Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Welcome to Chris Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, and Ruth Silver, Principal of Lewisham College. Many of us were together yesterday at the happy launch of the Learning and Skills Research Centre, and that puts me in mind of some of the remarks made by the Minister and by other speakers. Can I start the questioning by emphasising we are trying a new technique. You will know we are dusting off the Further Education Inquiry our predecessors undertook[23]. There is only one person here who was on the original Committee which did that inquiry, and that is Valerie Davey. Apart from her, the whole Committee is new but we do know what the recommendations were and we listened to the Minister taking us through the transition from inquiry through to recommendations through to Government's response and the present situation. We are trying something new—short sessions of roundabout 30, 35 minutes—so we are going to keep our questions quite short and I hope you will come back briefly if you can. I am going to start by saying what a happy situation we are in and bounce this off you, Mr Hughes and Ms Silver. Over this period of time we have had a Select Committee inquiry report, the Select Committee made some pretty firm recommendations, the Government seemed to respond reasonably positively and so many of the problems which had been identified in the Further Education Inquiry have been sorted, and we now live in a situation which is much happier, a much more contented situation for students and staff, and we are making steady progress, but we also know there have been some very big institutional changes, the introduction of the Learning and Skills Council and much else. So steady progress and steady-as-you-go, is that how you see the situation, Mr Hughes?

  (Mr Hughes) I would say steady progress. The big policy issues in the 1998 Report were widening participation, skills and standards, and there has been progress on all three fronts. I would say for further education the major policy development since 1998 was probably the contribution to 14 to 19 education. That was not a consideration in 1998, so the emergence of the 14 to 19 phase is important. We have an institutional framework which has changed and was not anticipated in 1998, the Learning and Skills Act. I think that does mean that some of the key messages of the 1998 Report become even more important. In the 1998 Report there was constant reference to a need for a stronger framework and greater clarity about priorities and purposes in the further education sector. Now we have a much stronger planning framework in further education and we do need to address the very fundamental question of what is further education for. That is how I would see it.
  (Ms Silver) I think there is only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that is getting all you asked for and being expected to keep your promises. I think what has happened is that things are not, in practice, in colleges steady-as-you-go. The rub from all the planning has been certainly the absence of anxiety about money and futures but also the absence of teachers, so the FE sector, having been given all that we really wanted for a long time, finds itself unable to recruit staff. That is a big difficulty. I am losing my teachers to schools, they pay more, the hours are less, the holidays are longer, and that is a real anxiety for people running colleges. There is also an absence of trust because the money is bleeding from the students into an audit regime which is very, very demanding. We have the presence of purses but at a time when there is a slightly out-dated mindset in the academic/vocational divide which is employing them. What I want to say is that it is not what you do but the way you do it. I want to remind you of the philosophy that today's solution is tomorrow's problem. We solved the issues in the last Select Committee Report but it has presented some new problems for us.

Mr Chaytor

  2. Can I ask you about the planning process and the role of the LSC? Are you both satisfied with the performance of the LSC in its first six months, and are you convinced there is now a clear sense of strategic direction? The second point is, what about the relationship between the national LSC and the local LSCs, is that relationship working satisfactorily? Thirdly, on the financing, my recollection of the Learning and Skills Act is there was going to be a saving of £50 million in bureaucracy due to the formation of the LSC. Do you think that saving has been made? Are you conscious of a new slimmed-down version of the LSC?

  Chairman: Briefly.
  (Mr Hughes) Briefly, yes, yes and no.

  3. That is all we need to hear!
  (Mr Hughes) I have been very impressed by the relationship-building going on at local level, and when these reforms were announced I was concerned there could be more difficulty at local level than we have seen notwithstanding one or two headline cases. There is some way to go before we have clarity about the national planning framework and we probably need to get into one or two iterations of the planning round but the dangers are very clear. We know the problems of too much micro-level planning, and if colleges are subjected to anything which resembles some of the practices of the past on planning at course level, for example, I think we will run into terrible difficulties. I am sure the LSC are mindful of that and will set out broad, planning frameworks. But there will be issues because the world does not sit naturally in 47 areas; people live in one area, work in another and study in a third, so there will be all those sorts of difficulties. I am impressed with progress locally in building relationships and the sense of co-operative partnership effort, but there is a long way to go before we see national strategy on planning in action, in my view. I do not think I am able to comment on whether £50 million has been saved or not saved.
  (Ms Silver) I ended my front paper by talking about the ten tensions, fault lines, in the great dream, and one of them for us in the colleges is that governors have responsibility for planning and the educational character of the college, yet the LSC is working on a planning regime as well, and how that articulation will play out will determine whether it will be successful. I have no sense of any savings whatsoever. As a principal of a college, the bureaucracy is absolutely alarming.


  4. I am sorry? The bureaucracy—?
  (Ms Silver)—has increased. I have an inspection starting on Monday and there was a pre-visit questionnaire of 136 questions just on finance and governance.

  5. From the LSC nationally?
  (Ms Silver) Yes, from the national system. My sense is that it is like Marks & Spencer's because there is a Marks & Spencer's head office and then outlets around the country and the outlets are busy learning the new systems they are being asked to operate and are struggling with it. I assume that is part of this learning phase of the LSC and that will play out in time.

  6. Some people argued there was a missed opportunity when Regional Development Agencies were not brought into this strategic level of planning. Is this something which has a resonance with you, or do you think the Regional Development Agencies should be left out of the circle?
  (Mr Hughes) Our own submission at the time of consultation ahead of the Act suggested a stronger regional focus for these arrangements. I am still not sure what the mechanism is by which an RDA (although perhaps better located in the DTI now) gets a purchase on what happens in the supply side of skills.

Valerie Davey

  7. Ms Silver, you mentioned particularly the need for teachers, and I think last time you and I met across this table there certainly was a goodwill factor from the staff. We have since had the teachers pay initiative, can you tell us how that has worked out, and, secondly, where that leaves the non-teaching staff?
  (Ms Silver) It is very welcome. It is a three year project and so there will be more money coming which can be planned further. It is not enough, absolutely not enough, but it is a smashing start to this new agenda. The non-teaching staff, as they are referred to, are very unhappy about it, they feel left out and we have a long time to make other staff feel as valued as teachers. I believe the unions will make some submissions towards the Government about that. It is very welcome for teaching staff, they are delighted and look forward to it continually improving.

  8. Before I ask for another comment, can I link it up with the LSC and say there seemed to be a delay in getting the money through in this first year as a result of the LSC's involvement. Is that true?
  (Ms Silver) I am not sure what they are doing. Not all colleges have yet worked out how they want to spend it, they are in discussions with their unions, and some have, so I think it varies between institutions. I am not aware of that problem in our area. I want to support what Chris has said. We have a London college and there are five London TECs and it is problematic getting a London over-view, and I think that shows the need for the RDA question to be revisited at some stage.
  (Mr Hughes) On staffing, to draw the Committee's attention to the research of my own organisation which is in our papers,[24] we did a survey of 9,500 staff in 80 colleges assessing the levels of satisfaction with their working environments. These surveys have a propensity to produce low figures. It is in the nature of them that people are more easily persuaded to be dissatisfied than satisfied, but even so the levels of dissatisfaction with their working lot were quite telling; it was quite striking in comparison to surveys in other sectors.

Mr Shaw

  9. There have been concerns that spending departments have been returning monies to the Treasury—that might not be a concern for all in government—and one of the complaints of colleges is about earmarked funding, and I think 10 per cent of overall funding is for specific measures. Does the fact you are having difficulty recruiting staff, because of the reasons you have just referred to, put you off applying for particular pots of money for projects? Would you agree that perhaps the infrastructure within colleges and other public services is one of the reasons? Because the core funding has not been addressed in the way it should have been—it should have been more specific—you have not got the personnel to deliver on particular projects?
  (Ms Silver) That is a tension and it may be the hardest one I deal with, because every project funded needs staff and a separate regime to manage it. For example, the Standards Fund takes a top slice just in the administration of it in our college, the Beacon College. It does not put me off because my college in Deptford needs all the help it can get but it is very hard to recruit to full-time, reasonably paid posts, and very difficult to recruit to one or two year projects. My governors have put that as our highest risk management factor to be monitored this year.

  10. Schools complained about the restrictions on the Standards Fund and the Government responded by providing more flexibility. Has that happened with the FE sector?
  (Ms Silver) There are indications they are considering doing that but at the moment it has not happened. The loss of discretion to colleges I think risks the loss of responsiveness. So having to do particular things for particular purses and in particular ways creates problems, whereas if we were able to say what the whole of the college needs to be funded, some of those tensions would disappear.

  11. Even if there was not new money? You would say to ministers, "Let's have more flexibility with what is already available", and that would help, would it?
  (Ms Silver) In line with the plan and in line with very public documents, that would be enormously helpful. The compliance demands are quite a burden these days.

Bob Spink

  12. I would like to build on the line Jonathan Shaw was questioning on but from a slightly different angle. Mr Hughes was mentioning low morale in his evidence and I wondered if he could confirm whether there is any correlation between the morale of the staff and the outcomes of the students? I wonder if Ms Silver could tell us whether in her particular specific experience there is still this problem of retaining staff when staff in sixth forms doing similar jobs can get paid more money, particularly with the performance payments? I would like to explore this other area and see if there is anything we can put to the ministers who come before us over these next few weeks which will help to drive policy forward in this area.
  (Mr Hughes) We are currently examining exactly that proposition, that there may be a relationship between staff satisfaction and student satisfaction. Early indications are that it is tentative and I certainly would not want to say on the record there is a clear relationship between the two but we are undertaking research right now into that. What is clear is that there is a relationship between student satisfaction and achievement in colleges.
  (Ms Silver) Miraculously no, in my experience, and that is because magical things happen between teachers and students in the classroom. You do not go into teaching unless it has some personal meaning to you. In my college, achievement has been pushed up continually in a very difficult part of inner city London, and that is to the credit of all the staff in the college. The sixth form colleges present a real risk and we see more of them happening in London than we anticipated, because it is much easier to teach students who are younger, who are there all the time and you get to know them. I have a student body where 80 per cent are part-time and it is very difficult to build that community of learning. I can see why my teachers leave to go to work in sixth form colleges, not just because of the money but the satisfaction in teaching is higher given the consistency and constancy of the relationship.

  13. But the problem with the money is still there, is it not? After all, people have mortgages to pay.
  (Ms Silver) Sure.

  14. They go to work primarily for the pay, job satisfaction is very important but primarily for pay. Is the money different between what you can pay your staff and what staff can be paid for doing much the same job in a sixth form environment which is perhaps more steady? Is that difference in pay a problem or not?
  (Ms Silver) Yes, it is £6,000 in some cases doing exactly the same job and in easier circumstances. It is a real problem. I think it is to the credit of the teaching staff they have shown loyalty in staying with colleges, which are quite tough places to work in sometimes.

  Chairman: We will probe how those percentages have changed with future witnesses.

Mr Pollard

  15. Individual Learning Accounts have been stopped at a stroke and, certainly in my view, we have an acute shortage of IT skills and that is an area which ILAs were particularly geared towards. I am wondering if you have views about that.
  (Ms Silver) I did not think they were stopped permanently, I thought they were just being paused for a minute.


  16. I think they have been frozen.
  (Ms Silver) Yes. We found them incredibly helpful with our own blue collar staff who were the last to get any right to training. They took those up. They were just beginning to be understood. People are a bit suspicious about getting money for learning, but they were becoming less suspicious and were starting to use them. I think colleges started to talk to students at the first exchange saying, "Do you know you can have an individual learning account", and I am not looking forward to explaining to my students that unless they have it already it is not going to happen now. I think they made a difference, there was not enough money in them but it was a start and met the serious need for learning.
  (Mr Hughes) Our own work on ILAs shows they were enormously popular but inevitably there was a deadweight factor in that they were going to people who were already involved in the system. I think that is an issue for the Committee to consider in targeting the support now to learners, that it is very hard to escape deadweight factors and target very finely so that you really only do support the people who would otherwise not be involved in the system. I think that is quite an issue. Of course, ILAs were particularly helpful in IT, that was a very strong area for them, and I hope it is a suspension and we can revisit ILAs perhaps particularly for workforce development, for people in employment, and find a mechanism there without some of the downsides.

  17. Is not one of the things you have been going on about the failure of FE to widen participation, and one of the problems is that the people taking up the individual learning accounts tend to be professional people, people who have had training and a very small percentage are the people we would target in terms of having no qualifications and no experience of FE or HE? I notice, and this is one of your themes, Mr Hughes, that widening participation in FE or even in ILAs is not actually working. Is that still a problem in FE? I know Ruth Silver has a great record in her college of widening participation but generally, nationally, are we really widening participation in FE?
  (Mr Hughes) Clearly we have not made the progress since 1998 we would have hoped to. We have just discussed ILAs, the Widening Participation Factor in the funding of colleges has produced fairly minimal results in our view, and the figures are clear on that. I think inevitably we will have to look at some more demand-side strategies now, for example, an entitlement to free tuition and free examination entry up to Level 2 for all adults. Unless we look at some bolder policy options like that, rather than driving the colleges through finely sliced approaches to the funding mechanism, I do not think we will get the progress we want.

  18. What do you mean by "finely sliced"? Could you explain it? We are slow learners ourselves, tell us what you are getting at there.
  (Mr Hughes) I do not believe that for a moment! If you look at the technical complexities of putting a postcode premium on the funding of individual students, there are others in this room today who could talk more lyrically than I could about all the nuances of the methodology which can be used to do that, and the weight of the factor and how it works in practice and so on. I simply say, we are running out of steam with those sorts of approaches and we need to look at some clearer demand-side approaches—Level 2 entitlements, paid educational leave, tax credits, whatever it is.

  19. Educational Maintenance Allowances?
  (Mr Hughes) Yes, certainly EMAs, and student support, income-contingent loans for adults in further education, a whole raft of measures.

23   Sixth Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1997-98: Further Education, HC 264-I. See also First Special Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1998-99, Government's Response to the Sixth Report from the Committee, Session 1997-98: Further Education, HC 56. Back

24   Evidence p 6. Back

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