All Baroness Blackstone contributions to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] 2021-22

Tue 6th July 2021
3 interactions (167 words)
Tue 15th June 2021
3 interactions (824 words)

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

(Committee stage)
Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Tuesday 6th July 2021

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Education
Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
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I will speak in support of Amendment 25 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman, Lady Sheehan and Lady Morgan of Cotes, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. It contains a very interesting idea. It proposes that, when a local skills improvement plan has been devised for, say, Plymouth or Newcastle or Doncaster, the Secretary of State should examine it to see whether it accords with the national skills strategy and—this is of particular interest to the noble Baronesses—the UK’s climate change and biodiversity targets; it could include other things where there are clear targets as well, of course. The sadness of this is that the noble Lords talk about the national skills strategy when there ain’t no such thing, I am afraid. I wish that there were, but it simply has not developed. It ought to develop because there is no doubt that there is a substantial deficiency across the country in skills in a whole variety of different industries.

The Government used to publish skills gaps. The body that did it was called the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. It was abolished by the Government in 2016 because a group of advisers said to them that they did not really think much about these skills gaps because they are often speculative guesses. I am afraid that this is a further example of a Government who are not listening because there is certainly a large number of skills gaps in our country.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, and I are both members of the Select Committee on Youth Unemployment, which now takes evidence twice a week. We are getting a lot of evidence not only from businesses but from students themselves that there are skills gaps. For example, we had evidence from one think thank that had examined 1,000 companies in Britain, large and small, stretching from national audio technology to pubs. Of those 1,000 companies, 76% of the CEOs said that the thing that was holding them back most was the absence of data employees—data analysts in particular—and people who understood artificial intelligence. That was the biggest inhibition on their growth and development. If that is not a skills gap, I do not know what is, quite frankly.

There are skills gaps in a host of other industries. One recent example that I am sure Members of this House have seen is that we have suddenly discovered that there is a skills gap of 10,000 HGV drivers. I would have thought that this might have been anticipated at some stage and we would have realised that we were desperately short of these people. So many of them have gone back to eastern Europe and the Balkans, and they are not being encouraged to come back. The transport ministry should have had some idea of what was likely to happen in this area.

One body, the education think tank the Edge Foundation, of which for a time I was the chairman, tried to fill in the gap. It produced a series of reports. It established large committees for each industry involving industry and academics, estimating what the skills gaps were. The first one was on engineering. The skills gap there was 203,000. That figure was agreed and supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering. There was another one on digital skills. It was well over 100,000 two years ago; I suspect that it is much higher now. There was one on the creative industries, which showed a skills gap of 150,000. Yet, because these were not formal government statements, the Government took very little interest in and paid little regard to them. How can you fashion an education system if you have no idea what your national economy wants in the way of skilled workers? There is a dysfunction between the education system based on academic subjects and the needs of industry. There is absolutely no doubt about that. This is one of the causes of the high level of youth unemployment at the moment.

I suggest that the Government consider asking a department—not the Department for Education because it has very little connection with industry, but perhaps the DWP—to estimate and publish on a regular basis skill gaps for various industries. Without that, how can you shape education and training systems, and indeed an apprenticeship system, without knowing exactly what is needed by the local and national industries in our economy?

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, we listened with interest to some rather engaging and forceful Second Reading speeches on the first group this afternoon. I noted that my noble friend Lord Adonis took one view that this was a terrible Bill and my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green took a different one that this was actually a good Bill. I find myself somewhere in between, but I want to be more pragmatic than they are. This is Committee. We have some opportunities in Committee to make a Bill better. I hope that that is what we will achieve at least in some respects.

At Second Reading I chose to talk largely about the missed opportunity in the Bill to try to link what we do in the educational system with the huge challenges that climate change and getting to our net-zero target by 2050 pose for us. I hope the Government will take the amendments in this group really seriously, because they at least begin to do just that.

I strongly support Amendments 3, 9 and 25, which are in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Sheehan, my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, who sadly is not here today. The others all spoke very eloquently and at some length on why it is important that the Bill should be amended to take account of the Government’s policies on climate change and their goal of a net-zero target on carbon emissions by the middle of the century. I do not want to add anything new to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said in her opening speech because she covered it all. I endorse with some passion the position they have taken.

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

(2nd reading)
Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Tuesday 15th June 2021

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Department for Education
Baroness Wyld Portrait Baroness Wyld (Con)
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My Lords, I add my warm congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome—I am in awe. I also slightly wish that I had had my first job in a butcher’s shop, rather than packaging up the pear drops in the newsagent, then I too could have been an international high-flyer. It was a brilliant maiden speech.

I need to declare a few interests. I am a non-executive board member at Ofsted, from August I will serve on the Court of Newcastle University, and I had a temporary role on a committee at Ofqual towards the end of last year.

I of course welcome this Bill. As it so happens, my dad was an FE lecturer in Tyneside until his retirement. I remember very well when I was growing up meeting some of his students. We would bump into them in town or they would come round and thank him. A lot of them had come to education later in life and would talk about how their confidence had been transformed, so I am particularly pleased to speak on this issue today.

In my own maiden speech four years ago, I said that the pace of the technological revolution meant that the Government must use the tools they have to ensure that the labour market can adapt as nimbly as possible to an unprecedented pace of change. The Bill is certainly a step in the right direction, although there are areas I want to probe.

The Government are clearly passionate in their determination to level up and to ensure that we see a tangible link between skills and retraining and local jobs, and there is a very clear rationale for the local skills improvement plans. I agree that employers should be at the forefront of this. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister is aware that the pace of change in work- places means that we must think beyond the immediate jobs requirements of local employers, because we need to ensure a long-term employment market in which all can thrive according to their talent and hard work.

It is with this in mind that I gently ask my noble friend whether she can reassure me that we are definitely going far enough to empower local communities. Voters across the UK have just given a big vote of confidence in local leadership—for example, in re-electing local mayors. How will local leaders, with their in-depth understanding of demographic trends, existing skills, market trends and local infrastructure, be involved in the plans? Although I was unable to speak in the Queen’s Speech debate, I read it all back, and several noble Lords across the House expressed concern at a sense of “Whitehall knows best”. My noble friend absolutely has my sympathy, as she knows—this is an age-old dilemma for Governments who want to grip an agenda—but I would be grateful for some reassurance.

Like others, I turn now to lifelong learning. The Government are to be commended for the funding for level 3 qualifications, but I share concerns about those who could, in effect, be frozen out because they have an existing qualification. Does this not contradict the principle of retraining? As far as the loan entitlement provided for in Part 1 is concerned—the Government can consult on it—again, in principle all is good. It is absolutely right that we disrupt the status quo away from a one-size-fits-all approach, but I want to be sure as the Bill progresses that we really understand how gaining skills and/or retraining can work in practice, and do not make an assumption that policy and legislative change translates into easy decisions for, for example, a cash-strapped, time-poor 45 year-old.

There are lots of points on the detail that will need to be worked through, but there are immediately some glaring questions which others have raised and I share concern about, particularly regarding the equivalent or lower qualification rules, which my noble friend mentioned in her opening speech. Surely the pace of change we have discussed at some length today means that those with all sorts of qualifications will find themselves in need of retraining; again, I go back to the need for a nimble system.

More broadly, I support the Government’s optimistic message on lifelong learning and retraining but, ultimately, it is not me they have to persuade. We do not need a huge leap of imagination to understand how daunting the thought of taking on a loan in order to train or retrain can be to those who, through no fault of their own, have lost their job or have effectively been frozen out of the jobs market as a result of childcare pressures or caring responsibilities. Therefore, I urge the Government and employers—because I do not think government can or should solve every problem—to prioritise the social infrastructure that will enable more people to realise their ambitions and be part of a sustained recovery.

The Government acknowledge that the funding and loans system is complex. The more complex the system, the greater the need for clearer signposting. There is a lot of work to be done to develop a consumer- friendly system, particularly for the hard to reach. We are talking about lifelong learning, so we need to match that with a genuine understanding of the factors that affect decisions and resilience at every stage of life. But for all the challenges I have highlighted, I am absolutely confident that there is a way through. I look forward to working with the Government, who have my full support as they take the Bill forward.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome a Bill which focuses on lifelong learning and is committed to enhancing skills among the many young and indeed older people who do not go to university. I also welcome a Bill which aims to enhance the further education sector and support outstanding teaching as well as emphasising collaboration between employers and education and training providers, with the provisos made by my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley. Lastly, I welcome a Bill which seeks to correct the injustice of considerable financial support for students in universities against negligible financial support for students studying in FE colleges.

We undoubtedly have serious skills gaps compared to other OECD countries, with shortages of skilled employees in many sectors and low levels of productivity. This reflects too little investment by government and employers in alternative qualifications to university degrees. This has been particularly apparent in the last decade, when the coalition Government and the Conservative Government who followed them slashed further education, cutting colleges’ incomes by 50%.

Having welcomed the aims of the Bill, I turn to some of its limitations. As a piece of legislation, it is short on detail; it is a skeleton with too little flesh on it to allow us to understand how it will work in practice in key areas. This perhaps explains the long timescale for implementation, which will not be until 2024-25 for core proposals. The Bill reads a bit like a work in progress rather than the end of a detailed policy-making approach culminating—rather than beginning—with a piece of legislation. In a post-Covid world, action will be needed urgently and cannot be delayed for four years. This is especially true of training and educational support for the unemployed after furlough ends.

As others have said, the Bill’s implementation is also dependent on a large injection of resources, both in the short and the longer term. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has questioned whether these resources will be forthcoming and whether detailed calculations of the costs entailed have been undertaken. What is the total price of the Bill when implemented, and when will the Government start injecting new resources?

Let me illustrate this with respect to FE colleges. Their funding has been insufficient. They need more, and they need longer-term funding settlements. This much was recognised, as the Minister knows, in the White Paper. It becomes even more salient when their funding is compared with that of schools and universities —as my noble friend Lord Layard has already mentioned—since they are much less well off in funding per student. Recent research by the IPPR found that to keep up with demographic pressures and inflation, over the last 10 years we would have had to invest £2.1 billion more per annum in adult skills and £2.7 billion more in 16 to 19 year-olds in FE. The Government must provide for future needs and redress the long-standing past underinvestment. Are the Government committed to starting the process in the next spending review, and will they move to long-term, multiyear simplified funding? Without this, the colleges will not be able to develop their curriculum and the range of courses needed to meet the outcomes of discussions with employers on local skills needs, nor will they be able to pay the salaries needed to attract high-quality lecturers to develop and teach new programmes.

I want to pick out one important area for new courses that may not emerge from locally based identifications of skills needs but requires a national scheme. This concerns the green economy. The Government’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 requires a big shift to education and skills training to stall climate change. The Bill is a lost opportunity as it fails to link the Government’s goals on decarbonisation in energy, transport, and buildings, sustainable land management and carbon sequestration. Not only will those entering the labour force for the first time need to be prepared for green jobs, but many who currently work in fossil fuel sectors will need retraining. Why does the Bill make little or no reference to net zero? Should there not be a requirement for skills improvement plans to refer to national objectives on the green economy?

Lastly, I want to touch on the lifetime skills guarantee, on which the Government are still consulting. I am really glad that the gist of the Augar report’s recommendations on student support has been accepted, but the Government must provide more detail on eligibility, whatever the level or type of course the student is training in. Who will be eligible in terms of the range of subjects? I hope the range will be very wide and not narrow. They also need to consider, as others have said, how to support the maintenance needs of students from disadvantaged backgrounds—or are the Government just going to ignore this? There will be a great deal of work to be done in Committee in this area and, I fear, in many other areas too.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I too welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Black of Strome, and congratulate her on an impressive maiden speech. I very much welcome this Bill, as it is clearly appropriate to revisit how current legislation is meeting the needs of students, employees, potential employees and employers, in a rapidly changing world. Let me declare my interests: I have been actively involved in encouraging the establishment of the institute for agriculture and horticulture, TIAH, which is under way, to help improve the image of the sector, provide signposting to quality-approved courses and CPD opportunities, and establish a national register. The support of Defra on this has been very welcome. I am also a fellow of City & Guilds.

The key objectives of the Bill are laudable and very welcome. Putting employers at the heart of post-16 skills policy has been the intention of previous policies. That is easily stated but more difficult to apply in practice. To devolve responsibility to local level, to have local skills improvement plans and employer representative bodies, must be the correct approach. What is unclear from the Bill is how this intention links to national skills priorities for each industry sector, how this relates to regional priorities—in particular, the involvement of local enterprise partnerships—and whether local employer representative bodies to be designated by the Secretary of State are intended to represent all industry sectors within a given local area.

Too often in the past, employer representative bodies have been dominated by large industrial employers and new high-tech sectors regarded as sexy and attractive. Other sectors, which are crucial but fragmented and characterised by SME employers, are sometimes not recognised and therefore not included. This is particularly true of the rural sector and agri-food businesses. They are not identified as sectors with skills gaps in the White Paper but are hugely important and provide exciting opportunities for those choosing a career. I hope the Minister can provide reassurance on this point and, in doing so, give a definition of “local”. Is local a county or parish definition, or something else?

The need to facilitate and encourage lifelong learning is vital; even more so as we emerge from the Covid experience, when many who have been furloughed or made redundant may have wished to retrain. A lifelong loan entitlement is an interesting concept and we await the consultation with interest. However, to wait until 2025 before this loan becomes available is regrettable. In my view, we will miss an important window, when such a facility would be very helpful. I hope that the Government have learned lessons from the student loan experience in determining the thresholds and timetables for repayment. I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, in this respect.

I will now comment on the changes to the regulatory framework proposed in the Bill. In my view, there is potential for significant confusion, as referenced by other Peers in this debate. Government support for vocational training and skills development, with T-levels et cetera, is very welcome. The ability of students to achieve degree-level qualifications as an alternative to attending university, with all its associated costs, must be correct. There is, however, some concerning potential overlap among the regulatory bodies. The Bill must be clear about the relevant roles of the Office for Students, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofqual and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education—particularly the latter two bodies. Unless I have misinterpreted the wording, it appears that the new roles envisaged would create a two-tier and rather cumbersome regulatory approval system. The last thing we need is confusion, duplication and an additional load of bureaucracy. Within this new framework, it is essential that the authority of Ofqual and its accountability to Parliament are not diluted.

We also need to be aware of the administrative costs of regulatory oversight. I speak as a former chair of the Regulatory Policy Committee. Every new or amended regulator adds a new level of cost. The total cost of the suite of regulators in this space will be substantial.

I fully appreciate the need for nationally recognised industry standards. It is important that statutory control, as proposed in the Bill, particularly the role and influence of the Secretary of State, does not lead to overcentralised control or inhibit competition on skills provision in the marketplace.

I conclude by raising a concern about rural and land-based education. The Minister will be aware of the deep concern in the north of England about the proposed closure of Newton Rigg College in Cumbria. The failure to find a solution so far, and the possible loss of this geographically important college and its unique role in serving the needs of the uplands sector, as well as woodland and forestry management, is, I hope, not a signal that the Government do not regard rural as important. I left school aged 15 and the only formal education I received afterwards was in Northumberland, in what is now called a land-based college, very similar to Newton Rigg. As it was for the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, this was through evening classes and day-release courses.

As has been stressed a number of times today, we must ensure that young people and those who wish to retrain are well informed on course availability, including rural, land-based and agricultural courses, and have every opportunity to choose a career as a consequence. In the light of climate change, our net-zero ambitions, the importance of food security and opportunities within the rural economy, I hope the Government continue to regard this sector as important. I fully support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, on the need for seasonal workers in the agricultural and horticultural sectors.