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Sixth-form Education: International Comparisons

Volume 619: debated on Monday 9 January 2017

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

I pay tribute to all those working in sixth-form education for the fantastic work they do on behalf of our young people and our country. I particularly praise the two excellent colleges, North Lindsey and John Leggott, that serve young people in north Lincolnshire. Having led John Leggott as principal before being elected to this House, I know the importance of this phase of education in transforming life opportunities. I also know that, since I stood down as principal, the challenges facing those who lead colleges has been immense. Three direct cuts were imposed on 16 to 18 funding in the last Parliament, whereas five to 16 funding was protected. On top of that 13.6% real-terms cut, colleges now face a further 8% erosion of the current national funding rate over the remainder of this Parliament due to inflation. There are further pressures from increased employer pension and national insurance costs.

The average funding per student in the sixth forms of schools and academies and in sixth-form colleges is now £4,583, which is 20% less than the funding received to educate each 11 to 16-year-old and 47% less than the average university tuition fee of £8,636 per student. How, in all logic, can it be so much cheaper to educate a 16 to 18-year-old than a 15-year-old or a 19-year-old?

The Government claim that they have

“provided sufficient funds for every full-time student to do a full timetable of courses”.

But they have not published any research on the sufficiency of the funding provided to educate 16 to 18-year-olds. In short, the Government do not know how much it costs

“to do a full timetable of courses”.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. With his track record, he is the right person to be leading it. I suspect like many colleagues, I will be mentioning my college, Lowestoft College, but does he agree that sixth-form colleges such as Lowestoft are the underfunded, unsung heroes of the British education system and that, with the right resources, they can play a key role in addressing this country’s productivity gap?

The hon. Gentleman is right to praise Lowestoft College, which, like many colleges in the country, does a fantastic job on behalf of the young people it educates. He is also right to say that these colleges need to be properly funded to ensure they continue to do that good job into the future.

In reality, the national funding rate—currently £4,000 for 16 and 17-year-olds and £3,300 for 18-year-olds—is calculated by taking the settlement arrived at between the Department for Education and the Treasury, and dividing it by the number of students in the 16 to 18 age group. It is no more sophisticated than that. In the independent sector, sixth-form fees are higher than secondary fees to reflect the actual cost of delivery for this age group.

Does my hon. Friend accept the remarkable statistic that sixth-form colleges outperform all other 16 to 19 forms of institution across the country, as has been recorded by the Sixth Form Colleges Association in its wonderful manifesto?

I thank my hon. Friend for rightly highlighting the high level of performance that sixth-form colleges deliver. He does a fantastic job as a governor of Luton Sixth-Form College and as chair of the all-party group on sixth-form colleges.

There is now a significant gap between the funding made available to educate sixth formers and the actual cost of delivering the rounded, high-quality curriculum we would all want to see well into the future.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I, too, have a highly acclaimed sixth-form college in my constituency, Richard Huish College. It has just been shortlisted for The Times Educational Supplement top sixth form awards, and I hope it might win—potentially beating Lowestoft College. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that with the budgetary cuts we have seen the enrichment courses—art, drama and sport—being dropped from many sixth-form colleges? It is often in such areas that the students who might not excel academically could excel. Might there not be a potential knock-on effect on mental health—everybody is talking about that—and spikes in young people’s mental health if we do not enable them to do these much more rounded courses, which are so beneficial?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that certain elements of the curriculum are under threat when there is such pressure on funding. Enrichment activities, including those that address mental health issues, are one of the many activities that have been under threat over the past six years. The dramatic collapse in funding does have an inevitable impact on the education that 16 to 18-year-olds receive. As someone who has managed resources in a sixth-form college, I know that there are only a small number of variables to play with when facing significant funding cuts, as the sector has since 2010. Alongside the usual good management things relating to the back office, procurement, charges, efficiencies and so on, there are a limited number of options: shrink the curriculum offer; increase the teaching staff contact time; reduce student contact time; and increase class sizes. In reality, all those things have to be done to make things hang together.

The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly powerful case. On the issue of underfunding, does he agree that sixth-form colleges are uniquely cruelly treated, because unlike schools and academies they cannot cross-subsidise from the more generous funding available for younger students in schools and they do not receive a VAT reimbursement? So not only are they the most efficient, with the best track record on delivery, but they are the most underfunded section of the higher education area.

The hon. Lady is right to point out the performance of sixth-form colleges and the pressure on their funding. Of course the funding situation for 16 to 18 education is not just affecting sixth-form colleges—it is affecting school sixth forms and academy sixth forms, too. It is affecting all 16 to 18 experience.

Since 2010, the programmes of study followed by students have altered in those typical ways I outlined. Back then, most level 3 students followed a curriculum of four advanced courses in year 1, plus general studies, enrichment and tutorial. They progressed on to three or four courses in year 2, plus enrichment and tutorial. In most cases, as the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) pointed out, the enrichment has gone, the tutorial has shrunk significantly, general studies has largely disappeared and the number of advanced level courses taken is now normally three in both years. That leads to significantly lower student contact time. I know from experience that there is a direct correlation between contact time and achievement, particularly for students who have struggled to achieve at 16.

I thank my north Lincolnshire neighbour for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. On the point he just made, he will know that his neighbouring constituencies in north and north-east Lincolnshire are coastal communities, so have particular problems with social mobility. Does he share my hope that when he responds the Minister will indicate the Government’s continuing support for sixth-form colleges such as Franklin College in Grimsby?

I thank my constituency neighbour for his contribution. Franklin College is, of course, a high-performing, well-regarded sixth-form college, as are all four Humber sixth-form colleges—Wyke College, Wilberforce College and, of course, John Leggott College in Scunthorpe. I am sure the Minister is listening carefully. He is a very good Minister and I am sure he is going to give us all hope for a rosy future when he speaks later in the debate.

The impact of the changes on students has been significant. The Sixth Form Colleges Association’s 2016 funding impact survey shows that sixth-form college education is an increasingly narrow and part-time experience. Two thirds of sixth-form colleges have already dropped courses as a result of funding cuts and cost increases. Some 39% have dropped courses in modern foreign languages, and the vast majority have reduced or removed the extracurricular activities available to students, including music, drama, sport and languages. Worryingly, 64% do not believe that the funding they will receive next year will be sufficient to support students who are educationally or economically disadvantaged—the very point made by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers).

Franklin College in my constituency has already been mentioned. It has experienced significant funding cuts, to the point where it has lost around £1 million per year, resulting in a reduction in the courses offered. Does my hon. Friend think that that will also have an impact if students want to choose a variety of higher education courses to further their education beyond A-level?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is an inevitable impact on the progression into higher education, particularly for courses such as modern foreign languages, as well as, rather worryingly, certain aspects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.

Today, 15 to 17 hours of weekly tuition and support has become the norm for sixth-form students in England, but that would be considered part-time study in most national education systems. Research commissioned by the Sixth Form Colleges Association from the Institute of Education describes sixth-form education in England as “uniquely narrow and short” compared with the model adopted in Shanghai, Singapore, Sweden and elsewhere.

In Shanghai, the upper secondary curriculum is based on eight fundamental subjects: Chinese, mathematics, English, science, thoughts and politics, society, arts and physical education. In addition, there are extended subjects and activities that allow for greater specialisation or for new or collective forms of learning. Finally, there are research-based subjects that take two hours per week. Overall, there is a total of 35 lessons per week, plus an extra hour per day for meetings and physical exercise. Lower and upper secondary education offer broadly the same number of lessons per week, and students receive at least 30 hours of tuition per week.

I rise to speak as one of the vice-chairmen of the all-party group on sixth-form colleges. I am proud to have Greenhead College and Huddersfield New College in my neck of the woods. I went to both their awards evenings last week. Greenhead College was celebrating 60 of its students getting their Duke of Edinburgh gold award, while 85% of New College students went on to university and academically it is in the top 10% nationally. Nevertheless, as we have heard there are huge funding challenges. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the conclusions of this debate should be that we have a review of funding so that it really does tackle the realistic costs of providing a well-rounded range of subjects so that we can compete internationally?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He is absolutely on the money—literally and metaphorically. The Minister needs to review the funding and to check that we are appropriately resourcing that well-rounded education that we all want to see. The reason for making these international comparatives is to say, “Well this is what is being invested in other high performing systems.” If we want to compete effectively with those high-performing systems, we need to be willing to look at what we are doing in a self-critical way and to set out our stall accordingly. I am sure that that is what the Minister will want to do when he comes to speak later on in the debate.

In Singapore, the upper secondary curriculum is based on core examination subjects, elective examination subjects and compulsory non-examination subjects. The core examination subjects are studied for around eight hours a week. Students choose three to four elective subjects and study each for around four to six hours a week. Compulsory non-examination subjects—assembly, physical education and character development—take up to four hours a week. Students receive between 27 hours’ tuition and support for those taking three elective subjects and 32 hours for those taking four. The duration of study is either two or three years.

Let us make a European comparison. In Sweden, where I worked for a number of years, upper secondary education is structured primarily through three-year national programmes. Each programme covers a series of foundation subjects—English, history, physical education and health, mathematics, science studies, social studies, Swedish and religion. In addition, a number of subjects specific to a given programme are chosen. Students receive around 19 hours of tuition a week, but, crucially, this entitlement is for three years rather than two.

The Institute of Education concludes its report by describing the English model as

“low hours and short duration.”

Students in other leading education systems receive more tuition time, study more subjects, and in some cases benefit from a three-year programme of study rather than a two-year programme.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this subject to the House. In fact, the issue has been raised in my constituency by the principal of Barton Peveril, who has talked about the problems relating to enrichment, the narrowing of education, efficiency and cross-funding, which are at the heart of our children’s education, and of course about the impact internationally. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government were to look at this matter, there would be an impact on our universities? I am talking about them having to pick up the pieces of our narrow education if we are to compete internationally.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. In some ways, she reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn).

As I said, the Institute of Education describes the English model as

“low hours and short duration.”

By contrast with their peers elsewhere in the world, students in England receive around half as much tuition time and are following a three-subject diet. In addition, the funding cut for 18-year-old students has created a financial disincentive for schools and colleges to offer young people a third year to complete their sixth-form studies—and these are the very young people who need the additional support and additional time.

The Institute of Education contrasted the narrowing of the curriculum in England when students reach the sixth form compared with the model adopted by our international competitors. It said that

“unlike other national systems where the amount of tuition actually increases in upper secondary education when compared with the lower secondary phase, the English experience is the opposite. The sharp reduction in the number of subjects studied post-16 (an average of four subjects, now reducing to three) compared with pre-16 (10+ GCSEs or vocational equivalent) appears to represent sudden movement to a part-time curriculum.”

Bizarrely, despite these huge pressures on mainstream 16 to 18-year-olds, the Government have, since 2010, been able to spend money on unproven, untested and different types of provision for 16 to 18-year-olds. That is money that could have been spent on mainstream students. It has been unwise indulgence in political peccadillos at a time when there is contraction in both the population and the budgets.

Some 169 new academy and maintained sixth forms were opened between 2010 and 2015, but the total number of enrolled school students has been static. Average cohort sizes were already small and have declined further. Curiously, the Department for Education offers little in the way of practical advice to make school sixth forms work and has not researched the effectiveness of the reforms that have brought in so many smaller sixth forms.

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

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

In March 2016, Ministers introduced five new tests to ensure that new sixth forms are viable, which I welcome, but that was a limited step because it does not cover sixth forms that are already open. There is now a long tail of small institutions, with 1,180 school sixth forms enrolling fewer than 100 students. There is emerging evidence that some of their performance is not quite what we would wish it to be.

Meanwhile, university technical colleges have struggled to achieve viability in a system currently built around exams and transfer at age 16. As a result, six have closed and one did not open as planned. A sensible policy from the Department for Education would be to review sixth forms that are particularly small or underperforming, in the interests of value for money at a time when money is short.

May I add to the adulation that my hon. Friend is rightly receiving for his speech tonight? I cannot help mentioning Ashton Sixth Form College, which is just outside my constituency—it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is sitting on the Front Bench. Does he agree that one of the strange bits of Government policy, as I understand it, is that where demand does exist for more sixth-form provision, that can be met only through the creation of school, academy or free school sixth-form provision? That seems very strange, given the credit that has rightly been given to the sixth-form sector by Members on both sides of the House this evening.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Minister is listening carefully and will obviously take that point on board, along with the other points that hon. Members have made.

I would like to conclude by posing a few questions to the Minister. Why are sixth-formers in England funded to receive only half the tuition time and support available to sixth-formers in Shanghai, Singapore and other leading education systems? Why are sixth-formers in England facing a standard diet of just three advanced-level subjects, while those in other international systems can study eight or nine?

It is good to have a Secretary of State who was educated in the comprehensive system and who attended a comprehensive sixth-form college—it is a first that I very much welcome. She will be well aware that 744,000 16 to 18-year-olds choose to study in colleges, while 433,000 choose to study in schools. All are affected by the squeeze in funding for their age group. Will she therefore move away from funding sixth-formers based on an arbitrary funding rate and conduct a review of funding to ensure that it is linked to a realistic cost of delivering a rounded, high-quality curriculum? Will she agree to work with the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the Association of Colleges and the Association of School and College Leaders in conducting the review, building on the current evidence base?

Finally, in the state sector, education funding decreases at the age of 16 to an average of £4,583 per student, per year. In the independent sector, school fees increase at the age of 16 to an average of £15,333 per student, per year. What does the Minister think are the implications of that for social mobility? On the day when the Prime Minister has made an important speech on the matter, it sounds to me like the sort of everyday injustice that she would be keen to tackle in her desire to build a shared society.

May I start by adding to House’s adulation of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and congratulate him on securing the debate? Ensuring high-quality post-16 education is a priority for the Government and for the country. We recognise the contribution of the dedicated staff working in all types of post-16 education and the hard work of students. In fact, a record proportion of young people are now participating in education, training or apprenticeships. I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) the assurance that the Government support sixth-form colleges, including the sixth-form college mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and Franklin College in Grimsby.

Education and training in England is widely respected around the world, but we are determined to make further improvements to ensure that 16 to 19-year-olds are ready for the demands of the workplace by moving directly into skilled employment or by continuing to higher education. We are therefore reforming academic and technical education for over-16s and we are learning from the best international systems.

All countries that we look to learn from have a stage of education that no longer exclusively takes place in school. At this stage, there are options for students to gain relevant experience to prepare them for work either through apprenticeships or technical education, as we heard in the previous debate, or to prepare for further academic study at university. The way that works and the age at which it starts varies considerably around the world. For example, in countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, there is a high level of investment by employers in vocational training in the secondary phase and an early emphasis on workplace training. That leads to lower rates of young people who are not in education, employment or training than in England, but the difference in academic standards between pupils from different socioeconomic backgrounds in those countries is larger than in England.

By contrast, only about one fifth of 15 to 19-year-olds in countries such as Japan and Korea are enrolled in vocational upper-secondary programmes. The remaining 80% of those cohorts continue a rigorous academic programme. It is useful to benchmark ourselves—if “to benchmark” is a new verb—against such countries to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our education system and to raise our expectations of what students here can achieve. That is why I am determined that we should improve our maths teaching by learning from the high-performing Asian systems such as those in Shanghai, Singapore and Japan by adopting maths mastery through the maths hubs programme, but it is not simply a case of choosing one country to learn from. Our priority should be making our whole system world class.

There is much to be proud of in comparing our education system to other countries. For example, England’s 15-year-olds continue to perform significantly above the OECD average in science and, in 2015, England’s 15-year-olds performed above average in reading for the first time. However, our performance in maths remains at the OECD average and a survey of adult skills identified our 16 to 18-year-olds as having the weakest literacy and numeracy skills out of 18 countries in 2012. We need to take action to deal with areas of poor performance. In the case of literacy and numeracy, we have now made the continued study of English and maths in post-16 education and training compulsory for students who did not achieve a good GCSE pass at age 16. More broadly, we are reforming both academic and technical education.

International examples of programme hours are widely used, but those comparisons need to be carefully interpreted. It is important that we understand what the estimates include, how programmes of longer duration or higher intensity are funded and how they sit beside other routes for young people to take from school to work. It is not always clear in the various studies where work experience is included in the figures. Certainly in the planned hours used to benchmark our own programmes for funding, we do not include self-directed study or homework, which is a key part of this phase of education. It is important that we develop a system that serves our pupils and our economy.

In England, we have an established academic route for sixth-form students through well-respected A-level qualifications. It is true that our system requires pupils to make choices and therefore, to a certain extent, to specialise in a smaller number of subjects for the sixth-form stage, but some degree of specialisation is a feature of systems in other countries as well. Through the A-level route, our academic system at post-16 is effective in preparing pupils for successful futures through in-depth study of the subjects they choose. We have some of the best universities in the world, and the proportion of English students studying in higher education is now larger than it has ever been. That includes the highest ever entry rate for the most disadvantaged 18-year-olds.

Of course, we are not standing still, and we are strengthening the design of A-levels to make sure that pupils continue to be fully equipped for the future. We have given higher education providers a leading role in redesigning a number of key A-levels, to ensure that pupils who take these qualifications are prepared for undergraduate-level study. We have also redesigned the assessment model, increasing the time available for high-quality teaching rather than taking exams.

Where we have not matched our neighbours is in technical education, where we have a major programme of reform under way. The landmark review of vocational education for 14 to 19-year-olds conducted by Professor Alison Wolf in 2011 found that at least 350,000 16 to 19-year-olds were working towards vocational qualifications that offered no clear progression routes. The review led to the introduction of new study programmes and of per-student funding instead of per-qualification funding to ensure fair funding for FE colleges in line with other 16-to-19 institutions. As a direct result of the recommendations in the Wolf report, we now include only approved qualifications in performance tables. This means that young people can have confidence that their qualifications will enable them to progress to further study or into employment.

However, we recognise that the system is still not doing enough to support students who wish to pursue technical education. We recognise that we are still not matching the most effective systems of technical education in other European economies. That is why, following publication of the Sainsbury review, we are embarking on a radical reform of England’s post-16 technical education system. Learning from the best technical education systems overseas, we are working to introduce new technical routes that will enable young people to gain the knowledge and skills required for work, according to standards designed in partnership with employers. Bringing training for young people and adults in line with the needs of business and industry will support increases in productivity, which has lagged behind, even as economic growth and employment levels have improved. It will also help to ensure that young people and adults can move into sustained and skilled careers that lead to prosperity and security.

Alongside that, we are continuing the reform of apprenticeships, as we have heard. We are increasing the quality of apprenticeships through more rigorous assessment and grading at the end of the apprenticeship. We are also giving employers control of the funding so they become more demanding customers. We are committed to reaching 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020.

I genuinely very much welcome the Minister’s support for the sixth-form sector and sixth-form colleges, but he has been speaking for nearly 10 minutes and has said nothing about the arbitrary funding that has been the focus of so much of the concern expressed on both sides of the House. Will he commit to look at this funding issue? Will the Government look at how much funding is required for the rounded curriculum that sixth-form colleges want to deliver? Colleges in my constituency, such as Varndean College and Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College, are desperate to deliver it but are being undermined by the lack of funding, which the Minister still has not really addressed.

If only the hon. Lady had waited just two more seconds, we would have come to that pivotal part of my response to the debate.

Clearly, the right level of funding needs to be in place to match our ambitious academic and technical reforms. In 2013, investment in education in the UK as a whole—combining public and private sources—was above the OECD average across all phases, including post-16. We have made the system more coherent so that school sixth forms and colleges are all funded and have their performance reported in the same way. Funding is on a per-student basis, giving schools and colleges the freedom to design the best programmes for their students, rather than rewarding institutions for providing large numbers of small qualifications that have little value.

The Minister says that all institutions are treated the same, but free schools, in particular, were outwith the area reviews of provision that we have just seen undertaken in many parts of the country. Is he aware of Connell Sixth Form College in my constituency, which was opened by a grammar school and has recently received a “requires improvement” Ofsted rating? That sixth-form college is operating below the numbers required to sustain it, and it was outwith the area review. Does he think that is a good use of public funds in the context of this debate?

Area reviews can take schools into account, but 2,000 or more schools have sixth forms, and if we were to bring them all into the area reviews, that would make the whole system unmanageable. The free school system was introduced to challenge the status quo in terms of sixth forms and in terms of schools themselves, because in the past we have had monopoly provision of new schools. The free school movement has been phenomenal in opening up sixth forms such as King’s College London Mathematics School, where 100% of youngsters are getting A or A* grades in maths A-level, and Exeter Mathematics School. These schools are challenging the status quo in these areas and providing a very high-quality education. We need to see more of those innovative and demanding free sixth-form schools that open up for young people opportunities that they would not otherwise have had.

I have been listening to the Minister very carefully. Does he accept that the research available demonstrates that since 2010 the funding for 16 to 18-year-olds has been reduced in real terms, and that the impact of that has been to reduce the level of tuition time to 13 to 17 hours per student? I am interested in whether he recognises that as an issue, and if so, whether he sees it as a problem.

I absolutely recognise that resources are tight for 16-to-19 education and training. In recent years, we have had to make some post-16 savings while working hard to sustain funding levels for schools, bearing in mind the fact that success in school pre-16 is the best predictor of outcomes in post-16 education.

We have made clear commitments to 16-to-19 education, where we have protected the base rate of funding at £4,000 per student for all types of providers until 2020. This was announced in the 2015 spending review, at a time when public finances are under great pressure. Providers receive additional funding for students taking part in more expensive programmes, and there is also a large programme uplift for providers who have pupils studying four or more A-levels, provided they achieve minimum grade requirements, and about £540 million of funding is allocated each year to enable schools and colleges to give extra support to disadvantaged students. That is essential in helping those from poorer backgrounds or those who, pre-16, have not attained well enough to get the help they need to succeed.

Overall, we plan to invest about £7 billion during 2016-17—taking apprenticeships together with other education and training options—to ensure that there is a place in education or training for every 16 to 19-year-old who wants one. This commitment means that all types of providers are funded for 600 planned hours per year per full-time student. That level of funding supports a significant programme of study. For example, it will allow for three A-levels and 50 hours of tutorials, plus either one AS-level or about 150 hours of enrichment or work experience. While we have not been able to protect budgets for sixth-form education in real terms, there is funding to ensure that every sixth-form age student has the opportunity to undertake high-quality study that will help them to move on to skilled work or further or higher education.

Our commitment to the post-16 sector has contributed to the current record-high proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in education, training or apprenticeships, and the lowest proportion of young people not in education, employment or training since consistent records began in 1994. Applications to higher education from 18-year-olds are at an all-time high.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe for raising this important issue. I recognise that there is more to do to continue improving our post-16 education system to ensure it is established as one of the world’s best, but we should be proud of the achievements so far and recognise that we are building a system that is both affordable and in keeping with our country’s needs.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.