There has been much consensus here today on education being the best down-payment a country can make to secure its economic future. There is much to agree on, and indeed a thriving FE sector is directly linked to a higher-wage, higher-skilled and more productive economy, yet sadly, as the Secretary of State has admitted, post-16 education is in a fragile state. Following funding cuts in the last Parliament, colleges are being forced to survive on starvation rations. As I discussed with Yorkshire businesses just this week, these cuts mean young people are leaving further education without the qualifications employers desperately require, and firms are unable to develop, expand and grow.
In Kirklees, our sixth-form colleges are doing some amazing work despite the funding constraints imposed on them. We have sixth-form colleges of high repute achieving great things academically and vocationally, and of course the FE sector also offers unique provision and is indeed sometimes a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable people in society—people who did not achieve their potential at school and for whom FE is a second or third chance. If we cut FE, these children and adults are in danger of being even more disengaged and excluded from education and society. However, this Government’s failure to protect FE funding has meant that, in west Yorkshire, for example, three colleges have had to accumulate a combined capital debt of over £100 million to provide the modern facilities employers and students deserve. As someone with friends and family working in the FE sector in west Yorkshire, I know first-hand that morale is at an all-time low and talented and committed professionals are leaving the profession in droves.
In addition, I share the concerns of many other Members here today about the narrowness of the Government’s proposed post-16 area reviews, which mean that FE providers are being asked to compete in a deeply unfair environment. In Kirklees, we are in the opening stages of our review, but ostensibly we will only consider sixth-form colleges. I am very worried that a review that does not take account of the provision that exists in secondary schools will be incomplete and therefore fundamentally flawed. Therefore, I believe the Government urgently need to re-examine these area reviews and include all current and proposed post-16 providers, and not simply colleges.
What will become of FE opportunities for post-16s is at best unclear at the moment—we obviously await next week’s announcements—but if we are demanding that young people remain in education beyond 16, we must ensure they have somewhere to go to study. The Government must stop treating post-16 education as if it is an add-on. Access to further education is shrinking for many at precisely the wrong time, just as demand for further education places starts to increase.
That is certainly the case in my neck of the woods. If we compare the number of schools with sixth-forms in Batley and Spen today with the number 10 years ago, we notice a stark difference: the provision has shrunk by more than half. There are seven secondary schools in my constituency; only two have sixth-forms. Incidentally, both are now academies. There is also now no sixth-form college provision in my constituency; the world renowned Batley art college is, sadly, no longer to be found in Batley. These days, the majority of post-16 education for young people from Batley and Spen is outside the constituency. That means many young people from my constituency have to travel in excess of two hours to the opposite end of the district to attend college. This is piecemeal provision in which access and locations are based not on the needs of students, but on financial considerations.
To conclude, the FE sector is in a parlous financial state and there is growing concern from the people in my neck of the woods who work in FE that further cuts will tip colleges over the precipice. FE provision has been disproportionately affected by Government cuts to the public sector and has not been afforded the same protection offered to schools over the last six years. The Government’s decisions regarding further education are too often influenced solely by financial considerations, not on what really matters: providing our young people with the very best and most accessible form of academic or vocational education. This is what we want. This is what the FE sector wants. This is what students want. It is what parents want. It is also what universities and employers want. I fully support the motion.
Several hon. Members rose—