Ministers must approve the construction of and funding for new adult education colleges

So writes the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills Gillian Keegan to Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, who wrote to her on my behalf

How MPs hold ministers to account on behalf of their constituents.

Some of you will be aware that I’ve been making some noise about a new generation of adult education colleges – in particular since the publication of a report by the Education Select Committee in early 2021.

The problem as I wrote in a post asking how such a college could be founded and financed in Feb 2021, was that it wasn’t clear who had policy responsibility within Government, who had the legal powers to establish such colleges, and who had the policy initiative to say: “We want an adult education college for our community”.

There are a host of reasons why I’d want one established – even though I may not live long enough to actually benefit from it given the decades it seems to take to get from project idea to project completion. We’re talking decades and I’m 42 next month.

My options were to write to the minister directly, or ask my MP to do so on my behalf. Having worked in the civil service, I’m familiar with how letters, emails, and correspondence to ministers and politicians are dealt with – you can read the guidance from Cabinet Office here (see p6).

I chose to ask my local MP Daniel Zeichner (Labour – Cambridge) to contact the minister on my behalf. (You can find who your local MP is via using just your postcode). That way, you are guaranteed a reply from the minister with policy responsibility for the issue you are writing about. This matters as it underpins two essential components of the UK’s political system:

  1. That Members of Parliament (MPs) are accountable to all residents in their constituency equally, not just those who are party members or who voted for the MP at the general election;
  2. That Ministers of the Crown are accountable to Members of Parliament – in particular when MPs are contacting them *on behalf of constituents* – i.e. when the issue is not necessarily a party political one.

This is why the correspondence between MP & Minister refers to the constituent concerned at the top. This tells the Department of State that correspondence to the Minister requires a minister to read and sign off the response.

Above – a screenshot of the minister’s response.

The response gives my name and personal information – which I’ve cut off. Note the two references – the minister’s at the top right, and the MP’s constituency office just below the date. There are *lots* of numbers in that reference because Cambridge being Cambridge is a very vocal and opinionated city that generates thousands of pieces of correspondence and casework compared with other constituencies. 15 years ago I met a now former MP who said their constituency case load was so small that anyone contacting them could meet them face-to-face there was that much time for them. Such an approach would not work for somewhere like Cambridge.

What Minister Gillian Keegan said.

Textbook response by a civil servant, approved by a senior civil servant, signed off by the minister with policy responsibility.

Essentially I wanted to know:

  1. Who has ministerial policy responsibility for adult education & lifelong learning
  2. Who has the legal powers to establish new adult education colleges
  3. Who has the legal powers to ensure state funding for such colleges

I now know the minister responsible, the Act of Parliament authorising ministers to establish new institutions – whether individual colleges or federations of institutions, and that several Acts of Parliament contain powers enabling ministers to authorise state funding for such colleges.

I’ve been given substantive responses to all three.

What happens now?

Budgets for adult education were devolved to Combined Authorities under the previous Mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – see the press release here (which doesn’t have a date on it!!!).

The next meeting of the Skills Committee is not until 19 October 2021. So they have time to come up with a detailed response.

The latest press release on adult education budgets from the current Mayor Dr Nik Johnson is here. From purely a skills perspective, it makes sense to target those areas where the population collectively has a low skills level in order to enable people to access a greater range of better-paid occupations. One of the reasons for selecting East Cambridge as a site for a new college is precisely because Abbey Ward in East Cambridge is on that has the highest levels of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Scandalously it still does not have a secondary school within reasonable walking or cycling distance for most of its residents.

Above – Abbey Ward on G-Maps here.

With the continued eastward expansion of the city, and the proposed redevelopment of the airport site, there should be enough space to build a new secondary school, and adult education college with playing fields and bordering a new urban country park. And, if we’re ambitious enough, incorporating a new light rail metro stop. Getting that line and stop would mean the villages in the southern half of East Cambridge District Council would be served by both.

Above – East Cambridge and District, on G-Maps here.

Given that the current Mayor is focussing on short & medium term commitments, and the large capital costs of establishing a new college, something like this won’t be at the top of his priority list. On the other hand, there’s nothing to stop him from convening a gathering of interested and influential parties and persons to see what scope there is to found such an institution – and make the case to the Secretary of State for even partial funding for such a college. And there are more than a number of wealthy firms and institutions that could contribute towards the founding and running of the college. Furthermore, there is also scope for incorporating sports and leisure facilities at such a site, including a permanent home for Cambridge United Women’s Football Club, who all too often have to play ‘home’ games far away from the city – sometimes even in another county.

Building somewhere where people can flourish, where people can get help, where people feel safe, and where people want to be.

This for me is my vision for an adult education college and learning community. One that combines the best of CityLit in London with access to large, open green spaces which enable sport, recreation, and walking away from the noise and traffic. Somewhere where as well as being somewhere where adults can learn basic skills, you also have services & features like:

  • a creche,
  • a walk-in health centre & GP surgery, and even a pioneering mental health centre
  • a public library and bookshop (incl second hand),
  • a library of things,
  • an NHS dentist,
  • a public square – for outdoor meetings and public performances,
  • an easy-to-access bus stops and a metro stop,
  • safe, secure cycle racks also for ebikes and e-scooters,
  • a police/PCSO desk,
  • a performance hall and rehearsal rooms/rehearsal space (mindful there is none in this part of Cambridge, and mindful of the 15 minute city principles)
  • a workshop for people of any skill level and intellect (from pre-GCSE to post-doctorate) who want to learn practical hand and machine tool-working skills. (Like Make Space, but also covering things like woodwork and metalwork)
  • a creative arts workshop – again as a similar concept to the above but with paints and sculpture

Something like this would take a decade to build. Even more so given the stages we are at with our emerging local plan for 2030-41 which will incorporate the redevelopment of the Airport site. (The current one runs to 2030).

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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