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Black Country University Technical College

Volume 596: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss a matter of concern to my constituency and to the black country. In May 2011 I received a letter from the then Education Minister telling me that the Black Country university technical college was to be opened in my constituency in September. A funding agreement had been entered into for this to happen.

A year later the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, the body that promotes such colleges and plays an active role in these matters, wrote to me and said that more such colleges were being opened across the country. The age group involved was 14 to 19-year-olds. As was emphasised by Ministers and the trust, the purpose of such colleges, as the name implies, is to provide intensive and advanced technical schooling, combined with a normal secondary education. The hours are somewhat longer—from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm—and a further aim is to improve behaviour and reduce truancy. We are all in favour of such aims and objectives, and I was told that a good deal of that had already been achieved.

The cost of equipping each UTC was at that time around £10 million. The Minister may want to give us the latest figure. It should be emphasised that for UTCs and other forms of state education, such as secondary schools and academies, the money inevitably comes from the public purse, and rightly so. The UTCs were funded 100% by the Exchequer, as all state education is. There is no criticism of that.

The UTC in Walsall opened just four years ago in 2011, as I said. It was one of the first five in England. Of those first five, the one in my constituency is to close. Another, in Hackney, is to close at the same time. There is, I understand, a question mark over the future of yet another one. The Baker Dearing Educational Trust had brought out a glossy report, which I am sure the Minister has seen, to celebrate such colleges. Needless to say, everything in the pamphlet was positive. Nothing could be better, apparently, and there were plenty of quotes from well-known figures.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about the technical college in Walsall. In my constituency the technical college, or the further education college as it is now, prepares and trains people for future employment. Has he been able to ascertain the impact that the closure of his college will have on the employment prospects of the young people in the area? That would concern me and I am sure it concerns him as well.

That is undoubtedly a useful intervention. I shall mention the issue to some extent and am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened.

I want to make it clear from the start that I accept there is much to be said for an extensive and advanced technical education, not least in the black country. Such skills are necessary in the four boroughs, certainly in my own borough of Walsall. The new and latest skills are much in demand. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who is also in attendance, totally agree with that. The skills will, to a large extent, replace the older industries, which tend to be described as metal-bashing industries. More potential engineers—both male and female—and others with specialist skills would certainly be welcomed by employers. There is no dispute about that. It is not part of my case that such extensive advanced technical education should not be given. How it is given, and how it should fit into secondary education, is another matter altogether.

It was after the last Parliament ended at the end of March that an announcement was made that the Walsall college on Vernon Way in Bloxwich in my constituency was to close. I must confess—I shall come to this in a moment—that I am not altogether happy about the way in which it was announced. In fact, I learned about it informally. Rumours were running around that the college was to close and the local authority had been told, but the official announcement was made a little later and during the election campaign, not afterwards. Currently there are 158 students, more than 100 of whom—this relates to what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said in his intervention—will need to complete their secondary schooling elsewhere come the autumn.

There has been much concern over the college closing. The announcement has gone down rather badly, to say the least, in the locality. The president of the Black Country chamber of commerce said it was a sad day for such education and a hard day for students, parents and employers.

The Ofsted report on the Walsall college was highly critical. The inspection was carried out in March. A few moments ago I mentioned the glossy pamphlet that was sent to us. It said that everything was positive and successful, but the Ofsted report said that student achievement was inadequate, teaching was weak, attendance was well below average, and discipline simply was not good enough. Moreover, Ofsted was critical of the governors and sponsors. It criticised the fact that the governing body had failed to understand how students were doing and to tackle what Ofsted describes as the underperformance of staff. It also says, in all fairness, that the more recent principal has done good work in trying to improve standards. That should be said on the record.

The decision to close, and the manner in which it was done, does not provide much confidence in the way in which the UTC was governed. It should not be overlooked that the Ofsted report, however critical—indeed, it was highly critical, as I have already said—made no recommendation that the college close. It was stated that it should be put in special measures, which is the normal approach. Whenever Ofsted makes a highly critical report, it does not usually state that the institution should be closed, and it did not do so in this case.

When was the Department for Education notified of the closure? Was it at the same time as the official announcement was made locally? Given the acute weaknesses in the Ofsted report, has the Department been kept informed over the past two or three years, or did this come as a surprise? It would be interesting to hear what the link is between UTCs and the Department. The Department funds them with taxpayers’ money, and rightly so, but are reports made to the Department? Did the Department not realise what the situation was at the Walsall UTC until the Ofsted report? Some answers would be useful.

Interestingly, when a Tory Back Bencher intervened during the Prime Minister’s first speech in this Parliament to ask about UTCs and say how useful they are, the Prime Minister’s response could not have been more enthusiastic. I would say only this. Bearing in mind not only the college about which I am speaking, but the other closure in August of one of the first five colleges as well as the one with the question mark over it, is there not a case for the Department to pause and look at what has happened over the past four or five years? I simply say that university technical colleges are necessary and provide a useful sort of education—I have mentioned all that, and I do not disagree—but there should be time to pause and reflect.

I quoted the president of the Black Country chamber of commerce saying how the closure was a blow to the locality. I want to emphasise that it is a heavy blow. There was much enthusiasm about the UTC. One did not know much about UTCs, but the site was that of a former secondary school and one felt that it would be a successful venture. It has not proved to be, which is very unfortunate. Perhaps the Minister has the latest information about the alternative places to which students who have not finished their secondary education will be going.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on securing this debate on a very important issue for his constituents, as well as for those of the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and of other hon. Members from the surrounding area. I thank him for organising this debate because it is very important at the start of a Parliament to look at the university technical college programme and to ask whether it is as successful as possible before we launch into the process of opening more institutions like this one, which we as a Government are firmly committed to do. I will try to answer his questions, but if at any point he wants to intervene to press me on any particular question, I will be happy to take such an intervention.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged the importance of providing high-quality technical education in all parts of the country, and particularly the need to create new institutions to focus on technical education in a different way, to a different level and with a different focus from what has perhaps been available in existing institutions, whether schools or further education colleges. That is why it is very welcome to hear him and other Labour Members say that they, like us, support the principle of university technical colleges. We feel that these new institutions can make a real contribution.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, when we are trying to improve and innovate, we have to take some risks. We have to be willing to set up new kinds of institution that have not been tested within the system and try new ways of doing things. It will always be right for the Government to back certain risks, as long as they are calculated, well monitored and well judged. If, unfortunately, the risk does not pay off, there must be proper investigation so that we understand what went wrong, what failed and what lessons should be learned for future projects.

I will now go into the particulars of the university technical college that closed, so sadly, in the hon. Gentleman’s area. It is a matter of huge regret that the college has been forced to close so soon after it opened, after so much taxpayers’ money was invested in creating it and, more than just money, after so many hopes were raised in his area about the potential for the college to contribute to the chances of its young people.

The Government would not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s judgment that the communications about the possible closure were not handled as we would have liked. Not least—although I am sure this is not the only source of his complaint—we feel that it would have been proper and advisable, as it was an election period, for the governors to contact all the parliamentary candidates for the constituency in which the college is located and, perhaps, parliamentary candidates beyond the constituency in advance of the public communications, so that he and others did not have to read about it in the news like everyone else.

My not being notified is not my No. 1 complaint by any means. I wonder whether the Minister will answer a question that I did ask. Was the Department for Education notified of what was happening over the past two or three years? Did the Ofsted report come as a complete surprise or did the Department, although he may not have been involved at the time, know what was occurring? Did the Department communicate with the college and say, “This doesn’t seem very good. Taxpayers money is involved. What steps are being taken to improve the situation?”

I was going to come on to what we knew in this specific case and to set out the monitoring process more broadly. I will start with the closure and work backwards, if I may.

The first that the Department heard about the possible closure being proposed by the board of governors was on 17 March, which was after the second Ofsted inspection that produced such a damning report. The trust that was running the college approached the Department to discuss possible closure. The Department, through the regional schools commissioner, who has responsibility for all the schools in the region, including the UTCs, looked at alternatives for the UTC. Obviously, it would have been hugely preferable, if it had been possible, to transfer the UTC into another academy group or into a relationship with other more successful institutions, so that it could have remained open. It was quite proper that that process happened swiftly. Obviously, it was getting very close to the start of purdah and the election campaign. Nevertheless, that work was done.

On 27 March, the governors formally requested the termination of the funding agreement. Ministers agreed to the request the same day, immediately before the pre-election purdah period. There was therefore a period of just less than two weeks in which the regional schools commissioner made contact with other institutions to see whether there was an alternative to closure. Ultimately, the conclusion was drawn that there was no alternative.

The hon. Gentleman asked, very properly, about our general oversight and communication channels. Because the university technical college programme is a small and relatively new programme, it receives quite a lot more regular attention in the Department than ordinary schools, of which there are many thousands around the country. There are regular monitoring meetings at the officials level and Ministers also get involved in regular monitoring meetings, which look both at the proposals for new university technical colleges and at any university technical college that seems to be having problems, whether those are financial problems or problems relating to Ofsted inspections, the quality of the education or the recruitment of students.

It would therefore not have been a surprise to the Department or officials that the college was in trouble, but it was perhaps not until the second Ofsted report that the trouble crystallised as a threat to its very survival. Relatively swiftly after that, the governing body reached the conclusion that it should close the college. I believe that the communication of that could have been better handled, and I fear that one reason why it was not handled as well as it could have been was the fact that the purdah period had started and Ministers were off on election campaigns. I regret that, but I do not think the ultimate decision to close the college could have been avoided.

I would like to answer the question that the hon. Gentleman properly asked about the position of the 158 students who were on the roll at the time of closure. I understand that 93% of them, which is 152, have offers of places at other educational institutions or of alternative arrangements, such as apprenticeships. Pupils continuing with their education have received offers from a range of providers, including local academies and colleges. Those wishing to continue with engineering or a technical education have been offered places at Walsall college and four other nearby university technical colleges—Aston; the JCB Academy; and West Midlands Construction UTC and Health Futures UTC, both of which are due to open this year. Siemens has provided financial support with transport costs for students to be able to transfer to those UTCs. Although I promise to keep a fairly close eye on what happens to those young people, to ensure that their education is not interrupted more than is necessary and that they are given great opportunities for the future, I am reasonably content so far that it looks possible that everybody will find a good place in a good college.

Finally, I will reflect briefly, as the hon. Gentleman invited me to, on what the Government can do to learn lessons from this unfortunate experience and the one in Hackney. We want to ensure that the university technical college programme, to which the Government are firmly committed and which has great support from the main Opposition party, flourishes and creates institutions that are educationally and financially successful, so that they can recruit sufficient numbers of young people and give them a great education. I can promise him that, as the Minister who has just been asked to take over responsibility for the programme, I am looking at all the questions about how a UTC works; who it recruits and when it recruits them; what specialisms are involved; what its partnership and sponsorship arrangements are; and how it involves universities and employers, and which ones are getting involved. I am determined to ensure that the programme ends up producing fantastic institutions that offer great opportunities for young people to receive a technical education.

As I said, my view is that there is a case for pausing, but clearly that will not happen. Does the Minister feel that it would be useful if he visited the college before the closure takes place and spoke to the staff and some of the students? He could also arrange a meeting with the governors, which might be on the same occasion. It would be useful if he went himself to see what is happening and to discuss the situation. Perhaps lessons could be learned that otherwise would not be.

On the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of a pause, there is a natural pause in a sense, because there are certain times at which we solicit bids for new university technical colleges. We are currently considering what the appropriate time will be to open up a bidding round, and I can assure him that there will be a number of months before that in which we can consider all the lessons from this and other experiences.

I would be very happy to meet the outgoing principal or members of the governing body if the hon. Gentleman would like to arrange such a meeting. From the Dispatch Box, I cannot absolutely promise to visit, because I would need to check with the Whips, who seem to want to keep Ministers in Westminster at the moment. I also need to check on the appropriateness of doing so. I can guarantee the hon. Gentleman that I will get a report from the regional schools commissioner about what lessons he thinks we should be learning, but I would be happy to meet anyone else the hon. Gentleman would like me to meet so that we learn the lessons of this experience.

We must together guarantee that the 158 young people who had made a commitment to the institution receive a superb education, as they were properly hoping to receive. We must also guarantee that the university technical college movement, which has been so ably spearheaded by—among many others—Lord Baker and Lord Adonis, is a success and that the institutions created through that programme can thrive, prosper and create great opportunities for young people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.