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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.

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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 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

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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.

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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

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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 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.

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