6 May 2009 : Column 63WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 May 2009

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

School Sixth Forms

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark. Tami.)

9.30 am

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has told the Chair that he is not willing to take interventions because he will make a very brief speech.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. Can you give us guidance on how we are supposed to conduct the debate when, as far as I can see, no Minister from the relevant Department is present to respond to my hon. Friend?

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Hancock, I am not sure that there is even an official present who might be able to tell the Minister what to say, or even what we have said.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I do not quite understand that latter point, but I am sure that the Minister’s hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), will sit here in eager anticipation of his arrival.

I deplore the fact that the Minister is not present, which is a discourtesy to the House and the Chamber. I hope that the usual channels will report that back. I have sought advice from the Clerk and the debate may proceed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside will do his best to take copious notes of what is said. I do not want to delay proceedings any longer because so many hon. Members want to make a point. I hope that the Minister will have a very good excuse when he arrives. He owes an apology to every hon. Member who has taken the time and trouble to turn up. It is the first time in nearly 10 years that I have chaired proceedings and the Minister has not been present. It is a craven insult to the House.

As I said, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead does not want to take interventions, so that as many hon. Members as possible can comment, and I shall do my best to help to achieve that.

9.32 am

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I reiterate your comments, Mr. Hancock, about the insult to the House and those hon. Members who have turned up for this important debate. It is also an insult to my constituents and the children of this country, who have been so badly affected by the funding fiasco. It is a shame that the Minister was not here earlier to hear your comments.

The funding of sixth forms and further education colleges is very important for my constituents, as it is for people throughout the country. The fiasco of the past two and a half months—at least—has caused great
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anxiety in colleges, and among headmasters, pupils and parents. It has been described by headmasters as “incompetent and dishonest” and I am desperately concerned about the fact that, with the Learning and Skills Council in its dying throes, its chief executive still does not seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. The chief executive said in a recent interview for The Daily Telegraph that the Learning and Skills Council is a fascinating place to work. It may be interesting, but I wish, for the sake of the pupils, parents and headmasters in my constituency, that he was doing a bit more work, so that the current situation had not occurred. Frankly, he should be a little more contrite about how what has happened has affected pupils.

I want to give a brief resumé of what has happened in Hertfordshire. On 2 March schools in my constituency were told their final allocation of funding for 2009-10. That was the funding that they were to set their budgets by for the end of March, which they could take up to ensure that they had suitable building work done, suitable facilities, and suitable staff in employment, and so that they knew exactly where they were. I have seen the letters that went out from the LSC about that funding. By the last week in March there was a clear indication of a problem throughout the country, and particularly in Hertfordshire. By 27 March schools in Hertfordshire had their funding slashed. Thirteen schools had had their funding cut by up to £25,000; 33 schools had it cut by between £25,000 and £50,000; 24 schools had it cut by between £50,000 and £100,000; and five schools had it cut by more than £100,000. Those are huge figures, whether they are £25,000 or £100,000, when someone is trying to set funding for the following year, and achieve a legal budget—one that is not in deficit, because it is illegal for the governors of schools to set a deficit budget.

Many schools in my constituency, in good faith, gave instructions for building works. The refurbishment of a small classroom was one instance. One school took on two members of staff. The news was therefore something of a shock. We then saw the plethora of articles around the country claiming that everything would be okay, and telling us “We will try to sort this out.” Interestingly, different messages were coming from the LSC, which said it just did not have the funding. The Government eventually announced that they would fill the budget hole—the cut affecting 16 to 18-year-olds throughout the country, although I am making particular reference to the constituency of Hemel Hempstead. They said they would bring forward a further allocation of funds—some £210 million.

My question to the Minister is about the description of that as additional funding. Where did the funding from 2 March go? It was clearly there. If the LSC issued letters announcing that that was the funding for the year, how could the Government later say that it was additional and was filling a hole that was already there? Not one head teacher in my constituency has said that any money was made available additional to what they were promised on 2 March. The Government’s description of it as additional funding is disingenuous, suggesting that it is extra money, when it is not. It goes only part way towards the cut in sixth-form funding that had already been made. Interestingly enough, the shortfall is partly caused, it would seem, by the £65 million that was taken out of the further education budget and sent
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to the university student grant scheme. That might partly explain where some of the money comes from, but what has gone on has involved sheer incompetence.

We have heard in the past couple of days—I have raised the matter on the Floor of the House—that the money will be sorted out and will be coming. We are a month into this year’s budget. It is illegal not to have set the budget by 30 March. It is a legal requirement for the LSC that the funding should have been addressed by the end of March. Naturally enough, I phoned the schools in my constituency yesterday, knowing that the debate was to take place, and realising that it had been on the Order Paper for some days, to find out whether they had had the promise of the funding that they required. They were all promised that by the end of April—admittedly a month late—they would have their funding. To be fair, some of them have been given it, although it is not, I stress, extra funding. One has received the £25,000 that had been removed from its allocation, and another has been promised that it will have the money, although there is nothing in writing. Another school is concerned about funding of up to £90,000 and is still formally without any contact from the LSC or the Government about where the funding will come from. The headmaster yesterday said to me, “What am I going to do? It is not legal for me to be operating in this framework. I have a legal responsibility to my children, but I also have a legal responsibility under the Act, to make sure that I have the funds available for the pupils in my school.” Another headmaster said to me, “I will stop a capital project in another part of the school to fund this part of my school, because I will not allow a deficit budget. It would look terrible for my school.”

Through no fault of their own, wonderful schools in my constituency, which are doing excellent work for their pupils and the community, many of which have expanded and done well, with dramatically improving results, received letters saying formally that they contained the final allocation. What other word can one use for “final”, other than perhaps “terminal”, which might apply to the LSC and the Government?

I am serious about this: the schools have had the letters and they have moved forward. They set their budgets in good faith only to be told three weeks later that there had been a mistake, a miscalculation. Frankly, the Learning and Skills Council and the Government cannot seem to get the funding ready in time for 2009-10. Telling schools three weeks before the cut-off time how much they were getting and then, two days before legally required, informing them that the funding had been cut, shows a degree of incompetence that borders on the insane.

People want some destiny for their children. They want to know what is going on. They want to be able to pick the right school. For example, my daughter is doing the second year of her A-levels. She needed to know that she would have the facilities that were promised, that the school had set the curriculum and that the teachers would be available. We hear promise after promise from the Government—jam tomorrow—but the money is coming later. The schools still do not have a promise in writing that they will receive the funding that they deserve, and it is now a month after the legal requirement for the funding has passed.

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I ask the Minister not to stand up like the Secretary of State did in the main Chamber and say, “You should have listened to the Budget.” I ask him please to listen to the heads and governors. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Please listen to what is going on in the country. It is shameful that the Minister was not here to listen to the start of the debate. It is an indication to parents and headmasters of how the Government are likely to treat them in future. What guarantee is there that that will not happen next year or the year after? If things do not change, parents have the right to ask, “Are the Government fit for purpose? Are they capable of producing the education that children need and desire?”

It is an indication of how much the question matters for the whole country—certainly those who care—that so many of my colleagues are sitting next to me and behind me. I did not lobby anyone to attend this debate. I simply asked Mr. Speaker, after he made his comments in the Chamber, whether he would be minded to grant an Adjournment debate. I thought long and hard as to whether it should be a half-hour debate. I now believe that an hour and a half is too short. The Minister should allow a debate in Government time on the fiasco of funding further education.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr. Penning, for keeping to your word and being brief. I shall try to ensure that everyone who wishes to speak can do so.

9.42 am

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I shall be brief, because so many of my colleagues wish to speak. As a fellow Hertfordshire MP, I echo everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. I am deeply disappointed that we have not had a statement on the subject.

I shall touch on three things to do with the Learning and Skills Council and what has been described as a funding fiasco—and accurately so. The first is post-16 funding. The schools in my area have been adversely affected, as badly as every other school in Hertfordshire. At one point, anguished teachers from a top-ranking school in St. Albans wrote to me, saying that the head and the entire senior staff would resign over the matter because they could not make a budget or balance the school’s books. As my hon. Friend suggested, they could be in a perilous position. They are angry. They are voters, as are the parents, and they will remember the Government’s treatment of them.

To say that the Government have no role in this is totally wrong. The Minister may remember his response to my inquiry as to why on earth we were in this state. His answer was that the shortfall was caused by more people taking up the post-16 education than had been budgeted for. When was that budget deficit recognised? The budget was set on 2 March; why did no one notice then that there were far more pupils than funding had been provided for? Has the Minister done anything to investigate why we are in this position? He recognises one of the reasons behind it.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I am another fellow Hertfordshire MP, and my constituency has had the same experience. One school in my area,
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St. Clement Danes, has suffered a reduction in the forecast of the number of pupils from more than 280 to 273, yet the school always has more than 280 sixth-formers. It does not wash to explain the sudden shortfall as an increase in the number of pupils, because the school is full, as always; there is no change in the number of sixth-formers.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Indeed, it increases the merit of the argument for wanting a full-scale debate. There are so many imponderables to which we have no answer that the Minister owes the entire country the justice of coming to the House and explaining why that is so.

I shall deal with two other matters, as so many of my hon. Friends wish to raise their own concerns. Oaklands is a further education college in my constituency. Hertfordshire has a policy of dealing in-house with special educational needs, and Oaklands is the only FE college that can offer extra education for such pupils who are severely disabled. In recognition of that, it decided on a massive expansion programme.

The project budget was £120 million. The school received help from St. Albans district council planning department, and it put together a comprehensive package. It did deals with developers to sell off part of its land in order to meet some of the costs, but a huge and vital part of the funding was the £40 million that was to be provided by the Learning and Skills Council. It seems that that is likely not to be received. What on earth is supposed to happen to those severely disabled pupils, and every other pupil that takes advantage of the excellence of Oaklands college, if the project does not go ahead? The college has been hung out to dry by the Government, who seem not to be interested in what the LSC is doing.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr. Hancock. Is it not the case that the debate should be confined to Learning and Skills Council funding for sixth forms? We seem to be wandering into the capital funding of further education, which is not the thrust of the debate. We are seeing a great deal of theatrical overstatement and bogus outrage.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I am grateful, as always, for the advice of another Chairman on such matters, but on this occasion there is no point of order. The debate is about the funding of sixth-form colleges. As yet, I have not heard too much variance from the title given in the Order Paper.

Anne Main: It is not theatrical overstatement; perhaps the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) should visit my constituency. Many of the youngsters wanting further education there look to Oaklands college. It is not inappropriate to speak of the college, as is handles 16-plus education.

The final matter that I wish to raise today is that the LSC, finding itself in this difficulty, this funding fiasco, has wasted £12.5 million on a lease in St. Albans that it can no longer afford. I rest my case. I ask the Minister to give us a statement, and a debate on the matter. My sixth-formers do not know whether their courses will be running in September. That is a disgrace.

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Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): In order to help hon. Members, I intend to call first those who gave notice to Mr. Speaker of their wish to speak. I shall then call the others.

9.47 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this important debate.

The first question that head teachers in my part of Buckinghamshire are asking is: how on earth have we got into this appalling and shocking mess? Was nobody at the Learning and Skills Council telling the Department what was going on? Was no one at the Department listening? Did nobody at the Department or the LSC bother to tell Ministers about the impending disaster? Perhaps Ministers were too busy worrying about other priorities and the Secretary of State’s future ambitions in order to take note of what was about to happen.

Frankly, it is appalling that the decay in the Government has reached such an extent that the prospects of a generation of rising sixth-formers, and the power of school governors and heads to set the budgets on which they and their pupils and staff can rely, are held as being of so little account by those who are supposed to be in charge of the national purse strings.

School governors and heads are also asking what the budget statement meant. Like those in the constituency of my hon. Friend, heads in my schools have heard the generalised statement but have seen no detail. They have had nothing in writing to indicate that the money that they were told on 30 March would be cut is to be restored to their school budgets. As my hon. Friend said, the e-mails from the LSC reached schools on 30 March, 28 days after they received what the LSC had described as the final funding allocation for each school. They arrived not just at the last minute before the turn of the financial year, but just prior to a major school holiday and after schools had submitted budgets to their governing bodies for approval. The proposed reduction in funding was timed to coincide with the mid-point of the 2009-10 academic year and the introduction of new A-levels and other new post-16 courses.

Offers of positions to staff and of places to students for September 2009 or earlier are legally binding, and whatever was in the e-mails on 30 March cannot override those legal obligations. A head teacher of one school in Aylesbury told me by letter that finding the £60,000 reduction that he was told to identify could be done only by reducing staffing. He continued:

That is the measure of the gravity of the crisis facing head teachers in every part of the country.

David Taylor: I chaired the governing body at Ashby school—an excellent sixth form—and remain a member. Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the key factor underpinning the LSC’s undoubtedly lamentable lapses is that the budget amendments relate to the seven months from 1 September, because of how the academic years lap around the budgetary years, and that in essence the budget from 1 April to 31 August is left in place untouched?

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Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is making a valiant fist at an indefensible case. However, he ignores the reality that if a school takes on a member of staff and has promised a place now from September next year, it must pay for it then. It cannot start to make budget adjustments from the beginning of the 2009-10 financial year to take account of the last-minute change announced by the LSC on 30 March.

This is happening at a time when the Government are urging schools and colleges not to cut, but to increase provision for a greater number of post-16 students and when the recession has reduced severely the opportunities for young people to go, at the age of 16, directly from school into employment. I do not think that the argument will wash that there was an unexpected surge in the number of people seeking sixth-form places. My schools are telling me that the LSC has always funded them on the basis of the number of sixth-formers in the previous September and that the cut is being imposed on the basis of that formula, not on account of some new upsurge identified only during the course of March this year.

I cannot exaggerate the sense of anger among head teachers in my schools. I do not know the politics of these men and women. The head of Aylesbury grammar school said:

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