Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

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2nd reading
Tuesday 15th June 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 View all Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text
Moved by
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, first, I thank those who contributed to the debate following Her Majesty’s gracious Speech, when we first discussed this Bill. I also thank noble Lords who attended the recent briefing with departmental Ministers. For the benefit of noble Lords contributing remotely, I note that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills is physically present with us in the Chamber today. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, and it is wonderful to see the priority given to the Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who is speaking today on her birthday. I am glad to see a common desire to look at skills reform and further education. I look forward to the debate that we will share, and I welcome the scrutiny that the Bill will be placed under.

We can all agree that skills and post-16 education needs its moment in the spotlight, both in Parliament and in communities across the country. We talk about the forgotten 50% of people who do not go to university; today, we are giving this policy and the people it affects the attention they deserve. We can see today the vast challenges facing the nation. Covid-19 has significantly impacted the economy and shown us how urgently we need a resilient, highly skilled workforce. We all see the clock ticking towards 2050, when we have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions, and we are all aware of our need to succeed as an independent trading nation, following our departure from the European Union.

This is also the perfect opportunity to think about what constitutes our nation. Is it one big city, or a couple of big cities? No, it is a diverse set of communities, families and individuals, with different ambitions and potential. This means that we need to match opportunities with the talent that we know can be found across the country. We need to ensure that people can succeed without feeling that they have to move to one of the big cities. This past year’s extraordinary transition to flexible working for many has only proved this further. We have a duty to make sure that the skills provision offered in people’s home towns meets their needs and ambitions and that of employers, so that everyone has the opportunity to realise their full potential and find success, wherever they live and whatever their background.

The evidence is clear: we have a problem in the balance of education. Only 4% of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25, compared to a third who get a degree or above, yet 34% of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment. No wonder more parents would now prefer that their child gain a vocational qualification than a degree. University is a great option for some but not the best option for everyone, and it should not be seen to be the only pathway to success. My honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills often tells me how inspired she is by the learners she meets on visits to colleges and further education institutions—people who have found their vocation and their way of success through technical education.

Philip Augar’s 2018 Post-18 Review of Education and Funding made the call for parity of esteem between further and higher education. I take this moment to offer my congratulations on his recent knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. The review set out the case very clearly for a genuine choice, for everyone, beyond the fantastic opportunities offered through our world-class university system. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who served on the review’s panel. The Government have listened to this call; the Skills for Jobs White Paper, published earlier this year, set out our vision to reform post-16 education and training. We will prioritise flexibility, accountability and quality, and we will put employers at the heart of the system, building on what we have done with apprenticeships and T-levels, so that individuals can know what their qualification leads to, and employers can have confidence in them. Given that 80% of the workforce of 2030 are already in work today, it is essential that we have a flexible system for adult retraining which supports people to progress in their careers.

We want our reforms to work for everyone, which is why we are working with noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to ensure that we support those with special educational needs to access the improved skills training and education that our reforms aim to deliver. I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord for his dedication, challenge and advocacy on this issue, as well as our other FE ambassadors, who have brought a breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm to our discussions.

The chair of the Education Select Committee, the right honourable Robert Halfon, called the White Paper a “sea change”. The Association of Colleges noted that it

“recognises the vital role that colleges and further education will play in levelling up for people and places whilst tackling long standing concerns about stagnating productivity”.

Employers such as the Co-op welcomed our reforms.

We know that to deliver the reforms successfully requires funding. That is why we have backed up the White Paper with £2.5 billion towards the national skills fund, £1.5 billion to improve the college estate, and £650 million extra into further education for 16 to 19 year-olds. The White Paper sets out our comprehensive programme for reform, and the Bill before us will provide the necessary statutory underpinning for change.

The Bill is divided into three sections that support the principles of the White Paper. First, it aims to provide a framework for ensuring that skills and post-16 education leads people towards a great job. That is why we are creating a statutory underpinning for local skills improvement plans, which we will shortly be trailblazing in some local areas. By putting employers and their representative bodies at the heart of the post-16 skills system, we are focusing on meeting local skills gaps and prioritising training in growth sectors. This will ensure that employers have the skills they need to drive growth in local areas; it will support opportunities for learners to get good jobs and help the existing workforce to retrain. This will help us get rid of the idea that career success can be found only in a big city.

Relevant providers will need to have regard to these plans when considering their technical education and training offer. These changes will also be supported by a new duty on further education institutions to review their provision to ensure that it meets local needs. In addition, the Bill supports the provision of the advanced technical and higher education skills the country needs by creating a strong link to employer-led standards. The Bill will reform the technical education system so that it is high-quality, stable and coherent. It does this by giving the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education powers to approve new categories of technical qualifications, simplifying a system in which there are currently over 12,000 qualifications. The Bill also gives a statutory footing to the collaborative relationship between the institute and Ofqual.

Perhaps the major plank of the Bill is that it supports the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, as part of a flexible lifetime skills guarantee. This measure will be rolled out from 2025 and will give all adults access to the equivalent of four years of student loans for higher-level study at levels 4 to 6. The loans will be able to be used flexibly, full time or part time, for modules or full qualifications and for provision in colleges or universities. At the moment, maximum amounts for funding are set in relation to an academic year. The Bill will make it clear that maximum loan amounts can be set in other ways. The Government will consult on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement, including on how best to support students with the living costs of study, and whether equivalent and lower qualifications restrictions should be amended to support retraining and stimulate provision.

The ambition is to replace the two existing systems that offer government-financed loans to learners studying at levels 4 to 6 with the single LLE system. These two existing systems of higher education student finance and advanced learner loans provide funding support for different types of courses. The lifelong loan entitlement aims to create a simpler and clearer system, but it will require extensive operational changes to the student finance system and the types of course available, which is why it will be rolled out from 2025. It is the step change in the system that will give people the opportunity to upskill, retrain and reskill, providing the alternative to the notion that a standard three-year degree is the only route to success and giving people the flexibility to change their future.

Of course, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient provision for lower-level qualifications. That is why, separate from the Bill, the Government’s adult education budget will continue to fully fund courses in English and maths up to and including level 2 for adults who have not previously attained a GCSE grade C or, in new currency, grade 4. The national skills fund funds adults to complete their first level 3 qualification alongside the new skills boot camps.

These reforms mean very little if education or training provision is not of the highest quality. That is why the second part of the Bill proposes powers to make regulations to improve and secure the quality of FE initial teacher training by shaping the market for that provision. This power will be used only if these improvements cannot be achieved through working collaboratively with the sector. The Bill will also make it clear that the Office for Students has the ability to make assessments by reference to absolute student outcomes. This will give confidence that the same standard can be applied across all higher education providers and for all students, while continuing to take into account context and individual circumstances.

The third part of the Bill aims to ensure there are sufficient protections in place for learners. It will allow the Government to introduce a list of post-16 education or training providers. To be on this list, providers will need to meet conditions aimed at protecting learners against the negative impacts of potential provider failure. This issue, which relates particularly to independent training providers, was raised in this House during the passage of the Technical and Further Education Bill in 2017. I am glad to bring a solution to this issue back to the House today. This section of the Bill also gives powers to the Secretary of State, who took his place on the steps of the Throne as I began, to intervene in the statutory further education sector where local needs are not being met, or to direct mergers or structural change where that is the best way to secure improvement. Alongside the final part of the Bill, it will improve the efficiency of the FE insolvency regime. One of the strengths of the FE market is the flexibility of its provider base. These measures will give the impetus for this flexibility to be used to protect learners and provide education and training that has this clear path towards the labour market.

I am delighted that this Bill is before us today. We have an opportunity to begin the process of transforming opportunities for young people and adults. Events of the past year have shown us how important skills and further education will be to our recovery as both an economy and as a nation. As noble Lords have often said, this has been the Cinderella of the sector for too long. This reform is long overdue, but is only one step on a longer journey. We will work to ensure that the 50% of people who do not go to university will no longer be called “forgotten” and stuck in what are wrongly called “forgotten towns”. Instead, we will make skills and jobs available to everyone, wherever they are. This Bill will help provide those learners with high-quality provision, protection and the skills and education that can transform their lives. I beg to move.

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Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions today; I appreciate the expert knowledge that they bring and the many passionate speeches. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, I hope I have retained some of my rationality during this interesting debate.

I begin by giving a special thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Black, for her maiden speech. Like my noble friend Lady Morgan, I am the beneficiary of a touch typing course, which has stood me in good stead. I was fascinated to hear of the career of the noble Baroness, Lady Black, in forensic anthropology—but, as one of the more squeamish Members of your Lordships’ House, I do not need to know anything further. I wish her well, and hope that she enjoys her time in this House as much as I do.

I turn now to the points that noble Lords have raised. But given that there have been 50 speakers, as was outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I am afraid that the department will be writing some letters after I have concluded.

Before I turn to the specific questions, many of your Lordships followed the lead of my noble friend Lord Willetts, including the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and my noble friends Lord Baker and Lord Cormack. I am the beneficiary of the wisdom of previous holders of junior and Secretary of State positions in the department, in that my homework has been corrected: there is no artificial distinction between vocational, technical and academic—no sense that one is better than the other. We are trying to achieve a system where they all have parity of esteem, where the institutions that teach these qualifications have parity of esteem and where the quality of all those qualifications is there.

The reforms in the Bill are aimed at bringing the system closer together and the lifelong loan entitlement, for instance, will bring together all the funding support for learners—that is, level 4 to level 6—wherever you might be studying that. One can also look at the system at the moment and see that there is not a conflict or a battle between FE and HE—the Government do not desire that at all. We recognise the collaboration there is. When we look at the recent introduction of institutes of technology, we see that they have been a collaboration; the university technical colleges of my noble friend Lord Baker have also been a collaboration, as have been the recent specialist maths sixth-form colleges, with universities involved in 16 to 19 provision. So the system is not even that twofold—just FE and HE. We will also fund T-levels, A-levels and other high-quality academic and technical qualifications for young people and adults at level 3. This will ensure that, whatever option learners choose, they will have a pathway to success.

A few noble Lords mentioned being disqualified from access to LLE. If you want the funding for level 4 and you are accepted by the institution to study that, it does not matter if you do not have level 3 or level 2. That is how universities have operated for a while: they sometimes have different access routes. Therefore, although obviously we have the funding situation for levels 1 and 2, you will have that entitlement. If you get accepted on a course at level 4, you will be in the lifelong loan entitlement pot. There is no prerequisite that you have to have level 3. However, of course we recognise the value of those qualifications, as many noble Lords have said, and therefore the advanced learner loans will still exist for level 3 courses that are not the 400 courses that we are currently funding if you do not have the full entitlement or if you have the full level 3 entitlement and want to do something different. I hope that clarifies that everyone will have that lifelong loan entitlement between levels 4 and 6.

On the measures in the Bill on local skills improvement plans, I agree with my noble friend Lord Taylor on the importance of localism. The local skills improvement plans are putting employers at the heart of the skills system in a way similar to the apprenticeship situation and the T-levels that we have designed. Many noble Lords talked about that tension: someone has to be in the driving seat here. There cannot be a cast of thousands but there needs to be appropriate consultation. So the Government have decided that these will be employer representative groups. To clarify to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we did not define them as businesses but as employers. That might be the big local hospital, or a university might be an employer for that purpose rather than just being the provider. They are well placed to have that convening role, including of course the SMEs, in their local area. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds highlighted, their involvement is crucial.

My noble friend Lady Morgan asked what the Government envisage ERBs to be. We consider them to be independent bodies designated by the Secretary of State to develop local skills improvement plans. They are capable of developing that plan in an effective and efficient manner and many noble Lords talked about the future—the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Lane-Fox. The plans have to be dynamic and will include not just existing skills but what the future for the local area looks like. I want to reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Janke, Lady Henig, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that in Section 4 the relevant providers are not just FE and HE; they include the schools that are delivering post-16, as well as the independent training providers. So the educators are included, and it is supposed to be a dynamic relationship between the employer representative body and the relevant providers that, as I say, we have outlined.

On a point raised many hours ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, the mayoral combined authorities will be engaged in developing the local plans. The White Paper talked about the fact that they will be consulted on this and, as I mentioned, we have these trail-blazers that we have recently procured, so we will know the particular areas where we will be starting there. They will help to shape the local plans.

However, one reason to have local skills improvement plans is the gaps we have at the moment. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, referred to this position for parts of Shropshire, in such a dynamic region as the West Midlands. There will be a local skills improvement plan across the country and it is obvious to state, but perhaps I need to say it, that not everyone has a mayoral combined authority. As noble Lords have often said, we do not have a settled, defined geography out there for many things—our police authorities, our local government—so this is where “local” will be defined by the local employers coming forward. Many of the current trailblazers have come with the endorsement of local government or, where relevant, the mayoral combined authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, asked how the local skills improvement plans will interact with national strategies. They will be informed by the national skills priorities, as highlighted by the Skills and Productivity Board; that will remain. The board will undertake expert analysis of the national skills that we need to inform government policy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked what powers the Government have should businesses take a back seat and rest on their laurels. If the ERB does not comply with the set conditions, the Secretary of State may not approve and publish its skills improvement plan and could remove its designation. Obviously, it goes without saying that all the powers of the Secretary of State are subject to criteria for judicial review. These powers must be used in a proportionate manner, et cetera; they are obviously not an absolute power.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan, Lady Young and Lady Bennett, talked about the importance of green jobs and net-zero carbon. We expect the LSIPs, led by the employer-represented bodies with that link to the national strategy, to look at what future green jobs are in the area. An element will be national because of what needs to happen with household boilers, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, mentioned, so there will be an interconnection there.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry, raised questions on local needs. It is about the needs of the learners and the employers in a local geographic area served by the college. The noble Lord, Lord Bradley, questioned the centralisation here, but what we are saying here is that we are allowing “local” to define itself. We have not said that it has to be the local authority area, the MCA area or the LEP area. There is a dynamic here to areas being able to say, “This is the area that we, as employers, need to look at.” The plan will be an important point of reference.

As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, spoke, I mouthed “Newton Rigg”. I am aware that there have been issues in relation to the provision of land-based education in that part of Cumbria. I regularly see questions about it, so I will happily engage with him if I can offer any further assistance.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and other noble Lords that the purpose of the section of the Bill dealing with technical educational qualifications, which includes a lot of hospitality within that sector, is to simplify the approach to regulations between the institute and Ofqual. The two bodies already work effectively together. They are effectively collaborating; we are embedding, or perhaps futureproofing, it so that they carry on working in the way that they do at the moment. In the legislation, we are extending the technical qualifications that IfATE can regulate but Ofqual will continue to have independent regulatory oversight of technical qualifications in live delivery. The legislation will bring the treatment of technicals more in line with A-levels and GCSEs, where the content is subject to regulatory scrutiny. Obviously, we have been talking to Ofqual during preparation of the Bill.

Extending the institute’s power will raise the quality bar and ensure that the majority of these qualifications, like apprenticeships and T-levels, are aligned to employers’ standards. This will place the employers’ voice at the heart of the system. We are creating a clear progression pathway for learners and there will be an opportunity for Parliament to consider the details of the regime when the regulations are laid.

It has become clear today that a lot is happening around this legislation; this is the statutory underpinning to the skills White Paper, but we also have the consultation that has just finished on level 3, the call for evidence on level 2 and the consultation on the details of the lifelong loan entitlement. Turning to that, I confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that it is our intention, as outlined in the Explanatory Notes, to bring forward amendments to the lifelong loan entitlement ahead of Committee. I can also confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, that the LLE will be available to be used from levels 4 to 6. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, also mentioned the funding of level 3. As I have outlined, that is covered by the national skills fund and there are now the boot camps—flexible courses for up to 16 weeks. As I have said, that is in addition to the availability of the ALL and bursary support fund for level 3 qualifications.

Many of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lady Wyld, raised questions on the detail of the LLE ahead of the upcoming consultation. We will do that as soon as possible during the passage of the Bill. I am not able to give a clearly defined timeline on this, but the consultation will cover questions on, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned, maintenance credit transfers; the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and many other noble Lords mentioned the ELQ rules, which will also be within the consultation. I am happy to ask officials to set up briefing sessions with noble Lords once the consultation has been launched.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Curry, my noble friend Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, asked about the introduction date of the LLE. As well as the consultation, we have got a lot of work to do with the Student Loans Company to co-design a system capable of delivering the required operational changes, and we will introduce secondary legislation to enable the LLE to function. This, as I have outlined, is the whole pot for level 4 to level 5, so there will of course be changes. Once you release the maximum loan amount for the academic year, that has a knock-on implication for that which it already funds—mainly the level 6 undergraduate degree. We have got to get this right operationally and, unfortunately, it is going to take more time than we would ideally like.

The question of part-time study was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Greengross. I have to say, having been to a graduation at Birkbeck university, I was overcome by emotion seeing people getting their degrees, many with their families and children there. The decline in part-time study and adult education is a great shame, and I thank my noble friend Lord Willetts for his humility in accepting that it is something that we are seeking to put right. One of the main purposes of this is to ensure that the loan entitlement enables that modular, part-time learning to begin again. But I accept the questions raised about how adults access loans, as opposed to young people; I am sure there are behavioural scientists looking at how we get people to take these loans up.

In response to my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, the LLE will be available regardless of where you study—it will be “institution blind”, as I think another noble Lord said. It will be based on the level of qualification you are studying, not which institution you have selected to study in.

On the parts of the Bill that relate to initial teacher training, as I have outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the powers we are taking are to deal with the small part of the market that is not producing the quality that it should for initial teacher training for FE. Once we have worked in collaboration with the sector, if we still need that power, we will use it, but we want to make sure that the quality is there.

I believe the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, relate to the current review of the ITT market for school-based training, and so I will ask officials to write to him, as that is outside the scope of this Bill.

On that note, there were other matters, as this Bill sits quite narrowly within a framework of a lot of other interconnected issues. I will deal with a few of those in the time I have left.

I am very grateful again to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds for highlighting the importance of special educational needs and of using the assistive technology to support FE learners with SEND. This is an important part of the Bill. Obviously, the figures for those with SEND show that a higher proportion of them go into technical or vocational qualifications or into FE institutions.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about alternative student finance. We are considering a student finance project that is compliant with Islamic finance principles in parallel with the post-18 review of education and funding. That review is due to conclude alongside the next multi-year spending review, so we will provide an update then. I know that that is an issue that has been talked about for a number of years.

Of course, many noble Lords raised questions about apprenticeship funding. Again, apprenticeship levy funding is not part of the scope of the Bill, but £2.5 billion is available this year and the funds available to levy-paying employers are available to be transferred down the supply chain. We are working on the apprenticeship levy to ensure that it is meeting those needs. Most employers who pay the levy might not spend all of their funding, and they can fund apprenticeship starts in smaller employers. We will make improvements to support employers offering more apprenticeships and to make them more flexible through accelerated front-loading and flexi-job apprenticeships and making transfers easier. We also have a specific piece of work on the sector that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is in—that is the creative industries—where apprenticeships have been difficult because there is not one employer and people are going from project-based work.

The importance of careers advice was mentioned by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Patel, Lord Addington and Lord Bichard, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lady Morgan. Obviously, that is not within the Bill, as far as I am concerned, because we do not need statutory underpinning for that. However, I recognise that the Bill is sitting in this wider framework of connected issues, and we have given £100 million to the National Careers Service and the Careers & Enterprise Company this year.

On the perennial issue of cross-government working, which was mentioned by many noble Lords—particularly the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam and Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and my noble friend Lady Stroud—and also came up in one of our meetings in advance of today’s Second Reading, we are looking to answer those questions, so I will write to noble Lords about the interconnection of this with the benefits system. It is not straightforward to answer in a Second Reading debate how we can ensure that it connects properly, but I will write to noble Lords.

In relation to the specific question on the Kickstart scheme, I am told here that universal credit claims are eligible if the claimants are aged 16 to 24 and meet the relevant conditions. We are working with DWP to turn those as well into apprenticeships when it is right for the employer and that young person. I hope that answers the specific question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, but if it does not, I will write further to him.

Obviously, I have read the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, in the Times, which I think were more properly addressed to the Treasury in relation to the finances. The issue was also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and that will also be passed on.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree with the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, about the importance of the Bill. The imperative is the need now for us to follow through, to fund this and to deliver it. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 8.09 pm.