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Orders of the Day — Further and Higher Education Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State for Education 5:45 pm, 11th February 1992

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would say that. Incidentally, it was circular No. 1065. Nothing in what I have said is inconsistent with the suggestion that admission arrangements for schools should be settled by the House. That has happened under this Government as much as under previous Governments. I understand the hon. Gentleman's embarrassment, especially in his constituency, because on the one hand he says that he wants to keep grammar schools but on the other some of the 106 grammar schools closed by this Government were closed when he was a Minister responsible for education. In the 13 years since 1979, 106 grammar schools have been closed.

There are enormous objections to the scheme for taking over further education specified in the Bill. The Secretary of State has sought to justify the scheme by saying that it is based on the experience of the polytechnics. As was explained at enormous length in another place, there is no parallel between the position of the polytechnics and that of further education and sixth form colleges. The polytechnics were national institutions. For eight years before they went into the polytechnic and colleges funding sector there was a quasi-national arrangement under the national advisory board in which the local authorities participated. For years before that, there was the advanced further education pool, which ensured that there was a system of national funding, although local authorities were responsible individually for the institutions in their area. Therefore, there was a long history of build-up towards a national system.

We supported the final removal of the polytechnics from the local government sector to the polytechnic and colleges funding sector. By 1988 it seemed anomalous that they should be responsible to their local authority, because they were national institutions. There are only 80 of those institutions, including small colleges, compared with 550 sixth form and further education colleges. All those FE and sixth form colleges are local and serve local needs.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State said, he should be aware that the greatest proportional expansion in polytechnics took place between 1980 and 1988 when they were under local authority control. There was approaching a 40 per cent. increase in the number of full-time students attending polytechnics. It was just as well that that took place. Although I welcome the Government's present policy to expand higher education, that has not always been their policy since 1979.

At the beginning of this Administration, when the Secretary of State was Sir Keith Joseph, there was a policy not of the expansion but of the contraction of higher education. Paradoxically, the part of the system that was supposed to be the most autonomous, the university sector, maintained its numbers more or less level while the local authority controlled polytechnics met the expanded demand. The expansion was led and met by local authorities, albeit with some benign support from some people in the Department of Education and Science.