Further Education Funding — [Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:49 am on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Anne Milton Anne Milton Minister of State (Education) 10:49 am, 2nd April 2019

I would love to give way to lots of hon. Members, but time does not allow. I will make some progress.

FE delivers not only high-quality provision for 16 to 19-year-olds but lifelong learning, which was mentioned briefly. As we heard in a moving story from one hon. Member, it gives people chances to learn that they never had as a young person and the opportunity to retrain when their skills become outdated, to gain higher qualifications and to move along the career path. It also provides patient and caring support for those who are struggling to gain basic skills, opportunities for families to learn together and support for parents to help their children, as we all want to help ours. Although further education’s breadth is its strength, that breadth makes it hard to define: it is not school, but it is not university, so we need to articulate a clear vision.

As hon. Members have noted, funding per student has not kept up with costs. For 16 to 19-year-olds, we have protected the base rate of funding at £4,000 until the end of this spending review period, but that has been eroded by inflation. The Association of Colleges and the Raise the Rate campaign’s funding impact survey report have highlighted many of the issues and financial challenges. Reductions in 16-to-19 funding over recent years have partly been due to falling numbers of students; the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in the population has been falling for 10 years. The level is now 10% lower than in 2008-09, which poses difficult challenges for the sector, but it will start to increase again from 2020.

FE colleges are complex institutions that need to manage ebbs and flows in training provision and finance. On average, vocational courses cost more per student than academic programmes, so we provide more funding for most vocational courses for 16 to 19-year-olds through the programme cost weights. Further education institutions therefore actually receive more funding per 16 to 19-year-old student than school sixth forms, but that is purely a reflection of the greater costs.

I think that the thrust of the message from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester was that we need to do more to help our colleges. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous spoke about the productivity potential of people who attend FE and about fairness. My hon. Friend Will Quince spoke about equality of opportunity; I wonder whether he might send a nice YouTube clip of this debate to the Chancellor, who I am sure would find it riveting. My right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett rightly noted that, despite it all, 81% of colleges are rated as good or outstanding.

Our debates on FE put the case for it front and centre as a driver of social mobility. Bearing in mind the precious little time we have had today, I am sure that the opportunity for part 2 of this debate will come very shortly. My hon. Friend Giles Watling and the shadow Minister, Gordon Marsden, spoke about T-levels, which will receive an additional £500 million in funding when they are rolled out. In fact, it was in Clacton that I met a woman who said probably one of the most poignant things I have ever heard. She had left school with no qualifications and was a single parent with three children, but she had gone back and done level 2, level 3 and level 4 qualifications. When I met her, she was doing level 5. I asked her why she had done it—what had suddenly inspired her to do it when her children were in their teens? She said, “Because I thought I was worth it.” There is nothing better to hear.

Wages of FE staff are lower than in schools. FE staff are incredibly committed individuals who carry on because of the demonstrable difference that they make to young people’s lives. Further education colleges are independent and set their own wages, but that does not make recruitment and retention any easier.

Differences in life expectancy were briefly mentioned. One of the most significant correlators with poor health is level of education. Better-educated people have better health; I say that as a former public health Minister. The issue needs to be highlighted, and there may be an opportunity to expand this campaign into questions of health—I put that forward as a suggestion, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe will take it on board.

One hon. Member spoke about second chances, and we often talk about third or fourth chances. I have had the privilege of seeing those fourth chances change people’s lives.