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Further Education Policies

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1996

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3.21 p.m.

Whether they propose any changes in the implementation of their policies on further education.

My Lords, we gave further education and sixth-form colleges freedom from local authority control three years ago. We will continue to enable colleges to reap the benefits of independence, and to play their full part in widening opportunity and raising attainment in post-school education.

My Lords, as the funding of further education comes from two main sources— the Further Education Funding Council, which provides government money, and the Private Finance Initiative— what will be the position in any particular case where PFI fails to raise the necessary money?

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord is being somewhat over-negative on these matters. I think that PFI will provide a great many opportunities for the further education sector. I very much hope that at the Further Education Funding Council's annual conference this Friday we might hear of some imaginative suggestions and projects. I can assure the noble Lord that there have been a great many such projects in the health service. I believe that about one-third of Private Finance Initiative projects in the health service were in the range of £1 million to £2 million, which is just the sort of thing for which the further education sector is looking. I have considerable optimism that we shall hear some good news in the future.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how, in view of the reductions in the amount of spending per student in the further education sector, that sector will be able to maintain its contribution to the achievement of national educational and training targets without doing devastating damage to the quality of education and training offered to those over 16 years of age?

My Lords, perhaps I may put the noble Lord right. First, we have seen a growth in actual expenditure over current expenditure for the further education sector. Expenditure for the FEFC will be increased by 3.4 per cent. for 1996–97, compared with a 4 per cent. increase for the previous year—and that was in what I think everyone would acknowledge was a very difficult public expenditure round. I can also assure the noble Lord that we still see considerable scope, as in the past, for efficiency savings in the further education sector.

My Lords, in his answer to my supplementary question is the Minister saying that in every case PFI will provide the necessary finance? Are there not more students in further education now than ever before? Is there not a greater backlog of capital maintenance work to be carried out? Following the question which my noble friend has just asked, the Minister referred to figures for the past, but will he confirm these figures, which have been given to me in a letter from his colleague in another place: that the present funding is £159 million for the current year which will reduce to £59 million in 1998–99? Does not that contradict what the Minister has just told my noble friend? Will the Minister deal with the first part of my question, which is the most important part?

My Lords, the noble Lord deals only with the capital expenditure and I can confirm that that goes down from £159 million in 1995– 96 to some £59.3 million in 1998–99. That capital funding is still available and can be used on occasions when private finance will not lever in the necessary money. Perhaps I should remind the noble Lord that current expenditure— some £2.8 billion, which is a very considerable amount of money— will be increasing over the same period. That will allow the number of students in further education to increase dramatically. We estimate that the number will increase from a little over 1 million to 1,168,000.

My Lords, will the Minister answer my first question which, as I have said, is far and away the most important?

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord did not listen to me. I answered the noble Lord's further question when I said that money was available both from the Private Finance Initiative and from the capital allowed to the FEFC.

My Lords, now that further education colleges have the freedom, can the Minister say whether they have any control over the qualifications of the teachers in those further education colleges, both in terms of their subject qualifications and their teaching experience, because I have heard a lot of rumours that there are some teachers who are not at all satisfactory who are working in those colleges?

My Lords, as I made clear to the noble Baroness the other day, the same is true in the schools sector. There are some unsatisfactory teachers. Obviously, unsatisfactory teachers should be sacked if they are not fit to teach. The same applies in the further education sector. It is up to the colleges. They have the freedom to operate and to dismiss those who are unsatisfactory.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the enormous increase in the number of students in further education now compared to 1979 is to the credit of this Government?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. We have seen a dramatic growth in the numbers in further education and in higher education. I can confirm to my noble friend that one possible result of that is that for the 29th consecutive month we have seen a further fall in the level of unemployment. Questions on that used to be asked with some regularity by the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, but he forgot to ask today.

My Lords, we have an absolute rule in this House that Questions last for only 30 minutes. I am afraid that that time has now elapsed.

My Lords, perhaps I may raise a question of procedure with the Chief Whip. As I understand it, Ministers are incapable of answering a Question without reading from their brief, but I notice that getting an Answer from a Minister makes no difference to questioners who then proceed to read out a prepared supplementary question at some length which must have been written before they heard the Answer. Is that in line with the procedure of the House?

My Lords, I simply do not recognise the situation to which the noble Lord refers. From this side of the House Ministers occasionally look at their notes, but their answers are always original and extremely robust in defence of this Government's policy.