I beg to move amendment 28, in schedule 8, page 175, line 21, leave out from that to end of line 24 and insert
(a) it is reasonable to classify the institution as a sixth form college.
Ministers want to recognise the strength of SFCs and their contribution to the education of young people by identifying the SFC sector as a distinct legal category.
That means enabling the sixth-form college sector of 94 colleges to be split off from other further education colleges and be divided up between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. That is all very important and bureaucratic, which is the view of the Association of School and College Leaders:
We are concerned...that the changes for sixth form colleges will bring about a significant increase in bureaucracy for both colleges and local authorities.
The Association of Colleges, too, is mildly anxious:
Sixth Form Colleges will be small in number...within a Department which includes approximately 25,000 schools and nurseries but we hope Ministers and officials in DCSF are able to devote sufficient attention to their work and ensure they flourish.
Amendment 28 would amend the definition of a sixth-form college. At present, proposed new section 33B of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which would be inserted under schedule 8, defines a sixth-form college as a college where
at least 80 per cent. of its total enrolment number will be persons over compulsory school age but under 19.
That means that a college where, for example, 75 per cent. of students are within the age range would no longer qualify, which seems unnecessarily heavy-handed. Our amendment would change the definition to one in which
it is reasonable to classify the institution as a sixth form college.
I am sure that the figure of 80 per cent. was just plucked out of the air, so I urge Ministers to consider our more reasonable amendment to define a sixth-form college and how it should be distinguished from a regular further education college.
I am pleased to welcome you back to the Chair this afternoon, Mrs. Humble, on my first opportunity to do so in Committee this week.
In answer to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, the threshold for the designation of new sixth-form colleges is based on the age range of those colleges that currently identify themselves as sixth-form colleges. It certainly has not been plucked out of thin air. Of all the sixth-form colleges, only three have less than 80 per cent. of full-time equivalent students aged over 16 years and under 19. It was in fact a threshold that came out of existing colleges that identify themselves as sixth-form colleges and provide predominantly for young people over 16 but under 19. The majority of those colleges have at least 80 per cent. of their full-time equivalent students within that age range.
In our view, the threshold protects the essential nature of the sixth-form college sector providing mainly for those over 16 and under 19. It also gives a clear steer about eligibility to further education colleges that might consider applying for sixth-form college status in the future. The threshold is generally supported by representatives of the sixth-form college sector as a firm indicator of the main criterion for sixth-form college status. I am worried that, if accepted, the amendment would introduce doubt and confusion into the system.
Colleges in the FE sector have become more diverse since they were first incorporated as FE colleges under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. They admit a wider range of students and serve broader communities than may have been the case in the past. Many colleges would therefore be unclear about when they have grounds for applying to become sixth-form colleges and what might be considered reasonable. I am concerned that that uncertainty might destabilise the FE system generally, and that would not be in the interests of all colleges and learners.
For the record, I should point out that the Sixth Form Colleges Forum is broadly supportive of the new arrangements, because it thinks that there is more coherence in having local authorities, which are primarily responsible for the strategic direction of schools, having responsibility for the major direction of sixth-form colleges. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to withdraw the amendment.
The sixth-form colleges have expressed concern to me through their briefing that, because the mere 94 sixth-form colleges are among 25,000 schools and nurseries, they may not receive the attention that their importance requires. Moreover, the Minister said that three of those 94 sixth-form colleges will not constitute sixth-form colleges according to the definition. Will she therefore say what will happen to the three sixth-form colleges where it is not the case that 80 per cent. of students are over 16 and under 19 years? What would happen if a sixth-form college had applied to be a sixth-form college and had more than 80 per cent. of students in that bracket once it had applied, but then it dipped below the 80 per cent. requirement the following year? Would that lead to its being disqualified? If there is to be a de minimis period during which the colleges can drop below 80 per cent., how long would it be and what would be the consequences if, at the end of that time, the sixth-form college was still at, say, 79 per cent.?
The reason for the inclusion of the three colleges that are below 80 per cent. is that they designate themselves as sixth-form colleges. They are part of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum, so they are very much part of the family of sixth-form colleges. That is why they will be included in the first tranche, in the one-off order, when they will be invited to take sixth-form college status.
The other question was about whether sixth-form colleges feel that they would be swamped with all the other responsibilities of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I would strongly refute that. The separate designation for sixth-form colleges means that they will get the attention that they need, while remaining independent corporations.
Once colleges are designated as sixth-form colleges, they remain with that designation. We are looking to the future, when FE colleges want to move into the sixth-form college sector. There is a review period of five yearswe shall come to that when we debate another amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehamptonduring which changes can be made, and that is designed to retain stability in the sector.
I am encouraged that the three colleges identified by the Minister as not falling within the definition have been invited to join the sixth-form college sector. It is probably entirely reasonable for those colleges to be included in the sixth-form college sector, since they do not paint themselves as sixth-form colleges. However, that falls within the definition in the amendment, that it should be reasonable in all circumstances to judge that a college is a sixth-form college. However, having made the argument, which the Minister has in some ways vindicated, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment 29, in schedule 8, page 176, line 43, leave out subsection (3).
As drafted, proposed new section 33D of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which schedule 8 inserts, prevents sixth-form colleges from applying to the Secretary of State for redesignation as FE colleges for five years following classification as a sixth-form college. We touched on that issue in a previous debate, but that period seems to be unnecessarily arbitrary and restrictive. I doubt that colleges will swing back and forth between sectors every other year or month, so I cannot see the need for the provision, which may well present a barrier in some circumstances. Amendment 29 simply removes subsection (3) of proposed new section 33D. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment, would she explain why the period of five years has been selected?
As I touched on in my response to the previous amendment, the restriction on the application to redesignate is designed to ensure the stability of the sector. It does not prevent applications for a change of status if a college considers itself better placed in the other sector, but it controls the timing, so that multiple applications to change status do not interfere with the good governance of both sectors. Local authorities and the Skills Funding Agency need some assurance about the institutions that they would be performance managing. The sectors themselves would want a clear view of which colleges are in membership. Our view is that a five-year gap between applications allows colleges time to focus on their core business.
If there was no restriction on the change of status, there would be a danger that that would encourage short-term vision and erode distinctions between the sectors. The worst-case scenarioI do not believe it would happen but it is a possibilityis that a college might attempt to move between sectors in pursuit of perceived short-term gain rather than long-term strategy. That would confuse other colleges, employers and those parents and students who wanted to make use of the college.
We discussed our proposals for the designation of sixth-form colleges with representatives from the college sector. We are clear that they want stability and clear and defined processes for designation, to be able to plan their business. A period of stability, which does not prevent a college from changing its status at some future point if it feels that its core mission has changed, is essential to making a success of the changes that the Bill is introducing. For those reasons, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
There would not have been instability if there had not been a split into two DepartmentsDIUS and DCSF. This anti-instability measure has become necessary because of the bureaucratic decision to split the Governments role between two Departments. However, I am reassured by the Ministers response and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment 76, in schedule 8, page 177, line 16, after of, insert and available for.
This is a probing amendment to determine whether sixth-form colleges can recruit pupils from the age of 14. Able youngsters take their GCSEs ever earlier and may wish to proceed to A-levels when they are younger than 15. Proposed new section 33E(1), which will be inserted into the Higher Education Act 1992 by the schedule, states that a sixth-form college may do a number of things. Paragraph (b) states that it may
provide secondary education suitable to the requirements of persons who have attained the age of 14.
That is a little ambiguous. On first reading, it implies that the college can provide GCSE courses.
My question, which was prompted by the Association of School and College Leaders, is whether sixth-form colleges can enrol students from the age of 14. The amendment would insert the words and available for so that the paragraph states that sixth-form colleges may provide secondary education suitable to the requirements of and available for persons who have attained the age of 14. Clarification from the Minister on this point would be very helpful.
I am happy to clarify this matter for the hon. Gentleman. Proposed new section 33E will re-enact for sixth-form colleges the existing powers of FE colleges; these are not new powers. Colleges can accept pupils from the age of 14. We are concerned that accepting the amendment would imply that colleges should routinely accept pupils aged 14 to 16. We do not believe that they should. However, we think that they should have that flexibility. The schedule gives sixth-form colleges the flexibility to offer additional provision at the margins, while allowing them to focus on the core provision for 16 to 19-year-olds that so many students and their parents want. I hope that I have given sufficient comfort to the hon. Gentleman and that he will withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment 363, in schedule 8, page 185, leave out lines 16 to 31.
The amendment would remove the ability of local education authorities to appoint members to the governing body of a sixth-form college. Sixth-form colleges, like FE colleges, are at the centre of their communities, and it is important that, like FE colleges, they are allowed to respond to the needs of those communities. It is imperative that that responsiveness is based on independence and flexibility.
FE colleges have independent governing bodies, which they are extremely keen to keep. However, as the 157 Group and the Association of Colleges pointed out in their evidence, the new chief executive of Skills Funding will have the power to appoint governors to FE governing bodies. The responsiveness of FE colleges means that they are in tune with economic demand and the choices and aptitudes of learners. We are not keen that they should be beholden to the needs of LEAs.
We feel the same about sixth-form colleges. They require the same kind of flexibility and responsiveness. There may be a misunderstanding about sixth-form colleges, although not on your part, Mrs. Humble, or on the part of well-informed Committee members. More widely, people might assume that sixth-form colleges are more like school sixth forms than they are. Many sixth-form colleges teach a variety of things to a variety of learners. Their work is much more varied and is characterised by the flexibility that I have described.
The amendment is designed to ensure that while LEAs keep their commissioning role and powers of intervention, the governors of sixth-form colleges remain independent. Is there not already sufficient oversight in these institutions without a member of the LEA sitting on their boards? The amendment is supported by the Sixth Form Colleges Forum, which argued in written evidence that
The Sixth Form Colleges Forum is concerned that Sixth Form Colleges retain their current independence and ability to provide education appropriate to the needs of their communities on the same basis as their FE colleagues.
The Minister will know that sixth-form colleges are in the same network as FE collegesthey are members of the Association of Colleges and so on.
The amendment also allays the worries of the AOC that
local authorities will limit student choice by seeing sixth-form colleges as very much more local than they currently are in their recruitment. We hope that local authorities will in no way become proprietorial about their sixth-form colleges and try to limit their places to students within their boundaries.
That reinforces my point about sixth-form colleges being more wide ranging in the diet that they offerboth in content and in the kind of students that they typically teach. We must ensure that sixth-form colleges can retain this independent spirit, for the welfare of the students and the interest of the communities that they serve. To place two LEA members on a small governing body seems an excessive involvement of local authorities and it does not appear to be supported on any evidential basis. I have heard nothing to suggest that sixth-form colleges are typically badly governed. Perhaps the Minister knows otherwise and will make the Committee aware of any evidence she has.
Sixth-form colleges are already providing an excellent education for a wide range of students with a wide range of subjects. We cannot and should not restrict their ability to perform this vital function in the way that they wish in the future. The amendment is therefore tabled in that spirit and we anticipate the Ministers response with interest.
I want to make a few comments. It is a matter of getting the right balance. Things are going to change, and funding arrangements have been going through local authorities. However, I appreciate the hon. Gentlemans comments about independence, which is very much valued. However, it is important that new relationships are forged in the new situation. At this stage, I am not against the proposal that a local authority may perform a duty. It is critical that whatever happens should come out of a true partnership. I await the Ministers comments.
There is a bit of a misunderstanding. The power that may enable an LEA to appoint two governors is nothing knew. It is replicating an existing power under section 11 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000, which gave the Learning and Skills Council the power to appoint up to two persons to be members of the governing body of a further education sector institution in England. Schedule 6 of this Bill gives that power to the SFA to appoint to governing bodies of FE colleges.
We are not singling out sixth-form colleges and it is for the local authority to decide how it should use the powers. It does not require the local education authority to appoint a governor to the governing body of a sixth form. It could be used, if it were used at all, in a number of circumstances. It could build and bring additional capacity to a governing body if the local authority identified the need for particular expertisesay in finance or building. However, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, it is important that it is done in the spirit of partnership and that the power provides the means for that partnership to exist.
My amendment was meant to be a probing one, but I am becoming increasingly concerned. We are saying that the power has never been used, that we are building into a new law a power that was passed previously but never acted on, and now we are building into the changed structure. That is a bit curious, is it not?
I disagree. We are looking at local authorities taking a strategic role, and looking across all the provision, be it in a school sixth form or a sixth-form college. I do not think that it is unreasonable for either the sixth-form sector or the FE sector to do that. We are talking about two governors, which will have a minor impact on the membership of a governing body. It is certainly not the intention for a local authority to take control of a sixth-form college that is an independent institution; it would not be able to do so. The measure is not related to the intervention process that is set out in section 56E in any way. We should also remember that any governor appointed has a collective responsibility and owes a duty to the governing body, not to the local authority. As I said, they are not new powers, but elements of existing relationships that sixth-form colleges have with the LSC. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
That was an odd response. We are discussing powers that have never been used and a power that the Minister does not expect to be used, yet we are putting it into law. My instinct about such laws is that they should probably be struck from the statute book. Do we not have all kinds of laws that are never implemented? One wonders why the Government want to perpetuate that kind of legal inactivity. Legislative inaction is not a good basis on which to frame what we do. I am doubtful about all that; clearly, the sixth-form college sector itselffrom the representations that we have received, which I amplified in my few brief wordsis doubtful about it. But as I do not want to delay the Committee further, even though I am not entirely satisfied with what we have heard, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
With this it will be convenient to take new clause 6Communication with sixth form colleges
(1) In considering whether to issue any guidance or other circular to the governing bodies or principals of sixth form colleges in the exercise of functions relating to education, the Secretary of State and the relevant local education authority shall have regard to
(a) the desirability of providing information about good educational practice, while recognising the professional expertise of college staff,
(b) the benefits that are expected to result from the issue of the guidance or other circular, and
(c) the desirability of avoiding
(i) the sending of excessive material to governing bodies or principals, and
(ii) the imposition of excessive administrative burdens on governing bodies or principals.
(2) In pursuance of the duty in subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall in respect of each academic year
(a) prepare a report listing
(i) documents sent by him or a local education authority during the year to all governing bodies of sixth form colleges in England or to all principals of such colleges, and
(ii) documents (not falling within sub-paragraph (i)) sent by him during the year to all governing bodies of sixth form colleges in England of a particular kind or to all principals of such colleges of a particular kind, and
(b) lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament, and include within it comparative statistics in respect of each of the two preceding academic years on documents falling within this subsection sent out by him.
(3) Each document issued by the Secretary of State or a local education authority and falling within subsection (2)(a)(i) shall list within it previous relevant documents issued by the Secretary of State or a local education authority and shall state clearly those documents which are superseded by the current document.
(4) Each document issued by the Secretary of State or local education authority and falling within subsection (2)(a)(i) or (ii) shall state clearly the persons for whom any advice and guidance is intended.
(5) In this section academic year means a period beginning with 1 August and ending with the next 31 July..
The purpose of the new clause is to try to keep tabs on and minimise the quantity of material, guidance, circulars and lever-arch files that are sent by the Department for Children, Schools and Families to sixth-form colleges. The wording mirrors an amendment tabled by my late noble Friend Baroness Blatch in another place during the passage of the Education Act 2002.
When the Secretary of State is considering issuing guidance or any other circular, he or she should have regard, first, to the desirability of providing information about good educational practice, while taking into account the professional expertise of college staff. He or she should take into account the benefits that are expected to result from issuing the guidance, the undesirability of sending excessive material to colleges and the imposition of excessive administrative burdens. The problem with all the material that is sent is that it may or may not be useful, but to determine whether it is, the principal must read it all. As I tour schoolsthe same amendment could be applied to schools, franklyI see the insecurity of many teachers when they glance at their supply cupboard and see an unopened lever-arched file that was sent six months earlier by the DCSF. It can undermine the confidence of teachers if too much material is sent. It is far better to keep the material succinct, short and infrequent, just conveying the key imperatives of Government policy for raising standards. We researched the quantity of information sent to schools and it amounted to as much text as the complete works of Shakespearesent every year to schools in this country.
My hon. Friend is saying that schools receive a volume of instruction or diktat that is equivalent to the works of Shakespeare, when students do not get a chance to learn Shakespeare. Is that the gist of it?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Too often in English literature lessons students do not devour the whole play but only excerpts from it and worksheets are used. It is a pity that in too many schools that is how Shakespeare is taught.
This is a serious new clause because the bureaucratic burden imposed on schools and colleges is a major issue raised with hon. Membersit certainly is with me when I visit schools around the country. It would be good to hear the Ministers reaction to this new clause and what she intends to do as a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families about trying to reduce this burden.
I agree with the sentiments behind the new clause; I do not think anybody could fail to, certainly not when we hear reports from schools about the excessive burden on them. I have a faint concern that we will just be generating more paperwork and more reports, and perhaps losing focus on what we are all trying to do, by the time we get a full report of that in Parliament.
Apart from growing like Topsy, it is important to think how to cut bureaucracy and the administrative burden so that all our educational establishments can concentrate on those things on which they are meant to focus. I am also concerned that the excessive amount of paperwork means that important messages can be missed. It is the classic communication problem that when a lot of information is buzzing around, something important can be overlooked. I have great sympathy with everything in the new clause, but I am not sure about its practical implications.
The schedule clearly makes the point that the Secretary of State will give authority for new sixth-form provision. Backtracking to clause 122, as I understand it that authority is taken away from local authorities. I seek clarification from the Minister on that. Let us suppose that a reorganisation of schools leads an authority to move to 11-to-16 schools and sixth-form colleges, having previously had all-through schools. As I understand it, the local authority would put its plan together and submit it to the Secretary of State. How would that be different from the way in which an authority tackles that situation now?
As we are having a general debate about the schedule, I want to add amplification on the status of sixth-form colleges. They are anxious that they will be treated in their governance more like schools than colleges. Their existing relationship with the FE college sector is significant and valuable, leading to an exchange of ideas and expertise across FE and sixth-form colleges; it reflects what they do. As I said, many sixth-form colleges have a wide brief, dealing with a range of learners. There is a concern, which has been expressed to the Committeecertainly to its Opposition membersthat the Bill changes some of that. It is important that the Minister puts on the record that the Government remain committed to sixth-form colleges independence and ability to respond to their local communities in a creative, innovative way that is free from unnecessary diktat. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister for Schools and Learners has arrived.
Reducing the bureaucratic burden on schools, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton so eloquently argued, is essential if we are to free teachers to devote their time, energy and efforts to the interests of learners, rather than dancing to the tune of politicians and bureaucrats.
I, too, am in favour of any action that reduces bureaucracy in the FE system and allows sixth-form colleges and local authorities to get on with the important business of meeting the countrys challenges for learning. Therefore, I am sympathetic to the intention behind new clause 6. However, we are making significant headway in reducing bureaucracy without needing further legislation. Significantly, most publications are no longer sent to principals and chairs of governing bodies, but are available online. We use our electronic FE newsletter and many representative bodies to alert college staff to key documents. Of course, effective communication is dependent on the quality and presentation of the content.
The sector-led FE communications gateway panel has developed clear guidelines on producing effective publications, and it acknowledges the improvement in the drafts that it now receives from DCSF and the Learning and Skills Council. The bureaucracy reduction group has the key strategic role to scrutinise and challenge any aspects of policy implementation that result in excessive material or administrative burdens. For example, it has successfully challenged the Government on the burdens of Train to Gain documentation. It will challenge DIUS and DCSF on the implications for colleges day-to-day work of establishing the Skills Funding Agency and the Young Peoples Learning Agency, but we know that we can do more.
With the establishment of the YPLA and the transfer of responsibility for 16-to-19 provision to local authorities, we have an opportunity to streamline communications further while encouraging the sector to challenge where necessary. Both DIUS and the DCSF will ensure that the SFA and the YPLA submit their draft publications, such as funding guidance, to the panel. In addition, the establishment of the YPLA will draw on the work of the information authority, which was established to set and regulate standards. Using IT and sharing data effectively will be central to the core functions of the YPLA and its work with partners in the 16-to-19 system.
The Merits Committee has reviewed the cumulative impact of statutory instruments on schools. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners has made commitments to work towards a school commencement date of 1 September to review lead times, with a view to ensuring that there is a one-term lead time for statutory instruments that directly affect schools in 2010, and to continue improving the accessibility of communications to schools, website rationalisation and the clarity of bi-weekly e-mail and, possibly, to provide a single web portal for schools.
I am most interested. The bureaucracy reduction group has an Orwellian ring; it is like the ministry of truth. But the Government would not need a ministry of truth if they mainly told it, would they? Who is on this bureaucracy reduction group? What is its budget? How many staff does it have? What kind of bureaucracy does it have? It is extraordinary. I would love to hear more about it; it sounds most exciting.
I can write to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings with the details. Given the work that we are doing to reduce the burden of bureaucracy on schools, I hope that the Opposition will not press the new clause to a Division.
Hon. Members asked a couple of questions about the schedule in general. I can inform the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that the Government are committed to the independent status of sixth-form colleges; I am happy to put that on the record. Sixth-form colleges do not have to take up the designation. They can remain as they are if they wish. The one-off is an invitation for them to take up this status if they wish. Nobody is forcing anything on FE or sixth-form colleges. It is entirely up to them which route they take.
To answer the question put by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, if there is a change of school status, local authorities will have to publish their proposal locally. On the establishment of sixth-form colleges, the local authoritys proposal will go to the Secretary of State, whereas currently, or until the Bill is enacted, it goes to the Learning and Skills Council.