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Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 7 April 2022

Commons Reason

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 15B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 15C.

15C: Because the timetable for the rollout of the reform programme for post-16 qualifications should not be delayed further and the additional requirements would introduce unnecessary burdens.

My Lords, I am pleased to be back in the Chamber to discuss the Bill as it reaches its conclusion.

After listening to debate from noble Lords a fortnight ago—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, in particular made a speech that spoke to his own experience, which I profoundly respect—I have come to this House with an announcement and clarifications that I hope will address the main thrust of those concerns. We are taking a pragmatic approach to our reforms as they are implemented and will continue to do so. We have already made important changes after listening to the arguments made in this House.

Last November, the Secretary of State announced an additional year before funding would be withdrawn from qualifications that overlap with T-levels. We have also removed the English and maths exit requirement from T-levels, but we do not think that a further delay will benefit providers, awarding bodies, employers or students. We know that stakeholders need clarity on the timescales for implementation, and we are continuing to support them in the rollout of T-levels. The announcements I am making today should give further assurance that the Government are undertaking their reforms in a measured, evidence-led and sensible manner and that any further delay is not necessary. We want to get on with delivering the Bill and our reforms to technical education qualifications.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education sent a letter to noble Lords. In that letter, he set out the Government’s position that many applied general qualifications, such as BTECs and other similar qualifications, will have a continuing and important role to play alongside A-levels and T-levels. To be approved for funding in future, qualifications will need to meet new quality and necessity criteria.

I want to make it clear that students will be able to take applied general-style qualifications, including BTECs, alongside A-levels as part of a mixed programme. We are not creating a binary system. Our aim is to ensure that students can choose from a variety of high-quality options, of which A-levels, T-levels, BTECs and other applied general-style qualifications will all play their part.

We have already begun our reform process, having confirmed that around 1,800 qualifications have low or no enrolments and will therefore have funding removed from August 2022. Our next phase of reforms will be to consider qualifications that overlap with T-levels. I know that noble Lords are all interested to see the provisional list of qualifications that overlap with waves 1 and 2 T-levels. I want to be absolutely clear to your Lordships today that through this process we expect to remove public funding approval for just a small proportion of the total level 3 offer, including BTECs. This will be significantly less than half. We expect to publish the provisional list in due course. There will be an opportunity for awarding organisations to appeal a qualification’s inclusion on the list to make sure we have applied our overlap criteria fairly. Our final phase in this process will focus on the quality of the wide range of other qualifications available.

I now turn to the commitment the Government are making in the light of the previous debate on the Bill in this Chamber. We want to ensure that we have the best evidence when considering whether to continue funding qualifications. As such, I can now guarantee that employers will have the opportunity to say if they believe qualifications support entry into occupations not covered by T-levels. This will mean that we have the strongest evidence to support decisions through the overlap process. It is important that there are no gaps in provision and that we retain the qualifications we need to support progression into occupations that are not covered by T-levels.

I was pleased in the previous debate to hear the support across the House for T-levels. Just as T-levels are being introduced in phases, we are also taking a phased approach to removing funding approval from qualifications that overlap. Let me reassure your Lordships that qualifications that overlap with T-levels introduced in 2020 and 2021 will not have funding approval removed until the academic year 2024-25. Similarly, we can guarantee that no qualifications will have funding approval removed because of overlap with T-levels being introduced in 2022 and 2023 until the academic year 2025-26. In this way, we will make sure that no existing qualification has public funding approval withdrawn before the relevant T-level alternative is available. Our reforms will ensure that all students have high-quality options that support progression to employment or further study, including higher education.

As I have said previously, we have put in place significant investment in T-levels, as well as support for the sector, to help providers and employers prepare for them. We are confident of their success and will continue to carefully assess the progress of our reforms to ensure that no student or employer is left without access to the technical qualifications they need. We will also continue to publish regular updates and evidence as part of our annual T-level action plans, which can be found on GOV.UK.

I have also heard loud and clear from noble Lords the concerns about reforms for disadvantaged students. Our impact assessment recognises that students who take qualifications that are more likely to have funding withdrawn have the most to gain from the changes. That is because in future they will take qualifications that are of higher quality and meet the needs of employers, putting them in a stronger position to progress on to further study or skilled employment. But we want to go further and continue to gather evidence to ensure that our reforms across both technical and academic qualifications are working as we intend.

In particular, the unit for future skills, as announced in the levelling-up White Paper, will make sure that across government we are collecting and making available the best possible information to show whether courses are delivering the outcomes that we want—helping to give students the best possible opportunity to get high- skilled jobs in their local areas. Today’s announcement and assurances are a clear statement from the Government that employers will play a valuable role in the process to determine overlap with T-levels and that we have mechanisms in place at all stages of the qualifications review to make sure that our reforms are evidence-driven and employer-led, levelling up opportunities for young people across the country.

 We have come here with an understanding, a sensible compromise, and a decision that I hope noble Lords will support, as this legislation has support across all parties. It will allow us to start transforming the skills system for the economy and people across the country. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. She is renowned in this House for her courtesy and willingness to listen and on this occasion she has done so in an exemplary manner. I know other Members of your Lordships’ House will, like me, appreciate the fact that she has been prepared to have considerable discussions behind the scenes, to talk with her Secretary of State, to ensure that the all-Peers letter sent out today from him adheres to the understanding that has been reached and that her statement from the Dispatch Box is, as I would expect, complementary to and exactly in line with the letter.

I thank my noble friend Lord Watson for his incredible patience with me over the past weeks. I really appreciate that. I understand that his young son is on the Steps and he is very welcome. I would also like to say how much I personally appreciated the support of noble Lords on Amendment 15B. Throughout the passage of the Bill, from Second Reading, Committee and Report right through to the beginning of ping-pong two weeks ago, we have had all-party consideration and support for high-level, top-quality, vocational and technical provision, including the introduction of T-levels. Concerns expressed have been heard and understood. If I might say so, we have done a good job in this House in making this a better Bill. The phasing in and timetabling of the reform and change are now in a much better place. As the Secretary of State’s letter said and as the Minister reiterated from the Dispatch Box, this is led by evidence, and with agreement of further evidence, which should be gathered to ensure that these reforms are delivered in the right way.

The topping and tailing of the Secretary of State’s letter is a reiteration of the standard lines to take, but the centrepiece of the letter is real progress, as the Minister already indicated. On that basis, it is really important that we accept the consensus that has been agreed, that we understand that when you are winning you give way, and that we continue the agreed programme in a sensible dialogue. All of us will have consideration of what “overlap” really means and how it is handled. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, will have heard very clearly the discussions in this House and the statement from the Minister this afternoon. It is welcome that we are no longer going down a binary route, that we are allowing people to take A-levels as well as advanced qualifications such as BTEC, that we understand the needs of individual learners, that we appreciate that people mature in different ways and learn in different ways, and that pedagogy does not demand that one size fits all. I am appreciative of both the Government and this House for the way in which they have been so supportive. Thank you.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on tabling this amendment because it has helped to shift the Government’s thinking on T-levels. When they were originally announced in July 2021, it looked as though there was going to be a war between BTECs and T-levels. I never accepted that, because T-levels will survive as an important choice at 18 for students who want to take them. I am quite convinced of that. To show my confidence in them, of the university technical colleges for which I am responsible, two have been teaching T-levels in construction and skills for the past 18 months and another seven joined them in September last year.

Since the Bill was first debated, the attitude of the Government has moved. I read only a few minutes ago the letter from the Secretary of State, large parts of which the Minister, who has been very helpful in this matter, repeated. BTECs will still be needed in the future because over 200,000 are taken by students each year. I was very glad that the Minister said that the views of employers would be taken more into account, because three large manufacturers, JCB, Rolls-Royce and Toyota, have approached the Government and said that BTECs should run alongside T-levels until students decide whether they want to take them or not.

The real success of T-levels will be if students actually want to take the exam and see it as a way to get into university. Many of them will do that but, on the other hand, lots of students will not want to take them. We found in the two experiments that we were engaged in that students who get grades 5, 4, 3, 2 or 1 in GCSEs are reluctant to handle T-levels as they are really above their capability. But they also want a technical way of getting to level 3; that is very important. AGQs, which the Minister mentioned, and BTECs do that. She did not actually mention the national diploma and the extended national diploma, but I hope they will be carefully considered by the Minister. That is how many people, particularly black and ethnic-minority students, get into a university.

I hope that this is a genuine change in the attitude of the Government towards BTECs. They are an important part of the educational process of our system. As I have said before, hundreds of thousands are taken each year. The letter from the Secretary of State is reassuring, but we will know only when we see the results of T-levels. We will have the first results of T-levels from a few hundred schools this August, more in August next year and more in August the following year before any BTECs are defunded. Then the House will have the opportunity to see whether the pledges given today by the Ministers are being fully implemented.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the Minister and the Government for listening to our concerns. It was good to get the letter from the Secretary of State, although only this morning, which was cutting things a little fine. However, we appreciated the meeting with the Minister yesterday, which gave us a whole day to absorb what was planned. In this place, we have to listen and think rather rapidly.

Anyway, we felt very strongly, as the Minister knows, that defunding BTECs when T-levels were untried and untested could spell disaster for students wishing to learn practical, work-based skills. We constantly pointed out that BTECs are well understood and respected by employers, by academia and, perhaps as important, by parents. It is a benefit that they can be combined with A-levels, which T-levels cannot, giving additional opportunities to students in their choices.

We will continue to try to ensure that schools celebrate their BTEC and apprenticeship leavers with the same enthusiasm as their university entrants. Until the Government amend their highly academic criteria for schools, that may be a pipe dream, but there is hope that young people are increasingly looking at the high cost of university, the absence of social life during Covid—no getting drunk in the pubs, although that is mercifully coming back again—and considering that learning and earning is a better alternative than learning and being in debt.

However, it will inevitably be many years before T-levels are understood enough to be celebrated as warmly as BTECs and apprenticeships. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, has set out the timescale. We do not know anything about T-level results yet, but it is always a very slow process to introduce a new qualification and have it widely understood. When NVQs first came in, for years people were not asking about them; people still wanted to do City & Guilds qualifications and we had to explain that they were City & Guilds NVQs. It takes a long time, particularly for employers, as they are focused not on education and training but on making a living.

We are relieved and pleased that very many fewer BTECs will be defunded than was originally envisaged and to hear assurances that no existing qualification will have public-funding approval withdrawn before the relevant T-level alternative is available—and, I hope, understood and respected. As we know, it is not envisaged that T-levels will be available in the multitude of BTEC subjects, so hopefully there will be a long life ahead to give hope and aspiration to the very many BTEC students. As the Minister said, it is very important that there should be no gap in provision. Who knows what the world will look like by 2025—or indeed what the Government will look like?

It is vital to the success of the country that young and old are encouraged to improve their skills in all the areas which are needed for prosperity, and so it is a great relief that the Government are not cutting off their nose to spite their face, and have listened to the many well-argued and passionate arguments from around this House and given this reprieve. I thank the Minister.

My Lords, as at previous stages, I draw attention to my interests in the register.

I echo the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and others in welcoming that we are no longer planning to move straight to a binary world of A-levels and T-levels. I was glad to see that the Secretary of State, in his letter to Peers today, said that BTECs and similar qualifications will have a continuing and important role alongside T-levels and A-levels.

Can the Minister please reassure us on two further points? First, will the Government seek parity of esteem for all quality technical and academic options, so that there is no hierarchy between A-levels, T-levels, BTECs and similarly applied general qualifications? This would mean that the Government would cease to refer to T-levels as the best option and the best technical route. Secondly, can she address the continuing issue of the blight that hangs over the provision of BTECs and other applied general qualifications during this extended reform process, so that it does not deter providers from offering these important and valued technical options and discourage students from embarking on them out of concern that these qualifications will be disparaged by the Government in the process of the reforms and lose their value over time?

My Lords, it has been a long and winding road with this Bill, stretching back over 10 months from the position that we find ourselves in today. There is very little to add to what noble Lords have said in the last 20 minutes or so, but of course that does not mean that I will not make an attempt at it.

It is very pleasing that we have reached this position because, when the Bill arrived here, it was skeletal in form and many noble Lords made the point that it would be fleshed out only through secondary legislation. I do not think that many find that an acceptable means of legislating, given the restrictions on scrutiny that it entails. But we have had some fleshing out. We have the lifetime skills guarantee—albeit from only level 3 upwards—which will be introduced in 2024. We have the lifelong loan entitlement, which we know a bit more about and which is out for consultation at the moment; it will not come into play until 2025. There are also other consultations ongoing on level 2 and level 3 qualifications, so there is still quite a lot out in the ether and what will finally emerge is for the future.

I echo the points of noble Lords, particularly my noble friend Lord Blunkett, about the discussions into which the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, and officials entered with us in the last few days. They have been productive.

I was slightly disappointed to get a message this morning from someone in the higher education sector who said that they were disappointed that the fight against BTECs being defunded, had fizzled out. Being a fairly forthright Scot, I replied that this was, shall we say, not quite the case. I have also had messages about the extension to 2024 and the clarity that will be provided in the documents that the Minister referred to—the Secretary of State’s letter and the table. I am not sure whether the table has yet been distributed to noble Lords, but it will be. It sets out the defunding process. The main point, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, mentioned, is that when this started, it was said that only a small range of BTECs would survive. We have now come not quite full circle but some considerable distance, with only a small range of BTECs facing defunding and in certain circumstances, as the Minister outlined. That is very much progress, and we welcome it.

To echo the noble Lord, Lord Baker, T-levels will ultimately be a success—we want them to be and they will be; it is a question of time. In our discussions earlier in the week, the Government’s target was 100,000 T-level starts in 2024. That is quite ambitious, given that we have only 5,000 at the moment, but I wish them well. Equally, I welcome that for those young and not so young people for whom T-levels are not appropriate for whatever reason—there are many reasons why that might be the case—there are other options remaining open to them, not least the route into higher education, which has been, as many noble Lords have said, very important. I am pleased that we have got to this. As my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, the Minister has been very helpful in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, deserves considerable credit. Through his efforts, the clause bearing his name from the 2017 Act has been beefed up and will carry much more weight and be much more effective than it has hitherto been, with the ability of providers to be brought into schools. There will be much less likelihood of head teachers saying, “No, no, we don’t need that actually. Most of our young people are going to university, we don’t really need to hear about apprenticeships or any form of technical education”. That is wrong in any situation and is now much less likely.

The question of careers education is important. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, mentioned it, and I am very proud to say that there is a young man—my son Thomas—sitting on the steps of the Throne who is about to enter senior school. By the time he reaches 16, I hope that these reforms will have bedded in and he will have many options open to him and his cohort, enabling them to make informed decisions on how their lives will pan out, whether through further education, higher education, apprenticeships or whatever. I very much hope that that will be the case.

I do not really have anything else to say, other than that the Bill is in a much better state than it was when it arrived here. Many noble Lords have played an important role in getting us here, and I have to say that the Government have been willing to listen and act. It is important that this Bill is a success. The futures of many young and not so young people depend on it, and the future economy of this country depends on it. I hope it will succeed.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, this Bill has been with us for a while and I know that noble Lords are keen to start their Easter break, I hope with their families. I thank noble Lords for their very generous words on the work that we have done in government, with officials and with many of your Lordships to get the Bill to where it is now. I hope that it will deliver on all our shared aspirations in this area.

I shall try to respond briefly to the questions from my noble friend Lord Johnson regarding parity of esteem. Without wanting to play with words, we are aiming for clarity of esteem—although I am not sure whether that exists. We want to have a range of high-quality options for young people. We want them to be absolutely clear which ones work for them, which are suitable and which offer the right path forward. Of course, that is underpinned by parity, but we need clarity as well, because that has been lacking in the past. In relation to his second point, we also need absolute clarity for providers. There is an enormous job still to be done to communicate the value of all the different options that young people will be offered.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Watson’s correspondent, and the fight against BTECs fizzling out, I think we could agree that the fight for quality is certainly not fizzling out in any way. I am not sure there ever was a fight—but anyway.

Before closing, I thank all noble Lords here today, many of whom have contributed to debates throughout the passage of the Bill. I pay particular tribute to the Front Benches, to the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Wilcox and Lady Garden. I say two things to the son of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who is sitting on the steps of the Throne. I share the aspirations of the noble Lord that our reforms are bedded in, and I hope that his son and all his classmates will have a great range of opportunities. I also remind him that what he sees in this House today is the tip of the iceberg of the work that the noble Lord and his colleagues have being doing over the last few months to get this Bill to where it is.

I also thank the many former Education Ministers and Secretaries of State in this House whose insights we have benefited from—my noble friends Lady Morgan, Lord Willetts, Lord Baker and Lord Johnson, my noble and learned friend Lord Clarke and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. I also say special thanks to my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith. She has been a great mentor and helped me to understand how this Bill will work in practice.

I also thank my noble friends Lady Penn and Lady Chisholm for their support. I thank the Bill team officials who have worked on the Bill—Kady Billington-Murphy, Ellie-May Morris, Emma Sisk, Lois Clement, Georgia Scoot-Morrissey, Charlotte Rushworth, Katrina Leonard-Johnson, Catherine James and Stephen Wan. I especially thank Jessica Clarke in my private office, who has been an exemplar of calmness under pressure.

Motion A agreed.