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6 Jan 2004 : Column 227

Sixth-form College (Carlisle)

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

4.42 pm

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Cumbria learning and skills council has proposed a new purpose-built sixth-form college in Carlisle, which would have a planned capacity of 1,150. The proposals would mean the end of school sixth forms in the area. Those schools would become schools for 11 to 16-year-olds and the further education college would offer vocational courses while the sixth-form college provided academic courses.

There are currently seven schools with sixth forms in Carlisle and district and a further education college. The funding for the new college would come from the learning and skills council and it is estimated that it would cost around £12 million. Major criticisms of the proposals have been made locally, stemming from teachers, parents and pupils. The criticisms fall into three broad categories: first, the lack of strategic thinking by the LSC; secondly, the one-size-fits-all approach; and, thirdly, the lack of consultation.

On the lack of strategic thinking, millions of pounds of public funds have been pumped into school sixth forms in the area over the last 10 or 15 years. With the establishment of a new sixth-form college, they will be closed down and the money will be wasted. The proposal will add 1,000 surplus places, leaving many new buildings empty and possibly even leading to school closures. According to teachers and parents, the LSC appears to have no partnership with Cumbria local education authority. No meaningful dialogue appears to have taken place between the two organisations regarding the proposal. When asked, the LSC has insisted repeatedly that its responsibilities lie in education for students aged between 16 and 19, with the LEA overseeing 11 to 16-year-olds. However, the impact of the proposal on education for 11 to 16-year-olds will be very significant.

Local people submit that the LSC will tear the guts out of schools such as Caldew school in Dalston, other schools in Carlisle, and the William Howard school in Brampton in my constituency. In the context of tonight's debate, I shall express my particular concern about the latter school. The county council will be left with a shambles, where now there is coherent provision for post-16 education. The LSC seems to be saying, "That has nothing to do with us, guv. Our remit does not cover that." However, that is not joined-up government, and the LSC's approach is not good enough.

The second area of criticism is the one-size-fits-all approach. Seven school sixth forms will close if the proposal goes ahead. The people of Carlisle and the surrounding district will be left with no choice in the provision of sixth-form education. Parents in Carlisle and the local area have a choice of sixth forms. Even children in my constituency, who face enormous travel difficulties, have a choice. Admittedly, if they opt for a school that is not in the official catchment area they may have a transport problem, but at least they still have a choice. That will be destroyed if this one-size-fits-all approach is implemented.

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Parents and teachers also criticise the proposals because they fail to consider the travelling distances involved for children attending a new sixth-form college in Carlisle. There is a lack of public transport provision for children travelling into Carlisle from surrounding rural communities. Travelling very long distances every day can have a detrimental impact on a child's standard of work.

The proposals also fail to consider the nature of rural communities, and the benefits that sixth forms, such as the one at William Howard school, can have for local communities. Those benefits include teacher employment and community cohesion and identity. I shall quote the governors of Caldew school in Dalston. They belong to the constituency of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), but they wrote to me because they feel that the argument applies to their school as much as to William Howard school in Brampton. They state:

The same arguments apply exactly to the William Howard school in my constituency. The proposals also fail to consider that some of the schools affected are very high achieving schools with good participation rates. William Howard school is a successful and high achieving school, as are other schools in the Carlisle district. Its staying-on rate, retention rate and results at A and AS levels are above not only the Cumbria average but the national average, and they have been so for a considerable number of years. The school offers a wide rage of subjects and opportunities at sixth-form level.

The one-size-fits-all approach to education will not suit all children in the Carlisle and district area. It will not cater for their differing needs. Many children prefer learning in a smaller, more familiar environment.

The third major criticism of the proposals has to do with the poor consultation. I say that the consultation process has been poor, but most parents and teachers would say that there has been a total lack of consultation. The LSC failed to consult schools in arriving at its proposal. Not one school in the area was visited by a member of the LSC prior to the publication of the proposal. One school for 11 to 16-year-olds—the Lochinvar school—was left out of the consultation altogether.

I am told that the night that LSC representatives arrived at William Howard school to outline the plans to parents, teachers and pupils was the first time that members of the LSC had walked through the school's doors. I understand that it was the same in other schools in the area. Of course, the LSC claims that it is only consulting on its plan, but it has invented a detailed plan to remove seven sixth forms from schools in the Carlisle area without a single word of consultation beforehand, and that cannot be right.

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Little understanding was shown by members of the LSC of the way in which schools work. There was no acknowledgment of the role of older pupils in school—for example, in working with young pupils in sport, music, drama and paired reading schemes. Older students encourage younger ones to enter further education, and they raise aspirations. In most schools with sixth forms, older pupils—fifth and sixth years—are role models for younger pupils. Key questions were also sidestepped during discussions between local parents and members of the LSC, and that did not encourage much confidence in the proposals.

My purpose today is to put to the Minister some of the key questions that were asked by parents and governors at William Howard school and were not answered by the LSC. The schools involved have followed up by writing to and e-mailing the LSC to demand answers, but they still have not received replies to their crucial questions. I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer the questions that I have posed tonight and I am sorry that I have not had the chance to give him a long appreciation of my speech—he has had a copy for a few hours only. However, I assume that he will write a long, detailed letter to me that sets out the answers to my questions. That is my preferred option so that I may circulate copies to parents and teachers. The answers are vital if parents, governors, teachers and pupils are to be at least half-persuaded that the LSC takes their concerns seriously and is engaged in genuine consultation.

I have several questions. First, why did the independent consultant or the LSC not visit William Howard school, or any of the other schools, and speak to the head teacher before drawing up their proposals? Secondly, how do the A-level results at William Howard school compare with the average results of sixth-form colleges in Britain, and do the Minister and the LSC believe that a sixth-form college in Carlisle could improve further on those results? Thirdly, will the Minister or the LSC specify what, if any, lack or inadequacy of sixth-form provision there is at William Howard that a sixth-form college in Carlisle would address or improve?

Fourthly, when reaching a decision on whether William Howard school should be included in the proposals, will the question whether WHS students would be better off be paramount in the consideration? Fifthly, what additional subjects are likely to be offered at a sixth-form college in Carlisle? Sixthly, what consideration has been given to the very significant issues that would arise relating to school transport from all the outlying areas if the sixth-form class was moved from William Howard school to Carlisle? At the moment, buses that pick up students to take them to William Howard school cover 10, 15, 20 or even 30 miles. If those buses have to add another 12 to 13 miles to get into Carlisle, the journey will become unacceptably long. Seventhly, what assessment has been made of the impact that the proposal will have on attendance rates for children from rural communities in further education? That is related to the previous question, because if children have to travel a much longer distance to a huge new college in Carlisle, it will have an impact on the numbers who decide to enter further education.

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Eighthly, what assessment has been made of the impact that there will be on traffic congestion in Carlisle if the proposal goes ahead? That is not a silly or facetious question. We all know that the centre of Carlisle has a tremendous problem with traffic congestion, and if we add many buses coming in to a new college—which is likely to be placed in the centre of Carlisle—the problems will be enormous. It is not good enough for the LSC to say that that is not a problem for it to consider because it can be sorted out before its plans are finalised.

Ninthly, what assessment has been made of the impact of the proposal on teachers' jobs in and around Carlisle? Tenthly, what weight will be attached to the fact that if the William Howard sixth form is closed many pupils will have to make journeys of 30 or 40 miles a day if Carlisle is their only option?

Eleventh, what consideration has been given to the number of surplus places that will be created if all sixth-form education is centred on one college? Furthermore, what discussions has the LSC held—or what discussions does it plan to hold—with Cumbria county council on how to deal with the huge number of surplus places its decision will create? That is a fundamental question, which I submit to the Minister. It goes back to one of the key criticisms of the proposal. Surely, it cannot be right for the LSC to say, "We shall reorganise education for 16 to 19-year-olds in the Carlisle area and here is our master plan. We accept that we shall leave a shambles behind because all the schools and the local education authority will have to sort out their hundreds of surplus places, but it's nothing to do with us. It's not in our remit. We're not interested. We don't care." That is not joined-up government, as I said earlier.

Twelfth, what consideration has been given to the impact of the proposals on the aspirations of 11 to 16-year-olds in schools that could lose their sixth form? On a linked question, what about the aspirations of teachers? If the proposal goes ahead, no doubt many teachers will want to teach at a sixth-form college. Does that mean that the schools will fight over the best available teachers to teach 11 to 16-year-olds? Everyone will agree that teachers who teach across the whole spectrum of 11 to 19-year-old education are in a better position than those who merely teach one segment.

Finally, will the LSC consider transitional arrangements whereby if the sixth-form college proposal goes ahead in Carlisle city, the sixth forms in the rural areas can run in tandem for a year or two while the system beds in and the college gets up to speed and reaches the same high standard of education as the current high achieving, well established sixth forms at William Howard and at Caldew in Dalston? I am sure that the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) will not mind my mentioning the latter school.

If the sixth-form college proves to be any good, parents will no doubt vote with their feet, as they do at present. There will thus be little opposition to the closure of other sixth forms in rural schools in subsequent years if the Carlisle college is all that the LSC cracks it up to be.

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Those are important questions and I hasten to add that none of them was invented by me; they were all put by parents when the LSC visited William Howard to tell them of its proposals. Because the questions were sidestepped and the parents received no answers that evening, they followed them up by e-mail and letters, yet I understand that they still have no satisfactory answers.

I do not expect the Minister to address those questions tonight; that would be unreasonable. I do not expect the LSC to have thoroughly briefed him on the high-handed, incompetent approach it adopted in Cumbria, but I do expect that, perhaps within three weeks, I shall receive a long, detailed letter from him setting out the answers to the questions.

As the chairman of governors of William Howard said in her letter to the chairman of the Cumbria LSC:

I therefore appeal to the Minister to send the Cumbria LSC back to the drawing board to allow it to think again and withdraw these damaging proposals.

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