15 November 2021
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, opens the debate on the Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill which will deliver high-quality qualifications, designed with employers, to give students the skills they need. 

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In my previous role as Vaccines Minister, I set out how as a nation we would work our way back to normality by delivering an incredible vaccination programme—the product of evidence, expertise, commitment and, of course, collaboration. I am now here, I am very pleased to say, as Education Secretary, but I make it clear that my first and foremost aims remain the same. I am determined to focus on evidence, data and delivery, and on realising the huge potential in our most valuable resource: the human resource, our people.

Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab)

The Secretary of State refers to evidence and data, which all of us in this House rely on. Given the evidence and expertise from professionals about the move to get rid of the BTEC qualification, is it not time that he rethought that proposal?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I hope, as I did in the weekly briefings that I gave as Vaccines Minister, to convince the hon. Lady tonight that that is incorrect. We are not getting rid of BTECs.

I know at first hand how important education is. As colleagues who have known me for a long time will know, I came to this country with my family at the age of 11, without a word of English—and here I am now in this Chamber. With the right education, opportunity abounds.

Unfortunately, we are still feeling the aftershocks of the pandemic and we still have many challenges ahead. We need to recover economically; we need to level up our country. I am glad to say that we are already making headway with levelling up. The Chancellor’s Budget is putting the money where it is needed, with £374 billion of direct support for the economy over this year and last year. The Prime Minister’s plan for jobs is working, with the peak of unemployment forecast to be 2 million lower than was previously predicted. Wages are growing, and we will build on that by having skills at the very heart of our plan.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place; there were many positive elements of his vaccination strategy. I want to ask him about apprenticeships, because he says that he arrived in the UK and has been such a successful individual. Is he disappointed that there has been a 41% drop in apprenticeship take-up? Is that not a bit of a national disgrace?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The hon. Lady may recall that I first joined the Department for Education as apprenticeships tsar; I hope to talk about that later in my speech. I introduced the standards and the levy, and we did incredibly well in pushing quality ahead of quantity. It is very important for this House to focus on outcomes rather than just inputs.

Skills, schools and families—this is our mantra. Skills are about investing in people all across our country, about strengthening local economies, about productivity, about stabilising the labour market and about global competitiveness. They are about shoring up—and shoring ourselves up—for a better, stronger, more prosperous future. This is not a pipe dream; we are getting it done right now.

In January, our White Paper “Skills for Jobs” set out our plan to reform the skills system. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), for his work on that brilliant White Paper; I will not repeat everything that it said, because I am sure that hon. Members will have familiarised themselves with it, but I hope to show how we have acted on it.

First, we have significantly increased investment. We are investing £3.8 billion more in further education and skills over the Parliament by 2024-25. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), said earlier this month, that is

“a remarkable amount of money for skills.”

I note the cross-party support for the measure in the Bill. Lord Sainsbury, who led an independent panel on skills on behalf of the coalition Government, is a big supporter of our plans. As President Truman once said, it is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. That is what we are trying to do, and I hope that the Opposition will join us tonight: to work together to level up the skills base across our great country.

We are delivering an extra £1.6 billion boost by 2024-25 for 16 to 19-year-olds’ education, including maintaining funding in real terms per student and delivering more hours of teaching for T-levels. There is an extra hour a week for all students in that age group, who have the least time to catch up from covid. Apprenticeships funding will increase to £2.7 billion by 2024-25 to support businesses of all sizes to build the skilled workforce that they need. We are making vital improvements to FE college buildings and equipment across England, and we are delivering on our National Skills Fund manifesto commitment to help transform the lives of people who have not got on to the work ladder and who lack qualifications.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I welcome the Bill, and I welcome what the Government are indicating that they wish to do, but may I ask a quick question? Only 26% of disadvantaged white British boys and 35% of disadvantaged white British girls achieve five good GCSEs including English and mathematics. What is happening to those young boys and girls who are not obtaining all the qualifications that they need in order to advance themselves and gain employment?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The Education Committee did a very important piece of work on that precise subject. We are investing in recovery—investing £5 billion, following the Budget. We are investing in tutoring, and, of course we are investing in the quality of teaching. There cannot be great outcomes without great teachers, and we are providing 500,000 teaching opportunities.

I will now make some headway, if I may. As you quite rightly told me, Madam Deputy Speaker, many other Members wish to contribute tonight.

As well as the National Skills Fund manifesto commitment to help transform the lives of people who do not have the opportunities that many of us in this place have had, we are implementing the policies in the White Paper. For example, we have established eight trailblazer areas across the country where the first local skills improvement plans are being developed by employer representative bodies. They are currently engaging employers, education providers and key local stakeholders to begin the development of these important plans in the context of the skills landscape. The trailblazers are in areas from Kent to Cumbria, and they will generate valuable learning to inform the wider roll-out of these plans across our country.

The Bill also specifies the essential legal framework for our reforms. We are setting ourselves up for success by giving people the skills and education that they need for work by improving the quality of what they learn, and, of course, by protecting our learners from the disruptive impact of provider failure, reducing the risk that they will miss out on vital learning because, for example, the training provider with which they are studying goes bust.

I have seen at first hand the transformative power of education, and I want to take a moment to retell the House about an experience that I had while visiting Barnsley College. It was the first in south Yorkshire to roll out T-levels, and while I was there I met several of its students. I want to tell the House about one of them. I have rarely met a more inspiring individual. He told me that with his T-level—I am quoting him word for word—“I am looking at unis now and thinking which one I am picking, not which one is going to pick me.” Greg is living proof of the transformative effect that our skills programme is having.

I also met students at Barnet and Southgate College, during my first week in my present post, and saw how state-of-the-art facilities were helping those with learning difficulties and disabilities to realise their ambitions. The college is going further by strengthening its ties to local businesses: it has worked closely with its local chambers of commerce to provide a range of services for local businesses as a hub in the college. So our reforms are working, and they are very much evidence-led. They are changing people’s lives and levelling up the country, and the Bill will help to secure them for the years to come.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)

This is an excellent Bill which deserves a Second Reading tonight. One college that my right hon. Friend knows well is Peter Symonds, in my constituency, which is transforming lives and T-levels. It has done very well out of the post-16 capacity fund bid, in which, as I found out last week, it was successful, and will build a new 12-classroom block as a result. I wonder whether the Secretary of State, in his new role, will make a glorious return to Winchester to see what excellent post-16 education looks like in the heart of Hampshire.

Nadhim Zahawi 

I am well aware of that investment, and I will certainly look at the diary to see whether I can make time for a visit. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart)—the skills Minister—is gagging to get down to Hampshire and have a look at Peter Symonds College as well.

Skills are very much about providing people with fulfilling and productive jobs, and helping them to improve their lot. One of the key parts of the Bill deals with local skills improvement plans, which place employers, through representative bodies, at the centre—the heart—of the local post-16 skills system. Only through really understanding what is needed in a local area and working in a holistic way with employers, education providers and key local stakeholders can we develop a credible local plan to ensure that skills provision meets local needs.

Mayoral combined authorities which have certain devolved responsibilities for adult education are also critical stakeholders, who will be closely engaged in this process. I am pleased to say that we will introduce an amendment to place the role of those authorities on the face of the Bill.

Several hon. Members rose—

Nadhim Zahawi 

I will try to give way later. I apologise, but I need to make some headway, because a great many Members want to contribute to the debate.

Local skills improvement plans will help to ensure that the skills system is responsive to labour market skills needs and supports local innovation and growth, with every part of the country able to succeed in its own unique way. This is levelling up in action. As the Prime Minister said at COP26 two weeks ago,

“When it comes to tackling climate change, words without action, without deeds are absolutely pointless.”

In the Bill, we are taking that action by setting out the need to consider skills that support our path to net zero as part of the local skills improvement plans. It is not only good for the planet, but good for business.

Another priority for our skills agenda is for lifelong learning, and delivering on our commitment to the lifelong loan entitlement. The LLE will help to give people a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education at levels 4 to 6, for use on modules or full courses, in colleges or universities, over their lifetimes. If you had told me when I was apprenticeship tsar under the coalition Government that there would be a Prime Minister who would introduce this measure, I would have bitten your arm off, Madam Deputy Speaker. I cannot emphasise enough that this is a step change in our system, which will revolutionise the way in which we see education, retraining and upskilling in our country. Some 80% of the workforce of 2030—which is not a long time from today—are already in work, so we need to be able to adapt to the future economy and those skills needs.

Christian Wakeford (Bury South) (Con)

The fact that we are talking about further education and the skills guarantee is a paradigm shift, and it is very welcome, but what are we doing to ensure that those who do not have a level 2 qualification, or who have difficulty with reading, can access the guarantee?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I will address that level 2 issue later in my speech.

The LLE will give us the flexibility to be—I hope—responsive and agile, and will enable people to succeed at any stage in their lives. It will also give them the option of building up their qualifications over time, with both further and higher education providers. They will have a real choice in how and when they study to acquire new, life-changing skills. The LLE will help to create the parity of esteem between further and higher education that we so desperately want to see and so desperately need.

I am pleased to inform the House that since the Bill’s introduction, the Government have introduced further measures to help eradicate that scourge of honest and faithful academia, essay mills. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for his work on this topic, and I know that he will appreciate these measures. It is high time that we stamped out a dishonest practice that both undermines our further and higher education systems and puts students at risk of exploitation.

Any reform of our system must also reform our set of technical educational qualifications, to close the gap between the skills gained through a qualification and the skills employers tell us they need.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. We have worked together on education issues in the past, and I hope to do so in the future. May I press him further on the point my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) made about BTECs? He may not intend to abolish them, but will not effectively defunding them have the same effect? Is that not why so many former Conservative Education Ministers made that point in the Lords?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose opinion I value highly. He and I have worked on education for a number of years on a cross-party basis. The important thing to remember is that the Sainsbury review was clear that for T-levels to succeed, where there is duplication and lower quality, we need to remove lower quality; that does not mean getting rid of high-quality BTECs. I will say a little more tonight that I hope will reassure the House on how we are doing that without kicking the ladder of opportunity away from anyone who deserves that opportunity. I hope I will be able to allay some of his fears.

Going back to the reform of our system, we are extending the powers of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to approve a broader range of technical educational qualifications. The institute will ensure that the independent voice of employers is embedded throughout the process, while working in harmony with Ofqual to ensure quality.

I want to be perfectly clear: the Bill focuses on the approval and regulation of technical qualifications, rather than the funding of technical or academic qualifications. However, when it comes to both academic and technical qualifications, what we are looking for the most is quality. There is no point in a student taking a low-quality level 3 qualification that does not equip them with skills for a job or help them to progress into higher education. That is even more important when it comes to disadvantaged students.

We have more than 12,000 qualifications at level 3 and below. By comparison, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, all widely regarded as having high-performing technical education systems, have around 500 or fewer. Our qualifications review is vital to ensuring that what is on the market is the best it can be. I am clear that T-levels and A-levels should be front and centre of the level 3 landscape, but I am convinced that we need other qualifications alongside them, many of which exist now and play a valuable role in supporting good outcomes for students. It is quite likely that many BTECs and similar applied general-style qualifications will continue to play an important role in 16-to-19 education for the foreseeable future.

Our reforms to the qualifications landscape are rightly ambitious, but we know that we would be wrong to push too hard and risk compromising quality. That is why I am announcing today that we have decided to allow an extra year before our reform timetable is implemented. The extra year will allow us to continue to work hard to support the growth of T-levels and give more notice to providers, awarding organisations, employers, students and parents, so that they can prepare for the changes.

I am a firm believer in T-levels. As I have said before, I want them to become as famous as A-levels, and I want to ensure that we get them right. As many young people as possible should have the advantage of studying for and successfully completing a T-level. We hear consistently that some students are put off taking a T-level because they are worried that they will fail if they do not reach level 2 in English and maths. We want to change that and bring T-levels in line with other qualifications, including A-levels. We are absolutely clear that English and maths should remain central to T-level programmes, but we do not want to unnecessarily inhibit talented students from accessing T-levels simply because of the additional hurdle that reaching level 2 in English and maths represents. That is why I can also announce today that we will remove the English and maths exit requirements from T-levels. That will bring them in line with other qualifications, including A-levels, and ensure that talented young people with more diverse strengths are not arbitrarily shut out from rewarding careers in sectors such as construction, catering and healthcare. The institute is taking immediate steps towards that.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

Fewer than 1% of college students are on a course with coverage of climate change. Unless we embed climate change and the environment into our post-16 education, the Government’s plans to get to net zero will simply not be possible. Bath College is offering some of those courses and doing something about it. Will the Secretary of State commit the Government to putting its weight behind courses that embed climate change into the curriculum?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

We must have very short interventions at this stage, because we have a lot of people who want to contribute to the debate.

Nadhim Zahawi 

We are doing much of what the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) asks for, including in the local skills plans, where net zero will very much be part of the planning and development process. I will make some headway, per your instructions, Madam Deputy Speaker, because there is a lot to get through tonight.

I also want to ensure that all students from the first two cohorts are not unfairly disadvantaged by the ongoing challenges that covid presents for T-level delivery. We have therefore recently announced a small number of temporary flexibilities on how industry placements can be delivered for those groups, including allowing some virtual working.

We are working to improve technical education at all levels, including level 2, which has been neglected for far too long. Getting level 2 and below right is key to ensuring that students have clear lines of sight to level 3 apprenticeships and traineeships, and, for some, directly into employment. We will consult on proposals for reform later this year, but we will work at speed.

It is in the interests of learners that we take a fresh look at the system and make it easier to navigate, with better outcomes for learners, employers and our economy. When I was apprenticeship tsar, I saw how clearly people in other countries understood their system and how that made a world of difference. Everyone understood it: the student, their family and their employer.

Since the Bill’s introduction in May, it has been subject to thorough and significant scrutiny in the other place. I express my thanks to all those who contributed, but especially to the Minister for the School System, who took on this Bill just before Report and did so brilliantly. My noble Friend brought forward some Government amendments on Report, including clauses on essay mills and an amendment to allow 16-to-19 colleges to become academies with a religious designation —something I know my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) will be very happy about. Important and sensitive issues were raised in the other place, and I can be clear that we are listening and taking careful consideration of the proposals made there. Not all changes are right for legislation, but I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of many of the proposals.

It is a privilege to be able to take this Bill through the House. I know there are many exciting and thought-provoking debates ahead of us, but, most importantly, we must remember why we are doing this: to deliver high-quality qualifications, designed with employers, to give students the skills they need. With the support of hon. Members on both sides of this House, the Bill will signify a major milestone in our plan for jobs and our economic recovery. The Bill will set us up for the future we want and, crucially, the future we need. I commend it to the House.