HL Deb 20 October 1994 vol 558 cc326-9

3.34 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that the education funding councils are supporting adult non-vocational courses adequately.

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords. The further education funding councils are responsible for securing the provision of many courses which are not vocational, including basic skills and academic courses. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is continuing to provide funding for "liberal adult education". It is local education authorities which have the duty of securing adequate provision for all further education other than that secured by the further education funding councils, and they are funded for that purpose.

Baroness David

My Lords, first, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on his first appearance to answer a Question at the Dispatch Box. Is he aware that there have been substantial cuts—in the region of 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. in many places—in the provision of non-vocational courses? There are very strong feelings of outrage among a great many people who are feeling the loss of these courses. The quantities of letters I have received and copies of letters to the Secretary of State bear this out.

Is the noble Lord further aware that local management of schools means that schools now have to charge for the letting out of rooms for adult education courses, which used not to happen and is a further burden on LEAs which have to provide funding? I understand that one authority—Hounslow—has had to pay £100,000 in hiring charges. Also, schools may not have space available in the daytime for courses which particularly suit the elderly and some refugees and ethnic minorities, some of whom cannot get out in the evening. Can the noble Lord please persuade the Secretary of State if possible to make a little more money available to LEAs, which may wish to spend more but do not have the money, so that they can provide these courses which are of infinite value to a great many people, not only for themselves but also as a possible means of progressing from non-vocational to vocational education?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness very much for her kind words. We very much share her opinion of non-vocational adult education. It is a very important part of our educational provision, and that is why we fund LEAs to provide it. We believe that there is a substantial move by adults to pursue courses which end with a qualification and which therefore might be termed vocational. That is one of the main reasons why there appears to be a drop in the take up of non-vocational courses. I point out to the noble Baroness that there has been a substantial rise in the total number of adults pursuing educational courses. That is something which we welcome.

So far as concerns the particular examples which the noble Baroness mentioned, I should be very grateful if she would provide me with the information so that I can take them up.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is it not rather a good thing that we seem to be able to provide some more money for schools in the form of rent and more adult education? It is unusual for a Tory Government to be able to claim some successes. They should be congratulated.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind words.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord on his well-deserved appointment to the Front Bench. However, I am sad that he has been given such an evasive answer on this important matter. That remark comes right from the heart, I assure him.

When are the Government going to take this matter seriously? It is at the centre of adult education and leads to a whole variety of educational courses, as the Minister will know, including university degree courses. Perhaps most important of all is the fact that it stimulates people who would normally not take any educational course of any kind at any time. Does he not agree that this is the best value for money that we have in adult education?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, again I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. Yes, we do regard this as a very important part of educational provision, but we are placing emphasis on courses which result in a qualification and which can offer people who take them something at the end of the day. Many of those courses share most of the characteristics of what used to be called non-vocational courses and the fact that people prefer to take those courses is to be welcomed.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord does not realise what a lifeline adult education courses are to many people: people who do not want and for whom there is no point in seeking a qualification; people who look after other infirm people and get out one afternoon a week and would go mad if they could not do so; older people who are at last able to pursue interests which they have wanted to pursue all the time they were working but were not able to do so. Does the noble Lord accept that there is a large section of the community whose social needs are met not through taking vocational courses leading to a qualification which they will never use but who are pursuing interests and ideas they have not had the opportunity to explore earlier?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, in substance I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. Adult education courses are extremely important. They continue in large numbers. They are supported by LEAs. The LEAs will continue to be funded by the Government in order to support them. I pointed out to the House that the appearance of decline in that area is principally due to people choosing to take vocational courses rather than purely leisure courses.

Baroness Young

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many in the House welcome what he said about the importance of the adult vocational courses and the importance to individuals to be able to train and retrain for the jobs available in a rapidly changing world? Does he agree that it ill becomes speakers on the Opposition Benches to complain about what is happening today unless they propose to spend a great deal more money in that area? We should all like to see more courses. However, if one is realistic and responsible one must look at the costs.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. Yes, of course, we place particular emphasis on vocational qualifications. However, I emphasise that we: continue to fund LEAs to provide non-vocational courses. We have no intention of reducing or ceasing that.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many of us in this House have learned from experience that the distinction between the non-vocational and vocational is not always easy to make?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, yes, I entirely agree. I believe that that is why many adults are able to move to courses which are "vocational" without in effect changing what they are studying.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, can the Government advise the House when they will start to abide by their philosophy? Is it right that the Government have for the past 15 years said, in effect, that they are not in a position to back winners and losers? Is the Minister aware of the person who undertook a flower arranging course—I believe that such a course is considered to be non-vocational—who went on to found an international business in a very entrepreneurial manner? Surely it is that kind of activity which the Government should support and not relegate to the second division.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we do not regard such courses as a second division; and we continue to support such activity.

Lord Judd

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will also accept my best wishes for his future in his new role after his long and assiduous apprenticeship on the past two Education Bills. Will the Minister take the opportunity to clarify the situation? We need vocational education for a strong economy. Does the Minister agree that we need a strong economy so that we can have a decent, civilised society? Does he also agree that in a decent, civilised society education can be an important end in itself and that adult education has a distinguished record in this country in contributing to the quality of our lives? Will the Minister give us a categoric assurance that adult non-vocational education will not slip to second place but will remain as high a priority as vocational education?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am particularly grateful for the noble Lord's welcome to me at this Dispatch Box. I have listened to him with great pleasure over several years.

Yes, I am happy to state that adult non-vocational education will remain a high priority with us.

Baroness David

My Lords, finally, if the Minister believes that the LEAs have enough funding, perhaps I may read one sentence from one of the many letters that I have received. It states: I believe that every pound saved on adult education will end up being spent, probably twice over, on health and social services". I believe that to be true.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we do not seek to save money on adult education. Indeed we are spending more on it every year.