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2.12 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): We are grateful to the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and her colleagues for raising this issue. I am usually not particularly generous to the hon. Lady, but I thought her speech struck many of the right notes. We have not tabled an amendment to the motion, because we think that many of the messages it conveys need to be debated and need a response.

The hon. Lady will, however, not be surprised to learn that although many of her comments returned to familiar territory, I was surprised that her party had chosen to debate this matter. The debate may, of course, serve as a distraction from the Tory leadership contest—dubbed rather generously by yesterday's Mirror "the flight of the living dead"—or it may arise from a sense of guilt, and the acceptance of a chance to atone for past sins. If I may misquote Monty Python's "Life of Brian": after all, what did the Conservatives ever do for further education? The answer is "Very little".

Mr. Boswell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I want to make some progress first.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead said twice that she considered further education to be an integral part of our education system, yet the Conservative party manifesto, which is only a month old, made no mention of it. The lack of any policy on FE meant that the 676,000 under-19s studying in FE colleges were totally ignored. Moreover, the manifesto featured no policy on adult learners, thus effectively ignoring 1.9 million such learners in those colleges. It is, in a way, quite a tribute to the Tories that they have managed to write off the 2.6 million learners supported by FE provision, and then criticise the Government for their lack of progress.

Mr. Boswell: Now that the hon. Gentleman has finished his little soundbite, may I respond to his earlier rhetorical question? Will he reflect on the fact that the Conservative contribution to the expansion of FE, historically, was to increase student numbers by 3 million to 4 million? Had he been able to attend sittings of the Standing Committee considering the Learning and Skills Bill last year as assiduously as I did, he would have heard in some detail exactly what our concerns about further education were, and exactly what we proposed.

Mr. Willis: If any of my remarks hit home on the Conservative Benches, they were not directed at the hon. Gentleman, whose record as a speaker on behalf of further education is impeccable. It is a great pity that the Conservatives did not consult him when they were writing their manifesto.

May I finish my explanation? The manifesto does not mention the 250,000 college lecturers and the 200,000 support staff, either. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) requires a response to my question about what the Conservatives ever did for further education, and he is right: there were an extra 1 million students between the time of incorporation and the beginning of the Labour Government.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What really happened, surely, was that there were 1 million extra

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enrolments, resulting entirely from changes in the funding methodology that increased the likelihood of individual students being enrolled for multiples of different courses. We are not talking about real people; we are talking about a change in the funding methodology.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, he has stolen the next part of my speech. Enrolments rose by some 33 per cent. during those years, but that did not equate to any increase in the number of full-time equivalent students. The figures often bandied about by Conservative Front Benchers are highly misleading.

I return to my question about what the Conservatives did for further education. During the period of that 33 per cent. increase, funding for full-time equivalent students fell by 35 per cent., and 20,000 FE lecturers were effectively driven out. Today, however, we are hearing a defence that tells us that we must protect sixth-form funding in the traditional sense, but that it was perfectly all right to subject the whole FE student population to the regime introduced by the hon. Member for Daventry and now supported by the Conservative Front Bench.

In considering FE issues we should look back to 1993 and incorporation, for most of the problems result from those days. I am thinking of indebtedness, a lack of capital investment, failure to invest in staff, pay differentials, "casualisation", franchising, over-complication of funding arrangements and a lack of strategic direction. Those problems typified further and post-16 education from 1993 onwards.

A Labour Government came along in 1997 and instantly recognised the problems with post-16 learning. We saw the wonderful book "Learning Works" by Lady Kennedy, and also "The Learning Age—A Renaissance", which promised a new understanding and a new beginning. We saw the national skills taskforce reports and the Moser report, which highlighted unacceptable levels of skills, and in particular, unacceptable levels of adult numeracy and literacy. Sadly, however, there was no real response to any of those problems, only a structural reorganisation, with the creation of learning and skills councils. That was the net result after four years of the first Labour Government for some time.

The Secretary of State's predecessor acquired a £6 billion central fund enabling him and his successors to do what they wanted in the FE sector. The Government introduced unprecedented levels of bureaucracy. Any FE college today will say that the arrangements involving the new Learning and Skills Council are horrendous because of the bureaucracy. We must look into that.

We now have new inspection regimes. The first area inspections are just coming through, led by Ofsted which is clearly following the traditional Woodheadian pattern of highlighting the issues that the Government want raised. Not surprisingly, more colleges have failed those inspections since Ofsted came along. We must ask why. During the past four years, student-staff ratios have been unacceptable; they are now far higher than those to be found in the 14 to 16 sector in schools, and certainly higher than those in any sixth form. Again, that is unacceptable.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead was spot on when she described how over the past few years college funding has been disguised. The previous Secretary of State made

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it clear that there has been an increase in funding from £3.13 billion in 1997 to £4.29 billion this year. We accept those figures; they are on the record. But starting from the level six years ago in 1995, that is pro rata funding. Despite the hype, and four years of a Labour Government, all that has been achieved is a return to 1995 levels of funding.

If the special grants are stripped away—they are earmarked by the Secretary of State—

Estelle Morris: That is real money.

Mr. Willis: Of course it is real money. I am not contradicting that. I have already admitted that to the Secretary of State, who is grumbling from a sedentary position. I am never dishonest with her, as she knows.

Mr. Boswell: I suspect that it is my turn to agree with the hon. Gentleman for once. Does he accept that no responsible further education corporation can shell out pay increases on the basis of special grants that are subject to conditions that may vary from year to year, as opposed to an assured stream of core funding?

Mr. Willis: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is no different from what has happened under previous Labour and Conservative regimes, certainly since 1988. I will return to that specific point because it does need to be addressed. The ministerial team must put on the record their response to the appalling accusations in last night's debate and during Education questions last week.

The real problem for colleges is that the level of core funding for addressing the issues that need to be addressed is decreasing. It is now 5 per cent. lower than when Labour came to power in 1997, and 10 per cent. below the magical 1995 figure. Although 96 colleges were facing bankruptcy in 1997, and one in three colleges has serious financial difficulties, colleges are having to bid for money. The money is targeted directly, and colleges cannot spend it as they want. Lecturers believe that a flood of money is coming into the colleges, and ask why it is not reflected in their pay scales. The colleges, the principals and the lecturers all feel let down.

We accept that there is no way to satisfy the funding demands of any sector in education. Even if we Liberal Democrats were in power, we could not do that—but we would have a better stab at it because we recognise some of the problems. Given the growth rate of the Liberal Democrat party and the support for us in the country, it will not be long before we are sitting on the Government Benches.

It is not surprising that in the first few weeks of a Labour Government there should be problems with the teacher unions over pay. Neither my party nor any political party should be involved in direct negotiations or in supporting strike action or any other action. Such matters are between employers and employees. Problems with the unions over funding in the post-16 sector were inevitable. We cannot have, on the one hand, the Government targeting funding, some of which cannot be spent on staff pay, and constantly looking for further efficiency savings, and on the other hand, college principals being allowed to negotiate openly on staff pay.

Lecturers have delivered huge increases in productivity. Despite the appalling comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for

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Wentworth (John Healey) at Question Time last week about the quality of the courses and lecturers in the colleges, I believe that they are doing a substantial job in difficult circumstances. The lecturers' fight is not with the college principals; it is with the Government. The Government have created a funding system under which the colleges cannot meet the demands of their staff.

It is all very well for Ministers to talk about professionalism and increasing skills and levels of participation. Those of us who have had any involvement in FE know full well that the most difficult group of young people to bring into college are those with no qualifications. They demand far more attention and time from staff, and far more resources. Yet they are the very group that is so grossly underfunded.

How can the Secretary of State justify the 29 per cent. funding gap between a sixth form college delivering a three A-level package and a school sixth form? How can that be justified? Can she explain why a package of four AS-levels plus two A-levels in a school attracts average funding of £3,530 while exactly the same package in an FE college attracts £3,030—a difference of 14 per cent.? Is it any wonder that college lecturers are underpaid and under-resourced?

I agree with the hon. Member for Maidenhead that we must not allow the introduction of learning and skills councils to lead to the underfunding of our sixth forms, as we all worried that it would during the passage of the Bill. We were promised a levelling-up, but exactly the opposite has occurred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) handed me a letter this morning from her local sixth form college, Barton Peveril, which illustrates exactly what that means on the ground. It is a relatively small college with a relatively small budget, and because of the funding arrangements, it is £1.6 million less well off than a similar sized school. That is unacceptable, and when the Minister responds later, I hope that she will address that specific issue.

Finally, I shall touch on two further issues. The Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Maidenhead had a protracted debate over the AS-level debacle. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and comment on that. The Secretary of State admitted that mistakes had been made. That is an honourable position, and we, and most schools, will thank her for that admission. However, that was not what concerned me most. Having made mistakes—having considered the 16 to 19 age group in isolation from the 14 to 19 age group—does the right hon. Lady not agree that if we are to take up the challenge issued by the hon. Member for Maidenhead we need a comprehensive overhaul of the whole of that curriculum and qualifications structure? To tinker around with the post-16 sector without considering the rest is ridiculous. Back in the 1990s, Lord Dearing made a clear commitment to movement on that front.

Surely the idea that there can be a review, but that we will retain the "gold standard" for A-levels irrespective of what comes up in it, must give the right hon. Lady cause for reflection. That would rule out the introduction of the baccalaureate as an alternative. It rules out the whole idea of considering a more appropriate way of delivering vocational education in schools and colleges.

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