To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what progress is being made with plans to give further education and sixth-form colleges more independence.
Excellent progress is being made with our plans, which are the subject of the Further and Higher Education Bill currently before Parliament, to give colleges independence from local authority control.
Following the visit of our hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) to Basildon last Friday, will my right hon. and learned Friend endorse our hon. Friend's statement that the independence that we are offering colleges of further education and sixth-form colleges such as Basildon's will enable them to be more effective, efficient and flexible than they can be at present? Will my right hon. and learned Friend agree to visit Basildon this year to observe the excellent education standards enjoyed by my constituents?
My hon. Friend the Minister of State was very impressed by his visit to Basildon, and I should certainly be interested in visiting it myself if and when my diary allowed it.I have visited sixth-form colleges in Thurrock and Boston this year, and I recently addressed the annual meeting of the Association of Colleges for Further and Higher Education. I agree that the colleges are looking forward to their independence and to expanding the opportunities for further education available to our young people. I find that they bitterly regret the Labour party's dogmatic commitment to repeal, contrary to the wishes of the college principals, the Bill going through the House precisely because the Opposition Front Bench are acting at the behest of a few backwoodsmen Labour county councillors throughout the country.
The Secretary of State will be aware that further education colleges charge their students for certain activities related to the curriculum—not tuition fees, but other activities. When the Bill goes through, if it does, sixth-form colleges will have the same freedom. Will the Secretary of State now give a guarantee that no sixth-form college student will be charged for activities in relation to the school curriculum, or is this to be yet another example of pay-as-you-learn under the Conservative Government?
I know of no realistic reason for expecting any sixth-form college to introduce charges of the kind described. Sixth-form colleges will be funded on the basis that they carry on with their present practice. I have not met a college principal who intends to change that practice. The hon. Gentleman is merely trying to raise obscure scares about our proposals when he knows from his own visit to the association that the policy is extremely popular with all the principals and that his statement—that the colleges would be given back to his friends in Labour councils—was greeted with widespread dismay there.