College Funding Debate

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Wera Hobhouse

Main Page: Wera Hobhouse (Liberal Democrat) - Bath)

College Funding

Wera Hobhouse Excerpts
Monday 21st January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Sir Charles Walker Portrait Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair) - Hansard

I call Wera Hobhouse. I am still quite keen on the six-minute limit.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD) - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 5:57 p.m.

I cannot think of an issue more important than education. At the heart of a functioning society is the education system, but ours is being cut to the point where it is barely fit for purpose. Further education is the worst-funded part of the already cash-strapped system—the only part of the education budget to have had year-on-year cuts for the past 10 years.

I know that it is fashionable to blame the coalition Government. However, coming from a different cultural background, in which practical education is much more valued, I must say that the malaise is much deeper and has gone on for a lot longer. What we are looking for is a culture change that gives further education the same value as university education. That is what we need to achieve, and I hope that we will get cross-party support for it.

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently pointed out, funding for 16 to 19-year-old education has fallen by 8% and the adult education budget has been cut by 45%. These are massive, massive cuts that severely affect students, staff and everyone in the further education community. More than 24,000 teaching staff have been lost from the sector since 2009, and 90% of colleges report difficulties in attracting the staff they need. The sector is haemorrhaging talent and expertise—it really is a criminal waste of potential.

I was asked to attend this debate by a constituent who has significant experience in the field, both as a student and as a teacher. She says:

“People who emerged from school with few qualifications are now training and working as nurses, paramedics, social workers, vets, and many valuable careers because they had their chance at an FE college. It is this knowledge that keeps me working in the field despite dwindling resources and diminishing financial rewards.”

Further education is vital to social mobility, to training people for key worker roles, and to the principle that this country invests in its people, regardless of their background. In Bath, we are lucky to have a very well-performing college: Bath College, which demonstrates time and again that young people do not have to go to university to do well in life. Businesses in Bath need young people who are work-ready, with specific skills, and Bath College provides just that. However, like most further education colleges, it is really struggling. This morning, the principal, Laurel Penrose, told me:

“The strain is telling on staff and the offer and delivery is starting to be compromised because we cannot invest in the infrastructure and develop the capital enhancements we need to remain at the industrial standards required by our technical subjects. We are a unique educational sector, one that is recognised for our flexible approach and one with many of the solutions needed to address the skills deficit being experienced by this country—but we cannot grow or invest because of the funding.”

I really hope that the Minister is listening to all of us across the House. Some of Mrs Penrose’s staff went out on strike late last year; I supported that strike, but it could have been completely avoided if the sector were funded to allow staff pay equal to that in other parts of the education sector. The Government are failing to properly fund further education, and it sends a very strong message. As a country, we need to get over the idea that university is the only option for people who want to do well in life. Further education colleges have an important role in the education mix in this country. The Government should take that role seriously, and not just with words.

Liberal Democrat support for lifelong learning is very strong. As has been mentioned, our leader—my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable)—is a passionate supporter of further education. He has launched the Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning, which is investigating the best ways to make sure that adults have access to learning and retraining throughout their lives. This could take the form of giving each person in this country a learning account, which they could use for education in the way they want. I very much hope that that is being looked into further.

Well-funded education is vital. We need to place opportunity in the hands of individuals and give them the tools that they need to make the most of their lives and reach their full potential. Without proper resources, we are failing a large number of people across our communities, and we must do a lot better. Further education has been the Cinderella of the education system—I remind everybody that Cinderella was always the hardest-working member of her family. We should value the immense contribution to this country made by FE colleges and their past, current and future students. We must value the sector and fund it properly.

Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con) Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 6:01 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the remainder of this debate, Mr Bone. I have been lobbied strongly, repeatedly and effectively by the excellent further education college in my constituency, namely Petroc. The staff, pupils and management team have been assiduous in ensuring that they get their message across. It is an excellent further education college and has two campuses. I am proud to say that the main one is in Barnstaple in my North Devon constituency, and it has a second campus in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). Between them, they educate or train about 10,000 people across all age groups every year.

As part of the communication that I have had with the college, I received a letter only a few weeks ago. It is worth quoting the principal’s statement on the college and the work it does. Diane Diamond, the principal and chief executive officer of Petroc, says:

“As a leading further education college, you will know that we are an essential part of the region’s education system. Whether it’s through top-class technical education, apprenticeships, A-levels, basic skills or lifelong learning, we help people of all ages and backgrounds across Devon and beyond to make the most of their talents and ambitions. Rooted in the local community, I feel we are crucial in driving social mobility and providing the skills to boost local and regional economies.”

I agree with Diane; she is absolutely right. I would add one thing: further education colleges such as Petroc play a vital role in driving the Government’s industrial strategy, and they are really important. They have lobbied me on two main issues, which I want to represent to the Minister. First, the general sense is that funding for students in the 16-to-18 further education sector has not kept up; it has fallen in real terms since 2010, which compares unfavourably with both the 11-to-16 sector and the post-18 sector. That sense of an unlevel playing field has come through loud and clear in what Petroc has said to me. It suggests that further education is, I am afraid to say, the poor relation, especially when we look at the work that the Government are doing to improve funding of, for instance, the secondary schools sector. I have had many conversations about this with Ministers at the Department for Education. I feel that we are making progress there, but we are not making progress with the FE sector.

The second issue that Petroc raised with me is that the salary of lecturers and teachers in FE colleges has not kept pace with the pay of those who teach the same age groups—16 to 18-year-olds—in sixth-form colleges. This seems slightly perverse, because there are more 16 to 18-year-olds studying at further education colleges than at secondary schools that still retain a sixth form: roughly 600,000 versus 400,000. Once again, we do not have a level playing field.

Petroc has two asks, which I echo. The first is to look into increasing the funding of FE colleges at a sustainable level, as called for in the petition. The second is to consider providing some exceptional, ring-fenced funding to cover the costs of a fairer pay deal for the lecturers and teachers who work so hard in the 16-to-18 further education college sector. Petroc has had significant investment in recent years, and I want to stress that it has great new facilities. It has been my pleasure to visit the college many times and see the fantastic work it does. It has great results and is a fine, growing institution. I have been closely involved with many of Petroc’s initiatives; I have attended graduation ceremonies, and I sit on the board of the Health and Care Academy, which is a great initiative that Petroc runs in conjunction with the North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust.

We know there are many competing demands on the Government’s finances. I know the Minister cares deeply for the further education sector and fights very strongly for it, but I would not be doing my job if I did not reflect the very strong representations that I have received from Petroc College, which have been echoed by hon. and right hon. Members of different parties. The name of this campaign is Love Our Colleges. I know the Minister loves our colleges and I ask her to spread that love a little more effectively, particularly in the direction of North Devon.

Break in Debate

Mr Toby Perkins Portrait Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab) - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 6:48 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the petitioners who got the petition going, and every one of the 70,000 people who signed it. It shows that when people get behind the further education sector, it can make an impact here. The quality and number of contributions to the debate says it all.

I want to talk about the impact of further education in my family. My son recently completed his second year mid-term exams at the University of Hull, but when he left school at the age of 16 no one would have expected him to go to university. It was the contribution of the further education sector—specifically Chesterfield College—that enabled him to go on to do well at university. Many of us recognise that a lot of children do not do well at school, and further education can have a transformative impact on them. I am worried that the education system is becoming a one-chance saloon. Adolescents can, as we all know, go through all kinds of crises. It is important that they get a second chance.

Chesterfield College plays an incredibly important role in the community, and not just through the services it provides at various levels to the 10,000 people who attend it. It is also as an employer and as a customer of Chesterfield’s businesses that it needs support. It also played the crucial role of providing my Christmas card this year—something that I am sure all those who received it will not have forgotten.

Further education is important for children who did not do all that well at school, but who have huge potential for academic study after their love of learning is developed by the sector. It also provides an important service to children who did well at school but want a different kind of study. It provides a kind of education with more freedom, much more like the university experience. It is also important for children who want to pursue non-academic study and to develop skills.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 6:48 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I was a secondary school teacher. The focus on university education has such an impact on the whole school system that I believe if we considered greater parity, there would be a positive effect on teaching at key stages 3 and 4. It would make things far more interesting for a vast number of young people.

Mr Toby Perkins Portrait Toby Perkins - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 6:49 p.m.

I agree entirely. A diverse education system is incredibly important for any country that wants to be competitive in the global race. I am worried that we are leaving far too many people behind, which I think is the point the hon. Lady is making.

Further education is important for many people with special educational needs who leave school but are not yet ready for the world of work, and who want to develop their skills. It is important to see education as not purely about the jobs people will do, but about their development in a variety of ways. That relates to FE’s role in supporting people who are recovering from a crisis. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) spoke about that.

Often the move to do a further education course is a step towards the world of work. It might be a flower-arranging course, first aid or any number of things that do not end up being a job, but that offer a starting point for people who are at a moment in their lives where they need something to give them a sense of hope. Of course, further education is also important for people looking to boost their skills and accelerate their career development.

Further education colleges play a core role in providing apprenticeship starts, particularly in the small business sector, where businesses do not have all the skills that our major employers have. I am worried that much of the progress made in the last 12 or 15 years on apprenticeships is being lost because of the apprenticeship reforms. Apprenticeships are not just about the Rolls-Royces of this world, and colleges play an important role in enabling apprenticeships to happen in our small business sector. I am also worried about the huge numbers of experienced lecturers who are leaving the sector, which other hon. Members have spoken about. We heard from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) that 25,000 have left the profession. That is a huge number of dedicated, skilled, experienced people lost from this crucial sector.

Today’s debate is about loving our colleges; we have had the call and we have heard from Members of Parliament on both sides of the Chamber that we all love our colleges, but it is important that the Government give some meaning to those words and ensure that the money backs that love. We can all speak about the importance of further education, but it is important that, when the Minister gets to her feet, she demonstrates that the Government are willing to show that love with some cold, hard cash.