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20 Jan 2004 : Column 429WH—continued

Learning and Skills (Somerset)

3.30 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate on a topic that is extremely important in the county of Somerset.

Last week, when I was told that I had been fortunate enough to secure this debate, my telephone started ringing. The callers were from Somerset county council. They sounded very twitchy. The county council's education department wanted to know what I was going to say. I could sense the panic in the callers' voices and I suspect that they are still panicking. Perhaps they thought that I was about to blame them for every single thing that has ever gone wrong in Somerset's schools and colleges.

Sir Nicholas, you may not be aware that my last intervention on the subject of education, which was in an exchange with the Prime Minister, led to Somerset county council passing a censure motion against me. All that I did was ask a question. I was trying to find out what had happened to the Government money paid to Somerset to spend on education. Many people in my constituency, teachers and parents included, believe that a lot of that money has been deliberately withheld. However, the county council does not like Members of Parliament interfering, so, I am told, it reported me to Mr. Speaker. I have news for Somerset: Mr Speaker seems to have ignored the council. He and I maintain the most cordial of relations, and I rather doubt that I would be standing here today, talking about education again, if that were not so. In fact much of what I want to highlight is extremely positive.

In Bridgwater, we are immensely proud of the achievements of Bridgwater college. It is an outstanding example of what can be done to provide first-class further education and skills training.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions Bridgwater college. It is true that a number of my constituents in Taunton go to Bridgwater college, as I am sure a number of my hon. Friend's constituents go to Richard Huish college, an excellent academy for sixth-form learning, and to the Somerset college of arts and technology, which is based in Taunton. We are in agreement, and will he join me in congratulating those colleges too?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : As usual, my hon. Friend is extremely eloquent in his defence of Taunton. He does a marvellous job, and I completely agree with him. Many of my constituents go to SCAT and to Huish, and they get a marvellous education there. As one may not speak about matters outside one's constituency, I bang the drum manfully for Bridgwater college.

It is a tribute to the dedication and hard work of its staff that Bridgwater college has been recognised at national level. I am sure that the Minister will endorse these remarks with his own congratulations. Such success, however, can illustrate problems elsewhere. My constituency is extremely large and contains very different communities. Bridgwater is a bustling industrial town, with a first-rate college. Minehead, at the other end, is best known as a seaside holiday resort, surrounded by the beautiful west Somerset landscape on

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the fringe of Exmoor. It is the home of the West Somerset community college, which has also achieved glowing testimonials but which is lower on the financial food chain than Bridgwater. It is a very good place to get a qualification, but it is only a community college. It could certainly do with some extra money spending on it. It must expand in order to compete. The Somerset learning and skills council would like to bolster West Somerset community college and introduce improvements, but money is the key; there is not enough.

I am not here to bleat for additional resources just for the sake of it, as the Liberal Democrats often do. My concern is more strategic and has a bearing on rural constituencies throughout the country, because a first-rate college such as Bridgwater is, by its reputation, bound to be a more attractive proposition for some students than a local college, however good that college may be. Inevitably, the best colleges act as magnets, and magnetism can be an extremely powerful and potentially disruptive scientific force. It is no secret that every day hundreds of students are bussed to Bridgwater college from all over Somerset and beyond. That is a daily round trip of 100 miles, and more in some cases. Bully for Bridgwater, but what about common sense and costs?

I can give the costs straight away. Somerset county council's school bus budget is in deficit to the tune of £800,000. For once, I do not think that that is entirely the county council's fault—I hope that it is listening. Budgeting for school buses has always been a lottery, but it becomes more absurd if councils are forced to second-guess the decisions of students to take up college places scores of miles from their homes.

Somerset has six colleges of further education. Further education is big business in my part of the world, employing 3,000 staff and catering to 40,000 students. In the past three years, the colleges have invested £40 million in new buildings and IT equipment. That is marvellous, but the bill for subsiding students' travel is huge. Together, the six colleges shell out £450,000 every year. A single annual bus pass may cost, say, £120 a year, but the student is charged only £50. The colleges have to settle the bills from any surpluses that they create. I am sure that the Minister can understand the burden that that places on colleges such as West Somerset.

The problem is much worse in rural areas where scheduled buses are few and far between. Often colleges must commission private coach operators, which does not represent common-sense policy making. Surely it would be better to spend more public money bolstering up West Somerset college than paying for needless bus rides across the county. I am all for extending choice, but it makes more sense to offer equal choice in education, wherever someone may live.

I know that the Government already have plans to alter the financing of school transport. In September, the education maintenance allowance will be introduced. That will lift some of the financial burden from the shoulders of local authorities for providing school transport, but it will bring a new and unexpected load for students. The allowance will be means-tested. If one qualifies, it will put £30 in one's pocket. Those who live in west Somerset who go to Bridgwater college by bus will just about be able to pay the fare with that

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money. However, those who live in Bridgwater, who make their own way to college, will be £30 better off. The policy needs serious reconsideration. I wonder whether the impact of that way of alleviating the plight of students in constituencies such as mine is right.

There is another source of anxiety. As the Minister knows, the colleges work to a three-year delivery plan. However, the current funding allocations do not match those plans. From what I can gather, that will be an immediate problem. Some colleges have been told that there will not be enough money to finance even next year's delivery plans. That is a stark problem, and a real responsibility. The Government may have promised to boost higher education, but the money available simply is not enough. There is a proven demand for learning, and a real hunger in the business community for students with proper skills, but the three-year delivery plans are already being cheese-pared.

Those who telephoned me late last week may be sitting back in some relief: "Phew", they are probably saying, "Liddell-Grainger did not sink his fangs into our ankles." However, I am about to discuss Somerset county council right now. There is serious disquiet in Somerset about the way in which the county council runs its affairs. In the past couple of years, it has managed to create around 500 extra jobs at county hall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook). It is a costly new generation of pen-pushers. As the bureaucracy grows, the openness shrinks, particularly when it comes to education.

I have become a hate figure in county hall for raising issues that my constituents have raised with me. The council hates me for doing my job. I shall spell out the nature of the disquiet that has been reported to me. Over the past few months, teachers, governors and parents have approached me directly, asking me to make inquiries. They are concerned, and somewhat alarmed, at the way in which money promised by Whitehall for education has failed to materialise. They point to teacher redundancies, to the appointment of classroom assistants instead of teachers, and to the number of inadequate classrooms that were meant to have been replaced. Somerset will lose many of its after-school clubs. They are valuable social units that offer real activity programmes to youngsters who might otherwise hang around on street corners. I understand that many clubs now face the axe. Is that at the decree of the Minister's Department, or is it another county council blunder?

Of greater concern is the fact that my teachers also cite the manner in which special needs children are being statemented. For the benefit of the uninitiated, I shall explain. If a child needs special help, it is normal to issue a statement, and then draw down additional funds to provide help. If the statements are issued later—perhaps when a child is 13 or 14—it will clearly cost the education authority a great deal less. The word on the street is that Somerset has been notorious for late statementing.

Why do teachers who complain to me not complain directly to the county council? It is because a lot of fair-minded teachers are scared for their jobs. The worst that Somerset county council can do to me is pass a censure motion and report me to Mr. Speaker. The worst that it can do to a teacher who informs is sack her.

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Last year, the Government provided considerable extra finance for my county. We could do with more, but it is a start. Since then, I have been trying, and failing, to find out how and where money earmarked for education has been spent. The Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and I fairly recently that he was not entirely sure. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. If the county council were a plc, it would be taken to the cleaners for failing to provide detailed accounts. The Secretary of State does not know the answer to my question, the schools do not know, and I do not know.

The longer I wait for the county council, the more suspicious I become. The longer I wait for answers, the more I listen to teachers and governors who believe that much of the money has been diverted, or sat on. I have raised the matter with the Prime Minister, who shares my doubt about Liberal Democrat-run councils. The people whom I represent need and deserve straight answers.

The debate is about learning and skills. I applaud the patient efforts of Somerset teachers and the foresight of heads and principals. However, it is fair to doubt the skills of the county council in administering what is, after all, public money.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing a debate in Westminster Hall. I offer broader congratulations to hon. Members for Somerset constituencies, because this is the third consecutive Westminster Hall debate that I have attended relating to education in the county. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) secured the last of those, on schools funding, not so long ago.

I fully associate myself and my ministerial colleagues with the positive remarks made by the hon. Gentleman about the excellent work of Bridgwater college. He is rightly proud of its work. It is a beacon college—one of the top colleges in the country. Its most recent Ofsted inspection described it as outstanding, and I am sure that he would want to join me in paying tribute to the principal, Fiona McMillan, who is also the convener of the national tertiary colleges group.

I want to discuss some of the broader issues that the hon. Gentleman drew to our attention, and I hope that he and you, Sir Nicholas, will bear with me as I try briefly to outline the national context. The emphasis on skills and skills-based education is a key priority for the Government and our Department, for reasons of social justice and economic success. A fully skilled economy is critical to the country's future—a point with which I think hon. Members of all parties would agree.

Some good progress has been made nationally in that respect. Between April 2001 and July 2003, nearly 2 million learners participated in skills for life programmes, with more than 400,000 achieving qualifications. We are confident that we shall reach the target of at least 750,000 adults obtaining basic skills qualifications by the end of 2004. That is the national context for considering what is happening in Somerset.

One of our tools for ensuring the highest possible quality, which is, I know, what the hon. Gentleman has been concerned with today, is the process of strategic

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area reviews by the Learning and Skills Council. I want to talk about that process because it is relevant to the areas of concern that the hon. Gentleman raised, particularly transport and the position of the West Somerset community college in Minehead.

We have set out, nationally, five key principles to underpin the organisation of provision for the 16-to-19 age group. Those are quality, the distinctiveness of the provision, diversity to ensure curriculum breadth, learner choice and affordability, value for money, and cost effectiveness. I shall not go into each of them in detail, but they are relevant to the discussion that is going on in Somerset, and particularly to the hon. Gentleman's concerns about transport and learners' transportation costs. In considering 16–19 provision, we want to ensure equity of access to high-quality services. A young person's ability to get the best possible service should not be determined by where he or she lives. It is important for there to be distinct provision to meet the particular needs of the 16–19 age group. There should be separate management arrangements, and it should be clear who is responsible for ensuring that the learning experience of all 16–19-year-olds is appropriate and coherent.

We want to ensure that there is curriculum breadth and learner choice, a principle that is most relevant to the issue of transport. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's reference to the national launch of education maintenance allowances in September. They will bring great benefit to many young people. However, he is right to say that we want to ensure that there is equity in the process. One factor highlighted by the EMA pilots has been the cost of transport, particularly, for obvious reasons, in rural areas. As this is not directly my policy area, I should like to discuss with colleagues the specific points that the hon. Gentleman has made about EMAs and their relevance to his constituency and the county of Somerset. I undertake to write to him on that.

Mr. Flook : The Minister rightly said that he will look at the issue in the round. May I alert him to two written questions that I have addressed to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about funding for Somerset county council's transport budget? As Somerset is a rural county, the Government have appeared to be generous, but the county council sounds as though it is going to withdraw money, and it could therefore lose centrally funded rural provision. That could have an impact on students going to Minehead, some of them from the western end of my constituency, around Dulverton and Exford.

Mr. Twigg : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that matter on the record. I am sure that he will receive a response from my hon. Friends in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

It is important to gain maximum benefit from the money that has been made available to support work in rural areas. I am responsible for the draft School Transport Bill, which was announced in the Queen's Speech. That will enable a number of authorities to pilot alternative arrangements to ensure that the school transport regime is of the highest possible quality and equity. Although the statutory provisions do not apply

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to further education colleges, we shall be able to learn from the experience of FE and the EMA pilots that I have mentioned, and vice versa.

The Learning and Skills Council has a critical role to play. Its new powers enable it to fulfil its responsibilities for planning post-16 provision. It is vital that that be driven by the needs of individual learners, not by other bureaucratic processes and pressures, a fact borne out by the contribution of the hon. Member for Bridgwater. I acknowledge the constructive role that he has played by working with his LSC on the proposals to merge the colleges at Bridgwater and Cannington, seeking to learn from the excellence on the ground in his constituency that he described.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater referred to the broader picture of education in Somerset. He talked about two specific issues. One concerned after-school clubs, and the other the procedure for statementing for children with educational needs in the area covered by Somerset county council. He will understand that I am not in a position to respond fully to those questions immediately, but I will do so in writing. Suffice it to say that the statement that the Department and the Government have given keeps very much to the principle of the extended school not only as a resource for the core national curriculum but as a wider resource for the community. We seek to extend, not to cut back, the availability of breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and the opening-up of schools on Saturdays. I will consider the situation in Somerset, but I can say today with some confidence that the Department is not directing policy to close after-school clubs. We very much want them extended.

There is a general concern about late statementing. We will shortly set out an action plan on special educational needs, because the Department and the Government are acutely aware that the quality and efficiency of the statementing process for children with special educational needs varies enormously from one part of the country to another. We want to ensure the highest possible standards in every part of the country, so that every child with those needs receives the support that he or she has every right to expect.

Somerset schools and colleges have been involved with several projects, to which I want to pay tribute in the remaining couple of minutes. Building on the work of the sustainable development education panel's report, "Learning to last", the LSC funded two phases of development projects throughout the country, with 11 projects in each phase. Somerset further education colleges are involved in both phases, examining the work of sustainable development curriculum champions who are working between colleges and schools, and involving work-based learning providers, such as the Somerset College of Arts and Technology, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Taunton. These projects demonstrate the very good practice of those colleges and some of the lessons that the FE sector and schools throughout Somerset and in other parts of the country can learn from them. I want to say for the record how important that work has been and to pay tribute to SCAT and the other colleges involved in that important work, such as the centre of vocational excellence in construction at SCAT, from which I know other colleges have sought to learn lessons about how best to extend best practice in sustainable education. Broader lessons are also to be learned.

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The hon. Member for Bridgwater commented on his county council. I am wary of being drawn into conversations between him and members of Somerset county council, although I was pleased to hear him acknowledge the extra funds from central Government for schools in Somerset. I join him in paying tribute to the work done by schools in Somerset, and I pay special tribute to the head teachers, teachers, governors, other staff and pupils for their achievements. There is much to pay tribute to, especially when one considers the results of schools, especially of secondary schools, in Somerset. The measure of five A* to C grades at GCSE level and the 2002 Ofsted inspection report on Somerset, for example, demonstrate a pattern of performance that is consistently above the average for our country.

Recently published information about key stage 3 indicated that performance was very impressive, and that primary and secondary schools were achieving much with the new value-added measures that we published. I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the excellent work done in schools in Somerset, and to the work of FE colleges in Somerset. I hope and trust that the strategic area of the review process will ensure that there is that high quality, high equity and high level of learner choice to which everyone in this House is committed, so that the excellence that we heard about at Bridgwater college is available to young people in all FE colleges throughout Somerset.

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