Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for International Trade
I am, if you like, travelling hopefully with this Bill. I think the glass is half full, and that that is the way we need to approach it. We know that we need to improve productivity in this country and that to do that we need to improve our skill base. The other, most fundamentally important thing we must do is ensure that we do not unwittingly create a lost generation of young children who are left claiming benefits or, worse, doing nothing at all or getting involved in criminal activity. That is the challenge: to create a framework which will improve skills, give opportunities to young people and embrace at a local level all those participants who need to be embraced.
Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate. I will address principally Amendment 81 but also the general points raised by my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden.

The Bill basically focuses on education for 16 to 19 year-olds, but it cannot be looked at just as a separate section; it depends on what has happened between 11 and 16. If you have made a mess of 11 to 16, you cannot compensate for it by this Bill. I believe that, since 2010, we have made a mess of 11 to 16 education. This is really what is behind the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker; she is talking about disadvantaged children. The proportion of disadvantaged children today—you are usually considered to be disadvantaged if you do not get level 4 in English and maths—is between 30% and 35%. That is not a small minority—it is over 2 million students who failed, after 14 years of free state education, to acquire a basic literacy and numeracy qualification. It is a huge indictment of the English education system and what has been imposed upon it since 2010.

In 2010, Michael Gove imposed his curriculum on schools, without any consultation whatever. His curriculum, known as EBacc or Progress 8, consists of eight academic subjects: two English, one maths, three science, one foreign language and either history or geography. That is a grammar school curriculum; it is an academic curriculum. It excludes any sort of technical training, computer training, design training or cultural studies. Since 2010, there has been no fall in the number of disadvantaged children: the number then was roughly the same as it is now, at 30% to 35%. It was the same in 2015, when the Conservatives took control; there has been no significant improvement. I fear that there is absolutely no doubt that the attainment gap between the brightest and the less bright students will have grown substantially during Covid.

The victims of this policy are the disadvantaged and the unemployed. No one has mentioned the level of unemployment. Youth unemployment is now at 14.8%, which is very high—three times the national average—but there has been no mention at all of that. Nor has there been mention, so far, of students in the Bill; they have been left out like the mayors mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—they are not mentioned at all. I see no measure in the Bill that will prove a significant change in dealing with the skills gaps in our country.

The other matter that I am concerned about is that the Bill should have been a wonderful opportunity to create a combination of academic and technical education but, in fact, it makes the division even greater. The Bill is saying that if you stay on at school in the sixth form, that is the best way to get to university. When it is passed, the heads of every secondary school will say to their students, “Don’t go down that technical route, you’ll never get to university. Stay with us.” So all the rest will go down this technical route, and that is a real divide.

In Clause 4, the Bill actually says that schools and 16 to 19 academies will not be allowed to teach technical education. It says it in statute. I never thought that I would see that particular definition in an English law—least of all brought back by a Conservative Government, I may say. That is a complete bifurcation: there is an academic route and a less academic route. This is not really what should happen. The schools that I have established over the last 12 years include both academic and technical education and we have magnificent results, but the Bill really does not have that role in it whatever. It is educational apartheid—I do not use that word lightly, but that is what this is; there are two clear routes in future. Where is the parity of esteem, when the secondary head can say to his children, “Stay with me and you will get to university, because I will do those eight academic subjects, and we will get you through your A-levels as well”?

I am afraid that there is no real advantage in the Bill for the disadvantaged students, and I regret that very much indeed. When we talk about disadvantaged children, just remember that in every child there is a bit of flint. Sometimes you have to dig very deep for it, but that is the purpose of education—to find that bit of flint and create a spark, or, as Shakespeare said:

“The fire i’th’ flint

Shows not till it be struck.”

That flint has to be found long before 16; it has to be found at primary level and at secondary level and this is what we are failing to do as a country.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I ought first to declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I looked at these amendments and found myself agreeing with every single one. I looked back and remembered when we had the technical education Bill and, when we were in Committee in the Moses Room, I think there were probably about eight to 10 of us. How wonderful it is now to see how people have realised the importance of technical and vocational education—we have a proper Committee for a further education/vocational education/skills Bill.

I do not have a problem with local skills improvement plans—does anyone? It seems eminently sensible that you look at the needs of each locality in terms of business, job creation and development, and put that plan together. It is not something where you say, “Nationally, we will all do this”; you look at each local area. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talk about Cumbria. He will be pleased to know that I spent a week in Keswick and, as we walked around, virtually every single restaurant, hotel and shop had an advert pleading for people to work in the hospitality industry. Clearly, that is a skill that is needed in that area. It is obviously brought about because of Brexit, but that was a problem even when we were in the EU—there were not enough people in the hospitality industry.

I look at my own city of Liverpool, and back in the 1960s and 1970s we were the poorest region in Europe and, as a result, we qualified for what was called Objective 1 money—nearly €1 billion, I think. We got that twice; we got two tranches because our GDP was among the lowest in Europe. Why did we get a second tranche? Because the first time we failed completely to use the money effectively. We did not draw up a plan; we did not say, “What skills do we need? How can we turn the economy around?” We just sort of threw the money about. For example, FE colleges were booming with hairdressing and beauty treatment courses, so we gave them money to develop those courses. Yet there was a shortage at the time of engineers and of people in the construction industry, but there was no plan to say, “This is how we should be doing it.” So the notion of a local skills improvement plan seems eminently sensible.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. Bearing in mind that questions have been raised about the structure and nature of the Bill, it may be useful to deal with those points first. The Bill will provide a framework. It gives the Secretary of State power to designate an employer representative body. That is not necessarily a group of employers but, as outlined in Bill, a body required to be “reasonably representative” of employers in the local area.

With respect to the framework, as was mentioned by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, there is a balance to be struck between not wanting to dictate centrally and having as much flexibility as possible, so that it is not prescriptive from the centre and the employer representative body can take into account a wide number of stakeholders and gather a wide range of evidence. This will set up a dynamic relationship. Clause 1(4) provides that the relevant providers have a duty to co-operate with the development or review of a local skills improvement plan. As some noble Lords have outlined, that duty places the further education colleges as a central plank in creating the plan for the local area. With respect to Clause 5, the plan is one thing that providers should have regard to when they are looking at local needs more generally.

I believe that noble Lords, at Second Reading and today, have had some concern about the scope of the local skills improvement plan. It is based on technical education—the beginning part of the Bill outlines what technical education is material for the purposes of the plan—but then the duty under Clause 5 for those providers is local needs. So it is much wider than just the technical education part that forms the central plank of the local skills improvement plan.

This will use the powers of the Secretary of State to designate that body and set up that dynamic relationship. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, mentioned that relationship with the national priorities. The Skills and Productivity Board, which looks at national skills requirements, will be reporting later this year, so that will be a central coherent national skills outline that every local skills improvement plan will have access to and will be referenced in the guidance. Hopefully, that will produce the dynamic relationship between the national skills plan—so each of the areas will have the same plan for national skills—and the local area. At the local level, you have the employer representative body with a duty on the relevant providers to co-operate in that dynamic relationship.

Noble Lords have made some very powerful points, and maybe we are going to come down to a bit of a House of Lords point about “Do those points belong on the face of a piece of primary legislation or are these important considerations to include in the guidance?” From the nature of this legislation, it is a framework. The challenge that could be made to the Government if we were too prescriptive in the Bill would be that we were trying to Whitehall-lead this—and that cannot be.

On the trailblazer process—for the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris—the current timetable is that the trailblazers will be announced later this month and end in March 2022. They will be important in fleshing out what should be in the statutory guidance that is mentioned in the legislation, and the national rollout will commence after Royal Assent. I hope that assures noble Lords that we have a timetable for this.

On the challenge about why this legislation is needed, there is a very clear DNA running through the technical education qualifications that one can see with apprenticeships, T-levels and the current review of levels 4 and 5. The majority of technical education qualifications in this country should be connected to an employer standard so that the employers know what that student can now do and the student knows what currency that qualification has. I recall serving with many noble Lords on the one-year Select Committee on Social Mobility; I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, served on it. For young people who do not go to university, the complexity of the qualifications —the uncertainty about what that level 2 or 3 actually meant for you and what it gave you at an interview—was clearly so different from walking into an interview with your GCSE or A-level certificates. That is what, in terms of parity of esteem, all these changes are meant to change. Students should know, “When I get that qualification, it gives me that competency”, and they can walk into an interview and the employer will know that level 3.5 in, say, forklift truck driving on an oil rig has that competency. The currency is standard and gives parity of esteem to these qualifications. That is why, as we will discuss in a later group, the employers are in the lead as the employer representative body. That is the consistent DNA in the technical education system that we are trying to embed to give that parity of esteem, not just through saying this about FE and HE but through the technical qualifications being as easy to understand by students and employers as a GCSE certificate is at the moment.

I have a final point. The Bill does not exclude any particular level of qualification. The definition at the start is about technical education that is material to the skills, capabilities and assessments in that area. It is not limited in that regard. Obviously an LSIP could include the level 1 or 2 kind of qualifications; it is not limited. The limiting is the technical education section of what the providers in a local area would have due regard to when considering the local skills improvement plan.

I hope that provides a useful framework before I deal specifically with some of the amendments that noble Lords have tabled and explain to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that this is not half-baked. There is a reason why this is a framework to ensure local flexibility. We have not defined “local”. When we have done these trailblazers we have allowed the economic area to define itself, so we are really trying to get a balance here in terms of a structure and a framework to enable local areas to take ownership of their local plans.

I note the points made by my noble friend Lord Lucas concerning the LSIPs and the skills, capabilities or expertise required by potential students. I know the whole Committee will agree that post-16 education and training should meet the needs of students effectively, not only to secure meaningful employment but to ensure that they have essential skills for life more broadly.

I point out to noble Lords that Ofsted already considers whether the curriculum considers the needs of learners as part of its inspections of all post-16 FE providers. Many of the core skills and capabilities that students need to succeed in life are already well known and are consistent across the country—for example, literacy, numeracy, ICT and, sometimes, English language skills—so that students can function and integrate effectively into society. However, as I have outlined, the key technical skills that employers need can vary significantly across areas. They continually evolve to respond to new opportunities and challenges, and that is where the local skills improvement plan will make a valuable contribution.

By identifying the skills, capabilities and expertise required by employers in a specified area and, importantly, that may be required in future, which is specifically outlined in Clause 1(6)(b), a designated employer representative body will have clear evidence on the skills, capabilities and expertise that potential students will similarly require to help them secure good skilled jobs in the local area.

I reiterate that Clause 5 introduces a new duty on all institutions within the FE sector—namely, further education and sixth-form colleges and designated institutions—to keep all their provision under review to ensure that it is meeting local needs, including the needs of learners. At this point, to answer the point of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, there is no prescription in the Bill to say that 11 to 16 should not be teaching technical education. We have just said in Clause 4, in relation to the relevant providers being under a duty to co-operate, that at this stage we have not given that burden to schools. It is clear in Clause 4 that by regulation the Secretary of State can change that and make them one of the relevant providers that would then have a duty to co-operate.

Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
- Hansard - -

Will my noble friend give way?

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Sorry, no. On Amendment 2 from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in relation to potential employers, start-up businesses and the self-employed, I strongly agree with her on the importance of ensuring that employers’ voices are central to the local skills improvement plan. That is why it is clear in the Bill that, once designated, the employer representative body must draw on the views of employers operating within an area to inform a local skills improvement plan. The definition of “employer” is wide and the employer representative body can take into account any other evidence. That is broad in order to ensure that they have flexibility to include, of course, the needs of the self-employed in the local area.

To effectively fulfil the role of summarising the skills needs of local employers, the designated body will need to convene and draw on the views of employers that are not part of the ERB itself, as well as other relevant employer representative sector bodies and any other evidence. That will ensure that it is as easy as possible for employers, especially small employers, to navigate local skills systems, engage and have their voice heard.

Turning now to Amendments 11 and 81, from the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her expertise and her unstinting efforts to support those who have not yet achieved their grade 4 or above in English and maths. I hope she will be pleased to know that although the coronavirus has slightly delayed the work with MHCLG and DfE, a strategy in relation to Gypsies, Roma and Travellers will be published, we hope, later this year.

--- Later in debate ---
Finally, I am still thinking about whether we might want to put in a new clause amendment around an entitlement for post-16 learners to be able to access sustainable development education, but I will first listen to what the Minister has to say in response to this group before I decide whether I am persuaded that we need to go down that road.
Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
- Hansard - -

I will speak in support of Amendment 25 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman, Lady Sheehan and Lady Morgan of Cotes, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. It contains a very interesting idea. It proposes that, when a local skills improvement plan has been devised for, say, Plymouth or Newcastle or Doncaster, the Secretary of State should examine it to see whether it accords with the national skills strategy and—this is of particular interest to the noble Baronesses—the UK’s climate change and biodiversity targets; it could include other things where there are clear targets as well, of course. The sadness of this is that the noble Lords talk about the national skills strategy when there ain’t no such thing, I am afraid. I wish that there were, but it simply has not developed. It ought to develop because there is no doubt that there is a substantial deficiency across the country in skills in a whole variety of different industries.

The Government used to publish skills gaps. The body that did it was called the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. It was abolished by the Government in 2016 because a group of advisers said to them that they did not really think much about these skills gaps because they are often speculative guesses. I am afraid that this is a further example of a Government who are not listening because there is certainly a large number of skills gaps in our country.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I are both members of the Select Committee on Youth Unemployment, which now takes evidence twice a week. We are getting a lot of evidence not only from businesses but from students themselves that there are skills gaps. For example, we had evidence from one think thank that had examined 1,000 companies in Britain, large and small, stretching from national audio technology to pubs. Of those 1,000 companies, 76% of the CEOs said that the thing that was holding them back most was the absence of data employees—data analysts in particular—and people who understood artificial intelligence. That was the biggest inhibition on their growth and development. If that is not a skills gap, I do not know what is, quite frankly.

There are skills gaps in a host of other industries. One recent example that I am sure Members of this House have seen is that we have suddenly discovered that there is a skills gap of 10,000 HGV drivers. I would have thought that this might have been anticipated at some stage and we would have realised that we were desperately short of these people. So many of them have gone back to eastern Europe and the Balkans, and they are not being encouraged to come back. The transport ministry should have had some idea of what was likely to happen in this area.

One body, the education think tank the Edge Foundation, of which for a time I was the chairman, tried to fill in the gap. It produced a series of reports. It established large committees for each industry involving industry and academics, estimating what the skills gaps were. The first one was on engineering. The skills gap there was 203,000. That figure was agreed and supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering. There was another one on digital skills. It was well over 100,000 two years ago; I suspect that it is much higher now. There was one on the creative industries, which showed a skills gap of 150,000. Yet, because these were not formal government statements, the Government took very little interest in and paid little regard to them. How can you fashion an education system if you have no idea what your national economy wants in the way of skilled workers? There is a dysfunction between the education system based on academic subjects and the needs of industry. There is absolutely no doubt about that. This is one of the causes of the high level of youth unemployment at the moment.

I suggest that the Government consider asking a department—not the Department for Education because it has very little connection with industry, but perhaps the DWP—to estimate and publish on a regular basis skill gaps for various industries. Without that, how can you shape education and training systems, and indeed an apprenticeship system, without knowing exactly what is needed by the local and national industries in our economy?

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we listened with interest to some rather engaging and forceful Second Reading speeches on the first group this afternoon. I noted that my noble friend Lord Adonis took one view that this was a terrible Bill and my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green took a different one that this was actually a good Bill. I find myself somewhere in between, but I want to be more pragmatic than they are. This is Committee. We have some opportunities in Committee to make a Bill better. I hope that that is what we will achieve at least in some respects.

At Second Reading I chose to talk largely about the missed opportunity in the Bill to try to link what we do in the educational system with the huge challenges that climate change and getting to our net-zero target by 2050 pose for us. I hope the Government will take the amendments in this group really seriously, because they at least begin to do just that.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
- Hansard - -

I hope that the Minister will not, in her reply, dismiss this amendment out of hand and say it is totally unacceptable, because I suspect that, as the procedures develop for local skills plans, extra help will be needed. I speak as someone who, for the last 12 years, has had to involve local companies actively in the running of the schools that I have been promoting: university technical colleges. I can assure noble Lords it takes a long time to persuade companies to do this. It takes many meetings, and many companies look on it as a burden and an expense. So there is not a huge number of companies lining up to become members of the employment body.

I hope the Minister is listening to what I am saying and not reading her notes, because I think she would benefit from what I am saying. I suspect that the Government are going to have to change their policy in this respect. She expects the chambers of commerce, where the chambers of commerce exist, to be the employer representative bodies. Could I take her through the complexity of that? First, chambers of commerce will look on it as an extra expense, which it is going to be. They have to balance the interests of their own members as to whether they should listen to the big or small companies, the ones which are expanding or declining, and the ones which are loquacious or silent. The proposals they may make may offend several of their members. So it will involve a series of meetings, and probably visits to the companies. That is my experience from the last 12 years.

I ask the Minister: where there is not a chamber of commerce, who is going to institute the examination to determine the numbers on the local employer representative body? Who is going to do it? Have the Government yet thought this through? Who is physically going to do it? Who is going to then make a list of all the companies? Who is going to know about the companies? Who is going to visit the companies and persuade them to take an interest? Because it is a continuing interest: they will have to appoint somebody to serve on the body, and that is an expense to the company. Are the companies going to get a benefit from this? I have gone through this for the last 12 years, and I do not think the Government have an answer to that.

The Government may find that they need the assistance of local authorities, which know a lot of companies. They may also need the assistance of the LEPs. The LEPs do not appear in this Bill at all, but the LEPs have a statutory duty for vocational skills, and some of them have policies on vocational skills, and they know about the companies in their area, and they know about the companies in several towns in their area. In the Select Committee of which the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I are members, we took evidence from the North East LEP. A lady called Michelle Rainbow turned up, and she obviously had taken a big interest in education. The North East LEP had a big scheme involving 70 primary schools. The LEPs might have all sorts of schemes the Government do not really follow, or that the Department for Education does not follow or know about, and in secondary education as well. They have this knowledge. Therefore, I hope that the Minister appreciates that there will have to be assistances in the whole procedure of establishing local skills plans. Certainly, the Government should listen to the LEPs in addition to the local mayors and the mayoral authorities as well.

One other voice that has not been heard in any clause in the Bill is that of the unemployed. I suspect that no one who has drafted the Bill in the Department for Education has talked to groups of unemployed young people and nor have many Ministers. The committee that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I sit on has now held meetings in Bolton and Nottingham, and this morning in London, talking to unemployed young people. The group that I talked to were six black young men and women, all of whom were unemployed, or trying to get employment, and their voices were remarkable. They answer a lot of the questions raised by this Bill. We asked them all why they were unemployed, and they explained that they had never been given information about employability at their ordinary schools. These are not people who have been to FE colleges and things of that sort. They left their ordinary secondary schools with no understanding of how industry and commerce work and with no employability skills because they had just been doing academic subjects. They were very passionate this morning. They said, “We left with no employer skills, no data skills.” I asked whether any of them had learned about computing in their schools, and they said, “No, we didn’t have lessons on computing at all.” Many of them left with no communication skills, but they certainly developed them in applying for jobs. They have no experience of working in teams, but they are often asked by employers whether they have worked in teams.

These voices should be listened to. If you are replanning the whole basis of technical education in our country, then listen to people like this. They have a voice, they are concerned, and they are the victims of our failure to educate them adequately to get jobs. I hope that the department will perhaps take some knowledge of that. I urge the Government not to dismiss this amendment too lightly because what it proposes is likely to be needed.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, today’s debate has not progressed very fast in terms of groups, but we have covered a great deal of ground and, through the debate, have almost developed a shadow Bill, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, suggested. I agree with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, said, as I often do. It is clear that the structure of the Bill needs to be rethought. One crucial area is the place for local authorities and regional and city mayors in making skills plans, which a large number of amendments in this group address.

Although the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, talked about the economic strategy of the region, I would rather talk about a transformation strategy for a region. Levelling up is about much more than just the economy. It is not even about just the environment and the economy; it is about the well-being and social capital of the region contributing to every aspect of life, the community and family. You might even call it a public health approach to skills and post-16 education. If we are thinking about public health on that broad scale, this is something that clearly needs to be democratically decided. Elected people should be leading the development of skills development plans, or perhaps, as an alternative suggestion, we might want to think about drawing up a people’s assembly approach, something to put on the table at least, and something that the Minister might like to talk about to her colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, because I know that she has had very good experience with such direct, deliberative democracy.

The term “employer representative body” reminds me, very uncomfortably, of local enterprise partnerships. Some noble Lords have spoken of them with great approval and, in some places, undoubtedly some good work has been done, but they are not in any way representative of the people or the community. They are, by definition, the status quo in an area. They are invested in the way things are, in our current, unequal, poverty-stricken, planet-destroying system.