Transcript of the speech
Last week’s spring statement showed that this Government have a Chancellor ill-equipped to tackle the size of the cost of living challenge in front of him. This week, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill shows that, when it comes to addressing the key skills challenges our growth-starved nation faces, we have a Government ill-equipped for that challenge too.
We should remember that in the Chancellor’s statement last week he referred to reviewing the apprenticeship levy and other taxes, and by Friday he was forced to deny that there would be any formal review of the levy or the system at all. What a mess. This is a Government who spend the back-end of the week denying what they said in the first part of it. No wonder the sector is utterly disillusioned with their approach.
Let us stop for a minute and think how it could have been. A skills Bill worthy of the name would have seized the challenge posed by the huge reduction in apprenticeships since the introduction of the levy and demanded a review that ensured that small businesses were better served and that more level 2 and level 3 apprenticeship opportunities were created, and sought to return at least to the numbers we had before the levy was introduced.
A transformative skills Bill would also have ensured that all the relevant bodies were around the table directing local skills funding. It would also have recognised that, if universal credit is really going to be a bridge from the dole to a rewarding career, people on universal credit must be able to afford to invest in themselves in the way that the excellent Lords amendment suggested.
One can only imagine what their noble Lordships made of the Commons consideration of their amendments. A range of peers from across the political spectrum had brought their considerable knowledge and experience to bear to strengthen this “act of educational vandalism”, as Lord Baker described it, and voted through a series of amendments that a wide variety of knowledgeable judges, including groups such as the Association of Colleges, had described as strengthening the Bill.
Yet, one by one, the Government rejected those amendments, meaning that they have failed to grasp the huge opportunity, presented by the first skills Bill in their 12-year period in office, to put England’s approach to skills on a comparable footing with the best systems around the world. Their noble lordships reluctantly agreed to place just two further amendments in front of us today.
On amendment 15B, when this Bill was first debated nine months ago we had the then Secretary of State and the skills Minister in dismissive mood, decrying BTECs for all they were worth. Since then, we have had the more ameliorative approach, which we welcome, of the current Secretary of State first offering an extension to funding for BTECs into the next Parliament, then saying that the Government would conduct a qualifications review and tell us which level 3 qualifications they consider not of sufficient quality or duplicating T-levels.
All the while, however, the suspicion remains—reinforced by the Minister’s speech a moment ago—that the Government believe that only by discrediting or defunding BTECs will T-levels flourish. I am confused about why they so lack confidence in this new qualification. As my great friend Lord Blunkett said when moving amendment 15B last week, the Opposition have no hostility towards T-levels; indeed, we believe they are of real value. Just two weeks ago, I was at Barnsley College—a fine institution where I met several good T-level students studying construction, digital production, and health and care. They were hugely impressive, as were the lecturers and the leadership team, and had a real vision for where they might go following this qualification. I have no problem with saying that I have seen good quality T-level provision.
Nor should the Government refuse to recognise that BTECs, CACHE diplomas and other level 3 qualifications have also been transformational for so many students, and they should proceed cautiously before abolishing them. If the qualification, in its current form or in any future form, is a strong one, it will prosper, without the need to try and kill other level 3 qualifications and leave tens of thousands of students without a qualification to study. BTECs are widely respected by employers, learners, universities, colleges, training providers and other key stakeholders. When I asked the Minister about this earlier, he refused to answer, but the DFE’s own figures showed that 86% of respondents to its consultation urged it to continue the twin track of T-levels and BTECs. The Minister referred to Labour opposing T-levels. We are not opposing T-levels at all. In fact, it was the Conservative-dominated House of Lords, with the support of Conservative peers, that voted to place this amendment back before us last week.
The Government have optimistically suggested that 100,000 students might be doing T-levels by 2024. Given that 230,000 students currently study for level-3 qualifications, the Government need to come clean, when their review is published, about their plan for those who do not move on to do T-levels. It really is not good enough to continue dodging this question. Institutions need to know, learners need to know, and employers need to know. Do the Government expect that more students will complete level 2 and then go into the world of work at the age of 17? Do they expect that anything like the missing 130,000 would stay on alternative level 3 courses? If not, what is the plan? The Government need to come clean.
On amendments 17B and 17C, while Labour Members would have preferred that the Baker clause was adopted in its entirety, we are prepared to accept this compromise as a way to move the issue forward. It was interesting to hear the Minister talk about that compromise. I still fail to see what it was about having more than one intervention in a single school year that the Government thought so radical an idea. Why is two in every two years considered the very most that we can expect of our schools? Notwithstanding that, given that at least 50% of pupils do not progress on to an academic route, children and young people should have as much support as possible to learn about the wide range of opportunities open to them. It is welcome that the two interactions must be separate and different from each other. I would like to impress upon the Minister that these interactions must be of high quality and must be impartial.
The Government need to acknowledge that the perspective on the current operation of the Baker clause differs considerably depending on whether you are a student or a provider. All too often, apprentices I have met have told me that they were not made aware of apprenticeships while at school. Just a few weeks ago, I was at the Remit Training automotive apprenticeship academy, where just five of the 25 students I met said that apprenticeships had been discussed at school and that they had received proper careers guidance. I suspect that if we spoke to their school, we would have heard a different tale. Ensuring that these interactions are done in a meaningful way that really opens schoolchildren’s horizons is so important.
While it remains a regret that more of the Lords’ excellent amendments were rejected by this House, it is our intention to support their lordships’ two remaining amendments before us tonight. Beyond that, we give notice that as this Government have clearly run out of the ideas required to address the skills shortage they have created, a future Labour Government will tackle the systemic failure that has seen this country fail too many students and leaves England’s employers consistently complaining that under this Government too few young people leave our schools ready to work. It will take a Labour Government to drive the partnership and collaboration required to bring Government, employers, metro Mayors, local authorities and others together to reform what is not working and develop a skills ecosystem fit for purpose that delivers the work-ready students our employers demand, and our economy, and our country, so desperately need.