I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for that intervention. I agree with him. From testimonials sent to me by former students and their families, I know how strongly they agree, too. In many cases, Welbeck has transformed their life chances. As he also says, this is about building fantastic armed forces, particularly with a science, engineering and technology background, for the United Kingdom. I am sure the Minister will want to cover how he thinks the changes proposed will enhance that and not detract from it. There is some convincing to do on that score.
Welbeck aims to prepare students for life at university and beyond by giving them a well-rounded curriculum that will—as a champion of character education, I particularly endorse this:
“challenge and develop them academically, physically and socially.”
The college also aims to develop students on a personal level by challenging them through a diverse range of co-curricular activities, which include many different sports, combined cadet force activities, and working within the community through volunteering and charity work.
“I am writing to inform you that the Ministry of Defence will be undertaking a review of the Defence Sixth Form College at Welbeck as part of an ongoing initiative to understand how to improve the supply of STEM graduates into Defence and the Armed Services…Welbeck is part of our wider scheme for recruiting STEM graduates. Its role is to educate pupils in relevant A-level subjects prior to moving to the next phase of the scheme where they are supported through STEM courses at university. If successful they then go into Initial Officer Training with one of the Armed Services or enter the Civil Service within the MOD. Like many other organisations, we”— the MOD—
“have found it consistently difficult over recent years to attract sufficient, good quality, STEM candidates. Whilst the education and wider experience provided by Welbeck is of a high standard, and despite measures to mitigate shortfalls, intake targets are not being achieved. Equally, over the 5-6 years they are in the pipeline the numbers seeing it through to Initial Officer Training has consistently only been about 55%.
The review will look at the breadth of the operation of Welbeck, which is a private Finance Initiative establishment run by a contractor, Minerva. It will explore re-setting the current PFI, extracting better value from the current PFI, and also whether a different STEM graduate recruiting scheme would better meet Defence’s needs. We will be instructing PwC to work with Minerva to explore the viability of these options.
Whilst the review will be internal to MOD only, I understand that such a review can create uncertainty and potentially some concern among your constituents. I want to reassure you, however, that no decisions will be made until the review is complete, at which point I will write to you again. One of the assumptions of the review is that, whatever happens, students who are currently on the scheme will be able to see it through to graduation and joining the Services or Civil Service.”
I know that, as the local MP, my hon. Friend raised a question with the Prime Minister on this in the House last year and has had regular engagement on it with Ministers. But as far as I can establish, the review’s conclusions have not been released to the public, nor is it clear who was formally consulted, so it was deeply disappointing to read last month, in a written statement by the Minister here today, of the decision by the Ministry of Defence to
“put in place a new, targeted scheme to recruit undergraduates in related subjects;
the STEM graduate inflow scheme…This scheme has been designed to significantly increase the number of STEM graduates brought into defence and the variety of STEM disciplines they are from…The new scheme will replace the current defence technical officer and engineer entry scheme…which has produced some excellent young graduates but is not meeting defence’s requirements or providing sufficient value for money. Ending the current scheme will also mean that the Defence Sixth Form College…at Welbeck will close, with a final intake in September 2019.”
We, and those watching this closely, note the Minister’s final comment in the statement:
“Full transition to the new scheme will take place incrementally over the next five years, during which the current intake of students will be fully supported. For the final two years Welbeck remains a going concern. That time will be used productively to work with local authorities and stakeholders to seek the best possible future use of this impressive school, including within the education sector or an alternative use within defence.”
I will return to the issue about the future in a moment but, first, for the sake of those affected, we must be absolutely sure that the Ministry of Defence is making the right decision. As the local MP, my hon. Friend has written:
“A number of constituents have written to me, following the announcement, to express their concern about the forthcoming closure of the College, particularly in light of the excellent opportunity Welbeck offers young people across the UK, since 1953 and on its current site since 2005, to get a first-class STEM and technical education in preparation for a career in our Armed Forces, and for the values and discipline it instils in its students. While I can understand the Ministry of Defence’s approach to ensuring that it has access to talented engineering and technical graduates needs to be updated from time to time to reflect changing needs and approaches to training and education, I do share the view that Welbeck's closure will be a real loss in that context.”
As local MPs, we note, and are grateful, that my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, the Chair of the Defence Committee—I am delighted to see him here—has written to the Ministry of Defence to ask if it is wise to
“shut down a means of creating graduates who have been working towards a service career from their mid-teens.”
He goes on to say
“we are very concerned that closure of Welbeck College risks sacrificing an existing—and productive—source of STEM graduates in the hope that a new and untried system will be more successful.”