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Further Education

Volume 483: debated on Thursday 20 November 2008

1. What assessment he has made of the contribution of further education colleges to the communities in which they are based; and if he will make a statement. (237514)

Colleges play a vital role in the life of their communities, and that has been made possible by record levels of Government investment since 1997, when there was no capital budget and many FE buildings were unsuitable for modern learning. In the past 10 years, we have invested £2.4 billion and will invest a further £2.3 billion in the years to 2011. Funding for FE overall has increased by 53 per cent. in real terms between 1997 and 2008.

In publicly commenting on the petition that I presented to the House about the closure of the Carlett Park campus in my constituency, the principal questioned whether the signatories were studying or intending to study at that FE college. Will my right hon. Friend remind the principal that colleges are about communities as well as education on-site, and that he needs to look again at the hole in the community that the closure would cause? Will he ask him again to revisit the policy of locating the college on two sites in the north of the peninsula rather than the south, which is currently without facilities and beleaguered?

I acknowledge the consistency with which my hon. Friend has pursued his constituents’ interests. He has raised this matter through petition and in an Adjournment debate, but I must tell him that Ministers are reluctant to involve ourselves in the quite detailed planning matters of individual colleges. I think that this is an issue about which he needs to maintain his campaigning and work at local level with the college and its corporation, although he is of course always welcome to discuss it further with me and other Ministers.

I very much agree with the Secretary of State about the incredible contribution that FE colleges make to our various communities. However, what encouragement does his Department give to FE colleges to offer training packages to businesses that are directly in accordance with their needs and which sometimes might be outside regular office hours, as opposed to the traditional one-size-fits-all packages?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter. In the past couple of weeks we have announced an extension of Train to Gain, with £350 million being allocated to Train to Gain for small and medium-sized enterprises. In the new package, the rules requiring that the qualifications that people get must be both full and their first will be relaxed, so SMEs will be able to get the bite-sized chunks of training that are proven to increase productivity. This is an important matter, as the Conservative party is proposing to take £1 billion out of Train to Gain, which then would not be able to offer that very important service to SMEs.

Local colleges play a fundamental part in providing the skills base, but does my right hon. Friend agree that they will also help us to find the teams to compete in WorldSkills 2011? Will he emphasise the importance of colleges, and send a letter to every college saying that now is the time that every region must begin to train their skills teams right across the piece if we are to come in the top three at WorldSkills 2011?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and we are giving colleges every encouragement in that respect. The evidence that I have is that skills competitions are being promoted in places where they have not been promoted in recent years. I was at Leeds college of building just last week, and staff there were talking about their plans to enter students into regional and national skills competitions. Their aspiration was that some of their excellent young trainees might get into the WorldSkills team for 2011. As Ministers, we will certainly continue to push the importance of the competition as a showcase for the very best that our young people can produce.

Macclesfield possesses one of the first learning zones to be established in this country, and Macclesfield college is a major and important part of that. Its principal, Wendy Wright, and its corporation are doing a wonderful job, but will the Secretary of State confirm yet again that vocational education is essential to the success of this country and that it might help us to get out of the recession that we are currently experiencing? Will he therefore encourage increased co-operation and contact between colleges and business in their local communities?

I am happy to support the message that the hon. Gentleman gives. I hope that he will use his influence on his party’s Front Benchers, who regularly criticise us for having shifted resources to vocational qualifications and away from shorter courses, which are much less likely to produce the learning that employers want. I hope that he can influence his party’s Front Benchers, who are wrong on that issue.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that some further education principals and staff have expressed concern that the expertise that they have developed over time may be lost now that they are to be part of the administration of the local education authorities? I ask the Secretary of State to state clearly, from the Dispatch Box, that we expect a partnership of equals to be developed. The expertise of principals and staff should lead all policy on further education.

I make two points. First, on adult skills, the transition from the Learning and Skills Council to the skills funding agency will result in greater freedom and responsibility for the professional leadership of colleges in the delivery of adult skills. On the 16-to-19 group, colleges are not coming under the administration of local authorities, but they are expected, and will be encouraged, to work strategically with schools and other providers to make sure that 14 to 19-year-olds get a proper range of choices in qualifications through the education system. That is particularly important as we move towards the raising of the participation age. We also want to tackle that group of young people who currently come through education without getting qualifications that enable them to succeed in work.

Last Saturday, I went to the annual higher education awards ceremony at Bristol cathedral for students who have obtained foundation degrees or completed other degree programmes at the City of Bristol FE college. A great cross-section of the entire Greater Bristol community was present; all social groups and ethnicities were represented. However, unlike those students’ counterparts just 500 m up the hill who study full-time at Bristol university, the students who attended will not have had access to maintenance or fee loans, and would have had a paltry student grant. When will the Government finally act to remove all those absurd anomalies, so that we can make sure that we widen participation in higher education and get more people trained in a fast-changing economy?

The ability of young people, particularly those who have gained vocational qualifications, to continue to a higher level with foundation degrees is an important part of our education system, and one that I would like to see expanded in future, because it is a route to higher-level skills that we need to develop. As I have previously acknowledged at this Dispatch Box, there are issues to do with the funding of part-time and full-time students in higher education, and we have said that we will look into them when we consider the financing of higher education next year.