Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



  100. I know you are not at the moment.
  (Mr Harwood) There was a ministerial guarantee, real terms guarantee.

  101. That only applied to schools which do not have a reduction in the number of sixth formers.
  (Mr Harwood) That is true, it applies providing they maintain or increase their numbers. If their numbers decline then the reduction takes place at a lower rate, in other words the unit funding which is withdrawn is quite a low level compared with some of the funding going into the school sixth forms. That is a point we have received some criticism for because we apply that both to the growth and to the reduction of funding places in sixth forms. That is the position, a promise has been made and we are going to guarantee that. In terms of the longer term, our position has to be, as was promised earlier in the year, there will be an upwards convergence of funding to bring those to the level of school sixth forms.

  102. And you are comfortable you can deliver that upwards convergence?
  (Mr Harwood) When you say that I am comfortable we can deliver it, I am not sure what—

  103. You have the resources promised?
  (Mr Harwood) I have not seen the grant letter for next year, so I cannot give you a precise answer to that question. What I can say is that if you look at the existing forecast of public expenditure then it is clear that the real terms guarantee can be met for school sixth forms, but the other provision is not going to converge.


  104. Come on, Mr Harwood! Are you being totally honest with the Committee? The fact is you have a chairman sitting on your left there who, in an interview with the TES, said he thought Ministers' commitment to the funding regime for sixth form colleges was unfortunate. Surely people out there will think, "Here is the chairman of the LSC who really wants to cut down funding to sixth forms and get a common playing field at a lower level", that is the truth, is it not? Otherwise he would not have said that in the interview.
  (Mr Sanderson) I also made it clear I was speaking personally, Chairman.

  105. I have to say on these matters, Mr Sanderson, you cannot speak personally now you are chairman of the LSC.
  (Mr Sanderson) Okay.

  106. I am not criticising you, Mr Sanderson, I am just saying, come on, level with the Committee. You obviously thought it was unfortunate that the Secretary of State had made that commitment. Why?
  (Mr Sanderson) We both went to the London School of Economics and I do not really think, putting it completely frankly, giving open-ended financial commitments is something which can be sustained for a long period of time. Just in principle I do not think that is deliverable.

  107. But below that, Mr Sanderson, do you think sixth forms are over-funded and alternative provision is under-funded?
  (Mr Sanderson) If you add to that that if you do the same job in an FE college with the same qualifications, as I understand it, and I am new to this, you get paid about 10 to 12 per cent less than if you do it in sixth forms—and we do have a little bit of evidence that people are starting to walk from one to the other—then this constraint is clearly something which needs to be looked at very carefully.

Mr Chaytor

  108. May I come back to Mr Harwood's point on the convergence? Did I understand you to say that under the existing Government spending plans the convergence would not be possible, that is to say it would not be possible to bring up the unit funding for further education colleges to the level of sixth forms in schools?
  (Mr Harwood) Yes. As we understand it, projecting forward the current way that funding is allocated to school sixth forms on the one hand and FE provision on the other hand—and you will be familiar that the funding formula, assuming the real terms guarantee is operating which it clearly is—it involves a formula which very, very roughly is RPI-plus for schools, and RPI-minus for colleges. If that formula continues to be applied, clearly there is going to be a divergence mathematically. Our current calculation, taking a commitment for upwards convergence as it is known—sorry about the loose terminology but assuming you understand the meaning of the words—then in order to get to a situation where 16 to 18 year olds in FE[2] are funded at the same level as the reality in schools, driven by the real terms guarantee, then we need an extra somewhere around £280 million to meet that. If one then rolled out that upwards convergence not just to 16 to 18, in other words the equivalents, but to the broader base of FE students, then that would need about £600 million a year. Those are very rough figures about the differentials which exist at the moment in the system.

  109. Thank you that is very useful. Given that the LSC in contrast to the FEFC, which it has subsumed, has a planning function and not just a financing function, do you have a view on the minimum size of a sixth form school that is viable under the current regime or under any future regime?
  (Mr Harwood) No.

  110. Given that you have a planning function, should you not have a view?
  (Mr Sanderson) Can I have a go at that? I think this is absolutely fundamental to what we are trying to do. The underlying theme touched on the importance of the local Learning and Skills Councils and I very much come from a business culture which says that operating decisions are taken by operating units, which in this case is the local Learning and Skills Councils. We can—and we do—pronounce on the national strategy and national targets and of course we inherited our remit and a terrific one it is too, but when it comes to the point where the things are going to grind together, it has to be a local decision about the size of sixth forms, whether FE colleges should be amalgamated and so on. There is no neutral position and we have to respond to societal changes and we will have to change, so what we are saying is, very clearly, that these local Learning and Skills Councils must produce their own strategies which are well under way now after all the consultations which they are required to do—about 50 different bodies—and come up with something which has local clout behind it which is viewed about 80-20 (because you never get 100 per cent consensus) as the best for Warrington or wherever it is. Then go from there to come up with difficult recommendations in these sort of areas and at least it will then, when it is pushed up to the national level, have the force and authority of a local consensus behind it. I think what we should be doing is trying to put some process in place which makes sense and this is about as near as we can get so far.

  111. So you would expect each local LSC would have a view about the minimum size?
  (Mr Sanderson) Yes, because clearly in Devon or Cornwall there would be a case for having smaller sixth forms here and there, but much less of a case if you were in central Manchester.

  112. Given that the LSC now has an involvement in inspection and issues of quality as well as financing, does the LSC nationally, or would you accept individual LSCs, have a view on the extent to which small sixth forms could provide the broad and balanced curriculum which is to be expected from Curriculum 2000?
  (Mr Sanderson) We have views—

  113. Would you publish those views?
  (Mr Sanderson) I would expect the local ones to vary very significantly, because what is appropriate for one set of geography and logistics will not be appropriate for another.

  114. But we have a national curriculum.
  (Mr Sanderson) We have a national curriculum but there have to be modifications around it.
  (Mr Harwood) There are a whole range of factors which need to be borne in mind in any one particular case and the purpose of the area inspections is to ask questions about how well the provision in any particular area is meeting the needs of the young people and the community of that particular area.. One then has to say, "What is the quality? What is happening? How well is it meeting the needs for curriculum choice and quality of learning and so on?" It may well be that there are different answers to the simple question of the numbers that you are asking, and those answers will be different in different parts of the country. Are there collaborative arrangements in place, for example? Are there issues about rural sparsity which means if you move that school sixth form somewhere else it would be impossible for people to get there? There are a whole range of issues which I think make it very difficult to say there is some magic number which is the minimum size of a school sixth form, and certainly we have not even tried to produce a minimum number. As the chairman said, we are concerned to make sure these decisions are taken pragmatically in different parts of the country in terms of the different circumstances that they face.

  115. What you are saying essentially is, although you broadly accept that in terms of economic viability and capacity to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum small sixth forms will struggle, there may be justification in rural areas for them to continue?
  (Mr Sanderson) Correct.


  116. What would worry this Committee, taking the business analogy a little further, is if the LSC did not have the capacity to evaluate on a regular basis the success of whatever the mix and match is at the local level. Evidence to this Committee's predecessor, the Education and Employment Committee, suggested something which amazed us, that the eastern region of the United Kingdom is the lowest-performing region of all in terms of FE and HE. We would expect, surely, the LSC nationally would have a role in saying, "Okay, we have this quite sophisticated tool, going down postal codes, finding out the performance in FE" and then doing something about it.
  (Mr Sanderson) You are absolutely right, of course, but this has to be a dialogue between the centre and the local Learning and Skills Councils, and an iterative and reiterative process which will go on forever which will respond to local changes. Also, do not forget, the starting position is not the same. Salford, for example, I think has no sixth forms at all. It will have to be an iterative and reiterative process and the centre will describe the strategy and the basic precepts and the targets and the boundaries within which it can work—an important thing for good business practice—and then local conditions are applied. I do not think we should go for an alternative scenario which is to say, "No sixth forms with less than 136 pupils will be entertained." That would not make any sense at all.

Mr Shaw

  117. Your Key Objectives and Targets for 2004 are set out in your Strategic Framework, your Corporate Plan, and clearly if these targets are going to be met we need to ensure that further education colleges are delivering a quality curriculum, which is something you have corresponded on with colleges and has been the subject of some media coverage in recent weeks. I do not want to dwell too much on that but you might want to say something on that as you have the opportunity. Clearly, the Association of Colleges do have a view that in order for them to deliver they will be far more effective if they were not bound up with such complicated arrangements of inspection. Dr John Brennan told the Committee that within the space of two months one further education college had an audit from ten different organisations, involving 57 individual visits, and the principal of Sheffield College told us he expected a total of 240 inspectors within the current academic year. Clearly that takes up time, energy and cash as well. OFSTED has the remit to inspect. When you meet Mike Tomlinson—and we will be seeing him in December—what will you say are the top three concerns in terms of inspection?
  (Mr Harwood) Do you mean arising from inspection?

  Mr Shaw: Do you have a concern about all this inspection which is taking place, whether it is too bureaucratic for the colleges, causing them to be continually spending their time and energy on that and having less time concentrating on the curriculum and providing more effectively-run institutions?


  118. If we had people like this wandering around BP Amoco service stations, no one would ever get any petrol, would they? They would be filling in forms all the time. Can I take Mr Sanderson first because you were shaking your head when Jonathan was speaking and I wondered why.
  (Mr Sanderson) What you are talking about, and I will let John speak because it is very near his heart, is our inheritance in large part. We have to spend some time on rationalising this but we have already started the process. If I go and sit at the other end, which I have done—and I have been going round the colleges as you might expect me to do—and I sit down at the desk and ask two or three people, "What do you have to fill in to get this IT grant" or whatever it is, well there is much room for improvement.

  119. Far too much inspection, far too much bureaucracy and you are going to reduce it, are you?
  (Mr Sanderson) Of course, we are.

2   Note by witness: full-time. Back

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