New Clause 7

Part of Further Education and Training Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 14th June 2007.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Minister of State (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education), Department for Education and Skills 10:00 am, 14th June 2007

I might have to disappoint the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings. He started by making an incorrect assertion; he said that Sir Andrew Foster’s very good report talked about 17 inspection and oversight bodies, and that one has been added and one taken away. That simply is not true. Two have been taken away. To claim that there has been no substantive change is completely at odds with the reality given that we have merged two inspection bodies, which have a major impact on FE colleges, to reduce their number from two to one.

I thought that there was a very interesting interchange, involving my hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary, about the report produced by the right hon. Member for Wokingham. I will take your counsel, Mr. Atkinson—all I would say is that, in the last two  years, I have not met one FE college principal who has urged me to give funding responsibilities back to local authorities. If the hon. Gentleman believes that there is support for such a proposition, perhaps he can bring it forward.

Returning to the matters before us, I agree very much that the operational efficiency and effectiveness of all organisations involved in FE and training is vital. As we said, in our further education White Paper, we are committed to looking at the scope for further simplification, and all elements of the learning and skills landscape are kept under review. We are committed to continuing to seek further efficiencies.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Sir Andrew Foster’s report, which drew attention to the number of bodies. As I said earlier, we have since merged Ofsted and ALI so that now only one body inspects FE institutions, rather than two. We have also removed the Learning and Skills Development Agency. Also, as Foster suggested, roles have been clarified, as we described in last year’s “Further EducationWhite Paper, which was the right response to Sir Andrew Foster’s report. The remaining bodies have clear and distinct roles and responsibilities, and although we expect partners to work together, I do not believe that their activities overlap.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to recognise how the landscape continues to change as part of our ongoing reform agenda. The 17 bodies that Foster discussed are organisations with monitoring, inspection, improvement and standard-setting roles, which clearly are very important. Foster set them out as three groups: inspectorates, of which there were three, monitoring bodies, of which there were six, and those that help the sector improve and thus bring greater success to learners, of which there were eight. We have streamlined the first group already so that there is Ofsted for FE and the QAA for HE. We have spoken about foundation degrees already and about maintaining the role for the QAA, which is of paramount importance. In that debate, I did not hear calls from the Opposition to do away with the QAA or to merge its role; indeed, there was an insistence on the importance of that role. However, on this part of the Bill, the Opposition, looking for some cheap shots, argue differently.

The second group includes local authorities, regional development agencies and sector skills councils. Again, on Tuesday, the hon. Gentleman pointed out the importance to the learning and skills system of those bodies, and there was explicit and strong support from the Opposition for the sector skills councils. However, again, in this part of the debate, a different tune is played. It is also important that we are clear that those bodies are far more partners, bringing influence to bear, than bodies set up to regulate individual providers. We have already debated their importance and their role in delivering appropriate choice for young people and demand-led provision to meet the skills challenge. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that.

The third group reflects our commitment to drive up standards and the importance of providing both expertise and support to the sector as a whole, as part of the wider reform agenda. But that group, too, has been  streamlined; the DFES standards unit no longer exists in a separate form and the QIA has been established to simplify and support quality improvement across the sector.

When we consider the matter in the abstract, it is possible to call simplistically for further rationalisation. On one level that is attractive but, when we begin seriously to examine the detail, we often reach different conclusions. I shall give an example of that. I considered, and asked officials to consider, the possibility of merging the Learning and Skills Council and HEFCE, and I concluded that, were we to go down that route, we would create the largest funding and commissioning body outside the former Soviet Union. Given that, I do not think that it would be a sensible move to make. With respect, some of the calls for simplification are driven from a simplistic basis.

We are making changes and bringing about further rationalisation—that is not rhetoric. We are also working with the further education system as the proposals for self-regulation are developed. We as a Government, I as the responsible Minister, and the Secretary of State asked the further education body to come up with those proposals. Sir George Sweeney, as the chair of the self-regulation steering group, is working and consulting on self-regulation plans—work rightly being done by the sector, for the sector. We are also putting forward new freedoms for highly performing colleges, including action to develop collective sector ownership of quality improvement, including identifying and managing poor performance. I am confident that, if and when Sir George makes other proposals for any of the relevant bodies, they will be actioned where appropriate.