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Further Education

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 4 February 2016

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on young people living in rural locations of the area review of further education colleges currently taking place.

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests as a fellow of Yeovil College, and I thank noble Lords taking part in the debate. Those of us who hail from rural areas often appear to live in idyllic surroundings and enjoy much that those who inhabit urban areas do not. However, there are many challenges facing us, especially for young people. Last week, my noble friend Lady Sharp led an excellent debate on the future of adult education. Today, we look at the other end of the spectrum: the challenges for young people in continuing their education and training beyond 16. The aim of the current programme of area reviews of FE providers is to have,

“fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient colleges”.

I quote from the paper published by the Secretary of State in July 2015. I believe there are significant disadvantages to this approach, and I especially quail when I read further that,

“the status quo will not be an option”.

While the context of reviews can be adapted to take account of local circumstances and requirements, the statement does not appear to be bear this out.

The FE sector, colleges in particular, has been subjected to a series of significant cuts since 2011. Between 2010 and 2015, funding for 16 to 19 year-olds fell by 14%. The adult skills budget, which made up a significant amount of college funding, has been reduced by more than 40%, while public funding for adult learning is set to be removed completely by 2020. Spending on 16 and 17 year-olds is 22% lower than on 11 to 16 year-olds. It is a further 17.5% less for 18 year- olds, and adult education funding was cut by 28% last year alone.

Students, in particular, have been hit by the loss of the education maintenance allowance and the adult learning grant during the 2010 Parliament. These were weekly grant payments for FE students from lower income backgrounds. FE colleges appear to be hit from all sides. Some 72% of sixth-form colleges have reported dropping courses due to funding cuts, 33% have been forced to cut the more expensive to run modern language courses, and 24% have cut STEM subjects. What are we doing? STEM subjects are in great demand. I live close to the only remaining helicopter manufacturer in the country. It finds it difficult to recruit locally. Schools often take parties of pupils round, and teachers have been overheard saying to pupils, “If you don’t study hard, this is where you will end up”. This is appalling. We desperately need skilled and qualified engineers, and we need to fund colleges adequately to cover the courses their communities need. They know their students and can tailor the courses to fit.

Transport is a major factor which enables young people to access education and training. Young people in FE and sixth-form colleges often have to travel further than those who study at school because of the specialist provision that colleges offer. In a recent survey, the average learner travel time was two hours and 48 minutes per day at an average distance of 11 miles, 51% of FE students cannot always afford their travel costs and 40% of students spend £5 or more a day travelling to their college or place of training.

Across the country local authorities with transport responsibilities are cutting bus subsidies, and bus routes are, at best, less frequent than previously. In many cases, they are axed altogether. This is, of course, not a perverse measure but a reaction to the drastic budget reductions they face in the coming months and years. The Campaign for Better Transport has also highlighted the impact of funding cuts on local bus services. It says that funding for local authority-supported services has reduced by more than £78 million since 2010, meaning more than 2,400 essential bus routes and services have been cut. I live in a village, like many around the country, where there is no daily bus service but is an infrequent service that assists those without cars to go into the neighbouring town to do their shopping, get their hair done, visit the dentist or GP and have a cup of coffee. The timing of the return journey does not allow them to do all of those things on one visit. They have to choose which it will be.

For students attempting to access A-levels, apprenticeships and training, public transport is not an option. Often there are notices in the Post Office from post-16 students asking if anyone can give them a daily lift into town. For those students whose parents can afford to transport them to college, there is choice. For those whose parents are in straitened circumstances, there is no choice. I was lucky in that I lived just over two miles from the FE college of my choice. Even so, there was no transport allowance, and although my parents gave me the bus fare, I often walked in order to save the fare for other treats. If an FE college is 20 miles away, transport will be a major headache. Who is going to transport students across the countryside, even supposing they can find an FE provider running a course that suits their career prospects? Yet again, it will be those on low incomes who have no choice. Will the Minister say just how these young people are going to access the skills they need to achieve their aspirations and take charge of their lives? Will the costs of additional travelling be taken into account during the area review or is this going to be the student’s responsibility?

I note that the area review process has been tested in cities and in a rural area of Norfolk and Suffolk. I trust that the lessons learned have been carried forward, but each area will be different. The local steering groups include representatives from local enterprise partnerships. However, when an FE college is situated close to a LEP boundary, it will serve a very large area indeed and will stretch into the neighbouring LEP’s territory. Will the Minister say whether both LEPs will be represented on the area review in such cases and will the geographical spread of students be taken into account when deciding how the rationalisation is to take place? A distance of 20 miles from one FE college to the next is considerable. If an FE provider is to be closed, rationalised or have the curriculum it offers limited, students will have to travel.

The second principle of the review is:

“An open-mindedness to change for the greater good, irrespective of vested interests and personal preferences”.

That is very laudable. Will the Minister confirm that the personal preference of students will be taken into account as part of this open-mindedness?

I am indebted to the National Union of Students and the Association of Colleges for the extremely useful briefings they have sent me. I saw with interest the report of the Public Accounts Committee in the other place on overseeing financial sustainability in the further education sector which was published on 16 December 2015. Its summary said:

“The declining financial health of many further education colleges has potentially serious consequences for learners and local economies, but the bodies responsible for funding and oversight have been slow to address the problem. Too often, they have taken decisions without understanding the cumulative impact that these decisions have on colleges and their learners. Oversight arrangements are complex, sometimes overlapping, and too focused on intervening when financial problems have already become serious rather than helping to prevent them in the first place. The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department for Education appear to see area-based reviews of post-16 education as a fix-all solution to the current problems, but the reviews do not cover all types of provider and it is not clear how they will deliver a robust and financially sustainable sector”.

The Government would be wise to take note of this statement and act accordingly before the FE sector is altered out of all recognition and not to the benefit of learners and their communities.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for introducing this short debate. I do not wish to suggest for any reason that I do not understand the challenges that are faced, because clearly I do, but I am slightly more optimistic than she is. I, too, live in the village that I was born in, but ours is much more urban than the area she is from. Clearly, the number of students coming in for further education has been in decline, particularly since we increased the number of apprenticeships, so it is right that the Government are looking to get the best for young people coming through.

To start at the beginning, most of the children who go to school in rural areas actually come out with better results than their urban counterparts, so they are quite resilient. In the academic year of 2013-14, 70.7% of pupils living in rural areas left school with five or more GCSEs at A to C level, compared with 64% of pupils living in urban areas. That trend continues, with the rate of full-time entry to higher education institutions by 18 to 20 year-olds in 2013-14 being higher in predominantly rural areas, at 130 per 1,000, compared with 123 per 1,000 in urban areas.

I declare an interest as one of the patrons of Landex, which represents the land-based colleges. They, too, have clearly been going through challenging times—there are no two ways about it.

The review going on at the moment, as the noble Baroness touched on, is only at the start. Only three reviews have taken place; there is another tranche to come. The review in Leicester and Leicestershire, which is my home, is not happening until September. So the Government have a little while to wait before they can respond fully on the outcomes that we all are interested in.

The concern that the noble Baroness and I share, along with many people in this room, is for transport. My brother is a county councillor, and anybody living in a rural area knows very well that there is a great pressure on councils to provide or not to provide buses. The truth of the matter is that, in many places, buses sometimes run nearly empty, and to sustain them is not on. In some places, on some occasions, it is cheaper to pay a taxi to go and do it than it is to run a bus service. So to me, there are opportunities in the new proposed system. I came from Moulton agricultural college in Northamptonshire, and I have visited many other agricultural colleges. Moulton has its own bus service which goes around the villages picking up the students who want to come to the colleges. That is part of the deal; they know that that is going to happen. It will probably take them an hour to get there, sometimes an hour and a half, but they think that what is on offer at the college is worth doing.

So the question is: do we continue to have smaller colleges offering a more restricted curriculum or do we move to bigger colleges with a very specialist curriculum? Certainly, with the need that the noble Baroness rightly touches on to have more engineers and people with that sort of skill, the more we can do to encourage people, particularly women, to follow some of the STEM subjects and get involved in engineering the better. There is no reason why women should not be doing it. My niece became a mechanical engineer many years ago.

As far as I am concerned, it is a question of needing to reflect on what there is and where it is. I agree with the noble Baroness that there will be some areas that will do it very differently. I was interested to hear in the news this morning that Cumbria, for example, has looked to have a community bus area because there are no buses there. So while I understand the issues, and I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this debate tonight, I look forward to seeing the responses that we get. I hope that they will cover all the colleges, including the land-based colleges, because we all have a lot to offer. At the end of the day, it will be up to business and the review panels to come up with their suggestions as to the best way forward. I hope that we will return to this when the reviews are complete, in another year’s time.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, because I regard this as a fundamental issue. Noble Lords know of my interest in apprenticeships, so they will not be surprised if I focus on them. I have mixed feelings about this issue because I think that it probably is time for a change. I must admit that, given my brief experience as a Minister in this area, I was somewhat disappointed when the Wolf report came out—and that is me using the gift of understatement. It made me think very carefully about how to invest money and outcomes. We should not imagine that simply pouring more resources into something will necessarily bring about a result. It was a disappointing report that made me ask about the quality that is being delivered. Although there are many extremely good colleges, some do not always measure up. Being the glass half full type of person that I am, I probably tend to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that this is potentially an opportunity if the Government get it right.

I want the Government to recognise that this is a big challenge which they have created. Three million apprenticeships means a lot of training and so on. I keep reminding the Government that if they want to deliver on quality as well as quantity, it is a key part of that. One of the better and smarter policies we introduced was raising the participation age. That is important, and this review will obviously impact on that. We expect young people to be either in education or training, or in employment that encompasses training as well.

I listened carefully to the statistics quoted by the noble Baroness, but I still think that we are facing some challenges. It can be said that we are doing better, but what about the 30%? We need to ensure that those young people are not discouraged and that transport does not present too great an obstacle. I had to smile at the description of walking two miles, because I am a “four wheels bad, two wheels good” person. Two miles on a bicycle would get you there in a trice. More seriously, transport is clearly an issue. If all colleges are going to adopt the enlightened approach of Cumbria, perhaps we can pull it off. However, I do not feel that young people are getting a particularly good deal. We get the Freedom Pass and a triple lock on pensions. We are the people who have benefited from property price increases. What are young people getting? They have a ton of debt because they no longer get EMA, and the possibility of them getting on to the housing ladder is small. I hope that the Government will look at this carefully.

I have said previously to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, that it is time that this was looked at in an integrated way. We have LEPs, colleges and local authorities, so we ought to be looking at the best performers, the ones that are creating the most employment opportunities and setting up the maximum number of apprenticeships. The Government ought to be monitoring and reviewing them because if they are doing it well, they are the success stories and we should be building on them.

I share the concern about the funding cuts, because it is worrying to see things like STEM courses being cut. Noble Lords should do as I do and work with the Lords outreach service. Go into schools and ask 15, 16 and 17 year-olds where they are going. Most hands shoot up and the response is “university”, although whether they are all fit for that route is another matter. When you ask them about the alternatives, you are lucky if even one individual mentions apprenticeships. We still have the problem that schools are not fulfilling their legal requirement to tell students about all the career path options. That is important. We will not get more women into engineering and similar occupations—a desire I share—until employers come into schools, some of which do not seem to understand the importance of links with business. We also need successful apprentices to come and tell students what a good opportunity apprenticeships are.

I understand why the Government are doing this review. If we get it right, it will be a great opportunity, provided that we listen to the words of caution.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this timely debate on an important issue for young people living in sparsely populated rural areas. For a long time, working and learning in the FE sector has been challenging. We have seen frequent changes in funding and in governance. Being a teacher, a leader, or a governor in this sector has been challenging for many years. I saw this at first hand when I served as a governor at Brockenhurst College in the New Forest some years ago. I sincerely hope that this review enables long-term planning in the sector and gives as much control as possible to local communities and the interested parties within them. I am thinking particularly of young people and businesses.

I want to highlight the issues of concern in the north-east of England, in particular in Berwick-upon-Tweed, my home town, which lies at the northernmost tip of England right up against the Scottish border. In the north-east, the proportion of adults qualified to national vocational qualification level 4 is 7% below the national average. The north-east LEP strategic economic plan highlights that by 2020, some 120,000 jobs will require that qualification. The last economic survey conducted by the North East Chamber of Commerce found that 71% of businesses in the service sector and 83% of businesses in manufacturing were experiencing difficulties recruiting staff.

In Berwick-upon-Tweed the sparsity of the population and of college provision only exacerbates the difficulties for young people and businesses. If you are a young person currently finishing your GCSEs in a school that is improving a bit but less than in other parts of the country, your options are very limited. In Berwick there is a high school with a small sixth form. Fifty miles away there is Northumberland College, the only college in Northumberland, which means a long journey by bus. Sixty-seven miles away is Newcastle, where there are many more opportunities. It takes 45 minutes by train but because it is 67 miles away, the journey is pretty expensive. It is clear that transport is a big issue that is preventing those in our area gaining access to education and training, and to a wide variety of it.

The history of paying for transport is mixed. I served for three years on Northumberland County Council and we campaigned to have youth transport paid for. My Lib Dem colleagues took minority control and we were able to do that. I regret that when Labour took over it took that away for the over 16s. I can partly understand why: the budget had gone up because so many people needed it.

Like others, we have had a lot of briefing on this subject, and I am particularly grateful to the Association of Colleges. It has provided statistics showing that the average distance travelled to college by 16 to 18 year olds in the Berwick constituency is 25.5 miles. That is the furthest in the whole of England—they top the league. It is slightly better for the 19 year-olds. When the review that we are debating was announced, the Minister said that he expected policy options to include rationalising the curriculum and considering opportunities for specialisation, merger, collaboration and closure. When there is only one college, there is not much scope in any of those areas.

It is even more difficult because the other providers in the area are not being taken into account: sixth forms. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Bakewell quoted from the 13th report of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee:

“It is unclear how area-based reviews of post-16 education, which are limited in scope, will deliver a more robust and sustainable further education sector”.

The recommendation was that:

“The departments need to demonstrate that the area-based reviews are taking a sufficiently comprehensive look at local provision taking into account all FE providers and school sixth forms, that they are fair, and that they result in consensus on sustainable solutions to meet local needs”.

I sincerely hope that that is the case. I would like the Minister to assure me that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution when this review ends, and that the particular situation I have outlined in Berwick up in north Northumberland will be substantially enhanced by the outcomes of the very important exercise that we are debating this evening.

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for this important debate, and remind your Lordships of my registered interests, including the chairmanship of the new royal chartered Institution for Further Education.

During the last few years, I have had the opportunity of visiting many FE colleges, and I soon became aware of the extraordinary variety of provision among them; this is both a strength and, of course, a weakness. It is clear that there are many first-class institutions, as we have heard, which have quickly learned to adapt to the ever-changing requirements of employers in a high-tech environment. Others, although still good teaching centres, are pursuing courses that are no longer so relevant and not so attractive to students. There is still too much duplication of courses by colleges in the same area. That is fine if there is high demand, but our colleges really need now some closer co-operation among themselves if they are to deliver the best quality while making the most sensible use of resources.

The NAO’s report last year suggested that the financial health of the post-16 sector has, as we have heard, been declining. But many colleges have not been able to respond adequately to this and will face serious financial challenges unless they fundamentally reform their offer and their delivery of it.

Announcement of the area reviews last year, and their commencement in September, quite naturally caused anxiety within the FE sector. Would they recommend the closure or mergers of colleges, which would force redundancies? Would they appreciate the excellent work often done by quite small colleges? What about rural area provision, the proper subject of today’s concerns? I hope very much that, as the rest of the reviews take place in the coming year, these concerns will be alleviated.

The reviews will have to show sensitivity to the fact that FE colleges themselves, and this is an important point, are often significant employers of many people and thus considerable contributors to the local economy. It is particularly welcome that the Government recognise the need to support the sector in the implementation of structural changes that may result from the review by providing access to a restructuring fund. However, it seems plain to me, I am afraid, that the sector cannot go on just as it is. I hope that the reviews will give some valuable insight into how its provision can be improved.

It is helpful that the reviews are looking not just at the physical location of colleges but at how the imaginative use of modern technology can link learners in different ways to different places. There are innovative forms of curriculum delivery that can help provide a wider experience for students, and which could be of use in rural areas.

The reviewers must keep in mind that although they are operating within administrative boundaries, such as local authorities, business and commerce do not do boundaries, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said. It is essential that the wider economic environment is considered. Some specialist colleges will have students from all over the country and could deal with several dozen local authorities.

Very importantly, from my perspective as chairman of the new royal chartered institution, the reviews are looking at quality—this was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Young—and ensuring a strong focus on delivering the right outcomes for learners, including progressing students into high-grade apprenticeships and high-grade technical and professional skills which improve their employment prospects. It is worth remembering that construction-based skills vacancies have more than doubled since 2013, from 5,000 to 11,900, and that of the 900,000-plus job vacancies in England last year, 209,000 were the result of skills shortages.

We most seriously need to attain the Government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships in this Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, hopes, and to provide better and more advanced education and training to the volume of young people who must progress into these British industries, which in future years will drive our economic growth in ever-competitive world markets. I hope that the area reviews, if carefully handled and, very importantly, based on clear and sustainable factual evidence, will help colleges change to meet these needs now and in the future.

My Lords, I live in West Yorkshire, where the review has begun, and I am a councillor in Kirklees, which is a large metropolitan authority serving more than 400,000 people. That sounds as if it may be an urban area but it includes very large rural parts. Those of your Lordships lucky enough to have the time to watch “Jericho” or “Happy Valley” will have seen the very landscapes and areas to which I refer. Many young people in my part of West Yorkshire, despite it being largely urban, have similar challenges in accessing further education as do the residents in Somerset to whom my noble friend Lady Bakewell referred.

I have five concerns that I would like the Minister to consider. First, the review does not seem to be responding to the needs of business, which is telling us time and again that it wants the general skills of young people to be improved, as well as their particular skills —more learners and learning more often. Secondly, I repeat the point that others have made about accessibility. Without going into the detail, accessibility in my part of West Yorkshire is similar to that in Somerset, although the distances are not as great as they are in Northumberland. But if you live up in the Pennines in Marsden, which is featured in “Happy Valley”, it can take you a very long time to get to Leeds or Bradford, which is where the expertise in the FE colleges can be based.

My third point is about the rationalisation which is one of the aims of the FE review. I have no quarrel with that. From time to time, you have to have a look at what is on offer to see whether it can be improved for the benefit of all. While that is a rational approach on the surface, however, it does not necessarily take into account how students will react to it. From looking at post-16 access figures for the young people who leave the school where I am a governor, I know that they tend to select—this may sound ridiculous—the colleges which they can access. It is not the colleges that might meet their needs; they select by access. That is a rational approach from their end, but it may not be the best outcome for them or for society at large.

Fourthly, it is totally bizarre that sixth-form colleges are included in this review, but not school-based sixth forms. The post-16 landscape should be considered as a whole, if duplication is to be avoided, which is one of the aims. I have a letter from BIS and DfE to the West Yorkshire leaders. They requested that no more sixth forms in schools be opened because they were trying to do this review. The reply was that:

“There are no plans to prevent any schools from applying to do so … Following an area review,”—

and I find this a bit disturbing—

“we expect regional schools commissioners, local authorities and schools with sixth forms themselves to take into account the review’s analysis and findings when considering any decisions about future post-16 provision in the area. Therefore reports and area reviews may make general observations about opportunities for collaboration, improved progression and signposting and efficiency savings across all providers”.

As a councillor, I serve on a scrutiny committee looking into this review in West Yorkshire. What concerns me is that it is not engaging with other interested parties—high schools, sixth forms, students, parents and staff—whose views we ought to take into account. It is focusing on college estates, curriculum duplication and finance. They are all important, but the voice of learners, staff and parents ought to be heard.

This review is not taking into account the wider issues that are essential if post-16 education is to be accessible, meet students’ needs and enable and encourage participation. I hope the Minister will take these comments into account.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on securing this debate. It is important because it affects our young people and their potential life. I declare my interest as I was CEO of Tomorrow’s People for 30 years, and much of what I have learned in this field has come from that. I am patron of the Rye Studio School, which serves a large rural area, and governor of a Bexhill Academy.

None of us would be here today if we did not care. I take great comfort from the fact that we all care that the right thing is done for our young people. However, even in better fiscal times, any business worth its salt will look at what it is doing and ask whether it is doing the best it can and whether there are things it should or should not do. I look on this review as an opportunity to do what anyone would to ensure that we are giving the best we can to our young people in colleges. I hope the review will enable us, within those confines, to give up the best to get the better for people.

Rural areas face a variety of issues, and depending on how rural they are, those issues are exaggerated to various degrees. Noble Lords have already raised the issue of the cost of travel, but is the transport going to the right place at the right time to enable people to get to their college? If it is not, how are we going to get them to work? We need to look at this. We have to make sure that people can learn and get to work, and that is where innovation and opportunity come in.

The other issue they face is in making decisions about their lives. Sometimes in a rural area it is all doom and gloom: “There are no jobs”. But in the areas I have been involved in, that is not what we found to be true en masse. I will come on to that more later.

What should young people study for? Is the right thing being laid on? That has already been referred to. What will help them secure work? Who is helping them understand the labour market in which they live to make sure that they undertake the right training? There is a place in East Sussex called Heathfield. It is not as remote as some of the places that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, referred to, but there are issues there. A partnership between East Sussex County Council, the Heathfield Partnership, Tomorrow’s People and the business community has been a real eye-opener. It has been about local solutions and trying to sort the issues that each individual faces, rather than people telling you that you cannot boil the ocean. It is about people and local solutions. They told us that there were no jobs, but the minute we went round the rural community we found jobs. Then we were able to match young people to those jobs and, in all of that, to ensure that they could get to those jobs because there were distances to cover.

One way that was resolved was that the council, the police and crime commissioner and the Heathfield Partnership bought into the Wheels 2 Work scheme, where funding was made available to young people for the loan of a scooter to enable them to get to work. We had a young lad who wanted to become a landscape gardener. An employer took him on and taught him to drive—at his expense. The young lad now has his own van and goes round doing his work. When the boss met him, he took great delight in telling him that every time that van goes out for a day there is £60 in VAT for the Exchequer.

So these are challenging times. The review is challenging but it creates opportunities, including ways to do things in different ways, responding to the needs of young people. If noble Lords had been here earlier for the waste debate, they would have heard the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, refer to sell-by dates. Too many young people have sell-by dates on them and I hope that this review will create opportunities and that we can overcome the challenges to make sure they can be at the right place at the right time and achieve their destiny.

My Lords, this has been a very good debate and we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, for initiating it. It has been good in several ways. First, it covered the ground. Secondly, we all seem to be broadly agreed about the opportunities that the area reviews may present, provided that they are a genuine exercise aimed at revivifying a key sector. There are also issues that perhaps need to be built into this that are more than just to do with one area and reflect what was in the initial wording for this debate in terms of the rurality issue.

The key question that the Minister must answer when she comes to respond is the quotation that has already been given from the Public Accounts Committee about whether these reviews will actually achieve the laudable aims for the sector. My quote from that committee is slightly different from those already given, but it makes the same point. The committee states:

“With so many parties involved in running the reviews, there may be no clear process for making difficult decisions on the future of individual colleges”.

I think that fits into the general concern expressed both by those who have spoken today but also the PAC, that this is an interesting—others might say brave—way of conducting a review but it will not necessarily come up with results that are sustainable and robust.

The other side of that coin is what would constitute a more robust and sustainable FE sector. Those of us who are concerned about this—I had a job a long time ago in a further education college so I have some experience—worry that a haphazard and not very clear set of procedures has been adopted. As many people have said, those procedures deal only with FE and sixth-form colleges, and others may or may not be involved depending on their individual interests. There is no student voice and no consistent way of addressing that.

If those were not sufficient problems in relation to individual reviews or indeed to the totality of the review process, which of course is still ongoing, there are concerns at the end-point the Minister might wish to help with. Is this genuinely a review for the benefit of the sector and for the young people who will be a part of it or is there a hidden agenda about money? A Minister is on the record saying that the motivating principle is not to save cash. Then he covered himself by saying that it would be quite nice if it did result in reduced costs in the sector. It would be helpful if that could be brought out in more detail by the Minister here when she comes to respond.

Then there is a wider question. What is the Government’s intention here? It is quite hard to read in the Red Book what will be spent in the sector and I think it is probably beyond the capacity of the limited resources behind the Minister today to give a full explanation. Perhaps she could write to us to explain what the Government’s three-year to five-year projection is for spending in this sector as it is complicated, for reasons I want to go on to as well.

So much for the reviews. The rural transport dimension has been very well ventilated by noble Lords who have spoken, who live out in the country and have experienced it in real time. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, mentioned, it is not just about FE and the provision of learning, it is also about future careers, jobs and prospects. These two must be seen through the same prism because if you can train but cannot get a job that is not going to be of any real effect.

There are other concerns, raised by the rather good report from the Commission for Rural Communities which was in the Library’s list of reading for this debate. There is the issue of what has happened to careers advice generally in the country but particularly in rural areas, small villages and towns with people not being able to access advice. There is the question of the Work Programme operated through DWP which does not have a rural component and perhaps needs to be better tailored for rural areas. There is the fact that most local authorities have had to abandon youth services because the funding is not there for that. That element is discretionary rather than a main centre and that will mean that there are not proper and appropriate approaches to youths living in rural areas. Underpinning some of the optimism that might be around this is the question of whether we could think about new routes for flexible learning but that heavily depends on broadband. The Minister gave a visual clue there; for Hansard, her eyebrows went up in agreement that there is still a problem with rural broadband. Perhaps she should be a bit more masked in future when she responds to debates but I think we all get the point that this is not working well. Although there may be investment on the horizon, rural areas are still crying out for the ability to operate to a standard which at least is better than dial-up and that is not happening everywhere.

I end by asking one question which is perhaps a little peripheral to this issue but was raised by my noble friend Lord Young: where do apprenticeships fit into this? The Minister may have read with interest the discussions we had when the Enterprise Bill was going through this House in relation to apprenticeships and the good decision by the Government to try to bring forward a gold standard for what constitutes a proper apprenticeship, getting away from some of what look like apprenticeships in name but are not in substance. That is to be applauded. However, we made many points about that in the debate—roundly rebutted by the Minister at the time—on what would actually be there to change the nature of what was being taught and delivered through the apprenticeships programmes. She felt that there was enough going on for that not to be required. However, she wrote to noble Lords yesterday:

“We need long-term governance arrangement which will support employers to uphold the high quality of apprenticeship standards and be able to respond to the changing needs of business. We intend to amend the Bill at Commons Committee to establish a new independent body; the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA). It will operate in England, supporting employer-led reforms and regulating the quality of apprenticeships. It will also have a role in advising Government on apprenticeships funding. We expect the IfA to be operational by April 2017”.

That is bit of a U-turn because this was resisted entirely by her during the debate. I would be grateful if the Minister could add a bit to explain what exactly is the IfA, what its role will be and how it will impact the reviews we are assessing today.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords for their contributions.

The objective of the area review programme is to ensure that we have sustainable colleges which provide a strong offer to their learners and support their area’s broader economic strategy. Through encouraging greater efficiency, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, the reviews will create the capacity for colleges to reinvest in the offer for their students, so students and improving provision are at the heart of these reviews, driving better quality and greater specialisation. Colleges must be in the strongest position possible to achieve the right outcomes for their learners: outcomes that will enable them to go on to further training or to compete in the job market, confident that their training or apprenticeship has given them a firm foundation on which to build. The area reviews will also enable colleges to help deliver our national ambitions to support young people, including creating 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, rightly said, need to be of high quality. I will come back to apprenticeships later.

To get this right, it is important that the reviews are locally led. Each review will have as its starting point the needs of students and local economic objectives, so I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that the business and economic needs of an area are indeed central to the reviews. The views of business will be taken into account. From there, we will examine existing provision and identify the most effective structures for meeting those needs. The review steering groups are composed of a combination of college chairs of governors and principals, local enterprise partnerships and local authorities.

Several noble Lords raised concerns about students. I reassure them that we are keen to engage learners, and the National Union of Students sits on the national advisory group for the programme. It has actively contributed in setting up round-table discussions to ensure that student voices are heard.

As we have already seen from the pilot reviews, which have informed the development of this approach, it will work. Colleges in Nottingham, Norfolk and Suffolk are in a much stronger position now to deliver good quality education to their learners based on the best evidence available to them. Because the reviews are locally led they are well placed to consider the needs of all learners, particularly those in rural areas where access to education is more likely to be impacted by wider factors, such as the availability of transport, which I think all noble Lords highlighted as a key issue, and access to broadband. Most reviews will include a proportion of learners who are considered to be living in rural areas. The first two waves of reviews, for instance, included Solent, Sussex and the Marches and Worcestershire.

The reviews will draw on the best available evidence in each area, including information on how current learners travel to study, the current and future demographics of each area, the potential role that technology can play and the future demand for skills and professional and technical education at all levels. They will develop recommendations about the future pattern of provision for the area based on that evidence. Any recommendations about future provision will take account of travel, access and the availability of the right courses for learners in the area now and in future.

In the north-east Norfolk and north Suffolk pilot review conducted in 2015, there was a significant challenge to meet the needs of learners dispersed across a rural area and dependent on limited travel. The options considered took account of this; accessibility was one of the criteria against which they were judged. For instance, while three institutions were merged no campuses were removed, ensuring that learners could continue to access the provision that they needed.

For students in rural areas this may mean that reviews include recommendations on improvements in the use of technology, as my noble friend Lord Lingfield highlighted: for example, to improve online curriculum and assessment or shared services such as information management. I can assure noble Lords that the reviews will examine how transport arrangements can be improved. This may well include the cost of travel. Because local authorities are also involved in the area review steering groups, they can consider how to align travel with the provision needed. Obviously, different reviews will result in different options, depending on the area, the needs of the students and the provision.

Where combined authorities assume responsibility for the adult education budget through devolution deals, successfully conducted area reviews will provide a firm foundation so that provision for adult learners can meet the future needs of local businesses and students, as determined by the local areas themselves.

The area reviews are being supported by an important review undertaken by Landex, as my noble friend Lady Byford will be aware, of the national offer of post-16 land-based provision in England. We expect Landex to report by early March and its conclusions will inform the wider programme of area reviews. This will ensure that land-based provision, which has an important role to play in supporting the rural economy and often has wider application than the area in which the college sits, is taken into account, to ensure that high-quality delivery is available to meet the needs of employers, whether in that area or more widely.

Yeovil College, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned her close local interest, will be considered as part of the Somerset area review, which is currently scheduled to commence this November. This will provide the opportunity for the colleges in this area to consider the best provision for learners and employers across Somerset, and it will undoubtedly consider the impact of the rural nature of much of that county on current and future access to high-quality technical and professional education.

As I said, business and its needs are central to these reviews. The LEP is on the steering group and involved in the analysis of business demand. An important objective is to align businesses better with the improvement in delivery of apprenticeships. For instance, in Birmingham, as a result of the review, an apprenticeship company is being created with business leadership, drawing on the resources of all colleges. Apprenticeships are very much part of the thinking within these reviews.

Several noble Lords raised further education funding. The coalition Government indeed had to take difficult decisions to reduce the deficit, which included reducing the adult skills provision budget, other than apprenticeships, year-on-year. The Autumn Statement, however, provided a good settlement for FE. Through the new apprenticeship levy, we will see £2.5 billion being spent on apprenticeships by 2019-20: twice the cash amount being spent at the start of the decade. We are expanding our programme of advanced learner tuition fee loans for those over 19. On top of that, we have been able to maintain in cash terms a £1.5 billion per year adult education budget across this Parliament. I will need to write to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, with some of the further details he requested.

The combined adult education budget will provide colleges and training providers with the freedom and flexibility to determine how they use funding, working with LEPs and local commissioners to determine the appropriate distribution of funding to meet local needs best. These reforms represent an overall expansion of funding, meaning that total spending power to support participation will be £3.4 billion in 2019-20, which is a real terms increase of 30% compared with that for 2015-16.

We believe that the current structure of the post-16 education and training sector is unsustainable. We need to move towards a simpler and more financially resilient system which meets the needs of the economy. We recognise that there are circumstances particular to rural communities which the reviews need to take into consideration. Indeed, by referring to different areas, a number of noble Lords have highlighted that perfectly today. The pilot reviews provided an opportunity to test this in Norfolk and Suffolk. To reassure noble Lords once again, that is why we have been clear that the reviews must be tailored to meet local needs, based on the best evidence available and, most importantly, must have learners at the heart of the process.

Will the Minister comment more fully on the reasons why sixth forms in schools in the areas are not included? It seems to me that that is absolutely crazy, particularly in rural areas.

There is certainly an urgent need to ensure we have high-quality and resilient FE colleges. School sixth forms are included in the initial analysis and general findings but, practically, with more than 2,000 schools with sixth forms compared to 333 FE and sixth-form colleges, it is not going to be possible to cover them in the same degree of detail.

Committee adjourned at 5.58 pm.