Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 560-579)

JOHN HEALEY, MP

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY 2002

  560. What standard level? Will it be taken or accepted that they have reached a certain standard with regards an improvement? For example, NVQs, is there going to be a comparable standard there?
  (John Healey) Yes, the tests range across from entry level to level 1 to NVQ level 2. That is roughly equivalent of a 7 year old, an 11 year old, and GCSE.

Chairman

  561. We would be very interested to know what is the nature of your target audience here. Who are the people in this country who have these problems? In every other part of education we have a very pretty good profile of the children that we are trying to deliver better education to and retaining education. With adult literacy, it does seem very vague. Who is the target? How does one reach them? Some of the discussions that have been taking place in terms of education for citizenship are around: "Should learning the English language be a part of the award of citizenship in a country?" Who are the targets? Is it newly arrived people in the country? Is it people from a particular background or from particular parts of the country?
  (John Healey) You are right, Chairman, this is a very special challenge. In every other part of our education system, our learners are those who are in our schools or in our colleges. We know who they are and as the DfES we, or the institutions or agencies we deal with, have direct contact. But the people who generally lack decent levels of reading, writing and maths tend to be more commonly unemployed, they tend to be more commonly in prison, they tend to be more commonly (if they are in work) in low-skilled, casualised, low-paid jobs. In other words, as the DfES our challenge here is that we do not have direct contact with the learners for whom we want to provide the learning. The big challenge for me and for the department is that we do not have control over the departments or the agencies through whom we need to work and through whom the screening/contact with these potential learners must be delivered. That is why we are working so closely with the prison service, with the employment service, with the Army to identify the people who have these skills gaps and then to be able to deliver literacy and numeracy learning as part of what they may be doing as part of their search for work, as part of their time inside or as part of their training when they join the Army.

Mr Pollard

  562. A lot of money, minister, is spent on advertising. I am particularly thinking of the Gremlin advert which we all love dearly! I wonder at the effectiveness of that because when I look at that it frightens me stiff, I would not like to be thought of as somebody who could not read. I wonder whether the message is right and how effective that advertising is and whether you are doing some evaluation as to whether you are getting value for money.
  (John Healey) A very important question, if I may say so, first because one of the big challenges here is how we reach people who have difficulties of reading, writing and maths and encourage them to decide to do something about it instead of just getting by as they may have done for years in the past. Advertising clearly has a part to play in that. We tried the Gremlins' campaign (as you might term it) in September/October. We had a response line, as you may have known, from that. We had 50,000 calls to that and sent out more than 30,000 packs, which were information, video and motivational tips as well as contact points for people wanting to take up learning. The post-campaign evaluation, as far as we have been able to do it, suggests that 73 per cent of those who have got basic skills and problems were aware of the campaign. Significantly—and this is part of why we have decided to relaunch it in January—38 per cent of those who have got the biggest difficulties with reading and writing say it would make them more likely to take up some learning. The proof in the end will be in the practice and in the pudding, but the second wave of the campaign is designed much more explicitly to follow through and get potential learners not just contacting us for information and advice but signed up to courses. For me that will be a crucial question of whether we can convert the interest the advertising seems to be generating to people who would not otherwise sign up for learning.

Chairman

  563. Thank you, minister. I want to move on, but I do hope you take away Val Davey's point that there are ways in which people are able to learn and access those basic skills. A teacher, when we were looking at an inquiry in one school, said that the best thing that had happened was the driving test, because a large number of young people wanted to drive and had to be literate in order to get through that great desire to get wheels.
  (John Healey) Chairman, if I may encourage you perhaps to pay a trip to Aston Villa Football Club or one of the Tesco stores in Leeds or any number of projects where the delivery of this sort of learning and the opportunity to learn is being put in places where people are rather than in classrooms. I hope that is going to help, in the way that Ms Davey suggested, to overcome some of the barriers.

  Chairman: Perhaps Val and I should do that together. Can I move on now to the relationship with employers. We had a very interesting session with the General Secretary of NATFHE, Paul Mackney on this and I know some colleagues would like to follow that through.

Mr Shaw

  564. It does tie in very much to the adult basic skills and the relationship that perhaps the Learning Skills Councils have with the employers. You said, in answer to the Chairman's question, "Who are we talking about?" that part of the group that we are targeting for this 750,000 are people who are low-paid. Getting those employers to release people to increase their skills and so therefore not only help themselves but help the company, I think is proving quite difficult. I understand there is a pilot in Liverpool where you are paying employers £50 a day to release people for training. Could you tell us how that is going and whether you have evaluated that yet and whether you have any plans to expand that.
  (Mr Healey) Specifically on adult basic skills, Mr Shaw is right, we are piloting in nine different areas a whole range of different ways to try and tackle what we think, from experience so far, are the barriers. One example is encouraging employers to release people to do it. Other experiments include incentives for the learners and sanctions for those in the job seekers system that will not. They include also different ways of screening for problems and also including intensive residential weekends to kick-start the learning they have got to take. Given that those additional pilots have only started from September onwards, we do not have sufficient data at the moment, particularly in relation to control areas that we are obviously watching as well, to be able to come to an evaluation. I am hoping that by the spring that will be a bit clearer in terms of the specifics. In terms of the general, you are absolutely right, employers are going to be key in this. If we reckon that there are seven million adults who have poor literacy and numeracy skills, at least three million are actually at work. We know from the pressure of the changes in the workplace at the moment that being able to learn new skills is a crucial part of people's future job security. Of course if you are required to learn new skills from your company and you do not have good reading, writing and maths it makes that very much more difficult. The response that we are able to encourage employers to have to this programme in the coming months and years is going to be critical not just to the potential for these learners to develop the skills but, to be honest, the success of those companies.

  565. Is it in your mind at the moment or on your agenda that, if you find yourself that you are getting to a certain point where the target of these 750,000 people is not being met because there is clearly a large body of employers who are unwilling to release people to go and have training, you would then think, "Right: what we need is educational leave because people have to have a statutory right for educational leave"? If you are perhaps a single parent working part time at a distribution centre on low pay and the employer says, "Yes, you can do it but you have to do it in your own time", it is simply not going to happen, I would suggest. The demands upon someone in those circumstances are too much for them to take on learning outside of all the other pressures they have. If it is done within works time then that is more likely. Is that on the agenda? If you are not reaching this target will the Government introduce legislation requiring employers to provide educational leave?
  (John Healey) The short answer is yes, it is in our policy thinking for the medium term. The long answer is this, that employers, like the rest of us, are only just waking up to the scale of the problem. We will be producing over the next few months a toolkit that will help them realise the scale of the problem and have a look in their own workforce at the basic skills needs they may have. Most are not aware of the scale of the problem, if I may say so. Many employers legitimately take the view that this sort of basic reading and writing and maths ought to be something that the state should have ensured these people had in the first place, and therefore many are reluctant to concede immediately that it is their responsibility to pick up all the costs of doing so. That is why we have accepted as a Government that there is a proper role for the public purse to pay for the costs so that all adult learning for basic skills is free. That is one barrier. Some of the evidence suggests that time is another barrier to learning. You may have seen in the Pre-Budget Report that the Chancellor published in late November that there is a strong chapter on productivity, a large section of that on skills and productivity which I mentioned when I came before the Committee before Christmas, and proposals within that to set up perhaps three or four pilots which will be run by local Learning Skills Councils which will attempt to trial new policy ideas which include a tax credit for the costs of basic skills and learning up to Level 2 skills, and they write time off for the individual employee who will pursue that.

Chairman

  566. When you talk about pilot schemes, sometimes when Ministers come before us it sounds a bit waffly. How many people employed in your Department do you think have a deficiency in basic skills?
  (John Healey) We do not know.

  567. You have never done an analysis?
  (John Healey) We do not know because part of what we are doing as our basic skills strategy is working with a whole new resource department but in each of the other government departments as well—

  568. It would be nice to see your department evaluate how many there.
  (John Healey)—to identify the degree to which there are basic skills deficits within government's own employees.

  Chairman: It would be useful for you to look at your department and perhaps the Houses of Parliament. We have about 3,000 people working here. I suspect that a significant minority have problems that we could identify.

Mr Pollard

  569. Would the Minister bear in mind the requirements of the small business sector who employ perhaps two or three people and who might be bothered about a questionnaire coming round to assess basic skills in their organisation? They would see it as another bit of red tape and bureaucracy—"What are we going to get out of it?" There would also be concern about releasing Jimmy or Georgina to go off to learn to read and write. They will say, "You should have done this years ago" to them and to the state. Could you bear in mind when you are looking at this, and I would support legislation if it is needed, the requirements of small businesses and that they do not have the same flexibility that large organisations have?
  (John Healey) Can I reassure Mr Pollard that we are very conscious of the position of small businesses, both the pressures they are under but also the fact that the levels of learning investment and training are also much lower than elsewhere. If I can encourage you to look at that Pre-Budget Report you will see that the outline proposals for testing these pilots load the compensation costs heavily towards small businesses and the whole emphasis of the PIU Report on workers' development which the PVI was partly in response to emphasises the importance of the small business sector in this regard.

Mr Chaytor

  570. Minister, can you confirm that the Government's policy remains to achieve convergence on funding for all post-16 education and training?
  (John Healey) The policy remains as it was set out in the manifesto when we together fought the last election, which is that for sixth forms in schools there is a real terms guarantee. For other parts of the system we want to bring up the funding, which is of course in FE and in sixth form colleges.

  571. So that is convergence?
  (John Healey) That is a question of bringing up those levels of funding relative to the levels that they are at at the moment and we have never, as you are aware better than anyone, been able to set a timescale on that because it is clearly a feature of what we are developing as our discussions and our proposals as part of the spending review process.

  572. In the Department's letter to the Committee in September of this year when we wrote to ask for some clarification following the previous review on FE, it clearly says that there will be a common funding formula established by 2003/2004. There is some ambiguity as to whether it is the beginning of that financial year or the end of that financial year. Will that common funding formula not pay for all post-16 education and learning at the same rate? You seem to be saying that that is not so.
  (John Healey) The common funding formula is not the same as the common funding rate.

  573. So what is the difference between the common funding formula and the common funding rate?
  (John Healey) The formula means that for the LSC over the four main streams of post-16 learning they will develop and are developing a framework that allows them to assess and plan for provision in a way that is consistent right across the four streams. As you know, they have been separately managed and separately planned and separately budgeted for in the past and so bringing those together in a common framework is an essential step towards the sort of ambition that you have there but it is not the same.

  574. So by the end of 2003/2004 it is probable therefore that there will still be a differential funding rate for students following the same course in a sixth form in a school, a sixth form college and a tertiary college?
  (John Healey) Yes, because by 2003/2004, given that the budgets have already been set, it is not possible to see how that gap could be closed. This challenge and commitment that we have made to bring up the funding in general FE and sixth form colleges that we made in the manifesto is very much part of our thinking in the plans that we have got for the spending review process which should be settled by the summer, though you will know of course relates to the period 2004 to 2007.

Chairman

  575. We do not usually operate as a dating agency, Minister, but could we fix an appointment for you with Bryan Sanderson to discuss this issue? We have had very strong views from Bryan Sanderson on this topic and perhaps you two ought to get together at some time.
  (John Healey) We do get together but I would be extremely surprised if Bryan Sanderson would say that a common funding framework was the same as a common funding rate for streams of post-16 learning.

Mr Chaytor

  576. In terms of the Comprehensive Spending review of this July therefore, has the Department made a bid to achieve a common funding rate in the next three year spending period?
  (John Healey) The bids are due with the Treasury on 18 February.

  577. Also, will the Department be submitting a bid by 18 February to achieve a common funding rate within the next three year spending period?
  (John Healey) The Department will be submitting a bid by 18 February to the Treasury. It would be rather an oversight if we did not, but I simply cannot say because it has not been settled what will be in that bid. You must remember of course that it is a bid that will span the whole range of the Department's programmes, ambitions and plans.

  578. If the Department were to submit a bid by 18 February to achieve a common funding rate how much would it cost?
  (John Healey) I cannot give you the answer to that because it clearly depends on all sorts of variables, does it not, including the amount of learners you want to put through any part of the system plus any other levels of investment you might want to put in to increase standards as well. There simply is not an easy answer.

  579. There is not an estimate on the shelf?
  (John Healey) There is no answer to the question as asked.


 
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