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Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this debate. My constituency is served by three colleges in South Yorkshire: two big ones—Barnsley and Doncaster colleges—and a smaller one, Dearne Valley college, which is the closest to my constituency. It is only half a mile across the River Dearne in the constituency of my
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hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. It acts as a good case study of how we need to fine tune the further education machine.

It is important to understand the origins of Dearne Valley college. In the early 1990s, the previous Conservative Government tried to reinvigorate deprived communities through their city challenge initiative. At that time, Barnsley council was the only local authority in the country to win two city challenges. As deputy leader of the council, I was proud of that because it showed that we were willing to work with any Government for the betterment of our constituents.

Ours was a joint city challenge between Barnsley council, Rotherham council and Doncaster council, and our vision—our flagship project—was the building of a university of the coalfields in the Dearne valley, because we could see the importance of higher education to the future of those communities. None of the coalfield communities in South Yorkshire had access to higher education provision at that time—the only place in South Yorkshire that did was Sheffield, and we wanted to correct that. However, we could not get the funding package together to deliver that university. I am not saying that we had to settle for second best, however, because that was not the case.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall that, in the initial stages of the development of Rockingham college, the location of the institution was an old bin depot in Wath upon Dearne? It is thanks to a Labour Government that we got a brand new college building on the site of the old Manvers pit. Is that not the case?

Jeff Ennis: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. It shows the lengths that we will go to, as both a Labour Government and a local Labour government, to pursue recycling.

Mr. Clapham: As my hon. Friend will be aware, yesterday the Housing and Regeneration Bill had its Second Reading. As he will know, the new agency will incorporate English Partnerships, which played an important part in the regeneration of coalfield communities. Does he share my fear that the new agency may focus on the south-east rather than on the coalfield communities, as was the case previously? It is necessary to ensure that Ministers realise that the coalfield communities are still dependent on a great deal of regeneration and therefore we need the focus to be retained on those communities.

Jeff Ennis: My hon. Friend, who is chairman of the all-party group on coalfield communities, is doing a magnificent job on that issue and I could not endorse his words any more strongly.

Mr. Illsley: The one thing I did not mention about South Yorkshire colleges was the recent innovation whereby we now have University Centre Barnsley, due to the collaboration between the university of Huddersfield and Barnsley college, which is providing higher education within the Barnsley area after so many years without it.

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Jeff Ennis: Obviously, I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said. The same thing applies to the Doncaster end of my constituency, where Doncaster college has gone into collaboration with the university of Hull.

I would like to make a little progress now and get back to the Dearne Valley college case study. In the strategic area review conducted by the Learning and Skills Council, Dearne valley was recognised as an area of particular significance for planning. The review said:

Sheffield city region has established a special board to consider the Dearne valley. The Minister for Local Government, in whose Wentworth constituency the college is situated, and who unfortunately is not here this morning, has been selected to chair the first meeting of that group, which will take place this Friday, 30 November.

We have already mentioned the changes to the Government machine, as it were, and the separation of the two Departments. Dearne Valley college has some concerns about the implications of education funding for 16 to 19-year-olds being accessed through three local authorities. That means that the college must work in collaboration with Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster authorities. It is vital to emphasise the continuing importance of informed choice in driving the system for those aged 16 to 18 and in providing reassurance that funding will follow the learner, regardless of local authority boundaries. Although it is technically in Rotherham, almost two thirds of the students at Dearne Valley college come from Barnsley and Doncaster, and the vast majority of those students come from my part of the Dearne valley.

Moving on to the agenda for those aged 14 to 19, DVC is working on a number of collaborative initiatives related to diploma development. Diploma submission work is also taking place based on a DVC approach. Collaboration is essential if diplomas are to be successful. However, it is costly in terms of staff time in the preparation phase and there will be significant additional delivery costs: for example, the costs of travel where students move between education providers. I think that diplomas are the way forward and I am a big supporter of their introduction. They will be important to the future of South Yorkshire. Their one really big strength is the greater collaboration that is involved, both between colleges and secondary schools and between different secondary schools, to ensure that we have a network of diploma provision in all our areas. That is a strength rather than a weakness.

DVC is the lead college for Yorkshire and the Humber on the active participation in sports strand of the national higher education framework, to maximise the opportunities that will arise from the 2012 Olympics. I understand that there will be a national strategy for physical education in schools from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Universities seem to be well resourced to bring sport and fitness to the fore, but in FE there is no funding to support any entitlement to keep young people active. Is the Minister aware of that problem and, if so, will he raise it with his colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that it is rectified?

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On adult provision, nationally, we have moved towards train to gain, but that scheme remains a contentious issue in South Yorkshire. The South Yorkshire colleges want to play their part in the delivery of train to gain. However, barriers will continue to exist if only full qualifications can be funded when individuals and employers want bite-sized chunks. Train to gain needs to be more flexible to meet the needs of both students and, just as importantly, businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central made in his submission.

Mr. Illsley: Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of train to gain, I wonder whether he would like to comment on the situation that arose in the summer of 2006 in South Yorkshire. At that time, a consortium of six colleges in the area bid for 1,600 places on the train to gain scheme, but they were allocated only 695 places, having been led to believe that they would achieve the full 1,600 places. Obviously, they lost out in the funding for that scheme.

Jeff Ennis: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. At that time, we were faced with a mini-crisis in funding for the colleges in South Yorkshire. We made representations to the Ministers at the time and hopefully that situation will not be repeated.

I know that we are still waiting for details of next year’s funding. However, the rate of standard learner numbers that we hear suggested would have a detrimental effect on college budgets and the ability of colleges to meet the demands in relation to students aged 16 to 19, when the emphasis is on those in the NEET category—those not in education, employment or training. There is also a lack of employers willing to take on apprentices, which was another point made by my hon. Friend.

There is also an issue about students with learning difficulties and disabilities. If they are 19-plus when they embark on a level 1 programme, although we can waive their fees, they are too old for education maintenance allowance and they do not qualify for the adult learning grant, as their programme is not a level 2 programme. That particular problem links with the general problem of 19 being something of an artificial barrier in lifelong learning, and I would like the Minister to say more about that issue later. I know that the issue overlaps the two Departments, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, but I would still like to hear his comments.

As we are looking at FE, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the jewels in our crown, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned: Northern college, which is in his constituency. It is an outstanding college that achieved grade 1 inspection levels from Ofsted in all categories last November.

Northern college is often referred to as the Ruskin college of the north. I am afraid that I do not refer to it as that; I refer to Ruskin college as the Northern college of the south. Northern college has brought three areas of concern to our attention as local MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone made the point about the problem with the current foundation learning tier and how that disadvantages adult learners in particular. The college states:

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My hon. Friend made the second point that Northern college has drawn to our attention: that the LSC prefers to deal with big providers rather than the smaller ones such as Northern college. I shall not go into too much detail on that, because of time constraints.

The third point that the college made to us, on which I will elaborate, is that it has noticed that the statement of priorities calls for a review of, among others, the special designated institutions, of which it is one. It states:

That is my point. The college is outstanding in every inspection category and has already gone through one review, but we seem to be carrying out another review that is not particularly relevant.

That leads me nicely to another major concern that I have: the disparity in funding support currently available to adult learners in FE and HE. It underlines the point that FE is often considered the Cinderella part of the education service. Currently, adult learners in higher education have access to approximately £4.5 billion of support via grants, loans, bursaries and child care. That covers approximately 1.5 million adult students, taking up roughly 1.1 million full-time equivalent places in universities. Yet adult learners in further education have access to less than £500 million of support, catering for 3 million students or 630,000 full-time equivalent places. Obviously there are far more part-time adult students in FE than in HE. I know that the comprehensive spending review for the next three years has already happened, but I hope that we can revisit the matter in the short term rather than hide behind that.

As has been said, diplomas have the potential to transform our education system, particularly to the benefit of places such as South Yorkshire, but all stakeholders need to get on board. I am thinking of colleges, schools, students, parents and employers, particularly SMEs.

Mr. Clapham: Does my hon. Friend agree that, when teaching diplomas, we need to encourage enterprise among students? He will have seen the figure provided in the briefing from the Association of Colleges: if we could get one in every 300 students to start their own business, it would greatly help the regeneration of the entire South Yorkshire economy. Does he also agree that there is a need to ensure that the diplomas have a currency that is accepted universally? As he knows, our focus on education in rebuilding and renewing the local economy in Barnsley has added to social mobility. Young people from Barnsley are travelling to work in Sheffield, Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds and Manchester, and a real stimulus to that is that the qualifications that they achieve are as good as qualifications anywhere. We need to ensure that diplomas have universal currency.

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Jeff Ennis: My hon. Friend makes an extremely forceful and valid point. Qualifications are currency in the job market, and that is what we must achieve with the diplomas. We must ensure that employers consider the currency of a diploma just as they do that of more formal academic qualifications. That is a key strand that we need to deliver as a Government; we must try to get that message over, particularly to SMEs.

Apprenticeships are popular in South Yorkshire. For example, in Barnsley in the past four years there has been a 167 per cent. growth in the number of apprenticeships. In 2002, there were 211 completed apprenticeships in Barnsley; last year there were 564. In Doncaster there has been a 147 per cent. growth in the same time frame, from 356 completed apprenticeships in 2002 to 830 last year. I support fully the drive to increase opportunities and, again, we must target SMEs to become engaged. I keep repeating that opinion, and I know that the Minister shares it. We have an over-reliance in South Yorkshire on very few large companies in the private sector and on the public sector. We need to engage more with SMEs.

I have flagged up a number of concerns that have been passed on to me by colleges in my area. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Government have done many things to improve further education, particularly lifelong learning, since they came to power. I hope that the Minister will accept that I make my points to improve the current model so that it can benefit many of my constituents who are currently disadvantaged, such as adult learners. They have been failed by the education system in the past and must not be in the future.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): I remind the House, to save any embarrassment later, that the Chairman is required to call the first of the three Members who are to make winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the termination of the debate. We therefore have only 13 minutes left before I shall do so.

10.17 am

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) on securing this important debate. He went through the background to the debate in some detail, including the recent economic development of South Yorkshire, and I shall not repeat the statistics that he gave. Unemployment in the area has reduced significantly but remains slightly higher than the national average—6.5 per cent. for South Yorkshire compared with 5.3 per cent. for England as whole. South Yorkshire traditionally enjoyed higher employment rates than the national average in the days of coal and steel, so we still have some way to go to rebuild the prosperity that we enjoyed in the past.

To some extent, those figures can be related to education maintenance allowance take-up in South Yorkshire. Barnsley has enjoyed a good take-up of the allowance but in Sheffield, for some reason, it is much lower and brings the South Yorkshire figure down. I am not proud to say that. The increase in take-up in Sheffield in 2006-07 was only 28.6 per cent., which brings the average increase in South Yorkshire down to 43 per cent. In England as a whole, it was 76.9 per cent. That statistic tells me something about what we need to do to build further education in South Yorkshire.

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There are two parts to the problem: low aspiration, which is reflected in the higher level of young people not in education, employment or training—I hate the term NEETs, so I shall try not to use it—and Government structures and regulations that tend not to work to the benefit of further education. Those are the two points that we need to debate. Further education has a critical role to play in developing the post-16 staying-on rate, and in ensuring that we meet the economic and skills needs of this country and of South Yorkshire. Why is that the case? I have a firmly held view, based on my 10 years of experience working in further education, that young people—like anybody else—have differing needs. Some benefit from a sixth-form environment, but quite a lot benefit from the independent learning environment offered in further education. They need not to be spoon-fed but to be able to explore and learn in their own manner. In my view, many young people are ready and able to do that at a much earlier age than we have ever assumed before, which is why I welcome the involvement of FE in pre-16 education.

I want to see an education system that is increasingly geared toward the individuality of young people and that offers a mixed package, so that they can learn in a sheltered school environment and enjoy the independent learning environment of the local college. In most case, many young people would benefit from that mix. Therefore, colleges have a critical role to play, and in South Yorkshire they already cater for 61 per cent. of post-16 education. The importance of the colleges is suggested in the range of provision in South Yorkshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) mentioned Dearne Valley college. I worked at that college, which is why I mentioned its rebuild. I remember very well the old bin depot and was pleased to get out of it and into the brand new building. I will always be grateful to the Government for providing us with those wonderful new buildings. Dearne Valley college is a centre of vocational excellence for sports and fitness. One of South Yorkshire’s economic clusters is the development of sports, the fitness industry and sports medicine via the local universities. Dearne Valley needs to be embedded much more successfully in that economic cluster—the development of the sports economy of South Yorkshire—but it needs support to do that. Given the location of the college and the poor state of local transport because of deregulation in 1986, which at last we are doing something about, such support may involve helping some students to get to the college.

Northern college, which has been mentioned frequently, is a great institution that serves the whole of South Yorkshire and beyond; it is the Ruskin college of the north. The fact that we have the Ruskin collection in Sheffield underlines the point that was made earlier in that regard. Sheffield college, which is the biggest college in South Yorkshire, has a number of areas of excellence, not the least of which is catering. It has the most tremendous catering department that I have ever seen. It is good that I entrusted my wedding reception to the training department at Sheffield college, and I never regretted it for a moment. I got a much better deal from the college than I ever would have from any of the local hotels and institutions. It is an absolutely superb facility for young people in Sheffield. Many of our nationally regarded chefs come from the catering department of Sheffield college.

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