Opposition Day — [2nd Allotted Day]: Skills and Growth

Mike Wood: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a real need for greater and better capacity in vocational education for children with special educational needs, particularly for 14 to 19-year-olds?


Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North

The hon. Gentleman is completely right. As he represents Dudley South, he will know that Dudley College has just opened fantastic new facilities on The Broadway. I do not know whether he has had a chance to visit yet, but he definitely should. It provides fantastic opportunities for young people with profound disabilities and learning difficulties. It is a unique institution, the first of its kind in the country. It is another brilliant success, which is down to Principal Lowell Williams and his colleagues, and it is an example that colleges around Britain should be following. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I look forward to working with him to drive up educational standards and improve standards not just for children with special needs but for all children in Dudley over the next five years.

Under the brilliant leadership of Lowell Williams and his colleagues, Dudley College has not only provided those fantastic facilities but has transformed our town centre and opportunities for local people. Our new manufacturing college, Dudley Advance, has been developed with Aston University and local manufacturers. We have a new vocational centre, a new sixth form college and plans for a new construction centre. Ministers will be pleased to hear that the vast majority has been funded by more efficient use of the college’s own resources and not by external funding. Ofsted has rated all aspects of the college’s provision as “good” or “outstanding” in its most recent inspections and the college has been named one of the top three colleges in the country for students completing apprenticeships, with nine out of 10 students successfully completing their training compared with 69% nationally.

Mr Williams and his colleagues are helping local businesses to grow, educating young people and helping adults to get new jobs, too. They are doing exactly what Ministers have asked of them, but far from supporting their work, Government policies are putting courses and places at risk.

Cutting the adult skills budget by 24% means that Dudley College will lose £1.4 million, so 30 jobs are at risk and 1,500 places will be cut, most of which are employability programmes for unemployed adults and workplace qualifications in health and social care, early years and construction. The college faces further 20% reductions in each of the following two years, removing another 1,700 adult places. Thousands of adults struggling to find work will lose their retraining and many more jobs are at risk.

Dudley College has worked hard to help Ministers to increase apprenticeships, doing exactly what they want and making it by far the largest provider in the region. In May, the college again requested additional places from the Skills Funding Agency for 16 to 18-year-olds in areas such as engineering, manufacturing and care, which, again, is exactly what the Government want it to do. The agency indicated that that would be possible, as it was in previous years, but the funding is now at risk after the Chancellor’s announcement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education must find £450 million of savings this year.

Spending on 16 to 18-year-olds is unprotected and apprenticeship providers are worried that the SFA will not be able to deliver the promised funding. That is the complete opposite of the long-term planning needed to fix the skills gap. Dudley College must either turn away 150 apprentices in priority areas or deliver the training without any funding. The college has also requested growth for 2015-16 and beyond, but how will the Government meet their target of 3 million additional apprentices if they cannot fund the growth at successful institutions, such as Dudley College, that are already doing a brilliant job and delivering exactly what the Government want?

Finally, Dudley College is now particularly vulnerable to changes in the amount of funding that the Education Funding Agency will offer for courses for 16 to 19-year-olds. That has been another growth area, with the EFA set to fund places for an extra 263 learners next year. A significant part of the college’s investment in new facilities such as Dudley Advance has been based on the expectation that EFA funding will increase, but the Chancellor’s announcement threatens that funding too, and any change in the number of funded places or the rate of funding will damage the college’s ability to meet local needs skills such as manufacturing. That comes on top of an 8% reduction in funding per learner in the past four years and a 22% funding reduction for 16-year-olds.

All of that shows why we should listen to the CBI, launch a cross-party inquiry and set out a long-term plan to tackle our country’s skills gap and, as I said at the outset, make education and skills our country’s No. 1 priority. But for a long-term plan to work, the Government need to give colleges the certainty they need to keep growing to meet demand.

Will the Minister work with the Skills Funding Agency to set out urgently the number of places it will fund in the coming year? Will he and the Business Secretary set out plans to meet the spending reductions as soon as possible, so that providers know how much funding will be available in the future? Will he come to Dudley and join me and Mike Wood in visiting the college, where he will be able to meet Mr Williams and his colleagues, see the brilliant work they are doing and help them solve the problems they face?