Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


9 JULY 2008

  Q1 Chairman: Welcome to Julian Gravatt of the Association of Colleges, Sid Hughes, Principal of Newham sixth-form college and David Croll, Principal and Chief Executive of Derby College. We are grateful that you could come today—particularly Sid and David because they are on the front line, running institutions. Is it still term time or have you finished for the summer?

David Croll: The students finished last Friday.

  Chairman: Well, I do not feel so guilty about pulling you away.

  Sid Hughes: Ours finish this Friday.

  Q2  Chairman: We thought that it would be remiss if we did not, before the summer recess begins, look at the far-reaching proposals to change the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to a different delivery mechanism. As you all will know, that is a profound change and there will be a very long transition, so there are a lot of people out there involved in the LSC and in colleges who have a high degree of uncertainty in their lives at the moment. We want to probe those issues this morning. First, I usually give witnesses the chance to speak for a couple of minutes. I keep these things tight; this is what we call a double-bank session. I will ensure that my colleagues ask tight, short questions, and we would be grateful for not too long answers. Do not give us your CV—we have all had that and know exactly your background—just say a few words about how you regard these changes and what your hopes, aspirations and fears regarding them are.

  David Croll: I thank the Committee for the opportunity to address it. Over the last week I have had a series of meetings in college with governors, senior managers, staff and students, mostly in the refectory, in which we have been talking about the effect of the changes. That has led to a wide debate, and there is no single consensus coming through. Overall, everybody welcomes strengthening local democracy and the accountability of local authorities. If anything, the devil is in the detail, and that is where our concerns come from. My personal concern, and I think that I speak on behalf of most principals in the country—as the Committee session develops we will see whether Sid and I agree on most things—is that what we do not want to see in this transition is any of our current students losing out. You are only 16 once, you are only 17 once, and we do not want to see the thousands of students at Derby College or the millions of other students affected if the transition goes terribly wrong. What I would like to concentrate on today are the safeguards moving forward with what is probably quite a brave agenda.

  Sid Hughes: Thank you for the invitation to attend the Committee. You will find through the morning that the differences are sometimes to do with the different types of institutions that we are from. Mine is an inner-city sixth-form college with 2,500 young people, 98% widening participation and 90% black and ethnic minorities. We have always been very much part of our local authority because students transfer from schools to college. What we hope for from the change is greater strategic planning at a local level to provide more opportunities for young people to deal with those who are not being catered for, but we are concerned whether that will be delivered. There are particular concerns about the stages below the major departments and organisations. As with David, this is a period of transition. I built my college 17 years ago, and this is the third major change in organisation in that time. Each time there is a period not of chaos, but of stillness. It is quite difficult to engineer that period, so this is about engineering that period of transition to make sure that the transition is right and will do what it is intended to do.

  Julian Gravatt: I am from the Association of Colleges, of which both Sid's and David's colleges are members, along with 370 others. In total, there are 600,000 16 to 18-year-olds in colleges, so we are a major part of this area. Colleges have argued for reform of the LSC for many years, and we have said that raising the participation age involves changing the system, so it is inevitable that some reform will be needed in the next decade. Like Sid and David, principals and governors across the country are concerned about some of the details and the pace of change, which we are happy to explore with the Committee.

  Q3  Chairman: So, it is your fault! The AOC has pounded on the doors of the Ministries and brought about this change. My first question to you was going to be: who wanted that change? David and Sid had establishments with mini-university status that were pretty independent, did their own thing and responded to local communities in their own way. Then along came the AOC and lobbied and lobbied, and now we have all these changes. Are you the prime instigator of the changes?

  Julian Gravatt: No, I think that the AOC fairly represents the views of its member colleges. In the past decade, colleges have transformed themselves and have improved their quality and success rates, but, at the same time, there has been a degree of second-guessing and interference from the LSC that is not necessary given that the sector is more mature. We have been arguing on behalf of our members for a smaller, more strategic LSC. On raising the participation age, we have accepted the arguments for making sure that every young person counts and that the system is refocused to cover all young people, so that they all have a good chance in life. That will inevitably require a reconsideration of the system.

  Q4  Chairman: So, the majority of your members said to you, "We don't like this independent status we have. We want to go back under the auspices and control of local authorities." Is that what they have consistently said?

  Julian Gravatt: No. They have consistently said that they do like having independent status.

  Q5  Chairman: But you are not going to have it. You have lobbied for a slimmer, more strategic LSC, but you have got something very different and you are going to lose your independence.

  Julian Gravatt: In a sense, we represent the views of our member colleges—

  Q6  Chairman: In all the visits that I have done over the years that I have chaired this Committee, not one college principal has said to me, "We don't like being on our own. We want to be under local authority control again." If I were a member of your association I would cash in my chips pretty quickly and look for someone else to represent me.

  Julian Gravatt: But in the 400 days since the White Paper was published and the decision was taken to give local government more of a role, we have argued for the independence and autonomy of colleges to be preserved so that they can continue to make their own decisions.

  Q7  Chairman: But you know that will not be the case. The Government have clearly stated their intention to put you back under the control of local authorities, which will give you your funding again.

  Julian Gravatt: Within a national funding system in which the ability of governing bodies and principals to steer the direction of their colleges—

  Q8  Chairman: And so, Julian, you now have a much better and more democratic way, do you? How are you going to deal with sub-regional partnerships? You campaigned for sub-regional partnerships.

  Julian Gravatt: We did not campaign for transferring funding through local government. As Sid said, we understand that local authorities have a natural role in representing local communities and that colleges need to respond to that.

  Chairman: We would all agree with that.

  Julian Gravatt: The issues with sub-regional partnerships are slightly different because in some parts of the country local authorities are large and are effectively self-contained communities. There is then less need to do things at a sub-regional level. However, in places like London or Manchester where the boundaries are tight and young people travel across them, there is a natural case for things to be done at sub-regional or even regional levels.

  Q9  Chairman: Yes. David, what is your view on this? Were you campaigning? Were you saying to the Association of Colleges, "Come on, this is dreadful. We want to change this"? Is this the change that you hoped and aspired to get?

  David Croll: In my opening statement I said that I will attempt to reflect what the majority of principals feel. I support your view, Chairman. The majority of principals do not want to lose the independent status that they gained at incorporation in 1993. At this stage, we do not see funding being rerouted through sub-regional partnerships or the collaborative arrangements of local authorities as a loss of our independence. Colleges are far more than just training and education providers. They are deeply routed in their communities. We see this move as part of the Government's drive to strengthen communities. Given their successes over the last decade, with the success rates in many colleges going from below 50% to the current average of about 75%, we believe that colleges could be a powerful catalyst to put among the post-16 provisions.

  Q10  Chairman: So the Secretary of State looked at how well you were doing and said, "I can't have this. I'm going to shake it all up again to see what happens."

  David Croll: Could you repeat that?

  Chairman: Despite all of you complaining about the Learning and Skills Council, you did rather well under that framework.

  David Croll: My main comment, as principal of the 10th largest college in the country, is that over the last eight years a strong partnership has developed between us and the LSC. I can only reflect to you the strength of the relationship at ground level. Our relationship with the East Midlands Learning and Skills Council is extremely good. It has highly knowledgeable and supportive staff and the relationship is a partnership.

  Q11  Chairman: Now you are going to have partnerships with all sorts of interesting people, are you not?

  David Croll: Yes.

  Q12  Chairman: With apprentices, the new skills funding body, your local authority and the sub-regional partnerships. Who do you think you are going to be talking to in the sub-regional partnerships? Who will be the boss of that?

  David Croll: There is a lot of detail that we have to work through on that. In preparation for the Committee, I have had conversations with senior officers and politicians in the city and the county. There was a strong consensus between the two in support of what Derby College is doing. An interesting view from the County Council was that it did not matter where the students received their learning, as long as it was of the highest quality. Derby College sits in the city, but we also have a campus just outside the city. The relationship with Derbyshire County Council goes back to pre-incorporation days. Across the country there was wide-scale tertiary reorganisation of further education in the 1980s. The relationship between us and local authorities has been strong over the last decade or so, even with the LSC being there. Historically it was a very strong relationship too. We do not want to give up our incorporated status. Derby College in a sense is a £50 million business with 25,000 learners. In that sense it is self-determining in the directions it takes. What we are looking at and what we are prepared to engage with is the strategic dialogue that can take place between large FE colleges and local authorities.

  Q13  Chairman: Most of us think that you have been a success story. The data undoubtedly shows that. What worries us is that at a time of great change in the whole sector, the extension of the education and learning age to 18 and the introduction of the new Diplomas, certain people might argue for a bit of stability in other things while all those changes are taking place. On the other hand, you might say that you should totally reposition yourself in order to underpin the changes. What is your view, Sid?

  Sid Hughes: If I thought that the AOC was that powerful in bringing about those changes I would be utterly amazed. The introduction of the machinery of government took us all by surprise. There is a will from somewhere else that may be responsible.

  Q14  Chairman: Where do you think it was? You are a pretty wise bunch. Who do you think originally said, "I think we are going to do this" or "What about doing this, Minister?" Who do you reckon said it? Oh, Julian knows.

  Julian Gravatt: Sir Michael Lyons' report made a strong case for local government having a stronger role in shaping the places. That has fed through into these changes. The decision was made perhaps before some of the implications for the wider educational system were considered. That is what has been happening in the last year.

  Q15  Chairman: I cannot remember which Lyons it was. Was it the same one who said that lots of civil servants should come out of London and the south-east? I have lost civil servants in Huddersfield. I have not had one since the Lyons report.

  Sid Hughes: Coming back to what we have had before, relationships between different colleges in different areas with their LSCs, as with the Further Education Funding Council, varied considerably. There were things around the way that the LSC had been delivering its business in recent years which was causing frustration for people. We had our budgets delivered very late. There was not an awful lot of local responsiveness. Our relationship with the LSC was fundamentally sound, as it was with the FEFC. You deal with those arrangements as you see fit. We were well served by our local officers. When you go around the patch there are a lot of colleges and there was a fair amount of discontent that some things were not moving fast enough.

  Q16  Chairman: So you embrace all these changes?

  Sid Hughes: Not entirely. Some 80% of my young people come from my borough. We are a locally based sixth-form college, and we work with our local FE college and the local authority to deliver in a strategic way across that provision. What worries me is that that partnership may break down. An FE college is organised in a slightly different way from a sixth-form college, which will be part of the local authority. We would still want to have autonomous status. We are an incorporated college and we benefit from that. But there are real advantages to a local response. The purpose of the LSC was to bring about a local response to local issues. That is probably not what has been achieved, given the other pressures.

  Q17  Chairman: The Government got rid of the local LSCs quite quickly, did they not?

  Sid Hughes: They did. One of the things that we lost was a direct relationship. We had a relationship with our local LSC, but one always felt that it was a postal service with decisions being made at the centre. It is difficult to engage in a conversation with the centre.

  Chairman: Okay. Let us drill down. John, you are in charge.

  Q18  Mr. Heppell: I think that you have probably answered what was going to be my first question, but I will put it again because I am fairly certain that I know the views of the Chairman, but I am not sure that I know your views. What was wrong with the LSC? I seem to be getting conflicting messages. One moment you are saying, "Oh, we had a great relationship with them and it all worked well", but your comments at the end, Sid, were the opposite of that. What were the real problems? How do you think that it had operated to date? Were the changes really necessary? I get confused; FE seems to roll on and have new changes every few years. I remember in the early 1980s, sitting on the further education sub-committee when I was a local councillor and by the end of the 1980s that same Mick Lyons was the chief executive of that council. It has changed at such a pace since then that I cannot keep track. What was wrong with the LSC and are these things really necessary?

  David Croll: Can I just pick up on what Sid said? As a college principal, I am not going to sit here and say that everything about the funding council and the planning council is absolutely correct. The problems with late allocations are of serious concern to colleges. Our financial year runs from 1 August, and it was only last week that we received the final allocation. Therefore, for Derby College we have to shift about £3 million of funding next year to deliver employer engagement, with only three weeks' notice of how that shift will take place. It is extremely difficult to manage that transfer of resources strategically from one part of the organisation to another in that time. I also feel that the LSC lacks the transparency of its predecessor organisation, the Further Education Funding Council for England. When allocations were given you could see the spreadsheet and see the allocations for each institution. At the moment, we know what our allocation is, but we do not know what other colleges and other providers get. The fundamental question about what is wrong with the LSC is, in a sense, at a much higher level than I feel able to answer as a principal of a college. It is more to do with the machinery of government changes. The largest quango that ever existed is sitting between two departments, and I think that that drives the agenda rather than anything else. The split with the Young People's Learning Agency and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) is a political decision that is, in a sense, top-down as opposed to bottom-up. You are right to say that FE colleges respond to changes; every two to three years there is a major change and we respond. That is not the case with the university sector. To a degree, the whole-scale change is not the same with the schools sector. There is something about further education that means that it tends, sometimes, to be moved around like a political football and it may not have stability.

  Julian Gravatt: I agree with what David said. I would just add that the Learning and Skills Council has been very successful in terms of meeting every target that has ever been set for it. It has been terribly responsive to what central government have required from it, even when those requirements have changed. The problem is that that has sometimes meant that it is not particularly responsive to local issues. It has not particularly been allowed to be, hence the pressure for change. Its size is the second point. A year ago, we did some work to compare the Learning and Skills Council's size with that of the comparable body on Scotland, and, per head of population for the budget, the Learning and Skills Council is almost twice as large as the funding council in Scotland; you have to ask why. We have been pressing for a continuation of a national funding body, but a smaller one, hence some of our reservations about the way that funding will now transfer in a much more complicated way.

  Sid Hughes: I think that some of the frustrations of government have to find a channel to be directed into. There are issues to do with the engagement of young people in learning, their achievement at 17 and the delivery of the skills agenda. The Learning and Skills Council is the Government agency for delivering post-16 education, so if it was felt that the country was not moving quickly enough on those issues, the LSC was seen as one of the reasons. I think that there is something about being caught in the middle of all that; the LSC is in that position. If those concerns exist, someone has to address them, and maybe something like that has gone on.

  As a sixth-form college principal, I know that there are issues relating to local responsiveness and whether we can have a proper dialogue with the LSC, and we have had phenomenal difficulties with the release of capital funding. I have spent £7 million or £8 million on capital projects over the past few years, but have received only £200,000 in all that time from the LSC. There are frustrations about the LSC not moving quickly enough to equalise the budgets from schools and colleges and the amount of money attached to a young person. There is a whole host of things and the LSC is caught in the middle, so I guess that the concern is not only that we might think that something is wrong with the LSC. For me the relationship was fine, but there are still issues that are not being addressed.

  Q19  Mr. Heppell: How useful is the consultation for you now? I raise that point because all of the shadow bodies seem to have been lined up, and it seems that that does not give you a great deal of wriggle room if you do not like the proposals. Is the Government's consultation really meaningful?

  Sid Hughes: There has been a fair degree of consultation, and I guess that I am not the only person who attended several large consultation meetings. The concern, however, is that the decisions appear to have been taken in advance of the consultation. We are now trying to work out the supply lines. We have invaded Russia and are now building the supply lines—obviously not us, but Napoleon. The supply lines are being worked out behind us, and that seems to be a concern. We already know that some of the remodelling of the learning and skills councils in local authorities is about to take place. Indeed, that is already happening. So, is it genuine consultation or a fait accompli, the detail of which we are now having to deal with?

  Julian Gravatt: Effectively, it was decided at the end of June that funding would be routed through local authorities, and it was decided in July that that would happen in 2010. So, effectively, the consultation has been about the details, and I suppose the issue about shadow arrangements being created now is that there are only 600 days left until those arrangements are in place. If this is definitely the direction in which the Government wish to continue, based on the results of the consultation, they have to act now.

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