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Education (Repeal of Arrangements for Vocational Qualifications Awarded or Authenticated in Northern Ireland) Order 2016

Volume 771: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2016

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Education (Repeal of Arrangements for Vocational Qualifications Awarded or Authenticated in Northern Ireland) Order 2016.

My Lords, this order, which was laid before both Houses on 11 March this year, repeals the provision that makes Ofqual, which is the English examinations regulator, the regulator of vocational qualifications for Northern Ireland. Instead, the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment—known as CCEA Regulation—which already regulates GCSEs, A-levels and other non-vocational qualifications, will become responsible for regulating all types of qualifications awarded in Northern Ireland.

This order brings qualification regulation in Northern Ireland in line with that in Scotland and Wales, where specific regulatory bodies oversee all qualifications awarded in their respective countries. When Ofqual was established in 2009, it assumed the regulatory functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority —QCA—which regulated vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning proposed that Ofqual took on the QCA’s responsibilities in Northern Ireland. This proposal was included in the legislation that established Ofqual.

In recognition of the fact that the Northern Ireland Administration committed to keep the arrangements for regulating qualifications under review, the Act made provision for Ofqual’s responsibilities in Northern Ireland to be removed by order. The Northern Ireland Administration now wish to make use of this provision. The Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning reviewed these regulatory arrangements last year and concluded that it would be more appropriate for a single body to be responsible for the regulation of all qualifications in Northern Ireland, including vocational qualifications.

The Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, John O’Dowd, endorsed the proposal in December 2015. Subsequently, the Northern Ireland Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, wrote to the Secretary of State for Education in January 2016 requesting the assistance of the Department for Education to amend the 2009 Act to remove the responsibility for regulating vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland from Ofqual to allow CCEA Regulation to perform that duty under Article 75 of the Education Order (Northern Ireland) 1998.

The UK Government and the UK Parliament should not take a view on policy decisions made by the Northern Ireland Administration. Therefore, in responding to this request, we have sought only to ensure that the decision made in Belfast is implemented properly, fairly and efficiently and that it does not adversely affect people taking these qualifications in England or Ofqual’s ability to regulate the qualifications for which it is responsible. The proposals in front of the Grand Committee today, and the practical arrangements that sit alongside them, achieve this. The Department for Education in London has worked with its Northern Ireland counterparts, Ofqual and CCEA Regulation, to implement these changes, and I am grateful to these organisations for their co-operation. The Northern Ireland Office has been informed of the proposed changes.

Since the beginning of the year, CCEA Regulation and Ofqual have communicated with all the awarding organisations that will be affected by this change. The two regulators will continue to work together and with their counterparts in other parts of the UK to minimise burdens on the awarding organisations that they regulate jointly. Ofqual intends to sign a memorandum of understanding with CCEA Regulation as it takes on its new responsibilities, as it has recently done with the new qualifications regulator in Wales, as many similar qualifications are used in all three jurisdictions. As a result of this legislative change, Ofqual’s small office in Belfast will close. The Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning will provide funding for any associated costs and the change will be cost neutral for Ofqual.

These changes and this order are just one example of devolution in action. Each part of the UK should be able to make the arrangements for regulating qualifications that support its objectives and priorities and to change those arrangements where appropriate. That is what the Northern Ireland Administration are doing, and that is what this order enables for vocational qualifications. I commend it to the Committee.

My Lords, the order before us may appear to be uncontentious—indeed, it is—but I declare an interest as the Minister for Employment and Learning who asked Ofqual to continue its regulatory role because the then Executive were planning to create an education and skills authority on which, like on many other things over there, they spent millions, took years and eventually had to scrap. My anxiety about this is simply about a factor that is occurring within the United Kingdom. People are marketing the European Union as a place where you can come and go with free movement. We are trying throughout a range of disciplines to get commonality of qualifications so that we recognise each other’s qualifications. At the rate we are going in this country, we will very soon have to start recognising qualifications from within the United Kingdom. My fear about this is that it is change for the sake of change. Can anybody explain what practical benefit there is? How different can a qualification in engineering, construction or whatever subject be? We are going to end up with four separate series of qualifications within the United Kingdom. Standards will probably be different, the technicalities will be different and how they will be taught will be different. Until this point, the CCA had no capacity in this area, so we are having to create new capacity where capacity already exists.

There is a big issue with devolution and the United Kingdom Government. We have got into the habit of devolving and forgetting. It is a mistake not to take a view or to argue that this is devolution in action, as it is. I do not dispute that it is within the competence of the Administration, but we cannot simply forget these things and ignore them. They have to be monitored. Let us not forget that devolution is exactly what it says. We have given a power of ours to Wales and to Belfast, but it is fundamentally our responsibility. I do not accept the principle that you simply devolve and forget. I am not opposing the proposals per se, but there is a risk that a Northern Ireland qualification authority is being created for no good reason.

The Minister referred to the Northern Ireland Education Minister. As a result of his activities, because he refused to sign on to or use some of the English examination board papers, the CCA does not have as broad a range. Consequently, pupils are not able to access some examinations. I do not think that is progress. There is a risk that over time we will create different regimes. The labour force should be free to move around the United Kingdom and get qualifications. If there is something unique, different and local, I am for it. I believe in devolution, but I do not believe in change purposely for the sake of change or in setting up a new bureaucracy purely for the sake of setting it up in order to say that it is ours and not somebody else’s.

I am not making a big deal out of this relatively minor change, but it is symptomatic of what can go wrong in the long term. If we get young people, in particular, taking certain qualifications in different parts of the United Kingdom, will they be recognised throughout the United Kingdom? That is the issue that worries me. Who is going to determine whether they are recognised? Ultimately it is up to employers, and do employers understand the difference between the different variable factors? Those are the questions that need to be asked when we are looking at these things. You cannot close your mind simply because it is within the legislative remit of the Assembly and say, “It’s up to them; they can do whatever they like”.

It is the outcomes that need to concern us. What are the prospects for young people getting those qualifications? Are they recognised professionally by employers and employers’ organisations? Will they give those people the same opportunities to get jobs? Do employers understand what the differences might be? These are the areas we should be paying attention to.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out clearly the background to these regulations and the rationale underpinning the proposal to repeal the existing arrangements.

The words that I prepared have been knocked slightly off balance by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, because I was about to say that the draft meets the expressed will of the Northern Ireland Administration. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, has cast some doubt over whether that is the case and perhaps whether it should be the case, but our understanding is— indeed, the Minister said—that the Northern Ireland Administration, as provided for in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, will place qualifications regulation on the same level as that which currently applies in my homeland of Scotland, as well as in Wales.

The issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred are certainly not without relevance, but there is one matter on which I would take issue with him. I was going to talk about this being the purest form of devolution—which rhymes with revolution, which is a slightly different concept—which I notice is the term that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, uses. It is important that devolution is understood in the appropriate way. It is a term that has been used rather loosely and even inaccurately in some contexts recently; for example, in some recent education legislation. However, this is the purest form of devolution. Perhaps, as a Scot, I would say this, but the movement of power away from the centre has been a very important feature of the way in which the United Kingdom has operated over the past 20 years. Within that context, it is important that the legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh have the power to do what they are able to do to the extent of that power. It seems to me, and I am certainly a novice when it comes to issues relating to Northern Ireland, that the Northern Ireland Administration have said, “We have the ability to take on board this power, and that is what we want to do”.

With regard to vocational qualifications, I give credence to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The authentication of qualifications is absolutely essential. At a time when apprenticeships and vocational education are a very hot topic in ensuring that we have the skills that our economy will need in the years ahead, it is important that young people—who we must encourage to a greater extent to take on those apprenticeships and follow vocational routes—are confident that when they complete that training or study, they can take their piece of paper and immediately know that it has been validated and that employers will recognise it. That is a very important point. If there was a suggestion that this would weaken the options open to young people in Northern Ireland, I would be concerned. Until a few moments ago, I had not heard that suggestion but I think it is probably for everybody’s benefit that the Minister addresses that not unimportant point, at least to some extent.

We are pleased to support this order as it stands because we recognise that it is what the Northern Ireland Administration have requested. Before I sit down, there are one or two other points of clarification that perhaps the Minister might be able to provide. When this order was discussed in another place my colleague, Nic Dakin MP, asked the Minister for Schools about the support that will be given to staff affected by the closure of Ofqual’s office in Belfast. The Minister merely replied, and the noble Baroness repeated it today, that the Minister had asked Ofqual,

“to do everything to ensure the best preparation for those staff and to help them in any way possible”.—[Official Report, Commons, Delegated Legislation Committee, 20/4/16; col. 6.]

He then mentioned that the cost of the closure would be met by the Northern Ireland Executive’s Department for Employment and Learning, which suggests—at least to me— that the staff may be made redundant. It could well be that such an arrangement will suit some—I understand that there are only three of them—but my background as a trade union official leads me to ask the Minister whether she is aware of consideration being given to alternative employment for the staff.

That is relevant to another point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, when he talked about new capacity being created within the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment in Northern Ireland. As he said, capacity already exists. That is a parallel argument to my point. The Ofqual staff have that capacity, and my suggestion to the Minister is that, given the skills which the Ofqual staff have built up, they might usefully be transferred to the CCCA, obviating the need for redundancy, if that is what the individuals concerned want, of course. Whereas the cost of employing somebody for the foreseeable future is greater than the cost of a redundancy payment, it can very much be seen as a beneficial cost. Perhaps the Minister may consider that. It is unrealistic to expect her to give a detailed reply to that point today, but perhaps she will write to me when she has had the opportunity to give the matter some consideration.

My Lords, I thank the contributors to this important debate. I will deal with the points in the order in which they were raised. Should I not have answered all the questions at the end, I will make sure that I write to noble Lords.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, raised an interesting point about why the change should be made now. That is a question for the Northern Ireland Administration to answer, so it would not be appropriate for me to speak for them. In enacting this legislation, we want to ensure that a decision made in Northern Ireland is implemented as efficiently as possible and in a way that does not affect people taking qualifications in England. Indeed, the qualifications will be recognised in the UK, but of course, it is the responsibility of others.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I was answering some questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I cannot remember whether I had got to the fact that the qualifications will be recognised across the UK. That is already happening in Wales, so there is no worry about that, but, as I think I mentioned, recognition is the responsibility of employers and the institutions.

We are taking every care to make sure that Ofqual and Northern Ireland’s CCEA will have a working relationship and will work together to ensure a smooth transition. In particular, Ofqual and CCEA Regulation will continue to share an IT platform and register for the qualifications and awarding organisations that they each regulate, so plenty of talking will be going on.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned the staff in the office, who are very important. Ofqual is managing the consequences of the change for its three members of staff in Belfast and is doing everything to ensure that the best preparation is laid down and to help them in every way possible. Any financial consequences of the closure of the office will be borne by the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland. This includes any possible redundancies or problems with pensions. The noble Lord makes the very good point that there are well-qualified staff there already. I cannot answer his question at the moment, but we should certainly think about it, because what he said makes perfect sense.

I think that I have answered the questions put. Anything that I have missed will be picked up, and I will write to noble Lords. The order will support the Northern Ireland Administration in implementing their education policies, and I commend it to the Committee.

Motion agreed.