Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 53-59)


9 JULY 2008

  Chairman: I welcome Caroline Abrahams, the Programme Director for children and young people in the Local Government Association, Councillor Les Lawrence, the Chair of the children and young people board at the LGA, Chris Heaume, the Chief Executive of central London Connexions, and Rob Wye, the Director of the young people's learning and skills group at the Learning and Skills Council. Thank you for being with us. We understand that the chief executive of the LSC could not be with us because it is his annual holiday. We are happy that Rob Wye will represent him. People do deserve holidays. If he is in charge of testing, he might have to be called back, but if he is not he will be all right. This will be quite a fast and furious sitting. We have a lot of questions for you. As we have a large panel, I suggest that we go straight into questions. We have your CVs and know that you are the right people to have before us. I ask Douglas to start the questioning on the need for reform.

  Q53 Mr. Carswell: My first question is to Mr. Wye. Why separate the 16 to 19 and adult functions of the Learning and Skills Council?

  Rob Wye: That is not a matter that the Learning and Skills Council had a decision in. The decision was taken by the Government. As was said by the previous group of witnesses, it was a natural consequence of the creation of the two Departments—the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. They have their own delivery arrangements for their responsibilities. The argument around young people has to relate to raising the participation age. If you are giving local authorities a responsibility to ensure that there is an opportunity for every young person up to the age of 19, it makes sense for the services to come through the local authorities. On the adult side, we are already moving to a more demand-led world, which is different from the more planned world of education up to the age of 19. The approach is therefore already different for 16 to 19-year-olds and for over-19s. The two could be dealt with through a single organisation such as the LSC, but the decision was taken to deal with them through new arrangements. We are working to put those into effect.

  Q54  Mr. Carswell: So quite a lot of it was in response to a Whitehall-driven process?

  Rob Wye: Yes.

  Q55  Mr. Carswell: Do local authorities have the capacity and the ability to take on some of the responsibilities that have been set out for them?

  Rob Wye: We need to work with them. From colleagues here, it is clear that they recognise that there is a need to develop their capacity. This is not an area that they have been responsible for since 1992. This move builds on a changing world for local authorities, in which they are in the business of commissioning a wide range of services. This is an addition to an approach that they are familiar with. They will need the expertise and resource that currently lies in the LSC, which looks after the arrangements for 16 to 19-year-olds.

  Q56  Mr. Carswell: Caroline, from an LGA perspective, do you think that local authorities have the ability to do this?

  Caroline Abrahams: We certainly have the ability. We do not currently have the capacity because the specific skill sets for commissioning for this age group are currently in the LSC. As Rob said, local authorities are in the business of commissioning children's services across the piece. From our point of view, one of the great advantages for young people of the transfer is that it ends an anomaly whereby lead members for children like Les and directors of children's services are accountable for the outcomes of all young people up to the age of 18 in their area, but do not have the commissioning responsibility for this age group. It brings more strongly into alignment the capacity for local authorities to be held to account for the outcomes of those young people.

  Q57  Mr. Carswell: I have one final question before I hand over to someone else who might want to ask a bit more about the need for reform. Giving local authorities responsibilities has often been justified in terms of localism and local accountability. Surely a better system of local accountability than giving power to local authorities would be to allow the institutions to be totally free-standing, totally independent and free from both LSC and local authority control, and allow them, through a new mechanism, to answer directly to people who might wish to study at them? For example—people sometimes smile when I say this, but it is a serious point—my local supermarket does not answer to the local council. It answers to those people who wish to buy food. That is why it is pretty good at doing that. Surely colleges should answer to those who might want to study at them? Local authorities are very imperfect as a mechanism of local accountability. Some voters might happen to be parents who might happen to have children of sixth-form age. Why not have a more immediate form of accountability to the end user and get local authorities and the LSC out of the picture entirely?

  Rob Wye: You are absolutely right that providers, colleges and schools, need to be responsive to learners and their parents and learners who go directly to those institutions. That demand-led approach is absolutely where the LSC is moving to. I think the local authorities will endorse that sort of approach. The difference between 16 to 19 and 19-plus is that there will be a responsibility to meet the needs of all young people. Somebody has to ensure that there is a place for every young person who wants to take that place up. If you leave it entirely to the market, it does not ensure that everybody has that opportunity. If you leave it entirely to Tesco it does not mean that everybody can be fed by Tesco.

  Cllr Lawrence: I think that Douglas uses an unfortunate analogy. Most people go to the supermarket on a weekly basis just to meet their immediate needs. We are talking about the needs of young people in relation to their future direction in life in employment terms and in terms of the skills framework within local communities. Depending on the nature of those skills, they become the generators of the economic activity within a locality. We are not talking about something on a week by week basis. A youngster going to college to study may initially do a one or two-year course. That leads to other courses and, as Rob quite rightly said, we are talking about a demand-led process based on need. That need is governed by a series of factors that are not on the basis of a short-term requirement to meet the needs of the locality in which those young people live. The food analogy is inappropriate because if you go to Tesco you have a series of different qualitative products. People choose them on the basis of their own economic ability to do so. That is not how a young person should choose a college course. The analogy is that a college says, "That course costs £50, that one costs £40 and that costs £30. They have a different level of qualitative component." This is about ensuring that there is a level playing field in terms of the quality of the outcomes and access based on need. When you get into what I call the really specific support needs of the vulnerable groups and those who are NEET or at risk of becoming NEET, those who have learning difficulties, those who have physical disabilities and those with special educational needs, you need a framework so that those youngsters, who often come from the most vulnerable and challenged circumstances, can be supported and have exactly the same opportunities as all other youngsters who do not face those challenges.

  Q58  Mr. Carswell: Just one final point: would you not argue, as a good Conservative councillor, that one of the factors in the failure of the inclusion policy for children and young people with special educational needs is precisely the fact that they do not have any consumer choice as to where they are sent? They are forced into taking the sort of education that their local education authority decides to provide for them. If only they had that sort of consumer choice, which you deride, they might not face some of the problems that they face now.

  Chairman: I do not think that Councillor Lawrence was deriding anything.

  Cllr Lawrence: I am going to be very parochial, if I may. In the city of Birmingham, the premier city in the land, we have just undertaken the most significant piece of work in relation to all youngsters with special educational needs, which has involved very detailed consultation with parents and the youngsters themselves, as well as all the providers, so that we are able to provide a strategic framework for special educational needs provision within the city that actually meets the needs of those you would call the consumers. It has been done on a collective basis—on a very inclusive basis—and when you listen, especially to the young people themselves, talking about the nature of the facilities, the access and the funding to support that provision, you begin to see that you cannot do it on a pick-and-mix basis that is left to a free-for-all. It has to have an element of planning, but what you do within that is allow the degree of access that best meets the needs of those youngsters, together with their parents, in the localities that they live in. That, I think, is the best way of doing it. Yes, you must have a degree of freedom, but at the same time you must have a structure that allows everyone the same opportunity to access the provision that is available.

  Chairman: Chris Heaume, you wanted to come in.

  Chris Heaume: I think that young people currently do have choice. They choose from a wide range of institutions. The danger of the proposals that we are looking at is that such localisation might start to limit that choice. Currently young people, especially in urban areas, are very mobile in the way they seek learning post-16—and pre-16. We have in London 45% mobility from their borough of residence to where they are studying. That is incredible mobility. If we move down to very localised planning, we are likely to lose that range of choice. If we are to have a skills economy that has got young people skilled to the levels they need and excited by how they are trying to drive things forward for themselves and where they are working, we need them to have that type of challenge to the way they look at their options, and encouragement to take them up. So I think choice is certainly available. I support the London arrangement that as a response to these proposals the local authorities want to work together and not individually in an isolated way, so that they can jointly commission that offer for London, rather than singly.

  Q59  Mr. Stuart: When commissioning provision in rural areas, how will local authorities ensure that young students do not have to travel too far?

  Caroline Abrahams: A reasonableness test will be applied. For example, if a young person in London wants to do agricultural training, there may be one or two places in the country to do that. It will be tremendously expensive, and who knows whether that will be affordable. But, by and large, at the moment all the arrangements are being developed on the basis of travel-to-learn patterns; it is a terrible bit of jargon, but basically there are patterns whereby young people travel from one area to another for their education. That is actually becoming the determining factor for the clusters of local authorities coming together to plan and commission this kind of provision. So I think the answer is that there is absolutely no guarantee, but everyone will have to do their best within the provision that is available, which may also of course in future get us into issues of both decommissioning and recommissioning: both getting rid of some places when they are not needed, particularly because of demographics in the shorter term, and having to recommission in response to the demands of young people but also the local labour market.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 25 November 2008