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The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): My ministerial colleagues and I meet and correspond regularly with a range of partners across the further education sector, including individual colleges, on both a national and a local basis. That includes Lancashire.
There are problems in Lancashire with the provision of further and adult education. Although there has been a big increase in further education
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funding in recent years, including the current year, the formula for determining the amount spent on adult education has caused funds to be cut this year. Will my hon. Friend examine the impact of that on Lancashire, and think about ways to improve the position? Does he agree that adult education is crucial, and a major part of further education?
Bill Rammell: I know that my hon. Friend takes a genuine interest in further education in his constituency, but I think it important to address the facts. This year Runshaw college, one of the main colleges that concern him, has received an overall 6 per cent. increase. That mirrors the national pattern: seven out of 10 colleges have received above-inflation increases.
What is rightly taking place, however, is the implementation of the Government's skills strategy, which received widespread support on both sides of the House when it was launched. Within a budget that has increased overall, we are prioritising the needs of 16 to 18-year-olds achieving level 2 qualifications in adult basic skills. Inevitably, that puts pressure on adult leisure and recreation courses. I am not saying that such provision should end; I am saying that if employers and individuals value it, we should look at the fees-charging strategy. Even the current average, £1.42 per hour, represents very good value for money.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): When my hon. Friend considers the representations he has received from Lancashire and elsewhere, will he bear in mind that while the Government's basic skills strategy is very important, many people return to education through courses that do not result in certification? Success in those courses leads them to take other courses elsewhere. Will my hon. Friend think carefully about the squeeze on such courses? They help many people back into lifelong learning.
Bill Rammell: I take my hon. Friend's point. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), and I have had several discussions with FE colleges about it. I have told them to ensure that they map such provision carefully in the context of the national framework. When they do so, more often than not they find that the courses are provided for. We must also ensure that the current strategy, which I believe is right, does not have unintended consequences, and we will keep that under review.
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly):
My Department has received a number of letters from individuals and organisations following publication of the White Paper. My ministerial colleagues and I continue to discuss the 14-to-19 agenda at a range of meetings and events involving external partners. I am establishing an external advisory group
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and a 14-to-19 stakeholder group to identify and test ideas, and to provide first-hand experience on delivery in the field.
Mr. Pelling : Has the Secretary of State received any representations from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, whose chief executive said that the Government's proposals meant that A-levels were out of the door? Does she agree with that? If not, how does she think that the misapprehension arose?
Ruth Kelly: We have regular dialogues with the QCA about our reforms. The hon. Gentleman ought to read the speeches made by Ken Boston, head of the QCA, rather than reading misrepresentations of what he might say in the newspaper. I have had the benefit of reading his lecture, in which he said:
"This week I read with surprise that today I will say that A-levels are certain to disappear within the next decade. What is far more certain 10 years from now is that if we haven't by then succeeded in establishing the diplomas as the mainstream qualification, having status and values at least equivalent to A-levels in the eyes of employers, higher education, learners, parents and the community, we will have failed a generation."
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many schools and colleges, such at the excellent new college in my constituency, are already embracing key features of the 14-to-19 White Paper? Will support continue to be given to the expansion of vocational education, particularly in order to raise its status in the eyes of young people and their parents?
Ruth Kelly: Yes, I completely agree. The historical weakness in our education system is that we have never truly valued vocational education or provided real opportunities for young people to mix academic and vocational learning. We have to provide our young people with the opportunity to do hands-on practical subjectssuch as cookery, hairdressing and engineeringthat they can learn in a real setting, and which are taught by people who understand them and can teach them properly. If we succeed in providing high-quality, high-status courses, we will have transformed the life chances of a generation of young people.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): In announcing the White Paper, the Secretary of State rightly said that she wants to introduce more stretch into GCSEs and A-levels, not least to allow universities to differentiate between student admissions. She also said then that she will publish the actual mark received by students, which is a very good first step. However, have the representations that she has received suggested anything else that she might like to introduce to promote further stretch in the GCSE and A-level system?
We are taking many actions to make sure, for example, that English and maths GCSEs are made tougher. We are ensuring that functional skills are separated out in both subjects, and that it is impossible for people to get a higher grade in either subject without first having proven that they are capable of passing the
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functional skills test, and that they have real literacy and numeracy. As the hon. Lady points out, we have received representations about A-levels. She is also right in pointing out that we want to introduce more challenge and stretch into the system, and to make the unit grades available to universities that need them, in order to differentiate between students. We are also introducing an advance extension award paper that students can choose to sit, in addition to their A-levels, to demonstrate their ability in a particular subject. That, too, will be available to universities. Moreover, we are piloting an extended project that will allow students to demonstrate over a prolonged period real scholarship and independent research, and to produce a separate piece of work that could also be made available to the university sector. If we do all those things, we will have a system that really does cater for the extremely bright, who will then be able to demonstrate that fact to employers and to the higher education sector.
The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The Secretary of State considers proposed changes to 16-to-19 provision, including to sixth-form colleges, in the light of the needs and interests of young people in a given area. There may be instances where local plans include the closure of a sixth-form college as part of a reorganisation that is intended better to meet the needs of local learners. Individual cases are decided by the Secretary of State on their merit.
Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but I am not fully reassured about the future of sixth-form colleges. I should declare an interest, in that I am vice-chair of the governors of Luton Sixth Form college. As he will know, it recently received a grade 1 rating following its inspection, and it has beacon status. Permitting feeder schools to establish sixth forms will completely undermine entrance to sixth-form colleges, and their future could be in doubt. Such colleges are among the best institutions in our education system, and I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me that they are guaranteed a future, and that we will have more of them, rather than less.
I certainly think that sixth-form colleges can contribute to raising standards in the locality. I am aware of my hon. Friend's concerns; indeed, he has written to Ministers about this issue. The reality is that the area-wide Ofsted inspection of 16-to-19 provision in the Luton area concluded that it was poor, and I welcome the fact that Luton colleges and schools are now working together to respond to that. However, I am not aware of any proposals to close a college within Luton as part of that process. Should any such proposals be submitted, they would be looked at on their merits. However, it is right for us to look towards the expansion of sixth forms within 11-to-16 schools, particularly where it can increase choice and drive up
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standards. Further to our commitment given during the general election, we will shortly be producing guidelines setting out how best to achieve that.
David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): To support successful sixth-form colleges such as Varndean and Brighton, Hove and Sussex sixth-form colleges in the city of Brighton and Hove, will the Minister undertake to look again at the inequalities in funding between sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms? Will he also consider, in particular, liability for VAT on the part of sixth-form colleges and capital allowances for the development of extensions?
Bill Rammell: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I accept that there is a funding gap between schools and colleges and I have to admit that that is a direct result of the Government's extra investment in schoolsand I am not going to apologise for that. In 200203, we estimated the funding gap at 10.5 per cent. Since then, we have brought up the overall funding levels for sixth-form colleges and further education colleges, which has resulted in that gap shrinking significantly. We want to make further progress, but we can do so only if the resources are available.
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