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4.59 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) on securing the debate and on using his position as Opposition Chief Whip to provide us with about three hours in which to hold it.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education for spending an hour with me yesterday discussing the proposals. I still have some questions for him; I think that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border may have already asked the first one, but it needs a categorical answer. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the LSC's proposals are only for consultation and that no decision has been taken, either by the Government or the LSC, that they should be the final proposals? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend tell us about the procedure that can be used to support or oppose any LSC proposal before he makes a decision? I realise—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does too—that we will get few answers out of my right hon. Friend today because, at the end of the day, he will have to take a decision, so we would not expect him to be specific.

I shall deal quickly with the points made by the right hon. Gentleman. I suspect that we would not be debating this issue if every school in the Carlisle area were as good as William Howard school. Many people were surprised to see William Howard school included in the proposals—I am sure that its inclusion will be discussed—but the fact is that, overall, the number of youngsters who stay on at school and get adequate A-levels in the Carlisle area is below the county and the national averages. The number of youngsters who leave in the lower sixth form is very high in some schools.

The reality is that we in Carlisle are underachieving, and the LSC is right to point out that problem, but I call its proposal the nuclear option, as it was designed to

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upset the maximum possible number of people. It has achieved that aim to some extent, but it has put the issue on the agenda, when it was on the back burner for 13 or 14 years. The local authority never tackled the problem of underachievement, and I would definitely not support a system that ensured that the youngsters in Carlisle underachieved. We have some very good schools and sixth forms, but some of them underachieve and it would probably be wrong to name them. No one will be taking A-levels at one sixth form this year, and fewer than 10 pupils will do so at another school. The youngsters who have not stayed on may perhaps go into further education or whatever.

We have a problem, and it needs to be addressed. I have spoken to all the heads teachers and the chairmen of governors of the schools in my constituency. With the exception of one school, which is in favour of the proposals, the rest are against them. I have also talked to the FE college, Carlisle college, which supports the proposals. The head teachers and the chairmen of governors of the other schools, however, do not say that the situation is good. They all accept that there has to be change, but I suspect that that change will depend on the attitude of the head teachers. When the proposals first came out, they were totally opposed to them; they were anti everything. They have now decided to go away and discuss among themselves an alternative to the nuclear option, and I look forward to that alternative being discussed with the LSC and to the LSC coming up with an alternative to its initial proposal.

Reference has been made to Caldew school, which is in my constituency. I have visited the school and talked to the head teacher and the chairmen of governors, and one of the things that came out—the right hon. Gentleman did not refer to it in his speech—is that between 25 and 30 per cent. of the children who go to that school come from the urban area of Carlisle. Although probably 70 per cent. of the school's pupils come from rural areas, it has a large intake from the urban area. The school welcomes that because it would otherwise struggle with its numbers, and its proportion of children from urban areas will probably increase as the years go on.

A considerable amount may come from the LSC to improve sixth-form education in the city—the right hon. Gentleman cited a figure of £12 million. I would not like all that money to go away, because I do not accept that our schools have lots of new buildings—some of them are quite old and in need of refurbishment. We need the LSC to be flexible and to provide some of that money—perhaps for a central location or elsewhere—to improve the standards and quality of the buildings in which youngsters are taught.

I went to the city of Durham to see an alternative proposal to that which has been put forward in my area. Durham has schools for children aged between 11 and 16. Although Lochinvar school in Longtown is such a school, most of our schools are 11 to 18 schools. Durham has a sixth-form centre that is based at a local school but the centre is twice the size of that school. One might initially think that the solution was a political fudge because the council could not agree on which schools to close and open, but the system actually works. I hope that people will consider such an option.

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I shall not take much more time from the Minister because we talked for an hour yesterday. We need to know that the proposal is for consultation—that no final decision has been taken—and that there could be flexibility with the money. We also need to be told what Cumbria county council is doing. The council is a shambles at the moment because its chief executive has left and it is weak. It has not uttered one word about sixth-form provision. Although the right hon. Gentleman was critical of the LSC, I want to know what the county council thinks of the proposals and what its alternative proposals would be. We know everybody else's proposals on a subject that is so important that the right hon. Gentleman secured an Adjournment debate on it, but all that we have heard from the county council is silence. I hope that the LSC and the county council will work together with the heads of the various schools to come up with an option that would improve opportunities for youngsters in my constituency and leave in place what is good in the area. We need to reach a point at which there is consensus on a proposal so that the Minister would see that there was little opposition to it and thus be able to rubber stamp it saying, "That's great, we've got a deal done and people are happy."

I am conscious that the project is one of the first throughout the country although there are about 50 local learning and skills councils that are going through the exercise. It would be wrong if our LSC were seen to be totally defeated because it has pinpointed and highlighted a problem. Although I do not agree with its solution to the problem, I thank it for bringing the matter forward. I agree with some arguments made on the consultation because it has been poor in some cases. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman and I both want better education for all youngsters whom we represent, whether they live in urban or rural areas.

5.8 pm

The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) on securing the debate and thank him for his courtesy in advising me of the nature of his speech. I am aware of the cross-party nature of the concern because my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) came to see me about it yesterday, as he said. However, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter in an Adjournment debate because it gives me a chance to discuss the Government's policy on 16-to-19 reorganisation and to address several concerns raised by him and my hon. Friend.

It is important to say from the outset that the Government have no agenda to promote a particular type of provision for 16 to 19-year-olds. Sixth-form provision that adequately meets the needs of pupils, whether in schools, sixth-form colleges or sixth-form centres at further education colleges, is our objective and it will be paramount in our consideration of the results of the process. In many areas, 16-to-19 school, college and work-based training provision is excellent, but there is significant variation. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle explained that there are problems in Carlisle, which hon. Members would no doubt want addressed. Inspection reports show that there are

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serious weaknesses in some areas of the nation and a lack of co-ordination of provision in other areas. That is why the Learning and Skills Council is in consultation with local education authorities.

Although I cannot respond to my hon. Friend's specific point on Cumbria county council, we expect the LEA to be fully engaged in the process, as we expect students, schools, colleges and employers to be involved in a process—the strategic area reviews of post-16 arrangements—that will be undertaken in all 47 learning and skills council areas over the next two years. They are called strategic area reviews of post-16 arrangements. Carlisle is in many ways at the forefront of the process because it began a little earlier. It is right that it addresses the problem, but hon. Members should be aware that the understandable concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border need to be tackled because every one of us faces the prospect of such a review in our area over the next couple of years.

So a review process is taking place. To assist that process, I set out in a departmental publication in September last year five key principles that should underpin the organisation of 16-to-19 provision. They cover the importance of high-quality provision; distinct 16-to-19 provision—the word is "distinct" not "discrete"; the diversity to ensure curriculum breadth; learner choice, an important consideration raised by the right hon. Gentleman; and value for money. Alongside statutory considerations, they will provide the benchmark against which we assess reorganisation proposals that come to the Department. I assure my hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman that no proposals have come to the Department yet, but a consultation process is under way. We have set out the five basic principles because everyone in a local area should be aware of the provisions under which we will judge proposals that are eventually submitted to us.

Let me say a few words about each principle. First, underpinning all consideration of 16-to-19 provision should be the requirement that all provision for all learners is high quality, whatever their chosen pathway, whether it is vocational, academic or some other form. Key things to be examined include the quality of local leadership, the need for investment and the need for reconfiguration of provision, collaboration, merger or the establishment of new institutions.

The second is distinct 16-to-19 provision to meet the particular pastoral, management and learning needs of people in that age group, wherever they learn. All young people should be attached to a 16-to-19 base, including those in work-based training when attending college. That base will have separate management arrangements with clear responsibilities for ensuring that the learning experience for all 16 to 19-year-olds is appropriate and coherent. Each young person should be assigned a tutor.

The third principle is diversity, to ensure curriculum breadth. Although that is the third principle set out, it is no less important than the others—they are not ranked in priority order. Together, providers should support a wide curriculum offer for all 16-to-19 learners in their area. Well managed collaboration can enable popular and successful small providers, including school sixth forms, to remain viable and to share and build on their particular areas of expertise. Key features include the

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sharing of individual provider specialties and allowing and encouraging 16 to 19-year-old learners to select courses offered by a range of providers.

That brings me to the fourth, related principle, which is that the pattern of 16-to-19 provision should respect learner choice—an important feature of the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Where possible, students should have a choice of provider within reasonable travelling distance. Young people should have comprehensive, objective advice and guidance on the range of providers and options in their area, to inform their choices at age 16.

Finally, the House will not be surprised to hear that reorganisation of 16-to-19 provision has to be affordable and cost effective. Any net costs should be commensurate with the expected improvement in learning opportunities.

In accordance with the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the LSC has new powers that enable it to fulfil its planning responsibilities for post-16 provision. We expect the LSC to consult local stakeholders, including schools, the LEA, parents, students and employers, to ensure that local provision meets the needs of learners. Any reorganisation must have the learner at its heart.

In Cumbria, the local LSC is currently consulting on its reorganisation proposals for the Carlisle area. Those proposals are at an early stage of the statutory process, and depending on the outcome of the consultation, a formal proposal may be submitted by the LSC for the Secretary of State's consideration. I am pleased that Cumbria LSC has allowed three months for consultation—a month longer than the statutory requirement—which is all well and good. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that it would be wrong of me to prejudice the consultation or any potential future decision by the Secretary of State by offering a view at this stage on the situation in Carlisle.

The LSC proposals are for new sixth-form provision in Carlisle. My understanding is that the LSC proposes closing either five or seven school sixth forms, or perhaps a variant of that, as local FE provision is developed.

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