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Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019

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

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise the important matter of the future of Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College in Leicestershire. The college is in the constituency of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), by a few hundred yards, but I have been delighted to visit the college on a number of occasions, both before and since my election in 2010 to represent Loughborough. This is clearly a matter of national importance. It is good to see my hon. Friend in his place on the Treasury Front Bench. I think I can confidently say that at least on this subject he and I are going to be firmly of the same mind. In particular, we would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the fantastic staff, pupils and governors, both past and present, for their unwavering commitment to our armed forces, as well as their contribution to the local area and the college over many years; and also to Councillor David Snartt, who has always been a strong voice for the college.

Welbeck is a full boarding co-educational college, funded by the Ministry of Defence. It offers an A-level education to young people who go on to study a degree at a partner university and receive an annual bursary before starting their careers as technical officers within the Royal Navy, Army, Royal Air Force or the MOD civil service. The college now has over 300 boarding pupils, and students come from all over the UK and from a wide variety of backgrounds. This positive impact on social mobility is something I will return to.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. I declare an interest as a former member of the Army for 14 and a half years as a part-time soldier. Does she not agree that the college is a way of sowing into the future those whose career choice is the armed forces and that to close it down sends a contradictory message to the official one, which is that we want young people to make a career out of the armed forces? Money spent on sowing it into the lives of young people can never be wasted. In other words, money spent now will increase our forces, making soldiers who are special. The British Army is the best in the world.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for that intervention. I agree with him. From testimonials sent to me by former students and their families, I know how strongly they agree, too. In many cases, Welbeck has transformed their life chances. As he also says, this is about building fantastic armed forces, particularly with a science, engineering and technology background, for the United Kingdom. I am sure the Minister will want to cover how he thinks the changes proposed will enhance that and not detract from it. There is some convincing to do on that score.

Welbeck aims to prepare students for life at university and beyond by giving them a well-rounded curriculum that will—as a champion of character education, I particularly endorse this—

“challenge and develop them academically, physically and socially.”

The college also aims to develop students on a personal level by challenging them through a diverse range of co-curricular activities, which include many different sports, combined cadet force activities, and working within the community through volunteering and charity work.

On 6 April 2018, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, wrote to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood:

“I am writing to inform you that the Ministry of Defence will be undertaking a review of the Defence Sixth Form College at Welbeck as part of an ongoing initiative to understand how to improve the supply of STEM graduates into Defence and the Armed Services…Welbeck is part of our wider scheme for recruiting STEM graduates. Its role is to educate pupils in relevant A-level subjects prior to moving to the next phase of the scheme where they are supported through STEM courses at university. If successful they then go into Initial Officer Training with one of the Armed Services or enter the Civil Service within the MOD. Like many other organisations, we”—

the MOD—

“have found it consistently difficult over recent years to attract sufficient, good quality, STEM candidates. Whilst the education and wider experience provided by Welbeck is of a high standard, and despite measures to mitigate shortfalls, intake targets are not being achieved. Equally, over the 5-6 years they are in the pipeline the numbers seeing it through to Initial Officer Training has consistently only been about 55%.

The review will look at the breadth of the operation of Welbeck, which is a private Finance Initiative establishment run by a contractor, Minerva. It will explore re-setting the current PFI, extracting better value from the current PFI, and also whether a different STEM graduate recruiting scheme would better meet Defence’s needs. We will be instructing PwC to work with Minerva to explore the viability of these options.

Whilst the review will be internal to MOD only, I understand that such a review can create uncertainty and potentially some concern among your constituents. I want to reassure you, however, that no decisions will be made until the review is complete, at which point I will write to you again. One of the assumptions of the review is that, whatever happens, students who are currently on the scheme will be able to see it through to graduation and joining the Services or Civil Service.”

I know that, as the local MP, my hon. Friend raised a question with the Prime Minister on this in the House last year and has had regular engagement on it with Ministers. But as far as I can establish, the review’s conclusions have not been released to the public, nor is it clear who was formally consulted, so it was deeply disappointing to read last month, in a written statement by the Minister here today, of the decision by the Ministry of Defence to

“put in place a new, targeted scheme to recruit undergraduates in related subjects; the STEM graduate inflow scheme…This scheme has been designed to significantly increase the number of STEM graduates brought into defence and the variety of STEM disciplines they are from…The new scheme will replace the current defence technical officer and engineer entry scheme…which has produced some excellent young graduates but is not meeting defence’s requirements or providing sufficient value for money. Ending the current scheme will also mean that the Defence Sixth Form College…at Welbeck will close, with a final intake in September 2019.”

We, and those watching this closely, note the Minister’s final comment in the statement:

“Full transition to the new scheme will take place incrementally over the next five years, during which the current intake of students will be fully supported. For the final two years Welbeck remains a going concern. That time will be used productively to work with local authorities and stakeholders to seek the best possible future use of this impressive school, including within the education sector or an alternative use within defence.”

I will return to the issue about the future in a moment but, first, for the sake of those affected, we must be absolutely sure that the Ministry of Defence is making the right decision. As the local MP, my hon. Friend has written:

“A number of constituents have written to me, following the announcement, to express their concern about the forthcoming closure of the College, particularly in light of the excellent opportunity Welbeck offers young people across the UK, since 1953 and on its current site since 2005, to get a first-class STEM and technical education in preparation for a career in our Armed Forces, and for the values and discipline it instils in its students. While I can understand the Ministry of Defence’s approach to ensuring that it has access to talented engineering and technical graduates needs to be updated from time to time to reflect changing needs and approaches to training and education, I do share the view that Welbeck's closure will be a real loss in that context.”

As local MPs, we note, and are grateful, that my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee—I am delighted to see him here—has written to the Ministry of Defence to ask if it is wise to

“shut down a means of creating graduates who have been working towards a service career from their mid-teens.”

He goes on to say

“we are very concerned that closure of Welbeck College risks sacrificing an existing—and productive—source of STEM graduates in the hope that a new and untried system will be more successful.”

Like my right hon. Friend, I, on behalf of the Defence Committee, received a number of representations from people involved with Welbeck who stressed the high quality of the service it provides. I cannot help wondering if part of the problem is that not all Welbeck graduates go into the armed services. Perhaps part of the solution is that part of the budget should be funded by some other Department to recognise the fact that there is an educational benefit that goes wider than just recruitment into the armed forces.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He speaks with great expertise as Chair of the Defence Committee and makes an interesting point. If I were still Secretary of State for Education, I would be thinking about the impact on my budget, but he made two broader points. The first is about the positive impact of having more young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths in this country. Of course, if they are going to be part of our armed forces or the MOD civil service, that is a great thing for the country, but there are many other fantastic STEM-based jobs that will benefit this country too, and I suspect that many of those future employees have started life at Welbeck and been inspired there.

The second point is about how the decision was made, what alternatives were looked at and who was consulted. In his letter to the MOD, the Chair went on to say:

“Our understanding is that the staff and governors were not consulted on the College’s future and it does not seem obvious to us that the creation of SGIS requires the closure of the College”.

He asked why the decision must lead to the closure of Welbeck, whether the change between the two schemes offers value for money, how closing the college will help UK defence

“in an increasingly competitive market for STEM graduates in the UK and globally”,

and whether the staff and governors of the college were consulted before the written statement, or whether they were informed of the decision without being able to influence the review. We look forward to reading the Government’s response to that letter, which I suspect, like all other Select Committee correspondence, will be published and made available to the public in due course.

The decision is clearly very unsettling for staff, families, current students and those who had hoped to study there in future. We note the current 847 signatures on the petition on the Parliament website and the current 1,076 signatures on the 38 Degrees petition site. The latter petition calls for a consultation to be held to include parents, staff, students and other relevant stakeholders over the proposed closure of Welbeck. As I have said, it is clear from the comments received just how strongly parents and families feel. I have selected two of those I have received. The first reads:

“It is incredibly disappointing to read that Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College is to shut...Our 15 year old daughter...has visited Welbeck twice as she has her heart set on joining the Navy and training to be an air engineer. Welbeck provides a place where young women can be encouraged and supported into engineering careers. It offers a standard and type of education—and opportunities—that would otherwise be out of reach to families like us who are not affluent and cannot afford to pay for expensive boarding schools”.

The second reads:

“I strongly believe without Welbeck my son would not be achieving as well as he is doing now. Welbeck is there for intelligent children from poor backgrounds and not just for children from private schools or more affluent families. They are all given the same opportunity from an early age to reach their full all round potential academically and within many sports and other areas which my son would not have been able to achieve at sixth form collage. Welbeck is a community; a family and a collection of likeminded intelligent young adults who are training with the mind set to do as well as possible not just for themselves but for their country and their chosen entry force. My son ended up getting offers from both and chose the RAF to follow on from his years at air cadets.”

I hope that in his reply the Minister will address the questions raised by the Chair of the Defence Committee and say how he thinks the new scheme will still benefit the students whose lives and futures are being shaped and transformed by Welbeck. I hope he can also take us through how the review was conducted and who was involved.

If this decision is not to be reversed, this fantastic site could well be empty in just a couple of years. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood nor I want an empty site just sitting there, nor do we want it sold off to any old bidder. We know there is already local interest. The Minister’s written statement made it clear that an alternative use within either education or defence would be found. I hope that the PFI contract will not put future occupiers off or provide an excuse for officials not to pursue alternative uses sooner rather than later. If he can shed more light on plans for the site, we would be pleased to hear them.

I finish with another comment from a family. [Interruption.] The Minister is poised. He cannot wait. I am delighted—he is a coiled spring—but I hope he will bear with me while I read out one further comment:

“The training and preparation that the students receive is truly first class and I am fearful that we may lose something irreplaceable which, if lost, will be impossible to replicate.”

I echo that sentiment. I hope that, at a time when the UK needs all the talent that we can muster, the Minister will understand the concerns that I have set out and provide reassurance. I suspect that this will not be the last debate or set of questions on the issue that I have raised. As the local Members of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood and I look forward to working with the Minister and his officials on this important matter.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing the debate, and, indeed, on all her contributions and support for the college over many years. I also acknowledge the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), to whom my right hon. Friend referred. I should perhaps add, by way of explanation to the general public, that he is unable to speak today because of his role as a Minister. However, his very presence on the Front Bench alongside me today highlights the fact that he has been a champion for Welbeck during his tenure as the local Member of Parliament.

As I listened to my right hon. Friend, it was impossible not to recognise and appreciate the affection that is felt for the current Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College—as well as its predecessor establishment, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire—and the disappointment that some will feel at the decision to close it as part of the MOD’s move to a new scheme for recruiting science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates to careers in defence. It is, perhaps, most important for me to acknowledge the high-quality education that Welbeck has been providing, and to pay tribute to its excellent staff and the talented young graduates who have gone on to forge successful careers in defence.

Let me say at the outset that the MOD remains firmly committed to attracting high-quality STEM graduates into the armed forces and the civil service, which, in turn, will contribute to support for the wider UK STEM agenda. In an increasingly complex and technologically driven world, we need talented individuals with a diverse range of STEM skills to ensure that we keep pace with our competitors and are fully prepared to meet the challenges and threats that we face today and, especially, in the future.

Welbeck has undoubtedly played its part in producing excellent STEM graduates. I should explain that attendance there forms the first stage of a two-part scheme, the defence technical officer and engineer entry scheme—or DTOEES, another fantastic abbreviation that only the MOD could come up with. I shall refer to it simply as “the old scheme”, if I may. Following two years at the college and successful completion of A-levels, students have gone to selected universities to study for STEM degrees and joined one of four defence technical undergraduate scheme squadrons. On graduation, they have entered initial officer training with one of the services or become defence civil servants. Under the old scheme, they could go to only 11 universities in the United Kingdom, including just one in Scotland; under the new scheme, that range will be widened. The courses available under the old scheme were traditional STEM courses, rather than—at this point I should declare my interest as the deputy commander of the 77th brigade—courses involving information advantage, cyber, and other 21st-century skill sets that are now required in the military.

Unfortunately, the fact is that the scheme as it stands has consistently failed to deliver the required number of engineers and technical officers to Defence since its establishment in 2005. Despite efforts to improve its output, on average only 53% of entrants have completed it successfully, and a proportion of those have not achieved STEM degrees. While this is not about money, it should be noted that the scheme has cost the MOD and the taxpayer some £200,000 per student who has become a STEM graduate.

My right hon. Friend touched on social mobility, which has been an important part of the scheme. She may be interested to know that just 15% of Welbeck graduates have had a general household income of up to £20,000—perhaps those at the lower end of that bracket—while 60% have had a household income of over £60,000. We are also interested in that area in trying to improve the social mobility aspect of the new scheme.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the review, and we did have a review. In effect, 11 different options were considered, which were broken down into three broad categories: do nothing—retain the current scheme as it is; do better—identify a number of sub-options that would all retain Welbeck; or do something differently—identify a number of sub-options that would involve the closure of Welbeck. There really was a genuine effort to look at a vast range of options.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned consultation with staff and governors before the decision was made. A cross-section of both Welbeck staff and governors were engaged during the course of the study by the review team. Equally, prior to the announcement, Defence Academy staff formally engaged with contractors, and the review was a standing agenda item for the board of governors. There were also two “town hall” meetings with staff in June and November last year.

The reasons why some individuals have not completed the old scheme, leaving it early at either Welbeck or university, are varied and complex, but they include medical, academic and voluntary withdrawals. Ultimately, asking young people to make life-determining decisions at age 14 or 15 has, in some cases, been one factor that may have impacted on both recruitment and retention. Another downside of the previous scheme was its relative inflexibility, which I have already touched on, principally because of the fixed costs of Welbeck. This really has meant that the Ministry of Defence could not respond effectively or quickly enough to changes in requirement, or target spending where it would be most effective.

Looking to the future, as I set out in my statement to the House on 11 March, a review of STEM officer recruiting concluded that an alternative method of recruiting STEM graduates was needed to improve the numbers entering a career in defence. The STEM graduate inflow scheme has been designed significantly to increase the number of STEM graduates brought into Defence and the variety of STEM disciplines they are from. Unlike the old scheme, it will be open to undergraduates across all UK universities, studying a wider range of STEM subjects that will include cyber and other new technologies.

The scheme will be supported by an attractive financial package, whereby undergraduates may receive a mix of bursary, tuition fee payment and other targeted payments that are significantly higher than the current bursary of up to £4,000 per annum. This will attract and support a wider range of applicants who are already academically proven, having passed A-levels or being already in the undergraduate pipeline. Importantly, this will provide a greater opportunity to improve both social mobility and diversity. The new scheme, with its focus on supporting individuals through university, will enable more students from a wider range of backgrounds to receive financial support. Indeed, we hope and anticipate that we will double the number of students who receive support.

The financial package has been benchmarked against industry offerings for their own STEM graduate schemes, and it will be competitive. Even with this financial package, however, it will be better value for money—estimated at about a third of the cost per student of the old scheme. The new scheme will also be inherently flexible, allowing the Ministry of Defence more easily to adjust its requirements should the demand for STEM graduates change—for example, due to an increase in requirement or, indeed, a need for specific skills.

Full transition to the new scheme will take place incrementally over the next five years, during which, as my right hon. Friend has said, the current intake of students will be fully supported. The MOD and the single services will develop their specific schemes over this period according to their own requirements, and that is where the flexibility will come in. These are likely to be built around their existing officer recruitment schemes. It may still include some sponsorship of those at school, depending on individual service need, but personnel and funding from the old scheme will be transferred to these schemes to enable them to undertake this work.

Can the Minister tell me how long it will take to determine whether the new scheme is a success? If it is found not to be a success, will it be too late to go back to a continuation of the college-based scheme?

As I said in my earlier remarks, this is effectively a five-year transition. The intake to Welbeck this year will be going into a two-year programme, which will be the last. That will give us two years, as we move to a more undergraduate-focused scheme, to get the new scheme right according to single service requirements. The new scheme, which will run for a period of time, will also be under review. We have not leapt to this decision—anything but—and we hope that the transfer period will allow us to get it right.

As I have said, the new scheme, like any recruitment initiative, will of course be kept under review to ensure that it is achieving the output it is designed to achieve. If it is not, we will look at it again. The final intake to Welbeck will enter in September this year, and for the final two years Welbeck remains a going concern. Over that period, we will work closely with the Welbeck contractor, Minerva, and the principal to help the contractor to support staff who are impacted and to ensure continuity of quality education to students, keeping staff, governors and pupils fully informed of any developments.

I recognise that there are concerns over the future of the Welbeck site, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough that it has become an important part of the local community. I can reassure her and the House that we will do all we can to secure an alternative, sustainable future use for the site. An assessment is being undertaken to determine whether Defence may itself have a use for it and, in addition, some early market testing has identified credible, prospective interest from the private education sector. It is too early to say what the outcome will be, but Defence will work with stakeholders, including the local authority and partners across Government, to seek to secure a viable future for Welbeck.

I thank the Minister very much for his response. Some of these issues might well be commercially sensitive, so I wonder whether he would be willing to meet me and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), at an appropriate point, to discuss some of that interest in more detail with officials. It would be helpful to have such discussions, perhaps on an ongoing basis, until the future of the site has been secured.

That is a perfectly reasonable request, and I would of course be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend and the Minister. I want to take this opportunity to underline the Department’s determination for the site to be utilised and not to become moribund. It is a great site, and it is in the wider interest that there is a smooth transition to its future use. We are determined that that will happen.

The scheme has made a valuable contribution to Defence’s need for STEM-qualified officers, but we need to increase numbers well beyond the current ability to deliver, as I have tried to explain. We also need to have greater flexibility about the sorts of graduates that we are now attracting into our 21st century armed forces. We need to be more responsive and agile, both to succeed in an increasingly competitive market for STEM graduates in the UK and globally, and to meet the challenges that we are now likely to face. However, I do not underestimate the impact of this decision on my right hon. Friend’s local communities, and, if I may, I shall end as I started, by paying tribute to her for raising this matter and, crucially, to the staff at Welbeck, who have done such a sterling job for so many years.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.