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Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to rationalise the number of, and (2) to set standards for, qualifications to ensure that such qualifications are of value to (a) individuals, and (b) employers.

My Lords, we have announced reforms to higher technical qualifications and are consulting on reforms to qualifications at level 3 and below to provide clearer and simpler qualification choices post-16. We are strengthening the links between the classroom and the workplace by basing the majority of technical qualifications at levels 3, 4 and 5 on the same employer-led standards as apprenticeships and T-levels, ensuring that young people and adults develop the skills that employers need.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the Government are at least trying and do something about qualifications. For many people, the way to improve their chances of getting well-paid and secure work is, of course, to get a qualification. However, they are faced with some 13,000 qualifications currently available, many providing little or no value to either individuals or employers. Will the Government organise a review of the credibility of each qualification and an assessment of the rate of return, to help those taking this very sensible step to improve their chances?

The noble Lord is correct that there is a bewildering array of qualifications. At level 3, there are over 12,000 qualifications. The consultation that is out at the moment will make clear the role of a qualification that is not an A-level or T-level. Over 2,500 level 3 qualifications are in scope for their funding to be reduced or removed, due to low or no enrolments.

My Lords, I ask my noble friend whether the value of technical qualifications is fully brought to younger people’s notice, and whether they are steered towards them when they are more suitable for them than other qualifications.

The noble and learned Lord is correct that young people need to be aware of this. Therefore, we have ensured that the Careers & Enterprise Company, as well as the first providers, will promote the T-levels while they are being rolled out in stages. At this time, the elevation of technical qualifications is so important to our recovery from Covid.

My Lords, a recent survey of apprenticeship employers published by the Department for Education indicates that employers see higher apprenticeships as better value for money than lower level 2 and 3 apprenticeships, so they are utilising levy funds to upskill existing staff, rather than to train new recruits. Can the Minister confirm what plans Her Majesty’s Government have to prevent further decline in level 2 apprenticeships to ensure that these apprenticeship pathways are available to new recruits across the country?

My Lords, unfortunately, at the beginning of the apprenticeship enhancement, certain apprenticeships, particularly at level 2, were not of the value that both employers and apprentices needed. Therefore, we moved from frameworks to standards. It is positive, though, that many employers that were not able to promote BAME employees, for instance, used apprenticeships as a way to upskill their workforce and improve their BAME representation.

My Lords, remaining with apprenticeships, is the Minister satisfied that the current legislation, almost a decade old, still ensures value to both the individual and the employer? In particular, is the minimum apprenticeship of 12 months still sufficiently long to provide the basic skills for any employment?

The 12-month minimum period was brought in, as I said to the right reverend Prelate, when we had shorter apprenticeships and had to ensure that, by law, an apprenticeship meant a certain qualification. We have seen an increase in longer-term apprenticeships, such that we amended the regulations so that, if you were made redundant during your apprenticeship but had completed 75%, you could go to the endpoint of the apprenticeship without an employer.

My Lords, qualifications of value to employers are often work-based. I declare an interest as a vice-president of City & Guilds. I know that their qualifications have to meet very high levels of quality assurance, currency and relevance. Following on from the question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, what are the Government doing to give schools incentives to encourage their less academic pupils, who may be technically and practically gifted, to pursue vocational qualifications and develop much-needed skills, which will benefit them, employers and the country?

My Lords, as I have outlined, schools are promoting this. If students at the transition point at age 14 want to go to a university technical college, the local authority and schools are now under a duty to promote that route to students. The consultation is about those City & Guild qualifications that do not overlap with level 3 T-levels and/or A-levels. We recognise their role, but all these qualifications must give the student the appropriate skills and the employer the confidence that that person is equipped for the job.

My Lords, the Question from my noble friend Lord Haskel rightly calls for qualifications that are of value to both individuals and employers. The Minister may be aware of a report published yesterday by the University Partnerships Programme foundation, which shows that the Government’s commitment to a lifetime skills guarantee will not cover 75% to 80% of non-graduate workers who lose their jobs in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. That is because many non-graduates want higher-level training, rather than just a new level 3 qualification. Will the Government therefore consider a more flexible higher education loan system, which would reflect the clear desire of learners to access training at a higher level, with a view to responding to skills shortages in the economy?

The noble Lord is correct that many in employment want to take a level 4 or 5 qualification. The Prime Minister announced that there will be a flexible lifetime loan entitlement, and that it should be as easy to get a loan to study a higher technical qualification as it is to get higher education funding. That is why the entitlement will be four years. We also recognise that those who have an undergraduate degree may want to do one year, and that levels 4 and 5 need be modular, so that they are flexible for people to train, if they have lost their jobs, or upskill, if they are in employment.

My Lords, will my noble friend encourage the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to be more supportive of qualifications embedded within apprenticeships, where they can clearly give the apprentice a stamp of international approval and of being totally up to date in a technical discipline?

My Lords, the standards that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education applies can include a qualification when it is a professional or regulatory requirement, or if it is recognised that somebody would be disadvantaged in the marketplace by not having it. The main way for apprenticeships is the standard assured occupational competence, which is tested at an endpoint assessment.

My Lords, many employers are looking for a wide range of skills in their recruits, such as teamwork and adaptability, as well as formal qualifications. How will such skills be developed alongside formal qualifications to ensure that those entering the workforce offer a valuable range of attributes?

My Lords, in the link between employers and qualifications, I have noticed that the description in relation to apprenticeships is knowledge, competences and behaviours, at levels 4 and 5. I hope that covers what the noble Baroness referred to: that certain behaviours that employers must have confidence are delivered by these qualifications, as well as knowledge.

Minister, in a former life, I was a senior teacher in a very large comprehensive school, where it was evident that the 14-to-19 curriculum was uninspiring and inappropriate for many students and the ever-changing workplace. Thus I was willing the university technical colleges to succeed, which it is now generally accepted they have not. What will happen to those schools but, more importantly, the laudable intentions behind them?

Actually, the UTCs are a mixed picture. Some have achieved that link with local employers, where they have strong themes and do outreach. I hosted a round table of the successful UTCs, because it is important that we pass on their success, particularly in pupil recruitment, which is the key factor for those that are not successful. So we stand behind that, but I recognise that swift decisions need to be taken for those that, unfortunately, have not had such success.