Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


9 JULY 2008

  Q60  Mr. Stuart: Going back to the central issue of commissioning by local authorities as opposed to through the LSC, are you confident that the options offered to local people and the meeting of their needs will necessarily be improved by the proposals, as opposed to retaining the current situation?

  Caroline Abrahams: May I make a point about special needs? I think this is one of the great potential gains of this move. Obviously, the sorts of young people that Les was just talking about have a range of needs—they do not just need excellent educational provision; they also need support services. This shift should allow us to join up the commissioning across support services and learning, to provide integrated packages, and also to start to think about it much more from the 0-19 point of view. I would be the first to say that it is going to be quite a challenging shift from where local authorities are now, but it is the direction that policy is taking us, and it is the big challenge for local authorities at the moment—to join these things up. There is a huge potential gain, particularly for the more vulnerable young people.

  Cllr Lawrence: Caroline has in many ways exemplified the drive that local authorities feel is behind this. Local authorities also have an economic development remit, which is very important, in conjunction with young people themselves and employers. They are looking at different types of training needs, and apprenticeships, and linking those to skill requirements and the courses that colleges can provide, and to schools where they can prepare youngsters through the Diplomas. Certainly in rural areas, we are convinced that there must be a lot of working together between the schools and colleges, employers and other work-based learning arrangements. If we can do that, we will use the resources out there far more effectively and efficiently in a way that will produce qualitative outcomes, especially for young people. I emphasis that, because it is about the outcomes. There has been a tendency in current arrangements for courses to be put on on a volume basis, rather than a demand-led basis. That will be a very important change. If we continue to focus on the needs of the young people first and foremost, it will work well. I want to emphasise a point that was made earlier. We are already developing a lot of commissioning skills, especially around working with primary care trusts in the health sector, and are beginning to look at those types of arrangements with various representative employers' bodies. That skill can be very highly developed, which will build a lot of choice into the system.

  Q61  Mr. Stuart: But anybody involved in planning in local authorities, or any form of government—I am not disrespecting what you just said—will always be able to put together an excellent narrative: "driven by the outcomes" and so on. Often those outcomes do not turn out to be so good, especially if you get rid of independence and responsiveness to local people. The question that I was trying to dig out was: are you confident and sure that local authorities will deliver, and that the "dead hand"—as some would see it—of local authorities will not actually reduce the quality of provision? Actually, colleges have arguably been one of the more successful areas under this Government.

  Chairman: You do not look like a dead hand to me, Councillor Lawrence.

  Cllr Lawrence: Local government does not want to reduce the incorporated and independent nature of colleges. You are right in that they have been a very successful development, and given the way in which colleges have expanded, developed the plant and created environments that facilitate learning, I fully agree with you. Equally, I could not put my hand on my heart and say that every single local authority, irrespective of its political complexion, will perform at the highest level required in every case. I suggest to you that local authorities these days are far more effective and efficient in delivering services than they used to be. We have the new comprehensive assessment framework, and are taking on board the development of the national indicators and becoming more and more outcome-focused and service driven, so the dead hand is actually becoming a very light touch and friendly. Having said that, when things start to go wrong, that hand becomes a very tight grip to ensure that that which is being provided is of an order and a quality that benefits the client or the customer—the recipient of the service. That is what motivates local authorities these days and makes us very accountable.

  Q62  Mr. Stuart: Paragraph 4.2 of the White Paper states: "Local authorities should have clear levers to commission, in order to secure this entitlement, remove poor provision and expand good provision. They should be held to account for the outcomes for young people in the area—including levels of participation, progression and attainment." If we can maintain colleges' independence after that, I would be astonished. As you say, local authorities will have a tight grip as soon as colleges are not delivering what they think they should deliver, according to their accountability. Obviously, that will be up to central Government, who will still be dictating the outcome.

  Caroline Abrahams: To a great extent, it is not really any different from how it is with schools, which are increasingly autonomous bodies. They are accountable to their governors. On a day to day basis, their leadership teams are in charge of the ethos and the general direction of the school. The job of the local authority is to orchestrate, to hold to account in terms of outcomes, to support and to challenge. It will be no different with colleges. At the moment, the Local Government Association is hopefully in the process of agreeing a protocol with Julian and his colleagues at the Association of Colleges. It is important that there is a national statement from us, as organisations, making it clear that the measure is not about curtailing the independence of colleges. We respect that. We understand the direction in which colleges are going. A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference at which it was said openly that colleges have changed during the past few years and so have local authorities. All we have to do is get to know each other better, and that is what we are trying to do at the moment.

  Q63  Mr. Stuart: The comparison with schools is good. It is ironic that, when government policy appears to be greater independence, academies, separation from local authorities and mixed provision, in this area they seem to be moving in the opposite direction and giving much more control and levers back to local authorities.

  Rob Wye: From what I have heard from Caroline and colleagues, local authorities are very much committed to maintaining the independence of colleges within a framework where the local authority is clear about the standards that it wants, and where, if a college or other provider is failing to deliver to those standards, there should be heavy intervention. To pick up a point that was made earlier, it is important that the same performance management framework for institutions applies across the piece, so that there is a level playing field for everyone, and applies equally pre and post 19, so that a further education college would not face being hit on its 14-19s, or 19-plus, in a different place, in different ways.

  Chris Heaume: Local authorities are getting stronger and stronger at delivering well managed and co-ordinated services that support young people. The outcomes for young people are increasing constantly. There are challenges in the infrastructure that is needed, such as the common application form, the children's index and all sorts of data issues that are still being worked through. Mainly, little specification has supported local authorities to come to conclusions, but they will be well placed to take charge of the responsibilities for young people's learning, as long as they can work together to do so. However, local authorities will inherit something that still will not be right about the system as it currently stands—the disincentives for institutions to provide for lower-level learners. We know that our NEET levels have got so much better as people move from year 11 to year 12—we have tiny numbers that do not do that now—but they suddenly rise the next year. Young people at Level 2 or below struggle to get on the right thing and really struggle to find the pathway forward. They are expensive and difficult to teach because of their needs. Colleges are not supported in any way with the financial costs of developing those programmes. That will be inherited by local authorities in the proposals as they stand. Local authorities will struggle to help young people find their way forward.

  Q64  Mr. Stuart: What is your view of the much more complex system that will be put in place on funding, commissioning and vast numbers of sub-regional, regional and cross-regional matters? The actors in the new system seem enormously large and complex. What is your view on the impact of that complexity?

  Caroline Abrahams: It depends on where you are standing when you are looking at that. If you are in a local authority, for example, the new assessment for young people with special educational needs at 16 looks complicated and fragmented because of the existence of the LSC and such funding arrangements. From that point of view, the measure should make things better in the longer term. It would be foolish to deny that there is a risk of complexity and bureaucracy in the system, and we and our colleagues at the LSC have been very keen to say to the Government, "For goodness' sake, let us keep this as simple as it possibly can be." There may need to be complicated wiring behind the scenes, but it is really important that we keep things as simple as possible for both learners and providers. We do not want the changes to make life more difficult for them. In our conversations across all these organisations, we are finding ways to manage that. We also need the Government to help us with that and to ensure that there is clarity when we get to the next stage.

  Q65  Mr. Stuart: Do they need to change their proposals? The proposals as they stand are fiendishly complex.

   Caroline Abrahams: Our preference—we have said this in our response to the White Paper—would have been not to have three national agencies. We would have preferred more synergy. Having said that—Rob knows more about this than I do—there are plans to collocate, possibly to share back office functions. In practice, as long as there are good, strong working relationships across the new agencies, it may make less difference in practice than perhaps it appears at the moment. Our commitment is to make this work. We are where we are, and we are very keen to ensure that local authorities deliver. We think that it is a great opportunity for us and for young people. There is a risk of complexity, but we are constantly considering ways in which we can keep it simple.

   Rob Wye: Caroline is absolutely right. It is innately more complex. Therefore our job, in trying to help the departments design the new arrangements, is to start from the point of view of the employer, the learner or the provider and say, "How can we hide the wiring? How can we keep it as simple as possible as far as the front end is concerned?" There is an example of that. A further education college should have only two relationships: one with the Skills Funding Agency for 19-plus, and the other with the local authority, which is looking after pre-19s. Everything that needs to be done in respect of sorting out the interdependencies and the relationships with other local authorities will be outside the scene as far as it is concerned. It should not see it.

  Q66  Annette Brooke: I shall pick up on that point. Now that we have a clear distinction between 0 to 19 and adult streams, how do you think that adults who are taking GCSEs and A-levels for the first time, will fare in this system?

  Rob Wye: On the adult side, the funding available is not altered by this. The amount of resource available for adults who are undertaking learning on their own behalf, which most GCSE and A-level students do, will remain the same. It will be accessed through the skills account as those develop. The skills account is about the adult being able to access what suits them and their needs in the circumstances. These arrangements do not make it more difficult for those adults who want to pursue GCSE and A-levels, but they do not make it better either. That is all down to the resource available.

  Q67  Annette Brooke: Does that same comment apply to adults—by that I mean young people who have not achieved those qualifications at school, but then have their entitlement later? It is an entitlement for that group of people who do not have those qualifications already. It seems odd to have this separate funding stream.

  Rob Wye: Obviously, we need to work very closely with the Skills Funding Agency, as has been pointed out, to ensure that people do not fall down the crack. Wherever you draw that line—whether it is at 14, 16, 21 or 25—there will be a point at which you need to ensure effective progression from one side to the other. As you say, young people up to the age of 25 have an entitlement up to Level 3, and at all ages up to Level 2. The funding will need to be available to them to enable them to take up that entitlement. We need to work very closely with the Skills Funding Agency, the institutions, Connexions and Jobcentre Plus to ensure that, as far as the individual is concerned, those processes are as simple as possible.

  Chris Heaume: May I come in? It is a pretty challenging system. The young person is often far more ready at 19, 20 and 21 to engage than they were at 16 and 17. They are in a position in life where they really want to learn, but the systems do not tie in for them. They have a different level of support. We are not able to have a relationship with them any longer unless they have special needs. We are worried about how things currently stand. We do not think that the proposals will overcome the problems.

  Q68  Annette Brooke: So that is quite a challenge for some of the very vulnerable people to whom we really want to give extra support.

  Cllr Lawrence: I agree with my colleagues. There is one particular group of youngsters—those in care—whose support at the moment ceases at 16. We take very seriously our role in how to support young people post-16 up to 19 who are in care. It is a small group because many of us are working to provide them with opportunities for independent living. The proposals in the Children and Young Persons Bill to extend that support up to 18 are a good first step, because they give us the responsibility as a corporate parent to provide the type of support that parents provide for their own young people. It is a very vulnerable group, and if you look at the numbers within the NEET category and those who are in care or have been in care, you will see a significant correlation between the two. The ability to provide support to those in vulnerable circumstances through this process will be one of the main benefits. If local authorities feel that their overall responsibility is to fulfil the potential of each and every young person from 0 to 19, hopefully over a 10 to 15-year period we should reduce the number of adults who will need to go back into a learning environment to get the basic skills. We should provide them with a framework in which they have access to opportunities for development so that they can use those basic core skills to meet wider skills needs and go to the colleges and other educational institutions to develop that end of their capabilities.

  Q69  Annette Brooke: I would like to ask Chris some questions. The Connexions service has been plucked out of the outside world and put firmly in the hands of local authorities, so what have been the advantages and disadvantages of that position so far?

  Chris Heaume: There are similar advantages to this localising programme. In our own case, working with central London boroughs, we are already contracted with the local authorities to provide a Connexions service, so we are already in that model. I know from colleagues who have had to move down that road that they see, as we do, a real empowerment of local authorities to work with the young people they are trying to help to move forward, so it is galvanising people. There is a danger, however, that we are starting to lose the consistency of quality across local authorities, which will continue if we are not careful. We used to have to ensure that all data were provided equally and that the quality of all personal advice and support was the same wherever you went. For a young person, Connexions had to be Connexions, and it did not matter whom they saw or where they saw them. There is a danger that that will start to slide away as we lose something that is bigger than the borough. I said earlier that I was worried that that might also be the case, from a young person's experience.

  Q70  Annette Brooke: May I ask you particularly about the careers service that Connexions used to provide? It was very bad in the past that young people were advised to stay on into the sixth form so that the institutions concerned could obviously still hold on to the money. We all know that that happened. Will you not be under pressure from the local authority to give advice that will suit the current number of places, and will the colleges be brought fully into the framework?

  Chris Heaume: I do not see a lot of changes in the way that some young people are currently pulled, often when in schools, into staying on rather than looking around more widely. The legislation that is going through Parliament at the moment and that would raise the participation age does not include provisions for raising the schools' requirement to provide careers education up to 18, and nor will it do that for colleges. We have a weakening of the legislative base that requires schools to fulfil that role, although there is no way that that is currently monitored and supported through inspection, so people are not doing that anyway. There is a danger that we have some schools and colleges that prefer to keep people in house, rather than give them a wider range of choices that require them to look further. Some are very strong at ensuring that the full choice is available, but that is not the case for everyone, and I do not think that this will really change that situation.

  Q71  Annette Brooke: May I ask Les to comment generally on impartiality and the importance of the Connexions service's role in providing data on an impartial basis?

  Cllr Lawrence: You tend to find, within local authorities, that the Connexions service is not seen in isolation. It is becoming part of what is known as an integrated youth support service. It fulfils its traditional function, but gives wider access to support services and advice through the local authority and the voluntary and community sector—the third sector—so that a young person can access health and counselling advice. There is a whole series of different elements. In determining the direction in which to develop, a young person might need a range of support depending on the challenges and the locality within which they live. It would be wrong for the new Connexions service to be still isolated from the panoply of support services that are now available. There will be no pressure to force youngsters to go in specific directions; it is about meeting the needs of young people on an individual and personalised basis. If each young person is seen as an individual, the type of advice and support that they get is very independent.

  Q72  Mr. Carswell: A great deal of public money has been spent on the Connexions programme. How many more young people would not be in education, employment or training if it did not exist?

  Chris Heaume: I can give you our data. When we began five years ago, there were 4,000 young people who were NEET at any moment in central London. There are now 2,000. Each one has someone working alongside them to help them get ready and move forward. A third of those young people are virtually doing that already, but they technically do not count as being involved.

  Q73  Mr. Carswell: Two thousand people?

  Chris Heaume: Yes.

  Q74  Mr. Carswell: Over how long?

  Chris Heaume: That is the gross figure that we started with and what it is now.

  Q75  Mr. Carswell: So the difference is about 2,000?

  Chris Heaume: Well, at any point we have a huge amount of churn going through the system as people go into post-16 learning and then come out. We have reduced that to a very insignificant level, particularly at 16. It rises at 17 and at 18 as we do not yet have the changes in the system that we need.

  Q76  Mr. Carswell: But you are saying that it is about 2,000 people over that period?

  Chris Heaume: Not individuals. If you count individuals we have 2,000 every year who enter learning and who have dropped out of learning. They are constantly replenished by people who, again, drop out as they cannot progress very easily through the necessary levels—the provision for them is not there. Year by year we help 2,000 young people into learning, and we help another vast number to make proper choices that position them well to develop the skills that they need for the future. That is another issue—we are responsible for both.

  Q77  Chairman: I have a question for Councillor Lawrence and Caroline Abrahams. Local authorities have lost a lot of their staff and expertise in the careers area. I addressed a national conference on careers in Harrogate on Friday, and I understand from people in the careers service that local authorities no longer put their careers function out to tender. Why is that, and how can they get away with it? I thought that that sort of function had to be put out to tender.

  Caroline Abrahams: I know that some are not, but I did not know that it was true across the board—I am not sure that it is. I have certainly heard of some places that have decided that they are best off doing it themselves. Things have changed, and there is no doubt that getting information, advice and guidance right will be crucial in the success of the system. It is important not to see the transfer on its own—there are many things going on in the 14-19 area that are designed to tackle the issue of NEETs. Although the sort of efforts made by Chris and his colleagues are crucial and make a big difference, they will not be enough on their own to tackle the issue, nor will these provisions be. We are thinking hard, as are many others, about what we can offer to those young people who at the moment would be NEET, but who in future would be truants from the system. There is scope for much more creativity around more informal provision of learning. This is where the issue raised in the previous session about employers is so crucial. There are good examples of practice in some parts of the country where employers get involved much earlier on with young people. Kids who would otherwise have drifted away from school at 14 are being engaged on interesting programmes that allow them to practise their skills. We are moving towards a much more integrated approach across all these different kinds of provisions, so that we get 14 to 19 to work across the board.

  Q78  Chairman: With respect, Caroline, that does not really answer the question that I asked. The private sector and the third sector have built up quite a lot of expertise in the careers area. Why is it possible for local authorities to dispense with that kind of expertise, which is quite a scarce resource?

  Cllr Lawrence: I cannot answer for individual local authorities, but the feeling that I get from talking to lead member colleagues of all persuasions around the country is that there has been a variability of perception of the careers service, especially, funnily enough, from within the schools. In some instances local authorities have decided to bite the bullet and take the service into themselves, and then offer it out. Others have said to networks of schools: "You determine the process by which you want to access or have a careers service provided." That seems to me a very sensible approach because, at the end of the day, the clients for a lot of the careers service functions are the schools and the young people in them. If schools can come together and use the third sector or existing service in part or in whole to provide that service on their behalf, that should be supported. However, that is based on a perception of what has been the case in the past. In my own authority we have asked the private sector to provide and bid for the service. We have separated out from the careers service because that was felt by the schools and, to an extent, the colleges to be the most appropriate way of doing it.

  Chairman: Thank you. Chris Heaume?

  Chris Heaume: Since the localisation of Connexions, which has only been a few months, but really since 14 to 19, we have seen schools and colleges being far more involved in the provision of advice and guidance, in a way that works for them and includes them. As a result, as an example, one of our seven local authorities has decided to take the service in-house because its 14 to 19 arrangements are so strong that it feels it has the capacity to do that. The other six have decided to go out to tender and are preparing for that; one has already done it. That is the pattern in some cases, but it is more driven by 14 to 19 success than anything else.

  Chairman: Rob, do you want to come in on that or shall we move on to the next section?

  Rob Wye: Just to comment that we have recently tendered out the adult information, advice and guidance services in nine regional contracts, which have gone to a wide variety from the voluntary sector, the private sector and some local authorities delivering for a whole region, so there is a mixed economy.

  Q79  Chairman: But local authorities have the right not to tender and just do it in-house?

  Rob Wye: For the Connexions service, yes.

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