It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I thank Richard Graham for securing this important debate. I have in my constituency Hopwood Hall College, a further education college that is in the top 10% in England for level 3 progress and has the highest achievement rate for vocational level 2 in Greater Manchester. That college is rooted in our local community, and is crucial to driving social mobility and providing the skills needed to boost our local and regional economy. My partner taught art and design at Hopwood Hall before he retired. I mention that because, later in my short speech, I will refer to his experience of teaching young people.
Many young people in my constituency also choose to study at sixth-form college. In my neighbouring constituency of Rochdale, we have Rochdale Sixth Form College, which in January this year was named the highest-ranked sixth form college in the UK for value-added performance for the fifth year running. However, although my local FE institutions enjoy success, both have expressed to me their concerns about funding issues and their long-term sustainability. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has highlighted the shocking cuts to 16 to 18-year-old and adult education over the past decade. It has stated:
“Funding per student aged 16–18 has seen the biggest squeeze of all stages of education for young people in recent years.”
Those funding cuts are affecting the sustainability and quality of FE provision, with colleges having to deal with an average cut of 30% while costs have increased dramatically.
Research from the House of Commons Library shows that when the educational maintenance allowance for 16 to 19-year-olds was scrapped by the coalition Government and replaced with a bursary scheme, expenditure through that scheme was only about a third of the expenditure on EMAs. When that happened, my partner was still teaching, and I remember him telling me that students were forced to drop out of his course simply because they could no longer afford the bus fare to get to college. The scrapping of the EMA scheme was a cruel blow to the most disadvantaged students and their efforts to access an education, and a Labour Government would reinstate that scheme, which has been proven to support retention of students in education.
Clearly, something has to change; this situation is just not sustainable. The solution, as many Members have already said, is to raise the national funding rate for 16 to 18-year-olds. It makes sense to do so, as there is little point in investing in pre-16 and higher education if the pivotal stage in the middle is overlooked.