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 Kenta former Labour county councillor and former chair of Colchester constituency Labour partywrote to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to express concerns about funding. In a detailed letter, Mr. Kent said:
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.
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 educationcurrently, it has to turn many applicants awayand 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 1992in an act of typical Tory stupidity, rather than one of common senseremoved 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.
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.
As for upward convergence for further education colleges, that never happened, with the result that a range of academic courses at the Colchester Instituteon which I had an Adjournment debate on 9 Aprilwill 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 councilsanother tier of quango?
We believe that such a 'common entitlement' should include the kind of enrichment activities which have long been regarded as a key part of traditional school sixth form education.
This would ensure all institutionswhether colleges or schoolsserving l6 to l9-year-olds would receive comparable funding for providing the same qualifications."