21 February 2022
Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, moves the Third Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

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

One year ago, the Government published their White Paper titled “Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth”. We set out our ambition to deliver landmark reforms to post-16 education and training. For too long, this sector has not received the attention it deserves. We do not have enough people with the skills needed for important sectors such as engineering—one that is close to my heart—and health and social care. In many ways, that has held back our economy and prevented people from fulfilling their potential.

We must continue on our road to recovery as a nation from the coronavirus pandemic and transition it to endemic, as we witnessed today with the Prime Minister’s statement to the House. We also need to adapt our economy and society to meet our commitment to net zero by 2050 and maintain our global leadership on climate change following COP26, with all the opportunities that there are in those new and emerging sectors for the economy.

I am glad to say that our economy is in a strong position to respond to these challenges, with the highest growth rate in the G7. On jobs, we have a record 1.2 million vacancies to fill; that is 59%—almost 60%—higher than pre-pandemic levels. Unemployment is falling and is now just 4.1%, and youth unemployment, especially, is at a record low.

As Education Secretary, and in my previous roles on the vaccine roll-out and as a Business Minister, I have met countless employers who tell me about the progress that their businesses could make if they could only hire people with the right skills. I have also met young people and adults whose lives have been transformed because they had the chance to upskill or learn a new trade. That is why I am so focused on—some will say obsessed with—delivering an ambitious skills agenda to transform the prospects of people up and down our great country.

Higher skills lead to higher productivity, which in turn leads to higher wages, ensuring that we remain globally competitive and creating the economic growth—that dynamic economy—needed to pay for our world-class public services. As part of that, we are quadrupling places on skills bootcamps, with intensive courses from coding to construction. Recent data shows that more than 54% of the 2,210 adults who completed skills bootcamps went on to secure a new role or a promotion. Apprenticeships have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, with more than 130,200 apprenticeship starts between August and October last year. We are delivering the roll-out of T-levels, with a plan for up to 100,000 T-level entrants by the end of the spending review period, supported by our £3.8 billion investment in skills over this Parliament.

The Bill and our wider skills reforms are our opportunity to tackle the challenges and unlock the full potential of our people and the productivity of our economy. We have heard how the Bill will deliver essential reform to further education and skills in our country. Today, we are taking a significant step towards that goal.

For learners, the Bill will provide much-needed flexibility. I have seen for myself the flexi-job apprenticeships at the brilliant Pinewood Studios, which is making the films of the future. We are enabling people to study or retrain at any stage of their life with the reassurance that the skills they gain hold genuine currency with employers in their area. As many right hon. and hon. Members have said today, we want to see greater parity between further and higher education, no longer pushing students towards a one-size-fits-all, three-year, full-time degree.

For employers, the Bill will solidify and anchor their critical position at the heart of the skills system and give them a vital role in shaping local skills provision in partnership with providers. That will ensure that post-16 education and training is directly aligned to the skills that employers actually need to grow, now and in future, and will help employers to get the skilled workforce that they need to compete internationally.

For the FE sector, the Bill will increase confidence in the standard of qualifications, thanks to a package of measures that will help to drive up quality standards across the technical education system. In taking forward the Bill, we recognise the huge importance of the FE sector to our economy and society and its role in upskilling our workforce and creating access to opportunities, no matter someone’s background.

Alongside our wider skills reforms, the Bill will deliver on our plans to level up across the country. People will be able to get the quality education and training that they need for work at any stage of their lives in all communities across the country, ending the perception that the only way to get on in life is by moving to London or another big city. From 2025, our lifetime loan entitlement will give people access to loan funding to gain qualifications at levels 4 to 6, whether they are an 18-year-old leaver from Bradford, a 40-year-old career changer from Plymouth or a parent in Newcastle looking to return to paid work after a career break.

We want our reforms to work for everyone. Several colleagues spoke about learners with special educational needs and disabilities, who make up a significant proportion of our student population; looking ahead, they will be supported by the publication of our SEND review. Pupils in schools, when thinking about their future choices, will have access to high-quality careers advice to help them to decide the best route for them—I heard the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) about his new clause 3. FE teachers will be supported through high-quality initial teacher training that helps them to deliver excellent skills provision. That is what the Bill delivers.

I thank hon. Members across the House for their contributions over the past few months. I believe that the Bill will leave this place in a much improved state, with amendments that have enabled us to fine-tune the measures in it and make it much stronger. The debate on technical qualifications has been particularly passionate and robust. I hope Members will be reassured that measures in the Bill will improve the quality of such qualifications for all learners, whatever their background or career ambitions. We have listened to concerns about qualifications reform. That is why, on Second Reading, I announced an extra year before the implementation of our reform timetable to allow more time for all involved to prepare for the changes.

The Minister for apprenticeships and skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), has led the Bill through its passage with great dedication, and has spoken passionately at each of its stages. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), had the vision to bring forward this transformational Bill; he could never have done it without my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) by his side, and I know that skills and further education remain an area of great personal commitment for her and for him. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, for his support for the Bill. He has raised many important issues, tonight and every night, including skills and training for prisoners. I hope that he is reassured by my words today, and by our clear commitment to making apprenticeships available to prisoners.

My thanks also go to the Whips; to my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston); and, of course, to my officials, who have worked so hard and have been so dedicated to the delivery of the Bill. As for the Opposition, the hon. Members for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) have engaged constructively at every stage of the Bill, and I am grateful to them both for their work in challenging us to ensure that it was the very best it could be.

I am also grateful to the Committee for its work in scrutinising the Bill, and I am indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for chairing it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends on the Committee: my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Guildford (Angela Richardson), all of whom brought considerable experience and expertise in further education, which benefited the Bill enormously.

I am, of course, hugely grateful to noble Lords for their contributions in the other place. The issues that they raised have helped us to improve the Bill, but I hope they will understand why it was not the right place for all their amendments. Finally, I thank the Clerks and officials for their diligent work in supporting the Bill’s passage through Parliament. It is an honour to lead the great Department that is delivering this transformational Bill. I look forward to the benefits that it will bring for learners, employers and the economy, and I commend it to the House.