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 todayparticularly
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 CVwe have all had that and
know exactly your backgroundjust 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 countryas the Committee session develops we will
see whether Sid and I agree on most thingsis 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
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
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
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
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
Chairman: Despite all of you complaining
about the Learning and Skills Council, you did rather well under
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
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 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
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
linesobviously 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.