Previous SectionIndexHome Page



That three be the Quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records.
That the Committee have power to adjourn from place to place.
That the Committee have power to appoint specialist advisers, either to supply information which is not readily available or elucidate matters of complexity relating to the provisions of the Adoption and Children Bill.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9 Apr 2001 : Column 822

The Colchester Institute

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.

9 Apr 2001 : Column 823

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:

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:

I shall quote from the letter of retired lecturer Mr. Guy Scott. He worked at the institute for 25 years and was

9 Apr 2001 : Column 824

head of the school of automobile engineering when he retired in 1990. Observing that he is

Mr. Scott states:

He added:

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:

He concludes:

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:

If true, it would be very encouraging, but it is somewhat meaningless in the real world, for the letter goes on to add:

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:

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.

9 Apr 2001 : Column 825

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.

9 Apr 2001 : Column 826

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:

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

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.

Next Section

IndexHome Page