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Sixth-form Colleges

Volume 593: debated on Monday 2 March 2015

We have supported the creation of new sixth-form schools, such as Exeter Mathematics school, the London Academy of Excellence in Newham and Sir Isaac Newton sixth-form school in Norwich, but we do not currently plan to promote the establishment of more sixth-form colleges.

The Minister will have seen the statistics showing that sixth-form colleges outperform other providers of 16-to-18 education on every measure of academic success and in value for money. Does he not therefore agree that an intelligent Government would seek actively to establish many more sixth-form colleges, instead of allowing their numbers to reduce?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s support for and admiration of the work of sixth-form colleges, which are generally fantastic institutions producing great results, but I disagree with him on this obsession with particular forms and structures. I agree with him that schools that are dedicated to teaching 16 to 19-year-olds in sixth forms do very well, which is why we have supported the creation of so many sixth-form schools, but whether they are schools or colleges is a second-order issue.

I can assure my hon. Friend that in the Sixth Form college in Farnborough we have one of the finest structures in the country. However, sixth-form colleges are facing a challenge because they are eligible for VAT, unlike sixth forms in mainstream schools. Will my hon. Friend do something to remedy that anomaly because it is really having an effect on not only my sixth-form college but many others around the country?

We absolutely recognise this “anomaly”, as my hon. Friend calls it, which also applies to further education colleges. It goes along with other freedoms that schools and academies do not have—sixth-form colleges have the freedom to borrow in a way that academies do not—but we nevertheless recognise that this issue is of concern to a lot of sixth-form colleges, and we are actively discussing ways in which we might ameliorate it. However, to get rid of the problem entirely would cost many tens of millions of pounds, which would require us to identify savings that we cannot find at the moment.

I understand that the Minister, who recognises this “anomaly”, has in his rather amiable way when visiting sixth-form colleges been encouraging some of them to consider going for academy status. When that happens, however, his noble friend Lord Nash says, “This isn’t on mate”. Which is right? Can colleges go for academy status or not?

Lord Nash and I are not only great friends but we agree entirely on this issue. It is legally possible under existing provisions for a college to convert to academy status, but there are issues around how the VAT will be dealt with, and how any debt that it has already amassed will be dealt with on its balance sheet. Those issues are tricky, but we are looking at them.

Successive rounds of cuts to sixth-form and further education colleges are having a devastating effect. One principal of a college in the west country—a college recently judged by Ofsted as outstanding and a beacon college—recently told The Times Educational Supplement that

“cuts have taken us to the edge”,

and added that any further cuts would threaten the services the college offers.

Will the Minister commit to Labour’s pledge to protect the education budget in real terms?

I will not commit to a pledge that is as unfunded as every pledge that Labour has made since 2010. Labour Members think that they will pay for all this out of a tax on bankers’ bonuses that has so far been used about 27 times. There was no money left according to the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and that is because Labour has absolutely no idea how to run a budget.