Further Education

Part of Opposition Day — [10th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:31 pm on 18th November 2015.

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Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South 5:31 pm, 18th November 2015

Of all 650 constituencies in the country, Bristol South sends the second lowest number of its young people to university. More than 5,500 people in my constituency attend a college, and around 3,500 of those attend City of Bristol college, part of which is located in my constituency.

Further education is crucial for the life chances of young people in my constituency, and the problems in the sector have been mentioned often and were recently discussed in the Public Accounts Committee on 19 OctoberMr Jackson is also a member of that Committee. The Skills Funding Agency also participated, and highlighted the fact that around 70 colleges could be rated as “financially inadequate” by the end of this financial year. Financially inadequate means that a college is unable to fulfil its contractual arrangements, and the number of colleges operating a deficit by the end of the year will be much higher at about 110.

The Committee discussed the process for area reviews, and a great deal of uncertainty about those reviews remains. In my constituency, I understand that the area review will take place at the beginning of 2016 in the west of England, and will include City of Bristol college, Bath college, Weston college, the Filton campus of South Gloucestershire and Stroud college—that was mentioned by Neil Carmichael—as well as St Brendan’s sixth-form college. Now, however, it seems that it will not include sixth forms, or Bristol technology and engineering academy, which educates 14 to 18-year-olds, or private providers. Far from being a comprehensive picture of post-16 education across the west of England, it seems as if the area review will miss that opportunity.

I would like to be positive about the Government’s review because it will be externally provided, based on evidence, and will consider all colleges. That is to be welcomed, as is the fact that it covers a good geographical patch. However, no money is attached for reviews of colleges, and I urge the Government to consider trying to support colleges in the onerous task of involving themselves in those area reviews. As independent organisations, colleges will not be made to implement the review’s recommendations.

The West of England partnership has produced its own bid for devolution to manage all post-16 skills funding. I support that approach because I think it will help to integrate some of the post-16 skills, but I am concerned that further uncertainty around that aspect for colleges will further impede opportunities for my constituents to have a clear pathway post-16. The two things together may create further confusion, and I would like the Government to look at bringing some of those strands together.

This has become a critical issue for Bristol South, because every time I canvassed before the election I heard from parents and grandparents of young people who are now finding it almost impossible to navigate through the choices and pathways post-16. This part of the west of England has a skills deficit, especially for people with NVQ 1s, and I suggest that the process needs more cohesion and accountability in the future.