On 1st February 2017, the House of Lords debated the Government’s Technical and Further Education Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of Norwich, Rt Revd, Graham James welcomed its proposals.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I am glad to add my voice to the chorus of welcome for the Bill—on these Benches we are professionally interested in choruses.
Those who read the City & Guilds report Sense & Instability, which was published just over a couple of years ago, will remember the bleak picture painted there of three decades of skills and employment policy. The authors pointed out—with a degree of sardonic humour, I think—that, in 30 years, there have been 13 major Acts of Parliament dealing with these issues, enough reports to fill a medium-sized bookcase, no fewer than 61 Ministers and 10 occasions when skills and employment have shifted between government departments. “Tinkering”, “amnesia” and “disruption” were among the milder terms employed in that very powerful report.
As the authors of that report saw, resolving our long-standing weakness in technical and vocational education would not only be fundamental to improving productivity and creating a more skilled workforce but ought to be a powerful driver of opportunity and social mobility. Of course, it should also be a liberation of the human spirit—the Latin root of “education” reminds us that it is all about being led out into life, as the noble Baroness has just reminded us—and the best education leads to human flourishing not simply in economic terms but socially, aesthetically, spiritually and all the rest. For those reasons, I strongly support the Bill’s ambition to place technical professional education on the same footing as the more academic routes.
From these Benches, we welcome especially a number of the Bill’s principal objectives, including: the structural importance of having clear responsibility for apprenticeships and technical education through the extensive role given to the institute; the radical simplification of the great maze of vocational qualifications currently offered; and a more rigorous process for the development of standards.
While the prominence given to insolvency in the Bill seems at first sight disturbing, given the hand-to-mouth precariousness of further education finance, at least this is the first time, as far as I can see, that an insolvency regime has given explicit priority to the safeguarding of the interests of the students themselves. So we warmly welcome the Bill, even if there are a few caveats.
Another caveat seems obvious: I could not see any explicit definition of “technical education” in the Bill or the accompanying literature. Some clarification here would surely be desirable and would have practical implications. For example, many schools and sixth-form colleges offer a combination of GCSE and A-level qualifications, identified in the Post-16 Skills Plan as one of the main academic routes, alongside subjects generally considered technical or general vocational courses, such as BTEC national diplomas, City & Guilds programmes and the like. I am also glad to see a growing emphasis on higher and degree apprenticeships, to which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred.
The recently announced industrial strategy emphasises —one might even say that it presupposes—much greater collaboration across the sectors involved, between colleges and employers and between FE institutions and universities and so on. In my own diocese we have a first-rate example of this, in my view, in City College Norwich, which is not only the largest provider of education for 16 to 18 year-olds in Norfolk but also offers a wide range of apprenticeships and degree and other higher education programmes.
Each year at least 500 students come to Norwich Cathedral for City College graduation ceremonies. I have heard there a good many stories of young people who thought themselves failures at school, in their early years of secondary education, but gradually progressed through the range of opportunities offered at City College and ended up with not just first degrees but further degrees and highly skilled work.
Good collaboration with other institutions is absolutely essential to that sort of progress, as well as a breadth of understanding on the part of the institution about what further education may provide. Just last week, I was licensing a new chaplain to City College who is working with the “well-being team”. I did not know that it had a well-being team until recently, but the fact that the college has such a team suggests a healthy and holistic approach to education.
A famous aphorism claims that you can never be too rich or too thin. Perhaps this Bill adds a third criterion: you can never have too many regulatory bodies. As the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education comes, or has come, into being—I am not sure of its acronym yet; IFATE does not seem all that cheerful—there is surely a need to avoid overlap between its remit and so many other bodies, such as Ofqual, not least in its role as regulator for English and maths qualifications, and Ofsted, with its responsibilities for FE and work-based learning. I cannot see quite yet how we will prevent the sort of unhealthy overlap that can result from so many regulatory bodies. But, overall, I sound a note of welcome for the Bill and I wish the Minister well as he guides us through the next stages.
Lord Nash (Con, Minister) [Extract]: …Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, my noble friend Lord Leigh, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lord Lucas raised the important question of quality. The core aim of the apprenticeship reform programme is to improve the quality of apprenticeships in England. All reformed apprenticeships will be based on a standard which has been designed by employers, giving them the opportunity to set out the skills, knowledge and behaviours that their apprentices will need to be fully competent. Over 490 standards have either been developed or are in development, involving 215 groups of employers. Instead of being assessed through a number of small, low-quality qualifications throughout the apprenticeship, in future apprentices will be tested at the end of their apprenticeship by a new rigorous assessment, also developed by employers, to really test that they can do the job. No one will be able to pass their apprenticeship unless they have met this new high bar. We have introduced new quality criteria which providers have to meet before they can be approved to deliver training as part of an apprenticeship, and Ofsted, HEFCE and QAA will continue to quality assure the training as it is delivered. The Skills Funding Agency will also continue to monitor outcomes and intervene where it has concerns….
…The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and others talked about overlap with other bodies. We are confident that the institute will have a clear and distinct role in technical education. Instead of embarking on a mammoth merger of the different bodies, the Government are asking Ofsted, Ofqual, HEFCE and the QAA to work together collaboratively towards a common goal. We have explained in our draft strategic guidance for the institute that we will expect it to play a leadership role in the context of apprenticeships, including establishing a quality partnership group. This is also referred to in the institute’s draft operational plan published last week. To ensure the roles are distinct and transparent, we are preparing an accountability statement that will make the bodies’ responsibilities clear and avoid overlap or gaps.