General functions of education administrator

Technical and Further Education Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 1st December 2016.

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Amendment proposed (this day): 3, in clause 22, page 10, line 6, leave out “for the” and insert “with the primary”.—(Gordon Marsden.)

This amendment would ensure that the primary concern of the education administrator is the special education administration objective, that is minimising disruption to learners.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment 4, in clause 22, page 10, line 7, leave out “(if possible)”.

This amendment would ensure that the primary concern of the education administrator is the special education administration objective, that is minimising disruption to learners.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I will answer one or two of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Blackpool South. If I understood correctly, he was asking about safeguarding. I assure him that the statutory obligations that apply to colleges will transfer to the special administrator during the special administration period.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned one bank. To clarify, the chap from Santander, Gareth Jones, told the Committee in evidence:

“On the Bill and the proposed insolvency regime, we are actually supportive of the clarity that they provide.”

He also said that

“we are still…looking to grow our exposure to the sector and grow our lending book.”––[Official Report, Technical and Further Education Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2016; c. 38, Q41.]

Later, he said:

“From a risk perspective, when we assess the underlying risk of a transaction, there has always been that uncertainty and we have had to make assumptions in the background. If the Bill is passed, the certainty it will provide is positive for us.”––[Official Report, Technical and Further Education Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2016; c. 41, Q46.]

Different banks have different views on the issue.

Clause 5 and schedule 3 allow the education administrator to dissolve a statutory corporation if no property is left for the creditors’ book, which will usually be after students have had benefit protections from the special objective. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a special provision in the Bill to protect students with special educational needs, which is important. The education administrator is additionally bound by the duties that apply to the college in relation to SEN students. There is no protection at the moment—nothing.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

This relates to the point we discussed earlier. It is not so much about cost as about distance. The Minister said earlier that the provisions currently allow students to transfer on the basis of up to 75 minutes’ travel time. This cannot be included in the Bill—we are all planning for the worst and hoping for the best—but it should be taken into account that if, for the sake of argument, a college with a significant number of SEN students goes insolvent, it might be possible to ensure that any transport provided is disability friendly. If a college with a relatively small number of SEN students goes insolvent and those students have to travel a fairly long way, it would create additional difficulties. I am not asking for anything to be put in the Bill, but I ask him to take that into account in the guidance notes.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I will reflect on that important point, but the Bill makes it clear that the administrator has to protect not only students, but special needs students. The administrator will be under the same obligations as the college in relation to the Equality Act 2010. That is an important part of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said that clause 14 is one of the most important in the Bill. Clause 22 is equally important, and it should be considered not in isolation, but in conjunction with clause 14. It is the backbone of the special administrative regime and distinguishes it from ordinary administrative processes. While clause 14 enshrines the overriding purpose of the special administrative regime—the protection of students through the special objective—clause 22 gives the education administrator the power to manage the FE body’s affairs, business and property, and it places a requirement on the education administrator to carry out their functions for the purpose of achieving that objective.

Clause 14 makes it clear that student protection is the primary purpose of the special administrative regime. Reading clauses 14 and 22 together makes it clear that the education administrator’s primary purpose is to achieve the special objective. I hope that explanation reassures the hon. Member for Blackpool South and that he will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks and for our short exchange on the situation for SEN students. I am particularly grateful to him for emphasising the relationship between clauses 14 and 22. It is important that he has stated in Committee the primary purpose of the education administrator; if in future there are any doubts or concerns about the interpretation of the clause, that will be an important point. I thank him for his response and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 22, page 10, line 7, at end insert—

“(2A) The education administrator may, in performing his or her functions for the purpose of achieving the objective of the education administration, request information, advice or guidance

This amendment would allow an education administrator who, under the eligibility outlined in clause 15, might not necessarily be an education specialist to supplement his or her knowledge.

The amendment pursues an issue that we have already discussed, but in the context of the experience or knowledge of higher education that the education administrator will need. The Minister and I had a useful exchange about the capacity of the education administrator to reach out, either within an organisation or peripherally to it. The amendment would allow an education administrator who meets the eligibility guidelines outlined in clause 15, but might not necessarily be an education specialist, to supplement his or her knowledge.

Our friends in the National Union of Students were particularly anxious for the amendment to be tabled, and we have taken their points on board. As the Minister will know, the NUS has welcomed the provisions that relate to insolvency, but it, too, is nervous—well, “nervous” is perhaps the wrong word, but it is certainly concerned. It believes that the process should be underlined as strongly as possible and that, in the twists and turns of what will inevitably be a fraught and taut process for all concerned, the administrator should be able to take further advice, even if he or she has some past experience. The amendment would make it clear that the educational administrator may seek that advice.

The Bill does not require the person appointed to deal with the college’s insolvency to know anything about colleges or the FE sector; under clause 15, they need only be an insolvency practitioner. We do not dissent from that, because we have already had a conversation about it and we are entirely reassured by the points that the Minister has made. However, the education administrator will have substantial powers over the future of an education body and its students, and indeed over the education body’s management, as clause 22(1) sets out.

Bearing in mind that the period of time for which they might have to manage the FE body’s affairs will be somewhat elastic, it would seem sensible to ensure that the administrator can get advice from people who actually know how to run an FE body. Better still, obviously, would be to have an administrator who was either very close to or within the FE sector. That was the intention behind amendment 34. After all, the Bill is designed to recognise that context, which is why it includes the education objective and entitles learners to continue their studies. Amendment 5 would just ensure that the Bill makes that provision and allows the education administrator access to whatever information and advice they may need to fulfil their duties. I am sure that the Minister wishes that to be the case. We suggest that it is a fairly obvious point—the Association of Colleges and the NUS think so—but it is not obvious in the Bill currently.

Without straying beyond the narrow lines of the amendment, I merely say to the Minister that there are many options for practitioners who could be called upon with an understanding of further education management. That could include chairmen or governors of FE bodies, former FE commissioners, or perhaps even retired people from those areas or from awarding bodies. Will the Minister give us some further details about whom he imagines an education administrator might wish to consult? Whatever avenue he wants to go down to assure us in that respect, it is important that the administrator has the advice of experts to make the correct call.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I will be very brief. I support my hon. Friend. One of the problems for the FE sector and, even more, for sixth-form colleges is that the whole sector has been bedevilled by decisions being made by people who are unfamiliar with those sectors. Many people involved in politics have come through a school or university environment; they have not been through further education. Many areas do not have sixth-form colleges, so people are not quite sure what they are. It is important that we have people with knowledge of the sector—educationally and organisationally —to make judgments on these matters. I just wanted to support my hon. Friend with those few words.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I appreciate the amendment. I raised these issues in the previous sitting. I go back to the quotation from Stephen Harris, the insolvency expert, who said that

“it is worth standing back and recognising that insolvency practitioners are not train drivers, or people who spend their life in the railway or the London Underground”––[Official Report, Technical and Further Education Bill Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2016; c. 46, Q60.]

Those people are expert insolvency practitioners, but many have some kind of educational link or work for a company that has a good link with and expertise in education.

It would be inconceivable that any education administrator would not consult—I strongly expect them to—key stakeholders, particularly the FE commissioner, student bodies, governors, parents and any relevant sponsor or other stakeholder involved with an insolvent college. That is expected as a matter of course, but I will reflect on what the hon. Member for Blackpool South said. On those grounds, I hope that he is happy to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 2:15 pm, 1st December 2016

I have heard what the Minister has said and I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. I have just one observation at this stage, as we have had two or three conversations on these sorts of issues. He said he would reflect on the matter. He might want to reflect on whether it would be useful, for the assistance of all the bodies concerned, if at some point—ideally while the Bill is still in the House of Commons—we were to have broader guidance notes on some of the issues that we have raised today. It would therefore all be in one place from which those bodies could take comfort and reassurance. Having said that, I am more than happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 22, page 10, line 10, leave out “have special educational needs” and insert—

“(a) have special educational needs;

(b) are care leavers;

(c) are parents;

(d) are carers, carers of children, or young carers, as defined by the Care Act 2014; and,

(e) have other particular needs that may be determined by the appropriate national authority.”

This amendment would make provisions for the particular needs of additional groups of existing students to be considered by an education administrator in pursuing the objective of an education administration.

Having touched on the issues of special needs, we want to probe a little further and more broadly beyond what has been said. The Minister has already given strong assurances on the general issue of special educational needs, but he will be aware of particular circumstances affecting some categories of people who take the big step, given their experiences, of engaging with further education. I am sure that everyone would agree that we do not want those groups of people, in particular, to be disadvantaged, and we certainly do not want them to suffer more disadvantage than students ordinarily would in the circumstances.

I accept that lists can be invidious, but we feel that care leavers, parents, and

“carers, carers of children, or young carers, as defined by the Care Act 2014” are three groups that may be particularly vulnerable to disruption in their studies, as we have discussed. The amendment is designed to signal to the administrator the importance of taking those groups into account.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Earlier my hon. Friend made a point about distance of travel. Groups such as parents and those with caring responsibilities will definitely be affected by travel over longer distances. I am sure that he has that in mind.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend is right. He has read not only my mind, but my postbag. Only half an hour before coming here I received an email from Unison, which raised some of those issues with respect to its members who fit into one or two of the categories in question. It made precisely that point about distance, which I was anxious to make in my exchange with the Minister about the education maintenance allowance. It was not simply about cost; it was also about time.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Labour, Batley and Spen

I have spent time with care leavers and foster families in Kirklees, and they are an incredibly vulnerable group of people with a lot of chaos in their lives. They are five times less likely to get five good GCSEs and eight times more likely to be excluded from school, and obviously they are less likely to go to university or, we assume, start an apprenticeship. They need extra support, and so do their families. Certainly, when they are moved around, which sometimes happens, they need extra support with transport and so on.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining that point and giving that practical example of a personal issue. Perhaps I can be forgiven for mentioning that the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Angela Rayner, has herself strongly expressed how crucial further education was to her during her teens. She said on Second Reading that she would not have been there to present our view on the Bill had she not had that experience, when she was in that vulnerable situation as a teenager.

There are groups of people who must particularly be thought about in this context. We discussed care leavers on another occasion, and the difficulties that many of them face, but it seems particularly appropriate to discuss them again in the context of the amendment. In their apprenticeship funding proposals last month, the Government recognised that apprentices aged 19 to 24 who had previously been in care, or who had had a local authority education, health and care plan, might need extra support. The majority of respondents to their survey supported that—more than twice as many providers agreed with the proposal than disagreed. The Government have pledged in the proposals to give extra funding to employers who take on someone who was previously in care or had a local authority education, health and care plan. We applaud that as a good start, but it is important to think about legislating further and to guarantee that other necessary steps are taken to ensure that access and opportunity are available to care leavers.

Looked-after children often achieve less highly at GCSE, as my hon. Friends have noted, partly because they may have a chaotic family background or a history of abuse. The Special Educational Consortium stated in written evidence that young people who have a care plan at age 15 are more than twice as likely not to be in education, employment or training at 18. Barnardo’s said:

“These young people often leave school with few or no qualifications and need alternative options outside of the school environment if they are to achieve their potential. Some need provision that allows them to catch up on what they have missed. These young people also often want the option of practical-based learning that clearly links to a real job.”

While we are on the subject of care leavers, how does the Minister envisage the proposals to support apprentices, and the proposals that we would like to see taken on board more generally in respect of care leavers, linking up with the work done in the children’s services section of the Department for Education? In particular, what discussions has he had about the Bill with his hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, Edward Timpson, or his officials? I have credited him before for the assiduousness with which that part of the Department introduced the responsibility up to the age of 25.

The amendment also includes parents and carers, who for numerous reasons might be particularly affected by changes to their study arrangements. They may have particular arrangements for their children or dependants that might not be addressed by simply transferring them to another college. What happens if the college to which they are transferred is not as near to their children’s school? What if the new institution’s timetabling disrupts routines for those they care for, or their ability to be there for their children? What if potential increases in travel costs negatively affect the carefully planned budgets of those with caring responsibilities, affecting both their access to education and the care that they can provide to their own children and loved ones?

There will be others with particular needs, which is why the amendment has flexibility built into it to accommodate them. For all those reasons, the education administrator’s decisions must be carefully thought through, so we feel that it is important to require the administrator to do so. I know that there is a school of thought that says any decent education administrator, given the background, qualifications, empathy and pastoral issues to which the Minister referred, would do so, but I do not think that it reflects doubt about the good intentions of particular people in particular circumstances to say that they might be beset by a series of difficult decisions and priorities, probably within a relatively constrained period of time. It does not indicate that people would not think about the groups concerned. It is important in that pressurised situation that they are reminded of the importance of those particular groups. That is the basis on which we have brought forward the amendment.

As my hon. Friends have said, those groups already face challenges and barriers to education that it can be difficult for others even to imagine. I can imagine some of it. That is not from the perspective of being a teacher or tutor in further education, but from my perspective of having been a part-time course tutor with the Open University for nearly 20 years. I do not think I had many care leavers, but I certainly had people who were carers and who came into other distinct categories. I marvelled at the determination with which they took forward their studies under some trying and difficult circumstances. I believe that our proposal is the right thing to do, and I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on whether the Bill needs to say rather more about the particular needs of these groups of students.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I am going to do the opposite to the hon. Gentleman: I will talk about the broad thrust and then answer the specific issues. I thank him again for his thoughtful contribution. I have already explained that we are introducing protection for students in the unlikely event that their college or provider becomes insolvent. The special objective will require the education administrator to take action to avoid or minimise disruption to their studies, by whatever means they consider appropriate.

However, the Government recognise that the education administrator might find it harder to find, or will need to think more carefully about, suitable alternative provision for those students with special educational needs, compared with the general student body. We do not want those students to be disproportionately affected by the exceptional event of college or provider insolvency, which is why we have placed a requirement on the education administrator —set out in clause 22(3)—to have particular regard to their needs.

We have had a lot of preliminary discussions about SEN students, because two thirds of care leavers are SEN students. We included provision for SEN in the Bill because of the particular difficulties such students face. There might be the need for specialist equipment or adaptations to teaching, or there might be a transport issue, and it is a requirement that the education administrator considers those in developing their proposals.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s points. If he wants to raise a different point, I am happy to answer it, but I ask him to have faith in me. I have tried to answer questions as much as I can all the way through.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

I am not suggesting that the Minister has not.

Order. I would be grateful if Members confined themselves to the established procedures for interventions, rather than carrying out conversations.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I need to set this important issue in context. We already make good special provision available for post-16 education. Care leavers are a priority group for access to the vulnerable student bursary, which provides financial assistance. Care leavers receive yearly bursaries of up to £1,200—it is pro rata for part-timers. As care leavers, their eligibility for that support will not change, even if they are transferred to another provider as part of a college insolvency.

Alongside the vulnerable student bursary is the 16 to 19 bursary fund, which I discussed earlier. It is a discretionary fund targeted at young people and allocated to schools, colleges and training providers, which make awards to students. It is up to the college to define eligibility criteria, because it will know the needs of its students best. It is targeted support at a local level.

I am pleased to say that the Government have changed the law to improve how young carers and their families are identified and supported. For the first time, young carers have the right to an assessment of their need, no matter who they care for, the type of care they provide or how often they provide it. The assessment will consider their educational needs and will not be affected in the scenario where the student has to transfer college providers.

In answer to the specific question about care leavers, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South has pointed out, at this stage we have not included the requirement for the education administrator to take account of the needs of care leavers. As I have said, it is an issue that I will reflect on seriously.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 2:30 pm, 1st December 2016

The Minister has been very helpful, and I appreciate that, but before he concludes, I have a definitional question that I think relates to what he has been saying. Subsection (7) refers to “special educational provision” and subsection (6) refers to a student with “special educational needs”. I have heard everything he has said about young carers, but is it his understanding that young carers or care leavers would automatically come under those categories? I know this is a narrow point, but it is quite important, because it influences whether further definition is necessary in the Bill.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

No. It applies only to what is classed in statutory terms as an SEN student. That is why I have acknowledged that college insolvency is disruptive, especially to SEN students and care leavers. By the way, I should say that it was very gracious of the hon. Gentleman to mention the apprentice funding to make sure that care leavers are employed as apprentices, which is something I care deeply about. I am glad that he acknowledged that funding.

I want more time to reflect on what more might be done in the context of a college insolvency, to ensure that the Government live up to their promise of being an effective corporate parent. I will reflect on that.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to the Minister for that and for his promise to reflect on this issue and on the catch-alls in the clause as drafted. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education)

Briefly, we have had some useful exchanges on the amendments, which I have been content to withdraw. I am broadly very pleased and satisfied with the points the Minister has made.

However, as I have said before, if this process—the Bill, the new institute, the new insolvency clauses—is to be a success, it is incumbent upon us to take as large a group of people from across the stakeholders with us as possible. I want to refer to a couple of issues that the Association of School and College Leaders and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers have raised in their written evidence. As the Minister knows, the ASCL in particular is quite critical of part 2 of the Bill because it thinks it is the result of rushed consultation. That is for others to judge, but the point it makes in its written evidence, which I would like a response to, is this:

FE and sixth form colleges were created as exempt charities by Act of Parliament… As such college corporations cannot resolve to remove their charitable status. ASCL…is concerned that applying aspects of the Insolvency Act that applies to companies runs the risk of jeopardising that status. The Charities Commission does not appear on the list of those consulted…The primary duty of a corporation/governing body is to maintain the solvency of its college. Where it fails in that duty by negligence or worse, the Charities Commission has the power to investigate and bar governors/trustees from further service.”

If the Minister is able to, I would ask him to address that issue from the ASCL.

The AELP makes another point about the status of colleges. It believes that

“this reclassification should be reviewed by the ONS. This is not merely a technical point. Some colleges have reportedly used their current ‘independent’ status to resist Area Review proposals which is well within their right. However, when AELP has argued that the Government is using a form of state aid to assist colleges…we have been told by the SFA that colleges are ‘community assets’ which justifies the further injection of public funding. The insolvency measures in this Bill would…appear to place colleges very much back in the public sector.”

It says that this has become a “murky area”.

Those are two specific observations from two important stakeholders in the area. In the context of the clause, given everything else that we have been talking about in terms of the general function of the educational administrator, I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on those points.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Department of Education) (Apprenticeships and Skills)

I will give a brief response. The Charity Commission does not appear in the list of respondents because it did not submit a formal written response. However, we worked very closely with it during the development of the proposals in the Bill.

Charities that are companies and charitable incorporated organisations are all covered by insolvency legislation, and the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 regime for disqualification applies to those organisations. The Charity Commission has been fully supportive of the approach that we have taken and sees it as being in line with the approach taken for trustees of charitable companies and charitable incorporated organisations.

With regard to the AELP, the process of implementing a SAR would not automatically mean reclassification for an individual college, let alone the entire sector, because the Government would not be directly influencing the college’s corporate policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 23