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Mr. Willis: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real target that the Government need to set concerns 14 to

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19-year-olds and the removal of the drop-off point at 16, and that unless we can get more young people to stay on in school or in education or training after the age of 16, targets of 50 per cent. in higher education are meaningless?

Mr. Boswell: I have considerable sympathy with that view. I have myself spoken about the need for a more longitudinal approach. One has to recognise the individual segments and not try to put them all together, but what goes on in school must have an influence on what happens thereafter—on access and readiness to learn—and is highly relevant. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that.

Mr. Chaytor: We agree about the importance of increasing participation at ages 16 to 19. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that further education is to be defined not simply in terms of three-year degrees, and that two-year foundation degrees, and the role of HNCs and HNDs, have been an extremely important part of it and will play an important part in meeting the 50 per cent. target?

Mr. Boswell: Again, I have little difficulty in agreeing with that. Perhaps we are following obsolete models, or models that have a particular but not a universal relevance. I am anxious that Ministers should not disguise what they are trying to do by rebranding it to mean that everybody will go to university for three years and metaphorically carries an Oxford degree in their knapsack. That is neither appropriate nor necessary. I am sure that we can have flexibility in participation without eroding the differences between institutions.

Behind this debate lies the Government's attitude to students. My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood spoke most eloquently on the subject. The Government want to claim credit for more participation but are reluctant to fund it, so there is continuing pressure on the unit of student funding, challenging our universities' continuing ability to deliver excellence in teaching and research, and offering a miserable deal for some students. I expect that it is all right for those from more conventional backgrounds, who can fall back on a fairly conventional and professional home, where there may be financial support or help with resources, but it is hard indeed for the first-time access user, which is already reflected in recruitment figures.

There is a danger that the social advance of the democratisation of higher education, which took place largely under the previous Conservative Government, might get lost. It is at least clear from the Government's review of their policies that they are worried that that might happen. I hope that any changes will devolve as much as possible of the access responsibility, provided that the funds are also transferred, to the institutions themselves.

With regard to the interface with further education, the Government will have to pay attention to the overall financial mix and how that is to be balanced. That would be a better approach than some sort of notional fusion, at nominal cost, of the two sectors.

The world of education now realises that for all the fine words of nearly five years of Labour government, and a growing and undeniable responsibility on the part of that

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Government, nothing much in education has got better. The House will remember that as early as 1999 the Prime Minister called for a year of delivery. That year of delivery was supposed to have taken place in the last millennium. Our young people deserve access to high quality education. What worries us is that that might be progressively denied them, for one reason or another, but neither they nor us will forgive the Government if they fail now.

7.1 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who speaks with sincerity and knowledge on post-16 education. I remember him as a responsive Minister, although we could never get any resources out of him or his Government. I intended to speak on one aspect of the decision on individual learning accounts, but I am tempted to pick up one or two of the other issues mentioned in the Opposition motion.

I am not comfortable with several aspects of Government education policy, and my hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench would not believe me if I said otherwise. However, the matters that cause me some discomfort are not mentioned in the motion. I am not uncomfortable with the school building programme, which has been incredible. In my part of the world, we are setting up a brand new high school, which will solve problems that have been festering in Ormskirk for decades. I am not uncomfortable with the direct funding that has gone into schools, for head teachers and senior staff to distribute as they, with their local knowledge, think fit. I am not uncomfortable with sure start, and the magnificent work that scheme has achieved in Skelmersdale. I am not uncomfortable with excellence in cities, or with excellence clusters—we have one in Skelmersdale that is doing wonderfully well in bringing learning mentors into our schools.

Like the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), I am a firm believer in the comprehensive ideal. I always have been and always will be. The comprehensive ideal was a failure only because it never properly existed. We were never able, with the best will in the world or with the power sometimes available to us, to bring in a system that did away with all the horrors of selection and the private system. The Opposition motion mentions

What does that mean? How can a real choice be provided? A person could have written that sentence only if he or she had never examined the situation and the complexity of the relationships between schools and their admissions policies—or the lack of them.

The only comment that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) made to support that element of the motion was the claim that the Government did not allow good schools to expand enough to give everyone real choice. What nonsense. The logic of that would mean we would end up with one school in Lancashire with everybody in it, because the parents all chose it as the best school. Many students already travel miles for hours every day to get to the schools that their parents think are most suitable. The selection that still exists in our system does not provide real choice for all parents.

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The motion also mentions the issue of student finance, about which the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) talked cogently. The motion claims that the present system has

Of course it has. We have never had a system that did not, and it would probably be difficult to invent one. Student finance has gone to pot ever since the Conservative Government started to fiddle about with student loans, and the Labour Government have not done anything satisfactory to solve the problem since 1997.

My one serious criticism of the Government I support is that they have not significantly altered the numbers of young people from working class homes who have entered higher education. I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the article in The Independent, because I jumped for joy when I saw the announcement of the possibility of introducing a graduate tax to finance students in higher education. I have always been a supporter of a graduate tax. It has always seemed to me the most efficient and fairest way to fund tuition fees, and I hope that any new scheme will also include a maintenance element. A graduate tax based on income means that we would not force people, as we do at present, to go for the highest-paid jobs. Many graduates are altruistic and wish to take jobs in the public services or overseas, which are not necessarily highly paid.

In welcoming a better system of student finance for higher education, we must also remember that students in further education have a rotten deal. It has always been the Cinderella service in terms of resources. We must address the issue of the education maintenance allowance, and I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) that it should be rolled out across the country as soon as possible. Some of my constituents are students at Wigan college and Southport college, which are in different education authorities. My constituents do not get the allowance but they sit next to young people from Wigan and Southport who are doing the same course and who do get the allowance. Those young constituents ring me to ask why they do not get the allowance. That is understandable, because Skelmersdale is as deprived an area as Wigan.

I taught in higher education for 20-odd years and I hope that if we introduce a graduate tax we also introduce an element that recognises that students have a responsibility to use their opportunity properly. One of the things that distressed me as a teacher in higher education was the small minority of students who utterly wasted their time at university. They did not turn up for lectures or produce assignments. They even skived off exams at the end and just dropped out of the system. We cannot introduce a good system of student finance unless we accept that students must bear responsibilities in return.

The motion also criticises the Government's

I am married to the head teacher of a large comprehensive school in a difficult area in Skelmersdale. She makes no complaint about the amount of interference or bureaucracy. She says that she goes through everything rapidly, picks out the essential stuff and ignores the rest. That skill, of picking out the essential materials in the information that is presented, is one that all hon. Members

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have. We would have to work 24 hours a day to read all the tripe that lands on our desks. In the same way, good head teachers and teachers know precisely what they have to do. Teachers have always been able to manipulate whatever systems Governments put in place.

However, although the Conservatives criticise the Government's "constant interference", the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said in an intervention that discipline in schools was going to pot and demanded to know what the Government were going to do about it. In other words, the hon. Gentleman was demanding Government interference in schools. The question is whether one is attracted by what the Government are trying to do, or not.

I shall turn briefly to the difficulty of attracting people into teacher training and, ultimately, into the teaching profession. I think that, at a time of virtually full employment, it is remarkable that the numbers being recruited into teacher education should have risen. After all, who on earth would be a teacher when, to paraphrase George Orwell, prison is an alternative?

Teaching can be a dreadful job. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West said that on a good day it can be the best job in the world. I have been there and done that and I know that it was the best job in the world—on those good days. It can also be a job in which teachers put their personalities on the line day after day in front of 30 young people aged, say, 13 or 14—the age group that I have always found to be the most difficult. Teachers are tested and pressured, and it is no wonder that so many of them suffer stress.

That stress is what accounts for the drop-out rate among those recruited into teacher training. A first-year student going into a school for teaching practice is usually quite coddled. I have done a lot of that in my time, and I know how it works. Such students are given a light timetable and a decent class in order to ease them into what is a difficult job. In their second or third years, however, or when postgraduate certificate of education students do their third teaching practice, the proposition is somewhat different. They are on their own in class. I intend no criticism when I say that many people find themselves constitutionally incapable of carrying on and decide to choose some other profession. That has always happened.

I was involved in teacher education in the 1970s. We knew that a substantial proportion of our students would get through their courses successfully, and complete their teaching practices, but that they would go off and be accountants, for example, at the end. They would decide to use their brains in a different way, because teaching was not for them. We should not be surprised by the recruitment difficulties that are being encountered.

I am delighted that the Under–Secretary for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), is back on the Front Bench, as I know that the aspect of ILAs about which I am most worried is really his pigeon. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that the ILA was a Liberal Democrat policy—no wonder then that it got into trouble. We should be more careful about to whom we listen.

It is bitterly disappointing that the ILA has had to be suspended. It has been crucial to the Government's lifelong learning policies, which I regard as visionary, important and even, in many ways, inspirational. I understand that the suspension was needed to tackle

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fraud in the system, but I suspect that the success of the ILA scheme, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has termed it elsewhere, meant that the sheer number of people who wanted to take advantage of it was the greater cause.

We should not be surprised that people take the money that they are offered to go on courses. The more attractively and efficiently that that money is offered, the more people will pick up on it. Wherever public money is made available, even for the very best of causes, the parasites will gather to try to take advantage. We sometimes call those people entrepreneurs: my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that the leather sofas that such people sell are made of plastic, but they have also gone into the business of selling ILAs.

I ought to point out that more than fraud is involved. Many people have encountered incompetence in the administration of the ILAs. My constituent, Susan Ashcroft, has allowed me to refer to her, but I have many other constituents in similar circumstances. She was working as a nursery nurse at a special school. She opened an ILA account to help her through a higher national certificate course in early childhood studies. She spent months inquiring into the ILA scheme, and had even contributed towards it, but no one at the ILA centre at Darlington could tell her what had happened to it. Eventually, she received an unsigned letter from Darlington telling her that her account was closed.

By then, Susan Ashcroft was committed to a course costing her £425 for the first year, and £300 for the second. We are still pursuing that mystery, but I do not think that the problem had to do with fraud. I think it was a matter of sheer bloody incompetence.

I believe that the Government should stamp ruthlessly on fraud and on bureaucratic incompetence, but I must explain to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary my serious concerns about the suspension of ILAs where that affects courses set up under partnerships between local employers, local further education institutions and trade unions.

I should declare an interest. I am a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and I am chairman of the USDAW group of MPs in the House. I describe myself as an "allied worker". USDAW totally supports the Government's lifelong learning project, and was immensely successful in using ILAs in the most practical way—to give its members access to learning.

The union has inspired partnerships with employers and FE colleges that have involved hundreds of courses and thousands of workers. Nearly all the workers involved have undertaken no formal education since they left school. By way of contrast, I understand that about 80 per cent. of all ILA applications came from people already participating in some form of lifelong learning.

The bids for union learning funds were often very vigorously tested, with the active encouragement of the previous Labour Government elected in 1997. The lifelong learning courses set up under the partnerships that I have described are fully accountable, and fraud cannot be involved. I shall give one example of the work that went into such a venture.

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Ann Hickson was the learning representative at a call centre in Bolton that has a staff of 900. She signed up 500 staff members for ILAs. She should get a medal for that: she should not have to see all her work, and all the hope that it engendered, snuffed out. Thousands of low-paid and unskilled workers are involved in the partnership schemes. Employers supply the premises, so there is no extra travelling involved. That is important to people who work long hours or peculiar shifts. The FE colleges supply tuition and equipment, which for the most part means computers.

The union does the recruiting and negotiates the ILAs. That ILA component has been absolutely vital to ensure that low-paid workers participate. If nothing is done to address the current situation, those people are unlikely ever to apply for courses in future. That is the main problem. They have already been difficult to persuade on to courses, and the money available under the ILAs has just made it possible for the learning representatives to attract them. I prophesy that if things fall apart now, they will never come back to learning.

USDAW learners are new to adult learning—they are the women returners, the manual workers and those who have few or no IT skills. They are often people with basic skills needs; people with no qualifications; and people who lack confidence, do not believe that they can participate in learning and thought that whatever learning days they had were over at the age of 15 or 16, or whenever they left school. To attract such workers, the courses have to be accessible to those who have busy working lives, affordable and confidence raising.

No doubt, the partnerships involving other unions are exactly the same, but the USDAW partnerships have cracked all those problems through the work of their learning representatives. Learning centres have been or are being set up at Littlewoods in Bolton and Oldham; at Reality, which was once Great Universal Stores, in Wigan and Widnes; at Sainsbury's in Hoddeston and Haydock; at Kays in Leeds; Elthel Austins in Liverpool; and at Tesco in Welham Green.

I shall pick out one of those centres, which is right next door to me. At Reality in Wigan, 12.8 per cent. of the work force signed up. That figure includes 103 people on computer literacy and information technology courses; 12 on European computer driving licence courses; 18 on basic skills courses; and 18 on a Spanish course—perhaps that relates to holidays. Without an ILA, a CLAIT course costs 90 quid—beyond those people's means. With an ILA, it costs £15.99, which they can manage, and they are happy to do so. Moreover, Wigan and Leigh college says that there is a much lower drop-out rate than on college-based courses, simply because people find it easier to go to the courses after work.

The importance of that sort of development speaks for itself, and I ask the Minister whether he would consider a transitional scheme, especially for those current arrangements, to tide them over the period between the suspension and the emergence of whatever turns up after the reassessment. Perhaps equivalent funds, supplementary to those of the union learning fund, could be earmarked and administered through the union learning fund and Department for Education and Skills team. That could run until next summer, when the courses end, or until the new targeted scheme is in place, whichever is earlier.

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had little choice but to do what she has done. I am grateful to her for the account that she gave in her opening speech about the measures that have been taken to address the difficulties that have come to light and for what she said was a cast-iron guarantee to commit funding to lifelong learning schemes, or whatever they are called, in the future. However, I hope that, in replying to the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister will address the specific issue that I have raised and that, if he is free later tonight or tomorrow morning, he can meet some USDAW representatives who are lurking about the House and dying to talk to him about it.

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