It is just as well that our Scottish nationalist colleagues have left us at this point and are no longer interested in the development of the debate.
One has to feel sorry for the FE sector in the UK. This is a country—Tomlinson notwithstanding—that does not really value technical education. Technical is normally seen as the opposite to academic, and being academic is not seen to require any technical skill. You are either a classicist or a plumber and you simply cannot be both. At the end of the day, the country is run by people who have received an academic education and who fundamentally have a patrician view. That is why it is so difficult to get parity in this field. It is almost the destiny of FE to be messed around again and again largely by those who neither understand nor rate it. I would suggest that that has happened in some form or another.
Most of the sector started life as local colleges training local students in local crafts and disciplines allied to them, and was strategically—and, I think, helpfully—controlled by local authorities. They then added to the mix general studies of wider cultural interest and opportunities to retake school-based exams. That is where they started, but successive Governments—I include the previous Government—weakened the local link and made them autonomous, with corporate providers alongside other providers outside the public sector. The colleges ended up chasing down perplexing streams of funding from an ever varying set of quangos and outside bodies. The theory, which I suppose is quite sound, was that it would make them sensitive to the needs of the market. It did not do that: it made them sensitive to student demand and funding streams. Frankly, much game-changing technical education bit the dust at that point, to be replaced by courses of lesser value. We had more performing arts, and less gas fitting and all the other things we really need.
Feeling that something was wrong, the previous Labour Government under Gordon Brown decided to endow the colleges with new buildings under the Building Schools for the Future programme, which, I think we can all recall, crashed and burned. It either left colleges with severe financial liabilities they had not expected—the National Audit Office report illustrates that—or severely disappointed, because promises were not delivered on. I have very vivid memories of watching Siôn Simon, the Minister at the time, sitting hollowed out, worn out and punch drunk in Portcullis House after the latest Adjournment debate in which Labour Members had tasked him with not having delivered what had been promised.
Under the coalition Government, I have to say that things did improve under the wise guidance of Vince Cable. Further education was charged to make up for the deficiencies of British industry by providing ever more apprenticeships, and to make up for the deficiencies of schools by giving people an opportunity to retake English and maths. Laudably, colleges were allowed to develop links with universities. All of that was done against a declining budgetary environment. Now, however, we are going to cull them to save money. I take that to be the basic premise of the area-based reviews. They have to reach a bottom line and that bottom line has to be less than the current bottom line.
I suggest that there is a better way forward. We need to integrate FE colleges better with local industry and business, integrate them better with local schools and communities, and give them a proper strategic role. That is not happening, or, if it is happening, it is not happening everywhere. Colleges, particularly on Merseyside, have no tools to intervene or assist downstream with school and academy failure, but they are expected to sweep up after them when children finish those schools without GCSEs in English and maths. Communities are not being empowered to address the skill deficiencies they face.
The Liverpool city region deal has recently been concluded. The councils bid for control over the skills budget but did not get it, due, I would suggest, to resistance from the Minister’s Department. Nothing has been a more intractable problem for Liverpool and the Merseyside area than the skills gap and nothing would be more effective in addressing it than giving local power over the needs we have, but local further education colleges are not even on the skills committee of the local enterprise partnership. Their budgets are not devolved to the city region and they simply await the axe of the area review. They wonder why it is they, and not the academies and schools, that are in the frame.