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Further Education Colleges: Future Skills

Volume 672: debated on Monday 2 March 2020

3. What steps he is taking to ensure further education colleges are able to deliver skills required for the future. (901008)

11. What steps he is taking to ensure further education colleges are able to deliver skills required for the future. (901016)

16. What steps he is taking to ensure further education colleges are able to deliver skills required for the future. (901021)

My hon. Friend will, I am sure, be glad to hear that further education is at the heart of this Government’s plans to level up the skills of the nation by providing high-quality provision and delivering on key policies such as T-levels and apprenticeships. We have been supporting colleges to do this through investment in the further education workforce, and we will increase 16-to-19 funding in 2020-21 as well as investing in the college estate to ensure that colleges are well placed to deliver the skills our economy needs for the future.

The Bolsover constituency currently has no sixth form or further education college. Does the Minister agree that if we are to unleash the potential of young people in my constituency, we need a proper post-16 pathway that is both local and linked to industry?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I know that he will do everything possible to increase opportunities for young people in Bolsover. Of course, every area needs good provision that meets the needs of local employers and learners. He will be aware that, in addition to the RNN group, there are two general colleges that recruit students from the Bolsover area: Chesterfield College and West Nottinghamshire College, both of which supply a bus for students travelling from Bolsover. There are also a number of independent training providers in the surrounding areas that offer a wide range of high quality apprenticeships.

As the Government envoy for engineering, may I welcome last week’s announcement of over £14 million to improve college leadership? Does my hon. Friend agree that quality leadership is a vital part of ensuring that colleges are able to deliver the engineering skills our economy will need in the future?

I should like to start by paying tribute to the leadership that my hon. Friend has shown in championing the cause of apprenticeships in his role as a national apprenticeship ambassador, a role that I held myself. On the issue that he has raised, strong leadership and governance are critical to the success of colleges, and this funding will help colleges to invest in current and future leaders. South Essex College, which has campuses around the south Essex area, is just one example of how good leadership can deliver for local businesses and for young people, including many of my hon. Friend’s own constituents.

As the Minister is aware, the Dinnington campus, run by the RNN group in Rother Valley, is set to close after over-expanding. What support can she provide to those who are currently studying at the Dinnington campus to ensure that their studies are unaffected and that Rother Valley continues to have a leading FE establishment?

The Further Education Commissioner and the Skills Funding Agency provide a wide range of support to colleges, and both are working closely with the group to discuss the implications of the college’s decision to close its campus. It is essential that learning is not disrupted and that good access is maintained, with support for all students. I know that my hon. Friend has already met the FE Commissioner to discuss his concerns, and I will ensure that he is kept closely briefed as we work with the college to ensure that there is good access to further education in the Rother Valley.

I am interested to know how much more money the Minister has to throw at T-levels before she accepts that they have created a qualification that is undeliverable in rural areas and in areas dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises, that has been rejected by colleges—including Scarborough Sixth Form College, which the Secretary of State attended—and, worst of all, that fails to offer equality of opportunity for our young people and fails to deliver the skills upgrade that our country needs.

T-levels represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put our technical education system on a par with the best in the world through a scheme that is equal to traditional academic routes. We are just at the start of the T-level journey, and I urge the hon. Lady to support this important change in our technical education provision.

The Minister spoke earlier about the importance of investment in the FE workforce, but many lecturers in FE are working part time on insecure contracts. When will the Government make sure the funding stream is secure enough for FE colleges to recruit people who will actually be able to spend time investing in their career and in their pupils?

Of course, the workforce in FE colleges are a vital part of delivering the high-quality turnaround we want in our technical education. We are increasing the funding in FE colleges, and we have also increased funding specifically for workforce development. These are independent organisations, of course, so we do not set the pay and salary scales.

Apprenticeships are down 46% since the introduction of the levy. What will the Minister do in National Careers Week to turn that around?

Apprenticeships are at the heart of our vision for a world-class technical education system, and we have specifically focused on quality in the past year or so. High-quality starts have increased to 63% from 44% in the previous year. Quality is the most important thing, and we are pleased to say that the number of starts is increasing this year.[Official Report, 16 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 5MC.]

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her place, and I know she is passionate about this issue. Will she join me in welcoming the collaboration in my Mansfield constituency between West Notts College and Nottingham Trent University, which is bringing degree-level nursing qualifications to an area where the NHS is the biggest employer? Does she agree that collaboration between local education providers and business is exactly what we need if we are to fill the skills gap in communities like Mansfield?

One of the key pillars of delivering the new reforms in technical education and further education is the fact that employers are working closely with existing colleges and FE institutions. It is vital that we bridge the gap between what education provides and what businesses need. In our NHS, providing new routes through nursing apprenticeships and nursing degrees that are local to providers is vital.