Debates between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Wolf of Dulwich 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

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Debate between Baroness Blackstone and Baroness Wolf of Dulwich
Baroness Wolf of Dulwich Portrait Baroness Wolf of Dulwich (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I declare an interest because, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, pointed out, I am currently working as a skills adviser at No. 10. I was therefore quite involved in the skills White Paper, which led to much of the legislation today.

I very much appreciate the interest the House has taken in this Bill. Like the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and many other noble Lords, I have been bashing away at skills and vocational education for many years. It is wonderful to see that it is now a subject of such importance to so many of you.

I will say something about the local skills improvement plans and Motions 4, 4A and 4B. There is a danger that we are losing sight of what these were meant to be, can and should do, and what the White Paper set out to do. They were meant to be a simple way to create a stable mechanism to make sure that local employers’ voices and insights would be brought together and made available to providers. Colleges do not have to follow these plans in detail; they just have to take note of them. I am concerned that, with the best of motives, we are in danger of creating a vast, complex and bureaucratic process that will not do what it was meant to do, which was to take employers into account but also to reverse the 20-year trend of colleges and providers generally spending all their time worrying about ticking boxes for Whitehall and whether they have met regulations and requirements, but far too little time looking out to their local communities.

I put it on record that I am also bemused by why six pages of dense text are needed to put this simple idea into legislation. I am genuinely concerned that, in trying to enforce something that says, “You must take account of schools, and of this and that”, instead of creating a simple mechanism for employers to be part of the thinking about what is provided in a locality, we will create a new series of tick boxes.

I raise a question particularly on independent training providers, because I simply do not see how this will work. Independent training providers range from huge national providers, which are dominant in apprenticeship sectors, to tiny commercial companies of literally two people in a room above a chip shop. I tried to get my head around how you would take their views into account, when many of them are commercial concerns in determined competition with each other. I really wonder whether this will achieve what people want it to.

As I said, I take this opportunity to say, first, how very much I think the Bill and the support expressed for its purposes show how this country has moved on and really understood the importance of this, but also that local skills improvement plans are meant to be simple. They are meant to be not tick-box or expensive bureaucratic exercises but a way to ensure that employers are part of a process. They are something of which to take account, not an attempt to introduce central planning into what colleges decide to put on.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, who has fought so hard for the skills agenda. I associate myself with much of that fight and I very much welcome a great deal of what is in the Bill. However, I will say a few words in favour of Amendments 15A and 15B. All the key points on these amendments have already been made very eloquently by my noble friends Lord Blunkett and Lord Watson, and the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I strongly support the arguments they put forward and I will underline three points.

First, it is true that too many qualifications can be confusing. I have no doubt about that, so I understand what the Government are trying to do here. Nevertheless, I think they have got it wrong. There is no confusion about BTECs. They have been going for nearly 40 years. They are long established and well tried and tested. They play a really important role in the range of qualifications at level 3. It is particularly important that they combine the development of skills with academic learning. They are the only qualification focused entirely on that.

For all the positive aspects of T-levels, they do not do this. They are mainly designed to help those enrolled on them to become successful in specific occupations. Again, I do not want in any way to criticise their introduction—that is an important role—but BTECs allow those who are successful in completing them to go into higher education and in particular to take applied vocational degrees, of which there are many, or into the workplace, or, in some cases, into both, because there are quite a lot of part-time students at BTEC level. Therefore, they should not be ditched to try to bolster T-levels. It is not necessary to do that. I know the Minister has indicated that there are certain niche areas where they will survive, but they should survive as a whole. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, we need some time to see how T-levels bed down, who they are successful for, who is attracted to them and whether they are really working for employers.

That is my first point. My second is that the Government seem to have ignored the results and outcomes of their own consultations. Some 86% of respondents to its level 3 consultation disagreed with the proposal to remove funding from qualifications deemed to overlap with A-levels and T-levels. As has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, there is a big issue about what is meant by “overlapping”. The fact their content might be the same does not mean that the approach to teaching and learning is the same. In fact, they are profoundly different. Neither of the two reviews the Government have cited, one undertaken by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, favoured the Government’s approach. In her review, the noble Baroness recognised the value of BTECs, and the Sainsbury review did not cover BTECs at all because they were not part of its remit.

My third point is that abandoning BTECs is likely to severely damage social mobility. It will block a route to university or skilled employment for large numbers of disadvantaged young people. This is reinforced by the evidence of the Social Market Foundation that 44% of white working-class students who entered universities studied at least one BTEC. I am familiar with this from my past role as a vice-chancellor. Many of these students do extraordinarily well when they get to university, often better than those who come in with rather poor A-level qualifications. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Baker, mentioned, 37% of black students went to university with only BTEC qualifications. Surely we should not block the route of these young ethnic-minority students into our higher education system by taking away a qualification deemed valuable for them.