HC Deb 05 November 2003 vol 412 cc870-902

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

4.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

Generations of politicians, educationists and industrialists have grappled with the challenge of making vocational education a success. I think that all hon. Members would accept that they have largely failed. No single speech, policy announcement or reform of the system will be enough to meet that awesome challenge. This debate is important, however, because it will shine a light on the Government's view that high-quality vocational education is central to the future success of our country and expose the contrasting agendas promoted by the respective parties.

Ironically, there is significant consensus among Members on both sides of the House as to why vocational education matters. It matters because we will never have a fair society or a successful economy if our post-16 participation and attainment levels remain among the worst in the OECD. It also matters because there is a significant skills deficit at technician and craft level compared with France and Germany, and because young people need a variety of ways in which they can progress and achieve on their journey to the world of work and responsible adulthood.

Far too often, opinion formers and policy makers—of all political persuasions and none—have given the impression that the only journey worth making is via the academic or conventional route. This Government's education reform agenda is about 100 per cent. of young people, not only the 50 per cent. who we want to access higher education by 2010. Vocational education matters because employers of all sizes in the private, public and voluntary sectors need well qualified young people. But, at the beginning of the 21st century, being well qualified must also involve possessing good communication, interpersonal, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership skills. In a dynamic global economy, adults can no longer count on one job—perhaps even two, three or four—for life. Lifelong learning must support anew concept, namely employability for life. Perhaps most importantly of all, today's young people are the parents of tomorrow, and educational failure fans the flames of low aspirations and inter-generational economic and social exclusion. These are all reasons why vocational education matters.

Let me take this opportunity briefly to remind hon. Members of the noble attempts that have been made through history to make a success of vocational education. In the 19th century, the state of vocational and technical education was repeatedly criticised, most notably in the Samuelson royal commission on technical education in 1884. The pattern of technical education that developed in the 19th century was institutionally marginalised from mainstream education. Whereas in France and Germany technical education was allied to general education, in Britain a divide developed between the two, separating skills and knowledge. The divide was cemented in divisions between Government Departments and agencies throughout the 20th century. The Board of Education, created in 1900, was to remain separate—as the Ministry or Department of Education—from the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Employment for almost the entire century. The Departments were finally brought together into the Department for Education and Employment in 1995.

Despite the Education Act 1944—the Butler Act—which for the first time required local education authorities to provide further education, vocational and technical education failed to develop clear, high-standard qualification routes or institutions of study linked to schools and the labour market. Curriculum and qualifications authorities for academic and vocational qualifications, and funding channels for post-school education and training, remained divided.

The Manpower Services Commission was developed by the then Department of Employment. The MSC subsequently turned into the Training Commission and was then followed by the network of training and enterprise councils in the 1990s. The desire to improve links between schools and the world of employment led to the creation of the technical and vocational education initiative in the early 1980s. The TVEI saw significant investment in vocational school-based education—at its height, £141 million a year, using 1999–2000 prices as a benchmark. But Whitehall turf wars and the fact that the then Department of Education and Science was told of the initiative only at the very last moment—the mind boggles—meant that, while the TVEI was widely welcomed by schools, it had little impact on the thinking of the DES, and it was eventually phased out.

The Government do not intend to repeat the mistakes of history. Rather, we seek to learn the lessons of that history. We have charged Mike Tomlinson with the responsibility for leading a working group on 14 to 19 reform. The group, which we hope will produce its final report next summer, has been asked to address three main areas. The first is the need for a much stronger vocational offer, with a firm underpinning of general education. The second will involve ensuring that assessment within all programmes across the 14 to 19 phase is fit for purpose. The third is the development of a unified framework of qualifications suitable for young people across the whole range of ability.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

In my constituency, fewer young people go to university than in any other. In such areas, the vocational route is probably even more important than some of the university options that are currently exciting Members in all parts of the House. I hope that my hon. Friend will continue his good work, but will he also consider what is described as the navigation—the way in which people can move on from qualification to qualification? It is still difficult for young people to see a way forward into their 20s.

Mr. Lewis

I entirely agree. Our objective should be to help all young people enter skilled employment via either higher education or an alternative high-status vocational route. If we are to achieve that, we shall need the right provision in each area, especially for those over 16. That is why we have asked local learning and skills councils to conduct area reviews, so that each community has the right combination of institutions and we can deliver the progression route to all young people. My hon. Friend has campaigned and crusaded to that end in his constituency, because he understands that the raising of aspirations is one of the greatest and most fundamental challenges facing many constituencies.

Over the past year, as well as asking Mike Tomlinson to look at education for 14 to 19-year-olds, we have published our proposals for the future of further and higher education, as well as our national skills strategy. We are establishing a number of building blocks to achieve long-term cultural change.

For 14 to 16-year-olds, we are introducing a new curriculum with more flexibility to create an individual learning programme. Eighty thousand 14 to 16-yearolds from 1,800 schools are participating in the increased-flexibility programme, which involves their spending a couple of days a week at school, perhaps a couple of days at college, and one day a week with local employers. Eight new GCSEs were introduced in September 2002: applied art and design, applied business, engineering, health and social care, applied information and communications technology, leisure and tourism, manufacturing and applied science. GCSEs in construction and the performing arts will be available from next year.

Subject to parliamentary approval, work-related learning will become a statutory requirement for all 14 to 16-year-olds next year, and in 2005–06 enterprise education will become part of the curriculum.

Connexions is now up and running in every part of England. It involves working with schools to ensure that young people have access to good-quality impartial support when making curriculum and career choices, and giving more intensive support to teenagers when serious barriers get in the way of their learning.

Post-16 modern apprenticeships have never been more popular. Notwithstanding the oft-repeated statement which may be heard when MPs meet business people or educationists—"It is a shame that we do not have apprenticeships any more"—we have a thriving apprenticeship system. A record 230,000 young people are undertaking modern apprenticeships this year. Nevertheless, we want that number to grow significantly in the years ahead. Working with employers sector by sector, we must improve completion rates. Although they are getting better, they are not good enough.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Would the Minister consider paying particular attention to core skills? Surely they should be part of the main thrust of modern apprenticeships. Many young people are put off completing the work by an additional test.

Mr. Lewis

I agree that completion, as well as encouraging more young people to participate in the first place, poses a major challenge, but I believe that if we are to provide a high-status, meaningful option in the form of a modern apprenticeship, we cannot seriously suggest that those participating should not be able to demonstrate that they possess key skills. I acknowledge that the way in which the key skills component is delivered is important, but I do not accept the argument advanced by some that key skills are the reason for the significant non-completion rate. The history of non-completion suggests that there is no direct correlation between it and the introduction of the key skills test.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

If the Minister thinks that there is no correlation with the external assessment of key skills, will he look at an alternative interpretation of why the completion rate is not as high as it should be: the absence now of a realistic option for young people to go for other training? In effect, therefore, they are being given no choice but to go into foundation modern apprenticeships, which they probably have no realistic likelihood of successfully completing.

Mr. Lewis

I think that a combination of factors leads to non-completion, and we need to be clear about that combination. For example, undoubtedly, some young people and employers decide not to proceed all the way through because their relationship is positive and the young person is earning a salary—a decision is made that there is no need to complete the apprenticeship. However, we recognised that there was a gap, which is why we have introduced the entry to employment scheme. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of that initiative, but this year a significant number of young people are choosing that option. They are the ones who are not ready to participate even in foundation modern apprenticeships. I would be delighted to furnish him with more details on the entry to employment scheme. It has filled the gap and addressed the problem that he rightly identifies: a cohort of young people who do not have the skills to enable them to commence even a foundation modern apprenticeship.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

I, too, pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend is doing. In constituencies such as the one that I represent, a former mining area, with the lowest possible levels of education attainment, it is imperative that we get people to feel that high-quality, high-esteem qualifications are available as a route into work. However, does he not accept that we have mixed economy provision, which is complex and sometimes a bureaucratic nightmare? Will he address in particular the issue of blocks of money, which are made available by his Department for our institutions, being handed out, rather than subjected to competitive tendering among various providers? That is extremely unhealthy.

Mr. Lewis

The criteria must be quality and standards, and contractual arrangements must be made with those providers who can demonstrate that they have the capacity to deliver quality provision. In the context of modern apprenticeships, one of the criteria that we must set is that providers should support and achieve a much higher completion rate. Locality by locality, I expect local learning and skills councils to make decisions on contracting linked to standards, quality and clear outcome expectations. The reform of both further education and training provision through the "success for all" reform and investment programme should get us to the stage that my hon. Friend wants us to reach.

Jon Trickett

It seems that in some areas we are in danger of creating a quasi-monopoly. I am thinking not only regionally and locally but nationally. Is there not a risk that we will put all our eggs in one basket, which does not necessarily drive up standards among provider institutions? Would it not be better to say that we will look for competitive tendering wherever that is feasible?

Mr. Lewis

We have made it clear that we see the mixed economy as part of the system that we wish to create in which competition exists between colleges and training providers in both the private and voluntary sectors. The central thrust of that system, however, must be quality. We know that, sometimes, competition is a powerful lever to guarantee quality. If my hon. Friend has some specific examples where he feels that monopoly provision is not supporting high-quality standards, I would be pleased to hear about them.

It is important to refer in the context of modern apprenticeships to the taskforce that has been created under the chairmanship of Sir Roy Gardner, the head of Centrica. Unfortunately, he is also the chairman of Manchester United plc—but that was not in the briefing when I agreed to his appointment as chairman of the taskforce. The role of the taskforce is not only to engage far more employers in offering places to young people on modern apprenticeships but to ensure that we have ready access to employers' views on where modern apprenticeships are working and where there need to be policy revisions to ensure that, sector by sector, we get the framework for modern apprenticeships right. Therefore, the taskforce is important.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). some 50,000 young people are participating in the entry to employment provision to which I referred.

All Members will accept that financial support is a very important factor in the choices that young people make. That is why we are incredibly proud of education maintenance allowances, which will be available nationally from September 2004. However, it is also important that we look at all financial support being offered at 16 to 19, so that we achieve cohesion and incentivise learning. We welcome the Treasury-led review in this area, and we have a particular interest in the impact on family means-tested benefits when young people participating in a full-time vocational college course are in receipt of a training allowance. We must ensure that the financial regime supports our objectives by encouraging young people to stay on, rather than encouraging them to drop out into low-paid, low-skilled employment.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

The Minister may be interested to know that the issues of quality and supporting students who go into further education, which we have already discussed, are very real ones for my constituents, especially the young people. Crawley college has just opened the Longley building, which is dedicated to construction services and will ensure that young people get the very best training. Such work offers them the prospect of support and superb training, ensuring that our economy in the south-east is vibrant and healthy and can support all the industries that we so badly need. Does the Minister agree that we need to build up a picture involving all the relevant organisations—employers, learning and skills councils and colleges that are prepared to invest in their own buildings—to ensure that we can offer our students the very best?

Mr. Lewis

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend—it is essential that we tear down the barriers between the world of education and the needs of the labour market in every region and sub-region. Many colleges are responding by developing, through capital investment and revenue funding, provision that genuinely meets the skills needs of specific sectors and their regional and sub-regional economies. What is happening in the college mentioned by my hon. Friend is an excellent example in that regard.

We have also introduced foundation degrees. In 2002–03, 12,000 students were studying for such degrees; we anticipate that the number will increase to about 50,000 by 2006. In the recently published skills strategy, we announced a new entitlement to free learning for all adults in respect of the first level 2 qualification. We also announced our intention to lift the age cap on modern apprenticeships, and the creation of sector agreements, which will allow individual sectors to define the vocational courses that they will require to meet their future skills needs.

Central to delivering this extremely ambitious agenda will be our capacity to raise standards, to improve the quality of provision and to create a new culture of collaboration between institutions in every area. We now have 1,445 specialist secondary schools; by 2006, there will be 2,000. As Members are aware, specialisms include arts, business, languages, science and technology. The seeking of specialist status and the requirement for sponsorship and community engagement have built relationships between schools and employers that will offer new vocational opportunities to many young people.

Further education colleges and training providers are benefiting from the groundbreaking "success for all" reform and investment programme, which provides unprecedented levels of investment in return for a more demand-led, high-quality system. As was pointed out, we now have 251 centres of vocational excellence, and the number will increase to 400 by 2006. The centres are being developed in co-operation with employers, and subjects include construction, engineering, manufacturing, technology, information and communications technology, and tourism. Local learning and skills councils are conducting area reviews to ensure the right configuration of post-16 institutions, and to support progression and attainment in any community.

Mr. Allen

The learning and skills councils are obviously central to everything that my hon. Friend is trying to achieve, so will he ensure that they take into account the contribution that secondary schools can make? In my constituency. most kids see school finishing at 16. One way in which we can get young people to bridge into 17 and 18-year-old education is to have on-site—not comprehensive, but well defined— facilities on each of the school sites. As I mentioned previously, some of the schools in my constituency do not achieve particularly high academic qualifications, but vocational education—perhaps sponsored by further education or badged by universities locally—could help youngsters to aspire to higher educational levels. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Learning and Skills Council is fully aware that that is one possible route that it is able to fund?

Mr. Lewis

We have made it absolutely clear to the Learning and Skills Council that we do not have a one-size-fits-all national solution. What we want in every community is the most innovate and imaginative ways of supporting the maximum number of young people to progress and achieve in learning. We have also made it clear to the LSC that it has responsibility to engage with Members of Parliament, local councils and councillors to ensure that its decisions have the maximum possible support within local communities, and to tackle some of the fundamental structural problems that, over many years, have got in the way of achieving the aspirational agenda that we want. I urge my hon. Friend to join local learning and skills councils in ensuring that high-quality provision is made available in his area.

Mr. Allen

May I press my hon. Friend on site-specific or on-site provision at schools where children normally leave at 16? People want not to be told what should happen, but to have options. There seems to be a degree of reticence in respect of school sites with further education, university or other possibilities. Many children will not travel to an FE college and may feel inhibited about leaving their school and going to a sixth-form college, for example, but they could be nurtured from 16 into 17 and 18-year-old education by a teacher who knows them. If they go to an FE college, they may be one of several thousand sloshing through the doors who, although I mean no disrespect to FE colleges, are not given enough personal attention. Children will be one of many, which can lead to the sort of drop-out rates that were mentioned earlier.

Mr. Lewis

Let me be clear to my hon. Friend: there is a range of options to meet the objectives that I have set out. We have school sixth forms, sixth-form colleges, distinct provision within FE colleges, and post-16 provision located in the environment of a school where it is felt to be the most appropriate solution. We do not impose a one-size-fits-all model, but we do believe that it is right that local communities, in considering post-16 progression, reflect seriously on all the options.

Mr. Lansley

In the course of our discussions on the role and performance of regional development agencies, we examined their relationship with learning and skills councils. It seems clear that there is a discontinuity between the national governance of the Learning and Skills Council—and the sub-regional deliverers, the learning and skills councils in counties or unitary authorities—and the regional development agencies. The skills strategy published by the Minister's Department talked about the integration of learning and skills councils and regional development agencies. We can see joint working on the ground, but not how integration will happen. How can the local partnerships that the Minister describes determine the shape of local provision in practice?

Mr. Lewis

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. By the end of this year, each regional development agency will be expected to produce proposals for an integrated approach to skills, with local learning and skills councils, Business Link and Jobcentre Plus. That is one response. I also believe that the new chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council is considering, as we speak, the appropriate relationship and structures to ensure that the council engages to maximum effect with RDAs. The concerns that the hon. Gentleman articulates are being addressed, and they need to be addressed if we are to stimulate the demand among employers and individuals for the skills that we want.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) raised the question of choice and variety at the age of 16. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the dilemma is that in many parts of the country—if not most—colleges have better facilities for vocational education, but the schools have the advantage of loyalty from students? The key is the provision of comprehensive and objective advice about all the options available, so that young people are not influenced unduly by their attachment to their school, where the curriculum may not be appropriate, or by the attraction of the facilities at college, which might not provide the right context for their studies. What we need is good educational advice before the age of 16.

Mr. Lewis

I always agree with my hon. Friend from Bury—for obvious reasons. We are moving from a culture of competition to one of collaboration. That brings with it new challenges and dilemmas for policy and professional relationships, but it is the right direction to take. The impartiality of the advice, information and support given to young people about curriculum and career choices is important. That has to involve a partnership between the Connexions service and careers advice in schools. Increasingly, it must also involve employers going into schools and young people going out into the world of work. That will help to ensure that choices are made for realistic and practical reasons, rather than an outdated view of what certain industries can offer.

One concern in the past was that young people were steered in the wrong direction, which led to dropout and disillusionment and those young people never returning to education. Supporting young people to make the right choices is essential, but ensuring that we have the right provision is equally important to local communities.

Mr. Allen

My hon. Friend's relaxed and helpful style is creating a genuine dialogue in the Chamber, for which he should be commended. Sixteen-year-olds need advice, but it is also important for them to see their big brother, big sister or the kid down the road staying on at school on the same site. Better provision may be available elsewhere, but students face peer group pressure. If a student's colleagues all leave school at 16, it may be seen as weird and unusual to stay on. That sort of pressure can be dissipated only by students seeing 17 and 18-year-olds from their street staying on at school on the same site, even if they are doing vocational education.

I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way again.

Mr. Lewis

It is fair to say that I get the message. The causes of low aspirations are significant and deeply rooted. We have to challenge the low aspirations found in many communities in various ways: not least, we have to influence the attitudes of parents and families. We must bring a stronger cohesion to our actions in terms of adult learning and our school standards agenda. In my view, parents and grandparents who have gone back to learning are far more likely to support the educational potential of their children and grandchildren.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

My hon. Friend mentions aspiration, but a key group of Bengali and Pakistani students have lower aspirations than others. Are steps being taken to ensure that aspiration flows right through the system?

Mr. Lewis

I agree that we need a system that can respond appropriately to the needs of individuals in a way that has not been done before. We need that more personalised education response, but we also need a system that is sensitive to people's cultural and religious requirements and aspirations. In every part of the country, we are trying to provide educational institutions and services that can meet the needs of distinct local communities. That is why a national, one-size-fits-all approach is often not appropriate.

I must make some progress now, for fear that some hon. Members might lose patience, despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) generously said about creating a dialogue in the Chamber.

I turn now to the higher education White Paper's relevance to vocational education. It outlines a vision of world-class teaching, learning and research, and places higher education institutions at the centre of innovation and economic regeneration. Throughout all the reforms that I have described, work force development is essential. That will involve the remodelling of the school work force, the professionalisation of lecturers and tutors in post-16 provision and higher education, and the creation of a cadre of excellent leaders and managers across all sectors. Perhaps most significantly of all, we are also committed to the most radical overhaul of vocational qualifications for adults ever. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency are working together to create bite-sized courses and the principle of mainstream unitisation.

If we are to achieve our aspirations for vocational education, however, we cannot focus exclusively on providers. We must also find innovative ways of stimulating demand for learning among young people, adults and employers.

The LSC is working with key members of the new national skills delivery group to develop a common marketing and communication strategy to promote vocational education. Learndirect has attracted 960,000 learners in only three years. The trade union learning fund and learning representatives have brought members and employers to the "learning table" for the first time. The employer training pilot schemes are offering advice and guidance combined with financial incentives to attract employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. As I said earlier, local RDAs and LSCs, Business Link and Jobcentre Plus and are working together in each region to minimise bureaucracy and maximise their cumulative impact on demand.

In addition, the Government are considering the extent of our influence as an employer, contractor and procurer of goods and services. I am in the process of conducting an internal review of education and business partnerships, and of our links with national voluntary organisations such as Young Enterprise, Business Dynamics and Trident to strengthen the dynamic that joins schools, colleges, employers and young people. Most importantly, we are committed to ensuring that by next year 85 per cent. of the UK work force will be covered by sector skills councils. At the moment, they are the missing piece in the skills jigsaw.

I turn now to Her Majesty's Opposition, and thus move away from the consensus that is beginning to develop in the debate. Last week, the quiet man said that there was no knight in shining armour waiting over the hill to ride to the rescue of his party. He was right about that. The emperor elect says that he has learned that winning the argument is not the same as winning hearts and minds. That is an example of the Opposition's eternal arrogance. I assume that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) thinks that he won the argument over the poll tax or over his claim that the minimum wage would cost 2 million jobs. I have news for him, on both vocational education and higher education—his party is winning neither the arguments, nor the hearts and minds.

Conservative Members advocate the sheep and goats model of vocational education that has been a primary cause of our national failure in this area. They would determine that at 14 middle-class students took the "academic route" and disengaged working-class kids went vocational. They would create a two-tier system in which vocational was perceived as and became the inferior second-class option.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Is the hon. Gentleman trying seriously to advance the thesis that the Government's policy of putting top-up fees on students is more popular than the Opposition's policy of scrapping fees? Does he not believe that we have won the argument on that, and have we not also won the argument on the Labour Benches?

Mr. Lewis

I am coming to that.

In higher education, the Conservatives would significantly reduce the number of young people having access to higher education and consequently cap the aspirations of many working-class and lower-middleclass families. Their claim to financial savings implies that their alternative vision of vocational courses would cost little or nothing. High-quality vocational education, the best universities in the world and the maximum possible number of young people learning post-16 would not be viable under their dishonest financial support package. They also conveniently ignore the fact that credible vocational education can and should, in many circumstances, lead to higher education when young people want that, and that a significant part of achieving our 50 per cent. target for 2010 will be via vocational routes.

It is not a question of hearts and minds versus the strength of the argument. For 18 years, the Conservative party had a unique chance to prepare our country for the challenges of the 21st century. What was its legacy? It was millions of adults lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills; 37 per cent. of 11-year-olds being unable to read or write to the required standard; and antisocial behaviour and a lack of respect permeating much of our society. Thatcher's children are also the children of the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Blair's children will benefit from sure start, universal nursery provision, infant class sizes of fewer than 30, the primary literacy and numeracy strategy, our focus on the early years of secondary schools, our national attendance and behaviour strategy, Connexions, secondary reform, a new 14 to 19 agenda, more adults in school and lifelong learning than ever before, modern apprenticeships and education maintenance allowances, and revitalised further education and world-class higher education—not to mention family support and financial help focused on eliminating child poverty and making work pay. That is the long-term change that we are making to the learning opportunities available to young people in our country.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I listened with interest and respect to the Minister until he went into slight ranting mode just now. Conservative Members would listen to him more closely if he were to acknowledge that under his watch not everything has been perfect: the proportion of GCSE vocational qualifications has fallen under his Government; and the proportion of people in learning and adult community enrolments has also fallen significantly. Perhaps he will come to those points shortly.

Mr. Lewis

I reject entirely the hon. Gentleman's assertions. If statistics are used out of context, they distort the argument. If it is being claimed that results for people taking GCSEs this year demonstrate that our educational reform agenda has not worked, I must point out that that takes no account of the fact that the young people taking GCSEs this year did not benefit from our literacy and numeracy strategy, our reduced infant class sizes, our early years of secondary school strategy and our 14 to 19 reforms. If we are to have an honest debate about the impact of cumulative educational reform, we must acknowledge that this Government's reforms for the long term are beginning to raise standards in our schools considerably, as is demonstrated by the improvement in literacy and numeracy at the age of 11.

Our ambitions for vocational education will not be realised easily. We are seeking not magic wands or quick-fix solutions but a long-term cultural revolution, which will tear down the barriers between the world of education and the world of work. That will create a climbing frame of opportunities for all our young people, not a cul-de-sac or a one-way street for too many.It will ensure that lifelong learning is the powerhouse that truly extends opportunities to all, creating a nation that utilises the talents of all of our people so that we can be the best in the world.

5.35 pm
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Oh dear! The Minister started so well, but it all went horribly wrong towards the end. We were on the verge of having a sensible and serious debate, and it is rather sad that he went off message.

I am pleased to be here to open the debate for the Opposition, but I apologise for my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) who should be doing so. He could not get back to the House in time from an important engagement on similar matters in Manchester today. I know that he would wish to be here but, sadly, he cannot. However, I am grateful to have this opportunity, particularly as it could be—who knows?—my last appearance at the Dispatch Box. We can only wait and see.

Mr. Pollard


Mr. Brady

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

The Minister said that this was an important debate. It is important to employers, who need well qualified young people to come into the labour force, and to all our people, both young and old. At the beginning of his remarks, the Minister let out the guilty secret that he tried to conceal a little later. There is considerable consensus between the two sides of the House and among all parties on some of the objectives that we wish to achieve, even if we have differences of emphasis and view on how we wish to get there.

The debate is timely in the context of the national skills strategy that the Government have published, the Tomlinson inquiry and the lively and ongoing debate on the future of higher and further education and, in particular, the funding of it, to which the Minister alluded.

We have heard constructive contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and the hon. Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who commented on the dialogue that was developing. An interesting discussion started about the balance between providing vocational options in schools and doing that on other sites in colleges, and about how we can best move forward in a way that encourages the maximum number of young people to stay in education.

I should like the Minister to say a little more about that when he replies, particularly in the context of the flexibility pilots that have been proceeding. Those pilots are entirely welcome and have begun to show some positive outcomes. He will know, as I do, that people in the schools and colleges involved have real concerns about how the pilots can best be developed and what the appropriate funding streams will be, so that the vision of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North can be realised, with more facilities for over-14s and over-16s offered in schools. How can we enable people in schools to experience a proper mixture of vocational and academic options? I hope that the Minister will return to that point and give the House the benefit of his thoughts on the matter.

There is a broad consensus about the nature of the problem that we face in this country with regard to skills and vocational education. The Minister went through some of the details of the background but we remain today in a relatively poor position in comparison with our main competitors in developing non-academic skills. Some 28 per cent. of British people are qualified to apprentice, skilled-craft or technician level, as against 51 per cent. of the population in France or 65 per cent. in Germany. More than 13 million people of working age lack basic qualifications. As the Minister neglected to mention in his closing remarks, 80,000 children are, according to Ofsted, currently being failed and, very largely, by our education system.

Mr. Lansley

In the context of the important debate about productivity, does my hon. Friend agree that if one compares the UK with France and Germany, the deficiency is not the proportion of students in degree-level education but the proportion who are developing intermediate skills, which are essentially skills related to national vocational qualification level 2 or 3?

Mr. Brady

My hon. Friend is right, and his point is crucial to the debate about the balance between the need for higher and further education and how we should advance the cause of improving the population's skills for the benefit of the work force and employers. The Government have set an arbitrary 50 per cent. target for young people going into higher education, although during Education questions last week, I noted that the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education suggested that the figure was between 40 and 50 per cent, which sounded like backtracking or a slippage of the target.

There is a discrepancy between the estimate of the need for graduate skills made by the Department for Education and Skills and that garnered by the Department of Trade and Industry. I received a written answer from the DFES last week stating that 65 per cent. of graduates are engaged in jobs that require a graduate qualification after three years in their careers. However, the week before that, I heard that research undertaken on behalf of the DTI through the national graduate tracking survey suggested that when graduates themselves are questioned after three years in their careers, only 48 per cent. say that they are in a graduate job. There is a real imbalance between the two Departments, so perhaps there is a lack of joined-up government. Of course, the figures go to the heart of the validity of the Government's 50 per cent. target and the question of how we should best move higher and further education forward.

The Government's target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education is only one example of the British tendency to undervalue the vocational and practical. Similarly, we saw an increasing tendency for the fields of study in polytechnics to become more theoretical and academic. That was not only a British phenomenon. We often hear Germany's experience of vocational education held up as a beacon, but the education in German polytechnics became less technical and more theoretical and academic. That was dealt with in Germany through the creation of universities of applied science, which is an interesting model that has borne some fruit—it is certainly popular with German employers.

My hon. Friend referred to the productivity gap between this country and our competitors, which is inexorably linked to work-related skills. If we do not get our approach on such skills right, we cannot hope to reduce that gap. The UK's gross domestic product per head is below the European Union average and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. Our gap between France and Germany becomes wider if we use the measure of GDP per person hour worked, which shows that we are working harder and for longer hours to make up for difficulties faced by members of the work force who lack skills that could increase productivity.

The picture is not all bleak, because some excellent vocational education is offered in this country. The Minister will recall his recent visit to South Trafford college in my constituency during which we saw airline cabin crew learning their trade, and students learning catering skills to a superb standard—he and I were privileged to sample their work later in our visit.

There are, however, gaps and shortcomings in the provision of vocational education. The Minister acknowledged in a written answer on 16 September the need to do more if we are to revitalise and expand apprenticeship programmes. There are also problems with the delivery of guidance, which has been mentioned. The Connexions service is far from universal in providing the necessary guidance to young people. The problem will be compounded by the introduction of greater flexibility at key stage 4. If we are to offer a greater number of different routes to young people at the age of 14, the challenge is to get it right when we guide them through the options so that we ensure they do not take a wrong turn, which could cause difficulties for their career throughout their working lives.

Foundation degrees must be developed with the involvement of both employers and colleges. Ministers need to be clear that the degrees are of value. They are not a shortcut to achieving the Government's target of participation in higher education or a rebranded higher national diploma.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry has joined us. I am only sorry that he was not here an hour or so earlier.

Concern is always raised when Ministers spend large sums on advertising, as they have for foundation degrees. It has not been possible to open a magazine or newspaper in the past couple of weeks without seeing glossy full-page advertisements. As they do not impart much information about foundation degrees, one is tempted to wonder whether Ministers are worried about the content of what is on offer. Conservative Members are more interested in the substance of the policy than the advertising budget.

The Government's record on adult skills was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). It leaves something to be desired. The sinking of the flagship individual learning accounts was strangely omitted from the Minister's list of Government initiatives. That resulted in the loss of a considerable sum—

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

£100 million.

Mr. Brady

So £100 million was lost through the incompetence displayed when the policy was introduced. We were promised that the policy, central to improving adult skills and learning, would be reintroduced in short order.

Mr. Pollard

A propos the ILA, its withdrawal was the result of a fraud committed on an ever-increasing scale. It had nothing to do with the way in which it was administered by the Department for Education and Skills.

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the point. Surely the problem is that Ministers should have implemented the scheme properly by providing proper safeguards against fraud. Instead, it was set up in a way that was wide open to fraud. They also ignored warnings and indications of difficulties for far too long before they acted.

Mr. Pollard

The ILA was worth £200. It would have cost much more to ensure that it was not abused. The problem was caused by Jack-the-lad coming along and abusing it.

Mr. Brady

If the hon. Gentleman thinks it is so obvious that the scheme could never have worked because it was too expensive to proof it against fraud, why does he think that Ministers in his Government were incapable of seeing the blindingly obvious when they introduced the scheme?

The Government's record on adult skills is not one of which they can be proud. Government targets push the learning and skills councils' budgets into providing for 16 to 18-year-olds and for basic skills at the expense of adult skills. That will affect the ability of colleges to meet local skill needs and demand from employers and employees for part-time courses.

What does business need? That was summed up by the British Chambers of Commerce which said that it wants young people to receive education and training, not education or training. It backed that up with comments from 36.4 per cent. of respondents to its productivity survey earlier this year who cited the lack of available skills as a barrier to improving their business performance. The notion of education and training is at the core of our challenge in schools and colleges. Next week in Committee we will debate changes to the key stage 4 curriculum, which may bring welcome flexibility, space for training and work-related learning. However, the changes risk narrowing the curriculum, potentially restricting pupils post-14 to a choice of only one modern foreign language and only one of the humanities. It would be a tragedy if, in trying to provide greater flexibility and space in the curriculum, Ministers created a system within which our young people are offered less choice and a less broad curriculum. Ministers must persuade the House that they will not allow that to happen.

The Engineering Employers Federation is one of many organisations to have highlighted the importance of the vocational route being given equal weighting to the academic route. The federation also voices concern about the adequacy of guidance—a point touched on earlier—and says that there is a need for work-based learning that energises and excites students and does not drain them of enthusiasm for continuing to higher levels of study. What would we do differently? The Minister gave a caricature of the Opposition's policies and record. We are committed to a major expansion of skills education, available to young people earlier than it is now. We will work to increase the involvement of industry in the design and outcomes of courses and qualifications. We are committed to raising the status of skills education, which can be achieved only through rigorous and relevant courses leading to high-quality qualifications. We have made clear our belief that the emphasis on increasing the numbers of people in higher education—the 50 per cent. target—is not appropriate, as it exaggerates demand for graduate-level qualifications and diverts attention from the real skills crisis in our country. We want to widen choice and diversity in schools through our school passport and to allow more technical schools to grow. We will attach new priority to adult education, which has declined markedly in recent years, with enrolments down by more than 15 per cent. since 1996.

We join the Government in our mutual ambition to see a renaissance in skills education in our country, but we shall constructively oppose the Government when we see them failing, or showing signs of taking the wrong turning and letting down our young people.

5.52 pm
Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

I shall be extremely brief, as we have little time.

There is a critical skills shortage—especially in the south-east; there is no doubt about that—in all sorts of professions and trades. In my area, it takes a year and half to get an appointment with a speech therapist and the therapy that many young children need. That is unacceptable. We cannot get plumbers or bricklayers, either, so we need to increase their number. That is one aspect of the problem.

Another aspect, which no one has addressed, is prison education. If we are to reduce the prison population and stop prisoners reoffending, as about 75 per cent. do, we have to educate them and give them vocational skills. There are some excellent examples of this, and I shall cite two. One is found in Feltham young offenders institution, where the Ford Motor Company is offering apprenticeships to young guests. They are trained to maintain motor cars; the training continues after their sentence ends and they are then offered a job by the Ford Motor Company. That is an excellent scheme and we should set up more like it. The second example is that of Transco, which in two prisons in England is training gas fitters, giving people skills so that when they get out of prison, they can get a job, raise their aspirations and expectations, and perhaps not reoffend.

I am pleased that the Select Committee on Education and Skills has at last decided to consider prison education—it is long overdue. I know that the Minister and his colleagues will welcome that work. Our Government are doing good things to tackle the skills shortage, but we need to accelerate the process.

5.54 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having to leave the debate early. I have already apologised to both Front-Bench Members.

This has been a most interesting debate, if only because of the revelation that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and Baroness Thatcher share the same children. I find that an intriguing prospect. We now know what the right hon. and learned Gentleman got up to during the night.

I thank the Minister for finding the time to introduce this timely debate. It gives us the opportunity to consider what stage the Government have reached with their skill strategy, where they want to go and what has been left out for the next general election. It is timely in another respect, too. I am rather sad that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is not in his place, because the Select Committee on Education and Skills has decided to conduct a year-long inquiry into the skills strategy. We support that decision and hope that the Committee will take the Government to task on many of the things that they are doing.

Few would deny the statistics that Members on both Front Benches have given during the debate. Indeed, those statistics have constantly been brought to the attention of the House. They show just how far behind Britain lags in its skills agenda. To be 25th in a league table of 29 industrial countries for 17-year-olds in further education or training is not something that any Member should be proud of. To be 13th out of 22 for 16year-olds gaining the equivalent of five good GCSEs is another indictment of not only the present Government but the previous Government. Most worrying, perhaps, is that according to Chris Humphries of the national skills taskforce, by 2010 about 65 per cent. of jobs will require at least a level 3 qualification. At present, only about 38 per cent. of our workforce has that level of qualification, compared with 73 per cent. in Germany.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has disappeared, having made three speeches. I know that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is incredibly committed to the whole of the education and skills agenda. The idea that we need either more level 2 or level 3 skills, or more graduates, is wrong. It is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, evidence from the recent report by Professor Machin of the London School of Economics, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, shows that higher academic qualifications have robust productivity effects, at both national and regional levels. Professor Machin's interesting piece of research demonstrates that by comparison with investment at any other level, it is graduates who add to our productivity and competitiveness, and to the earnings of the nation as a whole.

For Liberal Democrats—and, to be fair, for the Government—it is a question not of either/or, but of whether we need both approaches.

Andrew Selous

I wonder what the hon. Gentleman's response would be to the figures of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), which showed that about 48 per cent. of graduates felt that they were not in graduate-level jobs three years after starting work. Does that not suggest that quite a few graduates have taken courses that have not best equipped them for the work that they have gone into?

Mr. Willis

I know that the hon. Gentleman, too, has an avid interest in educational matters, but his conclusion from the statistics to which he refers is flawed. If we are saying that the only value of having a degree and having gone to university is that of immediate employability prospects, we have missed the point.

All the independent evidence demonstrates that a graduate education is not only about economic wellbeing; it is also about social well-being and health—a graduate is likely to live longer. It is sad that after three years some people feel that they are not in a job for which their degree has equipped them. One would hope that, as they progress through life, they will see the broader values of their education.

My son graduated two years ago and is currently travelling the world. When he returns, he will probably have to start in a job where he does not have the equivalent of a graduate salary. So be it, but I hope that the whole experience will benefit him.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened, because I wanted to speak briefly about Conservative policy. What saddens me most is the fact that it is populist, appears to involve no additional cost and, moreover, would seriously undermine Britain's competitiveness and the social and economic well-being of our citizens. The thrust of the policy—this is surprising for the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West who, for the moment, is Front-Bench spokesman—is "education for the best and skills for the rest". The Conservatives want bright middle-class children to go to academic schools and continue to take the traditional path to university.

Mr. Brady

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

May I just finish this point, and then the hon. Gentleman can get excited?

Bright middle-class children would go to academic schools, preferably grammar schools, and continue to take the traditional path to university. The rest would have an increasingly substandard vocational education and would become plumbers. I use the term "substandard" because the idea that high-quality vocational education can be offered on the cheap is nonsense. The figures that Professor Barr gave serve as an analysis of Conservative policy. He said in his report that good vocational training has significant costs, which these proposals totally ignore.

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman is being a little unfair to me. He and I have debated the future of secondary schools, particularly the question of selection, often enough for him to know that my passion for grammar schools derives from the fact that they offer opportunities to working-class children, who are too often deprived of such opportunities. The Minister snorts, but he had the opportunity to attend a grammar school, as did many Government Members. That opportunity is no longer available. Conservative Members want access, whether to old-fashioned grammar schools or to independent education, which in too many areas is available only to those who can afford it. It should be more openly available, regardless of people's means or income. That would help many Labour Members out of their embarrassment as well. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman accepts that he has done me an injustice.

Mr. Willis

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I have done so, but I do not believe that I have. It is surprising that since John Major left Parliament, not a single Conservative Member— this will apply also, I suspect, to the new Front-Bench team—has said openly that they want a grammar school in every town. What happened to that policy? If' the hon. Gentleman believes that we should have grammar schools, he should tell the public to put their crosses against the candidates representing a party that wants to bring secondary modern schools to Britain. Nobody has ever beaten a path to my door to say that they want a secondary modern school for their children. It would be a great peril to go down that road.

To be fair to the Conservatives, at their party conference in October they sought to put more flesh on the bones of their policies. The proposal to provide vocational education from age 13 onwards is interesting, but there would not be a single extra penny for that policy or for all the new schools, based on the model provided by the charter school movement in America, that would be required. All the money would have to be found from existing resources. If that is their policy, the Conservatives should be upfront about it. Vocational education from level 2 to postgraduate level is infinitely more expensive to provide than academic education. Funding a PhD in sociology costs about a fiftieth of funding a PhD in chemistry or engineering. We must therefore be honest about policies when we publish them.

On current trends, 450,000 students with the equivalent of two A-levels would not have a university place under the Conservatives and would have to get vocational experience elsewhere. The cost runs into billions of pounds. It is not small beer, but a massive bill, and the Conservatives must work out how to pay it if they are to be credible.

The biggest flaw in Conservative thinking is that removing the aspirations of working-class youngsters and the feeling that they can go to university does the whole process a disservice and puts us back to the pre-Robbins days of 1963, when only privileged youngsters from a privileged group of schools could go there. I trust that Conservative Members will rethink that policy.

I am pleased that the Minister dealt with the 14-to-19 agenda today. We are all waiting for the outcome of the Tomlinson inquiry, but there are already worrying contradictions in what Ministers say. How can we encourage schools and colleges to co-operate on individualised vocational programmes, possibly involving employers, and end age-related testing, but hang on to central targets and league tables that use GCSEs as the main tool of institutional assessment? Those two polices are totally at odds.

When we do not know the outcome of the Tomlinson inquiry, why are the Government going ahead with area reviews and the learning and skills proposals for a new framework of schools and colleges in the areas covered? Why take that approach before we know the thrust of a policy on the basis of which we have agreed to proceed? Why do we have a Connexions service—this point was made earlier—that concentrates on the less able from the end of level 3, and not the gifted? We cannot have a curriculum that is open to all and offers a vocational option as well as an academic one if we simply allow schools to channel students through a particular route.

The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), who has left his place, was leader of Leeds city council when I was a head teacher in the area. He knows only too well that that is the divide that arose—a divide between schools with sixth forms and the further education college sector. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) about that issue. I do not believe that offering young people quality post-16 experiences in FE colleges so that their communities see that they are getting such experiences will mean that those young people say "That is not for me." The opposite is the case: we want students to stay on wherever they can, and they should have quality facilities.

Mr. Brady

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but does he agree that the involvement of colleges with schools in providing some vocational education on school sites, perhaps from the age of 13 or 14, can be a very effective way of improving the vocational offer and building up a relationship between those colleges and schools?

Mr. Willis

I have no problems at all with that approach. Indeed, it is Liberal Democrat policy that independent careers counselling should be provided from age 14 onwards. Such advice should be independent of the school and any other institution. Furthermore, funding should follow students from that point onwards, and that arrangement should be flexible enough to allow students to build up their prospects, including the school, FE college and workplace. That should enable us to encourage students from 14 onwards to have some aspirations and a sense progression, and to pursue mixed routes. If that all takes place on the school site, I will be delighted. Equally, I will be delighted if it occurs from 14 onwards on a college site. If students wish to pick and mix—if the House will pardon the expression—I shall also be pleased.

The Minister will be aware that we have acknowledged, as I do today, the genuine effort that he has made to come frequently to the House to tell us about how the skills programme is developing and to allow us to debate it. None the less, we have consistently signalled to him the inherent dangers of developing separate skills and academic pathways. The danger is that that will perpetuate a system that the Conservatives have now made their official policy by providing education for the best and skills for the rest.

The Government are falling into the trap of facing two ways at once on education and skills. When I attend conferences on skills, the focus is on the White Paper, "21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential"; the inspiration is eastwards, across the channel to Germany and France; and the challenge is to increase the stock of vocational level 2 and 3 qualifications at all costs. When I attend conferences on higher education, the focus is on the White Paper, "The Future of Higher Education"; the inspiration is westwards, across the Atlantic to the United States; and the challenge is to increase the stock of level 4 qualifications at all costs. The problem is that there are two White Papers, not one, in circulation; and the result is confusion on the part of schools, colleges, training providers and universities. We cannot go on debating the human capital policy of this nation when the fault line between skills and higher education is so deeply obvious.

The inconsistencies are there for us to see. Let us consider, for instance, the skills gap. The skills White Paper says that too few people have associate professional, technical and higher craft skills at level 3. Its solution is more advanced modern apprenticeships and vocational level 3 programmes. The higher education White Paper also says that we have a shortage of people with associate professional, technical and higher craft skills. It uses exactly the same language, but its solution is foundation degrees. So we have the absurd situation whereby two separate funding agencies, the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council, fund two different products—level 3 qualifications and foundation degrees—and seek to solve the same problem, which in most instances will be delivered in the same further education colleges.

I hope that the Minister will take those remarks in the spirit in which they are intended, because it is a genuine issue that needs to be grasped. It is vital that we view the skills White Paper and the higher education White Paper together. I hope that he will prepare a strategy paper that allows the House to debate how those two aspects can come together, and that the Select Committee on Education and Skills will take the same approach when it begins its inquiry in January.

The centrepiece of the skills strategy is the skills alliance—or the Soviet central committee, as it has been dubbed because of its extreme complexity. Our concerns, however, are linked not so much to the national arrangements but to the sector, local and regional arrangements. At the launch of the skills strategy, I said to the Secretary of State that it would require a PhD to fathom out the roles played in the structure by the 47 local learning and skills councils, the nine regional development agencies and the proposed network of 25 sector skills councils. There seems to be utter confusion about the arrangements, with providers, especially further education colleges, not knowing which way to turn. Given that half of all vocational qualifications—some 550,000 per year—are delivered through FE, that FE provides 200 million days of adult training to British industry every year, and that the FE colleges link up with, on average, 500 firms each, we owe the sector some clarification about the local and regional arrangements.

It is not only the FE sector that is confused. This week, the CBI and the Engineering Employers Federation complained that bureaucracy is hampering plans to improve the skills work force. The Education and Skills Committee says that it will examine the roles of all the bodies involved in the skills alliance. I wish it luck, because there are now so many of them that it would take not this Chamber but the dome to fit them all in to discuss the issue.

The Government seem to be riding three horses at once. One minute, they believe in a local bottom-up education and skills strategy led by local learning and skills councils. The next, they believe in a sector-driven education and skill strategy led by the new, evangelical sector skills councils. Then, they believe in a regional approach driven by the regional development agencies and regional chambers of commerce.

The skills White Paper is fast becoming a classic Whitehall fudge. The Government must choose between local, sectoral and regional approaches to the commissioning and delivery of this strategy. The Liberal Democrats believe that the regional approach is the right one. We also believe that the Learning and Skills Council should be regionalised and merged with the RDAs, and that, when regional government comes on board, it should be subject to democratic accountability through the regional assemblies.

We accept that the Minister has made great play of working with the business community and talking about voluntarism. He does not want any sort of statutory intervention, so far as business is concerned. However, his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, seems to have a different view, in that he talks about post-voluntarism. Will the Minister explain to us what that means? Is the Chancellor talking about incentives via tax credits, match funding, national insurance rebates or even business rate rebates, in relation to delivering skills? If so, let us engage with him on that. Or is there an agenda to examine statutory licences to practice, statutory training levels and subsidies, and a statutory right to time off for study at level 2? If that is the agenda, I think that we ought to know about it before the general election, so that it can become part and parcel of this debate.

I applaud the Minister for coming to the House yet again to allow us to debate the skills strategy. We remain supportive of the Government's vision, and we are prepared to offer constructive support for what the Minister is trying to do, but action is needed if disillusionment is not to set in across the whole sector.

6.16 pm
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

I have never heard the Minister speak before, because I am not a regular attender of these debates, but if I may so, his speech was curiously schizophrenic. He started with some rather thoughtful remarks about vocational education, but his speech suddenly descended into a sort of rabble-rousing rant. If there had been a rabble to rouse, I could have understood that, but his tone was not entirely appropriate for the Chamber at this time, deep into a Wednesday evening when the business is relatively light and there are not many attenders, especially on the Government Benches. I felt he rather let the side down.

Unfortunately, the Minister seemed to infect the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who went off in a rather similar vein about Conservative party policy. That was interesting, because the Liberal Democrats claim to be the most effective critics of the Government these days, yet all that they seemed to be doing on this occasion was attacking the policies adumbrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's speech was in contrast to the magisterial approach of my hon. Friend, who made a rather modest attempt to say that he might not be on the Front Bench after the reshuffle that will presumably take place this weekend. He did not do himself justice; I am sure that he will be there for a long time to come, whether in this particular job or another one. He certainly got the better of the argument between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Minister.

Leaving aside that rather curious aspect of today's debate, I believe that there is a danger that we might begin to regard vocational education in the same way as we view motherhood and apple pie. We all subscribe to it in a broad, non-political and rather bland way. If I were someone who worked in that sector, I would be wary of politicians bearing gifts. My experience gives me a second sense that these things sometimes do not work out quite as well as we hope they will.

There is a contrast between this debate and the much more heated debate that is taking place on higher education, in which we hear of Government revolts against their own policies. I am not sure which debate I would prefer to be in. Higher education is debated with great passion inside the parties and across the Chamber, whereas this subject—apart from the lapses that I have mentioned—seems to attract broad consensus. There is an old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." I am sure that people in the higher education sector would be able to relate to that. Perhaps they would prefer to be somewhere in between the bland approach to vocational education and the rather hyper approach that we have adopted towards higher education.

I must agree, however, with the thrust of the points made about the value and importance of vocational education, and the extent to which standards have fallen in this country over the decades. The Minister himself spoke of a time back in 1880. The old Liberal party may have had a role in those days, before successive Labour and Conservative Governments took over. It is true that current standards do not meet the aspirations and needs of the country.

I want to say something about the Government's policy, and about the concern that it has prompted in further education colleges. More than 50 per cent. of all vocational qualifications—more than 550,000 annually—are awarded via colleges. Between 1997–98 and 2000–01, 2 million were awarded in that way, while 233,000 were awarded through employers. I am indebted to the Association of Colleges for those statistics.

We all know the value of further education colleges in that context. I also welcome, with some reservations, the package the Government put together last November, a year ago. It has been widely welcomed by colleges of further education, but they are concerned about a number of matters. They feel, for instance, that many qualifications are very inflexible, as is the way in which they are funded, and that there should be a more modular approach.

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). Bury seems to have something of a hold over this subject, which is interesting. It must have an excellent college of further education. Anyway, the hon. Gentleman tabled an early-day motion, which I think I signed. It made the point rather well. It urges the Department for Education and Skills, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Learning and Skills Council to implement proposals in the interim skills strategy which…give colleges greater ability to develop bespoke"— "bespoke" is the crucial word— training and flexible qualifications with simplified assessment systems so that they can equip more individual learners and employers with the skills they need in the modern economy. That goes to the heart of the matter. As a matter of practicality, we need more flexibility and a more bespoke approach. I hope that the Government will heed that.

In the more sane and rational part of his speech, the Minister spoke of employers' reluctance to send people on vocational training courses. He made some sensible remarks, and I applaud the measures he said the Government were adopting to encourage employers to take the initiative. Too many employers are not sending people on such courses, often for ridiculous short-term reasons. They may feel that they will lose them to other companies, for instance.

Friends and colleagues involved in further education often mention another factor—the excessive bureaucracy that still accompanies all these measures. I recently received a letter from a constituent who works in further education. He wrote We continue to experience excessive bureaucracy. The way in which we are expected to bid for additional project money and the constant auditing of how resources are spent creates…additional cost. There is a commitment nationally to reduce bureaucracy, but we are not yet seeing any evidence of this on the ground. That is the problem. Moreover, the Association of Colleges regretfully reports that only 3 per cent. of its members think that the Learning and Skills Council represents real value for money. That disturbing statistic reflects the bureaucratic approach that the LSC has somehow not yet managed to overcome.

Let me now make a point that I have made before. I rarely speak in debates on this subject, but I have spoken before of the Government's reluctance to consider including lecturers in further education colleges in their starter homes initiative. Under that initiative, which I believe has been retitled the home buy initiative, key workers are given help with housing, but FE college lecturers have always been excluded.

Mr. Brady

While my hon. Friend is on the subject of the key teacher home buy scheme, he may also wish to comment on evidence that I elicited from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the form of a written answer. I was told that the loan would be considered a taxable benefit. According to an answer from the Department for Education and Skills, it would be means-tested according to the total family income of the teacher involved.

Mr. Horam

I am very interested in that because I am about to lead a delegation of colleges to see the Minister for Housing and Planning to discuss precisely those issues—I think that we have a date now: 4 December. I am conscious that, while a commitment in principle has been made, which I welcome, to include FE college lecturers in the scheme, the details are not yet clear. If my hon. Friend is right, that is a point that I would like to take up with the Minister on behalf of college lecturers.

At the moment, college lecturers are clearly at a disadvantage compared with teachers. Once there was not that amount of competition between schools and FE colleges to recruit staff, but now there is severe competition. They are all scrimping from the same pool. Colleges should not be disadvantaged compared with schools. They already suffer from many disadvantages in recruitment terms, about which we should be concerned.

I would like the Government to take on board the three issues that I have raised—bureaucracy, the attitude of employers and the need to help them to recruit properly. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points when he replies to the debate.

6.26 pm
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I commend the work that has been done on the skills strategy by my hon. Friend the Minister, and particularly his commitment to bridging the vocational-academic divide. I know how strongly he feels about that. Indeed, that sentiment is reflected in his commitment to prepare the White Paper and implement its recommendations.

I listened to the remarks of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), particularly the quotation from my early-day motion. I thank him for his support. I also listened carefully to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who said that he was offering constructive support to the Government. If I were on the front line with him and that was what he meant by constructive support, I would be a little nervous. However, he made one or two important criticisms to which should like to come back.

The Minister and I share adjacent constituencies and we have the joint privilege of representing a local authority that has a national reputation for high educational standards, although it is my particular privilege to represent the constituency in which the major further education facilities are located. I think that I can say without fear of being challenged that Bury, North is now the further education capital of the United Kingdom. The level of investment in new facilities, the level of increase in revenue, the improvement in the quality of education and the increase in the number of staff in the further education sector in Bury, North are some of the biggest tributes to the Government's commitment to lifelong learning that one could offer.

It is important that we are having this debate, because vocational education is a matter of enormous significance that should have a regular allocated slot in the parliamentary calendar. After all, we have an annual debate on agriculture and one on fishing, but there are far more people working in further education than in agriculture or fishing these days. It seems reasonable therefore that we should have an annual debate on vocational education and training and further education.

Given the comparatively small number of hon. Members present, I am struck by the stark contrast between FE and vocational education and HE and academic education. The big controversy in education policy at the moment is related to HE, which has dominated our education system for half a century or more. If we were debating tuition fees, there would be more than a couple of handfuls of hon. Members in the Chamber. That is an important point to note. The Government have, rightly, done more than any Government to try to redress the balance of investment and political attention to the advantage of the further education sector, which educates the overwhelming majority of school leavers. That means a necessary shift in the balance away from the university sector. What we are discussing today, however, is linked to the question of financing universities, tuition fees and top-up fees. It is particularly striking that the per capita investment in each FE student is some 20 per cent. less than in each HE student. That really makes the point for the Government's policy on tuition fees.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the distinction between higher or academic education and vocational education is somewhat spurious, given that some of the most oversubscribed courses in HE—those in medicine and law—are essentially vocational?

Mr. Chaytor

I agree completely—indeed, I have made the same point on many occasions. I come back to my starting point: this Government have done more than any other to try to bring together the academic and the vocational into a seamless range of provision. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress the vocational nature of some very prestigious university courses. We must get away from a concept that has divided our education service and our society; indeed, the Conservatives' policy on HE finance draws that point to our attention more than ever before. In arguing that we cannot have so many people in universities, and that we should abandon the 50 per cent. target, they are really trying to turn the clock back and to build a divide, at a very early stage, between the sheep and the goats. At the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century, this country does not have the luxury of dividing people into sheep and goats at birth, or at the age of five, 11, 16 or 18. That is why a coherent and integrated post-l6—preferably, post-14—policy is needed.

I want to draw attention to the enormous step forward that the White Paper has taken in the financing of vocational education. There is the introduction of education maintenance allowances, which will go nationwide; the introduction of the education grant for adults post-19, which is being piloted; the development of employer training pilot schemes, which, as I understand it, are being carefully evaluated with a view to going nationwide; and the introduction of a commitment to free tuition for level 2 courses. All are important developments that represent a significant shift in educational opportunity for people who, historically, have been denied such opportunity. The Government are making the central point that, if we want a nation that can compete effectively in the modern world, and in which every individual has the opportunity to develop their full potential, we must invest equally in all individuals, rather than making arbitrary distinctions between those who will receive an academic education with a higher per capita investment, and those who will be sidelined into vocational training.

I know that time is short, but I want now to offer some constructive support for, and criticism of, the White Paper. I want to pick up on the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and to discuss the organisational structures that we have inherited and are trying to shape into the delivery mechanism for the White Paper's policies. The combination of the sector skills councils, the 47 learning and skills councils and the increasing involvement of the regional development agencies presents a confusing picture. I have made that point to the Minister privately, so I know that he is aware of it, but I want publicly to reiterate the overriding importance—this is also the view of a growing number of people—of streamlining our bureaucracy for the delivery of vocational education, and of bringing together previously separate bureaucracies, organisations, quangos and agencies. If this policy, in which we have invested a huge amount of political and financial commitment, is going to succeed, we cannot afford to see it hit the rocks because of bureaucratic obstruction.

In my many years of experience in vocational education and training, one difficulty has been that the debate has focused on the delivery mechanism. What has been left out in that is the concept of the curriculum. Whether we have good access to high-level skills, whether we have motivated young people and adults, and whether we develop a lifelong learning culture all greatly depend on what people are learning.

I conclude by returning to the early-day motion—I must confess that I had forgotten about it, but it was obviously a good one and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Orpington for reminding me of it—and focusing on the curriculum. The White Paper says that we need an adult curriculum in bite-size chunks, and we are now starting to talk about a modular curriculum.

I know that the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ken Boston, feels passionately about that issue and I would urge the Minister to read his article published in The Daily Telegraph on 8 October. I realise that that newspaper is not often in the vanguard of progressive educational thinking, but on this occasion it provided Mr. Boston with a platform to make a telling point. In the article, he said that, in Australia—where he comes from— the schools most successful in attracting students into vocational education are those that shape their curriculum, according to the age of the students, on the basis of the national training packages. These are unitised, credit-based, industry-derived training programmes that specify knowledge, skill and competencies at successive levels of qualification within each vocation. He went on to say: My experience has been that the presence of teachers with similar inspirational qualities is critical to the attraction and retention of young people to vocational education in schools. It is a matter of curriculum, of quality teachers and inspirational teaching. The real point is that we cannot afford to leave that to the post-19 phase. That is why I am excited by the proposals for 14 to 19-year-olds in the work of Tomlinson and others. If we are going to bridge the academic-vocational divide, we have to get a unitised, credit-based curriculum in our schools.

It is an enormous irony of our education system that the elite and those who find it easiest to learn—undergraduates and, increasingly, postgraduates in universities—are completely used to a unitised, credit-based system. It is accepted as an effective form of motivation. Yet those who are less well motivated and find it more difficult to learn are expected—and have always been expected—to follow courses that continue for one or two full years. It is hard for certain young people and adults to maintain a strong level of commitment over that period of time.

I conclude with a plea to the Minister. Yes, we have to get the bureaucracy right and streamline the organisation, but let us not he obsessed by organisational matters. Let us focus on the quality of teaching and on the curriculum. Let us ensure that we have a seamless policy, starting at 14, with a unitised, credit-based curriculum. I believe that that is the single most important factor that will encourage more of our young people to continue their education and training beyond the age of 16, beyond 19 and throughout their lives.

6.38 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I shall endeavour to be brief, although perhaps I shall not be able to match the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard).

The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) suggested that his constituency was the further education capital of the United Kingdom without contradiction, but I am sure that South Cambridgeshire can compete, not least with the presence of Hills Road sixth-form college, which has the highest academic standards of any FE college in the country, and Long Road sixth-form college. Homerton college also makes an important contribution to teacher education, so South Cambridgeshire is certainly up there and bidding against the claims of Bury, North.

I do not want to dwell on higher education, not because I do not have anything to say on the subject, but because I suspect that there will be other and better opportunities to discuss it at greater length. There is a risk of losing sight of some of the particular issues that could usefully be discussed this evening. I shall touch on a few.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) mentioned the important issue of productivity, and the Trade and Industry Committee has considered with great care how productivity can be stimulated. It is not enough to say simply that the composition of skills between this country and others differs, and that that explains the productivity gap. That is part of the explanation, but the differences between this and other countries are complex. Nor is it true to say that if we spend more money on education, we will automatically see an improvement in productivity. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) misrepresented the Conservative party's approach, as the key point is not simply that we have too few people with intermediate skills—with the implication that we have too many people with degrees. The point is that we have far too many people with a lower level of skills.

The Minister said, rightly, that we should consider whether qualifications are fit for purpose, but quality education—vocational or academic—is all about fitness for purpose. It is about ensuring that students, of whatever age, pursue courses and qualifications that are fit for their purposes. The Minister reminded us—as if we had forgotten, and I do not think we had—that people can progress to degree level by a vocational route. That is true and, therefore, it ill becomes the Government to set an arbitrary 50 per cent. target for participation in higher education, when people reach different levels of education through various mechanisms. In many instances, they take a more vocational route that is based substantially in further education or work in the early days. It is the nature of the Government's problem that they have directed people into university courses, when the further education route might have been better for them.

Modern apprenticeships are at the heart of the vocational route. As the Minister suggested, I shall look at the entry to employment scheme and how well it bridges the gap that otherwise might force people into foundation modern apprenticeships. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned the external assessment of key skills and the desirability of the incorporation of that into the NVQ structure. Many employers certainly find that the bureaucracy and the time lost from work when those on modern apprenticeships go off for external assessment is a deterrent.

However, at the same time, we should compare our system with the German apprenticeship system—as the Engineering Employers Federation did in its helpful document, "Bridging the Continental Divide". In Germany, the general and technical competencies are the subject of external testing and examination. That is important, because we need to make a distinction between those occupational aspects that are practical and can be examined and assessed as people do their work in their workplace, and technical competencies that should be assessed independently to boost the value of the qualification if the young person moves to other employers. Not all examination and assessment should be brought into the workplace.

The EEF document also referred to research produced for the National Institute Economic Review in 2001 by H. Steedman, which shows that the comparison between Germany and this country is still a testing one. It states that overall, a young person who completes an apprenticeship in the German system would be able to meet the standard for a British NVQ3 in the same occupation. However, a young person with a British apprenticeship and NVQ3 would not be able to reach the standard required for the German system's general and technical education requirements. We must bear that in mind when we talk about NVQ3, because we tend to believe that it is of a comparable standard to apprenticeships in other countries. If it is not comparable, we have to make sure that it becomes so, as that is what employers are looking for.

I listened with interest to Irena Grugulis of Bradford university on a radio programme the other night. I confess that I had seen no reference to her report previously, although I understand that it was published in the British Journal of Industrial Relations in September. It deals with the contribution of NVQs to the growth of skills in the UK. Her analysis suggests that NVQs do not attract the support from employers that they should. I do not know whether that is true, but I subscribe heartily to her prescription that there should be a much stronger industry and employer-led element in the structure of NVQs.

I end with a final, short point. I mentioned the structure of the relationship between LSCs and RDAs, but the matter goes much wider. There is a vast range of business support structures in the skills and training arena. The skills strategy has tried to resolve the question of how businesses relate to all the many organisations and opportunities by saying that the principle should be that there are no wrong doors. The implication is that skills and training are located in a world of virtual reality, where every door opens out on the right location.

However, I do not think that the real world works like that. If there are too many doors, brands, initiatives and structures, employers will simply walk away. We must ensure that the path is clearer and better organised, so that businesses can have confidence in the structures and the qualifications that are provided. Matters must also be kept simple, so that businesses can know how to proceed. For example, they must know that Business Link will get them to the training opportunities that they need for people entering employment through apprenticeships and the like. That is also important for raising the skills level in employment in places such as South Cambridgeshire, where there are relatively few people without jobs who want, and are able, to enter employment.

Raising the overall level of skills, principally among people who are in employment, is critical to our long-term economic performance. To make that happen, we must work primarily through the business community.

6.47 pm
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

I want to start by referring to a document published by the EU social fund, which I came across in my work as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. It assesses the labour market skills of the different countries in the UK, as they affect economic performance.

Two comments stick out. According to the report, the UK has Poor basic skills amongst a significant proportion of the workforce and Low educational attainment levels and participation rates in lifelong learning. Just about every speaker in the debate has acknowledged that that is the position of the UK in relation to our European counterparts. There is no doubt that the solution to those problems lies in our schools first of all, where a proper basic level of education must be provided. The next step is to ensure that there is effective and relevant vocational and technical training.

I want to pay tribute to the excellent Dunstable college in my constituency, and especially to its new director, Chris Vesey, who recently took over. That FE college runs highly innovative courses at a number of sites around my constituency, and it works extremely well with schools and the nearby Luton university. It has also been instrumental in helping to establish the new learning warehouse that is to open in Leighton Buzzard. That innovative and exciting venture will enable people in full-time work to access vocational training in the evenings or at weekends.

I also pay tribute to my local university, which is pioneering vocational higher education in a number of fields, with a large number of students coming into it much later in life. It is definitely aiding the economic development of my area.

Over the past few years, in certain respects we have gone slightly backwards in relation to vocational education. There have been 190,000 fewer enrolments in adult and community learning courses since 1996, and the vocational proportion of GCSE-equivalent courses has fallen since 1997—worrying factors about which the Government should not be complacent.

It seems to me that the challenge is to try to maintain the enthusiasm that children have when they start school, and to try to keep that throughout their education. It often starts to tail off at around the age of 13, when a large number of children perhaps find that the curriculum is not meeting their interests and aspirations, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is going in the right direction with his proposals to make technical and vocational education open to people from the age of 13 and to set up new types of schools that focus on those areas. I also hope that those schools and colleges will look at what are often called the "soft skills", which are important in terms of getting people into work. When the Select Committee has looked at employment matters, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who also serves on the Committee, seems to agree, we have found that those skills are particularly important in terms of getting people into work. People's ability to go through their daily routine and to get on with others is often critical to moving them nearer to the labour force, getting them into work and helping them to stay there.

If we are to help people later in life and to help people to work to a later stage in their lives than many people who retire in their late fifties and early sixties, vocational education has a great role to play, particularly for people who have been in stressful manual occupations. A great role exists for FE and vocational training to help those who want to continue working and supplement their retirement income to move into less stressful work, rather than continue in work that they find physically demanding and extremely draining.

I know from meeting my local FE providers that the different funding streams are a great source of concern, and I know about the difficulties between the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Learning and Skills Council and the skills alliance. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) summed up the problem well when he said that there is a difference of approach, whether it is a local, sectoral or regional one. We must sort out which one we use. My preference would not be the regional route, because time and again I have seen that areas such as mine, which do not have major towns, lose out. I would like the local and sectoral route to be used.

It is worrying too that so many FE colleges do not feel that the LSC offers them good value for money. As we heard earlier in the debate, if only 3 per cent. of colleges believe that they are receiving good value for money, that is indeed a problem. A quote comes to mind that I heard yesterday from Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, in respect of the Government's approach to the private finance initiative and the complexity of vocational funding in this country: Out of complexity comes confusion and out of confusion comes chaos". Sadly, that refrain applies to a number of the Government's different programmes.

Finally, I want to mention the question of foreign languages, about which I am concerned. Recent Government announcements will reduce the amount and extent of foreign language training. Before I became a Member of the House, I worked for a company that had its headquarters in Germany, and it was noticeable that almost everyone whom I dealt with in the German headquarters spoke fluent English. In a world in which we need to trade abroad to survive, we neglect foreign language skills at our peril. I urge the Government to consider the consequences of that for Britain as a trading nation.

6.55 pm
Mr. Ivan Lewis

With the leave of the House, may I first say gently to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) that people are sensitive to the use of the term "schizophrenic"? I understand that he has been a Labour Member of Parliament, a Social Democrat MP and now a Conservative MP. I am not sure that he should label me in that way in that context.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that Bury college of further education is a centre of excellence. It may be in Bury, North, but many of the students and staff live in Bury, South. I urge Mike Tomlinson to take seriously my hon. Friend's points about curriculum and qualifications when he considers the future of 14 to 19 education.

On a personal note, I hope that the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) are still in their posts next week. I genuinely mean that. I hope that they will still be able to participate in these debates. There is much consensus on vocational education, but the sheep and goats model emanating from the Conservatives is clear. It is clearer than ever before that their higher education policy is driven by political opportunism and not the needs of the country or the needs of young people.

Mr. Brady


Mr. Lewis

I agree entirely with the comments. of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) about productivity. Yes, we need skills, but innovation, capital investment and leadership are among several other factors. Although it is right for us to create as simple a system as possible for employers to access, the idea that they would go through one door is simply not true. That is why we must ensure that, whichever door employers choose to walk through, they receive the same advice and information and get the training when they need it.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) raised a number of important issues. He expressed concerns about the relationship between regional and national, but he obviously has not heard what we have said about the regional skills alliance. He seemed to dismiss the importance of the national delivery partners coming together, which is important. We must remember that employers choose to network in very different ways. Some identify with their region, sub-region and local high street and some clearly identify with the sector of which they are members. When influencing demand, we have to have an approach that is sensible nationally and that takes account of regional and sub-regional issues.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) mentioned the importance of prison education. He will be glad to know that, over the next three years, we will make a record level of both revenue and capital investment. We are going through a new contracting process to ensure quality provision in prison education and we are creating new positions of heads of learning and skills councils in every institution. We are also bringing together vocational training and education in prisons.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) paid tribute to his local colleges and talked about modern foreign languages. Forcing young people who do not want to do modern foreign languages to study them is not the answer to the problem of our country genuinely needing people with those skills for our economy and place in the world. That is why we are determined to drive the teaching of modern foreign languages down to primary level so that children enjoy learning them. That will become a natural part of their early-years development and they will be positively keen and enthusiastic to develop those language skills as they get older.

The Tories are fond of citing figures for adult and community learning. Let us be clear that there has been a reduction in enrolment in adult and community education, but the greatest single reduction was between 1996 and 1997 when 170,000 fewer people enrolled in adult education colleges. [Interruption.] Some 170,000 fewer people enrolled in adult education courses under the Tories. Although there has not been an improvement in the position, the number has stabilised in recent years. The Tories should not quote distorted and disingenuous facts if they want us to believe that they are somehow a changed political party.

I believe that vocational education is central to the future of our economy and our society. If we want a socially just and economically successful society that competes internationally—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.