§ 2. Mr. Jim Marshall
To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations she has received regarding the democratic accountability of colleges of further education.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell)
None, though my right hon. Friend has occasionally received correspondence generally on the accountability of colleges of further education.
§ Mr. Marshall
Does the Minister accept that the removal of democratic control and accountability has made possible the abuse of public funds and the distortion of education priorities, as happened in Derby and Birmingham? If he accepts that, and the report on those two organisations, what actions will he take to rectify the situation?
§ Mr. Boswell
I do not accept that the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and the independence that we have extended to colleges of further education, which they have warmly endorsed and from which they have benefited immensely, are contributing to their failure or lack of accountability, as precise rules—set out in their instruments of government, the 1992 Act and the financial agreements that they reach with the funding council—secure them.
There have been two cases of difficulty. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the reports on those two colleges, which have been prepared by independent persons at our request, it would he inappropriate for me to comment now. We are satisfied that the arrangements work well in general. The Opposition have not yet told the nation what they mean by bringing grant-maintained schools under a local democratic framework. That is a slogan, just as the hon. Gentleman's question was.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
Does my hon. Friend realise that, by removing Weymouth college from the democratic control of Dorset county council, the college has been able to expand student numbers, its funding and its excellence, while all those schools that stayed within local education authority control last year received only 125 1 per cent. from the county council when the Government gave them a 4 per cent. increase in their revenue budgets?
§ Mr. Boswell
All that I can say is that I am not in the least surprised to hear that news from Weymouth because it is replicated throughout the country. This year, we are substantially increasing funding to colleges of further education and they are benefiting from our policies. That applies as much in Weymouth as in many other parts of the country—Leicester included.
Is not it a fact that colleges of further education have had their governing bodies stacked with like-minded people, often from outside the community that they serve? Have not those governors often put the salaries of a few people at the top of the pyramid ahead of the welfare of staff and students and have not the Government, by their actions, allowed many of those community colleges to be divorced from the very communities in which they have their roots? Is that not further evidence of the fragmentation of further and higher education while this Conservative Government have been in charge?
§ Mr. Boswell
The hon. Gentleman must do a lot better than that to keep his present position. I am not sure how many colleges he has visited, but the plain fact is that every one that I have been to has been grateful for the freedom that we have extended to them. We have also extended the framework and transferability of democratic accountability. There is much more accountability now. The problems at the colleges that were referred to earlier had their origins in the past, long before the independence of colleges. The hon. Gentleman should look and learn a little more about the further education sector and stop knocking it so much.
§ Mr. Allason
May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to South Devon college in my constituency, which recently won a charter award for excellence and is regarded as having far greater accountability to the local community than it achieved when it was in the hands of the county council?
§ Mr. Boswell
Indeed, my hon. Friend can rightly draw my attention to that college. I know of its achievements in obtaining a charter mark and being a winner in the further education charter competition. I meet Dr. Keen from time to time and have a great respect for what he has achieved. Surely the greatest tests of accountability are the readiness and willingness of students to select colleges and their obvious achievements when benefiting from their studies there.