosper, without the need to try and kill other level 3 qualifications and leave tens of thousands of students without a qualification to study. BTECs are widely respected by employers, learners, universities, colleges, training providers and other key stakeholders. When I asked the Minister about this earlier, he refused to answer, but the DFE’s own figures showed that 86% of respondents to its consultation urged it to continue the twin track of T-levels and BTECs. The Minister referred to Labour opposing T-levels. We are not opposing T-levels at all. In fact, it was the Conservative-dominated House of Lords, with the support of Conservative peers, that voted to place this amendment back before us last week.

The Government have optimistically suggested that 100,000 students might be doing T-levels by 2024. Given that 230,000 students currently study for level-3 qualifications, the Government need to come clean, when their review is published, about their plan for those who do not move on to do T-levels. It really is not good enough to continue dodging this question. Institutions need to know, learners need to know, and employers need to know. Do the Government expect that more students will complete level 2 and then go into the world of work at the age of 17? Do they expect that anything like the missing 130,000 would stay on alternative level 3 courses? If not, what is the plan? The Government need to come clean.

On amendments 17B and 17C, while Labour Members would have preferred that the Baker clause was adopted in its entirety, we are prepared to accept this compromise as a way to move the issue forward. It was interesting to hear the Minister talk about that compromise. I still fail to see what it was about having more than one intervention in a single school year that the Government thought so radical an idea. Why is two in every two years considered the very most that we can expect of our schools? Notwithstanding that, given that at least 50% of pupils do not progress on to an academic route, children and young people should have as much support as possible to learn about the wide range of opportunities open to them. It is welcome that the two interactions must be separate and different from each other. I would like to impress upon the Minister that these interactions must be of high quality and must be impartial.

The Government need to acknowledge that the perspective on the current operation of the Baker clause differs considerably depending on whether you are a student or a provider. All too often, apprentices I have met have told me that they were not made aware of apprenticeships while at school. Just a few weeks ago, I was at the Remit Training automotive apprenticeship academy, where just five of the 25 students I met said that apprenticeships had been discussed at school and that they had received proper careers guidance. I suspect that if we spoke to their school, we would have heard a different tale. Ensuring that these interactions are done in a meaningful way that really opens schoolchildren’s horizons is so important.

While it remains a regret that more of the Lords’ excellent amendments were rejected by this House, it is our intention to support their lordships’ two remaining amendments before us tonight. Beyond that, we give notice that as this Government have clearly run out of the ideas required to address the skills shortage they have created, a future Labour Government will tackle the systemic failure that has seen this country fail too many students and leaves England’s employers consistently complaining that under this Government too few young people leave our schools ready to work. It will take a Labour Government to drive the partnership and collaboration required to bring Government, employers, metro Mayors, local authorities and others together to reform what is not working and develop a skills ecosystem fit for purpose that delivers the work-ready students our employers demand, and our economy, and our country, so desperately need.

I am pleased to be called to speak today, and glad that this Bill is reaching almost the end of its yellow brick road. Sometimes the Government are like the Tin Man and need a bit of oil in them. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, the skills Minister and the Minister for Higher and Further Education, as well as the previous skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who first set the wheels in motion for this legislation.

I have always passionately believed in the need to build an apprenticeships and skills nation. I disagree with the Opposition in that I think that the Bill is fundamentally important. The lifetime skills guarantee and the lifelong learning entitlement will transform lives for the better. It is backed by real funding of an extra £3 billion announced in the autumn Budget. That will do a lot to reverse the decades of neglect and snobbery that have often surrounded the FE sector. Culture change must start at the top. I am genuinely proud of the way that the Government have met the challenge of skills. We will always need more to be done, but this is a fundamental Bill and it should be recognised as such. While I absolutely want to make sure that the core BTECs are kept until the T-levels are rolled out, I would certainly not want a delay in T-levels. If anything, I would be happy for the Minister to introduce them even faster than their planned roll-out.

Culture change must also come from the bottom up. One of the biggest obstacles to students undertaking more skills-based courses is the fact that schools do not encourage students to do apprenticeships or vocational learning in the same way that they encourage progression to university. As I mentioned in relation to amendments that came to the House a few weeks ago, my maiden speech in 2010 was on this very subject, so the Minister will understand why I care about it. Sadly, not a lot has changed since 2010 in terms of encouraging students to do apprenticeships. Many teachers have themselves qualified by going to university, so their familiarity with this pathway has helped to foster the age-old mantra of “university, university, university”. I would like the Government to allow us to have not just postgraduate teachers but teachers who have qualified through a degree apprenticeship. We have policing and nursing apprenticeships, so why not teaching apprenticeships and undergraduates at higher apprentice level?

The way the inspection framework has been framed and the nature of A-levels being seen as more academic has also contributed to the focus on university as the gold-plated standard. I hope that the roll-out of T-levels will help to ensure that the same procedures apply to technical education and then divide between academic and vocational learning. Personally speaking, I would be delighted if students could mix their alphabet of learning and take A-levels and T-levels together, which would essentially establish an international baccalaureate-style system of the kind that has benefited so many pupils from countries around the world.

However, the most critical thing we can do is improve careers guidance in schools. I am sure that my colleagues on the Front Bench will have tinnitus from the amount of times that I have gone on about this, but it is fundamental. The more encounters that pupils have with further education providers, technical colleges and university technical colleges, the more likely we can demonstrate that there is another, and arguably better, path forward. On one occasion, when I was lucky enough to have the role of skills Minister that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) performs with such distinction, I went to visit an exhibition in Birmingham—a skills show—and met a father and daughter who were in the process of deciding whether she should go to university. I showed them what was on offer—the high-quality skills courses and the jobs as well. By the time we had finished, the father and the daughter had absolutely decided that she would go and do a higher apprenticeship. I thought to myself, “I’ve converted one person to do this and I hope we convert many millions more of our young people.” That is why these encounters are so important—because without that skills show, that father and daughter would probably have just taken the traditional academic route of her going to university.

Last time I spoke on this Bill, I was addressing my new clause 3, which would have provided for three careers guidance encounters per pupil in each key year group. The Secretary of State said that while he was unable to make an announcement at that time, he would consider it further and move in due course and, as is so often the case with him and his Ministers, they have kept their commitment and their word, which is hugely appreciated. I am delighted to speak in support of Government amendments 17B and 17C, which allow for two careers guidance meetings per pupil per key year group, making a total of six such meetings, which is double what is on offer today. That goes to show that if the Secretary of State says he will do something, it will happen.

Colleagues across the House will remember that I tabled three amendments to the Bill: one was to create apprenticeship routes for prisoners, one was to increase the number of careers guidance meetings for students, and one was to consider providing funding to support level 2 qualifications for adults who demonstrated an intent to progress to level 3 under the lifelong learning entitlement. Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope you will not mind if I take a leaf out of Meat Loaf’s book, as he said:

“Now don’t be sad, don’t be sad, ’cause two out of three ain’t bad”.

That applies to two of the three encounters as well. The Government accepted two of my amendments—the one on prison apprenticeships in particular—and I greatly respect Ministers for listening and working with me and colleagues to reach these agreements.

A few months ago, I was honoured to be invited back to Exeter University—my old university—to make a speech and present its first cohort of degree apprenticeship students with their degrees. I remember sitting in that same hall as a university graduate in 1991, and I looked out at so many apprentices from all walks of life who were proud of the work that they had achieved. If a traditional academic university such as Exeter—one of the best in the world—can do so much to change its culture and promote degree apprenticeships, things must really be changing in our country. I hope that the passing of this excellent Bill will see many more schools and universities embrace vocational education pathways, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will continue to do more to banish once and for all the snobbery and misunderstanding that has surrounded apprenticeships, skills and technical education and to create a broader curriculum that supports vocational learning to better prepare pupils and students for the world of work.

I reiterate the general remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) about how the Bill is welcome overall. I will support the Government in their motions to disagree with the Lords amendments, and I agree that it is important that the Bill sees its final passage so that we can get on with the important journey towards an integrated education system. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as chair of the Lifelong Education Commission, which I set up with ResPublica to look at the long-term structural issues underpinning why the United Kingdom, and England in particular, has had such a difficult, long tail of underachievement and the need, as we look at the Government’s mission to level up for the future, to place skills provision front and centre of the agenda.

About six million people—the figure hovers around that number—still have only qualifications at level 2, and there is a desperate need to give more people an opportunity to enhance their qualifications so that they can apply for the many jobs and vacancies out there. People are not refusing to do those jobs. It is partly that they do not have the skills and capabilities to engage with the process, but they are desperate to do so, and that it is why it is so vital to match their skills with their ambitions.

The Bill begins the long process of moving from a top-heavy system that focused unduly on universities and did not give the further education sector the opportunity and investment that it needed to progress. Hopefully, we will now focus on tertiary education overall instead of pitching HE against FE. However, the Bill must be just chapter one of that educational revolution. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) mentioned, the Bill goes only so far, and a number of caveats have yet to be addressed, particularly on financing. I am particularly interested in financing for lifelong education, as such learners are not 18-year-olds who can access loan finance—and, even if they could, they have families, and they have mortgages and other debts to pay, so simply saying, “You can apply for an additional loan” will not work. We need to look at grant financing and understand the pressures placed on individuals and the barriers that they will need to overcome to access lifelong learning.

I tabled nine amendments the other month, none of which was accepted by the Government; nor, sadly, were they taken up by the Lords. I will continue to press the Government on skills provision, the lifelong loan entitlement and the lifetime skills guarantee, which applies only to a small proportion of the overall population. I wish it could be expanded, and I hope that the Government recognise that that ambition should be realised, particularly for individuals who have received qualifications at levels 3 to 5—or even levels 6 or 7— and need to retrain. They may have taken a degree 20 years ago, but they cannot access the opportunities to do that retraining.

The opportunities for lifelong learning and skills provision need to be more inclusive in the future. At the moment, the Bill addresses only a small segment of society—it is a segment that must be addressed and tackled—but let us look at chapters two, three and four and begin the journey of levelling up for everyone in this country, not just the immediate priority on which we are focused today.

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who both have great expertise in the field. On what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, we are interested in building up the offer for people already in the workplace. We see a great many people taking apprenticeships to reboot their careers. The Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee is offering people who did not get level 3 technical qualifications at school or college the chance to do so later in life. Of course, we also have the LLE, which is championed by the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan).

We are about giving everyone, whatever stage they are at in life, the chance to step forward and build their careers with new opportunities. The Bill is central to that. I have heard the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) criticise the Bill at various stages for not mentioning apprenticeships. They are obviously extraordinarily important to what we are doing, and I am delighted to report that, in the first quarter of the academic year, 164,000 people started apprenticeships, which is up 34% from last year and—crucially—up 6% from the pre-pandemic period. He often likes to quote figures of yesteryear, and I must remind him—not for the first time—that the change in the number of starts was not down to the creation of the apprenticeship levy but because, in 2017, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in a more junior job in the Department for Education, he started to reform apprenticeships to ensure that our 640 standards reflected the needs of employers. That golden thread has run through all our reforms over the past 10 years, building from the report written by Baroness Wolf in 2011 through to the Sainsbury review in 2016.

To hear those on the Opposition Benches say, “Slow down, you’re going too fast” is somewhat reminiscent of the Locomotive Act 1865, which recommended that the speed limit in town should be 2 mph and that somebody with a red flag should walk ahead of the vehicle as it made its progress. We have waited long enough and students have waited long enough for high-quality technical qualifications that are designed with employers to give the economy the skills that it needs and to give students the skills they need to prosper in that economy.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield also referred to the number of people on BTEC courses and the number of people expected to do T-levels. I remind him again that we are not in the process of defunding all BTECs: BTECs will survive where they do not overlap with T-levels. Just as now, there will be some people who do not study level 3 at age 16 to 19, and those people will have an enhanced offer at level 2, off the back of our level 2 reforms that are currently out to consultation.

I was delighted that at the beginning of last week 69 T-level providers from throughout the country—from north to south and east to west—came to the Department for Education and talked to us about their experiences in the first two years. A great many students came with them, and the level of enthusiasm for the qualifications and the level of excitement about the opportunities that the reforms are going to provide for the next generation was tangible. It therefore gives me great pleasure to commend the Bill to the House and sit down.

Question put.

Lords amendment 15B disagreed to.

Lords amendments 17B and 17C agreed to.

Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up a Reason to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 15B;

That Alex Burghart, Michael Tomlinson, Sara Britcliffe, David Johnston, Mary Glindon, Mr Toby Perkins and Matt Western be members of the Committee;

That Alex Burghart be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Amanda Solloway.)

Committee to withdraw immediately; reason to be reported and communicated to the Lords.