All 1 Selaine Saxby contributions to the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022

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Mon 21st Feb 2022

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]

Selaine Saxby Excerpts
Clive Lewis Portrait Clive Lewis
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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree entirely. We can already see, before the ink is dry on the COP26 agreement, that the Government are back-tracking. We only have to look at history. Many Conservative Members will look at what happened in the 1980s with the demise of the mining industry and say, “Well, we were the first to ensure that we decarbonised our economy”, when actually this was a tragedy. If we look at what happened with deindustrialisation and what happened in the mining industry, we see that actually the whole reason for the necessity of the levelling-up agenda is that there was not a just transition. This is an opportunity for us to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes as we have in the past, and that we play our part in making sure that we get to net zero in a timely manner. I think that is what most people in this House and out in the country would want, and on that I shall finish.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak today in support of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. Ensuring that everyone has access to high-quality training and education throughout their lives is vital. I come from a family of teachers, and I retrained in my 40s so that I myself could teach, so I am particularly passionate about the opportunities that the Bill will open up. I want to take this opportunity to highlight the support of my local FE college for some of tonight’s proposed amendments.

Much is said of talent being spread equally across our country, but opportunity is not. That is particularly true in North Devon: it is not just in the country where opportunity is not equally spread, but in our county as well. We are over 60 miles from any university, and our youngsters do not in general see university as a natural next step post 18. Devon is particularly short of highly-qualified young people. Just 24% of 20 to 29-year-olds have a degree, which is one of the lowest levels in the country. It is against this backdrop that our excellent and sole further education college, Petroc, which educates over 9,000 learners and works with hundreds of employers, is well placed not only to welcome this Bill, but to highlight areas it would like to see strengthened.

Like me, the college highlights how coastal and rural areas such as North Devon have particular challenges that are masked by aggregating data, even to a county level, when our county is the size of Devon and has such variance in opportunity across its beautiful rural and coastal spread. The college was keen that I should highlight its support for new clause 7, as it is particularly concerned that the lifetime skills guarantee includes subsequent level 3 courses, so that those without an A-level or equivalent qualification, or those who hold such a qualification but would benefit from reskilling, are able to study on a fully-funded and approved course. This would facilitate adults being able to remain in North Devon and acquire new skills, enabling them to take advantage of the new jobs opening up in the area, whereas at present staying in North Devon means remaining in low-paid, low-skill employment, despite the multiple high-skilled job vacancies that do not match our local skill base.

We also hope that steps can be taken to revisit universal credit conditionality, as in new clause 5, so that those on benefits are encouraged to increase their skills to enable them to seek better employment. I recognise the challenges in this space, but similarly we need to encourage those who, due to the seasonality of our vital tourism and hospitality economy, spend part of each year on universal credit, as in North Devon, to upskill so that they can work throughout the year, as well as to encourage employers to stay open longer and extend our tourism season, given the growth in winter visitors we have seen post pandemic.

North Devon, like many other remote, rural and coastal locations, has particular challenges in raising aspiration, improving educational outcomes and enabling adults to upskill.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy
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The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and I just want to echo the support for universal credit conditionality. I represent an urban seat that faces similar but different challenges from hers, and I completely support the idea that universal credit should still be allowed; we do not have an issue of seasonal workers, but we do have an issue of people on universal credit not always being able to get the opportunity to do the training they want, because they are forced to take zero-hours contracts instead. As the hon. Lady says, there is opportunity everywhere, but only if we make it so. I just wanted to speak in support of what she was saying on this.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and I spend much time discussing the opportunities of universal credit on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions.

Unlike the cities, remote rural and coastal locations such as those in my constituency face particular challenges in raising aspiration, improving educational outcomes and enabling adults to upskill. It is vital that more acknowledgement be given to the needs of these communities, which do not always fit well into a city-centric system. I very much hope there will be opportunities to work with the new education team to further develop this vital Bill, so that it works even better for remote and rural constituencies and really does deliver equal opportunity across communities such as North Devon.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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We know that a Bill is flawed when not one, not two, but three previous Education Secretaries and Ministers from across the political spectrum seek to amend it. The Lords Baker, Blunkett and Willetts worked hard to stop the ending of funding for BTECs, qualifications taken by more than 250,000 students last year, so it is a shame that the Government sought to remove the Lords amendment. I back amendment 15 in the name of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), which supports funding for BTECs for a further four years.

The Liberal Democrats support T-levels, but the newer courses are only 25% practical and 75% academic, which puts them out of reach of some students who achieve lower grades in their GCSEs—exactly the cohort who flourish on the employment-focused BTEC pathway. We need to allow T-levels extra time to bed in. Frankly, an extra year for BTECs, as proposed by the Secretary of State, is simply not enough.

New clause 11, which is in my name, seeks to address a gap that we have identified in support for 16-year-olds as they transition within the education system. This gap exacerbates inequalities. Some young people face making life-changing decisions on the spot, with no clear idea about their options and the likely consequences. One example I heard from my constituency involved two boys who did not quite make their expected GCSE grades. Their chosen very popular local school for sixth form refused to offer them a place on their choice of A-level courses, because others with higher grades were prioritised ahead of them, and only offered them places on under-subscribed, less academic courses. A decision had to be made immediately. One of the boys had parents who had not been to university, and who struggled to provide him with appropriate advice; he was not offered advice from elsewhere. That cannot be right.

Unlike reception, 11-plus, and even university admissions, there is no oversight of 16-plus admissions, yet arguably it is the most crucial point—a time when a student’s options are permanently narrowed. There is no central body managing the process, no appeals process, and no data gathered to track whether the local offer matches what the learners want to study. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and I have tabled an amendment that would give local authorities the powers and resources to run admissions for this crucial 16-plus transition in the same way that they do for primary and secondary education, and it would include a full register to ensure no young person slips through the cracks. Although I will not press this amendment to a Division tonight, I hope Ministers will look seriously at this important issue, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

There are many good amendments on local skills improvement plans, and it is important that recommendations be taken on board from bodies such as the Local Government Association, who would require LSIPs to be developed in partnership with local authorities and further education providers. The views of interested parties such as local employers, and other education providers including universities, must be taken into consideration, too. Also, the needs of disabled people should be front and centre when developing all these plans and policies, as one of the amendments suggests.

Finally, on universal credit, I am incredulous that a Government who claim they want to make work pay and move people from welfare into high-quality, well-paid jobs—which all of us across the House would support—have removed a Lords amendment allowing students to keep their universal credit entitlement while studying. Education is the pathway between unemployment and fulfilling, interesting, valuable employment, so why would any barriers and disincentives be placed in the way? I urge the Government to reconsider their position on this issue and to support new clause 5, which comes from their own Back Benchers.

In conclusion, this Bill gives us the chance to realise that education should be an opportunity for life, whatever people’s circumstances. That opportunity should be freely available, whether to a young person starting out in life, a parent who is ready to go back to study, or someone who wants to retrain to improve their job prospects. Given the immense skills shortages this country is facing, and the green and digital revolutions we are experiencing, this Bill is a very welcome step forward, but it has serious flaws. It is a shame that some excellent amendments from the Lords have been thrown out, and that a number of those in today’s amendment paper are not being considered or accepted by this Government. I urge them in particular to look again at the defunding of BTECs, transitional arrangements for 16 year-olds, and barriers to education for those on universal credit.