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House of Commons Hansard

A-Level Provision: Knowsley Metropolitan Borough

27 February 2018
Volume 636

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered A-Level provision in Knowsley Metropolitan Borough.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to welcome all my fellow Knowsley metropolitan borough MPs to the debate, plus others from nearby who clearly have an interest in education. I also welcome the Minister, who has a long-standing interest in the matter. Indeed, I think we first had a meeting with him on this very issue sometime in June 2016. The matter is therefore not recent; it has concerned my colleagues and I—and, I hope and believe, the Department—for well over two years.

    Knowsley is now the only sizeable English metropolitan authority that does not have A-level provision within its borders. It is a matter of some disgrace that young people living in such a large borough, with such a large urban population, cannot take A-levels within the boundaries of the authority. Those who wish to do so—and many do—have to leave the borough. That is not good, and it should not persist any longer than it has to. Indeed, only two other English authorities that have some responsibility for education have no A-level provision within their borders: the Isle of Wight, which has its own issues as an island, and the City of London, which does not have that many residents.

  • In Carmel College, 400 pupils—just under 25%—come from Knowsley. That is exactly the same position as two years ago.

  • My hon. Friend has dug out some interesting numbers from Carmel College, a sixth-form college in St Helens. It is some miles away from Knowsley. It is fair to say that it is not the easiest place to get to. It is on the edge of the green belt on the edge of St Helens. If I had to get there without my car, it would not be immediately obvious to me how to do that. For young people from Knowsley or Halewood—the part of Knowsley in my constituency—having to go to that college presents significant extra difficulties, costs and barriers to their ability to take up A-levels.

    Halewood Academy sixth form was closed in the summer of 2017. The closure had been mooted from the previous spring. That was when my colleagues and I first sought meetings with Ministers in the Department. The Minister here today first met with us about the issue back in May or June 2016. The sixth form closed, notwithstanding the fact that it left the entire borough without A-level provision within its borders. Any young people who did well in their GCSEs at Halewood Academy were then required to leave the borough to take up A-levels and post-16 education. It is not acceptable for young people anywhere to have to do that, particularly not when those born in Knowsley begin life with greater disadvantages than most pupils who might go on to study A-levels and post-16 education.

    Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council is second on the list of most deprived local authority areas on the indices of multiple deprivation, with 45% of its neighbourhoods in the highly deprived category. Despite many efforts by Governments of all persuasions, it has a long-standing history of educational under-attainment. The Government have had initiatives—not enough in my view—that have led to extra support going to Knowsley. Previous Labour Governments of which I was a member also had many initiatives, including building new schools and new educational establishments. None of those things has thus far resulted in educational attainment being sufficiently improved. It has gone up and it has gone down, but it has consistently been below average, and that is still the case.

    Knowsley is precisely the kind of place where we need to ensure that educational opportunities are available and present in every community. They need to be easily accessible. We should encourage young people who have the potential—many do—to study post-16. In particular, we should encourage them to do academic A-levels, which provide such an excellent route into better chances in life educationally, such as going on to higher education and university in the traditional way. It also offers job opportunities and economic activity that can lead to prosperity later in life. Knowsley is just the kind of place where A-levels need to be accessed by as many people as possible. It is not the kind of place where that opportunity should be difficult to access.

    There have been some improvements over the past year, for which I congratulate schools, but Knowsley’s performance is currently among the worst on some educational attainment measures at GCSE. It is still below average, although things have improved over the past year on the attainment 8 measure, which is the one that is often cited. Good education is a right for all in a civilised society, no matter the circumstances of birth of an individual. We should judge ourselves as a nation and as a society on whether we can ensure that people born in Knowsley—with all the disadvantages that that often carries with it and implies—have just as much chance of meeting their potential in education and life as anyone born with greater advantages living elsewhere.

    In addition to that being the right thing to do—in their rhetoric, the Government say they wish to do it—it is the key to the future economic prosperity of the English regions, such as Merseyside and the wider north-west. Our success as a region absolutely depends on us having available a highly educated workforce and developing the full potential of all our children and young people academically and economically. If we do not manage to do so, it is very likely that our area and region will fall further behind some of the other regions in our nation that manage to fully develop the potential of their young people.

    Doing A-levels and going through the academic route on to university is one tried and trusted method by which those born with disadvantages in life can meet their potential academically and economically. That improves social mobility in our communities, our region and our society more generally, helping to improve the economy of the nation as a whole. It is for that reason, among others, that I am particularly concerned about what has been happening with post-16 education in Knowsley. I fear that the Government are not doing as well on that measure as I wish they would and as I hope they wish they would. They are inadvertently letting down my constituents who live in Halewood.

    The Government’s approach to these matters fails because it unfortunately has no analysis of the impact of deprivation on educational attainment and no analysis of the disadvantage that results. As a consequence, Government educational policy does not seek in practice—it often does so rhetorically—to counteract disadvantage. It simply assesses numbers and standards and applies money on the basis of numbers and judges on the basis of standards. While that is one way of doing things, it does not do the job in an area such as Knowsley, which has deep-seated and long-standing issues with disadvantage and educational attainment.

    As the Minister well knows, my colleagues and I have been raising this issue since March 2016, when I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). In addition, I have had a number of meetings with Ministers in the past two years, usually attended by my colleagues. There has been a dizzying array of Ministers before us—it has been like a merry-go-round—although I am very pleased that the Minister with us today is still in his post. His memory reaches back to those early meetings, so he knows how seriously local representatives have taken this matter. I know how seriously he takes his responsibilities, and I am glad he is answering the debate today.

    I do not think I am misrepresenting the Government if I say that they accepted from an early stage in the meetings that the current situation—having no A-level provision within the borders of an entire metropolitan borough—is unacceptable and unsustainable. At a meeting a year ago with Lord Nash, who was then one of the Minister’s colleagues, we were promised that a new and excellent provider would be brought into Knowsley to restore academic A-level provision and that capital money would be provided to facilitate that if necessary. Since that time, I think the Department has backtracked from that commitment. It has supported reintroducing A-level provision, possibly including some academic A-levels, through the merger of Knowsley Community College and St Helens College at the Stockbridge Lane site in Huyton. I understand that that will happen; such a merger was on the cards anyway.

    We have also been told, following an assessment by the Education Funding Agency, that there is no need for any new provision on the basis of its usual criteria. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and I could have told the Ministers responsible that anyway. Indeed, we did tell them in meetings that the situation does not fit into the Education Funding Agency’s usual criteria for providing extra support and provision, because the issue is not that there has been a sudden boost in population or increase in the number of people wanting to study A-levels in the borough. The issue is that the available provision has simply disappeared, been closed and been taken elsewhere, for various reasons none of which has to do with the situations of the students and potential students themselves.

    The situation was therefore never likely to fit the usual criteria that the Education Funding Agency applies, and I do not believe that it was particularly useful to go through that process, although of course the local authority did so, along with officials in the Education Funding Agency. Surprise, surprise, it decided that there was no real need for new provision. That was not what we had been promised in the meeting with Lord Nash. We were promised the introduction of an excellent provider, so that A-level provision, including academic A-level provision, could be brought back within the borough boundaries and expanded.

    Let me be clear: I welcome the new provision being introduced as a consequence of the merger of Knowsley Community College and St Helens College. It is an entirely good thing that that will be available, but I worry about the extent to which it will solve the problem, for a number of reasons. I understand from parliamentary answers from December, and from the college itself, that there have been 113 applications so far for the new provision mooted at the merged college, and that a set of 21 subjects, including some academic A-levels, might be available in the curriculum of the new merged college. No one can really enlighten me—perhaps the Minister might be able to in his reply, or subsequently—about whether all 21 subjects will be run, or whether that depends on how many people apply; it would be unusual for the subjects to be run regardless of how many people do so.

  • The advice is that there has been an impressive number of applications so far, suggesting significant aspiration among school leavers in Knowsley to study A-levels, and an offer of 21 subjects, many of them A-levels. Is my hon. Friend concerned that people may be applying thinking that everything they want to do will definitely be on offer?

  • I think if one looks at a curriculum and is given 21 subjects to choose from, it would not be unusual to expect that, if one chooses a course, it will be run. However, it is not clear to me that they will be. When I asked the chief executive at the college about that, I was told that

    “the number of subjects that will run will of course depend on demand.”

    I was not told what the minimum number of pupils is that will guarantee that one of the A-levels on offer will be run. As far as I can see, there is no guarantee that any of the courses will be run from September of this year. We hope that they all will be, but I can see no guarantee of that in the answers that I have received, nor have I had any indication of what the minimum number of pupils required will be to ensure that a course is run.

    When I was at school, which admittedly was a very long time ago now, I was told at my local comprehensive that I could choose any A-level subject and the school would put it on, which is indeed what happened. We are not in that game anymore, unfortunately. I do not know how many or how few people have to apply for A-level English language, or A-level politics for that matter, for that course to be run. I also do not know whether that course, if and when it is run, will be run at the Knowsley site in Huyton, because St Helens College has links elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston has already referred to the so-called partnership plan with Carmel College, which is a long way outside the Knowsley borough boundaries.

    The provision is welcome, and I do not wish to sound churlish, but if it results in no opportunity for local young people over the age of 16 to study academic A-levels and other A-levels within the borough boundaries, we have not moved any further. My difficulty is that it is harder for young people born and brought up in Knowsley, owing to their educational disadvantage, family circumstances and deprivation, to do A-levels than it is for people with a more advantaged family background. Such people may have had a more advantaged upbringing, more of an understanding in their family of the value of academic study, and a more supportive environment at home. It is easier for young people in those circumstances to take on and do A-levels than it is for young people examining their options in Knowsley.

    It is doubly difficult if doing A-levels and academic A-levels means an additional cost of getting to college, or the additional barrier of having to get to this or that campus, five to 20 miles away. That can make the difference between a young person taking on the A-level study or not. When there is disadvantage already, having that additional barrier makes it much less likely that a young person will take up the A-level provision available. I fear that the double disadvantage that faces young people in deprived areas puts more people off studying than would be the case if they could just go to the sixth form in their local school. Those who take that option end up having to leave the borough, and even that has the additional barriers I mentioned of extra cost and time. They may also have to travel in a way that is not easy, perhaps if the family does not have a car or if the bus routes are not very good and do not go frequently to the place where A-levels can be studied.

    To the credit of St Helens and the merged college, and Knowsley Community College, they have put on a bus that will take young people from my constituency to the site in Huyton. The Minister knows that we have geographical challenges in Knowsley because of the shape of the borough and the fact that there are three very distinct centres of population, none of which is particularly well served by buses running between them, which presents practical difficulties.

    A bus is to be put on, but a young person from Halewood would have to get on that bus at 7.25 in the morning in order to get to the site in Huyton more than an hour later, going around the houses and through most bits of Liverpool on the way—the congested bits, I noticed, looking at the route—and would not get back to the pick-up point in Halewood until 10 to six. As the Minister knows, A-level studies are not eight hours of lessons every day. If someone has to get on a bus at 7.25 and does not get home till 10 to six, with perhaps one or two hours of study on site, that is not a tremendously practical way to convince a young person to think that it is a good option. What else might the Department and the Minister do to deal with that additional barrier—that extra disadvantage of having to wait for a bus, which is free—that young people from my bit of Knowsley and Halewood have in getting to the site in Huyton, if the A-levels are all to be taught there?

    How many young people in Huyton will simply decide that there is some other option but A-levels that they will do instead? How many will decide that A-levels are not for them? What is the consequence of that over time? It makes it look like young people and communities such as Halewood are not interested in higher education or in post-16 studies that lead to job and economic opportunities in later life that might help their social mobility. That is not a good thing and will not tackle the ingrained disadvantage I have been talking about.

    The relative widening of the gap between the educational opportunities available to those who are better off in areas that are better off, and those who are not, is a great worry for the future of social mobility in our society, and for economic opportunity. Analysis by the Centre for Cities has shown a widening gap in educational opportunities between northern and southern cities. Places with the weakest economies have less access to quality higher education, which compounds existing economic divides and makes them grow.

    The Government recognise that trend because they introduced opportunity areas to try to counteract precisely that effect by supporting better educational provision. Inexplicably, they have not awarded that status to Knowsley. Inexplicably, Knowsley metropolitan borough was so far down the list on the criteria that I do not see how it could have been awarded that status. I would suggest to the Minister that there might be something wrong with the criteria. If a borough such as Knowsley does not come out pretty high up on that kind of measure, I do not understand the criteria.

    Nothing I am saying should be taken as critical of the local authority, which literally has almost no levers left to pull in respect of secondary schooling in Knowsley. There are no directly controlled local authority maintained secondary schools, only academies or church schools. All of them are part of multi-academy trusts based outside the borough. The only thing that the authority can do is try to persuade and cajole. They have no power or levers to pull. The Minister knows that financial imperatives apply to multi-academy trusts and academies that give them little leeway to do things in the interests of local communities—that might cost money that the academy wishes to use for something else.

    I am also not criticising Halewood Academy. Once it was forced into academisation by a bad Ofsted, it had no option but to close its sixth form for financial reasons, no matter what the consequences for the almost 100 pupils who were studying for A-levels at the time. Since that unfortunate event, it has taken welcome strides towards improving its GCSE results, which I welcome very much. Pupils, teachers and governors have worked very hard at that school, and I congratulate them on their work and the progress they have made.

    Knowsley borough council is implementing a local deal for improving access to A-levels, along with its partner organisations; trying to improve links between primary and secondary schools; celebrating and highlighting school achievements; and trying to boost mentoring programmes and other useful and worthy initiatives. But let us be honest: they are tinkering at the edges of a major problem in educational opportunities faced by our communities. The council no longer has the power to intervene as directly as it once did.

    I have a few questions for the Minister, and would ask for a response, if not today, later, if he needs a bit more time to consider them. Will he guarantee that academic A-levels will be taught within the borough boundaries from September this year, as a consequence of the merger between Knowsley Community College and St Helens College? What is the minimum number of people accepted on a course for it to be run, rather than for it to be on the curriculum but not actually taught, and for us to be told that not enough people have applied? Will the Minister guarantee that candidates will not be expected to travel to additional sites to do their courses if they accept places at the Knowsley Community College site, because some of the sites they would have to travel to are a long way away, which would present another difficulty for those pupils?

    Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us about what the partnership with Carmel College consists of and its implications. If people will have to travel to that site, that does not put us in a different position to the current one in terms of A-level provision within the borough boundaries.

    Will the Minister tell us what extra money the Government are putting in to assist in solving the ongoing problems with A-level provision in Knowsley? I have set out some of the additional challenges and disadvantages. Given that Knowsley did not fit the criteria for opportunity areas, perhaps the Minister will tell us what additional support his Department can give.

    What plans does he have to recognise deprivation and educational disadvantage in the how he funds post-16 provision? It worries me that the problem we have in Knowsley now might be something that we see in other areas, such as the south Liverpool part of my constituency. We are already seeing newly built schools closing because they had a bad Ofsted, and other newly built schools being forced into academisation—it is not clear who the sponsors will be and what will happen to their sixth forms. I fear that, because of how the Department funds post-16 education, where standards tie in with forced academisation, for example, and the financial imperatives on academies, we may, over time, see developing deserts of post-16 opportunity in places that are already blighted by disadvantage. A number of our sixth forms and newly built schools will be forced to close because of the interaction between standards and numbers at post-16, leading to the closure of provision, which can be even more detrimental for areas already disadvantaged in accessing opportunity.

    I am not convinced that the Department and the Government’s policy goes far enough to understand, recognise and do something about entrenched disadvantage and the lack of educational attainment. Instead, it looks simply at standards and numbers. An area such as Knowsley will never be advantaged if one looks simply at standards and numbers, because of the existing long-standing disadvantage. That is quite enough from me, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I have to call the Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition at 5.7 pm. Until then, George Howarth, the time is yours.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate on an issue that we have been concerned about, as she rightly said, for several years.

    I recall that during the meeting with Lord Nash in, I think, July 2016, to which my hon. Friend referred, I suggested that what was then Knowsley Community College—it is now the merged St Helens and Knowsley Community College—should be the provider. The then Minister and his officials were very negative about the potential for that to happen. It therefore came as something of a surprise, although a pleasant one, when it was announced last year that the new A-level provision based in north Huyton in my constituency would indeed be the merged St Helens and Knowsley Community College. As my hon. Friend said, the intention at the time appeared to be to look for a provider with a strong track record in A-level provision—not necessarily in Knowsley or even Liverpool, but further afield than Knowsley. I do not want to mislead anybody. Like my hon. Friend, I am delighted that from next September there will be A-level provision at the college, but there seems to have been a change that nobody has ever explained to us between the initial meeting in July 2016 and what eventually happened.

    I will be brief, because we are short of time. I welcome the fact that there will be 21 A-level subjects on offer, linked up with other qualifications, and that, as my hon. Friend said, there will be a wide range of subjects, including English literature, English language, mathematics and more specialist subjects such as politics, product design and computer science. Offering those subjects is a good step forward, although they will be not necessarily pure A-level courses but a combination of BTEC and A-levels.

    I welcome the fact that there is a three-year commitment to the proposal because, given what I am about to say about the problems confronting the college, it will take three years. I also welcome the fact that, because of issues relating to Knowsley’s geography which we have talked about all along, there will be free transport arrangements, including from Halewood and Kirkby in my constituency, which will enable students to travel to the centre of the borough. Hopefully, that inducement will enable them to overcome what my hon. Friend described as insurmountable travel problems.

    I want to point out something that is not generally known, which is that it is not quite true that there is no A-level provision anywhere else in Knowsley. I visited All Saints Catholic High School in my constituency last Friday, and I met a group of students—10 young women in year 11—called the scholars group. Some of them will stay on at the school to do a combination of A-level and BTEC courses. Admittedly, only the art, graphics and textiles A-level is on offer, in addition to which there are BTEC courses in business, health and social care, science, sport and performing arts. It is a relatively small sixth form, and it offers a narrow range of options.

    I was very encouraged to meet those young women, together with the headteacher, and to find out what they felt about the offer that the college is putting forward. Interestingly—this is a challenge for the new arrangements—not one of those 10 young women intends to study A-levels at the newly established A-level academy in north Huyton. They intend to go to Carmel College, which as we have already heard will be part of the arrangements, although we are not clear exactly how, and to Winstanley College in Wigan—that may seem strange, but there is a connection between some schools in Kirkby and Winstanley College, and some young people are prepared to travel that far to get a good course. A couple of them hope to go to a fee-paying school—Merchant Taylors’ in Crosby, which is in Sefton —on a scholarship.

    The challenge for the new college—I hope the Minister will think about how the Government might support it in this—is that the young people in year 11 have already made decisions about where they want to go, and they are understandably choosing to go to colleges that have a good track record in A-levels. That is something we need to address if those young people decide in the end to go to the college. There are a lot of advantages to the offer, and I hope that a lot of young people will take it up—we have heard that there is a lot of interest already—but I think it will take three years, which is what the plan is, before it is established on a proper footing.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this debate. She started with the principle that good education is a right for all. That should happen everywhere—not just in areas of advantage, but in areas of disadvantage. She succinctly outlined the issues facing young people in her borough, where 45% of young people grow up in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) has championed this issue for a number of years. They are MPs looking for a solution for the common good. They are not just critical of Government policy; they want to do the best for their borough. He gave some extraordinarily powerful testimony about the young people studying at All Saints and talked about what their future might look like.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood rightly talked about the gap between the north and the south. Evidence from Government reviews shows that, if we draw a line from the Humber estuary to the Mersey estuary, the number of children getting five good GCSEs is about 34%. In London, the previous Labour Government and the London challenge brought the number there right up so that nowadays 50% of children receiving free school meals in London achieve five good GCSEs or more. That gap needs to be challenged. It is not just me and the Labour party saying that. The former chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that

    “the people of Liverpool, Manchester and the north are not being treated fairly—that their children have less of a chance of educational success than people south of the Wash.”

    I do not want to talk about my constituency—although there is good provision in my city, it is being centralised to locations many miles away in certain colleges. My hon. Friend said that we are creating deserts of post-16 education in the poorest areas. That is probably the quote for today.

    The further education sector educates more than 4 million people a year in England, with students shared between mandatory education and university, including those going back to education in later life. Under the coalition Government, spending on further education in sixth forms fell by 14% in real terms. Core funding is only protected in cash terms up to 2019-20. At the end of the spending review period in ’19-20, the Institute for Fiscal Studies expects that the spending per student in further education will be just above the level 30 years ago, at the end of the 1980s.

    Since 2010, the sector has faced sustained budget cuts amounting to 14% in real terms. That has had a number of serious consequences for the provision of further education, from a sharp rise in the number of providers facing a financial crisis to many reducing the number of courses they have to offer or, as in Knowsley, courses going altogether. Between 2010-11 and 2016-17, spending on 16-to-19 education fell by 17.5% in real terms.

    On A-levels, as our Front-Bench team under my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) have raised time and time again, the funding that sixth-form colleges, schools and academies now receive to educate sixth formers covers the cost of delivering three A-level or equivalent qualifications and little more. According to the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the average annual funding received by sixth-form colleges and school or academy sixth forms is now only £4,531 per student. That is 21% less than the funding received to educate younger students in secondary schools, 48% less than the average university tuition fee and 70% less than the average sixth-form fee in the independent sector.

    In March 2017, plans were announced to increase investment in 16-to-19 education for students studying technical courses in further education colleges. That will have no impact on the vast majority of students in sixth-form colleges, or school or academy sixth forms, as they are primarily studying academic qualifications such as A-levels.

    To come back to the Knowsley situation, the essence of what has been raised today involves six secondary schools in the borough, four of which have been academised. The Gove reforms introduced by the former Education Secretary threw the sector up into the air and brought it down so that there is now little chance of local elements changing the dynamic in their boroughs, because we have lost the principle of subsidiarity in education that was enshrined by Ellen Wilkinson, the first Labour Minister of Education in ’45, when she implemented the Butler Act.

    Local leaders can do very little now. Michael Wilshaw has said that he wants to see MPs, such as the MPs present today, leading the charge for higher standards and better education, but there is little that they, local leaders or even elected city-wide Mayors or council leaders can do nowadays, because the power has been brought back to Whitehall. As we have seen, however, Whitehall cannot run 24,000 schools from the centre.

  • As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood rightly said, Knowsley as a local borough council does not have a great deal of purchase in the situation, but it is worth placing on record the support we did get from the local authority and its officers with the Department to bring that about.

  • I too praise Knowsley for all it is trying to do to get the best provision. It now has no hand in four of its schools, although it has soft power, and its direct influence is on only the two Roman Catholic schools, which are yet to be academised. They are all working as hard as they can with the Archdiocese of Liverpool.

    I will finish as I began with what Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing head of Ofsted, talked about. He warned that any attempts to achieve a geographic rebalancing of the British economy would be fatally undermined if children in the north of England could not be better educated. We cannot leave the education of our young people to chance, under a veil of ignorance, just because the place they are born and brought up in has differential levels of education. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is right: education is a right for all our young people, no matter where they are born and brought up or what their social circumstances are. The Government must remember that in their response today.

  • If the Minister finishes his remarks no later than 5.27 pm that will give Maria Eagle up to three minutes to wind up the debate.

  • Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this debate.

    I have had a long-standing interest in educational standards in Knowsley and have had a number of meetings about A-level provision in the borough over the years since 2016. It saddened and concerned me when the decision was taken that Halewood Academy should close its A-level provision. I will come to why that decision was taken by the academy, but we sought to reintroduce A-level provision to Knowsley. I share the ambition of the hon. Lady and other Members present to ensure sixth-form or college provision within the borough where students may study A-levels.

    I also share hon. Members’ concerns about general educational standards in Knowsley, which incidentally predate the Gove reforms and academisation. In fact, academisation and the major reforms introduced since 2010 are a response to poor academic standards in Knowsley and other parts of the country. That is why we are so determined to raise standards across the borough. Knowsley is too often on the list of the lowest performing education authorities that I pore over when the results come out. The phonics results, for example, show that in Knowsley primary schools, 78% of six-year-olds reach the expected standards, compared with 81% nationally and significantly higher rates still in parts of the country such Newham, which also serves many disadvantaged areas but considerably exceeds the national average.

    The Government’s ambition is to ensure that all pupils, wherever they live and regardless of their background, receive an education that takes them as far as their talents will allow. Standards have risen in our schools since 2010. As a result of the reforms referred to by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), 1.9 million more pupils are now in good or outstanding schools, the proportion of pupils studying two or more science GCSEs has risen from 63% to 91%, and the proportion of pupils taking the EBacc suite of GCSEs has risen from just over one-fifth to nearly two-fifths. At the same time, the attainment gap index has shrunk by 10% since 2011 and more pupils are now being entered for science and maths A-levels than ever before.

    The Government have embarked on an ambitious reform of A-levels to ensure that our young people are prepared for the demands of this country’s world-leading universities. The Government are determined to extend those opportunities to all parts of the country, and the Department has been working closely, as I have personally, with Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council to ensure that young people in Knowsley receive the high-quality education that they deserve and that they benefit from the Government’s reforms.

    In April 2016, following a wide consultation, the principal of Halewood Academy announced that it would stop admitting pupils for A-level study from September 2016. There was low demand for A-levels at the school, with only 58 pupils studying for A-levels at the time of the announcement, and the school was struggling to be financially viable, as well as delivering poor-quality education. Its position would likely have continued to deteriorate because of the declining number of 16 to 18-year-olds in Knowsley, which is set to reduce by 17% between 2015 and 2020. As a result, pupils in Knowsley deciding to pursue A-levels would need to travel to nearby boroughs, where there is a breadth of choice at colleges with established reputations for high-quality provision, such as Carmel College in St Helens, which the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood referred to, and Riverside College in Halton.

    The need for A-level provision in Knowsley was kept under review by the local regional schools commissioner, and in June 2016 it was agreed that the RSC would work with the Educational Skills Funding Agency, the local authority and other local schools and colleges to improve post-16 provision. That would take into account the recommendations of the area review of post-16 provision in the Liverpool city region taking place at the time. Those reviews are designed to avoid the very gaps in provision that the hon. Lady is concerned about.

    Along with the ESFA, the local authority’s executive director for children has been in discussion with Knowsley Community College, local headteachers, local businesses and outstanding local schools located outside the borough. The Department has continued to work with the borough’s director of children’s services to keep the demand for A-level provision under review. Following the area review recommendation for St Helen’s College and Knowsley Community College to merge, the Department ensured that A-level provision will be delivered at the Knowsley campus from September this year. The merged college’s published 2018-19 prospectus sets out a comprehensive A-level offer, with 21 different A-levels available. As the hon. Lady correctly stated, to date it has received 113 A-level applications for the 2018-19 academic year, and it is reviewing these in order to make an appropriate offer to each candidate, as in some cases pupils will undertake both A-Levels and vocational options, as is the case in many sixth-form colleges.

    As well as ensuring future A-level provision in Knowsley, the Department has taken steps to address the historical educational under-achievement that has blighted the life chances of pupils in parts of Knowsley for too long. There have been—and still are—long-standing issues with the quality of secondary provision. That is why we are working closely with a number of organisations, including the Knowsley education commission, the Institute for Teaching, The Brilliant Club, Teach First and the local authority, to ensure an improvement in the quality of education in the borough. Knowsley Council has commissioned the development and implementation of Knowsley Better Together, which is a wider local plan to improve opportunities for pupils to study A-levels in Knowsley. This recognises the need for future A-level provision and, importantly, the need to improve schools’ performance at key stage 4 to prepare students for the demands of the new rigorous A-levels.

    A range of targeted interventions have been put in place for academies in Knowsley, including the regional schools commissioner meeting the multi-academy trust responsible for these academies during the first term of this academic year, to ensure that rapid and sustained improvements are made. The Department will continue to monitor progress and work closely with the academies in Knowsley to address the quality of education at secondary level. I am very happy to make a commitment to meet regularly all the Members in the area who are concerned, together with the local authority and the regional schools commissioner, to maintain progress both in the secondary schools and in the primary schools in the borough. I have been doing this in a number of other local authority areas where I am concerned about standards. We can go school by school, including primary schools, to monitor what is happening and ensure that progress continues to be made.

    I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for highlighting these issues. The Department will continue to work with the borough’s director of children’s services and other appropriate parties to ensure that A-level provision in Knowsley meets the demands and needs of its pupils. Significant work is underway to raise standards in Knowsley’s schools and to prepare pupils for A-level study. I will work with the hon. Lady and keep these issues under review.

    The hon. Lady raised the issue of opportunity areas. There are 12 to begin with, and we want to ensure that they represent different parts of the country—rural, coastal, north-west and so no. Given that there is an opportunity area in Oldham, it was felt that Knowsley would not be an opportunity area at this point. We will learn from what has been happening in those opportunity areas, so that we can apply the lessons learnt to other parts of the country that are low down on the Social Mobility Commission’s index in due course.

    On that note, I hope that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood is happy with my response. I repeat: I am very happy and keen to work with right hon. and hon. Members to make sure that we are monitoring and doing everything we can to ensure that standards at both secondary and primary schools in the Knowsley area and the borough continue to rise, so that there is more possibility of 11-to-16 schools having sixth-form provision in future.

  • I thank the Minister for his response, the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), for his contribution, and my colleagues for their support and contributions. I know that the Minister understands that this issue matters a great deal to those of us who have the honour of representing communities in Knowsley. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) and I will want to take him up on his offer of regularly reviewing the progress of schools and provision in Knowsley.

    I am also sure that, although we wish schools well, we will want to look closely at what happens between now and September, to see how many young people apply for the new provision and what it means in practice, in terms of what A-levels are put on and how many people it takes to ensure that a particular course is run. Only by meeting the needs of pupils as they consider their future and ensuring that they can maximise their potential in life—their academic potential, as well as their economic potential later in life—can areas such as Knowsley hope to improve their economies and social mobility for the families in their communities, many of which are deprived, and in due course achieve a better future for all.

    I thank everyone for coming along to the debate. We local representatives are not willing to let this matter pass. I welcome the Minister’s interest and I hope that, between us all, we can ensure that improvements in provision in Knowsley do not stop here, that there is no backsliding into an unacceptable position and that in due course all our young people can indeed take all the opportunities available to them to progress post-16 in education and in life.

    Question put and agreed to.


    That this House has considered A-level provision in Knowsley Metropolitan Borough.

  • Sitting adjourned.