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Adult Learning and Vocational Skills: Metropolitan Borough of Dudley

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered adult learning and vocational skills training in the metropolitan borough of Dudley.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on assuming her new position at the Department for Education. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) in his place as this debate is about vocational provision and adult learning in the borough of Dudley. Although I will focus on the provision in Stourbridge, we must assess the need for provision in my constituency of Stourbridge in a borough-wide context.

This debate takes place in the context of the very sad closure of Stourbridge College earlier this summer. Our college dates back over 100 years to the establishment of the Stourbridge College of Art in 1848. That institution merged with the Stourbridge Technical School in 1958. I first visited the college in January 2007 and found a vibrant and welcoming culture. Shortly after that visit, I found myself volunteering as a young enterprise course facilitator at the college, helping students learn about business through the experience of setting up an actual company. I then joined the college board as a governor during 2008-9 and remained close to the college after I was elected and after I stepped down from the board in 2010.

The closure of our college came as a real blow to me, as it did to thousands of other people locally, many of whom had a direct connection with the college. Clearly, those worst affected were today’s students, the teaching staff, the support staff and local small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly small retailers in the vicinity of the campus. When staff and students told me that the closure came as a terrible shock and something of a bereavement, they were not exaggerating. Although I do not want to dwell on the past and cover in too much depth the role played by Birmingham Metropolitan College, known as BMet, which acquired Stourbridge College shortly after 2010, there are a few points to make before I come to the main part of my talk, which is about the need for continued skills provision in my constituency and preferably on the site of the Hagley Road campus.

To cut a long story of mismanagement and financial woes short, by May of this year, BMet had outstanding debts to the banks of £8.9 million and to the Education and Skills Funding Agency of £7.5 million. Debts running out of control was not the only problem. The college had also received three “requires improvement” notices, but each time Ofsted rated the college a 3 and did not award it the worst rating of a 4, and that detail is very relevant to the bigger picture, as a rating of 4 would have triggered automatic intervention much earlier by the ESFA. The Department should learn from that crisis.

BMet now has a legal obligation to bring its debts down to a sustainable level, which of course means the sale of assets that has led directly to the closure of our college. Top of my list of current concerns, which I hope the Minister will take back to discuss with her Secretary of State, is the nature of the sale of the Hagley Road site. The site has been associated with education for many years, and it is the deep wish of our community that the site be protected in future for educational use, at least for the most part, for the generations to come.

When I hear that BMet is expected to realise red book value for the site, alarm bells start to ring and I urge caution on that endeavour and objective. Some colleges within BMet have sought to balance their books by selling off land assets for housing development. We have had experience of that already in Stourbridge; long-suffering residents who live near the Longlands site, which until eight years ago was the proud home of the college’s centre for the study of art and design, have endured years of antisocial behaviour and uncertainty as BMet has negotiated with a trail of developers and the local authority to effect the sale of the site. The ESFA should take note that it took from 2011 until the summer of this year to get planning approval for the residential development on that site.

The board of BMet and the ESFA should reflect hard on the fact that there would be huge opposition to selling the Hagley Road site for residential development and that it would take years to get the change of use and planning consent required. I know that educational providers are in serious talks with BMet about acquiring the site, and I hope those talks will reach a satisfactory conclusion.

That brings me to my main point: the need for vocational skills learning and, in particular, adult learning in Stourbridge. The first thing to acknowledge is that there has been a history of over-provision of 16-to-19 education in our borough of Dudley. Until the closure of Stourbridge College, we had four colleges in the borough, and the problem has been that the 16-to-19 population has been in decline from a high of 12,400 in 2009 to a low of 10,700 across the borough in the current year.

However, there are two points that must be borne in mind. First, if we take a 15-year horizon, 2019 is the low point. From this year, the numbers start to increase again to an estimated 11,800 by 2024. Secondly, it is harder to predict the numbers of adult learners. There were 280 adult learners registered at Stourbridge College in the year 2017-18, and it is that local provision for adult learning that concerns me most, primarily because so many people in adult learning have either part-time employment—sometimes full-time employment—or caring responsibilities, and travelling elsewhere in the borough can present a critical issue for them, such that it will deter them from the studies and upskilling that they acknowledge they need. As I say, it is harder to predict those numbers.

The importance of adult learning should be seen in both a social and an economic context. Indeed, the social and the economic are intertwined. When I was a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I had responsibility for labour markets. It was a real eye-opener, and I got to see what lay behind the statistics. We now have close to full employment—a record that this Government can justly be proud of—but there are a great many people living with the assistance of tax credits on low-paid and insecure employment.

I was proud to be associated with the Taylor review of employment practices, commissioned by the previous Prime Minister. The Government accepted the vast majority of Taylor’s recommendations, which centred on improving the quality of work. The opportunity for people to improve their skills throughout their working lives was fundamental to achieving that goal, and nowhere is that improvement greater than among people who are stuck in low-skilled, low-paid employment.

The Government have presided over good and positive changes in the quality of vocational learning. The former Minister for Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), introduced much-improved apprenticeship standards and the Institute for Apprenticeships, which have been much to the good. However, the emphasis has been on 16 to 19-year-olds and not enough is being done for the huge need that exists for upskilling and lifelong learning among the working-age population.

The figures, I am afraid, speak for themselves: the expenditure on adult learning nationally has been reduced by approximately 40% since 2010. Skills devolved to our own region, the West Midlands Combined Authority. That has been well received, but I am informed that the adult education budget across the west midlands is £2.1 million, which would barely buy a bedroom in a luxury flat not a mile from here.

The funding reduction has been damaging both economically and socially. There are many groups in the working-age population who face greater barriers than most when it comes to securing employment at all and certainly better employment. I am talking about people who have been unemployed for a long time, people with poor literacy and numeracy skills, people who were brought up in the care system, people with disabilities, ex-offenders, sometimes even older workers, and parents who have had a career break. All these groups, and more besides, face significant barriers to improving their skills and getting back into the workplace so that they can progress their careers.

The social consequences of that are dire, but it is also bad news economically. I know the digital and technology sectors particularly well from my role as a Minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The skills gap in those sectors will not be narrowed or eliminated just by improving the quality of technical and digital education among the school, university and college-age populations. We need to look at the working-age population as well. The 2018 Lloyds survey found that 21% of people in the working-age population lack basic digital skills, while 8% have zero digital skills and 5.4 million working adults do not have the full range of basic digital skills. Unless we sort this out, it will delay the uptake of technology in industry and dampen the growth of the tech sector, and we can only sort it out through a commitment to adult learning.

This issue also accounts for some regional discrepancies, especially when we look at the five basic skills that people of working age need in the digital space. Some 71% of people in the north-east have all five basic skills, whereas in the south-east the figure is 86%. The ramifications of the skills gap and the inadequate response to it by adult learning are a key issue that needs to be resolved. I am delighted that the Department for Education’s resources have been increased going forward. I congratulate the ministerial team on securing that increase and appeal to them to use some of that money to go some way towards redressing the reduction in funding for adult learning that I have described today.

When it comes to the provision of adult learning in particular and vocational skills generally, I believe there is an economic case for continuing with such provision in Stourbridge, and I am delighted by the reaction of local colleges: the exemplary Dudley College, now rated outstanding by Ofsted, Halesowen College, rated good by Ofsted, and the brilliant King Ed’s—King Edward College—in my constituency. They are all committed to supporting the provision of vocational and adult learning on the Hagley Road site—assuming that it can be sold to an educational provider who welcomes that provision on a subletting basis.

There will need to be some new money, however. Dudley College and Halesowen College absorbed many students and staff from Stourbridge College at the beginning of this term. I commend both colleges for their amazing work on integrating our students and college staff into their new environment. Funding is tight for both colleges, and they will need new money in order to meet the needs of vocational skills provision and adult learners in my constituency. I have my eye on various budgets, including growth deal 3 funding from, I presume, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the underspend in the local enterprise partnership. Providers in the Black Country can also bid for funding from the almost £97 million skills budget. Local authority level budgets may also need reassessment, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North has been working on securing money from the stronger towns fund. Of course, the combined authority also has devolved funding for skills, and I am grateful to Mayor Andy Street for his close involvement in our bid to get adult educational provision and vocational skills in my constituency—ideally on the Stourbridge Hagley Road site.

I thank everybody involved locally thus far in the bid to secure the future of adult learning and skills provision in Stourbridge. I trust that this afternoon’s debate and my upcoming meeting with the Secretary of State and local colleges towards the end of October will lead to some real movement on this issue, so that my constituents, whether adults or young people, will still be able to access the training needed by both Stourbridge and, importantly, our economy.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Before I begin, may I pay a big tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) and thank her for securing this important debate? She is a brilliant local MP and an asset to our borough and to her party. She has worked tirelessly to improve education for school pupils, young people and adults in Stourbridge, encouraging young people to aspire to study at top-level universities and supporting Stourbridge College, Old Swinford Hospital, King Edward VI College, and all the other local schools. It is therefore a great shame that, despite all her hard work and support for education in Stourbridge, the college has found itself in this position, but I know that she is working hard to try to address the situation and ensure that educational provision continues on the Hagley Road site.

My hon. Friend was right that the number of 16 to 19-year-olds in Dudley and the Black Country is increasing and that low levels of skills both among people who are out of work and among the working-age population is a long-term issue—the legacy of a traditional industrial economy. However, it is important to note that Dudley is the biggest place in the country with no higher education provision, so further education plays an important role in filling that gap and ensuring that people can get degree-level qualifications through further education—apprenticeships in particular—so that those working in local businesses can get the skills they need.

I will talk mainly about what is happening in the north of the borough and in Dudley itself. When I was first elected in 2005, Dudley College was failing and struggling to attract staff and students, with unsatisfactory results and a decrepit set of old buildings spread around the town that it had inherited from various schools or the University of Wolverhampton. Thanks to the brilliant leadership of Lowell Williams, who is now the college’s chief executive but who used to be the principal, and the new principal Neil Thomas, we now have officially the best college in the country—the first to be awarded outstanding status under the new Ofsted inspection regime. It has achieved record results, has more students than ever before, provides among the highest number of apprenticeships in the country, and has a brilliant, brand-new town centre campus. Right at the outset, therefore, I pay tribute to Lowell Williams and his team. They have done more than anybody else to transform opportunities for young people in Dudley, and to transform and regenerate the town centre. They have made a huge difference in Dudley. I was absolutely delighted when his work at the college and his contribution to further education in the wider west midlands were recognised last year by his being awarded The Times Educational Supplement further education leader of the year.

It is important to understand the context in which we are discussing education in the Black Country. Fifty years ago, Black Country manufacturing made the west midlands the UK’s richest region. Output in the west midlands outstripped even that in London and the south-east. Then came the huge loss of manufacturing in the 1970s and ’80s, and we faced a 40-year struggle to replace jobs lost in recessions or due to technological change or to competition from lower-wage economies abroad. As a result, output in the west midlands lagged behind that in the rest of the country for 35 years, during which we fell further behind. In the 1970s, manufacturing provided half the region’s jobs; the figure today is nowhere near that number. Instead, a high proportion of jobs are in low-productivity and slow-growth industries. We have had a higher proportion of public sector jobs and a smaller proportion in business, financial services and high-tech industries.

There are lots of brilliant industries and there has been major investment at companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, but I think everybody would accept that we have struggled to attract new investment and new industries to replace the jobs we have lost. As a result, unemployment has been a stubborn problem. Long-term youth unemployment is still twice the national average.

It is the need to respond to those big economic changes that has driven the transformation of education in Dudley. Over the next 20 years, there will be huge growth and millions of well-paid jobs in high-tech industries such as advanced manufacturing and engineering, technical testing, low-carbon industries and construction, digital media, biotech, healthcare technologies and the rest. This is literally a new industrial revolution. At the same time, there will be far fewer jobs for people with limited skills or no qualifications at all, and many of what we think are regular jobs for life will disappear.

We believe that young people in Dudley are as good as anyone, that they deserve the same chances as young people elsewhere in the country, and that with the right support and the best facilities they can do just as well as anyone else. We also believe that we have to make education and skills our No. 1 priority, to attract new industries and well-paid jobs to replace those we have lost in traditional industries, to help local business grow, to give youngsters a first-class start, and to help adults get new jobs as well.

Driven by that vision and those beliefs, Dudley College has increased the number of 16 to 19-year-olds in education by almost 2,000 learners—from 3,000 in 2008, to 4,900 by 2019. It has become one of the largest providers of apprenticeships nationally, increasing the number of apprentices from 600 in 2008, to an amazing 3,853 by 2015. These are high-quality apprenticeships, with 51% of all apprentices in programmes related to science, technology, engineering and maths, and 44% of all full-time learners in STEM-related subjects. Despite cuts to the adult education budget, the college maintained its adult provision, supporting more than 3,000 learners a year to retrain.

The college has invested—this is amazing—£60 million in a new campus, which has transformed the town centre. We now have a new academic sixth-form centre, a new building for creative arts and service industries, centres for advanced manufacturing, engineering and advanced building technologies, new specialist facilities for students with special needs, and a construction apprenticeship training centre. Almost all of those have been developed without any Government support, by selling off old land and buildings and, while maintaining a strong financial position, by borrowing resources from the banks.

I would like the Minister to come to Dudley to have a look at all that, because I think she will be amazed when she sees it. Everybody thinks, “Oh, I’m just going to go to another FE college,” but that is not the case in Dudley. Lots of FE colleges say that they do manufacturing and construction, but they do not do it like we do it. It is absolutely amazing. The phenomenal advanced manufacturing and engineering centre is working with hundreds of local employers.

Although the Black Country has a higher proportion of SMEs and manufacturing than anywhere else in western Europe, those small businesses cannot afford research centres. If a business is worried about how it will meet the payroll a week on Friday, it will not be able to develop links with universities, or think about big apprenticeship programmes, or new products and processes. That is the gap that Dudley College of Technology is filling. It is an amazing centre of advanced manufacturing. The state-of-the-art, high-tech construction centre is doing ground-breaking work on digital construction, using artificial intelligence, drone technology, and working on how to design and manufacture buildings in factories instead of on site—extraordinary work. It is the only college of its kind in the country to be doing that sort of work, and that facility was developed in partnership with leading construction companies in the country.

We are now moving to the development of new university-level technical skills and an apprenticeship centre, which will provide even higher level qualifications in Dudley. As I have said, Dudley is the biggest place in the country with no university campus, although we did successfully secure funding to open one of the country’s 12 institutes of technology. Last month, the Government announced that we will get £25 million from the stronger towns fund, which will be spent on the next phase of that campus, University Centre Dudley. That will transform an old rail terminal just outside the town centre. It has been an old rail terminal and a derelict site for as long as I have been alive, but it will finally be transformed. It will be developed by Dudley colleges, Dudley College of Technology, universities and local businesses, and they will train young people for jobs in new, growing and high-tech industries such as advanced manufacturing, digital technologies, low-carbon industries, autonomous electric vehicles, and health care.

The money from the Institute of Technology and the stronger towns fund is the best news that Dudley could have had. I have been saying for 14 years that we must make education and skills Dudley’s No.1 priority, and at the election I promised to campaign for that new high-tech skills centre. I am delighted that our campaign has paid off, and it is exactly what we need to give Dudley a bright future and make it a stronger town again.

The college has also established the Dudley Academies Trust, which is sponsoring four schools in Dudley. It has only been going for a year, but it is already possible to see improvements in aspiration, discipline, standards and results. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that all secondary schools in Dudley are finding that funding for special educational needs is inadequate to meet people’s needs, and all schools are under pressure in Dudley, as they are across the country—it is important to note that point in a debate such as this.

Ladder for the Black Country is an extraordinary local project, and over the past five years, thousands of people across the region have landed jobs or improved skills thanks to that scheme. It brings businesses and training providers together to take on young people and invest in their future. Young people gain the hands-on work experience that they need to start their careers, and businesses get a highly trained, well-motivated workforce, helping to breach the skills gap that many firms say holds them back. In recent years, thousands of people have landed jobs thanks to that scheme. It was launched in 2014, and was so successful in the Black Country that it was expanded to Staffordshire and Shropshire, and copied by communities across the country. It is backed by local authorities, businesses and training providers, and I pay particular tribute to the driving force behind it, Kevin Davis, chief executive of the Vine Trust Group, and to the Express & Star, whose support has been critical to the scheme’s success.

What Kevin Davis, together with Martin Wright, editor of the Express & Star, and his predecessors and colleagues have achieved is remarkable, and their work will make a huge difference to the lives and prospects of thousands of local people. We should imagine how much better off Britain would be if every local paper and the voluntary sector worked together to do that sort of important work in every community. It is a great example of how, over the past 15 years, we have brought together schools, colleges, local universities, local authorities, employers, training providers, the region’s media and the community as a whole to make educational skills our No. 1 priority so that we can attract new investment, new industries and well-paid jobs to replace the ones that we have lost in the Black Country, help local businesses to grow, give youngsters a first-class start and help adults to get new jobs, too.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to have heard two very upbeat speeches, which come out of what has obviously been a very traumatic situation in Stourbridge.

I welcome the Minister to her place—I say “her place”, but we are still in some confusion about what the final settlement in the Department will be. We know that the Secretary of State has taken overall responsibility, but that does not really address adequately the need for a full-time day-to-day representative. The Minister has gallantly stepped into the breach as the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) is on maternity leave, but we remain concerned about how further education will be covered permanently in the Department in future, especially day to day.

I give great credit to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) for summating and taking us through the problems that there have been, but also for looking to the future. She is absolutely right to talk about the critical issue of adult learners. When policy makers and Ministers of whatever hue looked at further education colleges in the past, they sometimes saw them in silos: 14 to 18, 18 to 24, and post-25. Governments often forget, as I am afraid this Government have done on several occasions, that introducing policies that affect one sector—I am thinking particularly of the advanced learner loans’ failure to be taken up in any significant or meaningful quantity; about half of them go back to the Treasury unused every year—can affect the overall competence and ability of colleges to deliver. One of the strengths of the FE sector is the ability to put on courses that cut across the generations, and across other things too. That is a real issue.

The hon. Lady rightly said that adult learners are down 40% since 2010 and that skills gaps and digital gaps remain, despite her work as a Minister and that of others. Those things will be critical in the 2020s. She is also right to mention underspending local enterprise partnerships; when I was shadow Minister for regional growth, it was extraordinary to see the uneven way in which LEPs engaged with their local communities. It sounds as though the hon. Lady’s area has a plethora of overlapping organisations; one can only hope that the funding she would like to see will come out of that.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who was equally upbeat; given the statistics he cited, he was right to be. I am pleased to hear his apprenticeship figures, although sadly they are not reflected in many places across the country. He is absolutely right to praise Dudley College of Technology and to say how critical it is to engage with SMEs. The Government need to address the issues in the west midlands and the Black Country; as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the region has an enviable tradition of producing highly skilled people, but nevertheless people are being left behind without traineeships and so on. Those things are an important part of what we need to do.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge took us through a little of Stourbridge College’s history, and I have been able to read about it in the excellent columns of the Express & Star, which the hon. Member for Dudley North mentioned, and in FE Week. I do not want to go through that blow by blow, but it is encouraging that the other local colleges have come to the fore, wanting to take students on board. Having looked at the history of what happened, I think the hon. Member for Stourbridge was right to be critical of the position in relation to the BMet takeover. It is important to pay tribute to all the people who lifted their heads above the parapet and kept the issue alive, including councillors of different persuasions, with whom I know the hon. Lady has engaged. There was a major protest against the closure of the college, at the end of June, which attracted hundreds of people to the streets, and that shows what pride there is in the historical position and what concern there is about what will happen in the future.

The hon. Lady is right, and in different circumstances I too have campaigned when councils and others have thought that a closed site should just be developed for housing. It is clear from what she says that that is not a good use for the site, and it is my understanding that interest has been shown by potential training providers. That should not be dismissed because, of course, seven out of 10 of the apprenticeships that are still delivered in this country come from training providers. They are a critical part of the local economy. All those things are of particular importance.

The hon. Lady has asked the National Audit Office to look closely at the situation at BMet. That has resonance not only in relation to BMet, but in relation to how we look at the stability of further education and whether we have got things right in terms of the early warning. It would be useful if the Minister shed further light on one of the things that have become a problem in this area—which, indeed, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), whom I shadowed as Skills Minister for several years, has always pointed out: the importance for FE students of adequate travel and financial capability.

I have two or three questions for the Minister, although it is with some diffidence that I put them to her, as she is new in her post, and was not in it when the legislation was introduced. I want to ask her about the implications of what has happened at Stourbridge in the context of the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, which I took through Parliament with the then Skills Minister, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), in 2016-17. It established the principle of having an education adviser in circumstances where colleges were closed or sold off. We know what the trigger was in the present case—the report of the Further Education Commissioner. I should like to know whether the case is technically an insolvency or a sell-off. Those are critical issues with respect to the Act.

Does the Minister know how many of the students were SEND students? I know that special educational needs and disabilities are among her day-to-day occupations in her role. Do we know how many of those affected were doing apprenticeships? Are there any other vulnerable groups, in any number? The hon. Member for Stourbridge gave an admirable list of the various different types of people who have been affected by the transfer process and who have not yet been accommodated as they should have been. In Committee in December 2016, we moved amendments to the Bill to the effect that in the event of potential closures there should be full consultation with bodies representing FE staff and students. The Minister at the time said that such occasions, when colleges became insolvent or were disposed of, would be relatively rare, but sadly that has not been the case.

I will quote what the University and College Union has said in its briefing note for this debate about what has happened in Dudley. It made some of the points that the hon. Lady has made about BMet, but it also said that it had been

“extremely concerned at the lack of meaningful consultation with staff, students and the local community about the decision to close Stourbridge College.”

It goes on to say it was

“essentially presented as a fait accompli… with no real chance to look at alternative options”.

Significantly, UCU has also carried out a survey about the issues around travel to Dudley or Halesowen. Some students—quite a number—said that that travel could make their studies more problematic; some said it would require them to take two buses; and several staff members raised concerns about the suitability of facilities at Dudley and Halesowen to deliver the required scale of provision following the transfer of Stourbridge students. I have no detailed knowledge of what is happening on the ground in these areas, but those issues should be looked at.

More broadly, UCU is—I think this is a fair point—critical of the experience of Stourbridge, seeing it as

“symptomatic of a more widespread failure by the FE Commissioner to engage effectively with staff and students”

who have been affected by his recommendations.

In my view, UCU is absolutely right to say that, because it shows up some of the inadequacies in the 2017 Act. Of course, the FE commissioner can only work to the remit that the Government and the Education and Skills Funding Agency give him, but this illustrates how flawed and disconnected that system for colleges can become. It has become far too casual about how it engages with people in the colleges, and apprenticeships have not been engaged with in any meaningful way.

Failures such as Stourbridge are not isolated. In May 2018, The Times Educational Supplement said that there were inadequacies and that one college in eight was in poor financial health. In recent weeks, the columns of FE Week have been littered with accounts of problems at other colleges. At Brooklands College, ESFA ignored a whistleblower nearly two years earlier; it is planned that a flagship national college will dissolve, despite Department for Education bailouts; and indeed, Lord Agnew himself has been brought in as an enforcer.

I am afraid that those things are not signals of a healthy eco-sphere in this area, and the Government fail—they have failed, despite yesterday’s announcements by the Secretary of State about new technology colleges—to understand that axing grants and offering loans has been a disaster. There is no strategy from the Government for the staffing crisis, with retirement depletions. Again, I am talking nationally, but since 2010 24,000 teachers have left FE. In real terms, pay has fallen by 25%.

These issues are really serious and there is not much point in promising more shiny buildings if there is no money on the ground to effect the sort of major transformations in the 2020s that the hon. Members for Dudley North and for Stourbridge talked about regarding training. Continuing professional development, decent salaries and decent conditions are things that we in our party have considered—across the silos—in our new lifelong learning commission, in the promises that we made in our 2017 manifesto about properly funding and nurturing the FE sector, and in our commitment to a green new deal.

Stourbridge College was not failing, but it was still put into this situation. It had those buildings, which the hon. Lady is so keen to preserve in another capacity, but that did not save it from being shut down. And before the Government get too cock-a-hoop about the promises of new shiny buildings, I urge them to look at some of the issues regarding the staff, the teachers and the students of the 2020s.

In welcoming the Minister to her new post, I remind her to try to leave one or two minutes for the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) to wind up.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and I welcome the comments from other hon. Members who have welcomed me to my post.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) on securing this debate. I know that she worked closely with my predecessors on this issue. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it further today, especially given that we share a passion for further education and recognise the importance of adult education.

The closure of the Stourbridge campus is regrettable. I do not want to underestimate the impact that it has had across the community and the ripples that we have seen. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge noted, the site has been used for more than 150 years and is seen as part of the fabric of the community. We have heard a great deal about the closure of the campus, which is within Birmingham Metropolitan College’s provision. I assure her that we take the closure seriously, but it is important to keep in mind the fact that colleges are incorporated bodies and thus independent. Of course, the Government have a duty to protect the interests of the students and will do everything in their power to do so, but decisions about how an individual college is structured and how it operates remain the responsibility of the college’s corporation.

We have, however, been working closely with Birmingham Metropolitan College to ensure its sustainability and protect the interests of learners, who must always come first. Despite our efforts and assistance, the college has been in financial difficulty for some time and subject to intervention by the Further Education Commissioner since August 2015. It received a Government loan and emergency funding, but problems persisted.

Between December 2018 and April 2019, we conducted a structure and prospects appraisal of the college to assess the options. A range of options was considered but removing provision at Stourbridge was the best option to support the college’s financial sustainability and, crucially, to ensure that good-quality provision was available for current and future students. Students getting the best learning experience is the most important thing.

Affected students have been a topic in today’s debate. I reassure hon. Members that they have been relocated to Dudley College of Technology and Halesowen College, where they will benefit from high-quality learning experiences delivered by providers with better Ofsted ratings and will therefore have better chances of better outcomes. As I said, I do not underestimate the problems that the closure has caused the community, but I stress that, in the long term, it should leave the college in a stronger financial position and, crucially, enable learners to receive the high-quality technical education that they deserve.

There have been calls, in particular from the hon. Member for Stourbridge, for an inquiry into the financial problems of BMet College. The Further Education Commissioner is planning to undertake a capacity and capability review to assess its progress under the new leadership team. Furthermore, Dame Mary Ney will carry out an independent review of how the Government monitor college finances and financial management. The review will also look at their effectiveness in practice, including the work of the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Further Education Commissioner’s team. It will recommend changes that will reduce the risk of such problems recurring.

I want to put it on record that I have listened to the proposal mentioned by the hon. Member for Stourbridge for the site to continue as an educational facility with some adult education. Although I do not have jurisdiction over that option, I encourage all local stakeholders to review and explore it. It is a matter for BMet, however, and its governors will need to demonstrate that they secure the best value from the sale of the asset to satisfy their legal responsibilities as trustees.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) noted the issue of travel for students. I reassure him that no student will be travelling more than 10 km. In addition, in Dudley, there is a free west midlands travel pass, and Halesowen provides a coach that goes through Stourbridge. We are making our best efforts to ensure that those problems are minimised.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the number of students with special education needs and disabilities, I do not have those figures to hand, but I will certainly write to him. I will also write to him about those doing apprenticeship schemes. Throughout the process, all stakeholders have worked together to minimise the disruption to current students as a priority.

As Members will know, the West Midlands Combined Authority is now responsible for certain adult education functions and is funded by the adult education budget. It receives the second-largest share of devolved AEB funding, worth a total of £125.6 million for the academic year 2019 to 2020. It has provided funding for Stourbridge and Dudley residents, transferring funding to Dudley College and Halesowen College. I hope that that alleviates some of the concerns referenced by the hon. Member for Stourbridge.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has been working tirelessly with the authority and the borough council to provide assurances on the continuity of provision. As I mentioned, students have been relocated to other providers, and I want to touch on what the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said about the excellent Dudley College. It is one of the largest apprenticeship providers in the west midlands, with a total income of over £10 million between 2018 and 2019. Some 90% of the adult learners from Stourbridge go to Dudley College. It has a broad curriculum offer and hundreds of full-time and part-time courses. It specialises in engineering, manufacturing and modern construction technologies—perfect for local industry. It is also at the forefront of our plans for T-levels, being a pilot provider.

Dudley really is an area of focus and investment. As noted by the hon. Members for Dudley North and for Stourbridge, it will be home to the Black Country and Marches institute of technology, one of the first 12 IOTs announced by the Government earlier this year. Those will deliver high-quality, high-level education across the country, backed by £170 million of Government funding. That has been led by Dudley College, working in conjunction with the University of Wolverhampton and key employers, which is testament to the joined-up thinking across the borough. Dudley College is clearly leading the way in delivering and equipping people with the technical skills that employers need now and will need in the future.

I must also highlight the fact that Halesowen College has a strong reputation for standards and is ranked in the top 10% of colleges for examination performance. It offers a wide range of provision for young people and adults, and it has been selected to deliver the new T-levels, but from 2021. Two thirds of students aged 16 to 19 from Stourbridge have gone to Halesowen. It offers a broad choice, as well as quality, which must always be the focus.

It would be apt for me to touch on the wider importance of adult education. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to access the education and training they need, whatever their circumstances, background and age. Investment in skills is a priority, and we want to ensure there is high-quality provision that will lead to high-quality outcomes and better employment opportunities for all.

As noted by the hon. Member for Dudley North, we have an ageing population. People are working longer. There are also advances in technology and artificial intelligence—something touched on by the hon. Member for Stourbridge. That all means that the need for high-quality adult education that can upskill and reskill our population is increasing ever more. We therefore need to ensure not only that our young people leave school equipped with the skills that employers and industry need, but that adults can improve their skills and learn new skills. Our adult skills system needs to improve productivity, employment and social inclusion. It supports people who are starting out on their career, but also those who are continuing on that journey.

That is all paid for by the adult education budget that I have I referenced, and is in addition to high-quality apprenticeship schemes. It is easy to associate apprenticeship schemes with those who are young, but 41.4% of starts between 2017 and 2018 were for those aged 25 and over. For many, an apprenticeship opens up a new world of work and learning, and it builds their confidence and helps them to progress.

I will briefly touch on the launch of the national retraining scheme, which will help prepare adults for changes to the economy, including those brought about by automation, and help them to retrain for better jobs. It will focus on adults aged 24 and over, without a degree qualification, who are earning low to medium wages, as they have less access to existing support and so will be most in need of the ability to retrain. We are initially investing £100 million, and the first part of the service, “Get help to retrain”, has been launched in three areas, including the west midlands. The region really is helping to shape the scheme. Dudley College of Technology—yet again—was involved in the recently completed pilot of the flexible learning fund.

As was noted by the hon. Member for Dudley North, who is a big advocate of the fact, Dudley is one of the first 100 towns to secure funding under the towns fund—it is important to flag that up—and we expect there to be a strong skills component to that. I hope that all local stakeholders will make sure that these issues are a key theme in discussions on how to spend the money that is granted.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. The closure of the Stourbridge campus will continue to cast a shadow over the area, but as I have stressed, there is so much to be positive about in our local area—a point echoed by the hon. Members for Dudley North and for Stourbridge. I would be delighted to accept the invitation to Dudley; I will arrange that as soon as possible. To recap, the area will boast one of the first IOTs, and one of the first T-level providers. It has excellent, wide-ranging provision in highly performing colleges that deliver high-quality outcomes for students. There is also the towns fund and the work of the West Midlands Combined Authority. These, taken together with our policies on skills and technical education, paint an extremely positive picture and will ensure that people of all ages in Dudley can get the education, training and skills that they deserve.

I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for his extremely kind remarks about my work. They are fully reciprocated; I have seen at first hand what an incredible champion he is for his constituents and the wider borough of Dudley. I echo his praise for Dudley College. I, too, have seen its progress over the past 10 years; it has been truly transformational. I join in his tribute to the former principal, Lowell Williams. The Minister made the good point that Halesowen College is in the top 10% of colleges for results; it is a great asset to the wider borough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North gave the very important context, which is that we need local improvement in skills to attract new industries, which will bring better-paid employment. That is central to the industrial strategy, in which I am a great believer; it is crucial for our borough.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden) showed great understanding of our local situation—I must thank him for that—and deep experience of further and adult education. He mentioned the survey done by locally by Stourbridge College staff and students, which revealed the issues to do with travel locally. The Minister says that there is a safeguard: no student should have to travel more than 10 km. However, that is a huge distance in our borough. As I mentioned, we should not underestimate the difficulty of travel, particularly for adult learners, but also for younger students who have particular needs.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned my dialogue with the National Audit Office. I was pleased to hear the Minister talk about the various inquiries that the Department has set up. I welcome Dame Mary Ney’s inquiry; I look forward to seeing the fruits of that. I thank the Minister for her support. She encouraged local stakeholders in Dudley borough to look for and find a solution to ensuring very local provision, particularly of adult learning. I welcome those remarks and thank her for setting out the funding opportunities at the combined authority level. I am meeting Mayor Andy Street to discuss those opportunities next week.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered adult learning and vocational skills training in the metropolitan borough of Dudley.

Sitting adjourned.