Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)
20 Jul 2005 : Column 1375
on securing such an important debate. I should like to do what he did. He put his concerns about Dunstable college in the wider context of Government policy, and I shall try to deal with the questions that he raised.

I think we can all agree that in the 21st century it matters more than ever for education to be able to transform the lives of children and adults, whatever their background and wherever they live, and for the state to have a responsibility for providing and paying for high-quality initial education and training for young people. Most people would agree on that, and we are committed to providing it. That means providing a place in school or in college, or an apprenticeship, for every young person. For adults, the performance and success of the learning and skills sector is critical, because of its strong links with the economy and because of the Government's wider agenda. We need a strong economy if we are to make progress on the Government's health, welfare and social reform priorities.

We want to ensure that suitable learning and training opportunities continue to be available to, and accessible to, individuals. As we set out in our skills White Paper, we want all adults to have the opportunity to develop a foundation of basic and work skills, so that they can become more employable and adaptable to the rapidly changing needs of the workplace. The Government recognise the huge importance of the post-16 education and skills sector in realising that ambition.

Andrew Selous rose—

Phil Hope: I will address the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, but if he will forgive me I shall spend a few moments trying first to establish the context and background. I will give way shortly if I am not covering the issues quickly enough.

So we are investing more money in the sector than ever before, and in 2005–06 it will receive no less than £10 billion. Investment in FE colleges has increased significantly. In the three years to 2005–06, total funding for the FE sector alone has risen by £1 billion—a 25 per cent. cash increase. This year, seven out of 10 colleges will receive an above-inflation budget increase; indeed, almost half will receive an increase of more than 5 per cent. I shall deal with Dunstable college's situation in a moment.

The 2005 Budget also included an additional £350 million-worth of capital investment for the period 2008–09 to 2009–10, in order to support the longer-term transformation of the FE estate. Over the next five years, Government capital investment in FE will total £1.5 billion—up from nothing in 1997. I am pleased to say that our investment so far has paid off. Some 862,000 adults have achieved literacy, numeracy and language qualifications since 2001, surpassing the 2004 public service agreement target. Overall success rates have increased from 65 per cent. in 2001–02 to 71 per cent. in 2003–04. Some 670,000 more adults a year participate in FE than participated in 1997. So far, 21,000 employers—and 164,000 employees—have benefited from the employer training pilots, gaining the skills and qualifications that they need to improve their overall productivity and competitiveness.
20 Jul 2005 : Column 1376

Andrew Selous rose—

Phil Hope: Despite that, there is an issue that we have to address, but, first, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Andrew Selous: For the 25 staff of Dunstable college sitting at home tonight, the global increases in the FE sector are very welcome, but the Minister will doubtless realise that what they want to know is why £833,000 has been taken from the college's budget.

Phil Hope: As I said, I want to give the general context before getting down to the specifics of Dunstable college.

Despite these significant sums, the public purse cannot meet the demand for all learning. I am always pleased when Conservative Members of Parliament come to the House to ask for more money for their area. I find it slightly difficult to reconcile that with the platform on which they stood at the election—one that involved cutting public spending by £30 billion and abolishing the union learning representatives scheme, which provides many opportunities for people in the workplace to gain adult basic skills. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is standing up for his constituency and he is right to do so, but as I said, I have to reconcile that with the platform on which his party stood at the election.

Andrew Selous: I am slightly disappointed with the Minister's tone. I have not come here for party political knockabout. If he thinks back seriously to the election, he will remember that my party pledged to match every single penny that his party pledged to the education sector.

Phil Hope: Adjournment debates are not the time for party political knockabout, which is why I want to deal with the issues specific to Dunstable college. But it is worth reminding the House of the background to the situation with which we are now dealing.

The Government cannot and should not fund all the skills investment needed to sustain a competitive economy. Public money is always finite and it must benefit those who need it most, even if that means that some will have to pay more toward the cost of their learning. However, we do not want to lose courses that people value and enjoy, so finding a new balance of responsibilities between the Government—the taxpayer—employers and individual learners is crucial. That will require cultural changes and, I have to say, a fundamental shift in expectations and practice about who pays for what.

Only one in 10 colleges will have received an overall reduction to the budget, although for other colleges, the increases and allocations may not have been quite as high as expected or wanted. The Government and the Learning and Skills Council acknowledge that difficult decisions have to be made. There are many reasons why an individual college should find itself among the one in 10 with reduced budgets for 2005–06. Primarily, it is a combination of whether the focus lay outside Government priority areas in the past and historical underperformance.
20 Jul 2005 : Column 1377

The hon. Gentleman asked about the timing and how much notice was given of the change that the sector is undergoing. Our skills strategy, published in 2003, set out our priorities. They were clearly repeated and published again by the LSC in December 2004 and repeated in January 2005. As a result, 16-to-18 learner numbers are expected to increase by 3 per cent.—an additional 18,000 young people in further education next year. That is good news, because participation at the age of 17 at the moment puts us fifth from bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league table. We have a target to get that up to 90 per cent. over the next decade—a big ambition that we will achieve only if we invest in 16-to-18 education. That also means that colleges with a significant focus on adult education are more likely to have received reduced allocations than those with higher numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds—all the more so where existing adult provision is not already aligned with Government priorities.

In the case of Dunstable college, that combination of circumstances is exactly what has happened. In comparison with other colleges in the area, the college had a particularly low number of 16 to 18-year-old learners, while having a particularly large number of adult learners. That, together with factors linked to course mix for both age groups, resulted in the college's budget for 2005–06 being reduced by £150,000 in comparison with 2004–05—a 2 per cent. reduction.

I am aware that the local learning and skills council considered the impact that the funding allocations might have on certain institutions. Local offices reviewed those initial allocations and reallocated funds, where they believed either that priority provision could be better served or where a college would be unduly disadvantaged. As a result, Dunstable college received an additional £233,000 through that process. I might add that the college has historically experienced financial difficulties, which the learning and skills council has been working with the college to address. Financial support in the past has been considerable. In May 2003, the college received £1.8 million of "exceptional support" from the local LSC.

I also understand that the current budget proposals that the hon. Gentleman has spoken about tonight are part of a wider review, which many colleges such as Dunstable are undertaking to look further into areas of financial viability and see how they can be made more efficient. I know, too, that there has been discussion between the college, the hon. Gentleman and the LSC about the perceived unfair treatment of both the college and the region in terms of adult budgets, but I am confident that the LSC has consistently applied the same funding criteria to all colleges in Bedfordshire and Luton—and, indeed, to those in the east of England. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Bedfordshire has not been required to show a greater reduction in adult activity than other areas in the region. Any apparent variation between local offices is due to the differing ratios of 16 to18 adult activity and the extent of 16-to-18 growth.

Next Section IndexHome Page