I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He speaks with great expertise as Chair of the Defence Committee and makes an interesting point. If I were still Secretary of State for Education, I would be thinking about the impact on my budget, but he made two broader points. The first is about the positive impact of having more young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths in this country. Of course, if they are going to be part of our armed forces or the MOD civil service, that is a great thing for the country, but there are many other fantastic STEM-based jobs that will benefit this country too, and I suspect that many of those future employees have started life at Welbeck and been inspired there.
The second point is about how the decision was made, what alternatives were looked at and who was consulted. In his letter to the MOD, the Chair went on to say:
“Our understanding is that the staff and governors were not consulted on the College’s future and it does not seem obvious to us that the creation of SGIS requires the closure of the College”.
He asked why the decision must lead to the closure of Welbeck, whether the change between the two schemes offers value for money, how closing the college will help UK defence
“in an increasingly competitive market for STEM graduates in the UK and globally”,
and whether the staff and governors of the college were consulted before the written statement, or whether they were informed of the decision without being able to influence the review. We look forward to reading the Government’s response to that letter, which I suspect, like all other Select Committee correspondence, will be published and made available to the public in due course.
The decision is clearly very unsettling for staff, families, current students and those who had hoped to study there in future. We note the current 847 signatures on the petition on the Parliament website and the current 1,076 signatures on the 38 Degrees petition site. The latter petition calls for a consultation to be held to include parents, staff, students and other relevant stakeholders over the proposed closure of Welbeck. As I have said, it is clear from the comments received just how strongly parents and families feel. I have selected two of those I have received. The first reads:
“It is incredibly disappointing to read that Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College is to shut... Our 15 year old daughter...has visited Welbeck twice as she has her heart set on joining the Navy and training to be an air engineer. Welbeck provides a place where young women can be encouraged and supported into engineering careers. It offers a standard and type of education—and opportunities—that would otherwise be out of reach to families like us who are not affluent and cannot afford to pay for expensive boarding schools”.
The second reads:
“I strongly believe without Welbeck my son would not be achieving as well as he is doing now. Welbeck is there for intelligent children from poor backgrounds and not just for children from private schools or more affluent families. They are all given the same opportunity from an early age to reach their full all round potential academically and within many sports and other areas which my son would not have been able to achieve at sixth form collage. Welbeck is a community;
a family and a collection of likeminded intelligent young adults who are training with the mind set to do as well as possible not just for themselves but for their country and their chosen entry force. My son ended up getting offers from both and chose the RAF to follow on from his years at air cadets.”
I hope that in his reply the Minister will address the questions raised by the Chair of the Select Committee and say how he thinks the new scheme will still benefit the students whose lives and futures are being shaped and transformed by Welbeck. I hope he can also take us through how the review was conducted and who was involved.
If this decision is not to be reversed, this fantastic site could well be empty in just a couple of years. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood nor I want an empty site just sitting there, and nor do we want it sold off to any old bidder. We know there is already local interest. The Minister’s written statement made it clear that an alternative use within either education or defence would be found. I hope that the PFI contract will not put future occupiers off or provide an excuse for officials not to pursue alternative uses sooner rather than later. If he can shed more light on plans for the site, we would be pleased to hear them.
I finish with another comment from a family. [Interruption.] The Minister is poised. He cannot wait. I am delighted—he is a coiled spring—but I hope he will bear with me while I read out one further comment:
“The training and preparation that the students receive is truly first class and I am fearful that we may lose something irreplaceable which, if lost, will be impossible to replicate.”
I echo that sentiment. I hope that, at a time when the UK needs all the talent that we can muster, the Minister will understand the concerns that I have set out and provide reassurance. I suspect that this will not be the last debate or set of questions on the issue that I have raised. As the local Members of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood and I look forward to working with the Minister and his officials on this important matter.