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Sixth-Form Colleges (VAT)

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 17 December 2013

My constituency is home to two excellent sixth-form colleges, St John Rigby college and Winstanley college. Like so many of the 94 sixth-form colleges in the country, they do an excellent job, not only for their students but for the wider community. It is deeply unfair that they must pay VAT while school and academy sixth forms do not. In other types of free 16 to 19 education provision, funding is diverted to the front line. Why not for students in sixth forms?

Following recent changes to the funding formula, the anomaly has become unjustifiable. That view is shared by at least 74 other Members of Parliament, including the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who wanted to highlight the case of Barrow-in-Furness sixth-form college but unfortunately cannot be here due to illness.

This unfair situation is exacerbated by the cuts made to sixth-form colleges in recent years. In 2010, enrichment funding was reduced from 114 to just 30 hours a year. Subsequently, the new 16 to 19 funding formula cut their budgets further—the average was 6%, which masks much more serious cuts for some. Last week, out of the blue, sixth-form colleges were told that 18-year-olds would no longer attract the same level of funding. Ministers argued that it was because those students have already received two years of funding, which completely misses the point that they are often the young people who most need and benefit from the additional help that we can provide.

The hon. Lady is making a strong case. On behalf of the three sixth-form colleges in my constituency, I absolutely agree. Will she comment on the fact that the sixth-form colleges in Brighton disagree with the Government’s position that VAT costs are taken into account in the up-front funding allocation made to colleges? If she agrees, will she join me in saying to the Minister that surely that means schools and academies are effectively being double-funded, because they are getting that as well as the VAT rebate?

Absolutely. Issues of a level playing field are at the heart of this debate and I hope that the Minister will respond to that in his closing remarks.

Taken together, in the worst cases, the funding cuts have left some sixth-form colleges reeling from a staggering 30% overall budget cut. We should consider the issue against that backdrop.

Civil servants originally estimated that creating a level playing field for sixth-form colleges in relation to VAT would cost £20 million. They have since revised that upwards on several occasions, arriving most recently at a figure of £150 million, which includes other institutions. I say to the Minister that it seems completely the wrong approach, given that the Government have accepted in principle that treating sixth-form colleges differently is wrong, to refuse to right that wrong for them because they do not want to do so for others.

The problems for sixth-form colleges are exacerbated by the fact that, unlike school sixth forms, they cannot cross-subsidise their 16 to 19 work with funding from pre-16 provision, which is more generous. Principals and teachers across the sector are taking agonising decisions about dropping courses, cutting staff or reducing activities. A survey last year found nearly half of colleges had had to drop courses, eight out of 10 had had to cut staff and an astonishing 71% had removed or reduced enrichment activities such as sport, music, drama and dance. That is a loss for all young people, but it is devastating for young people who have never had such opportunities open to them.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, but will she acknowledge that sixth-form colleges are often able to offer courses that school sixth forms cannot, because they have the ability to draw in expertise? Ultimately, we need a level playing field, so that all those offering sixth-form education are playing by the same rules.

Absolutely. The issue of the level playing field has come up time and time again. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about courses and the staff that sixth-form colleges can use. I am concerned that that loss of staff has also meant a loss of expertise. If the sector is hit by anything else, we will struggle to get it back.

This issue has certainly been raised with me by St Brendan’s sixth-form college in my constituency. Another issue is the fact that the VAT situation does not allow adults to use the building for more than a short amount of time. Otherwise, that incurs VAT as well. The academy schools in my constituency lobbied me about that in the past, but thankfully we managed to overturn the situation for them. In terms of community engagement, does she agree that not being able to use the buildings in the evenings is a wasted opportunity?

Absolutely. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. There is also a wider point: sixth-form colleges benefit not only their students but the wider community. I know from my constituency that they are institutions rooted in the wider community, and they play a much more beneficial role across our town than it would appear from looking only at their core activities.

It is galling for my sixth-form colleges that while they are struggling with the impacts of the cumulative funding cuts, the Government are creating new free schools and academy sixth forms, with which they are required to compete but which are VAT exempt. Many people contacted me before the debate to point out, rightly, that a market does not function if competition is not fair. Many new free school sixth forms are struggling to fill their places, yet those places are funded too. Ministers are paying for places in new institutions to lie empty while successful and established sixth-form colleges are struggling to afford the students that they have.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and putting the case so strongly. She puts her finger on it: new institutions are being funded for phantom students who are not there, while existing institutions are not only not being funded for this year’s students but taking a 17.5% cut in funding for next year’s students, based on an existing 20% difference in funding. VAT is yet another anomaly. Does she not agree?

Absolutely. I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend and many of the other Members present. The fact that there are so many Members here for such a short debate should tell the Minister that there is huge strength of feeling throughout the House on this issue.

All of this would make more sense if the sector were failing, but taken as a whole, sixth-form colleges are not only lean and efficient institutions, according to the National Audit Office; they are also among the best existing provision for 16 to 19-year-olds. Some 80% of them are rated as good or better, and they consistently rate higher than other types of provision in terms of added value. I know that St John Rigby college in my constituency does tremendous work with young people from deprived backgrounds and outdoes almost every other type of provision in getting those young people to university.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that 16 to 19 provision in further education colleges—outside a school setting—can sometimes provide the impetus that 16-year-olds who might not have done well at school need to enable them to achieve their GCSEs and then go on to A-levels?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am grateful to her for raising that issue. The culture in sixth-form colleges is enormously beneficial to such young people, and the staff are obviously passionate and determined to ensure that those young people reach their potential.

In conclusion, Ministers have accepted that this situation is unfair, so will the Minister who is here in Westminster Hall today take steps to create a level playing field for sixth-form colleges?

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my very first debate in Parliament, 16 years ago, was about sixth-form colleges and took place in this room, but that is beside the point. At that time, I described sixth-form colleges as the geese that lay golden eggs; I think she has made that point today. Of course, one other thing that sixth-form colleges do is to bring together young people from different schools and different communities. They are often situated in areas of diversity and they are a tremendous force for social cohesion. Does she accept that point?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and his expertise on sixth-form colleges is well known; not only does he sit on the governing body of a local sixth-form college but he is chair of the all-party group on sixth-form colleges, which has done so much good work on this issue. I have to say to him that when he was first raising issues about sixth-form colleges in this place, I was actually at a sixth-form college in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). That shows that nothing changes.

As I was saying, Ministers have accepted that this situation is unfair, so will the Minister take steps to create a level playing field for sixth-form colleges? Will he make this important sector a promise that there are no more of these cuts to come? And will he join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary contribution that sixth-form colleges, such as my local one, make to young people and communities across the country?

If it is yes and yes, I am glad to give the floor to the Chair of the Select Committee on Education.

Thank you very much, Mr Bayley, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and to confirm that both the Minister and the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who secured the debate, had agreed to my speaking in it. I am sorry if I should also have informed you, Mr Bayley, but I think my bureaucratic resources ran out after contacting the Minister and the hon. Member.

Given the short time available, I will try to keep my comments brief. In October, I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Education. It is a shame, notwithstanding the great respect that I have for my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, who is a deeply distinguished member of the Government, that we do not have a Minister from the Department for Education here to answer questions about what is essentially an education matter. That letter was co-signed by 73 MPs from across the House, and it made the point that the unfair treatment of sixth-form colleges as far as VAT goes made no sense and was, in fact, untenable. The good news is that the Government agreed, fundamentally, that they could not defend that treatment. The bad news is that they do not plan to do anything about it. That is a shame, because Government policy is to create a level playing field for 16 to 19 provision, and they are right to do so. If anyone wants to play party politics, I will point out that the Opposition were wrong to leave the position uneven when they were in power. However, the Government have set out their aim, but now they are not fulfilling it. They have moved in that direction, but there is a real opportunity to take action on this issue. In the overall scheme of things, it would not be that expensive to do so; for sixth-form colleges, it is estimated that it would cost no more than £30 million.

There are reasons why sixth-form colleges could be treated differently from further education colleges, if one wanted a stepped programme. To say, “This is wrong, but we can only afford to rectify some of it, so we will rectify none of it” is illogical. It would be better to do the right thing by sixth-form colleges, not least because, as has been said, they are the most successful 16 to 19 providers that we have. If the Government’s education policy is about anything, it is about raising standards across the board and, of course, closing the gap between rich and poor. Well, guess which the most successful institutions are in the 16 to 19 sector at doing both those things? You’ve got it—sixth-form colleges.

I have no sixth-form colleges in my constituency; I am not banging a constituency drum here. The sixth forms in my local schools will probably be cross with me for speaking up for sixth-form colleges so often. However, the whole point of the Education Committee is that we look at the evidence and try to work out what is the best thing to do. Well, guess what? Sixth-form colleges are peculiarly successful in addressing the Government’s two key aims on education, so it makes no sense to penalise them in the way that is happening now.

The VAT penalty that sixth-form colleges face is worth an average of £250,000 per college, and as has been said, the problem is worsened because, unlike other institutions, they cannot cross-subsidise. If that money were to be provided to sixth-form colleges, it would help them to save courses that are being lost, including less popular courses such as further maths. Ministers are quite right to identify the need to encourage science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. Sixth-form colleges can play a positive part in doing that, if they are provided with the wherewithal to do so.

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Education Committee for giving way; he is making a very strong speech. He talked about investment in STEM subjects. Worcester sixth-form college has received money from the Government to invest in a new science centre. However, does he agree that that money would go further if we were able to take action on VAT for colleges?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I think there are feelings across the House on this subject. I said that I would keep my remarks brief, so perhaps I will bring them to a close. The big point is that sixth-form colleges have for years consistently been the most successful providers at delivering the Government’s key educational aims for 16 to 19-year-olds, but time and again, they appear to be on the front line of cuts in funding. That cannot make sense, in terms of having a rational, coherent approach to this issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the great work that he is doing. He said that he has no sixth-form colleges in his constituency; I have no schools that provide sixth-form education in my constituency. However, there are three colleges there that provide sixth-form education: Huddersfield New college, Greenhead college, and Kirklees college. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate, and I will continue to support this campaign.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying so.

There is another aspect that it is worth pointing out briefly. At the moment, because of the freedoms for schools that I think are broadly supported across the House—there is certainly support for them on the Government Benches—there is a danger that we are sleepwalking into the creation of more small sixth forms, which we know, from sustained evidence gathered over time, perform poorly. At the same time, we are undermining institutions that have a long track record of success in raising standards for all, and in closing the gap between rich and poor. We cannot allow that to happen, so we need the Government to wake up and recognise the jewels that they have in the form of sixth-form colleges.

Far from seeing sixth-form colleges cut back, sliced and reduced in capacity and capability, I would have thought that, having found a delivery system that works better than others, we should desperately look at expanding and supporting it in a way that is fair to other providers. I do not want in any way to be prejudiced against sixth forms, but I would like a level playing field, because we have the exact opposite: we are seemingly strengthening those with the weakest record, and weakening those with the strongest record.

I had better give way to the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) first, and then I will sit down.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech; I agree with every word of it. However, does he agree that the Government ought to be looking to create many more sixth-form colleges across the country?

I agree. If a system is most successful and cost-effective, establishes high standards, particularly for the poorest, and closes the wealth gap, I would think people would be delighted to see it expand. I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mike Thornton), and then I will draw to a close.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I very much appreciate it. With the reduction in spending caused by VAT and the need to provide for those over 18, does he agree that it is very strange to cut money for colleges that aim specifically to get people good A-level results and other results at that level, when they are trying to educate people, including those who perhaps missed out earlier, but who are now able to catch up on their education between the ages of 18 and 19?

My hon. Friend is right. Perhaps that is the danger of making political promises that are nice and neat. His party might want to look carefully at the way that the protection of schools has left very few areas where we can cut in order to deliver reductions in spending. It could be that a series of measures that were positively meant have eventually led to this cut.

Those who are 18 at the start of an academic year and who are still at a sixth-form college are likely to be those clinging on to education, having struggled in post-16 education, and they may be at risk of becoming NEET—that is, not in education, employment or training. Again, it does not make sense for a Government who are rightly using the pupil premium and other measures to try to close the gap to finish up looking to make reductions at the end of the period—at the time when pupils need help to get over the line, and to get themselves on the first rung of the employment ladder—rather than looking to put in place additional support. The sixth-form college sector is not looking for special treatment; it is simply looking to be treated fairly, compared with other providers.

Thank you, Mr Bayley, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate, and on making her case so strongly. Indeed, it is noteworthy that this is a well-attended debate, as she has mentioned.

In the light of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), I should mention that I am here as a Treasury Minister, as the debate relates to the VAT system. In respect of House of Commons workings, this is a Treasury matter, and this week the Treasury, rather than the Department for Education, was up for debates, although the hon. Member for Wigan has been most ingenious in getting a debate on sixth forms in a week in which Department for Education Westminster Hall debates were not occurring.

The hon. Lady has highlighted how sixth-form colleges interact with the VAT system. Let me say a little bit about that. VAT can be a rather complex matter. It might help if I provided some background, before turning to the specific issue of sixth-form colleges. One basic feature of VAT is that businesses are able to reclaim the VAT that they pay on their inputs. However, this does not apply to purchases, acquisitions or imports made in relation to non-business activities, such as the provision of free education. This means that bodies such as schools can end up with VAT costs on the goods and services that they buy in.

Clearly, it is always an option to meet these costs by increasing the funding made available to schools, for example. However, there is a risk of the burden of that funding falling on local taxation, as the state education system in England and Wales has historically been delivered by local authorities. To deal with that, in 1973 the Government introduced a scheme, now under section 33 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994, allowing local authorities to recover the VAT incurred on goods and services purchased relating to non-business activities. Local authority maintained schools are able to recover VAT under the umbrella of the local authority.

Since then, there have been extensions to that scheme, in particular to cover the position of academy schools. The Finance Act 2011 introduced a new VAT refund scheme, under section 33B of the 1994 Act, to ensure that funding for academy schools’ non-business VAT costs was consistent with that for local authority maintained schools. The specific purpose of the scheme is to ensure continuity in the funding of institutions that are leaving local authority control to become academies, so that they are not put at a financial disadvantage.

I hope that this slight historical excursion has made it clear that there is clear logic to the VAT treatment of local authority schools and academy schools making the move out of local authority control. That logic is rooted in the nature of the service being provided and the relationship to public sector local authorities.

Let me turn to the campaign by sixth-form colleges, of which hon. Members in the Chamber are well aware. The campaign has gained the support of 74 Members representing constituencies that contain, or are serviced by, sixth-form colleges, and the likes of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness. They wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, expressing their concerns.

Hon. Members have welcomed the introduction of the new 16 to 19 funding formula, which will mean that all 16 to 19 education providers are funded in the same way, and which is reducing the historical disparity between school sixth forms and colleges. However, the 74 hon. Members feel that the way that sixth-form colleges interact with the VAT system leaves them at a disadvantage, compared with local authority or academy schools. In particular, as we heard today, they have asked for their differential VAT treatment to be recognised in the way that they are funded.

My memory goes back to when sixth-form colleges were grouped—by mistake, I think—with further education colleges and put into the FE sector. That is why the VAT mistake was made. Had sixth-form colleges been kept in the schools sector, this would not have occurred. Does the Minister agree?

I think that is probably a fair description, historically. Schools have been treated one way, in part, because of the relationship with local authorities and funding at local authority level, whereas other elements of the public sector do not get funding for VAT in the way that local authorities do. Sixth-form colleges and further education colleges are examples of that.

The Minister and I have exchanged words on this matter many times. The historical record is quite interesting. When colleges were incorporated, they had the same VAT rights as schools, because they came from the same part of the womb, as it were, but that was changed at the point of incorporation. Given the way that the landscape of education has changed, it is odd that new provisions, such as university technical colleges or 16 to 19 free schools, are entitled to the VAT, whereas sixth-form colleges are not. That anomaly was created on this Government’s watch. It would be better if it were not so.

It should be acknowledged—and it was, in earlier interventions—that notwithstanding the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, this is a long-standing issue.

Let me turn to the Government’s position. The academies VAT refund scheme is set up for a specific policy purpose, which is to remove a financial disincentive for maintained schools to convert to academies. As the purpose is specific, the Treasury has no plans to extend the scheme to colleges. Many other providers of public services are expected to cover their VAT costs from their funding allocations. This funding model is applied to bodies delivering—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I am grateful for the opportunity to complete my remarks. The academies VAT refund scheme is very specific. The Treasury has no plans to extend that scheme to colleges, and many other providers of public services are expected to cover their VAT costs from their funding allocations. That funding model is applied to many bodies delivering public services, and to some spending by Departments and non-departmental public bodies.

The Department for Education, however, has considered whether adjustments could be made to funding for 16 to 19 education to recognise the differential VAT treatment of different types of providers. In particular, the Department for Education has considered whether it could additionally fund sixth-form colleges by an amount equivalent to their typical VAT costs. The Department for Education has concluded that that is not affordable in the current fiscal climate. The £20 million estimate applies only to sixth-form colleges; extending extra funding to further education colleges, which have a similar case to sixth-form colleges, would cost some £150 million.

I echo the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), by saying that the amounts are small in the scheme of things. They are piffling amounts compared with the volume of the Government’s public spending. One penny on the standard rate produces £4 billion, and we are talking about £30 million for sixth-form colleges. It is a tiny amount of money.

I am not entirely surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I have no doubt that he would not hesitate to put up income tax by 1p. In the context of the current fiscal situation, we have to be very careful with public expenditure. The Department for Education will, of course, keep the sector’s funding under review.

Although I recognise that colleges have concerns, the reform of 16 to 19 education is one of the Government’s priorities. The Government remain committed to moving towards fairer funding of 16 to 19 education by levelling the rate of funding for schools and colleges by 2015.

I am sorry that I missed the earlier remarks about 18-year-olds and the £700 cut in funding, which will mostly affect people in poorer postcodes. Does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that if the schools budget was increased by 0.8% rather than 1%, there would have been no need for a 17.5% cut in 18-plus funding to Worthing college and other sixth-form colleges?

Department for Education Ministers have decided to make savings in the academic year 2014-15 by reducing the participation requirements for 18-year-olds in full-time education. It is worth pointing out that most 18-year-olds will have already benefited from two years of post-16 education. We are of course in a situation where difficult choices must be made about public finances; my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) is well aware of that.

The Department for Education is introducing a series of reforms in partnership with the sector to help drive up standards and improve the quality of provision by implementing Alison Wolf’s proposals for 16 to 19 education, by introducing new traineeships for school leavers, and by reforming the apprenticeships programme to route funding directly to employers.

To conclude, while the Government recognise the concerns raised by sixth-form colleges, this position is not unique to such colleges. The Government have no plans to make any change in this area in the near future, given the fiscal climate.

Order. The Minister having sat down, I am bringing this debate to an end.

I want to put on record—an unadvisable thing to do to any statement from the Chair—that more than 20 Members were present for a half-hour debate, which is extremely unusual and indicates the importance that many hon. Members attach to the subject. I apologise to the Minister and the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for the manner in which the debate was interrupted by a Division in the House.