Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-52)


9 JULY 2008

  Q40  Mr. Chaytor: So, the colleges are the train operating companies and the various agencies are the rolling stock?

  Julian Gravatt: I made a broad analogy.

  Q41  Mr. Chaytor: Could I just pick up on David's point about the comparison between the accountability mechanisms for sixth forms and for colleges, and the issue of the calculation of the success rate? On the positive side, will not the reintroduction of local authorities' strategic responsibility deal with that? The document talks about comparable funding for comparable work, but in terms of the different ways in which school sixth forms and sixth-form colleges are assessed, surely that will now inevitably be on a level playing field, for both funding and performance management?

  David Croll: That is a positive, but there have to be very clear criteria in place so that the whole issue does not get fudged. It is down to the transparency argument. The youngster's or the parent's right to choose from really good information—at the moment that is not necessarily there. Perhaps in the next session the Learning and Skills Council can pick up on that, because it has had the responsibility for post-16 funding. You will probably find that it did not really have the powers to act on poor provision. Perhaps that will be solved moving forward.

  Q42  Mr. Chaytor: In terms of the difference that there has always been between the funding of institutions in the leafy suburbs and those in the inner urban areas, do you see any move here towards recognising the difficulties of the inner urban schools and colleges—particularly the colleges—which have a more difficult student intake and where turnover and drop-out are faster? Is there anything in here that will deal with that problem?

  David Croll: I think so.

  Chairman: Let us have Sid on that. He is more inner city, is he not?

  Sid Hughes: There have been great strides by this Government towards recognising those challenges, and although the document is fairly silent on those issues there is nothing to suggest that the Government would not continue in that direction. The problem is the complicated way in which these things were accounted for. At the moment the funding mechanism is incredibly complicated, and it has become more complicated in the past 18 months.

  Chairman: I was not suggesting that you were in the leafy suburbs, David.

  David Croll: If you have a very clear national funding formula, that can respond to needs. Where you have inner-city deprivation you can use sophisticated postcode analysis and so on to target resources where they are most needed. Again, there is an opportunity here for this.

  Q43  Mr. Chaytor: My final question is about the issue of proliferation of providers of 14-19 education and what the new proposals are likely to do about that. In 1993 the local authorities were sidelined because they were seen to be inadequate, and we moved to an era of college independence and national funding. In 2001 the LSC was set up and was given a responsibility to conduct strategic area reviews because it was thought that that was a way of rationalising the proliferation of providers. Now we are giving the strategic responsibility back to the local authorities who were considered to be inadequate in the first place. So, which local authorities are going to confront difficult decisions about closing small sixth forms, for example? Is this not just turning the clock back 15 years to square one?

  David Croll: It depends where you come from. Sid made the case earlier that local authorities have changed over that period.

  Q44  Mr. Chaytor: But they are still accountable to electors, including parents whose children go to small sixth forms.

  Julian Gravatt: I am optimistic that this is a chance to look at the evidence of performance, and that that could be taken into account when decisions are taken. Nobody likes to take difficult decisions. The LSC found it quite hard to take difficult decisions in the strategic area reviews, but there have been some successes, such as the new college at Hastings, which brings together the college and two inadequate school sixth forms. To some extent, the advantage that local authorities will have over the LSC is that they have democratic legitimacy. If difficult decisions have to be taken, they will be better able to take them, but a lot depends on the relationship between local government, national Government and institutions.

  Sid Hughes: There is a considerable degree of uncertainty about whether and how local authorities will deliver on this agenda, because they do not have the personnel that they once had; they do not have the officers in place. There is a whole layer underneath the local authority that we have not talked about. I think that someone mentioned commissioning earlier. There is a big debate at the moment about how work will be commissioned. You talked about dealing with small, inadequate sixth forms. If we are looking at commissioning models, which is what local authorities are now talking about, the machinery for delivering on that is very uncertain. I know that you are not too keen on the detail, but it will be the detail that will make this thing collapse if it is going to.

  Chairman: Graham has a quick question on Diplomas.

  Q45  Mr. Stuart: Will you comment on the introduction of Diplomas in this context?

  Sid Hughes: We are offering all five of the new Diplomas in our area. I think that my college is the only sixth-form college in the country that is doing so. Leaving aside the curriculum initiative around the Diplomas, they have helped to bring things together around 14 to 19 partnerships, because there had to be local partnership development, and now local partnership delivery. It has been quite an interesting exercise. We ought not to use young people's education in that way, but it has been interesting, especially in terms of how people are accountable one to another. We have schools being accountable to each other and colleges being accountable to schools. In some ways, the confidence growing out of that relationship is making local authorities feel that they can move into commissioning. I am not sure that dealing with a small amount of diploma work is anything like the amount of work that will have to be commissioned when we get to the whole 11 to 19 agenda.

  David Croll: In Derby, things have got off to a relatively slow start. The engineering diploma is the first to go through, and we are working with Sinfin—a secondary school in the city that is delivering Level 1 to 14 to 16-year-olds—on Level 2. We hope that students will then progress to Level 3. The rest of the Diplomas are still at the bid-writing stage. What is being fed back to me is that it is an incredibly cumbersome and relatively bureaucratic process to pull those bids together. There are serious issues there.

  Q46  Chairman: What is your feeling about Diplomas? Are you supportive of them?

  David Croll: Yes, we are supportive in the sense that they bring coherence to the 14 to 19 agenda. My only sadness—this goes back to Tomlinson—is that I believed we had a far superior way forward, but compromise was made at the time, when A-levels were separated out.

  Q47  Chairman: Thank you for that. If there is anything that you desperately want to tell the Committee—if you think we have been remiss and have not asked you the right questions—you have a couple of minutes before we change the cast.

  Sid Hughes: I would like to talk about provision for young people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. We need to keep a close watch to ensure that those disadvantaged and most vulnerable young people are catered for. I am not entirely sure that the proposals make it clear that they will be.

  Q48  Chairman: But in a lot of colleges—particularly the sort that David is principal of—adult learners are being squeezed out, and many of these second-chance adults are going out of A-levels. There is also increasing pressure because many young people with disabilities or special educational needs do not reach targets. They are being squeezed out even though we have an agenda for widening participation. That is true under the present regime, is it not? That is certainly the case in my college.

  Sid Hughes: That has not been our experience. The Further Education Funding Council first and then the Learning and Skills Council have been committed to ensuring that provision is available and that there is more of it.

  Q49  Chairman: But you are a sixth-form college.

  Sid Hughes: Yes.

  Q50  Chairman: What about you, David?

  David Croll: Provision is very well catered for in Derby. It is a mixed message when you look nationally at various FE colleges and their contribution. It is a key part of our activity. Skills for work and life are 20% of our activity. That is one area in which we do excel. We have 3% of all Ofsted grades ever given for that area of work, and we were outstanding. But there are issues. There will be issues with particular needs. Derby is a centre for specialising in deaf education, and we have a relationship with the Royal School for the Deaf. We merged with the Derby College for Deaf People and brought its provision in. That had rapidly declined over the past few years. In the past, local areas would send youngsters to Derby for education, but the whole drive at the moment is to make education as local as possible.

  Q51  Fiona Mactaggart: I was struck by the fact that we have not talked a lot about employers in this session. In Slough, which I represent, the critical thing in ensuring that all aspects of FE work well is the relationship between colleges and employers. You have not said whether you think these new arrangements will assist in that regard.

  Julian Gravatt: We see the session as looking very much at the 14-19 area, and David has just described work on the engineering diploma.

  Q52  Fiona Mactaggart: A very high proportion of 18 and 19-year-olds in my constituency are in employment.

  Julian Gravatt: And in a sense, one of our concerns is that the age divide at 19 could focus colleges' 16-19 work very much on full-time academic work and that things should not necessarily become less employer-responsive as they become so complicated. You are right to highlight that as a concern. Colleges do a massive amount for employers on their adult side, and the important thing for mixed-age institutions is to make sure that they feed across to both age groups.

  David Croll: I think that is a very valid point. Of our 16 to 18-year-olds, about 3,300 are full-time, but 882 are part-time. What is interesting about the point that you make—this is where the complexity is and where it could go terribly wrong—is that if we look at the spread of the 16-18 part-timers, they can be found across a lot more local authority areas, whereas the full-time students tend to be concentrated primarily in, say, the city of Derby and in Derbyshire, with 10% from other counties. The part-timers are actually spread further because we deal with companies, and on their payroll are 16 to18-year-olds that we are picking up and providing the training for. So you make an incredibly valid point.

  Sid Hughes: Yes, indeed. It would be wrong to believe that because we have not mentioned them they are not important to us. You asked earlier about the diploma, and one of the issues around the Diplomas will be how well employers are engaged; indeed, a conversation is now being held in 14 to 19 partnerships. I do not think that the governance changes would impact negatively on that, because there is already a lot of movement in that direction.

  Chairman: I am afraid that we have to draw a line because we are eating into the next session.

  David Croll: Very briefly, may I say that the Government perhaps need to look at extending the national challenge in the light of the comments that I made about the success rates? I believe that provision is poor, but it has been hidden in a sense because we do not look at retention. The national challenge could be extended and have a part 2 that would look at 16 to 18 provision. This is not about abdicating responsibility to local authorities. The point is for central Government to hold local authorities to account for the quality of the provision. We need clear measures for that. I am fully supportive of the national challenge and the list of underperforming schools. I think that we should be showing underperformance post-16, whether in further education colleges, sixth-form colleges, school sixth forms or private providers.

  Chairman: Thank you. If you feel that we did not ask some of the right questions or you wish you had said something to the Committee, I hope you will contact us.

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