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6 May 2009 : Column 69WH—continued

The head of Misbourne upper school said:


The head of Sir Henry Floyd grammar school said:

The head of Aylesbury high school said:

The head of Princes Risborough upper school described the episode as a “complete farce”. He continued:

The head of Mandeville upper school, which is pushing hard for the take-up of BTECs and other non-A-level qualifications, said:

Finally, the head of John Colet school said that

That is bad enough in a secondary school, but for it possibly to affect a sixth form is intolerable.

I hope that the Minister will pledge not just to ensure that the money will be made good, but that the schools will be told quickly and in detail how their individual budgets will be restored to the status quo ante. I also
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hope to hear him pledge that the Department will learn the lessons and that this sort of catastrophic failure of good administration and planning will never happen again. A strong case could be made for the Public Accounts Committee to investigate this business, because the Department has let down our schools very badly, whose interests it is supposed to defend.

9.56 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate. I am grateful that the Minister is in his place. I understand that he might have missed the school bus this morning and perhaps even skipped registration, but let us hope that he has done his homework and that he can avoid detention by answering some of the questions put to him on this crucial issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend—and good friend—the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing the debate. I underline his question: why was the subject not chosen for this week’s topical debate, instead of the Opposition being left to secure this debate? For the benefit of Hansard readers, I would like to note how many Labour Members are filling the vast Benches opposite. I count the Minister himself and one other: the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who has not yet indicated that he wants to participate in the debate, although he did come out with a bizarre point of order that was wisely ruled out of order by you, Mr. Hancock.

Today’s debate is all about a funding gap in the money promised to schools by this Government via the LSC. They are now left with a shortfall of just less than £2.7 billion, which is the clear fault of the LSC. A succession of gaffes has finally led to the resignation of its chief executive. Those of us who participated in yesterday’s Report stage of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will be fully aware that although the LSC is to be abolished, it will be replaced by not one but three other quangos, and the very characters now working for the LSC will be transferred to these new quangos. I envisage little improvement to the system responsible for so many problems. First came the fiasco over the college building programme. That was followed by the flagship Train to Gain programme, which is also in trouble, and then by the education maintenance allowances, which also went pear-shaped. However, what really takes the biscuit is the subject of today’s debate: the underestimation of the demand for sixth-form places.

Did the Government not anticipate the rise in places? First, there was the obligation for students to remain in education until the age of 18, although the Minister might say, “Actually, it is not just education; it is other things as well.” If he is honest, however, he will accept that level 3 apprenticeships are on the decline. Germany, France and other countries do not even have levels 1 and 2, because that is called normal education. Real apprenticeships kick in at level 3, but we do not have enough people going through them. It is no surprise, given the recession, that students are choosing to remain in the safety net of the educational environment, rather than wandering out into the unknown wilderness of the business world. The Government should have anticipated the increase in numbers, but they did not, which has led to today’s fiasco. What were the LSC’s tactics to deal
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with this crisis? It simply sent out letters, not to apologise, but to alter the values of funding to be given to schools—to the tune of about £200,000 per school.

My hon. Friends have cited schools in their areas and I shall do the same. The Minister will be familiar with some of the names because he is a fellow MP for the Dorset area. I refer to St. Peter’s school, the boys’ school and the grammar school, which he has visited. Those schools were told that they could offer places to students. St. Peter’s, for example, was told that it could offer places to 430 students in September. The boys’ school expects 350 students in September and the girls’ school 369. However, they do not have anywhere near enough money to cover the cost of those places. When I spoke to all the head teachers this morning, they said that their funding would not cover those numbers. They say that it will cover considerably fewer students, with the number matching the 2007-08 figure. It is a scandal that the Government have not recognised the increase and assisted pupils who have followed their advice and stayed in education until they are 18. St. Peter’s has a shortfall of £90,000, the boys’ school £52,000 and the girls’ school £79,000. Moreover, there is a shortfall in funded places of between 50 and 100.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is a double whammy here? Worthing college and Northbrook college in my constituency face a £1.5 million shortfall in the money that they were promised to cover the expansion of their college buildings, and they will not get that money for the foreseeable future. They are having to borrow the money, which is putting their finances in jeopardy. They are now faced with the additional shortfall in funding for the students to whom they have offered places. Therefore, this is not just a single problem, but a double whammy affecting the survival of many colleges.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes a very astute point. That is exactly the problem with the Government’s whole education strategy.

The problem with the funding is that it is retrospective. We look back at last year’s figures and say, “Okay, that’s how many student they have; we will offer a set amount.” However, the figures are based not on the number of pupils, but on a bid. Today, head teachers have to write a business plan to meet the numbers for next year. St. Peter’s, for example, has money for 350 students, but it has 430. There is a lag of a year until it can pay for the 80 or so additional students going through its doors.

The Government have taken a while to act. We have not heard a statement or any real comment; there have been hints and innuendo, and indications that the money might come through. In the Budget, £250 million was earmarked right now, with another £404 million promised for next year and another £1.2 billion supposedly for the next five years. None the less, those are only indications because nothing has been confirmed. Perhaps we will hear something today. Let us not forget that we were also promised a loan guarantee system to help small and medium-sized businesses, but that has not come through. We were even promised aircraft carriers, but they have not turned up either. Schools will not hold their breath for the funding—they will not do anything until they get the cheque through the post.

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The sad thing is that the Government identified the shortfall more than five months ago. They recognised that the money would not be there for 5,000 students. It was the threat of legal action that made them realise that they had to address the problem. The Learning and Skills Council must be killed off and replaced with something more appropriate that recognises the importance of education.

We have had a decade of Labour promising, “Education, education, education”, but what has happened instead? It is true that the budget has been doubled, but has that been reflected in a twofold improvement in education? I do not think so. One in four primary school children fail to meet basic standards. As I mentioned earlier, level 3 apprenticeships are on the decline. Grade inflation came up in yesterday’s debate—that made the Minister rise to his feet. We have had the introduction of A* grades, employers refusing to recognise the worthiness of A-levels and GCSEs and setting their own exams—that is happening in universities as well—and now we have the fiasco of the LSC. I plead with the Minister for clarity, honesty and leadership to help us through the crisis. I ask for that not only for our benefit but for the benefit of our students.

10.4 am

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your benign chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on raising this important issue.

Let us talk about what this debate is not about. It is not about my hon. Friends asking for more money, or asking for more money in order to cut budgets elsewhere—the rather puerile student union dividing-line approach taken by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families last week, which was rather demeaning and symptomatic of the Government’s decline, as we watch them crumble in front of our eyes. If that were happening to a budgie, we would take it to a vet and have it put down.

The issue is about basic honesty, communication, administrative competence and transparency. Hon. Members rightly want to know why there was such a disconnect between what the LSC and the Department knew in January—if not before—and the schools’ expectations, and why there was such a time lag in getting the right information to schools. Moreover, they want to know why there was no honesty when the difference first came to light. Why was it necessary to include the figures in a footnote on page 13 of the Learning and Skills Council’s funding letter that arrived on 2 March 2009? It was almost as if those figures were hidden away in the hope that schools would not notice that they were several thousand pounds short in their budget for sixth-form education. Perhaps the Minister will consider that.

Last autumn, the Government told us that they were uniquely placed, well equipped and fully prepared to deal with the economic recession. Why then was there no robust, predictive model to ascertain the likely and accurate take-up of school sixth-form places? If it was the case, as Mr. Geoff Russell told The Guardian recently, that it was impossible to predict student numbers accurately, why was there not better communication and liaison between the Department, the LSC and individual schools?

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As my hon. Friend rightly said, the situation has caused significant distress, unhappiness and worry for head teachers, senior staff, governors, pupils and parents. In my local education authority, 10 secondary schools have been affected, suffering a loss on paper of £397,000. We are already underperforming in terms of the skills agenda, particularly with respect to NVQ level 3, compared with other education authorities in the east of England and elsewhere. Moreover, jobs in our area have been significantly hit by the economic recession. We cannot afford to lose sixth-form places for young people. We have lost funding for 70 learners in 2009-10. That does not sound much, but we are a relatively small unitary authority. Such a loss will have an impact on participation rates and on the delivery of the September guarantee. Inevitably, it will lead to larger class sizes, and there will be less flexibility to offer more specialist provision for some of our sixth-form learners, which will lead to an increase in the number of young people not in education, employment or training. Such a problem is already a significant issue in Peterborough.

The Voyager school in Walton will lose £71,000—the equivalent of two full-time teaching posts—the King’s school in Peterborough will lose £66,000, the Jack Hunt school, a specialist language college, £52,000 and Ken Stimpson community school £36,900. Two of those schools already have problems with respect to school improvements, and losing staff and being unable to fund and plan properly will mean that the school establishment only adds to its difficulties. Indeed, it will have an impact on staff morale, which will feed through to results. There will also be an impact on Peterborough regional college, which has similar problems. Don Lawson, the principal, to whom I spoke three weeks ago, told me that the college has been impacted severely by the further education capital programme debacle, which has not been fully resolved to the college’s satisfaction. Frankly, that will jeopardise the very ambitious city regeneration plans for a university centre to complement the extra FE provision.

Finally, as John Richards, the director of children’s services in Peterborough, has said, schools do not operate their post-16 funding discretely from their statutory provision, which could have significant implications for their ability to deliver better outcomes overall.

The Minister has some pertinent questions to answer. How did we get into this mess, who was responsible, who will be accountable for it and, more importantly, how can we have equitable funding for our schools? We do not want promises or extra money, but cash, so that young people in Peterborough and throughout the country can achieve their ambitions.

10.11 am

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) for introducing this debate and I echo his thanks to Mr. Speaker for making it possible. Clearly, this subject should have been debated for a full day on the Floor of the House, with a Minister saying at the beginning, presuming he had arrived, what is happening and what is going to happen, followed by proper winding-up speeches.

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The catastrophe of schools and colleges that provide post-16 education having to cut staff must have been known about by Ministers and their advisers well in advance of the institutions and Parliament being notified. It comes on top of the current problems associated with the Government’s supervision of the LSC and the capital funding for colleges. In Worthing, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has already pointed out, virtually every young person goes to Worthing and/or Northbrook college at age 16. One of the colleges uses huts that were rescued from Southampton docks at the end of the great war from 1918 to 1920, which should have been retired; the other was built for 600 pupils but now has more than 1,500, half of whose lessons take place in huts.

We can leave aside capital spending, which is not the main theme of the debate. The colleges are being squeezed for £1.5 million cash. The Government require the LSC to pay the money as a legal commitment, but it has not been received, and the LSCs had to go to the banks for money. The unpaid governors of colleges have major legal responsibilities, but they also have to deal with the question of how many staff they may have for post-16s. Will the Minister make it plain that the LSC has paid or will pay within days the money for those fees and ensure that the other costs on the capital schemes are capitalised so that they are not pushed into deficit? Capital sums can come in a week or so. I hope the Minister answers those two precise questions today.

Will the Minister ask his advisers to send to each hon. Member present and all hon. Members for affected parts of the United Kingdom a copy of the document, marking the footnote on page 13, which is the relevant piece of information? Is the information in the footnote the least important piece of information—perhaps it is simply a detail—or was someone, in a clever-clever way, trying to keep the catastrophe away from publicity?

Let us ask questions in terms not of “education, education, education”, but of “statistics, statistics, statistics.” I will even answer some of them for the Minister. How long has he and the DCSF known how many 16-year-olds there would be in September? The answer is 16 years—births are registered, so the number of 16-year-olds cannot be a big surprise. Did he or his predecessors, and will his successors, know participation trends? Yes, they did and they will. Do they watch the cash? No. Who is going to lose? Late applicants will lose—the people who thought they were going into work or who thought they were not going to be in employment, education or training, who decided that they wanted to apply for a post-16 course. Who will the colleges and schools turn down? They will reject those who apply late, so the person who needs the place most is the most likely to be turned away.

I do not want to repeat what my hon. Friends have said—the Minister will be able to read a report of what was said in the first two minutes of the debate in the Official Report, and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), will be able to read a report of what was said in the first 20 minutes of the debate—but there is not a single Labour Back Bencher in the Chamber, yet half the colleges affected have Labour Members of Parliament. Either there has been a Whip’s operation, or Labour Members—I am not saying that they do not care—do
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not dare speak up. Perhaps the Whips had a meeting and told them, “This is what you ought to say if you go to the debate.”

When the Minister speaks, I hope he focuses on answering these questions: where is the cash and who will be excluded? I hope that he understands that our colleges are finding that they have to have eight fewer members of staff and perhaps to double-up, and that he explains the situation and does not pass the responsibility on to somebody else.

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