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3.39 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): It is entirely appropriate that in this first Opposition-day debate of the new Parliament, we should discuss post-16 education. We all know that it receives insufficient attention. That is partly because we have a strong relationship in our constituencies with schools, parents and children. At the other end of the spectrum, the university sector commands a great deal of firepower. It is often said that further education is a Cinderella squeezed between those great powers. I have a long-standing commitment to FE, especially to adult education, and acknowledge its importance. Even if our motion is contentious in some respects, I hope that both sides of the House agree on the basic premise that the post-16 sector is critical to improving the nation's skills base and its international competitiveness; by implication, it needs greater attention than perhaps it receives.

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Our debate has been marked by a number of distinguished speeches. There is never enough time to debate further education, but at least the quality of speeches has made up for the lack of quantity. There was a distinguished contribution from the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), who has great expertise, followed by three exceptional maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) produced a wonderful combination of perception, wit and elegance; he emphasised strongly the positive side of his constituency and his commitment to education. That is not to detract in any sense from the contributions of the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price). Perhaps we do not hear enough in the House about passion; we do not hear enough from Labour Members about commitment to the socially disadvantaged. Some Opposition Members have such commitment and we are delighted that passion will be brought to bear on the subject, as there ought to be a common commitment to improve the situation.

Apart from those speeches, the contributions were mainly from the Front Benches. I regret the fact that Ministers have not quite addressed concerns expressed in all quarters, not only in our debate but more generally in the national debate, about recent events. I particularly regret the fact that they have not addressed the concerns set out in our motion, which were also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who dealt with the immediate issue for almost all post-16 AS-level learners. The Secretary of State conceded that students were having to work harder and study longer; her prescription for dealing with that situation, albeit an interim one, was to offer alleviation in the timetable for assessment, not mitigation of the range of study. Frankly, she seemed to confuse a broader curriculum, with more subjects to study, with a greater breadth of educational experience. We want the latter, and we worry that producing a broader curriculum may displace rather than facilitate it.

I welcome the Minister for Lifelong Learning, whom I know from previous debates and her service in the Department, to the Dispatch Box and invite her to nail a worry about a specific issue. On 16 August, the first national AS-level results are due to be published. Before our debate ends, can she tell us unequivocally whether those results will be published on time, in full and accurately? We have asked the Government to tell us a number of times, and it is essential that parents and students know where they stand. There can be no ducking the issue and no repetition of the fiasco north of the border last year. Our students have suffered enough problems and cannot go through that as well.

A range of issues have been raised today, including the differential in funding that has already been discussed at some length. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead remarked, schools are different; in saying so, she echoed remarks made only last week by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey). When the word "convergence" is in the air, we must ensure that schools retain their funding for pre and post-16 education and that any convergence involves levelling up, not

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levelling down. The Government cannot be permitted to use arguments about schools' funding as a cop-out for inadequacies in FE funding.

I want to touch on some issues that have not received enough attention today. One is inspection; we now have the first Ofsted reports and, it is fair to say, further work in that area is required. The reports should be considered carefully and dispassionately. Some of us remain uneasy about the interface between Ofsted, the adult learning inspectorate and the colleges and providers themselves. FE is not the same as school education; it does not have the same skills and motivation base as various types of schools. We need to watch that carefully.

Special educational needs is another important issue which, as the Minister will know, impacts on the difficult transition from school to college. Wisely, the Government responded to representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), whose concerns were shared across the House, about deficiencies in the SEN code of practice and withdrew it in another place yesterday. I hope that they have learned from that experience; any more information that they can give about their plans would be appreciated.

Finally, there is the overarching issue of qualifications and public examinations, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead made clear, must be taken very widely indeed, not just seen as a scissors-and-paste job on a present difficulty. What has made it worse for schools is that GCSE changes and other changes took place in parallel. We must all learn that we have to look at the changes ensemble; we should not consider one change without regard for others taking place at the same time.

I mention two other important issues, the Connexions service and the structure and operation of the Learning and Skills Council, only to say that we cannot debate them now. We shall need to return to them later, but I submit to the House some wide general considerations and tests that need to be set out. We must consider whether a post-16 system contributes to education in its widest sense, including providing interpersonal and the so-called soft key skills as well as those that are more easily examinable. Does it build up the appropriate skills base for future employment and in an appropriate setting for the particular elements of that base? Does it capture those who would otherwise miss out on further education, by widening access and participation? Does it contribute to widening the base of pre-university general education, which provides the only realistic prospect of meeting Government targets for participation in higher education, unless the standards for entry are diluted?

Those goals are not being achieved and their achievement seems unlikely under present funding and organisational arrangements for the post-16 sector. The Government set a target increase of 700,000 FE students over two years, but the reality is that in each year of their stewardship student numbers have dropped, albeit by a small amount. They cannot claim even one extra student, yet in our time in government, however much the hon. Member for Bury, North tried to explain it away, we provided for the enrolment of an extra 1 million students. That comparative record bears examination. I do not puff our achievements, which were not without their faults, but the Government's achievements so far have been minimal, if not negative. It is perhaps no accident that they are set against a background of colleges under pressure, with staff under particularly great pressure. Unit

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funding per student is falling; the flexibility of colleges and their ability to use their resources are being impaired as they find an ever higher proportion of their remaining funds are subject to conditions. Lecturers are falling behind their school equivalents, and even more so behind their counterparts in outside employment, especially when the skills are transferable.

Further education colleges and the wider delivery of post-16 education—the critical area that we are considering—do great things with diminishing resources. However, somewhere there is a point of failure. The purpose of the motion is to bring that to the attention of the nation before it is too late.

3.40 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Margaret Hodge): This has been a good if limited debate. It has been constructive and well-informed. I suppose that some of the less well informed interventions from the Opposition Benches can be blamed on distraction. Perhaps Conservative Members have their minds elsewhere. I can assure them that under Labour's commitment to lifelong learning for all they will get the second chance that they denied to so many when they were in government.

I was pleased to hear three excellent contributions from new Members. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) on an eloquent maiden speech. He told us of all the qualities and opportunities that exist in his constituency and of the threats that he saw facing his constituents. I must tell him that I do not apologise for an obsession with driving up standards. I do not accept that in pursuing high standards we are not developing the important skills and enjoyments that make for the whole person.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newcastle- under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) made a well constructed and passionate maiden speech that ranged across many issues, which he linked to his own experience. He spoke with fondness of his constituency. I look forward to his contributions in future.

The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) told us some good history about his constituency. By his account, his predecessors made a colourful contribution to what happened in the House. I am sure from his contribution that he will maintain that good record.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) talked about concern about allocations this year from the additional moneys that are going to colleges and further education colleges. I wish to reassure him that the allocations for 2002–03 and 2003–04 have already been given to colleges. Any money that is still outstanding will be paid retrospectively. The Learning and Skills Council is waiting for the forms to come in so that it can meet the bill.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the radical overhaul that we want from 14 to 19. We are committed to that. In the meantime, I hope that he will welcome, as we do, the introduction of a range of qualifications from vocational GCSEs through to AS-levels, vocational A-levels, the modern apprenticeships and foundation degrees, as a way of extending, deepening and opening opportunities for people in education.

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I acknowledge the considerable contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) to the FE sector. He mentioned educational maintenance allowances, which we consider to have been an effective experiment. We are considering their future in depth. I look forward to him pursuing his arguments about paid educational leave for employees.

I shall talk briefly about school sixth forms, which were raised by several Opposition Members. We gave an unprecedented guarantee to maintain funding for school sixth forms. We have given a clear instruction to the Learning and Skills Council that it must pass the money that it receives to the sixth forms in full.

Funding for sixth forms varies considerably throughout the country, from £2,600 per student in some areas to £4,100 in others. Making sense of that will take time, but we have a commitment to do so by funding upwards. The Learning and Skills Council will publish information on funding to schools in July. The provisional allocation will be made in December. I hope that that will reassure school sixth forms.

I can assure the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that we shall publish the A-levels on 16 August. The awarding bodies have confirmed that the results will be issued on that day.

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