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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Rutland Sixth Form College, Oakham (Dissolution) Order 2000

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 27 July 2000

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Rutland Sixth Form College, Oakham (Dissolution) Order 2000

4.30 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Rutland Sixth Form College, Oakham (Dissolution) Order 2000 (S.I. 2000, No. 1684).

I am pleased that you are in the Chair, Mr. McWilliam, and that there is a good turnout of Members on both sides of the Committee for what may seem a small matter being considered late in the parliamentary year, but about which anxiety has been expressed, so it should not pass without proper debate. It is important to consider the impact of Government policy.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is back after a spell of illness and looking a great deal better. His is the constituency involved and the Committee will want to hear what he has to say. I do not intend to anticipate his speech, but there will be points of coincidence and of difference. In a sense, although the form of the debate is the Committee's, the substance is his because it is a constituency matter that he raised in an Adjournment debate on 28 March 2000.

As the Minister knows, I have previous form as a Minister in the Department for Education and recollect the circumstances in which the further education sector was incorporated in 1993. The Conservative Government knew then that further education colleges, although they would have independent governance, would remain in the public sector. It is a matter of record that the greater part of their income is still derived from public sector activities. Across the sector, only 8 per cent. is derived from fees and, in the case of sixth form colleges, even one like Rutland, which has some adult education, that is likely to be lower rather than higher. They provide public educational activities.

When we gave approximately 450 colleges in the sector in England independence from local authorities we realised that there might be a case in the future—Ministers now say that there should be a case—for planned mergers or for the association of colleges' activities. They can operate in one of two ways: either by one college ``taking over''—I quote that phrase advisedly—another college, or by two colleges' incorporations being dissolved and a new, separate corporation being established to take over the activities of both. As ministerial correspondence has already shown, it does not make much difference, although there may be important psychological implications if, for example, a college is in difficulty and another college takes it over and takes on its undertakings, rather than two colleges saying that they should be together.

From the start of the further education independent sector in 1993 there was an understanding that the Further Education Funding Council would have a locus; it would take an interest in mergers where that seemed appropriate, in cases that may or may not involve financial or educational difficulty. There was a general obligation to provide an adequate and sufficient supply of education in the further education sector and to see that the interests of students who were caught in a merger were properly safeguarded.

Further education is perhaps not as buoyant as it was, but we need not debate that at length. Ministers have said that they would like enrolments in further education to increase by 700,000 over two years—in round terms, that is a 10 per cent. per annum increase. However, enrolments have recently declined gradually by a varying proportion of 1 per cent., depending on whether one counts adult students or offsets the figures with the slight increase in sixth form students. The Minister and I have our differences over why that decline has occurred, but the fact is incontestable. The figures vary among colleges, but the overall pattern is of stagnant or mildly declining numbers. We had hoped for better. Those numbers undoubtedly contribute to financial and educational strains across the sector.

I speak as a Front Bencher on what is essentially a constituency issue, on which my hon. Friend will speak shortly. He has performed a sterling service by bringing the issue to the House's attention not once, but twice. It should not be taken lightly. However, to avoid any doubt or recrimination, I declare that I have a loose local interest as a constituency Member, as I share a county with Tresham institute. Daventry is some distance from Kettering, the institute's main base, but I have visited the institute and I know its principal. In a previous capacity, I visited Stamford college, which is not too far from where I live, and I know the chairman of governors of Rutland college, Nigel Chubb, quite well. I know the area well in general, but none of those people has briefed me on the issue, and my views have not been influenced by any of them.

I have two general concerns. My hon. Friend touched on the first in his Adjournment debate. The merger between Rutland and Tresham must inevitably cross learning and skills councils boundaries. In correspondence with my hon. Friend, the Minister made the reasonable point that no college could be obliged to conduct its activities solely within the purview of one local learning and skills council area. I understand that. I live in my constituency in Northamptonshire, but I am yards from Oxfordshire. Most of the educational and other bases for my part of the county are over the border in Banbury. One should not confine the delivery of further education services to one learning and skills council area. However, it is different wilfully to propose a merger that would cross those boundaries, at the same time as both Houses of Parliament were considering the Learning and Skills Bill. It is one thing to acquire an anomaly by accident, but another to create one by design, when that could have been avoided. That is not a sufficient argument for overturning the merger, but it is a point to which the Minister might respond.

It is perhaps inappropriate to make my second point too vigorously, but I must put down a marker. I have picked up some local concerns in Rutland and elsewhere about the FEFC's handling of the matter and its general management of the sector. I freely concede that my experience of dealing with the council in the early days was characterised by what one might loosely call the honeymoon atmosphere of the time; many colleges were pleased to be released from local authority control and found themselves at ease with the FEFC.

It is not entirely surprising that financial strains and difficulties have emerged over the years. There has been a need to look at mergers where institutions have been weaker and, in the case of this Government, Ministers have had the avowed intention of promoting mergers, perhaps proactively. There is much going on in the sector. The idea, the Platonic ideal if one wishes, of an FE principal operating in splendid isolation on the basis of a funding formula that enabled him and his board of governors to decide what should happen to the college has faded. I certainly have never taken the view that there should be no guidance from the centre.

It was an open secret when I served as a Minister that I always had a soft spot for the activities of the regional FEFC committees. Like any human organisation, they were led by persons of differing qualities, but they had a role in looking at local provision and in trying to sort things out locally. I am beginning to find—this is where perhaps coming back to the sector after a period on other duties is helpful—that there is now more concern in this area. I do not want to oversell it, but the Rutland case is by no means the only one where concerns have been expressed to me about what is happening. My hon. Friend put it in extremely trenchant terms in his Adjournment debate. I suspect that, in the light of subsequent history, and what he would see as the enforced merger of these two institutions, he is unlikely to temper his words or his concerns today.

Where people are unhappy with what is going on, they should say so. I say that in no sense of recrimination or vindictiveness. I believe that, over the years, the FEFC has served the sector well. It will need to learn the lessons of this case and to proceed with the maximum sensitivity at a time of further change in the sector. Those of us who know further education reasonably well have a high respect for it and the FE principals and their staff who lead the colleges in not always easy circumstances. We want to support them. Above all we do not want to subvert them in their basic educational task. I am unhappy if my hon. Friend is unhappy and if important local interests are concerned about the merger. My hon. Friend has performed a service in bringing this out in the open and explaining the local concerns to the Minister.

4.43 pm

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for his comments and his warm remarks about my return to active duty after a short enforced absence.

These Committees are not known for overturning the orders that come before them. The ranks of Labour Members before me heavily outnumber us on the Opposition Benches. I hope that, in the few minutes that I shall take to address the issue, I can appeal to their reason. The issue directly affects my constituency, not any other constituency, and I have lived with it for six months or more. As my hon. Friend said, I felt strongly enough to speak pretty brutally in an Adjournment debate on the matter in Westminster Hall on 28 March. I hope that Government Members will listen to what I have to say, in the hopefully not vain hope that they might allow delay and reconsideration. My hon. Friend made some points that should appeal to Labour Members who are concerned about their Government's further education policy.

The issue is simple. Rutland college for 16 to 19-year-olds, of medium size and set in the county town of a sparsely populated area, perceives that, in a year or two, it will face financial problems. There are several reasons for that—funding, sparse population and so forth—but they are secondary to the issue today. The key issue is financial. Mr. Nigel Chubb, the chairman, and his board of governors, are trying to find a lifeboat—a survival project to ensure that Rutland college will have a future. Their chosen solution—merging with Tresham institute—is a response to perverse incentives and will bring few, if any, benefits. Those mentioned so far are illusory. There is no educational rationale and only a dubious financial rationale.

Consultation was dodgy. Closer to Rutland college is Stamford college, which would like to merge with it. There is a much greater cross-over of people between those two colleges. People go from the little county of Rutland towards Lincolnshire. They look to Lincolnshire, never to Northamptonshire. This academic year, about 300 students have gone from Rutland mainly to Stamford college in Lincolnshire; a grand total of three have gone to Northamptonshire. A link will be made with an educational institution that has no natural partnership with Rutland college in Oakham.

That is bad enough in itself. What is even worse and sticks in my throat is that the consultation process was a sham. One need only examine the timing to realise that it could not work well. The FEFC is due to be abolished and the learning and skills councils—still being considered elsewhere in the House as part of the Government's flagship legislation—will take over from it. A learning and skills council will be imposed on Rutland and Lincolnshire but, before it is even properly set up, this merger of the one and only further education establishment in Rutland with one in Northamptonshire will be forced through.

That is not only illogical, but greatly against the wishes of all the other educational establishments in and around Rutland. The only institution in favour of it—though not unanimously—is Rutland college itself, because it believes it will be skint and it wants to survive. Elsewhere in the little county that I represent, all the secondary feeder institutions—the three main community colleges that feed principally into Rutland college—are against it. Stamford college is the prime candidate for merger and has a go-ahead principal who is itching to merge, but it was denied the right to be studied and form part of the consultation process.

Consultation was grubby. The FEFC went through the motions, did not listen, and decided to do what it intended to do in any case. I am unrestrained in my condemnation of its conduct. It caused enormous anger in Rutland county council. It is a go-ahead council and, let me put hon. Members' minds at rest, it is independent, not Conservative-controlled. It is trying to put, in a sparsely populated rural area, a cohesive education structure, so that its youngsters can rise through the various establishments within the county with the minimum of travel and the maximum of opportunity. That is now put in jeopardy by the proposed merger.

The proposal has no educational or financial logic. It is a desperate attempt, in the light of governmental and budgetary difficulties, to guarantee the future, which flies in the face of the views of everyone in the area who has the best interests of education at heart. That bad decision is being bulldozed through as part of the changes—it does not matter whether I am for or against them—that the Government are making as one of their flagship policies. I am afraid that pushing the decision through will show that the Government are not listening.

I understand that the Under-Secretary has not had principal responsibility for the matter; another Minister responded to my Adjournment debate. It has been handled primarily by the Minister for Education and Employment, who has answered my letters.

 
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