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Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.—[Mr. Caplin.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.

3 Jul 2001 : Column 236

Colchester Sixth Form College

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

10.1 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester): For a Government who claim that their priorities are "Education, education, education", Labour has been a huge disappointment for sixth form colleges. Although my debate this evening centres on the Colchester sixth form college, which is one of the top such colleges, the financial discrimination to which it is subject is experienced by every sixth form college in the country, of which there are just over 100.

Indeed, the situation confronting our sixth form colleges is worse now than it was even under the Conservative Government. The gap between the funding given to sixth forms in schools and that provided to our sixth form colleges has widened over the past four years. The variation has grown to 30 per cent. or more, and the projection for the next few years is that the gap will widen still further. Sixth form colleges have been told that they must make further so-called efficiency gains, whereas school sixth forms have been promised increased funding. Where is the fairness? The playing field is not level, and now the Government are planning to make it more uneven. Life will become more of an uphill struggle for sixth form colleges.

Labour's promises to give equality to our young people have been broken. Pledges from Ministers have not been honoured. There is no need for me to rehearse the arguments over the funding of our sixth form colleges. The Department for Education and Skills is well aware of them, yet Ministers have failed to tackle the unfairness.

In April this year, the chair of governors of Colchester sixth form college, Mr. Syd Kent—a former Labour county councillor and former chair of Colchester constituency Labour party—wrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to express concerns about funding. In a detailed letter, Mr. Kent said:

I invite the Minister to visit Colchester sixth form college to discuss with the principal and others the consequences of the Government's unfair funding policy towards sixth form colleges. No Minister has ever visited the college, which has 2,150 students.

In the first year of the last Parliament, the Select Committee on Education and Employment looked into further education, including funding for sixth form colleges. At the outset, the chairman was the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who was followed by the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), both of whom were subsequently promoted to ministerial office in the Department for Education and Employment.

Sadly, hopes that fairer funding for sixth form colleges would be forthcoming as a result of a new Government promising more investment in education proved to be unfounded, even given the Select Committee's recommendations and the ministerial influence of two people with personal knowledge of the unfairness.

Will the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), deliver where others have failed? He is newly installed,

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and thus free to distance himself from those who have gone before. This is his chance to bring justice and fairness to the nation's sixth form colleges. Will he announce to the House that the Government will at long last put right the wrongs of the funding formula, which currently cheats students and staff of the Colchester sixth form college, or will he merely provide warm words, like others before him, and leave the sixth form colleges with a funding formula that results in considerably less funding per student in real terms than that provided for a student at a school sixth form?

According to the Association of Colleges, a student undertaking a three A-level package at a school sixth form is funded on average to the tune of £3,530 per annum. A student at a sixth form college, however, is funded to the tune of £2,520. The difference of £1,010, according to the association, represents underfunding of 29 per cent. for a student at a sixth form college. Others believe that the real difference is more than 30 per cent.

If students at Colchester sixth form college were funded at the same level as sixth form students attending the town's selective Colchester Royal grammar school and Colchester County high school for girls, and Philip Morant school, it would receive a minimum of an extra £1.25 million a year. Why is there a different funding formula? What logical reason can there be for students in the same town and the same age group, taking broadly the same range of subjects, to be funded at different levels? Yet sixth form students at those three schools are funded at a higher level than those attending Colchester sixth form college. There can be no justification for that two-tier disparity.

Given the same level of funding, the college could enrol more students, in line with the Prime Minister's target that more young people should enter further and higher education—currently, it has to turn many applicants away—and recruit more staff to provide a better student-staff ratio to match those enjoyed by sixth forms in three of the town's schools. Pupils from all the 11-to-16 comprehensive schools in Colchester, and from further afield, go on to the sixth form college. Teaching staff at the sixth form college are on lower pay scales than their school-teaching counterparts. That unfairness, which stems from the unfairness of the funding levels, also needs to be corrected.

The root cause of the two-tier sixth form funding provision lies with a Conservative Government who, in 1992—in an act of typical Tory stupidity, rather than one of common sense—removed sixth form colleges from the democratic framework of local education authorities, and established them as quango institutions.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I agree with what my hon. Friend says about the discrimination suffered by Colchester sixth form college. Does he accept, however, that the same discrimination is suffered by sixth form colleges across the country, including Paston sixth form college in North Walsham? Many small sixth form colleges suffer the additional burden imposed by extra financial auditing requirements, which constitute further discrimination in comparison with the arrangements for sixth formers in schools.

Bob Russell: I agree. This is a nationwide problem affecting all sixth form colleges.

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One of the less widely known side effects of this education apartheid is that sixth form colleges have to pay value added tax, while school sixth forms do not. Perhaps the Minister can explain the logic of that. If he cannot, will he pledge this evening to arrange with Government colleagues for the status of such colleges to be amended so that, as with school sixth forms, VAT is not levied?

As I have said, this is not the first time that the unfair funding of sixth form colleges has been brought to parliamentary attention. The last time was 15 months ago, on 15 March last year, when the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) secured an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. The Minister who replied was the present Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North then Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment. I also spoke briefly.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): As the hon. Gentleman says, I spoke about this 15 months ago. I am very concerned about Luton sixth form college, where I am vice-chair of the governors, and particularly concerned about the continuing pressure on sixth form colleges to increase so-called efficiency by 1 per cent. per year. The requirement is not imposed on schools, and I consider it an additional burden on sixth form colleges. I hope that he will address that problem as well.

Bob Russell: I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman kindly allowed me to speak in his Adjournment debate and I thought that I should repay the compliment.

In his contribution to the debate, the Minister said:

He went on to admit that the disparity in funding between sixth form colleges and school sixth forms was 20 per cent., a figure somewhat lower than in reality exists, but nevertheless an admission by the Government that there is serious unfairness.

In response to my intervention, the Minister said:

I have to ask this evening why then, l5 months later, have the Government done nothing to move the funding of sixth form colleges upwards so that they converge with the funding given to school sixth forms?

As for upward convergence for further education colleges, that never happened, with the result that a range of academic courses at the Colchester Institute—on which I had an Adjournment debate on 9 April—will not be provided from this September, with the loss of around 50 academic and support staff. Had the Government acted in the way that they said that they would, the courses and jobs could have been saved. Local people have been deprived of educational opportunity and choice. Who do we blame? The Labour Government or the new learning and skills councils—another tier of quango?

3 Jul 2001 : Column 239

Back to sixth form colleges, however, and, in March last year, the Minister told the hon. Member for Luton, North:

It may have been an objective in March 2000, but nothing has been done to make it a reality. Indeed, as I have pointed out, the situation has deteriorated and it is set to get worse.

The Minister also stated:

So why have the Government failed to deliver what was promised?

Recommendation 13 of the report of the Education and Employment Committee, published on 4 June 1998, under the heading "A level playing field for post-l6 funding", stated:

Select Committee recommendation 14 stated:

Almost three years later, the Government's response in l998 makes interesting reading:

The section concluded with a promise of action

Nothing has been done to deliver what it was believed was the Government's promise of action based on recommendations made by the Select Committee in a report published on 4 June l998. The Government have badly let down Colchester sixth form college and the l00 or so other sixth form colleges throughout the country. All that they ask is that the Government keep their promises and fund sixth form colleges at the same level as they fund sixth forms in schools. For a Government who said that their priorities were, "Education, education, education", it should not be too difficult to deliver.

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