HC Deb 09 April 2001 vol 366 cc822-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

11.11 pm
Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Instigating this debate gives me no pleasure. A little under 40 years ago, I was a student at the Colchester Institute when it was called the North-East Essex technical college and school of art. I am proud to include that in my curriculum vitae, and tonight I show my pride by wearing the institute's tie. What I hope will result from the debate is a pledge that the Department for Education and Employment will investigate the management and strategy of the Colchester Institute under its quango leadership.

I am grateful to the Minister for the meeting that I had with him two weeks ago, along with a representative of the lecturers. He is thus already well informed of what the local community considers to be an unacceptable state of affairs. Regrettably, despite our meeting, the institute refuses to reconsider its position.

Between 50 and 60 jobs are threatened, involving both teaching and support staff. That represents more than 10 per cent. of the core work force. The ending of full-time A-level courses has been announced. Staff, students and the public are opposed to what is happening, but the institute has refused to engage in debate to justify its actions. It is to be hoped that wiser counsel will prevail as a result of the Government intervention that I seek, and that the institute will halt what many believe to be an assault on the provision of lifelong learning that has been offered throughout its history.

The Minister is aware that the lecturers' union, NATFHE—the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education—is in dispute with the institute and has not ruled out strike action over the redundancies and change of direction. A vote of no confidence in the senior management team has been passed. Union members are not alone in thinking that the institute's strategy is a shortsighted act of educational vandalism that will leave young adults in Colchester—indeed, mature students of all ages—with severely restricted options when they wish to return to academic courses.

Until a few years ago, the institute was an integral part of the democratically accountable education system. Its roots, and its democratic accountability to the local community, go back to 1886, when the Albert school of art and science was established in a building in the high street. It was run by a committee of Colchester borough council. Following the Education Act 1902, the forerunner of today's Colchester Institute transferred to the jurisdiction of Essex county council. It developed and progressed over the next 90 years, first on North Hill and then on its present site in Sheepen road. Without such parentage and continued management within the democratic accountability of local government, what we now know as the Colchester Institute would never have been conceived or developed. It is a story of progress made by a first-class education establishment responding to the wishes and aspirations of the local community. In contrast, in today's quango Britain the community's views are ignored.

The institute has 10,000 full-time and part-time students, as well as a further 3,000 on short courses over the year attending its professional training centre. It provides an extensive range of courses, and in some subjects its excellence is recognised nationally, if not internationally—in music, art and catering, to name but three.

However, all is not well; all is not what it should be. If it were, tonight's debate would not be needed. The root cause lies with the previous Government's decision to remove education establishments such as the Colchester Institute from the democratic framework of local education authorities and hand them over to quangos.

The quango in charge of the Colchester Institute runs a public facility with funds provided by the public purse, but it is neither accountable nor answerable to the community that it serves. Concerned members of the community are up in arms about what is happening, but those who run the institute are operating a closed-door policy, refusing to enter into a dialogue or debate with the community.

Indeed, when lecturers decided to hold a public meeting, the institute refused to allow it to be held on the campus. Instead, it took place at the town hall. I chaired the meeting, and there were noticeable absentees at the packed gathering. The institute declined to be represented and did not even have observers. It was thus very much a one-way discussion with those present—staff, students and the public—who were unanimous in their demand that jobs should not be lost, and likewise that A-level full-time courses should not be axed.

I shall quote from two of the many letters that I have received on this matter. The first is from the mother of a student, the second from a retired lecturer. Both have given me permission to mention their names. The mother, Mrs. G. E. Phipps, told me: As the parent of an A-level student at Colchester Institute I feel compelled to express my concerns over the discontinuation of A-level courses. In my daughter's case she left school and went to the Sixth Form College. After two terms she decided it wasn't for her and left to take up full-time employment. She soon discovered the job she had held no prospects and the only way to find a decent career was to return to college and become better qualified. Thanks to the Institute she had a second chance. Unfortunately this will no longer be the case. From September, for 16-year-olds who either choose not to attend or do not qualify for any of the town's sixth forms there will be no opportunity to study for A-levels in Colchester. Another point that concerns me is the tuition of the current A-level students like my daughter and the first years who will still have the major part of their courses to complete. Although the Institute has assured us that the present students will be catered for, it is unrealistic to think this will be the case. With the A-level lecturers having no option but to take 'voluntary' redundancy in June, morale amongst staff is extremely low and the quality of teaching is bound to be affected. To add to that, the question of who will be teaching next year's second years remains.

Those are not my words but those of a mother who speaks for many. Perhaps the Minister may care to respond in particular to the concluding paragraph of Mrs. Phipps's letter. She writes: At a time when the Government puts so much stress on the importance of education, how can such a retrograde step be taken? With an average of about 200 applicants for A-level courses at Colchester Institute each year, how can it be allowed to so badly let the young people of Colchester down? I do hope together we can provide a loud enough voice to reverse this decision.

I shall quote from the letter of retired lecturer Mr. Guy Scott. He worked at the institute for 25 years and was head of the school of automobile engineering when he retired in 1990. Observing that he is very concerned at the manner in which things are being handled at the Institute", Mr. Scott states: I believe the rot set in about ten years ago when the Institute was taken out of Essex County Council control and became a Corporate Body, not answerable to the local community which it was set up to serve. He added: Since that time the emphasis of the Institute has swung from course provision to income acquisition. I shall let the Minister have a copy of Mr. Scott's letter, because in some detail he sets out the demise of the school which he helped build into one of the best in the country.

So that Mr. Scott's comments are put firmly on the record, let me quote the following paragraphs: For all too many years morale amongst Institute staff has been worryingly low. Conditions of service have been changed and staff have been squeezed and pressurised into giving more and more, for no extra return, until the 'juice has all but gone from the lemon'. As a result they now volunteer for less and less. Enthusiasm and drive, all so important in an establishment like the Institute, has gone; and the Institute Management including the Corporate Board must be held accountable. He concludes: It cannot be right that the Corporate Board is not accountable to the community the Institute was set up to serve.

The Minister may be aware that Mrs. Phipps wrote to the Secretary of State to express concern at what is happening at the Colchester Institute. She received a reply dated 4 April from the school and college qualifications division, which provided her with the soothing words: The Government is committed to encouraging young people to lifelong learning. If true, it would be very encouraging, but it is somewhat meaningless in the real world, for the letter goes on to add: However, education at post-16 is non-compulsory and educational establishments are not obliged to run courses that they do not wish to. Decisions about the courses that a school or college may offer are made entirely by the institution, depending on the resources that are available, and the demand for specific courses. Should I therefore assume that the Colchester Institute is being deprived of the funds that it needs to maintain its A-level courses? If so, who is to blame: the institute, the Learning and Skills Council, or the Government?

Indeed, is the Colchester Institute acting at the behest of Government directives, either direct or indirect? In a pointless exercise, the letter from the Department for Education and Employment's school and college qualifications division advises Mrs. Phipps to write to the principal of the Colchester Institute about her anxieties. It states: If you are not satisfied with the response, you could then take it up with the Learning and Skills Council. I do not believe that she will waste her time on that advice.

At first glance, the position at the Colchester Institute may appear to be a local issue, but I believe that it has national implications. Not only the Colchester Institute, but every further and higher education establishment in the United Kingdom is run by a quango.

The quango culture pervades so much of our public life nowadays. The democratic framework of elected accountability no longer exists in education, health services and the police. All who value democratic principles should be alarmed about that aspect of life in the first part of the 21st century. We should legislate to make our public bodies democratically accountable. I therefore maintain that we should not regard what is happening at the Colchester Institute as a local issue. It has much wider implications in our quango-run society.

Not only is the Colchester Institute run by a quango, but the body that oversees its operations—the quaintly named Learning and Skills Council—is also a quango. That organisation appears to have less influence over the Colchester Institute than the Strategic Rail Authority has over our railways.

I have no problem with the Colchester Institute wanting to run on business-like principles. Efficiency and enterprise are important. However, I object to the fact that the comprehensive provision of education opportunities appears to be of secondary importance to operating the institute as if it were a business, like a supermarket, with areas of profitability being encouraged and those perceived to be less profitable either closed down or sidelined. Education should not be run on the philosophy of "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap". To adapt a well-known phrase, lifelong learning should be all about, "mind the quality, and feel the width".

If "lifelong learning" and "education for all" are more than soundbites, educational opportunities at a large community college such as the Colchester Institute must not be axed. The institute must continue to provide the breadth and depth of academic courses alongside all the vocational and specialist courses whose excellence is rightly acknowledged.

To say that the community of Colchester and north Essex, and even further afield, is shocked is an understatement. We are shocked by not only the decisions, but the institute's refusal to engage in dialogue with the community. The local media have become exasperated at the institute's total refusal to discuss the position with them. I have been fortunate enough to have a meeting with the principal, but I remain of the view, as do staff and students, that the institute's strategy of job losses and ending full-time A-level courses is not the right one.

As I said earlier, such is the unhappiness that staff have passed a vote of no confidence in the senior management team. That does not bode well for the future of the Colchester institute, hence my hope that the Government will investigate what is going on.

Further confusion seems to have arisen with the announcement that the principal, Mrs. Helen Parr, will leave at the end of this academic year to take up an appointment at another education establishment elsewhere in the home counties. Having been involved in drawing up the strategy of job losses and ending full-time A-level courses in Colchester, the principal will not be in place when they are implemented, if the current so-called consultation is nothing more than the cosmetic exercise that many of us fear.

The Colchester Institute sees its skipper jumping ship while the vessel remains all at sea, with the crew and passengers wondering about the direction in which it is sailing and unsure of the ultimate destination.

However, the principal's departure provides an opportunity for a face-saving solution for the governors. They should consider the current intentions afresh. I invite the Minister this evening to say that he will urge those responsible for the Colchester Institute—most importantly, its governing body but also the Learning and Skills Council—to take stock of the comments of the local community, staff and students before a final, irreversible decision is taken.

The regional office of NATFHE has provided me with copies of correspondence between it and the institute management. Time does not permit me to quote at length from that, but suffice it to say it shows that relationships are not good. They are perhaps best summed up in a letter of 9 March from regional officer Elizabeth Martins to the chair of the corporation, Mr. Ken Leeson. It states: It is NATFHE's view that meaningful consultation is not taking place and the College's policies/procedures are not being followed prior to consultation. Furthermore, there appears to be an inconsistent, inequitable and lack of transparent approach in relation to the introduction and implementation of the restructuring proposals resulting in an unfair selection of individuals for redundancy.

The letter further states that the joint trade unions proposal for using the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service was rejected by the institute's senior management team.

The overall picture of education provision in Colchester is excellent. It is one of the reasons why the town is so attractive not only to the local population, but to people who wish to move there. With the range of pre-school establishments and nurseries, infant, primary and junior schools, first-class comprehensives—none of them, by the way, remotely fitting the offensive description of being bog standard—a couple of grammar schools, arguably the best sixth form college in the country, the adult community college centred on Grey Friars, and the internationally famous university of Essex, the Colchester Institute completes an educational jigsaw picture that is, I believe, without equal.

What is being proposed is the removal of some pieces of the institute jigsaw. As such, the total picture of educational provision in Colchester will be diminished. It is not something that the community wants. Staff, students and the public are opposed to the Colchester Institute proposal. I invite the Minister to refute the claim by the institute's principal— who also describes herself as chief executive—in a letter issued to all staff just four days ago that what is happening at the Colchester Institute is in line with Government guidance.

It cannot be right that quangos can behave in the way that we are witnessing at the Colchester Institute. We are looking to the Minister tonight to put in motion the necessary steps to save the jobs and to retain full-time A-level courses. I invite him to use all the powers at his disposal to prevent the quango regime at the Colchester Institute from proceeding with its plans.

11.26 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) on obtaining the debate and am grateful for his permission to take part in it. I shall be extremely brief, noting how economical he has been with his time.

Many constituents of mine attend the institute, and many teach there. They have expressed concern to me about the present situation. It is about not just the availability of courses—we understand that A-levels are not the mainstream of the institute's work—but the way in which cutting A-level courses will affect the viability of exceptional departments such as music and, indeed, the institution's overall ethos. The institution provides vocational education in a context that also provides A-level and degree courses. That is important for everyone who attends it.

I would like the House to be aware that, on Friday, I had a private meeting with Mrs. Helen Parr, the principal of the institute. She was able to assure me that no current students attending existing courses would be affected by the changes that she proposes. She was also at pains to stress that she ran an open-door management policy and that any member of staff was welcome to see her. I asked whether I could attend such a meeting. She agreed that, provided that it was about general issues rather than particular employment issues pertaining to those members of staff, I could attend such a meeting. I hope to be able to do so and invite the hon. Gentleman to attend too, if he can.

The hon. Gentleman touched on a particular point. He asked whether it was Government policy to deprive the institute of the funds necessary to provide the courses that it currently provides. The principal described the bible of the institute as being the document entitled, "Colleges of excellence and innovation", which was accompanied by the remit letter from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to the Learning and Skills Council. That advice has been reflected by a consultant paid for by the Further Education Funding Council, which has constructed the strategy for the institute and for A-level provision in north Essex. I ask the Minister to take responsibility for what is happening at the institute and to say as constructively as he can how things could be taken forward in a less confrontational way, with more consensus than is currently being achieved.

11.29 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

I listened with interest to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) and congratulate him on securing this debate on behalf of his constituents. I listened also to the brief speech by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who made some not dissimilar points.

I know that the hon. Member for Colchester is as passionately committed to maintaining and improving the provision of education and training in his constituency as he is to his beloved Colchester United. As someone who is not intimately involved with either institution, I wish them both well in coming seasons. I shall do my best to respond to his concerns. As he noted, we had a useful meeting in the Department on this very matter.

Further education colleges are independent corporations, and the governing body of Colchester Institute is responsible for management of the institute. It is that body that is responsible for the effective it management of its resources to safeguard the solvency of the college and its assets.

I noted the intervention of the hon. Member for North Essex, who urged the Government to intervene directly in the intimate affairs of that institution, but it was of course the previous Government who established FE colleges as independent corporations. Although it is too late in the night to ask him whether that request for intervention represents another U-turn, he is asking me to intervene in an arrangement made by a Government so that Governments could not intervene in the business of FE corporations. I think that he is shaking his head, but I should be happy on another occasion to debate his inconsistencies with him.

The governing body and the principal are required to secure the efficient and effective management of all the college's resources and expenditure, capital assets, equipment and staff, so that the investment of public funds in the college is not put at risk. They are also required to plan and conduct their academic and financial affairs so that their total income, taking one year with another, meets their total expenditure. Those arrangements are subject to annual audit and a quadrennial inspection programme.

The institute was most recently inspected in March 1998, and it received good and satisfactory grades in its curriculum and cross-college provision. In February 2001, the Further Education Funding Council's regional office reviewed the college, with other colleges in the region, and was satisfied with the management of the college. Meanwhile, its latest external audit, undertaken by a reputable local firm, produced a satisfactory report. The institute is in financial health category A, which means that it has the financial strength to implement its strategic plans.

I should add, not least for the hon. Member for North Essex, that this Government are investing record resources in further education and our record compares well with that of the 18 years of the previous Government. I should add also that, in July 2001, the institute's principal, who is well regarded by local partners, is to leave the institute to take over a larger college.

The institute has decided that, with the introduction of the new Learning and Skills Council, and the more collaborative approach of education and training providers, it should concentrate on the provision of vocational programmes, for which it already has an excellent reputation. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) has brought to my attention some recent developments at the Clacton campus of Colchester Institute. He has been advised by the principal of the institute of additional new provision at Clacton that has been developed better to meet the vocational needs of local people. I am sure that the hon. Members for Colchester and for North Essex, who are from that region, will welcome that. The developments include the provision of call centre training, adult-friendly outreach information technology training and a variety of new vocational provision.

All that is consistent with the centres of excellence model that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced last November in his speech to the Association of Colleges. Our target is that half of all general further education colleges should have a vocational specialism in which they are regarded as a centre of excellence by 2004–05. The institute has kept the Further Education Funding Council fully informed of its plans, which build on a rationalisation study supported by the council's rationalisation fund.

As for the future, the recent introduction of the Learning and Skills Council—launched only last week, with a budget of £6 billion and about 6 million learners—ensures that that new non-departmental public body will assume responsibility for post-16 education.

I note that the hon. Member for Colchester was severely critical of the Learning and Skills Council. It has been operational for one week. No doubt his criticism is justified, but he is not its first critic, and I am sure that he will not be its last. Some were criticising it some months before it came into being. The council will include further education colleges in its ambit. They account for more than £3 billion of the total budget and have more than 3.5 million learners.

The Learning and Skills Council will be responsible for local learning strategic planning. A particular challenge for the new councils, as they take over responsibility for co-ordinating school, college and other 16-to-19 provision, will be to deliver the right combination of quality, flexibility and choice. They are charged with delivering education and training that meet local learners' and employers' needs.

That is why I have ensured that Alison Webster, the executive director of the local Essex learning and skills council—one of the 47 local learning and skills councils—has been kept fully informed of the developments at the institute. I have already drawn her attention to the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman about how the consultation exercise was undertaken. I know that she will want to ensure that all providers of post-16 education and training are accountable and responsive to the needs of students as well as of the wider community, including industry and commerce.

I understand of course the concerns of the people directly affected by possible job losses—the individual lecturers and support staff involved—but we also have to consider the prospects of current and potential learners in Colchester. Their interests are best served by colleges and providers of learning that are demonstrably good at what they do and well managed.

I know that the institute has given a categorical assurance that existing full-time A-level students will be able to complete their courses of study at the institute. I have had assurances that there will be alternative, equally good provision of full-time A-level courses at Colchester sixth form college and at other local schools with sixth forms, and I am assured that they will respond positively and helpfully to the needs of all learners, including those who may not have at achieved very high grades at GCSE.

Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will recall that I gave him those assurances when I met him at the Department less than two weeks ago, and I shall write to him soon with the additional assurances that I have received from Alison Webster. I am equally certain that the institute will make every effort to try to help the individual members of staff who may be affected by the changes.

I am satisfied that the governing body has exercised its proper function. Its decisions are based on business and education considerations. Existing A-level students at the institute have been assured that they will be able to complete their courses of study, and there will be a choice of other local providers of full-time A-level courses for prospective students from September 2001.

The Learning and skills Council is in the lead in terms of post-16 arrangements designed to ensure that patterns of provision best meet local needs, drive up standards and encourage greater collaboration. Further education colleges have a vital role to play in delivering the high-quality education and training that people need to enable them to make the most of themselves and of the opportunities that are available to them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve midnight.