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Education and Training (Welfare of Children) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:32 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 1:32 pm, 13th March 2020

I congratulate Mary Kelly Foy on proposing to close an important loophole that she has identified. I enjoyed her speech and her warm words about an important institution in her constituency; Durham is an important city of learning at all kinds of different levels.

I also welcome the new Minister to her place. There is a nice irony here, because the Minister is living proof of the importance of technical and vocational routes. She is proof that people can get to the highest jobs in the country without having been to university at the age of 18; she has done it through work. She is the perfect person to take through this legislation, which I believe is her first Bill. On a day in which we have discussed levelling up, it is nice to see the Minister for levelling up on the Front Bench—just to wind up Opposition Members even more.

The hon. Member for City of Durham has identified an important anomaly, which we will hopefully end today by extending the duty to make safeguarding provisions to all providers of publicly funded post-16 education. The Bill brings 16-to-19 academies, specialist post-16 institutions and independent learning providers into the scope of the statutory guidance. Currently, 16-to-19 academies are not legally classified as schools or colleges, and are therefore falling down a gap and not being captured by the statutory safeguarding duties in section 175 of the Education Act 2002. About 20 sixth-form colleges have already converted to become academies, and that number is likely to rise. Members will recall that one reason this is happening is as a solution to the problem that sixth-form colleges face VAT while, of course, schools do not.

There are all kinds of reasons why we should want more 16-19 academies. It is important that we improve the legal framework in which they operate, because we want more of them. Sixth-form colleges are our most efficient type of school. They achieve the highest results for their age group, even though they do not benefit from the £1 billion cross-subsidy that school sixth forms get. It is clear why they are so effective: having 30 pupils in an A-level class is clearly more efficient than having only two or three.

Colleges and sixth-form colleges currently pay VAT, so in a sense they are being discriminated against. The Sixth Form Colleges Association estimates that the average sixth-form college pays around £300,000 a year in VAT. It is therefore very good for them to become academies, which in turn encourages them to work more closely in federation with local schools. However, we cannot allow the growing number of 16-19 academies to fall outside the crucial safeguarding framework for young people.

Although the Bill will close one anomaly, it is not the only one that has grown up around 16-19 academies. Last year, Gareth Thomas led a Westminster Hall debate on religious protections for Catholic sixth-form colleges that want to academise. The director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, has said that

“because academisation legislation for Sixth Form Colleges was developed separately from schools, the same safeguards given to schools were omitted for Catholic Sixth Form Colleges”.

I hope that the Minister will move to close that similar lacuna.

Catholic sixth-form colleges say that they are currently prevented from converting to academies because their religious character, which is protected under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, would not be maintained under current Government rules. They suggest that they would lose protections in areas of the curriculum, acts of worship and governance. I hope that anomaly will also be closed.

I must declare an interest, because I benefited hugely from attending a sixth-form college, Greenhead College, which I suspect is already thinking about converting to a 16-19 academy. I can say with certainty that I would not be standing in the House today were it not for that wonderful, life-changing institution. It sounds like New College Durham in that it is offering similarly transformational opportunities to young people in Huddersfield, a town that is very close to the national average but has this wonderful institution that is giving young people opportunities to achieve all kinds of wonderful things in life.

Sixth-form colleges are hugely important institutions that are achieving brilliant results, despite being less well funded than other parts of the education sector. Today we are normalising them further by extending to them the important safeguarding provisions set out in legislation, closing a lacuna that nobody intended to be there in the first place. I benefited from wonderful pastoral care during my time at sixth-form college. Many of these institutions are naturally doing the right thing, but it is essential that we have certainty about the law and about the guidance. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham again on bringing forward a Bill that I hope will proceed in short order today.