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Third day of Committee Stage – Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

26 July 2021

The third day of Committee for the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill took place in the House of Lords on Monday afternoon. We have written summaries of the first and second days of Committee and provided some background on the legislative process on our website.

We are continuing to work with Peers across all parties to support them to table amendments to the legislation and to ensure cross-party support on several 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 five hours and with 10 groupings of amendments discussed. These touched on a wide range of issues and points of clarification and included the following:

  • Putting the lifetime skills guarantee on a statutory footing
  • Reforms to the Apprenticeship Levy
  • Accountability for gaps in local provision
  • Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) ratings and fee limits
  • Credit transfers to facilitate flexible learning and transfers between institutions
  • Improving the quality of careers provision and compliance with the Baker Clause
  • Conversion of Catholic sixth forms to academies
  • Review of the Kickstart Scheme
  • Access to data for research and to track graduate outcomes.

Lifetime Skills Guarantee and reform of the Apprenticeship Levy

The first grouping of amendments discussed further details surrounding the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. This included one of the key areas that we support - putting the Guarantee on a statutory footing and extending it to include subsequent level 3 courses. A number of Peers spoke in support of this and argued that any person of any age has the right to free education on an approved course up to and including Level 3. Lord Clarke of Nottingham led on this grouping, and felt that it was very much in the spirit of the Government's current skills and levelling up agenda.

Peers noted that it was important that learners on lower-level courses were not forgotten, and that individuals who may not have had an opportunity to study in their youth had the opportunity later in on life. For colleges to be able to deliver on this, Lord Clarke and Lord Layard pointed out the funding system needed to change, as colleges are cash-limited with a complex funding system and had not been treated funded sufficiently in recent years. We are continuing to work with Parliamentarians to deliver a fair funding settlement for colleges in the comprehensive spending review.

A further amendment in this grouping focused on reforms to the Apprenticeship Levy, and proposes that any employer receiving apprenticeship funding must spend at least two thirds of that funding on people who begin an apprenticeship before the age of 25 at levels 2 and 3. Lord Adonis pointed out that apprenticeships have declined by approximately 50,000, with the number of under 19s going into apprenticeships have gone down by a third. He said that ensuring that this levy funding is spent at the lower levels would encourage the training of younger workers at a time when the youth unemployment rate is 13.2%.

Government Minister Baroness Penn in her response noted that the Government broadly concurs with these amendments but did not think they needed to be prescribed in this Bill. She said that through the adult education budget, any adult over the age of 24 could access approximately 400 free courses up to Level 3. Those who wished to retrain for a further qualification at or below Level 3 could do so by applying for an advanced learner loan. Baroness Penn highlighted that from August 2020 to January 2021, 16 – 24 –year-olds made up 53% of apprenticeship starts. She also confirmed that the Government as part of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee will regularly review courses and are currently consulting on how they can create a simpler funding system that places less of a burden on providers.

Accountability for Gaps in the local provision

This amendment aimed to make clear that the role of an institution in the FE sector is to ensure that there are no gaps in the local provision. This would include providing where local schools have failed to provide, and ensure that the Education Secretary considers academic qualifications and other local provision when considering how well local needs have been met.

There was some disagreement in the discussion on this amendment with, Lord Watson of Invergowrie stating the vast majority of FE colleges know what they need to do for their locality and do it well. He said that the sector has been seriously underfunded which could only inhibit their ability to do this.

Baroness Berridge responding for the Government outlined that the assessment the Education Secretary makes would not be restricted to a particular type of provision. Further to this, she added that it was the responsibility of all providers in an area to be accountable for how needs are met and work together to change as needed.

Link between TEF ratings and Fee-uplifts

These amendments were tabled by the Government and aimed to change a loophole in previous legislation. It outlined that any provider seeking to charge the TEF fee uplift can only do so if the provider had the award by January 1 in the calendar year before the relevant academic year. This aims to provide a more timely link between TEF awards and fee uplifts.

In response, Baroness Berridge confirmed that this will affect providers that have a TEF rating but no access or participation plan. This may have an impact on new providers going for TEF status, although this amendment functionally is to make the legislation fit for purpose when the new round of TEF is announced.

Cheating Services

This amendment reflects a Private Members' Bill submitted by Lord Storey. It outlines that providing, offering or arranging an academic cheating service to a student enrolled with a further, higher, or post-16 education provider is an offence. Peers from Labour and the Lib Dems spoke about the impact of these ‘essay mills’ and that it puts vulnerable students at risk and damages the reputation of our higher education system.

Baroness Berridge acknowledged that this as a growing problem and has made clear that using these services is unacceptable. They welcome the principles set out in Lord Storey’s Private Members Bill and will be working with him on his. However, she also said that the Government feels that there is little evidence to support that this is a problem in post-16 FE institutions as they are in Higher Education.

AoC will keep an eye on Lord Storey’s Private Members Bill as it goes through the House of Lords and update members with developments. We expect that this Bill will have a minimal impact on providers and instead focus on those providing cheating services.

Improving the quality of careers provision and compliance with the Baker clause

This grouping referred to the need for careers guidance in the Bill. Improving careers guidance is something AoC supports, and we have been working with parliamentarians on these amendments which would introduce interventions in certain years before students make decisions. Lord Baker’s amendment, which has secured cross-party support, would make it a statutory duty for all secondary schools to provide meetings with their students between 1 September and 28 February in each academic year and specifically provides for years 8, 9, 11 and 13. While Lord Baker noted that the Government has improved and revised careers guidance and policy for schools, he believes it must be backed up with a statutory duty. This was supported by Baroness Wilcox who noted that unless instructions are on a statutory footing they will be ignored.

Lord Patel supported Lord Baker’s amendment and proposed amendments that would ensure that there are always up-to-date careers advice strategies in England. He noted that the 2017 Carers Strategy came to an end in 2020 and there is nothing as yet to replace it.

Baroness Penn responded, confirming that the Government believes young people and adults need to be equipped to make informed choices and that is why they already have a legal framework in place that requires schools and colleges to provide independent careers guidance to all 12-18 year-olds. She went on to say that she did not think that now is the right time to introduce primary legislation on this while they are still working to strengthen and ensure compliance with the first Baker clause.

Credit transfers to facilitate flexible learning and transfers between institutions

Introduced by Lord Watson of Invergowrie, these amendments related to the assessment and recognition of prior qualifications and credit by institutions and their transferability between institutions. There are already frameworks that exist for credits in the UK, however, they are not universal. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement implies that people will have a more flexible approach to learning throughout their lives and this universal credit transfer system would widen participation and enable them to study flexibly – giving students the confidence they can pause their studies or change providers as needed.

In outlining the Government’s response to this amendment, Baroness Berridge acknowledged that many learners need more flexible access to courses. To enable this, she said that learners should be able to accumulate and transfer credits to build meaningful qualifications over time. She confirmed that the Government intend to hold a consultation on the scope and policy of this flexible credit transfer and this will be announced later this year.

Conversion of Catholic sixth forms to academies

These amendments aimed to make it possible for Catholic sixth forms to convert to academies whilst also retaining their religious character. Currently, if a catholic sixth form was to become a 16-19 academy it would lose protections and freedoms. These amendments would allow sixth form college corporations to convert without losing these current statutory protections. This would grant them the same academy opportunities that all other schools and colleges currently have to strategically plan their future.

Baroness Berridge recognised that there are currently barriers preventing sixth form colleges with a religious character from converting to academies. This is because it is not presently legally possible for 16-19 academies to have a religious designation. The Government remains keen to take action to help all sixth-form colleges, including those with a designated religious character, to convert to academies and while supportive of the principle, Baroness Berridge argued that this amendment was not the vehicle for it.

Review of the Kickstart Scheme

Peers raised amendments probing for the consideration of the extension of the current Kickstart scheme and the criteria of those eligible beyond those receiving universal credit. Baroness Fox pointed out the challenges faced by young people in the labour market that have been exacerbated by Covid-19. Also, Peers noted an added clause to the universal credit condition, which meant that to qualify you have to be shown as being at risk of long-term unemployment. Lord Watson of Invergowrie pointed out that the Economic Affairs Committee report in December 2020 which recommended that Kickstart not be limited to people who have been on universal credit for six months.

Baroness Penn in her response noted that Kickstart will help to reduce the long-term effects of unemployment caused by the pandemic. She said that to be effective, the scheme must be targeted and that Kickstart is focused not on those who might need progression, but on those who are unemployed and are at risk of long-term unemployment. She said they will not seek to amend the criteria.

We have recently published our ‘Let them Learn’ report, with one of our key recommendations being that Government and DWP embed the transformative role of education and skills into an employment and jobs strategy as part of a joined-up strategy with DfE.

Access to data for research and to track graduate outcomes

The final two groupings of amendments focussed on student data, and proposed that the Student Loans Company provide universities with anonymised information about their graduate incomes and that key learner data must be shared for research purposes. This information would help students understand what outcomes this course could lead to. Baroness Garden expressed reservations with this data and pointed out that universities should not be recognised for the earnings that graduates manage to find later in life.

In her response, Baroness Berridge outlined that the Student Loans Company is not there to be used by the universities, it is there for students and only holds data on students who own or are repaying a loan. Baroness Penn stated that the DfE is committed to facilitating external research and supports data about learners being made available for research in the public interest. She felt this specific amendment was not necessary.

Next Steps?

There is one final day of Committee scheduled for Wednesday 21 July. We expect there to be discussions surrounding the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and further discussions on the Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

After the Committee stage, the Bill is reprinted with any agreed amendments and then moves to the Report stage for further scrutiny. The Report stage for this Bill will begin after the Lord's return from Summer Recess.