HC Deb 15 March 2000 vol 346 cc89-97WH 12.29 pm
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I am grateful to have secured the debate and to have an opportunity to speak up for sixth form colleges. They are bright stars in our educational firmament and have been a shining light amid the educational gloom. I am concerned that they should be properly appreciated, nurtured and supported.

I should declare something of an interest. I have been a governor of Luton sixth form college since incorporation, as well as in the early 1980s during its earlier local authority incarnation. Both my children attended the college and were, in their turn, chair of the student council and of the student governors. My wife was at one time a parent governor, so we have strong family connections.

The college has been part of my life for almost 20 years and does a superb job for the young people of our town. It was the first of its kind; is one of the largest colleges; and has been confirmed as one of the best, as evidenced by its glowing inspection report last year. My regard for sixth form colleges in general is, I hope, objective, but I cannot help but see a rosy picture from my Luton experience.

Sixth form colleges are part of the further education sector, which is funded through the Further Education Funding Council. As treasurer of the all-party group on further education, I am an enthusiast for further education and, indeed, have in my constituency Barnfield college, one of our largest and best further education colleges.

In the 1970s, I taught in a college of further education and undertook some part-time teaching in FE in 1995. For some years, I was chair of governors of the former Luton college of higher education, now the university of Luton. At that time, more than one third of its capacity was devoted to further education.

Sixth form colleges have been grouped with further education colleges, although they do a rather different job. There is some overlap with further education colleges, but they complement each other, rather than competing. Luton sixth form college has a significant number of general national vocational qualification courses, but the centre of gravity of further education and sixth form colleges, their focus and core business are different. There is a spectrum of provision, with further education towards one end of our post-16 rainbow and sixth form colleges towards the other, with tertiary colleges bridging the gap.

Sixth form colleges look to schools more than further education colleges. I am conscious that in some areas there is competition for sixth form students between schools and sixth form colleges. I instinctively prefer planned provision rather than competition, but some competition is inevitable where there is parallel provision.

In Luton, we have 11-to-16 high schools feeding our colleges and one 11-to-18 Catholic high school, which is generally over-subscribed because of the large Catholic population in Luton. Therefore, I am perhaps freer than some Members to extol the virtues of sixth form colleges without offending other post-16 providers.

Why are sixth form colleges so good? From the students' point of view, they provide extraordinary flexibility in choice of courses. With a large number of students, they can provide parallel classes in the same subject at different times, so that students can tailor their pattern of courses precisely to their needs. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school and was given the blunt choice of languages, science or classics. At sixth form college, I might have chosen a different pattern of A-levels and possibly other courses, had they been available. The sheer number of A-level subjects that are taught at sixth form colleges is astonishing. At Luton, we have around 2,000 students, who can choose between 37 A-level options, 10 advanced GNVQs and a range of other courses.

Even large schools, understandably, cannot match that range of provision. Academically, sixth form colleges are successful. If students wish to achieve good examination results, to maximise their chances of progressing to higher education on a course and at an institution of their choice, or to move to a good job, they cannot do better than study at a sixth form college.

Sometimes, students from fee-paying schools have chosen to transfer to a sixth form college because of its record of success—students moving from the fee-paying education sector to the state sector for positive educational reasons—but I am much more concerned about sixth form college successes with students from non-traditional, non-academic and less-affluent backgrounds. In that respect, sixth form colleges do a wonderful job.

In Luton, approximately 60 per cent. of students are from ethnic minority backgrounds, often the first generation of families who have not previously had any prospect of educational advance beyond an elementary level. The educational value added achieved by sixth form colleges such as Luton is remarkable. They make an immense contribution to widening participation in education and to providing a springboard to further educational advance and better life chances. They are also a great social integrator, especially in towns such as Luton.

If sixth form colleges are doing such an exceptional job, why have I chosen to seek the debate? The truth is that the value of sixth form colleges is not properly recognised. We have warm words from official quarters, but I am sorry to say that it is not always matched by the provision of adequate resources. Many areas have no sixth form college and many Members are not familiar with sixth form college provision. I do not think that it was properly understood and it was certainly not appreciated in Government circles at the time of incorporation.

Sixth form colleges were allocated to the further education sector, but I have a distinct feeling that that was a rather arbitrary decision and that they could equally well have been left with local education authorities, along with schools. As a result, sixth form colleges have had an uncomfortable time in recent years. Funding comparisons have often been made with further education colleges, rather than schools. In reality, further education colleges derive much of their funding from external sources, whereas sixth form colleges are entirely funded by the state through the Further Education Funding Council. If the comparisons are made with schools, sixth form colleges come into their own. They have such economies of scale that they easily outperform school sixth forms in value for money.

That again presents a problem. Schools understandably are sensitive about those comparisons. Where school sixth forms operate alongside sixth form colleges, in an environment where Governments are looking for efficiency advantages, schools feel uncomfortable.

What is extraordinary is that the funding gap between school sixth forms and sixth form colleges has been increasing, rather than narrowing. Given their success, it is surprising that sixth form college teachers are paid less than their counterparts in schools. A salary difference of between £500 and £600 a year is typical and promotion in school sixth forms is easier to achieve than in sixth form colleges. I am not suggesting that good schools should be shorn of their sixth forms to create sixth form colleges, but sixth form colleges should at least be funded fairly.

Britain has a varied pattern of school and sixth form provision. If one could start from scratch, a sixth form college system throughout the country would be very attractive. It would be of advantage to students and to public finances, but no Government would countenance such an upheaval, so I will set aside that possibility now.

We are entering a new and exciting era with Curriculum 2000 beginning in September. I have long thought that the A-level curriculum for most students is too narrow. I strongly support the reforms. Sixth form colleges are well placed to make those reforms a success, with their wide range of courses and their flexible teaching provision, but Curriculum 2000 will need additional financial provision. Information gathered from sixth form colleges in recent days suggests that nowhere near enough money has been provided. The Further Education Funding Council must look again at sixth form college allocations.

I understand that an assumption has been made that half of sixth form college students will follow Curriculum 2000 from September, but the reality is that the great majority of all sixth form college students will do so. Some colleges have been allocated only a fraction of what they need to provide Curriculum 2000 for their students.

Before the general election, many sixth form colleges were facing financial crises. Class sizes had risen, pressures on teachers had greatly increased and the crunch was coming. Additional funding provided by the new Government relieved the pressure, but that merely staved off disaster and did not really provide the additional general funding that colleges required. Some additional funding has been allocated, but much of that is targeted, at additional IT provision, for example. Sixth form colleges need more money, so that they can pay staff salaries at least comparable with those in school sixth forms.

I am sorry that I have had to raise the difficult subject of funding as I know that every area of the public services has the same concerns. However, sixth form colleges have had a hard time. If they are to continue performing as well, they must be adequately funded. The issue will not go away.

In 1996–97, students studying for three A-levels were funded by 25 per cent. more in schools than in sixth form colleges. The most recent information from the Association of Colleges for Further and Higher Education says that the gap between sixth form college and school funding has increased to nearly 30 per cent. Sixth form colleges also face additional costs relative to schools, including provision for internal and external audit. Sixth form colleges have an average class size of 18, but it is quite common to have 25 or more. As I have said, an assumption has been made that 50 per cent. of sixth form college students will require additional Curriculum 2000 resourcing. In reality, the figure will be much higher. One college reported to me this week that 85 per cent. of its students will be covered by Curriculum 2000.

In its report on further education published in June 1998, the Select Committee on Education and Employment, emphasised the need to ensure that harmonisation is achieved by additional funding for the further education sector rather than the process of levelling down. The report says: It should be possible to establish a common entitlement for 16–19 year old students on similar courses at schools and colleges and to fund it accordingly. A substantial change in the funding arrangements and co-ordination of 16-to-19 education and training will occur when the Learning and Skills Bill becomes law. I welcome the change and believe that it will provide closer co-operation between different types of institution and more coherent and rational provision for all students.

I do not underestimate the difficulties involved and I hope that the minority sixth form college interest will be well served by the new learning and skills councils. The Bill envisages the creation of local education authority sixth form centres and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and his ministerial colleagues to ensure that sixth form colleges are funded fairly within the new arrangements.

There are some issues that I cannot cover in the time allowed, but I hope to raise some of them privately with my hon. Friend and his Department. I re-emphasise my view that sixth form colleges are an immensely valuable national resource, providing first-class education for thousands of students on quality courses with dedicated, highly qualified and highly skilled staff. They remain minority providers across the country as a whole with less than a quarter of hon. Members having a sixth form college interest. The great value of sixth form colleges may not, therefore, be fully recognised. The quality of education they provide is of the highest order. They make a vital contribution to the economy and, above all, to the advancement of those students fortunate enough to pursue their studies at such a college.

As a nation, we could do well to expand sixth form college provision, but, even at present levels, colleges must be nurtured, sustained and properly and fairly funded. I look forward to my hon. Friend's response and to on-going dialogue in the coming months and years.

12.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) for raising this important issue. I know that sixth form colleges have coped effectively with a variety of challenges and new opportunities in recent years and have shown professionalism and dedication to their students. I have no doubt that they will continue to do so under our proposed new arrangements for post-16 provision, in which they will continue to have an important role. I know of my hon. Friend's close interest, advocacy and involvement with sixth form colleges in his town.

The chief inspector's annual report for 1998-99 reported that much of the work of sixth form colleges is of good quality and of significant benefit to students and the nation. There is clear evidence that overall levels of achievement are rising and that the great majority of colleges are well managed. The report highlighted the valued service that sixth form colleges provide to their communities.

In a recent inspection report, Luton sixth form college, which as my hon. Friend said was the first of its kind in this country, was judged to provide excellent facilities for its staff and students. The report also highlighted outstanding provision in business studies and said that the college was exceedingly well managed. I take this opportunity to congratulate the college and its staff and students on that report.

I am pleased to see that staff in many sixth form colleges are working constructively in response to the Government's agenda of raising standards. Many have recognised that the most effective way to improve quality is for them to take responsibility for their own quality assurance by evaluating their performance and making the necessary changes. That is clearly an area which Luton sixth form college takes seriously.

It is clear that many sixth form colleges have high levels of achievement and are good examples of excellence in the post-16 world. An obvious indicator of that is that four of the 15 further education colleges so far accorded beacon status by Ministers are sixth form colleges. Those beacons will help the Government raise standards by spreading good practice across other sixth form colleges.

The latest inspection evidence shows that there are 30 sixth form colleges with achievement rates of 90 per cent. or higher. The list of colleges with outstanding achievement shows that four of the six colleges with that rating for science are sixth form colleges. All five with that rating for business studies, including Luton, are sixth form colleges. The colleges are to be congratulated.

Sixth form colleges have a vital contribution to make to our level 3 national learning targets. We want to see 60 per cent. of young people achieving level 3 by the age of 21. I am delighted that success at A-level continues to grow. Since incorporation, the number of sixth form college students achieving three or more A-levels has risen from 18,300 to 25,600.

Mr. Hopkins

Will my hon. Friend look at value added measures as well as simple A-level success? Many sixth form colleges are in central urban areas with many students from deprived or non-traditional academic backgrounds. Therefore, their performance is even more remarkable by value added standards than by a simple A-level pass standard.

Mr. Wicks

I agree with my hon. Friend. I wanted to emphasise the A-level standard because, understandably, a great deal of emphasis is placed on it. I agree, though, that in our society, other measures are sometimes more important. The way in which a school or college works with a pupil and enables him or her to make progress is crucial.

In his polite and calm manner, my hon. Friend cast some doubt on the Department's commitment to sixth form colleges. Since becoming a Minister at the end of July, I have had many discussions and been involved in dialogue with sixth form colleges and those representing their interests. On a personal level, our three children attended and enjoyed John Ruskin sixth form college in Croydon. I hope that that personal involvement will convince my hon. Friend that, although I am trying to use part of my speech to deal with policy issues, I have some parental understanding of the subject.

Mr. Hopkins

I know of my hon. Friend's support and admiration for sixth form colleges. I was not intending to level accusations at the Department. I was talking about a lack of appreciation in the generality of the government machine and the House, arising from the fact that so few members are familiar with sixth form colleges. I was emphasising a general lack of appreciation rather than criticising the Department.

Mr. Wicks

I understand that.

There are equally outstanding activities in sixth form colleges, beyond exam success: sport, music, the arts, community services and many other activities flourish and provide the opportunity for young people to develop across an enormously wide and enriching spectrum.

For the future, the new post-16 arrangements announced last summer in the White Paper "Learning to Succeed"—the Bill is now before the House—mark a step change in the organisation of education and training for people aged 16 and over. As I said earlier, sixth form colleges will continue to play an important role as we put into practice the Government's vision for post-16 learning. They can help us with our aims of widening participation. By implication, my hon. Friend was referring to that when he talked about the value added role. Sixth form colleges can offer young people a broad range of high-quality options from which to choose.

I recognise that the previous Administration's disastrous approach to further education funding means that sixth form colleges are now funded well below school sixth forms. That was the burden of much of my hon. Friend's comment. He made some forceful points in this debate about the disparity of funding between schools and sixth form colleges. I assure him that we are aware of the situation. Last summer's consultation paper on school sixth form funding put the disparity at 20 per cent. for a student taking a package of three A-levels. In response to that consultation, further education and sixth form colleges were very clear that they did not want downward convergence for schools, but a levelling upward for themselves. Of course the Government agree with that clear point.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Colchester sixth form college operates in a town with three schools with sixth forms. Will the Minister confirm that the funding gap between schools and sixth form colleges is approximately one third, not the figure that he gave? The gap can be even wider where schools with sixth forms rearrange their finances, essentially to suck up money from the 11-to-16 age group.

Mr. Wicks

The disparity that I cited was 20 per cent. However, I should be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on the matter, and to copy the correspondence to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, so that we can be absolutely clear about the figures.

The Government agree that upward convergence for further education colleges, including sixth form colleges, is the way forward. However, we realise that that can only happen over time, and subject to resources being available. I am convinced that such convergence will come. I think that the new learning and skills councils, with their overview of all post-16 provision outside higher education, will help with that aim.

Mr. Hopkins

I should like to bring a little comfort to my hon. Friend and the Government. I believe that sixth form colleges would not need exactly the same funding levels as schools, as they have natural, built-in economies of scale, and that substantial movement towards school funding would solve all the problems.

Mr. Wicks

Clearly, we need to move towards a position in which every young person doing A-level or vocational courses at that level—regardless of whether they are in a sixth form, sixth form college or an FE institution—is being treated properly and fairly. That is our objective, but it will take some time to achieve.

Meanwhile, let us not forget that the Government have been responsible for the biggest ever injection of funds into further education and sixth form colleges. Hon. Members will know that further education is to receive significant additional funding. We are confident that our planned investment of £3.9 billion, in 2001–02—including the largest-ever annual increase for further education, of £365 million, for that year—will provide significant help to those making 16-to-18 provision in the FE sector. We have also substantially moderated the efficiency gains required by the previous Administration.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I have a specific question that I should like to ask the Minister on behalf of the principal of the Farnborough sixth form college—which is one of the very best in the country, and is everything that the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said. Given that there are to be the new local sixth form colleges under LEA auspices, will the Minister give an undertaking that the 20 per cent. differential between sixth form colleges and sixth forms will get no worse, and that he will try at some point to close that gap? Otherwise, the new colleges, with existing sixth form schools, will continue to enjoy an advantage over sixth form colleges.

Mr. Wicks

I give that reassurance to Farnborough college, and to the sixth form colleges that I have already mentioned in my speech. We want to bridge the gap positively, with sixth form colleges moving upwards. I should be grateful if, in the final six minutes of the debate, hon. Members will bear with me and allow me to make some progress in my speech, to address the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North.

As for the post-16 curriculum reforms—known as qualifying for success, or in some quarters as Curriculum 2000—the Further Education Funding Council has made it clear that it will have early discussions with those colleges requesting increases to their provisional allocation formula for 2000–01. Each college will have a different mix of students and courses, and will decide for itself how best to implement the new post-16 curriculum. The Government are not seeking to prescribe a particular kind of curriculum, but we do want to see broad-based and flexible programmes of study. The FEFC has also guaranteed that those colleges that have requested increased funding will receive confirmation before Easter of a revised provisional allocation, where appropriate.

Today, the FEFC has provided me with the following reassurance: Colleges are in the process of responding to their provisional funding allocations. Early indications suggest a positive take up of Curriculum 2000, particularly for sixth form colleges and general FE colleges with large numbers of A level students. Where colleges are informing the Council that they expect to have an increased number of students following the new expanded programmes, the Council will fully fund the expansion and revise colleges' funding allocations straight away. I hope that that reassures hon. Members participating in this debate.

Sixth form colleges should also bear in mind and take full advantage of the FE standards fund. The fund was introduced to implement improvement strategies for better achievement and retention in FE. It can be used to rectify areas of weakness in colleges, for training and professional development of staff, and for the dissemination of good practice.

As has been noted in the debate, the Learning and Skills Bill makes it possible for LEAs to establish and maintain schools—sixth form centres—that cater solely for 16 to 19-year-olds. The Government have no preferred model of post-16 provision; nor would we wish to prescribe one. The opportunity for LEAs to create those new institutions should not be seen as any form of threat to sixth form colleges and their valid place in 16-to-19 provision.

Sixth form colleges will remain firmly in the further education sector. They are different types of animals and will serve different purposes. It will still be possible for new sixth form colleges to be established, if that is felt to be the best way of meeting the needs in a particular locality. LEA-maintained 16-to-19 institutions are not intended to compete with sixth form colleges, but— when appropriate, and with the agreement of the local learning community—they could provide an alternative way of meeting local needs.

Our drive is to bring more coherence to the 16–19 sector, and, simultaneously, to increase choice, drive up standards and offer breadth of provision. When individual school sixth forms cannot offer sufficient curriculum breadth, the school and the LEA will need to look carefully at a range of options, such as collaboration, consortiums agreements and LEA-maintained institutions.

I hope that the outcome of the new, more joined-up approach to the post-16 world will be much better collaboration between sixth form colleges and school sixth forms. The joint report, at the end of last summer, from Ofsted and FEFC inspectors, gave some clear messages about the value of such an approach. Above all, collaboration serves to broaden the curriculum on offer. Additionally, a greater number of courses and more subject combinations are available to students, and there is a wider range of routes for progress. Moreover, courses can be provided more economically when collaboration tackles the issue of classes that individually would be too small. I hope that sixth form colleges will show a willingness to open their doors to such arrangements.

The new post-16 arrangements are designed to ensure that patterns of provision meet local needs, drive up standards and encourage greater collaboration. I give the clear assurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North that sixth form colleges have a vital role to play in that process, in delivering the high-quality education that young people in this country need to enable them to make the most of themselves, and of the opportunities that are available to them, as they move forward into adult life.

Our commitment, as a Department and as a Government, is not to structures—and it is not our desire to side with school sixth forms against sixth form colleges or FE colleges. Our concern is to enable our young men and women, post-16, to have the very best opportunities, whether academic or vocational, or sometimes a mix. Different institutions—including schools, sixth form colleges and those in the FE sector have a vital role to play in that significant agenda for our country.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for addressing this important issue, and for doing it in such an able way.