Adjournment Debate - Adult Skills in Enfield

I raised the important issues of Adult Skills in Enfield during an adjournment debate in the House of Commons.

Joan Ryan (Enfield North) (Lab): I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the important matter of adult skills budgets in Enfield.

First, I want to put on record my gratitude to the further education colleges in the borough for the excellent services that they deliver. The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London—known as CONEL—Barnet and Southgate college and Capel Manor college have a proud history of providing essential technical and vocational skills training. The training, confidence and qualifications that students have gained from those institutions have been of tremendous benefit to their career prospects as well as to the economy in Enfield, London and beyond.

I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in paying tribute to FE colleges providing adult skills training in Enfield, as they need and deserve our wholehearted support. I hope that the Minister also agrees with the statement made by the University and College Union that

“further and adult education is a crucial part of our society and economy and that it should be invested in properly.”

However, a consideration of current Government policy indicates that genuine support for that statement is less than forthcoming. FE colleges have seen their adult skills budgets hit with unprecedented cuts. According to the University and College Union, the adult skills budget for those students aged 19 and over has fallen by almost 40% since 2009. While apprenticeship funding will be protected, there has been a 23% real-terms cut in non-protected adult skills budgets since 2014.

The effects have been felt particularly keenly in further education colleges serving Enfield. In 2008-09, the newly combined college of Haringey, Enfield and North East London had an annual income of £52 million. By 2014-15, the figure had fallen to £36 million—a drop of 31% in six years. Its income for this coming year is budgeted at £31 million, which is a further 13% cut. At Capel Manor college, adult education and training funding has been cut by 28% this year alone. This comprises a 24% cut when its funding allocations were made in February, followed by a sudden 3.9% cut announced in July. This was after the college had finished for the summer break and the governors had signed off the budgets.

What assurances is the Minister prepared to give today that no further cuts to adult skills budgets will be announced in the spending review next week? Does he understand that announcements of sudden cuts, such as those that we witnessed over the summer, undermine colleges’ ability to make strategic decisions, and damage their ability to respond to the needs of employers, students, the local community and the wider economy?

The consequences of the cuts to adult skills budgets are jeopardising colleges’ ability to support adult learners. In a letter to London Members of Parliament, Dr Stephen Dowbiggin, the principal of Capel Manor college, said:

“The reductions in funding between 2013-2015 mean we have had to turn away over 700 students—the majority of which have, in the past, gained employment or set themselves up in business.” 

CONEL made 42 teaching posts redundant earlier this year. It has also suffered greatly from the complete withdrawal of ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—mandation funding for English courses. As David Hughes, the chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, has said, this cut will

“hit people who are working hard to gain the language skills they need to participate in work and in our society.”

CONEL is working on plans to deal with additional cuts. That is likely to have a major impact on staffing levels at the college and the scope of the curriculum on offer.

It is clear that the Government’s policy has a huge impact on the provision of courses. The Association of Colleges has said that up to 190,000 adult education places across the country could be lost in 2015-16. It warns that

“Adult education and training in England will not exist by 2020 if the Government continues with its swathe of cuts to the adult skills budget”.

Its research has shown that the squeeze on adult education and training funding in recent years has seen the number of adult students participating in level 3 courses fall by almost 18% since 2012. According to the Government’s own statistics, participation in adult further education courses has fallen by more than 500,000 since 2011.

I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the report, “The economic impact of further education colleges”, by a consortium of FE colleges, the 157 Group. Its research found that the approximate average impact of a college on the regional economy is £550 million. In addition, its study shows that

“Learners receive an average 11.2 per cent return on their investment in terms of higher future earnings…Society receives an average 12.6 per cent return on its investment in terms of an expanded tax base and reduced social costs…The taxpayer receives a 12.3 per cent return on its investment in terms of returns to the exchequer.”

Bearing the report by the 157 Group in mind, how can the Government’s cuts be anything other than bad for learners, bad for society and bad for the taxpayer? The assault on the adult skills budgets is a deeply misguided decision. The UK desperately needs to improve its productivity and competitiveness. FE colleges serving Enfield and elsewhere should be at the forefront of training, educating and reskilling our workforce.

Colleges serving Enfield have other particular issues that I want to address. Enfield boasts the fourth highest population figure of all London boroughs. According to the last census, Enfield’s population increased by more than 14% in one decade. If we see the same growth in the next 10 years, with many more adults coming into the borough, common sense suggests that there will be even greater demand for adult skills training, and increased demand for adults to retrain and upskill. Can the Minister tell me how they would be able to do that if the rate of cuts to adult skills budgets continues at its current pace?

Enfield has employers such as Chase Farm and North Middlesex University Hospitals, Siemens, Kelvin Hughes, Johnson Matthey and others who are heavily involved in health and life sciences, digital skills and the engineering sector. They are always on the look-out for skilled recruits. Given the uncertainty over adult skills budgets, how can the Minister expect FE colleges to invest in the necessary equipment and facilities required to deliver high-quality training in these areas?

The college of Haringey, Enfield and North East London has been particularly exposed to cuts in adult funding, as London attracts a greater proportion of adults from the rest of the UK and from overseas. Less money for the college means fewer members of staff, fewer courses available and fewer opportunities to help those most in need. I welcome the Government’s proposal to increase the number of apprenticeships on offer.

However, they should not and must not be a substitute for sustainable funding for other forms of adult skills training. As Andy Forbes, the principal and chief executive of the college of Haringey, Enfield and North East London has said:

“The problem is that many of our students are nowhere near ready to undertake an apprenticeship and often have significant barriers—such as childcare responsibilities—which prevent them from working the 30 hours a week needed to be an apprentice.”

The college has a great deal of high-quality vocational training at level 2 and below for adults for whom apprenticeships are not appropriate. It also has a lot of ESOL provision.

Both of those reflect the demographics of Enfield, which has diverse communities and high levels of need. What measures is the Minister willing to put in place to ensure that the most vulnerable adults—those most in need of further education—are not excluded from opportunities to train, learn and thrive?

I recognise the importance of ensuring that investment in adult skills funding is as effective as possible. It is, therefore, important to ensure that certain FE colleges offering specialist provision are given due care and attention when funding decisions are made. Capel Manor college is one such institution. It is London’s only specialist land-based college. It provides education and training for adults, not only in Enfield, but at four other centres across London, in land-based and related areas, including horticulture, animal management and conservation. I commend the work of Dr Dowbiggin who, in over three decades of service, has overseen the development of Capel Manor college from 130 students to more than 3,000 students today.

The college has an excellent reputation. As a regional college with centres across London, Capel Manor is helping to address a key skills shortage in the capital. In the latest research, almost 50% of employers in the vocational areas that Capel Manor college serves said that no one living in London applying for a recent vacancy had the necessary skills. I hope the Minister will agree that we should be backing colleges such as Capel Manor, and that the Government should be encouraging as many adult students as possible to acquire the skills necessary to support a sector which is vital to Enfield and to London as a whole.

I am sure the Minister will recognise that the land-based sector is made up mostly of micro-businesses and voluntary and charitable organisations. It is an ideal industry for adults who want to set themselves up in business—for example, as gardeners, florists and landscapers—or who want to work, often unpaid, in animal shelters, conservation groups and the like. But I am sure the Minister understands that these are areas in which apprenticeships cannot really work or there are too few opportunities on offer.

I know that the Minister will be following closely the work of the Public Accounts Committee as it conducts its inquiry into financial sustainability in the further 

education sector. During oral evidence last month the specific case of Capel Manor college was raised. The Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), said in reference to Capel Manor:

“For their balance of budget to work for the sort of students they have, more adult skills and slightly fewer apprenticeships would work, but they are getting more apprenticeships and fewer adult skills—a big cut in the adult skills budget.”

Peter Lauener, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency and Education Funding Agency, acknowledged that

“some kinds of education do not fit quite as well in the apprenticeship world.”

I am interested to know what the Minister has to say in relation to Capel Manor college.

Over the summer, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced a national review of post-16 education and training. I very much hope that FE colleges offering training opportunities for adults will also play an important part in the review’s considerations. That is important because FE colleges offering education for students aged 16 and over in Enfield and elsewhere also offer training and opportunities to adults aged 19 and over. It would be problematic to divorce the two.

I also urge the Minister to ensure that, when the area review process is conducted, suitable allowances are made for FE colleges with campuses in different local authorities, such as those that operate in Enfield. In the case of Capel Manor college, can the Minister provide an assurance that it will be considered as a regional specialist provider in the area review, instead of having to take part in five separate reviews—where each of its centres is looked at separately—or to be restricted to one local review where its head office is based in Enfield?

The purpose of the Department’s review is to

“provide an opportunity for institutions and localities to restructure their provision to ensure it is tailored to the changing context and designed to achieve maximum impact.”

It is vital, therefore, that this process is not so locally focused as to prejudice successful organisations such as Capel Manor, which, as I have said, is a truly regional college.

I believe that the Government’s current policy on adult skills budgets is wrong and short-sighted. I urge the Minister to come to Enfield, to visit the fantastic FE colleges serving the borough and beyond, and to see for himself the great work they do, in very difficult circumstances, to provide high quality adult skills training. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

2.47 pm

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.

Question put and agreed to.

2.58 pm

House adjourned.

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