Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 37)

WEDNESDAY 31 OCTOBER 2001

MR CHRIS HUGHES AND MS RUTH SILVER

  20. The Committee is a little sensitive on this and will probe you just a little further because Val Davey and I were on the HE Inquiry and one of our prime recommendations for widening participation and access to participation was increasing the premium for higher education institutions (HEIs) from 5 per cent to 20 per cent for students who came from more socially-deprived postcode areas. You do not think that would work for FE?
  (Mr Hughes) I do not know about HE.

  21. Are you saying it has only worked in FE?
  (Mr Hughes) In FE it is a 10 per cent premium.

  22. How much is that?
  (Mr Hughes) It will vary. I could not say on the record. I could drop you a note about that. It has produced 8,600 additional students over a two year period and when we are talking about £3½ million that is not a huge result.
  (Ms Silver) One of the good pieces of news is that the economy has lifted. Certainly where my college is located, the choice between a job and a course—no winners. What we have to do is get people who would have gone to college had the economy stayed the same to come back into education through the employer route. Colleges are not the only way to bring people into participation, we must target employers to bring that level further in.

Mr Chaytor

  23. Pursuing this point about the funding methodology, the LSC has just issued its circular on the new funding methodology and set out its plans for a common funding framework. Are you therefore dissatisfied with the basics of the new funding methodology or are you saying this is not going to have any impact on widening participation at all? It is not only the question of a 10 per cent premium but abolition of the entry units and other factors. Are there things which should have been done in revising the methodology which would have strengthened greater participation?
  (Mr Hughes) My view is that the changes the LSC have made in this early period are largely welcomed in terms of simplification—the move away from entry units which were not necessary, indeed the move from this artificial currency of funding units in due course and moving to counting human brings is very welcome indeed. There will be other changes like shifting forward the census date point at which we start counting students in college from 1 November to 1 October, and so on. I think they are broadly welcomed within the current funding methodology paradigm, if you wish. As an R&D organisation, I am just beginning to signal there may be a need for some more radical thinking in due course. For example, we all of us take it as commonsense that we should fund learners, but the minute you do that you introduce competition between institutions in an unavoidable way, and there may be scope over the longer term to think of other ways of funding institutions.

  24. Coming back to methodology, were the premium to be 20 per cent and not 10 per cent, do you think that would work in FE?
  (Mr Hughes) In my view, no, but others would disagree with that, I have to say.

Paul Holmes

  25. Can I ask you two questions about the way the LSCs work in relation to the colleges in their areas? One thing which seems to emerge around the country is there is a feeling there are not very many, if any, representatives of colleges and the FE sector actually on the LSC boards. In Derbyshire I know there are none at all, for example. Secondly, the Learning and Skills Council take a strategic oversight of what is going on and they are conduits the money is passed through, but it is actually the colleges and the sixth forms which deliver, and there is quite a perceived gap there between one body which is trying to be strategic and the actual people who are delivering at ground level.
  (Mr Hughes) My understanding is that more LSCs than not do have college principals on the councils. On the very important question of the relationship between learners, customers, and the delivery side, at our peril do we make learners customers of the Learning and Skills Councils. They must have that relationship with the colleges or other providers who deliver the curriculum for them. It is absolutely essential. Nobody is going to relate to the local office of a large quango. I do not see that as being the LSC's intention either, but it does raise the question for colleges about who determines the strategic direction of the institution, because the first charge on the corporation of the further education college is to determine the educational character, and that is a charge which the corporation cannot delegate to its executive management, and it does seem to me there is an inherent tension between planning arrangements and the role of the corporation to determine its own future. I see that as an ambiguity, if you like, that could run for some time.
  (Ms Silver) We have a principal on our LSC board locally but he is very clear he is there not to represent people, he is there to keep an FE view. There are some tensions there and I think this is a very good area for this Committee to steward in the next couple of years. My LSC has said what they are doing in parts of their patch, e.g., Hackney but they will not tell colleges what to do because they can just not "buy" it. There are not many purchasers around in Deptford to buy what it is they do not want, and that is a very clear signal about how it will evolve unless somebody somewhere keeps a very sharp eye on it.

  26. How would you resolve that tension?
  (Ms Silver) I am not sure I would have LSCs to start with.

Chairman

  27. You were happy with the old TEC system?
  (Ms Silver) No, I was not. I am not talking about TECs, I am talking about colleges. My worry is that what I see in my area is an LSC concentrating on getting the core providers to do what it is we have always done, and all the communication is about what we know. I never thought I would say this and stick up for TECs, but what has been lost strategically is a view of factoring into environments employment opportunities. There is nobody there any more bringing in the chances for employment which my learners very badly need.

  28. Could the RDAs do that?
  (Ms Silver) Yes, and I think some of them are. It is all very well giving lots and lots of provision, if there is nowhere to go after that provision (and they are not all going to go to university in Deptford) it is a real issue. The problem we have is that the LSCs vary incredibly across the country, so we talk about the LSC provision becoming more and more complicated. One will buy one set of things, one will buy another. I do know there is a dearth of people in most of the LSCs who know about further education and more importantly adult basic skills.

  29. Let me get this clear: you would like to get rid of the LSCs or you would like to improve the quality of the LSCs?
  (Ms Silver) I think I would like to improve the quality in the first instance, but that will only happen if there is a true and open dialogue. The people we know are terribly anxious about understanding all these new systems floating down to them—inspection regimes, financial monitoring regimes, compliance, funding changes. But that will not happen for a while.

Bob Spink

  30. Can I ask, if you were to get rid of LSCs, what would you replace them with?
  (Ms Silver) The nearest I get is a new kind of 24 central LEAs. I never thought I would say that either!

  31. By local, do you mean county-wide, region-wide or town-wide?
  (Ms Silver) I do not know. What I would like in London is a big "LEA" which knew about travel-to-work and so on, because that has been lost. I do not know, I would want to think about that and maybe give you a paper and say what the alternatives could be.

Chairman

  32. As a former adviser to this Committee, that would be very welcome. I did not mention it in the introduction but both of you have been advisers to this Committee and it is lovely to see poachers turned gamekeepers, or whichever way round it is.
  (Ms Silver) It is easier this side!

Mr Shaw

  33. I wanted to ask you about basic skills. The Government has set some very ambitious targets and have put a lot of money in, and colleges are going to be pivotal in delivering this, whether it is a community programme or a work-based programme. You said you felt there was a dearth of understanding with LSCs about how that is going to be delivered, can you give us some examples? How easy are you finding it to engage employers, particularly locally, where there are large centres of employment, where there is likely to be quite a low level of basic skills? Are people willing to provide the time off for their employees? That seems to me one of the crucial things, particularly if you have a busy life. If you are a part-time worker in a distribution centre and are told, "Come along afterwards and learn some basic skills", you will say, "Sorry, I have kids, I have a husband".
  (Ms Silver) You got that one in one. The basic skills agenda is superb and the unit inside the Department is very strategically systemic in what it is trying to do. The biggest problem with recruitment of staff in London is that the ILEA used to have an amazingly strong cohort of basic skills teachers, and of course convergence meant that people stopped doing basic skills, it was easier to do other things, and London now almost has no basic skills teachers. With the competition between colleges, one college is paying a wee bit more, and of course that still happens in the college down the road, and people travel around, and the area where it is most crucially needed for the next four years is the area which is most problematic. That is the first comment. The second comment is that my college serves the eighteenth most needy community in the country, and it went to the LSC for additional funding, additional support, which is the old name, to help people on courses get some more support for basic skills, and we did not get it. This is an LSC which said, "Basic skills, basic skills, basic skills are on our agenda." We have challenged that but actually the bidding round is over and I do not quite understand why it happened. It was obviously not within the guidance note which says, "This is how you spend your money". A borough like Lewisham has been successful, we go into where the bin men work very early in the morning and we teach basic skills and they are allowed to start work an hour later. So there are people trying.
  (Mr Hughes) Just two things to add on basic skills, two very fundamental problems. There is a capacity issue—staff, training, development and status of basic skills teachers—and we really have to address that if we are to deliver the Department's objectives. Secondly, there are technical issues about how we measure and assess whether people are no longer functionally illiterate, so knowing whether we have achieved the target is quite demanding as well.

Mr Turner

  34. Ms Silver, you have spoken rather from a London perspective, is there anything you would have said differently if you were the principal of a smaller college in a rural area?
  (Ms Silver) I do not know. I think what I am saying about London is probably true also of Liverpool and Sheffield and other places. City colleges have particular difficulties. Rural colleges I am not familiar with.

Chairman

  35. We learnt the importance of creative play when we did our Early Years Inquiry, and playing games is an interesting part of that. Can we play a game in this last question. This time last week the Secretary of State was sitting where you are sitting, if you were the Secretary of State, what are the three things you would do to put right anything you think is at the moment wrong in the FE sector? Three things you think, if you were Secretary of State, you would do in this coming year to do something positive for FE?
  (Mr Hughes) I would only need to use two, Chairman. One, I would urgently review the mission of general further education colleges. It is a point the Association of Colleges make in their evidence to you.3 We do need to clarify what their core business is, their core focus. In my view, it should be a modernised and inclusive vocational education and training system, and we do need to address that because we have some mission drift in our colleges. Secondly, student support.

  36. You do not want a third?
  (Mr Hughes) No.
  (Ms Silver) I will take his third one! I would ask her to address the parsimonious core funding of colleges and stop this frilly activity around projects. I would seek a pile of money for staff development to bring 21st century FE lecturers to the highest level of skills we can. I would allow students to study more without penalties. Students on benefit, on their way in and out of New Deal, can only do a certain number of hours without losing benefit. The learners of FE colleges are not badly taught at all, they are under-taught.

  37. Neither of you wanted your full three.
  (Ms Silver) I would nag employers to give more support to colleges and let people be there and give them opportunities. There are all sorts of ways of working together. Get employers on our side.
  (Mr Hughes) If you press me on the third, it is the focus on staff, their skills, their training, their motivation.

  Chairman: Sorry it is a short session but I think we have learnt a great deal. On behalf of the Committee, thank you very much.

3 Evidence p 32, para 15.





 
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