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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Labour 5:28 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, the Minister in opening quoted from the gracious Speech, stating that Ministers would,

“ensure that all young people have access to an excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for the world of work”.

This is a worthy aim, but given government policy, it is unlikely to be achieved. I expected the Minister to tell us that funding for schools would increase as a result of spending round pledges. She told us about the budget for early years, too, and for universities, but further education, as so often, did not even get a mention.

The position in further education is dire: its funding has been slashed by £3.3 billion since 2010. At least in the spending round the Government have recognised that FE colleges do need more money, but an extra £400 million is a paltry sum against the magnitude of the cuts. The Chancellor said that he had attended an FE college and knows how important they are. That is good news—he is one of the few Tory politicians who has done so—but come on, Mr Javid, that sum will not be nearly enough for FE to unlock the full potential of young people and prepare them for the world of work.

Before I discuss FE colleges’ resources, I will comment on the curriculum for 16 to 19 year-olds across school sixth forms and colleges. In this country, we have a disastrously overspecialised learning environment for young people taking school-leaving examinations at 18. No other education system has anything like the specialisation associated with A-levels. Like the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I will mention Mr Gove. As Secretary of State for Education, he took a step backwards when he returned to the three-subject A-level norm, dropping AS-levels which have encouraged the study of four subjects in the first year of the sixth form. If only he had made the progressive step of going in the other direction, towards five subjects at AS-level, followed by four at A-level. Even this approach is some way from the hugely preferable international baccalaureate, which allows the study of six subjects. The universities must share some of the blame, because their conservatism in sticking rigidly to offers of three A-levels has discouraged a broader range of subjects.

Many people lament the dramatic decline in the study of foreign languages. In a world where English has become the global language, it is harder to motivate young people who have English as their mother tongue to study them after the age of 16. They are also unlikely to be chosen when competing with a range of science subjects and mathematics, or with English and the humanities, when students are so constrained in their choices. The three-subject straitjacket also means that many able young people are not studying the important subject of mathematics after 16; many others are studying no humanities subjects either. We are forcing young people into a horribly unbalanced education at a time in their lives when they should be learning more broadly. I challenge the Government to do something about this, and I hope to hear about it in the Minister’s reply.

I turn to further education colleges which, as well as providing A-level programmes, are the vitally important institutions for the development of vocational skills for 16 to 19 year-olds—as well as for adults, which I will not touch on today. Many people welcomed the Government’s industrial strategy and their wish to tackle our low levels of productivity with more emphasis on skills training. How are we going to make any inroads into this problem if we starve the institutions with a central role in developing these skills? After cuts averaging 30% per annum between 2009 and 2019, the Institute for Fiscal Studies called FE the “biggest loser” in the austerity programme, and so it was.

To cite another important commentator, the Children’s Commissioner’s recent report showed that, by 2020, real-terms spending per 16 to 18 year-old will drop to the level it was 30 years ago. This means that we are spending the same amount per student aged 16 to 19 as we were in 1990, despite rising costs. It must be remembered that the spending review increase for FE is for one year only, in 2020-21, whereas the schools have a three-year settlement. Why should there be a difference? Why is the promised extra funding for FE so small? I ask this against a background where 16 to 18 year-olds in England get an average of 15 hours of contact time a week, compared with 25 for students of that age in other OECD countries. This amounts to 600 fewer hours over a standard two-year course—hardly the way to improve our relative productivity position and, thereby, our competitive success.

There is also a failure to meet another government priority: to promote greater social mobility. Many of the most disadvantaged young people do not stay at school after 16, and many will never gain a university place. FE colleges can have a vital role in providing a route to the skills needed for a rewarding career and to becoming socially mobile.

In conclusion, funding is a fundamental challenge in FE, as the Augar committee made clear. Will the Government now make a firm commitment to the sector of £5,000 per student per annum? Only then will FE teachers receive the pay they deserve and students get the quality of education and training that they need.