HC Deb 07 February 2002 vol 379 cc1013-4
3. Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

What plans she has to encourage further links between schools and further education colleges. [31402]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

The Learning and Skills Council is working closely with local education authorities, schools and colleges to secure effective links. Area-based inspections promote collaboration to support a wide range of local provision. We are providing £38 million to promote increased flexibility in the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds.

Joan Ryan

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Both further education colleges in my constituency, Capel Manor college and Enfield college, are conscious of the importance of such links. As he mentioned, funding will be a key issue. The ability to deliver pre-vocational and vocational education is connected to the need to harmonise funding between the FE sector and sixth-form colleges. The FE sector has welcomed the Government's commitment to pursue such harmonisation. Can my hon. Friend say more about the time scale?

Mr. Lewis

My hon. Friend can inform the two colleges in her constituency that they will find out on 15 February whether their bids have been successful. I confirm that the Government are committed to the principle of convergence and believe that it has to happen. I give her a cast-iron guarantee that the issue of convergence will be considered in the spending review.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Does the Minister agree that transport is a key issue in getting good contact between FE and schools, especially in rural areas? Does he agree that the Education Act 1996, which allows local authorities to opt out of providing free transport for over-16s, either to schools or FE colleges, must be changed? Does he condemn Labour-controlled Northumberland LEA, which has just introduced a charging policy for all students going to schools or colleges after the age of 16? Does that not fly in the face of his comments about better co-operation between schools and colleges?

Mr. Lewis

I agree that transport is important, particularly in rural areas, as I have discovered from visiting some of those communities. That is the No. 1 issue, especially for young people, in terms of potential isolation and continuing study. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have introduced education maintenance allowances, which at present are available in only 30 per cent. of the country. Early evidence on EMAs is that participation brings significant benefits. Many young people are using that additional money to pay for transport costs. The Connexions card that we are introducing in September will provide reductions for young people in the cost of transport.

As for the responsibility of local authorities and passenger transport authorities, the hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that considered the Education Bill. That clarified and made more transparent the way in which local education authorities and passenger transport bodies must work together to ensure that it is clear who is responsible, and that the resources allocated are used specifically to support young people staying in learning post-16.

Derek Twigg (Halton)

After my hon. Friend has visited my constituency tomorrow, he may be so impressed that he will want to return to see the excellent collaboration between Halton college of further education and Widnes and Runcorn sixth form college, which has resulted in a new shared Runcorn campus being built. Although collaboration between schools is important, does he agree that to provide the best possible service to people in post-16 education, collaboration between sixth form colleges and further education colleges is just as essential?

Mr. Lewis

I agree, and I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend in his constituency tomorrow. Co-operation is particularly important in the context of a new 14 to 19 phase of education. The challenge is to achieve seamless collaboration between schools, sixth form colleges, FE colleges, training providers and employers. We need an approach that integrates the various institutions that impact on young people's lives, so that we provide them with the best opportunities and incentives to stay in learning and training.