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I, and my ministerial colleagues, meet and correspond regularly with a range of partners across the further education sector, including individual colleges. There is also, of course, regular dialogue between these organisations and officials.
I thank the Minister for his response. Is he aware that there is growing anger and concern in Bexley borough that from September fees will increase, courses will be cut and concessions reduced for adult education students because of cuts in the Learning and Skills Council's funding? Does he agree that further education should be not just for skills, development and training, but for leisure learning as well? Why are the Government letting down adult education?
There is consensus about the new priorities that the Government announced in both the 14-to-19 strategy and the skills White Paper. We need to develop the skills base of our population, among 16 to 18-year-olds in particular, and among adults requiring basic skills at level 2, which is the equivalent of five GCSEs, in the work force. It is right that the current transition in FE seeks to make funding and, therefore, participation rates, among those groups much higher.
I do not accept that being clear about those priorities means that adult education courses have to close. We see no reason why courses that people value should close. We will continue to support those on income-related benefits who qualify, but there is a discussion about rebalancing between the taxpayer, the individual concerned and the employer the issue of who pays how much and for what. Raising fee income is one way in which we can benefit colleges. Indeed, colleges might like to consider collecting some of the £100 million that they currently waive on fees.
I welcome the additional funding for further education that the Government have provided over the years, but on further education funding generally, an issue that remains of concern to staff, parents and students at Varndean sixth-form college in my constituency and at Brighton, Hove and Sussex sixth-form college, which serves the city of Brighton and Hove, is the continuing disparity in funding between sixth-form colleges and school sixth forms. Does the Minister to propose to address that issue in the near future?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's recognition of the extra money for 16 to 18-year-olds and FE funding. Indeed, 25 per cent. more is being spent now than in 2002–03, and there has been a 4 per cent. overall increase on last year's funding. There is recognition of the funding gap between sixth forms and FE colleges. We recognise that it is an issue, and we have a commitment to close the gap, but as funding allows us to do so. That is the challenge before us. The important point is to increase learning participation rates among 16 and 17-year-olds, so that they enter the work force better skilled and able to take up jobs and sustainable employment.
Does the Minister recognise that adult and further education is not only for leisure learning, but opens the door for many people to have a second chance and for some to have a change of career, and lifts many out of poverty? What would he say to the 200,000 people who the Association of Colleges says will not be able to benefit from such courses next year? Will he explain to the House whether it is as a result of the failure of Government policy that funds are having to be redirected towards 16 to 19-year-olds who are leaving school without numeracy and literacy, which means that funds are diverted away from adult education?
Far from being a failure of Government policy, it is the intent to shift our priorities to the country's economic needs and to support the ability of individuals, particularly 16 to 18-year-olds, to get skills that allow them to leave education and go into the world of work better qualified to get better-paid jobs for their own benefit and development as individuals, as well as for the benefit of companies and the country as a whole. We believe that those are the right priorities.
I believe that there is a consensus in the country about raising skills and we recognise on both sides of the House the importance of raising skill levels overall. What we are doing is a clear way of implementing those priorities. That is not to say that adult education and leisure courses, in which many Members of Parliament may have participated, should not be supported, but it is right to ask about the balance in respect of who pays for leisure adult education courses. We believe that there is an opportunity to raise fees for some leisure courses where people can afford to take them, while maintaining the taxpayer's contribution to support those in poorer areas on low incomes, so that they can also participate in those courses.
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the value and importance of apprenticeships. During the general election campaign, I knocked on doors and heard people say, "I'll tell you what you should do for young people: bring back apprenticeships." We have already done so, but this is one of those issues that do not get much popular recognition. We are already talking about moving from having some 50,000 apprenticeships in 1997 to having 250,000 or 300,000 a year.
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that I will attend the annual apprenticeships awards ceremony this evening. I am looking forward to taking a very good opportunity publicly to thank and recognise the successful and excellent apprentices whom we shall see tonight, as well as those in our colleges who are transferring their skills so that the talented craftspeople in our FE sector can be valued as well.
The Minister dismisses the crisis in adult education funding and says that colleges should sort out the situation by raising fees, which is not a practical option. His Department cut the Learning and Skills Council's adult education budget by £55 million—a cut of more than 5 per cent in real terms. How does he justify that cut when 11 million adults of working age do not have the equivalent of five GCSEs?
Of course, Kingston college is getting an 8 per cent. increase in its funding this year, which is above the rate of inflation. Yesterday, I visited Highbury college in Portsmouth to open its new centre of vocational excellence, which will deliver the kind of skills training that the hon. Gentleman has recognised as being essential. The Liberals always say that there is a crisis in further education, but overall FE funding has increased, and nine out of 10 FE colleges have received increased funding. One in 10 FE colleges have not received increased funding for particular, localised reasons and we expect them to discuss with their local learning and skills councils managing the funding transition in a way that makes sense to the local community. The Government are committed to skills, which are the new priority for the third term. We will deliver the skills agenda so that the Chancellor's successful economy is sustained over the years ahead.
As I said, we recognise the difficulty, but my hon. Friend knows that closing the funding gap depends on the availability of resources. Our current priority is increasing the staying-on rate for 16 to 18-year-olds to address this country's skills gap, which Mr. Davey mentioned. Unless we address that by transforming the funding process, we will not succeed against countries such as China and India, which are investing heavily in skills, let alone against our European competitors. We must put more money into the FE sector, which is exactly what we are doing.
David Collins, the principal of South Cheshire college, has said:
"We're getting 2.2 per cent. less than we were meant to. We will cut our adult education programmes by around 1,000 places . . . I would like to see more honesty from the LSC and the Government in saying that they can't afford to do what they promised."
Does the Minister think that his and the LSC's cuts in adult education are the right response to the UK's serious competitiveness and productivity problems?
We recognise the productivity, competition and skills issue and have spelled out our priorities in the White Paper, "14–19 Education and Skills". We are shifting funding towards 16 to 18-year-olds, apprenticeships, basic skills and adult level 2, because we want to get more of our work force to achieve the equivalent of five good GCSEs. The hon. Gentleman and I agree on that priority, and the Government are putting in more money to make the transition happen. Local colleges will manage their budgets at local level with their local learning and skills councils, but I repeat that being clear about those priorities and that transition does not mean that all adult education courses must close. Other alternatives include raising fee income and rebalancing the taxpayer's contribution to leisure courses such as Australian cake decorating, which are perfectly valid. Where demand exists, we should provide adult leisure courses, but perhaps adult learners should pay for them.