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Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The hon. Gentleman's experience is totally different from mine if he thinks that no more work has been involved, and I have a child in the age group that he mentions. Did he not notice that the Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that the expectation was that the students would be involved in a lot more work? If the hon. Gentleman's son or daughter has not experienced that, they are not experiencing what the Secretary of State expected.

Mr. Chaytor: We could spend all afternoon trading individual experiences. I could cite my visit to the two excellent colleges in my constituency. In the past few months, I have spent a considerable amount of time talking to students, especially those at the Holy Cross sixth form college. Without exception, their response to the first year of curriculum 2000 was, first, that they welcomed its greater breadth. Secondly, they found that it involved a large amount of work but that, by and large, they were coping and they would have the opportunity to drop a subject in the second year. Thirdly, the major problem was the teaching and the concept of key skills, which they recognised as unsatisfactory. Fourthly, they approved of the continuous assessment, but they wanted it to be perhaps less frequent. They approved of assessment throughout the year, rather than being solely dependent on one form of assessment at the end of a two-year programme. I think that that is enough trading of individual experiences.

On sixth forms and differential funding, it is completely unacceptable that we continue with such a gap. The precise gap is disputed, but it is indisputable that a gap

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exists between the per capita funding for students taking A-levels in sixth forms or in sixth-form colleges and those taking them in tertiary colleges or general further education colleges. That is indefensible. I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that and that they have given a commitment that the differential will be closed over time, by levelling up the college sector.

I ask the Minister to refer in her winding-up speech to the fact that uncertainty remains about the Government's response to the consultation on sixth-form funding, which, I think, closed in March. It would be helpful if she could say when the Government will respond to that consultation document. It would be helpful if the Government could give some information on the method by which the standard spending assessment will be top sliced and redistributed to the Learning and Skills Council, so that we know exactly what the funding will be.

Having said that, the Opposition have done young people and their parents no service at all by continuing their obsession with sixth forms. Their thinking is mistaken. They would establish the A-level as a gold standard, regardless of the nature, the quality, the size and the location of the sixth form, or its curriculum provision. That is a classic example of an issue in which the standards and structures dilemma needs to be pursued. The real issue about post-16 education is not that sixth forms are good and colleges are bad; nor that all college provision is good and all sixth form provision is bad: what matters are the standards and the level of achievement, not the structures.

I want to remind the House of the figures that relate to the size of sixth forms in the United Kingdom by putting on record a parliamentary answer of 24 May 2000. We were told that, of the 1,834 sixth forms in England, 115 had 50 or fewer pupils; 319 of them had between 51 and 100 pupils; and 409 of them had 101 to 150 pupils.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead asked the Government to give an indication of the minimum viable size of sixth form, but I do not think that any Government would do that. However, in the mid-1980s, Her Majesty's inspectorate issued a document that spelled out fairly specifically what the minimum viable size for a sixth form would be for it to be able to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum under the old A-level system. My recollection was that it was about 150 pupils.

The figures that I was given in the written answer show that almost 45 per cent. of sixth forms in England have 150 pupils or fewer. If we are moving towards a baccalaureate system—regardless of whether it is a full baccalaureate system or whether we stay with curriculum 2000—I wonder whether smaller sixth forms can adequately provide the breadth and balance of the curriculum and richness of experience without plundering the budgets for years 7 to 11 in those schools.

I also received an answer to a written question on 13 June 2000 and it analysed the A-level points score according to the size of sixth form. It showed that schools with 50 or fewer pupils obtained an average A-level points score of 7.4; schools with 51 to 100 pupils obtained a score of 9.4; those with 101 to 150 pupils obtained 11.9; those with 151 to 200 pupils obtained 14.6; those with 201 to 250 pupils obtained 15.7; and those with more than 250 pupils obtained 15.8.

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As the average A-level points score for the whole country is 15.3, we might be able to draw two important lessons from those figures. The first is that achievement at A-level is directly proportionate to size of sixth form. Secondly, only two categories of sixth forms—those with 201 to 250 or with more than 250 pupils—actually achieve an A-level points score greater than the national average.

I do not instantly draw such conclusions, but it is important information and we need to debate it. We must get away from our hang-ups about the importance of structures and institutions and must consider levels of achievement across the country. Even though I accept that A-level point scores are not the only criterion by which we should measure achievement, we need to design our structures to maximise achievement.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he has been most generous in giving way to my interventions. He is in danger of stereotyping school sixth forms. He talks about 150 as the Ofsted-set level for viability, but what would he say to the head of the secondary school that I visited in West Bromwich and that has a sixth form with fewer than 50 pupils? The school does not offer A-level courses, but it has set up a sixth form specifically to provide a very limited range of courses that were not available to pupils in colleges in the locality. Pupils were otherwise falling through the net and were not being given the opportunity to undertake courses that might benefit them.

Mr. Chaytor: I would say that the head teacher is probably doing a very good job; I never take on head teachers as that is a dangerous thing to do.

I take the hon. Lady's point exactly. That is why I do not draw sweeping conclusions about the achievements of small sixth forms. I am certainly conscious of the fact that the remoteness of some parts of the country and their sparsity of population—I do not think that West Bromwich falls into this category—means that small sixth forms are the only way forward.

In many urban and suburban parts of the country, however, the legacy of the Education Reform Act 1988 coupled with the legacy of the Higher and Further Education Act 1992 mean that we have far too many schools for 11 to 18-year-olds struggling desperately to hang on to tiny unviable sixth forms for reasons that are entirely understandably to do with the preservation of the staff and their sense of identity in the school. It is a classic example of a producer-led system. In such areas, schools, head teachers and governors are doing no favours to the young people who, in many cases, would be far better-off in a sixth form college system, in a tertiary college or in a federal system in which the school for 11 to 16-year-olds is far more closely linked with the local college.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): There is much merit in my hon. Friend's arguments, but will he consider areas such as mine? It is made up of mining villages in a rural setting and a number of sixth forms keep young people in education even though they do not necessarily take A-levels. What does he think of a system in which

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providers work with other providers to ensure that young people have choices to continue their post-16 education and opportunities to do one part of a course at a venue that is linked to a college in the town centre?

Mr. Chaytor: That is the way forward for many parts of the country. As I said, we cannot draw sweeping conclusions from the information that I cited earlier on the relationship between the size of a sixth form and academic performance, but we must start a far more serious and mature debate, free from preconceptions about the particular types of institutions. I hope that such a debate will take place as the months go by.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): The hon. Gentleman has been most generous in giving way. How would he characterise the sixth form at Furtherwick school on Canvey Island, where there was previously no post-16 education provision? Children from Canvey Island had to travel to the mainland. Since the sixth form was established—it is still quite small, but it is growing and becoming more successful year on year—the staying-on rate has increased dramatically. In addition, how would he explain why, when sixth form provision is introduced in competition with college provision to add choice, the results from the colleges as well as from those staying on at the sixth form improve? Sixth forms drive up standards by providing competition.

Mr. Chaytor: I am loth to characterise anything of which I have no direct experience, so I will refrain from answering the hon. Gentleman's question. However, it is important to distinguish between the impact of competition for its own sake or as a result of Government diktat and the need to provide appropriate choice. In the past, this country has been far too obsessed with the issue of choice between institutions and we have been concerned less frequently with the importance of choice within the institutions. The obsession with competition between institutions—competition that is ostensibly designed to provide choice—has led to a diminution of choice within institutions for certain groups of students. We need choice, but we do not need competition for its own sake.

Although I began by saying that I resented the way in which the Opposition introduced the debate to suggest that schools and AS-levels were the big issue in post-16 education, I am conscious of the fact that I have been sucked into considering that issue. However, I hope that when we next have a debate on post-16 education we can ignore sixth forms and AS-levels and consider the overwhelming majority of young people who do not go on to A-levels and who take the vocational route. We should also consider the growing problem of an underclass of under-achieving young people who leave school with nothing and, in many cases, well before the age of 16. They are easily sucked into a life of crime and other antisocial behaviour.

Before I conclude I wish to comment on two or three other points and invite my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to them. One of the Government's major achievements in the past four years was the introduction of education maintenance awards. There are, I think, 56 pilot areas and the scheme is working work well. I urge the Government to continue the concept and extend it nationwide. My area is surrounded by districts that are

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part of the scheme, and that throws up enormous anomalies. Unlike students in Bolton and Rochdale, students in Bury are not entitled to the awards. They and their parents cannot understand the distinction. I call on the Government to move quickly to make the pilots a national scheme.

Skills within the adult population are important. I pay tribute to the work of the Moser report on basic skills and the Government's national strategy, published last year, which contains, as I mentioned in the most recent Education questions, an interesting proposal. The strategy suggests that the Government will consider funding the release of employees so that they acquire basic skills. That would help people in low-income, low-status and low-skilled jobs, with poor literacy and numeracy levels. The report said that the Government should consider funding that for one day a week for 13 weeks, which is 13 days a year of paid educational leave. I want to draw the Minister's attention to that important proposal and to the Bill that I promoted last year—the Lifelong Learning (Paid Study Time) Bill—to provide paid educational leave for all employees. I shall introduce the Bill again this year and hope to attract wider support for the concept.

For many people in the adult work force, including MPs, barristers, business people and academics, paid educational leave is a given part of their life. We have no problem in taking almost as much time as we want off our regular daily work to enhance our professional skill and knowledge. However, the overwhelming majority of people are trapped in low-paid, low-skilled jobs. Their lives are a daily struggle to get by, and they have no security and little prospect of advancement. Unless they are extremely fortunate, they are never released from their employer to improve their skills. It is a classic example of where the market alone will not work.

Given a free choice, most employers will choose not to release their staff because they do not obtain an immediate benefit. In this case, it is an absolute responsibility of the Government to intervene in the operation of the market and, although there will be a short-term cost to compensate employers for releasing their staff, the long-term benefits—the life opportunities for low-paid workers and the improved quality of life for their children and families—will be well worth while.

I welcome the Government's work over the past four years and encourage them to continue so that post-16 education remains at the top of the policy agenda and lifelong learning for everyone becomes the norm, not the exception.

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