HL Deb 10 July 1995 vol 565 cc1371-4

2.46 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

In pursuing the objectives set out in the White Paper published in May 1995 entitled Competitiveness (Cm. 2867), where they place greatest emphasis in seeking improvements in education and training.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the new Department for Education and Employment provides an outstanding opportunity to secure for the United Kingdom the best qualified workforce in Europe. Demanding the new national targets for education and training endorsed in the Competitiveness White Paper provides the focus for all our efforts to achieve that.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply, may I offer him my congratulations on this his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Minister of State, and may I refer him to another announcement that was made last week and to which he has just implicitly referred, the bringing under one roof of Employment and Education? May I ask him whether that means that we shall see a more constructive and harmonious relationship between academic and vocational qualifications and an improvement in teacher training to match? In that connection, may I refer the Minister to paragraph 7.46 of the Competitiveness White Paper which talks about the Teacher Training Agency? Is it the case that the Teacher Training Agency's liberal and rapid policy of accreditation of teacher training institutions is a measure of the agency's approval of the quality of work that goes on in those institutions?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his congratulations to me personally and for his implied congratulations to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on bringing together the two departments of Education and Employment. As the noble Lord is fully aware, the point of the merger is to provide a degree of focus for all the policies and programmes which are designed to educate and train both young people and adults and to equip and re-equip them for work. On the noble Lord's specific questions about the Teacher Training Agency, I assure him that the Teacher Training Agency has already made its mark as an agency committed to improving the quality of teaching and learning. We shall be fully behind further improvements in the standard of teacher training. We believe that there is yet much more to be done.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, perhaps I too may offer the Minister congratulations on his new appointment. Does he agree with me that nowadays there is no clear dividing line between vocational and non-vocational education and training? Does he agree that that is because in today's knowledge-based world of work employers place much more emphasis on the ability to learn and to continue learning rather than on the application of specific knowledge?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I fully agree with the sentiments that he has expressed on the divide between vocational and academic education. I believe that for far too long there has been perceived to be a divide between the two. We believe that that divide is false. I hope that the new merger of the two departments will allow us to continue to prove that that division is false.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, now that education and training have been brought within the ambit of one government department, as proposed two years ago by the National Commission on Education, will the Government now examine the possibility of establishing a framework for an integrated modular system of qualifications at 16 to 18, embracing the best of GCSEs, A-Levels, NVQs and GNVQs, so that young people who so wish can take a combination of vocational and academic subjects?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord makes some interesting and complicated suggestions to someone who has been in the department for a matter of just three days, and I have to say that two of those were spent on the beach with my wife and children. I take note of what the noble Lord had to say and I shall certainly pass it on to my right honourable friend the new Secretary of State for Employment and Education.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the Minister agree that every time we have had a recovery in the post-war period we have been short of skilled labour; that the real problem in Britain today is that, on the one hand, we have substantial unemployment and, on the other hand, there is a mismatch between what industry requires and the labour available? Will it be a prime objective of the new enlarged department to try to deal with that problem once and for all?

Lord Henley

My Lords, one of the new department's prime objectives is obviously to deal with our general competitiveness. Competitiveness in education plays an important part in ensuring that we have the right people with the right skills to meet the changing labour market. As the noble Lord on the Labour Front Bench said earlier, the important point is that people acquire the art of learning so that they can go on developing their skills and education over the years rather than think that they can rely on one skill that they acquired at the beginning of their career to see them through to the end.

Baroness David

My Lords, how does the Minister think that the recently announced scheme of vouchers for nursery education will contribute to the general improvement, when that scheme has been condemned by a great many well-informed educational circles?

Lord Henley

My Lords, it has been condemned by one or two people, but it has been supported by a great many people. I am sorry that the noble Baroness and the party opposite did not ask to have the Statement on nursery education repeated in this House last week. If they had done so, we could have debated this matter at some length and I hope that I would have been able to convince the noble Baroness—if it is possible to convince the noble Baroness—of the virtues of that scheme. Put simply, it offers parents a much greater degree of choice, and through that choice will allow them to develop nursery education to the benefit of all concerned.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, with respect to paragraph 7.5 of this White Paper, may I just ask if the Government will institute regular and rigorous international comparisons of education performance and be ready to emulate best practice in other countries, not excluding Scotland?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are always prepared to emulate best practice in all other countries, including Scotland. In the main, our comparisons with our main competitors show that we are doing rather well, particularly in matters such as graduate output. In terms of measuring comparisons precisely, it is a difficult art to produce meaningful accurate comparisons over a wide range of qualifications throughout all different countries. The basic point that the noble Lord is putting, that we should seek to learn from the best practice of our competitors, is one that I am more than happy to endorse.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, perhaps I, too, may congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his new appointment. Does he agree that one of the good results of the Government's work over the past few years is that many more girls are obtaining qualifications and therefore they will, of course, strengthen the employment position in this country? Does my noble friend agree that one third of girls are now leaving school with at least one A-Level, and that there are now more than twice the number of women in full-time education after leaving school than there were 25 years ago?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those remarks. They are remarks that we can accept. As regards general employment levels of women in the labour market, I can assure my noble friend that we already have the second highest participation rate of women in the labour market of all our European competitors.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, as an old educationist may I say how horrified I am by the whole muddle involved in this change? Is the Minister aware that all educationists are aware that what he has been trying to do for young people has nothing whatever to do with solving the problem of the unemployed?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I fail to see how the noble Earl's question follows from what has been said. What we are saying is that we are trying to give a new focus to the work of the Department for Education and the vocational and training work done previously by the Department of Employment. We believe that will help the unemployed.