Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


9 JULY 2008

  Q20  Mr. Heppell: Do you want to add anything further?

  Julian Gravatt: We expressed some reservations about some of the details that we were consulted on, but I understand that the Departments will publish a response to the consultation in July, so we will see whether those reservations are being listened to.

  Q21  Mr. Heppell: Do you think that the transitional arrangements, which David touched on, will be adequate to ensure that your institutions and your students will not suffer during the transitional period, despite possible new complexities?

  Julian Gravatt: It is a major concern. David mentioned that people are only 16 or 17 once, so it is absolutely crucial that existing systems for getting funding to colleges and schools to deal with their education are built on and amended, rather than just ripped up and started again.

  Q22  Mr. Heppell: Do they look adequate to you at the moment?

  Julian Gravatt: I think that there is more to do.

  David Croll: I completely agree that there is more to do. The paper refers to two extremes. One is a continuation of the LSC or that type of arrangement whereby it is purely nationally funded, perhaps by a sort of regionalisation, but it is actually coming down one road. The other extreme is that everything is, in a sense, handed over to local authorities without any infrastructure in place, and the paper claims that it is halfway between the two extremes of having a national body, the Young People's Learning Agency, and trying to devolve the responsibility. In terms of a pendulum hanging down, the paper claims that it is in the right position. My strong argument is that we need not rush too fast at it. I should like to see the pendulum swing back more slowly towards letting go of national control and not rushing into it. There are all sorts of details and incredibly complex proposals about how everything will work with dialogue between local authorities, reaching agreement and moving the agenda forward. In a sense, it is like political philosophy. It describes something and then the flavours of people and personalities have to be added to it, which is where it could go terribly wrong. I want the safeguards so that initially Derby College, for example, is not treated differently from school sixth forms. In areas where sixth-form colleges are now joining the local authority family, I do not want them to be given preferential treatment. In areas where highly successful colleges have had new builds of £50 million, £60 million or £70 million and are located on the edge of various different local authority areas drawing students across boundaries, I do not want the whole process to become politicised. Having spent billions of pounds over the past few years on new further education colleges, I do not want us to end up with large numbers of empty places as a result of a shift at local level in preference to a local authority favouring its own sixth forms or its own centre. There are all sorts of complications, moving forward. Only history will tell us how it has worked, but I want to see the safeguards in place.

  Chairman: Let us move on to commissioning and funding.

  Q23  Mr. Stuart: I am just trying to clarify the message that you want to bring to us. You accept that the Government were not consulting on the fundamental principles, only the details. However, as the Association of Colleges and a leading principal, it is none the less up to you, if you wish, to give a clear signal that you think that the proposals are fundamentally misconceived. Are you trying to give such an impression or not? I am unclear whether you are happy fiddling around with the details and worrying about transition, or whether you think that the independence and success of your sector could be threatened by the proposals.

  Julian Gravatt: We have said that we accept the longer-term direction of travel. We have concerns about the speed of the change. David gave an example of the fact that it might have been sensible to transfer the funding responsibility to local authorities progressively rather than all at once in 2010. The longer-term aims can be achieved in other ways, such as by making sure that the two different national agencies are collocated and adopt similar processes.

  Q24  Mr. Stuart: It seems that you will lose your independence. No principals that I have come across have ever said that they wanted to move to local authorities having the funding control, let alone on the basis of some wished-for collaboration on terms that nobody, including the paper, can determine. Is there not a fundamental contradiction in the Government's policy? It is all about independence, academies—supposedly—and thus the choice of parents and pupils. Your sector has been very successful—not that the LSC has been perfect, but you have had independence and have prospered. It appears that the Government's policy is to go in precisely the opposite direction and bring you back under the dead hand of local authorities, dressed up in democratic accountability. It is fundamentally about providing what young students want, is it not? You appear to be doing that, but the proposals seem to put it under threat. I do not understand how you can be so muted.

  Sid Hughes: It does not necessarily appear like that. I know that it may sound like detail. Of course, if we are to lose our independence, our message would be that that would be the wrong thing to do.

  Q25  Mr. Stuart: It would be too late.

  Julian Gravatt: Independence is also a state of mind. Colleges already deal with a raft of national targets. We have been pushing against a boundary of that for years. We shall continue to push against boundaries if there is then a raft of local targets on top of those national targets. Ultimately, as public institutions, it is independence for a purpose. Colleges have the independence in order to meet the needs of young people, adults and employers. It is never an either/or situation. A lot of it often ends up being about the details.

  Chairman: Have you ever heard the expression relating to pipers and paying? He who pays the piper calls the tune.

  Q26  Mr. Stuart: If we can go a little more into the detail, do you have concerns about the consequences of separating the funding for the 14 to 19 age group and adults?

  David Croll: Can I come back on your first question? We have been independent since incorporation. I do not think that of the proposals as they stand at the moment. If I felt at all that Derby College was giving up independence and coming under the dead hand, as you put it, of local authorities, I would be fighting tooth and nail. I do not see that necessarily as the case. A higher state of independence is interdependence. We exist within the community, alongside sixth forms and private providers. As college principal, I have serious concerns about the quality of some of the provision that has appeared over the past decade or so in schools. One of the differences is the way that colleges are measured and the way that school sixth-formers are measured. We use the process of success rates, which is basically retention times achievement, giving the success rate. In preparation for the meeting I tried to obtain, from the LSC, the local authority and Connexions, data on the success rates of the schools in the city of Derby and in Derbyshire. Again, back to my comment about lack of transparency; we do not know. At a guess, the reason for that is that school sixth forms use achievement data. That is very good, because you can say that 100% of students entered into an exam achieved. That information does not tell you that 50% dropped out before they got to the end. I believe that when we get to a level playing field, that will expose poor provision that exists in school sixth forms. I believe in a mixed economy. I do not believe in necessary tertiary organisation of the country. I think that colleges have their place, sixth forms have their place and sixth-form colleges have their place. What does not have a place in the locality, as far as I am concerned, is poor provision. Therefore, what goes with the price of coming in—sitting around the table and entering into that strategic dialogue—is that, hopefully, we shall be improving the quality and life chances for all young people, as opposed to just the perceived interests of Derby or whatever FE college.

  Q27  Mr. Stuart: Do you all share that confidence? Having been brought in under the local authorities, will your models and standards out, and not the other way around?

  Sid Hughes: That has not happened so far. It would be an opportunity, at least, to have all those people around the table, which has not necessarily been the case. You also have to remember that local authorities—I know you referred to them as the dead hand—are not the same local authorities that were there when we were taken out of local authority control. They are very different beasts from what they were.

  Q28  Mr. Stuart: My constituency is in the East Riding of Yorkshire, next door to Hull, where there are very successful colleges and a less successful schools sector, up to now. I wondered whether there were fears. One would not want to see the success of the colleges, which provide opportunities for people, removed by being incorporated into a system that has been less successful.

  Sid Hughes: I guess that might have been one of our frustrations over the past 10 years. We have not been able to have that open dialogue without it sounding like a gripe. It has never been intended as a gripe, but it was saying that we need to look at the provision for all young people between the ages of 11 and 19, bringing all those different sectors around the table to ensure that we are providing for those people. We are not all providing for all of our community.

  Q29  Mr. Stuart: On gripes, there is a gripe in the college sector that the 16 to 18 funding for colleges is less than it is within schools. Do you feel that these proposals may lead to rectification, as you would see it?

  Julian Gravatt: There is recent research that the Learning and Skills Council has published to show that the gap is 9%. On top of that there are VAT and differences in capital. Given public spending constraints, it will take time to narrow the gap, but in the interests of the young people in colleges, I think that it is important that it is done. As both my colleagues have said, it will make the 16 to 19 process more transparent and create an opportunity to address that issue.

  Q30  Mr. Stuart: Are you convinced that it will be done on the basis of data, and will not be so politically mediated that things other than standards and quality of provision end up becoming the determining factors?

  Julian Gravatt: Politics inevitably determines the distribution of resources, but I hope that the evidence that hundreds of thousands of young people are getting less resources at each institution they go into, will persuade politicians to make changes.

  Q31  Mr. Stuart: On the separation of funding between 14 to 19-year-olds and adults, what will the consequences be?

  David Croll: In a sense, that funding is separated now. That has happened over the last few years with the Learning and Skills Council. We talk about funding silos, but the issue is when we cannot buy one funding source from another. In the past it was relatively easy. If we overachieved marginally on the 16 to 18 targets, but underachieved on the adults, or vice versa, we could buy the money across within the organisation. Now it is separated into the key pots—16 to 18-year-olds, adult responsiveness and employer responsiveness. It will not make any difference if we move into the new regime.

  Julian Gravatt: At the moment there are different silos within the same Learning and Skills Council. The danger is if the two new national bodies go off in different directions and start inventing different ways of funding things or collecting data. That is why, at least in the short term, there should be collocation, common systems and common approaches to mitigate that risk.

  Q32  Mr. Stuart: On the commissioning front, could you comment on any concerns that you might have about the sheer number of bodies with whom you will have to interact?

  Sid Hughes: That is one of our major concerns. The proliferation of bodies that we must consult is massively time-consuming, but we already have some of that in place. Greater complexity always leads to more meetings and time away from what one is supposed to be doing, so we are concerned about that. The other issue is not about funding but is the way that students become divided. We have students that started at 16 and go on to age 19 and beyond. All of a sudden they are funded by a different organisation. We want to keep the funding associated with the individual. The trouble with all funding over the last 17 years is that it has always had amazingly unintended consequences. We are trying to work out what might be the unintended consequences of this—strange things occur whenever there is a change in the funding mechanism.

  Julian Gravatt: One issue is that in a particular area there will be different agencies responsible for funding the 16 to 18-year-olds, depending on where they are. In a school sixth form or sixth-form college it will be the local authority; in a further education college it will be the sub-regional partnership and in an academy or national workplace with any provider there will be a national arrangement. It does not seem sensible to have those different layers—hence we suggest that there should be a single point in each area, whether that is the local authority in Cumbria or Cornwall, or a sub-regional partnership in London, Birmingham or Manchester.

  Q33  Mr. Stuart: I have one last question. Twelve years into this Government, the number of NEETs seems to be the same as it was at the beginning. What benefits can the proposals bring to allow you to provide better provision than you currently do?

  David Croll: Can I pick up on those figures? There has been a remarkable shift in the NEET position. I will use figures from Derby that were hot off the press yesterday. In November 2002, there were 1,100 NEETs. By November 2007, that had been reduced by 500 to 600. The projections are that by November 2012, there will be about 450. The smaller the figure gets, the harder to reach those youngsters are, and often, any form of traditional education may not be suitable.

  Q34  Mr. Stuart: That does not seem to reflect the national figures provided by the Government. We had the Permanent Secretary here a couple of weeks ago and he was not disputing the fact that those figures are pretty much at the same level as they were—10% of 16 to 18-year-olds are NEETs.

  David Croll: It may be that a lot of it depends on the procedures that are in place at a local level. If a student at Derby College decides to leave the programme and we cannot convince them to do something else or to remain, they are immediately reported to the Connexions service and are picked up. Even days matter. You do not want a youngster to lose sight of where they are going, and it is a matter of picking up on them very early. Perhaps that is particularly the case in Derby.

  Sid Hughes: We need to begin long before they are 16. One of the changes that might occur as a result of this development is that we will be looking at the provision for young people from the age of 14, to ensure that there is appropriate provision for those young people all the way through, so that we do not lose them at 14 or at 16, and certainly not at 17 or 18. One of the frustrations of the Government so far is that we still have a considerable number of NEETs. Whatever the final figure is, there are still lots of young people who are not engaged in education or training. It begins very early on, and at 16 you are playing catch-up.

  Q35  Mr. Chaytor: Looking through the Raising Expectations document, there were two omissions that I thought were quite significant. I did not see a single reference to the raising of the participation age, to 17 and then to 18. I only found one reference to Ofsted; there is no discussion of inspection. What I would like to ask to start with is, in the context of performance management and accountability, where does Ofsted fit into all this? The Skills Funding Agency will have responsibility for performance management in further education colleges; the local authority has area agreements with sixth forms and sixth-form colleges, with all the performance indicators in there to hold you accountable to; and Ofsted comes in from time to time and gives you an inspection report, which has to be acted on. How is all that going to mesh together? Does the performance management framework make sense to you?

  Julian Gravatt: I suppose one reason Ofsted is not mentioned is that it was recently reformed, in terms of a merger with the adult learning inspectorate. It is one of the only organisations in our world that is not being reformed in the next couple of years. That gives it a degree of stability, which means that it can carry on providing an external judgment with, it is hoped, a degree of independence, consistency and accuracy. A challenge will be that if there is a divergence between what happens in 14-19 education and what happens in adult education and training and employer training, an Ofsted report that covers an entire institution will not be taken seriously enough by either agency. They might say, "Well, that college may be great at employer engagement, but we've got issues about 16-19 education." That is an omission in the document, but I think that that is because our assumption is that there is not a great deal of change to what Ofsted does.

  Q36  Mr. Chaytor: If I can give a specific example, if Ofsted does a report on a school and identifies serious weaknesses, the local authority has to take action under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and in the context of the national challenge programme, that school has to be closed or merged. If Ofsted does a report on a further education college and identifies serious weaknesses in its 14-19 provision, the local authority does not have equivalent powers and the Skills Funding Agency is responsible for performance management. Is this not just a bundle of contradictions?

  Julian Gravatt: It is messy. There needs to be a single point of intervention in those cases of serious failure; otherwise, you will have the local authority and the national agency each trying to intervene and causing a degree of confusion, hence the description of the case conference process. A possible concern there is whether that is an adequate way of bringing these different agencies together, the local authority and the national agency.

  Q37  Mr. Chaytor: Do you think that the new system is generally more or less complex than that which it replaced?

  Julian Gravatt: I think that it is more complicated. It is like the break-up of British Rail.

  Q38  Mr. Chaytor: The equivalent of the privatisation of British Rail?

  Julian Gravatt: In terms of breaking up one big agency into multiple agencies.

  Q39  Mr. Chaytor: That has been a real success, has it not?

  Julian Gravatt: Well, train passenger numbers have gone up, but there have been plenty of other issues along the way, and constant reform.

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