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David Maclean: I understand that the proposal may come to the Secretary of State for determination and that the Minister would be involved in the decision, which precludes his writing to me on the questions I posed, because doing so could prejudice his quasi-judicial position. If the Minister cannot answer the 13 questions I asked because of his position, will he use his powers to insist that the LSC, either the national body or its Cumbria office, does so?

Alan Johnson: Yes. The right hon. Gentleman, articulating as he has questions that have been asked by parents, teachers and others in the area, should receive a response, and I shall ensure that that response comes from the appropriate body, which in respect of all his questions is, I believe, the LSC. However, if there are any questions to which my Department can respond while not prejudicing our role, we shall respond. I shall ensure that an answer is given on the specific points he raised.

The LSC proposes closing either five or seven sixth forms, or possibly a variant of that. One of the options includes the William Howard and Caldew schools. All

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seven schools were covered by the area review undertaken in 2002 and updated in 2003. I understand that Cumbria LSC wanted all seven schools in the Carlisle area to have the opportunity to be included in the consultation. In that way, the pupils, staff, governors, parents and members of the local community served by those schools have been able to express their views about the future of all seven schools and take a full part in the consultation process. That is the situation that should prevail as part of the consultation.

I am pleased to see that the publication of the preliminary notice outlining options for change in Carlisle has generated so much local interest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said, we met yesterday to discuss the matter. I hope that local people continue to share their views with the local LSC so that their concerns inform the development of any proposals for the reorganisation of provision for 16 to 19-year-olds in Carlisle. The proposals by the local LSC are designed to do better for the young people of Carlisle. I hope that if those consulted do not agree with the proposals, they will make it clear how they would improve participation and attainment in Carlisle and solve some of the problems that my hon. Friend told me about yesterday.

It is important to stress again that nothing has been decided yet. It is important to remember that the statutory process is at a very early stage. The current consultation may throw up new ideas for improving 16-to-19 education in Carlisle which will take LSC strategic planning in a new direction. I understand that the local LSC is listening closely to all the views being expressed, and it will no doubt take into account the Hansard report of this important debate.

If, after the current consultation—my hon. Friend asked me to set out the process—the LSC decides to go ahead with the proposal that has caused the controversy mentioned this evening, it will have to publish formal proposals and there will be a further opportunity for objections and comments on those proposals. The proposals will then be considered by the Secretary of State. He will require evidence that the LSC has considered carefully the full range of options and the impact of any reorganisation proposals on local provision. Any changes must be in the best interests of present and future learners, and must follow the correct statutory process.

Mr. Martlew: When the proposals come to the Secretary of State, is it his duty just to accept them or reject them, or can he amend them at that stage?

Alan Johnson: The Secretary of State will take a view on the proposals. If they are rejected, it is up to the LSC to begin a process of finding another way forward. It is not a matter for the Secretary of State, from the great distance of Sanctuary house in Westminster, to make decisions on behalf of Carlisle and Cumbria. His job would be to judge the quality of the proposals.

I can assure the House that the views of all those who have expressed objections and comments will be taken into account, should a formal proposal be submitted by the LSC. Indeed, it is the major information that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will look for in connection with any formal proposal that is made.

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Let me say a word about Connexions, which is the Government's front-line support service for all young people in England aged 13 to 19. Connexions provides integrated advice, guidance and access to personal development opportunities to help remove barriers to learning and progression, and to help young people make a smooth transition to adulthood and working life. It is a new organisation, and I wanted to rehearse its role. The important point about Connexions for the purposes of this debate is that we are pleased that Cumbria Connexions is undertaking a survey of young people in Carlisle in January to find out their views about the proposals. The survey will sample a representative cross-section of students in the Carlisle area. I am pleased to see that young people are being encouraged to participate in the consultation and will have the opportunity to have their say.

I repeat that this Government recognise and value the contribution that good school sixth-form provision can make to young people's opportunities. The Government are committed to encouraging popular and successful schools to expand so that more parents can send their children to them if they wish to do so. I can assure the House that neither the Government nor the LSC have an anti-sixth forms agenda. In the context of proposals made by the LSC to reorganise sixth-form provision, should they come to the Secretary of State for decision, the impact on standards and learner choice would be the key factor that he would consider. That would include

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whether the plans would affect the level of provision in the best local schools, but he would want to balance that against the potential beneficial impact on overall standards in the area.

There can be no blueprint for the organisation of 16-to-19 provision, since the focus is the learner, not the institution, and local circumstances and quality of provision will vary, for all the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman set out. Schools and colleges must offer high-quality provision that meets the needs of all young people in their communities and employers both now and in future.

In conclusion, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I hope that he is reassured, or can eventually be reassured, that 16-to-19 reorganisation proposals for Carlisle have the learner and the needs of the whole community at their heart. As with other areas, any proposals being considered for Carlisle will need to be underpinned by the five key principles that I mentioned—the importance of high quality, distinct 16-to-19 provision, diversity to ensure curriculum breadth, learner choice and value for money. I also hope that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle are reassured that the consultation process provides the opportunity for them and their constituents to be fully involved in ensuring that those principles are met in the current very important reviews.

Question put and agreed to.

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