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Education and Training: Access

Volume 628: debated on Monday 11 September 2017

2. What steps her Department is taking to help older adults from low-income backgrounds to access further education and training. (900740)

People of all ages, backgrounds and incomes must have the opportunity to get the skills that they need. Last year, more than 655,000 people aged 45-plus participated in further education. To help older adults from low-income backgrounds, we provide full funding for English and maths, and courses for unemployed people, support through community learning and advanced learner loans for those with specific financial hardship. Loans to help remove cost barriers associated with upskilling are important, because they enable those on lower incomes to acquire the skills that they need.

Since 2015, the number of part-time students aged over 30 has dropped—by 10% in the first year alone. Funding for the adult education sector will remain frozen for five years after 2020. That real-terms cut has led to a drop-off of almost 16,000 in the number of people aged 30 and over being able to afford access to further education. Will the Secretary of State confirm what actions her Department is taking to halt this nosedive in the number of older part-time students seeking to improve their education opportunities, or have she and the Government already written those people off?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his doctoral thesis on the subject, but subsequent questions should, frankly, be shorter. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced hand, and he ought to know better.

There is absolutely no question of this Government writing anybody off. In fact, social mobility is at the heart of everything that is driving our policy. I would point out other areas where the Government are putting in substantial amounts of money. The Government are spending up to £5 million on the returner programmes to enable people to retrain and upskill, particularly in social work and our allied health professions. This is important for people who have taken a career break because of caring responsibilities. We set an ambition in our document “Building on the Industrial Strategy” to make sure that we have a proactive approach for people to learn throughout their lives.

Will the Minister ensure that the Government’s apprenticeships programme has a very strong emphasis on supporting older people from lower-income backgrounds, particularly older women?

I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. There were more than 3,000 apprenticeship starts in the over-60 age group. As somebody who belongs to that age group, I welcome opportunities to make sure that apprenticeships are available for absolutely everybody, whatever their background and whatever their age.

25. Last month, following the unprecedented and, thankfully, unsuccessful legal action to prevent publication, Ofsted was able to publish its damning report on learndirect. Given that other FE providers in a similar situation might have had their contracts terminated, is the Minister really comfortable with handing over £45 million of public money to a training provider that has been deemed inadequate in outcomes for learners? What message is she going to send to learners, and when is she going to get her eye on the ball? (900763)

I take exception to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that I do not have my eye on the ball; I most certainly do. In addressing this issue, we have been focused on precisely what he mentions: the needs of learners. It is essential that learning provision and apprenticeship training are of the highest quality for both learners and employers. If any provision is judged to be inadequate, we will take action to protect learners. In this case, the provision judged to be inadequate by Ofsted—apprenticeships—is no longer offered by learndirect.

As the Minister is aware—I thank her for her swift involvement—Somerset Skills and Learning is experiencing a severe shortfall in funding. It provides invaluable services for adult learning, especially for people with low incomes, as well as providing grants for a range of other organisations, such as Compass Disability and Neroche Woodlanders—the latter is running a mental health project—in my constituency. Could I have the Minister’s assurance that the situation will, in some way, be ameliorated so that the courses can continue?

I praise my hon. Friend and her colleagues from Somerset for promptly bringing this to my attention. We met last week, and we have a meeting with the Education and Skills Funding Agency later today. I should mention, although it is not pertinent to this particular issue in Somerset, that procurement in transitional arrangements represents only 13% of the budget. My hon. Friend and other colleagues have made strong representations about the work that is done in Somerset.