Sir George spoke in an Opposition Day debate on Further Education, to make the case for investment in Andover College, and for students with learning difficulties. The text of his speech is below:
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I commend the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) for his tradition of commissioning an important work of art from a local artist following his election to Parliament. I am sure that his successor will wish to follow that tradition.
I want to drag the debate south from Yorkshire, where it has been for the past three speeches, to Hampshire, where it began with an excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). I wish to pick up the point that the hon. Member for City of York and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made about the fiasco of the Building Colleges for the Future programme.
Many of us took part in a debate in Westminster Hall in March, when the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills had an uncomfortable 90 minutes being beaten up by Members of all parties. If I may give him some respectful advice, perhaps his response to this debate might be less pugnacious than it was on that occasion and a little more constructive, bridge-building and conciliatory. Whereas other Ministers have come to the House and told us that they are bringing forward the capital programme for counter-cyclical reasons, he has had to tell us of a freeze in the further education capital programme with projects, far from being brought forward, being indefinitely postponed.
Two years ago Cricklade college in Andover merged with Sparsholt college, just outside Winchester. Thanks to the energy and commitment of the principal, Tim Jackson, and his team, the quality of education in Andover has been driven up since the merger. They are doing a fantastic job in challenging circumstances, but they have not been assisted by recent events. At the time of the merger, the LSC wrote to me:
“Current thinking is that there will be a required investment of up to £30 million in Andover and £20 million in Winchester.”
It went on to say that those figures were indicative at that stage, but concluded:
“I would wish to reiterate the LSC’s commitment to ensuring an appropriate level of investment is forthcoming to support the ambitions of the merged college.”
The scheme grew to £100 million, reflecting the encouragement given to colleges by the LSC to raise their sights and build for the 21st century. On one visit, the LSC officer told the college that he hoped the main administrative building would be knocked down and replaced because it looked dreadful. It was not, and that is not in the plan at the moment.
The college applied for in-principle approval in Andover last November, expecting the go-ahead in February or March. In the meantime, it got planning consent from Test Valley borough council. The scheme was an integral part of the regeneration of Andover town centre, complementing plans that have already been introduced in one part of the town and are about to be in another. Then, along with 143 other colleges, in March we were told that the deal was off. There is great disappointment in the town.
To pick up on points that have been made in the debate, I understand that decisions are about to be taken on how to spend the money that is available, topped up by the funds announced in the Budget, which I welcome. It seems that schemes that are “shovel-ready”, to use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, will get the go-ahead, while other schemes that might have progressed in the near future will go to the back of the queue. It would be helpful if the Minister said a little more in his winding-up speech about the criteria that will be applied when deciding who goes first and who comes last, and if he could indicate for local consumption the earliest date at which the project in Andover might now get the go-ahead.
On top of the capital debacle, there is also a revenue headache as a result of the gamble that colleges were encouraged to take by the LSC in bidding for funds. Some will now turn in financial deficits, which would not have been the case, unless the LSC is able to step in and refund their fees. I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon say that his local college has had an offer of a contribution towards abortive fees, although I am not quite sure why it has to decide so quickly. In the case of Andover, about 70 per cent. of the £2 million spent in fees is now abortive. That risks turning a potential surplus of £500,000 into a potential deficit of £900,000. Will the Minister say something about which colleges are getting help, and of what sort, in meeting the abortive fees?
The other frustrating thing is that the LSC is responsible for monitoring the financial health of colleges. In many cases, the reason for the deterioration has nothing to do with the college but is entirely due to the LSC. Unless it can come up with the necessary help with abortive fees, some colleges will go into deficit and may breach financial covenants. Many will have to borrow funds from the bank, incurring interest payments.
I move on to a subject that has not been touched on at all—provision for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. There is a need for much greater clarity about what is done for adults on the education side of the equation and what is done by social service departments on the social and personal development side. A few years ago, colleges would accept those with learning difficulties on courses, and would interpret the rules broadly. People would continue to attend college year after year, even though they were not really progressing. It was an important part of their life and self-development.
A few years ago the rules were tightened, and colleges are now required to ensure that courses attended by adults with LDD lead to clear, successful outcomes in qualifications. When an adult has fulfilled the requirements of a particular qualification and there is not necessarily anything appropriate for them to progress to, they are unable to be recycled year after year, so they stop going. That change was made a few years ago at the point of transition. That issue might not be one for the Minister, but it is certainly one for the Government if we are to have joined-up government.
This morning I was rereading “Valuing people now”, the Government’s three-year strategy for people with learning disabilities. It is very much a health-focused document, with not a lot in it about education, but I found one sentence about education that I will have to read out, in the hope that the House will understand what it means better than I can. It states:
“The cross-government Work, Education and Life Group will also lead implementation of ‘Progression through Partnership’ (the post-16 education strategy) and the Getting a Life project, which aims to achieve an integrated assessment and decision-making process that will allow people to use public resources flexibly to get the outcomes they want”.
I hope that that means that folk will be able to go on courses that are suitable for them, but I say to the Minister that it is by no means clear how the education-social services interface will work. I hope that he will ensure that there are suitable courses for people with learning difficulties that are provided either by social services or by education.
I turn briefly to some other issues in the motion. The number of NEETs in my constituency, as in those of other colleagues, has risen. It is now at 185, having risen from 135 in December, five months ago. Many fewer adults are now attending training courses at Andover college than was the case in 2005. I suspect that that is because in some cases there is a real issue of affordability when it comes to the fees. There was a 29 per cent. drop in 2007-08 compared to 2006-07, and a 41 per cent. drop in 2007-08 compared to 2005-06. I hope that the Minister will say a little about the Government’s response to that.
We heard a great deal from the Secretary of State about Train to Gain, which, in a sense, has been too successful. In my constituency, as in Skipton and Ripon, we now have a moratorium on new starts. Private providers and colleges have been told to stop, current activity with employers has been curtailed, and future contracts are being held back to avoid over-commitment in the forthcoming year. There is considerable frustration about the fact that after everyone has been geared up, they are having to be geared down again.
The subject of unfunded students was raised earlier, and I need to see what the Secretary of State said in response. At present there are about 120 unfunded places for the autumn in my constituency. The college has submitted a bid. The Secretary of State’s speech suggested that we might be given answers about the bids; perhaps the Minister could shed some light on that. As for apprentices, there is understandably less capacity in the workplace to take on, in particular, young and inexperienced trainees. Sadly, in Andover we have seen a rise in the number of apprenticeship redundancies, which has pushed up the number of NEETs.
Let me make a general point. Further education colleges find sudden changes in funding flows very challenging. When commitments to engaging additional staff are required, the stop-start approach to funding is very difficult to manage. As all Members have pointed out, colleges are crucial to the economic and social well-being of the areas in which they operate. They cannot be expected to operate as a very small business might be expected to, moving resources in and out from one week to the next.
I hope that the Government will exercise continuing stewardship over the financial well-being of colleges. That is especially important when the commissioning of much of their work switches to local authorities, with funding supplied via the Department for Children, Schools and Families, while the overarching stewardship of colleges rests with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Finally, let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who will wind up the debate, that it would be interesting to hear whether he considers that we are totally satisfied with the rather blurred responsibility for the age group that we are discussing, or whether he thinks that the issue might need to be revisited in a year’s time.