Debates between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 24th Mar 2022
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
Thu 3rd Feb 2022
Tue 25th May 2021

Higher Education Reform

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Thursday 20th July 2023

(12 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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In relation to where qualifications might be phased out, I think that my noble friend is referring to the imposition of recruitment limits by the Office for Students. To be clear, that will happen after it has judged that an institution has not met the quality standards known as the B3 standards. The scale of limit will be a judgment for the OfS to make. There could be a limitation on growing a course. At the other extreme, the OfS might judge that it is not suitable to be delivered at all. I am not taking a view on either of those. I am just saying that it would follow an investigation by the OfS into quality.

I hope very much that universities are considering alternatives. Obviously, they are autonomous organisations, but there is a great human opportunity in offering some of the qualifications to which she referred. Also, from their responsibility for the financial viability of their institutions, there is an opportunity as those courses grow in popularity. For building, construction and other areas, from T-levels through to apprenticeships and other higher technical qualifications, the Government are trying to make sure that there is a pipeline of skills to meet the opportunities to which she refers.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, the last time I got up and asked the Minister some questions I was able to be very congratulatory to the Government in relation to the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill. Regrettably, I cannot be for one second congratulatory about this Statement. I think it is both retrograde and ill thought-out. In implementation, it is going to end up as an unholy mess.

Let me begin with the criteria that the Government are using to define quality, which is essentially drop-out and earnings. I thought the Minister was equivocating in her response to the noble Baronesses, Lady Twycross and Lady Smith, on this subject, saying that it is not only about earnings and that she knows that other facets of higher education are important. But, when it comes to the criteria for closing down courses, this Statement makes it absolutely clear that the level of earnings from different courses is going to be a factor. It is a ludicrous thing to take, because there are many areas where people are badly paid but will have done very good degrees. There are other areas where people will be well-paid graduates but will not have done especially strong degrees from the many different academic criteria that you could use. This needs to be thought about again. It is just so mechanistic. Moreover, there is a well-established system of regulation of the quality and standards of degrees in universities, and that is what should be used to try to do something about those which have low standards.

Take the criteria of drop-out. I spent 10 years running an institution, Birkbeck College, with part-time mature students where there were very high levels of drop-out. But if anybody dares to say to me that it was because the courses were poor, I shall tell them they are talking nonsense. The reasons for drop-out are very rarely anything to do with the quality of the course. It is something about the problems students face, particularly disadvantaged, part-time or mature students. It would be far better if the Government focused a bit more on trying to find support for universities which have a large number of these students so that we do not have fewer disadvantaged students getting to the end of the courses, which of course we want to avoid.

I must not talk for too long, but I will comment on a couple of other things. I do not know how the Office for Students will collect evidence about all of this that is up to date, clear and valid. It will be enormously expensive and extremely complicated, and the OfS is bound to end up with errors about which courses it decides should not be continued and which should continue. What kind of discussions have the Government had with the Office for Students about exactly how to implement this particular programme?

I will make a final point about the social sciences. As a social scientist myself, I was somewhat offended to see that they have been identified as an area where we perhaps want fewer students doing foundation courses. I do not know why that should be the case; they are popular among students who want perhaps to come back to university a little later. Incidentally, economics is a social science, and it has some of the most highly paid graduate jobs that exist. The whole thing is an awful muddle, and more attention needs to be paid to the details of how to implement this, because standards are not static; they change all the time.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am obviously disappointed that the noble Baroness did not give the same feedback as in the Statement the other day, but I am more concerned because I think that there is still a misunderstanding about how this would work in practice. I will try to go through the noble Baroness’s points in turn.

I am not equivocating about earnings: the criteria are clear. They are the new B3 quality criteria, which are continuation, completion and graduate-level or further study or employment 15 months after graduation. However, obviously, higher earnings normally correlates with graduate-level jobs—not across every sector and industry, but frequently. If I was confusing, I apologise, but we are not equivocating.

On how it will work, the regulation and the potential for recruitment limits will happen only after intervention. So the OfS will have gathered evidence—this goes to the noble Baroness’s later point about evidence—that shows concerns about whether an institution is meeting the B3 standards. It will investigate and, if it finds that those standards are not met, it will consider recruitment limits.

The noble Baroness referred to her experience at Birkbeck. On the profile of students accessing different courses, I tried in my earlier answer to give examples of how one compares some courses. Obviously the noble Baroness is right: we know that, overall, the profile of non-completion is higher among mature and disadvantaged students. However, it is when a particular course at a particular institution appears to be an outlier in that that we think it is appropriate to apply recruitment limits.

On the social sciences, let me be clear that we are reducing the foundation year funding for classroom-based subjects, among which by far the biggest growth has been in business and management—I gave the numbers earlier. There have been some other subjects where it has grown, but business and management is the outlier. We are reducing it to the same level as that at which an access to higher education course is funded. The question I put back to the noble Baroness—perhaps unfairly, because she cannot reply—is this: is it fair to ask a student to pay almost twice as much and take on almost twice as much debt for two courses that purport to get students to the same level?

Unregistered Schools

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Wednesday 5th July 2023

(1 year ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The Government absolutely recognise that there was cross-party support for this element of the Bill.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, I feel extremely disappointed by the complacent reply that the Minister has given to these questions. It is all very well to refer to religious schools doing a very good job—they often do—but these are not schools. These are institutions that describe themselves as carrying out religious instruction, yet the pupils—and they are pupils, because they are there all day long and they are not getting any other form of education—are being treated appallingly, with a lack both of any proper curriculum and of safeguarding, so abuse of a really serious kind is often taking place. In these circumstances, surely the Government should move now to bring back that legislation that will close the loopholes that allow these institutions to continue to act without any proper prevention of the appalling damage that they are doing to children and young people.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I really hope that I did not give the House any impression of complacency. There is no complacency where there are serious safeguarding concerns. There have been more than 1,000 investigations by Ofsted of different out-of-school settings and, of those, 122 were offering a religious education, but there were also a number of other settings; 146 suspected illegal settings were found, 129 of those were closed or otherwise changed their operations, and we completed seven prosecutions.

British Baccalaureate

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Tuesday 21st June 2022

(2 years ago)

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Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister’s reply was extraordinarily complacent and very disappointing. I cannot understand how the Government can have such a closed mind to a sensible suggestion of the kind that the Times Education Commission has made. Is she not aware that no other OECD country has such a specialised curriculum for their able 16 to 18 year-olds? Surely it is now high time to look at this again and try to come up with a more sensible solution where young people have the opportunity to study a wider range of subjects, rather than being confined to just three as is the case with A-levels at the moment.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I thoroughly hope that I did not give the noble Baroness the sense that the Government are complacent. We are not complacent. She need only look at the measures we are taking in relation to technical education, I hope, to demonstrate that. Obviously, every country has a different education system. We have worked to build the best system for our children. We believe that it plays to our strengths and recognises the structure of the school system we have, rather than one that other countries have.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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If I may, I will respond to that very valid point about the scale-up of T-levels when I come to it in just a second.

I am tempted to expand on the Crossrail/Central line analogy, but I think time does not permit.

On timing, and my noble friend Lord Willett’s question about giving a greater sense of which technical qualifications will be recommended for defunding, I am not in a position to be able to say that today. We intend to publish a provisional list of overlaps with waves 1 and 2 of T-levels shortly. We want to provide as much notice as possible about the qualifications that will have public funding approval withdrawn from 2024.

On the definition of “overlap”, which a number of noble Lords raised—

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I wonder whether she can give some indication of the proportion of BTEC qualifications that the Government are intent on keeping and the proportion that are likely to be dropped because of the so-called overlap. How many of the 250,000 students currently taking BTECs will be able to continue to do so?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am afraid that I am not in a position to be able to confirm that today, but I can confirm that “scorched earth”, “niche” and “most” are not a reflection of where we are on this policy.

On the definition of “overlap”, in our policy statement in July last year we published the three tests that would be used to determine overlap: first, is the qualification in question a technical qualification; secondly, are the outcomes that must be obtained by a person taking that qualification similar to those set out in a standard covered by a T-level; and, thirdly, does the qualification aim to support entry to the same occupation as the T-level?

Turning to the number of people and the scale-up of T-levels, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, suggested that 230,000 students start a BTEC each year. In fact, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, clarified just now, there are 230,000 students taking BTECs or similar qualifications at any one time, rather than as initial starters.

My noble friend Lord Baker suggested that the number of people starting BTECs is in the hundreds. Around 5,450 students started their T-level last September, at just over 100 providers across the country. That was up from 1,300 students, who were the pioneers and are now in their second year. We now have more than 400 providers, all over the country, signed up to deliver T-levels. All the current T-levels will be available by 2023, and of course those providers include FE colleges and UTCs, which deliver significant numbers of those qualifications.

Higher Education Reform

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Monday 28th February 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am delighted to reassure my noble friend that we will not be introducing the sweeping caps to which he alludes. As he said, universities have been extremely successful in terms of social mobility. By consulting on student number controls, we are not taking a position on what the correct proportion of people going to university should be, but we want to tilt provision towards the best outcomes for students and, as I said, make sure that our further education system also offers fantastic pathways to success.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, I admire a great deal of what the Government are trying to do in relation to the future of higher education but I suspect that there is a bit of a muddle going on: the Government’s right hand does not seem to be doing the same as their left; that was just very ably put by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson. I start by asking why it has taken so long—it is two and a half years since the Augar report was published. If the Government are so concerned about having a high-class higher education system, with large numbers of international students, to reach out to the most disadvantaged and to ensure better outcomes, there is some urgency in this. Of course it is complex but perhaps the Minister can say why it has taken so long to reach any kind of conclusions on this report. Moreover, we are going to have a lot more consultation. I am not against consultation, but this one could have started two years ago, in which case we would be rather nearer to getting some kind of conclusion on where we are going next.

I also want to pick up what my noble friend on the Front Bench said about the effects of the proposed changes in student finance. How can the Government justify the much higher repayments that the least well off will pay because of the many years of interest charges—a lower rate of interest than now but, nevertheless, a much longer period for which they will be paying interest—whereas the wealthier students will pay off their loans very quickly and not incur all this interest? Is it not time to introduce a truly progressive graduate tax, rather than the regressive system of repayments being put forward today?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness partly answered her first question herself. She understands it very well. This is hugely complex and sensitive. The issues around repayment rates and the relative burden on the taxpayer versus the student all need careful consideration. Obviously, there are huge financial implications. The noble Baroness will have seen the figures on the projected size of the student loan book in 2043 if we did not do anything about this, which is half a trillion pounds—I was about to say dollars, because “trillion” always sounds like dollars, but it is pounds.

On the consultation, I feel slightly that as a Government we are damned if we do and damned if we do not. If we had not consulted, I am sure we would have been criticised. I know that the noble Baroness was asking about the timing of the consultation; that also had to align with the work done on the policy. We hope that the consultation will help to answer some of the disadvantage questions to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on the Front Bench and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, referred. We really do want to understand how those groups that might feel the most difficulty in accessing higher education, particularly this new modular approach that will be offered, will be impacted so that we can structure the policy in a way that makes it most accessible.

School Absences

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Thursday 3rd February 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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My noble friend is right to highlight this. I will try to set out for the House that our approach is genuinely comprehensive. Last week, we announced a consultation on new attendance measures and we are consulting on behaviour and exclusion, which, less at primary but more at secondary, is a material issue for attendance. We made direct investments through the £1.3 billion of recovery funding and the £1.5 billion tutoring programme. Schools have the flexibility to direct that to the most disadvantaged children, so that they can catch up fastest.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, following the answer the Minister has just given, I wonder if she is aware that, unsurprisingly, a survey by Teach First found that teachers in the most disadvantaged schools strongly believe that attainment would be greatly improved if attendance could be improved. What specific measures are being brought in to improve the attendance of children, particularly in primary but also in secondary schools? What kind of monitoring is being done to find out which of these measures are most effective and which do not work?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me the opportunity to set this out in more detail. Attendance is an absolute priority for this Government, both because children obviously cannot learn if they are not in school and because of the well-recognised impact on their mental and physical health. We have already announced a team of attendance advisers, who will support schools, and we are open to piloting new approaches to supporting attendance. The Secretary of State has established a national attendance action alliance with key actors from across the sector and we will focus in the consultation on getting consistency in both the attendance policy of a school and the use of different sanctions for non-attendance, which very much vary across the country.

School Openings: January 2022

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Thursday 16th December 2021

(2 years, 7 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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With the leave of the House, I share the initial sentiments of the noble Lord opposite and send my condolences to all touched by the tragedy in Tasmania.

As my honourable friend in another place said, we will do everything in our power to keep schools open throughout January and beyond. All in this House acknowledge the great price that children have paid over the last two years. I hope the noble Lord acknowledges that there has been a very active communications plan about the importance of getting vaccinated and having a booster jab. We press on with that, but we are exploring every avenue. I am pleased to tell the House that over 350,000 CO2 monitors have been delivered to schools—above our target of 300,000 before the end of term—and 99% of eligible settings now have that equipment.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, it is not very often that I am able to get up and congratulate the Government on an Answer to an Urgent Question, but I do so today because it is absolutely right. As the Answer says:

“Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/12/21; col. 1061.]


What kind of communication strategy is being developed to provide parents with the reassurance they need and to tell them just how important it is that their children continue to go to school, given what we know about absence from school at an earlier stage in the pandemic? Could the Minister also tell the House what kind of encouragement is being given to schools and local authorities to keep extracurricular programmes going? These are so important for disadvantaged children.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness is right. I thank her, and I will frame her acknowledgement of our progress in this area. The Secretary of State is absolutely clear about the importance of education, that we should do all in our power, and that the best place for children to be is in school.

On our communication campaign, we are targeting the whole nation for reasons the noble Baroness understands very well relating to vaccination and the importance, particularly given the transmissibility of the omicron variant, that all of us get boosted and jabbed. We are moving as quickly as possible with that.

On the wider issue of support, we are working very closely with schools and local authorities. We have offered them financial and practical support, particularly during the Christmas holidays, for some of the additional food and holiday clubs we offer through our schools.

BBC: Dyson Report

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Tuesday 25th May 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I do not completely agree with the noble Baroness: I think part of the role of good governance is to check that inbreeding is not happening within an organisation, and that the governance structure reinforces the culture necessary to deliver on the mission of the organisation. In relation to internal investigations, she will be aware that complaints can be made direct to Ofcom on issues of fairness and privacy.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, while I condemn Bashir’s deceitfulness and the subsequent cover-up, can the Minister reassure the House that the BBC board and director-general will be allowed to get on with the review they have announced without interference by the Government? Moreover, does she agree that any further steps to alter the governance or editorial oversight should be proportionate and not heavy-handed and, above all, should resist damaging the BBC’s independence and its contribution to soft power through output that is relied on and admired not just in the UK but around the world?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I absolutely agree: it is essential that the BBC can operate with editorial independence and integrity, and nothing we are doing will compromise that.

Television Licence Evasion

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Tuesday 26th January 2021

(3 years, 5 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Lord makes an important point. In the review of the licence fee—which, as he knows, we are committed to until 2027—a very wide range of issues will be taken into account, including, of course, the importance of our independent production sector. As he understands better than I, it has been enormously successful and vibrant, thanks to a great deal of other investment as well as that from the BBC.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, can the Minister say why on earth the Government intend to keep decriminalisation under consideration in the 2022-27 licence fee discussion? This is really perverse, since the Perry review said the current system of sanctions is “fair and proportionate” and that civil-based systems were not a viable alternative. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of those consulted recently opposed it. Does the Minister not agree that this is a distraction from the important reform agenda that the BBC is adopting?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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The noble Baroness is right that there is a very important reform agenda. In their responses, the general public were roughly split evenly; those reporting through campaign groups were definitely —though I see the noble Baroness is shaking her head —in favour of the status quo. But we will not allow this to distract us; there is a great deal of effort going into looking at the current reform programme at the BBC.

Sport England: Female Activity

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Barran
Monday 9th March 2020

(4 years, 4 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran
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The Government have certainly tried to take the learning from this campaign and apply it as widely as possible.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, why should girls not continue to be active at a later age? Why is there a cut-off point of 60?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran
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That is a very good question which might apply to a number of us in this House. Sport England is working with women over 61 and, as I mentioned earlier, the biggest increase in participation has been in that older age group.