Post-16 Education: Bolsover

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 7 March 2023.

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Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 11:00, 7 March 2023

There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention with 30-minute debates.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered post-16 education in Bolsover constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am sure by now that the Government are well aware of my campaign to bring post-16 education back to the Bolsover constituency. I am delighted that the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon is responding. I know that this is not necessarily his area in the Department. I apologise to my hon. Friend Suzanne Webb, who has heard me make this argument on many occasions. I have been fortunate to have meetings with the Secretary of State to raise this important issue, and I welcome the opportunity again to set out the reasons why this is such a vital endeavour.

This issue is close to my heart. I have spoken previously about the importance of a good education and the effect it has had on my life. It is during those years that our lives are shaped. I was fortunate to become the person that I am at sixth form: I made friends for life; I discovered my love of economics and politics; I was able to come out and be happy as an individual; and when I lost my mum, I was looked after by my teachers at sixth form, who became like family. I want that experience to be shared by those in Bolsover, so that they can live their lives to the full. Just as I owe that to the fantastic mentoring I received at school, we all owe it to the next generation of students, so that they may have the best opportunities in life.

I grew up in Doncaster—an area with very similar demographics and skill prospects as Bolsover. I know at first hand the difference a quality education can have on young people, and the opportunities it opens. I know the effect that bringing post-16 education back to Bolsover will have on the hardworking students there. The Redhill Academy Trust, which runs The Bolsover School in my constituency, has submitted an application for a sixth form to be based in Bolsover town. I wholeheartedly support that application, and was more than happy to contribute to the bid and provide support wherever possible.

For a long time, my constituency failed to receive the investment it deserves. Children are feeling the impact of that on their educational opportunities. Countless parents have told me that they want their child to have a better education than they were able to receive. Currently, just 21% of people in Bolsover have a degree level or higher qualification, compared with 42.8% nationally; and 9% of people in my constituency hold no formal qualification at all. Bolsover is ranked as the most deprived area in Derbyshire, according to the combined indices of deprivation. It has the highest rate of child poverty in Derbyshire, and the lowest gross disposable household income in the county.

Levelling up is vital to my constituents, which means investment in housing, infrastructure and high-skilled jobs, and ensuring that we have a skilled population, underpinned by an ambition to capitalise on the opportunities available to them. I welcome the Government’s ongoing plans to do that, but if we want to ensure that Bolsover has the long-term prospects necessary to create a real shift towards a brighter future, the key will be improving educational opportunities for the current and next generations of students. Three main factors are driving the need for a new post-16 education provider in Bolsover: the lack of existing provisions within a reasonable distance; the over-subscription of existing schools; and the lack of choice for students wanting to pursue an academic form of education.

My constituency currently has no further education providers. Students at The Bolsover School have three options for post-16 education that are within one hour via public transport; two are rated as “requires improvement” and the third is over-subscribed. The need for a quality post-16 alternative that is accessible to the residents of my constituency’s towns and villages is one of the most common concerns raised by local parents. I am well aware of the issue and am fortunate to have spent time as a governor at The Bolsover School. In May last year, I mentioned in the main Chamber an email that I received from a concerned constituent, which I think is worth repeating:

“There is no 6th form available at The Bolsover School and so pupils wishing to do A levels have an expensive bus ride in order to get anywhere. For instance it costs around £650 a year if your child is successful to get a place at St Mary’s High School in Chesterfield and the choice of courses at Chesterfield college are quite limited.”

That is just one example from hundreds of parents who have spoken to me in person or contacted my office to outline their concerns about the lack of post-16 provision in the constituency.

Netherthorpe School, the closest sixth-form provider for students living in Bolsover, is currently over-subscribed by 251 pupils. So what do the committed and passionate pupils of Bolsover do? Well, a third travel from Bolsover for up to an hour and 33 minutes—not including the time it takes to get to and from the bus stop, and waiting for the next bus—to go to Tupton Hall School, a sixth form that is also part of the Redhill Academy Trust. The children of Bolsover should not need to travel this immense distance just to seek the education they so desperately want and deserve. Those pupils lose a minimum of three hours and six minutes every single day. That time would be far better spent on additional education or partaking in after school curricula; after school activities are an incredibly important part of the education experience, and every child should have the opportunity to get involved in them.

Ten of the 13 major settlements in the north of my constituency—including Glapwell, Langwith, Palterton, Scarcliffe and Shirebrook—would be better served by the creation of a new sixth form in Bolsover. I have received a lot of correspondence from parents who are concerned about the price of sending their children to school. Taking away that cost is an important and tangible benefit of opening a sixth form in Bolsover that Ministers take into consideration when discussing current free school bids, and it is particularly important when it comes to the proposed location of the Bolsover sixth form. The catchment area would cater for a greater than average number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, with an estimated 32% entitled to free school meals compared to 22% nationally. Some 16% of pupils will have special educational needs compared to 12.6% nationally, and 36% access the pupil premium. This is a real opportunity to support those who are most in need of support.

The Redhill Academy Trust also has a fantastic record of ensuring that its students are well prepared for higher education; 71% of post-16 graduates from the Redhill Academy Trust progressed to university, compared to the national and local authority average of 52%. This proposal will increase the number of disadvantaged students going to university.

There is no solution other than to tackle the issues of capacity and travel times. The free school bid explains that although most pupils attending the sixth form would come directly from The Bolsover School, the catchment area would also include the majority of north Derbyshire and parts of Nottinghamshire, which, as the Government will know, are both educational investment areas. Crucially, it will also include the Heritage School in Clowne, Shirebrook Academy and the surrounding villages, all of which are in desperate need of greater education provision and would directly benefit from a sixth form in Bolsover.

The current issue of capacity will not ease in the coming years. Bolsover District Council has identified Bolsover North, Clowne and Whitwell as the three strategic sites for its preferred spatial strategy—all in prime distance for a new sixth form. To accommodate growth in the region, these areas have already begun to see greater investment in housing and, sometimes, infrastructure. Over the coming years, we should expect to see 1,800 additional dwellings in Clowne Garden Village and 1,000 in Bolsover North, as well as another 700 in sites across Bolsover town and 600 at Brookvale in Shirebrook. There will be another 500 dwellings at the former Whitwell colliery site and 300 houses on the former Creswell colliery site. Those must all be taken into consideration.

I hope that I have set out the quite clear and desperate need for additional post-16 provision in Bolsover. I will touch briefly on why a sixth form is the right type of educational setting to resolve the issue. Children in Bolsover are suffering from a severe lack of choice when it comes to the type of education they want to pursue. While I understand—indeed, greatly support—the push for more technical education across the UK, I urge the Government to carefully consider that in these circumstances, what the children of Bolsover require right now is the greater provision of academic education.

When deciding to apply for a free school in Bolsover, the Redhill Academy Trust chose to make it a sixth form with very good reason: there is excess demand for a local sixth form. In 2020-21, only 23% of students at The Bolsover School went on to study at a sixth form or sixth-form college, compared to the English average of 52%. These figures are reflected in the other secondary schools in my constituency, but we should be careful not to infer from that figure that less than a quarter of students from the school want to attend an academic education. We have already seen that students are willing to travel great distances to very competitive and over-subscribed schools to get the education they want and deserve, and those who cannot afford to do so are limited in their options and prospects. This education relies on children getting one of the very competitive school places and parents being able to afford the associated costs. As noted in the free school bid, travel times and costs are the main barriers to post-16 education in Bolsover. Those barriers can and should be removed.

Also highlighted in the free school bid is an outlook for the future of jobs in Bolsover. A high number of jobs locally are at risk because of automation, and there remains a high proportion of low-skilled and low-earning jobs, with high rates of long-term unemployment. That seriously needs to be addressed.

The east midlands is home to fantastic firms, such as Rolls-Royce and its small nuclear reactor production plant in Derby, and the UK Atomic Energy Authority with its fusion energy site in West Burton. Both are working hard to make the east midlands a global centre for green technology. We have an opportunity to ensure that the future workforce can capitalise on that and benefit from future investment in the sectors. The way to do that is to promote the provision of important subjects, such as computer science, physics, chemistry, maths and further maths—all key education areas for the proposed sixth form in Bolsover, and all currently under-subscribed locally.

To briefly quote the bid, the Bolsover sixth form would

“improve outcomes for young people in the region and help strengthen Derbyshire's and Nottinghamshire's economies, as both areas are known for their manufacturing and engineering sectors, as well as recently their investment into low carbon technologies.”

That does not mean that a sixth form in Bolsover would not also supply technical education. In fact, the Redhill Academy Trust is working closely with the University of Derby to ensure that the skills provided will be aligned with the university’s drive to improve both technical and academic education in the region.

Supporting the Redhill Academy Trust’s application for a sixth form in Bolsover, the absolutely brilliant Professor Kathryn Mitchell, vice-chancellor of the University of Derby, has stated:

The University of Derby is delighted to support the application for the Sixth Form at The Bolsover School. The ambition of the school to serve its community with high quality academic and technical qualifications is both exciting for their young people and essential for the vibrancy of the regional economy.

The University of Derby is delighted to be a central partner in enhancing the school to explore and deliver T levels and pathways to apprenticeships—something which we have a strong track record in, with the recent opening of the Nuclear Skills Academy in partnership with Rolls-Royce and our commitment to Nursing apprenticeships.

If we are to address the chronic skills shortages that currently exist within the United Kingdom, developing, in partnership, a pipeline of talented young people who are equipped with the skills for tomorrow is essential for both national and regional prosperity.”

The Government will no doubt be aware of my passion for this cause, but I am not the only person who is passionate about it. Alex Dale, the cabinet member for education at Derbyshire County Council, summarised the The Bolsover School’s bid fantastically when he spoke in support of it. He set out the political will to get this across the line:

“It is absolutely clear that there is very strong public and political support for securing a 6th form provision in Bolsover. Not only will a new provision remove barriers for those who already have a desire to study A-levels, but it will also no doubt inspire more young people to take up A-levels and go on to university than might otherwise have been the case.

In 2021, the Conservatives were re-elected to run Derbyshire County Council with the largest majority we have ever secured, winning over 2/3s of the seats on the Council—including 4, for the first time ever, within the Bolsover constituency.

Our manifesto included a commitment that we would offer ‘support for the campaign for a Sixth Form in the Bolsover District to raise aspirations and ensure continuing education is an option for all’. It is absolutely clear therefore that there is a strong political mandate for making this happen.”

There is clear support from students, parents, teachers and school governance for the provision of a sixth form. The people want it. There is support for it. Frankly, the Government have the easy job of simply saying yes to the application. To make that easier, I will touch on why this bid should be so attractive to the Government.

If the Government remain committed to levelling up long-forgotten areas such as Bolsover, accepting this bid will prove it. If the Government wish to remain on track to meet their net zero commitments and their ambition to turn the UK into a world leader in green technology, approving this bid will ensure that there are the necessary skills to make that happen. If the Government want to close the skills gap between the most advantaged and least fortunate in this country, there is no better way to do that than by investing in our children’s education, approving this bid. and bringing a sixth form to Bolsover. I could go on, but I think I have made my point.

Redhill Academy Trust summarised the need for a new sixth form in Bolsover in its application:

“We believe that there is a great need for the new Sixth Form in Bolsover, due to poor public transport routes, the lack of good academic places at other local providers and the need to improve KS5”— key stage 5—

“outcomes for young people in the town.”

I fail to see how anybody can object to addressing those key issues, but we must now wait for the Government to confirm whether they will take this opportunity and give the children of Bolsover the education that they deserve. Until then, I will of course continue to badger every Minister unfortunate enough to pass me in the corridors of this great place.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Education) 11:19, 7 March 2023

It is an honour to serve under you, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher, not just on securing this debate, but on being such an incredible champion of education and skills in his constituency. He is known widely in the House of Commons for championing causes, and the people of Bolsover are without doubt lucky to have him as their representative. He spoke movingly about how education was a ladder of opportunity for him, and I absolutely understand that he wants a ladder of opportunity for every child in his constituency.

It is only right that we focus on ensuring that every young person has access to high-quality post-16 education and training options so that they can reach their full potential and gain the skills that employers need. I know that my hon. Friend has met the MinisterBaroness Barran—and the Secretary of State for Education, and I believe he has had other ministerial meetings along the way, so today’s debate is very timely. I will talk generally about education and skills in his constituency before coming to the specific issue that he mentioned.

The Government have an ambitious plan to transform post-16 education and training, so that people can develop the skills needed to get good jobs and ensure national productivity. My hon. Friend spoke passionately about vocational and technical education; he knows that there are a wide range of opportunities through T-levels, apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications, as well as traditional A-level routes. T-levels are particularly rigorous post-16 technical qualifications that will pave the way for young people to access skilled employment, higher apprenticeships or further study, and I hope that many learners in Bolsover take up those opportunities.

There are 16 T-level subjects being taught around the country, and a growing number of new T-level students will start their courses in September. I am pleased to say that from September 2023, four colleges within travelling distance of Bolsover will provide T-levels. Chesterfield College, which is around 7 miles away, will offer T-levels in construction, education, digital and health. Additionally, new employer-led institutes of technology will offer higher-level technical education to help close the skill gaps in key areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The University of Derby is the lead partner in an institute of technology proposal, and the future IOT and its partners will be able to consider expanding into the Bolsover area or other cold spots if that is deemed appropriate.

I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the delivery of high-quality provision at further education colleges local to the Bolsover constituency. Each of the three colleges is assessed as good by Ofsted, and they have developed strong partnerships with both local and national employers. Chesterfield College and West Nottinghamshire College offer a broad curriculum from entry level to higher education, including apprenticeships and A-levels.

My hon. Friend mentioned the education investment areas, including Derbyshire. These are the local authorities in England in which attainment is weakest, as well as local authorities that contain an opportunity area or have been identified as having high potential for rapid improvement. As an EIA, Derbyshire will benefit from access to the £86 million in trust capacity funding that is being targeted at education investment areas over the next three years, and to the levelling-up premium, which offers tax-free payments of up to £3,000 per year to maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers. There is also £150 million for extending the Connect the Classroom programme, which upgrades schools that fall below our wi-fi and connectivity standards.

My hon. Friend acknowledged that young people have the choice to follow an academic programme of study at a nearby school sixth form; the majority of those pupils choose to study at one of three local schools, all of which were judged by Ofsted to have good sixth-form provision. I absolutely acknowledge his support for the new 16-to-19 free school in his constituency of Bolsover. The current mainstream application round will approve up to 15 new schools, and will focus on the areas with the greatest need. Although I am unable to discuss the specifics of the application—as he rightly mentioned, these decisions are being made by Minister Barran—I can assure him that all the applications received are being considered very carefully.

I wholeheartedly commend my hon. Friend for his continued support for a 16-to-19 free school in his constituency, and for ensuring that young people in Bolsover have access to high-quality academic provision. I was pleased to hear of his support, and of his engagement with the proposers, the Redhill Academy Trust, which, as he mentioned, is a multi-academy trust in Bolsover. He also mentioned the support from his council, a local cabinet member and the university. That message will be heard loud and clear.

It is right that young people in Bolsover should have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. The Government’s priority is to ensure a range of high-quality post-16 education options. Opening new free schools is one of the Government’s policies. We must achieve that aim for all young people, whatever their background and wherever they live. The application is progressing through the published process, as my hon. Friend knows. I can assure him that it is being carefully considered against the published criteria for setting up new schools. We expect the Secretary of State to announce the successful applications later this year.

I will ensure that Minister Barran sees the brilliant case that my hon. Friend has made and sees the Hansard report of this debate. I have no doubt that he will have further meetings with Education Ministers to discuss these issues. I commend his continued commitment to improving outcomes in his constituency, and his desire to see 16-to-19 provision in Bolsover. As Skills Minister, I am passionate about technical and vocational education, but as he rightly said, people want academic education as well. That is very important, and we want parity of esteem. He spoke very powerfully about that.

My hon. Friend has raised important concerns. He spoke about transport problems and made the point about bus journeys. Although it may be said that the journey is half an hour or whatever, it can actually be much longer, because pupils have to get to the bus stop. They then rely on the buses. In my area, Harlow, bus routes for students have sadly been cut, so I have a clear understanding of these issues.

To conclude, the Department for Education remains committed to ensuring that everyone has access to high-quality post-16 opportunities, so that they can fulfil their potential, no matter where they live. I again congratulate my hon. Friend on the powerful case he has made.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.