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House of Commons Hansard

Night Schools and Adult Education

13 January 2017
Volume 619

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

  • I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, to have the opportunity to talk about an important issue as the House adjourns.

    Tonight, in a Portakabin in the car park of a small industrial estate, under the dilapidated railway arches in Bethnal Green, east London, Courtney will be teaching a class as usual at The Knowledge Academy. He will be teaching men and women from all backgrounds, ages and races who all have one thing in mind: passing “the knowledge” and becoming a London cabbie. They want to leave behind zero-hours contracts and insecure casual work. They are sick of minimum wage jobs in call centres, labouring on building sites, stacking shelves or waiting tables. They desperately want to get into more secure, better-paid work—the ticket to a better life for themselves and their families. The reason why I called this debate, and why I mentioned The Knowledge Academy, is that it feels to me that it is pretty much the last night school left in London.

    When my mother arrived in the UK in 1970 from a tiny village in Guyana, she was unskilled and uncertain of her future. She worked as a home help and then, after she finished work for the day, she went to our local college and trained in shorthand and as a typist. Thirty years later, she retired from her role as a manager at Haringey Council. What does that tell us? It tells us that a woman can start off with nothing and work up from being a secretary to a managerial position, earning a salary to support a family as a single breadwinner. It tells us that if we give people opportunities to get the skills they need, they will go from strength to strength.

    The term “social mobility” gets thrown around a lot here in the House of Commons, but it basically means helping people to climb the ladder. Ordinary people do not care about jargon such as “social mobility” but they certainly care about climbing the ladder. They are working two or three jobs, borrowing too much money from the bank and borrowing from friends and family. They are sometimes sleeping on floors to save on rent. They want the security of a reliable job that can pay them a wage that can support their family—here in London, that is between £40,000 and £50,000 a year.

    We have a proud history of adult education in this country, stretching back to the early 19th century. In the 1820s, Birkbeck was established, as were mechanics institutes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Manchester. The Working Men’s College opened in 1854, and City Lit first opened its doors in 1919. Such institutions gave working-class adults the chance to gain the skills that they had not learned at school and certainly would not learn at work. George Stephenson, the inventor of the steam engine, was illiterate until the age of 18 and the product of a night school. The career of L. S. Lowry, one of our most renowned artists, began in an evening course.

    I thank Birkbeck, which is doing outreach work in my constituency, Tottenham; City Lit, an amazing institution and a gem in the fabric of London; Morley College; the Workers’ Educational Association; the College of North East London in my constituency; and the other institutions throughout the country for the work they do to keep the tradition alive. They are making sure that we do not lose the legacy of Samuel Morley, John Ruskin and William Morris or the value of learning for learning’s sake. They are helping thousands of modern-day “Educating Ritas” to gain the confidence that they need to flourish. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for establishing the all-party group on adult education and pushing it up the agenda.

    According to Hansard, since 2010 this House has discussed education on 339 occasions. There has not been a single debate on adult education—not one—and there has been just a single question on it in education questions, back in October 2010. That is it: that is what this place thinks of adult learning in this country. Such total disregard for adult education is not good enough. It is not good to say that if someone does not go to university they cannot progress and are limited to a life of low-paid work with no prospects of change.

    It is not good enough to deny opportunities to the already marginalised and struggling, and to those who did not have opportunities when they were growing up. The bottom line is that in this place we are totally obsessed with the education policy for 16 and 18-year-olds. We are obsessed with university entrants, and we are currently obsessed with apprenticeships. It is all about getting young people into university or an apprenticeship, but education does not and must not end at 18.

    It is important to put this debate in the context of our times—Brexit—not least because we are set to lose the European social fund, which currently contributes between £50 million and £100 million to our colleges each year. Skills shortages already make up nearly a quarter of all job openings, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Some 69% of all UK businesses are worried that they will not be able to find enough people with the requisite skills to fill job vacancies. It looks like we are going to leave the single market, so businesses will not be able to recruit from the continent to plug skills gaps. Much more will need to be done to reskill and retrain people here, in our own country, to take up those jobs.

    As has been said in this House so many times since June, the referendum result highlighted the fact that there are many people out there who feel left behind in places such as Great Yarmouth, Blackburn, and Barking and Dagenham here in London. The average earnings in Barking and Dagenham are 40% lower than the London average. In Great Yarmouth, average earnings are £10,000, or 40% lower than the national median. Blackburn has the second lowest earnings of any UK city.

    There are growth industries in this country: look at coding, programming and the digital sector more generally. The construction sector is crying out for skilled workers to deliver the infrastructure and homes that our country needs. There is a huge demand for engineers, especially in sectors such as biotechnology and aerospace. Professional services, consulting and accountancy also continue to grow. However, my question is: how are working class people in those places going to access those sectors and get the jobs where they can earn even the average salary—never mind a comfortable salary on which to support a family and enjoy a good life? Millions of people trapped in low-income, dead-end jobs with children and care responsibilities have been shut out of adult education. Let me put a question to the Minister, who I know cares about the issue. I am not here, on this occasion, in a partisan way, but I want to know what he will do about this critical issue.

    By 2024, only 2% of people in employment will have no formal qualifications. What exactly will happen to the millions of people who did not get qualifications when they were young? What is the strategy for those adults? We need to talk about the 30-somethings, the 40-somethings and the 50-somethings. In a country where we are living longer and longer, how will these people access education? We cannot expect them to go to university and pay nine grand a year; it is unrealistic to think that they can drop their lives and not support their kids in order to do that.

    We have an hourglass economy in this country, with a shrinking middle section and a growing section of society trapped at the bottom. We have huge structural problems, especially the loss of manufacturing and the failure to replace those breadwinner jobs. That is the fault not of Europe, of free movement or of migrants who come to this country to work, but of successive Governments—both Conservative and Labour.

    What context does the Minister have to address? The Association of Colleges has warned that at this rate adult education will disappear by 2020. The total number of adult learners fell by 10.8% in just a single year between 2014 and 2015. We have had 40% cuts in real terms to the adult skills budget between 2010 and 2015, and spending on the non-apprenticeship parts of this budget fell by 57%.

    The Government published their 60-page post-16 skills plan last July. If Members turn to page 31, they will see a couple of small paragraphs dedicated to adults. It says that

    “education and training need to become a more important part of adults’ lives.”

    The Government’s plan promised to outline a plan for lifetime learning by the end of 2016, but it did not appear. I asked the Minister’s office when that plan would be forthcoming, but I have not had a reply yet. I hope to hear from the Minister on that subject.

    The Government Office for Science has said that

    “lifelong learning and the challenges of an ageing population is now an urgent issue for public policy in the UK.”

    The range of courses on offer has narrowed to basic skills and English for speakers of other languages. Only 4,900 adults achieved level 4 awards or above. Under the adult education budget in 2015, there was a 36% fall in one year. In 2013, the figure was 20,000—a 75% fall in two years. I ask the Minister: where is the strategy? Where is the investment and where are the ideas?

    Do not get me wrong: this situation has been caused by funding cuts and the political neglect of successive Governments. Labour implemented Union Learn, of which I am very proud. I was proud to be a skills Minister who worked on that. We also had to focus on basic skills—English and maths—which are hugely important for adults who do not have the basics to move on.

    We implemented Train to Gain, and gave employers huge budgets—millions of pounds—to train up their staff. On reflection, I am not so sure about that programme, because there is a lot of evidence to suggest that employers do not train up people to leave, which is why we need to empower adults themselves to take up these courses.

    We need a national strategy, which is led by a Minister working across Departments because the benefits of adult education have a huge impact on employment and health outcomes and our GDP. In the coming years, the Government will be devolving control of skills funding, so we need to ensure that we do not end up with a patchwork of provision across the country. Britain cannot afford that outside the European Union. I hope the Minister will say something about that.

    The Government are bringing in £3 billion per year through the apprenticeship levy. Will some of that funding be allocated to support adult education? I hope the Minister will address that point. The present system is hugely unbalanced. If someone decides to go to university at age 18, the Government offer an open-ended commitment to fund their tuition fees and living costs, and the person pays it back only if they earn over a certain threshold. Where is the support for adult learners and those going through technical education?

    The answer is not the advanced learner loans, which are not working. In 2015 only £140 million in loans was taken up, of a total budget of just under £400 million that was set aside. In my constituency only 38% of adult learners are taking them up. Leaders in the sector have told me that the uptake is not there because people simply do not know about them. If they do know about them, often the burdens of a loan make them too problematic for the kinds of families we are talking about, who have kids to feed and other commitments. Frankly, if we are going back to life before the EU, we may well have to go back to subsidising adult education once again. That has to be on the table if we think it is economically important.

    The Government also need to consider what has variously been called a “single tertiary education entitlement,” a “skills entitlement” or a “career fund”. Ignoring the jargon, in the modern economy people are going to have to learn new skills and change jobs. The jobs of the future have not even been created yet, so there is no way the education that people get in their teens and early 20s can prepare and support them through their whole lives. Creating a fund that people can draw upon throughout their lives to fund training and qualifications reflects the reality of the modern world. I call on the Minister to consider a single tertiary education entitlement or a similar sort of scheme.

    I finish by saying this: look across this country, at our seaside towns and post-industrial towns across the north, the midlands and Wales. In places such as Boston, Hartlepool, Blackpool, Oldham and Wrexham, the prevailing wind is to blame immigrants for our problems; for taking jobs, houses, school places and GP appointments. But in a country where people are trapped in low-income, low-skilled work, and where they do not see a way out, we are playing a very dangerous game if we do not listen and act.

    People are not trapped in low-income jobs because of immigrants; it is the fault of successive Governments who have failed to equip them with the skills they need to get on in the modern economy. My fear—a very real fear—is that if we do not act now, the consequences down the line will be very grave indeed, and we will be opening up a very dark chapter in our history.

  • May I offer my genuine congratulations to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this debate? It is customary to say these things, but I really mean it. He knows this subject inside out and he cares about it passionately. He raises some incredibly important points. I am glad that he has put the issue on the agenda, because adult education is incredibly important.

    The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Brexit. When people raise it with me, I always say that we have been in the European Union for over 30 years, yet Governments of all persuasions and businesses have hugely underinvested in skills, so the idea that it has all been caused by Brexit—he did not say that, but other people do—is not true.

    Advanced learner loans have been going up substantially—I am happy to send the right hon. Gentleman the figures. He talked about apprenticeships which, as he rightly pointed out, are not just about 16 to 18-year-olds. In fact, I get a lot of stick because people say, “Not enough 16 to 18-year-olds are doing apprenticeships.” In fact, there were 377,960 apprenticeship starts among the over-19s in 2015-16. That is a very important part of the Government’s strategy for giving adults the skills they need.

    The Government’s priority is to create a ladder of opportunity and ensure that there are various rungs that people can climb. The first rung of the ladder is that we must have a national conversation and change the prestige of skills and adult education. The right hon. Gentleman said, rightly—I did not know this—that the House of Commons has hardly ever discussed adult education and night schools. He can check with my officials, who will say that when I came to this post, before I knew about this debate, I raised the issue and asked for surveys providing evidence, of which there is not currently a huge amount.

    Other rungs of the ladder include: having widespread and quality provision; addressing the skills needs of the nation; achieving social justice and a sense of community; and steering people to jobs and prosperity. Social justice is important because, in my experience, the kind of people who go to adult education centres often come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It does not matter whether people are doing cake-making or a maths GCSE; it is a bridge for them to go on to further education and jobs. I do not say “community” lightly either because, in my experience, adult community centres and night schools build social capital, enriching disadvantaged areas. That is why I believe in adult education and why I am looking at what we can do.

    As a Government, we are trying to promote a conversation about skills and non-academic paths for young people and adults through the Get In Go Far campaign, ensuring that we have dedicated careers advice and guidance all the way through. We are investing £77 million in the National Careers Service to ensure that people have advice on what adult education, jobs and skills training is available. A strong further education sector is essential to ensuring that everyone in our society is empowered to succeed. We need to equip further education colleges to be high-status institutions that can confer similar advantages to those of traditional academic institutions, and we need to have apprenticeships that are seen to be as valuable as going to the best universities in the world.

    Compared with previous years, the spending review was recognised for protecting the sector, given the funding pressures and what had gone on in the past. The whole purpose of the Technical and Further Education Bill is to expand the role of the Institute for Apprenticeships to include technical education, ensuring that employers shape the technical qualifications as well as apprenticeship standards.

    [Official Report, 22 February 2017, Vol. 621, c. 4MC.]Including the levy and taken together, the adult education budget, apprenticeship funding and advanced learner loans will provide more funding to support adult further education participation than at any time in our island’s history. The flexibilities we have introduced into the FE system will ensure that local demand will determine when and where learning is delivered. I want the new institutions we are establishing to consider the benefits to communities of making evening classes available. For instance, the National College for Digital Skills, which the right hon. Gentleman did so much to make happen, is in discussion with a number of other colleges and providers about utilising its Tottenham Hale campus for level 1 and 2 courses outside standard hours and during college holidays. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s keenness to maintain the tradition of night school learning and evening classes.

    From a survey of adult and community learning that I recently commissioned, it has emerged that evening classes are run in 1,380 local centres. The survey is still in progress, but results received from 97 providers so far suggest that about a third of providers use more than 40% of their budget for evening classes. It is important to quote the figures. In 2015-16, of the £1.5 billion for adult skills provision, the Government provided £210.7 million to 315 providers for community learning, £170 million to 139 local authorities, and £29 million to 137 FE colleges. There is more. Ofsted rates 236 community learning providers as good or outstanding. In my constituency, there is very good adult and community learning in Harlow College and in the adult community learning centre. The reason I quote those statistics is that, yes, we need to do a lot more and, yes, there are problems, but things are not completely bleak.

  • I just want to make this profound statement: most FE colleges up and down the country are closed at about 8 o’clock in the evening. Most FE colleges carry out about 70% or 80% of their activity with young people—by that, I mean under-25s. Of course, community learning is still going on, but it is at the very basic level—English for speakers of other languages, basic English and basic maths. If we are serious about working people contributing to our economy, that learning will need to be at the higher levels, and that is really where the Minister’s strategy is going to have to be targeted.

  • The right hon. Gentleman is right. I remember that anyone going to Harlow College in the 1990s could not get a car parking space because people were doing adult night school learning. Learning is still going on, but it is not as extensive as it was. As the right hon. Gentleman so honestly pointed out, it is not just this Government or the last Government but every Government who have not put resources into this—as far as I remember, that started in the ’90s. Now, people can get a space at Harlow College, in the centre of town, in the evenings, so the right hon. Gentleman is right about this issue, and that is what we are looking at.

    As the right hon. Gentleman highlighted, people’s energy and enthusiasm for evening classes are among the principal drivers of lifetime learning. We will soon bring forward potential policy options from the current review that will enhance a pathway that everybody in the nation can use to climb the ladder of opportunity, but that has to meet our priorities: meeting our skills deficit, as I said; helping the socially disadvantaged and the community; being as widespread as possible, given the funding pressures; and being good quality.

    I accept that the problem with skills has been getting worse over the past 20 years. Some 20% of our long-term productivity gap with Germany is due to lower skills levels. We are the only OECD country where 16 to 24-year-olds are no better at literacy and numeracy than 55 to 65-year-olds.

    The two skills that employers say are indispensable are maths and English. We are giving adults the best opportunity to gain qualifications in English and maths by fully funding all adults to achieve their first level 2 qualification, be that functional skills or GCSE, as well as other qualifications that help them get to that level. Investment in maths and English provides substantial social and economic returns, which are beneficial to individuals, families, workplaces, communities and the economy.

    I mentioned that advanced learner loans have gone up. They are an important offering to those doing adult courses. They are available to thousands of adults aged 19 and above who are studying at level 3 to level 6, who can access loan support to help to meet upfront fees, removing one of the main barriers to learning.

    I highlighted the fact that community learning often takes place in accessible local venues such as libraries, children’s centres and community centres, and reaches those most in need in the most disadvantaged wards and on the most deprived housing estates, often at a time to suit learners. The outcomes of community learning are many and varied, including better self-esteem, better mental and physical health, more confident parenting, higher-level skills, formal training courses, employment and the confidence to apply for jobs.

    We know that FE works. In terms of the destinations of adult students who complete FE courses, 64% get jobs, 20% go into further learning and 4% go to university. Achieving a level 2 boosts earnings by 11% and increases the chances of being employed by 2 percentage points. Some 41% of level 3 FE students live in areas of educational disadvantage, of whom 34% progress to higher education.

    We have to be proud of these institutions. Of 385 colleges, 19% are outstanding and 61% are good. Just as in the case of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, no doubt, my own college and adult and community learning centre have shaped my views as a Minister, showing me how the education system must be part of evening up the odds for those who are disadvantaged. I intend to visit more as our reforms take root, and to lay out further proposals in future.

    Question put and agreed to.

  • House adjourned.