Speech by Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP (@CSkidmoreUK) on the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill Report stage:
Hansard, 21 February 2022, columns 104–7, 122–6.
To echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), we are all here to make a good Bill better — to make it the best possible Bill — and I hope that the Minister will reflect on my amendments, which I do not intend to press to a Division, so that we can continue the dialogue and make sure that the Bill truly shines by the end of this democratic process.
Green skills strategy
My new clause 4 would require the Secretary of State to publish a green skills strategy. This has been recommended by the Institute for Government and the Confederation of British Industry, and has been backed by several Members from across the House. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education have already commissioned a report from the new green jobs taskforce, which laid out several recommendations on how to deliver on the Government’s green jobs target in the “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”. That included publishing a net-zero strategy to promote good green jobs, yet we know that the UK will need 170,000 more workers to qualify each year in home insulation, renewable energy and electric vehicle manufacturing, and infrastructure upgrades if we are to meet our net-zero targets. The think-tank Onward has predicted that approximately 1.7 million jobs will need to be created in the net-zero industries by 2030, of which 1.3 million are in occupations that require strong, low and medium-level technical qualifications, which are in critically short supply. It is a no-brainer: the Government should make the concession at the Dispatch Box, either in this House or the other place, that we should, although perhaps not in this Bill, look at publishing a green skills strategy. That is vital for the joined-up thinking and whole-of-Government approach that is needed for net zero.
I will seek to bundle up the next series of amendments, appropriately enough, into mini amendment modules, but I first declare an interest: I tabled these amendments as chair of the Lifelong Education Commission, which I established in lockdown; having been reshuffled out of Government, I decided, with time on my hands, that I would set up this commission. I have received administrative support from the think-tank ResPublica, which has helped me prepare the amendments and a number of reports.
Annual report on overall skills levels and economic output
New clause 6 would require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on overall skills levels and economic output across England and Wales. It can be taken with amendments 7 and 8, which would require careers advisers to hold a level 4 qualification, and which would give local authorities oversight of the provision of careers guidance for the purposes of ensuring consistency and quality. If the Bill is to succeed, there needs to be a better joined- up effort to monitor changes in the UK’s skills provision and how that is reflected in the economy. An annual report would allow data sets to be created that would provide information at national and local levels, so that areas of success and concern could be identified for targeted support. That should cover all qualifications from entry level to level 8, and details should be given on the size and composition of each cohort.
To help local authorities better craft their local skills improvement plans, such a review should include relevant information about local labour markets, and data on job retention, labour market turnover, and different measures of labour productivity. That is important for transparency, but we should be mindful of the need to balance that against data burdens on institutions, including education providers. An annual report should therefore build on existing work carried out in market intelligence on post-16 skills and education data.
On careers advice, the level 4 qualification requirement that I set out in amendment 7 should apply to all school, college and university career advisors. The Government should also take steps to ensure that mandatory registration with the Career Development Institute is not needlessly burdensome or expensive. That means crafting a national careers strategy at the same time, and working closely with further education colleges, who are best placed to design and deliver dedicated careers advisory courses.
Lifetime skills guarantee
I turn to new clause 7, which I will consider with amendment 3. The new clause would place the Government’s lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing, ensuring that those without an A-level or equivalent qualification, or those who hold such a qualification but would benefit from reskilling, can study a fully funded approved course. Retraining or reskilling sometimes means gaining a qualification a lower level than others that we have already reached in our learning trajectory, and anyone who wants to gain an equivalent or lower qualification should be able to access Government funding for that.
The ELQ rules should be explicitly removed as a condition for claiming a lifelong loan entitlement. Neither the lifetime skills guarantee nor the lifelong loan entitlement are truly lifelong if people who already have a level 3 to level 6 qualification are excluded from obtaining any more funding. The programme needs to be as broad and simple as possible to encourage — not discourage — participation, and should cover all provision up to level 3, irrespective of whether learners are taking a full qualification or taking one for the first time. That means removing all barriers, including any limits on repeating level 3 qualifications.
Amendment 3 would expand financial support for higher and further education courses to include means-tested grants for the purposes of ensuring that financial hardship is not a barrier to reskilling. The Bill still has limited detail about the exact structure of the LLE and how it will operate, such as the minimum credit level required to access it. In the light of that, I welcome the launch of a panel under the Minister for Higher and Further Education to review the structure and purpose of the LLE. As long as the LLE relies on a system of loans rather than grants, it will be difficult to encourage uptake in adult skills improvement among young people without assets, savings or other reserves to serve as a financial cushion. The LLE therefore risks becoming a clear clause of inequity between age groups in the education system. An 18-year-old choosing which education path to go down will have a different perspective on loan debt from someone in their 30s, 40s or 50s. As we advance through our careers, we accumulate more financial commitments, such as rent or mortgage payments and the costs of family care and support, and that makes career jumps much harder to undertake than career starts. A proper commitment to lifelong learning needs an explicit national decision about what we are prepared to fully fund. We need a national system of means-tested grants, targeted at the most disadvantaged.
National strategy for integrated education
I turn to new clause 8, which I will consider with new clause 9. New clause 8 would require the Secretary of State to publish a national strategy for integrated education. It would set out a plan for developing courses that had a mixture of academic and vocational content at levels 4 to 8, and would support the creation and expansion of institutions offering such courses. New clause 9 would require the Secretary of State to set out a framework of national guidelines for the unbundling, stacking and transfer of modular course credits between institutions. It would also set out a role for Ofqual, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to ensure that such a framework operates effectively. I will not go into further details on that; needless to say, such flexibilities need to be worked out at a far more granular level, and any credit system will need to be more sophisticated than just letting learners accrue a certain number of points. Points need to be acquired in the right mix across introductory and intermediate modules. Degree-level qualifications should be awarded to someone with enough credits only if they complete a capstone module, drawing together and encouraging reflections on the overall and connected learning. One of the main barriers to transfer is how applicable a learner’s past skills and qualifications are to the awards into which they are to transfer. In addition to a national framework for unbundling and stacking, we need a mechanism for moving between awards frameworks such as from apprenticeships to T-levels or higher technical qualifications. That will require a clear and transparent framework for how different regulators can interact.
Skills tax credit
New clause 10 covers the role of employers and employees reskilling. Needless to say, it would require businesses to offer their employees a minimum amount of in-work skills development and redundancy training to be funded by a skills tax credit along very much the same lines as research and development tax credits. Employers should do more to support their employees to improve their skills, including helping those whom they have recently made redundant to retrain.
I turn to amendments 4, 5 and 6 on lifelong learning strategies as part of the future devolution of skills They would expand the membership of local skills improvement plans to include other local organisations and extend the Secretary of State’s power to designate and remove employer representative bodies to mayoral combined authorities where that is within their devolved competences. Local authorities need to play a leading role in the plans alongside business, the arts, further and higher education, faith and third-sector community organisations. Skills and education policy must be a central part of future devolution deals. I will not go into any further detail, but I encourage the Minister to look closely at the content of my amendments and to work closely with all Members on how we can make this the best possible Bill by taking up all the amendments mentioned.
Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP
Response to amendments by Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Rt Hon Alex Burghart MP
… I turn to new clause 2, also tabled my right hon. Friend, and to new clause 7, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who did sterling work when he was on the Front Bench.
Lifelong Skills Guarantee
Those provisions both seek to place a level 3 entitlement on a statutory footing. The Government are delighted by the enthusiasm of Members on both sides of the House and in both Chambers for our free courses for jobs offer and the lifetime skills guarantee that the Prime Minister announced last April. As the House will know, it gives adults who do not have a level 3 qualification the opportunity to get a qualification in high- value subjects for free, regardless of age. That major step forward will transform life chances. We do not think it is right to put this offer into legislation; that would constrain the Government in how they allocate resources and make it more difficult to adapt the policy to changing circumstances, including for adults most in need. For example, only last November, the Secretary of State announced that from this April, the offer will expand to include any adult in England who is unemployed or earns below the national living wage annually, regardless of their prior qualification level.
On the amendments relating to careers information, advice and guidance, we have long been determined to improve the quality of advice on non-academic options in schools so that young people can learn about the exciting progression opportunities that a technical education or apprenticeship can offer. That is why, through the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, the Government introduced a new requirement for schools to provide opportunities for the providers of technical education and apprenticeships to visit schools to talk to all pupils in years 8 to 13. We are going further by putting into statute a minimum number in respect of those opportunities and setting parameters around their content. I reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow that we are very much setting the floor of our ambitions, not the ceiling: we want to see schools go further.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood tabled amendments 8 and 7. Amendment 8 would require responsible authorities to ensure that the independent careers guidance provided to pupils in years 8 to 13 is provided by a person who is registered with the Career Development Institute who holds a level 4 qualification. I reassure my hon. Friend that the DfE statutory guidance to which schools must have regard already recommends that schools consult the UK Register of Career Development Professionals when they buy in a careers professional. Careers professionals on that register are required to be qualified to level 6 — above the level 4 specified in the amendment.
Amendment 7 would require local authorities to have oversight of the independent careers guidance delivered in schools. The improvement of access to high-quality careers guidance is already driven locally by our network of careers hubs throughout the country. As members of the hubs, local authorities work in partnership with schools, colleges, employers and local enterprise partnerships to support, challenge and share good practice. We think that is the right role for local authorities to have.
Green skills strategy
On amendments relating to green skills and energy, new clause 4 from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood seeks to introduce a requirement to develop a green skills strategy. I can reassure him that we are taking significant steps in this space already. Last year, the Department for Education established the sustainability and climate change unit to co-ordinate activity across the Department and the education sector.
Furthermore, at COP26, the Secretary of State launched the Department’s draft sustainability and climate change strategy for the education and children’s services systems. Action area 2 in that strategy specifically focuses on green skills and careers, as part of implementing the
Government’s net zero strategy. I would warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s contributions to the proposals in that strategy.
The Lifelong Education Commission report
I turn now to new clauses 6, 8 and 10, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood. I congratulate him on the publication of the Lifelong Education Commission report, which I read with interest. I believe his new clauses seek to introduce some of the recommendations in that report.
New clause 6 proposes that the Secretary of State publish an annual report on overall skills levels. We agree wholeheartedly with the need for data and analysis to inform our decision making. That is why in the “Levelling Up” White Paper we announced the creation of the Unit for Future Skills, which I mentioned earlier.
New clause 8 rightly points to the need to look at how we can better integrate academic and vocational education. The Government are already taking steps to do so through introducing a lifelong loan entitlement that will enable individuals to access funding for both further and higher education at levels 4 to 6.
New clause 10 raises the importance of re-skilling while in work and retraining for the jobs of the future. We know that that matters, which is why, through last year’s spending review, the Government are delivering the biggest long-term settlement for post-16 education and skills in England since 2015, with an additional £3.8 billion over this Parliament by 2024-25.
It has been a great pleasure to take this Bill through Report and I commend it to the House.