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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 November 2007

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Further Education (South Yorkshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

9.30 am

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am also delighted that so many of my colleagues from South Yorkshire are here, and I look forward to hearing their contributions in due course. I hope that we can discuss a number of issues relating to further education provision in South Yorkshire, although the issues extend throughout the further education sector.

This debate originated in a recent meeting and dinner in the House attended by the principals of all the further education colleges in South Yorkshire, including Northern college—an adult education college based in the county that covers the whole northern region. As a consequence of that meeting, I decided to apply for this debate. Many issues were raised there, not least of which was the further education funding regime, which is affected by the 14-to-19 provision and will be affected by the decision to move 14-to-19 funding back to local authority budgets. I should like to express my gratitude to the principals of our colleges for providing us with the opportunity to have this debate.

I shall remind colleagues of the situation regarding skills in South Yorkshire, where there is a tradition of hard work and ingenuity, rather than lengthy study and formalised learning. The area is typified by lower educational attainment in secondary schools, lower post-16 participation and high numbers of young people not engaged in education, employment or training—NEETs, as they have come to be called. There are high numbers of unwaged adults and adults who receive incapacity benefits.

South Yorkshire is recovering well from the industrial collapse of the 1980s, when we lost our major industries of coal and steel. At the time, reliance was high on larger employers, such as the British Steel Corporation and the National Coal Board. We had fewer business start-ups and relied more on public sector employment than the national average.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): As my hon. Friend will be aware, British Steel and the National Coal Board took on the post-16 education situation, particularly in Barnsley. The change in the industrial scene after their disappearance meant that the local authority had to reorganise its priorities completely, and the two education departments have concentrated on training. Does he feel that that concentration is sufficient to bring about the regeneration that we require in South Yorkshire?

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Mr. Illsley: My hon. Friend and I have debated many times the safety net provided in South Yorkshire by the National Coal Board and British Steel. Young people who went to work in those industries received a second chance for education through management and training schemes. I sincerely hope that the Government’s focus on training will assist us to address problems in South Yorkshire, but I fear—I shall refer to this again in a few moments—that we must address the underlying problems of literacy, numeracy and general education.

A few years ago, the Japanese company Koyo—my hon. Friend will know it well, as it is located in his constituency—tried to attract young people into its employ and give them adequate training. Provided that they came to the company with the ability to read and write and had basic skills, it would train them to do the job, but the company’s worry was that the young people’s literacy and numeracy skills were not sufficient. I hope that the Government’s concentration on training will help to improve the situation in our area.

I am pleased that the post-16 and further education agenda is receiving so much parliamentary time. We had the opportunity recently to consider some of its aspects during the Queen’s Speech debate on forthcoming education legislation. It is good to see that the post-16 agenda is firmly in focus. I hope that we shall hear the views of colleagues and the Government on apprenticeships—whether there will be enough places and employers to offer them—as well as on 14-to-19 funding, the future of the learning and skills councils, the education maintenance allowance, NEETs and the consequences of raising the school training participation age, not the school leaving age, to 18.

Where is post-16 funding likely to be allocated? The question was asked during the Queen’s Speech debate, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said that the Government were


My right hon. Friend indicated that funding for 16 to 19-year-olds will return to local authorities. The colleges’ first question is whether their funding will be reduced or protected and continued.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): That is the key question. We have two fine institutions in Rotherham: the Rotherham college of arts and technology and Thomas Rotherham sixth form college—a big new institution where I had the honour of opening a new hall recently. They are the two lifelines for the young men and women in my constituency who will not go to university but who wish to plunge themselves into the labour market.

Ring-fenced and guaranteed funding for colleges must be flexible, and the education maintenance allowance is central to that. If funding is simply given into local authorities’ hands, there will always be a temptation,
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dedicated though Rotherham councillors are, to allow some of that money to slide to other local education authorities. We must ensure that the two education Departments—the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which deals with children up to the age of 18 or 19, and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—work together to send out a signal, as the Prime Minister said to the CBI on Monday, that the money will be there to reduce the 5.5 million unskilled workers in the work force to 500,000 by upskilling the other 5 million. We will therefore need lifelong education, but, again, the money will have to be found for that. I welcome the strong points that my hon. Friend is making.

Mr. Illsley: My right hon. Friend has made his point eloquently. He is right to suggest that the funding must be protected and ring-fenced. He knows as well as most South Yorkshire MPs that the pressures on local government funding are constant. Probably next week, we will see a tight local authority settlement, and we need to ensure that the money for our colleges is protected.

So what about the funding for our colleges? Will it be administered by the local authorities? Will colleges receive separate funding? Will it still be distributed through the learning and skills councils? What will be the future of the learning and skills councils from now on? What role will they play in college funding? Since the days of the training and enterprise councils and the advent of the learning and skills councils, they have changed out of all recognition and been amalgamated and reformed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that, either today or in writing.

Mr. Clapham: As my hon. Friend will be aware, the annual statement of priorities from the local learning and skills council also refers to four special institutions—the four residential colleges. One of those colleges, Northern college, is in my constituency. One worry at Northern college about the funding proposed by the learning and skills council is that the curricula will be lessened rather than widened. For example, the college wants social sciences and humanities to be broadened, so that adult returners can go forward in their learning future. If the curricula are not broadened, the only option is to take GCSEs, which are not necessarily the right base for new learners. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider the curricula for those four institutions? Does he also agree that there is a need to review the funding for adult learners, whose contribution to the regeneration of South Yorkshire is so important?

Mr. Illsley: Yes, I support my hon. Friend on that. He mentions Northern college, and we would do well to remember that we recently celebrated the Ofsted report on the college, which was one of the few to be rated as outstanding. The report was excellent and showed just how good a service the college provides. He refers to the foundation learning tier and the lack of a qualification to bridge the provision between further and higher education for adult returners. I hope that the Minister can say a little about whether the curriculum can be adjusted to provide a suitable qualification or subject for study that can provide that
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link into higher education for adult learners. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter.

Let me return to the idea of funding through local authorities for the 14-to-19 agenda and for our colleges. If the funding is not protected and the colleges begin to receive less funding, that will have a knock-on effect on the idea of the difference between vocational diplomas and academic qualifications. If the funding is not put in place, the vocational path will still be considered as second class to an academic career based purely on GCSEs, A-levels and so on. I hope that we will not allow that to happen and will bolster the idea of vocational training, which is so necessary.

In the debate on 13 November, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families responded to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who referred to the gap in funding between our schools and our sixth form colleges. The gap was 12 per cent., with funding for colleges lagging behind that for schools. The gap needs to be closed, rather than widened, to deal with the disparity in funding.

As I have mentioned, it will be interesting to know what the future holds for the learning and skills councils and what their role will be in the new system. Another point, which follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) said about residential colleges, concerns the idea of commissioning from the learning and skills councils. In the past, the learning and skills councils have commissioned tenders from large institutions. Northern college has made the point that it is a small college but a quality provider, as can be seen from its recent Ofsted report, but it is concerned that it will miss out if the learning and skills council continues to commission from large providers and does not allow for secondary commissioning from smaller institutions, such as Northern college. Will the Minister comment on that? Can he reassure Northern college that the tendering and commissioning processes will not exclude it?

The Association of Colleges, which provided a briefing for hon. Members for the meeting with South Yorkshire principals and for today’s debate, has suggested a single Government Department for those aged 14 to 19. In fact, it suggests that a single Department should cover those aged from nought to 19. At the moment, we have a division between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

The Association of Colleges commented:

of education for those up to the age of 19. It makes the point that many people do not recognise the age-related boundaries, stating:

The association argues in favour of

That is what we have just been discussing. It also argues for

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and for colleges

The association also stated:

Those are just some of the issues raised by the association. They are relevant not only to South Yorkshire but across the country.

The Government want to increase participation in skills and training by raising the age for participation in schools, training and education to 18. That has been broadly welcomed by most commentators, but there are problems, some of which were referred to during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. We have to ensure that we use the resources that we have to intervene at the right point in a student’s life. The point was made during that debate that keeping someone at school for an extra year or two in a situation that they are unhappy with or do not like will not address the problem. If the problem is that kids are reaching 16 without basic numeracy and literacy skills, we should intervene earlier in their school career.

In Barnsley, Northern college has designed a qualification that extends to the age of 17, because it has found that young people in Barnsley will stay on from 16 to 17, taking advantage of the education maintenance allowance, and then enter employment at 17. However, it is worried that it cannot hold on to young people from 17 to 18. Some 8 per cent. of young people in Barnsley are NEETs—the lowest ever level—which the college is pleased with. To achieve that figure, it has worked hard with local schools, which it is essential that we do, because they must take some responsibility as well, and it hopes to reduce the figure even further.

The Secretary of State has referred to various structures that we will use to ensure that, by 2013, every young person is in education or training. They include the expansion of the apprenticeship scheme—we hope, to 500,000—the provision of proper advice and guidance to young people and the continuation of the education maintenance allowances, which have been a huge success in my constituency. Barnsley has the highest take-up in the country, which has done a great deal to improve out post-16 education, which a few years ago had the lowest participation rate in the country. I hope that that programme will continue.

The need for advice and guidance was stressed during the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Advice from the Association of Colleges has reinforced the idea that, for the national roll-out of the diploma to be successful, advice and guidance to 14 and 16-year-olds, which is usually provided in schools, requires greater independence. It suggested that local authorities should have a greater role, which was echoed during the Queen’s Speech debate. Also during that debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made great play of an organisation called Skill Force, although I do not think that it operates in my area.

Mr. Clapham: An enormous effort has been made to regenerate the local economy in Barnsley, but it has no large firms, only small ones, which it is difficult to get
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to engage with colleges. Does my hon. Friend agree that greater flexibility is required in the provision of advice in towns such as Barnsley, to create an interface between those small businesses and colleges? That would put the authority in a much better position to provide careers advice.

Mr. Illsley: My hon. Friend anticipates my next point about apprenticeships, where the same point applies. Not only the Association of Colleges, but those in areas such as ours are concerned that there is not a sufficient number of large companies to provide the number of apprenticeships needed. The Government have set a target of 500,000 new apprenticeships—a great aspiration—but the worry is that our industrial base, with so many traditional large industries having been eroded over so many years, does not have enough companies able to provide those apprenticeships. The fear is that we will lose out. He is right therefore in saying that we need flexibility to take advantage of the provision of such advice.

We must bear in mind—I realise that this is not relevant to further education provision—that some of our industries have been, and will be, affected by environmental taxation, such as the climate change levy. Further pressures from climate change and environmental taxation will affect areas such as mine and our remaining industrial base.

Diplomas are also relevant to the point that my hon. Friend has just made, and although they are welcome, I hope that they will not become second-class qualifications in the vocational world. Advice must be given to employers, because they need to understand that the diploma is a qualification of good standing. They need to realise the relevance of diplomas and to accept them as qualifications. Barnsley college has expressed this concern:

In South Yorkshire, we welcome the Government’s proposals on the post-16 agenda announced in the Commons and the airtime that they have received, and we want them to succeed and to benefit our areas. We want the people of South Yorkshire to benefit from the raising of the training age, from the apprenticeships and diplomas and from the provision of vocational education. Above all, we want the Government to ensure that those new structures will work, that they are copper-bottomed and that they will be adequately funded.

9.57 am

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