Clause 26 - Further education in England: intervention

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 7 Rhagfyr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Colleges and designated institutions play a crucial part in their local communities by enabling young people and adults to gain the skills they need. In the small numbers of cases in which an institution is failing to deliver an acceptable standard of education or training, or is failing in other ways, Government must be able to intervene to secure improvement.

Existing powers under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 to intervene in colleges in the FE sector can be used in certain prescribed circumstances in which there are serious failings: mismanagement, for example, or financial or quality failures. In those circumstances, action can be taken to remove or appoint members of the governing body, or to give direction. Clause 26 extends those existing powers to allow for intervention where the education or training provided is failing, or has failed, to adequately meet local needs. Where the prescribed circumstances are met, clause 26 also enables the Secretary of State to direct the governing body to transfer “property, rights or liabilities” to another body.

The statutory intervention powers that we are amending through clause 26 are intended to be used only as a last resort. Our core support and intervention activity is delivered through administrative processes set out in the published guidance, “College oversight: support and intervention”. The Government are not seeking these powers in order to implement a new wave of mergers across the college sector—that is not the purpose of intervention. However, there is good evidence that structural change can, in the right circumstances, play a valuable role in securing improvement. We have also been clear that decisions on the college curriculum are for the governing body, not for Ministers to second-guess. We are working with Ofsted to increase the focus of inspections on how well colleges are meeting skills needs. The Government’s primary focus is on supporting colleges and designated institutions, and preventing things from going wrong.

In conclusion, strengthening the existing statutory intervention powers is necessary to ensure that, as a last resort, the Government are able to act where there is failure and there is no alternative means of securing improvement.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Clause 26 sets out in detail some additional powers relating to further education colleges in England, and the desire of the Secretary of State to intervene. The intervention regime for colleges is already complex, having been noted as a cause for concern by the Independent Commission on the College of the Future. Dame Mary Ney’s independent review of college financial oversight also identified the complexity of the regime, and in this Bill the Secretary of State is looking to find additional reasons to intervene, beyond financial failure. There is a real risk that this clause will just add to that complexity, going precisely against the apparent aim of establishing a simpler system.

Crucially, the Bill proposes new powers of intervention for the Secretary of State without giving colleges the freedoms to deliver. Last week, the Government passed an amendment that removed colleges from being strategic partners in the establishment of local skills improvement plans, so colleges are left accountable, but not empowered. Indeed, in a way, it goes further than that: if a college were to disagree with what was in the local skills improvement plan—if it were to consider that a local skills improvement plan that had been approved did not meet the needs of all of its learners—its failure to follow that plan could lead the Secretary of State to intervene and its being considered to be a failing college.

We accept that there needs to be an understanding of interventions, but there are questions that we would like to test the Minister on. First, why is it appropriate to hold colleges accountable for the delivery of LSIPs, but not treat them as strategic partners in developing those LSIPs? Secondly, do the new intervention powers apply equally to all post-16 education providers? If not—if they apply only to FE colleges—what consultation has the DfE undertaken with the Office for Students in order to ensure that this aligns with its approach to the oversight of higher education provision? Thirdly, what happens in circumstances where colleges believe that a poor or inappropriate LSIP has been produced that is not in the long-term interests of their locality? Do they simply deliver on a plan that they believe to be inappropriate, or are there mechanisms available to them to make representations on that point? If the needs of the local learning community have altered but the LSIP has not, how would a college be able to raise that? What consequences would be available to the Secretary of State if a college was seen not to fit in with what the LSIP said, even if the circumstances on the ground had changed?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As we have made clear throughout the Bill, the Government are on a mission to create an employer-led system in which the provision of skills reflects the skills that employers in a community need. We are absolutely set on ensuring that we get qualifications designed with employers to give students the skills the economy needs, at both local and national level. The clause sets about creating an accountability framework that places colleges in that sphere. We want colleges to respond to the ideas set out in a local skills improvement plan. However, as I have also made clear, these are absolutely powers of last resort. What we are really looking for is a profitable relationship between employer representative bodies and local providers. For that reason, we hope the clause will stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.