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23 Feb 2009 : Column 113

In 1993, incorporation took sixth forms away from local authorities. Of course, local authorities were never going to establish further sixth-form colleges after that, because it meant giving away the sixth forms in the schools in their areas. Channelling funding through local authorities means that they will be much more likely to create sixth-form colleges.

It is a great shame that we have had 16 years without the creation of more sixth-form colleges. It has been argued that as many as 50 additional sixth-form colleges might have been created had they not been taken away from local authorities. There are 94, yet there could be 150 or more. We should have that larger number.

There is no logic to the geographical location of sixth-form colleges, which have grown up in concentrations in Lancashire, the north-west generally, London and Hampshire. There are no sixth-form colleges in great swathes of the country, where young people do not benefit from their undoubted advantages. They are especially suited to larger towns, where they can sustain sixth forms of 1,000 students or more. Sixth-form colleges with high schools that cater for 11 to 16-year-olds are the ideal way in which to tackle education, especially if there is a local FE college.

The provision in Luton sixth-form college is first class—its quality is unchallenged. In Luton, we can provide 44 different A-level courses. Students have an almost unlimited choice, so subjects can be tailored to every student’s needs, preferences and abilities. A-levels can be mixed with general vocational courses, and a third of all sixth-form colleges are rated outstanding. Luton sixth-form college gets repeated grade 1s in its inspections; it is an outstanding college, which has beacon status. Indeed, our local FE college also has beacon status. They are both superb.

Sixth-form colleges are unparalleled value for money. We have often complained that we are discriminated against, in that funding per pupil in sixth-form colleges is lower than that in schools. However, that is also evidence that they are better value for money. The gap therefore reflects two things: perhaps we are slightly unfairly treated, but sixth-form colleges are much better value for money.

Comparisons of areas where there are sixth-form colleges with those where there are none, in Lancashire and the north-west, show that the staying-on rate for post-16 education is higher in areas where there are sixth-form colleges than in those where there are only high schools with sixth forms. Another advantage of sixth-form colleges is that they bring people together from the whole town. In Luton, there is a genuine mix of gender, ethnicity and social class in one institution. They break down barriers that are so often evident elsewhere.

We also have specialist A-level teachers who devote themselves to their subjects. They do not have to teach subjects with which they are not familiar, nor do they have to teach youngsters in the lower levels of the school. The teachers focus precisely on teaching A-levels and become very skilled at doing so. There are also several teachers for each subject, which means that they reinforce each other.

There are so many advantages to sixth-form colleges that I could spend a long time waxing lyrical about them. As I said in my speech 10 years ago, they are the educational geese that lay golden eggs. We want many
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more of those geese. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench not just to make the changes proposed in the Bill, but to pressure local authorities to create more sixth-form colleges, because not only will the country benefit, but young people will definitely benefit.

9.25 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to make the briefest of comments, particularly as I have not been here for most of the debate. The reason for my absence is that I have been in another Parliament today—the European Parliament. As a result of the generosity of Eurostar, which has decided to run a service from Ashford to Brussels, it is possible to be in two Parliaments on the same day, although, sadly, I have missed the greater part of the debate.

I want briefly to say two things. First, the Bill shows the Government’s absolute commitment to skills and further education. It is exciting that it contains so much good. Coming from Hastings, I am fortunate to be the beneficiary of the Government’s enormous commitment, with the new £92 million south coast college, which is being built at the moment and which will be operational by the end of the year. That £92 million is £92 million more than the total budget for new build in 1996. I just mention that fact in passing, but that money is an amazing investment on the part of the Government and shows their commitment to skills and further education.

The other point that I want to make is not a negative one, because I understand from other Members that my colleagues on the Front Bench have already addressed the clauses in part 10, chapter 4 that relate to the setting up of the school support staff negotiating body. The reason for doing so is the high regard that the Government have for support staff, not least because of the increase in numbers, from 134,000 to 322,000, but because of the recognition that they are often not properly paid. Ensuring that they are properly paid and rewarded for what they do is central to the setting up of the school support staff negotiating body.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) said a moment ago, the unions are concerned, not about how the present Secretary of State might use his powers under clause 220 effectively to veto the possibility of a negotiated outcome of whatever is agreed, but about the potential for another Secretary of State to do so. We are not being pessimistic: we do not suspect that there will be any other Secretary of State in the near or foreseeable future. However, should that unlikely event occur, how can we ensure that those marvellous people—the support staff—are not short-changed if proper negotiations have taken place with their unions in that body, which we all believe is the right thing to do? I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could assure us in responding that, at the very least, that veto will be subject to certain regulations, so that a properly negotiated arrangement is not vetoed by those of ill will.

9.28 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): We have had a very useful debate. One of the pleasures of this debate has been that the two Departments that focus on schools
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and skills, which came out of the single Department for Education and Skills, have come together to debate and scrutinise the legislation. In fact, I do not think that we have yet had any legislation since the departmental split that has not been joint legislation shared by the two Departments.

We share not only an interest in the legislation, but a regard for Lord Dearing, who, sadly, died on Thursday. His work straddled the world of education and had a big impact on both higher education and skills and on schools. I echo what the Secretary of State said about Lord Dearing earlier in the debate.

Of course, we welcome some of the measures in the Bill, which is why we shall not divide the House this evening. We welcome the recognition of the need for a genuinely independent regulator in Ofqual. We welcome the new advice on and encouragement of apprenticeships, and the principle of entitlement to apprenticeships. We also welcome some of the rhetoric in the Bill. It speaks of a slimmed and streamlined system, although my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) was right to be sceptical about whether the reality would live up to the weight-watcher pledge in the legislation. We also like the rhetoric of a demand-driven system, but the question is whether that can be delivered in practice. So, those are the reasons why we will not vote against the Bill this evening.

The trouble with the Bill, however, is that it is an incoherent clutter of a miscellany of measures. It does not provide a sustained argument, or a clear vision of how the standards of schools and skills in this country can be raised. In fact, it reveals the besetting problem of a decaying Government coming to the end of their term: when in doubt, reorganise. When they have lost their ideas and their intellectual momentum, they just reorganise. Even worse than that, they are now reorganising their own reorganisations, and changing the institutions that they themselves created earlier.

A good example of a Government running out of steam and having to reorganise their own reforms is that of this Government’s skills agenda. They inherited the Further Education Funding Council, which they abolished in 2001 in order to create the Learning and Skills Council. In 2008, the 47 local learning and skills councils were abolished and replaced by nine regional bodies and 150 local partnerships. In 2010, the Learning and Skills Council that this Government created is to be abolished and replaced by the Skills Funding Agency, the Young People’s Learning Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service. This is an example of endless reorganisation.

It was said of the French revolution that it finally came to an end when it started to devour its own children, and we now see this Government engaging in a process of devouring their own reforms. I do not know which Secretary of State is the more likely Robespierre, introducing the guillotine only to find himself being sent to the guillotine himself, but this is a Government who are running out of ideas and running out of steam. As a result of these changes, the same office block in Coventry that houses the Learning and Skills Council will presumably house three different quangos and, in the coming months, every official and officer sitting in that office block will be busy applying
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for new posts and wondering which of the multiple new organisations that are being created they will be working for.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who chairs the Children, Schools and Families Committee, is no longer in his place, but he made this point well. Such a reorganisation would be of doubtful value at the best of times, but we are now, in the words of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, in the most serious global recession for more than 100 years. Is this really the time for the key agency that is supposed to be focusing on skills and training during the recession to face yet another reorganisation? That is why, although we have no particular brief for the Learning and Skills Council, we have asked the Government at least to suspend the proposed changes for a year, so that the LSC can focus on the task in hand while the economy is in such a mess.

We have already seen the consequences of the disorientation and confusion that has been caused, with the crisis in capital funding that is affecting further education colleges. I was surprised by something the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills said in an earlier intervention, when he appeared to deny the existence of a moratorium on FE capital projects. Perhaps I can remind him of what we understand to be the facts of the case. If any of this is incorrect, I would be happy to take an intervention from him. On 17 December 2008, at a national council committee meeting, the Learning and Skills Council suddenly, without prior warning or explanation, cancelled all the national council committee meetings planned until 4 March. Those meetings normally take place monthly. It cancelled the meetings because there was no basis on which it could agree the funding for the capital projects in the pipeline. That is why Members across the House are so aware of the plight of FE colleges, whose representatives are coming to us to express their extreme concern that the capital projects that they had been working towards will not now take place.

The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who is no longer in her place, made an extraordinarily loyal speech in which she raised a question about her own FE college, which seems to be facing a capital funding crisis, despite the fact that the Secretary of State has already told the House that there is no such thing. If even the ultimate loyalist has had to accept that there is a crisis, I was surprised that the Secretary of State could not bring himself to do so.

All this is part of the wider problem with the Bill. The biggest single group of losers from it is, I am afraid, FE colleges. Those crucial colleges are, as we all say, the Cinderellas of the education system, but they do an enormous amount and have special qualities: they educate people across the entire age range; they educate people across a wider range of social classes than any other educational institution; and they link academic and vocational study. We believe that they should be set free as community colleges—free to serve their communities in the way they think best.

Instead, the great achievement of 1992, when those colleges were given freedom from local authority control, is to be reversed in respect of 16 to 18-year-olds and those colleges will face a multiplicity of quangos financing and supervising them on the education they provide to over-18s. That is not what FE colleges want and
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I do not believe that local authorities understand the range of responsibilities of those colleges or how they work.

Dr. Blackman-Woods rose—

Mr. Willetts: Perhaps I can tell the Secretary of State about my experience at the North of England Education Conference this year, but before I do, I will take a brief intervention.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I am grateful, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that what FE colleges want are the freedoms given to them by this Government to develop an exciting curriculum and to engage with local partners, including local employers? They also want a level of capital funding comparable to what the Government have spent to transform education throughout the country.

Mr. Willetts: FE colleges certainly want the freedoms that we gave them in 1992 and they certainly want to engage with local employers, but the question is whether the extraordinary muddle of quangos that they will now have to face—17 regulatory bodies, as identified by Andrew Foster in his inquiry, set up by the Government themselves to look into the amount of hassle and bureaucracy encountered by FE colleges—is the best way of helping them.

I was about to tell the Secretary of State how badly my speech at the North of England Education Conference went this year— [Interruption.] I thought he would be interested to hear what an uncomfortable experience it was for me. I turned up to give a speech about the educational agenda as it looks from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills perspective. I spoke about careers advice, access to universities and the future of FE colleges, but it was clear to me that the concerns of the audience—people from local authorities and children’s services, for example—were completely different. They were concerned about the baby P case; they were concerned about the future of social services for children; they were worried about the primary school curriculum and testing. The agenda I was talking about was clearly of very little interest to the representatives of children’s services. [Interruption.] It is possible that that was entirely the result of my speech, but I believe we are also observing the fact that children’s services simply do not get the 16 to 18 agenda, which is so important for so many people in this country. The Secretary of State is going to find out that those services will not be capable of supporting FE colleges in the way we want.

FE colleges need to know some basic facts, which I still believe the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has failed to explain. I hope that he will take the opportunity to answer these questions when he winds up the debate. We have had a draft Bill and two Select Committee reports on this legislation, yet the Select Committee has still been unable to establish answers to certain fundamental questions.

What, for example, is to be the funding arrangement for further education colleges under the new system? Will it be funding per student, funding by block grant from local authorities or funding from individual local authorities? How will the new sub-regional structures work? There are FE colleges that have a dozen or more local authorities sending students to them. They still do
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not know the basis of the funding structures that will face them in a year’s time. I hope that the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills will address that issue in his winding-up speech.

Let me discuss apprenticeships. The aspiration in the Bill is admirable, and we want more people to know about apprenticeships and to have the opportunity to do them, but I am not at all clear about how the Government will deliver their claim of an entitlement for every learner who wants an apprenticeship to have a choice of two within reasonable travelling distance. There is the assumption there that an apprenticeship is generic, but people do not want just any apprenticeship. They want to study a particular course and to take particular training; they want to become electricians or plumbers, rather than do “an apprenticeship”.

Nevertheless, I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us a little about how he sees apprenticeships functioning in the new environment. He appeared, yet again, to be surprised when we quoted figures from the Government’s own statistics on what has been happening to apprenticeships. We follow apprenticeships in the sense that most people in this country understand them— level 3 apprenticeships, which are the equivalent of A-levels. That is what “apprenticeship” used to mean before apprenticeships were redefined so as to cover a much wider range of training.

On the Government’s own statistical release, the figures are clear and the number of level 3 apprenticeships has been falling year after year. In 2006-07, it was down to 97,000. We are suspicious when the Government announce targets, where they achieve them by redefinition or fiddling the statistics. I would like the Secretary of State to assure the House that he will continue to collect the statistics showing the number of people, on average, participating in level 3 apprenticeships. Those statistics have been on a continuous downward trend since 1999 and the figure is now below 100,000.

For most people, level 3 apprenticeships are what apprenticeships should be like, which is why we heard an intervention from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) about why people in Cleethorpes are asking where the apprenticeships are. Level 3 apprenticeships are disappearing and, instead, training courses are being redefined as apprenticeships. That is what is happening. Youth training schemes, which were dismissed by the hon. Member for Wakefield, would now be called apprenticeships and count towards the Government’s target.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs said:

That is what Ministers like to say, but the Select Committee continued:

that is the table—

The graph is absolutely clear: the so-called growth in apprenticeships is in level 2 apprenticeships, which did not even count as apprenticeships until the Government
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came to office. That is the simple explanation of what is going on. If the Government are to try to achieve those objectives, we need their assurance that they will not achieve them by continuing to redefine the target. That is why the latest danger is that they redefine it through using public sector apprenticeships.

I was encouraged by the comment that I heard from the Secretary of State, but let me remind him of what the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills said during its scrutiny of the Bill in draft. The Committee was concerned about what it called “conversions” and was trying to establish the fact that apprentices should be new recruits, not existing employees

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