15 April 2021
Peter Aldous welcomes the vision set out in the Education Committee’s report on adult skills and lifelong learning

Peter Aldous welcomes the Education Committee’s report on adult skills and lifelong learning and urges the Government to work collaboratively with local colleges, specifically calling for a long-term funding settlement for colleges and, more urgently, for the Education and Skills Funding Agency to revisit the decision to claw back funding from colleges that missed their 2020-2021 academic year targets by more than 10%.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con) [V]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate and on the pioneering work that he and his Committee are carrying out, both generally with their inquiries and specifically with the publication of this report.

My interest is twofold: first, as a constituency MP, where securing this revolution is vital, if we are to deliver sustained economic regeneration that transforms the lives of local people, and secondly, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning. Local colleges, deeply embedded in their communities, such as East Coast College, with campuses in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, will be the cornerstone on which this revolution is founded.

There has been a need for this transformation for a very long time, but we are now at the zero hour. If it is not delivered now, the long-term implications for the country and for many people will be profound. The challenges of improving productivity, enhancing social mobility and eliminating pockets of deprivation have been with us for a long time, but they are now compounded by the need to ensure as smooth as possible a pandemic recovery, which includes the shock that there is likely to be from the ending of furlough, as well as making sure that people of all ages have the skills required in a period of rapid technological change.

In East Anglia there are enormous opportunities in the low-carbon economy. It is vital that local people are able to acquire the necessary skills that are required for the rewarding and exciting jobs that will be available. It is also important to bear in mind that if we do not properly prepare for these challenges, many communities will remain left behind and for many people there will be a sense of personal despair and despondency.

The good news is that the Government recognise the need for change. The skills White Paper sets out a compelling vision, and there is a welcome recognition of the important role to be played by existing institutions—whether that is local authorities, local colleges or local businesses.

Both the lifetime skills guarantee and the lifetime loan guarantee are welcome steps in the right direction. With the former, the restriction that it is available only for those who do not hold a level 3 qualification should be revisited, as many people will need to reskill and upskill as the world of work changes. With the latter, there is a need to ensure that—where necessary—maintenance funding is provided as, without it, lifelong learning will remain unaffordable for many.

Moving forward, it is vital that Government work collaboratively with colleges. The report from the Independent Commission on the College of the Future, “The English College of the Future”, provides a template of how they should do this, with a statutory entitlement for lifelong learning for every adult, which includes the necessary financial support.

Local colleges should be a touchpoint for people throughout their lives, where they will go to reskill and retrain in response to technological change, such as the move to a carbon-neutral economy.

In many respects, the future is bright and exciting, but there are two immediate issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, there is a need for a long-term funding settlement, which should be addressed at the forthcoming spending review later this year. The recent uplifts are welcome, but there remains a great gulf between what a university student receives, averaging £6,600 per annum, and what a further education college student is provided with, which is just over £1,000 at £1,050 per annum. The funding settlement should be for longer—for three years—and should be simpler.

Secondly, the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s decision to claw back adult skills funding from colleges and local authorities if they missed their 2020-2021 academic year targets by more than 10% must be revisited and reviewed urgently. College finances have been ravaged by the pandemic; the clawback is equivalent to a £60 million cut to adult education funding, and it was announced eight months into the academic year in which it applies. This approach undermines the ethos of collaborative working that we should be promoting, and it is contrary to the aspirations of both the White Paper and the Education Committee’s report, which we are debating today.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know is passionately committed to securing a lifelong learning revolution, to do all she can to ensure that the ESFA work with colleges to come up with a revised approach that will give them the financial security they need at this challenging time.

I shall end on a positive note: the future can be incredibly exciting, with real benefits being secured for communities and people all around the country. My right hon. Friend and his Committee have come up with a compelling vision, and Government have embraced it, as have colleges and businesses endorse it. We must now get on and deliver it.