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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) rose

Mrs. May: Perhaps my hon. Friend is about to explain it.

Dr. Lewis: I cannot enlighten my hon. Friend on the difficulties either of the alphabet soup of examinations or of the quagmire of regulations that the Government are laying before the country.

I am slightly troubled by a remark that my hon. Friend made earlier, and perhaps she will expand on it for my benefit and that of the House. If we are saying that we have something as a gold standard for excellence, and if we are saying also that we nevertheless want other examinations at a different standard for breadth, what was wrong with the system that we had before any of the new examinations were introduced? Those who were not particularly likely to shine academically were trained up vocationally in apprenticeships, rather than gaining paper academic qualifications at a lower level than the gold standard, and were more qualified.

Mrs. May: I am happy to answer my hon. Friend. That is exactly the route down which we should be going; it is the very point that I was about to make. With all the present challenges, there is the danger that we end up with a pick-and-mix system of exam qualifications. There is a mish-mash of examinations, and no one knows what any exam qualification stands for or what the standard of the qualification is. AS-levels are in danger of falling between two stools. They are not providing breadth, and will possibly not provide the necessary academic rigour either.

For those who are academically inclined, a gold standard of academic rigour is essential. It is essential also that we have proper vocational skills-based training for

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those for whom that is the right route through education. We need a proper review of qualifications post-14, so we can ensure that there is a structure that provides young people with qualifications that they and future employers understand, and in which they can have confidence. Merely tinkering at the edges, with AS-levels, will not do.

The problems with AS-levels are not the only issue in post-16 education. As a matter of urgency, the new Secretary of State must give some form of assurance to schools with sixth forms that their budgets and their very existence are not under threat. The Government claim to be guaranteeing funds to school sixth forms, but they have been careful with their words. In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the Government made the following statement on school sixth-form funding:

What happens if numbers in 2002–03 are below those in 2001–02, but above those in 2000–01? We all know that sixth form numbers do not come in neat little packages. Numbers change over the years. That is not because of the inability of schools to attract sixth formers, but simply because the cohort coming through in any one year might be smaller than previous cohorts.

What will happen to schools if they lose a significant number of their students? On what basis will they then be funded? Schools are asking the Government what number of pupils the Secretary of State thinks a sixth form needs if it is to be viable. Numbers have been bandied around by the Department. I hope that the Secretary of State will be willing to put her neck on the line and tell us the number of pupils that she believes a sixth form should have if it is to be viable. If she does so, sixth forms will know whether they are under threat from the new process of closure set out in the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

More pupils go on to further and higher education at schools with sixth forms. There is evidence that pupils attending schools with a sixth form do better in GCSEs than pupils at schools without sixth forms. We believe that the Government should be doing all that they can to support schools with sixth forms. They should recognise that school sixth forms are different institutions from further education colleges.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills said:

But the similarity between school sixth forms and further education colleges is the very premise that underpins the Government's new funding arrangements. The Minister's words during Education questions last week led to concern in FE colleges, which thought that the Government were working on a system of convergence of funding. The Secretary of State should clarify the position for them today. What exactly do the Government want? Are they committed to convergence of funding? If so, when will that be achieved? Sixth form colleges also want reassurance that their funding is not under threat.

Further education colleges deserve to know where they stand. They deserve support from the Government, not more uncertainty. Our FE sector is in dire straits, with a

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possible industrial dispute later this year arising from the real problems that lecturers have, given the low pay in FE. Indeed, a complaint that I often hear from FE college principals is that lecturers are leaving FE to achieve higher salaries in secondary schools. That speaks volumes.

One of the problems that FE colleges face is the way in which the Government choose to fund them. The Government claim that they have put more money into FE, but as the colleges point out, the bulk of that funding is not available to colleges to use as they wish. It is earmarked funding for Government-identified purposes. The real-terms index of participation funding—the core funding for FE colleges—having stood at 100 back in 1995-96 has now fallen to 91.

For earmarked funds, money is linked to meeting targets. Failure to meet any one of those targets means that none of the extra money comes through, so a college could meet a target for increasing numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds, but if it missed its target for increasing numbers in adult education, it would not get money for increased numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds either.

The colleges' problems do not stop there. Money has been allocated for the teachers' pay initiative to recognise the problems caused by the threshold payments in schools. The allocation was due to be received on 1 April. To date, no college has received any of that money. What will happen to TPI funding after year 3? Will it be consolidated? What about the support staff, who in most colleges make up 40 to 50 per cent. of the staff? Many colleges find that it is difficult not only to get lecturers, but to find support staff as well.

Colleges were concerned about the new structure of funding through the learning and skills councils, and the evidence shows how right they were. The Learning and Skills Council has still not settled the mainstream funding allocations for FE colleges for the next academic year, which starts in three weeks, so they face funding uncertainty and a real-terms cut in core student funding.

The Government make much of their target of expanding numbers in FE by 700,000 by 2002–03, but the number of students in FE has fallen by 189,000 under the Labour Government. Yet again, the Government are failing to deliver. The FE sector is an important part of our education system. It offers opportunities to young and old and it deserves to be treated better than it has been by the Government. Welcomed freedoms have been restricted; funding is more complex; training opportunities are being denied. A sector that should be a major part of any agenda to widen participation is under siege from the Government. It deserves to be treated fairly, as an integral part of our education system.

The Government have failed to deliver on post-16 education. They have plunged the exam system into chaos, failed to guarantee the future of school sixth forms, and presided over a staffing crisis, a crisis of morale and a fall in student numbers in further education. Far from widening participation and broadening opportunities post-16, Labour in government, with its utilitarian attitude to education, is reducing the opportunities for young people to benefit from a truly broad range of educational experience post-16.

We are in danger of seeing young people forced into an identikit mould of the Government's choosing. The Government will be judged in this term not just on the

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numbers, but on the provision of choice, the standards of qualification and the quality of education post-16. On the evidence of the past few weeks, they will be seen to have failed to deliver.

1.49 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Although I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate post-16 education, I must admit to being a little disappointed by the narrowness of the approach taken by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I thought that she might share with us her views about the 7 million adults who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, and about plans to deal with that problem. I thought also that she might at least express concern about the fact that, although we have one of the best higher education services in the world, access to it from some sectors of our community is just not good enough. However, we heard none of that and nothing about diversity of further education.

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