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Further Education: Over-50S Provision

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 17 March 2005

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11.8 a.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that people aged over 50 have local access to education courses.

My Lords, the Government are committed to safeguarding learning for personal fulfilment which does not necessarily lead to qualifications. That includes opportunities for the over 50s. The Learning and Skills Council's budget for such learning, delivered through local education authorities, increased from £206 million in 2003–04 to £207.4 million in 2004–05, compared with £145 million in 2000–01. In 2003–04 there were about 879,000 adults aged 50 or over in further education, an increase of about 80 per cent over 1997–98.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that when the Learning and Skills Bill went through this House in 2000 we received extensive assurances from the Minister that adult services would not suffer as a result of any expansion of services for 16 to 19 year-olds? That is precisely what is now happening. The success of getting 16 to 19 year-olds to participate, particularly in further education colleges, is greatly squeezing the adult budget in such colleges.

Adults can get funding only for courses that lead to an acknowledged qualification. Does the noble Lord accept that the adults who are suffering are those who do not wish necessarily to participate in a full-length qualification—perhaps because they do not have the confidence or any wish to do so—but who nevertheless need to be able to put their toe in the water of new learning? Is he also aware that by restricting the availability of what is called "leisure learning", such learning is in many senses now available only to the affluent middle classes?

My Lords, like everybody else, I hear anecdotes about who feels squeezed. I hope the House will forgive me if I go back to the raw facts. An 80 per cent increase in the number of people taking the kinds of courses which apparently are at risk seems to be a significant change and achievement. I hope that the House will accept that the whole process is a lifelong learning process. That means life-long; it is not just about adults but relates to the whole thrust of policies right the way through from childhood and involves building skills for life.

As that develops, it is bound to be the case that institutions make changes in the pattern of what they provide—some because priorities change and some because education changes. Educational changes are really the life-blood of this. Were they to stop, I would be much more concerned.

My Lords, if life-long learning is to become a reality, will the Minister accept that age should be relevant when you are looking at who is interested in a course?

Instances of prejudice have been recorded against older people taking part in courses, which has led—I do not know whether it still does, but the noble Lord might—to courses being made invalid because twice the number of younger people than older people are required to make a course valid.

My Lords, I accept that in the past there have been distortions of these processes. The House is aware of those. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Ashton agreed to set up a special working party to consider age restrictions in a number of areas. I know that the noble Baroness served on that body. It made its recommendations to Dr Kim Howells on 19 January. I am not in a position to make the announcements that I believe he will make within the next couple of days, but I think that its recommendations were extremely influential in the areas the noble Baroness has just drawn to our attention.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the first Member of Parliament to gain a degree from the Open University, which I did in 1976. I am still the only Member of Parliament to do so. I reflect on the local classes I attended. Two ladies in their 80s benefited from the opportunity. So I do not knock the set-up.

Sitting next to the Minister is his ministerial colleague my noble friend Lady Ashton, who recently played a leading role in assuring that the interests of the Open University and the London School of Economics, given the changes which were likely to damage them, would be taken into account. The Minister should be aware that the Open University tells me that after recent meetings it still remains dissatisfied about the intentions of the Government in assisting it in this special relationship. Can the Minister give any assurance both to me and the Open University that its interests ultimately will be protected?

My Lords, the Open University is dear to the hearts of a high proportion of noble Lords. I have been concerned by reading articles in the press which I have taken the liberty of disbelieving as a general principle, and then going back again to the facts.

In 2004–05 the general settlement for England had an increase of 2.7 per cent. In the case of the OU it was 3 per cent. Next year the settlement for England is 4.1 per cent and for the OU it is 4.7 per cent. The OU has made the point that there may be difficulties as the fee system changes beyond that. In a nutshell, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is carrying out a significant piece of work on what should be done for part-time students, not just at the OU but right across England. I know that the same issues are being addressed in Scotland and Wales. There are 20 institutions of higher education where more than 50 per cent of the students are part time. So it is very important to get it right for everybody, including the OU but not just the OU.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that part of the limitation on access for the over-50s might be to do with the shortage of staff? What do the Government intend to do about the fact that teachers in FE colleges, who teach the same subject to the same level as sixth-form teachers in schools, are paid 10 per cent less?

My Lords, no one will expect me to intervene in the bargaining arrangements for further education and the settlements achieved there when compared with the system of pay reviewing which occurs for teachers. I point out that £1 billion of total funding for further education has been set aside as an increase between 2002–03 and 2005–06. That should produce some leeway for all sorts of flexibility, including in salaries—but that is, as I say, a matter for the colleges.

I think that yesterday's Budget produced among the best news there could possibly be for the FE sector—£75 per week in education maintenance allowances, encouraging people to stay at school; free transport which should help the over-50s get to their further education colleges; and a building programme which will be the envy of western Europe.