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Post-16 Students

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

When the Secretary of State for Education gave evidence to the Select Committee before Christmas, he confessed that the funding of post-16 education is even more mystifying and complicated than that of the rest of the education service. As a sixth-form college principal until I became an MP at the last election, I am, however, a bit of an anorak about the funding of 16 to 19-year-olds’ education, so I am afraid that some of what I have to say is a bit technical. Former colleagues have contacted me concerned about the proposals coming out of the Young People’s Learning Agency that landed in colleges just before Christmas—an interesting Christmas card, some might say, but it suggested a not so happy new year for post-16 students.

I understand that the Department for Education has agreed provisional budget figures with the Treasury for the next four years but has not yet published them. It looks as though the total budget for education and apprenticeships will rise by 1% over the next four years, partly to provide funding for an extra 68,000 places, or 4% growth in the number of post-16 students. The YPLA is proposing a cut in entitlement funding from 114 guided learning hours to 30 guided learning hours. Guided learning hours are what YPLA funding buys. This represents a 75% cut in entitlement, which will translate into a 12% cut in overall funding for sixth-form colleges, and a significant cut for general further education colleges and school sixth forms. Sixth-form colleges are particularly affected because they concentrate almost solely on 16 to 19-year-old learners.

Does my hon. Friend agree that places such as Nottingham, where a high proportion of learners study in colleges rather than in school sixth forms, will be particularly hard hit by these changes?

That could turn out to be the case, as the changes happen. One of the problems is that the YPLA has not yet made clear what all the impacts of the changes in funding will be. There is therefore a little bit of hope that this might not happen, and I am sure that the Minister will address that point in his response.

In Brighton, we have three sixth-form colleges, each of which faces a cut of at least 12% over the next four years as a result of the cuts to entitlement funding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, once inflation and VAT have been factored in, we could be looking at funding cuts of up to 20% by 2014-15, which really is a burden too hard to bear?

That is the worry. Such figures are floating around in the sector, and they are very disturbing, as the hon. Lady rightly says.

Entitlement funding currently provides the money for, among other things, tutorial and guidance systems in colleges, careers support, some targeted support for weaker learners, and health advice. It also pays for those non-examined activities such as sport, drama, music, volunteering and vocational experiences, which broaden the educational experience of young people.

I would like to raise the case of a student called Georgia, who is studying at Alton college in my constituency. As a result of the guided learning hours, she has had the opportunity to study creative writing and poetry, as well as something called “applying to competitive courses”. She has also received one-to-one coaching for her Oxbridge entrance. As a result, she now has an offer from Girton college, Cambridge. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that part of the whole picture involves trying to find the money to fund the young person’s premium, which is analogous to the pupil premium. I am sure that that is something that we would all applaud, but is it not also important always to find space in the curriculum, and in the funding, for these enrichment activities that can put state-educated children on an equal footing with privately educated children, and that those activities receive the priority that they deserve?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, drawing on a clear case study from Alton college, an excellent college in his constituency. He makes the point that it is crucial to strike the right balance and ensure that colleges can continue their excellent work in developing the whole person and allowing young people from a state education background to access the best universities. Alton, and other colleges up and down the land, have done this very well over the years. He also draws attention to what is happening to the money for disadvantaged students, which it appears is being creamed off. It is not yet clear how it will be distributed, and that is at the heart of this issue.

A friend of mine who used to teach at a college in my hon. Friend’s constituency told me of my hon. Friend’s fine reputation in his previous role. My hon. Friend was talking about the funding cuts for 16 to 18-year-olds. I have here a note from the principal of Hugh Baird college in Sefton, who tells me:

“The very significant cut in entitlement funding for 16-18 year olds will make it a real challenge for many colleges…to give learners the excellent pastoral support, the personal and social responsibility and employability skills which they deserve and need to positively contribute to the economic recovery and society in general.”

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that information?

My hon. Friend makes a clear and cogent point and draws on another case study from another very good college, this time in his constituency. In many ways he makes the same point as the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) about how entitlement funding helps to develop the whole person and is crucial to the thrust of our education service and to what colleges have done so well for so many years.

May I reinforce the point made in the two previous interventions and speak about social mobility? When I discuss the issue with the principals of Darlington college and Queen Elizabeth sixth-form college in Darlington, they say that although they are getting better and better at producing the right grades to get their students into good jobs and good universities, their students are still unable to access the same opportunities as other young people because they do not have some of the softer skills and wider experiences in life that young people from different backgrounds have been able to access as a result of their family’s income. It is so important that our colleges are able to give young people those opportunities and experiences while they are at college.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She mentions two more very good colleges, both in her constituency. The point that she makes about social mobility builds on the points made earlier by the hon. Member for East Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). What entitlement funding has done so well is provide experiences that enrich and expand young people’s experiences so that they gain greater confidence and are able to aspire to go on to greater things. The education system post-16, building on the building blocks of the pre-16 experience, has done that so well over recent years. The proposed cuts to entitlement funding call into question colleges’ ability to maintain that momentum.

At the same time as entitlement funding has been cut by 12%, the maximum funding for each student has been reduced from 787 hours, or 1.75 standard learner numbers, in the jargon of post-16 funding, to 702 hours, or 1.56 standard learner numbers. That is a 10% reduction in that part of the funding formula. I warned hon. Members that the debate would get rather technical at certain points.

Some of the money saved by these measures will be returned to colleges and schools with higher numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with low entry qualifications, but details are not yet available of how the £150 million of disadvantaged funding will work. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said, the lack of clarity and lack of understanding are causing concern in the sector. Those in the sector understand what is going, but they cannot see what might be coming back into the picture.

Transitional funding, which is being put in place to dampen the effect of the cut in entitlement funding, means that the maximum cut in funding per student next year will be 3%, but there is a lack of clarity about how this funding cut will be profiled in future. Many college principals are working on the assumption of a 3% cut each year for the next four years. Many are drawing up radical proposals to address the shortfall, which might be disastrous for the student experience and result in job losses in the sector.

Many colleges are telling me that if the cuts go ahead, they are likely to lead to a severe reduction in the amount of tutorial, guidance and enrichment available. That will probably be reduced to less than an hour’s tutorial session a week for students, and nothing else will be able to be resourced. Colleges will be in danger of becoming nothing more than exam factories, unable to spend time on developing the whole student, a job that they are recognised as doing extremely well at present. Interventions from Members on both sides of the House tonight have evidenced the effectiveness of the job that our colleagues in the post-16 education system are doing on behalf of those students who, after all, are our future and the country’s future.

It is likely that providers will now struggle to offer a broad range of extra-curricular activities that have for so long been a key characteristic of sixth-form education. Team sport, orchestras, drama productions, sign language, community volunteering, rocket science and magazine editing will all be put at risk.

Does my hon. Friend agree that these cuts will be compounded by cuts to youth services, so opportunities for positive activities for young people without means will be cut off completely?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. What is happening in education should be put in the context of what is happening in services available for young people outside the classroom. I fear that without the provision of culture and sport in post-16 education, students will access these pursuits only if they or their parents can pay for them. That is the danger, and my hon. Friend emphasises that by drawing attention to the pressures on youth services at this time as well.

Does my hon. Friend agree that colleges such as those in my constituency, Winstanley and Wigan and Leigh, might find the excellent links they have developed with employers jeopardised by the lack of funding and the lack of ability to send students out on visits, work experience and day trips to try some employment? In an area of high unemployment such as Wigan, those are particularly vital.

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Colleges are resilient and imaginative places, and I am sure that they will work hard to ensure that those student experiences are maintained. However, she is right that some of the funding for those activities comes from entitlement funding and that, if it is being cut by 75%, there is a need to square the circle, so colleges will need to look at ways of doing that. That might mean that class sizes rise or that there are other impacts on the system. However, she is right to emphasise the importance of vocational experience, sometimes quite short bursts of vocational experience within a package of learning as well as fuller training directly in the workplace, which will continue to be fully and properly resourced.

The size of the cut is unfair in comparison with the cut in funding per learner in primary and secondary education. It is also quite amazing that sixth-form colleges, rightly applauded by the Secretary of State and widely recognised as one of the most efficient parts of the education system, should be hit so badly. Surely that is an unintended consequence of a change in policy.

Will the Minister look again at the potentially very disruptive impact of the change to entitlement funding on different types of post-16 providers and consider ways of mitigating any unintended consequences? Will he provide information very soon on how much disadvantage funding will be allocated to each post-16 provider? Will he meet me and a group of college principals so that he can better understand the impact of the changes on those at the sharp end of understanding what is going on?

Finally, and slightly tongue in cheek, although I would welcome a positive answer, if he wishes to witness at first hand the excellence that the current arrangements resource, he might join me for John Leggott’s spring concert on 5 April to experience one example of what we have at the moment and what these changes might put in jeopardy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing not only the debate but an audience, which is unusual at this time in the House’s proceedings. I apologise that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who has responsibility for schools, is not responding to the debate, as would normally be the case. He is rather involved with the Education Bill at present, but I hope that I will be something of a second-best.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe started his speech by openly and freely admitting that he was something of an anorak on the subject of 16 to 19-year-old education funding in this country, but I cannot admit to being even a cagoule in that respect. I will therefore take away his more technical questions and ensure that he receives a more detailed and considered answer from colleagues elsewhere in the Department—part of this is rocket science, as he said.

I also pay tribute to the many staff who are in the position he was in before bringing his great practical expertise to the House. There are many people involved in education in this area who do an excellent job up and down the country in difficult circumstances, as we all acknowledge, and play their part in the essential crusade to upskill young people leaving education for the increasingly competitive employment environment that they face.

I appreciate many of the concerns that Members on both sides of the House raised during what has been a good and rather more inclusive debate than is normal in Adjournment debates. The hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) made a good point about the softer skills that are also important in educational experience, which we want to ensure are not lost. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe talked about the effect of enrichment skills on expanding the range of knowledge and confidence of young people. He also acknowledged that money will be returned to colleges to target disadvantaged students, a point to which I will return.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), slightly predictably, raised the subject of youth services, in which she is something of an expert—she is making sure that the House is in no doubt of the fact. She knows that the subject is within my brief and that we will be having discussions on it soon, so there are various things that I will be able to discuss with her then. The hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) rightly mentioned the effect on high unemployment areas.

I will refer first to the spending review, which is the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s concern in bringing the subject to the House’s attention. I entirely appreciate the concerns about the current inevitable uncertainty, and we will seek to address that and produce clarity as soon as possible.

The Minister mentioned concern, so perhaps I can remind him of the concern that the cut we are discussing will have a combined effect with a number of other cuts. The cuts to college and sixth-form funding, when added to cuts to university funding and education maintenance allowance and the trebling of tuition fees, means that there is huge concern, particularly among students from less well-off families, about the ability to go into higher education at all. Will he respond to that point in his remarks on the spending review?

I am sure that I will respond when I get beyond the first paragraph of my comments. We are here to talk about a specific aspect of education, and as with the Secretary of State’s approach in all other aspects of education, particularly at this time of scarce resources, we are determined to concentrate as much as possible on the disadvantaged and close the achievement gap, which has widened too far, and for too long. We have to have that particular focus—it is why we have come forward with the pupil premium and other particularly well targeted schemes—to ensure that those who are left behind or need extra support have a chance to be on a level playing field with other students. I shall comment on that in a moment.

In the spending review, we had three priorities: protecting schools funding; early years; and ensuring that by 2015 every young person can continue in high-quality education and training, so that they are better prepared for the world of work or for university. The latter has not necessarily received the attention that it deserves.

We are spending more than £7.6 billion in 2011-12, a 1.5% cash increase over 2010-11, so that—

The Minister refers to a 1.5% increase in funding. Both colleges—the further education college and the sixth-form college—in my constituency place great store by enrichment activities, such as music and other absolutely vital elements of a rounded education. Is it not the case that colleges are to have greater freedom over how they spend their income in future years? Can he see any reason why they will not be able to use some of the increased spending to fund the much-needed enrichment programmes that everyone in the House is so keen to see continue?

My hon. Friend is right to point that out, and again I shall come on to some comments in that vein.

Coupled with a focus on targeting the most disadvantaged and helping to close that gap is a Government priority to devolve greater powers, autonomy and freedoms to educational institutions at all levels—to ensure that principals, heads, teachers and governors are freed from so much of the prescription, bureaucracy and targets that went before, so that they can make the most appropriate decisions for their local student community. They, surely, are the people best placed to make those decisions. If it means concentrating more on enrichment activities, albeit with a tighter financial settlement, we must leave it to the judgment of those principals and others to make such decisions at the sharp end. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue.

So, we are spending an extra 1.5% cash over 2010-11, so that a record 1.62 billion young people can have a place—[Interruption.] Sorry, I think that should say “million”. We are not quite China yet. Teenage pregnancy is part of my brief, but we have not quite reached that point.

Anyway, we are spending an extra 1.5% cash over 2010-11, so that a record 1.62 million young people can have a place in education and training. That is 23,000 more places than in the current academic year. Within that total, we are increasing the proportion of funds directed at young people facing disadvantage and deprivation in order to help schools and colleges attract and retain those 16 and 17-year-olds who currently do not participate in education and training at all. We are also increasing the amount spent on foundation learning, so that those young people who were failed by the previous Government’s school policies, which pumped in billions but still left many at 16 without the skills they needed to progress, can access the courses that suit their needs.

To do that, however, we have to take account of the economic situation. There is no getting away from that. Every decision that the coalition Government take is made against the backdrop of the difficult economic position that we inherited. Although Opposition Members would like to put those uncomfortable facts to one side, those of us in government have to deal with them, recognising that decisions on schools and colleges throughout the country need to take account of the dire position of public finances.

The enormous interest charges we are paying on our national debt, now standing at £120 million per day, mean that we spend more on servicing that debt than on all our schools and colleges put together, and that just cannot go on. Unless we bring the deficit under control, future funding for this critical phase of education will be endangered and future generations will suffer the consequences. That means we have to ensure that every penny we spend on 16-to-19 education and training brings real benefits to the learner, helps those who need help most and ensures young people are educated to higher levels than now.

We took the decision to reduce the requirement for enrichment activities for two reasons. The Government’s first priority is to protect the core education programmes offered by schools and colleges—the whole range of courses, including A-levels, vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. It is this core that delivers the real benefits to all young people and enables them to progress successfully into higher education or employment. That is not to say that I regard the enrichment activities that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe has so eloquently praised as unimportant—far from it.

I hear what the Minister says. In some ways, it is sadly predictable in so far as it suggests that there has not really been a proper understanding of what is happening on the ground, where there is genuine concern about the impact of the cuts, which could be quite difficult. Pastoral support and guidance is part of the entitlement funding, and that is very much part of the core of the education system as it stands.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he must understand that we have had to make these difficult choices. In an ideal world and an ideal economy, we would be able to service and finance a full academic and enrichment programme and the complementary aspects that much of that brings, but we do not have the luxury of that choice at the moment. As I have said, I am not in any way trying to undermine the importance of some of the things that he has suggested. The chess clubs, the debating societies, the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, and many of the things that went on in his own college are indeed important. But at a time when we want to maximise participation by all 16 and 17-year-olds, alongside a need to respond to extremely difficult economic circumstances, providing a funding entitlement to those activities to all full-time learners cannot be a priority.

In acknowledging, as I think everybody does, that in this very difficult financial situation economies have to be found, does my hon. Friend agree that the conversation could be broadened to address some other elements? We could look at some of the cost drivers and things that go on in sixth forms today that did not take place when any of us were there—for example, the number of exams that students do and the growth trend in the number of one-year-only AS-level courses. I am not saying that I have a recommendation to make, but merely suggesting that some of these things could be part of the discussion about where to find economies.

I am happy to pass on those comments. Obviously, more detail will come out in the proposals. As a priority, we must equip the students going through this part of the educational process with the skills, qualifications and educational know-how that they need to go out and compete in the big wide world. These will be decisions for heads and principals to make at the sharp end.

I accept that tutorial provision for all is important, and that is why we have protected that, as far as possible, but at a time when we need to ensure that our funding of 16-to-19 learners is as effective as can be, we have to focus funding on those who need additional support. That is why—the hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned this—we have recycled the savings into areas of a higher priority where we know that more needs to be done.

Our second priority is to increase support for the most disadvantaged and less able young people; I alluded to this earlier. Only about a quarter of young people on free school meals in year 11 get the equivalent of two A-levels by the age of 19—half the level of those who are not on free school meals. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent track record while he was principal of John Leggott sixth form college. Perhaps I could now politely turn down, while very much thanking him for it, his invitation to the spring concert at John Leggott college at Easter. If I can possibly go the following year, I will endeavour to do so, if it is still going by then. I am sure it will be all the better without me.

To be serious, I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent track record while he was principal of that sixth-form college in raising the aspirations and attainment of disadvantaged learners. I am sure he will agree that that is a key priority for the available funding. If he is looking for takers for concert tickets, I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)—one of the old rockers in the House—will endeavour to go along and bring great gaiety of the proceedings, as he always does to proceedings in this House.

We are replacing what we see as the inefficient EMA programme with a new discretionary learner support fund to focus resources on those in real financial hardship and to ensure that no learner is prevented from staying in education as a result of their financial situation. That is also why we are increasing the amount of 16-to-19 funding for those learners from 2011-12. Funds will be increased by more than a third to £770 million. We will not dictate to schools and colleges how they should use that funding. They know best how to attract and provide for disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-old learners. However, I would expect some of the funding to be spent on the activities previously funded under enrichment, but targeted specifically at the learners. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds).

The Minister is right to comment on the record of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) at John Leggott sixth form college. On the issue of EMA funding, will protections be put in place to ensure that when colleges are near to each other and are in competition, the discretionary learner fund is not used as a way of recruiting students to a particular college, and that it is genuinely used for the students and young people who need it?

That is a very good point, and it will certainly be taken into consideration. I will pass those comments on to the Minister of State. We have to add such practical considerations to the mix as the proposals are rolled out.

For future years, we have said that we will consult on a review of the funding formula with a view to operating a young person’s premium to support attainment by the most disadvantaged students. The coalition Government’s determination to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds lies at the heart of the radical reforms we are introducing to ensure that young people reach adulthood with the knowledge and aptitudes needed to lead rewarding and successful lives.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. In quoting the principal of Hugh Baird college, I mentioned employability skills. The Minister has touched on the preparation of young people for leaving education. With youth unemployment hitting a million, that is a key challenge for the Government and for colleges. I urge him to ensure that, whatever changes are made, the issue of employability skills, which was covered under the entitlement fund, is taken on board. I accept his point about targeting learners from the most deprived backgrounds, but very often people are missed by such approaches. A wider group of young people is affected, as was the case with the withdrawal of EMA.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Employability skills are an important complement to qualifications. In this increasingly competitive world, with the concerningly high levels of youth unemployment, we must ensure that every possible tool is available to young people to make themselves employable in the work force, for example in areas where we have requirements in the current highly competitive global trading environment.

Attainment at 16 is the strongest predictor of participation and achievement beyond that age. That is why we set out a clear programme of reform in the schools White Paper that is intended to raise standards so that by age 16, all young people have the basics they need to go on to further education and training. We know that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are least likely to participate post-16, as Members have said. That is why we are focusing additional support on them, to ensure that they make the progress needed to go on to further learning. The pupil premium will target extra funding to the most deprived pupils, to better ensure that they reach the critical transition at age 16 with the knowledge, aptitude and attitude to go on to even higher success.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe asked me a couple of specific questions, one of which was on when the allocations will be made. Individual institutions will get the details of their allocations by the end of March. If we can make it sooner, we will, to address the issue of clarity, which he rightly mentioned. He asked whether we would look again at the disruptive impact there can be on different groups of post-16 students, and I shall pass on his comments. He also asked whether I would meet him and a delegation to discuss these matters. I am absolutely delighted, on behalf of the Minister of State, to offer him that very meeting with the person most appropriate to take on board his views and appreciate the comments that he will make. I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s office gets in touch with him very soon.

We are committed to full participation for 16 and 17-year-olds, but because of the financial constraints in which we find ourselves, we have had to make difficult decisions to deliver on the priorities. We might not have made some of those decisions had the financial position been better, and they have not been easy, but they have been made with the principles that I have set out in mind—focusing support on the most disadvantaged, addressing the attainment gap and giving greater autonomy, control and freedom back to people who run institutions at the sharp end.

I am in some ways an observer in the debate, and I have been listening with great care. It seems to me that there is a risk that in concentrating on the most deprived, we will take away from the next group up. Many of the additional features in the education system are important if we want to see more young people equipped to go to university, as I think the Government do. People from that next group up will be missing the skills and so on that those from private schools have, so is it really better to help the deprived at the cost of another group of people who also need help if we are to close the gap to university entrance?

I think the hon. Lady appreciates that one cannot get a quart out of a pint pot, and that is the dilemma in which we find ourselves. For too many years, the biggest scandal in educational achievement at all levels has been that the most disadvantaged, measured as those who have free school meals, have seen the achievement gap widen. They have not had the opportunity to compete on a level playing field and achieve aspirations that many people take for granted. That is not fair, it is not sustainable and it will not be tolerated under this Government.

That is why it is morally right, and the most practical way forward, to ensure that we target as much help as possible on particularly disadvantaged students at all levels. That will mean that everybody else has to share some pain, and ideally that would not have to happen. However, if it is a question of priorities, I want disadvantaged students to get the extra leg-up and extra support that, too often, they cannot provide for themselves. The Government, the Department and the House have a duty of care to ensure that that extra help is available.

The Government have shown that they have the mettle to make the difficult decisions. These are going to be turbulent times, but the Government also have the nous to shift funding from lower-priority areas to where it is genuinely needed. I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe for bringing the debate before us this evening and for making his comments in a measured and well-informed, albeit anoraky way. This is a matter of great concern to him and all hon. Members, whether they have further education sixth forms in their constituencies or constituents who use neighbouring ones. We will endeavour to monitor the impact of the changes, particularly on the most disadvantaged, and ensure that we get the best bang for our buck and make the very best impact on those who need it most.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.