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My first question to the Minister is this. What is Government policy on co-location? Is it something that the Government want? Do they want to see colleges co-locating? Is there an educational case for co-location? Ninety-three per cent. of the teachers at the sixth-form college have written to me stating that they do not want
co-location. They want independence; they want to be able to carry on as they have done for generations past and make a tremendous success of it. What is Government policy on co-location?
I want to share with the Minister the problems that the community has had in that regard. For the benefit of this debate, I shall mention the three most important people involved in the project. I shall read statements from a Shrewsbury resident who is a parent of three school-age children, a governor who was forced to resign from the sixth-form college over the issue and a lecturer at the sixth-form college.
the professional bodies the Highways Agency and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment have issued numerous and wide-ranging criticisms of the co-location plans (HA issued a TR110 directing that planning permission not be granted until all the HAs concerns have been addressed and CABE rated the plans environmental strategies as poor, the lowest possible rating).
I was so concerned about the views of the Highways Agency that I held a public meeting, attended by more than 150 members of the public. The agency has stated on record that it has serious concerns about the prospect of the co-location going ahead in London road, because that would have major ramifications for the A5 and Emstrey island, for which it is responsible. Do the Government share my concerns? I ask the Minister for a guarantee that such a project cannot go ahead as long as the Highways Agency continues to have those professional concerns.
Despite all this, the principals continue to attempt to force their project through. At times there has been scant regard for free speech and democracy (SSFC Code of Conduct issued Nov 07 prohibiting staff from speaking to the media without the Principals permission), and undue pressure has been brought to bear on individuals, including yourself, (youll remember the co-location meeting minutes of late Jan 08 which said MP will be placed under pressure at appropriate points to curb his random tendencies).
Those are the minutes of the meeting of the governors of the sixth-form college. They were leaked and given to my office. I am extremely concerned that the governors and principal of the sixth-form college have tried to stifle debate among teachers at the college who object to the proposals.
I come now to the governor of the college who was forced to resign, for whom I have great admiration, Mr. David Holmes, who is head of civil engineering for a major British company. He was forced to resign because he objected to the proposals. He had the temerity to write to my borough council and say that he did not think that the plans were right and that, as a resident, he wanted to voice his concerns. He said that he very much hoped that planning permission would not be given for the project to go ahead. He made the mistake of saying in his letter of objection to the council that he was a governor of the college, and he was forced to resign. Is the Minister happy for governors of colleges to be forced to resign if they object to planning applications?
I was requested to resign by Philip Morris (clerk) and he told me that this was as a result of a meeting between Bill Dowell
and Robert Bland (chair). I assumed that this had been with broad support of other governors but I subsequently learned that they had not been consulted at all. This is another example of the unassailable power base of the principal.
There are 16 governors...2 are elected by parents, 2 by staff, 2 by students and 2 are councillors and so have some accountability through the ballot box. This means that 50 per cent. are not elected in any fashion.
I am very concerned about that. What plans does the Minister have to make governors of important learning institutions, such as that sixth-form college, more accountable to the people whom they purport to represent, such as students, teachers, the MP and the local community? It is of great concern to me that so many of the governors are appointed rather than being directly elected to their posts.
There is no means of holding the governors to account in any meaningful fashion. They do not answer to a single electorate. Parents, for example, can only elect 2 out of 16, a very small proportion.
When I asked him who could hold the governors to account he could only come up with the LSC.
Of course the principal says that the governors can be held to account by people going to the LSC, but if someone goes to the LSC, it says, No, we cant hold the governors to account. You have to go to the governors. That is ludicrous. It allows the whole governing body to be totally unaccountable.
The introductory documentation (emailed to you on 13 May) for a person seeking to be an elected parent governor is now intimidating and virtually demands a person who is willing to accept and support all governor decisions without question. Dissent and debate do not appear encouraged. This stifles any fresh thinking.
I am trying to speak in a non-partisan way. I would like clarification from the Minister on those points. I am deeply concerned about the lack of accountability in the governors and the principal, and the fact that everything is somehow falling through that lack of accountability.
Many of the teachers at the sixth-form college feel extremely intimidated if they say anything against the proposals. I have had some 14 meetings with teachers from the college. They have come to see me here at the House of Commons, and I have gone to see them. They are desperately concerned about what is happening. One of the lecturersof course, I will not reveal her nameput the following questions directly to the Minister:
Staff at SSFC met with Bill Rammell in summer of 2007
who advised them to continue talking to their governors. This was not facilitated by governors and ultimately led to staff passing an overwhelming vote of no confidence in their governors.
In the light of advice from John Denhams office that staff should speak to their governors following an overwhelming vote of no confidence in them, what is the response to the fact that these same governors have now refused to engage in direct communication with staff on urgent and pressing issues?
Those staff who feel compelled to voice their opinions have been and continue to be threatened by disciplinary action; is it acceptable that this situation exists and how does this best serve the interests of democracy?
We all came into politics for different reasons. I came into politics because of an insatiable belief and interest in democracy, and I will stand up for the interests of every constituent of mine and their right to object to things that affect their daily or professional life in any way they like without threat of intimidation. I am extremely concerned that the trade unions representing those lecturers have not done more to make the management of the college realise that they cannot treat professional lecturers in that way. If we are to make co-location a success, those lecturers are the most vital ingredient.
Why, if the college is so committed to this project on the overwhelming grounds of the educational case, have the directors been unable to convince the college staff of the validity of their educational case?
Those are the points that have been made, and I shall conclude with a few brief remarks. I feel strongly that we need investment for our two colleges in Shrewsbury, but I hope that the Minister will tell me a few facts about the future of the LSC. I have had run-ins on the issue with the LSC chief executive, who came to see me at the House to discuss my concerns. I know that the LSC will be reformed; perhaps the Minister can tell me something about that. I am greatly concerned that Government are giving such autonomy and power to quangos such as the LSC, which make decisions from very far away without knowing the problems of the geography of places such as Shrewsbury, the feelings of my communitythe community is overwhelmingly opposed to the moveor the principals, lecturers, teachers, parents and staff, who are also overwhelmingly opposed to co-location. I need an assurance that the Minister will take a personal interest in all the professional problems that the teachers have experienced.
My final plea is given everything that I have said, will he at least consider meeting teachers at the sixth-form college to hear their concerns at first hand, because they can put their case far better than I? I could also arrange for them to visit the House of Commons. Furthermore, will he take on board my concerns about the way in which the LSC has put my community in a straitjacket by saying, You can have £30 million, if you co-locate your colleges in London road, or you have to go back to the drawing board.? That is not acceptable. My constituents and I want funding and investment for both colleges at their existing, separate sites.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy):
I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for raising this issue and for the close interest that he of course takes in the future of Shrewsbury sixth form college. As he indicated, he has raised the issue on a number of occasions, and has met my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education. The hon. Gentleman has also held a number of meetings14, I thinkin his constituency and has written to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on a number of
occasions. We have been willing and keen to continue to discuss what are very local issues in his part of the world.
We both ultimately have the same aim: to secure the best possible educational provision for the young people of Shrewsbury and the surrounding area. Shrewsbury sixth form college is a good college, according to the latest Ofsted report published in May. However, it recommends that the college should
address unsatisfactory aspects of accommodation and social space,
which was also recommended in its previous report, in 2004, prompting the college to look at options for redevelopment. The Government are undertaking a massive capital investment programme to ensure that colleges such as the one in Shrewsbury have world-class buildings and facilities. Hundreds of thousands of learners in communities throughout England have benefited from colleges taking up the opportunity given by our investment. The planned capital investment in the Shrewsbury colleges will total approximately £65 million, to provide fantastic resources for the young people in the area.
In 1997, there was no dedicated capital budget for further education colleges. Over the past 10 years, the Government have invested more than £2 billion ensuring that learners have access to the state of the art buildings and facilities that are essential if we are to meet the skills needs of local communities and young people. As set out in our capital strategy document, Building Colleges for the Future, a further £2.3 billion will be invested in the estate over the next three years. That investment will benefit generations of learners to come, meet the skills needs of employers and act as a catalyst for community regeneration.
Capital investment plays a crucial role in the Governments implementation of their priorities for young people and adults, as set out in the 14-to-19 reform programme and our response to the Leitch review of skills in England. Capital grants for sixth- form colleges are managed by the Learning and Skills Council. Following machinery of Government changes, we announced our intention to bring sixth form colleges within the scope of the Building Schools for the Future strategy document, from 2010-11, so that they can be part of the area-wide entitlement to 14-to-19 provision. We will ensure that our capital investment coheres to support sixth form colleges in the new system.
Modernisation of the college estate is not just about bricks and mortar. It is about creating the best possible learning environments accessible to all learners, and ensuring that young people are excited by learning so that they stay on in education and training. It is about delivering greater specialisation, so that businesses have access to a wider range of industry-specific skills development opportunities for their current and future employees, and about creating community-owned facilities that meet local needs and that can provide an important kick-start for local regeneration. Ensuring that such facilities are accessible to those who most need them is obviously critical, and it is absolutely necessary if we are to maximise the public benefit of the investment that we are making.
Our investment will result in cutting-edge facilities and ensure that our work force have the skills that they
need to succeed in a rapidly changing world. The Learning and Skills Council will expect all contractors that access public funding to have in place a formal training plan that maximises access to apprenticeships and work-based learning and training opportunities.
Although we are making significant progress towards modernising our further education estate, we must not do so at the expense of the environment. We will require all new projects to meet the highest building standards for sustainable design and we have a taskforce in place to advise on how to ensure that by 2016 all new buildings will be zero carbontwo years ahead of the Government target for public sector buildings that was announced in the Budget.
Daniel Kawczynski: I am following keenly what the Minister is saying about the environment, but it would be bad for the environment to co-locate colleges outside the town centre, where they would not be close to the railway station. We will have to provide many new buses to transport students from the railway station to a co-located site on the periphery of Shrewsbury. That is not joined-up government. With all respect, I am pleased that the Government are offering vital investment for co-location, but why co-locate? Why can the colleges not have money for their existing separate sites?
Mr. Lammy: I was about to come to that point. The Governments capital investment programme is providing Shrewsbury sixth form college with the opportunity to redevelop its estate to ensure that learners have the best possible facilities in which to learn.
The educational and business cases for co-location are strong. Sharing facilities at the new site will allow learners to access world-class facilities and a broader curriculum offer than they could by staying on the current site. The plans have the support of the local strategic 14 to 19 partnership for education and training, the local education authority and the local learning and skills council. The building design has been developed so that colleges retain their separate identities. They will share the building but have separate governance and management. Separate teaching and learning areas will exist for each college. The premises costs will decrease substantially owing to the modern, efficient design of the new campus.
The hon. Gentleman asked about local decision making and the accountability of governors. I should make it clear that the redevelopment of the college is ultimately a matter for local decision and for the governing body of the college as an independent institution. Such autonomy is important if we are to have a strong further education sector that can shape its own future in response to the needs of learners and employers. It would be wrong and inappropriate for a Minister to intervene directlyI am actually prohibited from doing so by legislation.
To respond specifically to the hon. Gentlemans points about the governing body, we must remember that the decisions of a governing body are corporate decisions. From the correspondence between the hon. Gentleman and the Department, it is clear that the parent governor who resigned because of his opposition to the proposals was aware of the corporate nature of the decision-making process. Having decided to oppose publicly the decision to relocate the college, which he was entitled to do, it is understandable that the corporation felt that his position
as a parent governor was untenable. The governor could not be forced to resign outside the corporations procedures, but I understand that he was asked to resign and did so.
Governing bodies do important work. The governance of Shrewsbury sixth-form college is regarded by Ofsted as a key strength. Independent inspectors found that the college had a strong governing body. My Department has an ongoing programme of work with the sector and the Association of Colleges to ensure that governance arrangements for all further education colleges are strong and that governing bodies are accountable to the communities they serve.
On the process for capital applications, it is crucial that any investment plans by colleges underpin their core mission of providing high-quality learning opportunities while responding to the diversity of their local communities. That means that a college must engage with all sections of the community when starting to plan any redevelopment project, to take into account the needs of the population it serves.
In order to be considered for public funding support, colleges are required by the Learning and Skills Council to demonstrate that their proposals will serve the educational needs of people in their local area. It is certainly not a policy of the Government or the LSC actively to encourage co-location. Indeed, the Governments plans for transforming education for 14 to 19-year-olds include a rich choice of learning opportunities.
The LSC expects a college to put forward the strongest educational case for a capital project based on a comprehensive options appraisal and a feasibility study. It would not make sense for the LSC to make a decision for the governing body about which of its options is the most appropriate. Once the college has submitted its capital proposal to the LSC, it has to go through a robust, multi-stage process in which the educational and business cases are scrutinised. Listening to the views of those who will be affected by the proposals is an important part of that process and is required before planning permission can be granted. We are in that stage now.
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