Further Education

Part of Opposition Day — [10th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 18th November 2015.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Education) 6:39 pm, 18th November 2015

If the Secretary of State checks the facts, she might find that they are rather different.

My hon. Friend Marie Rimmer is a powerful advocate for the role of FE in her empowering sixth-form colleges. As a former WEA tutor, I was pleased that she spoke about the importance of the WEA.

Regardless of her artistry, balloon or otherwise, I found the Secretary of State’s speech rather sad and waffly, with a dash of Europhobia thrown in. [Interruption.] I am sorry that Ministers do not like that, but it is true. The Secretary of State talked about not showing her hand before the spending review. The problem is that most of us do not believe that she had a hand to show in the first place. The way in which she talked about apprenticeships without mentioning any of the difficulties or complexities reminded me of the old sitcom, “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width”.

The Secretary of State did not look at the unsustainable division between school education, which has ring-fenced funding, and FE, which faces growing marginalisation and an ever-greater burden of cuts. The area review of local FE provision is adding to the instability in the sector and there is unclear information from the Government on funding applications. Further education for 16 to 19-year-olds was the most cut area of education in the last Parliament, with its funding falling by 14% in real terms. That was a combination of lower budgets to support 16 to 19-year-olds after the scrapping of the EMA and a direct funding cut to colleges of about 10% in real terms. This year, per-student funding in colleges and sixth forms has faced a real-terms cut and stands at £4,000.

It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not come out of her press release bubble a little more and talk about what other people in the sector are saying. Many Members referred to the open letter that warned about further funding cuts in the spending review, as was reported in Monday’s FE Week. Colleges and courses do not exist in silos. If there are funding cuts for 16 to 19-year-olds, it will have a knock-on effect on other age groups. Earlier in the week, the shadow Chancellor and I spoke to hundreds of FE staff in London. There was genuine fury not just because they will be less able to help students, but about the life chances that will go astray.

The National Audit Office rightly reported on the problems in FE earlier in the year. My hon. Friend Meg Hillier, in her role as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described it as a “deeply alarming report”.

It is not just in Department for Education policy that the Government are failing to support the skills and growth that we need. There is a failure of joined-up thinking across the Departments and there is no acknowledgement of the impact that the Government ‘s cuts are having on post-school education. The Minister knows that business and the budget for further education are closely linked, but the new higher education Green Paper threatens to stack the deck against FE colleges that derive precious revenue from providing degree-level skills. If he plans to ensure that colleges that do not immediately meet the desired standards are supported to improve and bounce back, rather than starting on a cycle of decline, fair enough, but the Green Paper has no answers to that question.

The analysis by our shadow Education team showed just what the cuts would mean for 16 to 19-year-olds. Assuming the Department met the lower target of 25%, spending on 16-to-19 provision could fall by £1.6 billion a year by 2020. No wonder the alarm bells have been rung all across the sector. No wonder the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, in its spending review submission, said that funding for 16-to-18 education should be maintained. The Government need to realise that people from across the sector, including the Association of Colleges, which has spoken out strongly, and the University and College Union, which has said that colleges

“cater for the learning needs of a wide range of people, including many from vulnerable or disadvantaged groups”,

are saying that colleges should not lose out to schools but that the Government are in danger of allowing that to happen.

We have heard a lot from the sixth-form college sector. Research by the Sixth Form Colleges Association at the beginning of August painted a picture of a beleaguered sector under serious threat from three separate funding cuts since 2011—never mind what might come up next week. Only this week, the principal of my sixth-form college said to me:

“Last year 81.42% of our students progressed to HE, a further 12.21% to employment with training…and only 0.94% remained NEET… Another cut in funding threatens all this. Not only will the college have to seek significant savings in its day to day operation, we will also have to consider…reducing the curriculum offer…to students” and

“removing key specialist subjects from our portfolio”.

He also said the college risks not meeting its work experience requirements or the local needs of the community. A paper from the Sixth Form Colleges Association has made the same point. The principal of the excellent Blackpool and The Fylde further education college, which teaches 3,000 under-18s, has said to me: “Given the attainment in schools in the locality, post-16 providers have to compensate for poor performance and need to be remunerated accordingly. I hope you will continue your support for the college in the forthcoming year, particularly by offering robust challenges to any further funding cuts in the autumn spending review.”

Even on their most clearly stated aims, the Government cannot help shooting themselves in the foot. Ministers proclaim that they protected schools from cuts by ring-fencing funding, but they do not recognise the effects of cuts on schools with a sixth-form attached, many of which use the secondary education budget to cover the huge cuts. Ministers have encouraged 169 new school sixth forms to open since 2010, but there are now 1,200 with fewer than 100 students. There are already indications that pressures on the sector mean that providers cannot offer the service our young people need, even in core areas such as maths. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that 150 graduates would be offered bursaries to train this year, but that figure represents only about 3% of the current maths teaching force. Some 25% of experienced teachers are approaching retirement, and those older teachers are three times more likely to have a maths qualification than younger recruits.

Government Members who think that these FE cuts and area reviews will pass them by should listen to the warning given by Tim Loughton last week in Question Time, when he asked the Minister to assure him

“that the area reviews are not just a cover for further, unrealistic cuts that will threaten their viability altogether”.—[Hansard, 10 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 213.]

The Government claim that they want to energise technical and professional skills, but then they fail to deliver level 4 work experience in schools. They claim they want to boost productivity, but then, in their area reviews, ignore the vital role that colleges and providers play. They claim they want to give everyone a proper chance, but then produce cuts with unforeseen consequences. They claim that they want to talk about equalities, but as we have heard, colleges and schools are short of funding, which often means that support for disabled young people is not forthcoming or co-ordinated. They do not understand—or they do not care to understand—the cumulative effects of those cuts, just as they did not understand the awful damage that was done by cutting the education maintenance allowance and aid for social mobility.

Further education must no longer be the whipping boy when the spending review is delivered. If the Government will the ends, they must will the means. Otherwise, meanness and lack of focus will leave thousands of young people at risk of having their life chances shredded by the ignorance or incompetence of this Government.