George Freeman outlines value of further education and adult learning

20th November 2015

George Freeman outlines the value of further education colleges and adult learning as a driver of economic recovery and renewed business growth.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): It is a pleasure to respond to the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) in this Adjournment debate. I pay tribute to her advocacy of the further education sector generally and the colleges in her constituency; she is an effective and outspoken advocate, as we have witnessed during this debate. The right hon. Lady may be surprised at the extent to which the Secretary of State and I sympathise with and support the points that she makes.

Since 2008, we have all heard much about the value of adult learning as a driver of economic recovery and renewed business growth, and rightly so. It continues to be a major part of the Government’s long-term economic plan and of our commitment to help get more people back to work and support our economy in its recovery.

Further education has been a crucial part of our education system as far back as its roots in Victorian times, and it is a powerful catalyst for and supporter of the promotion of people’s aspiration and achievement. That applies particularly to young people whose early education experiences may not have been entirely positive. FE gives so many people the chance to get the skills, education and training that they need to go on and flourish in their lives and careers. I shall come in a minute to the specific points relating to the excellent colleges in the right hon. Lady’s constituency.

It is also true that FE continues to fire the interest of older people, often through more informal learning opportunities. Furthermore, it promotes the integration of recent arrivals into communities, offering crucial courses in English as a second language—an issue that the right hon. Lady has raised before, and which is ever more important today given the issues of cultural integration and assimilation. Nevertheless, at times it has been popular not only to describe but to treat further education, and the wide range of differing local needs that it serves, as the poor relation of a system dominated by the needs of mainstream schools and universities. However, I sincerely believe that that is not the case today. Notwithstanding the very difficult funding decisions that the Government have had to take, I believe that within the Department and across Government more generally, and through the work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we are deeply committed to supporting FE, not just through the apprenticeship programme but more generally.

The experience in the previous Parliament and the contribution that more than 2.5 million new apprentices are already making to a fairer, more prosperous Britain and to our economic recovery has been much discussed. We went further and promised that by 2020 at least another 3 million apprentices will have begun learning on the job, spreading aspiration, opportunity and employment further across our society. Colleges in London have a crucial role to play in this. Figures published in The TimesEducational Supplement only last week show that colleges in London currently spend less of their general adult skills funding on providing apprenticeships than those in any other region—a mere 12% of the total.

The right hon. Lady spoke of the extra funds required for the further education sector to function, and that is indeed an important consideration, but, as I am sure she agrees, funding is not the only consideration. Also important are the organisation of the network and the need to remove duplication, to support best practice and centres of excellence, and to make sure that our FE college infrastructure is operating at peak efficiency. The proper measure of education is not how much is spent on it but how well or otherwise it meets the needs of those who depend on it. The two are linked—I am not suggesting they are not—but the organisation and structure of the network is important.

These colleges and the people who depend on them, whether employers, trainers, learners or families, need to be brought inside the tent rather than left outside, as they have sometimes tended to be. Their voice in this matters, and that is what we are endeavouring to achieve. That includes, notably, prioritising the provision of apprenticeships to exploit the proven benefits that they bring to young people’s prospects and lifetime earning potential, and involving employers and their representatives closely in the design of the training courses that their firms and sectors will rely on and put to use. I am proud that the involvement of approximately 1,000 employers in our trailblazers scheme to design new apprenticeship standards is already proof of the success of that approach.

Before I turn to the specific points that the right hon. Lady made in connection with her constituency, let me put this in context. We spend £1.7 billion a year on FE, the bulk of that—£770 million—now on apprenticeships, and the rest on classroom learning and some loan funding. There are 240 FE colleges in the UK and 2.7 million learners going through the system. As she knows, they are all independent charitable institutions regulated by the Business Secretary. Between 2010-11 and 2015-16, we have indeed seen a change in the way in which that funding has worked, with a significant increase in funding for apprenticeships from £360 million to £700 million, and £1.3 billion for classroom learning and an additional £490 million available from the Treasury. Any independent observer would say that over the course of this Government’s stewardship of the economy we have made a significant commitment to the apprenticeships programme and to continuing to fund further education, for the reasons I have set out. It is equally true that in times of straitened public spending in which everybody is having to work out how to deliver more for less, the FE sector must play its part in that.

Let me turn to the points that the right hon. Lady made about the three colleges in her constituency—Barnet and Southgate, CONEL, and Capel Manor. They are all excellent colleges, grade 2 Ofsted rated and doing more of the sort of work that we want to see, including in apprenticeships. She raised three particular issues that I want to touch on. Time is limited, and if I do not deal with them all I will happily write to her to do so in more detail.

First, on the impact of the funding reductions, I am not going to pretend that the rebalancing of the spend and the reductions we have had to make do not have an impact: they clearly do, and many colleges are dealing with that. To some extent, that can be absorbed by rationalisation, consolidation and concentration of skills in the right centres. Generally speaking, the right hon. Lady’s colleges are not being affected any worse than those elsewhere. I will come to the ESOL and Capel Manor issues in a moment.

Secondly, on ESOL funding, it is true that Barnet and Southgate has been hit hard by the decision that has had to be made to reduce ESOL funding, and particularly by the suddenness of the decision. That is partly because this was an election year and the normal process of longer term funding, under the three-year comprehensive spending review, did not apply. I acknowledge that the decision has come pretty quickly and the college has not had a lot of time to adjust to it. However, as the right hon. Lady has highlighted, the management and those behind this and the other colleges are first class. I anticipate that they will be able to make the necessary adjustments, but I do not for a minute pretend that that will be straightforward or easy.

Thirdly, I wanted to pick up the right hon. Lady’s point about Capel Manor. I join her in paying tribute to the great work of the team there. The Ministers in the 

Department very much sympathise with the need for the specialist provision at the college to be reflected properly in the ongoing area reviews. She will have noticed—indeed, she has helped to ensure this—that the Mayor has taken a strong interest and role in making sure there is a proper strategic view of specialist provision London-wide. I assure her that the area reviews will take into account the nature of the specialist centres in the London-wide context, and we intend to make sure that the specialist provision at Capel Manor is properly reflected in the London-wide strategy.

The right hon. Lady asked about the comprehensive spending review. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will have noticed that I am not the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I would love to be able to give her the reassurance she wants, but the Chancellor will shortly be on his feet to tell the House the details of the spending review, and it would be quite inappropriate, as I am sure she understands, for me to do so, even if I knew the detail of the allocation. I can however reassure her that the points she has made eloquently this afternoon and elsewhere about the importance of FE are very well taken, and Ministers will make sure that they are taken into account in the London-wide area review.

Joan Ryan rose

George Freeman: We are very short of time. Perhaps I can undertake to take away the right hon. Lady’s points and get back to her on the detail in writing, but I will take one quick intervention and then I must wrap up.

Joan Ryan: May I just reiterate my offer to the Minister to visit us in Enfield to see the good work for himself and talk to our principals, staff and students about these issues?

George Freeman: That is an incredibly kind invitation. Perhaps I may pass it on to the Minister for Skills—he has responsibility for further education—who I know will appreciate it. If I am ever passing nearby, I will gladly come and have a look.

I will take away and address the right hon. Lady’s specific points. I hope that there will be some good news through the area reviews. We will see how we may be able to help post the comprehensive spending review.

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