This week Labour held an Opposition Day debate to highlight flawed plans to reduce Further Education resources. This followed analysis released last week which shows that the budget for sixth form and further education colleges could fall by at least £1.6 billion under Tory spending plans - the equivalent of four in ten sixth form and further education colleges.
In her role as Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy opened the debate with a speech to the House:
Check against delivery
I beg to move the motion in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
“A good education shouldn’t be a luxury – the preserve of those living within a certain postcode or those who can afford it. It should be something everyone in this country can get… If we don’t educate the next generation properly, we will not secure Britain’s future.”
These aren’t my words – they are the words of the Prime Minister just before the election, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Indeed, I’m sure every parent and member of the public would agree that the route to success for a country lies in ensuring the best possible education for our children.
Education is a down payment on the future success of our economy.
Mr Speaker, I don’t doubt that the Right Hon Lady agrees.
Yet as we approach the Comprehensive Spending Review next week I’m concerned that she is losing the argument with her Treasury colleagues. That’s why we’ve called this debate – to give her a bit of moral support in her battle to stop further damaging and wrongheaded cuts to the education budget.
But in all honesty, I am perplexed that we are having to have this debate at all today. Tory rhetoric at the last election may have fooled many parents that the whole education budget was being protected, when we all know that this is far from reality. If the principle exists that education is so important that we should shield the schools budget, and we absolutely should, why does this principle stop at GCSEs and doesn’t extend to A-levels and other post-16 qualifications?
This is the central point and I hope we can have a real answer from the Secretary of State today - why does the government value less the education of 16-19 year-olds?
So let’s look at the context here. Over the last Parliament, 16-19 funding fell by 14 per-cent in real terms and many significant efficiencies have already been delivered.
This is on top of increasing the age children stay in education or training until 18. At the same time, we want young people to go on and study A-Levels or high-quality apprenticeships, raise attainment in literacy and numeracy, and deliver a new curriculum.
So in this context, how does the Secretary of State envisage that school Sixth Forms, Sixth Forms colleges and Further Education colleges, are going to be able to make further cuts of between 25 and 40% over this Parliament?
This would have a devastating impact on the opportunities they offer for young people and on our ability to build a high-wage, highly skilled, productive economy.
Why education spending should be protected
If the principle is right that education spending is critical to the future prospects of the country, then this principle should reflect the whole education journey.
All the evidence shows that investment in 16-19 education is right, and reaps economic dividends.
High wage, high skilled and more productive economies have high levels of attainment and investment in 16-19 education. International evidence also tells us that investing in literacy and numeracy of students in post-16 education is directly linked to higher productivity. Research shows that the economic returns from investing in 16-19 education are in excess of £20 for every pound spent.
I know we’ll hear from the benches opposite that these spending decisions are all necessary to deliver what they like to refer to as, and I quote, “their long-term economic plan” and a strong economy. But as the Prime Minister agrees, investing in education and skills helps our economy to grow and reduces the deficit. Indeed, the reverse is also true – slashing and burning education, whether in schools or sixth forms or FE, will lead to greater reliance on the state for unqualified young people and lower tax returns for those in lower paid jobs.
This a false choice. And it is economic stupidity.
If the Party opposite, from the Prime Minister down, truly believe in the principle that education is a public good, then it is baffling why 16-19 is wholly unprotected and facing further massive reductions.
Triple whammy facing further education
Let’s look now in more detail at what is really happening on the ground and the potential impact of the forth-coming Comprehensive Spending Review.
First, with the 16-19 budget down by 14 per-cent in real terms over the last Parliament, post-16 education is at breaking point. Principals are desperate to maintain provision, parents are worried about the narrowing opportunities for their children and this is filtering down to our young people, who feel that this government doesn’t value their education.
This isn’t scaremongering – 139 chairs of FE institutions wrote to the Chancellor recently warning that further government cuts threaten the viability of colleges.
Already we’re hearing that Sixth Form and FE colleges are dropping courses, reducing classes and teaching hours. It is not beauty courses or fashion courses that are going first, as the party opposite would want you to believe, but expensive A-level courses such as science, maths and modern foreign languages.
Let’s just repeat that for members opposite – here we have a government overseeing the loss of A-level courses in science and modern foreign languages.
What modern day government has ever done that?
Secondly, the raising of the participation age to 18 – which we legislated for and continue to support - comes with extra pressure on institutions with an increase in numbers of students. New requirements on compulsory resits and a new A-level curriculum also further increases expectations on Sixth Forms and Further Education colleges.
During a period of such significant change, you would expect that the Government would support teachers with the transition to a new system. In New South Wales and Ontario, where the minimum school leaving age was increased recently, additional resources were provided to deal effectively with the extra numbers. Instead the changes in our country are taking place in the context of significant reductions, with more severe cuts on the way.
This will lead to poorer outcomes through fewer teaching hours and support. A recent report has found that from next year A-level students face the prospect of being taught for just 15 hours a week – that is just 3 hours a day – because of the fall in funding since 2011. In Shanghai, Singapore and other high-performing education systems that the Secretary of State likes to talk about, sixth formers are taught for 30 hours a week. This Government is downgrading our education system to part-time, leaving our young people behind their counterparts abroad in the global economic race.
And thirdly, the Government’s area reviews also threaten the viability of some high-performing institutions in a sector that the Education Secretary has herself described as “fragile”. Whilst there are opportunities for joint working and efficiencies, it is impossible for these area reviews not to be seen in the context of cuts to the sector, further undermining their viability.
What’s more, it’s simply ridiculous to look at only half the provision and ignore perhaps many of the institutions that are in greatest peril. Studio schools, school Sixth Forms, new Free School Sixth Forms and UTCs are not included in the area reviews – these are likely to be the institutions that are most in danger of viability – and yet, they are out of the mix.
At the same time the Government is content to put many high-performing and excellent colleges at risk. Our sixth form colleges are outstanding providers of 16-19 education. They offer fantastic value for money by delivering strong outcomes for young people at a lower cost to the public purse than school and academy sixth forms.
For example, there is excellent Sixth Form provision in Greater Manchester – my own area – which is currently undergoing an area review. In Wigan, with Winstanley College and at Loretto College in Manchester, they have some of the best value-added in the country and outperform schools in getting kids from all backgrounds the highest grades in A-levels.
In other parts of the country, I’m sure members opposite would be appalled to think their local Sixth Form colleges could be under threat, but this is the reality. Further massive reductions in funding will see good Sixth Form colleges and good school Sixth Forms closing. A 25 per-cent cut, which the Chancellor has asked her department to find, is equivalent to the loss of half of all Sixth Form colleges and one third of FE colleges.
On these figures, sixth forms won’t be the proud beacons of success they are now. And members opposite need to get their heads out of the sand, unless they want to see these institutions go to the wall.
Mr Speaker, in conclusion I think we can all agree that investment in education is a good thing.
I hope the Secretary of State can explain how FE and Sixth Form colleges are to deal with further, significant reductions on top of the efficiencies they’ve already delivered. I hope she is fighting a rear-guard action against the Treasury, and in this she has my support. I hope that she will join us in supporting this motion, which recognises that an education journey for every child now continues to 19.
Good and outstanding Sixth Forms and FE colleges are under threat, expensive courses like A-levels in science and languages are being dropped, teaching hours are half those in our competitor countries. This is the reality of 16-19 education today. As a parent this gives me a huge cause for concern. But as a politician, I believe cuts on this scale are a false economy, which will damage our productivity, our economy and our ability to pay down the deficit.
I commend this motion to the House.