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Education: Lifelong Learning

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 19 October 2010

Question for Short Debate

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the wider benefits of adult education; and what steps they are taking to support and encourage institutions which seek to promote lifelong learning.

My Lords, I am stimulated to initiate this debate by the publication this time last year of Learning Through Life, a report commissioned by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, with the aim of taking a forward look at the future requirements of and for adult education. I see this debate as a chance for this House to take a look at the same topic.

I start by quoting one of the stories contained in that report. It is called “Irene’s Story”. It states:

“Irene plucked up the courage to come into a family literacy group because she wanted to know how best to support her daughter who was just beginning to show signs of falling behind. A single parent with three children, Irene was living on a poor estate, with a lot to think about as well as the education of her children. Although she felt safer at school than other places, she was still terrified about going ‘back to school’. The course was publicised as ‘help your child, help yourself’, so she ignored the ‘herself’ bit, and went to help her daughter. She talks of the courage that it took just to walk through the door.

“Irene finished the course and found that she had learnt things too—she improved her spelling, found out a bit about how her daughter learns, visited the library, got into the habit of doing things at home with her daughter and was feeling OK with things”.

She then went on to an IT course and an English course, but dropped out when her husband left her and her daughter started having epileptic fits. The story continues:

“Eventually, she re-appeared and went on to an access course at the local college and she set up a group for other parents with children with disabilities—this gave her the courage and the skills to decide she wanted to do something for her community—she joined the school governors, became chair of the tenants’ group, and got a job on the estate”.

This quotation illustrates well a number of points about adult education. First of all, what is adult education? It is, strictly speaking, any education for a person over 19. In this debate, I do not want to discuss university-based higher education for 18 to 21 year-olds, although last week’s publication of the Browne report makes it very tempting to do so. Strictly speaking, this does not fall within my definition of adult education. I prefer the Wikipedia definition quoted in Learning Through Life:

“It’s never too soon or too late for learning”.

The emphasis is on adults returning to organised learning after doing other things. Given that definition, adult education is about a lot of different kinds of learning. It may be about basic literacy or numeracy; it may be about supplementing the basics, such as Irene’s IT and English courses; it may be about upskilling by training for a job that requires particular competences; or it may be about reskilling by training for a new job that opens up new opportunities. Think of the number of people who go on from one Open University course, which they may take to upgrade their skills or qualifications, to another. It may be taken just for the joy of learning and because they are interested in the subject. It may be taken at a local school, college or community hall. It may be pursued in the workplace, or it may be distance learning—with or without the benefit of a tutor or mentor.

Besides the actual learning involved, a whole lot of different benefits flow from it. In Irene’s case, it was the confidence to go on learning and enjoy it, the companionship of other learners, the ability to help her daughter, and the real benefits for her child’s performance, now well documented, that flow from a parent’s involvement with their child’s education. There was the confidence for her to move into a wider community, her involvement as a school governor and becoming chair of the tenants’ group.

It is well known that wider benefits flow from involvement in adult education, and it is now also well researched. Work by Professor Feinstein at the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning in the Institute of Education here in London has documented the advantages that go with higher levels of education—higher earnings, less unemployment, better health, longer lives, better access to technology, lower crime rates and higher civic participation. Above all, there is greater self-learning and self-confidence, which in turn make people feel that learning is worth while in itself and for itself. In other words, it is positively associated with economic and social well-being, with enabling people more easily to accept and manage change, and with promoting social justice and community cohesion.

It is worth looking at one or two of these areas in greater detail. Take health, for example. We know from research that those who participate in educational activities tend to enjoy better health and live longer. Generally speaking, they smoke less, exercise more, take less medicine and manage their own healthcare better than those who do not participate. This in turn reduces both the medical costs of the elderly and the costs of caring for them. At Tansley House care home in Derbyshire, the use of medication fell by more than 50 per cent when learning activities were introduced.

This is even more true of mental health, where many of those who have problems benefit from a regular commitment that gets them out of the house, provides them with friends to talk to and gives them a sense of self-worth and achievement. In a speech on 3 July, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable, spoke movingly of his mother, who had left school at 15. He said:

“My mother was a housewife and when I was ten she had a major nervous breakdown and spent time in a mental hospital. When she recovered she saved her mind through adult education—learning for the first time about history, literature, philosophy and art”.

Mental health is estimated to cost the nation more than £25 billion. The potential saving is huge.

Finally, I will mention crime. Every prisoner costs us more than £40,000 a year to keep locked up. Some 75 per cent of prisoners are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Giving them the mastery of reading and writing—and, even better, a skill that enhances their chances of employment on leaving prison—in turn reduces the chances of their reoffending. It is reckoned that for every 1 per cent drop in the reoffending rate, the Exchequer could save £130 million.

The Prime Minister summed this up in May in a speech about adult learning. He said:

“Adult learning has a really important role to play in encouraging active citizenship. I’m not just talking about what people learn about specifically, but how that learning makes them feel. Going along to college means meeting people, discussing what’s going on in the world, boosting your belief in what you can do. It’s that self-belief that leads people to get involved with their communities and become more active citizens. Given that my vision for this country is for us all to get involved and play our part in national renewal, I believe adult learning, and the way it inspires people, is crucially important”.

The general thesis of Learning Through Life is that we need to rebalance expenditures on adult education—taking its broad definition—away from the 18 to 24 year -olds and spread it more proportionately. In particular, the twin challenges of demography and technology will require radical changes in our thinking.

I will pose a number of questions—about adult learning and about the changes that are likely over the next few days—to my noble friend, whom I welcome to the Dispatch Box for the first time. How far do the coalition Government look to a more flexible programme that will allow room for greater emphasis on older workers and for reskilling and upskilling through life? In particular, what is happening to the basic skills programme? The basic skills commission has been wound up. Is there still an emphasis on promoting basic literacy and numeracy in the adult population?

Secondly, given the abandonment of Train to Gain, will the Government continue the policy of providing adult education and skills training for a first level 2 for free? Given their emphasis on level 3 and technician training, will the free first level 3 up to the age of 25 continue? What about ESOL? It hardly seems right to put such emphasis on citizenship and contributing to society for those who choose to live in this country if we are not prepared to help them to learn English. I welcome the coalition Government's new emphasis on level 3 apprenticeships and technician training, but how far are they proposing to implement the Banks report and shift funding on to a shared basis between the state, the individual and the employer? Will we see, as with Browne and the universities, a substantial shift of funding on to the individual student? If so, will the new funding arrangements for part-timers announced in the Browne report be applicable to further education as well as higher education? Are the Government prepared to see these programmes applied to those over 50 for reskilling and updating their knowledge? Will the coalition continue the policy, adopted with the apprenticeships Act of 2009, of giving employees the right to ask employers for time off for study? What plans, if any, has the coalition for something akin to the individual learning account or a learning bank, where money which the individual sets aside for training is matched by a government contribution? Finally, what is the position of the safeguarded adult education budget of £210 million? Will adult leisure learning receive any of this?

These are important issues and I hope that the Minister can give us some good news about them all.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the opportunity to debate this vital Question today. In the report, Learning Through Life, to which the noble Baroness referred, Tom Schuller and David Watson start from a premise that we should all endorse—that the right to learn throughout life is a human right. Yet our current system of lifelong learning has failed to respond to the major demographic challenges of an ageing society and to the variety of employment patterns as young people take longer to settle into their jobs and older people take longer to leave theirs.

Furthermore, for a society theoretically supportive of fairness, total expenditure on post-compulsory learning, including by the Government, employers and the third sector, as well as by individuals, is, as the noble Baroness said, heavily skewed towards young people and those who succeed initially, and we know that those who succeed initially are from the most advantageous of families. The £15 billion spent on teaching provision and student support for colleges and universities is weighted heavily in favour of young, full-time students. Currently, part-time students get only one-10th of the support of full-timers. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, is a welcome recognition of this and a move in the right direction, but more is certainly needed.

Participation is very closely related to social class. Basically, the higher up your socio-economic position, the more likely you are to take part in learning. Therefore, our approach should be to tackle the current weaknesses and to put continuing education in the path of late developers, those from disadvantaged social classes, the disabled, ethnic minorities, women and, yes, us older people. We know that an ageing society makes health issues—both physical and mental issues have been mentioned—increasingly important. As has also been said, it has been proven that adult learning promotes good health.

I have to declare an interest as a long-time member, though dreadfully poor attendee, of the council of Ruskin College in Oxford. I should like to say something of the college’s pioneering work, which has led the way for over a century in offering high-quality “second-chance” education to generations of men and women from the less advantaged parts of society. As formal qualifications for entry are not required, the normal barriers to educational institutions therefore do not exist.

Traditionally via trade unions, Ruskin picked up some of the brightest of working-class, early school leavers whose union activity had brought them to the attention of canny union officials. Ruskin then offered them—perhaps by then people of 25 or 40 years of age—the chance of a post-16 education tailored to their experience and needs. Perhaps I may give just three examples of the life-changing nature of adult education, in these cases at Ruskin.

The first is now a successful partner in a law firm but she left school at 16 with few qualifications, enrolled on a hairdressing course in Chesterfield, moved to the production line at a local factory, became a trade union branch secretary, went to that union’s training college, caught the learning bug and went to Ruskin. Although earlier she would not have dreamt of going to university, she went on to get a law degree and thence qualified as a solicitor. So Ruskin offered her a second chance to start her life again.

The second Ruskin graduate, originally from west Yorkshire, did poorly in school exams, probably because nobody diagnosed that she was dyslexic. She did manage to get an RSA typing certificate and worked for an accountancy firm but then stopped working full time to raise her daughter before going back into business. However, rather like in the case of Irene, when her daughter left home for university, she herself packed her bags, jumped on a train before any self-doubts could stop her, and enrolled on a one-year residential course at Ruskin. She said, “I knew money would be tight but I also knew this chance to learn would be my salvation and change my life, and it certainly has”. Ruskin opened a new world for her. She went on to university where she got an honours history degree, then a PhD, and she now teaches at university. Of the opportunity for others to go to Ruskin, she says, “You have nothing to lose and a whole new world to gain”.

Finally, no one will be surprised by my third example—it is our own, my noble friend Lord Prescott, who often says that he owes everything to Ruskin. He had worked for 10 years before as a merchant seaman, went there and afterwards completed his higher education elsewhere. He went into politics, I think, became Deputy Prime Minister, and then came to your Lordships’ House. Not bad for a Ruskin student.

So lifelong learning is just that. It offers both a second chance to those not privileged to enter higher education at 18 and provides return-to-learning opportunities for adults with few or no qualifications. It is also not bad for those of us who did have the privilege of a post-18 education. I myself got that PhD just a little before I received my old-age pension at the age of 60. Lifelong learning is good for students who want to develop themselves but it is also good for society. Educated workers are good for the economy. Many with this life-changing experience also want to put something back into society.

Ruskin and similar institutions change people’s lives but they also enrich society. However, this provision cannot live on fresh air any more than can its students. Adult learning is currently seriously vulnerable in places such as Ruskin, with its vital residential facility, and working men’s colleges. Such institutions do not fit into the mainstream mould but they meet the needs of exactly those who missed out on the normal post-school chances.

The Government threaten to remove family allowances from 16 to 18 year-olds—just the time when working-class children need every incentive to continue their studies and aim at higher education. We heard from Michael Gove yesterday that the Government may cut the all important education maintenance allowances, which have done so much to bridge that gap between compulsory education and university. Lifelong learning should start with the maximum of pre-work education and the Government need to invest in that as much as they do in other parts of the economy.

We as a country then need to plan for and help everyone to learn throughout their lives, enriching all of us as well as society. Public and private resources invested in lifelong learning amount to more than £50 billion. Their distribution should reflect a coherent view of our changing economic and social context, our longer working lives and our increasing life expectancy.

Today’s Question for Short Debate asks of the Government,

“what steps they are taking to support and encourage institutions which seek to promote lifelong learning”.

We await their response with interest.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for initiating this debate, not least because the Church of England has long experience of encouraging and supporting adult education and lifelong learning, which it does not only for its own members but within the wider community. I believe that churches are very well placed, as we look towards the big society, to work in partnership with others in helping to provide learning facilities.

Many noble Lords will know of the work done by the Church Urban Fund over the past 30 years, which has been responsible for numerous projects. Over the past five years, it has included 30 learning and training projects and the development of specific skills with particular groups including the long-term unemployed, asylum seekers and women from particular ethnic groups.

My cathedral of Blackburn has made its own contribution here, mainly through the work of a body that we named Exchange, which, for the time being, is supported by the North-West Development Agency and others. We have been able, among other activities, to provide public dialogue with various communities and people on the margins. We have been able to lay on various exhibitions and to create internships, bringing young people over from Sri Lanka and South Africa. We have also provided lectures and have organised leadership programmes. This work has presented opportunities for participants to reassess inherited or long-held views. Basically, we wanted with Exchange to create a safe space within which people could look at their assumptions and within which the possibility to change could be real. We wanted to answer the questions that people are actually asking.

We viewed lifelong learning not as taking people on a predetermined journey or topping up, but rather as enabling them to ask questions born out of their experience which they needed to ask and to try to equip them to answer them. One course was the awareness course, which encouraged members to examine in depth what globalisation meant to the local community—what it meant in the local context—from a faith perspective. Lifelong learning is surely about creating access to knowledge where people are not able to find the means to access it. With Exchange, the canon of my cathedral, who ran it, the dialogue development officer and the small volunteer team found that time and again people were hitting up against the access and resource question. “We know that there is something in this”, participants would say, “but how do we follow it up? What are the mechanisms in our community for doing so? Where is the material or the network that we can plug into?”.

I am convinced that adult education and lifelong learning offered through the church make a significant contribution to building social and community capital. I must say that we could not have done what we did in Blackburn for nothing. You just cannot make lifelong learning happen for nothing. I fear that it cannot all be done by volunteers, however well meaning. We need trained and professional people who will signpost and guide such learning opportunities, and such people and their work must be adequately resourced.

I have focused on fairly informal but nevertheless well-developed programmes at a local level because I believe they have real value and should provide a way forward. But I have also done this because it seems that there has been a trend over the past decade to channel resources and funding only to courses leading to formally recognised qualifications. Now, certainly it is easier to channel government support and resources through large institutions, and many need the formal qualifications for employment purposes but, please, let us encourage smaller and more local organisations and partnerships to develop further lifelong learning programmes, ensuring that we do not forget the harder-to-reach groups, and that we do not forget those who would not be likely to access more formal educational opportunities.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for this absolutely superb opportunity to participate in this important debate. I think that it reflects all her views and her understanding of the issue.

The benefits of adult learning are researched and well known. Perhaps the best summary is provided by the respected Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning. Its synthesis of research over a number of years suggests that, in addition to economic benefits, learning improves the health of the population as a whole through, for example, the adoption of healthier lifestyles, as other speakers have said. It reduces crime rates and the propensity to engage in anti-social behaviour. It promotes social cohesion, participation, particularly in democratic institutions, and good citizenship. To quote the report directly, it says:

“We have strong evidence that adult education can help to reduce racism, increase civic participation and voting, and improve healthy living. It is, for example, associated with giving up smoking and taking more exercise. Moreover, such benefits are greater for educationally disadvantaged adults”.

Adult learning has a direct impact on these outcomes, and an indirect impact resulting from improved parenting and support for children. In terms of the current policy, adult education can be seen to support a number of objectives which have clear cross-party support and which—I am delighted to say—reflect the policies of the previous Government. It promotes the type of active citizenship needed to underpin the big society. It promotes social mobility, particularly by giving a second chance to those who did not achieve their full potential at school, a subject referred to by my noble friend Lady Hayter in her speech. It promotes employability and combats welfare dependence by giving people both skills and self-confidence.

In preparing my speech today I talked to a number of people including the 157 Group of colleges, of which I am a patron, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. I also looked up a recent speech by the Minister with responsibility for skills, John Hayes, who recently spoke of adult learning in terms that would command widespread support across all parties. His approach is very reassuring, as the Labour Government, working with the trade unions, were very committed to lifelong learning, and many feared that the same commitment might not be evident within the coalition Government.

John Hayes highlighted the key issues of adult learning. He said that when parents are engaged in learning, their children are more likely to value education and take an interest in school. Many of us know that from personal experience. He said that it enriches the lives of individuals and the communities of which they are a part. He also very importantly said that it is not a luxury but an essential component of our education system. I trust that in her response the noble Baroness will confirm that view. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, I welcome the noble Baroness to her role on the Front Bench. We have worked opposite each other in many other ways.

In order to achieve these benefits, the Government need to put a few things in place. In order to protect schools and universities, they must avoid the risk of disproportionate cuts falling on adult learning. The sector needs to take its share of cuts, but no more than its fair share in relation to other areas of education. The Government need to look at student support, particularly for those who are on low pay and who currently miss out. With the planned fees increases, some FE students will need to take out loans. It is really disappointing that the proposals in the Banks review suggest much less favourable career development loans than those suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Browne. It would be very wrong to introduce a second-class loan scheme for adults in FE. Again, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to assure us that that is not the case.

As individuals and individual employers take on more responsibility for paying for adult learning, we need to remove the restrictions on what can be supported by public funding. That may mean cutting back on intermediary bodies which seek to restrict the qualifications that people can take and, crucially, allowing the Skills Funding Agency to fund units of qualifications and not just whole qualifications. This is an area in which the Semta sector skills council has been heavily involved. I declare an interest in working with that body. The opportunity for bite-sized training can make a huge difference not only to the earning capacity of individuals but also to their confidence.

We must be aware of the temptation to say at a time of restraint that the Government should focus their support more tightly. At a time of restraint, the opposite is true. A one-size-fits-all policy determined in Whitehall cannot meet the variety of needs in adult learning across England. Colleges and adult education institutions need to have the freedom to tailor their provision to their communities. A similar point was made by the right reverend Prelate regarding Blackburn.

There is a need to ensure that the proposals for simplification of FE funding do not just substitute one complex area for another. We need a simplification of the FE landscape, particularly the removal of the plethora of intermediary bodies which seek to regulate and direct the system. The 157 Group has submitted its views to the recent funding consultation, on which I hope that the noble Baroness will also comment. Among the points that it made, it has suggested that the consultation questions on “demand led” are different from what many of us would believe that phrase to mean. To most of us, “demand led” means responding to the choices of individual adults and individual employers, and being informed by good information, but not constrained by the interpretation of its intermediaries.

In preparing my speech for this important debate, as well as speaking to the 157 Group and Semta, I recall my work with unionlearn as well as with individual trade unions, all of which have been committed for many years to the principle of lifelong learning. Reluctantly, however, I have often been at variance with some of the thinking around lifelong learning in that I see a strong relationship between learning skills that will benefit individuals in their employment opportunities and grow them in all aspects of their lives. There are those who think that lifelong learning is not necessarily about skills for work but about the development of the individual. If I learn something new and I am able to apply it, then not only am I a better worker at my job, I am also more confident in my personal life. That is learning for both aspects of life. I find it difficult to separate my acquisition of skills and my ability to grow as an individual. I think that they are one and the same thing.

However we describe lifelong learning, it is something that everyone in this House continues to do through debates as enlightening and informative as this one today.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford for the opportunity to have this debate. I declare an interest as a retired member of staff of the Open University and as a very strong supporter of investment in adult education and lifelong learning. Three weeks ago, the play, “The Pitmen Painters”, opened on Broadway to rave reviews. It had transferred there after many sell-out performances at the National Theatre and at the Live Theatre on Newcastle’s Quayside, where it was first produced. “The Pitmen Painters” is about a group of Ashington miners who studied art appreciation with the Workers’ Educational Association. Written by Lee Hall, the play is based on a true story of how this group of miners took the art world by storm in the 1930s through their paintings, and the WEA in the north-east was part of their story.

A week on Friday, 29 October, will be the centenary of the creation of the WEA in the north-east of England. It has a long and proud history of providing part-time courses and projects in local community venues throughout the north-east, from the Tees Valley to Berwick, to meet the needs of local people. It provides learning opportunities for those who have previously missed out on education and supports people from diverse and disadvantaged neighbourhoods to acquire new skills and encourage them to take a more active role in their communities. With over 1,500 members and over 7,000 enrolments a year, the WEA in the north-east, as elsewhere, is very much part of the big society as it seeks to build social capital from its volunteer and community base.

WEA learners in the north-east are drawn predominantly from the region’s disadvantaged postcode areas. Many are without qualifications or lack them beyond level 2 and beyond. A high percentage of them declare health, physical or learning disabilities and enrolment of ethnic minority learners is higher than the proportion of ethnic minorities in the region’s population. Some 48 per cent live in postcodes that indicate deprivation; 48 per cent do not have to pay fees for economic reasons; 53 per cent have qualifications below level 2 when joining their courses; 38 per cent have a declared physical disability; 17 per cent have a declared learning disability; and 6 per cent are from a declared ethnic minority. Similar figures will be found throughout the country and are clear evidence that the WEA can reach people that other organisations may not be able to. This is because WEA courses can be set up anywhere—in clubs, community centres, village halls, schools, pubs and workplaces.

The WEA is the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in the country with 12,000 part-time courses reaching over 70,000 people, but it is not the only provider. Some 1.8 million people over the age of 19 study as adults in our colleges, many over the age of 25, and, of course, many more with other providers. In recent years, much of the Government’s funding for education and training for adults has focused on work-related training, such as through Train to Gain, where employers receive a subsidy to train their staff to minimum standards. Colleges were funded only for this training, placing much greater pressure on “non priority” courses that no longer attracted as much public subsidy. The Government need to recognise perhaps more than they do the importance of informal learning for adults which supports active citizenship, community cohesion and social inclusion at the same time as it promotes individual progression. Our colleges are strongly placed to do this, as are our local authorities, our trade unions, our secondary schools and our universities, all of which engage so effectively with the lifelong learning agenda.

In a recent letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, the general secretary of the WEA pointed out the direct community benefit of adult education in improving the mental and physical health of individuals, raising aspirations within families and helping people and communities to adapt to change. With such a strong volunteer base, adult education gives enormous value for money, and in the context of the spending review two things might be considered. First, bureaucracy is a major cost and irritation to part-time adult learners. Exactly the same enrolment processes, regulation and audit apply to an adult on a 30-hour course as to a young person on a full-time qualification. If altered, this could cut administrative costs. Secondly, as a country we spend large sums of money in some areas of training that might be more effectively spent. For example, £737 million is being spent on Train to Gain in this financial year, some of which was described by the National Audit Office in 2009 as providing poor value for money.

The future of adult education as a whole is very important to an educated, cohesive society. It also represents very good value for money, repaying our investment many times over.

My Lords, I should like to start by declaring an interest. My wife, Selina Stewart, is assistant principal at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College Birmingham with responsibility for adult and community education.

I claim no particular expertise in this field but I have seen the life-enhancing impact that adult education can have on many people. I welcome the initiative of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in introducing the debate. She was particularly persuasive about the positive impact that adult education can have and she posed some pertinent questions to her noble friend, who we all welcome to the Front Bench on her well-deserved appointment.

Adult education is a sector which does not enjoy much attention; it does not enjoy much attention in your Lordships’ House or, I suspect, in the wider confines of Westminster and Whitehall. We know from past experience that when financial cutbacks occur in the educational sector, adult education is often forced to contribute more than its fair share. It is therefore particularly apposite that we should discuss the future of adult education in the context of the spending review and, no doubt more importantly, in the decisions that the noble Baroness’s department will have to make in the revenue envelope with which it will be dealing post tomorrow’s announcements.

Adult education has much to offer and for a Government it is a good investment. The previous Government’s Skills for Life programme, which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned, has been marvellous. It has provided free literacy, language and numeracy tuition for adults in England whose skills are below level 2, broadly equivalent to a GCSE at grades A to C. Since 2001 well over 2 million people have taken advantage of the programme and have achieved their first Skills for Life qualification in literacy, language or numeracy. They have improved their life chances considerably, and certainly paved the way for a move into work and improved their job prospects.

A number of noble Lords have referred to research. The National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy published research some two years ago which found that basic skills had a direct impact on the achievement of children and, in particular, that poor basic skills in literacy and numeracy transfer from one generation to the next. Parents’ basic skills have a significantly greater impact on their child’s cognitive ability than other factors such as family structure, household income and parents’ education and socio-economic group. My noble friend Lady Wall pointed to other research which backs up that conclusion.

The part of the Skills for Life initiative to which I want to draw attention is ESOL, English for speakers of other languages. My experience in inner-city Birmingham is that it has had considerable success. We know that lack of English can have a detrimental impact. Examples of it include: individuals who lack the ability to engage with society as a whole; parents who cannot speak to their children’s teachers; an inability to engage effectively with the National Health Service—my noble friend Lady Hayter referred to that; an inability to gain employment, which would get people out of a reliance on benefits; and, of particular concern in areas that I know best, an inability on the part of migrants effectively to interact in the United Kingdom. That point was made forcefully by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp.

I shall emphasise three points. First, my understanding is that, in inner-city Birmingham, 73 per cent of women who engage in basic-level ESOL are illiterate in their own language. So teaching them English—speaking, listening, reading and writing—can transform their lives and those of their families. It is the impact on families that is particularly interesting, because substantial research shows that parental input into education is vital in the achievement of their children. If parents cannot speak, read or write English, it undermines their children’s education. Equally, parental support is vital to prevent discipline problems in school. If parents cannot communicate effectively with schools, problems are more likely to occur and less likely to be resolved at an early stage. That can lead to exclusion. Equally, an inability to speak English means that any antisocial or criminal action is less likely to come to the attention of parents. Again, that means that young people are more likely to get into trouble with the police.

Secondly, an inability to speak English makes it much more difficult for patients effectively to seek healthcare. Even making an appointment can be difficult. Discussions with healthcare professionals using interpreters, which comes at great cost to the NHS, or via members of the family—which is often inappropriate particularly if they are the children—makes diagnosis and treatment very difficult.

The third area, and the one about which I am most concerned, is integration. Surely a key aim for our communities is the effective integration of migrants into British society. Unless they can speak English, there is very little chance of that happening and we know that fragmented communities can be the result, leading to tensions and all the other problems that we have seen in some of our cities in the past 20 years.

Incredible progress has been made during the past decade in ensuring that thousands of people speak English and become numerate, literate and IT-literate. I return to the questions posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. It is widely believed that there will be severe cuts in programme budgets for adult education, particularly in relation to level 1 and level 2. This is an important opportunity for us to get through to the Minister the fact that people with a lack of literacy, particularly in English, run a real risk of being denied many life chances. The cuts in basic skills training will condemn thousands of people, be they newly arrived in this country or adults born and bred here who failed at school, to a life of illiteracy, innumeracy and benefit dependency. I know that the Government are looking creatively at the way forward for welfare reform. If ever there was a case for money to be spent upfront, this surely is it.

I end with five questions for the Minister. Can she say how many student places are likely to be lost in the next CSR spending period? How many people will be deprived of the opportunity to improve their English? How many basic skill teachers will lose their jobs? Have the Government calculated the effect of cuts in basic skill provision on health and educational outcomes for the thousands of children of parents who lack level 1 basic skills provision? In essence, how many more children will be condemned to lives in poverty because of cuts in basic skills classes?

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I particularly congratulate him and the previous Government on the number of people who qualified under Skills for Life and who will pass those skills on to the next generation.

I want particularly to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for this opportunity, and to look with her and others at the Government’s intentions on general encouragement—and, above all, adequate funding—for all forms of lifelong learning. That is lurking in the background of all we say.

The best news that I heard recently may have been news or may have been rumour. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, whom I warmly congratulate on her new role, will be able to confirm—and I hope will not deny—that higher education, when provided on only a part-time and flexible basis as by the OU and Birkbeck, will not be disadvantaged, as was previously intended, in the allocation of government funds for this level of education. I realise that I am straying into an area that the noble Baroness was not particularly keen to address, but it is the only one that I shall ask about on this occasion. We know that the cost of all forms of educational provision has increased dramatically, and it is within that context that we need to understand the future situation for lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is clearly vital for today’s citizens, who will certainly be required frequently to retrain and upskill as a routine part of any employment—and equally, if not more so, for today’s unemployed, who may well need new skills if they are to find employment once the job market begins to recover. The estimate of the percentage of the number of employees needed with a level 4 qualification by 2020 was put at 40 per cent when your Lordships discussed the Education and Skills Bill in June 2008. But the importance of accessible and affordable lifelong learning certainly applies to the many adults who, for whatever reasons, missed out on the opportunity that the compulsory years of education should have offered them to maximise their own life chances and earnings, as well as contributing more profitably to the international competitiveness of the UK’s economy. For them, access to affordable and effective further education and training, especially available on a part-time or flexible basis, will be essential. On their behalf, my second question is: how much in this economically crisis-driven world will the necessary upskilling and training cost the individual student who was short-changed during their compulsory education, when the cost was mainly if not wholly the state’s responsibility?

I shall continue in this same theme. The previous Government made remarkable progress for, and certainly deserve our congratulations on, focusing attention on the need to promote the status of apprenticeships, which had previously been in serious decline, as we must all acknowledge. That was a way to secure some of that essential upskilling that the British workforce needed. Further education colleges, universities and employers all joined together to provide the learning needed as well as the work opportunities, much of it part-time. Will this process be continued and, again, how much of the cost will have to be met by the student? Equally relevantly, will there be options to upskill on a part-time/flexible working basis?

Yet it is not just training for jobs by which lifelong learning benefits citizens. It also has considerable attraction for those nearing the retirement age who would like to develop new skills or, for example, take a course enabling them to put the skills learnt during their working life to further use, perhaps by developing a small business. The attractions of lifelong learning are not only for the economically active either. There may be many of this same generation who, now older and retired, would like to study a more widely educational subject such as art or literature. When the previous Government gave priority to the rebirth of apprenticeships one result was, sadly, that local authorities had less to spend on that kind of course, many of which disappeared. Can we please make sure that the Government are going to encourage and support this kind of lifelong learning too?

There is another point to be made about the availability of that kind of activity. We have all heard of people who have worked all their lives, retired with no interests and very soon faded from view, often spending far too many of their final years in care. Keeping people’s interests stimulated with the availability of such courses is surely another illustration, as other noble Lords have mentioned, of “big society” activity. Also, providing such local forms of companionship and stimulation will, one hopes, mean that people stay involved and active, enjoying themselves for longer within their own communities. I hope that that will mean reducing the ultimate cost to the state for end-of-life care.

My Lords, may I take advantage and speak during the gap? I congratulate the noble Baroness on allowing this debate to take place. I was interested when she mentioned Vince Cable; his political education started in Glasgow, as she perhaps knows. He started off as a Labour councillor for Maryhill, not far from where I was a councillor, and was a Co-op party member on the council. If my memory serves me right, we put him in charge of the fairground in Sauchiehall Street—one of our main streets—at Christmas time. We all said, “This councillor’s going to go a long way”.

I say to the right reverend Prelate that the churches should be able to take a great deal of credit for education. I go back to talking about councillors in Glasgow. One of those whom I had in the same ward as me was Councillor Pat Trainer. He was the child of Irish immigrants who could not read nor write, and it was the Bishop of Glasgow of that time who said that the children of Irish immigrants needed education. Pat, because he came from the Gorbals in Glasgow, got the Franciscans to come and teach him. Such was the poverty of that young man that he had to learn his lessons by looking over the shoulder of a fellow pupil, because his family could not afford a writing slate. Pat, who is only a generation away from me, turned out to be a lovely handwriter. He became a full-time trade unionist because of the education that he received, and he was fanatical about education; he fought for primary schools and secondary schools. Whenever a boy or girl was denied a grant to go to university, he was the first up to the education department to see why that grant was not being paid for his young constituent’s education. Pat used to have a saying that if you ceased to learn, you ceased to live, and he would be pleased about the fact at least that our education facilities are far superior to what he had to put up with when he was a young boy.

We should readily acknowledge that the trade union movement—and, yes, the Workers’ Educational Association—have provided first-class facilities throughout the years. As someone who went to school at 15, I know that by the time I became interested in the trade union movement and in Labour Party matters, tackling the grammar of minute-taking and writing letters did not come easy. With a young family, it was ideal for me to be able to go to the night classes that were provided by the TUC in Glasgow. Of course, they were provided not only in Glasgow but throughout the country, and it says a great deal for the trade union movement that not only were they fighting for conditions and wages, they were also fighting for education.

I know that I am due to finish shortly. Consideration should be given to mentoring by retired journeymen and journeywomen going back into the factories. They are more patient with young apprentices, and the young apprentices will respect them when they are given lessons by a person who has all those years of skill behind them.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for ensuring that we debate this issue, as well as all those who have participated. It has been a fascinating debate. I was as inspired as the noble Baroness by Irene’s story. We could all recount similar stories. I am a primary school governor, and I could recount the story of a canteen manageress who has gone from nothing to doing her foundation degree. That just shows the latent talent and potential that are within people.

I want to look at some of the targets that we set ourselves, when I was a member of the previous Government, to tackle the adult skills gap, to increase the number of adults with skills required for employability and progression to higher levels of training and to improve the basic skill levels of 2.5 million adults between the launch of Skills for Life in 2001 and 2010, with a milestone of 1.5 million in 2007. It is interesting, looking at the progress that we made on that, that against the 2001 baseline the latest outturn showed that the 2007 milestone of 1.5 million adults benefiting from improved basic skill levels has already been exceeded, with over 1.7 million learner achievements. That represents really good progress towards the 2010 target. When we talk about those basic skills, we are talking about literacy and numeracy. Without those skills, we know that adults are not going to make progress in employment; indeed, they are going to stunt their life chances.

The participation in Skills for Life courses remains strong. Over 4.7 million people took up over 10.5 million learning opportunities between 2001 and July 2006, and we expect to report that we have exceeded 2 million achievements when we receive the next update from the Learning and Skills Council. There was an interim target of an additional 1 million adults in the workforce to achieve level 2 between 2003 and 2006, and that was reached in 2006. We now have 74.7 per cent of the economically active workforce qualified to at least level 2, which represents approximately 18.2 million adults, compared with 16.1 million adults in 2001. There is, however, a very challenging growth trajectory to 2010, requiring an increase in publicly funded first level 2 achievements from 148,000 in 2005-06 to almost 400,000 in 2009-10.

More than 2 million people have started an apprenticeship since 1997. We have started to tackle the employment prospects of those at the greatest distance from work through new strategies such as valuing employment for people with learning difficulties. I know that the Train to Gain service received some criticism from the NAO; nevertheless we believe that it has been very successful, engaging with more than 143,000 employers and enabling more than 1 million people to start learning programmes at work. The feedback from employers and learners has been very positive, with 71 per cent of those learners achieving success. That does not mean to say that we should not seek improvement, but I hope that we will not denigrate Train to Gain because it achieved an awful lot, especially given that there was a time when two-thirds of our employers were doing no training at all.

A number of noble Lords stressed the importance of the role of trade unions. The Union Learning Fund, which the previous Government introduced in 1998, has a budget of £21.5 million a year to help unions build their contribution to workforce skills development. More than 23,000 trade union learning reps helped more than 220,000 workers into learning last year. Trade unions are often criticised, but sometimes we fail to recognise the vital work that they do. My noble friend Lady Hayter talked about the work of Ruskin College and mentioned John Prescott. Alan Johnson and I, who once headed up the Communication Workers Union, both left school at 15 and owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the trade union education facilities. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for reminding us of the key role of the Workers’ Educational Association, which often provided the tutors for trade union education colleges.

I was looking at the Government’s recent consultation paper, which I welcome, called Skills for Sustainable Growth. It says in a paragraph on funding entitlements:

“Currently there is a legal entitlement for people to receive free tuition for certain basic literacy and numeracy skills, a first full Level 2 qualification and, for people under 25, a first full Level 3 qualification.

We have concerns that the current system of entitlements acts against colleges’ freedom to respond to what employers and learners really want and discourages private investment”.

We paid a lot of attention to ensuring that we responded to what employers told us they needed, such as bite-size courses in management skills, or whatever.

I ought to welcome the Minister to the Front Bench. I am sorry that I did not do it earlier. It is a pleasure for me to do so—well, almost. I would rather be on the government side, for obvious reasons. I would welcome an assurance from her that those legal entitlements for free tuition will be maintained by the Government.

One of the important things that we did was to introduce adult apprenticeships, which have been very successful. They address the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, about the need for workers to reskill and upskill.

As for how one can assist older or more mature workers, I want briefly to address the digital divide. The previous Government realised that ICT courses were clearly important to prevent digital exclusion, making free courses widely available online throughout the UK. More than 2 million people regularly use the centres, supported by funding of around £12 million each year from the Government. At present we are unclear about the extent to which we are meeting the need for basic ICT skills. We have asked my noble friend Lady Morris to review provision in this important area. I hope the Government will look at that review and maintain the funding in that important area.

I was interested in the comment of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn about the networks formed by the church. I would concur with that. Another group that has not been mentioned is the University of the Third Age, which encourages many people to involve themselves in imaginative ways and draws on the vast reservoir of skills and experience that resides in the more mature members of our society. The right reverend Prelate made the point that, yes, of course people volunteer, but we also need some basic investment in these networks. I hope such investment will be maintained. My noble friend Lady Wall talked about the importance of lifelong learning and parental involvement. I am reminded that parents who start out doing a basic task in schools, such as listening to children read, are often inspired to go back into work by becoming teaching assistants. My noble friend Lord Hunt again drew to our attention the importance—if we are serious about community cohesion—of ensuring that people can speak English, and of investment in that area.

We know that we must make cuts in some areas. We never suggested that we would not address the deficit. The difference is in the pace at which we would address them. I hope that the Government will recognise that, in the current climate, investing in adult and further education is an investment for the future. If we do not get it right, we will endanger the recovery. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, in responding, will address the points that several noble Lords and I have raised.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Sharp for bringing such an important issue to the attention of the House. It is one that I am proud to address in my maiden outing as government Whip. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness as a tireless and highly effective champion of adult education and lifelong learning. I am also grateful for her valuable contribution to my own adult learning since I arrived in your Lordships’ House. I add my thanks for the welcome to this post from your Lordships.

Adult education is a subject that is dear to my heart. At various points in my life—as a teacher, as an RAF wife, as a volunteer with the citizens advice bureaux and in my work on vocational qualifications with City and Guilds—I have seen for myself how learning, both formal and informal, transforms lives for the better. I regret to say that transformation is an overused term in modern politics but in this sphere, and in light of my own experience, there is none that is more apposite. This debate has already highlighted the rich history of adult education in this country. The literary societies, mechanics’ institutes, religious groups, independent lending libraries, women’s suffrage organisations and, indeed, the trade unions are all part of the movement that gave birth to our universities, FE colleges and adult education services, as well as organisations such as unionlearn, which noble Lords have mentioned, the Workers’ Educational Association, which my noble friend Lord Shipley referred to, City Lit, the Open University and the Women’s Institute. These remain very much part of our society and its learning landscape.

I regret to say that it would be absurd, on the eve of the spending review, to pretend that there will not be decisions in the coming days and weeks that will affect adult education. The scale of the deficit has forced the coalition to make tough choices right across government. We are clear that Britain’s long-term recovery depends on boosting the skills levels of our people. Employers need skilled workers to stay ahead of the competition here and overseas. Individuals need higher-level skills to secure or hang on to a well paid job or to climb the career ladder. However, as so many speakers have pointed out, the learning and skills agenda does not end there. The coalition recognises the importance of learning that motivates those furthest removed from the job market, strengthens family bonds, keeps us mentally and physically active as we get older, helps us deal with life changes or disabilities, encourages us to learn informally with work colleagues and fosters communal bonds through the sharing of interests and passions. These are all experiences, I might add, which restore people’s faith in the joy of learning for its own sake and which, for some, extinguish memories of less than happy school days. Too many of our young people still emerge from compulsory education without the confidence or skills to find learning fun and to make their way in the world.

We also recognise that this kind of learning brings strong economic as well as social benefits. A two-year partnership between a PCT, an adult learning service and the Mental Health Foundation is exploring the use of well-being courses to tackle depression and other mental health difficulties. The Mental Health Foundation evidence shows that these courses are significantly improving participants’ anxiety and depression scores, with results on a par with much more expensive clinical interventions such as antidepressants. My noble friend Lady Sharp referred to NIACE. I pay tribute to that body, which has performed an amazing service to the country since 1921. Recent NIACE research showed amazing results for elderly people in care homes whose physical and mental health showed marked improvements when they had opportunities to learn. The quality of their life improved as they engaged in new and meaningful activities in their later years. They became more independent and less reliant on carers and medication—a real win-win situation.

Another social benefit was encapsulated by Victor Hugo in the words, “Ouvrez une école, vous fermerez une prison”—open a school and you will close a prison. We have often highlighted in your Lordships' House the transformation in the lives of offenders, young and old, who are given the opportunity to learn. Often the need is to acquire basic skills of literacy and numeracy, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, set out, or it could be to learn an occupational skill; but learning which will give them the chance to play a constructive part when they return to society, and in the process feel a sense of self-worth as they rebuild their lives. Amazing schemes in music and drama are available and the organisation Fine Cell Work encourages inmates to create needlework, for which they can earn some money and gain a sense of real achievement in craftsmanship.

Learning, moreover, comes in many shapes and sizes, such as activities funded by government departments or the Big Lottery—many of them in sport or the arts—which are not specifically described as learning, and those offered by charities and voluntary organisations working in community learning. People organise their own knitting circles, gardening clubs, reading groups in their thousands and online communities. I should also mention the wonderful University of the Third Age.

One of the many interesting conclusions of the NIACE inquiry into lifelong learning was that the previous Administration focused too much, and very heavily, on targets. My colleagues in the other place—the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Further Education and Lifelong Learning—agree with that. They have already said clearly that this Government will not reduce all learning to that which fits utilitarian descriptions, or which can be measured in terms of jobs and qualifications targets. That has been a recurring theme in this evening’s speeches. The right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lady Sharp and others have mentioned the need to have learning for leisure as well as learning for jobs.

The need to reinvigorate adult and community learning, ensuring that it has pride of place in the big society as well as helping people back into training and employment, is one of the priorities for the Government’s forthcoming skills strategy. As the Minister in the other place has said, this Government see learning not as something that can be carved up into useful and less useful pieces, but as a continuum. We will not be satisfied until and unless every part of that continuum is healthy.

Two recent consultations are consistent with this priority. The first, on how to reform our skills system given the fiscal constraints, received more than 450 responses. The second, on how to tame the bureaucratic jungle which providers currently face, has to date received more than 400, and those responses are still coming in.

I shall now respond to some of the specific points raised by noble Lords. My noble friend Lady Sharp referred to older people learning and their acquisition of new skills to enable them, for instance, to use digital technology. There are schemes such as the Race Online 2012 campaign and the BBC First Click campaign. We recognise the importance of older people continuing to learn and remaining active. I have already mentioned the commitment to ensuring that learning is not purely utilitarian, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned.

On the basic skills entitlement, making reassurances on funding programmes is, as I have said, difficult at this stage, but the Government have undertaken a full consultation to inform the skills strategy and will be taking final decisions on funding and entitlements in the context of the spending review decisions. But within that, we would certainly hope that the ESOL programme and the basic skills programme will get a very heavy measure of support to continue. My noble friend Lady Sharp and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned ESOL, which is a highly valuable programme.

On vocational skills and progression through apprenticeships, I pay tribute to the previous Government for—as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said—what they did for adult apprenticeships and to the increase that they put into the funding and promotion of adult apprenticeships. This Government are no less committed to ensuring that, and have already guaranteed a redeployment of £150 million to fund 50,000 new adult apprenticeship places, which we hope will go some way towards that aim.

I could see the resurgence of Ruskin College from time to time. It has been an amazing pioneer in moving forward learning for people from non-traditional backgrounds and who often missed out the first time around. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on receiving her doctorate just before her pension. One wonders what qualifications she will aim for next. The noble Lord, Lord Young, also mentioned Ruskin College. We have seen the Government’s recent commitment in capital support for the Northern College, Working Men’s College and other initiatives along those lines. There has been a grant of £21.5 million to support the Union Learning Fund and unionlearn, because those organisations have done amazing work, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wall, mentioned. She has been an enormous champion of further education colleges and vocational education—as indeed have so many noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. We would agree with all the benefits that she set out to confirm that funding unionlearn is a very important part of the general mix of money going into training for people in employment.

I have many pieces of paper and very little time to get through them. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn can be congratulated on the remarkable work that he has overseen. We indeed recognise the work of the churches in adult learning. The open spaces movement helps to open up low-cost spaces and we hope that faith groups will use their facilities for that.

We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that the Workers’ Educational Association has extraordinary outreach into disadvantaged communities and that we should reduce red tape and administrative costs, so that more people are enabled to return to learning.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned the higher education programme, which is outside this particular area, but is important, too. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke about ESOL and adult learning. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Martin, that we need the passionate support for lifelong learning that he described, with such things as night classes and all sorts of other ways in which people may access learning.

I am conscious that almost certainly I have not answered all noble Lords' questions, but I have run out of time. I will just say that we have heard compelling accounts of the ways in which adult and community learning benefit individuals, families, communities and the country. I assure the House that the Government are absolutely committed to this dimension of public life. We are determined to develop a community-wide culture of adult learning as a cornerstone of the big society—a culture that recognises the wider benefits of learning and that prioritises public funding for those people who have had the fewest opportunities and need the most help. It only remains for me to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, which has been incisive, interesting and helpful, and to thank my noble friend Lady Sharp for securing it.

House adjourned at 6.25 pm.