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Education: Further Education Colleges

Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2012

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential contribution of further education colleges to their local economies and communities.

My Lords, I asked for this debate because I wanted to draw attention to a report which came from a commission that I chaired last year looking at the role of colleges in their communities. Our remit was to investigate the role that further education colleges,

“can and do play in their communities and the added public value they can bring to these communities as leaders of learning”.

You will see that this remit reflects the title that has been given to this debate and I am delighted that so many people have put their names down to speak in it. I am only sorry that it means that they have so little time to speak.

It is worth starting with some statistics. There are 347 further education colleges in England. They serve a total some 3 million students, 1 million aged 16 to 18 and 2 million aged 19 or over. They offer an immensely wide range of courses, from basic numeracy and literacy through to graduate-level studies. In subject matter, they range from agriculture to Zen Buddhism. The communities that they serve are widely diverse: they provide for black and white, rich and poor, public and private sector, employers and employees, helping young and old alike to gain and enhance their skills and education, and providing pathways to further and higher education and better jobs. We learnt early in the commission that there is no such thing as a typical college—each is very individual —but the best of them stand out, reaching deeply into the communities that they serve and providing leadership and encouragement, so that these communities are, in the words that the Prime Minister used to describe his vision of the big society,

“free and powerful enough to help themselves”.

As in other areas, the coalition’s aims have been to free up the college sector from the micromanagement and centralised control that dominated their lives in the first decade of this century and to give their leaders the space, flexibility and discretion to shape their own futures within broad parameters. One of those broad parameters was that they should better serve and be answerable to their communities, not only to employers in terms of local skills needs—although this is a very important priority—but also to individuals in the community in terms of opening up new opportunities and raising, and helping meet, aspirations. This is important because, as all the research shows, positive outcomes from education in turn promote health, happiness and a sense of well-being.

In our report we suggested that one of the keys to success was for colleges to work in partnership with other organisations, to link up with employers, charities, local authorities, police, youth offending teams, health services, Jobcentre Plus and all kinds of organisations. In many cases, both partners gained. It was a win-win situation in which colleges were fulfilling their primary role of promoting and extending learning and skills among young people and adults while at the same time, for example, providing youth facilities which helped limit crime and anti-social behaviour; or providing adult learning, which gave older people or ethnic minorities a sense of purpose and fulfilment far more effectively than any local authority friendship service or mental health therapy could do. We coined the term “dynamic nucleus”, because our vision was of colleges at the heart of their communities, acting as a catalyst and sparking off a whole range of such shared activities. I sometimes use the analogy of a Catherine wheel: the college is at the centre but sparks off all kinds of other activities. There was potential, we argued, to unlock “social energy” within the community which, if channelled to positive ends, could increase both economic and social productivity.

Two important factors underpin this vision. The first is leadership. In visiting many colleges in the course of the inquiry, I was impressed by the inspirational leadership to be found in the best of them. These people were not just competent administrators; they were entrepreneurs and creative thinkers, prepared to try out new ideas, take risks and perhaps, above all, find ways of getting things done. In part, such leadership is innate, but it can also be learnt by example and by training. It is vital that we nurture such leadership and prepare to train more to take up the challenge. I pay tribute to those in the sector who recognise how important training and CPD are in improving the quality of teaching and the learning experience for all students.

The second factor is to make sure that these leaders are given the scope to be creative and entrepreneurial. Last year’s Education Act gave colleges a good deal more autonomy, which was a move in the right direction, as is the move by the Skills Funding Agency away from the detailed funding formula to the single adult skills budget. We argued, however, that if colleges were to be expected to “seed” a whole lot of new activities, they needed greater flexibility on the funding front. In particular, we argued for what we called an innovation code: a funding formula that, subject to proper audit procedures, would allow up to 25 per cent of the adult skills budget to be used to meet local priorities.

In many respects the Government’s White Paper published last year, New Challenges, New Chances, provided a very positive response to our recommendations. In particular, John Hayes, then the Minister responsible for skills and adult education, shared our vision of strong, entrepreneurial colleges. There are many good things happening. Both the SFA and Ofsted recognise and will be looking for evidence of community involvement and responsiveness to local needs. The community learning trust pilots are going ahead. The new foundation code of governance comes into play this year and looks to accountability to the college’s “wider community” and an annual statement of public value. I am immensely encouraged by the support that has been forthcoming from BIS, the department with primary responsibility, and by what is happening on the ground among the colleges themselves.

I do, however, have a number of quibbles, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to these. First, I am very disappointed by the interpretation of the innovation code. Although we were delighted that New Challenges, New Chances picked up the idea, we should have read the small print more carefully, for what is being proposed, which has now been further developed in the guidance recently issued by the SFA, provides only very limited flexibility. Indeed it limits that flexibility to using funds to meet specific skills gaps that have been identified with local employers and where there is not at present an appropriate qualifications credit framework—QCF—qualification. The college may use funding from the adult skills budget to research and provide the course while a suitable qualification is developed. However, this is far from the idea of encouraging creative and innovative thinking to seed new projects, often to be run in partnership with others, which might in due course be developed into such a qualification, but where securing funding from, say, the ESF or the localism budget might be more important.

This in turn raises questions about the whole management of the skills budget and the development of localism. There is at present a fuzziness, it seems to me, about where responsibilities lie. Who, for example, is responsible for identifying and initiating responses to skills gaps? Is it the LEPs—on which, incidentally, colleges are still badly under-represented—or core cities? What is perceived to be the role of the employer ownership pilots? Where, if at all, do local authorities fit in?

My third and final quibble concerns the emphasis we put in our report on the benefits of partnership. I ask the Minister whether enough effort is being made to put joined-up thinking into the local agenda. Take, for example, the development of the National Careers Service. While no one disputes the need for good information, many of those seeking careers guidance want not just the website but face-to-face guidance. Is it not sensible for there to be a link-up between a college’s careers service, which advises those who take college courses, and those referred to the NCS by Jobcentre Plus? Is co-location of the two services not a good idea? Why should it not be pursued?

I will end by reiterating the general thesis of the report: there is considerable potential for colleges to play an active role in promoting growth, prosperity and well-being within their local communities, but the greatest benefits come from working in partnership with others, be they employers, the public sector or voluntary organisations. The more we can do to encourage such partnerships, and to encourage organisations to be innovative and creative in forming them, the more we are all likely to benefit.

My Lords, I want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, as I am sure will many other noble Lords, for the opportunity to debate this important issue. More and more FE colleges are recognising and understanding the importance of their role. I also congratulate the noble Baroness on the interesting report she produced in November last year and associate myself with at least two of the findings that she has just covered: certainly on the lack of flexibility in the funding, but equally on the careers service, which has gone from multiple opportunities to a single website, which people find less inviting and more remote.

I know the work of many FE colleges across the country and could describe some of their initiatives but want to concentrate in the short time we have on the Liverpool Community College. This is the only FE college in its home city. I was introduced to the college by EAL, the awarding body whose qualifications are a key part of the college strategy to help local people into work and offer employers what they need: a pool of skilled, motivated and well-rounded workers who live and work locally, affecting the local economy and bringing added value to their community.

Seeing the emergence of green technologies in the region, the college has benefited from the interest many young people have in gaining environmental qualifications, which they see as work, and quality of life and community improvement opportunities. This learning is inside and outside the college, involving students and out-of-work residents, raising awareness of how everyone can make a difference locally. People are involved in some very impressive projects throughout the city, as this qualification has spread itself further afield.

The city has two famous football clubs. I want to refer quickly to the joint working between the team I support, Everton Football Club, and the college, which are working with local employers, opening up opportunities for hard-to-reach residents. The success of their current project is already making a big difference both economically and culturally by giving participants a stake in their community. Individuals, young and old, unemployed—people who have been looking for work for ever—really love to go to the club, not only to get fit but to work around the business there, and the economic and green environment is really part of the way in which that project is working.

Perhaps I can advise the Committee very briefly. The electronics have gone. Therefore, noble Lords will have to exercise their mathematical abilities and deal in multiples of four.

I will conclude, if I may. I was so inspired when I looked at the number of colleges that I could talk about today by just how much is going on. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, I want to share the fact that more of this could happen if we just had that flexibility and encouragement that we are seeking.

My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for securing today’s debate, but she has done much more than that. She has championed the sector for decades, and her most recent role, as chair of the independent commission, has shown how she really understands what the sector already does and what it, government and employers need to do in the future.

Our further education colleges are the hidden gem of our education system: the breadth of teaching and learning that they cover, the large and varied number of students that attend, and—key for today’s debate—the importance and relevance for our local economies and communities. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, spoke about the strategic position of further education in the UK today. With only a brief time to speak, I want to focus on how FE colleges work within specific sectors.

If our universities are sometimes described as the brains trust of Britain, the FE colleges are certainly the engine room that provides people with the right skills at the heart of the economy. My young hairdresser, Harry, went to West Herts College at 16 and for three days a week was apprenticed to a salon which worked closely with the college. Three years on, he is a confident and skilled hairdresser who has benefited from both arrangements. He is now employed by the same salon, which has been delighted with him. The key has been the partnership between student, employer and FE college, with the college as the dynamic nucleus to which the commission refers. His route is one that we might expect—the bedrock of providing key skills for all local economies, whether in hairdressing, plumbing, catering or construction.

I also want to applaud the teaching and learning for more specialist sectors. For example, in Dundee, over the past few years a real economy in digital technology has emerged, quite specifically in digital games. Forget Pac-Man, we are talking about the dark arts of highly complex technical computing skills as well as artistic and performance art. Working with local, usually very small, creative companies, Dundee College has developed a number of courses at varying levels to help provide this growing and increasingly profitable sector with trained staff. That includes using professional standard facilities, providing good practice-based skills for essential entry-level technician jobs, while at the same time preparing students well for moving on to honours level work right at the cutting edge of technology and creativity.

Dundee College also links into the highly effective Scottish Creative Loop, and Skillset, the sector skills council for the creative arts, to give employers and students the best information and support. This is happening not just in Scotland, nor just in the creative sector. Whether it is specialist healthcare pathways, heritage construction skills or skills for the financial sector—wherever you look—many of our FE colleges are playing an essential role in providing the new specialist skills needed for UK plc to grow out of the recession.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Sharp that FE colleges need to be represented on local area and economic partnerships as well as work closely with sector skills councils. They certainly need more flexibility with funding routes. My one regret is that the message is not always known, even by funding bodies and government agencies, let alone by many employers. While the burden to celebrate and develop this excellence rightly remains with the FE sector, let us help them sing it from the rooftops because it is key to our country’s future.

My Lords, in 2005 I was appointed chancellor of Thames Valley University, now the University of West London. At that time I was by far the youngest university chancellor in the country. Prior to that I had been on the board of governors of TVU for five years, and I saw first-hand the unique contribution that a modern institution like TVU was able to make to education. In many ways, it was the other end of the spectrum of traditional universities, such as my old university, Cambridge. TVU was able to reach people and teach courses that Cambridge could never dream of.

One of our mottos at TVU was “Further and Higher” because it provided both further education and higher education where students had the opportunity to come in and study quite often a vocational FE course and then had the option of moving straight into employment with that qualification and knowledge, or to stay on, study more and move into higher education and graduate with a degree. In fact, the very successful community colleges in the United States, which were based on two-year courses, have historically enabled students who were unable to go to university to engage in post-secondary education and, if they had the will and were able to, to progress on to universities and obtain undergraduate degrees.

I would like to ask the Government what measures they are taking to provide students of further education colleges with opportunities to progress to universities and to top-up their FE qualifications to graduate. Are they encouraging formal links to be made between FE colleges and neighbouring universities? At TVU we were able to provide this under one roof, which made it much easier. I have seen the power of education: once people’s eyes are open to it and they are on that ladder, they want to learn more. Are we providing enough opportunities for our people to do this?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for initiating this debate, and for her commendable report on putting colleges at the heart of local communities. American FE colleges are called community colleges because they are meant to be accessible to their local communities. Basically, there should be opportunity and accessibility for school leavers, particularly now that the Government have made it mandatory for children to continue education until the age of 18, and for adults who want to engage in FE for the first time, quite often part time, as well as for those who want to learn more to improve their prospects or to change their tack, at the community’s doorstep.

At TVU we worked very closely with the businesses and the communities surrounding our campuses. However, the Government have put in harmful cuts to adult education. Will they admit that adult learners will be deterred by the fact that they will now be expected to take out loans to fund their further education? Is this the way the Government want to encourage our workforce to get skilled?

Our FE colleges provide so much vocational training that is desperately needed to improve the skills of our workforce. We have a skills shortage in this country. The Government’s apprenticeship schemes are great and laudable, but does the Minister agree that apprenticeships can be greatly enhanced by attending FE colleges as well and gaining qualifications in a formal setting? At TVU, the London School of Hospitality is one of the jewels in our crown. It is one of the best hospitality and catering schools. We created a course with Buckingham Palace for butlers and valets. The students gain work experience in the palace, as well as attending classes at the London School of Hospitality. They have on the job, on the ground training, as well as the benefits of being in a college environment.

I see that the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, recommends ways of helping SMEs with apprenticeships and consultancy support. Will the Government support this? We talked of FE colleges working with the local community. A few years ago in Hounslow, Gillette closed down its famous factory and moved to eastern Europe. TVU helped train and reskill the redundant workforce so they could be re-employed.

The Government are removing the educational maintenance allowance. Students will now be deterred from pursuing full-time further education from the ages of 16 to 18. Do the Government not think it is important that we should encourage our children in that age group to be full-time students, and that this will harm them?

In conclusion, Britain’s greatest strength is its people. British education is respected around the world. Our universities and those of America are the best in the world. However, to be able to compete in particular with the rising powers of China and India, we have to prioritise education and skills and support further education, both in modern universities like the University of West London, and in the form of local FE colleges, integrated into their local communities. This is key to our country being able to compete in the future.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, for giving us a chance to look at this area. I will briefly draw on a case study from Derby College in my own diocese, and then raise three issues that we could look at more seriously.

The college is rising to the challenge of the report in terms of inspirational leadership, entrepreneurship and partnership. Its first core purpose is to develop individuals. The second is to support economic development. The third is to contribute to community cohesion and social action. It takes individuals and puts them in an economic and community framework: that is its core purpose. There are 30,000 learners, of whom 7,000 are full-time. That is a lot of people in one city in the network.

There are exemplary partnerships with local industry. Recently an engineering careers academy was set up. New apprenticeships were launched this year to meet the needs of local employers. People are working very hard in that area.

In the community there is citizenship training through national citizenship projects. Particular needs in Derby are met. Sadly, we have problems with the sexual exploitation of young people. The college is designing programmes to reach out and help young people and others in the community think about that. There are very imaginative schemes using art and working in care homes with older people. In terms of economic engagement and community involvement, there are some very impressive things.

I will flag up three issues briefly. One is funding—predominantly government funding. The college is doing all it can to look for new income streams and to be more efficient, but if we are going to maintain the very rich resources that we are developing and grow them in the way that the report suggests, we need to look at a suggested framework for resourcing this kind of enterprise. Could we do some common thinking about that and look at a common suggested framework for resourcing? If we allow each project to struggle with small local deals, we will return to the old world of projects that last for a few years and then run out and have to be renegotiated, with a lot of wasted energy. The Government and others could help with a suggested framework for resourcing.

The second thing was alluded to by another noble Lord. These colleges need to be engaged with LEPs much more strongly than they are. The pattern is very patchy across the country. In Derby the college is not involved with the local LEP. That is to its detriment and to that of the LEP.

Finally—noble Lords would expect me to say this—the report does not mention the importance of faith communities. In the mix of what community life is about and its potential for energising new citizenship, faith communities are increasingly important in providing that energy. I hope that in this sector there could be encouragement for that kind of engagement.

My Lords, it is excellent that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has secured this debate, and I add my thanks to those already expressed for her commission’s incisive work last year investigating the role of further education colleges in their communities. As the former chief executive of Universities UK, I cannot emphasise enough the enormous importance of further education to higher education, particularly at the local level. It remains my passionate belief that all who can benefit from a higher education should be given the opportunity to do so; and for a huge number of people, whether school leavers or mature learners, that opportunity comes via their local FE college. It provides accessible routes to HE for thousands who might otherwise not benefit, and who then bring their enhanced skills and their ideas back into the local community.

But the “HE in FE” role is perhaps not as widely appreciated as it should be. The higher education that is delivered in FE colleges is often local employer-led. Half of all foundation degrees are now taught in colleges, and students are much less likely to come from families with a tradition of higher education. FE colleges have been key to improving access to higher education for disadvantaged or under-represented groups. Ethnic minorities, for example, make up 21% of students in colleges compared with 13% of the general population. Nearly a quarter of young, full-time first degree entrants to colleges come from neighbourhoods with low rates of participation in higher education. This is more than double the rate for all such entrants starting at universities.

To take another example, a group I have spoken about on previous occasions are children coming out of the care system. They remain one of the most under-represented groups in further and higher education, although some modest improvement has been made over the last few years. Research by the charity Buttle UK has shown that FE colleges are the most common route for care leavers into higher education. Yet the National Care Advisory Service says that up to a third of leaving care services have been forced to scale back provision because of budget cuts, despite rising numbers of young people requiring support. Can I put in a plea to the Minister that she can reassure us that even the modest gains we have made are not lost and that care leavers are not left further behind?

Further education colleges offer people the opportunity, on their doorstep, to gain skills and qualifications that meet local economic and social needs. The commission’s report rightly emphasises the importance of partnerships in ensuring that FE colleges can meet the whole spectrum of education and training needs of local communities. But they need support, and it is regrettable that recent pressures on budgets have seen some partnerships face difficulties as funding, for example for lifelong learning networks, has come to an end and there is now a cap on student numbers.

A core area for all FE colleges is providing apprenticeships. I applaud the innovative development of apprenticeship training associations where the colleges themselves, not the SMEs, become the employers, and everyone benefits. I hope that the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing to popularise ATAs as a cost-effective way for SMEs to take on apprentices around the country.

Finally, we know from the commission’s findings that FE colleges make the greatest contribution where they can provide courses and qualifications that meet local need, providing local people with skills. This requires, above all, as almost everyone else has said and the commission itself emphasised, flexibility. I hope the Minister will tell us whether the Government will now take up the commission’s recommendation that up to 25% of colleges’ adult skills budgets should be made available to meet locally assessed needs. FE colleges really can change the lives of those failed by schools, who have lost jobs or who need a change of career. FE colleges at their best should be at the very heart of their local communities.

My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lady Sharp on the work set out in her report and, indeed, on initiating this debate. Let me declare my own interests. In 1973 I had the privilege of being appointed as a governor of the Percival Whitley College in Halifax. We later changed its name to the Calderdale College. I served for almost 25 years until 1998, including 19 years as chair of that body. I recall believing at the time that the only constant thing about FE was change. It is now 14 years since I stepped down, but I commend the present regime and congratulate it on its continued role. It has had recent enhancements to facilities, and is currently involved in a £6 million building enhancement programme.

It was my original intention to speak on governance, but I need to speak a little more about FE in Calderdale. I want to be certain that Calderdale is still well placed to contribute to the local economy and community. It has come to my notice that one of the local secondary schools is hoping to open an alternative college in September 2013, which will replicate some of the work that the college is engaged in. Now, the circumstances are these. Competition is okay, but—at FE level—Bradford is 10 miles away from Halifax, and Huddersfield is rather less so. Burnley and Rochdale, at the other end of Calderdale, are very near to Todmorden, too. So there are alternatives. It is always right that there is an alternative in case faces do not fit.

Also, in the period 2013-19, the projected population of those who are 16 to 19 will reduce by 8%. There is a consultation going on, in accordance with Section 10 of the Academies Act 2010, but that consultation looks like motherhood and apple pie. I ask the Minister whether the Secretary of State for Education specifically considers demographic trends, existing education and training provision and value for money when deciding whether to approve an application to open a free school for 16 to 19 year-olds. I also ask how far in advance of the provisional opening date of a free school for 16 to 19 year-olds the Secretary of State undertakes his statutory duties under Sections 9 and 10.

I very much see the point of a free school where there may well be lack of provision and potential numbers are on the rise, but now I am doubtful about that. A free school is one thing, but there seems to be an absence of free money about. Clearly, there is some detail in what I have been asking and I would be very happy, if the Minister cannot deal immediately with what I have said, to see that in writing.

My Lords, as the Times first leader states today, the question of where this country stands in the world economy remains. How will it make its way in the world and respond to the competitive pressures from the East? When I began my parliamentary life in the constituency that I represented, we had three great manufacturing industries, 10,000 jobs in textiles and 13,000 in steel. Today, we produce no steel and no textiles. These cyclical manufacturing industries fell prey to competitive pressures from the East.

I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, chose this debate. I am convinced that FE colleges will help to buttress and develop what remains of British manufacturing industry. FE colleges are at the heart of reskilling and retraining the British economy. Deeside College in north-east Wales stands alongside the third great industry that I mention: aerospace. This magnificent college helps one of Europe’s greatest companies, Airbus, to retain world leadership in civil aerospace. Airbus employs nearly 7,000 people in north-east Wales. Deeside College trains Airbus apprentices to a high standard. The Airbus factory in north-east Wales produces the wings of the iconic, world-famous giant jumbo, the A380. The FE college’s engineering department brings the apprenticeships to world standard.

The Airbus director is Paul McKinlay. The college principal is David Jones. The training manager is Gary Griffiths—the greatest trainer, arguably, in Britain. This collaboration of college and factory guarantees prosperity for the north-west and for north-east Wales. This collaboration ensures British paramountcy in the immensely demanding and fiercely competitive sphere of technical manufacturing. College and factory guarantee an industrial future for Wales and the north-west.

I believe that investment in FE colleges will enable Britain and Wales to emerge more quickly from debilitating recession. I believe that FE colleges as a trainer are Britain’s medium-term answer to the great crisis that western nations face. I see our universities as the long way forward, but no praise can be too high for FE colleges in Britain today.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Sharp on securing this debate and on her report, which everybody has appreciated this afternoon in their contributions. The report clearly shows the importance of further education colleges in their communities. It concludes that an FE college is embedded in its community in almost every town and city in England and Wales. However, where I live, in Berwick-upon-Tweed, we are not in that happy position. That is in stark contrast to the situation when I lived in south-west Hampshire and was chairman of governors at Brockenhurst College, which at that time was, I think, in the top three.

My purpose in taking part in the debate is to highlight the very low level of FE provision in north Northumberland. We are at the heart of a very rural area with a sparse population. We have one high school with a sixth form in the town. The next nearest high school is at Alnwick, 30 miles away, or one hour by bus. The nearest college is at Ashington, which is more than 50 miles away and one and a half hours by bus. There is, of course, a college in Newcastle, which is 67 miles away and 50 minutes by train, but because it is quite a long way away the cost of that train journey is quite high. I am pleased to say that, since the Liberal Democrats took minority control in Northumberland, students can now get their train fares to Newcastle paid.

Northumberland College in Ashington delivers some courses locally—mainly trades and other practical skills involving some of our excellent local tradesmen. There are some good apprenticeship courses, but the college does not do any A-level courses. As a town we have a very low skills base and we have low levels of take-up of further and higher education. It is difficult to get the exact figures for Berwick because the last Government reorganised local government in Northumberland and we now just have figures for the whole of Northumberland, which do not reflect the very great differences between the north and south of the county. Again, I cannot get the exact figures—I used to be able to get them from Berwick Borough Council—but we have almost the lowest average wage in the country. Those who leave Berwick for higher education tend not to come back, as there are few job opportunities locally.

Many in Berwick have been working to try to improve FE provision with a view to getting some higher education opportunities as well. Under the Labour Government, I supported local efforts to bid for the programme for more universities, particularly for communities such as ours that are a long way from higher education. Despite being the furthest from higher education in England, we were unsuccessful.

Local efforts have not been helped by local government reorganisation and the demise of One North East. We thought that various sites and buildings owned by the local authority and One North East might provide the possibility for a college. I regret to say that, during 13 years of the Labour Government, there were no new college or school buildings anywhere in north Northumberland. Travel to colleges elsewhere is expensive and takes time, as I have indicated. It is not helped by the fact that the A1 in north Northumberland is still a single carriageway, despite dualling to the south and to the north over the border in Scotland.

I have two questions for the Minister. Are the Government aware of gaps in FE provision such as those in north Northumberland? What opportunities are there now for the development of an FE college in our area embedded in its community and providing the benefits so clearly set out in the excellent report of my noble friend Lady Sharp?

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp—although I was tempted not to, just in the interest of time. This is a bit like speed-debating on a serious and complex issue. I also congratulate her on her report, which had the benefit of being succinct as well as interesting in its analysis.

The noble Baroness’s timing for this debate is right too. Ed Miliband’s speech, at a certain conference that I was at last week, focused on the important issue of skills and training. He also set out a clear vision. A Britain that recognises high-quality skills training is just as important to our modern economy as academic qualifications. Our concern about the Government's approach to education and training relates to its inconsistencies. Michael Gove wants to bring back two-tier academic exams—but I will not pursue that issue any further now, in the interest of time. However, we think that that is an antiquated view of education in the light of the needs of a modern economy.

We believe that we need to meet the challenge of every young person staying on until 18 by making maths and English mandatory for all and creating a new gold-standard technical baccalaureate. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s attitude to that proposal. I was pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, welcomed it.

We must once and for all get rid of the perception of vocational qualifications as somehow second class—an attitude which I think persists. If I have one criticism of the report it concerns the comment about colleges opting,

“to retreat to the low-risk areas of 16-19 provision and apprenticeships”.

When I read that I thought, “Hmm, they’re not always low risk”. One of the problems with apprenticeships is, unfortunately, that there are some examples of low-quality apprenticeships that undermine the brand value that we have spent a lot of time trying to restore. I do not say that in an attempt to score any points, I think that it is a really serious issue. I think that apprenticeships are currently getting the attention and merit that they deserve, with more and more companies actually treating apprentices, when they finish their apprenticeships, as though they were graduating. That is what we want to encourage.

We have concerns about the Government's record. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, talked about the scrapping of EMAs and the trebling of tuition fees. Support is being withdrawn for people aged 24 and over who are taking A-level equivalent courses and above—that is level 3 and higher, which includes apprenticeships. Loans of as much as £4,000 are also being introduced for FE students. We cannot help but feel that that will act as a deterrent at a time when we want to encourage more retraining, more reskilling and lifelong learning.

I do not have the opportunity to pick up all the key points made today but I endorse many of them, especially the point made by my noble friend Lady Warwick about ATAs—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response on that—and the point about group training associations, which are a key part of encouraging more companies to offer apprenticeships. The UK’s track record on that is still abysmally poor. Only about one-third of FTSE companies offer apprenticeships, and only 4% to 8% of companies offer them. That is an abysmally low figure. The Government are failing to lead by example by not ensuring that apprenticeships are a key part of the contractual liability when government contracts are let. We did that when we were in power and that is why we ended up with nearly 400 apprentices in the Olympic contract as well as with another 400 in Crossrail. I cannot understand why the Government do not want to go down that particular road.

I am conscious of the time and do not want to incur the Committee’s wrath, so I will conclude with just a couple of quick points. As I said, lifelong learning and upskilling of our workforce is central to producing a modern, high-wage, flexible economy. I agree with the points made about the importance of the careers service—it is not good in its current form. I also agree with noble Lords who made the point about FE colleges being better represented in local enterprise partnerships. As for the idea of the dynamic approach, when I looked at the diagram I thought for a minute that the Liberal Democrats had embraced nuclear power—but then I realised that it was just a metaphor. Nevertheless, it is a good one.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Sharp for initiating this debate and for raising such an important matter. The House has benefited many times from my noble friend’s knowledge and experience of the further education sector. Her report, A Dynamic Nucleus, has provided a seminal contribution to our understanding of the pivotal role played by further education colleges in their local economies and communities, helping millions of young people and adults to gain and enhance their skills and education. Both the quality and the number of contributions that we have had to the debate today indicate just how seriously we take it in this Chamber. One of the other things touched on by my noble friend was the fact that FE promotes well-being, while the right reverend Prelate mentioned the promotion of citizenship and social engagement. Those are factors that we must not neglect in the role of further education colleges in the community.

The report celebrates the work that colleges up and down the country are doing to support their communities and employers and sets out clearly the challenges and opportunities for the further education sector, local partners and commissioning bodies, as well as central government and its agencies. At the heart of the report’s recommendations is a recognition that there needs to be a shift away from accountability upwards to the Government and outwards to college communities, learners and employers. This view is central to the Government’s further education reform plan, New Challenges, New Chances, published in December last year. I join in the tributes paid to the Minister, John Hayes, who has been working with us on these issues for a long time.

Through these reforms we have stripped back the number of intermediary bodies that had flooded the further education system. We have removed top-down targets and prioritised funding on those who need it the most. Learner and employer demand drives the system as funding follows the learners. Through the Education Act 2011, we have also removed restrictions and barriers around college governance. I know that these are issues close to the heart of my noble friend and, indeed, to many others who have spoken. Colleges are now able to consider different, innovative delivery models and partnerships, including joint models with academies and universities, and mutualisation models to offer greater choice and diversity to learners and employers. Perhaps I may pick up this point in connection with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. In addition, we have responded to the Public Accounts Committee’s concerns about the level of bureaucracy in the system, with a comprehensive cross-government simplification plan. By delivering this plan, we seek significantly to reduce the red tape faced by colleges and providers.

Many of the recommendations in the report were for the sector itself to deliver, including sector bodies, and some progress has been made. In respect of those recommendations for the Government, we have supported and actioned them all. In order to support effective planning, the Skills Investment Statement 2011-2014, published last December, set out budgets for two years: an indicative budget for the 2013-14 financial year alongside the actual budget for 2012-13. In addition, resulting from my noble friend’s report, the Skills Funding Agency launched the Innovation Code to enable colleges to respond rapidly and flexibly to local business and employer needs and to meet current and emerging skills gaps. I have noted what my noble friend said about the feeling that that has not been implemented in the way and to the extent that she envisaged in the report. What I can say is that the agency is planning a communications campaign for November 2012 to promote the code with colleges and other training providers. This is under review and we hope for comments under that consultation to come back and inform it. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned the point about 25% of colleges’ annual adult skills budgets being devoted to locally assessed priority needs. In fact, the Government’s recommendation is that there should be no target for this; it should be a more flexible provision.

For the sector, the report called for greater involvement of employers and the local community in the design and delivery of the curriculum. There are some terrific examples of colleges working with their communities to develop their learning offer. We heard about some of them today. The noble Baroness, Lady Wall, talked about what is happening at Liverpool with green technologies and so on. There are other examples. Hull College Group uses local groups and forums to develop its learning offer and to shape the organisation. Barnet and Southgate College targets its learning offer to families in disadvantaged areas by working with regeneration groups and faith groups. I stress to the right reverend Prelate that faith groups come into these projects, and rightly so. Local libraries also come into the work of Barnet and Southgate College. Derby College’s Employment World supports adults to enter or re-enter employment, again working with employers.

Colleges are working to deepen their engagement with their communities and employers and are becoming more transparent about their performance and future plans for meeting the needs of their communities and employers. They are stating these aims most clearly. I know that colleges and providers recognise that they need to do more to foster effective working relationships with local strategic bodies, for example local enterprise partnerships—they came up from time to time in the debate today—core city regions and local authorities. To do this, they will assess local labour market needs, agree skills priorities and shape their local skills offer to support local economic development and growth. Leeds City College has a particularly strong link with the local area: the chair of governors is also the chair of the local enterprise partnership. It seems to be a very happy arrangement.

All this work means that colleges need to be ready, and supported, to respond to the reforms—and the sector is stepping up to the challenge. For example, the Association of Colleges report, Thinking Outside the College, provided guidance to support continuous improvement in community engagement and accountability. Many colleges have participated in the work undertaken by NIACE on community curricula. The 157 Group is leading on work looking to the future at what colleges and providers will need to adapt to the changing needs of learners, employers and communities. I pay tribute to the AoC, NIACE and the 157 Group for the tremendous work that they do in this area.

I will pick up on one or two points made in the debate. The issue of local enterprise partnerships was raised by my noble friend Lady Sharp and others. The primary role of LEPs is to articulate and raise employer demand for and investment in skills. They work collaboratively with a wide range of interested bodies in their areas, including local authorities, which play a very important part in this, and independent providers. In core cities and in London we provide city regions with targeted funding to support collaboration with local providers.

My noble friend Lady Brinton, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others raised the issue of funding. In a time of limited resources it is critical to prioritise investment where the impact will be maximised. That has been towards individuals who would not otherwise have undertaken training and where market failures are strongest. We focus full government subsidy on the young, on those lacking basic English and maths skills and on the unemployed. We have also protected the £210 million a year budget for informal adult and community learning. I think we would all agree that that is a very important part of the offer.

The noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Young, mentioned the possible impact of loans on adults. The introduction of loans repayable on the same basis as those for higher education will maintain access to advanced and higher-level learning for adults aged 24 and over. We will monitor that to ensure that there is no disadvantage in the system.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, talked about the progression from further education to higher education. FE already provides 40% of new entrants to higher education, hosting around 180,000 students on HNCs, HNDs, foundation degrees, apprenticeships and other entry-level qualifications. Many colleges have long and established track records in offering level 4 and above. However, some of this was neglected in the past.

I noted the reference to TVU. I come from that part of the world and remember when it was a high-ranking catering college and how much the provision was incorporated within the university. I was fascinated to hear that students were working in Buckingham Palace, but I am not sure how many apprentices Her Majesty can take on. Obviously it is a very good route for those who choose to go that way.

There is provision to support learners following the ending of the EMA scheme and to target that funding more appropriately. My noble friend Lady Brinton mentioned hairdressing and plumbing. When I started work at City and Guilds, I dealt with hairdressing qualifications and I have great admiration for those skills. The work that is being doing with digital technology in Dundee is definitely one of the skills of the future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, mentioned care leavers. That is a very important area that we need to look at in all sorts of respects, in particular their ability to go on and have fruitful lives, as the records of care leavers are currently woefully below those of others. The other point raised by the noble Baroness, and by the noble Lord, Lord Young, concerned colleges helping SMEs through the ATA.

I am conscious of time. My noble friend Lord Shutt mentioned the proposal of the Maltings 16-19 free school. If I may, I will write to him on the specific points of that case, but it is out for consultation at the moment, so he will be able to feed into that consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Jones, raised, quite rightly, the issue of manufacturing and how further education is very well placed to support manufacturing. This is certainly an area that the country will need to increase in order to pull us out of the recession.

My noble friend Lady Maddock raised the issue of Berwick. We are publishing a report with Defra on community learning in rural areas, considering issues such as transport, class sizes, rural broadband and so on. Several of our community learning trusts are based in or include rural areas, as acknowledged in Defra’s recent report. My noble friend and, indeed, my noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned the National Careers Service. I regret that I do not have more time to go into that but I hope that I can write to them on that matter and where there are gaps in that funding.

This is a new and exciting phase for further education colleges, and their communities and employers have high expectations of them. I am confident that colleges will meet those challenges head-on and continue to deliver a rich and diverse choice to their learners, employers and local communities. I believe that the quality of this informed and incisive debate has contributed to the issues that we will all need to address and bodes well for the future of this particular sector. I once again thank my noble friend Lady Sharp for securing this debate and thank all the noble Lords who have contributed on this important issue.

I commend all noble Lords on their amazing temporal self-discipline. We have finished three minutes early. The Committee stands adjourned for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.