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Colleges Week 2022

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Colleges Week 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, in which we shall consider, celebrate and reflect on Colleges Week and the work that colleges do in local communities all over the UK. We are actually a week late, as Colleges Week was last week. The recent changes to the parliamentary timetable made it impossible to secure this debate then, but that may not be a bad thing. The debate now coincides with the appointment of a new Prime Minister, who has already highlighted his determination to put further education and vocational schooling at the forefront of his Government’s work and his policies. With that in mind, I welcome the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), to her place. I look forward to her restating the Prime Minister’s commitment.

This is an opportune moment to not only showcase the great work that colleges are doing, but highlight how, with the right means and support, they can do even more to promote the communities that they serve, deliver sustainable economic growth and help local people to realise their dreams and achieve their ambitions. As well as looking forward with the new Prime Minister and his new team, it is appropriate to take stock after what has been a hectic 18 months for colleges in policymaking terms. In January 2021, the “Skills for jobs” White Paper was published; the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 received Royal Assent earlier this year; and colleges are now working with local employers, councils, local enterprise partnerships and other interested parties to put in place local skills improvement plans, or LSIPs.

It is important to emphasise the multitasking work that colleges are carrying out. They are driving the post-covid recovery, supporting learners who, through no fault of their own, are having to catch up. They are helping to deliver the net zero economy. In my own constituency, East Coast College is in the vanguard of promoting training for the jobs that are needed in the offshore wind and nuclear sectors. I should point out that this week may not be Colleges Week, but it is actually Offshore Wind Week, and it was a pleasure to welcome local apprentices to RenewableUK’s reception on Wednesday afternoon.

Colleges are addressing regional inequalities. Meaningful and proper levelling up will be delivered only if the colleges are provided with resources so that they can play their full role. They are also promoting lifelong learning. In today’s world, a job for life is a thing of the past. There are so many people with so much potential with whom colleges can work to acquire the skills to achieve their ambitions.

Finally, colleges can ensure that the economic growth we all want is sustained and enduring—not a short-term boom followed by a painful bust—and helps to deliver the improved productivity that the UK so desperately needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this important debate. My constituency, like his, is heavily dependent on the offshore sector from an economic point of view. I want to take the opportunity to congratulate Peter Kennedy and his team at Franklin Sixth Form College in Grimsby, which serves my constituency. Would my hon. Friend agree that apprenticeship courses in particular are vital if we are going to get our young people into the offshore and similar sectors?

I agree wholeheartedly. Later in my speech, I will highlight some of the strategic working that is required to make the most of the opportunities in the offshore energy sector that are emerging not just on the east coast, but all around the UK.

I have the privilege and honour of chairing the all-party parliamentary group for further education and lifelong learning, for which the Association of Colleges provides the secretariat. It is appropriate to take stock of the work that colleges do and the impact they have on their local communities. English colleges educate more than 1.6 million students every year and employ approximately 103,000 full-time equivalent staff. Some 913,000 adults study or train in colleges, while 611,000 16 to 18-year-olds study in colleges. There are 166,000 people on apprenticeship provision in colleges, and the average college trains 1,000 apprentices. Some 110,000 people study higher education in a college. Some 23% of 16 to 18-year-olds and 24% of adult students at colleges are from minority ethnic backgrounds; 21% of students in colleges have a learning difficulty and/or disability; and 46,000 college students are aged 60 and over.

Those figures demonstrate that colleges are the Heineken of the UK education and training system: they reach the parts and the places that other establishments do not. They invariably do this to a high standard, with 91% of colleges judged “good” or “outstanding” at their most recent inspections. Colleges support the Government’s ambitious plans to roll out T-levels, increase apprenticeship delivery, promote adult learning and introduce higher technical qualifications. While colleges are up for these challenges, there are significant obstacles in the way of them playing the role they want to—a role that will bring so many benefits to local people and communities.

First, despite a 2021 spending review that recognised some of the long-established funding issues facing colleges, further education funding still compares extremely unfavourably with both university and school funding. In its 2021 annual report on education, the Institute for Fiscal Studies highlighted that:

“Further education colleges and sixth forms have seen the largest falls in per-pupil funding of any sector of the education system since 2010–11.”

Although the budget for 16 to 18-year-olds is rising for the five-year period from 2020 to 2025, the pressures of extra catch-up hours, increased prices and the cost of living are holding back progress on flagship programmes in key national skill shortage sectors. The situation is exacerbated by the dramatic energy price increases. Some colleges have long-term contracts with suppliers agreed in 2021, which means that they are not covered by the six-month scheme. However, it means that they face the prospect of treble, quadruple or even worse price increases in 2023. It should be borne in mind that for many technical and vocational courses, there is no good alternative to in-person education at the college.

Secondly, colleges across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain staff, given the widening gap between what skilled teachers can earn in colleges and what they can earn in industry or even in schools. An Association of Colleges survey, commissioned by the Financial Times, shows that 85% of colleges reported staff shortages in construction courses, 78% in engineering and 62% in IT and computing. In August, the AOC wrote to the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), urging her to make investment in schools a central plank of her premiership. I hope the Minister will confirm, following this morning’s comments attributed to the new Prime Minister, that his Government will make that commitment.

Thirdly and finally, colleges are concerned about the speed of the Government’s reforms to level 3 qualifications. It is right to have the ambition of having a respected and well-understood set of technical qualifications in place across England. However, it is a worry that funding for 160 existing qualifications will be withdrawn when clear replacements are not yet in place. It should be demonstrated that these replacements properly prepare students for progression, meet the needs of industry and promote social mobility. Concerns remain that T-levels will not be accessible to all students ready to do a level 3 qualification and that the required industry placements will not be readily available. I urge the Minister to work with colleges and business to address these worries, so that this flagship policy has a positive and proper launch and does not immediately run aground.

One of the great things about colleges is that they are innovative, imaginative and entrepreneurial. It is in that spirit that Stuart Rimmer, the principal of East Coast College in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, has brought together colleges and trainers from across the UK that run energy-related courses to form the national energy skills consortium. The consortium meets virtually three to four times a year, and I have the privilege of being invited to those meetings. Clean energy and the low-carbon economy provide an enormous opportunity for creating new and exciting well-paid long-term jobs, often in deprived areas where they are badly needed. The consortium has the objective of maximising those opportunities and removing barriers that might get in the way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) made a presentation to the consortium when he was Energy Minister, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) joined us in the summer, when he was skills Minister. I hope the Minister will also meet us in the near future.

In following up the meeting with the former skills Minister in July, Stuart Rimmer highlighted three issues that must be addressed if colleges are to properly train people to acquire the necessary skills to work in the energy sector. First, he said it is wrong that colleges and universities are required to take high-risk, up-front investment decisions to build capacity and deliver training for nationally important infrastructure projects, such as Hinkley Point and Sizewell C. Secondly, he said that energy and civil construction qualifications required by employers should be brought into core funding for young people, apprentices and adult learners. Thirdly, he said that, while local skills improvement plans will play an important role in ensuring that skills promotion is tailored to, and bespoke for, local areas, it is important for the energy sector, where supply chains often extend across the whole the UK, that a national framework is in place. The consortium, along with the National College for Nuclear and other bodies, such as the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board, is keen to work with Government to ensure that this strategic approach is pursued.

The UK desperately needs sustained economic growth that reaches all parts of our four nations, and in which all people, whatever their backgrounds and ages, can participate. Colleges are already doing great work, but if they are given the resources and means, they can do much more. Working with the Government, they can help to put this traumatic and turbulent time behind us, and we really can build back better.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. The colleges sector has in him a doughty champion. He gave a very effective and comprehensive summary of what colleges can achieve and how much more they can do with the right national policies in place.

I wish to illustrate that success and potential with the story of my local college in Exeter, which is a good example of what colleges can do and how they can transform not just individual people’s lives but the economic performance of a whole community. When I was first elected, more than 25 years ago, Exeter College was a pretty mediocre, middling kind of place. It was dilapidated and did not have great results, and that reflected a lack of aspiration in education in my city generally. Our high schools were also not very good.

Over the past 25 years, that picture has been completely transformed by some good policies, local leadership, and the almost unique partnership and collaborative education system that we have built in Exeter, involving the college, the university and our high schools under the umbrella of a community-run trust named after the great educationalist Professor Ted Wragg, who used to run the school of education at the University of Exeter. That led to a huge improvement in attainment and results in not just our high schools and primary schools but our college and university.

When I was first elected, families would send their children out of Exeter to neighbouring schools in the countryside because they were better and also had sixth forms. The high schools in Exeter do not have sixth forms; most young students do their A-levels at Exeter College. We used to haemorrhage a lot of young people into the private sector, if the families could afford to send them.

Today, the opposite is the case. We are attracting students from parts of Cornwall—from your constituency, I am afraid to say, Mrs Murray—and from Dorset and Somerset. Those young people travel for two hours on the bus every day to Exeter and back—a four-hour journey—to attend Exeter College. At sixth form, we are attracting young people from private schools to Exeter College because its results are so good and its standards so high. We are also attracting students from outside Exeter into our high schools because they are performing so well.

I want to give a couple of examples of the levels of achievement that Exeter College has been hitting in recent years. This year’s A-levels were the best ever: an astonishing 69% of students got either A*, A or B, and 16 students secured places at Oxford or Cambridge. Last year, Exeter College was the top college in England for apprenticeship starts, and it has consistently bucked the national trend of decline by increasing the number of apprenticeships every year. Exeter College is the biggest T-level provider in England, with results this year 4% above the national average.

There are a few individual achievements that I would like to highlight. Last year, the highest performing A-level PE student in the country with one of the major awarding bodies was from Exeter College. Given the difference between our facilities and those of some of our leading private schools, that is an incredible achievement. One of only four students in the country to score top grades in digital T-levels was from Exeter College. A female joinery apprentice from Exeter College won best in country in the Institute of Carpenters’ national competition.

As well as those incredible academic and skills achievements, the college also performs an important community role. Over the last year, it has been educating 300 Ukrainian refugees, helping them to improve their English as a foreign language. However, the college and its excellent principal, John Laramy, would not want me to extol its achievements without, as the hon. Member for Waveney did, highlighting some of the challenges—for both the college and the tertiary sector as a whole.

First, there is the issue of space. Exeter College has grown rapidly in quite a restrictive city-centre location. It has been regularly constrained in what it can do because of a lack of physical space. It had to introduce 10 mobile classrooms on to the site this summer and to pause its expansion of T-levels because of a shortage of space. It really needs funding from the Government’s FE transformation fund to continue to fulfil its full potential, and I am glad that I have had the opportunity to make that point to the Minister directly.

Secondly, there is recruitment. As the hon. Member for Waveney said, the cost of living crisis has significantly impacted the college’s ability to recruit qualified staff, and Brexit has also had an effect. Although there are problems across the board, they are particularly acute construction, digital and engineering—all subjects in which we need to succeed as a nation if we to achieve the growth the hon. Gentleman referred to and the improvement I am sure we all want to see in our productivity as a nation.

I hope the Government will come forward with policies to address some of these issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was very encouraged to read the briefing in The Times today about what the new Prime Minister would like to do with our education system. Radical ideas are long overdue, and on the face of it the ideas that have been put forward are very good, but this will be a big challenge to deliver on. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister can give us any more details in her summing up.

I will conclude by suggesting that many colleges across the country, including Exeter College, are already doing much of what was outlined in the No. 10 briefing in The Times today, but they could do an awful lot more with the right policy framework, if the staffing and skills supply issues were addressed and if the necessary funding was in place. As the hon. Gentleman said, FE colleges have been historically underfunded compared with A-levels and universities. If we could tackle all those things, we could really achieve the vision that the new Prime Minister outlined in The Times and work together—cross-party—to do exactly what he hopes to achieve.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Murray.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), because he outlined what successful colleges can look like. I will hold to that vision as I speak about the situation in my constituency and about the Malvern Hills College situation in particular.

I want to start by thanking the Minister, because on taking post she wrote me an incredibly helpful letter. She has clearly studied the situation at the wonderful Malvern Hills College very closely, but I will reiterate it for the record and for the benefit of colleagues. The college has been in existence in the centre of Malvern for nearly 100 years. In 2016, the trustees entrusted its ownership to what has become Warwickshire College Group, which is obviously headquartered in Warwickshire, the neighbouring county. In their wisdom and prudence, at the time of the transfer the trustees put in place a covenant on this precious building in the heart of Malvern. I will read the covenant into the record. The property cannot be used for anything

“other than a Further Education College and ancillary uses thereto without the prior written confirmation from the Transferor that the Transferor is satisfied…that the Learning and Skills Council (or any successor in function) has properly determined that there is no longer a functional need for a college in Malvern”.

Malvern is a beautiful town of 35,000 people. It is a growing town. Places such as Malvern are exactly where we need to have the precious resource of a good college—I see that colleagues are nodding their heads. With the vision that has been outlined, and stability in our education team, which I hope will endure, I hope that we can focus on the fact that the community very much wishes to retain the site as a college—so much so that, through the Bransford Trust, a local philanthropist is offering a substantial sum to purchase the site so that it can be maintained as a going concern in the heart of Malvern. Our local council, Malvern Hills District Council, has allocated a £400,000 grant to secure the future of the college, and our county council has also very helpfully allocated a £400,000 grant. Between them, there is a substantial—possibly multimillion-pound—offer to keep the site working as a college in the heart of Malvern.

Hon. Members would think that that would satisfy the board and trustees of Warwickshire College Group—that they would remain faithful to the covenant, the district council would not lift it, and the college would rise like a phoenix from the closure that Warwickshire College Group announced under the cloak of the pandemic. Unfortunately, so far the board seems to have focused on ensuring that it simply gets maximum value for the site and is able to sell it—presumably, for a housing development.

That is not what the community wants. We have protested; we have marched outside the college. We have also put forward a very valuable offer to take the college from Warwickshire College Group. I look forward to meeting the group’s new chair, Anna Daroy, and its president, Louise Bennett, who are both actually from Worcestershire, to emphasise to them how important it is to find a happy solution.

Unfortunately—I use parliamentary privilege to make these remarks—Warwickshire College Group has chosen to retain lawyers and to sue Malvern Hills District Council. It is using public money to sue my council to get it to lift the covenant, on the pretext that the Learning and Skills Council no longer exists, and its successor body, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, feels that there is sufficient provision in the area. That would mean that we as a community cannot determine the future of the college.

I want a future for our college like the one that the right hon. Member for Exeter outlined for his constituency. We are a thriving town, and we want a college right in the heart of it. That is why I have updated colleagues on what is happening. I hope that, having listened to this tale of woe, the Minister’s very helpful letter to her officials will say, “We do have the power.” The Secretary of State has the power to determine that she wants to see the college preserved in the heart of Malvern.

I assure hon. Members that the people of Malvern almost unanimously wish to see this wonderful college preserved. We have a plan and a business case. While this situation goes on, the site is being left to go to rack and ruin. That is in nobody’s interest. Will the Minister urge her officials to look at this issue one more time? Will she tell them that she has the power to do something here? Power to her elbow.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate, even if it is a week late.

OECD data shows that Scotland is the most educated country in the UK and Europe. Data from 2021 shows that 55.2% of Scotland’s 25 to 65-year-olds have been through further or higher education. That is partly due to Scottish colleges, which I was surprised to find have a system that does not operate in England—or did not operate the last time I looked, which was when I served on the Education Committee here. We have a system called articulation. It is very possible for a student to start in a college in Scotland aged 15, perhaps—an early leaver—and study for a national qualification, then move on to do a higher national certificate, a higher national diploma, and sometimes go on to do a bachelor of arts degree at that college. Alternatively, they can choose to move on to another place—a university such as Edinburgh Napier or Glasgow Caledonian—and go straight into their second or third year, continuing their academic studies there.

It is a really good system; I know, because I used to work as a further education lecturer. I retired in 2011—that went well—but I loved teaching in further education colleges because of the breadth, width and variety of students. I am pretty sure that the same happens in England. We were very involved in retraining people who had lost jobs when major factories closed down, such as Motorola in Livingston, where I worked. We were also heavily involved in helping women returners; indeed, one of my proudest achievements—if I may be so immodest—is that I helped many women who had perhaps left school very early. In particular, I remember one woman who was 15 when she became pregnant and left school. She came back looking for a wee part-time course many years later, and I put her straight on to a higher national certificate course. She went forward, and eventually articulated to a university and got a degree—not because of my efforts, but because of her own.

It is always a pleasure to look back on my time in colleges, just to reflect on the opportunities that they give our young people, our middle-aged people and our older people. My husband went to Motherwell College, as it was then—it has had a refresh since—and did an access to higher education course. All our children had gone to university, and he thought he might try it himself.

One of the most upsetting things said to me about Warwickshire College Group’s decision to close Malvern Hills College was that most of the students were older. Surely, that is not the kind of message that we want to be sending out across our land.

I am appalled at that remark—not the hon. Lady’s remark, but that being given as a reason to close down a college. No matter where in the UK we live, lifelong learning is an extremely important tool for every one of us. It will help the economy, but it also gives us more satisfied and better citizens. We can all learn, no matter what age we are; I am a continual reminder of that in my role as disability spokesperson for my group here.

I am really pleased to be able to say that 93% of Scottish pupils who left school last year had gone on to a positive destination, including work, training or further study, nine months later. Many of those pupils go on to local colleges; in fact, many attend local colleges while they are still at school, doing things such as foundation apprenticeships, which are a really good start for people who are not quite so academic. When I did my teaching qualification in further education, many years ago in the 1990s—that is how long ago it was—I did a study of how we deal with academic and vocational education, comparing Scotland and Germany.

I am going to leave it there, because I see the hon. Member for Waveney nodding vociferously, but in Germany, for example, vocational education has parity of esteem with academic education; no part of the UK has managed that yet. It is important for all of us that that parity of esteem should become a reality before too long.

It would be remiss of me not to talk about widening access as part of Colleges Week. When I was at West Lothian College—there’s a name check—I taught disabled students and students who came from very deprived backgrounds. To give them an opportunity was a privilege because many of them had been told at school, “Sit at the back of the class. You’re not going to go to university so just sit there and don’t make a noise so we can teach these really bright people at the front.” They arrived in college and if I handed out a piece of work they would say, “I cannae dae that.” That was their first reaction and, because they had been so held back at school, for six months of any course we had to say to them, “Yes, you are able”. At college, they blossomed. Again, it is a privilege to watch students doing that.

I may be straying far too much into my recent history, so I will move on and talk about my local college, New College Lanarkshire. It has six campuses, although I hasten to add that the best—certainly the largest—is in Motherwell in my constituency, right on the edge of where the Ravenscraig steelworks used to be. It is a large college and has a wide variety of courses, with everything from a national qualification in hospitality to a BA in music and musical theatre.

Some hon. Members may have heard of Lewis Capaldi, who is a graduate of New College Lanarkshire and recently went back to Motherwell to talk to people doing music courses there. I, too, had the privilege of talking to them one day, reminiscing about when I first heard the Beatles; I was talking to one student and was absolutely surprised to find the whole area had stopped what they were doing to listen to this historical monument talking about the ’60s. The students are always winners and big contestants in the WorldSkills UK competition—indeed, last year, the Motherwell campus hosted the event. I take the opportunity to thank everyone this year who is going forward.

It would be remiss of me not to talk about the people who work in colleges. Everyone involved in colleges in my experience has been glad to work there and be part of the journey made by students. I have already declared that I am a former FE lecturer, but I do not know a single FE lecturer who does not go over and above to help their students achieve the best they possibly can.

I am pleased to have spoken in the debate. There are some issues that the Minister could take forward in terms of the differences in colleges in Scotland. I am always going to stand up here, when I can and when it is true, to say that we do things better in Scotland. We certainly get that articulation route better and we have a slightly more positive attitude towards vocational qualifications and their worth to the economy. If there is a large job loss at a large company, the Scottish Government call on local colleges to upskill and help those folk get jobs, perhaps in another industry. That is why lifelong learning is so important.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate. He has a long track record of advocacy for the further education and skills sector, and he resolutely champions the cause of FE, often in a difficult environment, with great commitment.

I want to take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), who was due to respond to the debate but is unfortunately unwell today. I know how disappointed my hon. Friend is to miss this important opportunity to speak up for the sector and outline Labour’s approach, but he feared that the entire room would end up with his very heavy cold if he were to turn up. However, I am delighted to have the opportunity afforded by my hon. Friend’s absence to celebrate the amazing work of colleges and I pay tribute to Lambeth College, Southwark College and Morley College, all of which provide a wealth of opportunities to learners from my constituency.

As has been said, last week was Love Our Colleges Week. Every one of us has an FE college serving our local areas, and they are incredibly important institutions, which Labour wants to see far better supported and utilised. We are hugely grateful to the Association of Colleges for all the work that it does all year round, and its Love Our Colleges Week celebrations continue to get better and better each year.

I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate. The hon. Member for Waveney clearly set out the breadth of provision in colleges across the country, from post-16 qualifications to higher education, and the vital role that colleges have in building the skills that our economy needs for growth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) talked about the excellent work of Exeter College and the impact that it has on the economy of Exeter and the wider Devon area. I should also say that Exeter College has been fortunate to have my right hon. Friend as its champion for the past 25 years.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) spoke of the terrible situation facing Malvern Hills College, and I wish her every success with her campaign to ensure that learners in Malvern and her wider constituency have access to the important opportunities that the college previously provided. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke compellingly of her experience of teaching in further education colleges and the role that colleges play in helping women returners. That was certainly the experience of my mother, who was able to gain her GCSEs and A-levels, and ultimately to graduate as an occupational therapist, in exactly the same years that I did those same qualifications, thanks to the provision that a local college provided in her place of work, which was our local hospital at the time. The hon. Lady also talked about the role that colleges play in retraining workers who have faced redundancy, which is important work.

Further education colleges perform amazing work across their communities. Often colleges are the most visible places in a town or city, and people go there if they want to learn, retrain or improve their skills. Colleges are the brokers of second chances—the repair shop that gets so many people on the path to a better future. They literally change the lives and prospects of learners in every community on every single day of the week, and the funding cuts that they have experienced over 12 years has been a national act of destruction. After another tough year for our colleges, the theme of Colleges Week—staff, students and skills—really says it all, because colleges are all about people, with learners and staff at their centre.

The greatest advocates for our colleges are the learners themselves. Regardless of whether they are heading towards university or the workplace, or returning to the labour market, learners speak volumes for the value of our FE colleges. The learners in our colleges are inspirational. Some have had poor experiences in formal education, others want to retrain and change career, and some simply want to pursue a vocational path that academia just cannot offer.

The staff in our colleges never fail to impress with their dedication, hard work and love of the work they do. They are all too aware of the role that they play in their local area to support learners to get on in life, to increase in confidence and to achieve their goals. Just this month, Labour’s shadow FE and HE Ministers, my hon. Friends the Members for Chesterfield and for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), visited West Notts College and Nottingham Trent University to learn more about the exciting new collaborations between further and higher education institutions and how they can offer an holistic education experience to learners. Labour sees collaboration and working together as the right approach for the sector after years of market forces being allowed to dictate the direction. Neither FE nor HE should be placed as more important than the other. A Labour Government will facilitate partnerships that draw on the strengths of both sectors to improve learning opportunities in every community in the country.

Sadly, as we celebrate Colleges Week and the work of colleges, many institutions still face uncertainty about rising energy prices. It is vital that colleges are able to plan for the future, and I urge the Government to end the uncertainty with regard to spiralling energy costs.

Another issue that has faced our colleges this year has been the Government’s obsession with axing BTECs and stripping away level 2 and level 3 qualifications. It would be helpful to get an early steer from the new Government as to what their approach is to the question of level 3 qualifications, because the new Secretary of State for Education was pretty critical of BTECs when she held the skills brief.

Labour has been proud to back the Protect Student Choice campaign, which saw an impressive collaboration between the FE and skills sector, businesses, student groups, and others too numerous to mention, in their attempts to salvage BTECs, which are held in high regard by employers. We welcomed the Government’s U-turn on level 3 BTECs and would be grateful to know today what the approach of this Government will be. We also share the concerns of many in the sector regarding the axing of valuable level 2 courses. We would be glad to know whether that policy will be reviewed by the new Minister.

While we celebrate the achievements of colleges and their staff and learners during this debate, we should acknowledge that the best approach for the further education and skills sector is collaboration and proper funding, with a well resourced further education estate working hand in hand with employers, learners, higher education institutions and devolved authorities in order to deliver world-class skills. I hope that the new team at the Department for Education heed this call. I thank all hon. Members for their interest in this sector, and I thank every single person working in our colleges for the life-changing work that they do.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this important debate. I am well aware that further education colleges are an important part of education in his constituency. There are some great colleges doing some good work in his area, such as East Coast College, Suffolk New College and West Suffolk College. He mentioned our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s commitment to technical and vocational qualifications. I have been saying for some time that I want to see parity of esteem whereby technical and vocational qualifications are held in the same high esteem as academic qualifications, so it is music to my ears to hear our new Prime Minister talk of this. I definitely think that is the right direction and I fully support him in this.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney also touched on the importance of apprenticeships, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) did, and how important it is that they are future-proofing our economy. We are also looking at working with emerging industries to ensure that we can future-proof our economy. This is certainly something that I have been working on. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned how colleges reach across all sections of society; I think every Member in this room agrees with that. They really reach out to the hard-to-reach places.

I thought that, before beginning my main speech, I would just touch on some of the things that hon. Members brought up. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) proudly highlighted the excellent work of his local college. I am also pleased to hear how he is championing T-levels. I know his principal, John Laramy, is a strong advocate for T-levels, so please pass on my regards. The right hon. Member for Exeter discussed the challenges of space, which I know from some of the colleges in our local areas can be a challenge. I will happily meet with the right hon. Member and his college principal to look at options. As your principal is an advocate for T-levels, they have already received £2.5 million, which is half the cost of refurbishment. The great news is that they are successful in securing the approval for wave 4 of T-levels; that is testament to the great work that they are doing in that area.

I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin): you have been an amazing advocate for your college. When I got this position three months ago, yours was one of the first letters I received. I want to pay tribute to the great work that you do in championing this. Obviously, if legal wranglings are going on I cannot comment on that, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and stakeholders to discuss things further in person. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the amazing work that you do as chair of the APPG—

Thank you, Mrs Murray.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire for the great work she does on the APPG on global education. I also thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for the great work she has done in the sector. My sister worked in FE for quite a number of years and I know the challenges, but at the same time I know how you pull out all the stops for your students. Thank you for the work that you do.

Sorry. I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw for discussing how important it is for us to build up strong relationships with our devolved nations. I will work on doing that with my counterparts. It was wonderful to hear the story of how FE has helped one of the hon. Member’s constituents. On T-level results day this summer, I went to a college in the north-west. It was amazing—I wish I could bottle that enthusiasm and spread it across the whole country. Students told me how the T-level and being at college actually changed their lives. That shows the great stuff that colleges do.

Colleges do fantastic work up and down the country, every single day. I have already mentioned some of the colleges I have visited. Darlington College had a fabulous robotics department; Leeds College had engineering and construction. They are amazing learning environments enabling students to flourish, get on in life and land the jobs they have always dreamed of.

FE colleges have a role like no other education provider; they reach parts that other education providers cannot reach. They deliver the skills a nation needs to support growth. That could be at level 1 or level 7. They support those who need a second chance and those who need to reskill and retrain. They support those who need higher-level technical skills, and they work with schools, other providers, universities and employers. They are a jack of all trades, and, importantly, also masters of them all.

All that is happening in colleges up and down our country, helping to level up the nation and support social mobility. That is why I see colleges as engines of social mobility, encouraging students to reach beyond what they thought was possible and smash expectations. Colleges focus on what can be achieved by every student who comes through the doors. As a former BTEC girl, I get that. I will touch briefly on what the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said about BTECs. We need to get on the record that we are not doing away with BTECs; we are reforming the whole landscape to ensure that every qualification that anybody takes leads to good outcomes for the students. That is so important; outcome is everything for students because they invest so much time in their education.

I will cover those points later in my speech.

My BTEC experience—I studied for a BTEC national in business and finance—helped me on my way; importantly, I gained transferable skills. I fully recognise that others like me—and indeed not like me, which is a real beauty of the FE sector—will benefit from the provision that colleges deliver, as they offer so much in our communities, to our students and to our economy.

With the recognition of the value and worth of colleges comes the need to ensure that they are properly funded, which is why throughout this Parliament we have sought to substantially increase investment in post-16 education. We are investing: £3.8 billion more in FE and skills over this Parliament, including an extra £1.6 billion for 16-to-19 education in 2024-25; an extra £500 million for T-levels, when they are fully rolled out; £1.34 billion in adult education and skills through the adult education budget in 2022-23; and £2.5 billion over the course of the Parliament for the national skills fund to support eligible adults to upskill and reskill. We are also increasing apprenticeship funding to £2.7 billion by 2024-25.

We are also investing in facilities, as I mentioned earlier, with £2.8 billion in capital investment to improve the college estates, and over £400 million to ensure that they have the facilities and equipment needed for T-levels. We have big ambitions for colleges and the whole further education sector, but we cannot shy away from the challenges, which I know some hon. Members have mentioned.

Rising costs and the energy crisis are hitting everyone. Colleges are certainly no exception. The investments that I have outlined will help to support the sector to deliver on its ambitions against this backdrop. The energy relief scheme that the Government announced only last month will be a much needed help for colleges. We are working continually with the sector, and I have asked colleges to let us know about their cost pressures, so we can consider that in determining the next steps. I will listen carefully in order to fully understand the challenges and opportunities that the sector faces, and to understand the challenges that colleges face. We ask a lot of them, but we know that they can deliver what learners, businesses and the country needs. The whole nation needs to be thankful for what colleges do.

Regarding skills reforms, colleges play an important role in our ambition to develop one of the best technical education systems in the world. I am pleased to hear that the Opposition are on the same page as us. We value the importance of technical education, so it is great that we are in government and delivering on this. We are investing in the skills system so that colleges have the means and support to offer learners the chance to retrain, upskill and reskill anywhere in the country, so that they can get good jobs wherever they live.

Since the publication of the “Skills for jobs” White Paper in 2021, we have been working closely with colleges to improve courses and qualifications to ensure we are focused on giving people the skills they need to get into great jobs. Colleges have been pivotal in the delivery of new, high-quality provision, and we thank them for all their hard work these past few years in rolling out this significant reform programme.

Successive reviews, including the Wolf review and the Sainsbury review, have found that the current qualifications system is overly complex and does not serve students or employers well. This is why we have undertaken a series of reviews of academic and technical qualifications at level 3, level 2 and below. As I said earlier, this is about outcomes for students. The reviews will ensure that every funded qualification has a clear purpose, is high-quality and will lead to good outcomes for students. We have already removed funding approval for over 5,000 qualifications that have low, or no, publicly funded enrolments at level 3. That is the right move. Although we want momentum, we want to introduce these reforms at a manageable pace, given the extent of change in the wider qualification landscape, including at level 3.

Let me turn to higher level technical education. Many colleges are already delivering excellent higher technical education, yet uptake of these courses is low compared to other levels of study internationally and previous figures in England, despite strong employer demand for higher technical skills. We are therefore delivering supply and demand-style reforms to grow uptake of high-quality higher technical education. Our reforms are focused on quality, to lay foundations for the long-term sustainable growth of higher technical qualifications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned local skills improvement plans. Employer representative bodies have been appointed to lead on the development of local skills improvement plans in all areas of the country. That includes the Norfolk chamber of commerce, which is leading on the LSIPs across Norfolk and Suffolk, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

We have moved quickly since launching LSIPs in the “Skills for jobs” White Paper in January 2021. We piloted the plans and the development fund to see what worked well, legislated to put LSIPs on a statutory footing, and ran competitions to find the strongest employer bodies to lead on developing each employer-led plan. LSIPs place employers at the heart of our local skills, facilitating more dynamic working arrangements between employers, colleges and other training providers. Together with the strategic development fund, which supports providers to make changes to their curriculum, LSIPs make technical education more responsive to employers’ needs.

I know that the sector is facing challenges with the recruitment and retention of teachers; that is one of the main things that colleges around the country tell me. I recognise that great teachers are fundamental to the success of our skills system, which is why our “Skills for jobs” White Paper sets out our continuing support for the FE sector to recruit and train great teachers. We will support the sector through the national recruitment campaign programmes to recruit industry professionals into FE teaching roles, and upskill FE teachers to deliver new T-levels by improving the quality of FE initial teacher training education.

Let me turn to the Office for National Statistics reclassification. I appreciate that there are some concerns in the sector about this work, but we are continuing to work closely with the sector, and will provide information and guidance for providers in the event of a reclassification. We will ensure that any changes are managed smoothly, and that all in the sector are kept fully up to date at all stages so that providers can continue to deliver the best provision for learners. It is important to recognise that this is the moment that the FE sector remains classified as part of the private sector, and colleges should continue to operate as usual.

Most providers are doing a brilliant job of transforming the lives of people in their community, but our funding system does not always help them to do so. We want to change this and ensure that the system actively supports FE providers to work collaboratively with local providers, employers and other key stakeholders. Our reforms to funding and accountability for colleges will help us to ensure that colleges are better supported to focus on helping their students into good jobs. We have reduced the complexity of funding so that colleges can focus on their core role of education and training, and define clearer roles and responsibilities for the key players in the systems.

We want to build a world-class further education system that delivers for the whole nation. A key part of this is ensuring that colleges are fit for the future, with better facilities and great buildings. That is why, through the FE capital transformation programme, we are investing £1.5 billion over six years between 2020 and 2026 to upgrade and transform the FE college estate.

I am particularly proud of our skills bootcamps, and I pay tribute to colleges for the way in which they have embraced them, as one of the newest programmes. I visited a skills bootcamp on heavy goods vehicle driving, and I got to drive one of the big trucks myself. I saw a few people looking scared when I got behind the wheel, but I managed not to crash it, thankfully; it was amazing. I met a young chap with severe mental health problems, who was a real champion for a men’s mental health charity that helps with suicide prevention. He said that retraining through the skills bootcamp gave him a new lease of life.

Skills bootcamps have the potential to transform the skills landscape by helping local regions and employers to fill in-demand vacancies, and are an important block in the foundations of our skills reforms. I am therefore delighted that colleges are playing an integral part in supporting their delivery in local areas. They are helping to fulfil the aims of the programme by providing opportunities to adults and plugging the skills gaps. Funding for skills bootcamps from the last spending review will enable us to continue to grow that offer significantly with support from colleges. That will help tens of thousands of adults across the country to gain new skills.

We touched briefly on T-levels. We got off to a great start: our first cohort of T-levels achieved an impressive overall rate of 92.2%. I am a real advocate of them, because they are great for social mobility. Middle-class families can get work experience, internships and so on through their connections, but those from disadvantaged areas find it much more difficult to get work experience. It is excellent for young students to get that on their CV, as it helps them to climb the ladder and go on to a great career.

It is clear that the great work of providers such as colleges is setting students up for successful careers and equipping them with the skills the country needs. The numbers of T-level providers and students are increasing quickly, and we are confident that that will continue. In 2021 alone, 5,450 people took up T-levels. Students tell us that they favour these courses, especially when they have industry placements.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for securing this debate, and for supporting and promoting the sector. I also thank other Members for their equally valuable input. The debate has made it clear that FE colleges are held in high regard throughout the land. The Government and I believe colleges are important, and that is backed up by serious investment. This debate has not changed my position; I am even more convinced of it after hearing the great things that hon. Members have said about the FE sector.

I was impressed and moved by the points that hon. Members made about the colleges in their constituencies and the great work that their constituents do. I have already said that the Government value the importance, impact and value of the FE sector, and our policies and investment back that up. I am honoured to be the Minister with responsibility for further education colleges. Hon. Members can rest assured that I will continue to be their champion.

We have had a very good debate. Perhaps it would have been greater if more Members were here, but we have the graveyard slot on a Thursday afternoon.

I want to highlight some of the issues that Members raised. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) spoke about the good and bad that colleges can do. It is clear that Exeter is a long way advanced on a path that I hope my constituency goes down too. The right hon. Member for Exeter and I both represent coastal communities, and coastal communities have real challenges right through the education system. In Exeter, the college has come together with a very high-quality higher education institution and has worked with the primary and secondary schools to raise standards across the board and create a centre for excellence. We can all learn from that.

Then we heard about the—dare I say it?—tragedy of what is happening in the Malvern Hills. When it comes to regeneration, levelling up and ensuring that the whole country can participate in the proceeds of growth, there is a hole in the heart of the Malvern Hills, because they will not have that opportunity.

We all talk about levelling up and want to show how our particular constituencies can benefit. We probably all—I am the worst example of this—want shiny new edifices. We want roads, railways and bridges—I have a great bridge coming—and we need to build them as a catalyst for growth, but ultimately it is the investment in flesh and blood, rather than concrete and steel, that will ensure meaningful and long-term growth. That is what colleges have to offer. All 650 MPs have a college in or within striking distance of their constituency, and colleges will be the engine of regeneration. The Government should be commended for bringing in reforms and recognising the importance of the sector, but they need to take the sector with them and work with it. There is sometimes an anxiety about the speed of travel.

The debate on the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, which took place across both Chambers in the last Session, was a good one. My slight regret is that it was a real opportunity to make a landmark Act and we did not quite grasp that. Perhaps some of the amendments that were tabled in the other place, which probably had that intention in mind, should have been taken on board. LSIPs have enormous potential and, as the Minister said, put employers at the heart of these reforms. However, if the employer, who is in the driving seat, kicks out the other partners—the colleges, universities, local enterprise partnerships, mayors or councils—that car will quickly go off the cliff, so they need to be collegiate with colleges when playing their role. In my own area in Norfolk and Suffolk, that is indeed what is happening.

Staffing is a challenge. Look at what is happening in East Anglia with the opportunities in offshore wind and in nuclear at Sizewell. It is a real challenge to getting teachers and trainers with skills in fabrication and the other expertise we need. The Government must focus on that and employers must also play their role.

I will finish on the matter of funding. As a Conservative, we probably overlooked the sector for much of the past decade. In 2021, we woke up to that, and the spending review was largely positive as far as FE is concerned, but it is not the end of the journey; it is the very beginning.

In the next 10 days, some important decisions will be made. The Government will have to make tough choices, but they should be very cautious about making cuts to the sector. It seems like a long time ago now, but we had that growth plan in September. We all want growth, but it needs to be sustained and its proceeds available for everyone to participate in. In my constituency, very few people earn in excess of £150,000, but we want everyone to be able to participate in the proceeds of growth, and investing in our FE colleges enables us to do that and enhances social mobility.

When we achieve growth, it should not just be a quick boom to coincide with the electoral cycle, followed by a bust. It should be sustained and gradual growth that everyone can participate in. That is the role that colleges can play. I hope that today we have made an important contribution to ensuring that that can happen.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Colleges Week 2022.

Sitting suspended.