HC Deb 21 November 2002 vol 394 cc1-44WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

2.30 pm
The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge)

I start by apologising to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chair of the Select Committee on Education and Skills. He had been intending to open this afternoon's debate and was thwarted, but I can promise him that there will be endless future occasions when we can discuss these issues, which I know are hugely important to him and to other Members.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to spend time on the Floor, albeit on the Westminster Hall Floor, talking about a part of the education and training service that is always grossly undervalued, and which is all too often neglected and ignored, as I am sure many other Members will agree. We in the Labour party have always recognised the importance of the further education sector, so it gives me enormous pride, huge satisfaction and a sense of humble honour to be here today as a Minister with overall responsibility for lifelong learning to set out our ambitions and well-funded plans for investment and reform in the sector.

I pay tribute to my many colleagues who have supported the development of the programme that we have announced this week. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has always had lifelong learning at the centre of his concerns, and he made the start in ensuring that we put the FE sector back in its rightful place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris) worked closely with us to develop the strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced earlier this week at a conference of the Association of Colleges. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley felt passionately about FE and wanted to be part of the programme that we were putting together for its future.

I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who cannot be with us today but has worked closely with me to ensure that we can put forward a firm set of proposals that are radical but give us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to progress in this important sector.

I first state why FE is so important to this Labour Government. In crude terms, more than 4 million students learn in their local FE colleges each year—a large number of people dependent on the services provided by more than 400 colleges. It often comes as a surprise to people to learn that more than half of 16 to 19-year-olds receive their full-time education in the FE sector. We hear much about school sixth forms, and they make a valuable contribution, but the FE sector actually educates more 16 to 19-year-olds than the school sector. FE is also the sector that provides much of the vocational education and training to adults seeking work, where its role is crucial.

FE is a growing and very important provider of higher education. About 11 per cent. of our current HE students receive that education in an FE setting and over time, as we expand to reach our 50 per cent. target, with the focus very much on increasing the number of people undertaking vocational HE courses, the FE sector will play a growing role in higher education.

FE is the key part of the education framework that responds to employer demands for the development of skills in the work force. FE is the main provider of basic literacy and numeracy education for those who seek to acquire such basic skills during their adult years. FE provides that crucial second chance opportunity to all those learners who were failed by the system during their school years. FE provides the opportunity to extend one's horizons and enrich one's life by engaging in the joy of learning things one has never learned before, and probably did so for us all. That is why FE is so important.

FE is central to what the Government are about because it supports our twin objectives of ensuring that we promote economic prosperity and pursue social inclusion. FE helps us create the better skills base that is so important in driving our productivity agenda. Much of that enhanced skills base will, during the coming period, be delivered through FE in programmes like the modern apprenticeships programme, on which we hope to make further announcements in the not-too-distant future. The level 2 targets that we have set for adults will also largely be delivered by those working in FE, and those receiving their education and training in that sector. That is the way in which the skills base is built.

Anyone who spends time in any FE college will see the commitment in the sector towards promoting social inclusion and opportunity for all in our society. One needs only to consider the statistic that I often use—27 per cent. of students in FE come from 15 per cent. of the most deprived and disadvantaged wards in the country—to see how the work of the colleges is focused on those in greatest need. If I refer back to my previous ministerial position, when I had responsibility for people with disabilities, I can say that the provision of many education and training services for people with disabilities was most often provided by the FE sector throughout their lives. That was often supported by the voluntary sector, but FE plays a critical role in ensuring that there really is equality in education and training for those with disabilities. FE is central because it helps us meet those intertwined objectives of inclusion and prosperity.

FE has a good record. All too often there are criticisms, but I want to praise the record that it has established. More than any other part of the education sector, FE has responded well to our widening participation agenda. If we consider any statistic relating to the sort of progression achieved by people who have not been able in the past to stay in education or training and translate that into concrete achievements, we can see how well the sector has worked with disadvantaged people. The achievement rates in FE were up by 5 per cent. last year, which is something that we should celebrate, and the number of colleges that were achieving below 60 per cent. in achievement rates fell from 36 per cent. to 14 per cent. between 1997–98 and 1999–2000. Even at the bottom of the sector there has been a steady improvement in the quality of colleges that were not previously achieving as well as we would have hoped.

I am proud to have been able to announce our first seven beacon colleges in our new programme for celebrating excellence through the awarding of learning and skills beacon status. We now have about 137 colleges that have centres of vocational excellence, which is another way in which we are developing a vocational capability to respond to the local and regional skills agenda, which is the important role that FE fulfils in so many local and regional communities.

It is a good record, but equally, as I said, there are issues that we need to address. That is why we set about thinking about how we could invest in and reform the sector. I want to touch on one or two of those issues.

Although quality is superb in some instances, it is still all too variable between and within colleges. All of us in the Department were concerned about that as the first tranche of inspections emerged under the new inspection regime that we established two or three years ago. It is fair to say that everyone greeted the birth of that regime with some suspicion, but I am pleased to say that it has bedded down and is now respected by all those in the sector. In their joint inspections, the adult learning inspectorate and Ofsted found that 15 per cent. of colleges were inadequate and required full re-inspection, 44 per cent. had some unsatisfactory provision and required some re-inspection, and 20 per cent. suffered from poor leadership. Despite the fact that the findings on work-based learning were even more worrying, that is not a good enough record if FE is to fulfil the role that we want of it.

At the end of October this year, the Learning and Skills Council found that 82 colleges were still in a financially weak position. A recent survey by the Confederation of British Industry showed that only 38 per cent. of members surveyed rated their local colleges as good or excellent providers of training and education. If FE is to play a role in raising skills and productivity levels among our work force, it must be well regarded by employers.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am sorry for missing the first couple of minutes of the debate, and I will have to go to a Select Committee sitting. I know that my hon. Friend follows the goings-on in Stroud with particular interest, and she will be pleased to hear that at long last we have a memorandum of agreement between Stroud college and three 11-to-18 schools, which is good way of working towards properly co-ordinated post-16 education. The college's real grouse is that it is trying to go after the less traditional students, but in so doing is unable to capitalise on the same income stream as if it were concentrating on 16 to 19-year-olds. I know that my hon. Friend is looking to introduce some changes, and I welcome the increased funding, but will she comment on the key issue of how colleges' funding streams could be improved by achieving greater parity?

Margaret Hodge

As my hon. Friend will know, the Learning and Skills Council is reviewing its funding formula to achieve that parity as regards who is taught. It is undoubtedly true that a college receives more income for a full-time student than for a part-time adult student, and that often creates disparities. It is a difficult issue to deal with, but, with the Learning and Skills Council, we are attempting to secure better parity of funding, whatever age group is being taught.

The other issue of concern to us is the quality of the teaching force in the sector. Far too many people teaching both full-time and part-time still do not have the appropriate teaching qualifications, which should be a basic prerequisite of working with adults or 16 to 19-year-olds in whatever context. The information is not 100 per cent. accurate, but we think that the qualification rate is about 60 per cent. of full-timers and 43 per cent. of part-timers, so about 40 per cent. of full-timers and about 60 per cent. of part-timers are without qualifications.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Many people in FE colleges will say that the reason why there are so many unqualified part-time lecturers in the FE sector is that over the past five years the Government have not funded the sector well enough to recruit staff, to pay decent salaries and to get the situation in order. It is all very well to criticise Ofsted inspections, but where have the Government been with the funding?

Margaret Hodge

As my hon. Friend knows, we have increased funding, but we are now able to provide a massive injection through the current comprehensive spending review. These welcome resources, which came from both the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, will enable us to enhance that funding level. The reasons why there has not been investment in the professional development of those who teach in FE colleges are the generation of underfunding and the atmosphere of competition engendered by the previous Government. We are trying to replace that with co-operative, planned provision to enhance quality in the best interests of students.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

A new dawn is breaking for FE following the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in Birmingham on Tuesday. Does the Minister accept that one of the traditional strengths of FE colleges is their ability to bring in part-time tutors who are specialists in their fields to contribute to the teaching on vocational courses? It is completely unrealistic to assume that we should achieve or even desire 100 per cent. of teaching staff to be qualified teachers because many of them will be fully qualified in their own full-time occupation.

Margaret Hodge

I half accept what my hon. Friend is saying. It is not good enough to say to those who want to learn a particular trade or acquire a particular vocational qualification that they will be taught by somebody who has a specialism but cannot teach. We need to ensure that even those who come in as specialists in their vocational sphere have the opportunity to pursue some professional development courses, which will enable them to pick up some pedagogical skills to allow them to impart their specialism in an appropriate way to their students. That is one of the developments that we will be able to fund out of the generous settlement that we are putting in place for 2003–06.

Mr. Chaytor

I accept completely what my hon. Friend has said. However, there is a difficulty if we apply too rigidly a requirement to have a teaching qualification to people who have very rare, specialist skills. At the end of the day, students ought to judge the quality of teaching in those circumstances.

Margaret Hodge

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should not rigidly require specialists to have those teaching skills. If he were to read the document—the light blue version of "Success for All: Reforming Further Education and Training"—that we published on Tuesday when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his speech, he would see that we expect everybody to have a teaching competence by 2010 except those who are starting in teaching, and that they should have the opportunity in their first couple of years to develop their teaching skills. We are not preventing people with technical and vocational skills coming in, but we are ensuring that once they come in they get the appropriate support to allow them to develop their teaching skills.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

The settlement and the announcement that we heard on Tuesday will give the Government and the FE sector an opportunity to take on board all the questions that are being raised today. What is important is that the settlement is the best that I can recall. I became chairman of the all-party group on further and adult education in 1988, and today is the most momentous day in FE since then. The praise that the Minister is giving to FE today is most welcome, and we want to thank the Government for their response. We hope that the colleges will respond in the way in which she wishes.

Margaret Hodge

I am immensely grateful for those words. I should like to place on record a tribute to my hon. Friend. I did not realise that he has chaired the all-party group since 1988. During the time that I have been a member of it, he has shown a complete commitment to the sector and to the well-being of all those who work and learn within it.

Mr. Sheerman

I agree with 10 per cent. of what the Minister just said—the 10 per cent. that included accolades for my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner).

Is it not a gross discourtesy to the House that such an important announcement about FE was made at a conference? It is significant that such a piece of news, which is the first of its kind since I came to Parliament—more than 20 years ago—has been announced somewhere other than the House. That is in addition to the fact that the whole issue was snatched from the Select Committee.

I shall make a serious point on what the Minister was saying about the qualifications of practical people with professional skills. One great criticism is that it is too easy to be taught the theory of plumbing or of anything else in an FE college without the practice. Practice—hands-on work—is being driven out because that is the expensive bit.

Margaret Hodge

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that he welcomes the opportunity this afternoon for us to have a proper three-hour debate on FE. It is a delight to be able to debate the sector, but it might have been better to do so in the Chamber.

Of course we want good practical, vocational training in FE to build the qualifications and skills that we require. However, he will share memories with me of being at the butt of people who were incredibly good practitioners but not good teachers; both capabilities are needed to impart practical knowledge to students for them to develop the skill to do the job. We are therefore attempting to achieve a complementarity of skills, and we recognise that both are of equal importance.

I shall talk about our wonderful settlement because I am really excited by it. With a strong investment strategy, we are tackling issues in FE radically to raise the game, raise standards, improve participation and raise the status and importance of the sector. There is substantial investment coupled with serious reform. It has been one of the most exciting exercises in which I have been engaged since I have been a Minister. I am proud that we have been able to put a 19 per cent. real-terms increase into the sector over three years. That is substantial money for which the sector has been waiting a long time. I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that he was warmly welcomed at the Association of Colleges conference on Tuesday. We are putting in an extra £1.2 billion into FE.

I am proud that we are able to announce some stability for the sector with the three-year funding deals, which will be translated from us to the Learning and Skills Council and to every individual college. I am also proud that we have been able to announce a substantial increase in capital investment in the sector. When we first came into office, no capital stream of funding had been left for us by the previous Government. We have increased that funding over time, and in this spending review settlement an extra 60 per cent. over the period will be going into capital—more than £400 million a year by the 2005–06 financial year.

The other thing about which I know that the sector's management and staff will be delighted is that we have consolidated into the base unit funding the teachers' pay initiative— the TPI— and standards funds payments, which were introduced in the previous spending review. That will enable flexibility at college level to spend according to the priorities of the college.

The final element of the strategy to which I shall draw attention is the significant investment that we are making in teaching and learning. That is a new way in which we are trying to raise the quality of the experience for students. The investment is substantial and it is coupled with a radical proposal for the funding of colleges. Colleges will negotiate contracts with their local learning and skills councils. The terms and parameters of the contract will be determined in consultations with the councils, colleges and other partners over the next few months.

We expect contracts to cover issues such as participation—getting more people through the system—improving on success outcomes, engagement with employers and the qualifications and training of staff. These sorts of issues will feed into the terms of the contract, which will then be decided by a local learning and skills council and an individual college.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

The document envisages that, generally speaking, local learning and skills councils will come to satisfactory arrangements, but occasionally things will go badly wrong. Quite unusually, it states that the Learning and Skills Council will have the ultimate sanction of withdrawing funding from a provider where things do go badly wrong. Do the Government have any procedure in mind for decommissioning colleges? In those circumstances, there would be a college, but no funding. That differs from the usual strategy of the Government, which is to put in a different sort of management.

Margaret Hodge

It might be helpful if I knew exactly what the hon. Gentleman was referring to. I think that he was referring to private providers and circumstances in which we could withdraw from contracts.

If I explain the process in which we will engage, things will become clearer. Once a college has agreed a contract, it will get the consolidated moneys plus a 2 per cent. real-terms increase in funding. If at the end of the first year of operating the college does not meet the targets that were set for it, it will go into the second year without a further 2.5 per cent. increase. If the college does meet the targets, it will receive a further 2.5 per cent. real-terms increase in funding. If the college massively exceeds the target and is excellent, it will get an even higher increase in funding. That process continues into the third year. At the end of the third year, unit funding for the very best colleges could be 7 per cent. per unit greater than unit funding for colleges that have not performed satisfactorily.

We will not leave colleges that do not perform satisfactorily to flounder. Where necessary, there will be intervention from the Learning and Skills Council, supported by moneys that it will retain—in the standards fund, in particular—for improving quality and responding to area inspections.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

The Minister may have anticipated my question. She helpfully explained the concept of reinforcing success by making additional funding available against targets. Can she confirm that in cases of difficulty—for example, if there is a failing college, or even a college with a lower level of difficulty—there will at least be the possibility through the local learning and skills council of accessing what might be termed remedial funding to put the situation right? It is no good just writing off a college that has got into difficulties.

Margaret Hodge

There will be access to funding through a standards fund retained by both the central Learning and Skills Council and the local learning and skills councils. It will be a much-diminished fund because we are going to give some of it out to colleges in their unit funding.

If necessary, we will go ahead with closing and cutting out poor provision. Indeed, we have already decided to close North Derbyshire tertiary college. The quality of the teaching and learning was such that we felt that the interests of learners in that area would best be met by the closure of the college and by provision being taken over by neighbouring colleges. We are determined to cut out poor provision and to put at the heart of what we do the interests of the learner and of local employers who require skills to be taught in their locality. The new contracts are a new way of delivering public service reform, and I believe that the rest of government will be watching how successfully we develop the process in the FE sector.

Before I speak briefly about other elements of our reform programme, I want to say that we are extremely conscious of the burden of bureaucracy that affects far too many FE colleges. We are grateful to Sir George Sweeney for the work that he has done on tackling bureaucracy in the FE sector. I believe that he gave a speech yesterday to the Association of Colleges. He has published his report and findings on the first exercise in cutting unnecessary red tape from processes and funding regimes under which FE exists. However, that is a first stage. We are determined to take further steps on aspects such as the inspection, audit and information regimes to ascertain whether we can further cut red tape so that all those who are engaged in teaching and learning in a college can focus on the most important thing, which is raising standards and quality for the students.

I shall pick out a few features of our reform programme to inform Members of our exciting agenda. Much of what we do will depend on area reviews that are carried out by local learning and skills councils of the provision in their locality. From next spring, the area reviews will focus on the 14-to-19 agenda that we have set ourselves. The reviews may result in structural change in the locality, but we do not have a blueprint of how provision should be delivered. It will differ according to local needs and circumstances, the strengths and weaknesses of local providers and whether the area is rural or urban. We want every college to focus on and play to its strengths.

One reason that standards have not been as high as they could have been is that the general FE colleges have tried to do too much, from working with disaffected 14-year-olds right through to delivering HE courses to more able students. If the quality of what is offered in the FE sector is to be raised, colleges must play to their strengths.

We believe that over time that will result in a more distinct 16-to-19 provision, sometimes in separate 16-to-19 colleges—sixth form colleges—but sometimes in distinct centres set up as part of a general FE college. Much of the change in the configuration of local colleges will be supported by other policies, such as the development of the Connexions service, which will be universal in England from April 2003, and the rolling out of the education maintenance allowances, which will be available by 2004. That is one feature of the investment programme.

I wish to speak briefly about how we are trying to get a much better take on ensuring that the training and education supplied in a locality really meet employers' needs. The link between the skill needs in a locality and the providers' delivery of education and training has not been strong enough in the past. Part of any improvement will come out of the skills strategy and delivery plan that we are publishing next June, part of it will come out of the review of adult learning, which will also be published next year, and we expect the developing sectors and skills councils to play a role in ensuring that we offer the appropriate training.

We want the colleges and the learning and skills councils to work far more closely with the regional development agencies, and within the framework for regional employment skills action plans that those agencies have developed. Part of that link into employment will come through the centres of vocational excellence that we are developing. We are delighted to announce in the document that 400 centres of vocational excellence will be up and running by 2006.

We will review the qualifications framework to ensure that it meets employers' needs. We have a strong commitment to expanding the modern apprenticeship programme to meet the skills deficit, which has such an impact on productivity in the UK.

The subject of pedagogy in further education has never been tackled before. Much of our thinking has evolved from the success of the literacy and numeracy strategies at primary level. They have shown us that if best practice is developed in teaching and learning strategies, if materials are provided and there is training and support for teachers, the quality, and hence the outcome for students, can be raised.

To build on that, we have established a new standards unit within the Department which will be staffed largely by secondees from the sector with particular specialisms. We are not creating a new centre of expertise but building on what is there and trying to spread it.

The standards unit will be well resourced, with £100 million by 2005–06. It will focus on curriculum areas, taking one at a time and developing materials, pedagogy and training programmes for people working in colleges. In the first year, we hope to cover four curriculum areas and we will look at business studies, science, construction and entry to employment. We shall cover a further four curriculum areas next year and seven in the third year of this spending review.

Linked to those matters is the need to invest in staff. We have already discussed how the qualification level of those working in further education is not sufficient to ensure that people have the competences that they require to impart good teaching. We have set ourselves ambitious targets: by 2010 only new entrants will not be qualified. The interim target for 2006 is for 90 per cent. of full-time and 60 per cent. of part-time lecturers and teachers working in the FE sector to have a teaching qualification, which will be met partly through the expenditure of moneys being devolved to colleges through the standards funds and the teachers' pay initiative, hence the importance of the contract. It is through the contract that we will deliver our policies at college level.

I am delighted that we are almost at the point of announcing the successful bidder for our leadership college, which we hope will be up and running by April next year. It will run courses to grow new leadership and to support existing ones at all levels of management, to enhance the strategic capacity and management of colleges. That will be underpinned by the quality framework, which is part of our success for all strategy. Floor targets will be introduced so that every college knows that it must achieve certain learner-out success rates and, as we always do in such instances, we shall attempt to develop better-valued measures than we can at present and use them in establishing floor targets.

Inspection framework will continue to play an important role. The provider reviews that the Learning and Skills Council undertakes will also have a role. We want colleges themselves to undertake regular surveys on the views of their students and on the quality of teaching and learning. That is an important ingredient in determining the quality of what is offered in a college.

There will be more beacon colleges if, as we expect, more colleges excel in what they do, and we intend to introduce a new scheme of awards for all staff built on the teaching awards scheme, in order to value teaching and learning in the FE sector.

We can deliver this whole exciting package only based on partnership between the Department and the Learning and Skills Council. We must be in the driving seat, but both partners must work with colleges, the inspectorates, staff, trade unions and others to achieve our ambitions.

We will know that we have succeeded only when we have increased the number of people who participate in learning in FE colleges, when we begin to raise the success outcomes, when our ambitions for raising quality have been achieved, and when our determination to strengthen the engagement of colleges with the demands of employers has been realised. Everyone must play their part, and it is down to all of us as partners in this endeavour to work with this exciting reform and strong investment agenda to deliver much better prospects for those who depend on further education.

3.10 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

It is always a pleasure to debate further education, even though it is now public knowledge that this slot was originally assigned to higher education and has been transferred to further education because the Government are not yet in a position to announce their plans for financing higher education. However, the Government's difficulty is our opportunity. Further education is not a second best to higher education.

The Minister has set out her case at some length; she had a lot to talk about, much of which we would agree with. It increasingly seems to me, however, that she is the Jekyll and Hyde of the Labour education team. In the first part of her remarks, in which she set out the case for FE, I would have gone no further than saying "Ditto", because she gave an eloquent and proper account of the important role of FE, which, as she rightly said, had not been adequately highlighted in the past.

Last night, those of us, including the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who had the opportunity to go to the Association of Colleges for Further and Higher Education dinner, saw FE at its best, both in the tremendous people involved and in the wonderful cabaret performed by young people doing their own thing, doing it well and to a high level of professionalism. That cheered us all up.

I agreed with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), that we should no longer speak about FE as if it were the Cinderella sector. I hope that no one in this Chamber believes that to be the case.

The Mr. Hyde side of the Minister's character was demonstrated when, after those honeyed words of encouragement, she reverted to her earlier habit of discussing inadequacies. That habit has not always commended itself to the sector.

Although none of us, including Opposition Members, must be uncritical, I believe that anyone considering the FE sector dispassionately would see how much it has achieved, given the resources available and the material with which it sometimes works. The value added from the FE sector is high. Discussing failing colleges and those colleges that do not meet their targets, even if the thresholds of those targets are set high, is not always the best way of encouraging co-operation or a positive response.

Another aspect of the Minister's Mr. Hyde character is an aversion to delicate and difficult issues. I sat back and allowed her parliamentary colleagues to make certain points, with some firmness, about the skills agenda, and about who is available to teach in FE. I believe that that was but a sample of the sort of withering fire that she will receive from colleagues and Opposition Members if she pursues certain lines of argument on funding for higher education. This is not a matter where easy, pat solutions can be achieved without a great deal of distress. I do not wish to trespass further on the generosity of the Chamber by saying more about that.

Before a Government Member is tempted to intervene to suggest that I am being churlish, I must point out that I do not intend to be churlish about the positive aspects of announcements that have been made this week. In particular, if only because I am attracted by the colour of the cover, I commend to the House the Government's new document "Success for All". The Secretary of State's introduction sets out a template by which the success or otherwise of the policies to be adopted in the next few years will be judged. He says: The sector must ensure that 14 to 19-year-old learners have greater choice and higher standards with a wide range of academic and vocational programmes providing clear opportunities to progress to higher education and skilled employment. It must also ensure that adult learners have greater access to excellent provision for basic skills, training for work and learning for personal development and that employers have a productive engagement with a transformed and responsive network of providers committed to meeting regional and sub-regional skills needs. This is our challenge to you. That is pretty unexceptionable. I would not have put in some of the adjectives and I would not have implied that the challenge was just to the providers and did not include the Secretary of State. However, he is more or less along the right lines in what he is looking at in the FE sector.

I said that I intended to be reasonably generous in relation to this week's announcement. There is, if not a standing instruction, a prevalent habit of Opposition education spokespersons to say that any Government announcement of additional funds should be accompanied by a health warning. I give that warning to the Committee.

There is a lot of detail and small print to look at. There are, for example, transfers which the hon. Lady explained from the standards fund and from the teaching policy initiative into mainstream funding. Most of us on the Opposition Benches have been in favour of mainstream funding and not cutting money up into penny packets over the years. If that is a triumph, we will claim it. But there are one or two areas of specific concern, which again feature in the discussions that some of us have had over the past day or two. For example, the 1 per cent. uplift in national insurance contributions could, on a quick calculation, cost the sector at least £10 million and probably more next year. There is the whole question of paying for pensions, which is a great difficulty throughout the public sector and is a potential contingent liability, although I believe that the Government are minded to pay some attention to that matter.

Nevertheless, there is extra money for the sector. We welcome that. I do not wish to pretend otherwise. Indeed, one of the reasons why I welcome it is because I can reasonably claim to have had a longstanding enthusiasm for and commitment to further education. I have that because I believe passionately that it can reach the parts of the system that others would not claim to reach. It involves, strikingly, twice as many students as the whole of the higher education sector. For example, membership of the National Union of Students among further education colleges is greater than in higher education. We often forget that. Not all of the students are full-time. It delivers more A-levels than the school system.

The FE sector has a huge range. At one end there is special needs provision, which I am pleased the Minister touched upon. There is adult basic skills provision, where I have a family involvement. Then there is conventional level 2 and level 3 qualifications, in both general academic education and vocational activities. It goes all the way through to degree-level work and even post-graduate professional development and skills updating. It is an interesting thought that possibly alongside the Open university, what might be termed the "further education university" of this country has a larger number of higher education participants than any other university in this country. It does everything, and has a great range.

A general caveat is that eyebrows were beginning to lift on this side with some concern that in the move to try to create specialism, what could be termed the "GP function" of further education might be overlooked. I am not against centres of vocational excellence or a concentration of resources where they are available, but we never want to reach a situation in which people are turned away because there is no local provision. That is one of the great strengths of further education. It is possible to argue that there is a complementarity about having those different levels of provision together, which I suspect Government Members argued in relation to the comprehensive principle. It is possible to be too tidy minded about the issue.

On the skills agenda, in a famous lecture to the Royal Society of Arts in 1884 concern was expressed about the skills gap that had developed between the United Kingdom and Germany. It is entirely appropriate to reexamine some of the apparent distinctions. The German vocational system has great strengths that are not always pedagogic, but come from the commitment to the binary system and employers' active engagement. That is the best underpinning of the system and its importance. I would very much welcome that same climate of opinion in the UK, if we could create it.

If we are honest, which we should be in any debate in Westminster Hall, social progress in this country is not the exclusive preserve of any one party or Government. We make haste slowly, to some extent, by building on each other's achievements and successes. If the Minister is honest, she will concede that, even now, we have probably not got as far as we should in relation to skills. The process is one of trying to readdress the problem of the skills gap. The Minister has some recent and powerful allies. I gather from press reports that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was recently quoted as having noticed that it is very difficult to get skilled trades people in southern England and that they are much more expensive than in Scotland where there is a comparative labour surplus. Most employers could have told him that, and probably do when he asks them.

I said that we are not discussing higher education this afternoon, but with great respect to the Minister, the Government's arbitrary adoption of the target of a 50 per cent. higher education participation must not be at the expense of the appropriate vocational education provision. The essential need of employers to whom I talk is for skills. They do not want stupid people or those who cannot adapt. I am worried that there may be some diversion of effort from that area.

I noticed that no less distinguished a person than the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills was not wholly complimentary about the Government's record on further education. I would settle for saying that it is patchy, at best. During the early 1990s, when I had ministerial responsibilities for education, we made resources available for a massive increase in participation, which, amazingly, we achieved. Since then, Ministers of the current Administration have done their best to rubbish that achievement and have gone on about franchises. However, the fact is that there were real increases in participation, most of which was of high quality and successful.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The increase in participation came with an abrupt cut in distance learning education in 1997, leaving many of those who wanted to participate in it with no future indication of funding whatever.

Mr. Boswell

I am delighted to say that by the time that that happened, I was not the Minister. I am aware that it was distressing, but since that day, participation rates have not risen again. I was just coming on to that point. Participation has not improved throughout the six-year period of the Labour Administration. A target to increase numbers by 700,000 over two years has not materialised, but I do not blame the further education sector or even the past financial package; we must move on to deal with the stagnation.

The Minister said little about the state of industrial relations in the colleges or the professional development of college staff. I hate industrial disputes, which often achieve little. The Opposition should not capitalise frequently on such occurrences, but the Committee must note that until recently NATFHE was in dispute not so much with the employers as with the Government.

Margaret Hodge

With the employers.

Mr. Boswell

Does the Minister not recall that employers lobbied hard for a bigger envelope in order to pay their staff more appropriately? They were having considerable difficulty in securing that from the Government. I am pleased that that, too, is suspended, at least for the time being.

I shall move on to the first of my main concerns. According to figures provided by the Association of Colleges, the disparity on entering the profession between the pay of an FE lecturer and a school teacher—let alone a computer specialist in the private sector—is roughly 18 per cent., which also applies at the top of the scale. The FE scale is much longer than the teachers' scale. It is a large and significant disparity, not a minor adjustment.

We should recall the comments of the Association of Colleges, which has tried, like myself, not to be churlish about this week's announcement. It said: Today's announcement goes some way to creating equality. The Association of Colleges still wants the gap closed completely. That is a fair statement of its position and of its worry that it may still be difficult, even with the package that the Secretary of State and the Minister have mentioned. Enrolment has been a problem, particularly in the adult learners sector, which has relatively poor resourcing in comparison with the 16-to-19 sector. Problems will remain, even when the package has worked its way through.

I shall touch briefly on other concerns. One is the degree of interference by the Government. The rot started with the original remit letter from the Government to the Learning and Skills Council. I recall that 76 indents were put out to the LSC. I can just imagine saying to my secretary, "Please take 76 urgent letters." It is much better to set out three or four priorities and concentrate on them. That should bring about the possibility of achieving and measuring success. Too many targets can be dangerous, leading to confusion of achievement with the target—perhaps an occasional aim of the Government. We need to know exactly what we want in respect of enrolment and quality, but we do not want a huge burden of bureaucracy. The Minister is now bent, with the assistance of Sir George Sweeney, on repairing some of the bureaucracy that she herself created for colleges.

Another factor is that there are so many players in the field. There are colleges and their boards, governors and councils, who clearly have their own views on how they should be run. They are inevitably second-guessed by the local learning and skills councils, which are of uneven quality, although mine in Northamptonshire is particularly good. Plans are then subject to further moderation by the Learning and Skills Council itself. On top of that are the regional development agencies, with whom the councils are now enjoined to work even more closely.

There are a whole plethora of bodies and targets in this field, and there is a danger that that could get in the way of teaching. There is also a concern about the mutuality, or stakeholding, in the process. Of course, it might occasionally be necessary to take tough remedial measures, but the basic approach should be to encourage, and to try to share a way through problems, rather than to wield the big stick.

Another area of concern is the inspection regime. As the Minister rightly said, concerns were expressed about that in the past. Some complexities are the direct result of Government structuring, but it is fair to say that, on the whole, the regime has worked reasonably satisfactorily. However, I would not like her to feel that there are absolutely no problems. I have heard concerns from one of my colleges about the nature of an inspection that took place during the revision process, which was quite untypical of the normal teaching activity in the college.

I need to repeat that, in making any criticisms of the FE sector—which should not be immune from criticism—we must take account of the value added that it has achieved and of the historic legacy of the sector. We are all familiar with going into classes of children of 16 who had left school with nothing better than a D grade, decided that they want to do something such as catering, found it interesting, and suddenly reinvested in education because they needed basic skills, such as the ability to calculate and measure quantities. That is great, and the sad thing—I think Ministers are beginning to learn this lesson—for FE and higher education is that that is not always being dealt with at school level. It should be dealt with there as far as possible, before it becomes a problem later.

I am also a little concerned about the inspection of adult training, which does not get enough attention. Perhaps we should look at it on another occasion. The Minister touched only briefly on the advanced modern apprenticeships. She might want to increase them now, but their numbers have been going down. If we are to get the skills needed, we must secure an increase in numbers.

That brings me naturally to the qualification framework. The Minister mentioned restructuring. It will be interesting to see whether the model that emerges is specialist A-level provision or, as she implied, specialist provision for 16 to 19-year-olds, which could of course include vocational skills and vocational A-levels, and would be distinct from adult provision. In certain cases that might be appropriate, although the Minister will be aware of all the demarcation lines that that would draw. One player that I did not mention was the local education authority, its role as the school provider and maintainer, and how that is to be broken. Whether there will be joint governance and what the lines of accountability should be, for example, could become real issues in my constituency.

I wonder whether we have the right handle on vocational qualifications. In the same way that this debate might be taken, as I suggested, as subsidiary to an HE debate that has not taken place, I am worried that people looking at vocational A-levels might say that they are almost the same as other A-levels, but not quite what people wanting to go on to higher education should have. That kind of class distinction would not be helpful.

We should also bear in mind the implications for the FE sector of an international baccalaureate, if that is what Ministers want to go towards, which offers something quite different and might or might not be able to be incorporated in that sector. In case there is any misconception, I am a strong supporter of moving towards a framework of imparting and validating teaching skills in further education. There are constraints, as hon. Members have mentioned, but it must be right to move towards that in a sensible and planned way.

I am surprised by one little skeleton in the closet that the Minister chose not to mention, which is the fiasco over individual learning accounts. That has caused a problem for individual students, for providers and the sector as a whole, and it has not gone away yet. I had correspondence this week concerning a business that was owed £186,000 in relation to the delivery of training to 4,000 students. The business had provided proof of the delivery of that training to the Department as long ago as October 2001. The business cannot receive payment and does not know whether the Department has yet paid the ILA provider, because the Department will not confirm that.

There is excess expenditure of the order of £70million. A large number of accounts are still open, and we are now told that the Government will make no announcement of their proposals for a replacement scheme until June 2003. Moreover, it is still not clear when the proposals will be implemented after that announcement. We will have at least a two-year hiatus in provision for supporting individual skills. I cannot help feeling that the Chancellor has told the Department that it has overspent by £70 million and that the Budget will mark time until that is clawed back. Then, and only then, will the Department be allowed to begin a new scheme. Unfortunately, skills are required in the meanwhile, and they are not being delivered to the ordinary people who need them.

I do not want to close on a purely negative note. Ministers may well be learning lessons about the central importance of the further education sector. That sector does not need, and has never benefited from, an authoritarian approach. There is a huge amount of initiative and enterprise approaches—in the widest sense of the word—available in the sector, in its staff and colleges. That needs monitoring, encouragement and the appropriate finance from Ministers. Above all, even more than higher education, the sector holds the keys to skills and competitiveness for the United Kingdom as a whole. We should not forget that, because individuals' lives have been changed by what they have done in FE, even when they had never done anything like that before, through a dedicated staff, that is not particularly well paid or well recognised.

FE has created opportunities for people of all abilities at all levels to shine. It is worth while for the country, but it is hugely worth while for the individual as well. To adopt that as a positive approach is the best way of securing what in the words of the Government's document—Governments are good at words—is appropriately described as "success for all", which we would all wish to see achieved.

3.39 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. As hon. Members will know, disappointingly the debate programme for this afternoon, which was allocated to the Select Committee on Education and Skills to devote to higher education, was taken from us at short notice and taken over by the Government. I fully understand their reasons, but I have to point out to the Minister and members of the Select Committee that we are delighted to debate further education, for which it has been a good week. Moreover, we are making a point concerning the relationship between the legislature and the Executive. The debate was changed—it has not been replaced—at 10 o'clock in the morning and replaced by a Government debate. We have lost that debating time and I have had no assurance from the Government through the usual channels that we shall ever get it back.

Will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that we get a replacement debate? By that I do not mean a debate when the Government have at last responded to the Select Committee's report on higher education and higher education finance—we should get that anyway—but a replacement debate for this lost time, which has been lost to the Public Accounts Committee or any other Select Committee that bid for it. This morning, I was in the Liaison Sub-Committee in which different Select Committees were bidding for time for debates—bidding for time that is scarce and precious. Will the Minister use her good offices to get us a replacement debate, and not just one on higher education?

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for giving way. I should like to associate the Opposition with the request to the Minister and the Government to replace the debate as soon as is conveniently possible.

Mr. Sheerman

As Chairman of the Select Committee, I find it slightly irritating when the Government miss attempts by some hon. Members— there are not many of us— to assert a little bit more power and status for the legislature. I echo others when I say that the document is important and contains the most important messages to the FE sector in my time in Parliament. I do not see why the Minister or the Secretary of State should not have made a proper statement to the House. The document was available in the Vote Office, but that is not the same as a proper statement. The Government are in effect saying that FE is a Cinderella by not giving it due time with a full statement on the Floor of the House. You may think that I am getting old and pernickety, Mr. Amess, but I had to make that point, firmly.

We have become accustomed to Green Papers and White Papers, but this interesting document has not been explained to me—it is neither fish nor fowl. It is certainly a blue paper, and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) likes the colour. Is it a thought piece by the new Secretary of State? If it is, he has thought very rapidly. What is it? Is it an action plan? Will everything in it come about? It is not a consultation document because we have had the consultation document. I am holding my breath to find out its official status.

Margaret Hodge

Neither rabid blue nor pale blue has ever been my colour. When I was told that a fantastic designer who supports our endeavours in the Department for Education and Skills had selected the blue cover, I wondered whether we had got the best designer. The document is a policy statement that takes forward the allocation of resources from the comprehensive spending review and explains how the money will be spent.

Mr. Sheerman

Good. We have it on the record. Thank you for allowing me to extract that from the Minister, Mr. Amess.

The document is, of course, good news for the further education sector. I shall not speak for long on this important subject, because many other hon. Members want to speak, some of whom have worked in or spent time in FE for much longer than I have. When I worked for a living a long time ago, I was in higher education, so the FE experts will be waiting to get in.

What is missing from the document is a sufficient spelling out of the vision of what we want FE to supply over the coming years. I shall give the Minister and hon. Members a flavour of my thinking. Given the backdrop of the very much delayed White Paper on higher education, a malicious little thought pops up when one listens to this good news on FE. The Secretary of State informs us—some of us had an inkling of it—that 40 per cent. of HE is carried out in FE. It is the Government's target that 50 per cent. of the cohort enter higher education. That is an enormously ambitious target, and there is no doubt that FE will have to play a large part in that expansion. Some of us suspect that it might be a cheap way of rapidly expanding HE numbers—perhaps inevitably and rightly, in view of the scarce resources that we shall be able to devote to HE. Whatever the case, FE will play an increasing role in delivering higher education for local students. That is important.

The whole area of HE and FE is starting to be transformed. I do not know how many mergers are taking place between universities and FE colleges, but I know that only last week Huddersfield university in my constituency announced a merger with Doncaster college. Some time previously, there was an announcement that Bradford university and Bradford college would be seeking a merger. Such decisions will become much more common. The boundaries between HE and FE will change dramatically. At the same time, as was said earlier, there is secure funding in providing A-level courses for 16 to 19-year-olds but less secure funding for many other courses.

A worrying factor constantly comes up when we consider the grand perspective of the future of FE. When Select Committee members travel around the country visiting schools and colleges—for example, we were in Birmingham for a week in September—we find that the skills that our colleges provide are not quite matched to the skills that are needed out there. One highly valued member of the Committee has a hobby horse: he is always reminding me that we are not training enough electricians and plumbers. That is probably true, but there is a more serious element at the heart of the matter. I recently spoke to the Minister responsible for science, Lord Sainsbury, and his real concern is that we are failing to train enough technicians to work across the piece—in the health service, in universities and in the private sector. We are failing to produce that level of people—a serious potential skills deficit to which we are not responding. As FE is pushed into the HE world, or the 16-to-19 or A-level world, we must seriously address the fact that we have to get absolutely right, as a matter of urgency, the skills that make the economy motor day in, day out.

I seem to be bashing the Government a bit, but only in the lightest way. If I ever get cross with them, they will know about it. However, I was disappointed when the Minister's colleague wrote to me about individual learning accounts. After the hard work that my Committee, and many others, had put into investigating that serious collapse of a Government policy, we wanted to know when it would be replaced. We think that it is a wonderful idea. The Committee was unanimous across the parties that it is a wonderful scheme to reach out to people who were not receiving learning before. All sorts of people and age groups are entering lifelong learning and acquiring skills through individual learning accounts.

We conducted an investigation a long time ago and were keen for the ILA to be replaced. From the investigation and ministerial responses to it, we got the feeling that soon we would see ILA mark 2. A Minister who has now moved to the Treasury intimated that soon a smaller-scale replacement for the ILA would be introduced. As Chairman of the Select Committee, I received a letter from the Minister responsible saying that there would be a groundbreaking national skills strategy but that the Government could not get that together until June so it was tidier to pull it in with the ILA.

I sometimes feel that if we locked up a group of people who are well informed on the subject for a wet weekend in a country house and supplied them with sandwiches and coffee, we could come up with a national skills strategy. We do not need that, however, because we have the Learning and Skills Council, an enormous Department with some 5,750 people, and Ofsted which is almost half that size. Do we have national training organisations? Some, not all, have been abolished. Skills sector councils are being introduced, but they are not fully formed. It is a bit of a mess, and I am not sure that this is the groundbreaking skills strategy and delivery plan that we need. We must accept that we have a pretty good picture of the skills deficiencies in this country and move rapidly—before June 2003—to do something about them, because the FE sector will be right on the front line of delivering those skills.

I feel slight irritation because there are so many initiatives, such as the abolition of national training organisations. I meet people all the time who say that they still work for an NTO but do not know whether they have a job. Others tell me, "If you want a million pounds, just think up an idea for a schools sector council and you'll get it." The opportunities are indeed fabulous, but they are not joined up.

I come from an era when Governments talked about person-power planning, which is totally unfashionable now. We must, however, have an element of assessing and auditing the skills that the nation needs and how they should be delivered. With that, I shall end my rapping of Government knuckles.

There are lots of good things to say about the document, especially if it is translated into action. The hon. Member for Daventry was absolutely right: as any sensible politicians should, we must consider the announcements carefully and see whether the money is delivered. I used to be shadow Minister, and remember that I could not count the number of times that the Conservative Government launched the initiative of 1,000 extra policemen—they did so time and again. When Roy Hattersley—now Lord Hattersley—was my boss in home affairs, it was said that the Labour party never knowingly underlaunched and Roy Hattersley never knowingly underlunched. That was before he became a vegetarian.

We shall be watching carefully. The amount of money given by the Secretary of State and the Minister must come through to the sharp end of the sector without too many strings attached. The document states that the Government want to cut bureaucracy, which is absolutely right. However, I do not approve of money for nothing, and there is always a bureaucratic level embedded in things such as this.

I have many good friends in the FE sector, including those in the Association of Colleges and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education—those people who make the FE sector work—and some of them think that Christmas has come early. Indeed, it has; this is wonderful news, for which they have been lobbying a long time. However, the Committee expects to see delivery of a higher quality service for the money and resources, and we shall be watching very carefully to ensure that the service flows through to the people who matter the most: the students who come into the colleges to receive skills training. It is not good enough at the moment. I applaud the Minister for taking on the colleges and saying, "Come on. Ofsted is saying that half of you are not performing well. You have to perform to standards, and you will not get extra money until you do." That is good news.

When I visit colleges and universities—let us concentrate on colleges—or talk to learning and skills council people and the many people who run the organisations that make education happen, I sometimes worry about the quality of management. It is often taken for granted, as are resources. One can walk through the door of an FE college and meet the principal and their tiny group of back-up staff who are responsible for delivering sophisticated budgets and programmes. Indeed, Huddersfield, a town with a university, has a very large FE college. The college has more students and offers a greater variety of courses than the university but has a very thin management capability. When I walk across to the university and meet the vice-chancellor, I realise that management support for the running of a university in this country is also thin. The management depth is not always there. Sometimes we ask people to deliver with a very thin capability.

The Select Committee visited six or seven universities in the United States. We were very impressed by the high quality and depth of the management support. Most of the people have MBAs. The universities have very sophisticated management types who ensure delivery of their management. I hope that the Government do not take it for granted that that will happen. Management must be considered, and resources must flow into it as well as into teaching. I say that a little nervously because people always criticise so-called bureaucracy, but good management is not wasteful bureaucracy.

I want to finish—I have taken too much time—on a hobby horse of mine. At York university last Thursday evening, I spoke at the annual conference of UVAC. Many people might suppose that that was a new domestic appliance; in fact, it is the University Vocational Awards Council. I was profoundly impressed by the people there who viewed the whole of our educational system—11 to 14, 14 to 19, higher education—as a seamless relationship. They want a commitment from the Government to a continuous process. They want us to think of education not only in FE terms but as a seamless transition.

We have not heard enough about the 14 to 19 Green Paper since its publication. If such education is to achieve parity of esteem and become a respected vocational strand, we must give it much more attention and resources. We must take on the people who divide the debate and who say that more means worse. They sicken me. I am sometimes tempted to go on the "Today" programme to discuss the matter. Three months ago, the Institute of Directors put out an awful so-called policy document—I believe that it was written by Ruth Lea—which says that we need fewer people entering higher education and more plumbers and electricians. What an absurd hypothesis.

Yes, of course we need more skilled tradesmen, technicians and all of those valuable people who make our country run, as I said earlier, but for goodness' sake, 60 per cent. of the population do not go on to higher education. There is a lot of capacity for people to upskill and improve their skills, but I am still dedicated to making the higher education system available to every talent that can benefit from it. I know that the 50 per cent. that is the commitment of the Prime Minister and the Department for Education and Skills could be questioned as a round figure. When the Select Committee questioned Sir Michael Bishard, the former permanent secretary, on whether 50 per cent. was based on ruthless analysis of international competition, was based on research or was a big round fat sexy number, he smiled and assented to the last of those. Let us not be hung up on 50 per cent., but ensure that the figure is what delivers to every person in this country who could benefit from higher education.

I want to say in passing, as I warned him that I would, that the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), rather surprised and saddened me yesterday when, in a question to the Prime Minister, he slated the fact that some universities had courses on aromatherapy and golf course management. I celebrate the diversity of courses. Media studies, rather than being a nonsense course as some critics outside the House call it, provides excellent training for the burgeoning business sector, and people who study it get well-paid jobs. I deprecate people who, when faced with a range of competitive courses offering vocational education at FE and HE level, think that they are in some way inferior. I checked what was being taught at Oxford, which still includes Byzantine studies. I do not know whether anyone can get a job with Byzantine studies, but there are all kinds of odd things on offer.

Mr. Boswell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman

I will not, because I want to finish.

I have rapped a few knuckles. I welcome this week's announcement on the FE sector. I believe that "Success for All" is a very good starting point for the revolution in FE that I hope will take place during the next five years.

4.2 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He would very much like to be here but cannot be. I have no intention of trying to rival his experience, knowledge or eloquence.

I have read "Success for All" from cover to cover, and most of my remarks will be on the Government's strategy. My starting point is that we preside over an historic skills shortage, which is crippling industry—the construction industry, the rail industry and manufacturing industry generally. It is frustrating customers. Quite apart from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I have serious difficulty at the moment in finding a plasterer in the north-west for a hole in my ceiling. Everyone is aware of the shortage, and its extent is horrifying. We have moved on from a situation where there are not enough people in training; there are now not enough people to provide the training.

In the past, arrangements were come to in local areas where employment was largely provided by local companies, whereby technical colleges and FE colleges would liaise with local and national industry to match skills and employment. Arrangements would be made almost naturally that made sense to commerce and students. I am thinking back to the 1960s and 1970s, when there was not the same emphasis on the skills shortage. What seems to have happened is that industry has gradually withdrawn from its training role and absolved itself of that. That was partly because of the recession, when training had to be cut first, and partly because some industries found the attraction of employing unskilled, mobile labour or exporting labour greater than that of providing a training budget. Industry is less identified with its local area than ever and, to that extent, footloose.

We have been through a phase in which a craftsman has become increasingly a curiosity. That trend is not worsened by, but is parallel with, a drive for more university entrants. I do not subscribe to the view expressed at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday that there is anything particularly wrong with rugby studies and aromatherapy. In fact, I can see quite a good case for combining those subjects, if possible. However, there has been a cultural change against manual and technical work and we must record it. Manual and technical work is no longer held in the same esteem. Once, a good percentage of Labour Members would have been capable of earning their living with their hands and their technical skills, if they were not MPs. I do not know whether any Labour Members are currently able to do that or to demonstrate that they can, rather than just say that they can.

We must record a genuine cultural change: what people do with words has become rather more important than their practical abilities and what they do with their hands. It seems that the wordsmiths and the toilers have fought to get a reward. When it comes to further education, we must make a serious point about the dignity and value of craftsmanship and problem-solving abilities. Each and every one of us counts on those abilities at some point in our life. A good number of individuals can count on such abilities for employability, and the economy definitely and expressly requires such skills.

I know that I am preaching to the converted. Hon. Members are nodding. The key point that I am trying to address is what the Government plan to do about the situation. The Government know that further education has somewhat lost its way. They know that the funding level of further education has not been what it should be; they may not acknowledge that publicly, but I am sure that they do tacitly. They have come forward with a solution: "Success for All". I do not want to be unkind about that document because it has many very good features. It is, in parts, a little repetitive and it contains some unnecessary, patronising platitudes. I wish to some extent that the document had been drawn up with a slight sense of irony.

I have plucked some statements from the document. It states that the Government are going to put teaching, training and learning at the heart of what we do". That is encouraging. The Government want every college…to be clear about its own educational and training mission". Well, so they should. They think that we need to motivate talented pupils so that they progress to higher education. That is scarcely earth-shattering news. I also recall that it is important that teachers and trainers should be qualified to teach and train. That is all very well, but what the Government are offering as a positive recipe is, in a nutshell, a reinvention of the wheel. Since craftsmanship has declined slightly, the reinvention of the wheel is obviously not being done with the expertise that it might be.

Let me point out certain specifics. Years ago industry training boards existed. Then they disappeared. Now, in "Success for All", we have brand-new sector skills councils. Years ago local education authority careers advisers went into schools and talked to staff and careers masters. Now we have something new: Connexions personal advisers. They sound very similar. Years ago LEA advisers and Her Majesty's inspectors spread practice throughout the sector. Now we have LSCs, aided and abetted by Ministers, doing more or less the same thing.

Years ago further education colleges specialised in what they did best. They did not go in for the gratuitous hunting out of extra places and courses just to put bums on seats and funding in the budget. Now the Government will encourage further education colleges to specialise in what they do best. We all remember that, years ago, LEAs used to construct strategically relevant plans for technical and further education in cities and counties. Now LSCs will do precisely the same thing. So there is nothing specifically and wonderfully new about the outline proposals.

The drive to get rid of bureaucracy is encouraging. I understand that Sir George Sweeney and his committee are eradicating bureaucracy throughout the country. I checked with my own further education establishments and they are only marginally aware of his existence. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned a number of quangos that are adding to the bureaucracy or, at any rate, employ a good number of bureaucrats. The document states helpfully that if the LSC and the LSDA collaborate sufficiently with the LEAs, the SSCs, the SSDAs, the RDAs, the HEFCE, the HEI and the SPCEF within a meaningful FRESA—which I understand only vaguely—there will be more CoVEs and use of Ufi ICT, which should please QCA, ALP and most of FE. All of those acronyms—apart from being my attempt to win the Hansard competition for the largest number of acronyms in a sentence—are to be found in the document. I am sceptical about the Government's instinct to discourage bureaucracy. I see little evidence so far that they have actually succeeded in doing so.

What the Government have added in terms of bureaucracy is an additional three-year development plan, although one might describe it as a contract. I do not have any hang-ups about that, and I suggest that the Minister and the Government have made progress in suggesting that a development plan is something that is agreed on a local basis with an LSC. That is far better than the Government's simply thrusting something on them, or setting targets that mean nothing to them. My anxiety is that if the targets are not interpreted and implemented sensitively enough, good performance may not be rewarded. There may instead simply be mystification all round.

The Government have laid out some of the targets in "Success for All" in terms of student numbers. I am sure that any LSC would be aware that increasing student numbers per se is not a good thing if the courses that they are pursuing are not meaningful and useful.

Employer engagement is another matter that colleges will be rated on. However, that will vary across the country depending on the situation of the local employers. In areas that are depressed, where employers have their backs against the wall and have real difficulties in making ends meet, there will be limited scope to engage them. I would not want to see any college suffer because it was in an economically deprived area.

Staff calibre is another factor that colleges will be rated on. Presumably, colleges that uprate the quality of their staff will be better rewarded than colleges that do not. It seems self-evident to me that in the south-east, that will be more of a problem. People who are highly qualified in technical skills will find it easier to go elsewhere than the local FE college, and for better money. It seems to me that any plan put across by the LSC should be sensitively interpreted, as it determines funding.

My worry—I hope that the Minister will take it seriously—is that the targets for colleges could end up being highly specific, and almost penal in some respects. The targets in the introductory section of "Success for All", which the Government actually set for themselves, are described as tough, but they are completely and utterly unquantified. They simply refer to more people at a certain level, or say that they hope to increase numbers. The document does not state by how much. There is something rather unfair about the Government's setting nebulous, rather indefinite goals for themselves while setting severe goals for the colleges, upon which funding hinges.

Equally imprecise are the financial commitments. The Minister is certainly very welcome to respond by clarifying what may be a misunderstanding on my part. Several hon. Members have already raised points about the salary gap, which is a big issue for all FE colleges, sixth form colleges and the like. One would look in the document for something that would bridge that gap and state the intention to employ people at the same rates at LEA 11–18 schools. The document says that the Government would hope to, and that they would like to. It says that the money might be there to achieve it, but it does not actually guarantee it.

I do not doubt that there is additional money. There has been a 3.5 per cent. increase in real terms. However, I want to make a slightly semantic point. As I understand it—hon. Members may correct me—that 3.5 per cent. has come from the merging of two funds that are already received by the colleges. That is a very curious definition of an increase. There is an additional 2 per cent. of funding coming as well, but that is conditional on agreeing a plan with an LSC. Clearly, if a plan is not agreed, or it is not a satisfactory plan, or there is a very demanding LSC, that funding may not be there.

I applaud and respect the Government for providing an extra 60 per cent. for capital spending, but the document says elsewhere that the Treasury expects colleges to seek additional sources of money, either through a private finance initiative or borrowing from elsewhere. If that 60 per cent. is handed out as capital funding on a match basis, the Government may simply be giving colleges an opportunity to acquire further debts. More detail is required.

Finally on the financial side, there is an entirely praiseworthy Government initiative on the integration of the 14-to-19 curriculum in schools and that in further education. Pupils move happily between both types of establishment and will continue to do so. However, it is not clear—perhaps the Minister will make it clear—how, in the long term, that funding will be arranged. Will it come predominantly from the local authority, or will it be part of the LSC budget relating to the further education college? Will it be split between the two? Will it come via a special grant, on a continuous basis?

I applaud many of the initiatives. The emphasis on e-learning is good. I welcome modern apprenticeships and appreciate the emphasis on relating adult learning to employability, which is quite important. However, I note certain omissions. There is very little about the civic education of people who go through further education. In the old technical colleges, there used to be a traditional vein of liberal education, whereby someone who had a technical education was not excluded from an understanding of the wider aspects of society. We all recognise that as important.

The Government are bothered about the problem, but the Department is overlooked by the Treasury and therefore handicapped. The Government need to accept that, attractive and detailed in certain respects as the brochures are, the further education colleges will, given the history of further education funding, view them with scepticism and want to examine the fine detail. I did not attend the conference that other hon. Members did, but in my local further education colleges the champagne is still very much on ice.

Several hon. Members


Mr. David Amess (in the Chair)

Order. The Minister will take only a short while to sum up the debate, but five hon. Members are still trying to catch my eye. It would be appreciated if hon. Members would bear that in mind.

4.17 pm
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I am pleased to take part in this debate on an important policy statement, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education will speak to "Success for All". Unlike the Opposition spokesperson, I pay credit to the Minister's consistency, because as Chair of the then Select Committee on Education and Employment she presented to the House the earlier further education report that is echoed in many aspects of today's report.

The recommendations of the earlier report have largely been fulfilled. There are many important echoes. It states: The further education sector supports the nation's economic competitiveness and social well-being. That is about social justice and economic development.

That Committee, with its long experience of work and a long time spent visiting colleges, came up with the conclusion, which we knew all along, that further money was needed, and in the core sector. That is now being responded to. There was a need for further capital investment, which is being responded to.

There was the important claim that, whatever we did for the colleges, we also had to do something for 16-plus students. The educational maintenance allowances being rolled out throughout the country are one of the finest things that the Department and the Government have done for young people in education.

Let us return to the current report. I cannot believe that the Minister has not consciously and subconsciously taken on board many of its themes in the Department and seen them through. It was an excellent report, and it makes me proud to have been a member of that Committee. For those of us who have treasured our role on Select Committees over the years, we believe that it was a job well done when we see how that work has been translated in due time into a policy statement and into pounds in the pockets of colleges and students. I thank the Minister for her work and, importantly, for the new report.

I pay tribute to the report through the voice of Brian Styles, the principal of the City of Bristol college, whom I rang for an immediate response to the document. Before I tell the Committee what he said, I shall say a little about the college, which is the third largest in the country. If some members of the Committee do not recognise it, they may remember Brunel college of technology, South Bristol college, or Sandwell college of further and higher education and the nursery nurses' college in Bristol. Brian Styles has smoothly and adeptly brought together those colleges as the City of Bristol college, which now provides excellent education for 35,000 students from different parts of the region, Britain and overseas. Its work in linking with schools, commerce and industry, and three universities is an example to many others.

Brian Styles' first comment on the report was that it is a great step forward in funding, but that almost equally important are the great resources that the Government are giving to colleges in recognition of their importance and the variety of their work. The report is recognition of their contribution to the economic and social values in this country and a ringing endorsement, although I am sure that he, I and everyone else present want to see the detail and to know how it will be implemented. Interestingly, Brian Styles then focused on the importance that the document gives to the 14-to-19 agenda.

Not for nothing has Brian Styles created the City of Bristol college. He is concerned about every aspect of education in the city. He is well aware of the lack of attendance of some of the senior members of the college, and of their need for a more flexible agenda and to link into what the college can offer. He provides some 1,000 youngsters from school with half a day every week, which means that 1,000 youngsters receive that advantage without any additional funding to the college. That is a possible way of linking them to further education in future. He was concerned that the schools, especially those whose youngsters are not achieving the A stars at GCSE level, are putting so much effort into the target of 30 per cent. or more achievement that they may not recognise that one of their targets should be to let young people achieve and go on to further education, with or without GCSEs. He, and others in Westminster Hall today, would echo the statement of the need to recognise that many young people learn through their hands and doing. They need skilled help to further their education through courses that may not even be vocational GCSEs, but general national vocational qualifications, which the college enthusiastically offers. The variety of stimulation that those young people need is a huge part of that principal's agenda, despite the fact that many of his students are also taking higher education courses, gaining degrees and going on to university. The curriculum issue—the 14-to-19 agenda—is very much upfront at the college.

The principal welcomed the money that he will now be able to pay. He said that in the past he had been able to take people from business and industry who, at a certain stage of their career, wanted to use their skills and experience to become FE lecturers, and not just for one day a week. He has been prohibited from doing so recently, but he is looking forward to again being able to employ in FE people who have had a career in business and industry.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the main FE colleges want to raise their game? What the Government have done recently will allow them to do that. Oaklands college in my constituency is training plumbers and bricklayers, which is what we need.

Valerie Davey

That is a good point, well—and often—made by my hon. Friend.

The City of Bristol college produces some good people with crafts and skills and recently it has received two accolades. The college has won two major national awards—the further education Oscars—one for innovation in language teaching. I hope that the Department will soon extend its policy on language teaching in schools and I remind Ministers how important that role is for further education.

The college was given the accolade because of its dynamic languages staff, who offer a wide range of options, including Mandarin Chinese, modern Greek, Russian and Punjabi. As some of my hon. Friends know, the bee in my bonnet is that young people who come to this country whose mother tongue is not English, but who grow up to excel in it, are asked to take French and German when they go to secondary school or into further education, rather than studying their own mother tongue. How good it would be if they were able to pursue their Arabic, Persian, Punjabi or Gujerati, to give themselves credits, to have pride in their own language and to enrich this country and its future trade.

The second Oscar was for engineering training, which shows the balance of values at the college. The prestige of a beacon engineering award was mainly to recognise the college's superb engineering skills department centre.

I want to highlight the insight involved in acquiring a new building on a city centre site near the harbourside, where there is some prestigious development, and in making it a showcase for its work. Young people are flooding there to do computer courses and hairdressing and to acquire a range of skills. The college restaurant is in a lovely open area where elderly people and youngsters in the community come to eat. It has recently been open for art exhibitions for the homeless, and for Studio Upstairs, which takes people recovering from alcohol and drug abuse and from mental illness. It is a superb facility for the city.

I want to place on the record my well-known enthusiasm for further education and to pay a personal tribute on behalf of the people of Bristol to Brian Styles, who retires at the end of the year. As principal, he has taken forward the work of FE with great enthusiasm and provided the city with something that it can be proud of, from which many people of all ages have been able to benefit.

I endorse the blue paper "Success for All". The City of Bristol college has led many people to success. I wish the Minister success in fully implementing all that has been set out.

4.29 pm
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

I thank the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee for at least giving birth to the debate, even though the child that was delivered was the result of the Government's force majeure, and not entirely the one that he had in mind. I am delighted that further education is the subject of the debate. I, like the hon. Gentleman, deplore instances such as this when the Government hijack Select Committee time. As Committee Chairmen—I am Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee—and Back Benchers know, the most effective criticism of Government policy comes from the work of Select Committees but their reports must be debated either in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber. It is a pity when the Government take that time unilaterally and late in the day.

Orpington college in my constituency is a remarkable further education college. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has since the summer returned to his responsibilities for further education on the shadow Front Bench. He visited Orpington college and shares my view that it is excellent. Proof of that excellence is its A-level pass marks, which took it into the top 10 in the country. Its vocational course results are also well above average.

Orpington college had a successful Ofsted inspection this year and recently it received a charter mark for its excellent work, which I was honoured to be asked to present. When I was charter mark Minister in the last Government, charter marks were handed out by the Prime Minister of the day to all public servants who had done outstanding work on their own behalf or on behalf of institutions in health, education and so on. It is a pity that that practice has been dropped. I hope that the Minister will make that point to his Cabinet Office colleagues.

As the Minister conceded, further education colleges do excellent work, especially in reaching out to their surrounding communities. The education college in my constituency is active in that respect, providing adult literacy and computer courses and helping the large traveller community in Orpington. I agree with the Minister that further education colleges do valuable work for communities and Orpington college works hard in that respect.

It is remarkable that such good work is done with such slender resources, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. Teachers in FE colleges are less well paid than the equivalent teachers in schools. The resources available to further education colleges are significantly less—to the tune of nearly 40 per cent.—than those available to schools. They do not get the free capital investment in infrastructure that schools automatically expect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry said, they are remarkable value for money in terms of public expenditure.

I am pleased to welcome the Government's statement on further funding for FE colleges and warmly welcome the "light blue paper". After some controversy about the origin of the light blue colour, the Minister tried to get away with pretending that it was some sort of design choice. I like to think of it as a political statement in the sense that in several sectors—especially health and education—the Government are drifting inexorably under the reality of events towards a more blue view of things. I hope that that will continue, although some of the Minister's more red-blooded colleagues seem to object to it, certainly in the case of health.

I draw the Minister's attention briefly to three matters. First, she admitted that the process of acquiring funds for further education colleges was excessively bureaucratic and could defeat some of the purposes on which they had set their heart.

I notice in the light blue paper the encouraging statement that current targeted funds for pay and for staff training will be consolidated into core funding to reduce bureaucracy and devolve decision-making to the front line. That is an important statement, which I totally welcome. I hope that it will be translated into action.

A curious anomaly is that the starter home initiative for key workers extends only to school teachers; it does not extend to teachers in FE colleges.

Margaret Hodge

It does now.

Mr. Horam

I am very glad to hear that, because that information has not percolated through to all in FE colleges. There is still an apprehension that in that respect, teachers are getting a better deal than FE teachers. I am glad that the Minister says that that is not the case.

Mr. Pollard

The advice given on those matters is that the local authority can define who its key workers are. In my area, we have included almost everyone, because anyone can be a key worker—if we cannot get dustbin emptiers, they are key workers.

Mr. Horam

I received a negative ministerial answer on that earlier in the year, so there has obviously been a U-turn. I have that answer in front of me, and it says that the provision was to be for school teachers only, not FE teachers. I am very glad that there has been that U-turn and that FE teachers will be considered for help with housing, because that is important in areas such as mine, Bromley.

Finally, on something that is not the Minister's direct responsibility, but which I hope that she will draw to the attention of her colleagues or even the Mayor of London, students can get discounts on buses and tubes but not railways. When there has to be quite a lot of travelling around, and people come from quite long distances, in an area such as Bromley, not getting travel discounts across the board can be a disincentive.

The most important of the points that I have made is that on core funding, and the ability to use funding across the board, rather than its being sectioned off into silos and not transferable. That is critical. However, bearing in mind the points that I have made, I welcome what the Government appear to be doing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry said, Governments are good on words. Let us see that, in this case, they are also good on action.

4.37 pm
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I welcome the fact that we are having this debate today, regardless of the circumstances of its gestation. I associate myself with the important remarks of the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), that we must ensure that the Committee's report on higher education gets its fair share of parliamentary time.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who made an excellent opening statement summarising the contents of the blue paper. For everyone involved in further education, this is an extremely important day, as was Tuesday, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his speech. I also pay tribute to my close colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), for his commitment to the further education sector during his time as a Minister. His role has been important, and he has succeeded in encouraging many people in the sector, persuading them that the tide was turning and, as I said earlier, a new dawn breaking.

I know that the Government do not want to talk about a graduate tax and top-up fees at the moment, but I intend to do that and make no apologies for it. If the Government had not taken the bold decision to reform the student support system for higher education in 1998, there would not now be £1.2 billion extra for further education between next year and 2005–06. The corollary of that is that if the Government do not take the next, necessary, bold step of reforming student support in HE in January, beyond 2005–06 there will be no new money for FE.

Mr. Pollard

Is my hon. Friend aware that a recent early-day motion on top-up fees—I know that we are not talking about those—has attracted about 80 signatures already?

Mr. Chaytor

I am aware of that, and I must say that I think the Labour Members who have signed that motion are misguided in their judgment. I hope that during the next few weeks we shall have a lively debate, trying to prove to my colleagues that they have got the wrong end of the stick.

That brings me to my important opening point. I hope that the Government will feel that it is important to encourage the widest possible debate in Parliament before the publication in January of the paper—whatever its colour—on HE. It would be wrong simply to publish the Government's intentions without having prepared the ground in Parliament.

I want to make a few observations on the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I can testify that, as the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, it went down extremely well with those attending the AOC conference earlier in the week. The Secretary of State gave a great boost to morale in the FE sector. I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Daventry somewhat blew our cover by admitting that we were only at the conference dinner, not there for the whole time. Nevertheless, it was an important moment for education.

I particularly welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State allocated £1.2 billion and stated that there will be year-on-year increases that will serve substantially to narrow the gap between the FE sector and the schools sector. However, it is not clear exactly what that substantial narrowing is. In July, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his spending review, in which FE was allocated a 1 per cent. a year increase and the schools sector—specifically the education standard spending assessment—was given a 3.5 per cent. increase. Afterwards—she may or may not recall this—I spoke to my hon. Friend the Minister in the Tea Room. I asked her how, if we are committed as a Government to convergence of funding for 16 to 19-year-olds, it can be the case that spending on FE is increasing by 1 per cent. and the education SSA for schools is increasing by 3.5 per cent. To some extent we were given the answer this week in the speech on the blue paper, but it is not yet completely clear. We need to know exactly how far the funding gap will be substantially narrowed.

We need also to know not only what the headline totals are, but what will happen to the funding methodology. Convergence of 16-to-19 funding—which is important not only for the pay of FE teachers and lecturers, but for the general resource base of colleges—will be achieved only if the funding methodology is changed. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something in her closing remarks, or in the near future, about how the LSC is making the transition from the former Further Education Funding Council's methodology to a new common unified funding methodology that applies equally to sixth forms in schools and to colleges.

I welcome many of the specifics in the speech and the blue paper. Earlier we spoke briefly about the importance of the professional development of further education staff. That is an important priority, albeit with the proviso that there is occasionally a need to bring in people who have a high level of expertise but will never have formal teaching qualifications.

I welcome the honesty of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the conference. In announcing the totals for the first year, he immediately said that it was not new money but a readjustment of existing budgets. That must be the first time for many years that a Minister has been so honest to such an important audience. I also welcome the honesty about the future role of the learning and skills councils and his acceptance of the criticism that has been levelled over the past two years at the amount of bureaucracy in the LSCs and the degree of expertise in them. It is a crucial priority for the Government to keep an eye on the relationship between the LSCs and the colleges and to consider staffing expertise in the LSCs. If they are now to have responsibility for the strategic area reviews, and for the support of and intervention into the 10 per cent. of colleges that we assume will not go through the thresholds and will continue to struggle, a considerable injection of new further education expertise into local LSCs will be required.

I welcome the recognition of the bureaucracy that is involved. I was not aware of the bureaucracy taskforce. I hope that its report will not be too long and does not destroy too many trees. I noted in the blue paper that the Secretary of State is due to respond to the bureaucracy taskforce's report in November 2002, and it is important that that response is in the public domain to allow us all to take a view on the extent to which the Government are reducing bureaucracy in FE.

I particularly welcome the focus on teaching and learning, and the establishment of the standards unit in the Department for Education and Skills. On the establishment of the standards unit, page 31 of the blue paper states: It will be important to learn as we go. I could not decide whether that is refreshing honesty or the understatement of the century because for a number of years there has not been the slightest degree of understanding about the FE sector within the Department. One of the most important achievements by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), which is being continued by the current Secretary of State, is the standards unit, which will start to second people who know what happens in FE colleges to work in the Department. Such units have worked very effectively in primary, secondary and pre-school education, and the unit will be a great boost to the future development of teaching and learning in FE.

Having generally welcomed all the things that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said and published in the blue paper, I shall flag up some points that I hope will be given further consideration. On modern apprenticeships and work-based learning, over the past 12 months there has been considerable public debate—about 12 months ago there was a high level of public debate—including interviews on "Today" and exchanges of letters between the chair and chief executive of the LSC and Ministers about the quality of teaching and learning within FE colleges. The figures are indisputable. The reports from the first new inspections, albeit carried out on a different basis from the former Further Education Funding Council's inspections, identified some serious concerns.

Equally, during the past few months we have had the report from the chief of the adult learning inspectorate. His report on inspections of work-based learning showed an almost identical proportion of work-based learning providers who were subject to re-inspection. There has been no debate about the severe limitations in the quality of much of our work-based learning, which is partly because institutions still largely dominate our understanding of education. The academic-vocational divide, which still plagues our education service, is partly responsible for work-based learning being seen as less prestigious and for people not knowing what goes on and not wanting to talk about it—people want endlessly to talk about anything to do with A-levels.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to read seriously the report of the chief inspector of the adult learning inspectorate, and give equal attention to the quality of work-based learning providers as she has done to quality in FE colleges. There is an interesting point in the blue paper about the work of the Qualification and Curriculum Authority on the unitisation of the curriculum. I have always thought that there is a strange sense of priority whereby we have accepted for many years in the university sector that the curriculum would be unitised, but increasingly most, if not all, of our universities operate some form of credit accumulation and transfer system, which is better developed in some universities than others.

Having established a system in the universities sector, we started to examine A-levels. As we know, we have had significant curriculum change in A-levels over the past few years. We now have Curriculum 2000 whereby the curriculum has been unitised on a six-unit structure. The argument for unitising the curriculum and for establishing credit accumulation and transfer procedures is that it helps to motivate students. The irony is that we started with the most highly motivated students in the universities and worked downwards to the next most highly motivated students taking 0-levels. We ignored completely the needs of the least motivated students who drop out of school from 13 or 14 and onwards, some of who go on to FE colleges. We should have done it the other way around. There is a powerful argument for unitising the curriculum and developing credit accumulation and transfer systems within schools and FE colleges. I hope that that will become a stronger theme in the development of the 14-to-19 curriculum.

The blue paper says explicitly that there are no plans to go back to national pay scales. I regret that. I understand exactly what has been attempted in devolving responsibility for pay and conditions to individual colleges since 1993, but I believe that it has been a disaster. Obviously, I welcome what the Government have done to rebuild morale in the sector. Industrial relations are certainly completely different from what they were five years ago. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, the FE colleges remain the only area of the public services that do not have national scales for pay and conditions. That is an anomaly.

Mr. Pollard

Would my hon. Friend say how we would recruit in my area, where the cost of housing is three or four times what it is in other parts of the country, if we went to a national pay scale?

Mr. Chaytor

Employers in the south-east would recruit in exactly the same way that other public sector employers recruit for schools, the national health service and the fire service. There must be a recognised top-up for areas that have higher housing costs, but that does not undermine the argument for national pay scales.

That is one of the ways that the attempt to create a quasi market in the FE service has gone horribly wrong. It serves no continuing purpose to have pay and conditions devolved to individual colleges, and as long as we allow it there will be what can best be described as turbulence within the FE sector and completely unnecessary moving around of staff from one college to another in an attempt to get a better deal. I flag that up as something that might be revisited in the blue paper of three or four years hence.

On the national skills strategy, I differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) in his earlier remarks about ILAs. In his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee, he said that members of the Select Committee had been unanimous in the desire to see ILA mark 2 come back quickly. I have had a brief discussion with him before about the matter, in which I said that I disagreed. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South, has done absolutely the right thing in deferring a decision on individual learning accounts and in ruling them out in the development of a national strategy. It may well be that the national strategy could be written after a couple of days and an away-day. Nevertheless, we have set June as the target, and we must work to it.

The ILA was a wonderful idea, but it was not thought through properly. The people who were charged with planning it did not have practical experience of how such things worked. It was not their fault; that was the job that they were given. At the end of the day, the concept of an ILA was ditched, and it worked instead as a simple fee remission system. I am all in favour of such a system, but I see no point in dressing it up as something that it is not. We must now consider the best way to use the money that was earmarked for ILAs. I wish to flag up one way in which the Government might think about that.

Two years ago, I introduced a Bill to promote paid educational leave. My hon. Friend the Minister may recall it, as I have referred to it on several occasions. There is a national campaign for paid educational leave. Virtually every group of professional workers has paid educational leave as a right. The only people who cannot get it are those who need it most: the unskilled and semi-skilled workers at the bottom of the pile. Many European countries have established a system of leave for educational training with, for example, a minimum number of days of entitlement.

The Cabinet Office taskforce on work force development established the principle of paid educational leave in pilot areas. I think that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor provided some funding in the previous Budget for those pilot schemes. I know that the LSC's report on work force development has been published recently, or is due shortly, and I do not know what that says about paid educational leave. It certainly seems to me that, when examining how to deal with the legacy of individual learning accounts, transferring that money into a national scheme for paid educational leave targeted at low-paid workers would be of enormous benefit, and would help to transform the skills gap in this country.

Finally, on page 20 of the blue paper, the word "coherence" appears. It is the first time in 10 years that I have seen the word in any document about FE. That is the good news. The bad news is that it does not appear again, but I hope that it will. I welcome many of the statements in the paper about the need for a little more planning, co-operation and collaboration. The key mechanism for achieving that is the establishment of strategic area reviews.

I notice that the first review will start from 1 April 2003. I do not know whether the person who chose that date had an eye on history, but it will be exactly 10 years since the implementation of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and the incorporation of FE colleges. That led to a series of champagne breakfasts in some colleges celebrating their incorporation and, further, to the ending of the careers of many good people, the break-up of the health of many good people who had worked in FE and the jailing of some others. I hope that we can put the period of the quasi enterprise culture in the FE sector behind us and look forward to more collaboration, more partnership and more planning. I hope also that strategic area reviews can be given some teeth. There is no question but that there is still far too much useless competition and unnecessary duplication in the sector. I hope as well that in the blue paper of 2005–06, the word "coherence" will appear many more times than in this one.

4.56 pm
David Wright (Telford)

I have a confession to make: I did not realise that this afternoon's debate was taking place until this lunchtime, so I am grateful that you have called me, Mr. Amess, to contribute to a very important debate.

I was sitting in the Tea Room eating a rather large plate of bacon and eggs, and my mind drifted back to a day in the summer when I visited Telford college of arts and technology and had an excellent tour given by the college principal, Mr. Doug Boynton, and a look at the fantastic new building created on the college's site in Wellington. I remember a commitment that I gave Doug Boynton over a cup of tea and some biscuits, which I consumed with vigour, that I would come and speak on FE issues, if I had the opportunity. I therefore hotfooted it to Westminster Hall this afternoon, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute.

As hon. Members can tell from my opening remarks, I am always one to give into temptation, and there is a temptation on occasions such as this to talk about one's own college or FE institution. I shall now do that, if hon. Members will bear with me for a few moments.

The Telford college of arts and technology is a general FE college covering Telford and east Shropshire. It has a student population in excess of 16,000, with 1,200 full-time students. One of the college's great principles is that it is committed to widening participation, engaging people who would not normally participate in FE. Indeed, more than 50 per cent. of its enrolments are from the most deprived areas of Telford. I am proud of that. It is extremely important to give people from deprived communities opportunities to move into further and higher education, and I think that the Government have done a tremendous amount to ensure that that is possible and can continue.

We have heard a little this afternoon about the provision of training on employers' premises and the importance of ensuring that employers are signed up to high-quality training packages and skill development. I am pleased to say that more than 40 per cent. of the learning provided and delivered by Telford college of arts and technology is delivered on employers' premises and in community centres throughout Telford. It is important to reflect on that.

Many people living in deprived communities find it difficult to access FE colleges because of transport problems and other family difficulties. It is therefore important that we take learning out of the formal buildings of FE institutions and into community centres and other settings. In doing so, it is important that we do not devalue the quality of that education. We must ensure that those who attend community-based learning feel that they are receiving a high-quality product. That is incredibly important, as much so in Telford as in a number of other communities.

It is important to remember that Telford college of arts and technology received more accolades and awards for its provision than any other college in the United Kingdom, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about it. The college is one of the largest employers in the town, employing about 600 people, who have a large amount of spending power in the local economy. We should reflect on that when we discuss the way in which we manage FE provision in future. It provides not only education and skills for local people but job opportunities, and it ensures spending power in local economies.

It is important to reflect on some of the difficulties that FE colleges have encountered over recent years. Successive Governments have failed to address the most important aspect relating to the quality and sustainability of FE, which is core funding. It is good to hear the Minister talk about changing the climate of core funding, and about other developments such as how core funding will be handled in future. I hope that when she replies she will give us further commitment to a long-term approach to the issue.

Historically, colleges have been funded at about £1,000 per student less than a school sixth-form college, which is not sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, schools have a guarantee that their funding will not decrease, but FE colleges have no commensurate guarantee. I hope that that will be considered in the next few years. The settlement on which my hon. Friend the Minister has focused relates to a limited period. I hope also that in future we can ensure that further guarantees exist for long-term investment in core funding for FE institutions.

The second of a range of difficulties for FE colleges is pay. Pay increases have had to be funded for about 10 years by efficiency gains. No fully funded award has come from government in the past 10 years. In this week's announcement, we have taken major steps forward on pay, which I am pleased to see the trade unions have acknowledged. We must continue to make further commitments on pay for college lecturers. FE lecturers have historically received some £3,000 a year less than schoolteachers; they have shorter holidays, they teach more hours and they have a longer working week. I hope that we can bring some of the flexibilities to which the Minister referred to bear on the important role of FE lecturers while rewarding them properly.

The third difficulty is bureaucracy. We have heard much about that this afternoon. The principals that I have talked to, including Doug Boynton, suggested to me that the sector has been literally strangled by bureaucracy over the years. Multitudes of agencies, various funding streams and an enormous number of audit trails have been involved. In many cases, those contribute little to the education of people on the front line.

I am very much aware that FE colleges are constantly bidding for resources—Doug Boynton suggested that he spends most of his time putting together bids for resources for different pockets and parcels of money. It is therefore good to hear that we are to begin to mainstream more resources into the FE sector to reduce time spent by lecturers and principals on finding and bidding for resources, and increase time spent on the front line of teaching.

Finally on difficulties, I shall mention curriculum and assessment. We have a post-16 curriculum that involves too much formal assessment. Examining boards are often creaking under strain and disillusioned students are weary of taking exam after exam. People often come into Telford college of arts and technology with a very low skills base, so the college has to put them on an examination treadmill early on in their FE experience. We need to change that perspective to be more flexible in how we teach people in an FE setting and suit courses to them.

Reference was made to the expense of practical vocational training. A friend of mine who is an FE college lecturer in plumbing told me that he has to demonstrate some plumbing techniques using toilet rolls because he has insufficient resources to enable him to provide the physical fabric that he needs in order to teach. That is not appropriate now.

Having outlined a number of challenges for the future, I shall conclude my remarks. It is important to get the FE sector right, because it links to a wider agenda in which I am very interested, which is urban renewal. If we are to improve people's quality of life, especially in areas such as Telford, it is important to give them opportunities to acquire skills and to enhance their earning power, thus enabling them to contribute successfully to their local communities. It is also important in a town such as Telford to ensure that the skills base allows us to link our FE activity to industrial and manufacturing renewal. Given the Minister's opening remarks, I feel that that is now a core element of the Government's strategy. I am keen to hear what she has to say about urban renewal when she concludes the debate.

5.6 pm

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Before I speak, I declare a non-pecuniary interest in that I am a member of the governing body of my local city college.

In light of the speech made by the Secretary of State at the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham, I welcome the statement that the AOC made on Tuesday, following its meeting with the trade unions national joint forum, in which it announced that it was suspending its strike action and resuming pay negotiations. That is what we want to see—a constructive way forward for the whole sector—and I congratulate the AOC. I also congratulate the Secretary of State on having taken a positive approach in moving forward through negotiations and discussions with the sector.

The further education sector has predominantly been seen as a Cinderella sector, which, since its incorporation in 1992, has jumped from one crisis to another. It has always been made to chase after different pots of funding, with different types of awards attributed to it. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said that his Government made wonderful progress in directing funding towards it. The demand-led element has always been liable to be cut overnight, with no provision made for students or staff. That is the ongoing scenario that the FE sector has had to deal with.

The FE sector has made a tremendous contribution to the communities and environments of which it is a part. Local colleges have played a significant role in economic regeneration and social inclusion in their areas. They have started to build and to integrate communities—as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) said, not only in terms of available subjects but by providing mother tongue teaching. We have colleges in Birmingham that have delivered excellent results for children in Urdu, Punjabi, Gujerati and Hindi. For people living in those communities, that enhances their ability to understand who and what they are. Once they have attained self-confidence in understanding the heritage and culture of their parents, they can far better integrate into the main stream of society and move forward. The colleges provide the bedrock of support for that. "Success for All" outlines the way that the Government want to move forward. I commend the fact that we are looking at a rise of £1.2 billion by 2005–06. I also commend the fact that three-year plans are coming into being to allow colleges to move their budgets forward on a cyclical basis rather than jumping from one crisis to another.

I also welcome the capital funding for projects in colleges. Most colleges, particularly in Birmingham, have been in their buildings for 50 to 60 years. Most were not designed for the present day and the kind of classes that have to be run, particularly for information and communications technology, drama and other arts-based projects. Core craft skills such as plumbing, electrical installation, bricklaying and block paving need to be developed. Those skills are especially important in Birmingham, which is currently undergoing the largest development that it has seen for some time. We have to ship people into Birmingham to provide courses in basic skills such as bricklaying, pipefitting, plumbing and electrical installation. Those are the core skills that we have been proud of in the West Midlands for a long time. We need a strategic view on how we deliver that training. We need to deliver it in the colleges of excellence, particularly in view of the bid that Birmingham has now put together.

I further congratulate the colleges in Birmingham and the learning and skills councils. They have moved forward and stopped competing and fighting one another for the resources that have been available. They have got together and looked at a new construction college for the whole of Birmingham to teach all those who so desperately need to acquire the skills that are in such short supply in Birmingham.

I gather that time is running out. I need to leave some time for the Minister and for the Opposition spokesman to wind up. I want to concentrate on bureaucracy, which has been mentioned by the Minister. I welcome Sir George Sweeney's review. Colleges currently have to go through about 42 audits a year. They include the Ofsted inspections, area reviews, learning and skills councils audits and student records, financial audits, system audits, quality audits, Learndirect inspections, Learndirect audits, franchise audits, new deal reviews and audits, modern apprenticeship reviews, audits and inspections, European social fund audits and LSC provider reviews.

I agree with the Minister that for far too long we have had no accountability in further education. I also believe that there is a strong case for cross-agency integration on some of these audits and inspections. We need to cut down some of this bureaucracy. That is what the colleges want. Colleges currently have to pay in the region of 400 person days in audits per year to deal with it. That is a tremendous amount to take away from the chalk face in the classroom. We should concentrate our resources on the people who matter. Those are the people who come through the door and who want that education.

I wanted briefly to discuss accreditation reform, on which Alan Birks, John Rudd and his colleagues at Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations presented a paper to the AOC conference in Birmingham. The proposals seek to determine how they can reform accreditations to create structures of delivery from mathematics and engineering to technology and construction. I would certainly be interested if the Minister and her Department took up some of the findings of that paper.

The authors want to examine the possibility of a matrix of entry levels ranging from entry and foundation courses to immediate and advanced courses, and to consider at least 14 learning areas to develop the diplomas throughout the range of qualifications available to the sector. We must also begin to consider integrating that into higher education, which is important to all of us, as has been said. The FE sector can play a vital role in delivering some of the agenda for the Government and in reaching a target of 50 per cent. in higher education.

I take a slightly different view from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is no longer in his place, on the role that he gave the FE sector. I believe that the FE sector can play a significant role in providing higher education. It fulfils that role quite well at the moment but needs to strengthen its formal links with higher education to provide a wider variety of services.

The paper also suggested the provision of a national qualifications framework, which, I believe, the QCA, the ACCAC, the CCAA, the CEA, the SQA and the QEAA are all considering. I must find out what all those abbreviations mean. At least the intention exists to consider how that can be achieved. Perhaps some of those institutions could start to work with other agencies, rather than considering the different ways of assessing the sector, in order to break down the bureaucracy that they themselves created.

Finally, the FE sector has provided a lifeline to those people who may not have had the best chances throughout their school life and who may have missed out on the opportunity to make something of their lives. When I finished school, I sat City and Guilds examinations at my local technical college and I got my ordinary national certificate. I then got an apprenticeship.

5.18 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.38 pm

On resuming

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair)

Order. In light of the unusually long delay for the Division, and the confusion about a second vote, I have taken advice and it is in order to allow 12 more minutes for the end of the debate.

Mr. Mahmood

Thank you, Mr. Amess.

As I was saying before we hastily departed, I left school with CSEs as they were then; we now call them GCSEs. Luckily, I went to my local careers office and was able to go on an Engineering Industry Training Board training programme—a first year, off-the-job training programme—which landed me in what was Garatts Green technical college. It is now part of the city college of which I am a governor.

Having gone through the City and Guilds process and completed my apprenticeship, I progressed to a management course within a company that existed at the time. Unfortunately, it had to be wound up in 1986 due to the engineering recession, and I had to diverge from the industry.

We had such training colleges at that time, particularly technical colleges, and we need to consider moving back to technical colleges to provide the level of skills training that people need to provide services for future generations. I am talking about the electrical, building and bricklaying trades, and even something as common as block paving. I believe that people from eastern Europe had to be brought in to do block paving somewhere in Nelson, even though that skill can be taught in colleges in six weeks.

5.40 pm
Margaret Hodge

I am delighted that many hon. Members have had an opportunity to praise colleges in their constituency. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and for Telford (David Wright), and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam).

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) fulfils a role that is increasingly important in the further education sector, in that he chairs his local corporation. That is becoming more burdensome because of the complexity of the audit and inspection requirements that fall on colleges, as he demonstrated, so I am happy to share in the celebration of excellence in local colleges.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) spoke about the fact that we were debating further education this afternoon. I have heard his views outside the Chamber and here, and we will reflect on them. I will have discussions with those who organise business in the House to ensure that there is proper debate on all issues that are of concern to the Select Committee. Those who know me well know how important I believe the proper airing of Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall is to accountability.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who spoke for the Opposition, said—I hope that I do not misquote him—that the AOC was not completely happy with what we had done. I should therefore like to place on the record what was said by David Gibson, the AOC chief executive—a man with whom I have not always agreed, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Mr. Gibson said: This funding package represents the best deal the college sector has ever had. It will reverse the financial cuts of the 1990s and place colleges on a firm financial basis for years to come. That is a pretty ringing endorsement from someone who in the past has not always felt able to share our objectives and funding patterns.

A number of hon. Members asked whether the funding package would move us towards closing the gap. We were conscious, in putting together the funding for our invest and reform package, that we should go as far as we could to meet our manifesto commitment to increase the funding for the further education sector to the equivalent of that for schools. We have taken huge steps in that regard.

We cannot specify a figure. The reason is that, although we accept that the funding gap rate was about 10.5 per cent. before the existing package, and we know that the Learning and Skills Council will use the additional money to enable us to close the gap further, the LSC is committed to other objectives, such as our manifesto objective to sustain the funding for sixth forms. It must have regard to those complementary objectives in distributing the resources. However, I am sure that that funding will go a considerable way—much further than I expected in July—to close the funding gap, and that will be reflected in pay rates for staff in colleges. It really is a good package and although we cannot specify the figures I am pleased to place it before hon. Members today.

A number of hon. Members spoke about bureaucracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr read through a list of audits that he has to go through. I recently presented our new Secretary of State with a list, four and a half pages long, of requirements for audit, inspection and information that FE colleges face. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend that we will take this exercise seriously. The different audit, inspection and information requirements are ridiculous and we have to make the system more sensible. We have taken the first steps towards cutting bureaucracy.

Mr. Pollard

On the subject of bureaucracy, is my hon. Friend aware that my local college—Oaklands college—is currently being blighted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is calling in a planning application? It wants to list a concrete and glass building because of its method of construction, not because of its intrinsic value. Will my hon. Friend use her not inconsiderable powers of persuasion and tell the Secretary of State not to do it?

Margaret Hodge

I dread to tread in other people's territory, but I hear what my hon. Friend is saying.

As I say, we have taken the first steps. Three-year funding will lead to a cut in bureaucracy. The fact that we are consolidating a number of separate funds into the basic unit funding for further education will further ensure that we can cut bureaucracy. The LSC announced at the AOC conference the ending of the automatic audit of the individual student record. We are committed to implementing all the recommendations of Sir George Sweeney's bureaucracy task force. That taskforce is now looking at work-based learning providers. A lot is happening in this area, and a lot is left to do.

I want to pick up on some issues that hon. Members raised. The hon. Member for Daventry said that participation had not increased. I should like to place it on the record that that is not true. While we were getting rid of the way in which the previous Government counted the numbers—they increased their figures for students in further education by including, for example, competence in pulling of pints of beer as a qualification—the numbers remained static for some time. However, we have turned that around. In 2000–01, the LSC funding for full-time further education students went up by 4.8 per cent. on the previous year.

Mr. Boswell


Margaret Hodge

I want to continue because I want to respond to points that other hon. Members have raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield raised the issue of boundaries between further education and higher education, saying that they were increasingly blurred. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr raised the same issue. I often talk about trying to square the circle, getting all our institutions—schools, colleges and universities—to focus on what they do best, but also blurring the boundaries between those institutions so that an individual student can progress and achieve his or her potential by following an appropriate route. Students should not be bound by institutional boundaries. I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield made, and I also take his point about the importance of management in further education. We intend to tackle the latter issue with great vigour during the reform period.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised the issue of acronyms, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr. Their points reminded me of the story of why I am called the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, which I will tell quickly. At first, the Prime Minister called me the Minister for Higher Education. When I returned to my office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) rang me and said that I had to have "lifelong learning" in my title, to which I replied, "Don't worry, I'll call myself the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning". Then I realised that the acronym for that was HELL. I am very aware of acronyms, which is why the title was turned around.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West spoke about the importance of ensuring that we recognise the distance travelled by an individual when assessing the quality of our further education institutions, which is crucial. It is a very difficult exercise, and I often tell further education college principals that what matters to individuals is the qualifications that they can present in the workplace. We must never run away from that ambition, but distance travelled is important. The role that further education can play in the 14-to-19 agenda is crucial.

I can assure the hon. Member for Orpington that the paper might be light blue but there is real clear red water between Opposition Members and us. That is reflected in the extent of the investment package that we are discussing. I do not think that further education has ever enjoyed such a large investment package, which will create huge opportunities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) mentioned unitisation, which is very important. I assure him that we are examining work-based learning with intensity and vigour equal to that with which we examine further education. That subject, however, was not part of our debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West discussed the report of the Select Committee on Education and Employment. She and I worked together on that, and it was one of the best bits of work that we did while we were together on the Committee. The report was extremely thorough and although I have not gone back to it, it is heartening to see that much that we thought was important has been translated into plans and reality on the ground. We are proud of that. Collaboration, not competition, will inform our way forward.

It being nine minutes to Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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