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With legislation to extend education up to the age of 18 beginning to take effect within the next five years, the matter of school capacity has become all the more important. In East Devon, that will mean having to find approximately 450 extra places by 2015—a feat that may prove particularly difficult, as all seven secondary schools in the constituency are full and, with no land to build on, temporary classrooms will be needed for at least the next three years.

Devon county council and the Learning and Skills Council both agree that there is a real need for additional 14-to-19 education capacity in East Devon, although no real provision has yet been made for post-16 education. In fact, I was shocked and appalled to discover that the Liberal Democrat-led county council was attempting to sell off land adjacent and belonging to the community college at Withycombe Village road to the tune of approximately £500,000. Now is the time not to start selling off ground belonging to community colleges, but to examine ways of acquiring land to accommodate students. That land is used by 90 children a day. If it was sold, classes for next year would have to be cancelled. When contacted by the school, Devon county council was, amazingly, unaware of the school’s use of buildings on the land, despite providing funding for two of them. I simply cannot understand what the county council thought it was doing.

On 25 June, during Prime Minister’s questions, I was told by the Prime Minister that in my local authority area,

Not for the first or last time, the Prime Minister was slightly missing the point. East Devon has been unfortunate in receiving very little of what has been allocated to Devon as a whole. In the past 10 years, only one school has been rebuilt and only 44 additional classrooms provided, and there are only 103 more teachers and only 127 more teaching assistants. That is an extremely small proportion of what has been allocated to Devon as a whole. Why?

In the light of all that, the logical solution appears to be for the Owen building on the Rolle College campus to be retained for educational use, as it could house a greatly expanded post-16 centre, accommodating up to 1,000 students. Not only does that accord with the stated wishes of the late Professor Levinsky, but the Owen building can provide immediate good-quality, purpose-built accommodation for a large number of young people from 14 to 19 and already includes facilities such as a library. Use of the site will provide opportunities to work collaboratively with other organisations to offer a range of educational qualifications. That may include opportunities for the development of training and education for adults, as well as the provision of services to the wider community of Exmouth and East Devon.

Almost a year ago, on 18 July 2007, in response to the Leitch review of skills, the Government published “World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills
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in England” to introduce new legislation to strengthen the current funding entitlement for adults. The Prime Minister stated that

One hopes that, having recognised that need for training and education, the Government are actively seeking ways to implement their legislation. We propose that if the Owen building is successfully secured for educational purposes, adult learning could also take place on the Rolle campus. Firms in Devon have been experiencing difficulty in hiring adults with appropriate skills and training. Acquiring the Owen building for educational purposes could work towards successfully addressing that issue.

In addition to more direct educational uses of the site, a broader range of community uses could be established. If the council is attempting to sell off community college land, it is all the more essential to purchase the Owen building to house increased student numbers. Aside from legislation that will necessitate an increase in capacity for 14-to-19 education, the new town of Cranbrook and the regional spatial strategy resulting in an increase in the population within travelling distance of Exmouth provide the potential to sustain post-16 and adult training in the future. The main study report for the Exeter, Torbay, Mid Devon and East Devon housing market assessment, launched on 24 July 2007, has found that 19,000 additional properties are required to be built in the area over the next five years to meet an acute shortage, substantially increasing the amount of housing in the area and, subsequently, the need for more educational capacity. Surely the Minister agrees that with the increased pressure put on local authorities by new education legislation and an increase in housing in the area, the Government should be doing all they can to assist.

The county council was apparently prepared to take a leading role in securing the site. In December 2007, when pledging £3 million, the leader of the county council, Councillor Brian Greenslade, said,

The county council is working in partnership with the Learning and Skills Council, East Devon district council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, Exeter college and Exmouth community college to ensure the long-term viability of this facility. That cross-party consortium has the express aim of assisting Government plans to retain British teenagers in either education or training until the age of 18.

Despite meetings with the university prior to the site being placed on the open market, the consortium’s efforts to purchase the Owen building and surrounding campus for educational purposes suffered a setback with Plymouth university’s unexpected announcement that it was pulling out of exclusive negotiations and putting the site for sale on the open market. Surely the Minister must agree that that was an act of bad faith on the part of the university.

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The university initially received a substantial offer from a property developer, a sale that I believe would have expressly contravened the university’s previously stated wishes and intentions. However, in the light of the current economic climate and the developer’s desire to incorporate the consortium’s wishes, it revised the offer to a smaller sum. That was rejected by the university, which is now planning to sell the land in smaller plots. I hope that that is not being done to avoid a section106 agreement.

In July 2007, I led a local cross-party delegation to meet Lord Triesman, then Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. At that meeting, Lord Triesman was shown a letter from Debbie Pritchard of Devon county council, clearly stating that all secondary schools in East Devon are currently full. The meeting appeared to be constructive, and Lord Triesman agreed to consider the case.

However, in a letter of 13 September 2007, the Minister said that as the funding from the sale would be reinvested in educational provision on the Plymouth campus, it was to his way of thinking satisfactory, regardless of the acknowledged need for education provision in Exmouth. Although it is true that that money may be invested in educational provision in Plymouth, does he really believe that that was a constructive answer? Surely he must concede that it does not begin to solve the multitude of problems caused by the lack of educational provision in Exmouth?

The Minister overlooks the loss of revenue to Exmouth, and the amount of public money that will be wasted if the new college building is flattened to make way for more housing. The Owen building was constructed only three years ago, at a cost of £2 million, financed by the Higher Education Funding Council. To demolish it to make way for housing would surely not be an appropriate use of public money. Is he suggesting that a purpose-built educational faculty, recently paid for with taxpayer’s money, should be levelled by bulldozers to make way for yet more housing? At a time of economic crisis, with the cost of living continually rising, does the Minister honestly believe that taxpayers would see that as an acceptable and rational way to spend their money? That money was spent on education in Exmouth, not Plymouth, and as such the town should not be forced to suffer through the university’s decision to move its campus.

In October 2007, I led the same cross-party delegation to meet the Minister for the South West, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). He pointed out, as previously mentioned, that Devon county council and the Learning and Skills Council agree that there is a real need for additional 14-to-19 educational capacity. On one hand, that observation gives credence to the consortium’s efforts to purchase the site; but on the other, it demonstrates contradictions among Ministers and shows their inability to work within a joined-up Government. If the Minister for the South West can appreciate the situation and support the consortium’s work to secure the site for further education, why is he being directly opposed by his colleague, the Minister here today?

Plymouth university originally received the land for free from Devon county council, and the strong feeling locally is that the public good rather than the price should be the key determinant of the future use of the site. The Exmouth Community Association, a watchdog
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group formed to oversee the future development and well-being of the town is backing the consortium’s plans. In a report on the proposals, an association spokesman said:

Many Exmouth residents hope that the site does not end up in the hands of developers, as they are acutely aware of the lack of available space in Exmouth or the surrounding area to build a facility from scratch as suitable as the Owen building. Instead, a new school would have to be provided at a cost of about £25 million, and there is no obvious site for it.

On 20 May 2008, I wrote to the Minister to point out that true long-term value for money for public funds would be gained for the local community and economy only by establishing a post-16-year-old college, and not by razing an outstanding facility to the ground. I requested a meeting with him and the Minister for the South West. The response that I received simply stated that

That naively neglects the very real and pressing need for education provision in the Exmouth area, which has already been recognised by the Minister for the South West. It is yet another example of the impact that central and regional policies are having on small coastal and rural communities in the south-west. It is time for the Government to step in to resolve the situation.

The strategy that says that we should create main centres of economic, cultural and academic excellence takes no account of the special conditions that exist in coastal and rural areas like the south-west, as the communities there also need to be sustained. How does the response make Exmouth a more sustainable community? The town has already lost a vital economic asset; all stakeholders, including Ministers, should be working together to ensure that something of worth is put in its place.

One of the schools hoping to move onto the newly vacated site is Exmouth community college. It is the largest secondary school in Europe, and its facilities are among the best in the country. The school received a good rating in its latest Ofsted report, and it now has a considerable waiting list. At present, the sixth form has 389 pupils, but the school will have to accommodate another 350 extra pupils by 2015, when education up to the age of 18 becomes compulsory. However, the school has no room to expand or to build new facilities. If the Minister is satisfied with less funding for schools and further education in Exmouth, where does he propose housing those students?

Exmouth community college is the only secondary school in this expanding seaside town, and a large percentage of learners stay on into the sixth form. The school has a year 11 stay-on rate of 82 per cent., which is considerably higher than the national average; in addition, this year it accommodated 20 new students from surrounding schools, who were attracted by the courses and facilities available. There has been a significant increase in results over the last three years; and students’ progress, which was inadequate three years ago, is now good throughout the college. Despite those impressive results, the college loses a number of potential students and there is a significant post-16 drop out level in East
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Devon due to certain courses being available only at Exeter college or East Devon college. The acquisition of Rolle would enable those courses to be provided locally.

It almost beggars belief that such a real need is being ignored by a Government who like to pride themselves on believing that education is important. In November 2007, during topical questions the Minister for Schools and Learners stated:

He praised the good work of the college, and hoped that it would continue. If the Minister for Schools and Learners and the Minister for the South West are both able to see sense and support the plans of the community college, why does the Minister remain so blinkered in his view?

Unless the school receives proper support, in the form of increased space and facilities, there is a real possibility that the good work that has been achieved will suffer. Surely the Minister must agree that that is in no way a desirable outcome?

With the impact of the new specialised diplomas for young people, there is a genuine need for schools and colleges to set up partnerships with other institutions in order to provide the wide range of resources required to teach the new courses. If the community college were to collaborate with Exeter college and Devon county council by sharing facilities and staffing at the Rolle site, the young people of Exmouth and the surrounding area, including Exeter, would have access to the very best curriculums and qualifications.

The future of Rolle college campus in Exmouth can no longer be overlooked or brushed under the carpet. It is imperative that Brian Greenslade, the leader of the Liberal Democrat-led county council, puts a formal offer to Plymouth university for the purchase of the Owen building. The university has no formal bid on the table. It is struggling with debt; and by selling the land in small parcels, it would appear that the consortium is in an excellent position to purchase the Owen building.

The consortium, a cross-party group, is attempting to comply with Government policy in an area of the country with an outstanding school that is struggling to provide for its pupils. If the campus goes to the highest bidder for redevelopment, the town will be left with nothing. Although the consortium continues to work towards achieving a positive outcome for Exmouth from the Rolle closure, it is receiving little assistance from the university, the Learning and Skills Council or the SWERDA, which has refused to give any funding to the project.

I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions and was told that he would look into the matter. I subsequently sent the right hon. Gentleman a detailed letter, yet I have heard nothing. Ministers must realise that it is a real and pressing matter. Unless measures are taken quickly, it will have a detrimental impact on the young people of Exmouth and East Devon as a whole.

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1.48 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing this debate. As he rightly said, it is an important subject. It is appropriate to debate it in this Chamber, as it genuinely involves a balance, which the House has to strive to maintain, between local needs and discretion on the one hand and national policies and priorities on the other.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the quality and quantity of education available to young people and adults in East Devon is of equal significance to the Government as it is to him. That was made apparent in the answer that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave in the House on 25 June. I hope that it will be made evident also by what I have to say this afternoon.

The closure of Rolle college campus raises two main issues. Both are important, but I stress that they are distinct. The first is the decision to transfer the University of Plymouth’s faculty of education from Exmouth to the university’s main campus in Plymouth. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, that decision was taken by the university’s board of governors in the autumn of 2005. In announcing the change, the late—and very much missed—vice-chancellor, Professor Roland Levinsky, described the reasons for that decision as follows:

Along with many other people in the Exmouth area, the hon. Gentleman protested against the board of governors’ decision at the time, as was his right. The reasons for doing so were, frankly, entirely understandable. They included concern for the future of teacher training at the university of Plymouth and for the staff and students of the faculty of education. Notably, in view of the fact that most newly qualified teachers take up their first posts near the institutions where they trained, their concerns also included, quite properly, the possible effects of relocation on the supply of teachers to schools in the Exmouth area.

I emphasise that the university authorities attempted to give reassurance on those issues from the start and made it clear that the relocation from Exmouth did not signal the end of teacher training at the university. Most importantly, a new faculty of education building on the main campus was promised at a cost of £25 million. We have since heard that the building has been named after the Rolle family, in recognition of their long-standing connections with the institution and the area. Teacher training at Plymouth is in a healthy and robust state, and with almost £4 million of grant from the Training and Development Agency for Schools to support 321 training places in the next academic year, the success that it enjoyed at Rolle college is set to continue in its new home.

That was the process by which the decision to close Rolle college was taken, the reasons for it and its effects. It might well be asked, however, what the Government were doing while that was happening. That is where we come to the crux and heart of the matter. Over the past three years, unlike my predecessors as Ministers for Higher Education, from the Conservative party as well as my own, I have reminded the House many times of the limitations of the Government’s
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powers to intervene in university management decisions. To a significant extent, those are limitations that Parliament has put in place by enacting, for example, the Education Reform Act 1988, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and the Higher Education Act 2004.

It was entirely right of Parliament to have acted in that way. I strongly believe that the historical autonomy of universities is part and parcel of their academic freedom and the strength of our higher education system in this country. It allows them to contribute fully to the well-being of their local areas and identify and pursue their unique institutional missions. If one compares the state and performance of our higher education institutions to many of those overseas, one will see that university autonomy is one of the factors that lead to the strength of our performance. Indeed, I can do no better on that point than quote the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts.) This is one of the areas in which, party politics aside, I am bound to agree with him. He said:

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