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Second Day of Committee Stage – Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

21 July 2021

On Thursday 15 July, the House of Lords held its second day of Committee stage for the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. We watched the debate and summarised the key points below. We have also written a summary of the first day of committee and provided some background information on the legislative process, which you may find helpful.

We have spent the last few weeks working with Peers across all parties to support them to table amendments to the legislation and to ensure cross-party support on a number of issues. We have recently published our updated list of areas where we think the Bill can be strengthened - this includes a list of the tabled amendments that we broadly support and align to these key areas.

What was discussed during the Debate?

The debate lasted over six hours and continued well into the evening. 11 groupings of amendments were discussed, touching on a range of wide range of issues and points of clarification, including:

  • The role of schools, universities and colleges in Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs)
  • What defines ‘local’ when creating LSIPs?
  • Consideration of national skills needs in creating LSIPs and how they will inform national policy
  • Reforms to the Apprenticeship Levy
  • Ensuring the needs of SEND students are met
  • IfATE's approval powers and the removal/defunding of qualifications
  • External quality assurance of apprenticeships' end point assessments
  • The introduction of T-Levels and implications for the future of other qualifications
  • Changes to how higher education providers are evaluated including greater consideration of students’ mental health

Complementary roles of schools, universities and colleges

Peers from all parties spoke about the need for clarification about the relationship between all forms of education and training providers in the Bill, including ensuring that all those involved with skills and learning are working in collaboration. They argued that joining up of the wider education system will result in providers better meeting society's needs and give people the skills they need. Baroness Morris and Baroness Garden also highlighted that these complementary roles will also ensure that FE providers won't be left to provide the resource-intensive programmes, whilst other providers focus on vocational education that doesn’t require specialist equipment or resource.

In reply, Baroness Berridge speaking for the Government highlighted that LSIPs will not be master plans that specify in detail all the provision that is to be provided by every provider to every learner in the area. Instead, she argued that they are a vehicle to give employers a more central role in local skills systems by communicating a clear, evidence-based assessment of priority skills needs and working with providers to shape technical education to better meet those needs. We have been working with Peers on amendments to ensure that there is collaboration between schools, universities, employers and colleges in the development of skills plans and are pleased that there was cross party support for this.

LSIPs – what defines ‘local’ and the need for Parliamentary scrutiny

Several of our proposed amendments sought clarity on the role of LSIPs, so it was good to see Peers asking for further clarification on this during the debate. The discussion focussed on what the Government deems as ‘local’ and exploring the possibility that LSIPs could be scrutinised in parliament, given that the pilot areas had only just been announced. Peers sought to clarify if LSIPs had to be negotiated locally, and how to ensure local areas that may not be as attractive as other areas are covered by LSIPs.

Baroness Penn clarified that guidance to support LSIPs will not expand the scope of the legislation but provide further detail on the process. She also reiterated that the geography for LSIPs will be based on functional economic areas and informed from evidence from the trailblazers.

National Skills Audits and LSIPs informing national policy

This grouping of amendments focussed on ensuring that access to clear and consistent information on skills required nationally are available to Employer Representative Bodies (ERBs) developing LSIPs. A number of Peers highlighted the need for Government to set a national skills strategy to ensure a far-sighted approach to the skills needs of the future and help shape a more secure and sustainable economy. This would include a national skills audit or strategy that could provide an evidence-based framework for national skills needs and shortages. The lack of output from the Skills and Productivity Board was also highlighted by Lord Lucas and an update was requested about its work and current timetable. Peers also highlighted that how important it was that LSIPs feed into national policymaking to help identify skills shortages.

Baroness Berridge agreed that ERBs should consider evidence of future skills needs and national priorities as they develop their LSIPs, and said that more detail on how they will do this will be provided in the guidance. She also confirmed that once approved, LSIPs would be published and made publicly available, and that their ambition for them is to be informed by, and to inform, national skills priorities highlighted by the Skills and Productivity board

Reforms to the Apprenticeship Levy

There were calls for a review of the Apprenticeship Levy and how it relates to the wider post-16 education and skills system. The apprenticeship levy is absent in the Bill, even though IfATE is quite heavily featured. Peers called for a greater degree of flexibility in the use of how employers spend their levy funds. The Government was also questioned about the declining number of apprenticeships starts and the important role they play in social mobility and levelling up.

Responding for the Government, Baroness Penn reassured Lords that apprenticeship funding policy is kept under review and that Government has an ambitious agenda for apprenticeships. She also highlighted that work is currently underway on a package of improvements that respond to employer feedback so that employers can make better use of their levy funds.

The ability to make it easier for employers to transfer unspent levy funds is an issue which has received attention in Parliament in recent weeks, with the Chancellor Rishi Sunak taking questions on the topic during the last Treasury Questions. We are currently awaiting further guidance from officials on how this will work.

IfATE’s approval powers and the external quality assurance of apprenticeships' end point assessments

Several amendments sought to clarify the provisions in the Bill relating to the role of IfATE and Ofqual. One of the main concerns expressed by Peers about IfATE was that a non-departmental public body, directly accountable to Ministers, has been given ultimate sign off power. Amendments were proposed calling for Ofqual to remain the sole body for sign off powers and the regulation and accrediting of all technical qualifications. Peers also wanted clarification on several points.

  • How would the charging for the approval of courses be regulated?
  • The possibility extending the IfATE consultation process and ensuring the consent of ERB’s before removing qualifications?
  • What will happen to non-apprenticeship vocational and technical qualifications that are offered by awarding organisations and recognised by Ofqual?
  • What will IfATE’s relationship be with Ofqual? Will this be a dual regulatory system?

Peers, including Lord Blunkett and Lord Addington, raised concerns about the replacing of qualifications (such as BTECs) with T-Levels too quickly. They argued that the Government was dividing young people into two routes - work or further study – but that paths overlap and there are qualifications such as BTECs that straddle the divide between the two. Peers also highlighted how employers were also wary about constant changes to the qualification system. We share concerns about the pace at which the Level 3 Qualification review is developing and have published an official response. We are currently working with officials to address this and raising the isssue with Parliamentarians.

Baroness Berridge addressed some these concerns, noting that currently the content of most publicly funded technical qualifications is not specified or scrutinised centrally. She argued that IfATE oversight functions will bring coherence and clarity across the system, and that the Bill also requires IfATE to regularly review the qualifications it has approved to ensure that it continues to hold currency and deliver on employer needs.

Ensuring Students Needs are kept under Review

These amendments were tabled to make sure that the needs of students and potential students are regularly considered and reviewed in decision-making. This would ask institutions to review their provision, including how they meet the needs of SEND students. The high number of SEND students that are in colleges compared to universities was also raised. Lord Bishop of Durham highlighted the fantastic work of Bishop Auckland College in identifying and addressing the lack of SEND provision locally.

Baroness Penn confirmed that there is a clause in the Bill that placed a duty on governing bodies of FE institutions to periodically review their provision. She reassured Peers that this was not to second guess practices that are already taking place, but to place a legal duty for these reviews to be published.

Changes to how higher education providers are evaluated including greater consideration of mental health

The final amendment grouping focused on the part of the Bill which gives the Office for Students power to assess the quality of higher education by reference to student outcomes. The importance of publishing the mental health provision and support provided by HE institutions was highlighted by Peers, in order to help students make informed decisions about where to study. They also spoke about the need to publish the data evaluating student outcomes, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

In her response, Baroness Penn noted that there are currently no restrictions or stipulations on how the OfS might assess quality or standards. However, she reiterated that the Government backs the sector-led University Mental Health Charter. She confirmed that is for the OfS to decide which data or measures it wishes to consider when using student outcomes.

Next Steps

There are two further days of Committee.

  • Monday 19 July
  • Wednesday 21 July

We expect the following days of the committee stage will focus on amendments relating to the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. We are continuing to work with Peers to share colleges concerns and ambitions for the Bill and support them with their work on it. The next stage is the Report Stage, which we expect to begin once the House of Lords returns from Summer Recess. After the Report Stage, the Bill will go to the House of Commons, where we are already working with MPs to support them to scrutinise the Bill.