HL Deb 15 June 1994 vol 555 cc1695-9

2.53 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government: What are their objectives in the provision of further education and how far those objectives are intended to extend both the age and social range of those participating and the range of educational opportunities available.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, further education provides a diverse range of opportunities to young people and adults to improve their knowledge and skills, whether they are progressing to further study, entering the workforce for the first time or learning new skills later in life. The Government's objective for further education is to increase participation and attainment still further in order to help to achieve the demanding national targets for education and training. Age and social background are no bar to participation.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Will the Government refine their expansion targets by setting specific targets for young people, working adults, unemployed people, ethnic minorities and, most importantly, older people and others not currently in the workforce? At the same time, will the Government reaffirm that, whatever the unquestionable merits of vocational courses, education in its fullest sense is an essential ingredient of civilised life for everyone and must never be seen as an adjunct of the economic production line alone?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord is not generous in recognising what is being done for young people from socially or economically deprived backgrounds or for young people with special needs. The Further Education Funding Council and its approach to its duties has been widely welcomed. It has established a specialist committee to review the range and type of further education available to students with learning difficulties and disabilities and those from economically disadvantaged groups and to recommend how it may best fulfil its statutory duties towards them.

The funding council system has been designed to take into account the particular needs of students with learning difficulties and disabilities and, of course, the growth of access courses to make sure that young people are prepared to take advantage of further education. In particular, the aim is to fund the students rather than the type of programme that they are studying. Therefore, a great deal is being done on all these fronts, and I hope that the noble Lord will see fit to encourage that.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government support the desire that the national vocational qualifications should include an adequate basis of knowledge and understanding and not merely the competence in performing an immediate task? Will she confirm that that is the Government's policy in supporting national vocational qualifications which, so understood, we all support?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for making that point. National vocational qualifications are indeed a route for making sure that young people not only understand what they are doing but have a competence in doing it. We want to go as far as we can down the road of making that a real success. I believe that we still have some way to go but a great deal of work is being done to progress that.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, will the Minister look again at the question of the extramural activities of universities? I am beginning to receive correspondence from people who are most anxious that a side effect of the present policy will be that organisations such as the WEA, which have survived for a century, are now in danger by virtue of the system of fees that is being introduced.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, some of the work to which the noble Viscount referred will be the responsibility of the higher education institutions themselves. Of course, the WEA is continuing its important work. I hope that everyone will agree that where people are unable to meet the fees some consideration is taken to help them to have access to the courses, but that where people are in a position to make a contribution, that should also be considered.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, in the light of the success of a variety of initiatives, including the Pick-Up Programme with which I was personally involved during my time at the Department for Education—it involved the participation of a wide variety of age groups and social backgrounds—and the development of the NVQ programme, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, referred and which is now a recognised and acceptable qualification for employment, does my noble friend agree that the structures are in place to allow for development in this area and that it is important to encourage greater participation in these programmes?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The national targets are academic and vocational and all employers are asked to become involved. One of the targets is to make sure that 50 per cent. of all young people in work are working towards NVQs, and we hope that that will have been achieved by 1996. We also hope that by the year 2000, 50 per cent. of the workforce will have qualified at the NVQ level 3 or equivalent and that, by 1996, 50 per cent. of medium to large organisations will be involved in Investors in People. That is another way of auditing the skills of young people and the workforce and ensuring that they are making progress. Obviously, the training and enterprise councils are also key in the process, working together with the schools, unemployed young people and industry and commerce.

Baroness David

My Lords, could the Minister ask the Further Education Funding Council for England to organise its funding by rewarding recruitment from certain areas so that underprivileged communities are targeted? I understand that the Further Education Funding Council for Wales uses postcodes to identify those areas and the Scottish FE colleges have areas of priority treatment for that purpose. Will the Minister look into that please?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it really depends to which group of people the noble Baroness refers. Of course, all young people under the age of 19 have free access to further education. If they are still in school, it is for the school to make sure that there is a continuum between leaving school, especially for those leaving school with very low qualifications, and the training and enterprise councils or whichever organisation the young people make contact with after leaving school. With regard to people aged over 19, the training and enterprise councils will be responsible for directing young people to further education and training. That includes basic skills' training in which many further education colleges are now engaged. It is important to reach out to young people and persuade them of the value of improving their basic skills. The Further Education Funding Council is making sure that it rewards recruitment in that area so that there is a reward for the institutions which manage to recruit to their numbers young people who are starting on the ladder of further education.

Baroness David

My Lords, perhaps I may explain that I am talking about underprivileged communities, and not just young people. It is the whole community which may be underprivileged that should be helped.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may switch to my other hat. I am a sponsor Minister for an inner city area which is involved in City Challenge. There are three city challenges for which I am responsible for overseeing that the policies are working in those areas. I cannot think of another government this century who have done more to target their efforts on areas of greatest need.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a number of groups of people have never been touched in any way by further education and that the largest group consists mainly of working class people who left school without any, or very few, qualifications, who never return to the education system? In those circumstances, will she urge the Further Education Funding Council to look at the problems facing people in that situation? Perhaps she will instigate some research into the matter because I believe that detailed examination of that problem is required.

Related to that, has the Minister seen the statement made yesterday by the chief executive of the Association of Colleges who stated: The association's mail box is weighed down by tales of students who have had their benefit removed, despite the fact that they were studying less than 21 hours"?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, assistance into further education was never a substitute for benefit for people to both work and study. If they are working for fewer than 21 hours, they are helped. If they are working for more than 21 hours, it is not a pot into which one can tap because at the end of the day—and even noble Lords opposite will realise it one day —resources are absolutely finite. We need to target resources on those in greatest need.

I need to return to what the Government have done for the areas of greatest need in this country; for example, the urban programmes and the City Challenge programmes. So much is going on and education is a part of that. The institutions, the funding systems and the Government are doing everything possible to make sure that young people are being prepared for what will be an increasingly complex and technical world in the 21st century. We are trying to do what we can to convince young people of the value of staying on the educational ladder. We have done more than any prior government.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the noble Baroness satisfied with the way in which some FE colleges in rural areas are changing their character? They are becoming affiliated to a local university in some cases and are changing over from agricultural studies to business studies. That is a real loss to the local agricultural community. Will the noble Baroness keep a very close eye on those developments?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is extremely important that we keep a close eye on developments. However, what is happening in further education is very exciting. In rural areas in particular, where young people cannot get to higher education institutions, colleges are becoming agents for doing the preparation work for sub-degree courses. Having done that work, the students then need to go away for only a limited amount of time to top up the work and perhaps receive a degree or go on to higher education. We need to make sure —and I believe this underpins the noble Lord's anxiety—that that is not done to the exclusion of the lower level work, which is the basic skills work. As far as we can see, there is no evidence to suggest that the lower level work is being neglected while work is being done with the higher education institutions to help young people who have distance problems.

Lord Judd

My Lords, having listened to those exchanges, will the Minister agree that liberal adult education going back over a century is one of Britain's finest traditions, serving all ages in all parts of the community? At the same time, in meeting new vocational priorities, will the Government take great care not to damage the wider educational approach which is central to that tradition? Will they recognise that everybody participating is not necessarily seeking a qualification?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is absolutely essential. We must not do one at the exclusion of the other. But I make no secret that I support the Government's attempt to target resources on making sure that young people have the skills that are necessary to move into the workforce and to face the challenges of the 21st century. That must be. a priority for government. That is why we have taken the view that we should engage nationally and that the local authorities should be charged with the business of making sure that the other needs of local people—if I am referring to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, that is the non-Schedule 2 work—are matters for local discretion. I believe that that is the education to which the noble Lord refers.