Thursday 15th April 2021

(3 weeks, 5 days ago)

Westminster Hall

Read Hansard Text
Department for Education

[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating, physically and virtually, that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I now call Robert Halfon, Chair of the Select Committee on Education, to move the motion.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Third Report of the Education Committee, “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution”, HC 278.

It is an honour to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I am grateful to have secured this debate today on the Education Committee’s adult skills and lifelong learning report. Let me start by giving special thanks to the Education Committee officers and advisers, who have spent so much time working on the inquiry with Members. And I pay tribute to all my parliamentary colleagues on the Committee, who worked so hard on the report and evidence sessions. I welcome here today two of my colleagues on the Committee: my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—I know that I am not supposed to say “hon. Friend” about an Opposition Member, but in this capacity I hope that you will allow me to do so, Ms Rees—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

There are overwhelming benefits to lifelong learning—benefits for productivity and the economy, for health and wellbeing and for social justice and our communities. Our nation faces significant skills challenges from the fourth industrial revolution, automation, an ageing workforce and the devastating impact of covid-19. The Government are rising to those major challenges by providing some new funding for adult education, and I welcome the recent increases in finances that the Government have announced. The further education White Paper marks a sea change in Government thinking about skills. The flagship £2.5 billion national skills fund offers a significant opportunity to transform adult skills and lifelong learning. It will fund a lifetime skills guarantee, supporting adults to access about 400 fully funded level 3 courses. The Government have also funded a number of important schemes to support a post-covid skills recovery. There is the £2 billion kickstart scheme, the hiring incentive of £3,000 for employers who hire new apprentices—and much more besides.

However, despite the recent increases in funding, the welcome White Paper, the kickstart fund and the other programmes that I have just mentioned, participation in adult skills and lifelong learning is in a dire state; it is at its lowest level in 23 years. It is the case that 38% of adults have not participated in any learning since leaving full-time education. Participation rates in adult education have almost halved since 2004. Even worse, lifelong learning is an affluent person’s game; those who might benefit most from adult learning and training, low-skilled adults in low-income work or the unemployed, are by far the least likely to be doing it. It is the case that 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic group have received no training since leaving school.

It is the already well-educated and the well-off who are far more likely to participate. In 2016 92% of adults with a degree-level qualification undertook adult learning, compared with 53% of adults with no qualifications. I would argue that poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time. We must reverse the decline in participation and offer a way forward for those left-behind adults. There are haves and have-nots in terms of adult education in our country.

There is a significant problem with low basic skills. It is hard to believe the fifth largest economy in the world has 9 million working-age adults with poor literacy or numeracy skills or both. Nine million adults also lack the basic digital skills that nowadays are essential for getting on in modern life, and 6 million adults do not even have a qualification at level two, which is equivalent to GCSE. In the past 10 years, just 17% of low-paid workers moved permanently out of low pay.

Unequal access to lifelong learning is a social injustice that traps millions of workers in below-average earnings. Even before covid kicked in, our nation faced significant skills gaps. By 2024, there will be a shortfall of 4 million highly skilled workers. Colleges up and down the country, such as Harlow College, an exceptional further education college in my constituency, will be central to the skills-led recovery, and we have to do all we can to support them.

Support for colleges is especially important now. This week, an Association of Colleges report found that three quarters of college students are between one and four months behind where they would normally be expected to be at this stage of the academic year. The advanced manufacturing centre at Harlow College—a multimillion pound investment—is a leading example of what can be achieved when business, FE and the Government work together to make sure young adults are retrained.

Part-time higher education has fallen into disrepair. Part-time student numbers collapsed by 53% between 2008-09 and 2017-18, resulting in over 1 million lost learners. When I think of potential part-time higher education students, I think of a single parent in my constituency who will not take that part-time opportunity because they are worried about the loan that they may have to take on.

Adult community learning is vital to social justice. It gives a helping hand to the hardest to reach adults, including those with no qualifications, learners in the most deprived communities, and those furthest from the job market. There has been, however, a 25% decline in adult community learning participation since 2011-12 and a 32% fall since 2008-09.

Finally, we should all be concerned about the decline in employer-led training. During our inquiry, our Committee heard that 39% of employers admit to training none of their staff. Employer-led training has dropped by half since the end of the 1990s. Previously, the Committee visited the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Germany. This kind of lack of training by businesses for their workforce is unthinkable in those countries.

Investment in workplace training favours the already well qualified, and workers with the lowest prior qualifications are the least likely to have received job-related training in the first place. Some 32% of adults with degrees participated in in-work training, compared with just 9% of workers with no qualifications.

I have set out some stark statistics about what is wrong. Our Committee tried to look at some of the solutions. I do believe that we can solve some of these issues. Just 40 or 50 years ago Britain had an adult education system that was world-leading. Despite well-intentioned reforms over recent years, adult education policy making has too often suffered from initiative-itis, lurching from one policy priority to the next.

We can rebuild this by pursuing an ambitious long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. The strategy has four pillars. First, let us fund an adult community learning centre in every town. Community learning supports adults who cannot even see the ladder of opportunity, let alone climb it. In Harlow, we are lucky to have a remarkable adult learning community centre, and it will soon be relocated to the beating heart of the town, in the main Harlow library building. Just because there is an adult community learning centre does not mean that millions have to be spent on a new building or estate, but there should be one for residents who need it.

Some 92% of community learning centres are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and I have seen time and again how they are an important bridge for people— many from disadvantaged backgrounds—to begin the first stage of education. Community learning centres are places of social capital: they are real places that bring people together and that often get people who go there to go on to further or additional education. Organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association, and HOLEX members, do an incredible job at bringing learning to disadvantaged communities. About 38% of Workers’ Educational Association learners are from disadvantaged postcodes, 44% are on income-related benefits, and 41% have no or very low previous qualifications.

Secondly, let us kickstart participation by introducing individual learning accounts, funded through the national skills fund. Individual learning accounts would evolve funding into the hands of learners, giving them choice and agency over their skills development. They should have a strong social justice focus and initially be aimed at those who would benefit the most, including low-skilled, low-paid adults. A further option might be to introduce them for vital skills deficit subject areas, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We can start small and learn lessons from the success of individual learning schemes in countries such as Singapore and Scotland.

Thirdly, part-time higher education needs to be nursed back to health. The fall in part-time higher education numbers undermines organisations such as the Open University and Birkbeck that do so much to widen access to learning for disadvantaged adults. Part-time study provides a route to higher skills and higher pay for adults alongside work or caring responsibilities. It offers a crucial second-chance route for mature students.

The lifelong loan entitlement for modules at higher technical and degree levels, which was set out in the FE White Paper, is a step forward in the right direction and will improve access to flexible part-time learning, but as I mentioned earlier when I gave the example of a single parent in my constituency, the part-time learner cohort is very different from the full-time one. Learners tend to be more mature and highly debt-averse. On average, they are older and have more financial commitments. Over a third have dependants to think about, and many are from very disadvantaged or modest backgrounds. Offering fee grants to part-time learners from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses that meet the skills needs of the nation would really transform adult learning. Let us end the unfair anomaly that excludes part-time distance learners from receiving maintenance support.

Another way to encourage adults to pursue higher education, particularly those who might be more debt-averse, is to champion degree apprenticeships. Students earn while they learn, gaining the skills and qualifications to climb the ladder of opportunity. Allocating the £800 million-plus spent by universities and the Office for Students on access and participation to those universities growing their degree apprentice student numbers would help rocket-boost degree apprenticeships. If the recent upwards trend in degree-level apprenticeships continues at the same rate, with some serious policy encouragement it could take as little as 10 years for half of all university students to be doing such courses. I think the Minister is the only person in the House who has done a degree apprenticeship, or at least the only Minister who has done a degree apprenticeship.

Fourthly, to revitalise employer-led training, the Government should introduce tax credits for employers who invest in training for their workforce. The Government have a research and development tax credit and tax refunds for construction companies investing in machinery, as announced in the Budget, so why not invest in a skills tax credit for the skills that are regarded as having strategic importance for the nation? Those are the four pillars needed for an ambitious long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. To make a success of these reforms, we need flexible and modular hop-on, hop-off learning. It should be like taking a train journey—stopping at stations and then getting back on the train again towards the destination.

There are not nearly enough qualifications that can be taken in a bite-sized modular way. This is a huge barrier to participation for adults with busy working lives and caring responsibilities. Much better careers advice, individually tailored to help adults find the best learning opportunities for them, without the huge replication and duplication that already exists, is essential. Although there are incredible career organisations and grassroots organisations on the ground, I despair of the replication and duplication and the huge amount of money that goes into organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, the National Careers Service and many other organisations in the Department for Work and Pensions that replicate a lot of things and create a lot of the work that each of these organisations do. Careers advice, in terms of the Department for Education, should be predominantly focused on skills, skills, skills.

Despite all that, there is much to be proud of in our adult education landscape. The four pillars set out in our report—a community learning centre in every town, individual learning accounts, boosting part-time higher education and introducing a skills tax credit—must be at the centre of the country’s adult learning revolution. Let us build a lifelong learning system that supports all adults to thrive. For too long our country has underinvested in adult lifelong learning. Our businesses have underinvested in training. Our skills deficit should be regarded as unacceptable. The Prime Minister’s lifetime guarantee signals recognition that change is needed. So, too, does the Education Secretary’s acknowledgement that further education has been historically underfunded and the subsequent FE White Paper. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Government need to build on the lifetime skills guarantee and really offer an adult learning experience fit for the 21st century.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I intend to start the wind-ups no later than 4.20 pm, so I would appreciate it if the five Back-Bench speakers tailored the length of their remarks to fit in with that timescale. I call Mick Whitley.

Mick Whitley Portrait Mick Whitley (Birkenhead) (Lab)[V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing it. I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Looking at the current state of post-16 education, I cannot help but think of how dramatically things have changed in the years since I was a young man. When I left school there were proper training opportunities that paved the way to secure, well-paid and lifelong employment. That all changed in the 1980s when the Thatcher Government took a wrecking ball to our industrial heartlands and ripped the heart out of towns such as Birkenhead. As the factories, steelworks and shipyards slammed their gates shut, the day-release apprenticeship that gave my generation skills, jobs and hope all but vanished. Since then we have been stuck on a policy merry-go-round that has taken us nowhere. Adult education and training now face a massive crisis since the incorporation of further education colleges in 1993.

There have been around 40 Green Papers on adult education policy, yet today participation in adult learning is at its lowest level in 24 years. Nearly half the poorest people in our country have had no additional training since leaving compulsory education. Well-paid quality apprenticeships are in scarce supply, too. In 2021, it is easier for a young person to get an offer from Cambridge than it is to get an apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce.

I therefore welcome the Education Select Committee’s call for a well-funded long-term adult education strategy that gives adult workers the opportunity to learn new skills. That is key to our being able to ensure that our workforce can adapt and thrive in an economy convulsed by covid-19, Brexit, climate meltdown and the fourth industrial revolution. However, I feel that the Select Committee, like me, will be bitterly disappointed by the Department for Education’s recent White Paper on further education. It falls short of the further education revolution that was promised.

I worry that the Government have ignored a key factor that is essential for success. Any adult skills and training strategy must be backed up by a comprehensive industrial strategy that delivers economic justice for towns like Birkenhead. I welcome the work that employers are doing with Wirral Met College to develop training programmes for young people in my constituency. I hope that the Committee’s proposed individual learning accounts and skills tax credits will help to support adult learners.

What is urgently needed is for the Government to get serious about creating jobs and training opportunities for adult workers in the industries of the future, such as green energy and the digital economy. Yet, it is not clear how the recent further education White Paper relates to the 10-year industrial strategy unveiled in 2017. Moreover, the Business Secretary’s disastrous decision to axe the Industrial Strategy Council suggests that this Government are not interested in the long-term, joined-up planning that will be essential to deal with the unemployment and skills crisis that confronts us today.

The Committee is also right to call on the Government to reinstate the union learning fund. As a lifelong trade unionist, I have seen at first hand the transformative role that the ULF plays in equipping those workers least able to access learning opportunities with the basic skills they need to survive in the job market. With every pound invested in the scheme returning £12.30 to the wider economy, the Government’s decision to scrap it seems to me to be petty and ideologically driven—an act of industrial sabotage. It flies in the face of the Government’s pledge to level up the country.

I urge the Education Secretary to go even further. In much of Europe, trade unions play a vital role alongside colleges and employers as a provider of adult learning opportunities, but there is not a single mention of the unions in the White Paper. It is time he finally stops treating the unions as the enemy and realises the vital role that they can play in any attempt to reach out to or to level up left-behind workers.

The Committee’s report calls for bold and ambitious action to prepare British workers for the immense challenges of the coming decades. That must mean apprenticeships, training, education, skills and jobs. Sadly, it appears such action is not on the Government’s agenda.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate and on the pioneering work that he and his Committee are carrying out, both generally with their inquiries and specifically with the publication of this report.

My interest is twofold: first, as a constituency MP, where securing this revolution is vital, if we are to deliver sustained economic regeneration that transforms the lives of local people, and secondly, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning. Local colleges, deeply embedded in their communities, such as East Coast College, with campuses in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, will be the cornerstone on which this revolution is founded.

There has been a need for this transformation for a very long time, but we are now at the zero hour. If it is not delivered now, the long-term implications for the country and for many people will be profound. The challenges of improving productivity, enhancing social mobility and eliminating pockets of deprivation have been with us for a long time, but they are now compounded by the need to ensure as smooth as possible a pandemic recovery, which includes the shock that there is likely to be from the ending of furlough, as well as making sure that people of all ages have the skills required in a period of rapid technological change.

In East Anglia there are enormous opportunities in the low-carbon economy. It is vital that local people are able to acquire the necessary skills that are required for the rewarding and exciting jobs that will be available. It is also important to bear in mind that if we do not properly prepare for these challenges, many communities will remain left behind and for many people there will be a sense of personal despair and despondency.

The good news is that the Government recognise the need for change. The skills White Paper sets out a compelling vision, and there is a welcome recognition of the important role to be played by existing institutions—whether that is local authorities, local colleges or local businesses.

Both the lifetime skills guarantee and the lifetime loan guarantee are welcome steps in the right direction. With the former, the restriction that it is available only for those who do not hold a level 3 qualification should be revisited, as many people will need to reskill and upskill as the world of work changes. With the latter, there is a need to ensure that—where necessary—maintenance funding is provided as, without it, lifelong learning will remain unaffordable for many.

Moving forward, it is vital that Government work collaboratively with colleges. The report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, “The English College of the Future”, provides a template of how they should do this, with a statutory entitlement for lifelong learning for every adult, which includes the necessary financial support.

Local colleges should be a touchpoint for people throughout their lives, where they will go to reskill and retrain in response to technological change, such as the move to a carbon-neutral economy.

In many respects, the future is bright and exciting, but there are two immediate issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, there is a need for a long-term funding settlement, which should be addressed at the forthcoming spending review later this year. The recent uplifts are welcome, but there remains a great gulf between what a university student receives, averaging £6,600 per annum, and what a further education college student is provided with, which is just over £1,000 at £1,050 per annum. The funding settlement should be for longer—for three years—and should be simpler.

Secondly, the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s decision to claw back adult skills funding from colleges and local authorities if they missed their 2020-2021 academic year targets by more than 10% must be revisited and reviewed urgently. College finances have been ravaged by the pandemic; the clawback is equivalent to a £60 million cut to adult education funding, and it was announced eight months into the academic year in which it applies. This approach undermines the ethos of collaborative working that we should be promoting, and it is contrary to the aspirations of both the White Paper and the Education Committee’s report, which we are debating today.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know is passionately committed to securing a lifelong learning revolution, to do all she can to ensure that the ESFA work with colleges to come up with a revised approach that will give them the financial security they need at this challenging time.

I shall end on a positive note: the future can be incredibly exciting, with real benefits being secured for communities and people all around the country. My right hon. Friend and his Committee have come up with a compelling vision, and Government have embraced it, as have colleges and businesses in Dorset. We must now get on and deliver it.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to be called in this debate, with you in the Chair, Ms Rees.

I thank the Education Select Committee for its outstanding report on the adult skills and lifelong learning landscape. It is honest and analytical, and it seeks to provide a route map of reparation and advancement. In what has been an overly complex web of funding streams and reduced opportunities, learning in adult life has become significantly bureaucratic, and nothing can disguise the scale of the cuts to adult learning—which this confusion has presumably been intended to mask.

The sheer scale of lost learning is concerning and it explains why, for a decade, productivity has been suffocated. It explains a decline in wellbeing and in mental and physical health. It most definitely explains a stifling of social mobility and—oh—the lost potential too.

When we talk to colleges of further education and other local providers, it is clear that the Government have failed to understand the power of adult learning. To this day, there is still a woeful insufficiency in funding. College staff are often on low pay and insecure contracts—devalued like no other professionals in the public sector, yet charged with the greatest of responsibilities, which is to nurture adults in a learning environment, which, in turn, unlocks new job opportunities, moves people out of poverty, and brings fulfilment and achievement.

The Minister will put a gloss coating on the tenure of her Government, but I have to say that nothing but regret should drive a commitment to do far more. A 45% cut in skills funding since the Tories came to power, as the Augar review noted, cannot be justified in terms of either economic or social equity. With participation in adult education at a 23-year low, that takes us back to the period when Labour picked up the failure of the previous Tory Government.

Now, 9 million people are abandoned to low literacy and numeracy skills, 6 million are without a GCSE or equivalent qualification—a decline of 87% under this Government—9 million are without the low-level digital skills necessary to navigate an increasingly digitalised society; 15% of 19-year-olds today do not have a level 2 qualification, and 60% do not have a level 3. Those people would have been just nine years old when this Government came in, and their education has taken place on the Government’s watch.

As we heard earlier, 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic groups have had no training since leaving school. Just last month, the Minister scrapped the union learning fund, not seeking to immerse herself in the evidence of how it got people who were furthest from education to develop a passion to learn, with the union learning reps at their side, giving them a new confidence. Even now, the threat of the Education and Skills Funding Agency clawing back millions of pounds from the sector is threatening the finances of colleges, as an impossible target of 90% provision of adult learning through the pandemic was set and is unachievable.

Scrapping that threshold today would show some commitment to colleges that a lot more is urgently needed, but, as ever, cuts have consequences, and those must be understood and never repeated. While the National Skills Fund is welcome, it must be recognised as a first step, since it will replace only a fifth of all that has been stripped away in the last decade.

If we are serious about seeing a skills revolution—and I am—we have to take down the barriers to learning, recognise its return, and empower local communities, local colleges and universities with the funding and scope they need to make learning accessible. In York, I see how York College is leading the skills strategy, and how the universities and colleges are shaping the economic strategy for the city. The value of those powerhouses must be understood.

On funding, I agree with the call from the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for a long-term plan, which is an economic necessity, and for Labour it goes to the core of our values. Withholding vital funding chokes off the economy and chokes off opportunity, yet the Minister is significantly holding back on the resources needed, not least at this time of crisis. We have heard about the ageing workforce and the loss of skills through Brexit, advances in technology and automation. Obviously, the fall-out from the pandemic, which we are facing now, and the climate catastrophe will demand real new skills to turn the situation around. Therefore, adult skills and lifelong learning have to be funded effectively.

The report shows that, incredibly, every pound invested in levels 1 to 3 of adult learning returns between £20 and £30. I am not sure that there is a better return anywhere else in the economy, so that is an investment that pays back, but to upskill and reskill, barriers have to be taken down. That is why I support measures that would ensure that adults who were learning received free childcare. I would remove the age gaps, particularly if we are to consider diversification of skills. Yes, invest in community learning centres in every town and city, which would ensure a place-based approach to learning and the economy. We should reinstitute individual learning accounts. Yes, the governance needed changing, but they were transformative, as I witnessed during my time as a union official.

I also call on the Government to look at the kickstart scheme. Many employers have been reluctant to take up this opportunity because they are concerned about what happens to people on the scheme at the end of the six months. Having a learning offer would certainly encourage employers to know that the people they have taught over the last six months and skilled up have an opportunity to move into a secure learning environment.

I also call for a right to learn. It is shameful that 39% of employers do not train any of their staff, yet they play a part in the economy. Everyone must have that responsibility, and a right to learn enshrined in law would secure that.

On digital, we have got a lot of catching up to do as a country, and these last 13 months have shown the deficit that exists. Free broadband, as Labour proposed at the last election, would certainly be a step on the way, but ensuring that people have the tools they need to be digitally savvy enough to navigate their way through the economy is absolutely vital, and there can be no holding back.

We need to have a look at ways of unshackling those opportunities in higher education to see more modular learning and more flexibility in part-time learning. Of course, that will mean that the funding structures need to change. I think it is high time that we look at the way that tuition fees have suffocated opportunities for people, and I certainly am an advocate of free higher education.

In particular, I want to close by bringing to the Minister’s attention an issue that a constituent raised with me. Her story is that she fled domestic violence, but education gave her an opportunity not just to rebuild her skills, but to rebuild herself. As the Domestic Abuse Bill is being debated in the Chamber right now, I ask the Minister to look at what my constituent is calling for: a secure way into further and higher education for people fleeing domestic violence so they have an opportunity to start their lives again.

If we applied that to other people experiencing challenges and vulnerabilities, just think how transformative it would be. I look at the work of Thames Valley police in diverting people out of county lines and the whole area of dealing drugs, and getting those youngsters into a learning framework instead of the criminal justice system. That has been transformational not least in reducing crime but also in giving those youngsters a chance again.

As we come out of this pandemic, more than ever we have seen the need to address mental health and loneliness, and some of the real challenges people have experienced. Social prescribing is at the frontier of that, and having a pathway into learning at this point in time could certainly address many of the health and wellbeing needs that people are facing. A creative Government could do so much to transform the lives of the people we represent as well as our economy, and I trust the Minister will reflect on the power of her portfolio and use it to its fullest.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees, and thank you for calling me in this very important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate, and on his work chairing the Education Committee and bringing this report forward. I am a member of the Education Committee, and I am pleased to have been able to listen to and review the evidence that we were given from many different quarters and work with the team on this report. I am glad it has got an airing today.

The adult skills and lifelong learning report calls for revolutionary action. It does not deserve to be sitting on a dusty shelf; it deserves to be brought out and put into action because, as we have heard, it is needed now more than ever.

The Education Committee started working on this report before covid, and our recommendations have become even more important since covid. The impact that covid has had on employment, on loss of income, on loss of businesses, on the self-employed, on low earners, on stay-at-home parents and on young people has been very high, but there are many ways forward to address the issues in this report.

As has been said, across England, 9 million adults lack functional literacy and numeracy skills. Over the last decade, adult learner numbers have fallen by 3.8 million. The poorest adults are often the least likely to access the training they need the most. There has been a 45% decline in funding for adult skills in the last decade, so there has never been more of a need for a shake-up in our adult learning. The current system is absolutely failing.

Lifelong learning is essential for skilling up, for enabling people to develop their potential and achieve things, and for tackling inequalities in all our communities, which have grown ever wider under covid. It is essential for mental health and wellbeing, and for tackling isolation. It is also vital for our economic growth as a country, and for keeping our workforce skilled, adaptable and able to respond to climate change and to changing circumstances in the labour market. That is why this report asks for no less than a revolution in lifelong learning.

Before becoming an MP, I used to work for a community learning centre, the Katherine Low Settlement. It provides English for speakers of other languages—ESOL— and other courses, and classes for over 100 local people. It provides the means for building community, empowering parents and getting access to jobs. I have seen in action this kind of organisation, which could provide a community hub, so I know that it is perfectly possible. However, the Government response to the recommendation in the report for a community learning centre in every town was very disappointing. I will focus on this recommendation today, and I hope that in her response, the Minister will give more reasons for hope in relation to bringing this recommendation to life.

Community learning centres are a major recommendation, based on the Education Committee receiving evidence from a variety of educators, looking at the failures in our system up to now and considering solutions that would address many different barriers to education all at once. The centres do not need to be new buildings or new organisations that require many millions in funding; lots of community spaces or education providers could step up and provide this. In my constituency, South Thames College could be one of these providers, working in conjunction with other partnerships. There are lots of places on our high streets that could provide the necessary transformation and high profile for adult learning.

That one innovative change—having a community learning centre in every town—would bring together so many different solutions. The centres could be well-known places that provide information and support. They would help to overcome the current fragmented funding and provision, which the Government acknowledge, but do not address, in their response to the Select Committee’s report.

It is very hard to access information and to get the required mentoring and support for learning. That is acknowledged by the Government, and it has been recognised by others who have spoken today. That is why there is a recommendation in the report for careers guidance, information and support. It can be especially difficult when someone is working two jobs, or caring for children or parents; when there are so many different providers with different and changing courses in different places, most of which are currently without childcare on site; or if someone’s literacy or confidence are not very good, they have special educational needs or they think that learning is not for them.

Having one local centre physically and online would help to overcome the significant barriers to adult education. The centre would be a trusted provider, and it would help to overcome the psychological barriers to education that many people experience. The Government response to the report stated:

“Adults, particularly those with lower skills, face significant physical and psychological barriers to learning.”

Community learning centres would enable people to overcome those barriers.

We have heard time and time again about the importance of trusted providers. The union learning fund has been mentioned. It showed the importance of in-work mentors providing support and guidance, encouraging people to apply for things and supporting them to go on in education, which is necessary to get on to the ladder, let alone up it. Cutting the union learning fund has been a huge step backwards for adult learning, and I hope that decision can still be reversed. The importance of employer-led learning cannot be overestimated.

What else could a community learning centre provide? It could be a place that provided support for an increase in qualifications, up to levels 2 and 3, which are under-utilised at the moment. It could also be a place for part-time learning and the modular learning that is recommended in the report. Very importantly, a centre would provide childcare alongside courses in the same place. If that childcare were free, that would be a revolution in lifelong learning. There would need to be enough courses, and so enough people with children, in one place to make childcare a viable option, and the centre would need to be close enough—a buggy walk or bus ride away—to allow people to get back and pick up their kids from school. Those practical details will make community learning centres work, and they are why such centres are so needed.

A community learning centre would also be an important place for addressing the dire cuts in ESOL provision, enabling communities to be integrated. The Government response to the report just acknowledges the current low ESOL provision numbers, as if that is great, and says nothing about the swingeing cuts to ESOL courses—especially those with childcare—which leave so many people without the English skills that they need to get access to further courses, to be empowered parents in talking to teachers, and to contribute in the fullest way, as they want to, in our communities.

A community learning hub would also be that place that builds and strengthens communities. It has that social capital that has been mentioned, and would inspire more learning. There would be different generations, and ways for someone to get the training needed to get a job or a better job, tackle in-work poverty, or see different courses that they never knew existed, all in one place in their town. What an amazing vision—but instead of meeting that ambition and new vision with enthusiasm, the Government response was like taking a cold shower. It listed existing provision and talked about the adult education budget as the only answer. However, that adult education budget for local government has been cut, from £3 billion in 2010 to £1.5 billion now—so it is hardly the answer.

A vital partnership of councils and education and community organisations is perfectly possible, doable and achievable, and it is fantastic value for money. It could be the revolution that we need to meet the crisis that we face. I hope that that recommendation will not sit on a dusty shelf but will be given life and used, so that part of our building back better after covid will be an adult learning revolution across the country—starting just a short walk or bus ride away.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is a series of votes in the House, but there is no need to suspend the sitting, because we all have proxy votes, so we shall plough on.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees? I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this important debate, and on all the contributions that have been made. It is an absolute honour to speak on a report that I assisted with, alongside my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), as members of the Education Committee.

Education is particularly important to me. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I spent eight and a half years, before entering this place, as a secondary school teacher. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and the hon. Member for Putney are sick to death of hearing about that. Also, my father benefited as an adult from going through the Open University process, which enabled him to get on the career path that perhaps was not expected for him, avoiding factory work in Trowbridge, and ending up working in accountancy. In fact, he has gone further into teaching.

Adult education is important—particularly for the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. The sad reality is that a recent report by the Office for Students said that my constituency is the seventh worst of 535 English constituencies for people going on to higher education. In 2019 the number of people achieving a level 3 qualification by the age of 19 in Stoke-on-Trent was under 50%, and only three quarters of people achieved a level 2 qualification by that age. That challenge has only got worse, as we are facing a joint mission: getting millions of people back into work, because of the global pandemic, and driving up the skill levels of those who were already being left behind before it arrived. Put simply, there is a more pressing need than ever for people to be able to retrain, reskill and upskill throughout their lives.

One of the big, glaring holes is the fact that employers should be doing much more to train their workers. For a long time the United Kingdom has had a productivity problem, and business has often looked to the Government to come up with initiatives to tackle it. However, it seems to me it could be greatly helped if business would invest properly in its people. As an example, David O’Connor worked his way up from the shop floor and is now the chief executive officer of Churchill China in my constituency, which is a multimillion-pound company. That happened through the company investing in him, and giving him the opportunity to go to Staffordshire University and gain qualifications, so that he is now driving that company from the very top. Ultimately, it is one of the great success stories in my local area; there are so many others that I could rant about today, but I want to make sure that we focus on this.

I do think that the Minister has done some superb work with the FE reform White Paper. It is a real step forward in the right direction, and a real change in attitude towards adult education. I believe that we in this country have fallen into the trap of seeing education as beginning at four and ending at 18. Other countries, such as Germany, have managed to power on ahead. They have got rid of that silly gold standard when it comes to A-levels and said that a vocational, technical qualification is as important as an academic one. This has seen them drive massively forward in many of their vocational qualifications.

The lifetime skills guarantee is something I am very excited by, as many other Members have said. I know that places such as Stoke on Trent College, run by Denise Brown, are extremely excited to take part, and Burslem campus in my constituency is really looking forward to hosting this. However, a conversation with Denise produced a few queries, questions and bits of advice about how we can make this lifetime skills guarantee really work, and I think they would be helpful to the Minister. One concern is that limiting the guarantee to adults who have not yet achieved a full level 3 qualification does not fully address the retraining issue. One way of avoiding the problem would be to offer loan-maxed graduates free retraining courses at levels 3, 4 and 5 in technical subjects.

Also, the qualification list that has been approved for the lifetime skills guarantee is too narrow, in my opinion. Local enterprise partnerships or chambers of commerce could be given the authority to include qualifications that are not on the national list if those qualifications met local or regional labour market demands. At the moment, we have a shortage of lecturers and teachers in higher technical subjects in colleges and other providers. Part of that is because of pay, and because enticing highly skilled technical people to teach in colleges is an uphill battle. As such, Denise Brown wanted me to put to the Minister the idea of a scheme whereby employers loan members of their staff to a college, and the college would pick up maybe 20% of the salary cost. In that way, employers and colleges can work much more closely than ever before and bring the very best of their business into the classroom, ensuring that those young people or adults are ready for the education ahead.

Finally, qualifications at level 3 are often a two-year programme, and this links into issues with the Department for Work and Pensions. If adults are to retrain and get back into the workplace, the level 3 qualification needs to be shorter. Work needs to be done with the awarding organisations to ensure that level 3 qualifications can be achieved as quickly as possible, so accreditation of prior learning needs to be taken into account so that adults follow courses that do not repeat what they already know. Awarding organisations also need to develop shorter qualifications that can be achieved in one academic year. I also put that challenge to the higher education sector. In many cases, a three-year degree can easily be done in two years, and in my personal opinion, that should be the approach that is taken.

We have heard fantastic comments and contributions from Members about the community learning centre in every town, and I fully endorse them. The school building sits there empty for so many weeks and months throughout the year, yet it is one of the biggest community assets. What I sometimes get very scared about with Government is that we look for the easy solution, which is the shiny building. To the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, capital investment projects are nice, but people are so sceptical of these shiny buildings, because four or five years after they have been built, they are inevitably mothballing away and nothing is happening with them. It then costs millions of pounds of local tax payers’ money to repurpose them for the future, or millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money from the Government to turn them into housing or knock them down, creating empty brownfield sites. What we need is revenue funding, investing in people to support them.

I bang on about Hilary Cottam’s “Radical Help”, and I admit to being a late converter. It was Danny Flynn from YMCA North Staffordshire—a proud, self-confessed socialist—who told me to read Hilary. She talks about investing in people by having these community learning centres on our high streets, in our libraries, and in our schools or colleges. In them, we would have people from those communities who understand, empathise with, and can support and guide others from the community. An awful lot of adults feel very let down by the education system of the ’60s, the ’70s, and in some cases the ’80s as well. They feel it was an education system that did not serve them properly, so they are sceptical about what people want to do. If we invest in people to build community relationships and to network within those communities, and if we find ways to tackle other problems, which as childcare, which our report rightly cites—ultimately we can go a lot further. I really believe that if we can find ways to allow parents, particularly single parents, to have free additional childcare if they are taking up a qualification, so that they can do that course to the best of their ability while ensuring their child is also receiving a good education, good healthcare and safeguarding, it will be a big step in the right direction.

Ultimately, education is the biggest leveller that we have in society. If levelling up is really to be achieved, it will be through education. No matter how many things we build or how much money we invest, education is ultimately what will improve social mobility. Stoke-on-Trent is in the bottom fifth of the country for social mobility—a scary statistic that reminds me and the team I work with here in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke of the sheer challenge that we face today.

I took the advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow about apprenticeships. As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on apprenticeships, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is, so I am advertising at the moment for my very own apprentice, who will get a level 3 qualification. I have not advertised for an 18 to 20-year-old, or even for an 18 to 25-year-old. I have said that anyone who wants the opportunity should apply regardless of age, because I want to make sure that I am reinvesting in my community and sending a signal out to many small and medium-sized enterprises that if I can do it, they can do it too and give access to earn and learn, which will hopefully drive so many more individuals into higher education. That is the way it will happen. It is about investing in people and showing that we are here to care.

I should discuss SEND provision in this country. An awful lot of adults were not diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia or other learning needs when they were at school. In fact, those assessments were not even prevalent in the school that I went to, and I was privileged to go to Princethorpe College, a private school just outside Leamington Spa. I had school friends who were dyslexic and who were put in the bottom set; they were just assumed to be stupid, but actually that was far from the truth. They were people who needed support and help. We have to invest in making sure that such people have the opportunity to learn and have a support network around them.

The national tutoring programme, which I appreciate is slightly off-topic, is not delivering as it should be. That money could be going into colleges and schools to invest in the type of additional support that is needed, be it online or person-to-person, or more teachers being paid to stay on later in the day, so that they can work with individuals. Ultimately, there are solutions to all these problems.

I am proud to be part of the report. I am proud to see that the Government are taking the first big step, but there is still a long way to go and many challenges ahead. We cannot put up our feet and pat ourselves on the back at this very moment. We have to go full steam ahead and realise that if we are really going to change the mindset of a nation, it has to come from employers, the Government and the general public understanding that education does not end at 18—in fact, it never ends at all.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call the Opposition spokesperson, Toby Perkins. If the bell goes, can you please continue?

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees. I thank the Committee for an excellent report, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) not just on the report and on securing the debate, but on his wider commitment to this subject. He is a powerful voice speaking up for the sector, and his speech once again reflected that.

The report produced by the Committee is excellent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, it is a bold report that goes further than the Government’s suggestions, and the Committee has made a number of recommendations that really should be investigated more fully. We have heard a lot about how vital skills are. We have heard not only about the ways we have stepped backwards as a country in adult education and lifelong learning over the course of recent years, but about the scale of the challenge, which has been brought into particularly sharp focus by the coronavirus crisis.

I think the sector has welcomed the rhetoric from the Government and the sense that there is a greater focus on further education and skills, but the sector and, indeed, learners will judge the Government by their actions and funding, not by their words. The sector’s experience over the last 11 years is an important piece of context. It has had a decade of funding cuts. Adult education in particular has been savagely cut. As Members referred to, we have recently seen the clawback of adult education funding and the further education sector excluded from the Government’s main post-covid jobs programme—the failing kickstart programme. We have seen an obsession with programmes aimed at major employers, often excluding towns and rural communities, whose economies are based much more on small and medium-sized enterprises and sole traders. The programmes the Government have introduced have lacked scale, ambition and urgency.

The Minister probably did not help with expectation management regarding the White Paper. She regularly promised in the run-up to its publication that we were going to see transformational reforms that would offer the biggest change to the sector in 60 years. While I recognise, as the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) did, that lasting transformation is very difficult when you only have one-year budgets, the White Paper represents a considerable missed opportunity. My initial response was that it was predominantly lacking in ambition and scale and so would not take the sector far enough down the path required at a moment of such seismic challenge. Furthermore, there are genuine worries that, far from not going far enough in the right direction, there are elements of the White Paper that are actually boldly marching in the wrong direction. I shall expand upon my views to that in a moment.

We have heard really powerful testimony from many hon. Members. I particularly enjoyed what my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said, that the Government just does not really get further education yet. Whatever their narrative says, successive policy and funding decisions suggest that the Government see further education very much as something that narrowly loads skills that an employer needs into a recipient who goes from unemployed to an employee. Of course, skilling people for specific jobs and careers is a vital function of the further education sector, but further education is about so much more than that. My hon. Friend spoke powerfully about what further education and adult education is all about. It is about second chances; it is about alternative learning environments, often for those who did not thrive at school; it is about providing a vehicle that helps local communities, employers, learners and learning institutions to work together.

I sense that this is a White Paper that lacks soul. Further education is not just a service; it is a way of life, a pathway and a staircase. It is transformative, empowering, beautiful, and it changes people’s lives, not just their jobs. That sense of joy and boundless opportunity is entirely missing from the Government’s very narrow approach. Close to where I live, there used to be a college called North Derbyshire Tertiary College. It has long gone now, but it was funded by a penny levy on miners that they paid at the end of their shift on a Friday. Men arriving back at the surface after an exhausting day at the coalface would drop a penny in a tin to help them learn to read and write and to educate their children, so that for the next generation there would be choices other than following their fathers down the pit. It was never about improving their use to their employers; it was about investing in their communities and themselves to widen those opportunities.

It is the Government’s failure to understand that principle that leads them to say stupid things like Unionlearn was of no value, because it mainly worked with people who were already in work. Of course! No one suggested that Unionlearn was the only skills approach the Government needed, but a programme with a great success rate of helping workers to learn skills that will help them get promoted or get a pay rise has real value. People do not need to be out of work to be able to gain value from improving their skills.

The Committee’s report makes some really sensible suggestions. I find very unconvincing the Government’s assurances that many of the issues raised by the Committee are already in hand. For example, we already know that there has been a 50% real-terms reduction in adult education funding under this Government, so the dismissal of the Committee’s suggestion that the spending increase required for adult education should be properly costed is most unconvincing.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about the value of adult learning, but also about how large the real-terms reduction has been. We cannot get away from the importance of that funding, and we know that adult education has seen catastrophic reductions in funding during the past 11 years. The right hon. Member for Harlow referred to well intentioned reforms, and I am sure that in many areas there were well intentioned reforms, but it is impossible to argue that the specific cuts made to adult education were well intentioned. That was a positive decision that the Government made. The Government can address that or choose not to, but they should not pretend that those funding losses are not real or that they have been in any way addressed since the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) became Prime Minister.

I welcome the Committee’s call for funding streams to be consolidated and streamlined. The Government outlined their ambitions to do that, but their approach so far has added barriers and complexities, not reduced them, so there is—I will be generous—widespread scepticism about whether the Government will deliver on their ambitions in that regard. I welcome the lifelong learning entitlement proposal, but given that the lifetime skills guarantee has turned out to be far more limited in scope than expected, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, the line

“We will consult on the detail”

is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the Government response to that recommendation.

The Government have huge confidence that their desire to put employers in the driving seat will address Britain’s skills challenges, but the right hon. Member for Harlow was right to say that 39% of employers admit to providing no training whatever, so the idea that employers being in the driving seat will resolve all these challenges is, I think, deeply concerning. Of course employers are crucial stakeholders in this approach and absolutely have to be in the room, but there is considerable doubt as to the extent to which they want or are able to drive the vehicle.

It is a stunning indictment of the Government’s approach to working with businesses that local enterprise partnerships seem to be entirely missing from the White Paper. The report, in recommendation 11, refers to attempts to bring local enterprise partnerships back in, but the Government response does not even mention that recommendation on local enterprise partnerships. Clearly, they are entirely shut out. Chambers of commerce have some brilliant branches and great people and they are capable of excellent practice, but there is a large gap between where those organisations’ current capacity is and their ability to play the kind of role that the Government appear to envisage.

It is telling that 50% of the Government’s adult education budget is devolved to the seven mayoral combined authority areas and London. It is depressing that the Government seem to be doing an about-turn on devolution. The Government’s dismissal of the Committee’s suggestion about devolving the National Careers Service is an example of that. They have no plan for devolution to those areas not in the shadow of a major city, and therefore a very limited plan for addressing the skills approach needed to target town and rural areas. That is particularly damaging because those are the areas most likely to be without the major employers that seem to drive so much of this Government’s approach to skills. Many of us live in towns dominated not by three or four employers of thousands of people, but by thousands of employers of three or four people. They have been widely shut out of the Government’s reforms thus far, and there is nothing in the skills White Paper that goes close to addressing those challenges.

Turning for a moment to the specific challenges that face the Government now, I remain mystified that the Government have failed to take up the apprenticeship wage subsidy idea put forward by Labour, utilising the money that remains unspent in the apprenticeship levy pot to support funding for the first year of new apprenticeships. I would also like the Minister to offer some justification for the ridiculous and damaging decision referred to by the hon. Member for Waveney to claw back adult education funds where providers have provided less than 90% of the contracted amount. For those colleges that do most back-to-work courses or focus particularly on ESOL work, that target is totally unrealistic. It will inevitably fall to colleges to at best cancel pay awards and, in many cases, make redundancies.

I really welcome this report and the contribution that the right hon. Member for Harlow and his Committee continue to make to this incredibly important area, but I think that the Government response to the report shows that there is still a long, long way to go before these challenges are properly tackled.

Gillian Keegan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this important debate. I know he cares very deeply about adult skills, both in his role as Chair of the Education Committee and as a former Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills. I follow in his footsteps to a great degree.

The Government welcome the Education Committee’s report on adult skills and lifelong learning and have responded to all the Committee’s recommendations. I thank all members of the Committee for all the work they do in this area. We may not agree on every detail, but we are all passionate about changing the lives of the people who need skills to get on in life. In our response, we set out what we are going to do to address the challenges presented by covid-19, as well as our longer-term strategy for ensuring that we have the skills that the future economy needs. I want to touch upon these two things today because they are vitally important, as many Members have said.

I agree with what many hon. Members have said. The pandemic has had a huge impact on the lives of many individuals and the topic of adult skills and lifelong learning has never been more important. We know from the 2008 economic downturn that for some people, especially young people and those in low-skilled and low-paid jobs, economic scarring can have a lifelong detrimental effect on future prospects. I reassure the Committee that the Government are acutely aware of that and we are doing everything we can to avoid that. We have learnt the lessons of 2008. The Government have taken some quick action to support those affected by covid-19, but we are always looking to see what we can do to rebuild, to build back better, to recover our economy and so on. Adult skills will be a key part of that.

At the beginning of the pandemic, in April 2020, the Department for Education introduced the skills toolkit. It was there as something that was useful for people to do when we first went into lockdown and on furlough. Providers included the Open University, Google, Amazon, FutureLearn and many others. They are delivering online courses, from practical maths to computer science and coding courses, to help people stay in work or to use the time they had to take up new opportunities. That offer was expanded last September to more than 70 courses. As of February this year, less than a year after it started, there had been an estimated 176,800 course registrations—only one of them was mine—and 33,600 course completions, and one of them was mine, too.

The Chancellor’s plan for jobs is also protecting, supporting and creating jobs across the country. We want to help people across the country, whether they are starting out on their career, thinking of updating their skills or considering changing their career. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) mentioned the challenges in the industrial strategy. “Build Back Better: our plan for growth” contains many of the Government’s plans. There is also the levelling up fund, which has some excellent uses to help level up and ensure that we genuinely build back better.

We have increased our investment in the National Careers Service. We are enabling more careers advisers to provide personalised careers advice for more people whose jobs or learning have been impacted by covid. We have doubled the number of work coaches for those who are going into the jobcentre. We are getting prepared to make sure that we are there to help people, however they access services and whatever help they need.

For those aged 16 to 24 and facing barriers to entering work or an apprenticeship, we are increasing the number of traineeships to give more personalised training, including in English and maths—many hon. Members mentioned additional support required in those areas—and work experience to help people progress. We are investing an additional £126 million in traineeships in the 2021-22 academic year.

Traineeships and pre-apprenticeships provide work-based learning focused on improving a young person’s abilities, including how to look and apply for a job, how to prepare and how to be successful in the workplace. They allow a young person to achieve the level 1 or 2 qualifications they may have missed out on. Digital skills are essential, and they are included, if the person did not do well in those subjects at school. There is also a vocational and occupational element of learning and, if required, qualifications aligned to a sectoral occupation.

The programme includes, vitally, work experience and a placement that lasts anywhere between two and eight weeks. At the end, we hope that all those young people will be offered a job or an apprenticeship. Businesses have a vital role to play, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) said, alongside business representative organisations, colleges, training providers, other local organisations, councils, LEPs and mayoral combined authorities. This is part of the local working together.

In terms of businesses, a lot is happening already. I mentioned traineeships, and Specsavers is a large employer engaged in a traineeship programme as a way of recruiting apprentices. It now has a 100% success rate of progressing young people who have completed a traineeship into an apprenticeship, and we want more of these models. Smaller businesses as well have engaged—Nexus Accountants has supported traineeships—enabling young people to access higher level apprenticeships and nurturing them along the way.

We have sector-based work academies also helping to make sure that we have a sector-based offer for employability training, work experience and so on that lasts up to six weeks. Many Members mentioned essential digital skills. We have updated them and they were available from August last year. On community learning, we have 259 providers in multiple centres across the country, and we have been working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that more unemployed people can take advantage of the lifetime skills guarantee. We are piloting an extension to the length of time that they can receive universal credit while doing work-focused study from later this month. We are delighted about that, because it means that universal credit claimants will now be able to train full time for up to 12 weeks, or 16 weeks if they are on a full-time skills bootcamp in England, while receiving universal credit to support their living costs. This will give them many more options and they will get the opportunity to improve the productivity of the country by using the time to ensure that they get more skills, become more valuable and secure their work future.

Through the national skills fund, we have the potential to deliver opportunities to generations of adults who previously have been left behind. We will do more than nurse things back to health. We will make sure that we invest £2.5 billion—£3 billion including Barnett funding for the devolved Administrations. It is a significant investment and we want to make sure it changes lives.

Available since 1 April, we are fully funding any adult aged 24 and over who wants to achieve their first A-level equivalent qualification. They will be able to access more than 400 valuable courses as part of the lifetime skills guarantee. The free courses for jobs offer is backed by £95 million from the national skills fund in year one, which removes the barrier to training for millions of adults and gives them the chance to get really valuable training. The list is not static. The courses can change. In fact, we have added more courses already, so it is not set in stone. We will adapt as required.

The qualifications on offer are already fantastic. Adults can take them up, boost their career prospects and wages, and help fill the skills gap. For example, from a diploma in engineering technology, they can progress on to roles in maintenance and manufacturing engineering. There is electrical installation, adult care, and all of the areas where we have skills shortages. This is an important part of our offer.

The second part of the lifetime skills guarantee is bootcamps. The first ones started in the west midlands, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Liverpool City Region. They are absolutely brilliant. Members should go and see them. I would be happy to go with members of the Committee when we can. There is the School of Code bootcamp. We have heard brilliant stories about changing lives. A print production manager for 15 years was made redundant from his job. He was looking for a change, something different to do, and he said, “The School of Code has truly changed my life. I have the skills and confidence to change careers and do something I truly love.” He has now launched as a junior software engineer at Wyze. There are so many examples: photonics, electronics, electrical engineering. Many companies are involved and we are looking to spread them all across the country.

Many Members have mentioned apprentices and apprenticeships. There are obviously incentives. They are so important and we have 130 level 6 and 7 standards now. I am a huge fan. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said, I am the only degree apprentice in the House. The White Paper is a huge opportunity. Many mentioned flexible modular provision. We will make sure that that is included, and we will simplify funding.

In conclusion, timing is everything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned. We will now make sure that this does not collect dust on the shelf. The White Paper delivers on that technical revolution—the biggest in 60 years—and we are committed to ensuring that we have a skills system that will offer individuals all they need to be successful in life, and will enable our economy to build back better as a nation.

Christina Rees Portrait Christina Rees (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister for speaking on through the bells, which is not easy; I appreciate it. Robert Halfon, would you like a couple of minutes to wind up?

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Ms Rees, and I thank the hon. Members and Friends who have spoken this afternoon. I think the Minister will see that there is significant cross-party unity on this, particularly on issues such as community learning, raised so eloquently by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), talked about further education being a way of life, and I absolutely agree with that; I think that is a phrase I will remember and use for a long time to come. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about apprenticeships at Rolls-Royce versus Oxford. My dream is that one day, if somebody says they go to Oxford, people will say, “That’s nice”, but if somebody says they are doing an apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce, everyone will go, “How amazing. How incredible.” I want that to be seen as something very special to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about equality for FE and HE funding, and he was absolutely right to do so. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said that we should take down the barriers to learning, which is why I am so supportive of community learning. That point was reiterated, as I have mentioned, by the hon. Member for Putney, who serves on my Committee. She made the point, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, that community centres should be in existing buildings: we do not need brand new, shiny buildings in order to do this. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North also spoke about the Open University, which I think is one of the great reforms of the 20th century. No doubt he is here today because of the opportunities that the Open University offered his father, which he spoke about so movingly.

To conclude, the hon. Member for Putney spoke about not putting this report on the shelf. We are a campaigning Committee, so we are not going to put this report on the shelf; we will campaign on these things again and again. I will die with the word “campaigner” emblazed on my grave. I think that the Minister has got the message: we need a giant leap for adult learning, on top of the giant step forward in the White Paper. Community learning is skills, tax credits, and lifelong learning for adults. I think we have a good chance of really transforming the landscape in our country.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the Third Report of the Education Committee, “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution”, HC 278.

Sitting adjourned.