Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 540-559)

JOHN HEALEY, MP

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY 2002

  540. And the lesson they must learn is that good faith, when dealing with the Government, is not enough.
  (John Healey) I am not in a position to say what lessons the 8,500 individual and varied learning providers might take from their experience, but we had a conversation at this last committee meeting where Ms Davey made the point that in designing any successor ILA scheme clearly there is a challenge in restoring and underwriting the confidence that learners and learning providers would have in any successor scheme and I am very conscious of that.

Chairman

  541. Minister, thank you very much for that session on ILAs. Can I tell you that we have decided that we will launch an inquiry into ILAs. The terms of reference are to examine the lessons from the closure of the Individual Learning Accounts scheme for the future of the DfES's lifelong learning strategy in England, with particular reference to management, to policy and to plans for replacing ILAs.
  (John Healey) May I say, Chairman, I would very much welcome that. I think there are some important and innovative features in the ILA scheme from which we can learn and the view of the Committee plus the analysis that you might be able to offer. I hope you will be able to do it on a timescale that will feed into the sort of work that we need to do in terms of redesigning a successor scheme.

  Chairman: We are going to hit the ground running and we will take evidence next week. Thank you for that. Now let us move to the other part of your wide range of responsibilities. I am going to ask Jonathan Shaw to commence the questioning.

Mr Shaw

  542. I want to talk about ICT and education and training, minister. The IT learning centres—and I think I am attending the opening of one in my constituency this coming week—you have a target of 6,000. There are lots of targets. 50 per cent more into higher education by 2010 with 6,000 IT learning centres. Why do we need 6,000?
  (John Healey) May I start with a point of information and clarification. I think, Mr Shaw, what you are talking about there are UK Online centres.

  543. That is right.
  (John Healey) I am delighted you are getting one in your constituency. What you will find is that that is likely to be located in an area of relative disadvantage. The philosophy and the policy purpose behind the UK Online centres—and you are quite right to say we are aiming to have 6,000 in place by the end of 2002—is to create access to ICT equipment, and in particular e-access, Internet access, for community use within communities where the individual ownership and the opportunities for learning about the use of computers are limited. That feeds therefore very strongly into, across-government, the Government's ambition that was set out by the Prime Minister of making sure that there was universal access to the Internet by 2005. UK Online centres are a very important part of that strategy. The DfES is playing a lead role in making sure that many of the new ones are set up—by no means exclusive because libraries will play a big part in developing Online centres—but they are also distinct from learndirect centres which are the local centres of course of the University for Industry (UfI Limited), where learning rather than simply access is at the core of the mission that they have.

  544. Yes. There is a myriad of IT schemes in schools and adult learning. Sometimes it is difficult to see how all these link up. Is it right that the advisor within the DfES who is heading this up is out of post now and there are no plans to replace them?
  (John Healey) No. Well, on the last point, no, that is not the case. Whether or not you are thinking of the former head of our ICT Strategy Unit, who has returned to his post in Lewisham College, I am not sure. But you are right with the first bit. So you are incorrect on your last point and you are correct on your first point, which was this, that there are indeed a myriad of different schemes. I think, as minister responsible for the ICT strategy for the department, that brings me to the conclusion I have reached in these early days of my tenure in the post, which is: during the first four years the DfES was responsible and imaginative about getting a wide range of essentially pilot schemes up and running, and we are at the point now, it strikes me, where we have got to rationalise those. We have got to learn the lessons from the wide variety of things which we have been trying over the last couple of years in particular—that is number one challenge—and the second challenge as a department is that we have got to bring together more effectively the activity that has been going on there in schools, that is there in colleges, and that it is there, as you started by asking me about, in communities. We have not done that as effectively as we could in the past and that is something that both Baroness Ashton, who has responsibility for this in schools, and I, who have responsibility post-16, are working very closely to try to do. At the start of this second term in government, we are really at the point where we need to refresh and refine the ICT strategy we have got across the education and learning field.

  545. I think there is a feeling that if it is computers, if it is ICT, it must be good: "Let's put computers in and we will be providing opportunity for people." I think that sometimes—I do not know if you will agree me—the whole of the picture is not looked at. For example your colleague Baroness Ashton said that she wanted two megabytes into schools in terms of capacity, so that curriculum online can be utilised. That would run about 10 computers. In a school of a thousand pupils, that is simply not going to be satisfactory, is it? Or in rural areas as well, where there is very little broadband capacity, I think there is a concern. The starting point, that computers are good, I think is right, but, in terms of how they are best utilised and the infrastructure to support them, I think that is not always there. Would you agree with that?
  (John Healey) I would agree that actually in the past—and I have to say I think we saw this quite clearly before '97, where the emphasis of the previous Government on computers in schools was just that, getting computers into schools—a lot of teachers did not use them to transform the way they taught, did not have the skills to be able to make best use of them. That is why the strategy that we need to put in place has got to tackle questions of infrastructure; that is the hardware and it is also the question of connectivity, adequate connectivity, to which you are quite rightly drawing attention. If we are going to make the best use of this, it has to make sure that it tackles the questions about learning processes, teaching methods and practice in the classroom or in the lecture room, and it has also got to tackle the question of the skills and confidence of those teachers who are using the technology as well. Those are the three elements of the overall strategy that we are putting in place and I hope we will therefore avoid the sort of isolated way of introducing ICT-related innovation that I think we have seen in the past and has been inadequate.

  546. Are you confident you are going to hit your target by the end of this year?
  (John Healey) Yes.

  547. Where are you? Do you know what the climate is?
  (John Healey) We have got 2,150 UK Online centres opened already. It is the third phase of setting up the UK Online centres that are supported by the capital modernisation fund. The DCMS, who are responsible for libraries, are accelerating their programme of turning and accrediting libraries, public libraries, into UK Online centres. So all the indications that I have at the moment are that we should hit, despite the difficulties, that target by the end of the year.

Valerie Davey

  548. I am very pleased to hear you talking about cross-departmental work. Downstairs, in the post office here, there is a superb, I think, contact point for benefit provision. When I asked the post office downstairs who had provided it, it has come from the DTI. I am not in Leicestershire, where there is going to be a pilot scheme, but I want to see it rolled out. It is excellent. How is all that linking in? If I have accessed a whole lot of information from that, anyone could. It will give tremendous confidence to people in exactly the areas that you are looking for. Is there a link with the DTI as well as the DTMS and the others?
  (John Healey) I think what you are describing there is the bid to find a new role for post offices as a government services access point in the communities in which they exist, whether it is the bottom of Portcullis House or whether it is an important part of my own constituency. In terms of education services, we have been part of the working group that has been trying across government to develop that and to contribute to that. We see post offices potentially being a useful point for information about learning opportunities that may be available in a local area, a useful information point about contacts that people using the post offices may then follow up. It is of limited value in our judgment at present, if you think about the need for hard facilities, to consider that learning is likely to take place actually in post offices, so we are very much part of that project and behind it but it has probable limitations in terms of what it can offer the education and learning fields as a point of access and provision.

  549. My point is that that will be the first learning experience on a computer which many people will ever have had.
  (John Healey) Right.

  550. They will begin to learn as a result of the motivation and find out the information. That surely is the best way of learning, to have that motivation. It seems to me that is a learning skill which people will acquire in that context which we should be celebrating and working with.
  (John Healey) You are absolutely right. In a sense Mr Shaw posed the question that, you know, we need to be careful about assuming that anything to do with ICT is necessarily good, but it is the case, in exactly the way that you are talking about, in exactly the way that we are finding in our UK Online centres or learndirect centres, that people who have not had any contact with that technology before find increasingly there are things they need it to be able to do and worlds and opportunities that it can open up. By using it, it means that they are beginning to gain skills that they are going to find very useful in work, in supporting kids they may have in school, in booking holidays or even supermarket shopping online. So, increasingly, in every aspect of life these are becoming essential basic skills.

Mr Baron

  551. I am delighted to hear that you are up to target with regard to the number of IT learning centres and so forth.
  (John Healey) On track rather than up to target.

  552. All right. I will accept that. It is still good news.
  (John Healey) Thank you.

  553. Having said that, the real litmus test of whether the schemes are successful or not is the effect they are having not whether they are meeting the targets. How are you going to measure how successful you are in your aims with regard to this particular incentive? You will have to excuse the slight criticism here. Have you devised a definition of what overcoming exclusion is? How are you going to judge how successful this particular initiative is?
  (John Healey) With UK Online centres and one or two of the other pilot projects I mentioned earlier, like our wired up communities pilots, we have in place from the start plans for a pretty thorough evaluation of the impact—and those of course will be published and available for the committee and others to examine. In terms of the learning provision rather than the opportunities to access the technology or the Internet, our principal concern must be the University for Industry (UfI Limited) and learndirect centres in this field. We have 1300 learndirect centres now open and here we are putting in the same inspection arrangements as we would with any other learning provider, whether they are work-based learning providers, FE, or in any other field, so the Adult Learning Inspectorate is just beginning its first series of independent thorough inspections of the learning provision that those Learn Direct centres are offering. I think that is the guarantee that the funding we are putting in will be properly used, that is the way that we are going to be able to identify what is working well and what is not and spread that, and that is the way we are going to be able to identify where we can increase the pressure and encouragement to improve the standard of what is offered there.

Chairman

  554. Minister, I know you are keen to give full answers, but we have a hell of an agenda to get through of questions for you, so can I ask my colleagues and you to be brief. We are trying to get through a lot—otherwise we will have to have you back.
  (John Healey) Chairman, should I be required I would be delighted to return, but you will probably have had enough of me.

Mr Baron

  555. Following on from that, very briefly, have you put proper structures in place and have you properly thought through the funding required, assuming this is going to be a success, bearing in mind what has just happened with regards ILAs? Are their proper structures in place? Is the funding going to be ring-fenced and properly thought through to ensure there is success? If the funding is there, if anything goes wrong with the system then we can on this occasion make sure that we can put it right.
  (John Healey) I think the structures for making sure that what we are setting out to do is being done are there. We covered that a moment ago. In terms of the funding in place for the future if these prove to be an established success, that is part of the discussions that we across government are now beginning to have as part of the spending review process, which of course is where the government will commit its funding from the year 2004 to 2007.

Chairman

  556. I want to move on to adult basic skills. We do live in a society with the ghastly fact that a very high percentage of our population are illiterate and the government has a specific target of reducing by three quarters of a million the number of adults who have literacy and numeracy problems. The evidence we have taken from other sources suggests that this is going to be a real problem because there is a tremendous shortage of teachers in the FE sector who are specialists with these skills. What are you doing to tackle this? Here you are with a very clear commitment. On the other hand, you have a real shortage of the skills to deliver on the commitment. How confident are you that you can actually achieve that quite large target?
  (John Healey) It is potentially a big challenge. I am not certain but I hear the same anecdotal recourse as you do that we have not got enough teachers on the ground to be able to deliver the courses that we need for this target.

  557. We got that from Chris Hughes, Chief Executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, and from Ruth Silver of Lewisham College.
  (John Healey) Yes, and I have had it from similar figures in the FE field and I have had it from basic skills' tutors at conferences that I have talked to as well. Two things, if I may: the first is that we set out, for the first time ever, to standardise the whole system in delivering basic literacy and numeracy to learning. That included support and tuition for the tutors for the first time, systematically delivered. We thought when we set out on this earlier last year that there were probably about 7,000 basic skills' tutors that were working more than six hours a week across the country. We have already trained in the new national system more than 8,000. In other words, there may be more practitioners out there than we realise. We are now turning our attention to those who are "very short hours" part-time tutors, the next group, who are at present delivering less than six hours teaching a week, whom we obviously want to support and encourage to do a bit more. That is the first point. It may be that actually there are more tutors and potential tutors out there than any of us knew at the outset. The second is—and I am very concerned about this—that I do not want us to find, in pursuing what is an ambitious target, which clearly is only a step towards what is a massive problem and one we will need to and want to take further, that we run into the sort of supply and capacity constraints you were talking about. At the moment—and I should have a report on this by April—we are doing a thorough audit and survey of quite what is the supply and potential supply of basic skills' tutors out there that we can either draw on or that we need to develop.

Mr Baron

  558. Again, minister, I just want to question you, if you do not mind, with regards to how you are going to measure the effect of this initiative. A laudable initiative, etc, but how are you going to ascertain yourself whether you are successful? Are adults going to be taking tests themselves?
  (John Healey) Yes.

  559. Can you tell us more about that.
  (John Healey) The specific terms of the target that we have set is that by 2004 we aim to have helped 750,000 adults with poor literacy and numeracy skills improve those skills. We have set ourselves the exacting measure of that, that we will require them to have done tests in order to demonstrate that their learning skills have improved. This is not, in management terms, an input or a process; this is about the impact, that learning for this group of people that need these skills will have improved. As part of the new national system that I explained earlier that we are putting in place for the first time, we have devised now national tests, which have never been catered for, both for literacy and numeracy. The first wave of learnings in one of our sort of pilot areas took those in June/July and they will become the bedrock for monitoring the progress of our programme, but for each and every individual who is learning it could be their confirmation that their skills are improving as well.


 
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