Major changes to apprenticeships and schools approved as bill moves to Lords

May 6, 2009 at 9:51 am Leave a comment

by Tony Grew

New legislation to place the Apprenticeships programme on a statutory footing and guarantee that all suitably qualified young people will be entitled to an apprenticeship got its second reading in the Commons yesterday.

MPs also discussed new legislation on child protection.

The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill contains a range of measures to meet the education needs of 0 – 19 year-olds and “significant reforms” to post-16 education and training to improve the delivery to young people and adults.

The Learning and Skills Council will be abolished in 2010 and local authorities will have responsibility for commissioning and funding all education and training for young people up to the age of 19.

A new “slimline” body, the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) will “support and enable” local authorities to carry out their new duties.

The LSC’s responsibility for post-19 education and training will transfer to the chief executive for skills funding who will head up the new Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

The bill also establishes an independent regulator of qualifications and assessment.

Ofqual was established in interim form in April 2008, and took on the regulatory functions of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

The Bill will provide for the set up of Ofqual on a formal basis, equipping it with new powers.

The QCA will evolve into the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which will be responsible for developing and advising ministers on the curriculum and related qualifications.

The Agency will also develop and have certain delivery roles in relation to National Curriculum and Early Years Foundation Stage assessments.

There are also measures to transfer responsibility for young offenders education to local authorities, put Children’s Trust Boards on a statutory footing, give Sure Start children’s centres a specific statutory basis and impose new duties on local authorities to make arrangements for there to be sufficient Sure Start centres.

The Bill also contains new powers for schools to search for alcohol, drugs and stolen items and new rules on reporting incidents where staff have used force to control or restrain a pupil.

MPs raised concerns about the needs of young people with special educational needs who are in custody.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, responsed:

“It is necessary to be mindful of the significant constraints within the custodial environment and of the fact that, as I said earlier, young people generally spend only a short time in custody.

“It would be impractical to require local education authorities to have to commission specific provision to meet every need of every young person while they are in custody, because it would take time to commission that and be difficult within the context of delivering complex custodial regimes for an ever changing population.

“However, we consider the provisions in the Bill a significant step forward.”

Stephen Williams, Lib Dem spokesman on Innovation, Universities and Skills, paid tribute to the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, “in taking on the poisoned chalice of trying to bring some coherence to an organisation that is not only in its dying days, but is dying in a sense of crisis and much public ridicule.”

He highlighted the funding crisis in Futher Education colleges’ plans for new buildings.

“The scale of the problem that we face is indeed large: more than 140 different schemes up and down the country have reached various stages of application—either application in principle or detailed approval—while others are the subject of early discussions, although they are still incurring costs as part of their bidding.

“77 parliamentary colleagues have at least one college in their constituency that is at the detailed approval stage.”

Mr Williams said that the FE college system “is essential to helping people to negotiate their way through the current recession, and even more essential to ensuring that we emerge from the other side of it with a world-class, well-skilled work force.

“The FE sector has a crucial role in bringing those skills to the workplace and the design board, and it deserves rather better than the ineptitude that it has suffered from the Government so far.”

For the government, Sion Simon said:

“The colleges that have received approval in principle and those that have applied for it but not necessarily received it will all be viewed in the same group when consideration is given to both the urgent and high-priority funding and the later down the line funding.

“It is probable that colleges that have applied earlier and secured approval in principle are more likely to be further down the road and I would be surprised if more of them were not more urgent and high-priority immediate cases when compared with those that have yet to receive approval in principle.”

The Tory spokesman, Nick Gibb, gave his support to the creation of an independent regulator of qualifications and examinations.

“It was, after all, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (David Cameron) who, when he was shadow Education Secretary—as the position was then known, before the word “Education” was eliminated from the name of the Department—said: “It is not acceptable that the QCA, the guardian of our exams, is not independent of the Government.”

“By government, we mean the government machine.

“That is, all those elements of government charged with the responsibility of providing education, training teachers, determining the direction of education policy and the style of pedagogy; all those who determine whether or not, for example, primary education should be child centred; those who determine whether classes should be mixed ability or set by ability; the independent panels of advisers who advised the Government to remove translation from English into French from the secondary modern foreign languages curriculum; or those who advised that the primary curriculum should no longer teach the multiplication or addition of fractions.

“The exam regulator needs to be independent of all those groups and of anyone who has a vested interest in demonstrating that educational standards have improved.”

Mr Gibb claimed the government’s position is contradictory.

“On the one hand, (they) are saying that standards have been rigorously maintained over the years and between different exams. On the other hand, they say that an independent regulator needs to be created to boost public confidence.”

Liberal Democrat David Laws questioned so-called ‘grade inflation.’

“The Government’s view, and their gloss on the statistics, is that there has been a staggering improvement in educational standards over the past 10 years, and perhaps even longer,” he told MPs.

For the goverment, Ms McCarthy-Fry said Ofqual and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency “are central to our ambitious programme of education reform” and would deliver “high-quality assessments and qualifications” to enable all children and young people alongside adults, to gain “knowledge, understanding and skills.”

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood asked if there has been no grade inflation, “why has it been necessary to introduce the A* grade, which I understand many universities are now obliging students to attain?”

Ms McCarthy-Fry said it was “sad” that Mr Ellwood “cannot accept the possibility that the abilities of our young people and the quality of teaching have enabled standards to rise.”

The Minister for Schools and Learners, Jim Knight, moved that the Bill “be now read the Third time.”

He told MPs it will “help to drive up standards across all schools by strengthening powers to intervene in those schools that are underperforming, creating a lighter-touch inspection framework for those that are performing really well and creating a more straightforward and open complaints system for parents.”

For the Conservatives, Nick Gibb mocked the process of the legislation.

“It must come as a welcome relief to the Minister, after all the chaos of the Bill’s passage through Committee, that we have at last come to the Third reading of the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Bill,” he said.

“It is such an appropriately named Bill given that three of the four Ministers responsible for taking it through Committee appear to have been released from their ministerial apprenticeships prematurely.

“The fourth Minister, the Minister for Schools and Learners, though experienced, appears not to have the skills to ensure that he did not lose four successive votes on the trot.

“And as for children, that role was amply filled by the Government’s Deputy Chief Whip whose petulance after losing those votes resulted in his looming presence in the Public Gallery and unnecessarily and expensively running the Committee through the night, finishing the Bill despite there being a full day left in the programme.

“What about the learning? Well, perhaps Labour Back Benchers on the Committee need to learn that Thursday Committee sittings start at 9 am and that they should get out of bed a little earlier.”

Mr Gibb said his party supported measures that give independence to the exam regulator Ofqual and to tackle poor standards in schools, particularly those that relate to behaviour.

“Ofsted reports that 43 per cent. of secondary schools are not good enough, which is a staggeringly high proportion,” he said.

“We know from answers to parliamentary questions that 344 children are suspended from schools in England every day for violence against other pupils.”

Mr Gibb questioned why schools will be given the power to search for weapons, knives, alcohol, drugs and stolen items but “there is nothing in the provision about pornography, or indeed any item prohibited by the school rules, such as mobile phones and iPods.”

“A Government who were elected on the threefold promise of education will bequeath an education system in which 40 per cent. of children leave primary school still struggling with the basics of reading, writing and maths,” he said.

“In which half the children who qualify for free school meals fail to achieve a single GCSE above a grade D; and in which the number of young people who have left education without a job or a place on a training scheme to go to has soared to a record 860,000.

“It is an education system about which academics such as Professor Tymms of Durham university have repeatedly provided evidence that literacy tests and GCSEs no longer provide robust evidence of standards and where a student achieving an E in A-level maths in 1998 would now be awarded a B.

“Over the past few years, that education system has been beset by poor administration: the SATs marking fiasco, the non-payment of education maintenance allowances, the halting of the further education college building programme and, most recently, the sixth-form funding chaos, where the Learning and Skills Council sent out different letters to schools confirming a different level of funding.”

The debate ended with a warning for Ed Balls, the 42-year-old Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, from Graham Stuart, a Tory MP.

“I suggest to someone so young that, although he may never serve again after next year, despite being so young, he has one year left to try to work positively for the future of education and for our young people, and not to carry on with what is a politically driven, rather than an educationally driven, agenda.”

The bill now moves to the House of Lords.

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