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Learning and Skills Bill [H.L.]

7.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (The Countess of Mar) in the Chair.]

Clauses 46 to 49 agreed to.

Schedule 6 [The Adult Learning Inspectorate]:

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 181:

The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment--which has all-party support--is to discover something of the Government's plans for the arrangement of inspections under the new adult learning inspectorate. I am probing generally for an assurance that the new inspectorate will appoint specialist inspectors who have expertise in particular fields and, more specifically, that that expertise will be developed in assessing quality standards in courses for people with learning difficulties, which of course will include people with learning disabilities.

While one would expect something of a common training for staff working for a new inspectorate, I, and indeed the Disability Consortium, believe there is a strong case for developing specialisms in assessing courses for students with learning difficulties. It is crucial that inspectors understand the problems and barriers that disabled students have had to overcome in coming to the educational training and provision and of the responsibility placed upon providers, both by the new learning and skills councils and by the Disability Discrimination Act, to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to ensure equal participation.

It is also important that the nature of adult learning is seen as different from the processes of learning experienced by children, particularly in relation to adults with learning difficulties. Many adult students have a wealth of informal and incidental life experiences to build upon and they are often filling gaps in their knowledge and skills. Their learning needs and aspirations rarely follow an easy and smooth path. Inspectors evaluating provision made for disabled adults must recognise this and be sensitive to the nature of learning in adulthood and for the need for ever more creative and sophisticated approaches to meeting such diverse experiences and expectations.

A related question is whether lay inspectors will have a role once the new adult learning inspectorate opens its doors. There is some evidence that lay inspectors with direct personal experience of disability have added value to the process of inspection. This has

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worked best in instances where lay inspectors have been fully prepared and have been involved in drawing up the agreed inspection framework with regard to disability issues. It would be a shame if, in our efforts to improve the inspection process, schemes of this kind are diminished.

Noble Lords may be aware that I made similar points in relation to the new inspectorate being introduced under the Care Standards Bill. In that debate, the Minister was able to respond positively and recognise the importance of retaining and developing specialist inspectors. I hope that the Minister will be minded to do the same today. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: I rise briefly to support the amendment and to say that a certain degree of specialist knowledge of the particular problems in this area is essential if the job is to be done properly. The noble Lord has already pointed out that in certain types of cases a little specialist knowledge is needed. More knowledge will need to be acquired as the inspection process develops. Introducing categories for certain types of knowledge to match certain types of inspection will be essential or the process will not work well.

Baroness David: The noble Lord, Lord Rix, has made the case for this amendment extremely cleverly and fully and I do not need to add to what he has said. However, it seems to me to be obvious that it is essential to use inspectors who have specialist knowledge of those with learning difficulties. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to give the Committee a positive response.

Baroness Blatch: I, too, have added my name to this amendment and I am pleased to support it. When examining the new framework for inspection, a difficulty may arise over the manner in which the two cultures for inspection are brought together. Ofsted works within one framework and the ALI will operate under a different system; these two groups will approach inspection from very different bases. It is not only a question of accommodating the two cultures and then dovetailing them into a common framework, but also a question of ensuring that they are particularly sensitive not only to those with special needs within the school system, but also to those with learning difficulties in the adult learning environment. Nothing I have yet seen in the Bill gives me any comfort that the system will work as sensitively as it should.

Will the noble Baroness clarify for the Committee how these two separate inspection systems, with different cultural backgrounds and practical approaches towards inspection, will work with one common purpose; namely, to be sufficiently sensitive to be able to deal with those with learning difficulties both pre-16 and post-16?

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: Unfortunately there was not enough room to enable me to add my name to the amendment. However, I should like to associate

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myself with it and support all that has been said in this debate. I echo the plea of my noble friend that the particular knowledge of inspectors currently involved in examining specialist residential colleges is not lost but is put to good use.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Blackstone: I regret that there was no room on the Marshalled List for the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, to add her name to this amendment. However, the noble Baroness knows that we always associate her name with amendments of this kind.

I have listened carefully to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and others in this short debate and I believe that I can provide the Committee and all those who have contributed with the assurances that are being sought.

Paragraph 4 of Schedule 6 provides a power for the adult learning inspectorate to,

    "appoint such employees, including inspectors, as it thinks fit".

The amendment would add to this to ensure that specialist inspectors are appointed. No doubt noble Lords want to ensure that the adult learning inspectorate has all the expertise necessary to assess standards in courses for students with disabilities and learning difficulties.

I agree entirely with the principle that the inspection teams must have the collective experience and expertise to allow effective scrutiny of all aspects of provision covered by the inspection agenda. It is obvious that this principle could not possibly be fulfilled if no expertise is available within the provision of inspection for those with learning difficulties. Our commitment to good provision for such students, indeed our commitment to inclusive education, could be compromised if the adult learning inspectorate did not have the specialists that are needed in this vital area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to the common inspection framework and spoke of the different cultures within the ALI and Ofsted. Of course, the ALI is completely new and so in a sense does not have a culture, although I readily accept that the FEFC and training inspectorates have had somewhat different approaches. However, all three inspectorates have been working extremely closely to devise a common framework. I am confident that this will work well. The common inspection framework will set out the necessary principles about inspectorate expertise. To that end, I have received clear assurances from the three current chief inspectors--those of Ofsted, the Training Standards Council and the FEFC--that their teams will have all the necessary specialist skills and that this will be set out clearly in the framework.

Provisions relating to the framework are set out in Clauses 66 and 67 and it will be a statutory document, which will be subject to a preliminary consultation in the spring and a more formal one after Royal Assent. I hope that that is helpful and that it will allow

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Members of the Committee to comment. It will enshrine these and other principles. Therefore, there is no need for them to be explicit on the face of the Bill.

In summary, we intend that there should be no gaps in the inspection agenda, particularly in provision for people with learning difficulties and disabilities. Therefore, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and other Members of the Committee who put their name to this amendment for bringing forward these points because that has allowed me to clarify the policy. I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Blatch: Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may ask a question, again, relating to the two cultures. One is a self-evaluative approach; the other is very much an observational approach. How will that be dealt with? Will Ofsted be required to become more self-evaluative or will ALI inspectors who are on the common team become more observational? That seems to me to be most important, especially when dealing not just with those without learning difficulties who are in pre and post-16 education but also when dealing with those with learning difficulties who operate in a situation very different from that of adult learning and in the workplace, which is covered by the Bill.

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