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Further Education: St Austell

Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

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

It is a joy for me to be able to bring this debate before the House this evening. I want to raise an issue that is very important to residents of St Austell: the future of further education provision in the town.

St Austell is the town where I was born and grew up. It is where I have lived and worked my whole life; I have raised my own family there and indeed was educated there. It is a town of contrasts, and it is a town with much potential.

It has an illustrious history, having been a bit of a boomtown, particularly as the heart of the Cornish china clay industry at its peak, when it was the beating powerhouse of industry in mid-Cornwall. It was an international exporter; it exported Cornish wares and, indeed, Cornish men and women around the world.

Nowadays the china clay, although still very important, does not perhaps have the impact it used to have, but we are still famous for the international attraction of the Eden Project and also as a bit of a film set. For those who watch “Poldark”, the port scenes are shot in Charlestown, the port nearest St Austell. We are quite used to seeing Ross Poldark around our area.

As well as exporting Cornish goods, St Austell and its hinterland now import hundreds of thousands of tourists every year—people who come to see our stunning bay and our beaches and our picturesque ports, and also to sample some of the amazing food and drink we now produce. We have lots to be proud of, and I am sure there is a bright future for St Austell and for Cornwall as a whole, thanks to the historic levels of investment that the Government are putting in. But along with the positives there are also a number of challenges. There are several wards in St Austell that are among the most deprived in the UK.

St Austell is a populous town for Cornwall; it has the biggest population of any town in Cornwall, and one thing that it has had throughout its history is a rich education provision. It has two very good secondary schools, and I think I am right in saying that one of them is the only state comprehensive school that currently has two former pupils as sitting Members of this House: Poltair school in St Austell is where I and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) were educated, and we are very proud of that.

Previously St Austell also had two colleges. It had a sixth-form college that served both the secondary schools and also the Mid Cornwall College of Further Education, where I studied for a diploma in business studies way back in the 1980s. Throughout that time it had further education provision that was easily accessible and on the doorstep for those who lived there and wanted to further their education in either of those colleges. Many people, like me, remember those days very fondly.

However, in recent years the two colleges—the sixth-form college and the FE college—merged into one college under the oversight of Cornwall College, having its campus in St Austell, fittingly in the building that was formerly the headquarters of English China Clays; that is one of many Cornwall College campuses across Cornwall.

It is true to say that Cornwall College has faced a number of fairly substantial challenges in recent years, largely through poor leadership and financial mismanagement. Its 2017 post-16 area review report highlighted the fact that it was not financially viable or resilient and that it had weak solvency, but recommended that it should remain a stand-alone college. I am grateful that, as a result of that review, the Government invested £30 million of Government funding in the college to restructure its finances and put it on a more secure footing. In return for receiving that funding, Cornwall College has committed to significantly changing its operating model, a process known as Fresh Start. A modern and secure IT system infrastructure will also be implemented, and there will be investment in exceptional training and learning experiences for students and for businesses.

I am afraid that some of Cornwall College’s challenges still persist, however, and some are the result of a new college, Callywith College, opening in Bodmin just a few years ago. That college is run by the Truro and Penwith College Group, and its opening has led to Cornwall College in St Austell haemorrhaging A-level students to the Bodmin campus. We were told that the reason for Callywith opening was that it would expand the choice of provision across Cornwall. At the time, I had grave reservations about the impact that the new college would have on the Cornwall College campus in St Austell and, sadly, my concerns have proved to be well founded.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him beforehand in relation to this. Does he recall the 2012 report of the Commission for Rural Communities, which showed the existence of a rural dimension to barriers to training, careers advice and youth services? As the representative of a market town constituency like my own, does he agree that it is essential that these barriers are broken down?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening—I would have been disappointed if he had not intervened on me in the Adjournment debate this evening—and he makes a good point. I must admit I am not familiar with the report that he refers to, but I agree that there are a number of barriers to young people in many of our rural market towns getting the training opportunities, education opportunities and further education opportunities that they need in order to fulfil their potential. That is precisely the point I am making tonight. I am seeking to ensure that we protect the opportunities that we currently have in the town of St Austell and, hopefully, improve them.

As I was saying, the opening of the new Callywith college campus has had a detrimental impact on Cornwall College in St Austell. We will not improve choice for students if the opening of a new college results in the college in their own town stopping the provision of A-level courses, which is precisely what happened earlier this year. In August, the day before the GCSE results were released, Cornwall College in St Austell announced that it would no longer be providing A-level courses for new starters. This was due to the falling numbers of students enrolling on the courses.

Apart from the way in which the communication of that decision was handled—being announced at a time when students were anxious enough about getting their GCSE results without having this issue dropped in their lap—the decision has left in doubt the future of long-term provision of A-level courses in St Austell. It cannot be acceptable that the town with the largest population in Cornwall does not have A-level provision locally. At a time when we are encouraging our young people to stay in further education until they are 18, this decision is unhelpful in trying to achieve that end. Moreover, many of the most deprived wards that I referred to earlier are within easy walking distance of the St Austell campus, and those students and their families will now face the challenge of having to pay hundreds of pounds a term, in some cases, for transport to get to either Bodmin or Truro. Additionally, many potential students may be put off doing A-levels if they face a commute of perhaps an hour at the beginning and end of each day. The loss of the A-level courses will be detrimental to social mobility for the young people of St Austell.

I joined colleagues across the House to welcome the Government’s recent announcement of an additional £14 billion for the education system. Many schools across Cornwall will benefit from that additional funding, which will go some way to closing the historical funding gap that schools in Cornwall have faced. I particularly noted the £400 million that will enhance and protect further education provision. It is clear that St Austell’s current and future young people need A-level provision locally in order to fulfil their potential. It is crucial for social mobility that our young people are able to achieve their aspirations and have access to A-level courses.

The provision of further education across Cornwall needs to be reviewed and looked at strategically. Part of that review needs to include a determination to maintain as wide a provision as possible in the town of St Austell. Truro and Penwith College is seeking to expand its provision in Bodmin and to change the status of Callywith College into a free school to enable that expansion. That would mean more than £30 million of DFE free-school investment being handed over to the further education sector. Will the Minister look carefully at the proposals before agreeing to anything and consider the wider impact of any further expansion of Callywith College in Bodmin on the provision of further education by Cornwall College? Having invested tens of millions of pounds in both Cornwall College and Truro and Penwith College, we must carefully consider the best way forward to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money from that investment.

John Evans is the new principal of Cornwall College. He took up post at the start of last month, and I have spoken to him at length. He needs to be given the opportunity to improve Cornwall College’s performance without the threat of aggressive expansion by another college some 12 miles up the road. If the Minister shares my concerns, we must maintain as broad a further education provision as possible in the town for the sake of social mobility and the future aspirations of St Austell’s young people. Before any decisions are made that will change Callywith College’s status and allow it to expand, will she ensure that the wider impact on further education in mid-Cornwall is carefully considered?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing today’s debate. He is an excellent champion for his constituency and never misses an opportunity to stand up for his constituents.

I begin by emphasising and reassuring the House that further education provision is at the heart of the Government’s plans. We have heard much today about how Cornwall College has removed A-level provision from the St Austell campus, how learners have been affected, and how students in the area need access to good-quality post-16 provision, and we take such matters seriously. The Government have a duty to protect the interests of students, which we always prioritise. However, it must be noted that decisions about the provision that a college delivers are for the college to make. Unfortunately, I may disappoint my hon. Friend a little this evening, but I will try to be as honest and frank with him as possible to help his constituents.

I appreciate that the decision will have been of concern to students who had already applied to the college. We cannot escape the clear fact, though, that A-level provision had been diminishing over time at the campus to around 100 learners over the two years of study. When we consider that the generally accepted minimum is that 200 learners are needed to ensure financial viability and quality within a school sixth form, the difference is stark. Quality must always be prioritised, as learners must continue to come first. It is also worth noting that the college had been offering around 13 A-levels, so with most providers offering in excess of 20 and the best providers offering up to 40, the choice being offered was somewhat limited. I am sure my hon. Friend wants his young constituents to have the choice they deserve in order to broaden their opportunities.

In addition, work at Cornwall College had shown that its A-level provision was making a loss, and a stocktake by the Further Education Commissioner questioned the quality of the learner experience with such low numbers. When the college took the decision to stop its A-level provision, it worked with other providers in the area to ensure that all applicants had a suitable destination to study. To be clear, no current student will suffer. The college will remain committed to ensuring that current learners can complete their second year of A-levels.

With the closure of A-levels at St Austell, potential learners will be faced with two options: alternative courses at St Austell, or A-levels at an alternative college or school. I appreciate that this will disappoint my hon. Friend, who is passionate about St Austell and the need for it to have its own A-level provision. Having looked into the local provision, I can see there is a wealth of post-16 provision in the area.

One example is Callywith College. Although the college has not yet been inspected, it has been open since 2017 and is supported by Truro and Penwith College, which has a long track record of being outstanding. Callywith College is now in scope for inspection, and results to date suggest strong outcomes compared with national benchmarks, which is extremely encouraging.

Callywith College, a 16-to-19 free school, is 15.6 miles from St Austell and offers 29 A-levels, substantially more than the current provision. The college is a 25-minute drive away, and a bus service from St Austell and surrounding areas has been arranged, with the journey taking about 35 minutes.

Another option is Bodmin College, an 11-to-18 academy that is 13 miles and about a 20-minute drive from the St Austell campus. It offers 20 A-levels, and the journey on public transport will take a little over an hour.

The Truro campus is 25.5 miles and a 45-minute drive away, and it delivers more than 39 different A-levels. It is rated outstanding, so students already travel considerable distances to go there, although I appreciate that the journey on public transport would be over an hour.

I have heard my hon. Friend’s concern about transport costs, but the Cornwall post-16 transport policy confirms support for all students with a journey in excess of three miles, so all those affected will qualify. The transport is subsidised at around 75%, with the individual paying the first £500, although providers have access to bursary funding that can offset all of that £500.

We must consider provision other than A-levels, and Cornwall College continues to provide a broad offer across its two general sites, with 40 courses available from foundation learning right up to level 3. Those courses cover a broad range from bricklaying to media, engineering and hospitality, giving students a broad choice.

The outcome of a Further Education Commissioner review of FE provision in Cornwall last summer was that Cornwall College had to work with Truro and Penwith College to consider how they would work together for the mutual interests of Cornwall learners.

I reiterate that choice and quality must always be at the core of our decision making, and they must remain our priorities because learners must always be at the heart of all decisions and provision. Although the college’s decision was disappointing for the college and for learners in the area, it needs to be considered against a backdrop that it had been struggling financially for some time and was unable to rectify the situation. Since May 2017, it has been operating through a Fresh Start process, following the assessment of its financial health as inadequate in April 2016 and the recommendations from the area-based review in April 2017. Since July 2017, the Further Education Commissioner has engaged in formal intervention, with an initial stocktake completed in October 2017. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the college has applied for support through the Department’s restructuring facility, and successfully secured in excess of £30 million. That cannot be used to support unviable provision; it is there to support the college to restructure and maintain sustainable provision.

The college has also been inspected by Ofsted, with the last inspection having taken place in May 2019, when the outcome was “requires improvement”. That is not the type of provision that students in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be getting at the other options. The self-analysis undertaken through Fresh Start, the Further Education Commissioner stocktake and the Ofsted review has required the college to undertake a fundamental review of its provision and estates, and make some difficult decisions in order to achieve long-term stability. Unfortunately, the decision before us today is one of those. The college’s progress to sustainability has proved long and complex, and will take significant time to achieve. I can assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that we are carefully monitoring the situation. The Further Education Commissioner’s team is present at the monthly Fresh Start meetings and has undertaken two stocktakes over a period of five months, making 14 recommendations.

Nobody wants to see a college fail or struggle financially. It is in everyone’s interest that the FE sector is on a stable footing and able to offer high-quality provision that delivers on our transformational policies such as T-levels, apprenticeships and better basic skills. Further education is at the heart of this Government’s plans to improve productivity, fill the skills gaps and equip people with the skills that both they and the country need. So I know my hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that we are now actively considering the efficiency and resilience of the FE sector, and will be assessing how well current funding and regulatory structures support world-class provision. That is part of the Dame Mary Ney independent review.

It is also important to note that we are committed to ensuring that post-16 providers, including FE colleges, can deliver high-quality training. To that end, last month we announced significant increases in funding: overall 16-to-19 funding will receive an increase of £400 million in 2020-21 alone, which is an increase of 7% and the biggest year-on-year increase since 2010, with funding increasing faster for 16-to-19 than in five-to-16 schooling. That is on top of the additional £500 million per year we are making available for T-levels, and this additional funding will ensure that we are building the skills that our country needs for us to thrive in the future.

I have noted my hon. Friend’s concerns in relation to free school status and the potential change. My colleague Lord Agnew, the Minister responsible for the school estate, will be looking at that, and I am happy to facilitate a meeting between them and also a further meeting with me if that is of use.

In conclusion, I wish to thank my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the House. I know that the removal of A-level provision from the St Austell campus will be disappointing to students who wanted to go there and to those who have studied there before and have a personal reminiscence of that. However, we can be reassured that we always prioritise quality and choice, so that all learners in the St Austell and surrounding areas will continue to have a wide range of high-quality post-16 options from which to choose. Those, taken together with our skills and technical education polices, will ensure that people of all ages in St Austell have the opportunity to get the education, training and skills they need and deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.