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Further Education: Economic Sustainability

Volume 654: debated on Monday 4 February 2019

3. What recent representations he has received on the economic sustainability of the further education sector. (908954)

My officials and I have regular and frequent discussions with representatives of colleges and college sector bodies, among others, about the sustainability of the sector. I get out and about as often as I can to find out precisely what funding problems some colleges are facing.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that the Minister does get out there, and I think we all have a strong sense of the sympathy with which she is attempting to make the case for colleges, but she has a Chancellor and a Prime Minister who seem to be entirely deaf to that case rather than responding to it. What more can Members on both sides of the House who recognise the scale of the financial crisis facing colleges do to ensure that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor start taking the action that is so desperately required?

I do not think that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are deaf to the case, and, in fact, in the first 15 minutes of this Question Time we have focused largely on the further education sector. I think that Members on both sides of the House are doing well in making the case to ensure that we have a sustainable and resilient FE sector in the future.

How will the Department assist the businesses that will offer the placements which will be such an essential part of the T-level qualifications?

We are doing a lot of work in that regard. For instance, we organised a pilot project, run by The Challenge, which highlighted some of the needs of employers. We are working closely with the sector, because it is crucial to the success of T-levels for us to get the industry placements right, and that means building relationships between colleges and those delivering T-levels and local employers.

A while ago, like many Members, I was lobbied by staff and students in further education who told me that they and their institutions were at breaking point. At 16, the average further education student receives £1,500 less than the average student aged under 16. When will the Government understand that this investment in our communities needs to happen, and it needs to happen now?

This member of the Government does precisely understand some of the challenges facing the sector. Some of the money that goes into further education does so through a variety of funding streams. For instance, I have not yet mentioned the £330 million that went into the restructuring of colleges, which has brought about substantial financial savings in some colleges undertaking mergers. However, I am very aware—and the Chancellor is very aware, and the Prime Minister is very aware—of the circumstances of FE colleges.

I welcome the doubling of funding for apprenticeships, but what conversations has the Minister had with colleges such as Heart of Worcestershire in Redditch about how they can gain a greater share of such funding?

I could probably bore for England on the issue of apprenticeships. I talk to every college, and ask every college what it is doing. The National Apprenticeship Service will work with any college that wants to set up new apprenticeship training. It is not always easy for colleges to do that, but plenty of support is available if they want to do it, and plenty of money is available.

At our last Question Time I raised the case of Greenhead College in Kirklees, which has warned that continued cuts in post-16 education are threatening standards. The Minister said that the Department was

“looking at the resilience of the sector.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 14.]

Since then, however, it has been revealed that colleges will be landed with a pensions bill of £142 million by the Treasury. When will the Department stop looking at the resilience of the sector and actually provide further funds?

We are proposing to fund the teacher pension contribution increase for those FE providers obliged to offer the scheme. I am very aware of that, and I have recently been to Kirklees and have seen the fantastic work that goes on up there. We will continue to raise the issue both with the Treasury and within the Department. The resilience review of FE funding will come forward fairly shortly.

I think, if memory serves me correctly, and after due consultation, that post 16 the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) was at cadet school. I feel sure that I speak for the House in saying that we are all convinced he was a very athletic fellow. I call Sir Nicholas Soames.

Different days, Mr Speaker, I am afraid. May I thank my right hon. Friend for the incredible work and leadership that she has offered, together with officials in her Department, in the reopening of the sixth-form college in Haywards Heath in my constituency? Will she pay tribute to the work of Mid Sussex District Council, whose leadership in this matter has been absolutely exemplary?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I am very happy to join him in his tribute. Mid Sussex District Council has shown remarkable leadership, and it just goes to show how much can be achieved when the local authority, colleges and schools in the area—all those with a vested interest, including the county council—get together to find a solution for a problem. I wish them every success.

The shambolic roll-out of special educational needs and disability reforms has meant that nearly 9,000 learners who previously would have been eligible for education and healthcare plans have been denied that support. As a result, college principals have warned the Government that support for learners over 19 is now being met from their college budgets. Surely the Minister knows that, after years of budget cuts, that could push many colleges to the brink of collapse. More than funding, learners with SEND need a Government who are genuinely on their side. When will that happen?

I reject the suggestion that we are not on the side of young people with SEND. It is disappointing that the hon. Lady put it in those terms. I am very aware of the fantastic work that colleges do with young people with SEND. I have said that I visited a college recently where 400 students had SEND, and the results that they achieve are remarkable.