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Clause 43

– in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 17th March 2009.

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Power to require provision of education by institutions within further education sector

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 216, in clause 43, page 26, line 18, leave out ‘A local education authority’ and insert ‘The Young People’s Learning Agency’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 217, in clause 43, page 26, line 24, leave out subsection (3).

Amendment 218, in clause 43, page 26, line 32, leave out ‘a local education authority in England’ and insert ‘the Young People’s Learning Agency’.

Amendment 361, in schedule 8, page 180, line 3, leave out ‘responsible local education authority’ and insert ‘Young People’s Learning Agency’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

Clause 43 transfers the power of the Learning and Skills Council to direct an FE college to provide suitable education for named individuals to local education authorities. Amendments 216 and 218 remove mention of LEAs and replace it with the Young People’s Learning Agency, to ensure that responsibility for providing for named students remains with the YPLA, the funding body for FE, in an attempt to remove needless bureaucracy. Amendment 217 removes subsection (3), as it relates to students within the geographical area of an LEA, a reference that will not be necessary if the first amendment in the group is accepted.

As it stands, the clause pulls further education colleges further into a complex and confusing web of authorities and funders. LEAs will have the power to direct FE colleges to provide education for a student, who would then be funded by the YPLA. The governing body of an FE institution must comply with that request. Does the Minister not see how much that insidious movement threatens the treasured independence of FE college governing bodies? FE colleges simply do not want to be placed under the authority of local government again. As I said, they look back to the incorporation introduced by a Conservative Government—at the time, I was a member of a local education authority—as a positive step, which led to a golden age prior to the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council in 2000 by this Government, who are now abolishing what they set up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the shadow Secretary of State, argued, beginning to reform what they themselves established is often the mark of a failing Government.

The control and regulation of FE—the micro-management, the target-driven culture in which colleges operate—are highly undesirable and make them less able to respond to local needs. It is immensely costly, inhibits their capacity to innovate and underestimates the immense and valuable human capital that exists within colleges, particularly at senior management level. Those are not the views of a Conservative shadow Minister aiming to make a party political point, but of the sector itself, reflected in the report by Sir Andrew Foster that I mentioned earlier—I brought a copy into the Committee, so that the Minister can study it himself. Sir Andrew complained of the “galaxy of oversight, inspection” and regulation faced by FE colleges. He listed organisations with a monitoring, inspection or improvement role in FE colleges and specifically recommended—the Committee should bear in mind that this was four years ago—that

“The Government should further rationalise the oversight, inspection and accreditation bodies” associated with further education. Since then moves to self-regulation have been snail-like on the part of Ministers. We hope that, by tabling the amendments, we can turn  the Minister into something altogether more edifying than a snail, in the fond hope that he might see sense and accept them.

Under the amendments, colleges would have to only respond to one body that will appreciate its education provision and student needs far better than the system proposed by the Government. We have heard the Minister cite both the AOC and the 157 Group as apparent supporters of the Bill. However, Graham Moore from the 157 Group, in our witness sessions, said:

“It is important for colleges—sixth-form colleges and general FE colleges—which recruit over quite a wide area, that we do not revert to the situation pre-incorporation when every local authority had to have every bell and whistle.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 26, Q74.]

The point about independence was made even more strongly by Mr. Moore later on. He felt that LEAs were not the right bodies to oversee FE colleges’ work, and specifically not to direct their student body and learning provision. We agree wholeheartedly with that position, which is why we have tabled the amendment, which will enable us to reach the stage suggested by the Association of Colleges in the evidence session at which they argued

“there should be one rather than two national agencies”.

Mr. Moore went on to say:

“In a sense, the great strength of colleges is their independence—their ability to look at the situation locally. I welcome in the Bill the commitment to economic and social well-being, which is absolutely what we are all about.”——[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 27, Q76.]

However, having welcomed that commitment, he made it clear that it was important that colleges had independence, interfacing and interacting with their community to be as responsive as possible to local needs. We simply look to a day when self-regulated, independent FE colleges are no longer subject to the micro-management and diktats of Ministers. The amendments go some way towards turning that dream into reality within the strict confines of a largely unhelpful Bill.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 12:45 pm, 17th March 2009

I shall be relatively brief. We have heard the intention behind the amendments, which deal with a power that has never been used by the Learning and Skills Council. We think that it is important that those powers remain to direct FE institutions to provide for a named individual, so that there is a motivation for those institutions, if there was a problem, to co-operate. They have never been used, and it is right for them to be transferred to the local authority, rather than the YPLA. If we did not do so, a local authority seeking to meeting the duties set up in clause 40 would find that if it needed to direct an institution to accept a learner, it would have to go through the bureaucratic burden—I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the burdens, because he goes on about them a lot—of getting the YPLA to issue an instruction, rather than them doing it themselves. It is an important tool in local authorities’ toolbox, enabling them to deliver their obligations to rise the participation age.

It is not, however, about giving local authorities more control over colleges. The colleges will remain as autonomous as they are now—they will have their own governing body and business practices, with reduced  inspection for good providers. Local authorities will have no more control than they do now. We want colleges to be self-confident, self-improving, autonomous bodies that can deliver a high-quality set of provisions—that is the vision that underpins the Bill. There is nothing in the direction powers which, as I said, have yet to be used, that would undermine that in any way, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

We need to make progress. The Minister has been entirely unhelpful in the way in which he has dealt with the amendments—[Interruption.]—and as unimpressive as he has been unhelpful, notwithstanding the fact that he has made so little impression on me and on the Committee. I hope that he will, at some stage, illustrate to the Committee why the system that will pertain, should the Bill be passed, is less onerous on colleges. How will it take us closer to the vision that Sir Andrew Foster identified on FE colleges? Will there be fewer bodies with which FE colleges have to deal, or more? With those thoughts, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.