Further Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:38 am on 19th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Bryan Davies Mr Bryan Davies , Oldham Central and Royton 10:38 am, 19th February 1997

We have had a most interesting debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) on initiating it, and on speaking so incisively about the issues facing the education sector.

The hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) seemed to deny that there has been a crisis in further education, but this debate is taking place precisely because of the crisis for which the Minister is significantly responsible and which has occasioned deep demoralisation across further education. That is why I—exceptionally for a Front Bencher—tabled an early-day motion, which was signed by 100 hon. Members and which sought to call attention to the problems facing colleges in their constituencies. My hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Hyndburn reflected on the particular problems of colleges in their constituencies. Reference was also made to acute problems in Stoke-on-Trent and in a number of other colleges.

We should dispense with the absurdity of Conservative Members who say that we should account for how we would pay for the crisis. The Government said last November that it was time Labour identified how it would fund certain parts of the education budget, but at that time we knew nothing about the funding shortfall that has led to the recent crisis. As late as January, the Secretary of State said that all was well.

The further education sector told the Minister that there was a shortfall of £80 million on previous years, and that a bill of £80 million was building up for students taking courses in the current year. The simple fact is that the Department should put its own house in order, and the Minister should get a grip on the crisis that has developed in colleges. The further education sector is crucial to education and training for the nation.

Let us get the figures clear. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam has great difficulty differentiating between universities and further education colleges: the subject of the debate is further education. Her figures are incorrect, because there are 3.5 million students in further education, which is more than there are in school sixth forms and universities combined. That is why the sector is so important. It deals with the skills, competences and educational opportunities of which the country is most in need. It provides the platform from which people can move on to higher education, and can equip themselves for jobs in a world in which additional skills are required.

The naivety of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) is at times matched only by his honesty. His party had reservations about the hugely successful Oldham sixth form college in my constituency, to which I pay tribute for its successes in recent years. His naivety was adequately exposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn. We are told that the 1p on income tax for education will cover every element of the education budget, which runs into billions of pounds, thus producing a penny that magnifies into astronomical figures. We do not expect the Liberal Democrats to be particularly strong on mathematics. However, we expect the Minister to answer the charge that we have made today.