Amendment 53

Part of Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:52 pm on 21 October 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:52, 21 October 2021

I think we have all been in this Chamber for too long today, my Lords, and the brains are not working. But I do not do the scheduling; if I did, we probably would not still be here.

Group 14 is on essay mills and 16 to 19 academies. I will speak to Amendments 53 to 57, in the name of my noble friend Lady Barran. Contract cheating services have been a long-standing concern that your Lordships have rightly raised during the passage of the Bill. We have listened and I am pleased to bring these amendments to the House. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his unstinting efforts to clamp down on essay mills, where unscrupulous online operators provide assignments and other pieces of work for students in commercial circumstances.

Essay mills threaten to undermine the reputation of our education system, devalue the hard work of those who succeed on their own merit, prevent students from learning themselves and risk students entering the workforce without the knowledge, skills or competence to practise. We have worked with the higher education sector to clamp down on essay mills and to support students who might be targeted by these services. The sector has made great strides to help students understand the gravity of cheating and tackle the problem of cheating services. But, despite this activity, cheating services remain prevalent, with the pandemic leading to a further increase in the number of sites targeting their services at students in England. Amazingly, over 1,000 websites are now listed on uktopwriters.com, a comparison site of essay mill companies.

Our legislation will make it a criminal offence in England and Wales to provide, arrange or advertise cheating services in commercial circumstances to students taking a qualification at a sixth form or post-16 institution in England or enrolled at a higher education provider in England. It will send a clear message that contract cheating services—selling essays to students—are not legal, acting as a strong deterrent to those operating these reprehensible services.

Government Amendment 58 provides the Secretary of State for Education with an order-making power to enable the designation of 16 to 19 academies as having a religious character. It also provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations about the procedures relating to the designation. In addition, it sets out the freedoms and protections relating to religious education, collective worship and governance that the designation provides. I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Touhig—my noble friend—for raising this important issue in Committee. Both the noble Lord and stakeholder organisations such as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales have been very helpful in their collaboration with officials. I am glad that we have come to this solution.

This amendment will ensure that, when existing sixth-form colleges designated with a religious character convert to become academies, they retain their religious character and associated freedoms and protections. It will also enable new and existing 16 to 19 academies to be designated with a religious character in the future. The Government are committed to supporting existing sixth-form colleges to be able to convert to academy status. I am pleased that a significant proportion of sixth-form colleges have already taken this step and are making a stronger contribution to strengthening the academies sector. This amendment means that the barriers which have prevented sixth-form colleges with a religious character from converting to become academies will be removed.

Government amendments 74 and 75 in my name are tactical and consequential amendments which would expand the Long Title of the Bill. They are a consequence of the government amendments relating to careers information and provider access, the banning of cheating services and the clause relating to allowing 16 to 19 academies to be designated as having a religious character.

We look forward to more sixth-form colleges becoming academies and strengthening the sector with their expertise. We also look forward to the creation of the new 16 to 19 academies with a religious character in the future. I beg to move.